A look back at Solnit’s Paradise Built In Hell

Published online 20 June 2012.

Book Review: Solnit, Rebecca.  A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster.  New York: Penguin/Viking, 2009.

Two years after Naomi Klein’s well-reviewed (2007) book The Shock Doctrine visited the disaster scenes that emerged from the imposition of neoliberal policy upon nations across the world, Rebecca Solnit published a (2009) book about disasters titled A Paradise Built In Hell.  Solnit’s book takes what is in some senses an opposite tack to Klein’s: for Solnit, disasters suggest not only tragedy, which they bring in great quantity, but also the possibility of spontaneously arising, virtuous communities dedicated to mutual survival.  Solnit, then, suggested an optimistic rebound from disaster: the optimism of Solnit’s book is something I want to revisit here and now in this period of incipient disaster.This review is also inspired by a talk given by Solnit earlier this year at Pitzer College in Claremont at which she suggested the rebound from disaster as a political theme: the Occupy movement, for instance, counted for her as a byproduct of the economic downturn of 2008-2009.  We can expect, then, that disaster will hurt: but that not all will be lost.  This is the suggestion that I’d like readers of this review to take away from its reading.  Think of this book as an insurance policy against total despair.

Paradise Built In Hell is a series of meditations upon the idea of disaster as something that brings communities together, in ways which can be liberatory above and beyond the mere prospect of coping with trauma that proliferates after a disaster and which motivates the disaster-community’s formation in the first instance.  Disaster relief, then, can have profound and positive consequences for society.

Solnit comments briefly upon Klein’s book.  The tenor of this comment is critical yet optimistic:

Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine is a trenchant investigation of how economic policies benefiting elites are thrust upon people in times of crisis.  But it describes those people in all the old, unexamined terms and sees the aftermath of disaster as an opportunity for conquest from above rather than a contest of power whose outcome is sometimes populist or even revolutionary. (107)

Thus this book brings us into political turf — Solnit here does not merely engage tragedy or disaster relief, but the overall political state of society.Ordinarily, Solnit observes, human social behavior is guided by ideological principles, culturally-embedded tendencies that, when left unstated, are part of what the philosopher Edmund Husserl called the “lifeworld” — the presuppositions of our everyday reality.  These principles decide who gets privilege, who goes with whom and what they do together.  Now, these are my wordings, and I’m calling this background “ideological principles” myself. Solnit herself has a less provocative set of words for it:

Most traditional societies have deeply entrenched commitments and connections between individuals, families, and groups.  The very concept of society rests on the idea of networks of affinity and affection, and the freestanding intellectual exists largely as an outcast or exile.  Mobile and individualistic modern societies shed some of these old ties and vacillate about taking on others, especially those expressed through economic arrangements — including provisions for the aged and vulnerable, the mitigation of poverty and desperation — the keeping of one’s brothers and sisters.  The argument against such keeping is often framed as an argument about human nature: we are essentially selfish, and because you will not care for me I cannot care for you.  (p. 3)

Much of this background becomes irrelevant to human motivation, Solnit argues, in the midst of disasters.  Now, the author can only do so much, because there are so many disasters worthy of investigation.  But she picks some big ones for this book:

This book investigates five disasters in depth, from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco to the hurricane and flood in New Orleans ninety-nine years later.  In between come the Halifax explosion of 1917, the extraordinary Mexico City earthquake that killed so many and changed so much, and the neglected tales of how ordinary New Yorkers responded to the calamity that struck that city on September 11, 2001.  (p. 7)

Thus the various spontaneous social groups that attended to each of these disasters: the public kitchens operating in 1906 San Francisco after the earthquake and fire, the social solidarity that integrated divided Halifax after the 1917 explosion of a cargo ship in the harbor, the “rebirth of what Mexicans call civil society” (143) that accompanied the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the enormous relief effort that occurred after the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings, and the growth of Common Ground Relief after Hurricane Katrina. All of these efforts, Solnit shows, were propelled by “the need to help,” and this need to help typically outweighs the official paranoia about popular panic in the aftermath of disaster.  The official paranoia is in this book, too, from General Frederick Funston’s inappropriately authoritarian response to the 1906 earthquake to the National Guard’s sometimes-fatal mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

There are, however, plenty of side-notes throughout this book, as Solnit struggles to pull a positive human outcome from the wreckage of disaster.  For instance, she suggests that the origins of the “Catholic Worker” movement were in Dorothy Day’s experience in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and so there is an excursus in this book on Dorothy Day.  There is a short discussion of the “Blitz,” the bombing of London by the German Air Force in 1940, a discussion of the formative role of the 1972 Managua earthquake in the Nicaraguan revolution of seven years’ later, and a discussion of the Zapatistas.  Solnit’s argument is wide-ranging: she wishes to show that, at core:

… disaster could be called a crash course in Buddhist principles of compassion for all beings, of nonattachment, of abandoning the illusion of one’s sense of separateness, of being fully present, of awareness of ephemerality, and of fearlessness or at least aplomb in the face of uncertainty. (118)

and from there, Solnit wishes to show that the social consciousness that arises out of this crash course has consequences ranging far and wide beyond the immediate aftermaths of the various disaster scenes.  An excellent overview of the politics of her approach can be found in the Rumpus interview with Rebecca Solnit, published at about the same time as the book being reviewed here.Solnit also, however, suggests that there is plenty of trouble to be found in the aftermath of disasters, but that the preponderance of this trouble emerges from mistrusting elite responses to “disaster relief.”  I suppose the most famous example of this that emerges from her book is the fumbling response of the Bush administration to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  The elite imagination conjures pictures of social chaos in the aftermath of disasters, but Solnit wishes to show through example after example that the reality that commonly attends to disasters is one of elite panic amidst a common public solidarity and an atmosphere of mutual aid and communal coping.  This is, indeed, the most profound observation of this book for Kevin Young, in his review for the anarchist journal Z Magazine.  A Paradise Built In Hell is indeed a political book, endorsing the popular impulse to create a new and better society while trying to specify the mechanism by which this can happen:

To make fellowship, joy and freedom work for a day or a week is far more doable than the permanent transformation of society, and it can inspire people to return to that society in its everyday incarnation with renewed powers and ties. (169)

In this book, Solnit briefly quotes Victor Turner, an anthropologist whose theories of human social drama might have placed her research on disaster aftermath in further perspective.  This deserves further elucidation.  Victor Turner was a renegade structural-functionalist thinker who argued that, under certain conditions, social structures (such as hierarchies of dominance/ subordination) were abandoned by the general population and social states of “communitas,” spontaneous, immediate, and equal togetherness.  “Communitas,” in turn, is a valuable element of “antistructure,” the abandonment, if perhaps temporary, of aspects of social structure.  Turner usually characterized “communitas” as being a byproduct of marginal events in social life: rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, or festivals, or sacred occasions.  Solnit broadens this category a bit — “communitas,” she implies, has been and is a byproduct of disaster relief.Now, the political aspect of “communitas” is not easily recognized as meaningful, which is no doubt why the marxists do not read Victor Turner often.  Communitas, as Turner points out, “is made evident or accessible…only through its juxtaposition to, or hybridization with, aspects of social structure” (from page 127 of The Ritual Process).  Both before and after disaster and disaster relief, human society is guided by social structure, and by the ideologies and disciplines that hold it in place.  The question Solnit prompts for the student of social change, then, is one of whether disasters can catalyze changes in the social structure through the process of coming-together that attends disaster relief.  This is the potential of communitas in action that Solnit highlights so well.

Solnit’s Thoughts About Disaster Relief in the Neoliberal ContextThe political reality in which we traffic today is one of emergent and compounding disaster.  William Deverell’s LA Times review of A Paradise Built In Hell points this out, but Deverell offers no concept for our society’s tendency to produce disaster.  Oh, sure, if global warming doesn’t get us, then maybe earthquakes or hurricanes or tornadoes or some sort of disaster prompted by oil drilling or nuclear power will.  The above reference to Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine offers a clue, above and beyond Solnit’s brief criticism: the profit mechanism in this era has become destructive, and thus capitalism in this era provokes disasters, now and in the future.  Thus, for instance, the downturn of 1997 in Asia, or the currency collapse in Mexico in the 1980s, or the Argentine collapse of the millennium all count as outcomes of “disaster capitalism.”  The Shock Doctrine explains why this is so as the result of an ideology — Klein quite readably traces neoliberal capitalism to its genesis in Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society.  And to a certain extent she’s right.  But the underlying reason for why the elites decided to ditch the economy of the Sixties for the stodgy old paradox now called “neoliberalism” is still elusive.

The problem, of course, is that neoliberalism and neoliberal capitalism dominate our planet today for a reason, and that reason is related to the present stage of the development of the capitalist system.  Neoliberalism doesn’t define our political economy because God hates us — there’s an internal reason.  In previous stages of capitalism there were physical frontiers into which capitalism could expand, and with which profits could be made.  There were populations to bring into the working class, and new markets to penetrate.  These frontiers were technological as well as geographic: the most prominent technological frontier for capitalism was the development and expansion of the consumer society which emerged in the 1920s with the popularization of the automobile and took off in the 1950s and 1960s.  This frontier was shaped by automobiles, airplanes, chemicals, cheap food, suburban housing, and the warfare state.  It’s what’s left of our ideology of “progress” today.

So people might rightly wonder why the frontiers of technology and geography are today appearing to be increasingly “closed.”  In a recent piece written for “The Baffler,” David Graeber asks out loud what happened to that sunny vision of the future pictured in (among many other 1960s science fiction visions) the cartoon series “The Jetsons.”  Much science fiction in the 1960s once conditioned us to expect technological paradise from the future — but today nobody remembers this.  Why didn’t “progress” proceed toward the future in which technology would solve most of our problems?  Graeber, as I suggested, blames neoliberalism.  But why did neoliberalism show up at some point in the 1970s to spoil the party ever since?

The essays of Jason W. Moore provide an important clue in our search for an answer to this question.  “Progress” in this era is intimately intertwined with the history of the capitalist system, as (from its beginnings) capitalist business has significantly directed the construction of industries, the provision of necessities, and the behavior of governments.  Capitalism, as Moore characterizes it, is primarily about taking — the capitalist sees nature and society as “free gifts” for the cause of capital accumulation.  (This is what is typically called “exploitation.”)  The result is that the capitalist system periodically fouls up the planet (for all its vigor and dynamism), and provokes ecosystem crisis.

Before neoliberalism, what prevented the capitalist system from collapsing under the weight of its ecosystem crisis is that, along with capitalist exploitation, capitalism was constantly undergoing what Moore calls “technosocial transformation.”  As technology becomes more complex, society changes.  In previous eras these technosocial transformations reduced the organic components of capital and created new eras of cheap resources to keep the system expanding.  In the neoliberal era (after the 1970s), however, technosocial transformation has not made resources cheaper, nor has it improved profit rates or economic growth rates.  As Moore puts it, “Capital’s problem today is not depletion in the abstract but the contracting opportunities to appropriate nature cheaply (with less and less labor).”  Thus the growth rate has been declining for the past four decades, and business has leaned increasingly upon financial schemes, banks, and governments to keep profit alive.  Genetic engineering brings profits for Monsanto, but has not resulted in a new era of cheap food.  Alternative energy will substitute for oil and coal, but is not significantly cheaper in the quantities demanded by the system.  The Internet is better for giving things away than it is for selling them.

Technosocial transformation, then, will continue — but it’s not going to make capitalism any more robust.  The likelihood that the system will outgrow its next crisis is diminishing.  Rather, crises will continue and expand with more capitalism, and even though we certainly shouldn’t look forward to them because they are indeed bad ends for many, we need to look carefully at them to see what sort of conditions they provide for what Turner called “communitas.”  Solnit’s book contributes to this search by pointing to the aftermaths of crises and the social conditions that develop therein.

So we can hope, as we read about the spreading global warming crisis, the spreading financial crisis in Europe, and the spreading crisis at Fukushima, that at some point amidst the carnage the need to help will do what campaigning for “more and better Democrats” could not.


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