Disaster communism part 1 - disaster communities

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Tens of thousands of people showed that we don’t need capital or governments to get things done. They demonstrated the will of people to take part in comforting each other, re-building, creating and moulding their own futures.

This quote is from a blog called Revolts Now. Libcom readers often see this kind of inspiration in strikes or uprisings, moments when the working class seizes the steering wheel, or stomps on the brakes (pick your metaphor). Revolts Now was talking about the aftermath of the Queensland floods. They write of:

…efforts of communities hit by disaster that do not wait for the state, or allow capital to take the initiative, but instead ‘negotiate with their hands’, rebuilding their own communities and ‘healing themselves’, resulting in communities that are stronger. I call these efforts disaster communism.

We think disaster communism is a useful concept for thinking about climate change. Although it's far from common, we can already identify at least two different meanings of the term. The first meaning is collective, self-organised responses to disaster situations. The second concerns the prospects for an ecological society based on human needs in the face of climate chaos, or to put it another way, the possibility of communism in the Anthropocene.1 We can call this first sense 'disaster communities', and the second 'disaster communisation', and consider both of these as moments of the wider problematic of disaster communism.

Disaster communities

Rebecca Solnit popularised the idea of disaster communities in her book A paradise built in hell. Solnit points out that the goal of the state in disasters is usually to reimpose ‘order’ rather than to assist the survivors. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the army were sent in, killing between 50 and 500 survivors and disrupting self-organised search, rescue, and firefighting efforts.2

The fires and booming explosions raged for three days. It sounded like war. When they were done, half the city was ash and rubble, more than twenty-eight thousand buildings had been destroyed, and more than half the population of four hundred thousand was homeless. Mansions burned down atop Nob Hill; the slum district south of Market Street was nearly erased. The disaster provoked, as most do, a mixed reaction: generosity and solidarity among most of the citizens, and hostility from those who feared that public and sought to control it, in the belief that an unsubjugated citizenry was—in the words of [Brigadier General] Funston—“an unlicked mob.” (p.35)

For Solnit, the current social order requires constant effort to maintain. She likens it to an electric light, and disasters to a power cut. When the power goes out, literally or metaphorically, there is a spontaneous “reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative, and local society” (p.10). The repressive actions of the state – in San Francisco 1906 as much as Katrina in 2005 – are about reimposing state power and capitalist normality.

The state sees localised self-organisation, collaboration and mutual aid as a threat to be crushed. Which is why the state is often quicker to provide its own citizens with hot lead than fresh water: order must reign. Solnit draws on the ground-breaking work of Charles Fritz, who studied numerous disasters and found that stereotypes of selfishness, anti-social individualism, and aggression were completely without evidence.3 Indeed, the opposite is true:

Disaster victims rarely exhibit hysterical behaviour; a kind of shock-stun behaviour is a more common initial response. Even under the worst disaster conditions, people maintain or quickly regain self control and become concerned about the welfare of others. Most of the initial search, rescue, and relief activities are undertaken by disaster victims before the arrival of organized outside aid. Reports of looting in disasters are grossly exaggerated; rates of theft and burglary actually decline in disasters; and much more is given away than stolen. Other forms of antisocial behaviour, such as aggression toward others and scapegoating, are rare or nonexistent. Instead, most disasters produce a great increase in social solidarity among the stricken populace, and this newly created solidarity tends to reduce the incidence of most forms of personal and social pathology. (Fritz, p.10)

Fritz also astutely notes that the distinction between disasters and ‘normality’ can “conveniently overlook the many sources of stress, strain, conflict, and dissatisfaction that are imbedded in the nature of everyday life.”4 The difference is that disaster situations suspend the institutional order, creating an unstructured situation amenable to change. Thus the privations felt in the disaster, as well as the stresses and strains of everyday life, can be addressed collectively. This provides both the psychological support and the collective power to restructure social life around human needs.5

An opportunity for social transformation?

People see the opportunity for realizing certain wishes that remained latent and unfulfilled under the old system. They see new roles that they can create for themselves. They see the possibility of wiping out old inequities and injustices. The opportunity for achieving these changes in the culture lends a positive aspect to disasters not normally present in other types of crisis. (Fritz, p.57)

Importantly, disaster communities are not intentional communities, drop-out communes, or activist temporary autonomous zones. They're self-organised, non-market, non-statist social reproduction under adverse conditions, not an attempt at voluntary secession from capitalism. However, they still suffer some of the shortcomings of such projects. First and foremost, they are typically short-lived, even if the experience changes the participants for life. Fritz points out that practically, such communities persist until some kind of basic societal functioning and stability is restored, typically a matter of weeks to months in peacetime disasters, or several years in wartime or in case of chronic or serial disasters.

This helps explain why a smart state has more options than just repression, and hence why the US Department of Homeland Security can praise the self-organised, anarchist-influenced Occupy Sandy relief efforts. Since self-organised disaster communities are more effective than state agencies and market forces and responding to disasters, the state can simply sit back and let people suffer, then reassert itself when the community dissipates as normality returns. This is the state’s interest in ‘resilience’, exposing proletarians to disaster, abandoning them to survive by their own efforts, and then moving in with the ‘disaster capitalism’ of reconstruction and gentrification once the moment of disaster has passed.6

Disaster communities alone, then, do not inherently pose a revolutionary threat to the capitalist social order – and may even be recuperated as a low-cost means to restore capitalist normality. If they can be called communist, it’s in the sense of ‘baseline communism’, a term used by David Graeber to describe the basic sociality and free cooperation which makes any social order possible (including capitalism). In part two of this article, we’ll look at what disaster communism means in relation to a wider revolutionary, anti-capitalist dynamic.

  • 1. Jason Moore argues that "as a metaphor for communicating the significant – and growing – problem posed by greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, the Anthropocene is to be welcomed", but that in pinning the problem on 'anthropos' - humanity - rather than specific forms of social organisation - capital - it naturalises the problem and smuggles in neo-Malthusian assumptions.
  • 2. This reminds us of the famous Freudian slip from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, while defending police repression: “The policeman is not here to create disorder. The policeman is here to preserve disorder.”
  • 3. We’re not claiming people are angels, only that the evidence consistently shows co-operative, pro-social behaviour is the predominant response. However, this solidarity is mediated by identity, and this means race is a major factor in who lives and who dies. The media like to focus on exceptional cases to fit a Hobbesian narrative of anomie wherever state order breaks down (e.g. see this Daily Mail piece), but cases like this are perhaps better understood as the effect of racial othering – when a black person knocks at the door asking for help, white people don’t necessarily answer, and maybe they even shoot them dead just to be sure.
  • 4. For example see this blog by sometimes explode, arguing that anxiety/nervousness is the dominant affective state in the contemporary ‘society of stimulation’.
  • 5. James Lovelock argues along these lines, linking anxiety to a sort of calm before the storm, which can only be resolved once the inevitable happens: “Humanity is in a period exactly like 1938-9, he explains, when "we all knew something terrible was going to happen, but didn't know what to do about it". But once the second world war was under way, "everyone got excited, they loved the things they could do, it was one long holiday ... so when I think of the impending crisis now, I think in those terms. A sense of purpose - that's what people want."” We can’t share the nostalgia for wartime, but a sense of impending doom certainly pervades contemporary culture.
  • 6. As an article in the Endnotes journal comments, "resilience is only ostensibly a conservative principle; it finds stability not in inflexibility but in constant, self-stabilising adaptivity." In disaster communities, neither state power nor supposed entrepreneurial 'genius' can generate this adaptive self-organisation, rather they act once it has stabilised the situation.

Posted By

Out of the Woods
May 8 2014 08:17


Attached files


May 8 2014 22:42
Great piece, look forward to reading the rest. One historical example I've seen referenced a lot is of working class self-organisation in the wake of the Mexico City earthquake (in 1985 IIRC) but I haven't seen much written about it. If there is a good (ideally short) history anywhere we could put on libcom anyone knows of that would be great.
Out of the Woods
May 9 2014 07:09
We quote from Harry Cleaver's discussion of the Mexico City earthquake in part 2, but that's already on libcom: http://libcom.org/library/uses-of-earthquake-cleaver If anyone else has good links on this kind of thing (or well supported counter-examples of mutual aid not prevailing), please post them up. We'll post up part 2 in a week, and probably part 3 the week after. Part 2 looks at 'the big picture' a bit more, about what communism means at a world scale (in terms of 'communisation' and utopia). Then Part 3 tries to pull these micro and macro perspectives back together, by looking at the recent debate about global logistics and whether it can be taken over to communist ends.
May 9 2014 10:34
'Emergent prosocial behaviour' after Katrina: http://ann.sagepub.com/content/604/1/82.full.pdf
May 22 2014 16:10
If anyone else has good links on this kind of thing (or well supported counter-examples of mutual aid not prevailing), please post them up.
Occupy Sandy; see chapter 3 of this MA thesis.
May 22 2014 16:14
I really hate the title, but like the contents.
May 24 2014 13:41
Joseph Kay
Jun 28 2014 19:38
Red Cross refuse to divulge how they spent Sandy money, citing competitive advantage... Quote:
"If those details were disclosed, 'the American Red Cross would suffer competitive harm because its competitors would be able to mimic the American Red Cross's business model for an increased competitive advantage,' Levin wrote."
El Gaviero Rojo
Aug 31 2014 23:42
Article on Occupy Sandy and its relation to the state, in some ways responding to this series. Might interest some of ya'll. http://thetempworker.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/the-state-occupy-and-disaster-what-radical-movement-builders-can-learn-from-the-case-of-occupy-sandy/ Huzzah!