War? Famine? Take your pick (NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

September 26, 2023   6 mins

War, climate change, economic stagnation, political polarisation — there seems to be no shortage of crises these days. Indeed, the situation is so perilous that the rarely hysterical Financial Times last year named “polycrisis” one of its words of the year, defining it as “a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects, such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part”. The concept was initially popularised by Adam Tooze and has since been endorsed even by the World Economic Forum. The UN, for what it is worth, prefers to talk of “overlapping crises”.

If all this chatter feels eerily familiar, that’s because it is. Our current “polycrisis” comes on the heels of a global pandemic, which was itself preceded by the post-2008 financial crisis, which overlapped with the post-9/11 global terrorism crisis, on top of other more localised “crises”, such as Brexit and Europe’s migrant crisis. Look back at the past two decades, and one could easily conclude that the world has been mired in a state of quasi-permanent state of crisis — or, as analysts and dictionaries are fond of putting, a “permacrisis”.

So perhaps Permacrisis is the perfect title for a new book by former Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, co-authored with Mohamed El-Erian, president of Queens’ College and former chief economic adviser at Allianz, and Michael Spence, professor of management at Stanford University. “What makes this period feel unusual,” they write, “is the multidimensional nature and sheer intensity and complexity of the economic transformations swirling around us… [Challenges such as war, inflation and climate change] show no signs of abating — only accelerating. That’s what happens in a permacrisis.”

On the face of it, this analysis might appear uncontroversial, even trivially obvious. No one would question the notion that there are a lot of crises going on in the world at any given time. But one might also argue that this has always been the case — especially from the perspective of the billions living in the Global South. It therefore seems reasonable to ask: is this obsessive use of the word “crisis” simply an acknowledgement of a uniquely bad situation? Or is there more at play here?

Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, several critical scholars had suggested that, in recent decades, crisis had become a “method of government” in which “every natural disaster, every economic crisis, every military conflict and every terrorist attack is systematically exploited by governments to radicalise and accelerate the transformation of economies, social systems and state apparatuses”. In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein explored the idea of “disaster capitalism” — the notion that, in moments of public fear and disorientation, it is easier to re-engineer societies.

Taking such analyses one step further, one might argue that the contemporary narrative of permanent crisis or emergency represents a qualitative shift in “crisis as a mode of government” — one which is no longer limited to the exploitation of crises, but is based on the constant evoking of crisis itself, if not the actual manufacturing of crises. In such a system, “crisis” no longer represents a deviation from the norm; it is the norm, the default starting point for all politics. This of course raises a paradox. In her book Anti-Crisis, the anthropologist Janet Roitman notes that “evoking crisis entails reference to a norm because it requires a comparative state for judgement: crisis compared to what?”. Its use today, however, implies an endless condition in which crisis has itself become the norm. Thus, as Roitman asks: “can one speak of a state of enduring crisis? Is this not an oxymoron?”

In this sense, the normalisation of the concept of permacrisis could be understood as a response to the loss of legitimacy and authority by Western ruling elites. Unable to generate societal consensus or hegemony, in either material or ideological terms, and increasingly threatened by the rise of new global powers, first and foremost China, they are forced to rely on increasingly repressive and militaristic measures — both domestically and abroad — in order to remain in power and stifle any challenges to their authority. Hence the need for a more or less permanent state of crisis capable of justifying such measures — in other words, permacrisis.

What are the main characteristics of this “new normal” of enduring crisis? First and foremost, a generalised acceptance of the idea that we can no longer afford to organise our societies around a stable set of rules, norms and laws. Rather, the constant stream of new threats — terrorism, disease, war, natural disasters — means that we must be constantly ready to rapidly adapt to an ever-changing scenario of permanent instability. This, in turn, also means that we can no longer afford the nuanced public debates and complexities of parliamentary politics usually associated with Western liberal democracies; governments need to be able to enforce decisions with swiftness and efficiency. Thus Western leaders today explicitly link our age of permacrisis to the need to restrict online free speech in the name of the struggle against “mis/disinformation” — which often happens to be anything that contradicts the official narrative.

Permacrisis also means that any form of medium-term planning, any vision for the future — either on an individual or collective level, the latter having been, historically, the main driver of social progress — is futile: focused instead on the fight against the “enemy” of the moment, a never-ending crisis means being stuck in a perpetual present. Besides, reality, we are told, is just too complex and unpredictable to hope to shape it according to any form of collective will.

This represents a radical shift from the way the notion of crisis has been defined until now. Historically, “crisis” has often been associated with the idea of opportunity and even progress. Permacrisis represents the contemporary inversion of this conception, as it precludes any idea of further progress, denoting instead a permanently difficult, or worsening, situation — one which can never be solved, but only managed. At its heart, this narrative, even though it appears to be solution-focused and future-oriented, is in fact implicitly nihilistic and depoliticising, since it implies that the world is doomed no matter what we do.

In The Rhetoric of Reaction, Albert Hirschman spoke about the “futility thesis” — the rejection of political action due to a fatalistic belief that the problems we face are so big that any attempt at solving them will inevitably result in failure. The flipside to this doomerist, apocalyptic streak is particularly evident in the debate around climate change and the wider ecological crisis: the dominant narrative implies that anything is justified in order to “save the planet”, including all manner of authoritarian interventions. After all, if the very survival of life on Earth is at stake, surely we can’t allow the complexities of democratic debate and deliberation to stand in the way of doing what’s needed? Indeed, it is no coincidence that proponents of permacrisis insist on the fact that the global nature of many crises means that these can only be solved at the global level — namely, by transferring more and more power to supranational organisations such as the European Union and the World Health Organization.

Permacrisis is a case in point. Aside from the usual boilerplate solutions that we’ve been hearing at least since 2008 — the need to harness the digital revolution to boost productivity; better economic management; a more “equitable” approach to policymaking — the authors dedicate a great deal of the book’s focus on the need for “a new framework for managing globalisation and the global order”. This means that countries have to rethink “traditional assumptions about nation state sovereignty” and be ready to “give up a little autonomy” — an extraordinary claim if we consider that many of the problems that we are experiencing in the West can be ascribed precisely to the erosion of sovereignty and democracy and the rise of unaccountable international and supranational organisations beholden to private and corporate interests.

Just as revealing are the authors’ proposals for reforming the international system. They argue that we don’t need new institutions, but that we should rather focus on reforming the existing Western-led institutions — the G20, the IMF, the World Bank, etc. — in order to make them more democratic and more representative of non-Western powers, primarily China. What they conveniently forget to mention is that this is precisely the kind of reform that China and other countries have been demanding for more than a decade, only to be systematically ignored by the West, and that it is the latter, led by the US, that has adopted an aggressive anti-China policy. This is why non-Western countries, under the umbrella of the China-led Brics bloc, are now spearheading the construction of their own set of international institutions.

Yet calling for “a more cooperative global order” under the guise of the permacrisis, without even mentioning the reasons for the current fracturing of the global order — namely America’s desperate attempt to preserve its declining global hegemony — is disingenuous at best. Even more importantly, it highlights a fundamental feature of the permacrisis: the fact that it is a specifically Western phenomenon.

For ultimately, aside from being a “method of government”, permacrisis neatly encapsulates the panic of Western elites: it is their global order, their dominant position in the global food chain, that is under threat. What to Brown and his fellow authors feels like an existential crisis — the terminal decline of the Western-dominated “international rules-based order” — is seen by much of the non-Western world as an opportunity. This is why the Brics bloc doesn’t subscribe to the doomerist permacrisis narrative — not because they don’t recognise the challenges facing the planet, but because they don’t view the current juncture as the end of the world. Rather, they view it as the birth of a new one.

Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.