Polycrisis – tightrope thinking

Roy lichtenstein, Explosion, 1965-6


The world is at a dramatic tipping point, in a systemic crisis, unable to understand the current situation with confidence and conceptual clarity.

Polycrisis is a term I first encountered when I was finishing crashed in 2017. It was invoked by Jean-Claude Juncker to describe Europe's perilous situation in the period after 2014. In the spirit of “eurotrash”, I warmed to the idea of ​​using a “concept” found in this particular source. Jean-Claude Juncker confirms Nick Mulder's wonderful portrayal of the "Homo Europus”. It turns out that Jean-Claude Juncker got the idea from French complexity theorist and resistance veteran Edgar Morin, but that's another story.

However, polycrisis also emerged as a term in the subfield of art studies in the European Union, having been retaken, among others, by Jonathan Zeitlin.

I found the idea of ​​polycrisis interesting and timely because the prefix “poly” drew attention to the diversity of challenges, without specifying a single dominant contradiction or source of tension or dysfunction.

The term seemed all the more relevant in the face of the COVID shock. I used it in Shutdown to contrast this rather indeterminate European view of the crisis, on the one hand, with the American view, more compact, not to mention solipsistic, of a major national crisis centered on the figure of Donald Trump and, on the other hand, with the perspective of Chen Yixin, one of the leading thinkers of Xi Jinping's security apparatus.

Shutdown came out in September 2021. Since then I have been exploring the concept of polycrisis in my writing. And so it began to gain increasing use.

Regardless of any text written by me, in April 2022 the Cascade Institute published an interesting report on the subject written by Scott Janzwood and Thomas Homer-Dixon. There, they defined polycrisis as follows: “We define a global polycrisis as any combination of three or more interacting systemic risks with the potential to cause a cascading and uncontrolled failure of Earth’s natural and social systems, which irreversibly degrades and catastrophic the prospects of mankind. A systemic risk is an emerging threat within a natural, technological or social system with impacts that extend beyond that system to jeopardize the functionality of one or more other systems. A global polycrisis, should it occur, will inherit the four core properties of systemic risks – extreme complexity, high nonlinearity, cross-border causality, and deep uncertainty – while also exhibiting causal synchronization between risks.”

They even offered a diagrammatic summary in which they distinguished four categories: systemic risk, global catastrophic risk, polycrisis and global polycrisis:

Some sections of the Shutdown book employed the term as early as 2022. The wonderful cultural blog Antereisis articulated the radical psychological condition we find ourselves in: “The confining world, the permanent state of alarm, the hysteria, panic and paranoia of those who are effectively persecuted: what has been subsumed in the polycrisis can only be partially and never fully compensated for by linguistic articulation and rationalization. Seeing the past, hearing the past, living the past – blindness to the apocalypse – are not an expression of refusal or political passivity, but mechanical consequences of an asymmetry between universal challenges and individual coping capacities”.

Christopher Hobson has embraced the term polycrisis in several interesting posts on his media platform and co-authored an article with Matthew Davies: An embarrassment of changes: International Relations and the COVID-19 pandemic – which is framed by this idea of ​​multiple crisis. For them, “polycrisis is a way to capture the tangled mix of challenges and changes that interact closely with each other, doubling, blurring and amplifying each other”.

In recent weeks, Larry Summers has spoken out about polycrisis over lunch with Martin Wolf. And the term has also been adopted by my friends Tim Sahay and Kate Mackenzie as the title of their excellent new blog on phenomenal world. All of this made it seem like an obvious topic to be presented journalistically.

I have endeavored to explain it in a short text published in Financial Times – originally drafted to be just 750 words. In this short space, I concentrated on three aspects: (1) Defining the concept of polycrisis in simple and intuitive terms; (2) Emphasizing the diversity of causal factors implied by the term “poly”; (3) and highlighting the novelty of our present situation.

There are two aspects of the novelty that I highlight in the article by Financial Times: firstly, it is necessary to acknowledge our inability to understand the current situation as the result of a single and specific causal factor; Second, the extraordinary scale and breadth of global development must be noted, especially in the past 50 years. Now, that makes it likely, according to the cognitive schemas and models we have at our disposal, that we are about to pass through critical inflection points.

Someone may ask now: are you not contradicting yourself? Is not development precisely that single causal factor which functions as the real engine of all our crises? To that extent, there is no polycrisis, but only a major crisis?

Although this answer expresses a nostalgia for a simpler world that I fully share – here I am as attracted as anyone else to the idea of ​​history as the gigantic unfolding of the development of the “concrete spirit” – the objection fails to take into account the sheer diversity of crises in the world today.

Second, and more importantly, it raises the question: do we really know what development or growth is? As Bruno Latour has forced us to recognize, it is not at all obvious that we understand our own situation. Indeed, as he argued convincingly in We Have Never Been Modern, modernity's account of itself is built around blind spots specifically with regard to the hybrid mobilization of material resources and actors and the functioning of science itself, which define the grand developmentalist narrative.

No doubt Marxist friends will be tempted to say that it all boils down to capitalism and its development in crisis. Now, by the 1960s at the latest, the most sophisticated Marxist theory had already abandoned the monist theories of the crisis. And today, the obvious challenge for Marxist critics is to explain how China, led by the CCP, emerged as the most consequential driver of the Anthropocene. This is not to say that Marxist theory cannot offer an answer, but to be convincing it would need a Marxist theory of complexity and polycrisis, something that thinkers such as Louis Althusser and Stuart Hall had already pointed the way to.

What I wanted to highlight in the article published in Financial Times It was this double point: both the fact that we have every reason to think that we are at a dramatic tipping point, but also that our need to employ such an unspecific term as “polycrisis” indicates our inability to understand the current situation with confidence. and conceptual clarity, which one day we might have hoped for.

Implicitly, I am referring here in a nutshell to a thesis of social philosophy and social theory that goes back to what Reinhart Koselleck called “theSattelzeit” from the turn of the 1960th to the XNUMXth century. Behold, at this moment, the emergence of modern historical consciousness in the West occurred. The arc of this intellectual history defined political, historical, economic, and social thought at least until the mid-XNUMXth century. From the XNUMXs onwards, a series of thinkers – Arendt, Anders, Bloomberg, Foucault, Althusser, that is, just a few of the thinkers that come to mind – recognized the need to rethink and update the categories inherited from social analysis and philosophy. policy in the light of contemporary development.

In the 1970s and 1980s, this diagnosis was framed by an increasingly powerful environmental critique, which took on increasingly comprehensive form in the nascent consciousness of the Anthropocene. Since the 2000s, as global development has advanced with China's world-changing economic growth, we have increasingly faced realities that can only be described in terms that once seemed implausible or grotesque.

When writing the short article on the Financial Times on the polycrisis, I had Bruno Latour very much in mind and this shows my double emphasis on the heterogeneity of forces at work today and the conceptual challenge we face.

The logic of risk accumulation, on the other hand, points less to Latour – whose description of this process was rather vague – and more obviously to Ulrich Beck and his vision of the “risk society”. For me, Beck was an important reference point in 2020, when we were in the presence of the shock of the new coronavirus pandemic. The central point of my note on Financial Times, just one Beckian version, was to foreground the degree to which polycrisis emerges in the current era, with our crisis management efforts in mind. What Beck taught us was that risk is no longer simply “natural” but a second nature phenomenon.

My Beckian reading of the polycrisis is a bit like the summarized version of the one produced by Christopher Hobson and Matthew Davies in the aforementioned article.

A polycrisis can be thought of as having the following properties: (1) Multiple separate crises happening simultaneously. This is surely the most immediate and understandable feature. (2) Feedback loops, in which individual crises interact in predictable and unexpected ways with one another. This points to the ways in which these separate crises relate to each other.

(3) Amplification, in which these interactions make the crises amplify or accelerate, generating a feeling of being out of control. The way these separate issues relate and connect works to exacerbate and deepen the different crises.

(4) Lack of boundary, as each crisis ceases to be clearly demarcated, both in time and space, as different problems arise and merge. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish where one question ends and another begins.

(5) Layering, a dynamic I attribute to Yixin's analysis, where stakeholder concerns related to each distinct crisis overlap "to create layered social problems: current problems with historical problems, tangible interest issues with ideological problems , political problems with non-political problems; all crossing and interfering with each other.”

(6) The breakdown of shared meaning, which stems from the fact that crises, as well as the complex ways in which they interact with each other, are understood differently by people. As each crisis blurs and connects with the others, it becomes more difficult to identify a clear scope and narrative for each distinct crisis, as well as come to terms with all the interactions between different issues.

(7) Cross purposes, in which each individual crisis can prevent the resolution of another crisis, in terms of demand for attention and resources, and the extent to which they intertwine makes it difficult to distinguish and prioritize.

(8) Emerging properties, the set of these dynamics, all of them with a high degree of reflexivity, exceeds the sum total of its parts. The polycrisis is ultimately much more than a collection of smaller, separate crises. Rather, it's something like a sociopolitical version of the "Fujiwhara effect," a technical term used to describe when two or more cyclones come together, transform, and merge.

Hobson published an interesting post about Ulrich Beck's latest book, The Metamorphosis of the World.

I hadn't noticed before, but the term metamorphosis also features prominently in the title of Bruno Latour's book on the COVID pandemic, After Lockdown: A Metamorphosis. Here is a theme to which it will be necessary to return.

Defining the polycrisis in these grand and abstract terms risks being vapid. Sets up a bit too much Zeitgeist. But that seems like a risk worth taking, given the drama of the situation we find ourselves in. We need to think “big”. Or rather, we need to learn to bridge the gap between the very large and the very particular, the micro and the macro – using another Latourian theme here.

What all this talk of major social processes and movements of the mind must not obscure is the extent to which the current crisis is also a question of identity, choice and action. As much as it is a question of sociology, social theory and great historical breadth, it is also a question of psychology, both at the group and very intimate level, and of politics.

The polycrisis affects us at all levels. And if you want to take seriously the problem of thinking in media res, you cannot put the issue of psychology in parentheses. For now, however, I will defer this question.

However, the political issue cannot fail to be signaled in this note. And at this point, I'll credit Anusar Farooqui aka @policytensor for that.

For him, the tension of the present moment is not, after all, just the result of long-term development processes or environmental changes. It is massively exacerbated by those responsible for geopolitics and has resulted from strategic decisions taken by the elites of national states. Some of these elites were elected, others were not.

What is characteristic of the current moment – ​​and is symptomatic of the polycrisis – is that the decisive actors in Russia, China and the United States, the three major military powers, are all defining their positions as if their very identities were at stake.

In the short note on Financial Times I pointed to the Cold War between China and the US – thus using an admittedly inappropriate key term. I then went on to argue that recent history has been shaped by improvisation, changes in course, innovation and fighting crises. Is this a fair or appropriate description? Can it really be said that the Biden government, the Chinese, the Putin regime are fighting the crisis? Or are they simply aggravating the tensions more and more?

It is certainly a matter of saying yes to this polarity; behold, the two poles are interdependent. Each of the great powers will insist that it is acting defensively (fighting the crisis in the broadest sense). But what that entails, if fundamental interests are felt to be at stake, is escalation, even to the point of open war or risking an atomic confrontation. It's like the classic Cold War, only worse, because everyone feels truly existentially under pressure and has the feeling that the clock is ticking. If no one confidently believes they have time on their side – and who has that luxury in the age of polycrisis? – creates a very dangerous situation.

It can be an endless tightrope walk. But at least we don't walk alone!

*adam tooze is professor of history at Yale University (USA). Author, among other books, of The price of destruction (Record).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on chartbook newsletter.


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