Wonkette Book Club: Rescuing Each Other
Photo by Don Halasy, Library of Congress

Guys, Rebecca Solnit is turning me into an anarchist. Reading her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, I find myself increasingly entertaining the possibility that there are better, more cooperative ways for people to live, without the inequality and injustice of capitalism. To be sure the current authoritarian moment doesn't speak well of concentrated power, to say nothing of the fetish for "law and order," which generally emphasizes the latter at the expense of the former. That, and last summer I finally read Ursula K. Le Guin's "ambivalent utopia" The Dispossessed, which offers at least a fictional look at what a society built on mutual aid might look like.

Honestly, I'm less interested in the practicalities of building an anarchist utopia (which seems an unlikely prospect anyway) than I am in Solnit's insights into how humans tend to behave when they have only each other to rely on, when disaster interrupts the existing order. Even if we don't go full anarcho-syndicalist collective (I don't think I'd like the freegan stew), A Paradise Built in Hell suggests that governments and institutions don't have to be awful. That's a hopeful message I find awfully appealing right now.

Before we jump into discussing the book, a quick programming note; I had originally said we'd finish the book this week, but I found a LOT to chew on in Sections 3 and 4, on the 1985 Mexico City earthquake and New Yorkers' response to 9/11, so we'll save the final section, on New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, for two weeks from now, June 21. That'll also give latecomers a chance to catch up if they want. You can get the Kindle ebook here (links to other e-book editions here), and you don't need a Kindle device to read it; Kindle and the other formats have apps that work on computers or phones. Heck, some libraries are even opening up again, I hear. Our previous discussions are here: Part 1 (a Chris Hayes interview with Solnit); Part 2 (Sections 1 and 2 of Paradise).

But wait, what about the riots? What about the looting? We've just had over a week of that! Thing is, the rioting and looting followed not a natural disaster, but a horrific act of injustice in Minneapolis, which itself stood at the apex of a mountain of systematic injustice going back decades. Centuries.

The property damage and destruction of the last two weeks may seem to argue against Solnit's thesis that when conventional systems of power are stripped away by disaster, people tend to care for each other and improvise ways to provide mutual aid. But what's been going on has been a revolt against a dehumanizing system that uses force to impose order. That anger didn't come out of nowhere; as the old Martin Luther King line goes: "a riot is the language of the unheard." And within the protests, people have been helping each other, even as the state comes at them with batons and tear gas.

When a disaster suddenly throws order into disarray, people tend to look out for each other, and even to create new realities that may change the existing order, as was the case with the Mexico City earthquake of 1985. Even though many of those left homeless were already poor and ignored by the corrupt Mexican government, the result wasn't rioting or looting, but people cooperating to extract their neighbors from the rubble, using their hands, shovels, anything. The government was largely useless, particularly since President Miguel de La Madrid chiefly focused on

macroeconomic measures to shore up the national economy rather than on providing relief for the sufferers. The country was in the grip of economic "liberalization" measures guided by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Their measures were supposed to bring economic development funded by huge loans, but mostly brought instead huge debts and economic-austerity programs to pay for those debts. When First Lady Nancy Reagan showed up with a check for a million dollars, de la Madrid gave it back to her, asking her to credit it to the national debt "since during the time that it took to get the pen out and sign, the debt grew by $12 million because of interest."

But that economic disaster on top of the natural disaster led to significant change in Mexico:

As the emergency subsided, citizens who had done without the government when it came to rescuing their families and neighbors, feeding and sheltering each other, organizing relief brigades, cleanup crews, and more, didn't lose their increased sense of power, connection, and possibility. The quake marked the rebirth of what Mexicans call civil society [...]

In finding a deep connection with one another, people also found a sense of power, the power to do without the government, to replace its functions, and to resist it in many ways. They began to do so, with astonishing results. The era of the earthquake was akin to that of the civil rights movement in the United States, when what had long been the status quo was found to be intolerable. When that happens, change follows.

After the earthquake, the PRI party's decades-long lock on political power was finally broken, and while "[electoral] politics and reform at the national level were disappointing [...] simply making Mexico a multiparty state was a huge achievement."

Solnit also looks at how civil society and mutual aid can arise out of suffering and "shocks to the system," although she emphasizes, "there is no formula; there are no certainties":

Leftists of a certain era liked to believe that the intensification of suffering produced revolution and was therefore to be desired or even encouraged; no such reliable formula ties social change to disaster or other suffering; calamities are at best openings through which a people may take power—or may lose the contest and be further subjugated.

The rise to power of a fascist like Donald Trump, for instance, doesn't guarantee that people will react by overthrowing the old order. It might just lead to more damn fascism. Even so, Solnit observes that disasters and revolutions

share aspects of solidarity, uncertainty, possibility, and the upending of the ordinary systems governing things—the rupture of the rules and the opening of many doors.

And in both cases, the resulting destabilization "is most terrifying to those who benefit most from that stability," so those who had been in power want to reimpose order, no matter the cost. Like for instance "reopening the economy" regardless of how many people will contract a deadly virus, or cracking down with military force on peaceful protests in the name of "dominating" unruly people who object to the violence that really is inherent in the system.

Solnit's discussion of 9/11 pursues similar themes: the heroes of the day included firefighters and police, sure, but Solnit details case after case in which ordinary people helped each other survive, even as institutions failed them — in particular, the Port Authority's recommendation that people stay in the buildings instead of evacuating immediately, and the lack of communication equipment that could have told firefighters to stop fruitlessly climbing the stairs and to get out. Even so, more than 25,000 people inside the towers got themselves out, keeping the death toll down substantially. And that evacuation was largely the result of people assisting each other, and in the South Tower before it was hit, disregarding Port Authority officers with bullhorns telling them to go back to their offices.

And as people descended the stairs, they weren't a panicked mob. They behaved cooperatively and altruistically, defying the supposed right-libertarian logic of every person for themselves:

John Abruzzo, a paraplegic accountant who worked on the sixty-ninth floor of the north tower, was carried down all those flights of stairs to safety by ten of his coworkers in relays, using an evacuation chair designed to skid down the stairs that had been provided after the earlier attack. [Yes, smart institutions do matter — Dok] Zaheer Jaffery, a polio survivor from Pakistan, worked on the sixty-fifth floor of one of the towers and remembers the long journey down the stairs: "We had to stop several times during our descent because of injured people being brought down. For example, you would hear, 'move to the right, move to the right' and everybody would move to the right, so that the injured could be taken down. And this happened, three, four times. People in a groove and then they had to reposition themselves. And people would actually: 'No, no, you first.' I couldn't believe it, that at this point people would actually say, 'No, no, please take my place.' It was uncanny."

And these folks generally worked in big financial corporations, where supposedly everyone is an Ayn Rand fan. Forget that nonsense. It was every person for every other person, again and again:

A thirty-five-year-old financier named Adam Mayblum escaped with several coworkers from the eighty-seventh floor of the north tower, just a few floors below the airplane. In an account widely circulated on the Internet, he wrote about their descent down the staircases as things around them fell apart: "We could not see at all. I recommended that everyone place a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them and call out if they hit an obstacle so others would know to avoid it. They did. It worked perfectly." Later in his e-mail account, he added, "They failed in terrorizing us. We were calm. If you want to kill us, leave us alone because we will do it by ourselves. If you want to make us stronger, attack and we unite. This is the ultimate failure of terrorism against the United States. The very moment the first plane was hijacked, democracy won."

The helpers weren't only in the towers; in the streets nearby, people did what they could to get each other to safety, proving the ideology of individualism a lie, over and over.

Maria Georgiana Lopez Zambrano, who was born in Colombia and went blind after emigrating to the United States, had a newsstand at 90 Church Street. Nearly sixty when the catastrophe began, she felt shaking and heard rumblings and distressed people, and while she was still confused about what had transpired, two women, strangers to each other and to her, each took one of her arms and walked her north to safety in Greenwich Village and then paused.

Even after getting her to safety, they went far from the direction of their own homes, and were eventually joined by another woman who recognized Zambrano; together, they got her home before returning to their own homes, in Queens, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

And as several others have pointed out, even the one successful effort to stop the terrorists, the rebellion by unarmed passengers on United Flight 93, resulted from a communal decision to sacrifice themselves. America's huge military machine, on the other hand, failed: Jets were scrambled, but were sent to chase American Airlines Flight 11, which had already crashed into the WTC. By the time fighter aircraft started looking for Flight 93, it had crashed.

Harvard professor Elaine Scarry noted,

"By the standards of speed that have been used to justify setting aside constitutional guarantees for the last fifty years, the U.S. military on September 11 had a luxurious amount of time to protect the Pentagon." She points out that two hours went by between when the FAA discovered that planes had been hijacked and the Pentagon was struck, almost an hour after the first tower was hit. And she reached distinctly anti-institutional conclusions: "When the plane that hit the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania are looked at side by side, they reveal two different conceptions of national defense: one model is authoritarian, centralized, top down; the other, operating in a civil frame, is distributed and egalitarian. Should anything be inferred from the fact that the first form of defense failed and the second succeeded?"

Following the attacks, says Solnit, the overwhelming desire of Americans was to do something to help. People in New York threw themselves into efforts to help those clearing rubble from Ground Zero, and nationwide, so many people gave blood — for a wave of injured survivors that simply wasn't there — that storage capacity was overwhelmed, and a few weeks later, most of the blood had to be discarded. I keep thinking of the Onion headline: "Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake," and every time, I tear up again. "All of those people. Those poor people. I don't know what else to do."

Yes, the Bush administration used our collective anguish to go to war. But what if we hadn't let it?

It's possible to imagine a reality that diverged from September 11 onward, a reality in which the first thing affirmed was the unconquerable vitality of civil society, the strength of bonds of affection against violence, of open public life against the stealth and arrogance of the attack [...] From that point, the people yearning to sacrifice might have been asked to actually make sweeping changes that would make a society more independent of Mideast oil and the snake pit of politics that goes with it, reawakened to its own global role and its local desires for membership, purpose, dignity, and a deeper safety that came not from weapons but from a different role in the world and at home [...]

This spirit of brave resolve and deep attention, this awakened civil society, seemed to alarm the Bush administration, which immediately took measures to quell it.

And that seems like a good place to stop, and to ask how we might come together and build a better America out of our crises right now. It seems possible, just maybe.

Links to the other parts of this discussion:

Part One

Part Two

This post you are reading now is Part Three

Part Four

Programming Note: As ever with Book Cub posts, please limit your discussion to the book itself and current events observations related to this post. Clearly, that does include COVID-19 and the protests, but if you can relate them to the post somehow, that would be good. Please save entirely off-topic comments for the actual Open Thread, which will be along in a bit. Thanks! I will be deleting off-topic comments, but don't worry, you wont' get in trouble for that.

[A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disasterat Amazon: $12.99 Kindle e-book. Links to other e-book versions here, also $12.99 / Photo by Don Halasy. Library of Congress/Public Domain]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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