Catastrophe Capitalism: An Interview with Peer Illner

The response to state austerity must go beyond absorbing its outsourced labor

In the context of ongoing governmental failures to address the pandemic and natural disasters, conversations around mutual aid have expanded beyond a once-tiny coterie of anarchists and sundry radicals. Is mutual aid ready to be a generalizable political tactic? Peer Illner’s Disasters and Social Reproduction: Crisis Response Between the State and Community (2021) traces how disaster relief has historically been negotiated among governments, corporations, and community groups. While his book ranges across the twentieth century, Illner points to how the proliferation of community and mutual aid groups (Occupy Sandy, for instance) in the present risks allowing the state to deepen a politics of austerity. Has the catastrophic state response to the pandemic and recent natural disasters demonstrated we would be better off with no state than with one that compounds crisis? This interview, conducted after the Texas power crisis, asks Peer for his thoughts on the past and present of mutual and autonomous aid programs and what such tactics need to do to provide a path out of the precarious present.

BRIAN WHITENER.— You wrote a book about disaster studies and social reproduction. Can you explain what those are and why you decided to think about them together?

PEER ILLNER.— Disaster studies is a subfield of sociology and anthropology that looks at how different social actors respond to natural and man-made calamities. When I first became acquainted with the discipline during my doctoral studies at a disaster research center, I noticed a few problems with it. The first concerns the very definition of what a disaster is. For disaster scholars, a disaster is a sudden disruption to an established rule, after which the goal is to return to normality as soon as possible. The discipline has an inherent conservative bias, in that it valorizes the pre-disaster situation as positive and desirable. Secondly, disaster studies advances a compartmentalized notion of social life, which it neatly divides into the state, the market, and civil society. It provides isolated descriptions of how each social domain copes with catastrophe, without looking at the systemic relations between these domains as part of a social whole. Thirdly, disaster studies has unwavering faith in what it terms “resilience,” meaning the capacity of communities to “bounce back” from catastrophe and return, strengthened, to their prior state. It does not, however, problematize how the human ability to adjust to adverse conditions has been seized upon by the crisis management of capitalist states to make us adapt to ever more-precarious conditions after each new round of austerity cuts.

It seemed to me that a social reproduction approach to disaster would be able to clear up a lot of these problems. Social reproduction theory was developed by Marxist-feminists in the 1970s to understand how our lives and livelihoods are maintained under capitalism. It critiqued the orthodox Marxist emphasis on production and wage labor and argued that the daily reproduction of workers relied on countless hours of unpaid labor — mostly done by women — that had been naturalized and were never seen nor acknowledged as labor. I found this framework useful for thinking through disasters and disaster management for several reasons. Firstly, social reproduction theory insists that the real social battlefield is everyday life rather than its catastrophic exception. In my book I develop a fully socialized concept of disaster, in which catastrophic events are only interesting insofar as they reveal the deeper reproductive crises that define populations’ everyday lives in their ongoing “normality.”

Secondly, social reproduction theory undoes the compartmentalized view of social life endorsed by mainstream social theory. If, following Marx, society’s main task is the reproduction of its mode of production, including its main economic resource — i.e., labor power — then this reproduction can be performed in various configurations by the state, the market, and/or civil society. Indeed, in the post-war era, states developed sophisticated tools for the reproduction of labor power, such as healthcare programs, pensions, and education facilities, to guarantee a fresh supply of labor-power for their factories, offices and institutions. In response to the economic stagnation of the 1970s, however, states rolled back many of these services to revive their stalled economies. This has shifted the reproductive burden back onto communities themselves. What mainstream disaster research doesn’t understand is that social reproduction is a zero-sum game. If one actor stops performing reproductive labor, this labor will have to be shouldered by another social entity. This explains the state’s interest in resilience, which describes communities’ capacity to absorb the shocks of austerity and manage their own reproduction in the absence of state welfare. From a social reproduction perspective, self-help is simply the management of those areas of social life that the state has abandoned.

In your work, you track how states have, over time, incorporated autonomous relief efforts as a means of allowing for the underfunding of state disaster relief programs. What’s the history of this and how has this changed over time?

The history of disaster relief in the United States mirrors that of American social reproduction in general. It performs a pendulum swing from becoming a federal responsibility in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression, to being increasingly sloughed off following mid-century stagflation. With the New Deal, the ensuing war economy and the post WWII reconstruction, the Great Depression could be momentarily overcome through ample federal investments into the welfare of workers, which spurred buying power and reinvigorated the economy. Disaster-prone states, such as Florida and California, received generous cash injections to rebuild their infrastructure, employing thousands and extending real estate development to previously inaccessible regions. As early as the 1960s, however, the productive power of the US began to wane again. Instead of federal largesse, this time the response was austerity. Replacing Keynesianism with Chicago School neoliberalism, the government began cutting social spending to boost the faltering economy. For the disaster sector, this meant that relief moved from being the purview of the federal government to gradually becoming the communitarian responsibility that it had been until the late nineteenth century.

As social spending was scaled back, disaster relief was increasingly shifted from the federal state to the spheres of the market and civil society. The market side of the equation – in which formerly state-run services are sold off to commercial operators – has been widely publicised by Naomi Klein’s work on disaster capitalism. In my book, I am interested in the opposite question: how has the withdrawal of the state from emergency relief forced communities to perform unremunerated disaster aid by themselves? Indeed, many social-reproductive services involved in disaster relief resist commercialisation because they do not yield sufficient profits. Unattractive to disaster capitalists, these services are disregarded by the market and pass directly from the state to the community. In contrast to housework, which has become increasingly integrated into paid, socially regulated labour, disaster relief has undergone the opposite development. It has passed from the domain of state-led, paid reproductive work to the sphere of unwaged reproductive labour. This recent trend has been threefold: exposing communities to disaster by eroding their conditions of life through austerity; abandoning them to survive on their own; then selling off what remains of public relief infrastructures to commercial operators, once the immediate threat has receded. States have been quite happy to let communities perform this type of work for free, as long as they don’t organise politically in a way that threatens local governments.

After both George Floyd and the devastating cold in Texas and other places there have been an upsurge in mutual aid projects, and we’ve seen a concomitant increase in critiques of such projects. How would you suggest we think about mutual aid, disasters, and social reproduction in the wake of these events? What is the way forward?

When looking at the major disasters of the last decade, one cannot help but note the important place occupied by radical mutual aid efforts. When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012, Occupy Wall Street became the largest relief organisation on the ground. A few year later, during Hurricane Harvey, the Black Lives Matter initiative “American Black Cross” was heavily involved in disaster aid. Right now, there are countless neighborhood relief projects combating the disastrous effects of the coronavirus pandemic. It is amazing to see the ease and spontaneity with which people organize in response to calamity. However, I continue to be struck by the fact that whenever ordinary people get together to provide emergency relief, pundits from across the political spectrum are vocal in applauding these efforts, even if the social movements that organize them have an explicitly anti-state and anti-capitalist agenda. In my book, I ask why it is that leftist social movements that are normally subject to vehement critiques by conservative and reactionary power-holders suddenly become palatable when they perform disaster relief. I argue that this is because, by filling the gaps in the state’s ailing service provision, these efforts unwittingly absolve the state from taking responsibility for its systemic neglect. In the book, I reconstruct the history of the integration of radical mutual aid into the austerity state against the backdrop of recent transformations in social reproduction. Under austerity, there is a renewed pressure on communities to perform unpaid social reproduction simply to survive. This is why autonomous relief organizations that do this kind of unpaid labor risk legitimizing the austerity state by proving that communities, when left to their own devices, can survive without state support. The crucial question, then, is if these efforts can be organized in a way that resists their co-option.

In order to do so, it seems important to exit a one-dimensional account of disaster vulnerability and create links between different social vulnerabilities. At the intersection of the nationwide uproar that followed the murder of George Floyd and the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was this impressive moment when Black Lives Matter activists protesting police violence began creating links with people working on the clinical frontlines. By doing so, they highlighted the connection between two systemic vulnerabilities that expose Black populations to premature death: disproportionate vulnerability to state violence and disproportionate vulnerability to ill health. Where mainstream disaster studies sees two entirely disconnected events, these struggles mobilized by means of a systemic account of social vulnerability.

During the Texas freeze, on the other hand, we saw a more classical narrative reproduced: that of the community filling in where the state fell short. This can obviously be done in way that highlights the glaring neglect of the state and holds politicians accountable. But I think that mutual aid groups have to go further if they want to resist simply covering for a threadbare state. The radical feminist organization “Wages for Housework” (WfH) that organized around social reproduction issues in the 1970s can be an incisive example here. In analogy with WfH, Texans could, for instance, demand a wage for self-organizing disaster relief. While this call for remuneration would probably not be heeded, it would at least expose disaster aid for what it is: a reproductive service that the state has become unwilling to provide. Viewing disaster relief not as a communitarian responsibility, but as the management of what has been left behind by capital and the state enables political strategies that are foreclosed by the fuzzy romanticism of community organizing. Though certainly no recipe for a post-capitalist future, it allows us to formulate demands on the basis of managing those domains of social reproduction that the state has abandoned, while also opening up to strike and refusal as viable political strategies.

Your take on mutual aid seems largely negative? Is there an argument for mutual aid on the experiential level of bringing people together and building connections and political perspective or as part of a slow process of building autonomous power? Is there a way that the state abandoning areas of social reproduction is a good thing? What does the future of social reproduction and disaster mutual aid look like if it doesn't involve the state?

My research is often read as negative but I think that’s a misunderstanding. I am not primarily making normative claims about how people engaged in mutual aid should behave. Instead, I am interested in analyzing mutual aid as a social fact that takes on different functions in different historical moments. In the book, I was driven by Michel Foucault’s suggestion that when studying history we should look not at the obvious disputes and social antagonisms that are in plain sight for everyone to see, but rather examine the things everyone tacitly agrees on. In the context of disaster, this meant studying the recent surge of mutual aid initiatives that everyone — from the neoconservative Department of Homeland Security to Black Lives Matter activists — agrees are the way forward. How did mutual aid — once described by the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in the context of the Black Panther Party as the biggest threat to the American status quo — pass from critical social practice to harmless community engagement? The answer I give embeds mutual aid in the history of American social reproduction and its transformations in the late 20th century.

I am equally uninterested in providing a phenomenology of mutual aid that describes how it feels to organize relief with others. I am in no way denying that it can feel great to self-organise social reproductive activities at a remove from the straightjackets of capital and the state. I am, however, critical of a certain romanticization of mutual aid, particularly when it comes to disasters. It seems clear that the infrastructural and financial investments required to lastingly diminish disaster vulnerability simply exceed the capacities of mutual aid initiatives. This has become abundantly clear in the context of COVID-19. The vaccination effort necessary to create mass immunity to the virus can’t be autonomously organized, but will require an engagement with the state’s capacities. The same is true for the Texas energy grid. At the same time, states won’t return to post-war welfare policies. Instead, it is likely that the economic fallout of the COVID-19 recession will result in a further tightening of the austerity screw. This creates a painful dilemma for mutual aid initiatives, caught between their desire for more autonomous ways of life, and their dependence on the faltering state in key areas of social reproduction. It seems to me that current disasters dramatize this dilemma without resolving it.