Coronavirus: Rebecca Solnit on how disasters shatter the status quo

What will America look like on the other side of coronavirus?

It’s hard to imagine a crisis of this magnitude not altering our society in profound ways. But the shape those changes might take is very much in question.

America’s hyper-individualistic culture may be harder to sustain after this, given the collective sacrifices we’ve all been asked to make. The idea of a universal basic income (UBI), long considered a nonstarter in American politics, seems way more plausible now. A health care system that ties coverage to employment and leaves people vulnerable when the economy tanks is certainly harder to defend at this point.

Rebecca Solnit has been writing about the social implications of disasters for years. Her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, was about how crises reveal our deep need for purpose and solidarity and create opportunities for community that are rarely found in everyday life.

They also, as she argued in a recent New York Times piece, pave the way for revolutionary transformations. “Every disaster shakes loose the old order,” Solnit writes. “The sudden catastrophe changes the rules and demands new and different responses, but what those will be are the subject of a battle.”

I spoke to Solnit, who has just released a new memoir, by phone about this disaster and how it might change our society forever. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You’ve argued that moments like this, moments of real crisis, present rare opportunities for dramatic change. How so?

Rebecca Solnit

The first thing that a disaster represents is a failure of authorities to protect their people. It’s a sense that the people in charge aren’t really in charge because the crisis has outstripped their capacity to respond. That’s one layer. And, of course, there’s a huge difference between those who respond well and those who respond badly.

Secondly, everybody’s life suddenly changes and often it’s a moment in which people become far clearer about what really matters and what doesn’t. I remember just before 9/11 there were a lot of essentially trivial scandals in the headlines and nobody was thinking about our foreign policy in the Middle East and the ways in which the Bush administration was failing on a grand scale. And then all of a sudden things crystallize for people in a dramatic way.

Sean Illing

But what does that change look like on a more individual level, a more personal level?

Rebecca Solnit

Well, I’ve written about a transformed internal sense where people feel closer to mortality, their own and other’s mortality, in the ways that can make them feel it’s more urgent to lead life according to their values, according to what really matters.

But beyond that, we suddenly all have something in common. Some of the real and some of the arbitrary walls between us fall away. There’s often a deep sense of communitarian fellowship that can be profound in these moments of shared suffering and sacrifice. You can see it time and again, whether it’s a local disaster like Hurricane Katrina or an earthquake in San Francisco or some kind of international crisis that devours a whole country or region.

Sean Illing

I was in Louisiana when Katrina hit and it was striking to watch this storm shake everyone out of their collective stupor in such a radical way. It was like the floor had suddenly dropped out beneath all of us, and everyone had to attend to the present at the same time.

Rebecca Solnit

Yes! Disasters shake us up. I’ve called them a crash course in Buddhism. You’re suddenly aware of ephemerality and interdependence, the fleetingness of all things, and the connection of all things. Often that connection is a deep empathic, emotional connection that people don’t necessarily feel for their neighbors and people undergoing the same experience. We often experience everyone around us primarily in terms of their differences rather than the commonalities. A disaster changes that in an instant.

Sean Illing

I want to stick to this theme of government failure and the potential for societal transformation. My sense is that these moments have a way of heightening the contradictions of a society and forcing a collision with them. I’m curious what contradictions or illusions you think have been shattered by this pandemic.

Rebecca Solnit

That’s a great question and a big one. I think economic inequality is in stark relief right now and other things like the toxicity of domestic violence. Home is supposed to be the safest place we can be — it’s where we’re all confined right now — and we’re being reminded that for some of us it’s the most dangerous place to be.

Homelessness is another issue. San Francisco, where I live, has a major homeless problem and now all of a sudden it has found the capacity to put large percentages of our homeless populations into hotel rooms. We’re supposed to believe something like that is impossible but in moments like this, we can see that it’s extremely possible.

The status quo perpetuates itself by convincing us that change is inconceivable, impossible, and unnecessary, and then suddenly it becomes conceivable, possible, and necessary. This is the biggest illusion that gets shattered in these moments.

Can I say one other thing about this?

Sean Illing

Sure.

Rebecca Solnit

It’s interesting how a disaster does what activists are always trying to do — point out the contradictions. How does the medical system actually function? Who does it leave behind? How does the economy function? Who does it leave behind? In the aftermath of something like this, the answers are so clear. Who benefits from the status quo is so clear.

And so you’ll always have the winners of the old system pushing hard to reassemble it after it’s shattered in front of our eyes. But the status quo is dead. And the rest of us are saying, “Let’s go forward. Let’s not go back. Let’s go another way.” I do feel like we already had an economy in which so many people’s lives were so profoundly desperate, including in this country, whether it was hungry children, people crushed by medical debt, or dying for lack of medical coverage, and working full-time and unable to make basic living expenses without the right to organize at work.

But now that the contradictions are heightened, to use your word, we at least have a chance to see what’s broken and build something new.

Sean Illing

Well, we’re in an interesting situation right now, one that could break any number of ways. We’ve witnessed what I think by any fair measure is a massive failure of government to protect the population. Will we, in retrospect, see this as a turning point of the sort we haven’t seen since Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union where the collapse of faith in government was enough to pave the way for a new order?

Rebecca Solnit

One of the bizarre things about life under Trump is that there’s the 40 percent who will believe in him no matter what. A lot of my friends have been joking that a pandemic is essentially shooting a lot of people on Fifth Avenue and getting away with it. A lot of us were already so disillusioned that almost nothing could disillusion us more.

It’s been an odd situation, the long crisis of Trump, in that there’s so little movement. But I think this may remind people of the importance of good government and not “Big Government” in the ways Republicans railed about it, but adequately sized government that can deal with crises.

Of course, the great hope of a lot of us, me included, is that this awareness will transfer to climate change where we’ve been asking people to make profound changes in everyday life, mostly for things that haven’t happened yet or are impacting other places and people. Maybe this will be a crash course in thinking systematically and the importance of preparing for things that haven’t happened yet.

I don’t know how this doesn’t undermine the argument that we don’t need government, that we don’t need to plan for the Black Swans, the rare but powerful events, that we don’t need universal health care and the like. We’ve had this cowboy philosophy since Reagan that says we don’t need anything but ourselves — that can’t survive contact with a real disaster.

Sean Illing

Maybe you’re right, but I’m not so sure. I think a lot about how reality intersects with ideology, especially when the gap between the two becomes impossible to ignore. And people always seem to find ways to keep their bullshit story about the world intact no matter how deeply reality intrudes.

Rebecca Solnit

There are always people who claim the right to dominate facts and truth and evidence. There are always people who treat facts and science like they aren’t non-negotiable things we have to respond to. It’s a kind of free market mentality applied to … everything. But it’s just a way of bullying the facts into submission. That’s all Trumpism is.

But a pandemic is unique in that it can’t be bullied into submission. The virus can’t be wished away or ignored. You have to respond to it on its terms. It’s contagious, it’s deadly, it does this, it requires that, it won’t go away by saying “We can all go back to work now.” It just doesn’t work like that.

In the end, I’m always interested in possibilities. I look for hope in all the dark stuff, and I focus on the absolute unknowability of the future. The way that you and I and everyone else in most parts of the world are living today is something that was pretty unimaginable on New Year’s Day 2020. And so, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know this is a “reality bites back” situation and a lot of people are quite possibly waking up to what matters and what works and what doesn’t matter and what doesn’t work.

Going forward, a lot of what happens in terms of transforming societies depends on transforming governmental systems and that depends on how we tell the story of what happened. I’m hoping we tell the story of how limited this pandemic could have been in this country, how different it could have all been had we had a competent government that took it seriously rather than refuse to do what was necessary to slow it down.

Sean Illing

What do you think America looks like after coronavirus? How will the fault lines of American life be altered?

Rebecca Solnit

A huge portion of people lost their living and, presumably, we’re not going to let them become homeless and starve to death in those numbers. Preventing this from happening is going to mean recognizing how many jobs were not providing basic necessities as people worked full-time for a minimum wage and still couldn’t afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the US, still had kids who went hungry, et cetera. I think we’re going to have to look at universal basic incomes and other social safety nets that allow people to survive in the free market system we have.

We’re going to have to think about economies in radical new ways. The argument for basic health care, for universal health care, for stronger social programs, for relief from crushing debt, for housings rights for vulnerable communities — this isn’t abstract anymore, it’s all around us. I don’t think that the pandemic makes the case for us, but I think it makes the case we’ve already been making a lot more urgent and obvious. We will be pushing back against people who will be denying the reality of that suffering, blaming the victims for it, or coming up with false solutions for it.

I guess I’ll wind all this up with one of my favorite anecdotes, which is about the Native American leader Sitting Bull. After his defeat, he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West circus and was well compensated but gave all his money away to distraught, starving street urchin kids who were coming to peek through holes in the tents and hang around outside.

His pronouncement on what he saw could stand for capitalism in general. “The white man is good at production but bad at distribution.” That’s apocryphal, but I’ve always felt that it addresses the fact that we’ve always had enough to go around, but we’ve always created systems that prevent it from going around. I hope this crisis forces us to see that problem with fresh eyes — and maybe also see the solutions.

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