Earthquakes, crack-heads and utopias

Review article: A Paradise built in Hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disasters by Rebecca Solnit, Viking, 2009.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on October 30, 2011

In his recent book, Crack capitalism,1 Open Marxist and leading autonomist academic John Holloway suggests that the foundations for the new world that will supersede capitalism lie in the very ‘interstices’ of the present system. Holloway has perhaps more credibility in both the autonomist circle and the wider direct activist readership than the more well-known Negri, who has flirted too closely for comfort with postmodernism. Yet there is still a family resemblance between these two, as well as with other authors such as Massimo de Angelis, that distinguishes them as part of the autonomist tradition - in ways both good and bad.

The central premise of Crack capitalism is more or less the same as that as his book Change the world without taking power, which we reviewed in Aufheben #11 (2003). We won’t rehearse those arguments here, therefore; but we note that for Holloway this new book is an attempt to develop his point – somewhat abstract, perhaps, that ‘the scream’ (or, on occasions, the fart) is our rejection of capitalism – into an arguably more concrete specification of the practices that take us from the old world to the new.

In these new times, out the window go the old ‘Marxist’ assumptions that one ‘system’ can be replaced with another ‘system’, that there will be ‘revolution’ as we knew it in the ‘old’ sense, that the new is qualitatively different from the old. On the contrary, the seeds of the new world are already flourishing; they are taking root and growing in the cracks in capitalism in the here and now. This ‘cracking’, says Holloway, is the only way that change can come about – through the old world being superseded by elements that express change that already exists in nascent and perhaps unrecognized form.

In one way this argument is nothing new: capitalism produces its own grave-diggers, the capital relation necessarily entails the very antagonism that has the potential to destroy it. These are basic Marxian dialectics about the nature of change, unfashionable with ‘orthodox autonomists’ (such as Negri, even in his good phase), but favoured by the more Hegel-friendly ‘Open Marxism’ group.

But Holloway’s point is slightly different. This is a book from and about fragmented times, based first on the recognition that the old workers’ movement and its ideas of change have long gone, that ‘revolution’ must now mean something in fact more modest – though Holloway would perhaps say more hopeful.

There is also the implication that capitalism is now badly ‘cracked’ – that it is now more vulnerable, more fragile, increasingly susceptible to all these potent ‘other doings’. The interstices are growing, perhaps, the opportunities for ‘experiments’ in non-capitalist living are increasing, and our chance is there for the taking if we could only recognize and build on the fact that so much of what we do is in fact ‘anti-capitalist’.

While it may be true that many everyday activities are useless to capitalism, we question the thesis implicit here,2 and explicit in certain other versions of Marxist thought, that capitalism is currently weaker, and that our chance for change is especially great, in the current climate than in previous times. Pollyanna is the opium of the revolutionaries. Holloway’s account does offer hope in that it suggests that the sheer volume, variety and ubiquity of ‘other doings’, both conscious and non-conscious, exceptional and mundane, confirms that the impulse against alienation, towards antagonism is always there. We still hate the boss. But we know that, don’t we?

The worry about this account of all these ‘other doings’ is that it also suggests they can quite easily become forms of living within the alien world of capitalism with some sense of dignity and autonomy that make questioning the whole unnecessary.

Even if all the ‘other doings’ were not potentially forms of acceptance, accommodation or conciliation, it is not clear how such activities – including choirs, lounging about, social centres, Zapatista uprisings etc. etc. – might link up in some way to become a single force big enough to actually undo capitalism. Holloway doesn’t seem to address this; but, perhaps, within this vision of ‘change’, he doesn’t need to.

Moreover, Holloway describes these various crack-openings as ‘experiments’. We skive, we riot, we have allotments, and so on; we do not and cannot know when we undertake them whether they will succeed in cracking capitalism, of persisting, of going beyond themselves. But we do them anyway, simply for their own sake, for the service of our own needs and wants. It’s good to hear that the struggle to overthrow capitalism doesn’t have to involve self-denial. But there is something troubling in a theory that seems to suggest that all ‘other doings’ are equal. While it is possible that both the communal allotment and the student barricade will contribute to change, we should have some kind of principle in our theory for distinguishing between these and all the various ‘other doings’ - that is, for suggesting which have potential, which may make some positive contribution in some other way, and which are just fun.

One type of example that Holloway uses to illustrate his point is that of disasters, which are said to produce ‘cracks in capitalism’. He cites the arguments and evidence provided by Rebecca Solnit, for what might seem a counter-intuitive example of actions that point to change.

In the remainder of this review article, we will focus on Solnit’s book, which, though not explicitly Marxian, has plenty to say about the miseries and constraints of capitalism, and how the worst calamities can bring out the best human qualities. The very title of Solnit’s book indicates a utopianism, so we will break the rest of the article down into two questions. First: is Solnit’s thesis (of utopian communities in the midst of disaster) really so counter-intuitive? And, second: in what sense can ‘cracks’ in capitalism become the earthquake that breaks capitalism? If they do not and cannot be the germ of the new world, why do Solnit (and Holloway) think her examples tell us something politically important?

Is the thesis of utopian communities in the midst of disaster so counter-intuitive?

It is a commonplace to observe that one of the vulnerabilities of the human condition is a tendency to panic in crowds when faced with danger. By ‘panic’ what is usually meant is an emotional over-reaction leading to individualistic and hence maladaptive behaviour. The phrase ‘every man for himself’ suggests that others are obstacles to the individual’s own survival. Such ‘mass panic’ is usually characterized as irrational, however, as the thronging, disorganized crowd is blamed for blocked exits, when an orderly queue would have saved more lives.

This ‘common sense’ is one of many Hobbesian accounts that persist and are used politically to suggest that civilized human behaviour only exists by an effort of will by those in authority, that beneath the surface lies a Lord of the flies world of barbarity and instinctual baseness. By contrast, some of the earliest anarchist and socialist accounts sought to counter this with contentful versions of a social, ‘good’ human nature - Rousseau and Kropotkin being among the more well-known examples.

What is at stake in the argument over the content of human nature, and hence the human response to disaster, is deeply political – the fear of mass panic and the supposed ‘mob rampages’ of ‘looting’ etc. serve as the rationale to increase central control, through laws and state violence.

Rebecca Solnit’s book turns the premise around, however, to show, for example, that the rampage after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was that of the authorities who sent the troops in, not the survivors. A similar story, albeit still more horrific because of its sheer scale, is told of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Police and vigilantes were shooting the black working class on the streets and sabotaging the mass mutual aid that was taking place. For the forces of the state, there is greater fear – even ‘panic’ –of the self-organizing mass than the earthquake, hurricane, or whatever that people are responding to.

Solnit’s thesis – that disasters don’t divide but in fact unite (many of) those affected, and that this unity can represent a ‘community’ usually missing from everyday life – is also a model of ‘human nature’ that we find in some ‘common sense’ accounts. We know that conditions of adversity bring people together, that individual strangers will spontaneously become a group, will look after each other and improvise to maintain and create the conditions they need for survival. Her ‘hidden history’ of popular mutual aid in six disasters is not so hidden, in that even the bourgeois press versions of many such events mix metaphors of ‘panic’ with anecdotes of collective strength, self-sacrifice, and (more latterly) ‘resilience’ – the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 is a case in point.

In the UK, we have the well-known image of the ‘Blitz spirit’ – a reference to that time in World War II when German bomber planes rained down missiles on London and other cities; and in response to their shared plight neighbours who barely knew each other spoke for the first time, and found strength in each other’s company, and in their collectivity itself. While the ‘Blitz spirit’ may be at least partly rhetoric used by politicians to get the working class to accept adversity around a goal defined in national terms, it has an important grain of truth. Solnit’s thesis is largely based on the argument of an American sociologist, Charles Fritz, who was inspired by what he saw during the Blitz. Fritz argued that ‘everyday life’ was the real disaster, that events such as earthquakes, bombings, etc., which sweep away everyday concerns and differences, bring into being the sense of connectedness, sociality that we feel deprived of ordinarily.

While Fritz did not go so far as to historicize the capitalist nature of disaster, to link it as Bordiga does to the enhanced need to destroy and produce again,3 his argument about the emptiness of everyday life was about as radical as it gets in academic sociology, and that part of his work remained unpublished and lost for years. Mainstream ‘disaster’ sociology took up the anti-panic thesis; yet while it has replicated the finding of his massive survey that social cooperation is more common than ‘a war of all against all’ in emergencies and disasters, it has largely explained this in terms of the maintenance of the existing social bonds (family, friendship, social roles, etc.) that structure everyday life rather than the emergence of new collective relationships, let alone related this to alienation. But for Solnit, as for Fritz, features of the improvised social life in disasters offer a glimpse of what could be in a new and different world, rather than a mere continuation of the old one.

Can ‘cracks’ in capitalism and responses to disasters become the ‘end of the (capitalist) world’?

John Holloway’s ‘optimism’ – his belief in the continued possibility of change (or perhaps even greater possibility – this isn’t clear) – is based on the observation of millions of different types of ‘refusals’ and ‘other doings’. But surely the separateness and modesty (lack of ambition) of so many of these ‘other doings’ is actually symptomatic of a ‘pessimistic’ world in which the working class is still defending itself against the attacks that began in the late 1970s rather than going on the offensive. Indeed we are having to be more defensive than even three years ago, as the fight now is to keep our poorly paid jobs, not to make our pay less poor.

Therefore, if Holloway is suggesting that ‘changing the world’ is more possible than ever, that there is in some sense an ‘upswing’ in the class struggle, this seems to go against the evidence all around us. Perhaps the explanation for Holloway’s message of hope lies in his understanding of change itself. ‘Change’ is possible now, despite these dire, defensive times, because that change is understood in terms of these numerous pockets of resistance, united only by their ‘uselessness’, rather than their shared, conscious project of liberation from ‘the system’. This way of understanding resistance is what links Holloway with the ideas of de Angelis and the other autonomists who, while their terminology may be different, appear equally uncritical of all forms of ‘other doing’, and can be read as finding uncapitalist moments and places in this capitalist world – and seeing that as ‘the revolution’ – or as the best we can hope for.

Solnit’s work may be assimilable by autonomist types like Holloway, and her positive account of citizenship, democracy and even religion may grate. But there is no confusion or slipperiness in her account of the utopian possibilities of disasters – even as she compares them with carnival, with revolution, with counter-culture and so on. Following Fritz, she says only that they give us a glimpse of possibility - a view of human sociality denied in much everyday life (and in versions of common sense); and that is essentially all.

While Solnit is critical of Naomi Klein’s thesis that disasters are used by capitalism strategically to restructure,4 she provides plenty of evidence of this herself, but characterizes the process as one of an unpredictable and highly contingent struggle between forces and purposes: to return to the old order, to privatize public areas, to hold on to the communality and mutual aid of the post-disaster community, or even to push on to a better world on some occasions. The outcome – progressive or regressive – and the length of time the mutual aid ‘utopias’ are able to remain in existence, is not a given.

This book is utopian, not in that it describes Solnit’s own vision of an ideal world, or that it sees in the everyday mutual aid that occurs in disasters the potential beginnings of the new world in themselves; but rather in that it shows examples of actual microcosms of mutual aid – defined by many of those who lived them as utopias – in the most unlikely of circumstances. It is their hope and collective self-transformation she describes.

However, Solnit ends the book with the most dystopian of visions become reality - the racist massacre of the black working class by white vigilantes, the complicity of routine black murder by the police, that took place in the wake of Katrina (following and preceding bottom-up mutual aid among the needy and their allies on a massive scale). While she begins the book with a vivid account of the free cafes of 1906 San Francisco, which evoke modern day squatted social centres and other free spaces, and finds similar examples in all her case studies, she is clear that not all disasters are the same in terms of the social response(s). It was Fritz, again, who observed that these spontaneous communities, and the glimpses of utopia they offered, could only occur where those affected ‘have the opportunity to interact freely with one another’.5 This may be why, in turn, they are both short lived - and somewhat neglected by mainstream sociology. Disaster communities are like ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’ (TAZ) of which both she and Holloway are disappointingly uncritical. Unless, they disappear of their own accord (the ‘carrier bag’ strategy as it has been referred to),6 the forces of the state soon move in to prevent this ‘free interaction’, and for control and profit, reimpose the old order - or something worse.

Reading Holloway through Solnit, not all ‘cracks’ are equal, either. Solnit gives us the context and narrative details to explain why the emergent ‘community’ in New York during 9-11 was so different to that in Katrina. But while Solnit appears more restrained in her claims than Holloway she does no more than him to explain why disaster-communities cannot in themselves be the basis of the ‘point of no return’. While she is surely right to highlight the various contingencies that make one group of survivors more communal and utopian in their practices than others, there is more to it than that. There is surely an issue of subjectivity here that differentiates disaster communities from the revolutionary moment. Disasters may be, as Bordiga says, of the essence of capitalism – its inability to prevent them and its willingness to increase them in frequency and scale – but they happen to people. And, as he says, they happen to the first class travellers as well as to the poor hanging on to the cattle trucks.

One of the features that appeals to both anarchists and non-Leninist Marxians about autonomist theory is the emphasis on the active working class subject. But only by the most tortuous autonomist reasoning can the working class appear as the ultimate agent of its own disaster which in turn provides the collective revolutionary subjectivity required to overthrow capitalism. ‘Change’ – world revolution – can only happen through globally connected collective activity, not through isolated passive experiences, however collectivized. Disasters may provide insightful glimpses of social possibility; but they can never be the catalyst of revolution – they can never be one of the fatal cracks in the tectonic plates of class relations that leads to capitalism’s ‘2012’.7

  • 1Pluto Press, 2010.
  • 2We say ‘implicit’ because Holloway is a little slippery and hard to pin down over questions of whether capitalism is more cracked than ever, or even fatally cracked.
  • 3See Murdering the dead: Amadeo Bordiga on Capitalism and other disasters, Antagonism Press, 2001.
  • 4E.g., Solnit, p. 107.
  • 5Charles E. Fritz (1996; originally written 1961) ‘Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn from Disaster Studies.’ DRC Historical and Comparative Disaster Series. University of Delaware Disaster Research Center. Available at
  • 6Hakim Bay’s notion of the TAZ presumes that we cannot win, hence rather than defend our squat we run off with our belongings in a carrier bag and try to start a new squat somewhere else, just before the bailiffs and cops arrive. The ‘TAZ’ approach obviously means no more Claremont Road-style set-piece battles, and instead suggests a permanent dynamic ‘hinterland’ of ‘rebel’-types co-existing within the system. Holloway contends that his ‘crack’ goes beyond the TAZ (Crack capitalism, p. 35) but still spends several pages detailing the striking similarities between the two. He ends the comparison with the claim that the crack unlike the TAZ keeps alive the ‘total transformation of society’, but doesn’t say how. Coming to his defence, however, we would add (and perhaps he should have thought to add himself) that perhaps the main difference between the crack and the TAZ is that only the second has as its real purpose a vehicle for the author’s paedophilia. See
  • 7‘2012’ is the title of a recent ‘blockbuster’ disaster movie depicting ‘the end of the world’. Readers of a certain age who have seen this film were probably as surprised as we were when, halfway through, a television report referring to the ‘fear and chaos’ spreading across the globe is illustrated with footage of the 1990 Trafalgar Square poll tax riot! ‘2012’, then, will be the year not only that the world ends but we go back in time to re-live some of the glory days of the class struggle.