Monday, January 18, 2010

There's no such thing as a 'natural' disaster

As the Haiti disaster unfolds to ever greater levels of misery, it's worth flagging up a number of brilliant analyses by people on the left. Whilst I'm sure many people have already read these, I think they give us some interesting thinking matter with regards to international law. The two obviously important pieces are those by Greg Palast and Peter Hallward (but also see Lenin, Kasama and K-Punk) The central point of both of their arguments is that there is simply no such thing as a 'natural' disasters. 'Natural' disasters always occur inside of a social context which mediates and determines the effects of such 'natural' disasters. In Haiti's case this is no different, as Hallward notes:

The noble "international community" which is currently scrambling to send its "humanitarian aid" to Haiti is largely responsible for the extent of the suffering it now aims to reduce. Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti's people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's phrase) "from absolute misery to a dignified poverty" has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies ...

Haiti is now a country where, according to the best available study, around 75% of the population "lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% – four and a half million people – live on less than $1 per day". Decades of neoliberal "adjustment" and neo-imperial intervention have robbed its government of any significant capacity to invest in its people or to regulate its economy. Punitive international trade and financial arrangements ensure that such destitution and impotence will remain a structural fact of Haitian life for the foreseeable future.

It is this poverty and powerlessness that account for the full scale of the horror in Port-au-Prince today. Since the late 1970s, relentless neoliberal assault on Haiti's agrarian economy has forced tens of thousands of small farmers into overcrowded urban slums. Although there are no reliable statistics, hundreds of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents now live in desperately sub-standard informal housing, often perched precariously on the side of deforested ravines. The selection of the people living in such places and conditions is itself no more "natural" or accidental than the extent of the injuries they have suffered.

This is absolutely vital, and needs to be repeated again and again. However, from our perspective there is something else that has to be foregrounded, all of this takes place within a context structured by international law and international legal organisations. Here, I think it's useful to turn to Susan Marks' excellent piece 'Human Rights and the Bottom Billion' (2009 European Human Rights Law Review, 1: 37-49). What is vital about this piece is the way in which Marks engages with the types of arguments above (particularly with the work of Mike Davis), but also brings them into engagement with international law literature. She argues, that the conditions and relationships that produce these problems (poverty in her case, but the point holds more generally) are themselves deeply involved with international law and international legal institutions.

How is this borne out in the case of Haiti? Here, I think we have to return to China Miéville's brilliant piece on Haiti 'Multilateralism as Terror'. In this piece, Miéville - engaging with Peter Hallward's work on Haiti - shows the way in which the imperialist-backed coup in Haiti and the consequent destructive occupation was deeply complicit with international law and international lawyers. The coup, and the occupation, are phrased in uncontroversial language of UN Security Council Resolutions and are impeccably multilateral affairs. Of course, we absolutely have to go further than this. The IMF loans, and the brutal conditions that impose upon Haiti (with the attendant poverty exacerbating effects) are the creatures of international legal organisations and international legal regimes.

So 'natural' disasters, are obviously not natural. But when we look to the social context in which these disasters occur and are recieved, we must understand that international law - a constitutive force on the world stage - is a vitally important part of this context.

So, of course, the important thing to ask here is 'what is to be done?'. The absence of any widespread acknowledge of international law's role in 'natural' disasters seems to me to be a symptom of the 'anxiety of influence' that Susan Marks describes in her article 'State-Centrism, International Law and the Anxieties of Influence':
Viewed from this angle, the anxiety of influence felt by international lawyers is a not just a fear of irrelevance but a fear of relevance as well – not just a shock at the recognition of politics in law, but a shock at the recognition of law in politics. If this is right, then what is troubling is not only belatedness, but also primordiality, and not only indebtedness, but also responsibility. John Bolton and Richard Perle may like to think – or like us to think – that international law is irrelevant to the US administration, but John Yoo and Jay Bybee know better. But then, their intricately argued ‘torture memos’ only really confirm what historians can tell us anyway: that empire is a legal construct – not only encumbered by international law, but also partly constituted by it.
Now, in a sense this is entirely right and it is one of my favourite quotes. But perhaps we need to go a little bit further. Rather than talking about an 'anxiety of influence', might we (and I should thank Akbar Rasulov for pointing this out to me) speak of 'false consciousness' in the sense that Lukacs talks about. This is not the false consciousness of the working class that tricks it into not opposing capitalism, but rather the false consciousness of the ruling class, so as Lukacs says in History and Class Consciousness:
But the veil drawn over the nature of bourgeois society is indispensable to the bourgeoisie itself. For the insoluble internal contradictions of the system become revealed with, increasing starkness and so confront its supporters with a choice. Either they must consciously ignore insights which become increasingly urgent or else they must suppress their own moral instincts in order to be able to support with a good conscience an economic system that serves only their own interests.
I think this is important to note, because it points us to the fact that simply 'revealing' this to international lawyers is not enough. Precisely because of what is at stake here - the very ability for the international legal profession to continue to function qua a profession, 'revealing' stuff is not enough. Moreover (and this is perhaps a more important point), we have to consider those structural factors that intellectually those in the legal profession/academy from taking 'responsibility' for this connection. I've said more about this sort of thing elsewhere but my basic idea is that the shape of the legal form itself - an abstract formal relationship that reveals itself through concrete disputes, tends to abstract these things from their material context.

I think the K-Punk stuff linked to above is good here - in a rather oblique way. I think K-Punk is completely correct to summarise the liberal response to 'natural disasters' thusly:
Now is not the time for political discussion, we'll look at the long-term causes later .... But, since Band Aid this "emergency" temporality has become a permanent state of affairs, allowing neoliberalism to further strengthen its hegemony under the cloak of "post-politics".
I would argue though, that this effect is slightly different. Here, I'd want to draw on the idea of structural and subjective violence. In a sense situations like Haiti are the confluence of structural and subjective violence. There is a violence 'subjective' erruption of immediate violence (like an earthquake) that is recieved and conditioned within relationships of structural violence. What is fascinating is that international law frequently portrays itself as being 'incapable' of dealing with structural violence (and indeed of seeing it). When presented with a problem like poverty etc. in its 'structural' phase, international lawyers will frequently argue that these are problems that are too complex, too big etc. to be tackled by an immediate intervention, but have to move to an - ever-deferred - long time 'progressive realisation'. When the violent subjective erruption happens, this is when 'Band-Aid' politics come into play - abstracting all of these event from their material context.

What is interesting then, that in naturalising structural violence in the first place through the language of complexity etc. international law treats it as a necessary condition - thus it is generative of 'false necessity'. The moment at which the subjective violence occurs, this is rendered as a contigent fact outside of any political or material context.

This is perhaps problematic for a project of 'taking responsibility' for two reasons. Firstly, because the inability to 'take responsibility' isn't just a matter in our heads. It is at least partly generated by a the shape of the legal form. Secondly - and perhaps more importantly - in locating the problem in terms of 'responsibility' we are privileging (I think) writing as the site of political action. But how does 'taking responsibility' for the role of international law's role in imperialism work as a political intervention. Precisely because these issues are structural 'just' recognising things is not enough. If we have identified those structures which produce oppression and exploitation we also have to change, overturn and abolish these structures. As Fanon says (in Black Skin, White Masks):
In other words, the black man should no longer be confronted with the dilemma, turn white or disappear; but he should be able to take full cognizance of a possibility of existence. In other words, if a society makes difficulties for him because of his color, if in his dreams I establish the expression of an unconscious desire to change color, my objective will not be that of dissuading him from it by advising him to “keep his place”; on the contrary, my objective once he motivations have been brought into consciousness, will be to put him in a position to choose action (or passivity) with respect to the real sources of the conflict – that is towards social structures.
Work showing these connections is important precisely to put people in the position to choose is vital. But that is not per se political. What is political is taking a partisan position within the law - arguing relentlessly and inconsistently for Haiti (principled opportunism) - whilst also struggling for the ulimate abolition of those forms (including law itself) that produce these problems in the first place.


kjkj said...

Fantastically argued piece, Rob! I really enjoyed reading this, and obviously agree with your conclusions!

aka, Markoff Chaney said...

nice, one of my favorite posts you've put up, just very articulate justification for the use of its always political argument. awesome, man.