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Disaster, utopia, and democracy

February 27, 2012

What if citizenship was at its most powerful, meaningful, and effective in the midst of disaster? Rebecca Solnit develops that counter-intuitive argument in 2009’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which I’ve been reading and thinking about for the past couple months. The book makes provocative but well-developed claims. It also challenges the received histories of key events in recent years, the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina in particular. It’s a sprawling book rather than a page-turner, but it offers a lot to chew on.

Solnit writes for a general audience, but the political scientist – and the democratic theorist in particular – will find some very meaty conjectures and narratives here. I’d love to see an academic treatment of this book’s claims and arguments, which are sometimes backed up by anecdote rather than sustained support.

Rather than labour over a summary of the book, I’ll let Solnit do it for me:

In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behavior in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and storms across the content and around the world, have demonstrated this. But belief lags behind, and often the worst behavior in the wake of calamity is on the part of those who believe that others will behave savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism.

Much of the book is a compilation of examples of scenes of effective and largely-spontaneous citizen mobilization, often met with disastrous or cruel actions of elites. In the wake of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, communal kitchens and clinics sprang up around the city. In contrast to the solidarity and generosity of average citizens, the commanding officer at the Presidio – Brigadier General Frederick Funston – marched troops into the city told them to shoot to kill if they saw looters. The soldiers forced people to leave areas where they were fighting fires, and prevented them from retrieving goods. They used explosions to try to create fire breaks, but often did so ineptly. As a result, the 1906 quake has been eclipsed by the Great Fire that followed it.

 Elite panic, and old white men with guns

This phenomenon of ‘elite panic’ – when authorities crack down on spontaneous or grass-roots citizen mobilization – was at its worst in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. That disaster did an extraordinary job of revealing socio-economic inequalities – the poor and unhealthy, who often were African-American, were hit the hardest.

We know the government responded horribly, sending in troops and armed contractors who themselves murdered, looted, and abused innocent citizens. (For an extraordinary tale of the hurricane and this abuse, see Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun.) As Solnit notes, George W. Bush’s own pollster, Matthew Dowd, admitted that the inept and cruel response to Katrina was “the tipping point” in the Bush’s decline in the eyes of voters.

The media also responded disgracefully in the Hurricane’s aftermath, stoking rumours of marauding gangs of looters, the rape of children, and so on. Not only did such reporting justify the harsh tactics of security forces, it contributed to the paranoia-fueled vigilantism. She cites the author Michael Lewis, who returned to his hometown of New Orleans and wrote:

“Pretty quickly, it became clear that there were more than a few people left in the city and that they fell broadly into two categories: extremely well armed white men prepared to do battle and a ragtag collection of irregulars, black and white, who had no idea that there was anyone to do battle with.”

The armed vigilantes were not just prepared to do battle—Solnit gives evidence that numerous people were wounded and killed. Often those shot were either innocently on the move through a ravaged city, or actively trying to help others.

Citizen responses to 9/11 vs. the disaster movie fantasy

While the Katrina response showed elite panic, Solnit shows effective action by average citizens in the response to the 9/11 attacks. She asks the reader to forget the international and national consequences of the attacks and focus with her on the local response. She reveals extraordinary scenes: from the orderly and self-directed evacuation of thousands of people from the Twin Towers before authorities arrived (including a paraplegic man carried down 69 stories by his colleagues), to the hundreds of thousands evacuated from Manhattan by private boats, to make-shift outdoor centres for feeding and consoling, to a university a cappella group that rallied their fellow citizens by roving the city singing ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘America the Beautiful.’

The media account of the 9/11 response was very different. Solnit writes: “Newsmakers described the response to the disaster as through it had been one of those disaster action movies in which what mattered was accomplished by masculine heroes…“In a sense the Bush administration made its own disaster movie, with the United States as victim, the government as John Wayne, and images and narratives fulfilling all the clichés and familiarities of the genre.”

While the role of the average citizen was largely ignored, the contribution of these heroes was often exaggerated. And the narrative – that citizens should return to their private lives of consuming and producing, while government officials advance their safety – underwrote the national and foreign policies that followed.

There are lots of heroes in Solnit’s book, and I was embarrassed not to have heard of one of them: Vincent Coleman. When a munitions ship was struck in the Halifax harbor in 1917, it was apparent to many that the explosion would catastrophic. It was, and much of the city would be destroyed, with about 2000 people killed and 9000 wounded. Coleman, a railroad dispatcher, saw the burning ship drifting toward shore. Rather than run away, he went back to his office to telegraph another dispatcher to hold back a train that would enter the blast radius. Coleman wrote:

“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship on fire making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Goodbye boys.’

Disaster citizenship and political theory

Solnit’s book is not only a primer on grassroots and elite responses to disaster, it’s also a sustained attack against the Thomas Hobbes and a contemporary strain of liberalism that draws on his philosophy.

The Hobbesian view holds that without laws and an authority to enforce them, society will be plunged into a violent state of nature. The British commentator Timothy Garton Ash, responding to media depictions of the Katrina aftermath, declared Hobbes had been proven right: “Katrina’s big lesson is that the crust of civilization on which we tread is always wafer thin.”

But those media depictions were false, and so was Ash’s conclusion and the policy prescriptions that followed.

The Hobbesian legacy can also be seen in today’s neo-liberal societies, in which individuals are mobile, individualistic, isolated, and in which interactions with others are only valued as economic transactions. This understanding of community relations is shattered by disasters, when people selflessly assist neighbours and strangers.

The result is a strange but consistent phenomenon: many people who have live through disaster remember it as an extraordinarily positive experience. The emotion does not belong on the happy-sad spectrum, Solnit argues, but a deep-shallow one. People are shaken from their privatized, self-interested existence into an intensely public and collective life. This is the ‘paradise’ Solnit speaks of—a revitalization of relationships in a community, through a united focus on those things that matter most.

In an argument that Hannah Arendt would agree with, Solnit claims that this is democratic citizenship at its most fundamental. Each individual acts in concert with others toward collective goals. Everyone is citizen first, and not government subject or property-owner or political partisan.

The experience of such a communal relation has at times rejuvenated democracies. The primary example in Solnit’s book is the rise of civil society in Mexico City after its 1985 earthquake, but the possibility for this rejuvenation have been felt by many communities in disaster’s aftermath. Indeed, Solnit argues, a disaster is like a revolution—citizens rise up to take action while governments prove inadequate:

In moments of disaster, the old order no longer exists and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities. Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed or a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise.

One Comment


  1. Data, Conflict, Disaster…and Democracy? « Chris Tenove

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