In 2007, a financial firestorm ravaged Wall Street and the rest of the country. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy obliterated a substantial chunk of the Atlantic seaboard. We think of the first as a man-made calamity, the second as the malignant innocence of nature. But neither the notion of a man-made nor natural disaster quite captures how the power of a few and the vulnerability of the many determine what is really going on at ground level.
Causes and consequences, who gets blamed and who leaves the scene permanently scarred, who goes down and who emerges better positioned than before: these are matters often predetermined by the structures of power and wealth, racial and ethnic hierarchies, and despised and favored forms of work, as well as moral and social prejudices in place before disaster strikes.
When it comes to our recent financial implosion, this is easy enough to see, although great efforts have been expended trying to deny the self-evident. “Man” did not bring the system to its knees; the country’s dominant financial institutions and a complicit government did that. They’ve recovered, the rest of us haven’t.
Sandy seems a more ambiguous case. On the one hand, it’s obvious enough that an economy resting on fossil fuels played a catalytic role in intensifying the storm. Those corporate interests profiting from that form of energy production and doing all they can to defend it are certainly culpable, not the rest of mankind which has no other choice but to depend on the energy system we’re given.
On the other hand, rich and poor, big businesses and neighborhood shops suffered; some, however, more than others. Among them were working class communities; public-housing residents; outer borough homeowners; communities in Long Island, along the New Jersey shore, and inland as well; workers denied unemployment compensation; and the old, the sick, and the injured abandoned for days or weeks in dark and dangerous high-rises without medical help or access to fresh food or water. Help, when it came to these “disadvantaged” worlds, often arrived late, or last, or not at all.
Cleaning up and rebuilding New York City and other places hit by the storm will provide a further road map of who gets served and whose ox gets gored. It’s ominous, if hardly shocking, that Mayor Bloomberg has already appointed Mark Ricks of Goldman Sachs to the business-dominated team planning the city’s future. Where would this billionaire mayor turn other than to his fraternity brothers, especially in this era when, against all the odds, we still worship at the altar of the deal-makers, no matter their malfeasances and fatal ineptitudes?
Still, it is early days and the verdict is not in on the post-Sandy future. However, an incisive analysis by sociologists Kevin Fox Gotham and Miriam Greenberg of what happened after the 9/11 attacks in New York and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina offers some concrete forebodings. Everyone knows that, as soon as Katrina made landfall, the racial divisions of New Orleans became the scandal of the month when it came to which communities were drowned and which got helped, who got arrested (and shot), and who left town forever. To be poor in New Orleans during and after Katrina was a curse. To be poor and black amounted to excommunication … //
… Indeed, the original “upper tendom” faced its own “natural” disasters during the Gilded Age. Then, too, such catastrophes exposed the class and racial anatomy of America to public view. Then, too, one man’s disaster was another’s main chance. Whether you focus on the cause of the calamity, the way people reacted to it, or the means and purposes that drove the reclamation afterwards, disasters and capitalism metabolized together long before disaster capitalism became the nom de jour.
Fire: … //
… Earthquake: … //
… More Sandys are surely headed our way, more climate-driven disasters of all sorts than we can now fully imagine. And rest assured, they will be no more “natural” than the Chicago fire, the Johnstown flood, or the San Francisco earthquake. More than fire itself what we need to deal with now is the power of the finance, insurance, and real estate — or FIRE — sector whose leading corporations now effectively run our economy. Without doing that, the “nature” these interests have helped create will punish us all while providing a ghoulish boondoggle for a few.
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The New Social Darwinism: Companies Require Workers to Divulge Health Info so They Can Charge Overweight and Others Deemed Less Healthy: Matt Stoller warned last June that citizens will increasingly have to submit to personal surveillance to get many types of insurance and financial products, by Yves Smith, April 6, 2013;