Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Can a Hurricane Wipe Out Democracy?

In her powerful book, Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein explained the ways disasters – both natural and man-made – can be so destructive, can leave people so vulnerable, that a hostile takeover may be welcomed as a rescue.  Specifically, a hurricane or a political coup or a tsunami may wipe out so much, and leave people so desperate, that they’ll agree to anything that seems like a quick fix. Especially, as Klein describes, “fixes” that they would never agree to under normal circumstances, would never vote for.

The “shock,” then is the disaster. The “shock doctrine” is the strategic goal to replace democratic institutions, public goods owned by and governed by the people, with private, corporate entities that make a profit off what was once the public’s.  Klein traces the privatization doctrine back to economist Milton Friedman, then tracks his influence through not just the spread of his ideas but also specific individuals who studied under him and took government jobs or think tank consultancies in countries like Chile during the time of Pinochet (the case of a “disaster” being a violent, anti-democracy political coup). 

For those of us in education, the most compelling chapter may be the story of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina flooded most of the city, dispersing its population across the country and disrupting most city services, including the schools.   Before New Orleans’ public school teachers could return to the city, before any of the public’s schools had been rebuilt, the corporate forces and their politicians moved in with their shock doctrine fix:  close the public’s schools and replace them with corporate charters.   Using the public’s tax dollars of course.   A Louisiana member of Congress, even before the flood water receded, that “Hurricane Katrina did to the Lower 9th Ward what we’ve never been able to do politically.”  Meaning, wipe out this mostly African American neighborhood and “re-develop” it for profit.   New Orleans voters would never vote to close their schools or fire their teachers; but, hey, a hurricane took care of that messy chore in Lower 9th and other mostly poor, mostly African American communities. We know what came next: public school teachers fired, replaced by much less qualified Teach for America and other less credentialed people in for-profit or (supposedly) non-profit corporate charters of questionable educational quality and documented detriment of democratically governed, community-based schools.

It’s in that context of corporatizing traditionally democratic institutions that Klein’s new book takes us to Puerto Rico, where the “shock” of Hurricane Maria had already been preceded by the “shock” of Wall Street, colonizing the Puerto Rican economy by complex forms of new indebtedness to the big banks and investment firms.  Into this already precarious – and largely avoidable – financial situation roared Hurricane Maria last September, essentially wiping out the island’s infrastructures for electricity, communications, roads and bridges, and its schools. The Battle for Paradise  documents this next round of post-disaster predatory capitalism – exploiting the exhaustion of thousands who still lack electricity with a plan to privatize (corporatize) the power grid, taking advantage of people still struggling to find drinking water and medical supplies and ways to repair their homes by cutting deals with high level officials to turn every possible public institution into a profit stream for corporate interests. The schools are not immune: a plan to charterize schooling, shutting down not only the schools that need rebuilding but many that were never damaged (since the publication of this book, a judge has ruled against the charter plan. But the fight is not over)

But Puerto Ricans are fighting back.  The Battle for Paradise is the story of that struggle.  It does not sugar coat the huge financial and political powers aligned to undermine democracy in the island.    It is in the face of those daunting powers that people are coming together in new and creative alliances to shape the rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s social institutions at the same time as, and as seamless with, the rebuilding of the physical infrastructure.

The book arose out of a forum on the dangers of disaster capitalism to “undermine our country’s well-being, especially that of our most vulnerable inhabitants.  These [corporate privatization] policies will limit access to basic rights such as water, electricity, and housing and will destroy our environment, health, and democracy, as well as our quality of life …and all the while they will increase the transfer of wealth to the already rich.”

Klein also sees hope. This slim volume contains beautiful examples of the strength of communities working together. My favorite is Casa Pueblo, a civic and community center where 20 years earlier solar panels had been installed, to the derision of many. While politicians dragged their feet, highly questionable contracts were signed with completely unequipped repair companies, and huge areas of the island remained without power for months, Casa Pueblo had light!  Literally, electricity, but figuratively as well:  a beacon of collaboration, sensible science, community-based practicality.   People came from miles away to charge phones and medical devices, prepare healthy meals, convene community gatherings.

The battle for paradise is – and will be – a struggle between democratically, locally-based, community-strengthening rebuilding, or  the predatory displacement of local control by corporate investors exploiting the shock of financial and hurricane disaster for greed and profit:  supported by the wealthy in gated enclaves unaffected by the long-term harm to the island’s schools and neighborhoods and daily activities.   Klein’s book holds out hope because she has spent time with and seen up close the 60 organizations that have come together as JunteGente (people together) to build a democratic Puerto Rico.  She knows time is of the essence, the people with money and power can move more quickly and irreversibly, the collision of the two visions of Paradise is inevitable. 
The Battle for Paradise is not just local to Puerto Rico:  Klein’s analysis captures the threat to democracy in our larger society and, especially, in our schools.  I offer her book as a prelude to the new series of posts which, following The Children Are Watching, will trace the battle to protect the America’s public schools – so central to our democracy – from those who would destroy them and replace them with a “market” of corporate charter chains.  I’m calling that series Grand Theft Schoolhouse.  In the model of Naomi Klein I hope to write concretely and clearly about what is at stake when “disaster capitalism” walks through the doors of our children schools.   And I hope to highlight, as she does, those examples of civic action and hope which are essential to ending not only disaster capitalism but the vulnerabilities it so shamelessly exploits.

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