Rethinking Disaster Capitalism in the Age of Coronavirus

Ralph Bivins, Houston 2020: America’s Boom Town – An Extreme Close Up. Fifth Estate Media, 2018. 160 pp.

Review by S.U.

Naomi Klein thinks the coronavirus pandemic is another example of disaster capitalism. The concept she pioneered has become enormously influential – even shorthand – for how the Left thinks about moments like our own. The key idea in Klein’s argument is that whenever there is a crisis or a “natural disaster”: capital has a coherent and politically magnetic program for resolving it by reorganizing accumulation and reaping huge profits. The formula involves: selling off public assets; buying up resources and land on the cheap; corporate bailouts from governments; radical free market policies and suspending democracy; charging exorbitant prices for people who are left destitute, etc. This can be useful in understanding an era’s original moments (e.g. Chile in 1973), and some of its episodes (Katrina’s New Orleans, Maria’s Puerto Rico, Harvey’s Houston, and possibly post-pandemic higher ed). But if this approach to ‘disaster capitalism’ thrives on explaining crucial episodes of late-capitalist dynamism, it runs into trouble grasping the logic of their sequence and the stuff that happens between them.

What the Coronavirus episode is exposing quite clearly is that disaster capitalism (or the “shock doctrine”) is not just a way that certain capitalists take advantage of these moments but is also what sets up future crises.  Disaster capitalism is not a “quick fix” for a certain layer of capitalism to make megaprofits while the rest of the world burns, drowns or struggles to breath without a ventilator; rather it sets the stage for future crises to be even worse.  The destruction of public welfare states and the privatization of social goods means that every country in the world is now ill-equipped to deal with the coronavirus crisis.  Even more, it is making it impossible for capitalists to function.  Disaster capitalism is not just the story of how capital sinisterly exploits and loots; it is a story of how capitalism creates its own disasters.

Written in 2018 but held a year for release, Houston 2020 is a disaster capitalism program for a post-Harvey Houston. Ralph Bivins is a prolific and knowledgeable business journalist, trying to reach an audience of investors; and he thinks Houston is a primetime place for their money. But there is a huge problem (there are a few more actually), and it’s that the city of Houston went on lockdown last week. This, as unemployment claims in the state of Texas, like the spread of the virus, surged exponentially. Moreover, as the wider engines of the economy stall at 30,000 financial feet, staring down the barrel of 30% unemployment in June, and a 50% drop in GDP – not the growth rate, but actual stuff being produced at all – things don’t look so good for “America’s Boom Town” in 2020. The point is not to laugh at the book’s awful timing (though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t). Bivins could not have reasonably predicted a coronavirus would seize the globe and grind 2020’s world economy to a near halt. In turn, he had no way of anticipating the resulting crisis of Texas public finances, organized around regressive sales taxes and aggravated by a concurrent collapse in the price of oil. And, he had no way of knowing the Lt. Governor Dan Patrick would have a public meltdown, making the one on the stock market look tame, as he called on seniors like a raving fanatic to sacrifice themselves to the god of gross domestic product (we all have our moments). But it should not have come as a surprise to anyone, but the capitalists in Houston that the lack of public health care and the reliance on just-in-time production would spell disaster eventually.

To be sure, we are already witnessing – and will see much more of – the most breathtakingly hideous, colossally destructive and all too familiar behavior of predatory capitalism.  Price-gouging, evictions, mass layoffs registering on the Richter scale – not a quarantine turned general strike, but a quarantine turned lockout.  But at the same time, if the pandemic is producing a disaster capitalism, it’s certainly a novel one. The potential return of a chilling, militarized state-capitalist agenda clearly departs from the classical disaster capitalist script of ‘privatize and downsize.’ On the one hand, this reflects what happens when a concept born at the beginning and heyday of an era is used to understand that same era’s decline. On the other, it actually shows that disaster capitalism isn’t a coherent agenda, since the neoliberal ruins of previous shock doctrines are now calling forth very different ‘disaster capitalist’ solutions from the ruling class. But, the bigger problem with ‘disaster capitalism’ as a summary for our moment is that it’s always just as surprised as the capitalists who benefited from last year’s disaster.  The capitalists that profit from one disaster are never able to organize accumulation to postpone or necessarily benefit from the next one.  

This leads us to the second way we should update the theory of disaster capitalism and that is the status of ‘disaster capital.’ We’ll now look at some of Houston 2020‘s actual content. What is the big deal about Houston in 2020? And, why 2020, exactly (bad year for randomly picking a nice, memorable number)? Storage space. The Galleria. Skyscrapers. High rises. E-commerce. And, maybe a high-speed train. Not only is this disaster capitalist program also moonlighting as a treatment for insomnia, but it’s also filled with a bunch of total losers. At present, besides Jeff Bezos, big-pharma and a handful of hard-material medical manufacturers, Covid-19’s ‘disaster capitalism’ means a disaster not simply for large sections but the vast majority of capital, as well.  Does anyone really shop at the Galleria anymore?

The point here is neither to pillory Naomi Klein nor dismiss her very real contributions to the Left and its debates – but rather to use the lessons of a new moment to develop and expand on her important insights. This is important for two reasons because the assumptions behind the notion of ‘disaster capitalism’ both underestimate and overestimate capitalism in significant ways.

First, it massively overestimates the political unity of the ruling class, because it theorizes from the exceptional perspective of capitalists that have won off of a disaster, rather than from the mean location of capitalists whom disasters undermine, if not destroy. And because it overestimates the unity of capital, not only does it implicitly underestimate the opening for breakthroughs from below but manages simultaneously to underestimate the opportunism of capitalists not yet in the foreground.  This means that the theory has a difficult time, in Houston for example, of situating “green” capitalists who would need to be defeated in order to impose an emancipatory green agenda in the city and beyond. 

Second, questions surrounding who ‘disaster capital’ represents ultimately pose a thorny set of political problems for understanding the current crisis. Is ‘disaster capital,’ the class fraction that lines up behind calls to return to work before it’s safe? Or is it the section that benefits if we remain at home, as the modern workplace is smashed and work with it reorganized virtually? If both are disaster capital, but with different agendas, we need something more than disaster capitalism to determine which agenda wins.

More recently, Naomi Klein has argued that “disaster capitalism” can result in different outcomes.  Citing the 1930s, when the Great Depression led to the New Deal, Klein argues that “moments of shock are profoundly volatile.  We either lose a whole lot of ground, get fleeced by elites, and pay the price for decades, or we win progressive victories that seemed impossible just a few weeks earlier.”  This newer formulation is important in laying the foundation for building a fightback against the corporations who lie in wait.  The difficulty, though, is that Klein’s solutions are pitched at the level of insurgent politicians, elections and familiar reforms.  The unprecedented fight that is coming this time has to be so total as to require us to understand the frontlines from the perspective of the ground-troops and their battalions.  The enemy we face doesn’t care about how many of us die, just about how much of a fuss we put up as we refuse to go quietly. That’s why every working class fight, every campaign for PPEs, every demand for rent amnesty, every homeless tenant housed, every cell of a prison or camp pried open, every arm locked against racist scapegoating and attacks, every victory in every country – each of these has to be understood, developed and met with ferocious solidarity if our side stands a chance. 

The author wishes to thank Snehal Shingavi for his comments on earlier drafts.

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