An exploration of the concept of “crisis” takes us to the heart of the European project, as imagined by its architects, one of whom proclaimed that “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises” (Jean Monet, cited in Firat, 2014: 1).
Those solutions, over the last decade of “crisis”, have been figured in technocratic terms of management: for instance, management through austerity of fiscal insolvency; management of “mixed migration flows” at the EU’s “external borders”; management of the pandemic risks to public health in systems gutted by austerity through the logics of lockdown, quarantine, and the closure of borders.
A decolonial feminist perspective on crisis asks some deceptively simple questions about the banality and self-evidence of declared crises, such as: “What crisis? Whose crisis? Whither crisis?” The aim of this tool is to invert the inversion, whereby people’s naturalised suffering in the postcolonial world system is taken for granted as a normal or even normative constant, whilst ruptures in the normative order of things are equated with disaster.
What does the invocation of “crisis” enable states and institutions to do that they wouldn’t otherwise get away with? How does “crisis” enable the institution of states of exception (that inherit and reproduce historical forms of violence) and how, as educators, can we resist the routinized forgetting and the ubiquitous nostalgia that they engender? What are the systemic functions of “crisis” in racial capitalism?
A critical engagement with one of the buzzwords of our era can help us contest the hierarchies of suffering and the varying velocities at which human and nonhuman lives are consigned to death.
Crisis is seen as a perpetual frame-breaking moment that dismantles the certainties and normative narratives of nation, sovereignty, social bonds and belonging for people on the ground. The first, superficial meaning of the word refers to a sudden change, a temporal interruption, of a condition of normality. As such, the first etymological unpacking of the term ‘crisis’ presupposes a former path of normality that has been interrupted by a temporary shift or rupture, after which – we imagine – normality will return.
It is critical to ask:
- Did normality ever truly exist? Why is normality seen as a positive value for our societies?
- What does ‘normal’ look like? Are we sure that we want to return there? Taking into consideration the geopolitical shifts of the last few years, is it even possible (theoretically, practically, affectively) to return to normality?
- Is crisis endemic to the very structures of capitalism? Is it possible to imagine a different way of being in our times of late capitalism?
- As we are writing these lines, some are returning to the ‘new normality’ after the end of the pandemic. What would this ‘new normal’ look like? How many of those changes implemented during the ‘state of emergency’ that the pandemic brought to our lives will remain in the ‘new normal’?
Mainstream discourses sometimes associate ‘crisis’ with religious narratives. According to this narration, a claimed ‘crisis’ had fallen upon us like a natural disaster.
Crisis also engenders a condition that we must passively endure in order to reach a moment of purification and salvation. In turn, the social body trapped in this spiral of sin and guilt is tamed, and appears to be waiting for the ultimate saviour: in the form of the political leader or prime minister who will lead the country under attack to the promised land of financial security. This religious discourse can be applied to entire nations, but also to particular minoritised groups within nation-states. The alleged sinners are identified according to political needs of the moment.
While the social body is kept busy with blaming the sinners or experiencing feelings of collective guilt, the moment of crisis becomes the perfect ground for the implementation of policies and reforms that citizens would otherwise not accept. Under these conditions, the social body is preoccupied with ‘emotional and physical reeling’ (Klein 2008: 194), is in a state of “shock” and thus not able to mobilise an effective resistance.
The etymology of the word “crisis” (from the Greek word κρίση), at a first, superficial, reading, refers to a sudden change, a temporal interruption from a condition of normality. But “crisis” also refers to the critical act of evaluation and thinking, which indicates a space of meaningful self-reflection. Following this logic, crisis can be seen as an opportunity to redefine and reframe the structures, values, and social formations that otherwise seemed unquestionable, fixed and inextricable from everyday realities. This understanding of crisis differs from the neoliberal opportunistic logic of financial experts and investors who see a crisis as an opportunity to increase their profits. Rather, when the future is uncertain and suspended, the expected, normative personal and social pathways seem more foreclosed.