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Valid construals and/or correct readings?: On the symptomatology of crises

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Publication date7/11/2018
Host publicationThe Pedagogy of Economic, Political and Social Crises: Dynamics, Construals and Lessons
EditorsBob Jessop, Karim Knio
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages24
ISBN (electronic)9781351665759
ISBN (print)9781138062504
<mark>Original language</mark>English


The Chinese ideogram for crisis combines two characters: danger and opportunity. This indicates the duality of crisis and suggests several important issues for current and future analyses of crisis, crisis construals, and crisis lessons. First, the ideogram signifies that crises have both objective and subjective aspects corresponding to danger and opportunity respectively. Building on Régis Debray, we can say that, objectively, crises occur when a set of social relations (including their ties to the natural world) cannot be reproduced (cannot “go on”) in the old way. Subjectively, crises tend to disrupt (even “shock”) accepted views of the world and create uncertainty on how to “go on” within it. For they threaten established views, practices, institutions, and social relations, calling into question theoretical and policy paradigms as well as everyday personal and organizational routines. Second, in this sense, crises do not have predetermined outcomes: how they are resolved, if at all, depends on the actions taken in response to them. They are potentially path-shaping moments with performative effects that are mediated through the shifting balance of forces competing to influence crisis construal, crisis management, crisis outcomes, and possible lessons to be drawn from crisis. Third, without the objective moment, we have, at worst, deliberately exaggerated or even manufactured “crises,” at best, unwarranted panic based on mis-perception or mis-recognition of real world events and processes.1 Sometimes, crises may be manufactured or, at least exaggerated, for strategic or tactical purposes not directly related to immediate events or processes. Agents may, for “political” motives, broadly interpreted, conjure crises from nowhere or exaggerate the breadth, depth, and threat of an actual crisis (Mirowksi, 2013). After all, “you never want to let a serious crisis go to waste” (cf. Rahm Emanuel’s comment, made on the Bloomberg television channel in November 2008 in his capacity as transition manager for President-elect Barack Obama).2 A rigorous analysis of crises, crisis construals, and crisis management must be able to distinguish these alternatives or it could fall into a simplistic form of constructivism. Fourth, without the subjective moment, while disinterested observers may perceive a crisis developing either in real time or after the “event,” the crisis will have insuflcient resonance for relevant participants to spur them into efforts to take decisive action. Yet the notion of critical moment and turning point is a key feature of crises as conventionally understood. Fifth, from this perspective, then, crises are complex, objectively overdetermined moments of subjective indeterminacy, where decisive action can make a major difference to the future (Debray, 1973, p. 113; see also pp. 99-100, 104-105). However, cautioning against too-easy an adoption of this kind of perspective, Janet Roitman (2014, p. 41) notes that, while positing a given situation as a crisis makes certain questions possible, it also forecloses other kinds of question and lines of investigation. In other words, an over-reliance by participants or observers on interpreting specific symptoms as evidence of a continuing crisis or yet another crisis can create a blind spot that sidelines alternative descriptions, diagnoses, prognoses, and potential courses of action. Taking crisis for granted as a starting point means that the nature of crisis as an explanandum is left unexamined and therefore directs attention to the search for the best explanation (or, at least, some explanation). So, rather than asking whether X (an event or process) does or does not constitute a crisis, treating it in an unquestioned, unreflective manner as a crisis, of whatever kind, short-circuits its analysis and, hence, decision-making about suitable responses. Although Roitman directs her criticism against historical narratives shaped by the interpretive couplet of crisis critique that is allegedly characteristic of modernity since the eighteenth century (cf. Koselleck, 1988; Festl, Grosser, and Thomä, 2018), her arguments are also very apt for the inflation of crisis diagnoses and discourses in recent decades as mentioned in Chapter 1. Indeed, the more crisis discourse expands, the greater the risk that crisis becomes an empty concept. This is especially true where crisis is employed counter-intuitively, as is often the case nowadays, to describe an enduring condition rather than, as implied in its original meaning, to identify a moment for decisive action that might restore the status quo ante or lead to more or less radical social transformation. This risk can be remedied on condition that the durability of crises is related to contingent conditions that block a resolution that might otherwise occur. This is compatible with the general principles of critical realism and is analysed by Gramsci, for example, in terms of a “catastrophic equilibrium of forces” (1971: 219-23, 300; cf. 1975: Q13, $27; Q14, $23; Q22, $10;3 for a discussion in relation to the crisis in Europe, see Keucheyan and Durand, 2015). These contingencies are illustrated in Chapter 4, where Andrew Gamble refers to the impasse of the British state or economy, which he regards as structural and deep-seated, leading to inertia, deadlocks or catastrophic equilibria. Likewise, Will Hout notes the permanent crisis in development assistance and explains this in terms of a failure to look beyond symptoms to deeper causes of poverty, inequality, and unsustainable development. In a different context, more related to crisis construals than the objective overdetermination of crisis, enduring crises are especially likely where repeated critiques serve as substitutes for transformative action, which is an obvious temptation of intellectuals, and can lead to fatalism, cynicism, or stoicism (cf. Thomä, Festl, and Grosser, 2015, p. 17; Hindrichs, 2015).