A Paradise Built in Hell

If anarchism makes any empirical claim, it is that humans have the capacity, indeed the natural inclination, to organize themselves into networks of mutual aid: we do not need a government holding a gun to our head to compel socially beneficial behaviour. Rarely do we get an opportunity submit this hypothesis to a conclusive test, as government and big business aggressively stamp out all but the subtlest and most underground of anarchist mutual aid efforts. But what happens in a cataclysmic event, such as an earthquake or hurricane, when powerful institutions are temporarily thrown off-kilter, at least locally? Hollywood disaster movies tell us that under these conditions, the thin veneer of civilization quickly falls away, and humanity descends into a Hobbesian “war of all against all”, replete with looting, murder, rape, and cannibalism — or at least that’s what would happen, if not for the efforts of the chisel-jawed hero. In fact, this disaster trope is almost entirely false. Rather, Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell (Viking Press, 2009) establishes, from a broad survey of disasters, that the overwhelming response to disaster is a massive outpouring of mutual aid. Neighbours rescue neighbours from rubble or fire or flooding; they donate food to self-organized community soup-kitchens. Social barriers and private preoccupations evaporate as people focus on the common problem of immediate survival. In short, they take care of one another. So much so that survivors often look back on the communities that emerge in the aftermath of disaster as something of an earthly paradise. And this result provides striking empirical confirmation of anarchism’s central claim.

This thesis may sound starry-eyed, particularly to those of us raised in a climate of neoliberalism, but Solnit’s claim is amply and solidly supported by a broad array of evidence. The book includes detailed case studies of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Halifax harbour explosion of 1917, the London Blitz of 1940-41, the Managua earthquake of 1972, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, the 9/11 attacks of 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The list is somewhat American-centric, but that only strengthens Solnit’s argument: if mutual aid can emerge in a highly atomized, privatized society like the U.S., it should do so a fortiori in more communal cultures. Her thesis is further supported by the (even more comprehensive) research of sociologists working in the area of Disaster Studies, particularly its founding figure, Charles E. Fritz. Indeed, Solnit is merely popularizing a set of findings which are by now well-established among Disaster Studies researchers. And, by the way, she does this very well: Solnit is a clear and engaging writer, and her thoroughness never descends into dryness.

But not everyone responds to disaster with mutual aid. In particular, for those in charge of large, hierarchical institutions — governmental, military, or corporate — the principle concern is not the rescue of victims or the alleviation of suffering, but rather the maintenance of what they call “public order”, i.e. their own hold on power. For example, in the San Francisco quake, Brigadier General Frederick Funston was so preoccupied with preventing looting that his troops shot and bayonetted many citizens who were merely salvaging property from their own houses, putting out fires, or attempting to rescue neighbours. More recently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency turned away desperately needed aid in the aftermath of Katrina, on the grounds that it was “too dangerous” to take supplies into the hard-hit areas of New Orleans, which were supposedly overrun with gangs of looters. This story about looters turned out to be almost completely false: the only group which engaged in significant looting and robbery was the police.

Let us examine this notion, “looting”, more closely. As Solnit notes, the term conflates two very different behaviours. On one hand, there’s the opportunistic ransacking of homes and businesses for cash and luxury goods, perhaps accompanied with assault and rape, as soldiers commonly do in war. This occurs very rarely in disasters: most people are too focused on immediate survival to waste time on useless baubles, which will only weigh them down. On the other hand, if you’re trying to set up a first-aid station in your neighbourhood, of course you will grab whatever bandages, alcohol, and other useful medical supplies you can find in the closed-up drugstore around the corner. Indeed it is morally imperative to do so, if you can thereby save lives. During Hurricane Katrina, this second type of activity was often referred to, by government officials and the mainstream media, as “emergency requisitioning of supplies”, when it was done by affluent whites. But the same behaviour was labelled “looting” when done by poor blacks.

This phenomenon, governmental preoccupation with imagined threats to public order rather than effective disaster relief, crops up with sufficient regularity in Disaster Studies to receive a name: elite panic. Solnit attributes it to two sources. First, the individuals at the top of large institutions often got there through ultra-competitive, anti-social behaviour. To justify their own mode of life, they are committed to a dog-eat-dog worldview. They expect the rest of society to engage in violent looting in a disaster, because that is what they themselves would do, or so they imagine. (But even the stockbrokers in the Twin Towers engaged in mutual aid during the 9/11 attacks.) Secondly, the mutual aid that emerges in the aftermath of disaster suddenly makes clear, to much of the populace, that they can organize themselves, to meet their own needs and the needs of their neighbours, without control or direction from the government or other elites. The situation is very much like an anarchist revolution.[1] The elites are revealed to be, at best, superfluous to society. This realization is a direct threat to the elites’ legitimacy, and so they often respond by trying to shut down the informal mutual aid networks, violently if necessary, replacing them with emergency management structures under elite control, even though they are woefully inferior at assisting the disaster victims. My summary here, by the way, barely scratches the surface of the elite panic examples that Solnit recounts; the criminality and viciousness of them truly shock the conscience. Indeed, Solnit’s examination of elite panic confirms a corollary anarchist claim: that far from being guarantors of social order, governments and other elite institutions characteristically engage in ruthless, socially destructive behaviour in order to maintain power.

Solnit’s Paradise thus complements, and partially refutes, Naomi Klein’s (2007) Shock Doctrine. With regard to elite panic, Klein and Solnit are in accord. Elites not only scramble to hold onto power in the aftermath of disaster: they try to consolidate and expand their power if they are able. During the San Francisco quake, for example, the city fathers, despicably, tried (unsuccessfully) to use the disaster as a pretext to seize the historic Chinatown district for white developers. But whereas Klein assumes that the public, traumatized and made vulnerable by disaster, will always be an easy mark for unscrupulous elites, Solnit demonstrates that disasters can just as easily weaken the elites, as people experience the liberative power of self-organized mutual aid. Indeed, rather than being traumatized, some people seem to come alive in a disaster. Dorothy Day, the Christian anarchist and founder of the Catholic Worker, experienced the San Francisco quake as an eight-year-old girl. She later wrote,

What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. For days refugees poured out of burning San Francisco and camped in Idora Park and the race track in Oakland. People came in their night clothes; there were new-born babies. Mother and all our neighbors were busy from morning to night cooking hot meals. They gave away every extra garment they possessed. They stripped themselves to the bone in giving, forgetful of the morrow. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.

Solnit comments, “Day remembered this her whole life, and she dedicated that long life to trying to realize and stabilize that love as a practical force in meeting the needs of the poor and making a more just and generous society.”

This brings us to the million-dollar question: can these spontaneous outbreaks of mutual aid be stabilized into long-term community, resisting the reassertion of elite control, or are they inevitably ephemeral? One factor that seems to play a role, according to Solnit, is the extent to which the pre-existing culture values community vs. private life. She contrasts the response to the Mexico City quake to the New York response to 9/11. In both cases there was a huge outpouring of mutual aid and spontaneous formation of community. But the Mexicans, already brought up in a strongly communitarian culture, were able to hang on to some of these social transformations. New Yorkers, however, quickly slipped back into their more isolated, private lives. Another factor, as Dorothy Day’s example suggests, is some sort of personal spiritual commitment. As Solnit observes, spiritual teaching and practice, at its best, focusses one’s attention on matters of transcendental significance, such as community and compassion, away from petty private preoccupations.

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. — Matthew 6:31-34

For Dorothy Day and other Christian radicals, the “kingdom” Jesus refers to here is not some pie-in-the-sky afterlife, but precisely the sort of community of love and mutual aid that Day herself experienced in San Francisco. We don’t have to “worry” about personal provision of food and clothing, because we can trust networks of mutual aid, guided by the spirit of Love (“your heavenly Father”), to provide these things for us, as we help provide them to others. The quote above happens to be Christian, but I expect that roughly similar exhortations can be found in the teachings of any spiritual tradition that is worth its salt. For example, in Hinduism, the Yogic principle of aparigraha (non-grasping) covers much the same ethical ground. Spiritual traditions can thus function as “disaster substitutes”, keeping the value of mutual aid alive in the hearts of individuals and small communities, on a long-term basis.

A further lesson of Solnit’s Paradise is that, while anarchists ought not to wait around for disasters, disasters do present opportunities for significant social transformation, and we should be prepared to take advantage of them. With the consequences of peak oil, irreversible climate change, mass species extinction, and global financial instability all hanging over our heads like Damocles’ sword, it seems that we are guaranteed “interesting times” for the foreseeable future. Of course, nobody in their right mind would welcome the death and suffering that such catastrophe might bring upon us. But Solnit’s book suggests that the prospect of catastrophe need not lead to despair; rather, it may be a doorway to paradise.


1. Solnit’s discussion of the similarity between disaster responses and political revolutions includes a striking insight. We are used to thinking of revolutions as often violent events; indeed, it is a staple of classic conservatism, from Burke onwards, that revolutions inevitably lead to bloodbaths. In fact, revolutions proper, i.e. the sudden overthrow of existing state power, are typically relatively bloodless (e.g. the storming of the Bastille, the establishment of the Paris Commune, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas). It the reconquest of such a society by those who want to establish a new state, or a return of the old state, that results in bloodbaths.