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Unnatural disaster: earthquakes and class


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At the New Inquiry, Evan Calder Williams writes about how “natural” disasters like the recent earthquake in Italy reveal the unevenly distributed exposure to death in the society affected. While we typically think of earthquakes or hurricanes as indiscriminate in their destructive power, they affect the poor and vulnerable much more than the rich and powerful. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

For Bordiga, these accidents are never haphazard, even if they can’t be precisely predicted. They are part of a necessary dynamic within capital, a “murder of the dead” (i.e of “dead labor,” in the form of the already made) necessary to spur new output and rejuvenated circulation, clearing the ground for large-scale investment that otherwise moves outwards in search of better returns. The devastation of large-scale war is one mode, an earthquake (or shipwreck, or urban fire) another. In this way, “death toll” may well be the correct and bleak term, because it is a penalty paid, albeit to no subject, cause, or movement, just to the maintenance and renewal of the status quo.

Yet a disaster also points beyond the specific patterns of social power at any given moment, its arrangement of neighborhoods, roads, dams, and electrical grids. It gestures out towards some of the longest-term tendencies of the world order, ones almost too broad to take in a single view until the collapse of function and accumulation makes it possible to see what was at work, even if it means starting with the fragments and lines of failure after the fact.

Seeing those requires that we backtrack through a complicated mesh of decisions and actions that can’t separate the willed from the accidental, the technical from the social, the economic from the ecological, the weather from the price of cheese. What this requires, above all, is a timescale that exceeds both easy culpability and media attention span. It is most immediately evident in the unspoken – or at least publicly unspoken – decisions made about who can afford to live where and where the emergency funds go after breakdown, if they go anywhere at all, spreading the consequences out and out into the future for those left without capacity or credit to return to previous forms of life and for whom the disaster never ends. And it is on this last point that Bordiga moves towards a thought I’ve found more and more necessary, one that exceeds his effort to see capital as the vampire of vampires, that prolific murderer of the dead, and instead works toward a slippery understanding of how our very grasp of time and loss is so bound to recognizable cycles and sites of production and valuation.