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Occupy Sandy and the Future of Socialism

The impromptu relief efforts in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, as in every crisis, quashed the notions that humans are inherently selfish.

At St. Margaret Mary’s Church in the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island, Matthew 5:3 adorns the back of the congregation, declaring the poor blessed in spirit, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The locals, however, seemed to think that Her Majesty’s Spirit was plagued by pangs of torturous anxiety roughly two weeks after Superstorm Sandy – donations of clothing and blankets flooded the church’s pews.

But whatever one makes of the promise of posthumous bliss as a reward for pious poverty, the scene portrayed a less controversial tenet of Christianity – being one’s brother’s keeper. The impromptu relief effort at the church and beyond – as in every crisis – quashed the notions that humans are inherently selfish and that they believe profit-maximizing produces the optimal social outcome.

There might be no better example of a machine that exploits the selfless gene than the Red Cross.

The clothing dump also demonstrated that instinctual altruism can easily be counterproductive and, perhaps, not even selfless. The gifts – piles upon piles of them – were depriving the battered community of space it desperately needed. Donations appeared to be more the result of an attic-cleaning than a well-thought-out desire to help.

Just outside the church, another scene of clumsily administered relief was on display. At the nearest intersection, a Red Cross van announced, via megaphone, “hot soup!” to no one in particular. Two blocks in either direction, locals were ladling warm meals to anyone seeking a hearty eat. The truck left not long after arriving. It fed no one.

It seemed fitting that the Red Cross showed up outside the church as the latter struggled with a misallocation of goodwill. There might be no better example of a machine that exploits the selfless gene than the Red Cross. Major catastrophes – from 9/11 to Katrina, from the 2010 Haitian earthquake to the 2004 Asian tsunami – are often closely followed by criticism of the organization. Sandy was no exception.

At the heart of the problem is how the Red Cross manipulates information to perpetuate itself. Two weeks after Sandy, Reuters published an extensive article detailing how the Red Cross’ gargantuan war chest was, and never is, intended to be allocated toward comprehensive recovery. The organization’s primary goals are “to supply food and run shelters, not to provide transportation, arrange cleanup operations or coordinate last-minute volunteers.” Its largest undertaking, financially speaking, is blood and plasma service. In its 2010-2011 fiscal year, it spent $2.21 billion to help maintain 40 percent of the US blood supply – a vital service, to be sure.

Yet the Red Cross appeals heavily for donations when disasters strike and is designated by Congress as the only nonpublic entity “with the responsibility ‘to lead and coordinate efforts to provide mass care, housing, and human services after disasters that require federal assistance.’ ” As such, it was a magnet for donations and, perhaps, the most visible relief organization during the Sandy cleanup. Concurrently, it endlessly frustrated the locals. Anecdotes of Red Cross woe reported by Reuters included its refusal to help a 90-year-old woman who asked for assistance moving to a heated shelter. It did, however, manage to find the money – $181,000 – to put up volunteers at a swanky Manhattan hotel in the middle of November.

As Nick Pinto, then of the Village Voice, chronicled, the Red Cross’ operations, or lack thereof, were acutely felt by victims in the immediate aftermath of the storm. “New Yorkers living in the cold, in the dark, without food or medicine, who had received no help or human contact at all” were furious. Colleen Dalton, a resident of a ravaged working-class Rockaways neighborhood, told Pinto she felt betrayed by the government and the Red Cross. “The Red Cross stinks,” she said. “All that money, they should have been here. I don’t think anyone in my family will donate to them again.” Another Rockaways resident named Tina Winston told him how one Red Cross truck pulled up in the neighborhood, but its operators “turned people away because they said it wasn’t life or death.”

Backing up anecdotes of ineptitude are reams of official inquiries. In May, as a state attorney general probe was in the works, the organization came under fire for revealing that it hadn’t spent over one-third of the money it raised in the late fall for storm relief – its Sandy relief kitty accumulated roughly $299 million, according to the July report by AG Eric Schneiderman. In July, the Red Cross came under fire again for allegedly withdrawing aid to 1,000 victims who said they had been promised grants worth up to $10,000. In October, The Red Cross, having spent 90 percent of $309 million for Sandy relief, agreed to dole out another $6 million to Sandy victims, but only after more needling by Schneiderman’s office.

What made Occupy Sandy so effective was that its relationship with victims was based on the very characteristic that saw criticism leveled at it throughout the occupation of Zucotti Park – horizontalism.

Thus, long after reporters had left the battered neighborhoods, the relief organization continued to infuriate victims. And when, three months after the storm, the Red Cross did agree to fund long-term relief – a mold remediation program in partnership with the city government and other charities – it acutely underfunded the initiative. “The program was established with the goal of providing remediation to 2,000 homes throughout the city,” Pinto reported for Al-Jazeera in October, and it had already worked on 1,800 domiciles. But roughly 30,000 to 40,000 homes were adjudged to be in need of the treatment. The $15 million initially allocated by the Red Cross and a handful of other organizations seemed to be window dressing.

Solidarity, Not Charity

What made the Red Cross’s failures stand out even more than normal during Sandy was an alternative to rigid, corporate charity that emerged during the recovery. Occupy Sandy, an organization run by Occupy Wall Street volunteers, was operating alongside the Red Cross and winning numerous accolades from citizens and unlikely politicians.

What made Occupy Sandy so effective was that its relationship with victims was based on the very characteristic that saw criticism leveled at it throughout the occupation of Zucotti Park – horizontalism. At lightning-quick orientations, organizers drilled into volunteers’ heads that they must remain cognizant of victims’ needs – you don’t know what they need more than they do, they said, unless you can provide an expert opinion they are clearly lacking. Don’t make any promises, they added, but focus on listening and offering what you can. It’s why Occupy volunteers, including this author, were helping St. Margaret Mary’s church clean up prior donations instead of offering soup to no one in particular – an Occupy expedition had set out to Staten Island the day before and asked around to see if the movement, based in Brooklyn, could be useful. Occupy organizers were not just there to dump help they deemed appropriate and then go on their merry ways; they first sought to learn how to be of long-term help, and then sought the requisite personnel and materiel.

Occupy Sandy did have obvious shortcomings. “Occupy,” Pinto noted a week after the storm, “is not equipped to restore power to the pitch-black streets and stairwells of Red Hook and the Rockaways. Occupiers don’t have heavy machinery or any sort of emergency-response expertise. They’ve never done this before.” But this observation, if anything, was only made because Occupy was putting itself out there in the void left by establishment relief machines.

Insufficient though it may have been in the aftermath of a gargantuan storm, the help and solidarity were deeply appreciated. Jeff Vielandi – with Dalton, co-owner of a home cleaned by Occupy volunteers – expressed to Pinto what the organization meant to him.

“Whatever I lost here, I gained more than I lost,” he said, as Pinto described it, “choking back tears.”

“We went through hairy times. But these kids took my head out of my hands.”

I saw both the successes and the limitations of Occupy Sandy first hand.

Being seen and heard offered victims emotional relief in some cases, real material relief or some peace of mind in others; or, at the very least, information they required to recover on their own terms.

The shortcomings were obvious right when, in November 2012, I walked into its main hub, the Church of St Luke & St Matthew at 520 Clinton Ave. Organizers seemed overwhelmed by the volume of people who turned up and sometimes struggled to find something for volunteers to do. Most of those who did volunteer, myself included, could only offer a limited amount of time, rendering valuable experience useless as quickly as it was gained. When I was dispatched to the Rockaways the day before heading out to Staten Island, there weren’t enough trained medical professionals and social workers for me to accompany on a census-gathering. Another volunteer and I were relegated to wandering Breezy Point in an attempt to make ourselves useful.

But even then, I found that the Occupy mantra made a positive impact. While it might be difficult to quantify in an empirical sense, being seen and heard offered victims emotional relief in some cases, real material relief or some peace of mind in others; or, at the very least, information they required to recover on their own terms. Aid recipients I met and helped included: a Rockaways woman who asked for photographs of water damage (and later received them via email); her neighbor who wanted to borrow a cellphone to find an elusive FEMA official; a woman from Boston who had called Occupy Sandy, asking for help locating her missing aunt on that street; a woman at a Midland Beach gathering who, upon approach, asked for construction materials and cleaning supplies; and elderly residents in the same neighborhood who were grateful after being given a small parcel of the latter. The magnitude of all these random acts of solidarity might have been relatively miniscule, but they were all needed – something that can’t be said for traditional charities’ help.

And they can be easily scaled. In February 2013, the group claimed to have filled 27,000 meal requests and reported assisting 3,400 residents with medical help, financial assistance, repairs and basic supplies with a mere $1.34 million – roughly 1 percent of the entire Red Cross payroll and less than the sum of three Red Cross executives’ salaries in 2012. It’s not hard to imagine that an Occupy-inspired relief organization could learn from Sandy and help a greater number of people should another storm strike New York in the near future.

Nor has it taken the threat of another storm to begin the scaling and organizing. Occupy Sandy-inspired groups are attempting to come full circle, back to their Occupy Wall Street roots. Their efforts aren’t without controversy. On April 30, 2013, The New York Times report on Occupy Sandy noted that some volunteers and aid recipients appeared uncomfortable with the group’s “political action classes.” But without offering an Agitation 101, without organization, long-lasting relief is unobtainable. It’s no coincidence that the Rockaways, Staten Island and Red Hook are still hurting while lower Manhattan – also one of the hardest hit parts of the city – was up and running at near full strength in a matter of weeks.

In a bid to strengthen communities for the next onslaught, be it natural or manmade, organizers have reported undertaking a number of initiatives. One group in the Rockaways has laid the groundwork to develop five worker-owned businesses – a construction company, a bakery, a health food store, an entertainment collective and a restaurant. Another is using open-source methodology in a bid to help local relief groups record and document best recovery practices. Another has reported using leftover funds for participatory budgeting. They might be scattershot – infinitesimally minuscule in the grand scheme of things – but these projects, if completed, could have impacts far beyond the neighborhoods where they’re located, if only through reports of the deeds.

Survival of the Collectivist

Lasting relief certainly won’t be delivered by the Red Cross, if its connections are any indication. The organization’s social network is riddled with multinational corporations embracing the reckless parasitism that softened up certain neighborhoods for Sandy’s wrath in the first place. The record of corporations who gave more than $1 million after the storm contains some of the most shameful megabanks, arms contractors and oil companies – Bank of America, Boeing, Chevrolet, Citigroup, Con Agra, Exxon Mobil, J.P. Morgan Chase, Northrop Grumman, Target, University of Phoenix, Walmart, and Wells Fargo are among the most recognizable of the worst offenders.

These ventures abhor resilience, and not in a Schumpertarian “Creative Destruction” way. Elites have required a permanently dispossessed untouchable caste ready to rent its labor for crumbs since the inception of capitalism – when enclosure movements in Europe forced people off common lands. As early-industrial era English economist Arthur Young said in 1771, “everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” He was only one of many early capitalist thinkers who advocated for indigence as an engine of industrial progress. Michael Perelman documented many more examples of this in his book The Invention of Capitalism. As Yasha Levine described in a review, Adam Smith himself estimated that “a factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?” Thus was the free market built upon coercion.

Nor is it much of a choice for the influence-peddling classes today, when it comes to rejecting policies that would strengthen society at the foundation, even if they could justify supporting them through self-interest. Single-payer healthcare, robust public housing, guaranteed minimum incomes and other initiatives could help individual firms’ profit margins by bolstering consumers’ disposable income and driving down the cost of living. But it would give managers and shareholders less of an ability to lord over their serfs.

Why these companies would promote charity, then, is that there needs to be some basic level of comfort for capitalism to be viable. Red Cross trucks apparently aimlessly meandering after Sandy seemed to playing the role of ruling class sentinel, ensuring the masses had just enough to refrain from rioting. The organization practically admitted as much when it refused to help Rockaways residents except in matters of “life or death.”

Corporations additionally get to benefit from sponsorship by flogging their munificence to middle-class consumers. The Red Cross invites multinationals to fold caring into their brands through marketing and fundraising partnerships using its world renowned logo – “cultural capitalism”-style anesthetizing.

“In the very consumerist act,” as Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian Marxist philosopher, explained the phenonemon, “you buy your redemption from being a consumerist.” It is, he argued “a remedy that is part of the disease,” comparing its purveyors to “the worst slave owners . . . those who were kind to their slaves.”

Collective survival being an evolutionary advantage holds up to basic logic – polities that meet citizens’ needs are more liable to survive paradigmatic stress tests.

One needn’t look further than the Red Cross-Citibank “ThankYou Network” collaboration to know what Zizek meant and how his analysis applies to the post-Sandy narrative. Any sort of relief peddled by capitalist elites will only, at best, be fleeting.

Fortunately for the horizontalists, there appears to be an evolutionary advantage to antiauthoritarian agendas. In his watershed 1902 work Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, zoologist-cum-seminal anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin found countless examples of cooperation in the animal kingdom, particularly in the face of unusually harsh circumstances. “We saw plenty of adaptations for struggling, very often in common, against the adverse circumstances of climate, or against various enemies,” he wrote. Among the examples of mutual aid practiced by homo sapiens, Kropotkin cited a compelling case in the history of the Kabyles of Algeria. He wrote that “during the famine of 1867-1868 . . . [they] received and fed everyone who sought refuge in their villages, without distinction of origin . . . While people died from starvation all over Algeria, there was not one single case of death due to this cause on Kabylian soil.” Collective survival being an evolutionary advantage holds up to basic logic – polities that meet citizens’ needs are more liable to survive paradigmatic stress tests. An example of this in recent times can be found where one might not expect: In Iraq, in 2006, when American authorities worked with Shia and Sunni militiamen to stem violence amid a rising deluge of sectarian and anti-occupation bloodshed.

The very fact that advanced cooperation has an evolutionary advantage, evidenced in times of distress, makes it universally attractive. Kropotkin put forward that it has been this less-discussed “human nature” that has driven the metamorphoses of customs and codes of law. He noted that cooperation was a key trait of humanity since its genesis, defenestrating Thomas Hobbes’ theory of constant war “of every man, against every man.” Kropotkin found that “in the early post-glacial period,” humans “already knew the advantages of societies,” demonstrated by cultural accomplishments like the Lascaux cave paintings, primitive tools found in Danish “shell heaps,” and remnants of early settlements found along the shores of lakes in Switzerland. Cooperative activity has shaped societies ever since – from territorial commons and feudal obligations, to the guild systems and trust inherent in urban life; all the way to socialist parties, trade unions and charities and educational societies that propagated solely to aid the well-being of strangers. History is littered with examples of people being nasty and brutish to one another. “However,” Kropotkin argued, “at no period of man’s life were wars the normal state of existence.”

That the United States is governed by principles far from those exalted in Mutual Aid is manifest. But, in the wake of capitalism’s latest abysmal failure, one can clearly see mutual aid working as an evolutionary phenomenon. This is particularly evident in the increasing popularity of socialism among young Americans, despite elitist pundits cluelessly crowing about capitalism having passed a permanent social cloture. This isn’t to say that collaborative socialism is a naturally occurring phenomenon. But it does seem to be a framework naturally suited to satisfy humanity – the socialism with a human face that reformers behind the Iron Curtain desperately sought.

Thus, the post-2008 resurgent popularity of Marxism might best be viewed as a byproduct of an instinctual desire for cooperative systems – it’s more about the 99% working together to manage the means of production than a dictatorship of the proletariat. If organizers and activists agree, perhaps horizontalist socialism will supplant ideologies that have long relied on the downtrodden swallowing vague promises about eventual peerage in the Kingdom of Heaven.