Picking up polycrisis
Writing in 1891, Frederick Engels reflected on Karl Marx’s ‘remarkable gift’ for
… grasping clearly the character, the import, and the necessary consequences of great historical events, at a time when these events are still in process before our eyes, or have only just taken place.
That is our challenge. One of the ways that Adam Tooze has sought to respond is through adopting the frame of polycrisis, which he has further outlined in a new FT piece and accompanying Chartbook entry. The concept intuitively fits. It captures something in the air. When working on an article with my colleague Mathew Davies, we followed Tooze in using the concept, it helped us decentre the pandemic and view it with a certain distance.
Polycrisis emphasises the proliferation of problems across issue areas and sectors, all blurring together, overlapping and interacting in powerful, unexpected ways. As Tooze notes, this reading is influenced by Ulrich Beck’s work. In a prior note I explained how Beck helps us stay with the complexity of these conditions:
What Beck captures is a world marked by feedback loops and reflexivity, amplification and acceleration, all combining to let loose forces and processes we can only be dimly aware of. This is a non-linear environment - to think of war in the Ukraine in terms of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, or to regard globalisation as ‘forward / backwards’ and ‘more / less’ - is to profoundly misunderstand where we find ourselves.
The language we use to frame and comprehend our world helps shape it. It is worth considering this when we reach for concepts. As Didier Fassin and Axel Honneth observe:
The way people interpret crises—exaggerate, minimize, or deny them and cope with, protest against, or resolve them—gives shape to what these crises come to be, and in return, dialectically, these crises affect the fate of those involved.
Like so much in our world, the idea of crisis has also been inflated. Even if devalued, the concept is not yet completely debased, it still evokes certain meanings and signifiers. What distinguishes the use of crisis here is attaching ‘poly’ to it. As Tooze explains:
I found the idea of polycrisis interesting and timely because the prefix “poly” directed attention to the diversity of challenges without specifying a single dominant contradiction or source of tension or dysfunction.
Polycrisis encourages not simply a recognition of a multiplication of crises, but the ways in which they interact. In doing so, it avoids the temptation of naming one underlying cause or primary crisis, and suggests that what matters most is precisely how these different problems coexist and influence each other. The problem is not war in Ukraine, COVID-19, debt and inflation, energy shortages and environmental concerns, it is all of those problems tumbling around together like clothes in a dryer.
Tooze describes polycrisis as a ‘found’ concept, insofar as he has taken up and repurposed the idea. Another way of thinking about it is as a placeholder concept, one that matches with the ‘in media res’ approach that Tooze adopts. With time and perspective, it might be possible to identify better frameworks for comprehending what is presently unfolding. But we also need tools for understanding in real time. Until grey is painted on grey, and Minerva’s Owl takes to the air, we do the best with what we can. The analytical wager for using polycrisis is it reveals something about the present moment.
In Reinhart Koselleck’s influential history on the concept of crisis, he pointed to the original Greek meaning as entailing a moment of decision: ‘the concept imposed choices between stark alternatives - right or wrong, salvation or damnation, life or death.’ Koselleck emphasised this sense of judgement, of resolution. Yet this is precisely what appears not possible with polycrisis. Tooze writes that:
In a world that one could envisage being dominated by a single fundamental source of tension, you could imagine a climactic crisis from which resolution might emerge. But that kind of Wagnerian scenario no longer seems plausible.
Another route to Wagner, however, might lie with Wolfgang Streeck’s analysis. His book’s title captures the core insight: Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. The solution of one crisis lays the foundations for the next, the problem is delayed rather than resolved. The process, however, results in an increasing imbalance between the magnitude of the problems and the limited resources left to address them. One can generalise this argument. Streeck writes:
Whatever governments do to solve a problem sooner or later produces another; that which ends one crisis makes the others worse; for every hydra head that is lopped off, two more grow in its place. Too many things have to be tackled at once; short-term fixes get in the way of long-term solutions; long-term solutions are not even attempted because short-term problems take priority; holes keep appearing that can be plugged only by making new holes elsewhere.
This points us to another way of thinking about polycrisis, viewing it as an accumulation of unresolved crises, where stark outcomes have been fudged, clear resolutions denied. Moreover, temporary fixes might have provisionally forestalled reckoning, but increased the magnitude of the remaining challenges. The longer this continues for, the greater the likelihood that the piper comes calling.
Returning to Koselleck, he further explained:
Applied to history, "crisis," since 1780, has become an expression of a new sense of time which both indicated and intensified the end of an epoch. Perceptions of such epochal change can be measured by the increased usage of crisis. But the concept remains as multi-layered and ambiguous as the emotions attached to it. Conceptualized as chronic, "crisis" can also indicate a state of greater or lesser permanence, as in a longer or shorter transition towards something better or worse or towards something altogether different.
Here Koselleck points towards the link between crisis and epochal change. Describing the era of William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot suggested that it ‘moved in a steady current, with back eddies certainly, towards anarchy and chaos.’ Perhaps we again find ourselves in comparable circumstances, with polycrisis a way of narrating in real time what socio-political entropy looks like. We are not dealing simply with late stage capitalism, but late stage everything: political, economic, societal institutions and forms that appear increasingly incapable of responding to the conditions we find ourselves in.
In a world of polycrisis, the crises mount up and feed on each other, the morbid symptoms proliferate, the gyre widens further. This potentially returns us to the original meaning of judgement, a moment of reckoning. Yet this might take us to a more apocalyptic reading than we want.
This brings us to arguably one of the greatest dangers with the frame of polycrisis. It risks pushing us towards the realm of emergency politics, of necessity, of games in which the stakes are too high. How can we recognise the very real and significant problems we collectively must deal with, without ending up in a world of emergency decrees and ‘unavoidable decisions’? How we can avoid pinballing from one problem to the next, with responses becoming increasingly uneven and extreme?
What are the politics of polycrisis?
If we take seriously the ‘poly’ in polycrisis, it suggests we are unavoidably in a world of triage and tradeoffs. Yet our lack of seriousness is precisely part of the problem. A world of convenience and low friction has left us poorly equipped for conditions that are becoming less and less accommodating. Indeed, this has arguably become one of the most pronounced features of the highly industrialised democratic world - an inability to acknowledge the costs and consequences of the choices we collectively make. Whether the pandemic, the Ukrainian war, environmental change, or any of the other major problems we face, there has been a consistent disavowal of tradeoffs and difficult decisions.
To return to Eliot’s description of Shakespeare’s era, one of the ways the playwright responded was through turning to the tradition of tragedy and developing it in profound ways. Admittedly, tragedy as an art form and way of thinking is poorly matched for our world of short attention spans, convenience, and triviality. But that might be the point. Hans Morgenthau described ‘the tragic sense of life’ as an ‘awareness of irresolvable discord, contradictions, and conflicts which are inherent in the nature of things and which human reason is powerless to solve.’ This might be the kind of mentality that we need to hone. It need not lead to disabling pessimism, but it calls for more honestly reckoning with problems that cannot be solved, gaps that cannot be bridged, choices that must be made. Such a disposition will likely be needed for a world marked by polycrisis.
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