Crisis of a New Type

Robert Delaunay, Rythmes, 1934
Robert Delaunay, Rythme, 1934

The future looks bleak.

Here in the United States, nursing homes are reborn as temples of death, city governments clear trenches for anonymous corpses, farmers destroy tens of millions of pounds of unsold food, unemployment approaches Great Depression levels, the President encourages us to ingest poison, and politicians force Americans to sacrifice themselves at the altar of profit.

Though perhaps avoiding the lunacy of our particularly kakistocratical administration, those living outside the crumbling capitalist capital of the world fare little better. The virus is killing tens of thousands, disrupting normal patterns of life, eroding entrenched institutions, and putting into question the future of life itself. 

We must be honest about the scale of today’s catastrophe, but we must also avoid succumbing to despair. Every crisis brings not only sorrow, anxiety, and destruction, but also opportunity for creation. And the greater the crisis, the greater the opportunity to build something new. The unprecedented magnitude of today’s crisis offers us an equally unprecedented chance to change the world. Here, too, we must be honest: the future offers us hope.

After all, it’s not enough to want to change the world. Sweeping social change depends on objective conditions that are largely out of our control. We may possess the will, vision, and organizational capacity to make a difference, but we need an objective crisis of the existing order, a window of opportunity, to make a breakthrough. This is not to say that emancipatory politics is impossible during times of equilibrium, only that dramatic systematic change happens not gradually, but only through unexpected, and often rare, moments of rupture. 

We are living through such a moment now. What lies before us is not just a pandemic, but several nested crises. There’s of course the conjunctural crisis caused by the corona pandemic, which no one can stop talking about. But this crisis has had such catastrophic effects precisely because it has detonated an underlying organic crisis of neoliberalism. Graver still, this organic crisis of neoliberalism is in turn linked with a longer-term structural crisis of capitalist social reproduction. And this structural crisis is articulated with an even more profound epochal crisis of planetary life itself. 

Each of these has its own origins, operates on its own level, and follows its own distinct temporality. If the corona crisis erupted last month, the organic crisis of neoliberalism began years ago, the structural crisis years before that, and the epochal crisis decades earlier. If the corona crisis disrupts life in the here and now, the crisis of neoliberalism signals the collapse of a hegemonic life world, the structural crisis of social reproduction spells the deaths of tens of millions of people without reserves, and the epochal crisis portends the possible end of all life on the planet. 

Despite their relative autonomy, these four crises have not only drawn together, like stellar objects ominously aligning in the night sky; they have interlocked, with each amplifying the power of the other. The crisis of neoliberalism, for example, has made corona all the more devastating, while the pandemic has become the way in which neoliberalism’s organic crisis is now experienced. Or, to take another example, neoliberalism has exacerbated the crisis of planetary life, but this epochal crisis, especially in the form of climate instability, is now supercharging all aspects of neoliberalism’s organic crisis. 

If revolution equals objective crisis plus subjective intervention, then the first variable in the equation has already arrived. And it’s not just any old objective crisis, but an articulated crisis that offers us opportunities the likes of which we have never before seen. But in order to take advantage of this unique opening, we need to have a better sense of what exactly we are dealing with. My aim here is to offer a modest contribution to this necessarily collective effort by making a first pass at synthetically mapping out the anatomy of our crisis, which can in turn help us think about how we should try to respond.

First Circle: Conjunctural Crisis of Coronavirus

The origins of this most immediate crisis are still shrouded in mystery. It seems that a particularly nasty member of the coronavirus family somehow infected someone sometime somewhere back in 2019. 

Like its origins, there’s still much we don’t know – why some feel mildly ill while others crash and burn, why some suffer diarrhea while others lose their sense of taste, or while some appear asymptomatic while others get reinfected. But what we did know from the start is that COVID-19 is highly contagious, it’s more fatal than the seasonal flu, and it escapes any known vaccine. 

Although entirely predictable, the pandemic caught Americans entirely unawares. Barely giving the virus much thought, other than to maybe crack a joke or two, most people simply carried on with their normal lives, encouraged in this by their representatives, both Democrat and Republican, who failed to take it seriously.

When the pandemic ripped across the world, it found the United States entirely unprepared. Oblivious crowds made for perfect breeding grounds, unrestricted travel spread the epidemic far and wide, and a vulnerable healthcare system struggled to keep up. Hospitals didn’t have enough beds, emergency rooms didn’t have enough ventilators, doctors didn’t have enough tests, and nurses didn’t have enough masks.

Having failed to contain the outbreak, reluctant officials were eventually forced to close down concerts, public parks, local businesses, schools, colleges, office buildings and then entire cities to mitigate the damage. Of course, quarantining tens of millions of workers unsurprisingly triggered economic meltdown. The market plummeted, banks threatened to go under, small businesses failed, and millions lost their jobs. In about a month, a microscopic virus paralyzed life in the most powerful nation in the world.

The corona crisis is an example of a “conjunctural” crisis: an event, sometimes exogenous, that disrupts normal patterns of life, with unexpected consequences. We’ve lived through many of these before, with 9/11 jumping to mind. Depending on the precipitating event, each conjunctural crisis will necessarily disrupt life in different ways. Whatever form they take, these kinds of events usually die down, with life eventually returning to “normal,” but forever bearing the traces of the crisis. It’s too soon to tell precisely what changes this crisis will bring, let alone what scars it will leave behind, but the effects of this pandemic will undoubtedly stay with us for a long time, in our habits, culture, social attitudes, institutions, and even in the balance of forces.

Second Circle: Organic Crisis of Neoliberalism

What has made the corona crisis all the more destructive is that it has catalyzed another, deeper crisis.

Unlike the conjunctural crisis, we know much more about the origins of this “organic” crisis. The story begins in the 1970s, the decade when the threads holding together the managed capitalist system assembled after the Great Depression and the Second World War came undone, plunging the United States into disorder.

Though liberating for some, the postwar counterculture’s glorification of drugs, free love, and nonconformity left many others apprehensive. The wave of new social movements not only dismantled discrimination, but challenged core assumptions about gender, sexuality, and the family. The skyrocketing crime rate led to panic about social decay. A deep recession terminated the unprecedented economic boom, dealing a psychological blow to millions who had believed prosperity might last forever. 

In the midst of all this, President Richard Nixon became the only President in US history to resign the office, kicking distrust in the government to an all-time high. A year later, and after tens of thousands of American casualties, millions of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian lives, and billions of dollars, the Vietnam War ended in stunning defeat, putting the future of American hegemony into question. In fact, by the end of the decade, nearly a third of all humans lived in countries that claimed to be transitioning to communism, leading some to speculate that the United States might lose the Cold War.

But the US was far from alone in its troubles. Because of structural commonalities, a similar trajectory of development, a shared postwar model of managed capitalism, and deep transatlantic connections, this crisis played out across the capitalist North Atlantic more broadly. Although the precipitating fractures varied, and the crisis itself unfolded somewhat differently, country after country in North America and Western Europe experienced the 1970s as a time of great uncertainty.

What made the decade so consequential was not simply the many fractures erupting in every sphere of life, but their vertiginous fusion. The crisis of masculinity, to take just one example, intersected with the recession, as resentful male breadwinners with once steady factory jobs found themselves unemployed, while their working wives now took charge. Although these fractures all had their own origins, rhythms, and stakes, their contingent articulation deepened one another.

All this led Stuart Hall to diagnose the crisis of the 1970s an “organic” one. Taking a cue from the carceral reflections of Antonio Gramsci, he argued that unlike a “conjunctural” crisis, an organic crisis marks a generalized breakdown of the entire hegemonic system itself. Of course, he quickly added, an organic crisis is not the same as terminal collapse. It is simply that which reveals the limits of the existing order, shakes old assumptions, and challenges ways of life that many once took as immutable truths. The old world is burst open, creating an opportunity for new alternatives. There is “no destruction which is not, also, reconstruction,” he explained.

In this way, the crisis of the 1970s, created a window of opportunity, which any social force could take. This opening seemed to be precisely what radicals like Hall had been waiting for all along. Since the 1960s they fought to truly change the system, and now, in part through their own efforts, they finally had their chance. But at the very moment when the system fell into crisis, those forces calling for radical systemic change found themselves mired in a crisis of their own, too weak to carry the day.

As it happened, it wasn’t the radical left that mastered the crisis. Hall himself had recognized this possibility, insisting that, the right, not the left, seemed best positioned to seize the crisis. Admonishing his comrades who assumed that a crisis would automatically work in their favor, he later wrote, “When the Left talks about crisis, all we see is capitalism disintegrating, and us marching in and taking over. We don’t understand that the disruption of the normal functioning of the old economic, social, cultural order, provides the opportunity to reorganise it in new ways, to restructure and refashion, to modernise and move ahead.” Crisis does not mean that the extant system is defeated, just that it cannot continue as before, and must reinvent itself.

Since the breakdown of the 1970s was not simply an economic downturn, but a systemic crisis touching all realms of social life, the right devised a solution that aimed not simply to revive capitalist profitability, but to restructure everything from the family to the state to ideology. To be clear, they weren’t following a predetermined program issued by some singular command center. Key figures, think tanks, and institutions did recognize, though, that there were actual problems, that different forces were improvising solutions, and that these could be assembled into something more coherent. 

In this way, the right explicitly linked the problems of the day, drawing a connection between boosting the free market, rebuilding the family, reviving morality, restoring imperial power, and cultivating a sense of individual responsibility. As Margaret Thatcher explained, “It must be quite clear that the responsibility is on each of us to make the full use of our talents and to care for our families. It must be clear, too, that we have a responsibility to our country to make Britain respected and successful in the world. The economic counterpart of these personal and national responsibilities is the working of the market economy in a free society.” In speech after speech, figures like Thatcher would breathlessly combine all the issues, as if they were organically part of the same project. Of course, many of these elements had been around for years, some of them even developed by the competing system of managed capitalism itself, but their recombination did in fact create something novel. As multi-layered as the organic crisis it sought to address, the radical right’s solution created a new hegemonic order that we now call “neoliberalism.”

In the same way that the crisis of the 1970s was not simply an American affair, but also a larger regional one, so too did this particular neoliberal solution eventually take hold across North America and Western Europe. Ronald Reagan in the United States, Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Helmut Kohl in West Germany. Despite important national variations, these figures actively collaborated across borders, seeing in neoliberalism a kind of transnational solution to a transnational problem, even if couched in nationalist language, and adapted to specific conditions. This cascading wave proved so crushing that it compelled even ostensibly socialist figures like French President Francois Mitterand to reverse course, and embrace some of its core tenets, such as privatization, law and order, and Atlanticism. A new “common sense” took hold. 

By the early 1990s, the triumph of the neoliberal project was complete. World socialism was exhausted, national liberation movements destroyed, and social movements in the North Atlantic defeated. The old anti-imperialist movements lost their bearings after the disasters of the preceding decades, trade union leaderships sought even closer ties to management, and what remained of black, gay, or women’s liberation struggles survived the wave of defeat by trading their maximalist goals for better inclusion in the existing world. As Francis Fukuyama boldly declared, the bloody ideological battles of the past were now settled, leaving behind a sole victor – the liberal capitalist model of development. History itself had come to a close.

Fukuyama’s hyperbole aside, it seemed that for the first time in modern history European countries were converging: representative governments, capitalist economies, a neoliberal life-world. The enormous divisions of the past, which once broke the continent in half, appeared to dissolve. European integration seemed unstoppable, peace reigned triumphant, prosperity glimmered on the horizon. With history now over, Fukyama speculated aloud, the greatest danger that now lay ahead was nothing more than a pedestrian boredom. 

Ennui aside, the neoliberal order inaugurated a real upheaval in political life. It sapped workers’ power, weakened the unions, and obliterated the social bases of an inherited worker identity. It enshrined the supremacy of free market capitalism, deregulated banks, privatized industries, and promoted entrepreneurial subjectivities. It atomized social life, hollowed-out democratic institutions, and provoked widespread political disengagement. As Chantal Mouffe has argued, with all the real questions allegedly resolved, politics ceased to be a life or death struggle between competing visions of the future and instead became the technocratic management of things.

When she left office, a reporter once asked Margaret Thatcher what she considered her greatest achievement, to which she replied: New Labour. “We forced our opponents to change their minds,” she explained. The neoliberal solution became so hegemonic that even its opponents on the left accepted its terms. One by one, across the North Atlantic, nominally leftist parties became champions of the free market, privatization, and cuts to social welfare. The results were sweeping, putting an end to political patterns stretching back over a century: the political spectrum narrowed, viable political alternatives vanished, parties fought for an ever smaller chunk of middle class voters, huge swathes of the electorate were effectively abandoned, the working class found itself without a logical political home, and abstention rates soared. 

With “third way” parties on the left now embracing neoliberal assumptions about the social order, the political atrophied, while the cultural hypertrophied. In the United States, this took the form of the “culture wars,” as the neoliberal left and the neoliberal right fought over such issues as school prayer, stem cell research, and gun control, while both swore fidelity to the free market. This was the great triumph of neoliberalism: becoming so commonsensical that it allowed for the proliferation of fiercely opposed political currents – progressive neoliberals, religious conservatives, nationalist authoritarians – that all nevertheless agreed on all the core questions about the capitalist order.

In the first years of the new millennium, Prime Minister Tony Blair laid bare the new reality. To those anxious about neoliberal globalization, he suggested that they “might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.” Neoliberalism had become as natural as the ancient movements of the Earth, beyond the realm of human intervention. There was, and would never be, any alternative.

But that which was as natural as the seasons itself came undone. As with most other organic crises, the breakdown of the neoliberal life world did not stem from a single event, but the accumulation of a series of fractures, some of which can be traced back to the foundation of the neoliberal order itself.

Although confronting challenges from the start, the American neoliberal order experienced some of its first enormous cracks in the early 2000s. One of the earliest came with the Iraq War in 2003, which sent millions into the streets to protest American imperialism. In 2005, the botched, and racist, response to Hurricane Katrina exposed the state’s inability to ensure the well-being of its citizens. The following year, in 2006, immigrant worker strikes signaled an upsurge in class struggle. In 2008, the recession revealed capitalism’s failures for all to see, giving rise to a new discourse around inequality. A political crisis followed, with the Tea Party attacking the neoliberal center from one side in 2009, while Occupy took aim from the other in 2011. A few years later, Black Lives Matter and a renewed feminist movement laid bare the racism and sexism permeating every institution of this country. In 2016, a self-described democratic socialist called for a “political revolution,” while a billionaire television celebrity openly appealed to white supremacy, misogyny, and law and order, shocking the world with an upset win over the most “electable” candidate in modern history. 

By the end of the decade, the United States was in a bad way. School shooters gunned down students in classrooms, children shuddered in concentration camps at the border, contaminated water poisoned infants, white supremacists murdered people of color in houses of worship, political gridlock drove the government to shutdown, the Democratic Party waged war against everyone to its left, a new socialist movement criticized American capitalism, strikes erupted across the country, wealth inequality climbed to new levels, the state poured trillions into an unwinnable “war on terror,” soldiers shipped off to fight a war that started before they had been born, over 60% of Americans reported they had no more than $1,000 in savings, more Americans died in a single year from opiod overdose than in the entirety of the Vietnam War, suicide rates broke new records. 

The United States, in other words, was deep in crisis well before the pestilence arrived. COVID-19 merely revealed the disaster festering below the spectacular stock market figures. But the virus went further, not simply illuminating the rot, but setting it ablaze. Gutted social welfare, underfunded hospitals, polluted cities, wealth inequality, private insurance, segregated neighborhoods, food deserts, rampant poverty, domestic abuse, widespread mental illness, structural racism, weak unions, fake news – all this made for excellent tinder. The crisis we were already in suddenly became much worse.

The organic crisis of neoliberalism shares some similarities with one that generated this crumbling life world decades ago. To begin with, like the 1970s, today’s crisis extends beyond the United States, taking similar shape in the North Atlantic, albeit with different triggers, morbid symptoms, and potential outcomes. Also like the 1970s, the crisis we are living through today is multilayered, with fractures appearing everywhere: generational warfare, rural and urban antagonism, political polarization, racial inequalities, economic downturn, cultural anxieties, a public health crisis, etc. As Zachary Levenson has pointed out, following Hall, it’s not just the deepening of these cracks, but their conjunction that has produced a system-wide breakdown of the entire hegemonic order. Finally, as before, today’s organic crisis is not an apocalypse, but an opening, with a whole array of social forces jostling to take advantage of this crisis, each proposing a different vision of the future. 

Despite these parallels, the two crises differ in important ways. First, ours is not just more severe, the stakes are much higher. Neoliberalism was more than just a new regime of accumulation responding to a crisis of managed capitalism; it was a world that thoroughly restructured ways of life that have existed for centuries. It obliterated patterns of communal sociability, shaped a new sense of individualized subjectivity, and demolished the ideas, institutions, and traditions of the historical left. Far more than simply offering a different kind of politics, neoliberalism radically depoliticized everyday life itself. It’s precisely because the transformations it brought about were so profound that neoliberalism’s crisis is now all the more unsettling.

Second, as a result, the alternatives challenging today’s besieged neoliberal order are highly confused. With the old ideological coordinates muddled beyond recognition, social unrest has assumed unusual forms, defying conventional classifications. Take the Gilet Jaunes uprising in France, which breaks with all the traditional features of a leftist social movement. It is not based in youth, students, or organized workers. Its demands are all over the place. Its members hail from across the spectrum: anarchists, liberals, white supremacists, libertarians, communists, nationalists. It is impossible to say whether this is politically “right” or “left.” 

In fact, neoliberalism’s world-historic project of depoliticization has made the very language of “left” and “right,” inherited from the French Revolution, barely comprehensible to us now, even as we freely employ it out of habit. To the degree that these terms have any purchase today, we see not coherent political forces, but only amorphous nebulae of political impressions. Enzo Traverso, for example, uses the term “postfascism” to describe how today’s far right is not quite a replica of traditional fascism, but not yet a coherent political project. This vague zone of postfascism confronts an even vaguer web of socialist impulses. The would-be brown shirts of today wear suits while the would-be partisans take to Twitter, both trying to figure out who they are, and what they may become. The old political constellation, which survived several prior crises, has finally lost its meaning. 

Third, and relatedly, neoliberalism has proven quite tenacious. Faced with so many oppositional movements, this hegemonic order has fought tooth and nail to co-opt dissent. Neoliberal managers constantly struggle to channel indignation into entrepreneurialism, degrade activism into moralistic posturing, recast the struggle against all oppression as the glorification of essentialized identities, reduce the radical impulses of a new feminism to celebrating the appointment of a woman to the head of the CIA, recoded black liberation as the diversification of the political class, and transformed the critique of work into widespread precarity

Even today, as their world wallows in crisis, the managers of the neoliberal order continue to find the most creative ways to keep it alive, often by continuing to instrumentally absorb the ideas of their weaker challengers. After years of castigating big government, glorifying globalization, and singing paeans to the market, today’s neoliberal ruling blocs tactically close borders, mail checks to taxpayers, bail out firms, inject trillions into the economy, and draft interventionist plans that exceed the dreams of the most ambitious Soviet state planners. To be sure, as Cinzia Arruzza and Felice Mometti point out, most of these figures lack any grand vision, and are just improvising short-term measures, often in sharp competition with each other. They are not omniscient, just as the neoliberal order is not invincible, as the recent wave of mass movements has shown. But few dying orders have been as nimble as this one.

Third Circle: Structural Crisis of Capitalist Social Reproduction

Just as the corona crisis is linked to a deeper organic crisis, so too is the crisis of neoliberalism articulated with an even more profound structural crisis of capitalist social reproduction. 

This crisis has a long history. As capitalism took root, dismayed capitalists discovered that most people had little interest in working for wages. Instead, they continued to rely on traditional patterns of subsistence, often by combining several forms of social reproduction. They grew their own food, salvaged, bartered, sold surpluses, and only engaged in wage labor if they had no other choice. 

But over the course of the nineteenth century, wages came to occupy a much greater component of total household income for most working-class people. One reason for this has to do with the systematic eradication, and uneven subsumption, of non-capitalist forms of labor, subsistence, and social life. In the United States, for example, this meant enclosing common lands, banning livestock ownership in cities, obliterating Mormon communal lands, breaking up indigenous communities, or denying Mexicans in the newly conquered Southwest rights to communal holdings. 

Contrary to popular opinion, capitalist history is therefore not so much a tale about the seamless transmutation of one kind of worker, a peasant, into another, a waged factory worker, but about widespread dispossession. As Michael Denning has explained, “capitalism begins not with the offer of work, but with the imperative to earn a living.” Capitalism creates a sea of hungry unemployed people, torn from their traditional patterns of subsistence, who then have no choice but to sell their capacity to work for the money necessary to live. In this way, he continues, “unemployment precedes employment, and the informal economy precedes the formal, both historically and conceptually.”

As Emma Teitelman and I have shown for the American case, through this process, most workers grew heavily dependent on capitalist wages to obtain life’s necessities, unpaid reproductive activity was converted into monetized productive work, socially reproductive labor was transformed into commodities like the dishwasher, and those unable to find the money necessary to live grew increasingly reliant on the capitalist state for social welfare. As writers like Mariarosa Dalla Costa have argued, the managed capitalist systems that emerged out of the crises of the 1930s and 1940s played a decisive role in this regard. Although welfare states saved countless from poverty by subsidizing the costs of social reproduction, their support came with the steep price – not only segmenting the working class, or shoring up the patriarchal nuclear family, but rendering working-class households more dependent on capitalist relations than ever before. Life became coupled with capitalism.

If prior regimes of accumulation annihilated most non-capitalist forms of sustainable social reproduction, forcing most people to depend, in some way or another, on capitalism, neoliberalism’s contribution to this story has been to unilaterally devolve the costs of social reproduction onto working people. In the core countries of the North Atlantic, ruling blocs dismantled public assistance programs, slashed funds, tightened eligibility requirements, privatized social services, cut wages, destroyed unions, weakened healthcare, and denigrated socially reproductive labor more generally. Having grown so dependent on capitalist relations to survive, workers were increasingly cut off from capitalist means of survival. 

Meanwhile in the periphery, the IMF and the World Bank took advantage of debt crises to restructure countless economies along neoliberal lines in the 1980s and 1990s, forcing states to retrench social welfare, privatize industries, abolish subsidies, and welcome transnational corporations. Unemployment skyrocketed, prices soared, inequality widened, countless acres of land were given over to cash crops, and millions of dispossessed and permanently unemployable people crowded into gigantic slums. 

In fact, contrary to its own myths about free, fair, full employment, capitalism is structurally incapable of fully employing everyone who depends on wages to live. Capitalism, Karl Marx argued, produces “a relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population which is superfluous to capital’s average requirements for its own valorization, and is therefore a surplus population.” Without reserves, deprived of alternative forms of social reproduction, and unable to find steady waged employment, those condemned to exist as part of this “surplus population,” have no choice but to resort to informal, illegal, and under-the-table work to survive. 

Today, well over a billion people live out their precarious lives with the knowledge that they will never be incorporated into the normal circuits of capitalist wage labor. While some drift through the glitzy cities of the North Atlantic, most others scrape by in the teeming slums of the Global South. To survive, they stitch together a couple gigs, salvage garbage, sell knock-off handbags, hawk homemade jewelry, deal drugs, pirate media, perform on the streets, peddle loosies, scam the wealthy, steal, send their children off to work illegally, rent out their wombs for surrogate pregnancies, or in extreme cases sell their organs. 

So widespread is this way of life that the UN estimates these informal, unprotected workers comprise nearly two-fifths of the economically active working population in developing countries. In some places, like Karachi, the numbers are simply astounding, with over 75% of inhabitants toiling away in the informal sector. So incapable is capitalism of providing the humans it has proletarianized with steady, sustainable, legal work that in some regions of the world, such as West Africa, the formal sector is shrinking, even as the overall population skyrockets. 

As Mike Davis writes in his harrowing account of the slums of the Global South, “informal survivalism” is the “new primary mode of livelihood in a majority of Third World cities.” The struggles of these highly vulnerable people to live is heroic, and their capacity to improvise and self-organize new forms of life in such abject conditions is remarkable. But without basic services, legal protections, or any reliable means of income, they live on the edge. Each new event threatens to push them over – a drought, monsoon, war, or a virus like corona. In fact, the executive director of the World Food Program had already anticipated that 2020 would be the “worst year since the second world war,” predicting that a staggering 135 million people would face imminent starvation, in addition to the 821 million already chronically hungry. This is roughly equivalent to saying the entire population of Russia would die off in the next year from hunger. And this was all before corona.

This is the structural crisis of capitalist social reproduction: after a centuries-long process of obliterating other alternatives in order to force working people across the globe to depend entirely on capitalism for survival, ruling classes are now withdrawing the very capitalist means that so many people depend on to live – wages, welfare, stable employment, even commodities. Capitalism requires the labor power of humans to survive, but capitalism, particularly in its neoliberal form, has made it close to impossible for tens of millions of those very workers to continue living, while condemning countless more to a life of perennial unemployment. An unprecedentedly massive swathe of humanity, living in unprecedentedly precarious conditions, with unprecedentedly few reserves, now ekes out a life just a hair’s breadth away from annihilation. 

Fourth Circle: Epochal Crisis of Planetary Life

The final crisis we experience today is the impending climate catastrophe. This, too, has deep origins, stretching back hundreds of years. 

Many scholars trace climate change back to the earliest days of capitalism, arguing that the drive to increase profits pushed capitalists to exploit natural resources at an unsustainable rate, the need to control labor power led to dangerous technological innovations like coal burning, or that the imperative to create smooth commodity flows led to the disruption of biomes. While no doubt true, it’s also worth noting that major contributors to the present climate crisis were also those non-capitalist societies, like the USSR, claiming to be transitioning to communism.

Whatever its diverse origins, it’s undeniable that here, too, neoliberalism has deepened the epochal crisis that preceded it. As Naomi Klein explains, since the 1980s, newly deregulated corporations run wild, private firms race to extract rare earth minerals, companies burn fossil fuels at breakneck speed, the drive to transport goods across the world as fast as possible pollutes the air, the fossil fuel industry pours money into climate change denial, and the erosion of democracy hamstrings all efforts to combat climate change. It’s no coincidence that the height of the neoliberal era coincides with the most rapid degradation of the environment. 

Today, the picture looks grim. The sea level is rising at its fastest rate in over three millennia. There is more carbon dioxide in our air than at any point in human history. The average size of vertebrate populations declined by 60% in the last four decades. The world’s tropical forests are shrinking at a rate of nearly 30 football fields a minute. An island of garbage in the Pacific is now larger than the size of Texas. Every year is hotter than the next. The arctic may have its first completely ice-free summer in just two decades. By the middle of this century perhaps half of all the species on this planet will disappear. In sixty years from now, the Earth’s soil may no longer sustain life. In eighty years, major cities like London, Miami, and Shanghai may be underwater. 

The climate crisis is admittedly the most challenging of these four crises to confront. It does not have a singular root cause, and its effects are staggeringly multiform, manifesting as floods, droughts, monster hurricanes, or brush fires. Its temporality is especially hard for many to comprehend – we know the crisis is already happening, but because it has not yet directly affected people living in the affluent countries of the Global North, it is not often taken seriously. And its enormous scale, the eye-watering stakes, and the extraordinary measures required to stop its advance drive into despair even those who know we must act now. 

The climate crisis will likely not take the form of a single, sudden event, like a nuclear bomb exploding, but as an uneven collapse of the ecosystem. Although we are now likely beyond the point of no return, it’s definitely still possible to mitigate the disaster. Even if we cannot “solve” climate change in the same ways that we may “solve” the other crises, we should not throw our hands up in the air in resignation. While the epochal crisis of planetary life certainly operates at a different order of magnitude, it’s just as possible – and, given its articulation with these other crises, necessary – to address it. 

The Articulated Crisis

Although each of these crises possesses its own relative autonomy, all are deeply imbricated, each effectively amplifying the other, from the first circle to the last. 

The crisis of planetary life, for instance, allowed this tiny virus to become a pandemic. As Rob Wallace has noted, without destabilized natural habitats, intensive capitalist agriculture, dispossessed local communities driven deeper into the hinterland, uncontrolled urbanization, or globalized logistics networks it’s hard to imagine corona having this widespread of an impact. 

At the same time, the conjunctural crisis of corona has deepened the crisis of capitalist social reproduction. It will catastrophically upend the lives of hundreds of millions of precarious slum dwellers across the globe. How can they wash their hands if they have no regular access to water? How can they practice social distancing if families live in tightly packed slums? How can they stay at home if their livelihood depends on hustling? If Ecuador, where the pandemic has proven so overwhelming that corpses litter sidewalks, streets and doorsteps, is any indication, the coronavirus threatens to wreak havoc in these regions of the world.

Meanwhile, in the same way that neoliberalism accelerated the epochal crisis of life, so too is the climate crisis now exacerbating the organic crisis of neoliberalism. It is rendering entire regions of the world uninhabitable, fueling migration, which the xenophobic right will try to capitalize for political gain. It is creating extreme weather patterns, leading to drought, famine, and food shortages, which in turn heighten tensions between states. It is poisoning millions of people, putting extra strain on an already broken global healthcare system. It is devastating many national economies, exacerbating the global economic crisis. Climate change is an omnipresent background, supercharging every other fracture.

By underfunding hospitals, weakening healthcare, and enshrining a world of precarious employment, neoliberalism has created prime conditions for the virus to wreak havoc. At the same time, corona has catalyzed the brewing crisis of neoliberalism. Even more than that, it’s given this organic crisis a specific shape. The pandemic is how the crisis of neoliberalism is now being lived. Even if the forces of order succeed in containing the pandemic while staving off dramatic social change, it will have irreversibly colored the deeper crises destined to outlast. 

Our Response

Although we stand before a monumental crisis ripe with possibility, there’s no guarantee that anything will change. 

Without a coherent subjective intervention offering a viable alternative, the existing order will likely modernize itself, preserving, and even heightening, the existing inequalities of this world, leaving us with something worse. 

We also cannot expect the objective crisis to automatically generate this emancipatory subjective force. Worsening conditions will not spontaneously transform scattered individuals into subjects. The subjective element must be created of its own accord.

How we invent this second variable so necessary for real social change is the greatest question of our time, and I don’t presume to offer an answer here. Organizing a response to the crisis can only be a collective endeavor, based in the many movements that have already taken shape, the cornucopia of new forms of struggle mushrooming around us today, and the vibrant ecosystem of self-organizing that will certainly emerge in the near future. 

There’s much we don’t know, but mapping our crisis does make one thing clear: the complexity of the crisis we are living through today forces us to reflect on the kinds of political strategies we have to develop. 

This means, most immediately, that we must resist the temptation to focus all our efforts on the coronavirus alone. After all, the virus has been so destructive because it has catalyzed much deeper crises that will outlive it. Even when the pandemic ends, the structural crises that corona inflamed will continue to rage, ready to explode again in the near future. 

At the same time, we need to avoid the opposite reflex: to treat the coronavirus as merely epiphenomenal, and instead mobilize around what we perceive to be these more consequential crises. As serious as they may be, these other crises are being lived through the conjunctural crisis, which is irreversibly shaping their development, and so cannot be ignored. 

Similarly, we can’t isolate the organic crisis from the others. While some may be enticed into prioritizing the crisis of neoliberalism, arguing that building a new political bloc capable of seizing power is the precondition for addressing these other crises, we must recall that today’s organic crisis is not somehow separate from these other ones. Since neoliberalism’s crisis is so deeply imbricated with the conjunctural crisis of corona, the structural crisis of social reproduction, and the epochal crisis of climate, building a new bloc in response to the organic crisis necessarily means addressing these other crises from the start.

The only way forward, then, is to collectively craft a response that can address all aspects of today’s articulated crisis. It is through this struggle, fought on a variety of distinct fronts, that we can build ourselves into a unified, albeit diverse, collective subjective force able to master this crisis to change the world.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint.