Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Disaster Communalism

Oleg Kulik
[This is a guest post by Keith Farnish: an edited, unpublished extract from his online book Underminers: A Practical Guide for Radical Change. It would take too long to explain precisely what Undermining is and who the Underminers are, so please recommend reading the Introduction. The whole book is free to access and redistribute.]

The following essay was triggered by dialogue between Dmitry Orlov and Keith Farnish, both of whom have a deep interest in the power of community to combat and rise above all sorts of situations. The essay attempts to show that not only is community a powerful binding force, it is also a powerful combative force against the culture that threatens to obliterate the majority of life on Earth.

Community is the natural state of human beings: dependent upon each other, working together to ensure the stability and success of whatever collective form we take. Community is the antithesis of how civilization wants us to live. Sadly, as we seek the company and mutual assistance of others like us this need is exploited by civilization to devastating effect. The Veil of Ignorance places us in a position of dependency far removed from our natural state – instead chained to a system that only wants to take what we can give for the system’s benefit. If we can learn to embrace genuine forms of community once again then we not only remove the “need” for civilization that has been instilled in us, we create an environment that is far more resilient than any city, any government, any corporation and any civilization, however large and powerful.

The future of humanity - how we live, work and thrive as a species - lies not with civilizations, but with communities. We have to undermine the civilized (and divisive) ideas that we must at once be homogenous, global citizens and atomised, selfish individuals.

* * *

A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit is an astonishing piece of work. If any one thing has inspired my desire to use community as a force against civilization then it is this book. This short extract takes us straight to the heart of the matter and provides many clues to how communities may actually be used as a powerful weapon against the Culture of Maximum Harm:

You don’t have to subscribe to a political ideology, move to a commune, or join the guerrillas in the mountains; you wake up in a society suddenly transformed, and chances are good you will be part of that transformation in what you do, in whom you connect to, in how you feel. Something changes. Elites and authorities often fear the changes of disaster or anticipate that the change means chaos or destruction, or at least the undermining of the foundations of their power. So a power struggle often takes place in disaster – and real political and social change can result, from that struggle or from the new sense of self and society that emerges. Too, the elite often believe that if they themselves are not in control, the situation is out of control, and in their fear take repressive measures that become secondary disasters. But many others who don’t hold radical ideas, don’t believe in revolution, don’t consciously desire profound social change find themselves in a transformed world leading a life they could not have imagined and rejoice in it.

This takes a little explanation, which is why I recommend you at least read the compelling introduction to the book. In a nutshell, there is a myth about what happens when groups of civilized humans are faced with disaster situations. That myth is what leads those who feel they are “responsible” for the rest of us (e.g. those who have the most weapons) to prevent our natural community spirit from coming to the fore. Civilization fears a lack of control, which is one reason why the word anarchy has so many negative connotations. A lack of authoritarian control leads to people pulling together and dealing with things in a far more equitable manner. If equality reigns and inevitably people are able to connect with each other on a human level then the Tools of Disconnection have failed. As we know, the industrial system relies on fear to keep us disconnected – fear of each other, fear of difference, fear of the system’s own might – so it tries to impose fear at times of stress. Hell, it creates disasters and makes people believe bad things are going to happen just to keep us scared all the time. Through this means the status quo is re-imposed.

As the book goes on to show, there is not a single case of a disaster-type situation where humans have not mutually acted to make things better for themselves as a whole in the absence of authorities imposing control over the situation. Now, I would add just one caveat to that, which Solnit doesn’t make clear, perhaps because the book would not have been published had she done so. The fact is, the fear by the elites that post-disaster changes may undermine their authority is fully justified. The changes that take place after a disaster, which ordinary humans acting in communities cope so well with, completely undermine the authority of the industrial system. Indeed those changes are so powerful that – say this quietly – they can even be the trigger for entirely new forms of society.

So, we know that communities emerge as a natural human response to crises. How these crises happen is, as Solnit’s and as other recent examples have demonstrated, doesn’t seem to matter. The important factor is a loss of authority and a need for a survival response to take place. In fact, that survival response need not necessarily be to a life-threatening situation. To take a small example, I remember power cuts and water shortages in the 1970s causing minor hardship, yet creating remarkable, spontaneous dialogue and subsequent action between neighbours, many of whom would never have dreamt of working together under normal conditions. Next time you are on public transport and something unexpected happens, see how people react in the absence of some authority (such as a conductor) taking a lead – people talk, they open up, they plan... and then the train starts moving, and everyone returns to their little worlds again.

There is something rather exciting about the possibilities encompassed in this scenario – hold your horses for a second, though, because the second aspect of this, the return to normal, non-communicative, non-community activity, is also vital to consider. Naomi Klein famously described a concept known as Disaster Capitalism in her book The Shock Doctrine as being synonymous with the “softening up” that torture is used for in working towards a state of mental compliance, but on a far larger scale:

The shock doctrine mimics this process precisely... the original disaster – the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane – puts the entire population into a state of collective shock. The falling bombs, the bursts of terror, the pounding winds serve to soften up whole societies much as the blaring music and blows in the torture cells soften up prisoners.

While there is an element of pop psychology attached to this (Rebecca Solnit is a fierce critic of Klein’s view that populations are so compliant in the face of disaster) there is also a great deal of truth in the historical events Klein reports upon, especially when – as Machiavelli so vitally pronounced upon in The Prince – there is something, such as a new regime, ready to fill the political void created by the disaster. Thus we must address the problem of having this “void” filled with something other than our natural tendency to create communities.

Undermining to Build Communities

Beware the backlash. I don’t think anyone will be surprised that for every undermining action there may be an equal and opposite reaction. I’m not talking about protecting against the reaction of the industrial systems of power in their defence, but rather the reaction of ordinary people who see themselves as civilized. Never is this more true than in the case of creating a situation, real or otherwise, where a community response is likely. Let’s take a simple, localised example.

Suppose you were to somehow prevent food being distributed to a particularly aggressive superstore on the edge of a town. Assuming there are no other food outlets available on the edge, regular customers will try their hardest not to seek other sources of food, but instead make it known how pissed off they are that the superstore cannot supply their consumer needs. They will complain to staff, to management, to local politicians, to the media. Some might seek out food sources in the middle of the town, giving much-needed funds to those shops sucked dry by the out-of-town superstore, and some might decide not to buy the unnecessary items they normally would from the bloated selection in that superstore. Others, a few, might even consider – assuming the “crisis” carried on for a while – seeking out much more localised sources of food, sharing between neighbours, having “pot lucks” and so on.

But the majority would react against whatever caused the crisis in the first place. They might seek out the perpetrator, and certainly the system would apply whatever measures it could to make sure that perpetrator couldn’t do it again. More insidiously, the attitude to the superstore might change. Yes, some might remain attached to whatever community efforts sprang up to deal with the situation, but others – probably the majority – will demand that such a thing is more strongly protected against in the future. As I say, this isn’t the power structures protecting themselves, but the civilized population protecting the system it has become dependent upon. This is the backlash. You need to be prepared for it.

There is a considerable element of basic human psychology required here. In essence, any disaster that initiates a community response must be complete enough for it not to cause a possibly more powerful backlash, resulting in a worse situation than before. Completeness takes into account whether a disaster provides enough community responses for people to invoke, bearing in mind that different people behave in different ways, which means that planning is absolutely critical for such a form of undermining. Backlash is far more likely where people feel or may actually have been harmed in some tangible way, making the “risk to others” rule particularly important to note. Even if people are not actually directly harmed, they may feel a sense of harm or even menace, while the disaster is unfolding. They will undoubtedly seek the protection of authorities, which is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. There has to be a sense that this “disaster” is something good, an opportunity emerging for something better. Clearly a multi-faceted approach is vital if this is going to be achieved.

So, let’s look at that superstore food failure, but adding various elements that might make the backlash less meaningful, and the community response deeper and longer-lasting. The following questions are all fundamental, and I have provided some sketch answers, though you will no doubt have your own. The third answer has been left blank as it is vital that an Underminer is able to apply general principles to a specific situation:

What are we trying to achieve?

A response through which people bring the purchase, distribution and production of their food to a community scale (say, within a 10 mile radius to start with). In addition this response will have various knock-on effects related to the increased level of dependency on people in the locality, including much improved social cohesion. Over time (though probably not immediately, depending on local availability) this will lead to a rejection of the industrial food system in favour of the local food network.

What are we trying to avoid?

Actual harm to others - hunger being a possibility especially for the less socially mobile; perceived harm to others; entrenched reliance on the industrial food system as a result of existing dependence and perceived risks; getting caught and punished.

How can each of these be avoided?

(This is for you to fill out – use the notes above if that helps).

How can the initial undermining be carried out?

Methods might include interfering with ordering systems / wiping data; breaking the supply chain at critical weak points; implying that orders have already been dispatched; preventing reception / stacking staff from reaching work; creating a health scare, and many others.

Notice the “headline” undermining is the last thing to be considered. This is because it needs to take into account all of the above. Obviously you have to decide whether such a thing is practicable in the first place, otherwise all of that planning will be for nothing, but without the planning and all of the contingencies in place the most likely outcome of all is you will just end up some kind of pathetic, lorry-halting martyr that no one cares about except whether you will spend 2 or 10 years in jail. It may be that removing the risks is simply too difficult, and some other less risky action could have a similar outcome.

Such as just pretending the superstore has run out of food.

You see, it is often possible to create the perception of a disaster without actually creating the disaster itself. Not only is such an approach less risky, and thus more likely to be carried out on a larger scale and also more likely to be repeated, but there is far less chance of a backlash.

FREETOWN: At least 200 people were killed when a trench collapsed at an unofficial gold mine in Sierra Leone, the West African country’s Ministry of Mineral Resources said on Friday.

The accident occurred in the Bo district in the south of the country, about 180 miles from the capital, Freetown.

“Over 200 gold miners were killed when a …trench dug by the miners collapsed,” a ministry spokesman said.

Unofficial gold mining is common in Africa where miners usually have no professional training or equipment and often dig by hand. Accidents are frequent at the sites, which do not meet safety standards found at professionally engineered mines.

“A forty feet (12 meters) pit was dug out to mine gold,” a senior police source said. “Hundreds of (miners) entered the pit, and when it collapsed it trapped them.”

Children as young as 13 were working in the mine when it caved in, police said, adding that around 20 people escaped.

Officials from the resources ministry were en route to the scene of the disaster on Friday, the ministry spokesman said.

The “disaster” was possibly a communications failure, but more likely a hoax. If we assume it was a hoax of some kind, then its origins could easily be traced to the appalling working conditions of diamond and gold miners in Sierra Leone and an attempt to expose this. Certainly that background was picked up by the mainstream press when the hoax was exposed. The next day The Associated Press, syndicated to nearly 200 news outlets, reported: “Mining accidents are common in Africa's unregulated artisanal mines, where poor villagers use crude instruments and their bare hands to dig through the dirt. Sierra Leone — the country upon which the film ‘Blood Diamond’ is based — has many diamond and gold mines.” People forget about hoaxes quicker than tangible events, they may even laugh about them, but they may also get the point the hoax was trying to make.

But that doesn’t mean a hoax is intrinsically more effective at making a point than a real disaster, after all not everyone is taken in by a hoax, and the time before a return to normality is going to be significantly quicker than if something genuine is unfolding. You will struggle to find anything reported more than a couple of days after the “mine collapse”. One can immediately return to a perceived lack of something, but one can’t immediately return to something if it is no longer there.

Memories of great storms and whiteouts are speckled throughout the anecdotal history of the area in which we live. A “once in living memory” period of snow took over our village in February 2010, shortly before we moved in. People talk of the local cooperative store being staffless until a brave person managed to trudge miles to open up. Soup deliveries were widespread and the elderly in particular were checked up on regularly to make sure they were warm and fed. Long conversations and frequent laughter were endemic, alongside the fallen guttering and immovable cars. Supplies of wood and other necessities were made available within micro-communities of individual roads and groups of houses.

We missed this by a couple of months, but more bitter and soft white weather was to come the following November and into December leading to a spontaneous outbreak of sledging. For the week that school buses were cancelled and schools were closed the hill down to the public golf course (for once a beauteous thing rather than an overmown eyesore) was awash with people of all ages, myself included, risking life and limb (or at least limb) for a short downhill thrill. And again, and again, on sledges, compost bags, backsides and, most memorably, an inflatable mattress which eventually became a tattered but still exciting addendum to the great community downhill experience. People were happy to hand over responsibility of their precious offspring to near-strangers and there is little doubt that the week when school was closed and the slope was open was a wonderful time for the community to become stronger. Of course no one can make it snow, but there are other ways of keeping people at home to enjoy each other’s company...

Soon after this the council changed their policy. No longer would a lack of transport be an impediment to school attendance – the local primary schools would simply admit everyone within walking distance, and every school staff member would have to “check in” on pain of unemployment. The “education” system, you see, doesn’t see learning about each other to be educational, and free time to experience pure joy is wasted time. I guess next time the snow comes down someone had better see to it that the local school is locked too.

Here’s a more hypothetical example, but one that still relates to real-life events. All across our area, and probably near to you as well, there are music events, live theatre, interesting talks, workshops and demonstrations of practical skills, clubs and societies doing their best to bring people together with common interests. All of them, almost without exception struggle to bring in more than a tiny proportion of the people who live even round the corner from those things. Ok, not every event is of interest to a great number of people, but the only reason most of these things keep going is because of community grants (for once not an anachronism) and sponsorship. People stay away, and it’s not, strictly speaking, because of the overused term “apathy” – it’s because most people are staring at a flickering screen in some form or another. We have often semi-joked that if someone were to cut off the television signal on the last Friday of the month then our local music club would be bursting at the seams, and it probably would. But this goes deeper: the presence of so-called “connecting” elements of technology, with television being the classic one-way communication, are incredibly potent forces in keeping people disconnected from the real world and from each other. The Human Community is a victim of technology so it follows that in the absence of television, the internet and, to a lesser extent, radio and mobile phones, the Human Community would flourish as it did prior to the mass adoption of these things.

One element of this that is critical is the lack of risk to the people affected by any technological shutdown. Sure, there are examples where people have been saved from possible harm or even death by the intervention of communications technology. Equally so, there are examples where communications technology have led directly to deaths. But we are talking about what are essentially entertainment media here – I wouldn’t, for instance, ever advocate interfering with emergency communications equipment as the immediate risk to life is too high to justify longer term undermining; but television, the internet and especially entertainment web sites, commercial radio and instant messaging are certainly ripe for intervention in the name of recreating community.

Feeling Loss

Speaking to a friend about this concept, he said something which brought me sharply back to sickening reality: we are already in a disaster situation. If you read the first section of Time’s Up! or just browse through the increasingly stark reality of the changing and rapidly degrading global environment (something I find it harder and harder to do nowadays) then it’s impossible to ignore the fact that we are already in a disaster scenario whether that be in the form of climate change, food scarcity, habitat destruction, environmental toxification or any other horrors we currently face. Yet we are not acting as though this is the case. So, to paraphrase my friend: “How do you help people feel the disaster which is already upon them?”

In any disaster people are our first priority. For instance, despite the best efforts of certain (non-human) animal charities, I struggle to take reports of dogs and horses washed away by floods as seriously as those reporting on human casualties. Some people, washed out by the tide of civilized humanity would prefer to spend time with non-human animals, and I can understand that; but if we are trying to understand the minds of the civilized then we need to accept that civilized people care for other civilized people...a bit. Non-civilized people, too, will seek to protect the human before the non-human (regardless of culture), leading to the unavoidable conclusion that whether operating on base instincts or at a highly-filtered cultural level, the most effective way to make people feel a disaster is to emphasise the human impact.

That’s not quite enough to get through, though. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was a disaster that few people can comprehend in anything but purely mathematical terms. A quarter of a million people killed by a wave and its after-effects. That’s just too many for one mind to deal with: a quarter of a million human beings is, to put it in its crudest terms, a mass of people. As Wendell Berry so eloquently stated in a 2012 lecture:
To hear of a thousand deaths in war is terrible, and we “know” that it is. But as it registers on our hearts, it is not more terrible than one death fully imagined. The economic hardship of one farm family, if they are our neighbors, affects us more painfully than pages of statistics on the decline of the farm population. I can be heartstruck by grief and a kind of compassion at the sight of one gulley (and by shame if I caused it myself), but, conservationist though I am, I am not nearly so upset by an accounting of the tons of plowland sediment borne by the Mississippi River. Wallace Stevens wrote that “Imagination applied to the whole world is vapid in comparison to imagination applied to a detail”—and that appears to have the force of truth.

It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits.

We cannot separate the individuals from the mass at vast human scales. Loss only becomes personalised at far smaller scales – at community scales, such as when a village is buried by a landslide or a family is killed in a house fire. Such small, yet tragic events affect us in a way that belies their apparent scale. It follows then that the most effective way to make people feel a disaster is to emphasise the human impact at a scale we can easily comprehend.

But there is still something missing. A phrase returns: what matters, is what matters to us. What matters to us is our fellow human beings; what matters to us more is the human beings that matter most to us. I remember a sketch from the 1980s British television series “Not The Nine O’Clock News” which seems to address this missing thing perfectly. It went something like: “Two Britons were killed in an air crash today. The other victims were, in order of importance, 4 Americans, 1 Australian, 3 French and 213 Africans.” Whilst shocking, it is also significant in highlighting what it is we value and, with surprising congruity, what we have been conditioned to value, in terms of disasters. Rightly or wrongly, we value those that are most like us whether in terms of cultural beliefs, genetic similarity or personal experience. It rocks you to the core when someone you love dies. The raw human emotions that come from a close loss are unequivocal. That kind of loss lies at the root of community cohesion. It also lies at the root of helping people feel the disaster that is unfolding at this very moment.

The most effective way to make people feel a disaster is to emphasise the human impact at a scale we can easily comprehend upon those we most care about.

I don’t think there is any need to go into the crude mechanics of this, but I must emphasise that this is anything but an excuse to cause hurt deliberately. What has to happen is a focussing of minds upon those events that actually mean something to people as a catalyst for change. Whether referring to a disaster that has happened, one that is happening at present or one that may happen in the future, if we are to garner any kind of effective response to it then we have to allow those we are engaging with to feel its impact at a personal level. It has to be their disaster, and they have to feel as though they can do something about it.


Some of the information in this essay will feel deeply uncomfortable, but in the context of a culture where the ultimate desires are no longer clean air, water, food and a place to rest our head, but the accumulation of wealth and status, then we have to accept some discomfort in order to achieve meaningful change for the better. The world is changing for the worse and humanity will be its own victim, not just civilized humans but those who still live in a deeply connected and sustainable manner.

Aside from the need to actively undermine the very things that keep us impotent and subservient to the industrial machine, we need to embrace ways of living that give us a future in that changing world. If that means using everything we have at our disposal to make that happen then that is a small price to pay for a wonderful, long-term reward. Community is a paradigm that doesn’t come easily to the civilized individual; to a human being, though, community is the way back to a survivable future.


Dmitry Orlov said...

Nobody here except us impotent and subservient rabbits.

knutty knitter said...

The not the nine o'clock news thing hits the mark - of course to me the most important loss would be the Australian as they are the closest to me :)

I probably spend too much time being a rabbit but I do take part in the community too. I like the human touch much more than the mindless junk.

viv in nz

Lukas Vangheluwe said...

Community regrows quite naturally out of even bloody and terrible disasters, just like language grows out of pidgin. The french revolution was followed by 1848, and then came 1871, all out of the same parisian commune. All these events were terrifyingly bloody. We cannot help but recreate community out of the disasters that have befall us for the last how many thousand years. Community does not need argumentative support, it is not part of ideology, it happens when humans are thrown together. Ideology is a big problem.
The absoluteness of the inviolability of non-violence professed by most in the media and most of the left, is troubling. We can gleefully bombard lybia, because there we have a merciless dictator who uses violence on his own people. But god forbid we should break a bank window. Maybe we are wrong. Maybe the only way for Cromwell wast to lop off the king's head, maybe Robespierre should have guillotined more of the 'right' people for the french revolution to succeed. Maybe violence is sometimes the only way out of a bad situation. God forbid that I be asked to judge in such an event.

Anonymous said...

I believe one of the reasons many on the left call for non-violence is because they realize that when the time comes, violence will no longer be an option but a brute necessity. It's better to appear non-violent at this time because there is no hope of violence achieving anything under the current conditions. Someone just posted a bite about U.S. law enforcement officials purchasing 450M hollow point .45 rounds or something. To be sure, there are plenty on the Left who are delusional enough to think that non-violence is the only path at all times. I doubt such convictions will hold up long after some kind of collapse...

The media's calls for non-violence are something else entirely. The media is here to protect the status quo, it belongs to the status quo, it is their loudspeaker to the world. It will always ignore or shroud dead Iraqis, Africans, even poor and non-white USers, whoever, in it's efforts to keep up the illusion that things are at least on the mend and always morally sanctified. That is it's >primary< role in society.

It will have sock puppet debates about the problems that face society, it will set up mock discussions of solutions and offer the insight of it's chosen experts.
It will report on crowds of hungry people as "mobs." Remember the looters during Katrina? During the last big anti war rally in Philly, I remember the traffic reporters rage on the radio that these protesters were "blocking traffic, stopping hard working people from getting home" or some such blather. Like a million headed Hydra the Mainstream media will attack anyone and anything that threatens the status quo, even as that status quo begins to crumble under it's own weight. In fact, the more it crumbles the greater the perceived need for control over what the media produces.

So non violence is a good position at the moment, in my opinion, because it's pointless to do anything but point fingers and scream. When the time for violence comes, it won't be as a choice but as a necessity. People don't make history, history makes people.

A note: I'm writing this with the knowledge that the US is a wildly violent, and violence worshiping, society. My points above are in regards to anti status quo violence.

Dmitry Orlov said...

psg -

You are right, of course. People are submissive as long as the power over them is unfettered and practiced with impunity. Martyrdom is rare because it is irrational. But absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, it also collapses catastrophically. The hope is that it all disintegrates into sufficiently small pieces to make large-scale violence impossible. Large-scale collectivism is inherently warlike regardless of ideology. The first symptom of collapse to watch for is the first successful armed rebellion around the fringes of the empire, or the controlled, centrally governed space, followed by a proliferation of imperial no-go zones, on the periphery as well as right in the centers of large cities. For only the third time in the history of global empires, the Pashtun tribesmen in Afghanistan and Pakistan seem to be leading the way.

Anonymous said...

I hope that that is the case as well, that imperial power shatters sufficiently to render it impotent on a large scale. In my reading of the news it's already pretty damned weak, militarily and politically, relative to it's former glory.( Although obviously still driving the bus.)

That exact point though leads me to wonder how bad it's going to become here in the U.S. when it can no longer bully on an international level. What happens to all the guns and ammo and crazy religious ideology once the lights go out? As we try to adjust to the new world I fear there will be a lot of violence and regressive political developments. I think it may be a bit of a madhouse.

RebelFarmer said...

I have been reading Club Orlov for over the past four years. This post is probably the most important and relevant to the importance of building community that you have ever done. Thank you.

Jetgraphics said...

Cooperation in the mutual defense of rights to life, liberty and property ownership is a good thing.
It is reasonable to compromise one's self interest for a better outcome in the future.

The only flaw is associating the term "civilization" with the socialist / usurer alliance that dominates the world. It is stipulated that the predators have infiltrated the institutions of civilization - government, education and philosophy - but that doesn't mean that the institutions are inherently evil.

Authoritative governments and power structures created by the "haves" to prevent loss to the "have nots" do tend to be abusive. But it is a mistake to call such activities "civilization".

Civilization, in neutral terms, is an advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of record-keeping, including writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions.

Civilization is demonstrated by the cooperation of the many, in enterprises, education, public works, and even art. In short, cooperation is the hallmark of civilization... and "disaster communalism" is but a restoration of the original intent of civilization.