In the ruins of post-hurricane Puerto Rico, one fact remains clear: disaster capitalism will use this tragedy to its own advantage. The exploiters were on the march before Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall. Now that hurricane season has made a mess of the island, corporate interests will use the chance to score a profit. What is the devastation of nature next to the carnivorousness of man?
Per The Guardian, as Mayor Cruz of San Juan begged the world to not forget the island, the Junta—to use the local name for the Puerto Rican Fiscal Control Board—was applying the callous hand of austerity to the island. The Junta’s existence makes it so much more difficult for the Puerto Rican government to deliver assistance. Although the Junta has promised one billion, that’s far less than the island needs to knit their community back together. Yet Washington and the Junta don’t care. Collecting on Puerto Rico’s debt, you see, must come first. Human suffering is outside the concerns of their ledger. As The Nation noted, the Board’s reason for being was
... to allow the collection of debt by bondholders, thus preventing disruption of the municipal-bond market, a crucial area of speculation for America’s financial industry. La Junta’s austerity measures would have caused a contraction of the economy, not growth—indeed, before the storms, islanders had already seen a deterioration in their daily lives. Hurricane Maria has moved all of this into fast-forward, and the always fallacious promise of PROMESA has become a cruel joke.
The Junta’s concern, before and after the storm, seems to be funneling as much money into private hands as quickly as possible. Here is what the Junta apparently thinks Puerto Rican salvation looks like: bribing rich and powerful companies to take over the island. The austerity board closed schools, gutted the minimum wage down to four dollars, and slashed public health funds by nearly a third. The Guardian again:
Members of the Junta have already been promoting the privatization of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure for some time now, especially its electrical utility company, Prepa, and many feel that the deadly blow dealt by Maria could facilitate privatization efforts that many Puerto Ricans oppose. There is also concern that the dictates of the Junta to generate economic growth in order to service the debt could lead to recovery efforts being concentrated in Puerto Rico’s tourist sector at the expense of the rest of the territory. Following catastrophic weather events, San Juan, as the capital city and a major tourist destination, tends to receive greater attention during recovery efforts.
No wonder Trump was so cavalier about Puerto Rico, telling the world that their debts must be paid. The rapacious logic of the billionaire class was on parade—Wall Street must eat more before the destitute citizens of the island are allowed to eat at all. Washington could help, if they cared. If they had the will. They’ve already approved billions of dollars for Houston. Are the lives of Puerto Ricans worth so much less?
Let us not speak of our powerlessness before the storm. Not in a country which just delivered $700 billion to the Pentagon. Congress makes the laws. They could rule tomorrow that there is no debt, or that the debt can be suspended until Puerto Rico recovers, or that Puerto Rico can pay as they go. As the Guardian noted, Congress could even roll back the Jones Act, which mandates that the island use American vessels in their docks. Why doesn’t Congress act? Because there is a deeper problem. Our society acts under the spell of disaster capitalism. Devastation is lucrative.
Naomi Klein documented this phenomenon years ago. In the Shock Doctrine and a host of articles, Klein described how powerful interests use societal calamity to ring up profit. In a July article, she noted how atmospheres “of chaos and destablisation” breed a unique form of predation. Klein first glimpsed this practice in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans twelve years ago. In her Guardian article two months ago, she wrote that she
started to notice the same tactics in disaster zones around the world. I used the term “shock doctrine” to describe the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock – wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes or natural disasters – to push through radical pro-corporate measures, often called “shock therapy”. Though Trump breaks the mould in some ways, his shock tactics do follow a script, and one that is familiar from other countries that have had rapid changes imposed under the cover of crisis.
The strategy, she notes, is part and parcel of the larger neoliberal vision of worldly goodness. Only when buck-gouging has been inserted into every crevice of human life can there be peace in the valley. No matter how horrific the situation, there’s always a dollar to be made and a helpful regulation to shred. The practitioners of disaster capitalism, like vapers, have no shame. And why not? War and mass misery have always been profitable. After the rainfall in Texas, Best Buy notched up a big win for its shareholders by hocking bottles of water at the winning price of $42 dollars. What a bold, fresh-faced move for the cause of avarice.
This strategy has been a silent partner to the imposition of neoliberalism for more than 40 years. Shock tactics follow a clear pattern: wait for a crisis (or even, in some instances, as in Chile or Russia, help foment one), declare a moment of what is sometimes called “extraordinary politics”, suspend some or all democratic norms – and then ram the corporate wishlist through as quickly as possible
Our political culture gives this misery-hunting a free pass. It’s strange. Conservatives and centrists accuse the left of wanting to rebuild society from the ground up. And yet whenever emergency strikes, it is always the right and center who dream of building on the bones of poor neighborhoods—as if mega-suffering was a blank check to gentrify everything. Shortly after Katrina, a Louisiana Republican Congressman, Richard Baker, raved that God had helped them cleanup public housing.
After New Orleans was devastated, David Brooks published an op-ed, saying the crisis had delivered “a silver lining,” and “created as close to a blank slate as we get in human affairs” by disrupting ” the patterns that have led one generation to follow another into poverty.” And these were the most obvious celebrations. A host of gleeful conservative visions filled the air after the calamity in Louisiana. We’re about to see a repeat of that in San Juan and the surrounding countryside.
Our leaders, so distant from the daily reality of most American life, do not understand how average citizens work and survive. Nor can they understand the unpleasant climates—economic and ecological—that bedevil Puerto Rico. It’s an ill wind that blows from the Atlantic. If our leaders don’t feel it yet, they will—and sooner, rather than later.