On Resilience

A word that signifies neoliberal state failures.

Leer en español.

When Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, it didn’t take long for the headlines to emerge about the archipelago’s “resilience.” I hated this use of the word immediately. What it signaled to me was a covering up for a clear failure of the state, both the local and the federal colonial, to take care of its people. It is paternalistic: Why should colonized people be expected to perform resilience in the face of ongoing, ceaseless crisis? Why can’t the state perform its function?

I’ve been angrily thinking about this in the years since—indeed, I think about it when the water goes out on a daily basis; I think about it when my morning jog is interrupted by repairs for a storm that happened over three years ago; I think about it when I remind myself that these are the most bourgeois issues one could possibly be having on an archipelago that doesn’t have full power, when Vieques has no hospital—and once I started researching why this word sucks, I found many people had already written on the topic. It remains pervasive, though, in food contexts, because food contexts tend to be by design bourgeois and a bit out of touch with reality.

I started to visit Puerto Rico in the late 2000s, when it had already been experiencing an economic crisis that continues today, now buoyed by austerity policies enacted by the “fiscal control board” (La Junta) put in place by President Barack Obama in 2016 and laws that make the archipelago a tax haven for Bitcoiners and other tech-minded idiots with no care for ecology or culture. The people suffer; the politicians and the elite stay insulated from the pain (and then get Times profiles when they buy a million-dollar house after resigning amidst a corruption scandal).

Those first visits came on the heels of my reading of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism after graduating from college, which helped me understand that neoliberalism mixed with colonialism was a specific recipe for misery. It’s a way to make the wealthy wealthier while everyone else struggles for scraps, while these tax-evaders look on and make condescending commentary about the quality of onions at the supermarket. (They fail to mention the impact of the Jones Act, of course; to these people, empire is a natural good because it’s good to them.)

All of this policy—from the Jones Act a century ago, which controls imports, to La Junta’s austerity measures, to Law 20/22, which gives foreigners massive tax breaks not available to locals—is disaster capitalism. It’s taking one disaster after another, whether the start of colonialism, the massive debt, or a hurricane, and using it to metaphorically strangle the people while speaking of “resilience.”

I was and am pessimistic about our collective ability to overcome a seemingly inevitable global dystopia, and the word “resilience” as it is deployed not in regards to ecological infrastructure and other quantifiable measures is just another distraction of neoliberalism. Look at them—they’re resilient, the liberals say. Why should we build a state that meets everyone’s needs when we can simply tell the people that their suffering only makes them stronger?

Yarimar Bonilla named it as such in “The coloniality of disaster: Race, empire, and the temporal logics of emergency in Puerto Rico, USA,” where she notes that colonialism itself is a disaster, ongoing for over a century: 

This push for resiliency must be approached with a great deal of caution. We certainly want our buildings and bridges to be resilient, but do we really want our communities to become well-adapted to structural (and infrastructural) violence? Some see these rising calls for resilience as part of the larger dominance of neoliberal forms of governmentality across the globe, in which citizenship is increasingly being refashioned as individualized self-care. With the increasing cuts in social safety nets, all individuals are increasingly being called upon to take on entrepreneurial modes of self-care and self-management (Muehlebach, 2012). However, we must ask: which communities have historically been required to demonstrate resilience and incessantly forced to endure both the shocks of neoliberalism and the slow traumatic violence of colonial extraction? And is it possible that the push towards resillience has actually made them disproportionately vulnerable to the current challenges of climate change?

Sites of “resilience” generally exist at the community level. This is mutual aid, collective spaces, and generally shared resources. The logic then would be to make the state an expression of communal care, one in which no one is excluded or needs to opt-in, where we are not still dependent upon infusions of capital from those with access to it because resources are shared and distributed according to need. A state without need for charity and philanthropy, with universal basic income, where people don’t set up a GoFundMe for health care and funeral costs.

When it comes to food, small pockets of agroecological farming and pricey restaurants serving farm-to-table food—as much as I love that shit!—won’t change the world without major support, without higher wages for every worker, without structural and political changes to ensure food sovereignty. Thinking this world is possible is utopian, I suppose. The people of Puerto Rico can push out a corrupt governor and remain under the thumb of his corrupt party, even when their candidate receives only 33 percent of the vote.

Omar Pérez Figueroa and Bolívar Aponte Rolón wrote of the way the local government promotes narratives of “resilience” to absolve itself in a piece called “Clashing Resilience: Competing Agendas for Recovery After the Puerto Rican Hurricanes” in Science for the People:

In Puerto Rico, the local government’s co-opting of the resilience discourse is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the language of resilience recognizes the perseverance and strength that local communities have shown in overcoming adverse circumstances. On the other hand, it has enabled governments to rely on people’s efforts to better their communities, effectively denying the government’s own responsibility to aid the victims of catastrophic natural events. Yet it is precisely because of governments’ promotion of the unequal distribution of wealth and power through the facilitation and preservation of a colonial system that these events become “disasters” in the first place. The unequal wealth distribution seen in Puerto Rico is characteristic of marginalized communities across the Global South, where communities often operate and survive in the partial or total absence of government services.

There is nothing resilient about that, but many want to believe there is some dignity in being left adrift.

In Rebecca Solnit’s 2004 book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, she writes of all the incredible ways in which individuals and communities have risen up after disaster to support each other, as well as the idea that change is gradual—it happens over decades, centuries. She wrote two books on this topic, adding A Paradise Built in Hell in 2009, which starts with all the citizen-heroes who rescued their neighbors during Hurricane Katrina. Now, in New Orleans as well as in Puerto Rico, the word “resilience” is greeted with disdain. The writer Jami Attenberg, in her piece “Is Resilience Overrated?,” quotes many friends and neighbors in that city and says,

People are being asked to be exceptional to get something less than exceptional in return: a basic standard of living. What is resilience anyway but an unfair exchange of energy?

Precisely. Change is gradual, and people do respond to disaster in extraordinary ways, as Solnit has written. But it’s also quite clear that the people who repeatedly have to rise up and respond to disaster are often the very people who have suffered ceaselessly at the hands of a white supremacist capitalist state. Disaster doesn’t mete itself out evenly, because we don’t live in an equal world. As Bonilla writes, “which communities have historically been required to demonstrate resilience and incessantly forced to endure both the shocks of neoliberalism and the slow traumatic violence of colonial extraction?” Communities of color. The Global South. Poorer nations, because the game is built and rigged by the rich ones. As Meera Navlakha just wrote for gal-dem on the current pandemic crisis in India, “All Indians have left are each other and their social networks. It is a damning reflection of the country’s lack of preparedness to save its citizens.”

As we face more and more disasters because there hasn’t been sufficient organized response to climate change and extractive capitalism, it’s important to remember who is always already suffering, and to center those voices and needs. Who is skirting blame by putting the onus on small communities to save each other while being wildly impacted? We know who. Let’s not center “resilience,” but instead the ways in which the state has failed. Narratives of resilience only serve the powerful and the elite. It’s way past time narrative is wielded to serve the people.


This Friday’s paid subscriber interview features Irene Li, a chef, writer, and project manager at Commonwealth Kitchen in Boston, where she is helping independent restaurateurs find their footing. We talk about changes for her restaurant, Mei Mei; her support for the Raise the Wage Act; and her writing on social justice in food.

Annual subscriptions are $30 per year or $5 per month.

Published:
An Earth Day video with Sophia Bush for Well and Good!

Reading:
My beloved Archipelago books finally got me book three of My Struggle, and so I’ll finally be into that after I take a detour into his essays with In the Land of the Cyclops. Because there was a snafu with my original order, they sent me book four, as well as a couple of their new releases that I can’t wait to dig into.

Cooking:
The usual, expect for some baked mushroom empanadas that Israel requested because he wanted something “different” and it’s true that I just make the same dinners over and over again, especially when I’m BUSY. Shortbread and oatmeal cookie recipes down. That is a pumpkin cake up there.