Disaster socialism

The aftermath of a great catastrophe can reveal the capacity we human beings have to reorder our lives in a new ways, writes Paul D'Amato.

IT IS very common to believe that human beings have a fixed "human nature," and that this fixed nature of ours is what accounts for all the bad things that human beings do in the world today--abuse, lie, trick, swindle and kill each other. It is argued, too, that it is part of human nature for there to be rulers and ruled, rich and poor, doers and done-to.

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at pdamato@isreview.org.

According to this view, our society is rather like the children stranded on the island in William Golding's allegorical novel Lord of the Flies. It tells the story of a group of English schoolboys who are stranded on an island after their plane is shot down during a war.

"Over the course of the novel," Sparknotes tells us, "Golding portrays the rise and swift fall of an isolated, makeshift civilization, which is torn to pieces by the savage instincts of those who compose it."

Without a state or set of institutions to impose order and morality, Golding seems to be saying, man's default setting (and I mean "man," since there are no females in this story) is brutal barbarism and chaos. Peaceful cooperation, apparently, isn't possible outside the bounds of a disciplined "civilization."

There's another possible interpretation of the book--that it merely describes the culturally acquired characteristics of middle-class English schoolboys living in a world torn by adult war. But that's a less popular interpretation.

I can understand why an author who experienced the Second World War, as Golding did, might write such a book. But it is profoundly reactionary, which might explain why it is included in so many school curriculums.

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THE ARGUMENT that our default setting is barbarism is used routinely in the press, by politicians, and by FEMA and military officials, for example, to justify sending armed forces into a disaster zone.

Without heavily armed personnel to restore and maintain order, so the argument goes, a society struck by disaster will naturally descend into rioting, looting and violent mayhem. Disaster brings out "the primitive instincts of man," such as "fear, fighting, anger" and "foodgetting," according to a 1920 dissertation by a Canadian author.

But it turns out that catastrophes and natural disasters have a different story to tell, according to author Rebecca Solnit in her fascinating book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Solnit's investigation of several disasters shows ordinary people coming together to help each other and give each other aid and comfort, not acting at all like the children in Lord of the Flies.

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She describes how, after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, during the fires that devastated the city and led to the deaths of 3,000, people emerged into the streets and immediately began to cooperate--how people shared things with each other, and rushed to save others who were trapped or hurt, or prevented the spread of fire.

Solnit tells the story of beautician and masseuse Anna Amelia Holshouser, who, after being driven by soldiers to Golden Gate Park, built a makeshift tent and began a soup kitchen, named lovingly the "Palace Hotel," which fed as many as 300 people a day for free.

This was by no means an isolated act. In a city known for its virulent racism against the Chinese, even the owner of a big slaughterhouse began handing out meat free to thousands of Chinatown residents.

To get the flavor of the situation, a lengthy quote from the book is necessary:

Another policeman downtown that first morning, Sergeant Maurice Behan, helped rescue a woman with a baby and commented, "Men were taking all sorts of risks to help other people who were in danger."

A pawnbroker he saw bought a whole load of bread from a baker's wagon and began giving loaves away to people fleeing the flames. Nearby, an agent for a mineral water company set up a primitive bar out of a plank and a couple of trestles, and gave water away all day and all night to the thirsty crowd. Later, Behan and some citizens helped firemen rescue five people from a damaged building. They were taken to the hospital in a fish cart, a laundry wagon and an automobile--still a rare piece of machinery in those days.

Behan commented, "What impressed me particularly was the lighthearted way in which everybody seemed to be taking the calamity. All seemed to be merry, many of them were cracking jokes as they pushed along...No matter where you went or who you spoke to, in the thick of that ruin with the fire blazing all around you, somebody found something to joke about.

This was no isolated observation. A teacher wrote that "there was no running around in the streets, or shrieking, or anything of that sort." The novelist Jack London wrote of how "There was no hysteria, no disorder...Never in all San Francisco's history were her people so kind and courteous as on this night of terror."

Charles B. Sedgewick described how "the strong helped the weak with their burdens, and when pause was made for refreshments, food was voluntarily divided; the milk was given to the children, and any little delicacies that could be found were pressed upon the aged and the ailing." He lamented, "Would that it could always be so!"

As a journalist who experienced the quake later wrote: "[H]ow nice to feel that no one would take it sadly amiss were you to embrace the scavenger man in an excess of joy at seeing him among the living, or to walk the main street with the Chinese cook. The individual, the isolated self, was dead."

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IT TURNS out that the most savage acts were committed not by ordinary citizens, but by the armed personnel sent to restore "order." Brigadier Gen. Frederick Funston, fresh from suppressing the independence movement in the Philippines, was put in charge, with the aid of 17,000 army troops, plus Marines, National Guard and military cadets.

Though martial law was not declared, soldiers and militiamen behaved as though it had been. Police and troops were given orders to kill anyone caught looting or in the commission of any crime. Dozens of people were shot attempting to requisition food to help their families and others in need.

In one case, where a storeowner had invited people to take goods from his store before it burned down, a soldier "bayoneted one of the invitees who was leaving laden with groceries."

People were forcibly conscripted to help the army in its firefighting efforts, which, according to many reports, was badly botched and in fact made the fires spread. Soldiers shot and killed 20 men who refused to help with the firefighting effort at the waterfront. Many of those executed--whose numbers might have run as high as 500 people--were simply tossed into the flames after they were bayoneted or shot.

Meanwhile, the powers that be were not pleased by the ordinary citizens' self-help efforts. "The sooner this feeding of able-bodied men and women is stopped," growled Gen. Greeley, "the better it will be for the city."

One San Francisco citizen, writer Henry Anderson Lafler, summed up his fury at Funston and his operation: "The stories have but one beginning and one end. They begin with the criminal idiocy of the military; they end with the surmounting heroism of the citizen."

"During those unforgettable days," Lafler wrote in an unpublished manuscript, "the city of San Francisco was even as, a city captured in war, the possession of an alien foe."

In the immediate aftermath of a great catastrophe or natural disaster like the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Solnit writes, "the old order no longer exists, and people improvise rescues, shelters and communities. Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order will all its shortcomings and injustices will be re-imposed, or a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free...will arise."

A disaster is not a revolution, but it can reveal--in a flash that seems gone the moment after it arrives--the capacity we human beings have to reorder our lives in a new, cooperative way, leaving behind the degradation, oppression, violence and corruption that is our daily fare under capitalism.