Tuesday, March 02, 2010


I have nothing very much against looting, particularly in the aftermath of a natural disaster of the scale witnessed a day or so ago in Chile. At a basic level, one does what one can to survive. More interestingly, it could also be seen as the inversion of Naomi Klein's "shock doctrine" thesis: taking advantage of a shock to the physical and material infrastructure in order to re-imagine social relations, now no longer in capital's favor but in the multitude's. As Rebecca Solnit argues:
The aftermath of disaster is often peculiarly hopeful, and in the rupture of the ordinary, real change often emerges. But this means that disaster threatens not only bodies, buildings, and property but also the status quo.
Part of this peculiar hopefulness arises, as Solnit also argues, from a realization of "the fragility of existing structures of authority." If this recognition leads to looting (no doubt itself the wrong word), then so be it.

And in some sense then it is no wonder that in the aftermath of disaster sovereign power is also so anxious to re-establish its authority, in large part for instance by stigmatizing the affected populations. And no doubt the more anxious that power is, the more it resorts to such tactics, even therefore at the cost of revealing the extent of its own fear and ineptitude.

Some of that ineptitude, the way in which disasters wrong-foot constituted power, can be seen in an examination of how the disasters in Haiti and Chile reveal such different expectations and representations of the two countries and their populations.

Note that I am here mostly talking about how the international media have covered these two tragedies, which appeared at first sight to offer an object lesson in the distinction between progress and poverty, civilization and barbarism. But in the end there is almost a certain wry amusement to be gained in seeing how wrong these representations have proved to be.

Haiti was of course treated as first and foremost a security problem, for which a military response was in order: Port au Prince and its slums had to be stabilized and secured before aid could be distributed; no doubt hundreds more lives were lost in the delays caused what what was fundamentally a racist fear and stigmatization of the threat of black violence. (Again, Rebecca Solnit is excellent on this.)

Chile, on the other hand, is one of the whitest of Latin American countries, and it regularly prides itself on being the most civilized and economically advanced; sometimes the Chileans think of themselves as the English of South America, and not just because they, too, don't know how to dance. The "Chilean model" is touted far and wide as the height of democratic order, economic efficiency, political transparency, and so on.

In line with the expectations that such images raise, initial reports on the earthquake that struck near Concepción emphasized how prepared the country was, how much better was its infrastructure and capacity to respond, how much more quickly it would bounce back. Its market-driven economic growth would barely wobble; after all the country is an "A plus student when it comes to economics". President Bachelet was even said to have initially declared that they needed no foreign aid on the basis precisely, Chilean commentator Patrico Navia was reported as saying, "that Chile is not Haiti. It is like Japan, or the US."

Indeed, comparisons with Haiti were overt and ubiquitous. The New York Times actively encourages teachers to draw quite literal lessons from pairing the two together.

The implication was clear: Chile, white and prosperous, could comfortably survive an earthquake that was many hundreds of times more powerful than the little tremor that touched that backward (and black) Caribbean island.

Ah. But now it turns out that, when push comes to shove, those white people are just a rabble of thieving ne'er-do-wells. Time to send in the tanks.

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