Crisis? How Is That a Crisis!?

Reflections on an Overburdened Word

in Contributions to the History of Concepts
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  • 1 University of Oxford


Crisis has become such a ubiquitous word that its discriminatory power is diminished across various disciplines. It challenges the word-concept relationship inasmuch as it is associated with a host of partner words that imbue crisis with divergent meanings. Not least, it stretches between major upheavals and minor disturbances, often employed with calculating or rhetorical dramatic effect. This article explores both professional and vernacular usages of “crisis” and notes the distinction between theories of crisis and ideologies of crisis. It then turns to examining two domains closely linked to the language of crisis: Marxist analyses of capitalism, and legitimation problems. The latter is explored particularly through Seymour Martin Lipset and Jürgen Habermas. The role of crisis as filtered through different ideological families is indicated. Finally, the relationship between the tipping-point connotations of crisis and the finality drive of political decisions is considered.

Two references to crisis are familiar to many historians. Reacting to British Prime Minister James Callaghan’s abject failure to deal with the notorious, “winter of discontent” of 1979, the tabloid Sun ran a headline mockingly declaiming, “Crisis? What Crisis?” and then proceeded to print a list of breakdowns in the land, presumably adding up to a single crisis with multiple components.1 Contrary to common belief, Callaghan had not employed the aphoristic phrase himself, resisting instead claims of “mounting chaos” rather than crisis in a far less striking sentence,2 which demonstrates that false collective memory can easily put conceptual historians off their track. Reinhart Koselleck’s essay on “Some Questions Regarding the Conceptual History of Crisis” notes its “inflationary usage [that] covers almost all aspects of life,” adding perspicaciously, “If this ever-accumulating word usage is an adequate sign for an actual crisis, then we must live in an all-embracing crisis. However, this conclusion attests more to a diffuse manner of speaking than it contributes to the diagnosis of our situation.”3 And yet, examining diffuse manners of speaking are themselves central to the practice of conceptual history.

Stretching the Word-Concept Relationship

Indeed, in recent times it has become difficult to find a political space that is crisis-free or, more accurately, that is not referred to as a crisis in speech and writing. Crisis has even been described as an idea central, “in all its possible forms, to the contemporary global imaginary.”4 The aura of seemingly permanent crisis that has settled on the planet guarantees that the word is on everyone’s lips, driven by an explosion in statistical data as much as by the constant reinterpretation and renaming of events and prospects through the press and the Internet, the search by individuals for a cause with which to engage, and the slightly vicarious thrill, or perhaps Schadenfreude, of the peddlers of gloom and doom in locating apparent social breakdowns. If not global warming, then terrorism, or insidious populism, or large-scale financial bankruptcy, or “occupy now” types of challenges to tired political establishments in the name of a volatile and undefined democracy. As a journalist wrote in the Conservative British newspaper Daily Telegraph more than ten years ago, “we have bandied the word about so freely that a whole generation of children has grown up without knowing what it really means.”5 If Koselleck thought that crisis referred to an unknown future, or to “substantive ideas about future goals,”6 that journalist—Tom Utley—was concerned with the future efficacy of the word itself, rather than what the concept signified; in particular, he bemoaned the loss of the sense of a magnitude of threat that crisis brought to mind.7 And if Koselleck alluded to the interpretation of world history on a grand scale “as a permanent crisis” or even as a macroscopic “periodizing concept” we are more likely to note the permanence of awareness of crises in our everyday, immediate lives and to be immersed in feelings and intimations of crisis rather than perceive history as a sequence of crises. A well-known British insurance company had the catchy and much-quoted slogan “We won’t make a drama out of a crisis” But crises more frequently than not are dramatic: the drama of a crisis is precisely part of its allure and its shock value. It may be dramatic in its effect, or it may be imbued with exaggerated dramatic force by those who contemplate it. Investigating the discursive history of crisis, including the emotional baggage the concept carries, is very different from accounting for those historical manifestations that can be termed crises or from the grand narratives that give crisis shape.

The term “crisis” is a paradigmatic illustration of the methodological complexities of the word-concept relationship. As conceptual historians, we may be torn between validating the conceptual meaning assigned to a word simply because it has been assigned, and assessing the relative conceptual force or merit of a word when it is made to do so much conceptual work that the concept it signifies unravels analytically, even though the word may retain rhetorical appeal. Unless we subscribe to radical versions of poststructuralism, not all the meanings of a concept need to be treated equally. That seems to me to be one of the most difficult challenges facing conceptual historians: the need to move between conceptual mapping and listing on the one hand, and conceptual weighting on the other, inasmuch as the relative weight of any given conception of the concept will fluctuate over time and across space, as its centrality or marginality alter.8—One well-known problem with the very idea of Grundbegriffe is that they appear to exclude the less weighty meanings of a concept, as well as to be understandably vague about when a particular conception of a concept is transformed from nonbasic to basic. And we may then justifiably ask of some of the instances of the usage of crisis—to refer to the title of this article—how is that a crisis?

Another difficulty with the idea of Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (GG) is the ambiguity between a concept such as crisis becoming, in Koselleck’s words, “a permanent concept of ‘history’”9 as distinct from exploring the history of the concept of crisis, where crisis may perform many other roles not centrally germane to the task of interpreting historical time. In that essay, and even in his far more thorough, though earlier, GG entry, Koselleck was aware of many alternative usages of crisis, some of which he raced through in the final pages of the entry.10 Yet he remained too wedded to an agenda of time, change, progress, and acceleration, as well as retrogression—important as they were—to be able to consider ordinary language usage or time—absent usage. Looking at it from the perspective of recent social and political thought, which is what is proposed in these pages, the curiosity of Koselleck’s two freestanding articles on crisis lies in what they choose to overlook (and of course the GGhardly reaches into the twentieth century). Yet one can obviously appreciate the weight of the Koselleckian approach. After all, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the sociopolitical—as distinct from the medical—sense of crisis as “a vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; also, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent; now applied especially to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce” Change, progress, and, implicitly, retrogression loom large. The editors also note, significantly, “This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1893)”—and it does not refer to any source after 1965.11 That may not worry some historians of the longue durée, but it might unnerve social scientists.

Five Questions about Crisis

Let us pause to ask some immediate questions. First, if almost everything is in crisis—its prevalence in Italian public and academic discourse, for instance, is highly conspicuous12—what does a noncrisis look like? And what word, and what concept, is the opposite of crisis? Calm, order, stasis, stability, regularity, continuity? Second, the singularity of the term “crisis,” as well as the hyperbole of its frequently flaunted monumental, epochal, and universal nature, is tested and often displaced by the multiplicity of many small crises, some concurrent, some consecutive, and some more durable than others. That was the list of the Sun tabloid, incrementally inflating discontent to crisis proportions. But imagine the opposite: say the European Holocaust was referred to in the plural as a series of holocausts, varying with place and intensity—central and peripheral holocaustic events, “extreme” and “minor” occurrences of extermination—downgrading the momentous and all—embracing nature of the single phenomenon.

Of course, even in its highest magnitude, the term “crisis” cannot capture that particular enormity. But without in any way suggesting a parallel, there is a tension between ratcheting up the impact of crisis and playing it down, normalizing it, eroding it, or reducing it to individual microcrises, or to an accumulation of different, possibly unrelated, simultaneous crises. That can pit the conceptual content of crisis against its rhetorical clout, focusing on the work that the word “crisis” accomplishes, or fails to accomplish, in different contexts. For that reason, Koselleck’s uncritical citing of Jacob Burkhardt concerning “artificially created illusory crises” is problematic,13 implying as it does a sharp boundary with “natural” or “genuine” crises, whereas both may seem real to those under their spell.

Third, it is important to distinguish between professional and vernacular usages of “crisis,” certainly as students of social and political affairs. These usages tend to occupy separate—at best, overlapping—spheres. The question is not, does this belittle the meaning and impact of the concept, but rather, what do its more casual or lazy usages tell us about its broader role in discourse? That said, historians too have been berated for “convenient” ambiguity in handling the term. Almost half a century ago, the American historian Randolph Starn noted, in a discussion about the term “crisis” in historians’ writings, that “at the very least it was a ready—made catchword for the dramatic historical pressure points and processes that have been increasingly on the mind of the historian and his [sic] public.” And he continued, “For historians today ‘crisis’ can be an analytical premise, a rhetorical device, a process in a flexibly organic conception of history, a linguistic bridge connecting various disciplines.”14

Fourth, among those who think professionally about crisis, there is a potential distinction to be made between theories of crisis and ideologies of crisis, even though the two may occasionally coincide, particularly within left—wing critical thinking. Theories of crisis may stipulate the necessity of crisis, or explain its functions, or elucidate its conditions, in scholarly fashion. Ideologies of crisis will include the notion of crisis as part of their ideational arsenal, and may work toward generating a crisis or warning against one (forms of populism as against forms of environmentalism, for example). Moreover, as distinct from ideologists, students of ideology will attempt to analyze and decode the languages of crisis, the thought patterns contained in ideologies, and their persuasiveness. Fifth, there remains an open, and arguably unanswerable, conundrum: are crises the product of ascribable human agency, and therefore subject to prevention, deflection, or rectification; or are they impersonal, catastrophic, and socially or scientifically endemic, testifying to human helplessness in the face of natural, economic, or political forces? In sum, the issue is which conceptual configurations are conjured up when different discursive communities speak or write the word “crisis"? Through which cultural filters does that word emerge (and, alternatively, which cultural filters block its emergence)?

It is a commonplace that crisis once denoted the crucial turning point in a disease—frequently, the point between life and death—yet one now senses that that medical watershed between hope and despair is not what is usually meant by crisis. If crisis still contains hope, it is only in the language used by radicals who wish calamity on an oppressive or malfunctioning system—capitalism, neocolonialism, elitist paternalism, neoliberalism—and for them, crisis holds up the possibility of purge and redemption. Otherwise, crises are the preserve of the fatalist, the alarmist, or the clueless. The concept of crisis is invariably located as a component in diverse clusters and families of ideas. At the very least, it is colored by the many different conceptual environments in which it may be found. Hence, its path is not linear but multidirectional. Indeed, if rather different medical connotations of crisis than the traditional one are to be invoked, the concept of crisis spreads like a contagious disease, permeating and disjointedly infecting ever-broader discursive spheres. And as it proliferates, its generality and vagueness appear to increase, its potential for effective decontestation shrinks, and its signification of urgency abates. Crying “wolf” too often mitigates the severity of an impending crisis or even eliminates its conceptualization before it has materialized.

Crises of Capitalism

An abundant literature on crisis theory has developed over the past half century analyzing the rights and wrongs of crisis, its validity, its normative appeal, or even its range. This article does not intend to focus on those issues, other than as a source for appreciating competing and coinciding understandings. Instead, one perspective on the status of the concept would be to attempt to determine whether it is a central organizing concept, or whether it is marginal and even incidental to the fields in which it appears. Two salient areas in which crisis has been presented as an organizing concept are capitalism and political legitimation. In the first, theory and ideology are intertwined in Marxist discourse, to the extent that “capitalism” and “crisis” are mutually sustaining terms, attached to pejorative and critical readings. Thus, Marx, analyzing the contradictions in capitalist production that destroy productive forces, writes of “industrial earthquakes” as a result of which “crises increase. They become more frequent and more violent … whole hetacombs of workers … perish in the crisis.”15 In the second, of which more presently, crises of legitimation are more closely intertwined with the political need for state or regime validation, and in different versions they cut across both Marxist and liberal domains. The two kinds of crisis are fundamental to radical social and critical analysis—the crises of capitalism being seen as systemic and cataclysmic. Within liberal and social-democratic circles, capitalist crises, in the plural, can be contained through the reassuring phrase and practices of “crisis management"—a common term in international relations—which envisages the fruitfulness of human agency as an interventionist tool.16 And in industrial relations, presumably within a capitalist framework, we find an organization crisis defined in a management study guide as “a sudden and unexpected event leading to major unrest amongst the individuals at the workplace”17 while crisis management is posited as a “set of procedures applied in handling, containment, and resolution of an emergency in planned and coordinated steps”18

Even when the crises of capitalism are held to be cyclical and recurring—like the seasonal path of a hurricane—those kinds of crisis can be lived with and shrunk down to scale: human ingenuity, it is assumed, can counter the nonagentic features of the crisis. And within those same circles, legitimation crises are seen as intermittent, not perpetual, although their accelerating fre-quency may cause concern, and, within democracies, their recent spread to system as well as regime is disquieting. We are now far more likely to experience references to crisis in the context of fundamental distrust of economic and political elites, of ideologies of the center-left, and of the very fabric of institutional politics.

At the most general level, the Marxist notion of the crisis of capitalism is unique in regarding crisis as disastrous, dehumanizing, necessary, inevitable, and desirable all at the same time—an “objective” law of socioeconomic behavior, in which human beings play auxiliary parts of speeding up the resolution of crisis, paradoxically by aggravating it—as in the famous phrase, “The bourgeoisie … produces … its own grave-diggers”19 Marxist theory has much to do with reinforcing the centrality of economic analysis, and its accompanying social and political ramifications, as being at the core of social upheaval and transformation. Upheaval is itself one of the “partner” concepts well within the ideational environment of crisis, while the economy has become the most prominent locus of financial crisis (witness the rise in usage frequency of both “economic crisis” and “financial crisis” toward the end of the twentieth century20). In Marx’s understanding, crisis—again curiously harking back to disease—is a self-generating process in which we are both patients and onlookers, compelled to undergo the misery of suffering and breakdown, yet, unlike the medical analogy, knowing that full social health must and will be restored. Capitalism is by its very nature a crisis-creating phenomenon and contrivance, and it is a crisis that is entirely predictable, bereft of contingency or surprise.

If there are other approaches that come close to seeing life—in this case, not economic but political—as harboring self-generating crises, it is in recent French philosophy such as Jacques Rancière’s, where the partner concept to crisis is rupture. Here, dislocation and adversity are preferred to crisis, discontinuity and instability point to a long-standing malaise, and politics itself (lepolitique) is the process of undermining conventional order (lapolitique).21 Seen from a different perspective, politics is the normatively inspired manufacture of crisis in order to advance human equality. Here, too, as in some Marxist versions, the utopia of postcrisis beckons, tellingly propelled by the necessity of crisis itself. If crisis is indeed a heightened tempo of change that launches us into the future, it then dissolves into a mild atemporality.

Legitimation Crises

Legitimation, however, is a different story. Legitimacy is a support resource supplied to political systems, or governments, through fulfilling particular expectations—whether principled or practical—of the validating group.22 We encounter that also in approaches to political crisis in neo-Marxist theory, namely, “the incapacity of the political system or state to function normally and/or inspire sufficient belief or loyalty.”23 Crises of legitimation have in recent decades been closely associated with the work of Jurgen Habermas, but they precede it. Prior to Habermas’s legitimation theory, the noted American political scientist and sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset had made famous the distinction between crises of effectiveness and crises of legitimacy in his 1960 book Political Man. The first referred to the actual performance of a political system in carrying out the basic functions of government, while the second referred to assessing a political system according to the values held by key groups.24 That has a slight affinity with Habermas’s later distinction between a rationality crisis and an identity crisis.25 Of course, a crisis of legitimacy could simply be the consequence of the failure of effectiveness: if political systems habitually do not deliver what they are expected to deliver, their basic support begins to erode. But, mainly, Lipset portrayed a crisis of legitimacy as brought on by the social change occurring during a transition to a new social structure that threatened major conservative institutions and that concurrently denied major social groups access to the political system. In support of that, he quoted Alexis de Tocqueville: “Epochs sometimes occur in the life of a nation when the old customs of a people are changed, public morality is destroyed, religious belief shaken, and the spell of tradition broken.” Citizens are then “in the midst of confusion and distress.”26 The Durkheimian concept of anomie—another partner concept—also resonates here silently, with its lack of collective forces that regulate social life alongside the individual members of a society. Durkheim wrote, among others, of evidence furnished “by industrial or commercial crises, by failures, which are so many partial breaks in organic solidarity.”27 Lipset, however, is both vague and profligate in how he employs the term “crisis.” On the one hand, crisis is reduced to “loss” of legitimacy, but in the same sentence the problem of enabling new groups access to the political process is upgraded to an “entry into politics” crisis, when the terms “tension” or “strain” would do equally.28

Habermas, to the contrary, offers a highly systematic analysis of crisis that is distinguished from Lipset’s positivism by giving it, as Habermas puts it, a tacit normative meaning—as indeed do Marxists—by anticipating an ultimate liberation from crisis. In what he terms a “social-scientific concept of crisis,” he associates with crises “the idea of an objective force that deprives a subject of some part of his normal sovereignty.”29 Habermas does follow Durkheim explicitly, identifying social crises as occurring when “the consensual foundations of normative structures are so much impaired that the society becomes anomic.”30 In doing so, he sheds the fatalism of earlier Marxism and departs from a Marxist-type vision of inevitable struggle and confrontation. In that vision, anomie would have missed the point entirely, being “merely” an interpretative rather than a transformative term. Significantly, instead of talking about structurally inherent system disturbances, Habermas aligns himself with those for whom crises also depend on the way in which they are perceived subjectively by a society’s members. Crisis must be experienced by individuals. And yet that is not an exclusive condition, for Habermas warns, “How could we distinguish such crisis ideologies from valid experiences of crisis if social crises could be determined only on the basis of conscious phenomena?” It may well be that, according to this understanding, what distinguishes a crisis from breakdown or rupture is that—as Habermas notes with respect to liberal capitalist societies—crises “become endemic” because temporary economic steering problems as such endanger social integration.31 In Habermas’s dance at Marxism’s edge, the notion of permanent crisis is challenged by the setting in motion of critical reflective theory.

The political manifestation of a crisis happens, according to Habermas, when its eruption delegitimizes the political system. But here we confront the ambiguity of ascribing to crisis a tacit normative meaning. True, that might simply suggest that crisis always carries implicit value preferences that the scholar can detect. But Habermas imbues a legitimation crisis with clearly direct normative content as an identity crisis because, in his words, “it places in question … the formally democratic securing of the private autonomous disposition of the means of production.”32 It is a shortage of a justificatory supply of support,33 yet Habermas disregards the possibility that such support can also be based on political acquiescence—the absence of active delegitimation-rather than democratic consensus. That emphasis on normative consensus is in line with Habermas’s critique of the welfare state, because its consensual and universalistic aspirations have failed, and it has now become highly fashionable to talk of the crisis of the welfare state. Part of that welfare crisis can be upheld factually, yet on the whole Habermas’s voice is removed from the realm of the social sciences—which is where he claims to locate it in his book Legitimation Crisis—to the realm of normative critical theory.

We may indeed assume that crisis is a bad thing, but two major problems remain in Habermas’s approach. First, what is undeveloped in so much writing of this kind is the possibility of a scalar or threshold view of crisis—at what point is it useful to activate the term, and until when should we exercise conceptual restraint, both as professionals and in the vernacular? Second, when does what the scholar identifies as a crisis actually become a crisis, not just in terms of what actually happens but also as a word whose application is broadly acknowledged in everyday language? There is a sense in which a legitimation crisis is measured neither objectively as a systemic defect nor subjectively as an uncontainable alienation of the mass of people from politics, but rather as a judgment pronounced by a remonstrating commentator who has seen enough and who calls upon an abstract ethical standard to which he or she, as a civilized and reflective person, feels committed. We might term that as identifying a crisis of public ethics-crisis as a moral shortcoming.

Configuring Crisis into Ideologies

The concept of crisis is filtered through different ideological systems with very diverse results. To begin with, let me offer a thumbnail sketch. For liberals, a crisis is constituted when free human development is blocked or frustrated. For conservatives, a crisis happens when change goes out of control. For socialists, as we have already noted, the notion of crisis entails the systemic strains and ills of capitalism, and a significant partner term for crisis is “contradiction.” For greens and environmentalists, crises are triggered by a sharp imbalance in nature, whether through human intervention or ecological causes. For anarchists, crises occur through violent and centralized human power structures that disturb the spontaneous harmony among individuals and groups. For fascists, a crisis is brought about by the contamination of the purity of race or of the sociocultural integrity and wholeness of a nation. For extreme and highly politicized religions, crises relate to the profanities practiced by infidels and to the challenging of sacred truths. Crucially, each of those viewpoints may misrecognize or deny what the others deem to be a crisis. Thus, reacting to Donald Trump’s preelection scaremongering and tales of doom, one columnist berated (wrongly, as it turned out) “the unintended consequence of this kind of political rhetoric and media coverage that has created a false sense of crisis in America.”34 Rather, the word “crisis” has been omnipresent in postelectoral discourse. And neo-Marxists in the late twentieth century accused the defenders of capitalism of distorting the concept of crisis ideologically—that is, trying to compete over the discursive monopoly of the term’s meaning that Marxism had in their view established—by employing crisis not as indicating the prelude to social transformation but as a deliberate mislabeling of the working-class counteroffensive that merely reinforced the legitimization of the capitalist ruling class.35

As an example of crisis expressed through liberal thinking, John A. Hobson’s 1911 book The Crisis of Liberalism is noteworthy. The title ostensibly related to the 1910 political crisis in which the House of Lords overrode conventional House of Commons parliamentary privileges concerning the budget—indeed a potential crisis of legitimacy, but not one that actuallistent vigor alongside the march of social progress. His instructive articulation was the following: “The real crisis of Liberalism lies here, not in the y resulted in social breakdown, let alone a revolutionary outburst. Hobson identified the issue as liberalism’s enlarged task of realizing liberty with persimmediate capacity to resist the insolent encroachment of the unrepresentative house, but in the intellectual and moral ability to accept and execute a positive progressive policy which involves a new conception of the functions of the State.”36 In the first half of the sentence, the topic is a concrete, small-scale crisis that caused a temporary breakdown of the political process. But it is then replaced by a revival of crisis as a “turning point” and is firmly attached to an open-ended conception of change, itself seen as of a high magnitude. The present crisis, writes Hobson, is “an introduction to the far larger task of restating the principles of democracy and recasting the forms which shall express them.”37 Crisis here is an opportunity not to be missed, a blockage to be cleared, an intellectual challenge to which reasonable people and their actions will respond. It is anchored in an evolutionary notion of social change in which purposive human agency plays a central part. And it is a crisis of ideas and ideologies. Note also that this is a self-identified crisis, one in which liberalism is not reacting quickly enough to the challenges confronting it. That is in stark contrast, say, to the phrase “the crisis of capitalism,” which is certainly not intended to convey the impression that the march of capitalism has been temporarily obstructed and needs to be started again. For liberals, what one scholar has called “the erosion of evolutionary optimism,”38 as reflected in a crisis of social thought and a loss of confidence in the future, is difficult to stomach.

A book by E. H. H. Green sporting the title The Crisis of Conservatism displays the microinterpretation of crisis. It mentions a number of “bitter internal feuds”39 throughout the twentieth century, significantly placing “crisis” in quotation marks. In that account, the Liberal Party between 1880 and 1900 “was thrown into a profound identity crisis,” the Boer War is identified as engendering “a sense of crisis,” but there were “no signs of an imminent crisis at the turn of the century.”40 The author seems to be playing fast and loose with the term, but in fact all he is doing is following discursive conventions in the 1990s, when the book was written, and earlier. For “crisis” read “impasse” “deadlock” “confusion” or “impending turmoil” Discursive extravagance or latitude, however, interesting as they are, cannot overshadow the more pro-found question: what do conservatives construe as crisis? Edmund Burke wrote of the revolutionary crisis in France and Europe:

Everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies. In viewing this monstrous tragi-comic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix wiTheach other in the mind: alternate contempt and indignation, alternate laughter and tears, alternate scorn and horror.41

Fast-forwarding to present debates, Albert Mohler, an American Christian conservative, writes:

The 2016 presidential campaign has developed in an entirely unpredictable manner and, in many respects, represents a crisis in American democracy … the American experiment in limited government requires that the citizenry and those who hold public office honor certain moral virtues and respect the institutions that are crucial for a society to rightly function. Yet … the three leading candidates for president show little to no respect for such institutions in their articulations of public policy.42

Conservative antiabortionists refer to an “abortion crisis,” where crisis adopts the aura of the “uncontrollable proliferation” of what they regard as the murder of fetuses.43

An entry in Wikipedia notes that “an ecological crisis occurs when the environment of a species or a population changes in a way that destabilizes its continued survival.”44 Crisis implies the potential extinction of a specified form of life—in other words, a lethal incompatibility between species and habitat. Other approaches distinguish environmental crises as manifesting rapid and irreversible changes in environmental quality. Irreversibility is yet another partner concept, suggesting a massive and culpable failure of human agency or the malfunctioning of the biosphere—the crisis located both in the damage incurred and in the permanent exclusion of events from human control.45 The 2015 British Green Party General Election Manifesto portrays a world in which virtually everything is in crisis, not just the natural environment. We see the “crisis of our time: mental health”; a separate “public health crisis” “higher education is in crisis"; “a fuel poverty crisis”; “the current funding crisis”; and “rape crisis centres” (in this latter case, crisis seems to be partnered with personal trauma or devastation while still institutionalizing it as a large-scale social issue).46 The term thus subtly shifts its meaning, juggling between policy incompetencies, scarcity of resources, and violence that elicits social and moral outrage. One could continue in that vein with regard to radical Right or radical Left ideologies, but those instances will suffice. It should also be clear that crises are not just ideological constructions. Most of them present physical and cultural symptoms that cannot be ignored: take the immense refugee crisis affecting the whole of Europe and the countries of refugee origin and transit. Nonetheless, because they are always read through ideological spectacles, the question of decoding crises cannot shirk the ways in which they are discursively and ideationally classified.

Crisis, Finality, and Time

It is worth returning to a matter that Koselleck held to be significant: the association of crisis with decisions. He referred to crisis situations in the political sense as those that “were reaching a decisive point,” and regarded that as their profound meaning: finding the “right moment for a decision.”47 Etymologically, the link between crisis and decision is illuminating. The most central feature of the political is the drive to finality, the attempt to supply solutions to social dealings that profess to offer closure—an attempt frequently doomed to failure, but one that is never abandoned.48 Koselleck’s tracing of the meaning of crisis back to the Greek, aiming at a “definitive, irrevocable decision,”49 is deeply evocative of the active voice of politics in deliberately bringing about resolution. In that mode of interpretation, crisis contains its opposite: the urgent anticipation of decision is transformed into its realization, and crisis is removed. On the surface, this resembles the Marxist theory of the resolution of crisis through the success of bourgeois self-destructiveness, except that in the Greek sense adopted by Koselleck, conscious, intentional intervention is part and parcel of the crisis itself, whereas in the Marxist sense, workers’ interven-tion mainly hastens the inevitable. Moreover, the Koselleckian resurrection of the Greek connotations also implied a dichotomy of alternatives “that permitted no further revision.”50

That mirrors the internal logic of the political as occupying the socially strategic position of having both the first and the last word in arranging human affairs. Crisis is here located at the tipping point of success or failure, echoing the search for an outcome in the older sense of the word “success": what “comes next"-and, we may add, ultimately allowing for both good success and ill success, as indeed erstwhile usage permitted. But while all this is ostensibly future-oriented, the deeper logic of the political decision is fundamentally atemporal in its desire to freeze, or even end, time through the robustness of decisions. If there still is a crisis, it often emerges from the painful recognition that political practices cannot, after all, secure the finality with which their very raison d’etre has been entrusted. That disappointing awareness infects both the processes themselves and those put in charge of creating and disseminating them.

It is helpful—to take this a bit further—to consider instances in which crisis, rather than its resolution, is detached from time. When the Oxford English Dictionary defined crisis as an imminent decisive change for better or worse, it neglected the possibility that one kind of crisis is specifically constituted by the absence of any prospect of imminent change. In international relations, we see in the chaos crippling Libya and Afghanistan over and above governmental rhetoric that there is some cunning plan to improve matters. Crisis can be very much in the present; it is felt in the here and now without regard to past or future. That is not another kind of permanent crisis in the grand historical sense, but rather the permanence of particular crises in the “no way out” sense of hopelessness, akin to a state of social and psychological paralysis. States, economies, specific governments collapse (another partner concept), are overwhelmed by the incapacity either to decide or to deliver, or are the subject of debilitating foreign invasion. When all those become evident to the members of a society, they may be seen as extended examples of what Habermas has termed a “motivation crisis” or what Claus Offe has called the “crises of crisis management” Offe identifies those crises as a constant that relates to “the deficiencies and limitations of the stabilizing activity of the state” particularly “the inability of the political system to prevent and compensate for economic crises.”51 That type of breakdown is not best served by future-oriented theories, let alone by describing a crisis as a truncated future. Another category related to speed entails interpreting crisis not as a result of accelerated change but as requiring an accelerated response. When a crisis fund is established in reaction to an earthquake or a famine, crisis is conceptualized not only in the devastation causeed but also in the urgency and immediacy of funding as a response. Requests such as “Please donate to our South Sudan Crisis Appeal to help us scale up our emergency response: the people of South Sudan desperately need your support”52 employ the injunction of urgent action in order to build up the sense of a crisis through its reception in the public eye.

Concluding Thoughts

What, then, is the conceptual domain that “crisis” occupies in the social sphere? First, crisis can be severe or trivialized in the recognition of its impact, as well as in the relevance and frequency of its use in common language. Second, crisis can indicate tremendous or uncontrollable speed in its onset, and then be of slow durability, indeed unshiftability, in its oppressive presence. A rapid onset is rarely matched by a quick exit—social crises do not come and go in a flash. Third, crisis can indicate macro, life-or culture-changing occurrences or transformations, or micro-events that may concatenate or simply have limited effect. Fourth, crisis can imply a strong future orientation, or cut itself off—at least in public perception—from temporal trajectories and be experienced as a “here and now” happening. Fifth, a crisis may be inevitable, or its imminence may be deflectable—say, an asteroid hurtling toward the earth. Sixth, a crisis may be resolvable—that is, it may be thought as terminable by human design or by extrahuman causes; or it may be seen as repetitive—that is, occurring in predictable cycles like monsoons or in unpredictable spasms like volcanoes; or it may be unique. And if unique, it may be exceptional and transient—an odd aberration—or destructive and earth-shattering, even irrevocable. Seventh, crisis implies the moment before political decisiveness can be engaged, yet it labors under the cloud of the elusive temporal finality that politics claims to secure.

Beyond that, we may reflect on the pertinence, or even curiosity, of the concept of crisis ab initio. It makes some grand assumptions about the rhythms and patterns of human and social life. If indeed we live in a state of permanent crisis, crises either become routine and hence invisible,53 or we are so battered and shell-shocked that we cease to care. But that is unconvincing: in our limited lifetimes, we experience crises as disturbances, to say the least, or conditions of heightened anxiety and insecurity, and that is where the medical sense of crisis also strikes home. Yet in social life—in Habermas’s “lifeworld,” one might say—that raises the question, disturbances of what? Behind the term “crisis” lie contested, if not perhaps unwarranted, assumptions about the pathologies of social existence, about the abnormality of confusion, about the eventual mitigation of deep conflict, about the irrationality of human messiness, about the transitory nature of social dislocation, and, above all, about the possibility of transcending and taming uncertainties and indeterminacies. Are these assumptions mythical or illusory? They are all nourished on what could be called, for want of a better phrase, positivist Enlightenment hopes of reason, order, harmony, and continuity. Does that reflect the need for human beings to construct the notion of crisis as one part deus ex machina, the secularization of the unexpected in a world bereft of faith, and one part a challenge to human ingenuity alongside the admission of human frailty? Possibly. Without those hopes, or prejudices, as Hans-Georg Gadamer might have called them, crisis as a general concept, as a Grundbegriff, might not have come into being.


Sun, 11 January 1979.


Callaghan remarked, “I don’t think other people in the world would share the view [that] there is mounting chaos.” BBC, “On Th is Day, 10 January 1979: ‘No Chaos Here’ Declares Callaghan,”


Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 236.


Amin Samman, “Special Issue Editorial: The Idea of Crisis,” Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies 4 (2011): 4–9, here 5.


Tom Utley, “Crisis? We’ve Forgotten What It Means,” Daily Telegraph, 29 December 2005,


Reinhart Koselleck, “Crisis,” trans. Michaela W. Richter, Journal of the History of Ideas 67, no. 2 (2006): 357–400, here 370.


Utley, “Crisis?”


See Michael Freeden, “The Morphological Analysis of Ideology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, ed. Michael Freeden, Lyman Tower Sargent, and Marc Stears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 115–137.


Koselleck, “Crisis,” 371.


Ibid., 397–399.


Oxford English Dictionary Online, “Crisis,” note alongside the entry, (accessed 17 February 2017).


Donald Sassoon, Contemporary Italy: Politics, Economy and Society since 1945 (London: Routledge, 2013), 275. See also Fulvio Cammarano, “Crisi politicae politica della crisi: Italiae Gran Bretagna 1880–1925,” in Crisi, legittimazione, consenso, ed. Paolo Pombeni (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2003), 81–131.


Koselleck, “Crisis,” 387.


Randolph Starn, “Historians and ‘Crisis,” Past and Present 52, no. 1 (1971): 3–22, here 15, 22.


David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 293.


See, e.g., Paul Gordon Lauren, “Crisis Management: History and Theory in International Conflict,” International History Review 1, no. 4 (1979): 542–556.


Management Study Guide, “Crisis Management,” (accessed 3 March 2017)


Business Dictionary, “Crisis Management,” (accessed 3 March 2017).


Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in McLellan, Karl Marx, 255.


Google Ngram Viewer, “* crisis,”*+crisis&year_start=1800&year_end=2017 (accessed 17 February 2017).


Jacques Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics,” Theory and Event 5, no. 3 (2001),


Michael Freeden, “Layers of Legitimacy: Consent, Dissent, and Power in Left-Liberal Languages,” in Liberal Languages: Ideological Imaginations and Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 78–93.


James O’Connor, The Meaning of Crisis: A Theoretical Introduction (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 110.


Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man (London: Mercury Books, 1963), 77–79.


Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975).


Quoted in Lipset, Political Man, 78.


Êmile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society (New York: Free Press, 1964), 354.


Lipset, Political Man, 79.


Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, 2.


Ibid., 3.


Ibid., 25.


Ibid., 46.


Ibid., 48, 69.


Marc Joffe, “Behind Trump’s Rise: A False Sense of Crisis in America,” Fiscal Times, 29 March 2016,


See O’Connor, Meaning of Crisis, 125.


John A. Hobson, The Crisis of Liberalism (London: P. S. King & Son, 1909), xi.


Ibid., 8.


R. J. Holton, “The Idea of Crisis in Modern Society,” British Journal of Sociology 38, no. 4 (1987): 502–520, here 507.


E. H. H. Green, The Crisis of Conservatism (London: Routledge, 1995), 3.


Ibid., 17, 18.


Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien (London: Penguin, 1969), 92–93.


Albert Mohler, “Crisis in American Democracy,”, 5 May 2016, Albert Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College.


Brian E. Fisher, Abortion: The Ultimate Exploitation of Women (New York: Morgan James, 2014), 28.


“Ecological Crisis,” Wikipedia, last edited 4 August 2017 11:36,


M. Scott Taylor, “Environmental Crises: Past, Present and Future,” Canadian Journal of Economics 42, no. 4 (2009): 1240–1275.


The Green Party of England and Wales, For the Common Good: General Election Manifesto, 2015 (London: Green Party, 2015),


Reinhart Koselleck, “Krise,” in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, vol. 3, ed. Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1982), 617–650, here 625, 626. Translated more loosely by Michaela W. Richter as “the optimal time for decision” in “Crisis,” 369–670.


See Michael Freeden, The Political Theory of Political Thinking: The Anatomy of a Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 22–25.


Koselleck, Practice of Conceptual History, 237.




Claus Offe, “‘Crisis of Crisis Management’: Elements of a Political Crisis Theory,” in Contradictions of the Welfare State, ed. John Keane (London: Hutchinson, 1984), 35–64, here 36, 61.


A view articulated by Nina Witoszek and Lars Trägårdh in “Introduction,” Culture and Crisis: The Case of Germany and Sweden, ed. Nina Witoszek and Lars Trägårdh (New York: Berghahn Books, 2002), 1–11, here 3.


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