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Meditations in an Emergency

On the history and philosophy of crisis

The world, we are told, is in crisis. We hear of medical crisis, financial crisis, and crisis of leadership, suggesting that the scope of the term is almost unmanageably broad. Now these crises converge in the suspension of the everyday social order sparked by police violence and the uprisings against it. In these various converging crises, we are called upon to make decisions.

The historian Reinhart Koselleck traces the origin of the word to the classical Greek meanings: to “separate,” to “choose,’’ to “judge,’’ to “decide,” “measuring oneself,’’ to “quarrel,’’ or to “fight.’’ It meant a decision “in the sense of reaching a crucial point that would tip the scales.” But it also meant reaching a judgment—in the legal sense—and is thus the basis of the word “critique.” The “subjective critique” and the “objective crisis”—the act of arriving at a judgment, and the situation which calls for it—were both implied by the same term. In this classical context, the legal practice of judgment led directly to the level of politics; legal decisions, by determining the character of justice more broadly conceived, harmonized the political order.

In Christian doctrine, the court of judgment is taken over by God, who is both ruler and judge, and whose judgment promises salvation. In the Bible, the final crisis is apocalypse. “The κρῐ́σῐς (krisis) at the end of the world will for the first time reveal true justice,” writes Koselleck. “While the coming crisis remains a cosmic event, its outcome is already anticipated by the certainty of that redemption which grants eternal life.” It “creates a new horizon of expectations that, theologically, qualifies future historical time.”

Our political discourse today is framed, on the one hand, by the question of whether human beings are entitled to health care, and on the other, by a seemingly apocalyptic moment of pandemic disease. In the classical Greek medical theory of crisis, originating in the Corpus Hippocraticum and developed by Galen, the word denoted both the condition itself and a judgment on the patient’s fate, which we recall when we say someone is in “critical condition.” At the moment of crisis, says Koselleck, “it will be determined whether the patient will live or die.”

As the concept was adopted into Latin, it “underwent a metaphorical expansion into the domain of social and political language,” and came to be used “as a transitional or temporal concept (Verlaufsbegriff), which, as in a legal trial, leads towards a decision.” Now crisis indicated “that point in time in which a decision is due but has not yet been rendered.” “At all times,” Koselleck continues, “the concept is applied to life-deciding alternatives meant to answer questions about what is just or unjust, what contributes to salvation or damnation, what furthers health or brings death.”

Our crisis surely unites all these meanings, a long overdue decision about what is just, what will be the consequences of a seemingly inevitable apocalypse, and whether the imperatives of the market will bring us always hurtling toward death.

The modern adoption of the word “crisis”—from Rousseau and Diderot to Burke and Paine—made it synonymous with “revolution,” secularizing the Christian eschatology in a philosophy of history. Here, Koselleck writes, crisis “coagulates into an epochal concept in that it indicates a critical transition period after which much will be different.”

Once again, across mainstream establishment politics there is an endless deferral of decision, a default to gradualist and economistic socialism.

Karl Marx famously tied the objective conditions of economic crisis, caused by the contradictions of capitalist accumulation, to the subjective process of revolution. The term “crisis” oscillated between the objective and subjective registers, guaranteeing a revolutionary hope with cold and dispassionate economic analysis. Nevertheless, crisis after crisis failed to yield the revolution that would bring about a new order.

Today our crisis is thoroughgoing; it cannot be reduced to the impending economic crisis, or the biological crisis of disease that would be extrinsic to the structure of society and its equilibrium. Rather, it is an unfolding “crisis of hegemony,” of the type described by Stuart Hall and his collaborators in Policing the Crisis, “a moment of profound rupture in the political and economic life of a society, an accumulation of contradictions.”

During the regular periods of hegemony, class domination is sustained and enforced by “rendering the basis of that social authority invisible” using “mechanisms of the production of consent.” The power of the state appears to be a pure public power, resting on the voluntary participation of the population, with the class basis of the state obscured, and its use of coercion and violence drawing on this construction of the popular will for legitimation.

During a crisis of hegemony, “the equilibrium of consent is disturbed,” yielding “moments when the whole basis of political leadership and cultural authority becomes exposed and contested.” It is when the ruling class has failed to accomplish the tasks that were supposed to be the basis for mass consent, whether it has been won through persuasion or imposed with varying degrees of force. The equilibrium may be contested not only by the failure of the ruling class but also by new challenges from the masses to the character of the existing political system.

“When the temporary balance of the relations of class forces is upset and new forces emerge,” warns Policing the Crisis, “old forces run through their repertoires of domination. Such moments signal, not necessarily a revolutionary conjuncture nor the collapse of the state, but rather the coming of ‘iron times.’”

We are approaching “iron times,” when ecological and biological disaster appear to promise us the entrenching of extreme economic inequality, ecological apartheid, and authoritarian biopolitics. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore recently put it, “the distribution of vulnerability to premature death in the United States, the distribution of unemployment and underemployment in the United States and the specificity of state violence in the United States in response to it have all come together.”

In our situation, both compromise with the depraved and incompetent figures of the Democratic wing of the ruling class and the type of gradualist, economistic socialism that rules out the possibility of direct action outside the boundaries of the state are irresponsibly utopian positions. They are effectively the same position.

Compromise, under the extortionist rhetoric of lesser-evilism, means promising a vote to the establishment candidate and thus losing any leverage that could compel the establishment to adopt the minimal safety measures, like universal health care, that it has systematically tried to obstruct.

Gradualism, which suggests slow, patient electoral work within the two-party system, exposes itself as clearly impractical alongside the rapid spread of viruses and increase of temperature; historical experience suggests it could not even be implemented without revolutionary pressure from outside the state.

In a reversal of the modern revolutionary theory of crisis, the reigning opinion today is that crisis should be met with pacifying management, a “return to normalcy” rather than a transition to a different order. It is precisely the destabilizing character of the crisis that is used to insist on precluding the option of revolutionary change.

Of course, the modern conception of crisis was grounded in the opposite notion, that crisis yielded revolution. If we study the history of revolutions, we know that apocalypse is nothing new. The first successful communist revolution arrived between World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic. However, the philosophy of history that says that crises will necessarily yield revolutions is unsustainable. We can marshal too many other examples that show that crisis and revolution frequently diverge.

The other side of Koselleck’s concept of crisis is the role of the decision. Watching the catastrophe of World War I and “the crisis of social democracy” that came from the complicity of the official socialist parties with the imperialist war, Rosa Luxemburg insisted in The Junius Pamphlet:

Passive fatalism can never be the role of a revolutionary party like the social democracy. . . . It must adopt a policy of active class politics, a policy that will whip the ruling classes forward in every great social crisis and that will drive the crisis itself far beyond its original extent.

A few years later Lenin would write in “The Crisis Has Matured”:

What, then, is to be done? We must aussprechen was ist, “state the facts,” admit the truth that there is a tendency, or an opinion, in our Central Committee and among the leaders of our Party which favors waiting for the Congress of Soviets, and is opposed to taking power immediately, is opposed to an immediate insurrection. That tendency, or opinion, must be overcome.

Let us also “state the facts.” There is a tendency or opinion today that opposes any move transgressing the boundaries of the state, though we see clearly the capitalist state’s resistance to meet the challenge. This crisis is irreducible to the emergency measures that may be taken today, but rather extends to the underlying disorder, which will erupt again in the future, perhaps in ways that will lead us to recall Trump and the novel coronavirus with fond nostalgia.

It is precisely the destabilizing character of the crisis that is used to insist on precluding the option of revolutionary change.

For the moment of decision we were truly unprepared. The entry of the masses onto the electoral scene in the form of the Bernie Sanders campaign, though it upset the equilibrium of the Democratic wing of the ruling order, had no independent, institutional reality. No perspective of revolution was sustained in the practical and organizational form that could become a material force. The greater opening now is the rebellion against police violence, the eruption of a powerful antagonism against the state, which has emerged independent of those existing political organizations whose politics consists of “waiting.” Once again, across mainstream establishment politics there is an endless deferral of decision, a default to gradualist and economistic socialism. The liberal establishment wishes to contain the rebellions, restricting them to a response to isolated incidents of police misbehavior. They condemn the looting and property destruction that exceeds the boundaries of state legality and argue for collaboration with the “good cops” who can supposedly be convinced to be “peaceful” by “peaceful protests.” Gradualist and economistic socialism, on the other hand, is incapable of recognizing an explosion of class struggle in this autonomous working-class action that takes the repressive apparatus of the state as its target. It is thus incapable of joining the long-term organizational processes of politics with the art of insurrection.

We are not in a position to predict that a revolutionary conjuncture will emerge. However, this should not be mistaken for a willful ruling out of revolutionary aims and strategies, which relies on the erasure of history. Today’s pragmatists rely on what Kristin Ross, following Jacques Rancière, calls “the police conception of history”: there’s nothing to see here, folks! From 1917 to 1968, nothing really ever happened.

Yet a great deal did happen, even if there were also defeats. Despite these defeats, human history is punctuated by those rare and unforgettable moments when some aspect of human servitude was overcome. We may be witnessing one of those moments; but whether this turns out to be the case relies on the awakening of the subject to the decision.

In our current conditions, we are not prepared to launch an insurrection. But to fail to set about constructing the kinds of organizations that can sustain the interruption of the rebellions, in the context of the threat to human life posed by the current crisis, would be an epochal failure, for which future generations could not possibly forgive us. We can either commit ourselves to these possibilities, which the historical revolutions put on the table, or pretend that nothing has ever really changed, and never will. The decision is ours.