September 13, 2011

New Orleans-Style Shock Doctrine Possibilities in New Jersey

Filed under: Climate Crisis, Corporatism, Disaster Capitalism, Relocalization — Tags: — Russ @ 3:01 am


These are some speculative thoughts inspired by history and some unconfirmed anecdotes I’ve heard. The fact is that significant areas of NJ were severely flooded by hurricane Irene (not to mention a second thorough soaking which followed a week later). These included residential and commercial areas, including some which still held a high proportion of local businesses. It’s this last group which got me thinking.
Obama declared the place a federal disaster and made one of his stupid drive-by appearances. (Governor Christie got into a nice little spat with some fellow Republicans over it – you know how these hypocrites are the moment it’s their turn to mooch). In theory disaster aid means subsidized loans from the Small Business Association and grants to municipalities. (Only infrequently direct grants to homeowners.) Given Obama’s record, it’s hard to believe he’s not going to corporatize this as much as possible. But I admit I can’t find anything indicating that yet. All NJ media stories I could find (here’s a typical one) merely regurgitated the administration press release.
It’s true that especially the people of poor neighborhoods in Paterson and elsewhere doubt they’ll actually get help. They know the record of this government in general and in disasters like New Orleans in particular. They believe government is trying to just temporarily mollify them with rhetoric. In practice it will either neglect or assault them.
In New Orleans government collaborated with corporate predators to use the destruction as a pretext to seize and privatize large swaths of public land and infrastructure. Naomi Klein described the crimes in Shock Doctrine:

The news racing around the shelter [in Baton Rouge] that day was that Richard Baker, a prominent Republican Congressman from this city, had told a group of lobbyists, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Joseph Canizaro, one of New Orleans’ wealthiest developers, had just expressed a similar sentiment: “I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities.” All that week the Louisiana State Legislature in Baton Rouge had been crawling with corporate lobbyists helping to lock in those big opportunities: lower taxes, fewer regulations, cheaper workers and a “smaller, safer city”–which in practice meant plans to level the public housing projects and replace them with condos. Hearing all the talk of “fresh starts” and “clean sheets,” you could almost forget the toxic stew of rubble, chemical outflows and human remains just a few miles down the highway….

Endesha Juakali helped set up a protest camp outside one of the boarded-up projects, St. Bernard Public Housing, explaining that “they’ve had an agenda for St. Bernard a long time, but as long as people lived here, they couldn’t do it. So they used the disaster as a way of cleansing the neighbourhood when the neighbourhood is weakest. … This is a great location for bigger houses and condos. The only problem is you got all these poor black people sitting on it!”….

Over at the shelter, Jamar Perry, a young resident of New Orleans, could think of nothing else. “I really don’t see it as cleaning up the city. What I see is that a lot of people got killed uptown. People who shouldn’t have died.”

He was speaking quietly, but an older man in line in front of us in the food line overheard and whipped around. “What is wrong with these people in Baton Rouge? This isn’t an opportunity. It’s a goddamned tragedy. Are they blind?”

A mother with two kids chimed in. “No, they’re not blind, they’re evil. They see just fine.”

This included the idea that the corporate-government nexus should launch a full-scale assault upon the people while they were dazed and disoriented, much like police thugs arresting someone at 2AM. This shock treatment idea was premeditated by Milton Friedman and his Chicago colleagues going back to the 50s:

In one of his most influential essays, Friedman articulated contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum, what I have come to understand as the shock doctrine. He observed that “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That’s our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile “free-market” ideas. And once a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the “tyranny of the status quo.”

So it was in New Orleans. (Many commentators scoffed at or considered overblown and “conspiratorial” the allegation that federal government consciously sought this goal. The Bush administration denied it. Characteristically, it was left to the Obama crew to openly admit it.)
So what could be the parallel in NJ? It’s true that infrastructure like public schools don’t look like an immediate easy target and weren’t tremendously damaged anyway. But anecdotally, there’s already speculation about what damage to individual businesses will be covered by government and/or private insurance*, as well as reports than in some places not previously prone to flooding (but hit hard by this storm), many had foregone flood insurance completely. This is based on anecdotes I was told, not on anything I read, nor could I find confirmation (or disproof) in the media. So I don’t know how much this is true, but certainly it all rings true. The specter looms of harried municipalities turning in desperation to lowball offers from corporate developers and retailers (themselves, no doubt, well larded by federal aid), at the same time that devastated local businesses are left unable to rebuild. We know where that all leads.
We’ll see if this acceleration of Walmartization, whether as acutely intentional or chronically inertial disaster capitalism, turns out to be the case. If I hear anything new I’ll let you know. If anyone has more information let us know.
[*Meanwhile, as disasters continue to compound, ever more financially devastating, we have to wonder how long it’ll be before insurers try to abrogate as a group with regard to some disaster. I’m sure that where it comes to any particular disaster there’s a theoretical out which could absolve insurers of having to pay, just like health insurers always look for ways to refuse payment. I’m sure Congress and many courts would be friendly.
One historical precedent is Kristallnacht. Synagogues, cemetaries, and Jewish-owned businesses all over Germany were damaged or destroyed in a one-night pogrom. Most of these were duly insured. The insurance companies raised a stink over paying on these claims. Although of course they didn’t publicly say so, they knew that the allegedly “spontaneous” mob action was really orchestrated by the regime from above. Why should they get stuck holding the financial bag for all that damage?
In his capacity as head of the Four Year Plan, the command economy coordination structure, Goering issued a ruling that the insurers weren’t liable for claims arising from Kristallnacht. (The logic was basically that through their provocations the Jews had brought the spontaneous people’s reaction upon themselves.)
We have the same ingredients today – tyrannical elitist government, insurance rackets trying to minimize payouts even on claims everyone recognizes are legitimate, complete contempt for the people. So while federal insurance can be counted on to continue to assist big developers in their endless rebuilding on flood plains, we can equally expect all types of insurance to try to evade paying where it comes to keeping local small businesses in business.]
Before I close this passel of speculation, I want to make a comment on system disaster assistance in general. Federal assistance is under the general aegis of FEMA, a highly disputed organization. The system calls it a selfless public servant, detractors accuse it of setting up concentration camps. While the camps certainly exist on paper and to some extent in reality and can be used for any purpose, so far in practice FEMA’s record has been typical corporatism – do all one can to promote corporate interests while neglecting one’s ostensible responsibilities as much as possible, doing only the bare minimum. This record (as well as a basic hollowed-out incompetence) was also borne out by the New Orleans experience.
I think Derrick Jensen gets it right – FEMA is by design a tool which can be used for pretty much any purpose. I’ll add that by now it’s likely to be incompetent at its “good” uses. But this may mean it’ll also be incompetent at tyrannical uses.
Some commentators noticed another New Orleans parallel. Just as with Katrina, the pre-storm call from “authorities” was for people to prepare or evacuate on an individual basis, usually including the same callous assumptions* about people’s ability to get out. There was little in the way of any kind of collective effort. This is by design, part of the general anti-cooperative ethos of the entire unsociety.
[*I did see one local newspaper account. People had been driven from their homes by evacuation orders and rising floodwaters. Now the waters were allegedly threatening the hotel into which they’d been driven. The police showed up there to order another evacuation, but as a group the refugees angrily declared they had nowhere left to go. The police left. (The hotel never did flood.)
The article, of course, said the police “allowed” them to stay. No, it sounded more like the people made it clear they weren’t leaving short of the police arresting and dragging them away. Facing such defiance, the cops backed down. They weren’t capable of handling it.
Just one little example of the way power flows have always worked throughout history. No one in power ever “allows” anything. The people take what they can.]
Whatever the momentary character of a disaster or the government response to it, one rule we can recognize is that the government does not mean well, and its efforts will be incompetent at best, malevolent at worst. We can rely only on ourselves. We can choose to do so the way we have been, as atomized individuals, or we can do it cooperatively as part of the relocalization movement. (How best to do this has been debated before within the movement.) One thing to always keep in mind is that you DO NOT want to end up in anything like a refugee camp. This must be avoided if at all possible.
Well, I hope this post wasn’t too episodic and rambling. It’s just some thoughts and possibilities I wanted to rope together into a preliminary assessment/prognostication. Food for thought.


  1. What about Vermont/New Hampshire? I was under the impression that the damage in those states outstripped New Jersey by an order of magnitude. I suppose those areas are wealthier and better able to defend against a Shock Doctrine corporate pincer.

    Off-topic (or not?): I’m not at all surprised that President Obama is choosing to double down on an automobile infrastructure “jobs” plan. But, I’m unnerved by the Fuhrer-esque fist pounding bombast.

    The level of total transformation needed in the economy (from zoning regulations to land reforms to USDA/FDA policing) is beyond the intellectual depth of the Administration or Congress. This obsession with automobile infrastructure shows not only the lack of vision but the locked-in tunnel vision required to buy into the industrial civilization paradigm. Admittedly, the built environment is simply not equipped to go without cars. Many areas would instantly step back 200 years. But the transition is not an option. There won’t be enough biofuel for everyone.

    I’m starting question whether it makes any sense to engage in any official politics, even at the local level. I think there is more resilience in organizing my own mutually co-dependent “clan” that has the people power to defy the Shock Troops, per your hotel evacuation example.

    Comment by Ross — September 13, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    • I heard about Vermont, but since here I am in NJ, I wrote about what I know. Here’s where I heard the anecdotes about whole streets of local businesses getting wiped out, and how they may have had insufficient insurance. (Which is what first gave me the idea for this post.)

      I’ve paid pretty much zero attention to Obama’s crap, other than to argue that the employee payroll tax holiday extension is a good thing for us which will make no difference as far as the future of Social Security. We need to make sure that’s permanent.

      I agree completely about how anything we’re going to have going forward we have to build for ourselves, growing it out of our own landbases.

      Comment by Russ — September 13, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

      • Thanks. I didn’t know you were in NJ. Some reason I had rustbelt in mind… Ohio, or something. I found this YouTube channel recently looking for ideas for growing food indoors. I’m trying to get a jump on winter… This woman has a backyard garden and chicken coop in urban New Jersey. She does some other videos (workout stuff and cooking) but also a lot about her garden. You should check it out. http://www.youtube.com/user/genghisgirl

        Comment by Ross — September 13, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

      • Thanks Ross. She looks like she’s got a lot of cool stuff going on. I might someday get some chickens, if I ever have a place to put them.

        Comment by Russ — September 13, 2011 @ 5:20 pm

    • “I’m starting question whether it makes any sense to engage in any official politics, even at the local level. I think there is more resilience in organizing my own mutually co-dependent “clan” that has the people power to defy the Shock Troops, per your hotel evacuation example.”

      I think it’s worth considering engaging in it to the extent that it allows you to avoid or neutralise the scrutiny of officials who can make life difficult for your clan- I’m thinking here building inspectors, fire officials, police, whatever. If you end up wanting to throw up a barn or a chicken coop or something, it doesn’t take much for an inspector to make your life hell (at least if you’re in a jurisdiction that does such things), I gather..

      Comment by paper mac — September 13, 2011 @ 7:08 pm

      • For relocalization activities local politics can be important. As I mentioned in an earlier thread, the local election coming up here does present a clear choice between better and worse.


        I’ve always said that electoral politics may be worthwhile at the local level. Even low-level candidates from the 2 criminal gangs might not yet be corrupt.
        Our own relocalization group looks to this year’s mayoral election with a clear choice: The incumbent Democrat is a friend to us (and at least one of the others from the slate is peripherally involved with our projects), while most of the Republicans are hostile, many on a personal level. I don’t know if the mayoral candidate is one of those personally hostile, but at any rate in this local election there’s a clear difference.

        Comment by Russ — September 14, 2011 @ 5:24 am

  2. I find the FEMA concentration camps thing pretty fascinating. It’s been a conspiracy theory since at least the mid-90s, when I first ran across it, and from what I’m told has been kicking around in one form or another since the 70s. In the 90s, it was popular among white nationalist/secessionist militia types, but it got picked up by the libertarian fringe and the truthers after 9/11 and from there seems to have leaked out into the general consciousness. It deserves some attention, imo, as a sociological phenomenon. Unfortunately that globalresearch.ca site (which should be carefully scrutinised when reading, as they’ll publish absolutely anything) obscures more than it reveals.

    Pretty uniquely among conspiracy theories, it actually is the case that legislative authority openly exists for FEMA (actually really the executive via DHS via FEMA) to engage in a program of prison-building and detention during national emergencies. That said, the bit about “800 existing fully staffed FEMA/DHS detention camps” is pure fantasy- have a look at the video they link of a “FEMA concentration camp”. Look like a “fully staffed detention camp” to you? Or an empty industrial area? All of the “evidence” I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot) for the supposed 600-800 FEMA sites are just pictures of empty factories, railroad facilities, etc w/ razor wire fences (the razor wire is supposed to be indicative of.. something, but I’m not sure what, given that Americans put razor wire around parking lots). The more clever tidbits are repurposed satellite photos of North Korean detention camps and the like. The contract that KBR got in ’05 for detention centers is actually just a retainer (you can’t build a single prison on $385 million over 5 years much less a vast network of them) for detention services, the same one they’ve held since at least 2000, no construction involved. Given how captured the security apparatus is by corporate interests, it makes a lot more sense that they would try to extract rents for doing nothing (retainer contracts) than actually engage in a massive program of fairly obvious prison construction that would require significant capital outlays.

    In any case, viewed as a reification of more subtle social pressures that the American underclass experiences every day, the theory makes perfect sense. Being trapped in cramped living quarters, treated like subhuman trash, worked to death or even poisoned by your captors? Sounds pretty fucking familiar to me! How big of a leap is it for someone who lives in an urban ghetto, with no freedom to simply pack up and leave (job, debt, parole, whatever), working for the capitalist machine in two or three jobs, and constantly forced to consume toxic industrial chemicals in their food, air, water, to imagine themselves in a concentration camp, really? Thing is, they’re already there- the camps don’t exist and never will. The coup has already happened, no camps were necessary, they’ve already convinced everyone that they have total physical control anyway. In a sense, the belief in the camps represents an incredible victory for the pig men- they never needed to build the camps, because people built them in their minds.

    My guess would be that in the case of any major civil disturbance you’re going to see exactly the same kind of slipshod, delayed, corrupt, idiotic response from FEMA and the Feds as was seen in Katrina. FEMA is lots of things, but Nazi-like efficient is not one of them. The elites have no grand plan for civil disorder, any more than they had a grand plan for Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, Fukushima, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, whatever. They’ve got their fingers crossed and that’s about it. That makes them tremendously vulnerable and we shouldn’t forget it.

    Comment by paper mac — September 13, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

    • I agree that FEMA is basically incompetent, although working in tandem with the military, the FBI, Blackwater, etc., who knows? (Not that I’m saying those are necessarily the most well-oiled machines either, but they do have experience with this stuff.) But the plans do exist on legislative paper, and any facility can quickly be converted to a camp. (Did it cost the British that much to concentrate the Boers, or the US army the Cubans?) I of course put nothing past them as far as intent.

      Just to be clear, disaster capitalism (which is certainly FEMA’s main competence) was my main point here, with black helicopter stuff secondary. But I’m dead serious about those refugee camp situations. While the worst horror stories about the Superdome (rapes, murders) may have been exaggerated, nevertheless that too was a quasi-concentration camp, and could easily have been converted into a real one.


      I finished the China paper. It was all good stuff. (Do you have part 2?) The strongest impression I got from the latter part of it was the distinction between standard and intermediate markets, and how those were alleged to play a major role in the formation of power and culture.

      There too, my first impression is that modern transportation and mass media have temporarily obliterated many of these phenomena, but they might still be predictive for the post-fossil future.

      Add: I forgot to ask if you saw Graeber’s new NC piece.


      Comment by Russ — September 13, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

      • Yeah, I didn’t mean to distract from your larger point, I just like talking about conspiracy theories and I think the FEMA camps one is pretty interesting, because it’s got a real element of truth, but also is revealing in the ways in which that truth has spun out into a mythology. I agree that any facility can be converted on an ad-hoc basis to a refugee/internment camp like the Superdome was, and I think that’s almost certainly the methodology that’s going to be employed as the changing climate starts to generate refugee movements from the South (or in case of civil disorder, although I think it would take an open insurrection before that happened). That’s what I mean by “there is no plan”- the infrastructure isn’t there, there’s no grand plan, it’s just going to be a piecemeal and ad-hoc response to deteriorating conditions that will be derailed in a beat as soon as people get their evasion-and-resistance techniques down.

        I forgot to package all the parts (there are actually three) of Skinner’s series. I need to check if I have those at home, I’ll post them soon. I’m still not sure how Skinner’s stuff ultimately applies to us, there’s a lot going on there- for instance the administrative/economic place hierarchies, I don’t know how that maps onto our geography at the moment. The de-localisation of our places has pretty severely distorted that pattern. The later parts have some info about how Skinner thinks these patterns evolve and so on, so it might be more informative for the re-localisation side of things, but I need to go back and read those more carefully. Skinner’s stuff is pretty neat in that he was doing GIS sociology stuff by hand before anyone had any idea what GIS was going to be.

        I did see Graeber’s piece this morning, I’m glad that he’s staying engaged with the conversation around his work, and I think NC is a reasonably good venue for him to do it. At some point I’m going to have to come up with some more cogent links between his work and Scott’s and email him some questions about how he thinks debt systems interact with states and agricultural systems.

        Comment by paper mac — September 13, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

      • My take on conspiracy theories: In theory they ought to be evidence of a healthy distrust and disrespect for “authority”. They’re just a misdirected form of this disrespect, which ought to go into true class war and kleptocracy analysis, and into fighting on a systematic basis. In theory a conspiracy theorist ought to be educable toward this.

        But it seems that in practice most conspiracy theorists don’t care much about the real fight. I saw quite a few at LATOC who would readily agree with kleptocracy analysis, but weren’t interested in fighting it. Indeed, they often used their conspiracism as an excuse to do nothing, as defeatism.

        So it seems to me that, at least among the most pronounced adherents, conspiracy theory isn’t so much something one learns along the path of rejecting the power structure, as it is a form of escapism. In practice it’s generally a form of irresponsibility as well as a justification for it.


        I wonder how to combine ideas like those in the Skinner paper with modern market research and the general democratic message to put together a truly federalized* farmers’ market movement. There’s got to be a way to do so which could work in practice, if we could just figure it out. I guess it’ll be a combination of following guiding ideas with trial and error. Same for other projects.

        *Meaning of course true federalism. Local control, confederated democratic coordination.

        Comment by Russ — September 14, 2011 @ 5:20 am

  3. Above I linked this piece on emergency planning within the relocalization movement.


    I hadn’t read it since it was first published over two years ago, but rereading it now I find it very interesting on the challenges, possible tactics, and ideological differences that exist.

    So I wanted to especially recommend it as food for thought.

    Comment by Russ — September 14, 2011 @ 7:18 am

  4. […] being severe in range and duration will increase.   This is an anecdotal post along the lines of my previous one on Hurricane Irene. Last weekend the region experienced a snowstorm. I’ll grant that it was unseasonal and […]

    Pingback by Redolent of Olduvai « Volatility — November 3, 2011 @ 8:18 am

  5. A November 6,2011 New York Times article about Prattsville, NY is a perfect example of this sickening tactic. I love the way there’s an air of condescension and irritation towards those whose reaction to the (man-made) disaster is to hang together with family, friends, and neighbors rather than to look to FEMA and other government “assistance”.Imagine staying with your friends instead of wanting to be warehoused in a FEMA trailer! Of all the nerve…

    Comment by DualPersonality — January 17, 2012 @ 12:18 am

    • We see this same basic hostility anywhere there’s any question of self-reliance, assertion of positive freedom, eschewing of government “assistance”, or claims to civil liberties and the right to be left alone.

      In every case, not just aggressive corportatists/statists but the brainwashed conservative/liberal slaves react with a visceral disdain and hatred. They hate not only any assertion against their sense of prerogative, but anything which indicates that alternatives to their way of living are possible. If any sort of parasite sees anyone trying to live in a way which indicates that it’s possible to live free of parasites, the parasite takes that as a personal threat, and rightly so. That’s part of the mix that goes into the middle-class fascist mindset.

      Comment by Russ — January 17, 2012 @ 6:35 am

  6. Hmm.. reminds me of the reaction to a comment I made at a family gathering recently:-)

    Comment by DualPersonality — January 17, 2012 @ 8:36 am

  7. […] being severe in range and duration will increase.   This is an anecdotal post along the lines of my previous one on Hurricane Irene. Last weekend the region experienced a snowstorm. I’ll grant that it was unseasonal and […]

    Pingback by Olduvai One Year Later « Volatility — November 4, 2012 @ 7:03 am

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