Two very different perspectives of Hurricane Katrina appear in the book I’ve just finished, The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, and a book I read a while ago, A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit.
While Rebecca focuses on the generosity and altruism of ordinary people faced with extraordinary catastrophe, Naomi examines the long and dubious history of disaster capitalism, in which war and other calamities are exploited for profit.
You can read the full chapter from The Shock Doctrine here. It gives a good flavour of the book as a whole, although the chapter on the Iraq War is probably the most illuminating and, yes, shocking. It turns out there is no disaster that human greed can’t make much, much worse.
Snouts in the Trough
In the Shock version of Katrina, within hours of the hurricane hitting New Orleans, plans were being drawn up to turn the situation to maximum advantage, i.e. maximum profit. Construction and security companies were the first to get their snouts in the trough.
Not far behind were the developers who spotted a long-awaited opportunity to demolish the housing projects near the tourist honeypot of the French Quarter. According to a protester: “they used the disaster as a way of cleansing the neighbourhood when the neighbourhood is weakest. . . . This is a great location for bigger houses and condos. The only problem is you got all these poor black people sitting on it.”
As with the other disasters the book describes, much of the money designated to alleviate suffering and rebuild New Orleans was wasted. By the time the work had been delegated to sub-sub-sub-contractors and everybody had taken their cut, almost nothing was left for the intended purpose.
Meanwhile, many of the displaced residents of New Orleans were left not just without homes, but without jobs.
“Something else was familiar [i.e. similar to Iraq]: the contractors’ aversion to hiring local people who might have seen the reconstruction of New Orleans not only as a job but as part of healing and re-empowering their communities. Washington could easily have made it a condition of every Katrina contract that companies hire local people at decent wages to help them put their lives back together. Instead, the residents of the Gulf Coast, like the people of Iraq, were expected to watch as contractors created an economic boom based on easy taxpayer money and relaxed regulations.”
Naomi Klein echoes Rebecca Solnit’s view that good things can emerge from adversity, but contrasts it with the toxic trend of the last twenty years:
“Not so long ago, disasters were periods of social levelling, rare moments when atomized communities put divisions aside and pulled together. Increasingly, however, disasters are the opposite: they provide windows into a cruel and ruthlessly divided future in which money and race buy survival.”
It feels very wrong that the beneficiaries of relief efforts are all too often massive corporations rather than the actual victims, and that even the most appalling humanitarian crises can be used to turn a profit.
I highly recommend The Shock Doctrine. It’s sickening reading, but important (and it does end on a more positive note).
What is Really Happening in Ukraine?
It makes me look at Ukraine, and while feeling enormous compassion for the people there, I can’t help wondering who is going to get rich on the back of their suffering. Will it be Western multinationals, or is Putin taking a leaf out of the American playbook and expecting Russian corporations to profit from the reconstruction? Is he, to use Naomi Klein’s phrase, trying to create a blank slate (or blank state) onto which he can impose his ideological will and/or exploit for financial profit?
The Silver Lining
Disaster doesn’t have to be all bad. Catastrophes have always happened and always will happen, but they can become positive forces for social cohesion and collaboration.
In the Paradise version of Katrina, people band together in the face of overwhelming grief and adversity, finding purpose and even joy by supporting each other, sharing whatever resources they have, tapping into unsuspected reserves of resourcefulness and kindness. Rebecca Solnit points to “a new vision of what society could become – one that is less authoritarian and fearful, more collaborative and local”.
A positive story also emerged in Thailand after the catastrophic Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. According to The Shock Doctrine, while Sri Lanka allowed international developers to permanently displace the small fishing villages that had lined the beaches, in order to redevelop the country as a major tourist destination, in Thailand the people took matters into their own hands and “reinvaded” their villages, picking up tools and immediately getting to work to reconstruct their family homes. The result was that community was preserved, and in fact even strengthened by their shared purpose.
And at the same time as they rebuilt their communities, they rebuilt the memories, individual and collective, that bind a community together. As Naomi Klein says, memories are “the greatest shock absorber of all”.
Trusting the People
Relevant to the above, I just heard a wonderful story on the Futurenauts podcast, related by Jon Alexander about a conversation he had with Audrey Tang (Digital Minister of Taiwan) about Taiwan’s response to the Covid crisis. The Taiwanese government invited massive public participation in designing their response. To Jon’s comment that the Taiwanese people must really trust the government, Audrey replied:
“It’s not about the people trusting the government – it’s about the government trusting the people.”
This is powerful. On the whole, people ARE trustworthy, especially when it is their families, homes, and livelihoods that are at stake. They will do a good job of organising themselves. They don’t need the help/interference/exploitation of big government or big companies. People are smart. Small is beautiful. The role of government should be to empower people to, as much as practicable, govern themselves.
This reminds me of Elinor Ostrom’s 8 principles for the management of the commons, and these two in particular:
Rules should fit local circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to common resource management. Rules should be dictated by local people and local ecological needs.
Participatory decision-making is vital. There are all kinds of ways to make it happen, but people will be more likely to follow the rules if they had a hand in writing them. Involve as many people as possible in decision-making.
The Shock Doctrine amply demonstrates how horribly wrong it goes when these principles are violated. A Paradise Built in Hell shows how powerful they are when given free rein to flourish.