Review of Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster


Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (New York: Viking, 2009)

Murder, rape, looting, cutthroat competition, and above all, "panic": such are the responses typically attributed to the public in the aftermath of earthquakes, floods, fires, and other disasters. The assumption that an unrestrained public will erupt in an orgy of looting, violence, and selfish or irrational behavior is deeply-embedded in elite thinking and mainstream commentary. Rebecca Solnit’s magnificent new book thoroughly disproves this assumption through in-depth descriptions of five major disasters of the past century and supporting evidence from many others. In fact, Solnit shows that the reality is precisely the opposite: human beings overwhelmingly tend to display calmness, generosity, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good in times of disaster. In the process new social bonds and communities form, revealing the extraordinary human potential for solidarity and collective action that lies dormant in everyday life. "Disaster," Solnit writes, "is when the shackles of conventional belief and role fall away and the possibilities open up" (p. 97). Conversely, the government elites and organizational bureaucracies in charge of safeguarding the public often tend to compound the "natural" aspects of disaster through their clumsy and disdainful responses. These conclusions are based largely on Solnit’s own interviews and archival research, but also draw support from the work of a long line of "disaster sociologists" who, despite their pathbreaking research and the fact that they represent a virtual consensus within the field of sociology, continue to be ignored by most government officials and bureaucrats as well as the corporate press [1]. 

The evidence of human solidarity and cooperation in the aftermath of disasters is indeed quite remarkable. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the devastating fire that ensued, San Franciscans set up public kitchens and food distribution centers, while some small business owners gave away food or lent cars and other equipment to improvised community organizations. The Mexico City earthquake of 1985 gave rise to powerful new grassroots organizations and trade unions that would fight for housing and workers’ rights in the years that followed, helping to undermine Mexico’s one-party dictatorship. The citizen response to 9/11 likewise refuted the common myths of mass panic and selfish behavior: not only was the Trade Center evacuation quite orderly, but many risked their lives to help evacuate their fellow employees. Boat-owners helped evacuate people from Manhattan, thousands in New York and around the country donated blood, supplies, or time to help relief and clean-up efforts, and even many from nearby Wall Street, the epicenter of capitalist individualism, rushed to help however they could. Racism and other social divisions can also break down in the aftermath of disasters, as Solnit demonstrates with her descriptions of white-Chinese interactions following the San Francisco earthquake and the moments of inter-ethnic and inter-class solidarity after the 1917 Halifax harbor ship explosion. These histories all stand in stark contrast to the conventional images of a crazed public reverting to savage individualism in the midst of disasters.

Not only do most people exhibit calmness, generosity, and even heroism in times of crisis, but their responses are typically more effective than those of the government bureaucracies which supposedly exist to protect the population. While large bureaucratic organizations are often incapable of improvising in response to crisis, emergent "communities" of citizens are better able to develop effective means of communication and coordinated action. Solnit points out that the only partially-effective response in the midst of the 9/11 attacks came from the passengers aboard United Flight 93, not from the military and government command structure that displayed extraordinary incompetence, negligence, and inefficiency before and on September 11th. Thousands of ordinary people working in the World Trade Center also evacuated the two towers after they were hit, in an extremely orderly and often-selfless manner. Similarly, in the aftermath of almost all the disasters described, groups of ordinary people set up improvised soup kitchens, shelters, and other mutual aid centers with no help from authorities. Those authorities, in contrast, almost always either operated inefficiently or showed ruthless disdain for the suffering of the victims.

In fact, disaster sociologists have inverted the conventional view in another way: the elites who supposedly watch over us all as benevolent protectors are the ones who panic in times of crisis. As Solnit notes, "It is often the few in power rather than the many without who behave viciously in disaster" (p. 90). This pattern is clear from the book’s case studies. In San Francisco in 1906, the US military was deployed with "shoot to kill" orders that probably resulted in between 50 and 500 extra deaths (p. 35). After Hurricane Katrina, in a long string of brutal crimes that are only beginning to come to light, the local police shot unarmed civilians and refused to treat wounded black residents of New Orleans; small gangs of white racists gunned down black men walking on the streets (later proudly comparing it to "pheasant season in South Dakota" on camera, knowing that local police supported them); and altruistic boat-owners who raced to the rescue were prevented from entering residential areas to help evacuate trapped residents (see the chapter on "Murderers") [2]. Elite panic—and racist panic, in the case of New Orleans—is thus the primary cause of the "second wave of disaster" that often follows earthquakes, floods, or storms (p. 8).

There are several reasons behind elite panic. Many elites and bureaucrats (like racists) may sincerely believe that their or their organizations’ intervention is essential to safeguarding peace and order in the aftermath of a disaster. But their panic is also inseparable from their own self interest, reflecting their need to justify the ongoing concentration of power in their hands. If the public is permitted to take control, and it succeeds, the bureaucracy and hierarchy on which elite power is based will be exposed as illegitimate. This principle holds true for the everyday functioning of society, but is especially true in times of disaster, when bureaucratic organizations like FEMA or the military are expected to perform with competence and agility to protect the public. Solnit notes that in disaster, "They are being tested most harshly at what they do least well" (p. 152). These fears are justified: the past century featured many dictators and oligarchic regimes who met their downfall in large part as the result of their inability or unwillingness to address crises (e.g., Nicaragua’s Somoza following the 1972 earthquake, Mexico’s PRI dictatorship following the 1985 quake, Bush II following Katrina). Addressing, or appearing to address, the crisis in its aftermath while at the same time reining in citizens’ attempts at independent organization—both of which President Bush did successfully after 9/11—can preserve or strengthen the regime, but failing in one or both regards can precipitate regime downfall—as Bush learned after Katrina and his administration’s foreign policy "failure" in Iraq.

Solnit rightly emphasizes the central role of the corporate media in propagating disaster myths that justify intensified hierarchy, militarization, and repression. The best example is again Katrina, when respected press outlets like CNN reported "rampaging gangs" and widespread "looting" in New Orleans based on little or no evidence, often mischaracterizing the necessary requisitioning of emergency food and medicine from flooded stores as "theft" (especially when black men were photographed doing it). They uncritically reported the comments of the New Orleans mayor and police chief, who disingenuously told stories of "hooligans killing people" and "little babies getting raped" inside the Superdome sports complex in which thousands had taken shelter (pp. 236-37). In the media narratives that followed both Katrina and 9/11, the heroes were males, usually uniformed professionals, while the thousands of women and ordinary civilians who saved countless lives remained unsung. The corporate press’s coverage of Katrina, 9/11, and other disasters is thus a microcosm of its more general tendency to promote fear, individualism, chauvinism, and a host of other destructive hallmarks of "Hobbesian behavior" among the public (p. 93).

Solnit’s double contribution is in exposing this process of mythmaking while also recovering the stories of ordinary people and the extraordinary possibilities they represent. She is interested not just in the immediate aftermath of disasters, but also with "larger questions about how human beings behave in the absence of coercive authority and what kind of societies are possible" (p. 81). Her anarchist or socialist-libertarian leanings are clear: Solnit wants the kind of society where people have control over their labor and the products of that labor, where work is meaningful and allows for human creativity, where everyone’s basic needs are met, and where power is decentralized and vested in local groupings of socially-connected and community-minded people. She is ultimately concerned with disasters for what they suggest about the everyday, arguing that "to recognize and realize these desires and these possibilities in ordinary times…without crisis or pressure is the great contemporary task of being human" (pp. 307, 113). Obviously there is no magic recipe for doing so, though she does suggest that religious and activist groups can help foster the spirit of "beloved community" at the heart of strong grassroots movements and meaningful human existence in general.

Yet while Solnit’s writing is unabashedly political, her values never get in the way of a scrupulous fidelity to the historical facts: her use of firsthand accounts and her synthesis of disaster research prove that such scenarios are possible. In this regard her work follows in the tradition not only of the disaster sociologists but of labor and business historians who have demonstrated the viability of non-bureaucratic forms of industrial organization in England and the US prior to 1900; as these scholars have proven, less-hierarchical forms of industrial production were eliminated in the nineteenth century not due to any inherent inefficiency but because of the power of factory owners and ascendant corporations who promoted the factory model and specific forms of technology in large part as a way of better controlling the workforce and raising profits [3]. Proving that more desirable alternatives are indeed possible—that there is nothing in human nature that consigns humanity to the misery, hierarchy, and oppression that characterizes so much of our current world—is no small contribution in a time when many in this country and around the world are so disillusioned that, as Solnit notes, they "do not even hope for a better society" (p. 9). Convincing the excluded majority that alternatives are possible is also a key step in the process that scholars of social movements have called "cognitive liberation": in order to participate in a movement for change, cynical people must first become convinced that the current order is not inevitable [4].

I have just one minor quibble with the book. While I strongly agree with Solnit’s premise that bureaucracy and hierarchy are not necessary for human welfare, and with her more specific criticisms of how state bureaucracies fail in times of disaster, I think that anarchist-minded critics in today’s world need to be more explicit in distinguishing between their objectives and those of corporate elites, most of whom would be very happy to see "less government" in many areas of society. For instance, Solnit quotes with apparent approval the Czechoslovakian leader Václav Havel as saying that the state realm should be "limited only to that which cannot be performed by anyone else, such as legislation, national defense and security, the enforcement of justice, etc." (p. 146). Criticisms of bureaucratic or oppressive states have often been manipulated by corporate interests to justify the privatization of public goods and other neoliberal policies, with disastrous consequences—Havel’s Eastern Europe being a prime example. In similar fashion, elites around the world have co-opted indigenous discourses of autonomy to shirk their tax obligations to poorer regions. The Zapatistas whom Solnit discusses briefly have always insisted on the state’s continued material obligations to autonomous communities in Mexico (a point she fails to mention); as the Zapatistas and other indigenous movements around the world have understood, autonomy does not absolve the state of those obligations. I am sure Solnit would agree that for the time being the state must be held to certain responsibilities like providing social services to the general population and supplying material resources in times of disaster: she is very critical of the wave of privatization that followed Katrina, for example. Recognition of the need for a temporary state presence as a protection from concentrated and unaccountable private power is not inconsistent with Solnit’s argument in favor of decentralized decision-making or with the anarchist/Marxist belief in the desirability of states’ dissolution in the long run. But in a political culture like that of the United States where the right-wing, neo-libertarian vilification of "government" has become so widespread—while remaining almost silent with regard to the corporate interests that are far less democratic and do far more to undermine democracy—this caveat needs to be enunciated more explicitly.  

This small reservation aside, A Paradise Built in Hell is an inspiring model of politically-engaged scholarship that blends moral passion, academic sophistication, and readability (arguably the three greatest virtues of all historical and political writing). Rarely does a book combine these traits so masterfully. Its usefulness is apparent on multiple levels: it is a must-read for all government officials, especially those in charge of disaster preparedness (even if most higher-level officials are unlikely to willingly delegate greater power to ordinary citizens); a powerful denunciation of elite crimes and media complicity; and an inspiring set of historical case studies for progressive-minded people who have become too cynical and dejected to bother with activism and organizing. The book "speaks truth to power," but far more importantly it uncovers truth for use by the powerless—they who must labor to construct paradise while those in power steer us toward hell.



[1] For a prominent recent example of this work see Lee Clarke and Caron Chess, "Elites and Panic: More to Fear than Fear Itself," Social Forces 87, no. 2 (2008): 993-1014.

[2] See "Katrina’s Hidden Race War: In Aftermath of Storm, White Vigilante Groups Shot 11 African Americans in New Orleans," Democracy Now! 19 December 2008.


[3] For example, see Dan Clawson’s Bureaucracy and the Labor Process: The Transformation of U.S. Industry, 1860-1920 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980); Charles Sable and Jonathan Zeitlin, "Historical Alternatives to Mass Production: Politics, Markets, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century Industrialization," Past and Present 108 (August 1985): 133-76; and William G. Roy, Socializing Capital: The Rise of the Large Industrial Corporation in America (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997).


[4] See Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: How They Succeed, Why They Fail (New York: Pantheon, 1977), 3-4, and Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

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