Beyond Disaster Capitalism

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written by

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh

May 27, 2020

This article was first published in Stir Magazine, Autumn 2018. To support our journalism, purchase this issue or an annual subscription.

Rebecca Solnit's Paradise Built in Hell was inspired by the lesser known Disasters and Mental Heath essay by Charles Fritz. What's so important about these disaster studies is they show that crises have "the power to make ‘normal’ conditions look unliveable."


As communities in North Carolina and Virginia on the United States’ Eastern Seaboard recently prepared for the storm surges of Hurricane Florence, so emerged the warnings that many would expect: “We shoot looters”. When we think about disaster we generally tend to think about disorder – a time of social disorganisation, aggression, and other forms of anti-social behaviour. These are all assumed to be the inevitable personal and social consequences of disaster. 

But what if the expected responses either fail to occur or are only marginal? What if the temporary breakdown of social hierarchies allows for new ideas and systems to emerge? What if disasters resolve pre-existing conflicts? And what are the new political powers of this ‘community of sufferers’? 

These were some of the questions and benefits that social scientist and Second World War US Participant Observer Charles Fritz outlined in his 1961 essay, Disasters and Mental Health. This essay inspired author and activist Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell, and for which she announced the ‘rebirth of disaster studies’. 

This rebirth was to recognise that while disasters are ‘occasions of profound human misery’, they should not be considered as “irrefutability ‘bad’”. Disasters have the power to make ‘normal’ conditions look unliveable and this, Fritz understood, was an opportunity for both personal and social transformation.

Shock Doctrine

In her 2009 book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein researched historical and contemporary examples of ‘disaster capitalism’, defining them as ‘the practice of taking advantage of a major disaster to adopt liberal economic  policies that the population would be less likely to accept under normal circumstances’. Klein based her book and definition on the disaster experiences after the 1973 military coup in Chile and the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, where authorities undemocratically imposed ‘reforms’ and unpopular policies. More recent examples were the ‘reconstruction’ of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, where private contractors exploited the fact that communities were displaced and denied local residents the opportunity to return or rebuild their own neighbourhoods. 

Though it might seem that these deliberate strategies of disaster capitalism are inevitable, Fritz argued there was evidence from ‘disaster-struck’ communities – after either peacetime or wartime disasters – of systems change, the breakdown of social class and ethnic groups, and other significant social benefits. 

So could the opportunities for disaster capitalism also be an opportunity for ‘disaster collectivism’? Or in other words, can disasters disrupt ‘institutional patterns of behaviour’ and allow different social systems to emerge?

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Emergent Community

Despite the predominance of disaster capitalism, Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell refocused on what she called ‘the extraordinary communities that arise in the disaster’, finding Klein’s post-disaster descriptions to be a ‘disempowering portrait’. Alongside general community empowerment, Fritz’s research found beneficial effects on individuals during and after historical disasters. During 1917 Russian Revolution, psychiatrists remarked that ‘obsessional psychoneuroses had become extinct’; during the Spanish Civil there was a reduction in those suffering from depression, and across many conflicts, such as the Blitz, the rate of suicide dramatically declined as people found new social and public roles. In 1897, the sociologist Émile Durkheim’s Suicide: A Study in Sociology found a significant decrease in self-aggression to be true during both national revolution and disasters.

Not only were individuals not demoralised, Fritz’s research shows the remarkable resilience of communities and their general ability to ‘absorb the disintegrative effects of disaster.’ But this was not simply a return to ‘normal conditions’. Through the tens of thousands of interviews and questionnaires he collected from large scale disasters – earthquakes, tornadoes, epidemics, floods, hurricanes, and military conflicts – he found that reconstruction was not about restoring the pre-existing system. If disasters are a disruption of the ‘ongoing systems of survival, meaning, order, and motivation’; he found that communities were often able to democratise social systems with a new ‘vitality’. 

Surely normal cultural distinctions become even more extreme during disasters? Though recognising that disasters happen in specific cultures and to specific individuals, Fritz explored the temporary breakdown of social class and ethnic groups in disaster-struck communities. During the Yellow Fever breakout in Philadelphia in 1793, members of minority ethnic groups found new social roles, such as the ‘elders of the African Society’. These elders were the first to volunteer in the relief initiatives and played a ‘major role among the whites and the blacks.’ Also during the 1937 Maryville, Tennessee flood, he reports that ‘the question of racial identity was lost in the scramble for survival as whites sought refuge in the homes of blacks’. Although not all culturally derived discrimination is eliminated in ‘disaster-struck’ communities – such as the armed white militias who cordoned off parts of post-Katrina New Orleans – he argued that it was ‘grossly exaggerated’ and far more marginal than traditional accounts. 

More generally, Fritz offered evidence that burglary and theft decline, making the point that ‘more is given away than stolen’ during a disaster. Following the  White County, Arkansas tornado of 1952, the US National Opinion Research Center found that only 6% of respondents ‘perceived any negative changes’, compared with 37% who believed that those affected had become ‘more friendly, co-operative, considerate, and kinder.’ So is it time we change this cultural story?

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Crises to Movements

Not only does the traditional story of disaster create a ‘disempowering portrait’, it also maintains the cultural expectation that large-scale disasters and affected communities should be treated as warzones – not as a humanitarian crisis. This was most obvious after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans when the national guard and private security firm Blackwater were first responders, in place of the much more needed emergency aid. 

There is also the challenge for ‘disaster collectivism’ to look beyond the initial response, the time it takes to ‘reinstate basic societal functions’. After immediate recovery, what happens next? How does this emergent community remain an active force? How are these new forms of social solidarity transformed into social bodies – both formal and informal – that can outlive the initial disaster situation? Without social movements and institution building these inspiring and temporary moments of social cohesion will always remain co-optable, as we see a return to the pre-existing system or even, in some cases, a worse variable. 

Disasters, Fritz argued, are not exclusively pathological or positive. They can intensify existing inequality, or they can create social change. For the social benefits to outlive their immediate causes – the disaster – we need to give more shape to these ‘emergent’ community identities. Relapsing into social atomisation will only leave us more vulnerable to future and more intensely occurring disasters, and it is, of course, these forms of alienation – economic and social – that are creating our contemporary crises. 

Community building is both a preparedness and preventative strategy – ‘normal’ social organisation will not be able to respond to these extraordinary challenges.

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh is the editor of STIR Magazine, and the founding director of Stir to Action and Selgars Mill. @stirtoaction

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