The reports coming out of New Orleans paint an unpleasant picture: armed gangs of bandits raping and murdering, medical workers coming under sniper fire (a 'tactic' the U.S. military used in Fallujah), gun stores and pharmacies are being looted, etc. In short, any semblance of civilized ordered has vanished.
For communists and anarchists, it's necessary to understand this behavior in order to formulate a theoretical response to the silly ideologues of capital who will seize upon this anti-social behavior to argue for the necessity of the state and against the possibility of a world with cooperation as its guiding principle. In the coming days and weeks the common refrain from the media, already abhorred by the disregard for property 'rights' shown by the abandoned citizens of New Orleans, will be the usual pessimistic garbage defending 'the state as the only force capable of preventing the alleged peace and harmony of our regular lives from descending into and chaos and brutality.
But their defense of the state pales in comparison to the significance of the larger conclusion they reach: humans are naturally disinclined to cooperate, to act decently towards each other; as such, capitalism, with each individual out for herself, is the only form of economic organization suitable to man's condition.
Naturally none of this is true.
The state is the primarily defender of law and order to be sure, but we live in a world where order is little more than "nine-tenths of mankind working to provide luxury, pleasure and the satisfaction of the most disgusting passions for a handful of idlers" 1. Capitalism is a form of economic organization where each man and woman looks out solely for themselves, but this is in no way natural. If it were so, why has capitalism only come to dominate the entire globe within the last 50 years (a period which comprises 0.005% of the time our species has existed).
The most important thing that has to be understood about the anti-social behavior of these brigands in New Orleans is the nature of the society in which it is occurring. We live in a society where each person exists not as part of a community but as individual commodities to be bought and sold on a market. Capitalism has "left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment'" 2. Atomized individuals enslaved by the economy have no interest, no need to take an interest, in their neighbors. Work 9-5, come home, watch TV. Repeat. Day in and day out. It's no surprise that the ties to ones geographic community, to the neighborhood, dissipated proportionately with the growth of wage-labour in America in the last 50 years.
Now as I said above, the bourgeois ideologue sees individualism, atomization, competition and self-interest as natural. It is a "selfish misconception," Marx writes, "that induces you [the bourgeoisie] to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property..." 3.
So we posit that individualism and the kind of disgusting competition between individuals we see today are socially determined characteristics that are pretty generally specific to people living in capitalist societies 4. Anyone even who looks at a hunting and gathering societies, for instance, will immediately recognize that these people and their ways of interacting are very different.
Now onto the second point. The crimes occurring in New Orleans, the rapes, the murders, etc, aren't simply the result of an absence of authority. In fact, it would be important to say that it was simply a lapse of authority. Now where authority attempts to reassert itself, its driven back.
I think it's telling to look at what lot of people have been looting: jeans, football jerseys, guns, pills, etc. These people, who are primarily the people too poor to flee the city, aren't breaking with capitalism in any sense. Yes, this is an attack on the commodity form, but so is shoplifting, and some drug addict shoplifter is no more revolutionary than a person taking expensive clothing. These people represent the Capitalist Man: selfish, individualistic, always looking to get ahead. It's no surprise that they would turn to looting.
But there is another situation in which authority disappears: the revolutionary upheaval. The differences between the behavior of Capitalist Man and Communist Man (in-becoming?) are astounding: In New Orleans, as stated above, we have reports of armed gangs of men savagely raping women. These are capitalist men. But during the Paris Commune, it has been widely noted, women were for the first time free to wake the streets without fear. George Katsiaficas has noted that among the significant parallels between the Gwangju uprising in S. Korea (1980) and the Paris Commune (1871), two were the "attenuation of criminal behavior in the cities" and "The existence of genuine solidarity and cooperation among the citizenry":
The liberated realities of the Communes in Paris and Gwangju contradict the widely propagated myth that human beings are essentially evil and therefore require strong governments to maintain order and justice. Rather, the behavior of the citizens during these moments of liberation revealed an innate capacity for self-government and cooperation. It was the forces of the government, not the ungoverned people that acted with great brutality and injustice 5.
In fact, the amazingly transformative power of the revolutionary situation, that atmosphere of hope, has been seen countless times in modern history. One of the most relevant examples is obviously the total lack of looting and theft during the great Hungarian Workers' Uprising of 1956. Not a single store was looted (the Russian language bookstore of the Russian Communists was destroyed) and, amazingly, buckets set out to collect money donations for the families of fallen workers were NEVER molested. Every source I have seen, including the autobiography of the Budapest chief of police at the time, confirms this 6.
A final example is provided by the revolutionary eruptions precipitating/coinciding with Germany's defeat in the First World War:
War changes people, but so does revolution. An interesting feature of the German Revolution was the impact that it had on the psychology of individuals. Many men had returned from the war suffering a variety of war neuroses: anxiety, 'shell shock', mental disturbances. Kurt Singer, a director of the neuropsychiatric ward of a Berlin hospital, witnessed a mass recovery in November. 'With the beginning of the revolution, 20 patients abandoned the ward without leave, six asked for immediate release and the remaining ten stayed, Singer suspected, only because they were waiting for warmer weather' 7.
I would conclude by saying that New Orleans, far from being evidence of the impossibility of communism, in fact makes a very strong case for the necessity of destroying the current order.
Kropotkin. On Order. ↩
Marx and Engels. The Communist Manifesto. ↩
"But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms." Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto. ↩
George Katsiaficas. Comparing the Paris Commune and the Gwangju Uprising. ↩
The book I am referring to is Sandor Kopacsi's In the Name of the Working Class. The best book I have come across on the subject. ↩
Megan Trudell. PRELUDE TO REVOLUTION: CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR. ↩