March 07, 2006

Anarchy in New Orleans?

Anarchists are used to any and all examples of social breakdown being labelled "anarchy." The "anarchy" in question is, of course, chaos rather than the kind of free society based on liberty and co-operation between equals anarchists seek. In this sense the reporting of events in New Orleans fits the same, sorry, pattern. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans the media was awash with stories of "anarchy," particularly at the Superdome which was full of refugees.

However, the facts of the matter are coming out. The grisly scenes reported in the media had little basis in reality. While there were reports of 200 bodies in the Superdome, the real total was considerably less: six. Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another was an apparent suicide. A similar picture has emerged at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where just four bodies have been recovered despite reports of heaps of dead piled inside the building. Of these, only one appeared to have been murdered. There were about 30,000 evacuees at the Dome and an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 at the Convention Center.

The evacuees did suffer terrifying and inhumane conditions, but the facts are the vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees -- mass murders, rapes and beatings -- have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence. The Orleans Parish District Attorney reported that authorities have only confirmed four murders in the entire city in the aftermath of Katrina -- a typical week in a city with over 200 homicides expected this year.

Four weeks after the storm, few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The media image of the impoverished, overwhelmingly Black, masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them was just that, an image. Most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened --people firing at helicopters trying to save them; women, children and even babies raped with abandon; people murdered for food and water. That racism played a part in this sensational reporting goes without saying (an obvious example being the reports of white people miraculously finding food while blacks had simply looted it). That this racist reporting hindered relief efforts and cost lives is just as obvious.

Anarchists are not surprised at this development. Humans, we argue, are social creatures and have, in general, the ability to live with others in a decent way. Needless to say, living in an oppressive and exploitative society hollows out this social sense but it can never remove it totally. Anarchism is based on developing this social sense and creating the conditions and institutions in which it can grow and strengthen.

As such, the events in New Orleans also contain explains of genuine anarchy -- people organising themselves to meet their individual and collective needs, helping each other out. For example, people taking food and other essentials from shops for themselves and others is a practical example of anarchist ideas on mutual aid and distribution according to need. Faced with respecting private property or living, people rightly choose the latter. As such, the disaster shows how private property comes into conflict with human needs. One telling example of the stupidity of capitalism was seen when someone took a bus, filled it with people and drove them to safety. This hero was promptly arrested for theft.

Yet while the reports of murders, rapes and gang violence inside the stadium reported internationally have proven to be false, their legacy will remain. The false stories will be held up as yet more evidence of the brutality of humans (and, implicitly) the need for government to control such passions. The popular notion of "anarchy" as chaos will be promoted and used against anarchist ideas of social change.

Yet these kinds of arguments are deeply flawed. Most obviously, the fact is that government is made up of the exact same humans as are responsible for the evil acts which are used as an argument against anarchy. Why expect our rulers to be exceptions from this rule? As such, giving a few people power may not be wise. This, needless to say, is never suggested. Nor is it suggested that people conditioned by an oppressive and exploitative system may act in ways which reflect that conditioning rather than some unchanging human nature. Nor is the anarchist argument that a genuine anarchy can arise only when people consciously want it, struggle to create it and, consequently, build the necessary preconditions in terms of social institutions and personal attitudes acknowledged.

This is the key. Anarchists are not so naive to think that simply removing government or capitalism will result in their kind of anarchy. In such circumstances, people would simply rebuild what they were used to -- a hierarchical, oppressive and exploitative system which distorts individual potential. Anarchists see anarchy as coming about as a result of social struggle and the development of ideas of freedom as a result of that struggle and anarchist participation within it. Only then, when people have changed themselves while changing society, can government and capitalism be finally ended once and for all.


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