Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Elite Panic and Informal Networks

Boing Boing ran a fascinating quote from a book that looks worth reading - A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

The book basically points out that rather than chaos, people actually tend to behave well and help each other out in emegencies when the "normal" veneer of society is stripped away. In other words, the police state is not needed to keep people in line the way we think it is. Rather, the elites believe that everyone is like them - selfish opportunists willing to discard morality at the drop of a hat and step over anyone to seize what they belive is rightfully theirs. Thus they project their own mentality on everyone around them. But it turns out that most people aren't like that at all.

This should be familiar to anyone who has watched The Centrury of the Self, which descibes how post-war elites feared the "uncontrollable passions" of the masses as descibed by Freud, and felt the need to control the population through manipulation of the mass media.
The term "elite panic" was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disaster -- Charles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarke -- proceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable.

Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don't become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface -- that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn't actually happen; it's tragic.

But there's also an elite fear -- going back to the 19th century -- that there will be urban insurrection. It's a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the '85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.
Elite Panic: why rich people think all people are monsters (BoingBoing) Here's a good comment about it from one J. Brad Hicks:
The link to anarchist philosophy is made explicit in (the most boring, most ignorable) parts of Solnit's book. She's an anarcho-socialist, and thinks that what disaster sociologists have proven about the first long weekend after a disaster proves that we don't need any kind of government. The thing is, she mentions but mostly glosses over the evidence that contradicts her thesis: after about the 3 day mark, when people aren't as focused on life-saving and survival, if there isn't a restoration of something that people recognize as normal, legitimate authority, then the odds go up rapidly day after day that you'll get an even bigger disaster: exactly the kind of looting and rioting that elites expect. That mass uprising isn't driven by disaster conditions, it's driven by anger at being neglected by government ... which rather plainly suggests to me that the anarchists, who (like lib-cons) want to make that neglect permanent, are deranged.

But even then, it can take some time. In Venkatesh's excellent book on ghetto economics, Off the Books, there's a chapter where he interviews the oldest people in the ghetto about the history of the local economy, and they point out that the particular neighborhood he's studying is where the jobs were back before WW2, that that's why people live there in the first place. But when we re-tooled the country around automobiles in the late '40s, early '50s all of the jobs and all of the banks, and nearly all of the stores and nearly all of the cops and nearly all of the government services like hospitals and fire protection, went searching for neighborhoods with better parking -- new neighborhoods that happened to be whites-only. Apply disaster sociology to this and you see that it took fifteen or twenty YEARS for lawless violence to become entrenched, that the neighborhood survived without cops or jobs from around the early 1950s to the late '60s or early '70s. If you look at Venketesh's description of how people survive, economically, in a post-economic ungoverned territory, and squint a little bit, the coping system that they cooked up looks remarkably like anarcho-socialism. But the result was not something that anybody would choose on purpose.
Here's a nother quote from the book from the comments:

Pg. 90
Anarchists are idealists, believing human beings do not need authorities and the threat of violence to govern them but are instead capable of governing themselves by cooperation, negotiation, and mutual aid. They stand on one side of a profound debate about human nature and human possibility. On the other side, the authoritarian pessimists believe that order comes only at the point of a gun or a society stacked with prisons, guards, judges, and punishments. They believe that somehow despite the claimed vileness of the many, the few whom they wish to endow with power will use it justly and prudently, though the evidence for this could most politely be called uneven. The cases drawn from disaster largely contradict this belief. It is often the few in power rather than the many without who behave viciously in disaster, and those few do so often exactly because they subscribe to the fearful beliefs of Huxley, Le Bon, and others.We don't say things will be perfect, but we can certainly get a whole lot closer to egalitarian society than the crumbling police states the west has produced to date.
It looks like it might be a good companion to Dmitry Orlov's writing. This one also, which BB ran earlier in the week: The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructured World. The author seems to have had a very similar upbringing to Orlov:
My mother never heard the term social capital, but she knew its value well. In the Soviet Union, where she lived and where I grew up, no one could survive without it, and she leveraged her social capital on a daily basis. It enabled her to provide a decent life for her family, even though she was a widow without much money, excluded from the privileged class of the Communist Party. We never worried about having enough food. My sister and I always wore fashionable clothes (at least by Soviet standards). We took music and dance lessons. We went to the symphony, attended good schools, and spent summers by the Black Sea. In short, we enjoyed a lifestyle that seemed well beyond our means.

How was my mother able to provide all these things on the meager salary of a physician in a government-run clinic in Odessa, Ukraine? Social connections were a powerful currency that flowed through her network of friends and acquaintances, giving her access to many goods and services and enabling our comfortable, if not luxurious, lifestyle. Even when no meat could be found in any store in the city, my mother was able to get it, along with a wealth of other hard-to-find foods, from the director of the supermarket who was the husband of a close colleague of hers. I was accepted into music school because my mother treated the director of the school in her off-hours. We were able to get Western medicines because a friend was the head of a large local pharmacy.

Our apartment was always filled with people my mother was counseling, diagnosing, treating, and prescribing medicines for. No money ever changed hands; that was too risky. She had lived through the era of Stalin’s purges, and the memory of his fabricated charges against Jewish doctors, who he claimed were trying to poison the Soviet leadership, was still vivid in her mind. She was too afraid to build a private underground medical practice. “With my luck, I would be the first to be caught,” she would say with a nervous laugh.

All those people who regularly visited us, or whose houses she visited to provide care, were my mom’s substitute for money, providing not only food, medicines, and clothes but also intangibles of information, services, and emotional support. When my mother died shortly after emigrating to the United States in 1990, the only material possessions she left me and my sister were her wedding ring, some books, and a few pieces of clothing. But she also left thousands of grateful friends and former patients whose lives she had touched.

Our story was not unique. All around us, amid empty stores, low salaries, dismal productivity numbers, and fraying infrastructure, people seemed to live normal middle-class lives. An economist would have had a hard time explaining our lifestyle by analyzing economic statistics or walking around the stores and markets in Russia in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, visitors to the Soviet Union always marveled at the gap between what they saw in state stores— shelves empty or filled with things no one wanted—and what they saw in people’s homes: nice furnishings and tables filled with food.

What filled the gap? A vast informal economy driven by human relationships, dense networks of social connections through which people traded resources and created value. The Soviet people didn’t plot how they would build these networks. No one was teaching them how to maximize their connections the way social marketers eagerly teach us today. Their networks evolved naturally, out of necessity, that was the only way to survive. Today, all around the world, we are seeing a new kind of network or relationship-driven economics emerging, with individuals joining forces sometimes to fill the gaps left by existing institutions — corporations, governments, educational establishments—and sometimes creating new products, services, and knowledge that no institution is able to provide. Empowered by computing and communication technologies that have been steadily building village-like networks on a global scale, we are infusing more and more of our economic transactions with social connectedness.
Build those social networks, folks!


  1. I agree with your assertion. Or at least, I'd like to think so ;-)
    This is the central idea of the movie Constantine.
    I think we will find out:

    You may find these useful as well:

  2. "Apparently these wealthy oligarchs just travel from city to city (presumably "creating wealth" as they go), and if some place gets too "hot," say a government wants them to pay taxes or citizens show up with torches and pitchforks, they just skip town to another wealthy enclave somewhere else. Isn't globalism grand?"

    "Tis always been so since civ reared its Medusa head. When the areas in the Near East or surrounding areas collapsed during the Neolithic or the Bronze Age, the elites got into their chariots and sped away to their ally-elites in other towns. The rest starved.


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