- Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era by Jacob A. C. Remes
Jacob A. C. Remes
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016
xi + 283 pp., $95.00 (cloth); $30.00 (paper)
What happens in the wake of disaster—of a massive explosion, a devastating urban fire? This is not a book about how we make sense of such catastrophes, as Western cultural commentators have tried to do at least since the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Rather, it is a social and political history that explores popular, bottom-up and official, top-down responses to two Progressive-Era events: the Salem, Massachusetts, fire of 1914, which rendered thousands homeless and unemployed, and the Halifax, Nova Scotia, munitions ship explosion of 1917, which killed nearly two thousand and largely leveled the city's working-class North End. Jacob A. C. Remes's goal is to show how survivors interacted with a growing, increasingly interventionist state and its agents, and how they forged what he calls "disaster citizenship," or a "new form of citizenship for a new era of governance" (20).
Remes's excellent and engaging book contributes to long-running debates about the nature of working-class life, to more recent discussions of transnational progressive reform and state-society relations and to current conversations—both popular and scholarly—about events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. The bibliography bespeaks intensive investigations of a remarkable range of archives in the United States and Canada, and the author makes effective use of oral histories, aid applicants' case files, and other first-person accounts to support his arguments and enliven his narrative. A portrait of on-the-ground progressivism in the making, the book tracks traveling disaster experts who moved from earlier earthquake, flood, and fire sites elsewhere to Salem and thence to Halifax, and it demonstrates their formulation of "a progressive ideology of disaster relief" (13), which envisioned disasters as opportunities to advance a broader progressive agenda (reforming municipal administrations, Americanization). This entailed the supersession of local, ad hoc relief mobilizations by state-sponsored commissions staffed by experts and trained social workers—many from outside the stricken communities—who commanded resources but often lacked the local knowledge to most effectively dispense them. In each city, we see the tension between hierarchical and mutual approaches to providing aid, as survivors sometimes contested relief managers' attempts to consolidate and wield their authority.
To illuminate both sides of these struggles, Remes fruitfully deploys James C. Scott's concept of "legibility" (Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998, 2–3]), showing how the state's agents, in their very efforts to develop a simplified, schematic vision of the citizenry—to render these working-class communities legible so the state could establish order and provide services—often failed to recognize preexisting, informal [End Page 144] networks and solidarities (families, neighbors, coworkers, local shopkeepers) that sometimes interfered with the state's efforts and were sometimes disrupted by them. Survivors created their own forms of order (which could look like disorder to relief managers) and typically tried to maximize the aid they received while minimizing the degree of autonomy and dignity they surrendered. Salem's relief authorities, in the name of public health concerns, forced survivors to move into camps patrolled and regulated by the militia and required that men accept any form of work that was offered. They provided needed housing and food, but they also broke down older support systems and subjected residents to sometimes harsh military authority and constant surveillance while—not incidentally—serving employers' interest in preserving a stable postdisaster labor force.
Three main arguments connect Remes's six chapters. First, he asserts that Halifax and Salem were part of a single "transnational region," a "northeast borderlands" (2). This proves a useful framework for understanding not two discrete events but a single environment through which people, ideas, and practices moved as progressivism took root on both sides of the US-Canada border. Not only experts and managerial ideas but money and other forms of aid flowed...