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Niklas Olsen is Associate Professor of History at the SAXO-Institute, University of Copenhagen.
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Critical Theories of Crisis in Europe
From Weimar to the Euro
By Poul F. Kjaer, Niklas Olsen
Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.Copyright © 2016 Poul F. Kjaer and Niklas Olsen
All rights reserved.
What Time Frame Makes Sense for Thinking about Crises?
There are a number of fundamental difficulties involved in defining the scope of crises. These difficulties derive both from the ambiguity inherent in the term, and also from its current overuse to describe a wide variety of different political, social and cultural phenomena. These factors are related: crisis is a difficult concept to pin down not just in spite of its growing ubiquity as a label for all sorts of different kinds of events, but, in part, because of its growing ubiquity. In particular, there is a problem of deciding what marks the start of a crisis and what marks the end of one: in other words, the question of time frames. This can be seen in relation to the recent financial crisis (the one that ostensibly started in 2008, though there are good reasons to dispute that, in many senses, it started long before). We are now — eight years on-living in an environment that is routinely described as postcrisis, yet also as containing the ongoing legacy of the crisis, including the possibility of further iterations of the crisis. If nothing else, this is evidence of how hard it is to get time frames fixed when discussing crises: Is it really over or not? However, this is not just a recent problem. It derives from the historical experience of crisis in both Europe and the wider world across the twentieth century.
This analysis has something in common with Reinhart Koselleck's classic account of the concept of crisis, its historical development and its resulting ambiguities. 'The concept remains as multi-layered and ambiguous as the emotions attached to it,' Koselleck wrote. He argues that the fundamental ambiguity lies between the idea of crisis as an acute moment of choice or bifurcation of possible futures (as in 'the crisis of the disease'), and crisis as an ongoing state of uncertainty or potential peril (as in 'the crisis of Western civilization'). In one case, crisis has a focal point in time; in the other, it is expansive across time and can even be annexed to the notion of the end of times. Koselleck identifies three primary sources for the modern conception of crisis: it comes from medicine, where the emphasis is on crisis as a turning point; from economics, where crisis can mean both an acute breakdown and also an ongoing malfunction of the system; and theology, where crisis tends to be deployed in eschatological terms and contains within it the notion of immanent or even permanent transfiguration. Together, these different sources feed into contemporary political uses of the term, which often alternate between or combine various ideas of crises as both short- and long-term phenomena, raising immediate, as well as enduring, challenges. Crisis, Koselleck writes, 'can be conceptualized as both structurally recurring and utterly unique'.
My account here shares this focus on the fundamental temporal tension in the idea of crisis. But I develop my argument beyond Koselleck in a number of ways. First, he was interested in how the concept evolved over the modern period up to the early- to mid-twentieth century. I am interested in how it has evolved into the twenty-first century. This means that where the primary political reference point of crisis for Koselleck is revolution, I am interested in crisis in democratic settings where revolution is a remote possibility: the recent crises of the established Western democracies have not carried with them a serious prospect of revolutionary upheaval in the traditional sense. So, I will be writing about crisis against a backdrop of democratic stability, which poses a particular set of challenges. Second, Koselleck's primary interest is in the contrast between the 'subjective' and 'objective' aspects of the idea of crisis, and between its cosmic and more narrowly secular connotations. I am interested more specifically in how crises pattern themselves in our discourse and our imaginations: their beginnings, their endings and their repetitions. Koselleck does not much discuss the problem of framing in these terms. Third, I am interested in how different temporal conceptions of crisis react on each other: that is, in how long-term perspectives shape our conception of the short term, and vice versa. My argument is that a distinctive feature of the contemporary understanding of crisis is the interplay and mismatch between different time frames, which creates particular problems for thinking about our long-term future.
I want to begin with three background difficulties that I take to lie behind any attempt to fix the time frame of a crisis. The first is definitional. It is possible to come up with a broad, catchall definition of what we mean by the word crisis in a way that accommodates its inherent ambiguity. A crisis might be defined as a situation characterized both by fundamental threat and fundamental choice. Each needs to be present for it to count as a crisis. So threat without choice — for instance, in the case of an asteroid on a fatal collision course with earth-does not qualify as a crisis, since the scale of the threat precludes meaningful choice (though a choice about how to respond in such fateful circumstances-preparation, resignation, liberation?-could still constitute a crisis situation). Choice without threat is also insufficient-a decision about what to do with an unexpected financial windfall is not in itself a crisis, unless the difficulty of making that decision produces a sense of threat (option paralysis leading to lost opportunities, for instance). Choice plus threat are necessary, and both have to be serious. What is meant by serious? It is hard to be precise, but a serious choice does not have to rule out the possibility of inaction. Some crises may force a choice between doing something and doing nothing-as Thomas Paine wrote of the revolutionary crisis of the early 1790s, 'there remained no choice but to act with determined vigor or not to act at all'. But inaction needs to be a decision: in situations of crisis, mindless drift no longer remains an option.
A definition like this accomplishes something, but it does not take us very far. It leaves unresolved the question of whether crisis is to be identified with the acute moment of threat/danger/choice or with a more entrenched or intractable situation. It could be either and it could be both. Equally, this definition does not help with the knowing of when to mark the beginning or the end of crises. Does the crisis start with the danger or with the choice? Does it end when the danger has passed or when the choice has been made? Choice and threat are unlikely to coincide: threat is likely to predate choice, and also sometimes to outlast it. But it does not follow that choice represents the acute moment of crisis and threat, merely the ongoing condition: it could be the other way round. Take the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath: it is arguable that the moments of threat have been the most acute-particularly the week following the collapse of Lehman Brothers when the entire world economy was at risk-whereas the choices have been more enduring (in the sense that they keep needing to be made, particularly by policymakers maintaining a regime of cheap money to prop up deflating economies). Crises are also different from wars in this respect, though wars produce crises and are often identified with them. Wars have distinct beginnings and endings. Crises do not. For instance, WWI was undoubtedly an epic crisis, made up of a whole series of interlocking and overlapping crises. But it would be a mistake to identify the crisis of the war with the duration of the war itself. The crisis-depending on how it was experienced and from what perspective-was either longer or shorter than that; or both.
This leads to the second background difficulty of fixing the time frame of a crisis. I will call this problem experiential: the time frame of any crisis may look very different, depending on who is experiencing it. The crisis that lead to WWI-the July crisis as it is often called-started earlier, as experienced in Belgrade or Berlin than in London or Washington. Some people are closer to the crisis than others, which means it strikes them quicker. In relation to the recent financial crisis, it could be argued that policymakers experienced it sooner than the public, but also got past it sooner. For those close to power, the focal point of the crisis might well have been late 2008, when the threat, as they perceived it, was most acute; or, in the case of the Euro crisis, late 2011/early 2012, as government bond prices most dramatically diverged. But, for the publics of Western democracies, the crisis may have been experienced very differently. Most were unaware of it in 2008 and only discovered it at one remove, since its most serious effects were unfelt away from centres of power (when the British Chancellor Alistair Darling, in a newspaper interview in the summer of 2008, described the economic situation as 'the worst economic crisis Britain has faced for 60 years', this came as news to many people, who had not recognised it; over time, however, they saw that Darling was right). In many ways, this situation has now been reversed. A large number of ordinary citizens are still conscious of an ongoing economic crisis (the squeeze on wages that the British Labour Party has tried to name 'the cost-of-living crisis'), while their politicians are telling them that the crisis is passed.
The third background problem here I will call perspectival, which is related to the problem of divergent experiences of crisis, but is distinct because it includes the perspectives of people who have not experienced the crisis at all. The time frame for thinking about crises may be very different for those who are experiencing the crisis firsthand compared to those who are looking at the crisis from the outside. In blunt terms, the further one is from a crisis the shorter it is likely to appear, because the absence of immediate experience makes it tempting to mark the beginning and end of the crisis by using arbitrary or fixed moments in time, whereas experience teaches that crises cannot be measured in this way. So, as seen from the outside, crises are often identified with wars or other time-limited events, and demarcated by declarations of war and by peace treaties. Those closer to these events know that the crisis does not necessarily end when the treaty is signed. Distance here can be understood in simple geographical terms: the further away, the shorter the crisis looks. So, for instance, the recent crisis in Ukraine, however it ostensibly ends, is likely to be perceived as longer-lasting for those in or near Ukraine than for those much farther removed. However, there is no equivalent correlation between magnitude and distance when perspective is viewed in temporal terms. We stand at varying distances from past crises. But how near they appear to us is not simply a function of how long ago they happened. In some ways, the economic crises of the 1930s appeared more distant as seen from the 1960s than they do today, because in the 1960s it was possible to believe that the conditions that gave rise to them were past, whereas today we are more aware of how those conditions can persist or recur. Of course, in experiential terms, the 1960s were closer to the 1930s than we are today because there were many people alive then with personal memories of the Great Depression, whereas there are relatively few such people alive now. This is why the experiential and the perspectival need to be distinguished.
These difficulties — definitional, experiential and perspectival — lie behind any attempt to pin down the time frame for thinking about crises. But I want to identify three further problems that seem particularly pertinent when considering the idea of crisis in a contemporary context. They specifically concern the question of how we experience crises at their onset, and how hard it is to know whether to take them seriously — indeed, how hard it is to know whether the onset of the crisis is real or not. I will identify these difficulties as the problems of ubiquity, unpredictability and (democratic) durability.
Ubiquity: one fundamental difficulty with pinning down the concept of crisis in contemporary discourse is its increasing overuse to describe a very wide range of events and circumstances, many of which turn out in retrospect not to look much like crises at all. There is a tendency to call any political or economic disturbance or upheaval a crisis, ranging from elections to scandals to fleeting economic dislocations. When a politician resigns, it is a crisis; when the stock market falls sharply, it is a crisis; when international tensions rise, it is a crisis. There is, in other words, an inflationary effect in the ubiquity of the term: by being applied to so much, it ends up being worth relatively little. In some respects, this is nothing new. Alexis de Tocqueville described, and mocked, the tendency to treat every election as a crisis in a chapter of Democracy in America, which he titled, with deliberate irony, 'The Crisis of the Election'. Tocqueville noted the ferment that accompanied all American elections — the sense that everything was at stake and the wrong choice would plunge the country into ruin — and he also noted how quickly the ferment passed. The choice, once made, soon came to appear a superficial one after the election was over, only for the charade to be repeated next time around. Tocqueville knew what was primarily responsible for this inflation of language: newspapers. No newspaper ever willingly forgoes the opportunity to turn a drama into a crisis. Koselleck describes similar effects at work in Germany in the later nineteenth century, when crisis became what he calls a 'catchword' for any political disturbance and 'the frequent changes of chancellors after Bismarck's fall rapidly led to an inflationary use of the term "Chancellor crisis"'. (Koselleck also remarks that contemporaries noticed this inflationary effect and diagnosed a longer-standing institutional crisis behind it: a crisis of political superficiality.
These inflationary effects have been greatly accelerated during the past century, when uses of the term crisis have become ever more frequent and more widespread, particularly since the 1960s. From that point on, alternative vocabularies for talking about political change start to go into abeyance. One example is the terminology of events (événements) to describe dramatic or unexpected political happenings. This terminology coexisted with the language of crisis for much of the nineteenth and a large part of the twentieth century (as, indeed, it had been the predominant term during the eighteenth century). It constituted a rival Francophone discourse to compete with an Anglophone or Germanic one, and it carried specific Enlightenment connotations of disruption to established patterns without any commitment to inflated or eschatological significance. Its decline coincides with the decline of French as a universal language of politics and political science. Its last 'hurrah' was probably the worldwide use of the term les événements to describe the student uprisings of 1968. No one (outside of France) much uses the language of 'events' to describe current uprisings or conflicts. It is not 'the Ukrainian events'. It is 'the Ukraine crisis'.
A similar story can be told at the other end of the scale about the relative decline of the term catastrophe to describe what we now tend to call crises. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, catastrophe retained a meaning close to crisis to denote a break-point in historical evolution accompanied by the serious threat of disaster. Revolutions, for instance, were routinely described as catastrophes as well as crises. During the twentieth century, its use evolved to offer a contrast with the temporal dimension of crisis, as in this line from Herbert Marcuse: 'The actual situation of capitalism is characterized not only by an economic or political crisis, but by a catastrophe of the human essence'. Now catastrophe tends to be limited to the description either of personal disaster or of epochal or environmental calamity.
The result of the inflationary use of the term crisis is to add an extra element of uncertainty to the events that it has come to describe. At almost any given moment in twentieth and early twenty-first century democratic discourse, it is possible to find talk of crisis, including talk of a 'crisis of democracy'. This is true of periods that we now associate with relative stability (at least as compared to what was to come after them): the 1920s, the 1950s and the 1980s. In other words, if you time-slice a functioning democracy at a particular point, there will be people running around saying the sky is falling. Democratic freedoms, as Tocqueville noticed, include the freedom to panic needlessly. Most of these crises, in retrospect, no longer look like crises to us; they look like examples of 'crying wolf'.
Excerpted from Critical Theories of Crisis in Europe by Poul F. Kjaer, Niklas Olsen. Copyright © 2016 Poul F. Kjaer and Niklas Olsen. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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