Crisis as a trigger for new ways of thinking about politics

In this conversation concerning the recently released volume “Crisis and Renewal in the History of European Political Thought,” co-editors Cesare Cuttica, László Kontler, and Clara Maier discuss how the history of political thought can help us reflect on crisis; how the key concept of crisis has triggered new ways of thinking about politics and new modes of conducting politics; how it is a deeply politicized question what gets to be called a crisis and how such a label makes things doable or permissible which under normal circumstances would not be; and that current crisis should give us the opportunity to go back to the basics of our thinking and how, instead of focusing on the crisis of democracy, we might wish to consider again how democracy leads to or engenders crisis.

Cesare Cuttica is Lecturer in British History in the Department of Anglo-American Studies at the University of Paris 8.

László Kontler is professor at the Department of History of the Central European University, Pro-Rector for Budapest and KEE, and an affiliate of the Democracy in History research group of the CEU’s Democracy Institute.

Clara Maier is a lecturer in political science at Columbia University.

Ferenc Laczó: You have recently co-edited a volume under the title Crisis and Renewal in the History of European Political Thought, which draws on the 2018 conference of the European Society for the History of Political Thought held at the University of Heidelberg. This co-edited volume of yours has appeared as volume four in the series History of European Political and Constitutional Thought. As an introductory question of sorts, may I ask which other key themes have been addressed at other recent conferences of the European Society for the History of Political Thought and what motivated you three to focus the 2018 conference on crisis and renewal? What was your initial idea?

László Kontler: The society was founded in 2008-09. That’s also when we had the first conference, but not to go back into the too distant past, let me just mention the last three by name. In 2014, CEU hosted the one on “Trust and Happiness in the History of European Political Thought”, which also appeared as a volume with Brill I co-edited with Mark Somos. The next one was held in Barcelona under the title “Constitutional Moments in European History”. The volume has been submitted by the editor Xavier Gil just recently, and hopefully it will see daylight quite soon. Then we had “Crisis and Renewal.” We had a conference scheduled for 2020 but Covid set in. We wanted to resist adamantly the temptation of moving online so it has still not happened, but we are now set on the end of August in Helsinki this year. The Helsinki Center for Intellectual History will host the conference which will be dedicated to histories of the idea of the common good. The plan is to have all of these collections added to the series History of European Political and Constitutional Thought which we launched with Brill a couple of years ago.

Cesare Cuttica: There were multiple reasons at the origins of the Heidelberg conference. One of them was institutional: the conference follows very much the spirit of the society that László just introduced and described, and it aims to address challenging topics anchored in their historical contexts. One of the main reasons behind our choice was that this was the year 2017-18 and the idea of crisis was literally everywhere. There was still a lot of talk about the economic crisis, or economic recession in English. There was great interest in the “migrant crisis” obviously. The crisis of democracy was a massive thing because this was just a year or so after the election of Donald Trump and when Brexit kicked in. At that time, I was also working on Stefan Collini’s intellectual history methodological approach: Collini is certainly somebody who wrote great amounts about the crisis of the university and of the universities, especially in Britain, due to the marketization of education. I felt that crises were practically everywhere, and they were the right topic to try and reflect on.

I can also tell you a slightly facetious personal anecdote. I was flying to Washington DC to give a paper at the Folger Shakespeare Library about crisis. When I arrived at the airport and went through passport control, I had to face the usual barrage of questions from the authorities, and they asked me about the purpose of my visit. I said I was attending a conference, so they asked about what, and I said it was about crisis. After a moment of silence, the officer looked at me, looked me up and down and – probably due to the fact that, despite my venerable age, I’m still wearing tight jeans – he said, “do you mean midlife crisis?” That is when I decided it was time to do something about it – I mean not about my jeans but about the topic – and so I started reading about it more seriously and proposed the idea to the other members of the committee.

One thing I realized immediately was that there was a lot about crisis in the history of philosophy, in the philosophy of history, in philosophical reflections as a modality of thinking about history, if you like. There was an awful lot about crisis as the defining element of modernity – just think about Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Paul Hazard. There was something about crisis also as an historiographical tool, which concerned the question whether crisis is a legitimate tool for historians to interpret a time or a period. There was a lot of discussion of crises in sociology too and obviously a lot has been written about the climate crisis. Governmental departments have also been dedicated to crisis management, such as the terrorist crisis, and so on and so forth. We started to dig in to see whether the history of political ideas had dealt with crisis.

In this sense, I believe our conference nearly four years ago was quite pioneering – lots of people started organizing conferences about crisis since and the crisis of expertise became a huge topic too.

One thing we realized almost immediately was that the history of ideas had something to offer. We had the year 1954 and Heidelberg being the place where we organized our conference came handy too: it was the year when Koselleck wrote about crisis but also Hannah Arendt in her essay “The Crisis of Education” talked about the fact that crises “tear away facades and obliterate prejudices” and “force us back to the questions themselves”.

On the basis of what Hannah Arendt said, we asked ourselves: what does the history of political thought have to tell us about crisis and is the history of political thought perhaps producing crises in a creative way of its own?

In particular, we wanted to start with how a large spectrum of both well-known and lesser-known writers and thinkers had faced their specific contexts of crisis.

Ferenc Laczó: You argue in your introduction to the volume that crisis has its own conceptual history and that crisis and progress have served as key tools of historicization and have in fact been conceptually interdependent since the 18th century. Now how would you sketch, if necessarily rather tentatively, the history of this key concept as we enter modern times? And how can we observe its interdependence with the idea of progress? In connection with those question, let us perhaps also talk a bit also about the methodologies employed in the book. Would you be willing to discuss how your approach differs from alternative approaches, what it can help us grasp that those other approaches may miss, and how you and other authors in the volume have drawn on and related to the influential work and theorization by famed late German conceptual historian Reinhart Koselleck?

Clara Maier: Cesare has already stressed just how important Reinhart Koselleck is for this volume. He is one of the key people who performed the theoretical work to move crisis from being a kind of rhetoric to something that could really become a historiographical tool but also something that needs to be understood as a large-scale understanding of the history of political thought as such. This is very clear in Koselleck’s understanding of crisis: it’s something that has its origins in Greek political thought to then re-emerge as a powerful category in the early modern period and there is something specific about the kinds of politics that emerge from ideas of crisis.

Methodologically, we’ve tried to stress this throughout the volume: in modernity, you will always find crisis talk, but the fact that crisis is employed as a specific tool of understanding the contemporary situation tells you something about the mode in which politics is being conducted.

We also show in the volume that there are other people who used crisis as a concept in a similar way. They are often people who haven’t really been talked about in this context.

At the same time, we propose to use the history of political thought to take a step back from the Koselleckian kind of framework and examine his own structure as one that is deeply indebted to his own view of the early modern period and to his idea of the Sattelzeit. As modernity is particularly marked by crises, we also wanted to strip away the kind of self-evidence that the concept possesses. Something that Koselleck doesn’t necessarily reflect much about is that if you call something a crisis, there is an immediacy to it. Arendt thought that there was incredible potential in that kind of rhetorical move. And that can also be the source of critical reflection: why do we think about certain things as in need of immediate action and of other things as not in need of that?

In other words, historization lends itself to a kind of theoretically informed critical reflection on the concept and that should become evident in the way we use Koselleckian historization.

László Kontler: If I can come in a little bit on progress and crisis. That indeed fascinated us a lot while we were working on this project, the conference, as well as the volume.

Progress and crisis are commonly conceptualized as diametrical opposites or as two sides of the same coin, progress being the great invention of the 18th century when it was ‘invented’ as the forward march of history, replacing a simple chronology of events. Progress provides tissue to the historical process:you are supposed reach ever higher stages of the development of culture, civilization, social relations, etc. These are all well-known panels.

Crisis is usually thought of as some dramatic halt of this process, something that results in a setback. Even in the 18th century, however, many thinkers who were progressive children of the Enlightenment were extremely worried about possible setbacks in the process of civilization and history in progress. Adam Ferguson, the important Scottish Enlightenment figure is one, who had nightmares about the possibility of falling back to an earlier stage.

Conversely, crisis is not necessarily an “evil thing,” not necessarily something thatdramatically causes progress to turn around.Crisis is also possible to acknowledge as a trigger for further development. 1954 has been mentioned in the context of Koselleck as well as Arendt and it’s an interesting coincidence, or maybe not a coincidence, that it was also the time when certain leftist, Marxist-leaning historians associated with the journal Past and Present, but also across Europe, in France and even in the Soviet Union, introduced the notion of “the general crisis of the 17th century,” a critical moment in the history of polities, of economies, of cultural systems, of interaction, etc. They were discussing the crisis of late feudalism which somehow inaugurated capitalist progress, in other words, as something necessary to catalyze progress.

This is an important and interesting moment when we might turn to the etymology of crisis – which we’re thinking about a lot as editors and which some of the contributors to the volume tackle with great sensitivity.

Everyone is familiar with the medical notion of crisis as being the moment in the history of an illness which is decisive from the point of view whether the patient dies or recovers. Crisis comes from a Greek word whose meaning is to judge, to decide, to decide in the sense of making or pronouncing judgements about something. This leads us to the other word formation from the root krínein which is criticism: it’s a critical moment in the sense that it will be decisive for the future but also judging in the sense of criticizing.

That’s where Koselleck highly ingeniously links the notions of critique and crisis, Kritik und Krise, in the title of the dissertation from which his seminal first book arises. 18th-century critical intellectuals pronounce criticism on the Ancien Régime, on the political structures, the ecclesiastical and the secular tyranny, etc., and inaugurate the crisis on the Ancien Régime. In other words, what Koselleck suggests here is that talking about crisis is capable of generating crisis in a certain sense. This point is tackled in interesting ways in some of the contributors to the volume.

There’s another aspect of the volume to which I would like to call attention, namely that the chapters variously tackle crisis partly as a topic of political thought – we are suggesting that there is an intellectual history of the notion of crisis – but also as a fact of life, as a historical phenomenon.

The crisis of a polity, the crisis of a society or a crisis of culture mark out the limitations of what is possible under the existing paradigm, and it forces thinkers to relate in dramatically different ways to their own predicament and the predicament of the society in which they live. Crisis is thus a trigger of new ways of thinking about politics.

This is something which is also not entirely new, but which still generates very productive work in the history of political thought.

The first examples, maybe of the sense in which this is relevant his Hans Baron’s work on the crisis of the Italian city states at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, which led to an even more profound manner of humanist civic republican thinking, or John Pocock’s treatment of a later generation of humanists, Guicciardini and Machiavelli in particular, who are confronted with the liminality of the Republic and forced to realize that republican discourse and republican ways of thinking and writing about the polity is becoming irrelevant and therefore start using a new language, a new terminology, and a new conceptual apparatus of political thought. We use multiple approaches and treat crisis as a topic and as something that generates interesting ways of thinking which I hope comes across nicely in the volume.

Ferenc Laczó: Your volume indeed distinguishes between the empirical reality of crises from crisis as a form of analysis or rhetoric. As you insist, talking about a crisis may in fact engender one and can clearly exacerbate our sense of it. Through talking about crisis speakers can also identify an issue as decisively important and as one that demands immediate action. As you argue in the book, crisis discourse thus also facilitates a specific mode of politics which is actions-centered and eager to constantly reshape things.

Would you perhaps be willing to discuss how the rhetorical construction and empirical realities of crises have interacted in at least some of the cases that are analyzed in the volume? And what can readers find out about crisis as a specific mode of politics by reading the various erudite studies in Crisis and Renewal in the History of European Political Thought?

Cesare Cuttica: I will try and answer your question in a twofold way. With regard to the interconnectedness between the theoretical aspect and the empirical one, I would like to call attention to a couple of the essays in the volume. The essay on Althusius by Ferenc Hörcher is a clear example of what we tried to describe in the introduction. Althusius is a philosopher and a theorist but, as Hörcher’s essay explains, he was also a magistrate who was called to the town of Emden to resolve a crisis, so here we have this fascinating case where a man of letters also turns into a man of action. Another example which I would like to point to is the example of Koselleck himself as studied in the marvelous essay by Kai Gräf which discusses not just Koselleck the philosopher and the theoretician of crisis, but Koselleck the student and the scholar in his own context in Heidelberg – focusing thus on questions such as: who was he influenced by and who was he talking to?

A third one I would like to call attention to is Erica Benner’s essay which addresses precisely that question of how to deal with the history of political thought as generative of crisis.

By using the examples of Thucydides and Machiavelli, Benner shows how talking about crisis generates a crisis of speech in a way. She tackles themes, such as corruption, for instance, and shows very well how insinuating and pervasive talking of crisis within a polity is. She insists, with an eye to the here and now, on the importance of what she calls self-examination in the sense that the individual has to take responsibility when faced with a crisis. If we want renewal, which is the other key concept of our work, we need to embark on this process of self-examination.

Finally – and please forgive my self-referentiality – I would like to add my own essay on ochlocracy. In this case, crisis engenders a sort of conceptual innovation: according to the theory of Polybius, democracy degenerates and turns into the government of the worst, or ochlocracy. Alongside crisis, the usage of the term ochlocracy went through a significant increase in the 17th century, in particular in the mid-century. The question is why that was.

It seems ochlocracy was a term used to explain something unprecedented at the end of which we have Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan published in 1651 which, according to my interpretation, is precisely the type of reaction to the novelty of this crisis. Ochlocracy is the conceptual tool used by authors at that time to describe something which, like a disease, was showing a very complicated phase where things could go for England either towards the death of the state or recovery. There’s a moment of judgment and Hobbes’ Leviathan in a way poses very well as that moment of judgment and as a novel beginning.

Clara Maier: There are some contributions where we just learn anew that even in places where we didn’t think crisis played an important role, it actually did. I’m thinking here, for example, of Janine Murphy’s contribution on German liberalism which shows that the idea of crisis shaped some of early 19th-century German constitutional liberal thought much more than we thought. Hegel isn’t really thought of as a philosopher of crisis and we have a contribution that makes it clear that he could be.

There are also contributions, like, for example, Adrian O’Connor’s work on revolutionary France which really picks up that timeframe that Koselleck thinks was so important for the development of crisis as a concept in politics.

O’Connor follows this up and shows how politics at that time develops the concept of salutary crisis, something that allows a congested kind of political system to break out of itself and for problems to be ultimately resolved. What he also shows is the fairly swift way in which revolutionaries lose their faith in this optimistic idea of crisis and might arrive at the more conservative reading of crisis that we then get in the 20th century where crisis is being attached to entire periods and it’s not seen any longer as a moment that resolves things – that’s what we see in Kai Gräf’s contribution on the 20th century. I think that is what Arendt then reacts against.

She reacts against the idea of crisis that makes modernity a place where you can’t quite act because everything is so muddled and so deeply in crisis. That’s why she tries to recover crisis as a positive, actor-centered kind of politics – that’s something that you see particularly in Annalisa Furia’s contribution to our volume.

László Kontler: I also wanted to bring in Adrian O’Connor’s article. On the basis of the records of the French National Assembly, he shows that at the start the term crisis was used as something pregnant with renewal. In spite of our intentions, renewal is discussed relatively infrequently in the volume, but the French revolutionaries initially indeed held out the promise of a purification of a corrupt state of affairs – which is crisis. It is then not only about losing faith in this purification. The idea of crisis is also increasingly used in manipulative ways as a means of political spin – the expression appears elsewhere in the volume too, in Erica Benner’schapter, by the way.

Crisis starts to pick up its own dynamics, it goes out of control and what you have at the end is revolutionary terror, which is a kind of warning against the careless use of crisis talk, crisis discourse in the hands of politicians.

Crisis points to an extraordinary situation in which many things are doable or permissible, which under normal circumstances would not be permissible. This is what happens when crisis itself is normalized in the sense of becoming the standard, the regular state of affairs of society and still continues to invest or authorize with extraordinary powers those who hold the reins of power.

Benner’s point with which she concludes her chapter is that Machiavelli and related authors were extremely acute and careful listeners of political spin. This may lead us back to Cesare’s point about citizen responsibility and citizen education, the need to have your eyes and ears open to situations in which crisis talk becomes menacing and hazardous.

Moving towards different waters, we also found while working on this volume that the topic of crisis is capable of generating very interesting revisionist work in the history of political thought, relocating certain authors or certain topics, and changing our understanding of the various contexts and traditions within which certain authors can be understood. This is the case in the Hegel chapter by Nathaniel Boyd who uses a not too frequently used work of Hegel, his so called Verfassungsschrift, a treatise on the Constitution which addresses the crisis of the ancient constitution of the Holy Roman Empire. Boyd uses this work by Hegel to demonstrate Hegel’s vast indebtedness to an earlier and very influential tradition in political thought, namely political Aristotelianism. It’s a very convincing case but here we have a Hegel who is not a great innovator, the harbinger of idealist political philosophy, but somebody deeply rooted in older traditions and can be regarded as a transitionary author among various contexts.

Another example is Alberto Clerici’s treatment of Stoic political thought amidst   early-modern international and civil-religious warfare. Our usual idea about the Stoical political philosophy is centered on tranquility of mind – until the waters become calmer, the Stoic philosopher withdraws into a contemplative stance and in any case is resistant to allowing himself falling prey to the passions that inspire the ordinary citizen. Here we are shown in the case of 16th– and early 17th-century stoic thinkers that they are by no means adopting the stance of aloofness. They are interventionist, actionary philosophers and what they call for is humanitarian intervention on behalf of the suffering in religious warfare.

Ferenc Laczó:  You mentioned, László, that crisis talk can mean a spin on things and the Erica Benner shows via Machiavelli some of the pitfalls of this. Cesare has also mentioned earlier when discussing how the idea of the conference and the later volume was first developed that there is a widespread and powerful sense of crisis and numerous crises discourses in our own times.

As a last subject in our conversation today, I wished us to address how the rich and diverse explorations offered in the volume may be used to reflect on contemporary discussions, especially those regarding the oft-mentioned “crisis of democracy” in the early 21st century. As three historians familiar with the development of discussions on the long term, across centuries, may I ask what strikes you in particular about our contemporary discourses on the crisis of democracy and our practically generalized sense of crisis?

Cesare Cuttica: This is a particularly dear theme to me. I actually just finished a monograph on anti-democratic ideas (and fear of democracy) in early modern England. Now talking about the crisis of democracy nowadays risks opening up a Pandora’s box of controversies. We have shelves full of books telling us about the crisis, the demise, the end of democracy, and so forth. I’d like to call attention to a book from 2016 by Jason Brennan which is titled Against Democracy where he theorizes, together with other political theorists, the fact that our democracy is in crisis because people are fundamentality irrational, unvirtuous and, above all, untrustworthy because their knowledge of politics amounts to very little. Hence, we should set up what he calls an ‘epistocracy’, namely ‘rule based on knowledge’. Like in a citizenship test, only people who can demonstrate to have a certain degree of knowledge of all things political should be entitled to vote. According to Brennan’s view, in this way will the crisis that democracy is currently facing be sorted out. Now all of this is interesting, debatable, controversial.

What our volume shows – and it is precisely what the three of us have emphasized from day one of this project – is the historical dimension. Nowadays we relentlessly talk about the crisis of democracy as if this were something normal, but actually by looking at this volume, readers may realize that people in the past did not talk about the crisis of democracy.

In the past, people talked about the fact that democracy led or engendered crisis. It meant the crisis of monarchy or of aristocracy because democracy was considered very perilous and incredibly dangerous in all sorts of respects, including the fact that in democracy, so the narrative went, people liked to gossip, liked news, and liked spreading rumors and libels – which is what nowadays is translated as fake news.

The same goes for explanations of populism: there is nothing new. Think of the idea of the demagogues – the Earl of Essex or the Duke of Buckingham in England, the context I know best, or Richelieu, if you like, even if Richelieu was operating in a monarchy. The other thing I would like to underline is that, as Eric Benner underscores in her essay, nowadays we are so worried about the crisis of democracy, but we don’t realize that turbulence is quintessential to the healthy life and thriving of democracy.

In his essay, Paschalis M. Kitromilides says that nowadays we are so negative when it comes to democracy, and we are so pessimistic as to believe that a crisis can only engender disaster. He says crisis should give us the opportunity to go back to the basics of our thinking in order to reset the clock. This is something that should be done vis-à-vis the crisis of democracy as well.  

We should, for instance, rethink the crisis of the environment from a democratic perspective: what does it mean to face the crisis of the environment and global warming in a democracy? I hope this is something which our volume and the essays in it will stimulate readers to reflect on.

Clara Maier: The history of political thought, but history in general can always lead us to look at things with a bit more cool. Understanding that crisis is something that is deeply married to democracy in the sense that in popular politics you need to command attention in some sort of way and the way that you create attention is often by rhetorical tools like that one of crisis. We also had many authors in current years who tried to kind of deflate the idea of the crisis of democracy. I’m thinking of David Runciman, for example, saying that crisis is just part of democracy, and we need to learn to live with that and not allow ourselves to enter a constant state of panic. I think there are a lot of contributions in this volume that allow us to see that.

Another thing that emphasizes the critical dimension of the crisis project a little bit more is that it remains a hugely political question who gets to call certain things a crisis, who gets to assign this term to certain phenomena but not to others. For example, why are we in a crisis of democracy in the US and not in a crisis of American constitutionalism?

These are different kind of conceptualizations that someone decided to make and that allow people to see certain things in certain ways, which then takes us back to the question of power that is always related to the problem of crisis. Crisis allows you to approach a certain set of issues in a certain way, and then tell people that a certain kind of action on those issues is going to be imminent, which I think is visible throughout the whole history of the concept. We need to ask who tells you that something is in crisis and what are they proposing is being done about that crisis. As historians of political thought and particularly as political theorists, I think we should take that insight from history and apply to current discourses about crisis.

László Kontler: In other words, what we do and what we should be doing is contextualize. If one reads through our volume somewhat superficially, one will, I think, recognize certain recurring themes and recurring thoughts. One might even get the impression that it’s all déjà vu and everything has been said before. However, if you look at it more carefully, then you see that, as Clara is suggesting, much depends on who says it and why the person says it. Intentions, situations differ. Even when it comes to the same authors, the same proposition might be a different one depending on the context. In other words, context is important regardless of the apparent similarity of the conceptual apparatus and terminology that is being mobilized.  Having said that, the familiarity with the huge diversity of the earlier contexts in which apparently the same ideas had been formulated and put forward might prepare us to deal with the ways in which the same thing will be presented to us in future encounters.

To give an example of the discourse about the crisis of democracy, the most often encountered historical comparison of crises into which democracies might navigate themselves or might find themselves is Weimar – Weimarization is the par excellence metaphor for the demise of democratic systems. But what when democratic demise or democratic crisis or problems of democracy appear in longstanding and well-established democracies which Weimar, of course, was not?

There is in fact a very evocative reminder in the volume that when we look at the crisis, maybe not of the new democracies of Central Eastern Europe but definitely those in more established democracies, we may better look not at Weimar but at ancient city states or Renaissance Florence when people found themselves astonished after decades and decades of peaceful and calm settlement in democratic environments that their cozy old world is evaporating and there is something that they need to do something about.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Isabel Lasch and Lucie Janotová

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