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Sight Magazine – Essay: Permacrisis

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The Collins Dictionary Word of the Year for 2022 is “permacrisis”. As the accolades roll in, Collins Learning Managing Director Alex Beecroft, said that this one “pretty succinctly sums up how truly awful 2022 has been for so many people.”

The word, most widely understood as a portmanteau of “permanent” and “crisis”, has been in use for quite a bit longer. In April 2021, political analysts in Europe I saw it as defining the times in which we live. Some in Britain inevitably attribute the genesis of this era to Brexit. Others point to pandemic. For still others, it was The Russian invasion of Ukraine which made the word indispensable. Like the writer David Shariatmadari put it“‘Permacrisis’ is a term that perfectly embodies the dizzying sense of moving from one unprecedented event to another, as we darkly wonder what new horrors might be around the corner.”

Rescuers work at the site of a residential building heavily damaged by a Russian missile attack, as the Russian attack on Ukraine continues, in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, November 11. PHOTO: Reuters/Viktoria Lakezina.

This represents a change from the way the notion of crisis has been defined until now. However, digging into the philosophical roots of the word reveals that a crisis is not necessarily terrible, but can, in the long termprove to be a necessary and beneficial corrective.

The crisis as necessary for progress
Philosophers have long defined a crisis as a situation that forces an individual or group into a moment of reflection criticism – at a point where a new course is charted in relation to a pressing issue. This definition comes from the Ancient Greek term κρίσις or krisiswhich describes a medical or political moment of opportunity that turns into life or death, victory or defeat.

“Word [is] most widely understood as a portmanteau of ‘permanent’ and ‘crisis’… In April 2021, political analysts in Europe saw it as defining the times we live in. Some in Britain inevitably attribute the genesis of this era to Brexit. Others refer to the pandemic. For still others, it was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that made the word indispensable. As writer David Shariatmadari put it: “‘Permacrisis’ is a term that perfectly embodies the dizzying sense of moving from one unprecedented event to another, as we darkly wonder what new horrors might be around the corner. the street”.

However, as historical philosopher Reinhart Koselleck showed, in modern philosophy, this ancient Greek notion of crisis undergoes a semantic change. Its meaning changes radically, to refer to a contradiction between opposing forces that accelerates the transition from the past to the future.

This is seen in Karl Marxdescribes capitalism as an economic system in crisis. By struggling to tame its forces of production, labor and machines, marx According to him, this system causes crises of overproduction: an excess of supply which cannot be satisfied by an equivalent demand. These crises in turn foster opportunities for cultural, social and political innovation, of which the best example of the 20th century is the creation of the welfare state.

“Crisis” is defined in the same way in the work of the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn. approach to the history of science. Kuhn considers that advances in modern research are driven by crises within existing scientific paradigms. The gradual shift from Newtonian paradigms to Einsteinian paradigms in 20th century physics is a perfect illustration of his thinking.

In both cases, the “crisis” is linked to the idea – even the ideal – of progress. Marx believed that because the rate of profit tends to fall, capitalism would experience a final crisis and this would lead to the emergence of communism: an entirely new and, above all, better socio-political situation.

Permacrisisrepresents the contemporary inversion of this conception. It is similar to Marx’s idea that human history will lead to a final crisis, except that it excludes any idea of ​​further progress. Instead of leading to something better, it denotes a static and lasting difficult situation.



A new realism
This concept of permacrisis has its roots in contemporary systems theory, which claims that a crisis can become so complicated that we cannot predict its outcome. In this regard, in his 2008 book, On the complexityFrench philosopher Edgar Morin argues that humanity now resides in a web of interlocking systems and that any crisis in one of these systems will engender a crisis in all the others.

Morin uses the word “polycrisis” to describe this situation. This is an idea that is also used in historian Adam Tooze’s work on crises and disasters. Like Tooze put it on recentlygiven the accumulation of problems that the world is currently facing – conflicts and climate crisis to pandemic and rising inflation – “the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of the parts”. Interconnected microsystems, due to increasingly shorter positive feedback loops, can very quickly trigger a crisis, or even a catastrophe, in the larger macrosystem.


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Going a step further, the shift from “polycrisis” to “permacrisis” implies that we now see our crises as situations that can only be managed, not resolved. Indeed, the “permacrisis” suggests that any decision to speed up a difficult situation to get out of it on the other side risks something much worse.

Take the recent death, in the United Kingdom, of the Truss administration. The decision solving an economic crisis only aggravated a self-destructive situation political crisis – which then very quickly further compound the original economic crisis.

Permacrisis not only signals a loss of faith in progress, but also a new realism about what people can face and achieve. Our crises have become so complex and profound that they can transcend our ability to understand them. Any decision to tackle it risks only making things worse. We are therefore faced with a disturbing conclusion. Our crises are no longer a problem. They are a stubborn fact.The conversation

Neil Turnbull is Head of Department: English, Linguistics and Philosophy at Nottingham Trent University. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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