Disaster Capitalism

Disaster Capitalism, Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, Winter/Spring 2017

Turn on the evening news and you will see a parade of disasters: from banking crises to pandemics, from floods to superbugs, from the instantaneous loss of life following an earthquake to the slowly accumulating effects of global climate change. Why is it that we seem to live in a uniquely calamitous age?

This course proposes that the proliferation of risk management technologies is remaking our relationship to the future, turning the mere threat of crises into generative grounds for new business opportunities and justifying new forms of political control. In our century, technological responses to disasters seem to ameliorate conditions for some but further entrench divisions along racial and economic lines for many, failing to live up to the promise that the pooling of risk and the quantification of social goods might make a better world for all. This sets the stage for the development of what writer Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism”. Using this idea as a jumping off point, we will explore how theoretical frameworks from social theorists, historians, and anthropologists can help us parse the technical, affective, and political ramifications of what it means to live always at risk in a capitalist context. Readings from theorists like Karl Marx, “risk theory” sociologist Ulrich Beck, science studies scholars Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour, and British social anthropologist Mary Douglas will offer ways to frame our discussion on disasters in modern, high-tech societies. In addition, through case studies on Katrina, Fukushima, and the banking industry, we will examine what happens on the ground when disaster strikes.

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