Debt and Disaster

Since the Rolling Jubilee happened, I’ve been looking for a chance to post the prepared text on debt and disaster that I didn’t exactly deliver at the event. Today was a travel day back from Puerto Rico to New York so here it is:

Tonight, even as we jubilate, we remember the victims of Hurricane Sandy from  Haiti to Jamaica, New Jersey, State Island, Breezy Point, the Rockaways and Long Island. We do so because we know that the debt crisis and the climate disaster are both caused by the insatiable greed of the one percent. Just as debt destroys livelihoods, so does the climate disaster destroy life itself. To strike debt is to save the climate.

Every time capital puts itself in circulation it hopes to make a profit. We know that without fail it adds to the deficit in the biosphere and that is destroying human and non-human life. It has been working on this deficit for two hundred and fifty years. We, the 99%, declare capitalism past due on its climate debt.

We know too that in the planetary disaster there is still inequality. We who live in the historically developed world have benefited from a grossly dispropotionate share of carbon emissions. We too owe a climate debt: to the plurality of the planet’s population who live on less than $2 a day. We must decolonize the atmosphere so that they can claim the right to existence.

We know that abolishing climate debt means abolishing monetary debt. Capital creates money by making debt. Our labor pays it off. This is called “growth.” Our incomes do not grow. But carbon emissions always rise. More growth to pay off the sea of debt means flooding like Sandy every year, everywhere. We can’t afford to pay off the debt. Instead, tonight we abolish it.

I really hope that this message doesn’t get lost in the face of the invasion of Gaza. Insofar as there has been a rational thread to Israel’s policy in the Occupied Territories, it has been in significant part about control of natural resources, especially water.

On the other hand, what is happening now seems to represent a deliberate refusal of rationality. It’s a reverse of MAD–Mutually Assured Destruction–that dominated Cold War politics. The idea was that because both sides would be destroyed in a war, it would be insane to start one. Israel now seems to say: “we will act out in any way that makes us feel better, irrationally, angrily and violently.” Netanyahu decided to call Obama and as usual the latter blinked.

I’m so tired of making this kind of analysis of Israel, whether it’s accurate or not. I just want them to stop, to leave the territories and just be a small, unimportant country dealing with desertification, drought and sea-level rise. And, yes, I used to call myself Jewish until they ruined that for me too.

Katrina on the Hudson

Devastated suburbs, vulnerable city spaces, immense budget numbers, shortages of all kinds: welcome to Katrina on the Hudson. Today I drove to the Rockaways to drop off supplies and then around the South shore of Long Island. For someone who has done research on Hurricane Katrina, some things seemed very unpleasantly familiar, for all that the evacuations and mass transit system kept the death toll far lower.

We still don’t know the full extent of what happened. It’s looking as if the entire beach front from Jersey along Fire Island to Montauk has been devastated. Communities in the Rockaways are at the very earliest stages of recovery. Contamination by sewage and other toxic elements is palpable in places. Now the city council are talking about FEMA trailers becoming part of the cityscape until the New Year at least. People in New Orleans will be shaking their heads and saying “here we go again.”

The Rockaways are still a disaster zone. The coast is just devastated.

The sand has been piled up to create some passable roadways but others have simply disappeared.

A former roadway

While the houses closest to the water show most damage, there’s debris and ruined furniture awaiting garbage collection for miles.

You can see here that the accumulated sand in front of the house is about two feet thick. It’s a massive removal job to imagine disposing of all this sand and all the new wreckage.

Power stops long before the beach at about 157 Ave, just south of the Belt Parkway, two bridges away from the barrier island. I saw one power crew at work the whole time I was there. As planes going into Kennedy roar overhead, the only governmental presence was a few National Guard armored cars, some wandering police taking souvenir photos and a fire truck. No FEMA, no Red Cross.

Gathering clothes on the sand covered parking lot

There’s a very impressive mutual aid effort. Clothes donations fill the former beach parking lot. They’re going to be much needed. It was cold by day down by the water and temperatures are close to freezing tonight in New York. There were free food services too, cooking Mexican and Chinese.

As much as these efforts are amazing, they can’t meet the full demands of what’s needed here, as Nick Pinto pointed out in his blog:

Occupy Sandy is mobilizing an army of sincere and hardworking volunteers, and is working to assess the needs of residents. But they don’t have the earthmovers necessary to clear the streets of sand and rubble. They don’t have the ability to restore power to residents. The crisis in the Rockaways remains severe, and it’s looking less and less like a natural disaster and more and more like a failure of the state.

(Just to be clear, the photos above are not Occupy Sandy efforts). So what’s going to be crucial is shaping a new politics going forward that sustains the horizontal voice of the communities but also reconfigures the practices of the state. New York local politics have been a byword for corruption and incompetence for, well, centuries. Things have to change.

We need to acknowledge the full scope of what’s happening and how we have far more questions than answers. Driving around the South shore, it was clear at certain points that the massive sewage spills of the storm had not been dispelled. It can’t just be at the places where the stench is unmissable that this is a problem. What does it mean to say on the Long Island Power Authority website that some locations should

plan for the potential that power restoration could extend a week or more beyond November 7th [?]

That’s obfuscation pure and simple.

There are 57 schools closed indefinitely by the storm, nearly all in Brooklyn and Queens. How many of these have majority minority student bodies and what’s being done for them? Can we make the media move beyond their “coverage” resulting from placing a “reporter” in the rain, wearing an anorak, in some place that floods? How can we coalesce the new seriousness of social media into a functional citizen’s media?

There’s great urgency to help people in the immediate term, a short term need to restore functional social conditions and then comes the chance for change.

The next storm is already on the way.



The Beloved Community After the Disaster Of Capitalism

I led a workshop at the Free University of New York City on Strike Debt and one of the participants was an African American woman who had been active in the civil rights movement. She exhorted us to remember Dr King’s idea of “the beloved community” and to follow the lead of groups like the Student Non-Violent Co-Ordinating Committee. Then yesterday the activist and writer Rebecca Solnit proposed that Occupy was precisely a form of beloved community, one that came together in response to disaster.

In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit offered a stunning reversal of the fundamental neo-liberal worldview. As Mitt Romney so disastrously confirmed in his 47% video, neo-liberalism believes people to be fundamentally “brutish.” The term comes from the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, whose distate for the “multitude” has been much noted of late. Hobbes argued that only a centralized, authoritarian state could mitigate the fundamental violence of the human animal.

Solnit shows how this presumption structures official responses to disaster and catastrophe, such as the wildly inaccurate claims of mass looting, murder and rape in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Solnit describes how, not only are such charges wrong, but what actually transpires after disasters are remarkable instances of mutual aid. At her teach-in yesterday, she proposed that OWS was one such instance of this response. There had been a disaster, in this case, a financial one. People responded by providing shelter, food, clothing, medical care and other fundamentals, free of charge and in a collective fashion. It was clear to all that such provision was a direct challenge to the normative capitalist economy, leading to the evictions on the (spurious) grounds of “brutish” dirt and disease.

Illuminating NYU

In her book, Solnit develops this contrast into a theoretical distinction that she borrows from the apparently unlikely source of William James. In his lectures on Pragmatism, James asked:

What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?

Solnit applies this to disaster and reformulates it:

What difference would it make if we were blasé about property and passionate about human life?

That’s a great way to pose Occupy’s challenge to neo-liberalism. Its radicalism was the palpable sight of all kinds of people placing the beloved community as a higher value than material goods, not in the name of a renunciation of the world, but of a radical change to it.

It might also suggest that the local and small-scale nature of Occupy is in fact an apposite response to the disaster of capitalism. As an Oxfam report on Cuban responses to disaster put it, there is a:

distinct possibility that life-line structures (concrete, practical measures to save lives) might ultimately depend more on the intangibles of relationship, training and education

than the wealth so beloved by neo-liberals.

So small-scale organizing centered on community, training and teach-ins is not a utopian alternative to capitalism but the best available response to its disaster. Lessons to be learned here by Strike Debt as it moves from being a campaign to a movement.