Vermont has been devastated by Tropical Storm Irene. People all over the country and around the world have seen the photos and videos. It’s hard not to look and to keep looking. The sheer destructive power of the water is terrifying.
Amazingly, only 3 Vermonters have died from the storm but scores of homes, businesses, and bridges have been destroyed and hundreds of roads washed out. Individual families and whole towns were isolated for days, many without power, telephone or internet connections, and even passable roads in or out.
But there’s something else I think we need to theorize and discuss: the communities that quickly emerged to first survive and help one another and then to begin to reconstruct lives, homes, public buildings, and roads in the aftermath of the storm.
I wasn’t in Vermont during or after the storm but, because I spend a lot of time there, I received personal accounts and was closely following the news (via newspapers and blogs). The stories are amazing, and they’re all a testament to the resilience and solidarity of people who were able to shift into collective ways of being and working in, it seems, an instant. And this in a country that is as profoundly individualist as it is (where individual, personal gain is often taken to be the only goal), in which coming together to do anything substantial to provide decent jobs for the 26 million people who remain without a job or underemployed or to repair the decaying physical and social infrastructure has been impossible.
Against that background—of enormous natural devastation in Vermont and a country bent on self-destruction—the stories of collectivity in Vermont are even more impressive.
Here are some stories I’ve heard from friends:
- A neighbor who happened to have a generator, hearing that another neighbor couldn’t keep her insulin cold since the power was off, shut down his generator, threw it into the backup of his pick-up truck, and then drove down the almost-impassable road to restore refrigeration.
- One couple was stranded without power or telephone in the house of friends, having gone there on a short “vacation”—and, after the storm, without any way of leaving the local community (since the roads in all four directions had been washed out). Neighbors (some living miles away), who hadn’t met them before, stopped in on a daily basis to check in on them and to bring them what they could—vegetables from the garden, a 5-gallon container of water, and so on.
- The local road was washed out. So, someone in the area who happened to have earth-moving equipment went out to repair the road, in an attempt to make it at least passable, until outside help came in.
- Someone else, who lived in a less-devastated town, had decided he would join others and hike in—some 6-10 miles—in order to check on people and to deliver emergency supplies.
And, in the town of Rochester (also isolated for days, without food, water, and power), the community came together in other extraordinary ways: groups of people assembled to help owners of destroyed homes salvage what they could of their belongings; the local supermarket gave away its perishables to local residents; an inn served free meals every night; and the town met every day in a local church to discuss the current situation and to decide what needed to be done.
I could go on for pages and pages. My point is, these are all examples of people coming together—without any direction or assistance from the state or national governments—in order to help one another during and after a devastating event. Only later, after days, did the National Guard, public utilities, road crews, and so on appear to assist these local communities. (To be clear: I’m not romanticizing local self-sufficiency. The infrastructure of these towns will only be rebuilt in the coming months with outside assistance.)
Now, I almost didn’t write this post, because I felt the stories were almost too cheesy or heart-warming. But there are some larger issues at stake.
First, of course, is the issue of collectivity itself. In Vermont (but also in many other places, during and after many different kinds of disasters), we witness people coming together in various kinds of collectivities that remain hidden in “normal” everyday life. What is it that keeps such collectivities hidden from view (such that we can refer to the United States as a uniformly individualist nation), and what is that allows them to exist and to flourish (against, it often seems, all odds in a get-what-you-can-as-quickly-as-you-can-and-to-hell-with-the-consequences-for-others capitalist nation)? And how is it that people are able to react and organize so quickly to help one another and to rebuild the infrastructure necessary for the community to survive and to continue?
Second, why is it that mainstream economists, politicians, and others don’t understand—or don’t have the guts or inclination to recognize and support—the power of such collectivities to solve the jobs problem in the United States? Why, a friend remarked when he heard some of these stories, can’t Obama just announce that he’s going to pay the communities who are already doing the work and call it job creation? It’s certainly better than some plan to give tax credits to “job creators” to—perhaps, maybe someday—hire a few more workers. Here we have a collective response that doesn’t need the name of individuals getting a newly created job just for them. And, of course, it’s better than any scheme Keynesians have ever come up with to bury some money and then dig it up.
Back in 1928, a year after the last devastating flood of similar magnitude [video], Calvin Coolidge gave his “brave little Vermont” speech:
I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who have almost beggared themselves to serve others. If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.
During the past week, the communities of Vermont have shown what mainstream economists and politicians in the United States overlook or deny: that people do not have to suffer on their own and that collective solutions can be found to the economic and social devastation this country has suffered during recent years.