Have you heard about "the polycrisis," yet?
Is it even a concept?
You may have read or heard about “the polycrisis” somewhere in recent days. It was the big buzzword at the World Economic Forum at Davos this year. Apparently, the French sociologist and complexity theorist Edgar Morin and his co-author Anne Brigitte Kern coined the term in their 1999 book, Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millennium. Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, then brought it to a broader public in a 2016 speech about the combination of financial, political and ecological crises facing Europe. More recently, economist Adam Tooze has popularized it as his preferred way to conceptualize the present era. But what does it mean? Obviously, “poly” means “many,” and “crisis” means, well, crisis, but ‘polycrisis’ does not describe a succession of crises. Instead, the term refers to a series of interlocking and mutually reinforcing crises. In an October Financial Times column, Tooze helpfully explains:
A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and thus threatens our identity. In the polycrisis the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts. At times one feels as if one is losing one’s sense of reality. Is the mighty Mississippi really running dry and threatening to cut off the farms of the Midwest from the world economy? Did the January 6 riots really threaten the US Capitol? Are we really on the point of uncoupling the economies of the west from China? Things that would once have seemed fanciful are now facts.
Okay, well, how is this new? Surely, history has always been defined by mutually reinforcing problems and shocking events that usher in new eras in unexpected ways. According to Tooze, what’s different today is that no single solution or response seems credible:
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So have we been living in a polycrisis all along? We should beware complacency. In the 1970s, whether you were a Eurocommunist, an ecologist or an angst-ridden conservative, you could still attribute your worries to a single cause — late capitalism, too much or too little economic growth, or an excess of entitlement. A single cause also meant that one could imagine a sweeping solution, be it social revolution or neoliberalism. What makes the crises of the past 15 years so disorientating is that it no longer seems plausible to point to a single cause and, by implication, a single fix. Whereas in the 1980s you might still have believed that “the market” would efficiently steer the economy, deliver growth, defuse contentious political issues and win the cold war, who would make the same claim today? It turns out that democracy is fragile. Sustainable development will require contentious industrial policy. And the new cold war between Beijing and Washington is only just getting going.
I must say, I’ve been a little skeptical that the idea of the polycrisis provides much on the analytical plane. It seemed to me not so much a concept but the avoidance of conceptualization altogether, like a fancy way to say “lotta stuff going on!” rather than providing any kind of insight into what was happening. This may have been a little too harsh a judgment. I think Tooze is a very bright guy and get a lot out of reading him, so there must be something to it. But, apparently, this concerns Tooze as well, because in a recent newsletter he’s at pains to defend the conceptuality of the concept:
The concept of polycrisis serves as the third moment in the dialectic (thesis-antithesis-synthesis), not because it offers a strong concept of a new world, or a clean break with the past motivated by what is retrospectively reconstructed as a single dominant tension (autocracy v. democracy). Rather the polycrisis concept offers a form of (weak) dialectical resolution precisely because it refuses to flatten the thirty-year switchback of optimism and disillusionment with the steamroller of “just history”. Instead, it retains and makes explicit the sense that our present moment is overshadowed by disappointment and confusion.
Polycrisis, for me, does the work of Aufhebung (sublation).
Dialectic. Aufhebung … So, not only is this a concept, it’s a Hegelian Concept! Ein Begriff!
Let’s leave all that aside for a moment and pay careful attention to which sorts of things Tooze associates with the concept of the polycrisis: confusion, disappointment, an overwhelming sense of reality loss. He writes: “If you have found the past few years stressful and disorientating, if your life has already been disrupted, it is time to brace.” It’s not clear if the polycrisis is an objective description of the material state of the world or a subjective description of psychological states, a kind of vibe.
If you go back to the origin of the concept, Morin’s book describes the polycrysis as the product of “being at a loss” to develop a master concept. He proposes “technoscience” as the central problem of our times, but basically throws up his hands after showing how such a complicated morass of other problems implicate it: “Thus one is at a loss to single out a number one problem to which all others would be subordinated. There is no single vital problem, but many vital problems, and it is this complex intersolidarity of problems, antagonisms, crises, uncontrolled processes, and the general crisis of the planet that constitutes the number one vital problem.” (I’m trying to be nice, but doesn’t this sound a little bit like intellectual cant to you? I mean, thank you, Professor, but I had noticed.)
I propose that the polycrisis is fundamentally a worldview of management and amelioration. It reflects the strains on the minds and abilities of technocrats like Juncker and the Davos-attending elite. Adam Tooze is a Keynesian and the polycrisis is the Keynesianism of Despair. Basically, one could summarize the Keynesian perspective as saying the following:
1) The inherent dynamics of civil society (i.e., capitalism) give rise to periodic social and economic crises;
2) These crises are highly dangerous, and can lead to a civilization-destroying event;
3) Fortunately, intelligent interventions by a state helmed by properly trained experts, equipped with a robust but flexible theoretical perspective unclouded by rigid ideology, can understand and manage them.
Keynes wrote during the Great Depression: “We have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle […a polycrisis?], having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand.” Like the polycrisis, Keynes’s conception implied not only an objective interpretation of the world, but also a practical and subjective disposition, an attitude. Keynes wrote: “I am convinced that Great Britain and the United States, like-minded and acting together, could start the machine again within a reasonable time; if, that is to say, they were energised by a confident conviction as to what was wrong. For it is chiefly the lack of this conviction which to-day is paralysing the hands of authority on both sides of the Channel and of the Atlantic.” You can see how this would spiritually jibe with FDR’s instinctive belief that bold action and optimism were the remedy to the Depression.
The polycrisis seems to me to be Keynes without the courage of his convictions, namely the belief that an expert bureaucratic class could do it if they put their mind to it. For Tooze and Morin, bureaucrats can merely cope, and the interventions themselves will probably make things worse: “The more successful we are at coping, the more the tension builds,” Tooze writes. In fact, the idea is so relentlessly downbeat that Tooze basically says it was found in the garbage: “Not only does polycrisis describe a messy situation and register our surprise and dismay at the degree of the confusion. It is a concept that was itself found amongst the wreckage - in Jean Claude Juncker’s musings about the EU’s situation in 2015/6. It is a “found concept”, an idea “picked up” off the intellectual sidewalk and deposited in our conceptual carrier bag.”
I think the managerial and technocratic impetus of the underlying idea is worth stressing again. Tooze is particularly dismissive of attempts to divide the world into explicitly political oppositions like “democracy vs. authoritarianism.” As the sociologist of knowledge Karl Mannheim wrote: “The fundamental tendency of all bureaucratic thought is to turn all problems of politics into problems of administration.” The polycrisis conceives of the world as a set of problems to be addressed by central bankers and the like, but also expresses dismay and a lack of confidence in their abilities. In this sense, I sort of prefer it to some of Tooze’s critics, who just sunnily insist on the capacity of the professional planners to deal with the issues. In After Virtue, published in 1981 and written as the Keynesian consensus fell apart and the neoliberal era began, Alasdair MacIntyre described bureaucratic experts as “the central character of the modern social drama,” and their pretense to special competence as a form of play-acting. One could call this type of fellow the “spicy bureaucrat”: depicted in lots of late 20th century movies, he’s often a spy, or a fed, or an especially brilliant office worker; he’s full of ingenuity, gumption, self-confidence and savoir faire. But what Tooze is offering us here is the sad bureaucrat, perhaps something out of the world of John Le Carré. Another way to think about is as an intellectual correlate for the problem of office worker “burn out.”
I want to return for a moment to the Hegelese that Tooze used. Is the polycrisis a big-C Concept in the Hegelian sense, even of the “admittedly weak kind,” that Tooze wants it to be? For Hegel, a Concept provides a higher-order explanation, a whole that resolves parts of a situation that were only apparently contradictory until a broader understanding showed that they were actually part of a unified system. In this way, Concepts are said to sublate — simultaneously preserve and cancel, or “aufheben” — previous conceptions as their elements. We can say that the polycrisis fits this bill, in a sense, since it subordinates other ways of conceptualizing the world to a larger whole; on the other hand, this larger whole is not much more than a kind of Pandora’s box of difficult issues that are both intellectually and practically insoluble. The “polycrisis” does not really say, “here is the essential issue, of which I will show these others are just parts.” It seems like a philosophy of containers and containment barely able to cope.
The root of the German word for concept, begriff, means “grip,” or “handle.” Does polycrisis help us get a grip or handle on anything at all? (I mean this as a sincere question.) Also, I would ask: is it really of a qualitatively higher order than previous conceptions of post-history or post-modernism? Those also question the possibility of a single, overarching explanation of the world and talk about the exhaustion and frustration of our self-conceptions. So, what’s new here? To me, “the polycrisis” feels like a bit of a hedge, an idea careful not to say too much but also wanting to say everything at once, hesitant to make a confident series of predictions or interpretations that could make one look mistaken or even foolish. This is probably why it’s favored among the chastened and demoralized Davoisie. But, as Hegel once said, “The fear of error is error itself.” I think we still need a bolder vision.
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“To me, “the polycrisis” feels like a bit of a hedge, an idea careful not to say too much but also wanting to say everything at once, hesitant to make a confidant series of predictions or interpretations that could make one look mistaken or even foolish.”
I think the point of polycrisis, if taken seriously (which I’m not sure that I do), is that the only tenable prediction is the collapse of civilization. It’s not a philosophy of containers barely able to cope, as you put it, but the proposition that none of the containers we have, and indeed no container of which a human mind is able to conceive, are at all able to cope with the present and near-to-medium term future. The breadth and complexity of problems we face are beyond our ken, and we have little choice but to ride out the havoc they’ll wreak and hope some of us survive. This is of course an incredibly bleak worldview, and if Tooze and co are reluctant to spell it out it’s probably out of either fear of reckoning with what it really means or desire not to be accused of pointless doomerism. It’s a concept that’s probably been better fleshed out in science fiction than social theory (William Gibson’s model of the apocalypse as a series if overlapping crises that aren’t fully apprehended until it’s too late to stop them in The Peripheral is an example).
Does that amount to a Hegelian concept? Not my area at all, but to take a stab: if it feels like none of the assorted factions on the left, the liberals, or even the current right wing autocrats are confidently ascendant domestically or internationally, polycrisis would explain why: none of their programs are adequate to the current situation, and even achieving a Gramscian hegemony to seriously pursue one of them would be basically impossible.
I think you’re right to closely identify the concept with Keynesian liberal technocrats. I am one of those, and I and a lot of people I know have flirted with the polycrisis idea as a lot of the mechanisms of the machine we operate seem to break down. Is that just us catastrophizing as the world shifts away from a paradigm that favoured us? Probably, we’re not known for our sense of perspective. Anyway, I hope so.
This is very good. For me "polycrisis" has mostly been an acknowledgement that problems that were in some way foreseeable 30 years ago - conflict with Russia, climate disasters, pandemics, strains in the American constitutional structure, emergence of rival global powers - are now *here* in a way that they weren't 30 or 20 or even 10 years ago. Like, it's a way of imposing the structure of "prelude" up until 2016 or 2020 and then "thick of it" for the present. (I think this does imply, as another commenter says, that collapse has become much closer to us). So for me mostly a matter of convenience and perspective, situating the present in a narrative/arc (a crisis emerges and then resolves! Either in collapse or triumph. This resonates both with Tooze's Keynesianism and with the I think general sense that the intensity of the last few years is not totally sustainable). I honestly hadn't even really considered it as a concept so this is good to think about