Disastrous outcomes

“What we need, is a really big climate disaster where lots of white people die; that will make everyone Wake Up.” Hands up if you’ve heard people say that? Hands up if you yourself have said that, or at least thought it.
But this notion that, like sleeping beauty kissed by the valiant prince, western consume… sorry, citizens, will magically wake from their slumber is, well, tosh. (for reasons I will discuss elsewhen).
A “natural” disaster is usually a threat to a state’s legitimacy (Dubya, for instance, was never the same, thank goodness, after Hurricane Katrina). If the state response is seen as inadequate/incompetent/corrupt, then the state will have to respond to mend the slippage of its mask. Even totalitarian states have politics; no leader, dictator or elected, in states where broad competence is expected/needed for capital accumulation, can be seen to have failed in its duty of care for its (human) resources…

Where am I coming from with all this? Well, stuff I’d thought before and after reading a very interesting article called

Disaster politics: tipping points for change in the adaptation of sociopolitical regimes by a couple of academics, Mark Pelling and Kathleen Dill, published in Progress in Human Geography 2010 34: 21
DOI: 10.1177/0309132509105004

Abstract: Calls from the climate change community and a more widespread concern for human security have reawakened the interest of geographers and others in disaster politics. A legacy of geographical research on the political causes and consequences of disaster is reviewed and built on to formulate a framework for the analysis of post-disaster political space. This is constructed around the notion of a contested social contract. The Marmara earthquake, Turkey, is used to illustrate the framework and provide empirical detail on the multiple scales and time phasing of post-disaster political change. Priorities for a future research agenda in disaster politics are proposed.
Key words: climate change, development, humanitarian, natural disaster, politics.

They write (emphasis added)

If the political impacts of natural disasters can be observed (in acts of suppression as well as change), is it also possible to identify the tipping points, critical historical moments or broader influences on systems (internal and external) that determine the direction and significance of change? Recent thought on this question has been influenced by two claims. The first sees disasters producing an ‘accelerated status quo’ – change is path dependent and limited to a concentration or speeding up of pre-disaster trajectories which remain under the control of powerful elites both before and after an event. Klein (2007) illustrates this at the national and global scales through an account of the increasing shift in resources and influence from the local to the global through the privatization of disaster reconstruction with reference to the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
The second viewpoint sees evidence that disasters can catalyse a ‘critical juncture’ – an irreversible change in the direction or composition of a political regime (or its subsets). Olson and Gawronski (2003) apply this term to describe the outcomes of the 1985 Mexico City and 1972 Nicaraguan earthquakes on local and national politics. In both cases more egalitarian political systems emerged so that the post-disaster period served as a turning point in the historical trajectories of these polities. These cases may suggest a correlation between regressive political outcomes and an accelerated status quo, and progressive political outcomes and a critical juncture, but neither model has assumptions of political direction built in.

So, it could go either way, depending on who was doing what, how and to whom beforehand (was the state doing a “reasonable job”, what other political forces were there etc etc.
They talk about how on the whole the ‘theorising of disasters’ has been done by geographers and sociologists rather than political science types…

The disaster archipelago means that much of the knowledge on disaster impacts has been generated by practitioners, humanitarian agencies and donors, and coloured by agency viewpoints. Humanitarian NGOs have rebranded post-disaster reconstruction as an opportunity for ‘building back better’ (ProVention Consortium, 2006) – claiming a developmental potential for reconstruction of social and political as well as physical infrastructure in places affected by disaster (eg, UNICEF, 2005), a position which is supported by academic work, but which also justifies humanitarian NGO expansion into the realm of social development.

In 1982, while investigating why similar types of environmental crises differentially affected countries throughout the world, Davis and Seitz bemoaned the lack of studies that systematically applied social-political-economic analysis to identify transferable lessons, and the small proportion of investigations in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Davis and Seitz, 1982). Twenty years on, Olson (2000: 265) came to a similar view. He accounted for neglect in this field for two reasons: first, an underemphasis of politics in the analytical lenses deployed by the leading fields engaged with disaster studies – geography and sociology; second, that the normative connotations of a politics of disaster was unsettling for many researchers and most practitioners ‘who essentially believed that there shouldn’t be a politics of disaster’ (Olson, 2000: 265–66).
This paper seeks to reassert a politics of disaster.

There’s then a useful literature review…

Albala-Bertrand (1993) undertook the first systematic survey of long- term political outcomes in developing countries, including cases where regime change appears to have been associated with disaster such as the Managua earthquake of 1972, the East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) typhoon, and the Ethiopian drought-induced famines of 1973 and 1974. Albala-Bertrand’s findings can be summarized into five general observations:
• The political, technological, social, or economic effects of disasters are explained primarily by a society’s pre-disaster conditions.
• Responses to disasters vary according to the political visions of the major power holders (endogenous and exogenous) and tend to reveal dominant political philosophies.
• Government that immediately marshals what material and discursive powers it has may be rewarded with improved levels of popular post-disaster legitimacy.
• The structure of highly centralized governments is conducive to the efficient execution of post-disaster rehabilitation.
• If the political preconditions are fluid, a large, rather than a small, disaster is more likely to promote a breaking point in the political status quo ante.

They then quote themselves pointing to the methodological issues (how do you study something that Big Brother has thrown down the memory hole?). I’ve added the emphasis.

Pelling and Dill revealed the high number of cases where temporary breaks in dominant political and social systems post-disaster open space for alternative social and political organization to emerge. This includes destructive acts of looting or property invasion but also progressive, local organizing in otherwise authoritarian or exclusionary regimes. They also showed the preponderance for local organizing to be interpreted as a threat to the status quo. The rapid closing of political spaces partly explains their invisibility in international and comparative research.
In authoritarian regimes, strategies for the repression of local organization included the use of legislative tools (eg, closure of NGO bank accounts) and violence, confirming Drury and Olson’s research.

And of course, some sentences do run on a bit…

In democratic, transitional and authoritarian regimes, discursive capture of disaster events was found to be common and to contain unrest. Legislative or violent control and discursive capture enabled the reassertion of the status quo and in some cases an accelerated status quo. Those rarer cases where political change was identified were most likely when popular mobilization was sustained by discursive (ideological), organizational (social capital) and material (financial) support. In each case (and under authoritarian and democratic regimes) post-disaster change was championed by opposition movements existing pre-disaster.

Translation – if you want stuff to change, you don’t just hope for a disaster to do your work for you. You listening, climate activists? No, of course you’re not. You’re having too much fun in the fricking smugosphere.

One of the authors then reaches into his back catalogue to point out who might be a-gaining from an influx of aid. To them that hath shall be given and all that…

As Pelling (1998) has demonstrated in the context of flooding in Guyana, local political elites are well placed to present themselves as local voices to capture funds allocated by external actors for local level risk reduction and so strengthen the status quo.

But there’s other needs too, besides lining pockets…

State actors may well be motivated by rent-seeking but will also desire to control alternative secondary political effects. This is well demonstrated by the Marmara earthquake, Turkey, in 1999, where economic tools – the freezing of NGO bank accounts – were used to achieve a political goal of recovering state authority which had been threatened by local NGO activity (Jalali, 2002).

So, if the mask slips, there’s work to be done…

Negotiation of security may be through discursive or more physical acts of competition and violence. In this way disasters demonstrate a manifest failure in the social contract and open space for renegotiation in the values and structures of society. Our interest lies in the extent to which this space is politicized, whether it is populated by new or existing social organizations and how quickly and in what manner the state and other dominant social actors respond. Is there a redistribution of power in governance – for example through decentralization (or centralization) or in changed civil society/state relations? Or, as Murshed and Tadjoeddin (2008) argued, where a national polity has a framework of widely agreed rules that govern the peaceful settlement of grievances is this sufficient to contain change at the technical level or local scale? A critical juncture is arrived at when change initiated at this moment is made concrete in a revision of the social contract, or at least in the balance of underlying institutions.

Translation: Is a hole of any size and longevity punched in the wall of re-a-l-it-y? Or is the state able to get some brickies along to patch things up, with a few ideological cops standing around instructing gawkers to “move along now, nothing to see here”?

Pelling and Dill then make a useful point – not all states perceive themselves/are perceived to have equal obligations to looking after people within their borders.
The concept of human security was first elaborated in detail in UNDP’s 1994 Human Development Report and emphasized people’s freedoms, values, rights and responsibilities (Anand and Gasper, 2007). Booth (1991) argued that national and human security need not coincide. States cannot be counted on to prioritize the security of their citizens: some maintain at least minimal levels in order to promote regime legitimacy but are unmotivated to go farther, others are financially or institutionally incapable of providing even minimal standards, while still others are more than willing to subject entire sectors of society to high levels of insecurity for the economic and political benefit of others who then use their power to support the regime. Studies of environmental degradation and climate change show a vicious cycle where human insecurity (limited access to rights and basic needs) generates vulnerability to environmental change and hazard, the impacts of which undermine livelihoods and capacity to adapt and survive future threats (Nordås and Gleditsch, 2007).

There’s a great book by Charles Tilly called Coercion Capital and European States 990-1992. In it he makes the point that States need(ed) to tax the locals (peasants, burghers etc) enough to pay for an army to stop from being invaded/absorbed by bigger states, but that if they OVERDID the taxation thing, then people would upsticks and move. I suppose the update is the Richard Florida notion of cities as entrepots for “wealth generators” – if a city/state can’t provide security (human/property), they have to worry about the ‘creatives’ upsticks-ing.

They then do the promised case study on Turkey and the 1998 earthquake, which is pretty interesting. The state was pretty inept, and didn’t like that ‘civil society’ (including, gasp, Islamist groups) was getting credibility. So they did a bit of carrot (co-opting) and stick (freezing some bank accounts, passing laws to enforce ‘co-ordination’ via the Ministry of the Interior).

Pelling and Dill open their conclusion thus –

The political impacts of disaster unfold at multiple scales from individual questions of citizenship and rights claims, through local social organization, to questions of state legitimacy and international diplomacy. Some impacts unfold during reconstruction, others may be felt only at distance or indirectly – feeding into, yet influencing, ongoing development trajectories. Political impacts are at times coded or hidden, distorted by media coverage or rapidly suppressed by the powerful.

You will no doubt be shocked, shocked to learn that they lay out a further research agenda.

This discussion of the emerging research agenda for disaster politics points to three research priorities:
• An assessment, through comparative analysis, of the tipping points and thresholds that open political space and lead to critical junctures in the social contract, and how far dominant political trends associated with areas at high risk from the impacts of climate change (weak and failing states,
regimes in transition to democracy, regimes undergoing a reassertion of authoritarianism or facing economic restructuring) shift these trigger points for change.
• A renewed engagement with the global political-economy of disaster reconstruction to critically examine the impacts of increased privatization and globalization.
• An exploration of the implications for human security of humanitarian practice – examining how far developmental activities such as participatory disaster risk reduction can foster local social and political institutions during reconstruction.

See also
Rebecca Solnit A Paradise Built in Hell (reviewed here)

To read
Pelling, M 2003: The vulnerability of cities: natural disasters and social resilience. London: Earthscan.
Pelling, M 2011 Adaptation to Climate Change: From Resilience to Transformation (Routledge)
Klein, N 2007 The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

See also
Abeyance Structures – being the seed beneath the snow…

Gesture Security – parking tanks at Heathrow and other examples of pre-emptive arse-covering (so that when the worst happens a (prime) minister can face the camera and say “we took all reasonable measures to avoid this happening”.
I think the British public were very very lucky that the second set of bombs, on July 22nd 2005 didn’t go off. If they had, we’d have had two bombings in London in a fortnight, and the police and security services would have been shown to be utterly incompetent. Public fear would have gone through the roof. The police and security services would have had to scramble to regain legitimacy, taking outlandish steps that would have, I suspect, been welcomed by a terrified population.

See Charles Glass on “The Last of England” – a stunning piece on the aftermath of the July  bombings…

PS Tony, I can’t help myself reading the tomb-scrawls. Forgive me!

About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
This entry was posted in activism, apocalypse, bureaucracy, competence, death, fear, politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Disastrous outcomes

  1. vera says:

    It seems to me this is an old strategy; to prepare ahead of time things to implement when a disaster strikes and there is a window of confusion and panic. In my vision of the future, “we” have certain implementations in mind and ready too. Including being alert to new elite moves. Nah?

  2. dwighttowers says:

    YES. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, as someone once said. To have those implementations implementable, there’s the rub, and to be aware of the elite moves (I really must read Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine…)

  3. Antonio Dias says:

    Archeology is compelling and can be rewarding…

  4. Kathleen Dill says:

    Dwight, thanks for the review — and yes, please do read Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. A brief adaptation from the larger work can be found @ http://www.democruptcy.com/disaster-capitalism/

    Kathy Dill

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