Top > Media > Ministry of Information] vol.15


Ministry of Information

Mary Taylor

Mary Taylor makes things happen and watches people in New York City and Budapest. Founding member of the Open University and of Think Tank X, artist and situation-maker, she teaches anthropology at Hunter College and Cooper Union in New York.

Ministry of Information] vol.15




In 2007 Naomi Klein argued in her book The Shock Doctrine-The Rise of Disaster Capitalism that the introduction of shock to a population, working much like the effects of shock on an individual, was a technique being employed in the spread of neoliberal policies around the world.
Just a year before, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Neil Smith had argued in There's No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster that the framing of Katrina as a natural disaster had the effect of obscuring the human origins of the tragedy that followed. First, "the world has recently experienced dramatic warming, which scientists increasingly attribute to airborne emissions of carbon, and around the world Katrina is widely seen as evidence of socially induced climatic change" ( Second, Smith points out, not only is vulnerability to such differentiated by factors such as race and class, but both the market and "successive administrations from the federal to the urban scale" had "made the poorest population in New Orleans most vulnerable" by cutting the New Orleans Corps of Engineers budget "by 80%, thus preventing pumping and levee improvements" (
Finally, despite the well-known force of the hurricane days in advance, no preparations were made to help citizens. "When the National Guard did arrive", Smith writes, " it was quickly apparent that they were working under orders to control the city militarily and protect property rather than to bring aid to the desperate" (

As Klein and Smith both argued, Katrina's disaster paved the way for a remaking of the built environment of New Orleans through an unprecedented death, displacement, and dispossession of human beings. "At all phases, up to and including reconstruction, disasters don't simply flatten landscapes, washing them smooth. Rather they deepen and erode the ruts of social difference they encounter", Smith writes. Disaster reconstruction invariably cuts deeper the ruts and grooves of social oppression and exploitation.  "Developers descended on New Orleans with wallets bulging and chops smacking." before family members could even account for the dead.  "In anticipation that the city will be rebuilt with higher and better levees and with many fewer working class and African Americans, New Orleans two weeks after Katrina already looked like a developers' gold rush (Streitfeld 2005; Rivlin 2005)." ( Many New Orleanians, "displaced, with no private property to reclaim, face lower wages, escalating costs for scarce housing, and as the initial sympathy wears away, increased stigmatization (" see these developers and these corporations as the "true looters."

Now, on to Haiti.

On January 12th, Haiti was shaken by an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. The estimated death toll as I write lies at 120.000 and is likely to go up. Only a month before, Haiti had joined 41 other members of Alliance of Small Island States at the Copenhagen climate change summits to push "negotiators from powerful developed and developing countries to recognize their right to exist and for emissions cuts strong enough to protect their homes and lives".

One might ask "what does this tragic earthquake in Haiti have to do with climate change?" Although not caused by human activity, the earthquake has created a scenario that presages in many ways the effects that human-made "natural disaster" can have in the age of disaster capitalism. As we continue, keep in mind Smith's attention to vulnerability and to post disaster reconstruction.

The level of the sea is rising measurably as arctic ice melts due to an overall warming of the earth's temperature. Because of sea level rise, small island states like Haiti will be particularly affected by the climate change that we now face. Indeed, new studies suggest that a mere rise of 2-3 degrees celcius could result in the sea rising 20 to 30 feet ( This is why the Alliance of Small Island States sought in Copenhagen  "to secure a strengthened second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol and put forward a new Protocol to be adopted under the Convention which would result in legally binding targets for the USA."

Despite the well established knowledge that the largest part of the detrimental human impact on the environment originates in the "first world", it will be these "third world" countries that will pay the dearest. It is "a cruel irony that without adequate global commitments, the countries contributing least to global warming would be the most affected by its consequences. Among other developing countries, small islands as well as coastal, low-lying and African countries already vulnerable to drought and desertification" [are] at the highest risk" (

The way in which Haiti is transformed in the after math of the earthquake is thus a fable for the future. As Smith would warn, vulnerability to the effects of "Natural disaster" and post disaster reconstruction in places like Haiti must be seen historically.

The legacy of colonialism that placed the nation in a position of debt since its independence in 1804 must be calculated into its ability to address the disaster.
This is no place to give a deep history of Haiti, so a few sentences must suffice in to paint a portrait of these conditions. Haiti was the first independent state in Latin America, declaring its independence in 1804 after over a decade of revolution. But it paid a high price for this honor. In 1825 the government agreed to make reparations to French slaveholders in the amount of 150 million francs (reduced in 1838 to 60 million francs), in exchange for French recognition of its independence. This debt (in this case to French banks) set Haiti on a path of debt that would become a model for newly independent postcolonial states. The United States occupied the island from 1915 to 1937, leaving Haiti with dictator Duvalier, who spent the massive funds he borrowed on his own narrow group of favorites. Finally, in the pattern so familiar to postcolonial states, the funds received from The World Bank and IMF required Haiti to slash tariffs and subsidies, and other protectionist policies, and disinvest in health, education, and essential infrastructure, such as running water.
Instead of a recognition of the historical conditions that have led to Haiti's particularly harsh vulnerability, news coverage since the earthquake, while asking for charity, is replete with words like chaos, violence and poverty that function to put the blame on Haitians for their misery. Although there has been an outpouring of sympathy expressed through monetary and other aid, there is little analysis of what made Haiti so vulnerable to begin with, and there is a little talk of how to avoid the kind of reconstruction seen in New Orleans.

It is unclear what to make of what some are labeling a military occupation by the United States. Should we be talking of DISASTER IMPERIALISM.

Pointing to Iraq and New Orleans, Klein notes that the disasters themselves are major new markets ( The military-industrial complex "has expanded and morphed into what is best understood as a disaster-capitalism complex, in which all conflict- and disaster-related functions (waging war, securing borders, spying on citizens, rebuilding cities, treating traumatized soldiers) can be performed by corporations at a profit. And this complex is not satisfied merely to feed off the state, the way traditional military contractors do; it aims, ultimately, to replace core functions of government with its own profitable enterprises, as it did in Baghdad's Green Zone" (

New Orleans "became a domestic laboratory for the same kind of government run by contractors that was pioneered in Iraq". The biggest contracts were secured by  "the familiar Baghdad gang: Halliburton's KBR unit received a $60 million contract to reconstruct military bases along the coast. Blackwater was hired to protect FEMA operations, with the company billing an average of $950 a day per guard. Parsons, infamous for its sloppy work in Iraq, was brought in for a major bridge-construction project in Mississippi. Fluor, Shaw, Bechtel, CH2M Hill--all top contractors in Iraq--were handed contracts on the Gulf Coast to provide mobile homes to evacuees just ten days after the levees broke. Their contracts ended up totaling $3.4 billion, no open bidding required" (

This is the new model of reconstruction. "Privatized disaster response has become one of the hottest industries in the South. Just one year after Hurricane Katrina, a slew of new corporations had entered the market, promising safety and security should the next Big One hit" (

"Natural Disaster" hits. People scramble to survive under the weight of historical conditions that have robbed them of autonomy and the wealth of their labor and natural resources. The US military moves in. Reconstruction begins.

Send your energies and monies to Haiti. But don't stop there. Question what reconstruction means. Which reconstruction? For Whom?

Blog on debt forgiveness for Haiti:

Article on Disaster Capitalism:

Klein/Cuaron film The Shock Doctrine:

Website for the Alliance of Small Nations: