The Time of Crises (2)

The modern concept of crisis implies a ” pressure to decide” in which the fate of a historical period, a political constellation, an economic situation or even the world as a whole is being determined.

It was not until the 18th century that the concept of “crisis”, which originated in Hippocratic medicine, was applied to political and social phenomena. In its political meaning, according to the historian R. Koselleck, the crisis initially had a rather broad significance. Towards the end of the 17th century and at the beginning of the 18th century, crisis denoted an overall political and military situation that deteriorated to the point of leading to a situation of preservation or dissolution of the political order. In this sense, the political “crisis” was conceived in analogy to the Hippocratic (medical) crisis of diagnosis – as the moment of manifestation of a radical decision – and of judgement – the resolution of the situation for better or worse.

From the second half of the 18th century, the concept of crisis also appears to be linked to the religious meaning of Judicium (Last Judgement) again: At the time of crisis, the fate of a culture or civilisation is definitively and irrevocably decided. In this sense, Friedrich Schiller writes in one of his poems: “World history is the Last Judgement” (Resignation 1784).

In Schiller’s poem, world history itself is interpreted as a permanent crisis. In the poem “Resignation” from 1784, a deceased “I” laments the unfulfilled promise of the Last Judgement. Having sacrificed earthly happiness for the promise of eternal bliss after death, he realises that nothing awaits him beyond the river that separates him from life. The hoped-for happiness in the hereafter – “Here, they say, horrors await the wicked, and joys the upright” – does not exist. The theological promise turns out to be a false illusion. When the deceased demands his reward as a righteous man, he hears a “genius” answer:

Who of these flowers plucks one, let him ne’er yearn
To touch the other sister’s bloom.
Let him enjoy, who has no faith; eterne
As earth, this truth!—Abstain, who faith can learn!
The world’s long story is the world’s own judgement

(Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller. Resignation)

So the time spent in renunciation was lost time: “The minutes thou neglectest, as they fade, Are given back by no eternity!”. There is no Last Judgement, there is no reward in the hereafter. The history of humanity is the history of a secularised world that becomes the very place and time of a permanent Last Judgement.

The religious meaning of the crisis thus simultaneously acquires a post-theological meaning in Schiller. The crisis of secularised time forces a decision between the two flowers, the two ways of life: the hope of the Last Judgement in the afterlife, or the enjoyment of earthly life.

Once secularised, the crisis thus becomes a permanent decision without an afterlife and without a rewarding higher justice. Schiller thus formulates one of the common modern understandings of the concept of “crisis”: history is a permanent crisis in which the future is decided at every moment. This history is thus no longer the linear time of eschatology – or its modernised version as progress or growth – but a time interrupted by unforeseen ruptures.

In Rousseau (Emile ou de l’éducation, 1762) we find, even before Schiller, the first truly modern use of the concept of crisis. Rousseau opposes the crisis to the idea of historical progress – the eschatological conception of history as linear progress towards a “better world” – and to the stability of cyclical time in history – the naturalistic conception of history. It is the crisis that interrupts the linear movement of history or the cyclical order of time to create the possibility of the radically new.

As a result, the crisis implies a new conception of revolution. Originally conceived on the basis of the cyclical model of time and history – corresponding to the orbital motion of celestial bodies – the revolution understood as a crisis opens up to an unpredictable future and to an uncertain and unexpected end of the present state.

Following Rousseau, Denis Diderot describes a crisis in 1778 in the context of pre-revolutionary unrest in Paris, in which, as R. Koselleck puts it, Parisians were willing to believe in anything that promised a resolution of conflicts, at a time when friendships were breaking down and unlikely alliances of opponents were forming (Koselleck, 1991). In a surprisingly contemporary formulation, Diderot wrote:

It is the effect of a malaise similar to that which precedes a crisis of a disease: a movement of secret ferment arises in the city; terror realises what it fears.

With Rousseau and Diderot, then, we find ourselves at the origin of the modern concept of crisis.

Historical meanings of the concept of crisis

Historically, the modern concept of crisis has developed along four different meanings: that of crisis as the triggering of a moment of dissolution, that of crisis as a permanent condition, that of crisis as a one-time but repeated event, and that of crisis as a moment of final judgement, a possible end of history.(fn)

  1. The “medical” conception of political crisis represents the most common meaning we still give to crisis today. From this perspective, the political or economic crisis represents the moment when everything contributes to a situation in which there is no turning back and a decision must be made with unforeseeable consequences. A radical and historical change in the political order, then, which does not allow any prediction of what will happen after the crisis. From this point of view and with the historical distance we have, we could reinterpret the idea of a financial crisis that shook the world in 2007/2008. On the one hand, this “crisis” was in many ways predictable; on the other hand, it did not bring the great changes – the new post-capitalist world – that some had hoped for. (However, the concept of economic crisis should be further differentiated, see point 4). On the contrary. In this sense, it remains to be seen whether the Covid pandemic represents a real crisis, a moment of profound political, economic and social caesura.
  2. According to a second interpretation of the concept of crisis, modern history can be interpreted as a permanent crisis. The crisis is thus conceived as a process in which world history becomes, in Schiller’s concept, a secularisation of the “world court”. In a more recent version, the Darwinian concept with the survival of the fittest could be understood as a naturalised model of a permanent crisis in which the survival of the species itself is subject to the constant pressure of a decision about survival or extinction. Here, it would be nature subject to the arbitrariness of environmental change and the resulting selection that would stand as judge over history. This variant is found in many contemporary ecological arguments about the role of human activities for the Earth’s ecosystem.
  3. If history is understood as a permanent crisis, if the time of history is at the same time a judgement on what has gone before – permanence, sustainability, continuity and growth versus disappearance, oppression, collapse and decay – then each historical moment represents a “constraint of choice” in which the fate of the present and the future is to be decided.
  4. A crisis can be interpreted as a more or less unique and singular event in which a previously stable situation is transformed by a sudden acceleration. Such crises can, of course, be repetitive and successive, but they are nevertheless exceptional moments that interrupt the linear course of history. The concept of economic crisis is based on this interpretation of crisis.
    As R. Koselleck shows in his analysis of the history of the concept of “crisis”, the “economic crisis”, which is based on the equilibrium conception of the 18th century. In the economic crisis, the assumed equilibrium between supply and demand, between money and commodity circulation, between production and consumption is disturbed. The crisis thus represents a recurring (even cyclical) moment of disturbance of equilibrium. This is the reason why economic crises from the 19th century onwards could be interpreted as historical generators of progress.
  5. The crisis can also represent the last moment, the moment of “judgement” when history comes to an end. This theological topos, especially the eschatological concept of history – historical time developing towards an end of the world, the second coming of Christ – seems to become more relevant again today. One thinks above all of the work of Günther Anders on the atomic bomb (e.g. Anders, 1995) but also of the discussions on climate change and environmental catastrophes. In the same vein, Koselleck concludes his analysis of the concept of crisis with the words: “Thus the question arises whether our semantic model of the crisis as a final decision has not been given more opportunities for realization than ever before. If so, everything would depend on directing all forces towards preventing the downfall.” (Koselleck, 2016)

If one follows this train of thought, the concept of “crisis” and its explicit use in political, economical, sociological and journalistic discourse would not only be the hallmark of modernity, but the history of modernity itself would be a history of crises and revolutions. This is first stated in the well-known passages of Marx and Engels’ 1847 “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, where the bourgeoisie is described as an essentially revolutionary class:

The bourgeoisie has played a most revolutionary role in history. […] The bourgeoisie cannot exist without continually revolutionising the instruments of production, that is, the relations of production, that is, all social relations. On the other hand, the unchanged maintenance of the old mode of production was the first condition of existence of all earlier industrial classes. The perpetual upheaval of production, the uninterrupted shaking of all social conditions, the eternal uncertainty and movement distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.

Far from being an exceptional attack or disturbance, the crisis is a constitutive moment of the history of modernity. This history, one could say, is the history of the crisis period. This is underlined by the extraordinary growth of the concept of crisis in political, social and economic discourse and practice.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur comes to this conclusion in his analysis of the concept of “crisis”:

So what seems to best characterise the crisis of our time is, on the one hand, the lack of consensus in a society divided, as I said, between tradition, modernity and postmodernity; on the other hand, and more seriously, the general retreat of convictions and capacity for commitment that this retreat entails, or, what amounts to the same thing, the general retreat of the sacred, whether understood as the vertical sacred (religious in the broadest sense) or the horizontal sacred (political in the broadest sense).

In the history of modernity, crisis has become a “total social fact” (Mauss, 1923/24), i.e. a global event that reaches all levels of a society and can only be approached through “the representations that society makes of itself”.

For this reason, moments of crisis mark moments of social organisation, disorganisation or reorganisation that are well characterised and identifiable. This is what the sociology of crisis tries to achieve.

To be continued: The sociology of crisis


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  • Koselleck, R. (2016). Begriffsgeschichten: Studien zur Semantik und Pragmatik der politischen und sozialen Sprache (3. Aufl. 2016). Suhrkamp.
  • Koselleck, R. (1995). Krise. In O. Brunner, W. Conze, & R. Koselleck (Éds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Vol. Bd.3 H-Me (Unveränd. Nachdr., 1. Aufl, p. 617‑650). Klett Cotta.
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