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Polycrisis and morbid symptoms
Reckoning with regime change
If you are not willing to face the “baggy”, inchoate nature of our current situation, if you are not willing to take seriously the possibility that our situation is historically novel … and that this fundamentally challenges our existing frameworks of analysis … then you are involved in a kind of escapism that may turn out to be dangerous.
Adam Tooze, ‘Chartbook #179 Finance and the polycrisis’
So, while it may be obvious that tremendous forces are in motion, we prefer to think that some things … must never change. … [W]e act as if some things are better left unknown, the conditions under which we might know about them remain undisturbed, and whatever it is that is going on out there will leave our understanding of humanity, citizenship, and world more or less in the modern/liberal form our diagnoses usually take for granted.
R. B. J. Walker
To those who do not know the world is on fire, I have nothing to say.
What to make of polycrisis - as a concept, as an underlying reality? It does appear to capture something in the air, but what exactly, that is still something we are collectively trying to figure out. In addition to Tooze’s ongoing considerations, there have been recent pieces by Martin Wolf, Tim Sahay et al, Policy Tensor, Michael Lawrence, and presumably others, all employing the idea and exploring different manifestations of it in the world today. I have also been circling it in a series of notes (here, here, here, and here).
Certainly, it is partly that it is a ‘useful’ concept - insofar as it is purposefully meant to encapsulate a range of issues - it can become a convenient way of pulling together otherwise disparate topics. Polycrisis can be a easy hook for a panel, a podcast, a publication. In this sense, it risks suffering from and amplifying the debasement of crisis as an idea, in which anything and everything can be rendered as a crisis, or now, as part of the polycrisis. And yet…
The traction the term has received is suggestive. Things are shifting, and people are looking for ways of comprehending and talking about these changes. In this sense, polycrisis appears as a response to again finding ourselves in a situation ‘devoid of ordering concepts’, to use Robert Musil’s apt formulation. Insofar as polycrisis risks being somewhat amorphous - or ‘baggy’ to use Tooze’s inelegant formulation - it is a reflection of an underlying reality that is inchoate and in flux. A preference for theoretical precision and analytical clarity means we might not want to consider conditions that do not neatly fit with our models and maps. Trying to shoehorn emergent phenomena into existing concepts and comfortable theories might be easier and cleaner, but in the process we risk missing what might really be going on.
The academic discipline of International Relations struggled to recognise the end of the Cold War for what it was as it happened, the dominant paradigms were built on assumptions of continuity, which held until they no longer did. This is understandable. Our models tend to be based on mean reversion and rely on ceteris paribus assumptions. And this works most of the time because most of the time we are operating within an established, stable system. What our theories are not so good at is recognising and explaining regime change, and doing so when it is happening.
In the article I co-authored with Mathew Davies, we note that, ‘polycrisis is the world of Gramsci’s interregnum’. This is not simply a rhetorical gesture, it is suggestive that we are dealing with a period of dissolution, of transformation, regime change. While it is almost bad taste to quote it at this point, just for clarity, the line from Gramsci (once again): ‘the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. It is noteworthy how often people have turned to this depiction to describe our current predicament. It is indicative of a recognition of changes occurring, without knowing how to fully place or give voice to them beyond suggesting that ‘morbid symptoms’ are proliferating.
Trying to name and understand these ‘morbid symptoms’, it strikes me that this is what polycrisis is effectively doing, it offers an ‘in media res’ approach to reckoning with regime change as it happens. Instructive here is the way that Ulrich Beck struggled in his final work to make sense of what he saw unfolding:
The scale of change is beyond our imagination. The idea that we are the masters of the universe has totally collapsed and has turned into its opposite. In the age of climate change, modernization is not about progress, or about apocalypse – this is a false alternative. Rather, it is about something ‘in-between’. We do not even have a word for this; we need a new public and scientific vocabulary. I propose the notion of ‘Verwandlung’ – ‘metamorphosis of the world’.
He further observed that, metamorphosis ‘challenges the way of being in the world, thinking about the world and imagining and doing politics.’ Part of the challenge lies precisely in our standard frames and concepts no longer working as they once did. And so we fumble around for new ways of naming and framing what we are only dimly starting to comprehend.
One way of thinking about polycrisis is that it offers a way of naming the early stages of systemic change, in which we are moving towards a different kind of order. Insofar as we are still in the early stages, the dominant features are dissolution and entropy, it is easier to distinguish what is being lost, weakened, or becoming more fragile. And in this sense, the current moment surely has historical parallels, times shaped by uncertainty and proliferating ‘morbid symptoms’. Presumably, in time it will become more possible to recognise and identify the new order taking shape. But perhaps not quite yet.
At this point it is worth making explicit an assumption present in much of the discussion around polycrisis. Why try to name and make sense of these unclear, amorphous trends? The hope is surely that by doing so we can potentially forestall or avoid bad and worse outcomes, and ideally steer towards good and better futures. Insofar as the original meaning of crisis portends a moment of decision and of judgement, it is a reminder that the future remains in the balance, that there are different possible resolutions. More honestly reckoning with the manifold changes and challenges we collectively face might hopefully increase the likelihood of better ways of responding. That is the wager. As I suggested in a previous note, a vital part of this is facing up to a world of hard choices and trade offs, of triage and limits.
As a way of concluding this note, it might be helpful to invert the frame: what appears more likely now, continuity or change? More of the same, some kind of new normal, a return to the dynamics and patterns of interaction that have dominated over recent decades? Or a world that looks and feels notably different? Observing trends in politics, economics, society, culture, technology; acknowledging tensions between energy demands and climate necessities; recognising the ways that international politics and globalisation are shifting, all of these suggest it seems more likely that we are heading towards a different kind of order. How to describe it as it is happening? How to respond to the world potentially taking shape? These are the questions being asked of us. In time, perhaps polycrisis might be judged as conceptually flawed, but if employing the term now helps with the process of recognising and reckoning with the challenges we collectively face, then surely it has value.