Source of book: borrowed from the library
I have enjoyed Rebecca Solnit’s magazine articles for a number of years, but never read one of her books. A Paradise Built in Hell is a fascinating look at one of the narratives many of us believe (or once believed in my case) but turns out to be total bullshit.
TL;DR - Thomas Hobbes was wrong. Very wrong.
The myth: in times of disaster, humans go feral, and it is every man for himself, marauding gangs, and all that.
The reality: Most humans pull together during disasters, creating mutual communities of aid. In fact, ordinary people tend to do better than organizations at rescuing people, feeding people, and otherwise getting stuff done.
The caveat: Along with this cooperation tends to come what Solnit calls “elite panic.” That is, those who benefit from the status quo feel threatened by their loss of power and privilege, and tend to do really horrible things. As disaster sociologist Kathleen Tierney puts it (quoted in the book):
“Elites fear disruption of the social order, challenges to their legitimacy.”
She notes the elements of this elite panic are “fear of social disorder; fear of poor, minorities, and immigrants; obsession with looting and property crime; willingness to resort to deadly force; and actions taken on the basis of rumor.”
As evidence for her thesis, Solnit takes a look at a number of disasters, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Also discussed are 9/11, the Lisbon earthquake, the London Blitz during World War Two, the Mexico City earthquake, and a few others mentioned briefly.
This is just a basic summary. Solnit cites a LOT of primary sources for her stories, as well as her own reporting after Katrina. (For many of us, that was our first experience of her writing - her expose on just how badly George W. Bush, FEMA, and Ray Nagen fucked up the response.) The details are important, particularly the anecdotes, and I can’t really duplicate them in this post.
I will, however, share a bunch of quotes that I think are enlightening.
First, from the introduction, Solnit notes that most of us humans really do long for the kind of mutual society that disaster can produce. (For those of us who consider ourselves Christ followers, we could call this the Kingdom of Heaven, as described by Christ.) But society is, unfortunately, set up to make this difficult.
The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding. The very structure of our economy and society prevents these goals from being achieved. The structure is also ideological, a philosophy that best serves the wealthy and powerful, but shapes all of our lives, reinforced as the conventional wisdom disseminated by the media, from news hours to disaster movies. The facets of that ideology have been called individualism, capitalism, and Social Darwinism and have appeared in the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Malthus, as well as the work of most conventional contemporary economists, who presume we seek personal gain for rational reasons and refrain from looking at the ways a system skewed to that end damages much else we need for our survival and well being.
This ideology, as Solnit notes, is promulgated by the media, in service to the powerful, who benefit from alienating us from each other.
But to understand both that rising and what hinders and hides it, there are two other important subjects to consider. One is the behavior of the minority in power, who often act savagely in a disaster. The other is the beliefs and representations of the media, the people who hold up a distorting mirror to us in which it is almost impossible to recognize these paradises and our possibilities. Beliefs matter, and the overlapping beliefs of the media and the elites can become a second wave of disaster - as they did most dramatically in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
One of the most powerful passages is Solnit’s view of what utopia looks like. I don’t mean “utopia” in a derogatory sense, either. Every single advance humans have made has been the result of dreaming of a better society. We need the utopians more than ever these days.
The two most basic goals of social utopias are to eliminate deprivation - hunger, ignorance, homelessness - and to forge a society in which no one is an outsider, no one is alienated.
A careful reading of the teachings of Christ shows this to be the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. We share so that no one goes without. And those on the margins are invited to the table - indeed, they are the Kingdom. One could also say that this is the dream of modern liberalism - taking care of each other, and embracing everyone.
However, not everyone shares this vision of utopia. In fact, the theofascist movement (Christian Nationalism, White Supremacy, Patriarchy - the Fundamentalist Right I grew up in) sees a very different ideal future.
Some religious attempts at utopia are authoritarian, led by a charismatic leader, by elders, by rigid rules that create outcasts, but the secular utopias have mostly been committed to liberty, democracy, and shared power. The widespread disdain for revolution and utopia takes as its object lesson the Soviet-style attempts at coercive utopias, in which the original ideals of leveling and sharing go deeply awry, the achievement critiqued in George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 and other dystopian novels. Many fail to notice that it is not the ideals, the ends, but the coercive and authoritarian means that poison paradise.
There is a profound truth in there. The ends never justify the means, because the means are the ends. Coercive control and authoritarianism, whether in the service of retrogression (as for today’s right wing) or in the service of equality (the Soviet experience) ends up in the same bad place. And it always creates outcasts. The means become the end - and that end is dystopian authoritarianism. A bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
The chapter on the “official” response to the San Francisco earthquake is fascinating. Elite panic results in the belief that the people themselves, rather than being victims of the disaster, are the threat to be contained. (This is the bullshit view of human nature.) This then results in draconian measures to “contain” potential rioters and looters. (Code word here for lower class people, often people of color. In case that wasn’t obvious.) In San Francisco, the army was called out, under the command of General Funston, and given orders to shoot anyone suspected of “looting.” Probably hundreds of people were killed, many of which, it turned out later, were trying to save people and property from damaged buildings, not looting. Which is a slippery term anyway. As Solnit points out, in a disaster, why shouldn’t people take food from stores to keep everyone fed? This is requisition, not looting. Anyway, this is a great analysis of the issues at stake.
The death penalty is an extreme measure for theft, to say the least, and that theft was the primary crime the poster addressed is indicative. Many would not consider property crimes significant when lives are at stake - and the term looting conflates the emergency requisitioning of supplies in a crisis without a cash economy with opportunistic stealing. Disaster scholars now calls this fear-driven overreaction elite panic.
This is a recurring theme in the book. In a crisis, elites (and by that, she generally means people with money and power, not educated versus uneducated) tend to seek to protect property at the expense of people. You see the same thing in the aftermath of Katrina.
I wanted to mention the Halifax explosion because it is both relatively unremembered outside of Canada, and it is also pretty dang crazy. In 1917, a couple of ships, one laden with explosives destined for the Western Front, collided. As in 3000 tons of explosives. As the book notes, the resulting explosion was the largest man-made explosion before nuclear weapons.
The six million pounds of the ship were blown a thousand feet into the air, vaporized much of it, and rained the white-hot shrapnel over cities on both sides of the strait. It created a wave 60 feet high. It leveled everything within a mile radius. Absolutely crazy.
The aftermath was notable for the way ordinary people spontaneously organized rescue and recovery. One particular story that stood out was an unnamed nurse who was in charge of the children’s hospital who faced down the military and refused to move. I can see my wife doing the same thing.
This is probably a good time to note that there is no real pattern to which institutions became problematic in the aftermath of disaster. I have mentioned a few cases in which the military treated civilians as a threat - that was the bad. But under better leadership in other situations, the military can be an incredible help at logistics - moving aid where it is needed. The key is in the belief about whether citizens are a threat, or victims in need of aid.
You can see the same pattern when it comes to the police. In places like New Orleans, they were absolutely fucking horrible, committing most of the looting that occurred, looking the other way as vigilantes murdered black men, and often committing murder themselves. But in other cases, again under better leadership and working from a different paradigm, they have been helpful. The common thread is the belief system: are people “fucking animals”? Or are they humans needing help and support?
And likewise, churches can be either beacons of goodness, pitching in selflessly. Or, they can become barricades against “those people.” It is all about the belief system.
Another facet of the divide in belief systems is the question of mutuality versus charity. The “charity” paradigm, very popular among the more compassionate right wingers, is that of the “haves” being generous with charity to those in need.
The problem is, people prefer mutual aid to charity. And in order for mutual aid to work, people need to have resources. In other words, they need to have control and power over their own destinies, not charity, which always reserves the control to the person giving it. (This may be a blog post on its own someday.)
Altruism and charity are distinct if not in the acts themselves at least in the surrounding atmosphere: altruism reaches across with a sense of solidarity and empathy; charity hands down from above. The latter always runs the risk of belittling, patronizing, or otherwise diminishing its recipients in underscoring the difference between those who have and those who need it. It takes away a sense of self while giving material aid.
On a related note, those who prefer this patronizing version of charity also tend toward Social Darwinism in their economic policies. The sense of superiority is the same in both cases.
This was often extrapolated into what was later called Social Darwinism, the premise of which was that the conduct of contemporary human beings inevitably echoed their own primordial behavior and nature’s essential bleakness. It justified callousness toward those who lost out in the economic struggle: they did so because they were unfit, ill adapted, and lazy, rather than because the system was unfair - a common justification of colonial rapacity, the deprivation of the poor, and basis for theories of racial inferiority. They deserved it, or they were at least doomed and could not be saved, if the forces that trampled them down were as inevitable as nature itself.
And this insight:
Capitalism’s fundamental premise is scarcity, while a lot of tribal and gift economies operate on a basis of abundance. Their generosity is both an economic and an ethical premise.
I urge you, take a look at the teachings of Christ, and the example of the first Christian communities, and ask yourself which they resemble: the cruelty of capitalism and Social Darwinism? Or the mutuality of a gift economy?
Solnit also discusses the concept of “anarchy.” This is a word whose meaning has changed over time. Now, we tend to use it as a synonym for mayhem or chaos, but it originally meant merely the absence of a hierarchy.
It is often used nowadays as a synonym for mayhem, chaos, and riotous behavior because many imagine that the absence of authority is equally the absence of order. Anarchists are idealists, believing human beings do not need authorities and the threat of violence to govern them but are instead capable of governing themselves by cooperation, negotiation, and mutual aid. They stand on one side of a profound debate about human nature and human possibility. On the other side, the authoritarian pessimists believe that order comes only at the point of a gun or a society stacked with prisons, guards, judges, and punishments. They believe that somehow despite the claimed vileness of the many, the few whom they wish to endow with power will use it justly and prudently, though the evidence for this could most politely be called uneven. The cases drawn from disaster contradict this belief. It is often the few in power rather than the many without who behave viciously in disaster, and those few do so often exactly because they subscribe to the fearful beliefs of Huxley, Le Bon, and others.
Having grown up in a strongly authoritarian subculture, I see both the strength of the belief, and its utter failure at every level, from the implosion of families like mine to the mass incarceration that Americans seem to believe is necessary for order.
Related: for a truly imaginative portrayal of an anarchist society, check out Ursula Le Guin’s excellent book, The Dispossessed.
I thought that Solnit’s critique of Hobbes was interesting. It is a reminder that a major weakness of philosophy over the millennia has been its overreliance on males with few social ties.
What is curious for a modern reader about the society imagined by Hobbes and then the Social Darwinists is that it appears to consist entirely of unaffiliated men. The relationships between lovers, spouses, parents and children, siblings, kinfolk, friends, colleagues, and compatriots are absent, though those are clearly among the more ancient rather than modern aspects of human life. The world they imagine looks something like an old-fashioned business district during a working day, when countless people venture out to do economic battle with each other. But even those people are formed into corporations and firms whose internal cooperation is as or more important to their functioning than external competition.
I thought the chapter on the London Blitz was fascinating. One of Solnit’s sources was Mollie Panter-Downs, a journalist and author - I read and posted about her wartime short stories a few years ago - they are definitely worth reading.
It was out of the war that the field of disaster studies came to be. Solnit discusses the findings of Charles Fritz, one of its pioneers. Disasters, from the sociological perspective, look a lot different than conventional wisdom would say. Solnit bemoans the fact that his extraordinary findings have had relatively little effect on the bureaucrats and politicians who develop disaster response plans. I hope that this has started to change, at least in some circles. Right before the Covid pandemic, my wife was invited to participate in FEMA’s disaster response training exercises, at their big facility in Alabama. Responders from a variety of professions participated, and there did seem to be more of an emphasis on solving problems rather than containing riots - this is a big positive. (Also, both in the training and in the later pandemic, my wife proved to be a real badass. You definitely want her in change in a disaster, believe me.)
Related to the frustration that institutions are failing to change based on evidence is the problem of the media - particularly disaster movies, which get it so very badly wrong. It is never the small group of elites who save the day - they are the problem. Rather, it is the great many ordinary folk who come together and get stuff done. We really need a change in our stories, to say the least.
So, people pull together during disasters. But what about afterward? This is another interesting question the book looks at. In some cases, like the Mexico City earthquake, the disaster led to long term positive change. This can happen. But other times, as in 9/11, the good feelings can be co-opted into debacles like 20 years of futile war, the lost of rights through the Patriot Act, and a paroxysm of xenophobia leading to Trump.
A disaster is as far from falling in love as can be imagined, but disaster utopias are also a spell when engagement, improvisation, and empathy happen as if by themselves. Then comes the hard business of producing a good society by determination and dedication.
This is the truth, and the work of building the Kingdom, so to speak. It is a hard business, and requires long-term thinking and dedication. But it is worth it.
Speaking of the Kingdom of God/Heaven, this was mentioned in the chapter about the aftermath of 9/11. The volunteers often used that term, whether they were religious or not.
“This is the Kingdom, this is the notion of everyone working and living together and eating together and pulling for a cause - totally other-directed, totally selfless and, frankly, very self-deprecating.”
Man, though, the aftermath. I had forgotten about some of the details, but Solnit mentions them. How Giuliani located the disaster headquarters right near the World Trade Center, despite advice to avoid that area - the center was disabled after the attacks. Predictably. Also that New Yorkers tended to hate Guilani before, during, and after the attack. His status as a “hero” was all a media creation. And, of course, the GW Bush administration literally changing environmental reports to hide the risk from the toxic dust. (I was taught that shit like this was lying, but apparently this is all fine to the American Right Wing these days…)
And that brings us to what ended up being GWB’s downfall: Katrina. What a total fuck-up. And Bush was hardly the only one who deserves blame. The media was, simply put, terrible. They led with lies and rumors that turned out to be untrue. They claimed the city was in a chaos of a riot. It wasn’t. They claimed that there were mass murders inside the Superdome. There weren’t. There were a handful of people who died of natural causes. They claimed people were shooting at the cops. They weren’t.
What WAS true, however, was that cops were looting. There was eventually a video on national TV of them cleaning out a WalMart. And Cadillacs were found in the possession of cops as far away as Texas. Yeah, but rattle on about African Americans.
And then there is what Solnit found in investigating dozens of murders of black men by white vigilantes. Man, that whole section is rough. There were others who survived, who describe trying to get help, or transport supplies, only to be met by armed white men who forced them back to flooded neighborhoods. The thing is, one of her major sources was the bragging that these white guys did publicly about killing blacks. And they were never prosecuted.
This dynamic is something I noticed after living through the LA Riots. (You can read about that in the extended footnote to my review of Nadine Gordimer’s book July’s People.) I have made the attempt over the last 25 or so years to unlearn my subconscious reactions from that time in my life - to recognize it as bias and racism, even if unintentional. Unfortunately, most of my former tribe of white evangelicals (including my parents) have gone the other direction, at least in thought and rhetoric. Here is how Solnit looks at the phenomenon:
Like elites when they panic, racists imagine again and again that without them utter savagery would break out, so that their own homicidal violence is in defense of civilization and the preservation of order. The killing rage of the Klan and lynching parties of the old South were often triggered or fanned into flame by a story, often fictitious or exaggerated, of a crime by an African American man. Of course there were crimes committed by African Americans in Katrina, but to imagine that every black man is a criminal or to punish a whole group or unconnected individuals for a crime is racism at its most psychotic and vigilantism at its most arrogant.
This is how you get a Kyle Rittenhouse, or a George Zimmerman, or the guy who just murdered a homeless man in a subway station.
Oh, and how about this white evangelical fantasy? (As described by historian Mike Davis, about the prior hurricane, Ivan, and the lessons not learned.)
“The evacuation of New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Ivan looked sinisterly like Strom Thurmond’s version of the Rapture. Affluent white people fled the Big Easy in their SUVs, while the old and carless - mainly black - were left behind in their below-sea-level shotgun shacks and aging tenements to face the watery wrath.”
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the last few waves of “Rapture” obsession came in response to social change, including the end of Jim Crow, that white evangelicals found uncomfortable. There is a fantasy of getting to leave “those people” behind, and watching them suffer.
I’ll end this post with a bit from the epilogue.
Who are you? Who are we? The history of disaster demonstrates that most of us are social animals, hungry for connection, as well as for purpose and meaning. It also suggests that if this is who we are, then everyday life in most places is a disaster that disruptions sometimes give us a chance to change. They are a crack in the walls that ordinarily hem us in, and what floods in can be enormously destructive - or creative. Hierarchies and institutions are inadequate to these circumstances; they are often what fails in such crises. Civil society is what succeeds, not only in an emotional demonstration of altruism and mutual aid but also in a practical mustering of creativity and resources to meet the challenges. Only this dispersed force of countless people making countless decisions is adequate to a major crisis. One reason that disasters are threatening to elites is that power devolves to the people on the ground in many ways: it is the neighbors who are the first responders and who assemble the impromptu kitchens and networks to rebuild. And it demonstrates the viability of a dispersed, decentralized system of decision making. Citizens themselves in these moments constitute the government - the acting decision-making body - as democracy has always promised and rarely delivered. Thus disasters often unfold as though a revolution has already taken place.
This book was written before Trump, so at times it can be a bit optimistic about the direction the US is headed, but I think the core message holds true. If anything, the Covid pandemic has shown that many people can and do pull together in a crisis. And also that the US is deeply fractured right now, with the Right Wing essentially engaging in constant elite panic in every crisis, unable to see those different from them as fellow humans rather than subhuman threats. It seems likely that we will continue to see disasters in the near future, and thus we will have an opportunity. An opportunity to form the kinds of communities that thrive on mutual aid and assistance. As both Solnit in this book, and Octavia Butler in her novel, Parable of the Sower, these communities will be diverse - a variety of races and ethnicities, national origins, genders, sexual orientations - and in stark contrast to the vigilante elites, who will tend to be aggressive white males - or other homogenous groups - drunk on the fantasy of saving civilization from the savage others.
Whatever the future holds, I am firmly on Team Mutuality, eager to build communities of mutual support. And in a disaster, come on over, and me and mine will have food and shelter and first aid ready to go.