When Hurricane Sandy hit New York, there were people who needed food. There were children who needed clothes and grandparents who needed blankets, houses that needed to be repaired and roads that needed to be cleared. So, people did what people always do — they learnt to survive. Whilst the National Guard closed their offices, members of the Occupy Movement were handing out clothes in the pouring rain. Volunteers worked through the night to cook meals for the victims of the hurricane. They sorted through tins of beans and piles of blankets. They started to rebuild the city.
Of course, they would have done that anyway. It was a natural thing to do. To support one another in a time of need. To share food and to find shelter, to clothe and to care for everyone. But, on this occasion, they didn’t have much of a choice. The response from the government was embarrassing. The emergency services reached breaking point. The charity sector failed to respond with the speed that was required. More often than not, the people who lead the relief effort are not government officials, they are anarchists. Activists. Ordinary people, working together for the good of humanity. And sometimes we forget that.
We often talk about the role of charity in coping with disaster, but we rarely acknowledge the people and the initiatives that are there before the disaster, the people on the frontlines of the crisis — the first responders, the last line of support. We talk about people coming together, but we rarely acknowledge that the networks of support that people rely on don’t come out of nowhere. They are built, over long periods of time, by people living in the communities that are affected. They are, intrinsically, political projects that should not, and can never, be taken for granted. To be clear, the Occupy Movement could not do everything that was needed in New York. The effects of Hurricane Sandy can, in some communities, still be felt today. But the Occupy Movement did provide an essential part of the relief effort. Of course, it was only ever funded by donations and ran on the energy and passion of volunteers and community activists — but, on the ground, they worked more effectively than any other organisation.
It was not long before Occupy Sandy unofficially adopted the slogan: “Mutual Aid, Not Charity”. The power of this old anarchist slogan relied not only on the strength of the idea, but also on the strength of their organising. A fact that was not lost on the activists themselves. In a televised interview, one of organisers pointed out that “the government agencies were down the street, handing out pieces of paper that tell you to call a phone number to get help”, but their activism was different. “Here, you come, and you get help immediately”. In other words, the new system was better than the old one. And, instinctively, people understood that.
In moments of crisis, human beings have a tendency to come together. To forget about their own self interest. To dispense with the stories of the old world and to tell new stories. To share food. To give shelter. To huddle around the campfire and to talk, to laugh, to cry, to dream together. To build new structures. To remember who they are.
I do not want to romanticise disaster. I do not plan to rehearse the old arguments of anarchists and socialists throughout the ages. A lot has already been written about disaster communities. About communism in the age of collapse. And, if I am honest, I have always been reticent to make these arguments myself. Human beings have a complex reaction to crisis. It is easy to find examples of communities coming together in the face of environmental disaster, but you will also find examples of fracture. Of society falling apart, rather than coming together. Of failure, rather than success.
We should always remember that workers bear the brunt of any crisis. As governments rush to protect the city, poorer communities are forgotten. Ordinary people are left to fend for themselves. Our industries collapse. Our jobs are lost. Our savings quickly run out. Meanwhile, the banks are given bailouts. The super rich are able to insulate themselves from financial ruin. And multinational corporations seek to profit from the crisis. After all, disaster is a form of business for them.
Unlike some on the left, I do not subscribe to the belief that disaster is always a form of opportunity. In fact, I often find these arguments deeply uncomfortable. Some of those interested in disaster have an unfortunate tendency to idealise the crisis itself, and — in doing so — to ignore the enduring disaster of the present. The idea that this system will suddenly collapse seems unlikely to me. I am sure it will be slower than that. More pervasive. More perverse. Far more dangerous. But, to be honest, I am not sure of anything anymore, and perhaps you are right. Perhaps civilisation will collapse in the next week or so. Perhaps the revolution that follows will be pleasant and glorious. But what I do know is this: if it wants to succeed, the left cannot adopt the same strategies as the right.
We cannot shock the world into socialism, because real socialism — true socialism — cannot rely on coercion. It must be a shared project, with freedom and justice at its heart. We cannot, even if we wanted to, mirror the tactics of disaster capitalists. Because we, unlike them, believe in democracy. Our power is in the collective, not in capital. And so our strategies have to be different. That is not to say that how we react in a crisis — and how we respond to disaster — is not in itself important. We should not plan for collapse but we should be prepared for it. We should always be ready to resist. To rebuild the world, and to reimagine the future. To survive. To thrive. To dream together.
“The system is a virus.”
We are standing in a pub. The room is empty.
He looks at me, testing my reaction. Unsure, he decides to continue-
“The virus sets us against one another. It urges us to compete for resources. To remove ourselves, one by one, from the rest of society. It reduces us all to workers. To consumers. To lifeless automatons, that no longer have any need for the things that once gave us pleasure. The virus revitalises the system, and — in doing so — the virus becomes the system. The virus has shut all the theatres. The virus has closed all the stadiums. The virus tells us to self isolate. To practice social distancing. To keep yourself to yourself, and not to resist. Because to resist the effect of the virus, is to resist the logic of the system.”
We sit, for a moment, in silence.
“So how do we stop it?”, I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says, “…how do we stop capitalism?”
Climate change is not new in so far as the systems that created it are not new. Indeed, the forces of power and oppression that drive the climate crisis are painfully familiar. Similarly, the way in which we experience and react to the coronavirus is inevitably bound by the social and economic conditions of the time. Conditions that we have been resisting for years. And conditions that we must continue to resist by working together. By making these links and by sharing our knowledge.
Perhaps the constant onslaught of natural disasters — which are, of course, not in the slightest bit natural — have heightened our sensitivity to the other disasters of our age. But it is important to remember that, for many of us, the world has always been in crisis. For marginalised groups in our society, the present was never really stable. For women, for queer people, for people of colour. The future was never safe or secure. It was still subject to the same laws, the same oppressions, the same injustice.
Activism is not an abstract or theoretical art. It is a natural response to disaster. It is an essential tool in our fight for survival. A vital response to the tyranny and the suffering of our time.
I get a call from a friend.
“I was thinking of going down the street and slipping my telephone number through all the letterboxes. I don’t know whether you’ve seen these groups online? Mutual aid groups, yes... Yes… Well. Anyway, they got me thinking. There are probably quite a few old people on this road — I mean, chances are we’ve got a few. So, I don’t know, maybe I can help. Maybe I can buy them some food, or some wine, or some toilet paper, or something. What do you think?”
I tell her that I think it is a brilliant idea. The next day I call her back, to ask how it went.
“Oh” she says. “I didn’t do it.”
“Just to be safe… I have a bit of a sore throat at the moment and I thought… I thought I should probably keep myself to myself for a bit.”
We can’t go on like this.
It sometimes seems that capitalism relies on anarchists and socialists to survive — it trusts that good people will step forward to do good things. Kind things. Right things. To repair the harm that it has done and, in doing so, to defend the economic and political model they were determined to resist. In a crisis, governments cannot sit back and trust in the invisible hand of the free market, as they might have us believe. Instead, state intervention is necessary.
We must be bold in our response to the pandemic. In the first instance, we should demand a moratorium on all rent and mortgage payments. We should roll out additional financial support and stop benefit sanctions immediately. We should set up a national food service and bring key industries into democratic control. We should ensure everyone has free and equal access to healthcare provision. Then, as time goes on, we must introduce ideas that will fundamentally change the system itself. Any serious left wing project — whilst also pursuing the principles of mutual aid — would be making these demands in public. These demands would be plastered over every lamppost, and put up in every window.
The climate and ecological emergency demands rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented change to every aspect of society. That means having the courage to admit that the current system is not working.
“I don’t understand,” I say, “what can we do?”
She looks at me. There is something still and calm about her. A sort of undisturbed serenity. She has been here before. She is not afraid. I can tell in the way she is looking at me. She will have an answer, I am sure of it.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I suspect we’ll have to try lots of different things, before we find something that works. I watched a video today of a tower block in Sicily. The residents of the tower block are all out on their balconies, and they are singing, and playing, and dancing with one another. I thought, perhaps there is something in that. But I do not know. These things take time.”
“We don’t have any time.”
“No. Of course not. We never have.”
None of us speak for awhile. I am desperately trying to think.
“What about rent strikes?”, I say, eventually. “If the government, isn’t going to support people, then there are surely bound to be rent strikes. We need to be ready to support them.”
She looks at me.
“Yes,” she replies, “We do have to be ready to support rent strikes. And other industrial action. And the mutual aid groups too. We have to be ready for anything. But we also have to keep going, don’t we? Rent strikes are a necessary response to the crisis. So is starting a movement. Or organising a protest. So is starting an allotment. Or organising a book club. Or sneaking out in the middle of the night, with a spade and a trowel, and rewilding the city. The virus has been here for a very long time. And it’s not going to disappear overnight. There are many ways to resist.”
As the effects of Hurricane Sandy began to subside, the writer Naomi Klein gave an interview to a local activist. The footage was recorded on a mobile phone and uploaded to social media.
“There are really great community run gardens here,” she said, “where people are trying to grow their own food and they’re doing it in a way that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. They are really trying to embody those alternatives on a small scale, and then along comes a storm like this and it just destroys it all in one fell swoop. To me, what that shows is that, yes, we need to be building these alternatives — we need to be living our alternatives as this relief effort is doing — but we also have to go after the fossil fuel companies head on and tell them that they cannot destroy the world. It has to be this dual process of on the one hand building the alternatives and also going after these companies.”
It is an important reminder of what exactly destruction means. For those on the left who seek to romanticise disaster, it is important that we remember what exactly it is that disaster means.
Another member of Occupy Sandy said: “the notion of mutual aid is one that I’m still coming to grips with because it’s not as mutual as it needs to be right now. Our organizers are really struggling, people are really struggling. But there are people who struggle more, so how do we really create networks that are not just charity but actually empowering for people that don’t just descend on a community and throw a bunch of parcels and then think okay well we fixed the ills of society now. These communities are better now, we can leave, everything’s okay, that whole notion that arguably has been one of the causes of this disaster. That these communities have a history of being neglected”.
We cannot allow the politics of disaster to transform the left into a reactive, reactionary force. We cannot allow disaster capitalism to change our entire approach to politics. In the years ahead, we are going to have to put out fires and tidy up after the hurricane. But we are also going to have to make the time to build our own alternatives. To create, to dream, and to imagine the world in a different and more loving way, even in the midst of a crisis.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.