Chartbook #165: Polycrisis – thinking on the tightrope.

This weekend I launched my new monthly column in the FT with a short piece about the idea of polycrisis.

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 rather relished the idea of picking up a “found concept” from that particular source. On Juncker check out Nick Mulder’s wonderful portrait of “Homo Europus”. It turned out that Juncker got the idea from French theorist of complexity and resistance veteran Edgar Morin, who is a whole ‘nother story.

In the meantime, polycrisis was emerging as a term of art in the subfield of EU studies, having been taken up, amongst others, by Jonathan Zeitlin.

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

The term seemed even more relevant faced with the COVID shock. And I took it up in Shutdown to contrast this rather indeterminate European vision of the crisis to, on the one hand, the more compact not to say solipsistic American vision of a grand national crisis centered on the figure of Donald Trump and, on the other hand, the perspective of Chen Yixin, a leading thinker of Xi Jinping’s security apparatus.

Shutdown came out in September 2021. Since then I have explored the concept of polycrisis in the newsletter. And it has begun to acquire widening currency.

Independently of any of my writing, in April 2022 the Cascade Institute published an interesting report on the theme by Scott Janzwood and Thomas Homer-Dixon. They defined a 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, runaway failure of Earth’s natural and social systems that irreversibly and catastrophically degrades humanity’s prospects. A systemic risk is a threat emerging within one natural, technological, or social system with impacts extending beyond that system to endanger 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, transboundary causality, and deep uncertainty—while also exhibiting causal synchronization among risks.

They even offered a diagrammatic summation:

Picking up on Shutdown, a couple of interesting substack pieces took up the term in early 2022. The rather wonderful Antereisis cultural blog articulated the radical psychological condition we find ourselves in.

Die beengte Welt, der dauerhafte Alarm, die Hysterie, Panik und Paranoia derjenigen, die tatsächlch verfolgt sind: was als “Polykrise” subsummiert worden ist, kann durch sprachliche Artikulation und Rationalisierung allenfalls punktuell aber nie hinreichend kompensiert werden. Das Fortsehen, Forthören und Fortleben – die Apokalypse-Blindheit – sind nicht Ausdruck einer Verweigerungshaltung oder politischen Passivität, sondern mechanische Konsequenz einer Assymmetrie zwischen universalen Herausforderungen und individuellen Bewältigungskapazitäten.

(Loosely) Translation:

The confining world, the permanent state of alarm, the hysteria, panic and paranoia of those who are actually persecuted: what has been subsumed under polycrisis can only be partially and never fully compensated by linguistic articulation and rationalization. Seeing-past, hearing-past, living-past – the blindness to 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 took up the term polycrisis in several interesting posts on his substack and co-authored a piece with Matthew Davies – “An embarrassment of changes: International Relations and the COVID-19 pandemic” – which is framed by the idea.

For them “Polycrisis is a way of capturing the tangled mix of challenges and changes closely interact with one another, bending, blurring and amplifying each other.”

In the last few weeks Larry Summers talked about polycrisis over lunch with Martin Wolf. And the term was also adopted by my friends Tim Sahay and Kate Mackenzie as the title for their excellent new blog at Phenomenal World. All this made it seem an obvious theme with which to introduce the new column at the FT.

The FT essay was a short piece – originally drafted to run to only 750 words. In that short compass I focused on three aspects:

(1) Defining the concept of polycrisis in simple and intuitive terms;

(2) Stressing the diversity of causal factors implied by the term “poly”;

(3) and emphasizing the novelty of our current situation.

There are two aspects to the novelty that I stress in the FT piece, one is our inability to understand our current situation as the result of a single, specific causal factor and secondly the extraordinary scale and breadth of global development, especially in the last 50 years, that makes it seem probable, according to the cognitive schemata and models that we do have at our disposal, that we are about to crash through critical tipping points.

You might say: are you not contradicting yourself? Is development not precisely the single causal factor that is actually the driver of all our crises? To that extent, is there not polycrisis, but just one big crisis?

Though this response expresses a nostalgia for a simpler world that I fully share – I am as attracted as anyone by the idea of history as the gigantic developmental unfolding of “concrete spirit” – the objection fails to reckon with the sheer diversity of crises in the current moment.

Secondly and more importantly it begs the question. Do we actually know what development or growth are? As Bruno Latour forced us to recognize, it is not at all obvious that we do understand our own situation. In fact, as he convincingly argued in We Have Never Been Modern, modernity’s account of itself is built around blindspots specifically with regard to the hybrid mobilization of material resources and actors and the working of science itself, which define the grand developmental narrative.

Marxist friends will no doubt be tempted to say that it all boils down to capitalism and its crisis-ridden development. But, by the 1960s at the latest, sophisticated Marxist theory had abandoned monistic theories of crisis. And in the current moment the obvious challenge for Marxist critics is to explain how CCP-led China has emerged as by far the most consequential driver of the anthropocene. This isn’t to say that Marxist theory might not be able to offer an answer, but, to be convincing, it would be a Marxist theory of complexity and polycrisis, something towards which thinkers like Louis Althusser and Stuart Hall pointed the way.

What I wanted to highlight in the FT piece was this double point: both the fact that we have every reason to think that we are at a dramatic threshold point, but also that our need to reach for a term as unspecific as polycrisis indicates our flailing inability to grasp our situation with the confidence and conceptual clarity that we might once have hoped for.

Implicitly, I am referencing a short-hand history of social philosophy and social theory that goes back to what Reinhart Koselleck called the “Sattelzeit” of the turn of the 18th to the 19th centuries, which saw the emergence of modern historical consciousness in the West. The arc of that intellectual history defined political, historical, economic and social thinking at least down to the mid 20th century. From the 1960s onwards a range of thinkers – Arendt, Anders, Bloomberg, Foucault, Althusser are just a few of the thinkers that come to mind – recognized the need to rethink and resituate inherited categories of social analysis and political philosophy in light of contemporary development. By the 1970s and 1980s that diagnosis was framed by an increasingly powerful environmental critique, which has taken on more and more encompassing form in the dawning awareness of the anthropocene. Since the 2000s, as global development lurched forward on the back of China’s world-changing economic growth, we have been increasingly confronting realities that can be described only in terms that would once have seemed implausible or grotesque.

In writing the short FT piece about the polycrisis I had Bruno Latour very much on my mind and it shows in my double emphasis on the heterogeneity of forces at work in the current moment and on the conceptual challenge we face.

The logic of accumulating risks on the other hand points less to Latour – whose account of that process was rather vague – and more obviously to Ulrich Beck and his vision of “risk society”. For me Beck was a key reference point in 2020 when we were face to face with the COVID shock. The point that a Beckian version of my FT haiku might have foregrounded is the degree to which polycrisis emerges in the current era out of our efforts at crisis-management. What Beck taught us was that risk is no longer in any simple sense “natural” but a phenomenon of second nature.

A Beckian reading of polycrisis might look a bit like the version produced by Christopher Hobson and Matthew Davies summarized on Hobson’s substack.

A polycrisis can be thought of as having the following properties:

(1) Multiple, separate crises happening simultaneously. This is the most immediate and comprehensible feature.

(2) Feedback loops, in which individual crises interact in both foreseeable and unexpected ways. This points to the ways that these separate crises relate to each other.

(3) Amplification, whereby these interactions cause crises to magnify or accelerate, generating a sense of lack of control. The way these separate problems relate and connect works to exacerbate and deepen the different crises.

(4) Unboundedness, in which each crisis ceases to be clearly demarcated, both in time and space, as different problems bleed over and merge. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish where one issue ends, and another commences.

(5) Layering, a dynamic Tooze attributes to Yixin’s analysis, whereby the concerns of interest groups related to each distinct crisis overlap ‘to create layered social problems: current problems with historical problems, tangible interest problems with ideological problems, political problems with non-political problems; all intersecting and interfering with one another’ (quoted in Tooze 2021, 18).

(6) The breakdown of shared meaning, stemming from crises being understood differently and from the complex ways in which they interact, and how these interactions are subsequently perceived differently. As each crisis blurs and connects to the other, it becomes more difficult to identify a clear scope and narrative for each distinct crisis, as well as coming to terms with all the interactions between different issues.

(7) Cross purposes, whereby each individual crisis might impede the resolution of another crisis, in terms of demanding attention and resources, and the extent to which they have become tangled together makes it difficult to distinguish and prioritise.

(8) Emergent properties, the collection of these dynamics, which all exhibit 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. Instead, it is something like a socio-political version of the ‘Fujiwhara effect,’ a term used to describe when two or more cyclones come together, morph and merge.

Hobson wrote a nice follow up post on Ulrich Beck’s final book The Metamorphosis of the World.

It had not struck me before, but Metamorphosis also figures prominently in the title of Latour’s COVID book, After Lockdown: A Metamorphosis. A theme to return to.

Defining polycrisis in these rather grand and abstract terms runs the risk of airy vapidity. It will be a bit too Zeitgeisty for some. But that seems a risk worth running given the drama of the situation we are in. We need to think “big”. Or rather we need to learn how to span the void between the very big and the very particular, the micro and the macro – another Latourian theme.

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

The polycrisis affects us at every level. And if you want to take seriously the problem of thinking in medias res you cannot bracket the matter of psychology. For now, however, I am going to defer that question.

The issue of politics must however be flagged. And I will give credit for this to Anusar Farooqui aka @policytensor.

The tension of the current moment is not, after all, simply the result of long-term processes of development, or environmental change. It is massively exacerbated by geopolitical tension resulting from strategic decisions taken by state elites. Some of those are elected. Some not.

What is characteristic of the current moment, and symptomatic of the polycrisis, is that the decisive actors in Russia, China and the United States, the three greatest military powers, are all defining their positions as though their very identities were on the line.

In the short FT piece I gestured to the Cold War between China and the US – an inadequate short-hand, admittedly. And then went on to argue that recent history has been shaped by improvisation, makeshift, innovation and crisis-fighting. Is that a fair or fitting description? Can one really say that the Biden administration, the Chinese, Putin’s regime are crisis-fighting? Are they not escalating?

It is surely a matter of both, and in interdependence. Each of the major powers will insist that they are acting defensively (crisis-fighting in the extended sense). But what this entails, if you feel fundamental interests are at stake, is escalation, even to the point of engaging in open warfare or risking atomic confrontation. It is like the classic Cold War but only worse, because everyone feels under truly existential pressure and has a sense of the clock ticking. If no one confidently believes that they have time on their side – and who has that luxury in the age of polycrisis? – it makes for a very dangerous situation indeed.

Obviously, these are huge themes and I look forward to using different platforms to explore them in future installments both here, in print and elsewhere.

It may be a tightrope walk without an end. But at least we don’t walk it alone!


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