The Blues of Tooze, or Why the Polycrisis is Problematique for the Powerful

The buzzword for 2023 is going to be “polycrisis”, a term which has bubbled up from obscurity via Jean-Claude Juncker in a June 2016 speech he gave trying to reassure Greeks that they weren’t being screwed by Germany.

“I have often used the Greek word ‘polycrisis’ to describe the current situation… from the security threats in our neighbourhood and at home, to the refugee crisis, and to the UK referendum”

The rest of the speech is bullshit – the fact that he needed to state explicitly that “there is no conspiracy against Greece” is hilarious – and from the position of 2022 his description of the polycrisis is woefully underpowered. A much fuller description can be found on the University of Bath website as they hawk a new course on the polycrisis:

“In addition to the acceleration of climate change, extreme weather events and environmental degradation, we are living through a global pandemic, a war in Europe, rising geo-political tensions, high inflation and a cost of living crisis, energy supply and trade disruption, and widespread food insecurity.

“These multiple and overlapping crises of our time mean we are now in the midst of a global polycrisis. These interconnected challenges aren’t experienced by countries in isolation. Rather, they are problems of the global commons, and they cannot be solved by one country or a group of countries.”

Although I’ve seen the phrase cropping up here and there during 2022 – a conference, a WTO speech, an LRB column – the real sign that its time had come was when Adam Tooze adopted it in June in his bestselling newsletter Chartbook. The point that Tooze wanted to make in his revival of the term polycrisis was that

“not only do we face multiple macroscopic risks hedged with great uncertainty, but their interactions tend to be escalatory. This is not inevitable, this is not a prophecy of doom. But it is an assessment of multiple and compounding risks. It may perhaps be taken as the definition of the polycrisis, the concept borrowed by way of Jean-Claude Juncker, that I invoked in my book Shutdown. 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.”

Tooze is at the height of his celebrity; he is now shaping public discourse in an interesting way, and I’ll make a soft prediction that Polycrisis will be the title of his next book. A swarm of econ hipsters will glom onto it in podcasts and newsletters with double-digit audiences, but only Tooze can bring it into the mainstream with an article in the FT.

The question Tooze asks in that article is, “have we been living in a polycrisis all along?” The  answer is Yes. Tooze traces the lineage of the term polycrisis to Edgar Morin in the 90s, who in turn claimed that it was the dawning environmental awareness of the 70s that first engendered a sense of global risk. In fact that sense was already fully formed for some.

The Club of Rome is best known for its 1972 Limits to Growth report; but that report was preceded by a manifesto of sorts entitled “The Predicament of Mankind: Quest for Structured Responses to Growing World-wide Complexities and Uncertainties”, which set out the Club of Rome’s approach to a “meta-system of problems” based on a  “threefold hypothesis”:

“a. that the predicament we seek to understand is systemic in character; and that the boundaries of the system encompass the entire planet;

b. that the real problematique which inheres in the situation has now transcended discrete categories of events – overpopulation, malnutrition, poverty, pollution, etc. – and arises from confused and obscure consequence – patterns generated by the interactions of such categories of events;

c. that any desirable, or even acceptable, resolution of the problematique will in all probability entail, at least as outcomes to be seriously considered, fundamental changes in our current social and institutional structures, for the simple reason that these structures were not established to operate in so complex and dynamic a situation as the one in which we find ourselves.”

What we call the polycrisis, they called the problematique; and the source of this thinking was not just environmentalism, but the heady postwar brew of cybernetics, systems thinking and strategic forecasting which tried to address the human condition in a more nuanced manner than the linear ways of thought which undergirded the age of industry.

Institutions and intellects in the lineage of the Club of Rome – and I count myself among that number – can be found all over the place, but are frequently marginalised; examples include the degrowth movement in economics and the doomer tendency in environmentalism, but even more mainstream systems thinkers have struggled to get a seat at the table.

The reason for this marginalisation – even at the time, their Limits to Growth report was harangued as often as it was hailed – was that its message was too uncomfortable for the comfort of the global powers. It asked them to rethink the very foundations of their power, and to take steps which would, of necessity, mean giving up some of that power.

In the 70s this was perceived as a direct assault on the entire political project of the postwar period, and during the Cold War such an assault could be seen not just as misguided but traitorous, suggesting that perhaps “our” superficial success was merely masking a more fundamental failure. Today we can see this response in the rhetoric of climate deniers.

These negative implications of the problematique make governments unwilling to even acknowledge them until it’s far too late, and it’s this which has always lead me to doubt that we will manage to address the climate crisis, let alone the polycrisis. Like the Club of Rome, I am Gramscian, favouring pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will:

“our notion of [the] problem is wholly insufficient for us to face whatever it is that our situation proposes both to our intellect and to our conscience. At the same time our notions of solution are equally insufficient… It is the aim of this particular project of the Club of Rome to turn the above assumption into a positive statement”

Tooze’s is right to be concerned that “what crisis-fighting and technological fixes all too rarely do is address the underlying trends”. The relentless rah-rah optimism of the USA cannot address those trends, nor can the technocratic obsessions of the PRC. What is needed is systems change; but I fear they will fight it every step of the way. We’ll see.

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