A Paradise Built in Hell

Review of Rebecca Solnit’s book: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (New York: Viking, 2009). – Published on ZNet, by Kevin Young, January 4, 2010.

… There are several reasons behind elite panic. Many elites and bureaucrats (like racists) may sincerely believe that their or their organizations’ intervention is essential to safeguarding peace and order in the aftermath of a disaster. But their panic is also inseparable from their own self interest, reflecting their need to justify the ongoing concentration of power in their hands. If the public is permitted to take control, and it succeeds, the bureaucracy and hierarchy on which elite power is based will be exposed as illegitimate. This principle holds true for the everyday functioning of society, but is especially true in times of disaster, when bureaucratic organizations like FEMA or the military are expected to perform with competence and agility to protect the public. Solnit notes that in disaster, “They are being tested most harshly at what they do least well” (p. 152).

These fears are justified: the past century featured many dictators and oligarchic regimes who met their downfall in large part as the result of their inability or unwillingness to address crises (e.g., Nicaragua’s Somoza following the 1972 earthquake, Mexico’s PRI dictatorship following the 1985 quake, Bush II following Katrina). Addressing, or appearing to address, the crisis in its aftermath while at the same time reining in citizens’ attempts at independent organization—both of which President Bush did successfully after 9/11—can preserve or strengthen the regime, but failing in one or both regards can precipitate regime downfall—as Bush learned after Katrina and his administration’s foreign policy “failure” in Iraq.

Solnit rightly emphasizes the central role of the corporate media in propagating disaster myths that justify intensified hierarchy, militarization, and repression. The best example is again Katrina, when respected press outlets like CNN reported “rampaging gangs” and widespread “looting” in New Orleans based on little or no evidence, often mischaracterizing the necessary requisitioning of emergency food and medicine from flooded stores as “theft” (especially when black men were photographed doing it). They uncritically reported the comments of the New Orleans mayor and police chief, who disingenuously told stories of “hooligans killing people” and “little babies getting raped” inside the Superdome sports complex in which thousands had taken shelter (pp. 236-37). In the media narratives that followed both Katrina and 9/11, the heroes were males, usually uniformed professionals, while the thousands of women and ordinary civilians who saved countless lives remained unsung. The corporate press’s coverage of Katrina, 9/11, and other disasters is thus a microcosm of its more general tendency to promote fear, individualism, chauvinism, and a host of other destructive hallmarks of “Hobbesian behavior” among the public (p. 93).

Solnit’s double contribution is in exposing this process of mythmaking while also recovering the stories of ordinary people and the extraordinary possibilities they represent. She is interested not just in the immediate aftermath of disasters, but also with “larger questions about how human beings behave in the absence of coercive authority and what kind of societies are possible” (p. 81). Her anarchist or socialist-libertarian leanings are clear: Solnit wants the kind of society where people have control over their labor and the products of that labor, where work is meaningful and allows for human creativity, where everyone’s basic needs are met, and where power is decentralized and vested in local groupings of socially-connected and community-minded people. She is ultimately concerned with disasters for what they suggest about the everyday, arguing that “to recognize and realize these desires and these possibilities in ordinary times…without crisis or pressure is the great contemporary task of being human” (pp. 307, 113). Obviously there is no magic recipe for doing so, though she does suggest that religious and activist groups can help foster the spirit of “beloved community” at the heart of strong grassroots movements and meaningful human existence in general.

Yet while Solnit’s writing is unabashedly political, her values never get in the way of a scrupulous fidelity to the historical facts: her use of firsthand accounts and her synthesis of disaster research prove that such scenarios are possible. In this regard her work follows in the tradition not only of the disaster sociologists but of labor and business historians who have demonstrated the viability of non-bureaucratic forms of industrial organization in England and the US prior to 1900; as these scholars have proven, less-hierarchical forms of industrial production were eliminated in the nineteenth century not due to any inherent inefficiency but because of the power of factory owners and ascendant corporations who promoted the factory model and specific forms of technology in large part as a way of better controlling the workforce and raising profits [3]. Proving that more desirable alternatives are indeed possible—that there is nothing in human nature that consigns humanity to the misery, hierarchy, and oppression that characterizes so much of our current world—is no small contribution in a time when many in this country and around the world are so disillusioned that, as Solnit notes, they “do not even hope for a better society” (p. 9). Convincing the excluded majority that alternatives are possible is also a key step in the process that scholars of social movements have called “cognitive liberation”: in order to participate in a movement for change, cynical people must first become convinced that the current order is not inevitable [4] …

… This small reservation aside, A Paradise Built in Hell is an inspiring model of politically-engaged scholarship that blends moral passion, academic sophistication, and readability (arguably the three greatest virtues of all historical and political writing). Rarely does a book combine these traits so masterfully. Its usefulness is apparent on multiple levels: it is a must-read for all government officials, especially those in charge of disaster preparedness (even if most higher-level officials are unlikely to willingly delegate greater power to ordinary citizens); a powerful denunciation of elite crimes and media complicity; and an inspiring set of historical case studies for progressive-minded people who have become too cynical and dejected to bother with activism and organizing. The book “speaks truth to power,” but far more importantly it uncovers truth for use by the powerless—they who must labor to construct paradise while those in power steer us toward hell. (full text and notes).

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