‘Polycrisis’ is a concept best popularized by Adam Tooze. According to a report from the Cascade Institute however it can be traced to French complexity theorist Edgar Morin—who currently holds the (…wait for it…) UNESCO Chair of Complex Thought. The report quotes Morin’s 1999 book, Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the new Millennium:
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“There is no single vital problem, but many vital problems, and it is this complex intersolidarity of problems, antagonisms, crises, uncontrolled processes, and the general crisis of the planet that constitutes the number one vital problem.”
Here’s the more formal definition given by that Cascade Institute report:
“We define a global polycrisis as any combination of three or more interacting systemic risks with the potential to cause a cascading, runaway failure of Earth’s natural and social systems that irreversibly and catastrophically degrades humanity’s prospects…A global polycrisis, should it occur, will inherit the four core properties of systemic risks—extreme complexity, high nonlinearity, transboundary causality, and deep uncertainty—while also exhibiting causal synchronization among risks.”
Tooze notes that his initial encounter with the term came via Jean-Claude Juncker, who used polycrisis to describe Europe’s perilous situation in the period after 2014.“I found the idea of polycrisis interesting and timely,” Tooze explains, “because the prefix ‘poly’ directed attention to the diversity of challenges without specifying a single dominant contradiction or source of tension or dysfunction.” Thanks to Tooze, the term has been more broadly adopted to describe the present series of economic, social, and environmental crises as fundamentally interconnected. It even made the stage at Davos—this despite (or perhaps precisely because of) the contradictory structure traceable to Morin’s original formulation (“there is no single vital problem,” yet simultaneously, “the general crisis of the planet is the number one vital problem”)…
Tooze gave a condensed formulation in a recent opinion piece for the Financial Times published in late October 2022.
“With economic and non-economic shocks entangled all the way down, it is little wonder that an unfamiliar term is gaining currency — the polycrisis. A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and thus threatens our identity. In the polycrisis the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts.”
Extreme complexity. High nonlinearity. A whole that is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts. Readers are presented in brief with some of the basic concepts of ‘complexity theory;’ in particular, the concept of ‘emergence’. In his 1875 Problems of Life and Mind, George Henry Lewes gave it a philosophical definition, where emergent properties or substances ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them.
Following this line via complexity theory, ‘polycrisis’ in a strict sense would mean not simply the adding together of different crises and treating them as one (the ‘there’s lots of things going on’ definition), but rather a system that is ‘emergent’ out of their interaction and interrelation—a crisis greater than each specific crisis added together. A world subsumed by polycrisis becomes a kind of nightmarish ‘emergent system,’ the roots of which are irreducible to a single cause, thus the necessity of those maps and charts best captured by Krisenbilder ("crisis pictures").
The term of course already has its critics, as well as those who seem to not want to grapple or even toy with its conceptual origins or this stricter specificity of meaning, either in the work of Tooze or otherwise.As eventually happens to every concept, 'polycrisis' has now surely escaped the bounds of its origins, with it reaching broad enough purchase that it is difficult to blame them.
Noah Smith, for example, argues that the crises the term sets out to describe aren’t necessarily related, and thinks what we are dealing with here is simply an example of the availability heuristic—people think there are all these crises because we often read about them. Media fear-mongering surely exists, however it is an interesting move to conclude an essay ostensibly about how 'polycrisis' is a bad concept with almost the exact inverse of it. Smith, “doesn't see a 'polycrisis' but a 'polysolution,’” a statement he makes in a section genuinely titled 'Dark Brandon vs. the Polycrisis.'Gary Indiana once wrote that documentarian Errol Morris possessed, “a definite flair for turning humans into talking sea cucumbers obsessed with philosophical or historical matters clearly beyond their intelligence.” Smith is the opposite of that - a sea cucumber with a flair for convincing readers he is obsessed with historical and philosophical matters, thus managing to pass as a human being. His analysis occurs at such an analytical altitude and high level of generalization it probably precludes him from even being wrong. Some of the cavalier dismissals fall into this category, which can be broadly divided between 'this is fake' and 'this is just History happening again.'
A more worthwhile critic is Guney Isikara, who argues that ‘obscure jargon’ like ‘overlapping emergencies’ (a term adopted by the UN)and ‘polycrisis’ function primarily to conceal the way in which these crises are determined by capitalist social relations. While I’m not sure the jargon is obscure (it combines a term everyone has a colloquial sense of with a Greek prefix everyone should be familiar with, although the seemingly contradictory nature of Morin's original formulation about 'vital problems' might prove Isikara correct about its fundamental opacity), there does seem to be a distinct lack of explicit mention of capitalism in a determining role vis a vis these interlocking and connected crises.
It is certainly the case that self-censorship for more frictionless consumption can be mistaken for ideological obfuscation, which is itself different than genuine analytical much less political difference. What I think can be said with just a minimal amount of charity however is that Tooze or the authors involved in the (excellent and worthwhile) ‘The Polycrisis’ series for Phenomenal World would surely claim that, of course, capitalism plays some sort of determining role.
Not to emphasize a very simple point—but it all seems to depends on what one means by capitalism and how well the term can serve as a conceptual container for this multi-variate proliferation of crises. For Tooze, ‘capitalism’ is too narrow or, more specifically, ‘monistic’ (this is explored in more detail in Part II). Hence the usefulness of a term like ‘polycrisis’—with its emphasis on diversity.But perhaps the more perplexing issue for Marxist critics of polycrisis is not so much the narrowness of the rival term capitalism, but the opposite: conceptual breadth.
If one of the issues with polycrisis is its abstract conceptual circumference (in other words, if it is too broad to possess much analytical specificity; too open to conceptual determination), one has to wonder how much specification is gained simply by instead subsuming the complex of economic and non-economic (social, environmental, moral, etc) problems under the term capitalism which - while certainly possessing the advantage of being the recipient of over a century of theorization and political-rhetorical invocation - arguably finds itself struggling with a similar issue regarding conceptual width.
"The inflation of ideas,” Perry Anderson once wrote about the ‘indeterminate extension’ of the concept Feudalism, “like coins, merely leads to their devaluation."If the recent history of a publisher like Verso is any example, the analysis of capitalism has proliferated into so many types — the concept has been asked to hold the analytical weight of so many different aspects — that the force of the term has surely been devalued at the level of analytical exactitude. This is a normal phenomenon. Concepts always take leave of their origins in a way that isn't reducible to the intention of the original thinker. Thus the meaning of a concept is never merely reducible to its origin, but also includes the history of its various interpretations as well; even, and sometimes especially, the interpretations which might be wrong or at odds with the intended meaning of the original author.
At the level of rhetoric meanwhile, there is a significant disjunction between the regular occurrence of the term capitalism and its analysis within certain academic, intellectual, and even media circles, and its relative lack of use on the political stage. The analysis of capitalism is simultaneously rhetorically and politically urgent, but often either scholastically tedious or too all encompassing so as to be vague.
Indeed, over a decade after the financial crisis of 2008, hardly an introduction to a radical monograph can go without mentioning the rebirth of interest in Marx. One wonders how long this can last. If the lack of mention of capitalism in the 90s was replaced by a proliferation of analyses after 2008, this proliferation is now increasingly confronted by an anxiety among critical analysts that if any term other than capitalism or a type of capitalismgains some purchase it represents an analytical and political threat. It is difficult not to read this symptomatically as a reaction to the analytical exhaustion of analyses of capitalism in the wake of this post-2008 proliferation, now nearly 15 years ago.
In any case, the more interesting question for Marxists here I think is not, "why the term capitalism and not the term polycrisis" or vice versa (partly becuase there will always be terms of analysis that obfuscate capitalism in a capitalist society, as constant as the attempt should be to displace them), but rather, "of what use is the term polycrisis to an analysis of capitalism?" or even, "what might the popularity of polycrisis say about the weaknesses of current critical analyses of capitalism?” In other words, I want to argue that there might be more to this whole polycrisis phenomenon than simply being another instance of ideological obfuscation by left-liberals who are not willing to go far enough. After all, for Adorno, "the determinable flaw in every concept necessitates the citation of others...insistence upon a single word and concept as the iron gate to be unlocked is also a mere moment, though an inalienable one."
In part II, I’ll take a closer look at the way Tooze himself traces the origins of the concept in some of his chartbook entries, as well as the critique of pre-60s Marxism that seems to have led to his interest and use of the term.
As noted by Kate Mackenzie and Tim Sahay in their ‘An Introduction to the Polycrisis’, part of a series of (incredibly fascinating and worthwhile) essays on the polycrisis published by Phenomenal World.
Arguably the second coolest academic title. The first is held by Vijay Gurbaxani—the Taco Bell Professor of Technology Management at the Paul Merage School of Business, UC Irvine. This is true. Google his name.
Edgar Morin, Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millenium, (New York: Hampton Press, 1999).
“Davos Worries About a ‘Polycrisis,’” New York Times online at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/17/business/dealbook/davos-world-economic-forum-polycrisis.html
Adam Tooze, “Welcome to the World of the Polycrisis,” Financial Times, online at https://www.ft.com/content/498398e7-11b1-494b-9cd3-6d669dc3de33
Entry for “emergence,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/emergence/
“A polycrisis is not just a situation where you face multiple crises. It is a situation like that mapped in the risk matrix, where the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of the parts.”
Guney Isikara, “Beating around the Bush: Polycrisis, Overlapping Emergencies, and Capitalism,” Developing Economics, online at https://developingeconomics.org/author/guneyisikara/
Gary Indiana, Fire Seasons: Selected Essays—1984-2021, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2021): 135.
“Overlapping crises push millions into ‘extreme levels of acute food insecurity,” UN News, online at https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/06/1119752
There seem to be only two instances of the term ‘capitalism’ in the articles that make up Phenomenal World’s series of publications ‘On the Polycrisis’. Daniel Driscoll’s article, “The Dollar and Climate,” in a footnote, references Jeffrey Freiden’s Global Capitalism and recent scholarship by Althouse and Svartzman on finance-dominated capitalism. cf. Althouse and Svartzman, “Bringing subordinated financialisation down to earth: the political ecology of finance-dominated capitalism,” Cambridge Journal of Economics, (46:4, 2022): 679-702. In the essay “A New Non-Alignment,” Tim Sahay makes reference to how, “developing countries will use this decade’s violently shifting geoeconomic conditions to build on old growth models, including industrial policy and developmental-state capitalism.”
“Marxist friends will no doubt be tempted to say that it all boils down to capitalism and its crisis-ridden development. But, by the 1960s at the latest, sophisticated Marxist theory had abandoned monistic theories of crisis.” Part II will include a closer reading of this idea from Chartbook #165
Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State, (London: Verso, 1979): 487.
Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. EB Ashton, (London: Continuum, 2007): 53.
Edgar Morin is still alive!?!
(great post, btw)