The shaping and government of crises


Interview with Sara Angeli Aguiton, Lydie Cabane and Lise Cornilleau
Critique internationale, Revue comparative de sciences sociales, n° 85 October-December 2019


Can you tell us about the history of “crisis claims”? Can we situate the emergence of this state of “endless crisis” within a time frame, given that it is presented in the media, by national governments, and international organisations as a characteristic of our era? 

From a historical perspective, the notion of crisis is associated with modernity, as Reinhart Koselleck or Myriam Revault d’Allonnes have shown. In his book, Critique and Crisis, Koselleck argues that the concept of crisis as we know it emerged at the end of the 18th century. Before that, the etymological meaning of the word was prevalent: a crisis was the product of the critical observation of a situation requiring a decision and intervention (such as the diagnosis of an illness requiring surgery). From the end of the 18th century this meaning eroded and the idea that a situation of crisis demands a critical response to the present state emerged. In other words, the notion of crisis reflects the attitude of the Moderns to time; it requires a dissociation of the past from the present – the latter being the moment of the crisis – and accomplishing a projection into a problematic or even threatening future. Such conception contrasted with the idea of “progress” which was also being developed at the time. In this respect it is not surprising that we continue to think with the notion of crisis, and we can see the persistence of this vocabulary particularly since the 1970s and the succession of crises (economic, social, or political) that constantly feed the feeling of “being in crisis”. Yet, on a logical level, this persistence is paradoxical because an “endless crisis” should really lead to the dissolution of the notion itself; if the crisis is permanent then everything is crisis, crisis becomes normal, and if it is normal then we are not in crisis. However, this is not the case. Thinking with or through the notion of crisis is something that does indeed persist, adapt, and renew itself constantly. This continually renewed historical and epistemological perspective is essential, but it is not enough to conceptualize the contemporary situation. What is characteristic of our era is the proliferation of crisis “diagnoses” in areas that are extremely varied, and at increasingly global levels.


Aside from the feeling of generalised and permanent uneasiness that it provokes, what are the consequences of this work in characterising crises, not only in terms of responses (management plan, institutions) but also knowledge, laws, expertise and professions? In other words, what is this new world that seems to be organised around “crisis claims” composed of? 

These diagnoses lead to the establishment of dedicated government techniques and the formation of a professional world specialised in the emerging area of “crisis management”, because it is no longer a question of simply thinking and claiming there is a “crisis”. Crises are now equipped, scripted, and formalised; they are the object of specific knowledge and practice. International organisations, the European Union, governments, and businesses all have a range of instruments for managing them. The fact that crisis management is central to politics can be explained partly by the fact that the “good” or “bad” management of crisis has become a central criterion for the evaluation and legitimation of political or organisational action. The nuclear sector – discussed in this issue by Olivier Borraz and Elsa Gisquet, as well as by Brice Laurent, Başak Saraç-Lesavre, and Alexandre Violle) – is a good example of this profound political change.

The crisis therefore exists through tools, laws, instruments and knowledge that describe it, what its mechanisms and its causes are, and who is accountable for it. Of course, events (such as fires, war, or financial crises) occur and their reality is undeniable, but the way in which we interpret them and intervene in them depends on the framing and instruments that define the field of possibilities. These actors and tools together define a “world” of crises, similar to the “world” of natural disasters described by Sandrine Revet. However, in the case of crises there is not one world, but a plurality of worlds, which are more or less well-structured and formalised. Thus, the “worlds” of crisis management, for humanitarian, nuclear, or financial crises are made up of different experts with specific knowledge. Some are structured around established professional and organisational jurisdictions (the “worlds” of humanitarian or food crises, for example). Others have emerged more recently. For example, after the 2007-2008 financial crisis new management tools were developed (known as “banking resolution”), which led to the creation of new laws, new regulatory and expert authorities, within the world of financial regulation.


What are the criticisms of this tendency to institutionalise a permanent threat? In particular, what arguments does Janet Roitman make against this perspective?

For us Janet Roitman’s approach is interesting because it questions the boundary between what is defined as a crisis and what is not. Indeed, defining a crisis necessarily means being able to distinguish between a normal state and a dysfunctional one that is a source of threat. But in naming a crisis, we accept the state that preceded it as ordinary, we normalise it. By declaring the financial crisis as a crisis, for example, we implicitly considered the situation in 2007-2008 as deviating from the previous status quo and we looked for those responsible for it. In her interview, Janet Roitman emphasises the importance for social sciences to use the concept of crisis with parsimony and reflexivity, while also maintaining a critical position in order to avoid normalising pre-crisis situations.


Could you also explain the distinction you make between “crisis claims” and the theory of governing “by crisis”?

Studying “crisis claims” – in Janet Roitman’s terms – consists of questioning the process by which a crisis is defined via a range of social processes, and interventions by actors, that frame the perception of the crises and the instruments we use to act on them. For example, the global food crises analysed by Lise Cornilleau in this issue gave rise to a confrontation of diagnoses within the Committee on World Food Security, in 1974 and then in 2008. In 1974, Western diplomacies presented agricultural free trade as the only way to “stabilise” the global food system and avoid crisis, while the G77 representing developing countries, remained attached to a system of reserve stocks and food aid. In 2008, civil society organisations like La Via Campesina relied on the unprecedented opening of international organisations during the food crisis to gain recognition for their diagnosis that free trade and climate change were factors in the crisis, and to promote a new system of global food regulation.

The idea of a government “by crisis” emphasises the way in which crises provide strategic opportunities to push forward policies or ideas – tactical manoeuvres to profit from the political space opened up by situations characterised by the dissolution of the normal order of things, as the political scientist Michel Dobry suggests. In this instance, the crisis is deliberately manipulated, or even created for political ends. An example of this is the “shock doctrine” documented by Naomi Klein: leaders, and in particular capitalist elites, use disaster situations (sometimes entirely manufactured) to impose neo-liberal policies. More generally this is a typical political stratagem consisting in labelling a social or economic problem as a crisis (unemployment, retirement, the labour market, security) to legitimate a political intervention that would otherwise be unacceptable. For example, Chinese diplomacy uses the label “environmental crisis” at the WTO to justify its protectionism in trading rare earth elements, as Soraya Boudia demonstrates in this issue.


Finally, because this normalisation of crisis through policy and discourse tends to blur the boundaries between what is urgent and what is routine and ordinary, what are the effects of ignorance and invisibility produced by these processes?

By claiming there is a crisis, we draw attention to a range of factors that are identified as causes that must be acted on. The effects of invisibility and ignorance can therefore play out on three levels.

Firstly, the diagnosis of a crisis encourages us to consider certain factors as explanatory, or even causal. In so doing, it necessarily neglects other aspects of the problem, which are thus rendered invisible. For example, by considering the financial crisis as the result of deviant behaviour among bankers and credit brokers, we overlook structural causes of the problem, in this instance financialisation, which we then tend to normalise. Similarly, in explaining the global food crisis of 2008 by speculation on international agricultural markets, or by the protectionism of certain states, we do not challenge the claim that the global food market is supposed to absorb shocks and respond to food crises. It is civil society that, when it is mobilised, seeks to shed light on the aspects of the global food crisis that have been made invisible.

Secondly, the instruments used to describe and analyse crises are themselves vectors of significant invisibility and can generate ignorance. Thus the “global food crisis” of 2008 led to a controversy over the FAO’s hunger statistics: civil society criticised them for under-estimating hunger in rural areas, while certain experts affirmed, on the contrary, that they over-estimated the crisis. Behind these “technical” controversies are important struggles for epistemic authority; being able to replace an instrument for diagnosing crises is a major source of political power. In the nuclear industry, the proceduralisation of crisis management aims to transform crisis into an ensemble of circumscribed events. Of course, preparation exercises give rise to “reality tests” in which new elements are included, but the existing instruments and procedures are ultimately confirmed. There is also a “bureaucratisation” of crisis management and an inertia in instruments and procedures, in spite of the invisibilities they create.

Finally, does the definition of a crisis not sometimes lead us to overlook other problems? There are an increasing number of “crises claims” competing for the public and media attention, following in this the dynamics of public problems. It is therefore important to question the forgotten crises, as several journalists and civil society organisations attempt to do, to shed light on the environmental damages provoked by the extraction of rare earth elements, for example. These actors struggle to impose an “environmental” framing of this crisis, which remains above all couched in commercial and geopolitical terms, or as the effect of speculation on the price of these metals.

Interview by Catherine Burucoa.

Translated from the French by Katharine Throssell

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