The politics of crisis is not going away any time soon
Elijah O'Donnell/Newspaper

This essay was originally published by Palladium magazine on June 10th 2020

A pattern emerges when surveying the vast commentary on the COVID-19 pandemic. At its center is a distinctive image of crisis: the image of a cruel but instructive spotlight laying bare the flaws of contemporary society. Crisis, we read, has “revealed,” “illuminated,” “clarified,” and above all, “exposed” our collective failures and weaknesses. It has unveiled the corruption of institutions, the decadence of culture, and the fragility of a material way of life. It has sounded the death-knell for countless projects and ideals.

“The pernicious coronavirus tore off an American scab and revealed suppurating wounds beneath,” announces one commentator, after noting “these calamities can be tragically instructional…Fundamental but forgotten truths, easily masked in times of calm, reemerge.”

Says another: “Invasion and occupation expose a society’s fault lines, exaggerating what goes unnoticed or accepted in peacetime, clarifying essential truths, raising the smell of buried rot.”

You may not be surprised to learn that these two near-identical comments come from very different interpretations of the crisis. The first, from Trump-supporting historian Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution, claims that the “suppurating wounds” of American society are an effete liberal elite compromised by their reliance on a malignant China and determined to undermine the president at any cost. According to the second, by The Atlantic’s George Packer, the “smell of buried rot” comes from the Trump administration itself, the product of an oligarchic ascendency whose power stems from the division of society and hollowing-out of the state.

Nothing, it seems, has evaded the extraordinary powers of diagnosis made available by crisis: merciless globalism, backwards nationalism, the ignorance of populists, the naivety of liberals, the feral market, the authoritarian state. We are awash in diagnoses, but diagnosis is only the first step. It is customary to sharpen the reality exposed by the virus into a binary, existential decision: address the weakness identified, or succumb to it. “We’re faced with a choice that the crisis makes inescapably clear,” writes Packer, “the alternative to solidarity is death.” No less ominous is Hanson’s invocation of Pearl Harbor: “Whether China has woken a sleeping giant in the manner of the earlier Japanese, or just a purring kitten, remains to be seen.”

The crisis mindset is not just limited to journalistic sensationalism. Politicians, too, have appealed to a now-or-never, sink-or-swim framing of the COVID-19 emergency. French President Emmanuel Macron has been among those using such terms to pressure Eurozone leaders into finally establishing a collective means of financing debt. “If we can’t do this today, I tell you the populists will win,” Macron told The Financial Times. Across the Atlantic, U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has claimed that the pandemic “has just exposed us, the fragility of our system,” and has adopted the language of “life or death” in her efforts to bring together the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party before the presidential election in November.

And yet, in surveying this rhetoric of diagnosis and decision, what is most surprising is how familiar it sounds. Apart from the pathogen itself, there are few narratives of crisis now being aired which were not already well-established during the last decade. Much as the coronavirus outbreak has felt like a sudden rupture from the past, we have already been long accustomed to the politics of crisis.

It was under the mantra of “tough decisions,” with the shadow of the financial crisis still looming, that sharp reductions in public spending were justified across much of the Western world after 2010. Since then, the European Union has been crippled by conflicts over sovereign debt and migration. It was the rhetoric of the Chinese menace and of terminal decline—of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” to quote the 2017 inaugural address—that brought President Trump to power. Meanwhile, progressives had already mobilized themselves around the language of emergency with respect to inequality and climate change.

There is something deeply paradoxical about all of this. The concept of crisis is supposed to denote a need for exceptional attention and decisive focus. In its original Greek, the term krisis often referred to a decision between two possible futures, but the ubiquity of “crisis” in our politics today has produced only deepening chaos. The sense of emergency is stoked continuously, but the accompanying promises of clarity, agency, and action are never delivered. Far from a revealing spotlight, the crises of the past decade have left us with a lingering fog which now threatens to obscure us at a moment when we really do need judicious action.

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Crises are a perennial feature of modern history. For half a millenium, human life has been shaped by impersonal forces of increasing complexity and abstraction, from global trade and finance to technological development and geopolitical competition. These forces are inherently unstable and frequently produce moments of crisis, not least due to an exogenous shock like a deadly plague. Though rarely openly acknowledged, the legitimacy of modern regimes has largely depended on a perceived ability to keep that instability at bay.

This is the case even at times of apparent calm, such as the period of U.S. global hegemony immediately following the Cold War. The market revolution of the 1980s and globalization of the 1990s were predicated on a conception of capitalism as an unpredictable, dynamic system which could nonetheless be harnessed and governed by technocratic expertise. Such were the hopes of “the great moderation.” A series of emerging market financial crises—in Mexico, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia, and Argentina—provided opportunities for the IMF and World Bank to demand compliance with the Washington Consensus in economic policy. Meanwhile, there were frequent occasions for the U.S. to coordinate global police actions in war-torn states.

Despite the façade of independent institutions and international bodies, it was in no small part through such crisis-fighting economic and military interventions that a generation of U.S. leaders projected power abroad and secured legitimacy at home. This model of competence and progress, which seems so distant now, was not based on a sense of inevitability so much as confidence in the capacity to manage one crisis after another: to “stabilize” the most recent eruption of chaos and instability.

A still more striking example comes from the European Union, another product of the post-Cold War era. The project’s main purpose was to maintain stability in a trading bloc soon to be dominated by a reunified Germany. Nonetheless, many of its proponents envisaged that the development of a fully federal Europe would occur through a series of crises, with the supra-national structures of the EU achieving more power and legitimacy at each step. When the Euro currency was launched in 1999, Romano Prodi, then president of the European Commission, spoke of how the EU would extend its control over economic policy: “It is politically impossible to propose that now. But some day there will be a crisis and new instruments will be created.”

It is not difficult to see why Prodi took this stance. Since the rise of the rationalized state two centuries ago, managerial competence has been central to notions of successful governance. In the late 19th century, French sociologist Emile Durkheim compared the modern statesman to a physician: “he prevents the outbreak of illnesses by good hygiene, and seeks to cure them when they have appeared.” Indeed, the bureaucratic structures which govern modern societies have been forged in the furnaces of crisis. Social security programs, income tax, business regulation, and a host of other state functions now taken for granted are a product of upheavals of the 19th and early 20th centuries: total war, breakneck industrialization, famine, and financial panic. If necessity is the mother of invention, crisis is the midwife of administrative capacity.

By the same token, the major political ideologies of the modern era have always claimed to offer some mastery over uncertainty. The locus of agency has variously been situated in the state, the nation, individuals, businesses, or some particular class or group; the stated objectives have been progress, emancipation, greatness, or simply order and stability. But in every instance, the message has been that the chaos endemic to modern history must be tamed or overcome by some paradigmatic form of human action. The curious development of Western modernity, where the management of complex, crisis-prone systems has come to be legitimated through secular mass politics, appears amenable to no other template.

It is against this backdrop that we can understand the period of crisis we have endured since 2008. The narratives of diagnosis and decision which have overtaken politics during this time are variations on a much older theme—one that is present even in what are retrospectively called “times of calm.” The difference is that, where established regimes have failed to protect citizens from instability, the logic of crisis management has burst its technocratic and ideological bounds and entered the wider political sphere. The greatest of these ruptures was captured by a famous statement attributed to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in September 2008. Pleading with Congress to pass a $700 billion bailout, Bernanke claimed: “If we don’t do this now, we won’t have an economy on Monday.”

This remark set the tone for the either/or, act-or-perish politics of the last decade. It points to a loss of control which, in the United States and beyond, opened the way for competing accounts not just of how order could be restored, but also what that order should look like. Danger and disruption have become a kind of opportunity, as political insurgents across the West have captured established parties, upended traditional power-sharing arrangements, and produced the electoral shocks suggested by the ubiquitous phrase “the age of Trump and Brexit.” These campaigns sought to give the mood of crisis a definite shape, directing it towards the need for urgent decision or transformative action, thereby giving supporters a compelling sense of their own agency.

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Typically though, such movements do not merely offer a choice between existing chaos and redemption to come. In diagnoses of crisis, there is always an opposing agent who is responsible for and threatening to deepen the problem. We saw this already in Hanson’s and Packer’s association of the COVID-19 crisis with their political opponents. But it was there, too, among Trump’s original supporters, for whom the agents of crisis were not just immigrants and elites but, more potently, the threat posed by the progressive vision for America. This was most vividly laid out in Michael Anton’s infamous “Flight 93 Election” essay, an archetypal crisis narrative which urged fellow conservatives that only Trump could stem the tide of “wholesale cultural and political change,” claiming “if you don’t try, death is certain.”

Yet Trump’s victory only galvanized the radical elements of the left, as it gave them a villain to point to as a way of further raising the consciousness of crisis among their own supporters. The reviled figure of Trump has done more for progressive stances on immigration, healthcare, and climate action than anyone else, for he is the ever-present foil in these narratives of emergency. Then again, such progressive ambitions, relayed on Fox News and social media, have also proved invaluable in further stoking conservatives’ fears.

To simply call this polarization is to miss the point. The dynamic taking shape here is rooted in a shared understanding of crisis, one that treats the present as a time in which the future of society is being decided. There is no middle path, no going back: each party claims that if they do not take this opportunity to reshape society, their opponents will. In this way, narratives of crisis feed off one another, and become the basis for a highly ideological politics—a politics that de-emphasizes compromise with opponents and with the practical constraints of the situation at hand, prioritizing instead the fulfillment of a goal or vision for the future.

Liberal politics is ill-equipped to deal with, or even to properly recognize, such degeneration of discourse. In the liberal imagination, the danger of crisis is typically that the insecurity of the masses will be exploited by a demagogue, who will then transfigure the system into an illiberal one. In many cases, though, it is the system which loses legitimacy first, as the frustrating business of deliberative, transactional politics cannot meet the expectations of transformative change which are raised in the public sphere.

Consider the most iconic and, in recent years, most frequently analogized period of crisis in modern history: Germany’s Weimar Republic of 1918-33. These were the tempestuous years between World War I and Hitler’s dictatorship, during which a fledgling democracy was rocked by armed insurrection, hyperinflation, foreign occupation, and the onset of the Great Depression, all against a backdrop of rapid social, economic, and technological upheaval.

Over the past decade or so, there have been no end of suggestions that ours is a “Weimar moment.” Though echoes have been found in all sorts of social and cultural trends, the overriding tendency has been to view the crises of the Weimar period backwards through their end result, the establishment of Nazi dictatorship in 1933. In various liberal democracies, the most assertive Weimar parallels have referred to the rise of populist and nationalist politics, and in particular, the erosion of constitutional norms by leaders of this stripe. The implication is that history has warned us how the path of crisis can lead towards an authoritarian ending.

What this overlooks, however, is that Weimar society was not just a victim of crisis that stumbled blindly towards authoritarianism, but was active in interpreting what crises revealed and how they should be addressed. In particular, the notion of crisis served the ideological narratives of the day as evidence of the need to refashion the social settlement. Long before the National Socialists began their rise in the early 1930s, these conflicting visions, pointing to one another as evidence of the stakes, sapped the republic’s legitimacy by making it appear impermanent and fungible.

The First World War had left German thought with a pronounced sense of the importance of human agency in shaping history. On the one hand, the scale and brutality of the conflict left survivors adrift in a world of unprecedented chaos, seeming to confirm a suspicion of some 19th century German intellectuals that history had no inherent meaning. But at the same time, the war had shown the extraordinary feats of organization and ingenuity that an industrialized society, unified and mobilized around a single purpose, was capable of. Consequently, the prevailing mood of Weimar was best captured by the popular term Zeitenwende, the turning of the times. Its implication was that the past was irretrievably lost, the present was chaotic and dangerous, but the future was there to be claimed by those with the conviction and technical skill to do so.

Throughout the 1920s, this historical self-consciousness was expressed in the concept of Krisis or Krise, crisis. Intellectual buzzwords referred to a crisis of learning, a crisis of European culture, a crisis of historicism, crisis theology, and numerous crises of science and mathematics. The implication was that these fields were in a state of flux which called for resolution. A similar dynamic could be seen in the political polemics which filled the Weimar press, where discussions of crisis tended to portray the present as a moment of decision or opportunity. According to Rüdiger Graf’s study of more than 370 Weimar-era books and still more journal articles with the term “crisis” in their titles, the concept generally functioned as “a call to action” by “narrow[ing] the complex political world to two exclusive alternatives.”

Although the republic was most popular among workers and social democrats, the Weimar left contained an influential strain of utopian thought which saw itself as working beyond the bounds of formal politics. Here, too, crisis was considered a source of potential. Consider the sentiments expressed by Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of architecture of design, in 1919:

Capitalism and power politics have made our generation creatively sluggish, and our vital art is mired in a broad bourgeois philistinism. The intellectual bourgeois of the old Empire…has proven his incapacity to be the bearer of German culture. The benumbed world is now toppled, its spirit is overthrown, and is in the midst of being recast in a new mold.

Gropius was among those intellectuals, artists, and administrators who, often taking inspiration from an idealized image of the Soviet Union, subscribed to the idea of the “new man”—a post-capitalist individual whose self-fulfillment would come from social duty. Urban planning, social policy, and the arts were all seen as means to create the environment in which this new man could emerge.

The “bourgeois of the old Empire,” as Gropius called them, had indeed been overthrown; but in their place came a reactionary modernist movement, often referred to as the “conservative revolution,” whose own ideas of political transformation used socialism both as inspiration and as ideological counterpoint. In the works of Ernst Jünger, technology and militarist willpower were romanticized as dynamic forces which could pull society out of decadence. Meanwhile, the political theorist Carl Schmitt emphasized the need for a democratic polity to achieve a shared identity in opposition to a common enemy, a need sometimes better accomplished by the decisive judgments of a sovereign dictator than by a fractious parliamentary system.

Even some steadfast supporters of the republic, like the novelist Heinrich Mann, seized on the theme of crisis as a call to transformative action. In a 1923 speech, against a backdrop of hyperinflation and the occupation of the Ruhr by French forces, Mann insisted that the republic should resist the temptation of nationalism, and instead fulfill its promise as a “free people’s state” by dethroning the “blood-gorging” capitalists who still controlled society in their own interests.

These trends were not confined to rhetoric and intellectual discussion. They were reflected in practical politics by the tendency of even trivial issues to be treated as crises that raised fundamental conflicts of worldview. So it was that, in 1926, a government was toppled by a dispute over the regulations for the display of the republican flag. Meanwhile, representatives were harangued by voters who expected them to embody the uncompromising ideological clashes taking place in the wider political sphere. In towns and cities across the country, rival marches and processions signaled the antagonism of socialists and their conservative counterparts—the burghers, professionals and petite bourgeoisie who would later form the National Socialist coalition, and who by mid-decade had already coalesced around President Paul von Hindenburg.

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We are not Weimar. The ideologies of that era, and the politics that flowed from them, were products of their time, and there were numerous contingent reasons why the republic faced an uphill battle for acceptance. Still, there are lessons. The conflict between opposing visions of society may seem integral to the spirit of democratic politics, but at times of crisis, it can be corrosive to democratic institutions. The either/or mindset can add a whole new dimension to whatever emergency is at hand, forcing what is already a time of disorientating change into a zero-sum competition between grand projects and convictions that leave ordinary, procedural politics looking at best insignificant, and at worst an obstacle.

But sometimes this kind of escalation is simply unavoidable. Crisis ideologies amplify, but do not create, a desire for change. The always-evolving material realities of capitalist societies frequently create circumstances that are untenable, and which cannot be sufficiently addressed by political systems prone to inertia and capture by vested interests. When such a situation erupts into crisis, incremental change and a moderate tone may already be a foregone conclusion. If your political opponent is electrifying voters with the rhetoric of emergency, the only option might be to fight fire with fire.

There is also a hypocrisy innate to democratic politics which makes the reality of how severe crises are managed something of a dirty secret. Politicians like to invite comparisons with past leaders who acted decisively during crises, whether it be French president Macron’s idolization of Charles de Gaulle, the progressive movement in the U.S. and elsewhere taking Franklin D Roosevelt as their inspiration, or virtually every British leader’s wish to be likened to Winston Churchill. What is not acknowledged is the shameful compromises that accompanied these leaders’ triumphs. De Gaulle’s opportunity to found the French Fifth Republic came amid threats of a military coup. Roosevelt’s New Deal could only be enacted with the backing of Southern Democratic politicians, and as such, effectively excluded African Americans from its most important programs. Allied victory in the Second World War, the final fruit of Churchill’s resistance, came at the price of ceding Eastern and Central Europe to Soviet tyranny.

Such realities are especially difficult to bear because the crises of the past are a uniquely unifying force in liberal democracies. It was often through crises, after all, that rights were won, new institutions forged, and loyalty and sacrifice demonstrated. We tend to imagine those achievements as acts of principled agency which can be attributed to society as a whole, whereas they were just as often the result of improvisation, reluctant concession, and tragic compromise.

Obviously, we cannot expect a willingness to bend principles to be treated as a virtue, and nor, perhaps, should we want it to. But we can acknowledge the basic degree of pragmatism  which crises demand. This is the most worrying aspect of the narratives of decision surrounding the current COVID-19 crisis: still rooted in the projects and preoccupations of the past, they threaten to render us inflexible at a moment when we are entering uncharted territory.

Away from the discussions about what the emergency has revealed and the action it demands, a new era is being forged by governments and other institutions acting on a more pressing set of motives—in particular, maintaining legitimacy in the face of sweeping political pressures and staving off the risk of financial and public health catastrophes. It is also being shaped from the ground up, as countless individuals have changed their behavior in response to an endless stream of graphs, tables, and reports in the media.

Political narratives simply fail to grip the contingency of this situation. Commentators talk about the need to reduce global interdependence, even as the architecture of global finance has been further built up by the decision of the Federal Reserve, in March, to support it with unprecedented amounts of dollar liquidity. They continue to argue within a binary of free market and big government, even as staunchly neoliberal parties endorse state intervention in their economies on a previously unimaginable scale. Likewise, with discussions about climate policy or western relations with China—the parameters within which these strategies will have to operate are simply unknown.

To reduce such complex circumstances to simple, momentous decisions is to offer us more clarity and agency than we actually possess. Nonetheless, that is how this crisis will continue to be framed, as political actors strive to capture the mood of emergency. It will only make matters worse, though, if our judgment remains colored by ambitions and resentments which were formed in earlier crises. If we continue those old struggles on this new terrain, we will swiftly lose our purchase on reality. We will be incapable of a realistic appraisal of the constraints now facing us, and without such realistic appraisal, no solution can be effectively pursued.