Disaster Aftermath: Unification or Shock Doctrine?

I’m taking a class this year called Kill Assessment, where we examine violence in society.  Going into this semester, I thought this class was going to be completely out there, something that would not fit with any of the rest of my curriculum.  I was way off.

This past week we started reading this book called Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.  At this point we have only gotten through the intro, but I will really briefly summarize the pertinent information for you thus far and probably post more on it as I continue reading.  Basically, in the intro, Klein introduces what exactly a “shock doctrine” is.  The way she describes it is the phenomenon that much social change (new legislation, ect.) occurs after particularly turbulent or devastating times in society.  Klein explains that after something devastating happens, people are particularly accepting to change because it seems to be an improvement over their current state.  She talks about a sort of tabla rasa mentality after disasters in that tragedy opens the way for change because it “gives a clean slate”.

That phrase, “giving a clean slate” really struck  me because it reminded me of something that I wrote in my first blog: that I was particularly interested in studying Long Beach because this area is in the unique situation of being a “developed” country with the ability to start anew.

This brought me back to a section of Tierney’s piece, which I discussed previously, entitled “Consensus, Conflict, or Both?” where she examines the immediate after effects of disaster.  She states that “extreme events enhance social cohesiveness and result in the emergence of strong altruistic norms” (510) (although she does also mention the fact that some disasters are “accompanied by violent conflict” (510), but portrays this as an impermanent change).  Now, while both Tierney and Klein talk about some sort of grand shift in society after a disaster, one talks about a shift away from past state (Klein), while the other discusses a drastic reinforcement of past state (Tierney).  So what I decided to do next was see which theory seemed to be backed by real world examples.

When looking into various disasters, I found much evidence in support of Klien’s view, especially immediately after disasters.  For example, in the aftermath of the 1906 San Fransisco Earthquakes there was a major shift in the general functioning of society as citizens were given permission to shoot and kill suspected looters (because looting was an apparent result of the earthquakes) (Tierney,510).  Or the shift in Japanese society after the Kanto earthquake in 1923 that made the placement of Koreans in concentration camps, the murder of an estimated 6000 individuals by the government (Ryang, 732) , torture and dismemberment of Koreans (731), and police brutality towards Koreans (733) acceptable.  Looking at more recent American history there is also evidence of major changes in society following disaster.  For example, after Katrina many government officials took advantage of the situation to sneak through legislation that advanced partisan issues.  This led to the eventual push for reformation of FEMA. After the terrorist attack on 9/11, US society also went under some major changes.  For example some limitations on the freedom of speech were tolerated in the film industry (I remember Spiderman was pushed back in post production because some of the material had to be “reevaluated”), several acts were also shortly passed which allowed for the suspension of liberties in certain instances (for example there is now no limit on holding period for suspected terrorists, and restrictions on governmental searches of personal things such as emails and records were reduced by the Patriot Act).

But there also exists evidence in support of Tierney’s side of the argument.  For example after the 9/11 terrorist attacks an increase in “social cohesiveness” (Tierney, 510) is evidenced by the jump in approval rating of President Bush from just over 50% to roughly 90%.  When examining personal accounts of post-disaster response, there also does seem to be evidence of increase of “altruistic norms” and “social cohesiveness”.  For example the thousands of volunteers who went to New Orleans post-Katrina, or the large number of student volunteer groups who traveled to Japan after the recent tsunami, or the image of the firefighters raising an American flag from the rubble of the world trade center that will forever be burned into the public’s memory.

So, with the evidence I have collected thus far, I am not certain if I can say that the aftermath of disasters leans strongly in favor of unification or social upheaval.  Nor am I certain if these two results can be truly and entirely distinguished from one another.  What I am interested in, however, is how this is playing out in Long beach.  On the side of change or upheaval, one can look to legislative evidence (which will be discussed in more detail in a later post of mine), where many claim the aid bill is filled with legislation for advancing partisan goals.  On the side of unification, one can look more to the public displays.  In my town, a women collected over two u-haul trucks of materials (canned food, water, shovels, ect.) that she personally drove down to Long Beach, her childhood home.  Or you could search Long Beach on YouTube and watch hours of home-made videos on the aftermath of Sandy, where each video focuses, in one way or another, on the community coming together-like the man who saw a stranger struggling to carry water cases on a bike and offered him a ride, or the high school students moving trash off the beach, or the woman helping her neighbor search through the wreckage of his ruined home, or the camera zoom on the American flag that occurs in practically every video.

Right now, I don’t think it is possible to say whether the disaster of Sandy in Long Beach will unify or rewrite the community.  This is something that will play out, and that I will watch with interest, as Long Beach is rebuilt.

Work Cited

Klein, Naomi. 2008. Shock Doctrine: Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador.

Tierney, Kathleen J. 2007. “From the Margins to the Mainstream: Disaster Research at the Crossroads.” Annual Review of Sociology 33:503-25.

Ryang, Sonia. “The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Massacre of Koreans in 1923: Notes on Japan’s Modern National Sovereignty.” Anthropological Quarterly. 76.4 (2012): 731=748. Web. 3 Feb. 2013.

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2 comments

  1. Great post and I’m so glad you’re reading Shock Doctrine. It’s on many Sociology of Disasters syllabi! When we meet, please share what you’ve been reading with the rest of us. Also, what do you think about the patriotism that you see in these videos? What about disaster brings out the patriot in us?

    1. I was really interested in the show of patriotism in these videos, especially because you hear so much skepticism in news comment sections in response to government actions when there is a disaster. The more I looked at the context of the patriotism in these videos the more it made sense to me. I think disasters bring out possibility for societal chaos, but also for societal unification–where everyone is brought together by an effort to remake their community and a sense of kinship created by problems. I think this manifests as displays of nationalism because that is another thing all of these people have in common. So rather than uniting under a banner of “we suffered from sandy” they can unite under the flag of our country. This also allows “outsiders” to rally behind them under this commonality. A really great reference to look deeper into nationalism can be found if you follow this link: http://www.amazon.com/Imagined-Communities-Reflections-Origin-Nationalism/dp/1844670864 In the part I have read Anderson explains two facets of nations and nationalism to be the fact that they are “imagined” (ie members of the same nation will never meet most of the other members of the same nation) and “communities”, which he classifies as the sense of comradeship I have described here.

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monica byrne

writer . playwright . artist . activist . traveler

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