Book Review: The Crisis Paradigm

Andrew Simon Gilbert
The Crisis Paradigm: Description and Prescription in Social and Political Theory (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

Reviewed by J.F. Dorahy


(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version will appear in Thesis Eleven Journal, available soon on the T11 Sage website)

Modernity has not lacked in the generation and/or diffusion of ‘big ideas.’  Reason, Progress, Freedom, Nature and Culture are perhaps the most conspicuous.  Among these more well-known characters stands ‘Crisis,’ no less ubiquitous, yet significantly more enduring and resistant to historical obsolescence than a number of its other, now largely infamous and in some cases, anachronistic, cohorts.  The Crisis Paradigm: Description and Prescription in Social and Political Theory employs a sociology of concepts that forgoes the attempt to re-frame, yet again, our variously perceived social, economic, political and cultural maladies by appealing to the ever-present crisis consciousness of modernity. Instead, it problematizes this consciousness itself.  It seeks, that is, to understand the ways in which the concept of ‘crisis’ has been deployed and thematized by range of key 20th century thinkers.  Systematic, detailed and clearly argued, this work probes the ambiguities, whilst successfully disclosing the limitations and tensions, that accompany the hitherto recurrent employment of the ‘crisis paradigm.’ In so doing, it represents a timely and provocative challenge to the aspirations and self-understanding of contemporary critical theory.

The work is divided into six substantive sections and a preface.  In the Introduction Gilbert surveys the current literature and outlines the methodology that informs the readings which follow.  This is not always as focused as it might be, and it is in this section that the work’s origins are most evident.  However, whilst there is a slight tendency here for the authorial voice to at times dissolve in the collation of references, this is not at all apparent in Gilbert’s elaboration of his chosen methodological approach.  Here, the argument is direct, rigorous and fruitful, with implications for the theorisation of modernity well beyond the work and topic in question.  Crisis, the author explains, can best be viewed as a ‘conceptual paradigm.’  Not all concepts, of course, are paradigmatic.  A conceptual paradigm comes into being when a concept begins to function as a unifying, shared and mutually intelligible frame of reference or language which allows for the meaningful identification of problems and the conditions of their resolution.  So understood, a conceptual paradigm establishes a more or less dense and a more or less complex network of background presuppositions, a shared ‘common ground,’ within which debates, contrasting interpretations and responses can be developed.  Gilbert’s intention is to bring this background presupposition, this taken-for-granted framework for the articulation of social and political concerns, to the foreground of his analysis.  He achieves this via a critical reconstruction of the ‘crisis paradigm’ as it has been mobilized in the works of Georg Lukács, Reinhardt Koselleck, Hannah Arendt, and Jürgen Habermas.

The choice to begin the project with Lukács is understandable but not without risk.  It is well-known that Lukács’s turn to revolutionary Marxism emerged out of his deeply felt need to come to terms with the ‘crisis of bourgeois culture’ that gripped the fin-de-siècle.  However, with so much having already been written, in approbation and criticism alike, on Lukács’ earliest works of Marxist philosophy, works that are so very tied to the particular historical and political conjuncture in which they were written, one wonders as to the need to return again to them, even with a purely theoretical intention.  Indeed, the risks of this venture are not wholly averted.  The chapter leans heavily on a knowledgeable, rich and accurate, but nevertheless quite conventional, exegesis of the ‘young’ Lukács’ own diagnosis of the crisis of modernity, sometimes at the expense of the more specific, novel and relevant meta-theoretical task of engaging with these texts so as to unearth and critically assess both the nature of their employment of the crisis paradigm itself and the consequences thereof.  It is in these latter moments, however, that this chapter makes its most significant claims.  Gilbert persuasively demonstrates the ways in which Lukács mobilizes the crisis paradigm as totalizing idea that both reduces the plurality of modern social pathologies to a single social fact – universal commodification – and simultaneously legitimates a single transformative existential response – proletarian revolution – in full consciousness, nonetheless, of the ethical transgressions necessitated by the purported demands of History.  In Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness the conceptual mechanics of the crisis paradigm appear, then, in the clearest light.  Therein, crisis is used not only as a descriptor that refers to a detrimental, defective or otherwise problematic state of affairs but also entails the demand that things be radically otherwise.  If crisis is, as Gilbert claims, the lynchpin of Lukács’ theoretical system, then he is also surely correct when he characterises this crisis theory as one that in many respects preserves the historico-teleological and messianic connotations that accompanied the concept of crisis in its more theological instantiations.

Koselleck, by contrast, is perhaps the thinker of the 20th century most concerned to subvert the redemptive and utopian, if not apocalyptic, expectations of the kind evinced by Lukács’s employment of the crisis paradigm.  Without question, the present work owes a lot to Koselleck’s widely read and path-break genealogy Critique and Crisis (1959).  This debt is, however, certainly repaid in the careful and illuminating scholarship that Gilbert demonstrates in linking the genesis of Koselleck’s preoccupation of the concept of crisis to both the radical intelligentsia of the Weimar Republic and the personal and collective need to reflect on the experience of National Socialism in the aftermath of the Holocaust.  Koselleck is a complex thinker, and Gilbert does an admirable job of preserving this complexity whilst at the same time drawing out the inner tensions that permeate Koselleck’s ‘exemplary’ work.  Ostensibly, Koselleck’s treatment of the crisis paradigm is deconstructive and cautionary. Addressing himself to what he sees as two of the most dangerous consequences of the Enlightenment’s predilection for crisis narratives and their concomitant critique(s) of existing social conditions, Koselleck’s intention is to both deradicalize history as the purported site of human self-perfection and to reclaim the properly political dimension of modern politics from the moralizing and unlimited demands of modernity’s ideologues.  In the process, however, Gilbert argues that Koselleck himself constructs a crisis narrative which is, at least prima facie, open to the same kinds of concerns that he himself expresses with reference to the high-modernist philosophies of history.  Most evidently, Koselleck’s account of the ‘pathogenesis’ of modernity itself follows the schema of a historical narrative characterised by both a diagnosis of modernity’s ‘permanent crisis’ – evidenced now by the intensification of the Cold War – and a more or less vague normative program for its resolution.  The key difference here, according to Gilbert, is that whilst the Aufklärer of the 18th century legitimated their crisis narratives with recourse to cosmopolitan and universalizing conceptions of the rational march of History, Koselleck does so with reference to a Hobbesian anthropology and the perpetual bellum omnium contra omnium.  In either case, with this the medico-biological meaning-dimensions of the crisis paradigm are preserved, such that through its mobilization, the theorist himself (in this case) is vested with privileged epistemic access and authoritative expertise that enables him, and those who share this access, insight into the necessary remedies which alone can avert the ongoing crisis of the modern world.

To be sure, such threads of seemingly unacknowledged continuity have not escaped the notice of previous writers.  Concerns of this kind have, Gilbert shows, led some critics to charge crisis narratives as such with being ineliminably dependent upon totalizing, often teleological, philosophies of History.  The chapter on Koselleck provides the groundwork for Gilbert’s rejection of this claim.  The chapter on Arendt consummates this rejection in compelling terms.  In broad terms, Arendt characterises the crisis of our times in the condition of Worldlessness that accompanies modernity’s break with Tradition.  This links the general crisis of modernity to both Arendt’s account of totalitarianism and her reimagining of the political as a sui generis sphere of self and world articulation beyond demands of homo faber.  Here again, Gilbert is diligent in his research and eminently readable in his reconstruction of these interconnections.  That which really stands out, however, is his explanation of the uses to which the crisis paradigm is put in Arendt’s oeuvre.  Unlike several of the other theorists explored in the work, Arendt does not use the concept of crisis as a means by which to legitimate a normative political program.  In her usage, crisis predominantly becomes a vehicle in the process of historically circumscribed communicative self-understanding: in Arendt, crisis consciousness takes the form of world-building narrative.  It enables the theorist, and those to whom the work is addressed, to synthesise the often-chaotic flow of historical events in a way that both preserves their irreducible contingency and renders them holistically meaningful.  As Gilbert makes clear, such narratives serve neither to impose a necessary course of action nor to disclose the course of action necessitated by the real movement of History, but to constitute the necessary conditions for the possibility of mutual intelligibility and collective deliberation concerning the existential possibilities that the crisis situation opens up.  Framed in this way, he is undoubtedly correct in rejecting the uncritical conflation of crisis narratives with metaphysical conceptions of History.  So too, the chapter on Arendt offers real insights into permeability of the crisis paradigm, its capacity to be adaptable to the specific goals and project(s) of the theorist, or movement, concerned.  This speaks, in turn, to both the persistence of crisis thinking in modernity and its deeply ambiguous place within the modern imagination.

The communicative, post-metaphysical employment of the crisis paradigm found in both Koselleck and Arendt finds its most sociologically and linguistically sophisticated expression in the later works of Jürgen Habermas.  In Gilbert’s account, these tendencies are pushed to their ultimate conclusion in Habermas’ abandonment of the idea that modernity is able to be meaningfully theorized through a single, all-encompassing and unified crisis narrative. This means that for Habermas crisis becomes a matter of critical-theoretical scrutiny less as a socio-ontological descriptor of the given, purportedly pathological, state of affairs, than as a conceptual medium through which intersubjective validity claims might be exchanged, rebuffed and otherwise contested.  The shift here, which Gilbert himself largely defends, involves the movement away from the authoritative, medico-prescriptive adumbration of objective crisis tendencies that by their very nature deprive social actors of their capacity for self-determination towards an appreciation of the ways in which crisis consciousness can function as a vehicle in either the communicative actualisation of this capacity or its hegemonic repression.  Stated otherwise, from the reading of Habermas a conception emerges in which critique is decoupled from its dependency on the moment of crisis, whilst the latter itself is simultaneously opened up to ongoing critical reflection.  Crucially, this reflexive reorientation of crisis thinking implies a significant challenge to the aims of contemporary critical theory.  According to Gilbert, among the conceptual ‘blind spots’ that frequently accompany work within the crisis paradigm is the often-unconscious presupposition that it is moments of systemic breakdown or failure which best afford the opportunity for critical insight and the creation of new meanings and coordinates for social action.  Evidence abounds that this kind post-festum attribution of disfunction remains central to numerous, and by no means marginal, understandings of the social function of critical theory in the 21st century.  Inviting scepticism towards this mode of critique is, I think, among the most important contributions that the present work makes to contemporary critical-theoretical discourse.  Not only does it bring into question the ways in which critical theorists have traditionally legitimated their normative claims, it also prompts us to reassess the very ways in which we approach the study of society to begin with.  It raises the possibility, that is, that it is less the failure of social systems that ought to be cause for critical intervention, than the very success with which they are all-too readily reproduced.

In sum, The Crisis Paradigm is an ambitious work.  In its reconstruction the crisis theories of Lukács, Koselleck, Arendt and Habermas the book opens on to a plurality of the 20th century’s most definitive historical experiences and intractable theoretical dilemmas.  Beyond this, it raises questions that go to the heart of the modern condition as such: alternate temporalities, cultural differentiation and societal complexity, collective agency and the consequences of totalizing, messianic politics.  Throughout, the work offers rigorous, yet accessible, readings of the thinkers and problems involved that never simplify or shy away from the intricacies of their subject matter.  In light of these achievements, it is fair to say that its ambitions, lofty as they may be, have not been left unfulfilled.

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