Solidarity in the face of disaster

Development Policy30 Nov 2009Mateo Taussig-Rubbo

A Paradise Made in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit, Viking, 2009.

A review by Mateo Taussig-Rubbo.

We all know what happens in times of disaster. The mask of civility and morality constraining our selfish, animal instincts falls away. People panic, mobs form and there’s looting, arson and mayhem. Think of Thomas Hobbes and his state of nature or the tales about New Orleans after Katrina. Those who do not become predators are victimized. If we are lucky, civil and military authorities will save us.

These stories, says Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Made in Hell, are wrong. Investigating earthquakes in San Francisco and Mexico City, 9/11 and other events, Solnit presents a different story. Instead of Hobbes’ ‘war of all against all’, she documents how disasters generate a feeling akin to joy among the survivors, as people pull together in the aftermath. This emotion does not have its Hobbes, its theorist, promoter or fabulist. Hollywood isn’t interested either, preferring the ordinary but singular hero able to keep his – yes, typically his, rather than her – head amidst the panicking masses. We do not have a word, Solnit writes, for the emotion people feel as they find community and deep connection in the wake of disaster.

Solnit maintains that the real danger at times of disaster is elite panic. Perhaps sensing that their inability to prevent the disaster undermines their claim to authority, elites see the spontaneous gathering, mutual aid and socializing, so typical after a disaster, as dangerous. Indeed, if Hobbes explains why we have states – because Leviathan protects us from each other – officials are correct to see a challenge in disaster communities. People are cooperating without the state.

In severe cases of elite panic, the public itself is seen as the enemy: the military is sent in, terrible mistakes are made. After the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, a man spotted near a ruin was shot dead by a soldier. The soldier then discovered the man had been trying to rescue someone from under the rubble.

In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, reports of child rape and even cannibalism were fabricated, says Solnit. Overall, the dominant response was in fact one of mutual aid. Yet officials stopped most of their own rescue efforts to interfere instead with civilians trying to help, as they militarized policy. Thankfully, in New York after 9/11, people gathering in Union Square, participating in rescue efforts, not going to work and talking to strangers were not seen as threatening. Instead, elite panic was deflected to Muslim and Middle Eastern communities.

Solnit’s insight into the dynamics of disaster is important. Officials should be trained not to see the spontaneous actions of civilians as a threat. Remember that officials were unable to stop the 9/11 plot as it unfolded, while passengers on United Airlines flight 93 saved many lives on the ground by acting quickly and collectively.

In examining the emotions that emerge in disaster, normally buried under our false common sense, Solnit explores a dizzying range of perspectives. We learn about Peter Kropotkin’s anarchism, the role of carnivals in suspending daily routines, the founding of new orders through political revolution and the academic discipline of disaster studies which has long contended, from studies of cities that suffered aerial bombing in the second world war, that disasters don’t cause panic or break civilian morale.

But can the fleeting response to disaster ground a new order? In some instances, after the Mexico City earthquake for example, Solnit sees long-term potential. Disasters can be hijacked by officials, a storyline explored by Naomi Klein. She shows us something else. The disaster temporarily delivers us from the less obvious disaster – the ‘hell’ that is contemporary society with its banality, consumerism and lack of community. Well, perhaps. If the utopia of disaster is itself a response to contemporary society, the lack of insight from Asia or Africa is a pity, since they might show something different. Everyday hell, after all, has some good points – infrastructure, bureaucracy, impersonal institutions and a strong private sphere are valuable too.