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Permacrisis: Making Sense of Our New Abnormal
The Rise of Perpetual Crisis as a Governance Method
In our turbulent times, a troubling amalgamation of crises appears to loom on the horizon. We find ourselves entangled in a web of war, the relentless specter of climate change, economic stagnation, and an alarming trend towards political polarization. The gravity of these issues has reached such an extent that even the usually level-headed Financial Times, in a rare display of concern, designated “polycrisis” as one of its standout terms of the year. They defined it as “a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects, such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part.”
The coining of the term “polycrisis” can be attributed to the scholarly insights of Adam Tooze, who astutely brought attention to the complex interplay of crises in our world. Since its inception, this concept has gained traction, finding endorsement even in the corridors of the World Economic Forum. It underscores the idea that today's challenges are not isolated phenomena but rather intricate threads of a larger, interconnected tapestry of global issues.
Meanwhile, the United Nations, opts to characterize these predicaments as “overlapping crises.” This terminology subtly underscores the idea that these crises do not merely coexist, but they intersect and influence each other in profound and often unpredictable ways.
If the ongoing chatter strikes a hauntingly familiar chord, it's because it should. The current “polycrisis” we find ourselves embroiled in is but the latest chapter in a relentless series of global challenges. It follows in the wake of a worldwide pandemic, which, in turn, succeeded the financial crisis of the post-2008 era. These crises, in their complexity, have intermingled with other significant global issues, including the post-9/11 global terrorism crisis, as well as more localized predicaments such as Brexit and Europe's migrant crisis.
When we cast our gaze over the past two decades, it becomes apparent that the world has been ensnared in a near-constant state of turmoil. Some analysts and dictionaries have aptly coined the term “permacrisis” to capture this persistent condition. It paints a picture of a world where crisis after crisis has become an intrinsic part of our existence, creating a continuous tapestry of challenges that demand our attention and collective effort.
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Hence, “Permacrisis” emerges as the fitting title for an upcoming book jointly authored by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, alongside Mohamed El-Erian, President of Queens' College and former Chief Economic Adviser at Allianz, and Michael Spence, a distinguished professor of management at Stanford University. In their forthcoming work, they explore the uniqueness of our current era, noting that “What sets this period apart is the multi-faceted nature, sheer intensity, and intricate complexity of the economic transformations unfolding around us... Challenges such as war, inflation, and climate change show no signs of waning; instead, they are gathering momentum. This is the hallmark of a permacrisis.”
At first glance, this analysis may seem uncontentious, almost self-evident. It's hard to dispute the fact that the world is frequently embroiled in a multitude of crises. However, one could argue that this perpetual state of turmoil has always been the reality, particularly for the billions residing in the Global South. This raises a reasonable question: Does the pervasive use of the term "crisis" merely acknowledge an exceptionally dire situation, or are there deeper dynamics at play?
Even before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, several astute scholars had suggested that in recent decades, “crisis” had evolved into a “governing method.” Under this approach, “every natural disaster, economic downturn, military conflict, and terrorist attack is systematically leveraged by governments to radicalize and expedite the transformation of economies, social structures, and state apparatuses.” Naomi Klein, in her 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine,” delved into the concept of “disaster capitalism,” which posits that during moments of public fear and disorientation, societies can be more easily reshaped and reengineered.
Taking these analyses a step further, one can posit that the contemporary narrative of perpetual crisis or emergency signifies a profound shift in the concept of “crisis as a mode of governance.” It transcends the exploitation of crises and ventures into the realm of continually evoking crisis, if not actively manufacturing them. In this new paradigm, “crisis” no longer represents a deviation from the norm; it has become the norm itself, the default starting point for all political action. This phenomenon gives rise to a perplexing paradox. Anthropologist Janet Roitman, in her book “Anti-Crisis,” astutely observes that “evoking crisis entails reference to a norm because it requires a comparative state for judgment: crisis compared to what?” However, its contemporary usage implies a perpetual state where crisis is the new norm. Thus, as Roitman inquires, “Can one speak of a state of enduring crisis? Is this not an oxymoron?”
From this perspective, the normalization of the concept of “permacrisis” can be seen as a response to the declining legitimacy and authority of Western ruling elites. Faced with the inability to forge societal consensus or ideological hegemony, and increasingly challenged by the ascent of new global powers, particularly China, these elites are compelled to resort to ever more repressive and militaristic measures, both domestically and on the global stage, to maintain their hold on power and quell any threats to their authority. Hence, the imperative for a more or less permanent state of crisis that can justify such measures—enter “permacrisis.”
What are the defining characteristics of this “new normal” characterized by enduring crisis? Firstly, it revolves around a widespread acceptance of the notion that organizing our societies around a stable set of rules, norms, and laws is no longer feasible. Instead, the continuous barrage of new threats — ranging from terrorism and disease to warfare and natural disasters — demands that we remain in a perpetual state of readiness, ever-prepared to swiftly adapt to an ever-shifting landscape of constant instability. Consequently, this also entails that we can no longer afford the nuanced public debates and intricacies typically associated with parliamentary politics, particularly within Western “liberal democracies.” Governments must possess the capability to enforce decisions swiftly and efficiently.
In this vein, Western leaders explicitly connect our era of permacrisis with the necessity to curtail online free speech in the name of combatting “mis/disinformation” — a category that frequently encompasses any information contradicting the official narrative. The rationale is to ensure a more controlled information environment that aligns with the imperative of swift decision-making in the face of perpetual instability.
Permacrisis fundamentally redefines the nature of crisis, rendering any form of medium-term planning or vision for the future—whether on an individual or collective scale—seemingly futile. Historically, collective visions have often been the driving force behind societal progress. However, in the era of permacrisis, the focus shifts towards combating the ever-present “enemy” of the moment, leaving us trapped in a perpetual present. Moreover, we are repeatedly told that reality is far too intricate and unpredictable to be molded by any collective will.
This marks a radical departure from the traditional understanding of crisis. Throughout history, “crisis” has frequently been associated with the potential for opportunity and progress. Permacrisis, on the other hand, represents a contemporary inversion of this concept. It precludes the idea of further progress and signifies a perpetually challenging or deteriorating situation, one that can never truly be resolved but only managed. Beneath its surface, this narrative, despite appearing solution-focused and forward-looking, carries implicit nihilistic and depoliticizing undertones. It implies that the world is destined for doom, regardless of our actions or interventions.
Albert Hirschman, in his work “The Rhetoric of Reaction,” delved into the concept of the “futility thesis,” which revolves around the rejection of political action due to a fatalistic belief that the challenges we confront are so immense that any attempt to address them is bound to end in failure. This doomerist, apocalyptic perspective has a flipside that becomes particularly conspicuous in discussions surrounding climate change and the broader ecological crisis. The prevailing narrative often suggests that any means necessary are justified in the quest to “save the planet,” including a wide range of authoritarian interventions. When the very survival of life on Earth appears to be hanging in the balance, it may seem imperative to bypass the intricacies of democratic debate and deliberation in favor of urgent action. Consequently, it is no mere coincidence that proponents of permacrisis emphasize the global nature of many crises, contending that these can only be effectively addressed at the global level. This argument ultimately leads to the call for the transfer of ever-greater powers to supranational entities such as the European Union and the World Health Organization.
Permacrisis serves as an illuminating case in point. Beyond the conventional and repetitive solutions that have echoed since at least the 2008 financial crisis—including the harnessing of the digital revolution for enhanced productivity, improved economic management, and the pursuit of more equitable policymaking—the authors devote substantial attention in their book to the imperative of constructing “a new framework for managing globalization and the global order.” This envisages a reevaluation of “conventional assumptions about the sovereignty of nation-states” and a readiness to “cede a degree of autonomy.” Such a proposition is remarkable when we consider that many of the challenges plaguing the Western world can be attributed precisely to the erosion of sovereignty and democracy and the ascendancy of unaccountable international and supranational bodies, often subservient to private and corporate interests.
Equally noteworthy are the authors' suggestions for reforming the international system. They argue against the establishment of new institutions and instead advocate for the reform of existing Western-dominated entities such as the G20, the IMF, and the World Bank, with the aim of rendering them more democratic and representative, particularly of non-Western powers, with China at the forefront. However, what they conveniently omit is that this is the very type of reform that countries like China have been advocating for over a decade, only to be systematically disregarded by Western powers, particularly the United States, which historically has adopted an assertively anti-China stance. As a result, non-Western nations, united under the auspices of the China-led BRICS bloc, are now taking the lead in establishing their own constellation of international institutions.
This shift underscores a broader global recalibration, where emerging powers are challenging the traditional Western-centric international order, prompting a reconfiguration of global governance and, potentially, a transformation in the dynamics of geopolitical influence.
However, advocating for “a more cooperative global order” under the pretext of permacrisis, all while sidestepping the underlying causes of the current disintegration of the global order—primarily driven by America's frantic efforts to preserve its waning global hegemony—can, at best, be deemed disingenuous. What's more, it underscores a crucial aspect of permacrisis: it is fundamentally a phenomenon peculiar to the Western world.
In essence, beyond its characterization as a “governing method,” permacrisis aptly encapsulates the anxiety gripping Western elites. It signifies their apprehension about the potential demise of the Western-dominated “international rules-based order” and their preeminent status in the global hierarchy. What Gordon Brown and his fellow authors perceive as an existential crisis—namely, the irrevocable decline of Western dominance—is viewed by much of the non-Western world as an opportunity. This is precisely why the BRICS bloc does not subscribe to the doomerist permacrisis narrative. It's not that they fail to acknowledge the pressing global challenges; rather, they interpret the current juncture not as the end of the world, but rather as the dawn of a new one. They perceive the evolving landscape as a chance for a rebalancing of global power and a departure from Western-centric dominance.
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