Crisis, what crisis?

Crisis, what crisis?

Shaping and governing crisis

Fires, floods, heatwaves, financial crises, bridge collapses… Crises are everywhere, and with the accelerating and deepening climate crisis, they are becoming an even more regular feature of our societies. Yet, why does this crisis ‘talk’ seems so prevalent? To what extent does it impact our perception of, and actions upon crises? Why do we seem to be surrounded by crises?

We explore these questions in a special issue of the top French political science journal Critique Internationale. It contributes to a burgeoning literature in social sciences that reflects on the widespread use, meanings and effects of the term ‘crisis’, and on how the meaning and practice of governing today is intrinsically linked to crises and crisis management.

Many thinkers have already noted that discussions about crises are nothing new. As historian Reinhart Koselleck showed in Critique and Crisis (1988), the very concept of crisis is consubstantial to modernity, as it requires a linear conception of temporality, in which the present must be distinguished from the past. This leads to portraying the present ‘in crisis’, in contrast to the normal past. It therefore comes as no surprise that we constantly think of ourselves in crisis, perpetually renewing the sense and definition of crises, be they political, social or economic (see Offe, 1976).

" we constantly think of ourselves in crisis, perpetually renewing the sense and definition of crises"

This special issue argues that what best distinguishes our current contemporary situation from the past is precisely this proliferation of tools, policies, and knowledge to govern crises. Few scholars have reflected on the fact that today, concepts, ideas and common sense of crises are largely shaped by how crises are governed. In other words, when a crisis appears, its understanding and the responses to it are instantly shaped by existing crisis organisations, crisis tools, knowledge, experts and policy-makers.

Such an approach stands in contrast to the ideas of exceptionality, or of ‘government by crisis’, according to which crises are exploited politically to advance exceptional decisions, reforms, policies or ideas otherwise unacceptable. Indeed, rather than being exceptional, crisis management has become routinised across areas of policy-making. This is surely one of the most remarkable results of this issue, which notes the extension and proliferation of crisis management in domains as varied as financial crisis management in the EU, the global governance of food security, or nuclear crisis management policies.

We develop a reflection on the shaping of crises through statements and diagnoses, based on knowledge, policy tools and mobilisation. We show that this ‘shaping’ is inseparable from how crises are governed, i.e. from all the specific actions implemented in order to intervene on crisis situations. By documenting the framing of crisis in various sectors, the articles also question the effects of visibility and ignorance produced by these processes, and observe the deployment of new security standards and new industrial strategies that reflect specific interests and policies at the national and international levels. For example, the claim that there is a crisis of rare earth – those materials used to produce batteries, for example – reflect specific geopolitical interests, while subtly hiding another crisis, namely the environmental crisis generated by the exploitation of those minerals through mining.

"it might be productive to think ‘against’ crises"

To conclude, it might be productive to think ‘against’ crises, as anthropologist Janet Roitman provocatively suggests in the interview she granted us (and in her book Anticrisis, published in 2013 by Duke University Press). Indeed when we identify a crisis, we implicitly distinguish between a ‘deviating’ situation and a normal one. This means that we ought to think twice before labeling a situation a crisis: by doing so, what do we consider to be normal and to be deviant? What is a disruption and to whom? What are the implications of using the word crisis? What responsibility do social sciences have in analysing crises? Most importantly, when we do so, what are the implications in terms of what is governed, and what is not governed?