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Preface: crisis as experience and politics

Author: Didier Fassin1
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  • 1 Institute for Advanced Study, USA
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In the tradition of Koselleck, crisis has often been approached as an idea or as a narrative, but less research has been conducted on how people produce, respond to, and live through crises. Most of the articles of the present issue explore this perspective, with its dual dimension of experience and politics. In line with it, the present article proposes an analysis of the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic through the questions of the rupture in time, the state of exception and the uncovering of inequalities.

Abstract

In the tradition of Koselleck, crisis has often been approached as an idea or as a narrative, but less research has been conducted on how people produce, respond to, and live through crises. Most of the articles of the present issue explore this perspective, with its dual dimension of experience and politics. In line with it, the present article proposes an analysis of the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic through the questions of the rupture in time, the state of exception and the uncovering of inequalities.

At the end of his pioneering article on crisis, Reinhart Koselleck (2006 [1972]: 399) makes a disillusioned comment: ‘The concept of crisis, which once had the power to pose unavoidable, harsh and non-negotiable alternatives, has been transformed to fit uncertainties of whatever might be favored at a given moment.’ Not only does he dislike the ‘enormous quantitative expansion in the variety of meanings attached to the concept of crisis’, but he discredits it for the ‘few corresponding gains in either clarity or precision’. In line with his critical approach, there has been a literature treating crisis as an idea (Roitman, 2013) or as a narrative (Seeger and Sellnow, 2016), taking outsiders’ perspectives, and therefore distancing itself from actual critical situations. It is a useful stance, but there is a symmetrical option generally based on ethnography, examining ‘what insiders see in situations designated as crises, how they apprehend them, how they participate in them and how they respond to them’ (Fassin and Honneth, 2022: 2), in sum taking seriously how people produce crises and how they live through them. This is the standpoint adopted by most authors in this special issue on ‘Crisis’.

It is developed via a series of fascinating articles on: the ordinary yet grave concerns of female Vietnamese workers; the exposure of women to gang violence in South Africa; the drift of young unemployed Guinea-Bissauan migrants towards drug trafficking; the humanitarian reception in Italy of child victims of nuclear disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima; and the ambiguous production of transnational contestations of masculinities. Others, meanwhile, deal with: the rise of Hindu power and the discrimination against Muslims in India during the COVID-19 pandemic; the impact of the latter on democratic and neoliberal processes; and the incapacity of governments to anticipate economic meltdowns. Without enacting too much violence upon the richness of these contributions, one could say that they are less concerned with the idea or the narratives of crisis than with the practices of those who face crises, and less interested in challenging their reality or their social construction than they are in grasping them as actual facts that need to be unpacked from a dual standpoint: experience and politics. Even the review article opening this special issue, which offers a broad overview of the concept of crisis and calls for an interdisciplinary approach to crises, rapidly turns to empirical exemplars.

To briefly illustrate the heuristic of this approach, I will apply it to the COVID-19 pandemic, with specific reference to France, where I have studied it (Fassin, 2021a). The experience is one of transformation of the relationship to time. The politics is one of hardening of power relations in society. Both are traversed by the question of inequality, to which they have given visibility.

First, a crisis, as is well known, is a rupture in the normal passage of time, which happens ‘at a moment of danger’, as Walter Benjamin has it (1969 [1947]: 255). It implies a before and an after. In the case of the pandemic, the rupture is marked both by the anxiety created by the risk of death on a major scale, represented and sometimes exaggerated via distressing numbers, graphs and statistical projections, and by the interruption of most activities, be they related to the economy, work, school or even mere movement. What was before is readily described as ‘normal’, and the question is what the after will look like once the pandemic is over, or at least once it is sufficiently under control to conceive a ‘return to normal’. However, while some hoped for this possibility, others criticised it as being, in fact, a ‘return to abnormal’ since they considered that what was before was an archetype of society, both capitalist and neoliberal, the failure of which had contributed to the collective disaster. According to them, the lack of masks and drugs due to the delocalisation of their non-profitable production, and the decline in social and health expenditures that led to insufficient intensive care beds and qualified personnel, were symptoms of the foretold end of capitalism (Streeck, 2016) and of neoliberalism (Rodrik, 2017), symptoms that both preceded the pandemic and were revealed by it. The imaginary of the after thus comprised both dystopic and utopian futures, sometimes nourished by the very architects of the capitalist and neoliberal order. Yet, whatever diagnosis one made, there was indeed a rupture, a temporal divide delineating a before and an after, which was the object of these contradictory expectations.

But what about the often-invisible continuity in time? What about those for whom the pandemic was just an extra layer in addition to their previous critical condition? Can crisis be, for certain categories of population, a form of life (Fassin, 2018 [2017])? Think of refugees and migrants in most of Europe in camps, prisons and detention centres; more specifically, think of those in public spaces, whether streets, parks, beaches or woods, at the mercy of police brutality, their tents being destroyed and their belongings taken as they get tear-gassed. Think of people in war zones in Syria, Sudan or Ethiopia. Think of those in dire poverty in Malawi, Uzbekistan or Haiti. While some authors have shown that the pandemic was just another plague, for instance, among Yemeni refugees already exposed to cholera and starvation (Peutz, 2022), others have argued that the lockdown, even more than the pandemic, was creating a situation, for example, in India, of pauperisation, isolation and hunger among internal migrants (Al Dahdah et al, 2020). The two positions are, however, not contradictory. More generally, what about situations when threats, conflicts and misery are the norm? In these contexts, not only could one think that crisis is permanent, but one could even wonder whether crisis is the appropriate descriptor of the situation lived. Based on the insider’s viewpoint, this ethnography of experience can thus lead to a radical questioning of crisis.

Second, a crisis, as the etymology of the word reminds us, is also a situation that calls for a confident decision to avoid its worsening, and in this context, according to Carl Schmitt (2005 [1922]: 5), the ‘sovereign is the one who decides on the state of exception’. As the diagnosis of crisis signifies a situation of urgency, it logically opens the possibility for governments to declare a state of emergency, which concretely means a suspension of fundamental liberties and rights, including the liberty of movement, of work, of school and of family life, as well as the right to socialise, to protest, to exercise one’s religious faith and to spend the last moments of one’s existence in the company of one’s family (Christ, 2020). In the French case, since 2015 and the terrorist attacks in Paris, more time has been spent under this state of exception than under the rule of law (Jacquin, 2021). However, beyond this already-preoccupying situation, two facts are even more worrying. The first one is the discriminatory application of the state of emergency, with its special focus on minority racial and ethnic groups in disadvantaged neighbourhoods: the crisis has indeed given an extra-discretionary power to the police, which they justify to the public with the extraordinary character of the context. The second one is the progressive inscription of measures of exception in normal law and in normal practices, with an expansion of the prerogatives of the police at the expense of the judges, and of the executive at the expense of the legislators. The pandemic has given the opportunity to many governments – from China to Kenya, from Brazil to Hungary, from India to Poland, from the Philippines to even France – to take advantage of the general numbness provoked by the pandemic to develop or strengthen various combinations of neoliberalism and illiberalism, as well as authoritarianism and populism, often with the consent of large segments of the population (Thompson and Ip, 2020). New laws, new measures and new practices have been made possible – and acceptable – by the diagnostic of crisis as vital emergency.

However, the sense of urgency in the first half of 2020 has not only allowed the suspension of fundamental liberties and rights, but also freed leaders from European norms and rules, particularly in the economic domain, a position epitomised by the French president’s mantra: the state’s resources must be mobilised ‘whatever it takes’ (Abboud and Keohane, 2021). During this period, not only were companies heavily subsidised to avoid bankruptcies and workers financially assisted to compensate furloughs, but the homeless were also provided with housing, migrants and refugees unable to proceed with their cases due to administrative closures were given extensions of their documents, and inmates nearing the end of their sentences were released to reduce the overcrowding of prisons and the risk of infection. But, this positive side of the exception was short-lived, in particular, for the most vulnerable populations. Provisional housing of the poor was interrupted, exiles were harassed anew by the police and correctional facilities became overpopulated again. Once the initial phase of shock had passed, the treatment of the disadvantaged returned to business as usual. While the state of exception lasted indefinitely, the generous exceptions of the initial months receded.

It is at the intersection of the experience of time and the politics of exception that one can best apprehend inequalities. There are two distinct moments (Fassin, 2020). At the acme of the crisis, inequalities became evident. Early in the pandemic, first in the US and the UK, then in France, statistics revealed a significant excess of cases and deaths, among minority ethno-racial groups in the former two countries and in poor neighbourhoods in the latter, the distinct variables used to measure inequalities being due to methodological and legal differences. Health disparities that had been neglected until then were suddenly recognised and debated. However, as the pandemic slowed down, inequalities disappeared from the public sphere. More specifically, the long-term consequences of the crisis were ignored. They are of two sorts: lives lost and damaged lives. On the one hand, one can anticipate an increase in deaths by cardiovascular diseases, alcoholism, overdoses and suicides, as has been the case in previous crises; this is what Anne Case and Angus Deaton (2020) call ‘death by despair’. On the other hand, one can expect lives degraded by unemployment, inactivity and assistance, causing ‘moral injuries’ by a lack of recognition, in Axel Honneth’s (1997) words. Neither lives lost nor damaged lives, which will occur at a distance from the pandemic, will be attributed to it. Whereas the number of deaths that occurred at the height of the pandemic were announced by the authorities and in the media on a daily basis, and the lasting effects of so-called ‘long haulers’ received much attention, lives lost and damaged lives will disappear in yearly mortality statistics and mental health departments, respectively. The acute moment of the crisis has thus made inequalities visible, while its chronic evolution renders them invisible.

The word ‘crisis’ belongs to the lexicon of contemporary dark times (Fassin, 2021b). Empirical studies, such as those presented in this issue, are needed to enrich and even revise theories that account for what crises are and what they mean.

Funding

This article is part of research on crises conducted thanks to the funds allocated by the Nomis Foundation for my Distinguished Scientist Award.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

  • Abboud, L. and Keohane, D. (2021) Macron weighs economics versus politics in French reopening, Financial Times, 24 May.

  • Al Dahdah, M., Ferry, M., Guérin, I. and Govindan Venkatasubramian, G. (2020) The Covid-19 crisis in India. Chronicle of a tragedy foretold, Comptes rendus de l’Académie des sciences, 13 April.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Case, A. and Deaton, A. (2020) Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Christ, J. (2020) Protection de la vie vs protection des libertés. Le balancement libéral, AOC, 16 November, https://aoc.media/analyse/2020/11/15/protection-de-la-vie-vs-preservation-des-libertes-le-balancement-liberal/

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  • Fassin, D. (2021b) Crisis, in V. Das and D. Fassin (eds) Words and Worlds. A Lexicon for Dark Times, Durham: Duke University Press, pp 26176.

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    • Export Citation
  • Fassin, D. and Honneth, A. (2022) Introduction. The heuristic of crises: reclaiming critical voices, in D. Fassin and A. Honneth (eds) Crisis under Critique. How People Assess, Transform and Respond to Critical Situations, New York: Columbia University Press, pp 18.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Jacquin, J.B. (2021) L’état d’urgence, un poison lent qui engourdit la démocratie, Le Monde, 2 July.

  • Koselleck, R. (2006 [1972]) Crisis, M.W. Richter (trans) Journal of the History of Ideas, 67(2): 357400. doi: 10.1353/jhi.2006.0013

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rodrik, D. (2017) The fatal flaw of neoliberalism: it’s bad economics, The Guardian, 14 November.

  • Roitman, J. (2013) Anti-crisis, Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Schmitt, C. (2005 [1922]) Political Theology; Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, G. Schwab (trans) Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Seeger, M. and Sellnow, T. (2016) Narratives of Crises. Telling Stories of Ruin and Renewal, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Streeck, W. (2016) The post-capitalist interregnum, Juncture, 23(2): 6877. doi: 10.1111/newe.906

  • Thompson, S. and Ip, E. (2020) Covid-19 emergency measures and the impending authoritarian pandemic, Journal of Law and the Biosciences, 7(1): 133.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Abboud, L. and Keohane, D. (2021) Macron weighs economics versus politics in French reopening, Financial Times, 24 May.

  • Al Dahdah, M., Ferry, M., Guérin, I. and Govindan Venkatasubramian, G. (2020) The Covid-19 crisis in India. Chronicle of a tragedy foretold, Comptes rendus de l’Académie des sciences, 13 April.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Benjamin, W. (1969 [1947]) Thesis on the philosophy of history, in H. Arendt (ed) Illuminations. Essays and Reflections, H. Zohn (trans) New York: Schocken Books, pp 25364.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Case, A. and Deaton, A. (2020) Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Christ, J. (2020) Protection de la vie vs protection des libertés. Le balancement libéral, AOC, 16 November, https://aoc.media/analyse/2020/11/15/protection-de-la-vie-vs-preservation-des-libertes-le-balancement-liberal/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fassin, D. (2018 [2017]) Forms of life, in Life. A Critical User’s Manual, Cambridge: Polity, pp 1947.

  • Fassin, D. (2020) La valeur des vies. Éthique de la crise sanitaire, in Par ici la sortie, Paris: Seuil, pp 310, https://ref.lamartinieregroupe.com/media/9782021468199/146819_extrait_Extrait_0.pdf

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fassin, D. (2021a) Lectures de la pandémie, in Les Mondes de la santé publique. Cours au Collège de France 2020–2021, Paris: Seuil, pp 299350.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fassin, D. (2021b) Crisis, in V. Das and D. Fassin (eds) Words and Worlds. A Lexicon for Dark Times, Durham: Duke University Press, pp 26176.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fassin, D. and Honneth, A. (2022) Introduction. The heuristic of crises: reclaiming critical voices, in D. Fassin and A. Honneth (eds) Crisis under Critique. How People Assess, Transform and Respond to Critical Situations, New York: Columbia University Press, pp 18.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Honneth, A. (1997) Recognition and moral obligation, Social Research, 64(1): 1635, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/40971157.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A33237d75ed71241756b382eda118ed97

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jacquin, J.B. (2021) L’état d’urgence, un poison lent qui engourdit la démocratie, Le Monde, 2 July.

  • Koselleck, R. (2006 [1972]) Crisis, M.W. Richter (trans) Journal of the History of Ideas, 67(2): 357400. doi: 10.1353/jhi.2006.0013

  • Peutz, N. (2022) Crisis as pre-existing condition: Yemen between cholera, coronavirus and starvation, in D. Fassin and M. Fourcade (eds) Pandemic Exposures. Economy and Society in the Time of the Coronavirus, Chicago, IL: Hau Books, pp 295319.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rodrik, D. (2017) The fatal flaw of neoliberalism: it’s bad economics, The Guardian, 14 November.

  • Roitman, J. (2013) Anti-crisis, Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Schmitt, C. (2005 [1922]) Political Theology; Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, G. Schwab (trans) Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Seeger, M. and Sellnow, T. (2016) Narratives of Crises. Telling Stories of Ruin and Renewal, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Streeck, W. (2016) The post-capitalist interregnum, Juncture, 23(2): 6877. doi: 10.1111/newe.906

  • Thompson, S. and Ip, E. (2020) Covid-19 emergency measures and the impending authoritarian pandemic, Journal of Law and the Biosciences, 7(1): 133.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1 Institute for Advanced Study, USA

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