Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz: The Concept of Crisis

Blog: The Concept of Crisis

In its first seminar of the year, the CSMCH hosted a panel event on the concept of crisis. Moderated by Frédéric Volpi, speakers Janet Roitman (New School), Jeremy Adelman (Princeton), David Sepkoski (Illinois), Keren Weitzberg (UCL), and AbdouMaliq Simone (Sheffield) explored the historical uses and meanings of ‘Crisis’.

With the backdrop of the current global pandemic, the panel members started proceedings by responding to the question: When politicians, intellectuals, and others name a set of events or a problem a “crisis” (e.g. climate crisis, financial crisis, or our current health crisis),  they are evoking a powerful set of meanings and calls to action. What can we say about what crisis means and what political work it does? Jeremy Adelman began the discussion with a reflection on the different meanings and purposes of the concept. He argued that historically the concept of crisis has had two meanings: one derived from medicine (relating to the moment before death), the other originating in political economy (especially within the Marxist tradition). In his view, both concepts have two, but entangled meanings: crisis as the end of something, and crisis as giving rise to a change between systems. Janet Roitman argued that there is a lot at stake in naming a crisis, since a crisis implies a deviation from our norms. It thus both confirms what our norms are and seeks to stabilize those norms. In the crisis of covid-19, it has confirmed our norms toward public health. This pandemic is an opportunity to reaffirm the positive values on strong public welfare.

David C. Sepkoski, a historian of science, argued that the idea of crisis as disruption in natural and human history is a relatively new way of thinking in the modern western world. Before the 1960s, large-scale natural crisis were viewed as neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. Rather, following natural history, we understood large-scale natural change as the rule. After Charles Darwin, the history of life was defined one of winner and losers. After the 1960s, however, scientists, especially paleobiologists, challenged Darwin’s notion of evolution. The history of nature was more complex than just a history of winners and losers, and we begin to see ideas of ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’. However, Sepkoski emphasised how in our present political discusses of crisis, we still express the fears and anxieties entailed in Darwin´s conception of winners and losers in evolution.

Drawing on his research working in urban environments in the global south, AbdouMaliq Simone commented on the experiences of those living in different states of permanent crisis, be it racial, economic, urban or other. In this sense, crisis is an ontology. For example, the experience of black life is itelf a crisis, because being black meant that you could be murdered at any time just because of your skin colour. Crisis thus subtends everyday lives. For the urban poor, one day there is money and the next day there isn´t. Crisis, thus, has multiple and unmanageable definitions. Finally, Keren Weitzberg highlighted that we need to be careful when we define crisis. She pointed out how the idea of crisis often relates to generational divisions. The climate crisis or the victory of different populist parties across the Western World have often been understood as a generational crisis between the young and the old.  Moreover, historical and regional context is central to crisis, since it defines norms and values. As an historian of Africa, she pointed to how some regions are defined as in near constant crisis, and that this is also a way of defining and regulating international norms and ideas of development. She ended by asking for a reconsideration of the concept of crisis from the Global South.

After the interventions of all the panellists, questions were opened to the floor. Moderated by Frédéric Volpi, three questions were asked regarding crisis as a creating something potentially positive; moments when crises open a critical and conjunctural change; and how we know when crisis ends. For the first question, Sepkoski emphasised that the idea of crisis having a positive outcome was a western idea from the twentieth century, not before. However, Roitman argued that originally the idea of crisis had a Christian meaning of redemption within theology, which was a positive outcome from the Christian perspective. AbdouMaliq, on the contrary, was more sceptical on the ‘positive outcomes’ of crisis, as he said that the nature of a crisis differs a lot depending on whether we are looking at the north or the Global south, not least in this current covid-19 crisis. For the second question, Weitzberg pointed to Africa as an example of how different the idea of crisis can be from one continent to another. In her view, the crisis of covid-19 had flipped the standard narrative of the Western media in its portrayal of normality in Africa (economic decline, structural problems, lack of health system, recurrent pandemics)  to a ‘crisis’ in the north. In that sense, she was surprised how little had been said in the media about Africa during this pandemic considering that a) Africa has handled it better than Europe and b) they have significant historical experiences in facing epidemics.  This is, then, perhaps an opportunity to reconsider the concept of crisis.  Finally, in regard to the last question on when crisis ends, there wasn´t any agreement. One example many of the panellists used was the economic crisis of 2008. For example, Adelman argued that since 2008 we have experienced a sense of constant crisis: everything is at risk. Roitman argued that Covid-19 is a only crisis for the human species (not the entire planet). The 2008 economic crisis, however, was politically defined as such, but structurally speaking, there was very little change in the economic system.

In sum, the different panellists all offered interesting insights and challenging reflections on the different meanings of crisis, the political stakes involved in naming a crisis, and how we can think critically with the concept of crisis today.

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of the European Left, political theory, political violence and historical memory. His thesis focuses on the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics in a transformed world (since 1977). He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 8 with Anita Klingler

Our eighth CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

For the final episode in this series, I spoke to Anita Klingler, who recently submitted her thesis on public discourses of violence in Britain and Germany in the interwar years. Amongst other things, we talked about the relationship between discourses of violence and actual violence, what it means to write about violence, and whether Europe is once again heading towards a “violent” future.

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

This episode brings to an end our first series of Showcase podcasts. We hope to return later in the year with new guests and new ideas.

For now, I’d like to thank the guests who agreed to subject themselves to my haphazard questioning. A special mention, too, for PhD student Mathew Nicolson, who selflessly dedicated himself to producing and editing every Showcase podcast episode for nothing. We are all in his debt.

— Emile

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 7 with Enda Delaney

Our seventh CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

In this episode, I talked to one of our most senior professors, Enda Delaney, a well-known specialist of modern Irish history. We started our wide-ranging conversation by discussing some of the latest developments in the historiography of modern Ireland and the importance of a “transnational” understanding of Irish society. In the second half, we moved on to Enda’s ambitious and exciting new project on the history of cognition.

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

Join me next time when my guest will be Anita Klingler, with whom I’ll be exploring the history of political violence in interwar Europe.

— Emile

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 6 with Jeremy Dell

Our sixth CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

This time around, I talked to Jeremy Dell, our recently appointed lecturer in 19th century African history. We began by discussing his intellectual trajectory and, in particular, his first encounter with West Africa via Paris and Dakar. As a specialist of West African Islam, I also asked him to tell us more about the place of African Islam within broader histories of the Islamic world. We ended by talking about the history of the book in West Africa – and how some of that history became part of the justification for the French-led intervention in Mali in 2013 and France’s plans to “return” colonial artefacts.

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

Join me next time when my guest will be Enda Delaney, with whom I’ll be discussing about his current project on the “global” history of the Irish Revolution and his exciting new project on the history of cognition.

— Emile

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 5 with Ismay Milford

Our fifth CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

In this episode, I talked to Ismay Milford, a research fellow at Edinburgh, about her work on African anti-colonial activism in the decolonising moment. Amongst other things, we discussed transnational histories of activism, the usefulness of “space” as a historical concept, and whether we can learn anything about our present political crisis from postwar visions of the decolonised future. We also spent some time unpacking the conceptual and empirical frameworks in her excellent article in The Historical Journal on ideas of “federation” in East and Central Africa in the 1950s and 60s.

During the course of our discussion, Ismay made reference to several books and projects, including:

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

Join me next time when my guest will be Jeremy Dell, with whom I’ll be talking about West African Islam, Sufism and the history of the book.

— Emile

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 4 with Julie Gibbings

Our fourth CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

My guest was Julie Gibbings, our recently appointed lecturer in the history of the indigenous Americas. Amongst many things, we talked about how Julie got interested in Guatemala, what it means to work on a post-conflict society, and how indigenous knowledge can reshape our understanding of time and space. We also explored some of the main themes of her new book, entitled Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala (Cambridge University Press, 2020)

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

Join me next time when my guest will be Ismay Milford, with whom I’ll be talking about the revolutionary dreams of East and Central African activists in the decolonising moment.

— Emile

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 3 with Kate Ballantyne

Our third CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

My guest was Kate Ballantyne, who is our resident postdoctoral fellow in modern and contemporary history (you can find out more about her in an autobiographical blog post she wrote earlier this year). In our interview, we talked about the mythologies of the American South, the challenges of writing about activism, and the echoes of the past in today’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Over the course of the conversation, Kate mentioned a number of op-eds, Twitter threads and books, and I’ve included the link to these at the bottom of this blog post.

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).


— Emile

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 2 with Joe Gazeley

Our second CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

My guest was Joe Gazeley, who is finishing his PhD on Malian foreign policy since the 1960s. In our wide-ranging conversation, we talked about how Joe came to work on Mali, and what his research can tell us about the specificities of post-colonial sovereignty. We also explored the controversial notion of “la Françafrique” and how foreign powers have exploited or ignored Mali since independence.

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

My next guest will be our resident postdoc, Kate Ballantyne, with whom I’ll be discussing the wonders of Tennessee and the history of student activism in the American South.

— Emile

Jake Blanc is the first guest on our new CSMCH Showcase podcast series

Like everyone else in the university sector, we have had to suspend our activities because of the COVID-19 epidemic. This has been particularly hard for us because the purpose of a research centre is to foster intellectual exchange and encourage conversations, all of which happen far more easily in person than over the internet.

However, we do have one asset: our members.

Here at Edinburgh, we’re fortunate to have a wonderful community of modern historians. And, since we are temporarily unable to welcome any visiting speakers or fellows into our ranks, we thought we’d take the opportunity to introduce you to some of our best and brightest minds.

We’re doing this in the form of a new podcast series called ‘CSMCH Showcase’.

As the title suggests, the purpose of this series is to showcase the work of some of our members. This will mostly come in the form of short interviews with some of our staff and PhD students. We hope that this podcast series will allow you to share in some of the research that is happening in Edinburgh and allow you to maintain a connection with us until we are next able to meet in person.

My first guest was Jake Blanc. When we met virtually, I talked with him about his own biography and his experience of left-wing political engagement; the history of rural political movements; and the importance of looking at Latin America from the inside out. Check out the podcast by clicking on the Audiomack link below or via our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

My next guest will be Joe Gazeley, who will be discussing his doctoral research on Malian foreign policy. Join us then!

— Emile

Teach-out on indigenous movements and revolutionary politics in Latin America

In the midst of the ongoing UK-wide strike action, the Centre organised a teach-out event on indigenous communities and left-wing politics in Guatemala and Mexico with Nat Morris (UCL) and Julie Gibbings (Edinburgh). Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz was there to send this report.

A map of the indigenous peoples of Latin America

Julie and Nat opened the teach-out by briefly introducing the three case studies of revolutionary moments and indigenous movements in Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Nat spoke about the context of indigenous struggles in Mexico after the Mexican Revolution that started in 1910.  Between the accession of Álvaro Obregón to Mexico’s presidency in 1920, and the end of Lázaro Cárdenas’s presidency in 1940, the federal government sought to politically, culturally and economically “incorporate” the country’s Indian peoples into the nation-state, predominantly via the efforts of the maestros rurales (rural schoolteachers) of the Secretaría de Educación Pública (Secretariat of Public Education, SEP).

However, the process was complicated by the elites’ lack of knowledge of how to integrate them in terms of the social structure, history, language and the ways in which they understood the world, which clearly differed from the new state born in the revolution. Moreover, as was highlighted all through the teach-out, land reform that the revolutionaries promised earned lots of support from indigenous people but became a problem when the revolution stabilised.

Nat highlighted was how the concept of progress and modernity had little place for indigenous people. They realized that the revolution meant the onset of a project to “modernise” their own existence by making them into mestizos – a concept derived from the Spanish Empire for mixed races between indigenous and Spaniards.

The example of the Huichols, an indigenous group in Sierra Huichola, illustrated their resistance to  incorporation into the new nation-state. It also showed the problems within the federal education system itself, and more importantly, the behaviour of its local representatives that galvanised this opposition. Racism, paternalism, land reform, and violence made the incorporation of the Huichols impossible in post-revolutionary Mexico.

Emile introduces Julie (second on the right) and Nat (first on the right)

In her opening remarks, Julie compared the situation of Mexico with Guatemala, which has always been overshadowed by its larger and more powerful neighbour. There are fundamental historical differences between the two: while Mexico was key to the Spanish colonization, Guatemala was a colonial backwater.  After independence, indigenous people were the largest group in the country.

Economically speaking, Guatemala depended on the exportation of coffee that was harvested and transported through mandamiento (forced wage labour), which was applied mainly to indigenous people. There had been a long conflict in the nineteenth century over the question of mandamiento – for instance, over the racial differences used to defend forced labour in the indigenous community. This persisted into the twentieth-century.

Because of Guatemala’s proximity to Mexico, there was a lot of intellectual exchange, especially, during the Mexican Revolution. During the Guatemalan Revolution (1944-1954), president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán introduced the decreto 900 land reform bill.  While the idea was to redistribute unsusedland to local peasants, compensating landowners with government bonds, and thereby modernising Guatemala’s economy from pseudo-feudalism into capitalism, it benefited mainly indigenous groups, deprived of land since the Spanish conquest. It also helped many indigenous people to feel that they had found dignity and autonomy after centuries of conquest and deprivation.

However, in the context of the Cold War and because the redistribution angered major landowners such as The United Fruit Company, as well as the United States, which construed Guatemala’s land reform as a communist threat. The US ultimately used this as a justification for the 1954 coup that deposed Árbenz and instigated decades of Civil War.

Finally, both Julie and Nat spoke about Nicaragua, which, like the other two also experienced a revolution, sometimes referred to as a Second Cuba in Latin America. The case of the Miskitu and the Mayangna populations after the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua offered an intriguing opportunity to explore the dynamics of ethnic politics, as well as Latin American ethnic mobilizations, inter-Indian relations, and the failures of leftist revolutionary  movements to engage with indigenous bases of support.

As Nat explained, while the territories of the Miskitu and the Mayangna were never part of the Spanish Empire, and they were helped by the British pirates who gave them guns, they joined Nicaragua in 1860. When the revolution happened and the Civil War broke out, the Miskitu allied with the US and, in the historical narrative, it has always been said that they “tricked” the Mayangna, another indigenous groups whose relations with the Miskitu were never good, to fight against the Sandinistas.

Since the Sandinista government denied the importance of ethnic difference in Nicaragua, this allowed Miskitu nationalists, using the language of religion, to co-opt Mayangna leaders, while subsequent Sandinista violence turned Mayangna civilians against the revolution.

This discussion of the Nicaraguan case highlighted how indigenous peoples interacted with revolutionaries and their ideas of progress and modernity. As Nat explained, the legitimacy of Miskitu domination crumbled as violence on the coast escalated, but the return of the Mayangna to Nicaragua from Honduras, where they were exiled, only became possible after a genuine shift in the Sandinistas´ own nationalist ideology.

With an acknowledgement that real, important differences existed not only between mestizos and a unified “Indian” other, but also between distinct groups of Indians, the Sandinistas demonstrated their growing understanding of the history and culture of the coast. This enabled the Mayangna to rebuild their relationship with the revolution, as equal partners rather than voices lost in the crowd.

Nat and Julie’s presentations were followed by questions from the audience on contemporary indigenous politics. Amongst other things, members of the audience asked about gender, the neo-liberal model of multiculturalism, and the question of land and land reform. In their answers, Nat and Julie provided ample evidence of the importance of studying indigenous histories as part of a broader wave of radical political movements in Latin America.

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of the European left, political theory, political violence and historical memory. His thesis focuses on the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics in a transformed world (since 1977). He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

[A write-up of this teach-out was also featured in the History, Classics and Archaeology student magazine, ‘Retrospect’. The link to the article is here.]