In 1940, as the Nazis were closing in on Paris, Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish literary critic and avid collector, knew he had to flee the city. Before leaving, he entrusted one of his most treasured possessions to his friend Georges Bataille, who hid it the archives of the French national library. This was a work titled Angelus Novus, by the artist Paul Klee. The print is of a small angel, wings outstretched, and Benjamin describes how the angel’s “face is turned toward the past”, where he sees history as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage”.
More than 80 years after Benjamin described the unending storm of the early 20th century through the look of an angel in a painting, the Collins English Dictionary has come to a similar conclusion about recent history. Topping its “words of the year” list for 2022 is permacrisis, defined as an “extended period of insecurity and instability”. This new word fits a time when we lurch from crisis to crisis and wreckage piles upon wreckage. Today, Klee’s angel would have a similar look on its face.
The word permacrisis is new, but the situation it describes is not. According to the German historian Reinhart Koselleck we have been living through an age of permanent crisis for at least 230 years. Koselleck observes that prior to the French revolution, a crisis was a medical or legal problem but not much more. After the fall of the ancien regime, crisis becomes the “structural signature of modernity”, he writes. As the 19th century progressed, crises multiplied: there were economic crises, foreign policy crises, cultural crises and intellectual crises.
During the 20th century, the list got much longer. In came existential crises, midlife crises, energy crises and environmental crises. When Koselleck was writing about the subject in the 1970s, he counted up more than 200 kinds of crisis we could then face. Fifty years on, there are probably hundreds of new kinds of crisis on offer. And even if we don’t actually face more crises than in previous eras, we talk about them a lot more. Perhaps it is no wonder we feel we are living in an age of permacrisis.
Waking up each morning to hear about the latest crisis is dispiriting for some, but throughout history it has been a bracing experience for others. In 1857, Friedrich Engels wrote in a letter that “the crisis will make me feel as good as a swim in the ocean”. A hundred years later, John F Kennedy (wrongly) pointed out that in the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, “one representing danger, and the other, opportunity”. More recently, Elon Musk has argued “if things are not failing, you are not innovating enough”.
On JFK’s misunderstanding of the Chinese approach to crisis, which has been repeated by many others since, Victor H Mair, a professor of Chinese literature at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that in fact the Chinese word for crisis, wēiji, refers to a perilous situation in which you should be particularly cautious. “Those who purvey the doctrine that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is composed of elements meaning ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ are engaging in a type of muddled thinking that is a danger to society,” he writes. “It lulls people into welcoming crises as unstable situations from which they can benefit.” Revolutionaries, billionaires and politicians may relish the chance to profit from a crisis, but most people world prefer not to have a crisis at all.
We know much more these days about how crises might affect us. A common folk theory is that times of great crisis also lead to great bursts of creativity. The first world war sparked the growth of modernism in painting and literature. The second fueled innovations in science and technology. The economic crises of the 1970s and 80s are supposed to have inspired the spread of punk and the creation of hip-hop. All this is true, but psychologists have also found that when we are threatened by a crisis, we become more rigid and locked into our beliefs. The creativity researcher Dean Simonton has spent his career looking at breakthroughs in music, philosophy, science and literature. He has found that during periods of crisis, we actually tend to become less creative. When he looked at 5,000 creative individuals over 127 generations in European history, he found that significant creative breakthroughs were less likely during periods of political crisis and instability.
Interestingly, psychologists have found that it is what they call “malevolent creativity” that flourishes when we feel threatened by crisis. These are innovations that tend to be harmful – such as new weapons, torture devices and ingenious scams. A 2019 studies which involved observing participants using bricks, found that those who had been threatened before the task tended to come up with more harmful uses of the bricks (such as using them as weapons) than people who did not feel threatened. Other studies have found that external threats can make US college students with liberal beliefs start to think like conservatives. Students presented with information about a threatening situation tended to become increasingly wary of outsidersand even begin to adopt positions such as an unwillingness to support LGBT people afterwards.
The great irony here is that during moments of crisis – when change is really needed – we tend to become less able to change.
When we suffer significant traumatic events, we tend to have worse wellbeing and life outcomes. However, other studies have shown that in moderate doses, crises can help to building our sense of resilience. Furthermore, we tend to be more resilient if a crisis is shared with others. As Bruce Daisley, the ex-Twitter vice-president, notes: “True resilience lies in a feeling of togetherness, that we’re united with those around us in a shared endeavor.”
Crises are like many things in life – only good in moderation, and best shared with others. Living in an age of permanent crisis that we have to face alone is likely to be a disaster, not just for societies but for ourselves. The challenge our leaders face during times of overwhelming crisis is to avoid letting us plunge into the bracing ocean of change alone, to see if we sink or swim. Nor should they tell us things are fine, encouraging us to hide our heads in the sand. Instead, during moments of significant crisis, the best leaders are able to create some sense of certainty and a shared fate amid the seas of change. This means people won’t feel an overwhelming sense of threat. It also means people do not feel alone. When we feel some certainty and common identity, we are more likely to be able to summon the creativity, ingenuity and energy needed to change things.
André Spicer is professor of organisational behavior at the Bayes Business School at City, University of London. He is the author of the book Business Bullshit