The function of Hobbesian ideology in the response to natural disasters


I have been reading some interesting stuff about the “securitization” of food distribution in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, and thought I’d share.  If you would kindly open up your Hobbes to chapter 13 or 17:

Hobbes tells us that without an established political authority–without “the sword”–a war of all against all is inevitable.  Humans naturally want “dominion” over others, or at the very least, want to pursue their own goals without interference.  So unless someone enforces modes of social cooperation on us, mass chaos will ensue.  This is a common assumption, and one that I rarely hear called into question.  One could go so far as to call it common sense; it’s “just obvious,” as we like to say.  And it is confirmed in the aftermath of natural disasters, as we continually hear stories about roving bands of looters, of young men stealing supplies, etc., that always emerge once a disaster has caused social order to break down. 

Indeed, this is such a widely held position that it guides our political actors in how they respond to these disasters.  After the Haiti earthquake, the U.S. military insisted that security had to be a top priority.    Before actually distributing aid, one needed to re-establish basic social order, or else the distribution of such aid would simply contribute to more chaos (perhaps, I suppose, because such distribution would give the people something to fight over).  Secretary of Defense William Gates, for example, refused calls to engage in air drops of water and food supplies saying: “It seems to me that’s a formula for contributing to chaos rather than preventing it. Without having any structure on the ground, in terms of distribution, that an air drop is simply going to lead to riots as people go after that stuff.”

But my point is not just that Hobbes is alive and well in our responses to natural disasters; rather, I want to raise the possibility that this whole story might in fact be false and/or simply a self-fulfililng prophecy.  First, I direct your attention here.  The University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center has actually done a series of investigations of the aftermath of natural disasters.  What they find is that the Hobbesian story about how the total breakdown of social order leads to mass violence is simply not true.  In the aftermath of natural disasters, there is actually a significant uptick of prosocial behavior.   People often quickly establish new forms of social organization, which in turn, generates more social trust.  They cooperate to find survivors; they establish camps to care for the wounded and distribute needed supplies; and they often find and share whatever food and water are available. 

In other words, as Russell Honore puts it in this video, in the aftermath of natural disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti) the people function as their own first responders.  But rather than mobilize or utilize these networks as they emerge, security forces nearly always eliminate them.  The issue is not just that the security forces spend too much time establishing security (rather than providing needed aid), though this is a significant problem (this link refers to a now famous story in which doctors were told to abandon a medical facility out of worries about security).  Rather, the issue is also that in creating this security, they tend to eliminate the forms of social cooperation that have already emerged.  They break up existing communities in order to administer aid more efficiently, which tends to render the populace more helpless; and by replacing (rather than fostering) the nascent forms of social cooperation that emerge security forces might in fact diminish social trust and increase the forms of social atomization that lead to increased violence.

We might therefore want to say that Hobbes has gotten the issue exactly backwards: he argues that we need security because without it, there will be social atomization and violence, but perhaps it is the other way around.  Perhaps it is the arrival of security forces that leads to the forms of helplessness and social atomization that produce violence.  Perhaps, in other words, the “securitization” of aid relief actually produces the very behaviors that make it necessary in the first place. 

Thus, if this hypothesis is correct, there might be rather pernicious effects to thinking that humans are “naturally selfish” and that the only way we’ll engage in social behavior is at the point of a sword.  Not only might this idea lead us to miss or ignore important events (such as the spontaneous development of new networks of social cooperation), but it might lead to behaviors and policies that make this (violent) selfishness more likely.

Hat tip to John Protevi, who first sketched out this line of argument in this thread.


One Response to “The function of Hobbesian ideology in the response to natural disasters”

  1. Hobbes and Natural Disasters | Eastman Concept of Power Blog Says:

    […] Back in 2010, I wrote a short blog post on the role of Hobbessian assumptions in the response to the massive Haitian earthquake. Since this issue came up in class, I’m linking to the post here. […]

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