58 Against neoliberal capitalism: Post-political urban configurations in post-Haiyan Tacloban (Philippines)

Dakila Kim P. Yee, University of the Philippines Visayas Tacloban College, Philippines

In a seaside community known to locals as the ‘reclamation area’, Pablo* gathers a scrap metal roof which was blown away from other houses during the height of typhoon Haiyan. He told me that he would need this to repair his roof which was destroyed by the Typhoon. Rubble greeted us as we searched for other materials which would come in handy. Some of the homes have been vacated, out of fear for the treacherous sea that destroyed hundreds of makeshift homes and claimed thousands of lives in Tacloban, Leyte, Philippines, and other neighbouring towns. When he was asked what he felt about the ‘no-build zone’, Pablo replied that he didn’t want to leave the area. Living in a relocation area would mean additional costs for transportation which he could not afford to bear as he was earning below the minimum as a part-time porter in the city. “We have survived other typhoons, there’s no reason to believe that we won’t survive this one,” he quipped. Across the bay from where we stood, I saw the building of McDonalds. Up close, the windows and the doors have been sealed off by wooden planks, the building damaged first by the rampaging storm surge; second, by desperate survivors scavenging the building for whatever food items or materials that could help them cope in the aftermath of Haiyan. Ten months later, a newly renovated McDonald’s opened its doors to a throng of customers excited to have a taste of its products. Why are business establishments allowed to construct within this 40 meter ‘no build zone’, whereas poor residents living along these same zones are barred from renovating their homes? This is a complex question that cannot be answered in a short essay, but I argue that the ‘post-political’ way of addressing the root causes of this disaster contributes to the glossing over of fundamental inequities that contributed to the disaster in the first place.

Haiyan made landfall on a geographical landscape that has been marked by extreme poverty and political exclusion. Rural underdevelopment in Eastern Visayas, Philippines, where Tacloban is located, is marked by landlessness and high tenancy rates that have become major drivers of internal migration into the major coastal cities in the region such as Tacloban. These migrants jostle for space within the pockets of informal settlements near coastal zones due to the lack of state-sponsored mass housing projects. Demographic concentration over narrow pieces of land along the coastline is a recipe for disaster. Most of the casualties were residents of these informal settlements in coastal communities, swallowed by rampaging storm surge. The catastrophic consequences of an exclusionary political economy in the face of a natural hazard event have been well documented within the social science literature of disasters (cf. Wisner, Blaikie, Cannon, & Davis, 2003) and this has been further validated in the case of Tacloban.

However, instead of addressing these structures that produce exclusions, the urban reconstruction policies in the face of geophysical hazards such as Haiyan are rendered in a post-political manner. Post-politics is a condition wherein consensus is the basis of government and adversarial and ideological struggles are marginalized (Swyngedouw, 2010). Furthermore, the post-political condition is centered on the inevitability of neoliberal capitalism as a socio-political configuration for capital accumulation (Swyngedouw, 2009). Post-political forms of intervention displace antagonisms away from the internal contradictions of the social system and externalize the Other as the enemy (in this case, storm surge as the enemy).  Any problem that besets a social system can be addressed with the tools of the system itself. In order to address problems such as those related to environmental risks, a post-political response rejects questions of access to power and resources; instead, it promotes the application of techno-managerial planning and the mobilization of expert knowledge in order to address these problems.

In the case of Tacloban, a post-political response has been evident in tapping expert-based knowledge as the source of ideas related to the rehabilitation of urban spaces and the marginalization of the voices of community-based organizations in drafting policies related to rehabilitation. Technologies that inscribe expert knowledge are seen in the use of science-based models especially GIS systems in identifying at-risk areas prone to devastating storm surges as well as the mobilization of DRR expert knowledge in the post-disaster phase. While the merits of this technology is acknowledged, sole reliance on technological intervention raises concerns about ignoring the fundamental discrepancies of political power and economic capacities which have placed informal settlers in risk-prone areas. The homogenization of the “people” against the threat of the “storm surge” has likewise glossed over the complicity of concentrated wealth accumulation in the hands of the elite in perpetuating conditions of poverty. For example, some private sector partners in the rehabilitation projects in post-Haiyan Visayas are involved in activities that have severe environmental impacts such as mining, land reclamations and coal power plant expansion in the Philippines.

Technological interventions and expert knowledge, by themselves cannot address the gross inequalities that led to the effects of Haiyan. Yet it is precisely their technical character, devoid of the political that has enabled them to be wielded by those who have controlled the rehabilitation process. What needs to be done is to re-politicize the rehabilitation process in order to unmask the class bias of the rehabilitation process in Tacloban. A truly political act would recognize that alternative imaginaries for Tacloban need to be produced, one that is not limited to economic imperatives and techno-managerial fixes. We also need to stress that the production of these alternatives will not necessarily be grounded in conflict, difference, and struggles since they transcend what is allowable under the current parameters of neoliberalism (Swyngedouw, 2010). We can start by reclaiming the discursive and material spaces that will enable the voiceless to be heard, and for the invisible, to be seen.

References

Swyngedouw, E. (2009). The Antinomies of the Postpolitical City: In Search of a Democratic Politics of Environmental Production. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33(3), 601-620.

Swyngedouw, E. (2010). Apocalypse Forever? Post-Political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change. Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2-3), 213-232.

Wisner, B., Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., & Davis, I. (2003). At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters (2nd Edition). Routledge.

Author Biography

Dakila Kim P. Yee is an instructor at the University of the Philippines Visayas Tacloban College. He teaches sociology and other social science courses. His research interest is on land use politics, environmental sociology and sociology of disaster. He has conducted research and presented papers in national conferences in the Philippines revolving around the topics.  He is currently a graduate student at the Department of Sociology, UP Diliman. He is also a volunteer researcher for an environmental NGO in the Philippines that supports campaigns and mobilizations against destructive impacts of development projects on the environment. In his spare time, he loves trekking indoor wall climbing and lurking in Facebook.

Contact email: dkpyee@yahoo.com

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