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.