Polycrisis? What polycrisis?

  • Themes: Geopolitics, History

Polycrisis is the word of the moment. But how much does this sense of so many catastrophes happening all at once depend on the distorting dynamics of social media?

An ‘The End Is Nigh’ apocalyptic sign is seen near Westminster.
An ‘The End Is Nigh’ apocalyptic sign is seen near Westminster. Credit: Guy Corbishley/Alamy Live News

We are, explained the historian Adam Tooze in an editorial for the Financial Times late last year, in an era of ‘polycrisis’. ‘The shocks are disparate,’ he wrote, ‘but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts.’ At times of polycrisis, he suggests, ‘one feels as if one is losing one’s sense of reality’. In such a world, there is no single source of tension, but many; no one definitive issue – say the problem of monetary order – but many. Polycrisis is such a wicked problem because it reflects, Tooze tells us, ‘underlying trends’. Therefore, contemporary attempts to cope with the polycrisis, such as ‘technological fixes’, only store up more tension for the future. It is, as he puts it, ‘a tightrope walk with no end’.

The desire by academics and journalists to ‘coin a phrase’ or at least to popularise one, as Adam Tooze has done (polycrisis was invented by a French economist in the 1970s), is understandable: it is a way of setting the terms for future debates. How many undergraduate essays still begin with an invocation (either negative or positive) of Herbert Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History, Fukuyama’s End of History, Eric Hobsbawm’s Long Nineteenth Century and Short Twentieth Century?

In 2010, Niall Ferguson and Ted Forstmann, writing in the Wall Street Journal, called on policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic to recognise that they were facing a ‘trilemma’, in which, unlike in a dilemma, ‘there are three things to choose from and you can have just two’. ‘We can choose any two of the following,’ they continue: ‘1) efficient capital markets, 2) no bailouts to big banks and 3) a depression-free economy.’ ‘Trilemma’ didn’t really seem to catch on beyond the imagination of a few newspaper columnists. Many are called; few are chosen. But ‘polycrisis’ may be here to stay. The Diplomatic Editor of The Times, Roger Boyes, last week called ‘polycrisis’ the ‘buzzword of 2023’. According to a senior intelligence official in the British government quoted by Boyes: ‘It’s a world of polycrisis. We’ve just got to get used to it.’

Sometimes what we choose to call an historical period really matters. Few refer to the period following the fall of the Roman Empire as ‘the Dark Ages’ anymore, preferring the more neutral ‘Late Antiquity’. What are the alternatives to ‘polycrisis’? The triune of modernity, late-modernity, high- and post- ‘moderns’ has seen a marked falling off in frequency in books published in the last twenty years, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer. ‘Post-modern’ peaked in the year 2000 along with ‘high-‘, while ‘late-‘ became briefly fashionable in the years after the 2008 Financial Crisis before going into decline. The appetite for ‘Modernity’ remains resilient, but we tend to use it in the extremely general manner first suggested by the French poet Charles Baudelaire in 1863: ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.’

‘Multipolar world’ is a likelier competitor: since it first appeared in general usage in the 1960s, it has risen steadily through the usage ranks year on year, albeit with a brief hiatus in the late eighties and nineties. The term has acquired special prominence of late. It is the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s go-to cliché on the world stage and, unsurprisingly, the term is a fixture in Russian strategic planning documents and policy patter (illustrating that Russian academics are just as prone to jargonising as Western military theorists). The term is less an accurate description of a world in which, yes, China has acquired economic and diplomatic clout, than an aspiration to shape anew an international order still dominated and shaped by American power: on the absolute measure of prestige and might, in energy politics and financial influence, the US remains very strong. The dollar reigns supreme as the world’s reserve currency, and the US has joined Russia and Saudi Arabia as an energy superpower. This indispensable power has emerged from each crisis point of the twenty-first century with its fortunes reconstituted and its spirit revived, much wealthier than its close allies and dominant in its near-abroad.

Polycrisis is unsatisfying for reasons that have to do with technology. Tooze’s definition of ‘polycrisis’ is rather too easily associated with tech-induced whizzy brain. ‘Pandemic, drought, floods, mega storms and wildfires, threats of a third world war – how rapidly we have become inured to the list of shocks,’ writes Tooze. To look at a social media feed is indeed to be repeatedly and viscerally exposed to shock after shock after shock. Modern technology creates the effect of confusion in our already over-stimulated, over-worked brains. It also has a secondary effect: interconnections between disparate events where none may really exist seem suddenly plausible. If, as Tooze suggests, all these phenomena are brought on by ‘the sheer strangeness of our situation’, the strangeness lies not so much in the events themselves as in the media through which we view and interpret them. ‘There is no Sleepy Hollow on the Internet,’ writes the writer Nicholas Carr, ‘no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic. There is only the endless, mesmerizing buzz.’ The message delivered to the Internet user, at all times of the day, on any social network, via its own medium, is the ‘mesmerizing buzz’ of multiplying crises.

Tooze contends that, in a period of polycrisis, ‘at times, one feels as if one is losing one’s sense of reality’. There are many routes to madness but only one way out: the answer lies not in restating the ‘underlying trends’ that Tooze identifies – environmental catastrophe, for example – and addressing radical means to radical political ends. Instead, the roots of the crisis we all instinctively feel lie within, not without. Liberation from a world of flickering screens, where the flow of information is mediated by binaries and nodules and servers, depends not on some dramatic eruption and unsettling of the status quo, such as a revolution in the political and economic structure, but on a personal encounter with mystery and with wonder.

This is one powerful lesson we can draw from the life and experience of Carl Jung, inventor of the field of ‘analytical psychology’. So influential is Jung’s work that we are barely conscious how much of the patter of pop psychology actually originated with the Swiss-German philosopher: talk of ‘complexes’, ‘archetypes’ and ‘introverts and extroverts’ all derive from Jung’s thought. He knew what it meant to lose his sense of reality. In 1913-4, Jung began to believe that he had gone mad. He began to dream of a coming global catastrophe, a sign that he was in the early stages of a dementia praecox, the term then current for schizophrenia. He convinced himself that he had become ‘menaced by a psychosis’. True to his own assumptions developed during his pioneering study of the disease – that the delusions of schizophrenic patients had a concrete basis in the ‘collective’ schemes of mythology and religion – he also believed that the inner world of the mad person bore a tenuous, if persistent, relationship to the ‘normal’ world of the everyday.

In 1914, the catastrophe he had been dreaming of arrived as the European nations went to war, a mere prelude to still greater catastrophes. In his memoirs, Jung wrote: ‘My own experience coincided with that of mankind in general. Therefore, my first obligation was to probe the depths of my own psyche.’ Jung decided, quite consciously, that his madness had not sprung from some inner disturbance but that his internal reality had reflected a distorted, maddened world situation.

He then gave up his job at the University of Zurich and dedicated himself to pursuing his ‘inner images’. The unconscious material that had first ‘swamped’ his personality, he later reflected, proved to be ‘the prima materia for a life’s work’. Jung’s lonely voyage into the unknown eventually brought him a kind of inner balance and the strength and energy to embark on decades of successful clinical practice and the creation of a vast and influential body of work.

Jung’s experience should give us pause at suggestions that world history has entered a new era, a ‘polycrisis’ of unparalleled magnitude. But it also points to a pragmatic, practical view of consolation in a time of instability, both external and internal. For Jung, human subjectivity is to feel like the ‘king of a country with an unknown number of inhabitants’. A human being is a ‘funny kind of king’: ‘the greater your experience, the more you see that your corner [of your kingdom] is infinitely small in comparison with the vast extent of the unknown against you’.

To think successfully about the era in which you live does not depend on rational assessment. Such a task is a chimera. We must be more pragmatic and more optimistic. The first step away from this deeply embedded assumption – that reality has become more confusing, more disturbing than ever before, that our crises are more unknowably complex than those of the past – is to reflect on how much this is merely a conscious attempt to deal with the technologically mediated reality we find ourselves trapped in.

Turn inwards, pursue ‘inner images’, gaze into that vast, undiscovered country that lies within. You may find that to lose one reality is potentially to gain an infinite variety of experience. We do not, as the unnamed intelligence official suggests, have to ‘get used to’ a world in polycrisis. It is all a matter of perspective. And with a little perspective, Tooze’s ‘tightrope walk with no end’ may look more like just one path among many possible paths, just one stage on a greater journey.


Alastair Benn