The idea of crisis has a long and complex history in the human sciences. Since at least the eighteenth century, it has been the hallmark of Western thought in a historical key, providing philosophers, political theorists, and especially political economists with a means of elaborating the critical junctures or turning points they see as marking the historical process. The paradigmatic example is Marx, whose vision of capitalist crisis helped establish an entire tradition of crisis theorizing in political economy and to whom many have since returned during bouts of economic turbulence. At the same time, the development of crisis theory is a story of divergent strands of thought, contending philosophies of history, and multiple renderings of the relation among past, present, and future. The concept of crisis is in this way a living concept, taking shape and evolving through the circumstances in which it is deployed. It is also a strange concept, intervening into the very process of history it purports to reveal.
The first thinker to grasp this was Reinhart Koselleck, whose conceptual histories of crisis track how the term’s uses have varied across space and time.1 Koselleck was primarily interested in crisis as a category and condition of European modernity, but in order to establish this, he returned to the etymology of crisis, uncovering two foundational ambiguities that invest the modern concept with its power to not just record but also produce history. The first of these concerns the referent of the term crisis, which is typically used to indicate a mixture of danger, uncertainty, and the compulsion to act. Tracing this back to the Greek term krisis, which is derived from the verb krinō—meaning “to cut, to select, to decide, to judge; [and] by extension, to measure, to quarrel, to fight”—Koselleck reveals how the word itself brings with it a double meaning.2 Crisis refers not only to the simple or objective need for a decision, but also to the intersubjective measuring or quarreling through which a diagnosis might be made and a decision reached. The second ambiguity he identifies concerns the temporal dimensions of crisis. Deciding or judging requires a diagnosis of time, and so crises can acquire a range of temporalities. On the terrain of historical development, this amounts to a radically open historicity for crisis.
Janet Roitman has taken up many of these points in her book Anti-Crisis, which brings Koselleck’s account of the relation between crisis and modernity to bear on the contemporary narration of financial crisis.3 Anti-Crisis stands out from most other writing on financial crisis precisely because it begins with the significance of crisis-in-and-of-itself, linking crisis to a diagnosis of time and the diagnosis of time to a judgment of history. In Roitman’s words, “Crisis is not a thing to be observed . . . it is an observation that produces meaning” (39). But as the title of her book suggests, Roitman also takes crisis thinking to task, casting it as an unnecessary constraint on the conduct of critique. Crisis is an “enabling blind spot” (13), she maintains; it diagnoses time and judges history but cannot see the position from which it does so. This chapter develops an alternative account of crisis thinking and its metahistorical significance, paying particular attention to the way political economists have used the concept to generate competing figurations of economic and financial history.
My starting point is Koselleck’s suggestion that the modern historical concept of crisis emerges through a gradual reworking of the term’s original meanings within early legal, medical, and religious discourse. Rather than this culminating in a secular or “post-theological mode”4 of crisis thinking, I emphasize how the concept has continued to evolve through the elaboration of crisis theories by a diverse range of political economy thinkers. Where political economists once saw crises as the expression of objective historical ruptures or thresholds, they now also see the work of subjective interventions and historical myths, projections, or fictions. With this shift, I argue, the ambiguities of the crisis concept become the very object of crisis theorizing. Crises are imagined as events that agents themselves take to be turning points within history. The result is a significant reconfiguration of the relation between crisis and history. Crisis thinking no longer simply functions as a means of producing historical knowledge; it is now also a means by which the discourse of history recursively acts on and produces the historical present. This is less a crisis for critique than a challenge to prevailing modes of historical thought, and specifically those that anchor historical change in a linear, essentialist conception of time. The development of crisis theory scrambles both the sequence and substance of history’s process, setting up a series of strange feedback loops that put the history of crisis thinking at the very heart of contemporary struggles over financial history. In what follows, I reconstruct this trajectory, beginning with Koselleck’s account of the passage from ancient to modern conceptions of crisis, then extending this to cover later developments in economic thought and the way these intersect with contemporary narratives of financial crisis.
Without time, there can be no crisis. The etymology of the term tells us this by underscoring the place of crisis within a process that unfolds through time. To cut, select, decide, and judge is to draw a line between past and future, to perceive a present as belonging to a particular pattern of development, and to intervene in such a way as to change what becomes of that present. From its very beginning, however, the term was used in different contexts and applied to a diverse range of processes. This diversity has yielded a variety of temporalities for crisis, which in turn constitute one of modern crisis thinking’s primary ambiguities. What kind of moment is a moment of crisis? The short answer is that there is no limit to the ways in which theory can imagine a relation between time and crisis. This, however, hinges on a prior process of semantic evolution that begins in ancient Greece.
According to Koselleck, krisis became a concept as it was put to use in the spheres of law, religion, and medicine. The juridical usage came first, reflecting the centrality of the courts to early Greek democracy. In this context, krisis as decision meant trial and judgment by a sovereign third party and was central to prevailing conceptions of justice and political order.5 Before long, this specific legal meaning was extended to cover “electoral decisions, government resolutions, decisions of war and peace, death sentences and exile, the acceptance of official reports, and, above all, government decisions as such.”6 To the extent that such decisions went on one after the other, the juridico-political idea of krisis entailed a temporality of linear succession. Each present slips into the past to make way for the next. By contrast, the time of religious krisis was nonlinear and entangled, designating an experience in the present of an event that had yet to actually occur. Koselleck traces this back to the first Greek translation of the Old and New Testaments, in which judgment meant the one eventually delivered by God.7 In Christian theology, the Last Judgment is a prophecy: it will arrive for all but nobody knows when. Salvation therefore demands that one obey God’s Word in the present, simultaneously anticipating and experiencing a final crisis for humanity. Koselleck calls this a “cosmic foreshortening of time,” emphasizing how each present moment is marked by an eternal return of the future.8 If religious krisis is the end of time, then the end of time waits for no one.
These legal and religious ideas of crisis were soon joined by a medical variant, whose distinguishing features were derived from the practical experience of Greek physicians. In particular, the apparent rhythms of the human body and the doctor-patient relationship were key, providing impetus for the development of a more complex figuration of time and crisis. Most sources point back to the writings of Hippocrates, who used krisis to denote a critical point or phase in the progression of an illness.9 The term was then taken up and used by others to describe not only the condition of an illness, but also the judgment or diagnosis of its future course. This double usage was in keeping with the foundational unity of subject and object in the original Greek meaning of the term. In the physiological context, however, it served to amplify the specifically temporal ambiguity of crisis. As a deciding moment in the “battle between life and death,” crisis occupied a linear time marked by definitive thresholds.10 But as a judgment about the course of an illness that would ultimately determine the outcome of this battle, the temporal possibilities were considerably wider. Hippocrates himself identified a range of options when he described a crisis as occurring “whenever . . . [diseases] increase in intensity or go away or change into another disease or end altogether.”11 Early medical usage of the word therefore entailed a nonlinear and differentiated temporality. In addition to an overarching and diachronic conception of the relation between sickness and health or life and death, the medical notion of krisis suggested the possibility of recoveries, relapses, displacements, and mutations.
Generally, the juridico-political usage of krisis was progressively folded into theological discussion, while the medical usage was carried forward through collections and translations of the Hippocratic corpus. But as a Latinized form of the word was translated into national languages during the seventeenth century, classical meanings of krisis provided the basis for a further extension of the concept into new semantic spheres.12 The medical variant, for example, dominated early modern social and political thought, where it was applied to the notion of a “body politic” and used to describe moments of upheaval in the internal or external affairs of state.13 Meanwhile, the eschatological aspects of its religious variant found voice in later, speculative philosophies of history, in which crisis figured as both an ongoing epoch and coming threshold for humankind.14 It was also in this context that a distinctly economic meaning of the term began to take shape, doing so at first through a medical language of “convulsions” and “blockages.”15 The crucial point, however, is not that ambiguities already implicit in the crisis idea were simply reproduced via its translation into nascent modern disciplines. Rather, it is that these ambiguities were multiplied as new questions about the condition and fate of Western Europe prompted thinkers of the Enlightenment to combine and redeploy earlier notions of crisis in an explicitly historical register.
When crisis is historicized, history is temporalized. This is why crisis bears such a crucial relation to modern conceptions of progress and critique. Before its entry into the modern lexicon, crisis consisted in times without history (the time of the polis, the time of the cosmos, the time of the body). But with the application of the concept to event names and dates, “time is constituted as historical through crisis.”16 This turns the time of crisis into a means of recognizing, critiquing, and acting on history. It also, however, opens crisis up to a range of historicities. There is no one diagnosis of time that defines the shape of historical crisis. The different times of krisis are layered over one another, interacting to produce multiple crisis histories.
This is best exemplified in Jacob Burckhardt’s lectures on “The Crises of History.”17 Burckhardt was a Swiss cultural historian who wrote during the mid-nineteenth century. Most famous for his account of the Italian Renaissance, he is typically read as having provided an alternative to the then dominant Prussian school of political history, trading in causal stories of progressive development for static portraits of past grandeur. But Burckhardt was also interested in the mounting sense of epochal change that characterized Europe at the time, and in “The Crises of History” he drew on the full range of available resources for thinking crisis. For our purposes, what is significant about these lectures is the way they lay bare the productive connections between crisis thinking and the historical imagination. Because of his allergy to systematic thought (he is reputed to have once declared, “I will never establish a school!”), Burckhardt ends up pushing the possibilities of modern crisis thinking to their limit.18
This is evident in the way his discussion remixes different phases in crisis thinking, combining classical conceptions of crisis with newer ones characteristic of nineteenth-century historical discourse. By using crisis to denote a decisive moment capable of transforming the “political and social foundations of the state” (223), Burckhardt retains the double meaning of the original Greek term. Yet when developing it into an explicitly historical concept, he also draws on its more specific uses within early medical and religious discourse. Consider the medical tradition. While most of his examples are of wars and revolutions, Burckhardt frequently employs the language of physiology, likening the consciousness of crisis to a spreading “infection” (226) or “fever” (248). “Something breaks out” (224), he writes, and “all men are suddenly of one mind. . . . Things must change” (226, emphasis in original). He also reproduces the pathological dimension of the term by attempting to identify recurrent patterns in the development of crises. Applied to history, however, this diagnostic exercise serves as the basis for a distinction between different periods in world history—life before and after the Crusades, the Reformation, the discovery of America, and so on. An anthropological pathogenesis of crisis thus transforms the concept into a means of periodizing human history.
Burckhardt also engages creatively with the temporality of religious crisis. This is evident in the epochal character he ascribes to “genuine” (as opposed to “incomplete”) crises. The former usher in “an absolutely new form of life . . . founded on the destruction of what has gone before” (247), whereas the latter begin with a “deafening clamour” for change but end up yielding none of the “vital transformations” (223) their onset seems to demand. On this basis, Burckhardt is able to diagnose an ongoing age of crisis, wherein a graveyard of aborted crises bequeaths to the future “a great general crisis” (219) not unlike the Last Judgment. Crucially, though, because this crisis-to-come is rooted in an enduring human desire for “great periodical changes” (226), its resolution is not determined in advance but instead posed in the form of an open question onto humanity itself. Crisis therefore names an entire epoch whose time is defined by the pressure for a different future—a secular prophecy of change, only robbed of the telos that would guarantee a fate for the world.
Rather than clearing matters up, these attempts to think history through crisis lead only to more ambiguity. The medical and religious traditions invest krisis with a set of specific temporal parameters, but once the idea moves into the conceptual space of history, these are multiplied, and its meaning as an actual occurrence is opened up to a range of seemingly endless possibilities. Crisis compels a decision and thus marks a threshold, but the kinds of conditions or states it provides a passage between is unclear. A crisis can be unique or recurrent, specific or general, transient or final. It can be ongoing, forthcoming, or both at the same time. And as a condition that must be recognized and experienced as such in order to properly exist, it can in fact be any combination of these things. This mutability also enables the specter of crisis to be met with a range of normative responses (as it was by Burckhardt, for whom the prospect of a “genuine” crisis held both terror and promise).19 In short, anything is possible.
There has been some debate among historians over Burckhardt’s theory of crisis. According to Randolph Starn, it is not so much a theory as “an affirmation of the mysterious vitality, variety, and challenging discontinuities of history.”20 For Koselleck, however, these very qualities are what make Burckhardt’s theory of crisis the historical theory of crisis par excellence. If his account abounds in temporal ambiguity, it is because this ambiguity is what defines the term as a modern concept. “Crisis,” Koselleck argues, “becomes a structural signature of modernity” because it gives free scope to the historical imagination—“it takes hold of old experiences and transforms them metaphorically in ways that create altogether new expectations.”21 There may be other ways to perform such an operation, but it is “precisely the exciting possibility of combining so many functions” that makes the concept of crisis such an attractive one.22 This protean character is also what invests the concept with its strange power to produce history.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in political economy, where crisis theorizing has reached a state of development still uncommon in other fields of study. On the one hand, political economy now operates with an established repertoire of crisis forms, each of which is based on a distinct vision of historical time. The figures of the cycle and the epoch are the most well known in this respect, providing ready-made templates for imagining history through crisis. On the other hand, some theorists have begun to take notice of this, prompting various attempts to incorporate the imaginary dimension of crisis into the theory of history. With this shift, the concept of crisis encounters its own involvement in the historical process, uncovering a metahistorical force based on the recursive narration of crisis events. Before developing this argument in more detail, it is important to distinguish the historical tradition of crisis thinking from a more peculiar, naturalist variety associated with liberal economics.
As long as there have been natural disasters, human societies have had to make critical decisions about how to secure their continued survival and prosperity. A flood, for example, may lead a society to question its prevailing set of economic arrangements by taking lives, reducing crop yields, and destroying equipment. Before the invention of economy, however, such disturbances were seen as extrinsic events. This deposited “theological and cosmological questions . . . in the field of social ontology,”23 leading classical theorists to attribute the chaos wrought by later phenomena—such as failing businesses or fluctuations in prices—to an unseen process of adjustment, balancing, or adaptation. The legacy of this approach is a strain of liberal thinking on economy that either externalizes crisis or subsumes it beneath a figure of natural and progressive cycles. The process at work here is not so much a direct line of descent, but rather a recurring motif that appears in all varieties of liberal economic thought, ranging from classical political economy and neoclassical economics to the Austrian school and later new classical frameworks.
Early signs of this motif can be found in the work of the French physiocrats, a group of eighteenth-century thinkers who were among the first to imagine the economy as a natural order. Drawing in equal measure on religious tradition and a growing Enlightenment culture, François Quesnay and his contemporaries saw land as the basis of wealth and God as the giver of this gift.24 The task of human society, they argued, was simply to administer and harness the divine economy of nature. This normative commitment to laissez-faire, along with the positive conception of an economy divided into factors of production and related classes, would become the hallmark of economic thought during the long nineteenth century. From the perspective of crisis thinking, however, the physiocrats’ key legacy was to effect a shift in focus from the sources of instability (in this case scarcity [la disette], then a defining political issue in the largely agrarian France) to the system through which such instability might be managed or smoothed out (namely, that of free trade in grain).25 Despite their numerous points of difference, liberal economists in Scotland and England carried this bearing over into their study of a nascent industrial and financial capitalism. Crucially, though, thinkers like Adam Smith and David Ricardo had yet to situate the mounting instability of industry and finance within their accounts of capitalist growth in the same way that Quesnay had integrated nature into his. Growth and capital accumulation were roundly seen to be the product of market forces, but the market itself was conceived as a self-equilibrating system. This presented classical theory with a choice between one of two roads: either deny the reality of market volatility or “explain disturbances of the system’s equilibrium by reference to factors outside the system.”26 The former was not a viable option given the rise of stock jobbing in London and spectacular episodes like the South Sea Bubble, and so crisis—to the extent that it figured at all within economic theory—did so as a shock from the outside. This line of thought reached its apotheosis with William Stanley Jevons, who in 1878 attempted to link commercial crises to sunspots.27 If crises could not belong to either capitalism or history, then perhaps their causes might lie in the stars.
Later revivals of classical theory brought the idea of the cycle back down to earth, but it would always retain an extrinsic quality. Jevons in fact was emblematic in this regard, clinging to the natural cycle because it provided answers where theory could not. He was also something of a harbinger, prefiguring the peculiar way liberal theory would come to depend on business cycle research. This shift has its roots in the formalization of economics at the turn of the century. As marginal utility theory was extended to cover the production process and then the economy as a whole, the framework of static equilibrium effectively displaced earlier theories of value and accumulation. Questions of growth and change were thus excluded from what became known as “pure economics,”28 leaving the analysis of macroeconomic trends to empirically oriented researchers. Business cycle research developed in a number of directions during the interwar period, but it remained at a distance from theory until the 1970s, when a division of labor emerged between liberal economists across the pure-applied spectrum. Rather than a challenge to the prevailing theoretical models, the cycles found in economic data were now instead taken as proof of periodic adjustment and the tendency toward general equilibrium in market economies.29 This alliance was formally expressed in real business cycle (RBC) models, which sought to establish a link between volatility and equilibrium using new methods of statistical testing.30 In order to do this, RBC models assumed that all fluctuations in output were the result of a change in the broader economic environment, typically imagined as a shift in either government policy or technological capacity. The key point is that these changes were theorized as exogenous shocks—exogenous, because they were imagined to emanate from a space outside the market system, and shocks, because this exteriority meant their causal genesis could not be understood using economic science. The result was a new explanation for instability that hewed to the figure of the natural cycle found in earlier liberal thought, providing yet another round of visions in which the historical character of recession was played down to the point of disappearance.
By this time, of course, the place of the market economy within history was already an object of heated dispute. The fact that such questions were missing from economic models should therefore be taken as the expression of a liberal ideology and philosophy of history in the field of economy rather than a sign that no such thing exists. As Fredric Jameson reminds us, “Individual period formulations always secretly imply or project narratives . . . of the historical sequence in which such individual periods take their place.”31 In the case of neoclassical economics, formal proofs of allocative efficiency imbue both the market and its cycles with a progressive character that surreptitiously constitutes a figuration of history. This gesture can in fact already be found in Smith’s writings, where wealth creation and its civilizing powers are routinely cast as compensation for the social upheavals wrought by capitalism.32 With the Austrian school, however, a variant of this theodicy would become the basis for the first and perhaps only liberal conception of economic crisis proper.
The Austrian school emerged alongside neoclassical economics at the turn of the twentieth century, but its leading proponents were far more attuned to questions of time, history, and politics. Thinkers like Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich Hayek rejected the equilibrium framework in favor of a dynamic evolutionary perspective. Although each would provide a different account of the economic process, both saw periodic slumps as central to the progressive development of economy and society. This was their way of finding reason in the madness of an ever-worsening business cycle. With Schumpeter, for example, capitalist development takes shape through the heroic interventions of entrepreneurs, which push the productive forces of society onto a new plane.33 But in order for such a leap to occur, production structures must adapt to new possibilities revealed by the entrepreneur, and this will always involve somebody going out of business. The business cycle registers this process of adjustment and is therefore an echo of the vital force that propels both growth and innovation under capitalism.34 Hayek viewed the discovery process in more inclusive terms, but the upshot was much the same: for some competitive strategies to be rewarded and encouraged, others have to be punished.35 In macroeconomic terms, this too means that downturns are needed to ensure that industry continues adapting to the changing demands and needs of society.36 For our purposes, what is significant about these accounts is the way they graft epochal qualities onto the figure of the cycle without fully moving beyond the idea of natural crisis. Slumps and recessions are moments of crisis in the sense that they mark a transition between different stages in the development of capitalism, and in this way, capitalism is delivered over to history. But insofar as capitalism is reduced to the outcome of individuals acting in and through the market, it is now history that assumes the form of a quasi-natural order.
In order to think capitalism through history and history through crisis, it would take theorists willing to begin with the accumulation process. Marx was among the first and certainly most influential in this regard, developing a vision of capitalist collapse inspired by Ricardo’s ideas about the natural limits to growth. Keynes would later pick up on this theme, offering an account of the Great Depression that emphasized its status as a threat to the continuity of capitalism. In theoretical terms, the enduring legacy of these interventions has been to establish the explicitly historical character of capitalist crisis. Marx and Keynes may have had divergent hopes and expectations regarding the outcome of crisis episodes, but both used the concept in epochal as well as cyclical terms. After them, thinking the relation between cycles and epochs became the primary concern of crisis theory.
Marx developed his account in response to the classical notion of secular stagnation.37 According to Ricardo, a finite supply of fertile land would eventually bring growth to an end by causing rents to rise and profits to fall.38 In Marx’s estimation, Ricardo was right to question the perpetuity of profits but wrong to “seek refuge in organic chemistry.”39 Instead, he argued, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall should be traced back to a contradiction between exchange-value and use-value production, which drives a development of the productive forces to the point where capital can no longer find conditions conducive to its self-valorization. As Koselleck points out, this account contains both “system-immanent and system-exploding elements.”40 The system-immanent elements are represented in periodic industrial crises, which Marx saw not as the consequence of random shocks or disturbances, but as the playing out of contradictions that were specific to the capitalist mode of production. In particular, these periodic crises entail a destruction of the productive forces, such that profitability is temporarily restored to the process of surplus-value production.41 But because each of these crises serves only to further exhaust the scope for future profits, there is also a singular and final crisis still to come, after which the productive forces of social labor will once and for all be transformed into the basis for a higher mode of production.42 This is the system-exploding element: crises are the mechanism by which capital undoes itself. By grasping together the cyclical and the epochal in this way, Marx invokes the eschatological dimensions of the crisis concept, demanding a consciousness of crisis in the present that will deliver capitalism over to its inevitable fate.
The subsequent development of Marxist crisis thinking is largely a story of coming to terms with the failure of this final crisis to arrive.43 Within the orthodox tradition, theorists developed a range of new technical explanations for how internal limits would cause the rate of profit to fall.44 At the same time, there emerged a revisionist tradition that posited underconsumption (rather than overaccumulation) as the true motor behind capital’s tendency toward terminal crisis. This shift in emphasis did nothing to hasten the collapse of capitalism, but it did provide new ways to explain its seemingly constant deferral. Rosa Luxemburg, for example, pioneered an account in which imperial expansion figured as a means of securing the additional demand required to sustain capital accumulation.45 According to Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, who combined the orthodox and revisionist views, imperial expansion was but one of three different measures that states could take to prop up demand (they also identify advertising and public expenditure).46 And in the work of David Harvey, perhaps the leading crisis thinker in contemporary Marxism, capital can negotiate its various limits through not only spatial but also temporal fixes.47 These are radically different reworkings of Marx’s original account, yet they all retain his basic emphasis on the dual role for crisis within history. Recurrent patterns of boom and bust still draw meaning from a later and final breakdown of capitalism. What is truly novel about the historicity of crisis in neo-Marxist accounts is the fear that this final breakdown—the moment of reckoning—may be manipulated and postponed indefinitely, and perhaps even perpetually.
Keynes, by contrast, feared that such a breakdown was indeed a real threat and sought to discover ways in which governments might prevent it from coming to pass. This view was developed in response to the Great Depression, which Keynes saw as revealing the power of finance as a vector for crisis. Consequently, the account he provides in The General Theory begins not with overaccumulation or underconsumption but instead with a financial theory of underinvestment.48 This theory again has both cyclical and epochal elements. Using the analogy of a newspaper beauty contest (in which readers win a prize for identifying the winner of the pageant itself), Keynes suggests that stock market prices are determined by second-order expectations about prospective yields. Prices go up when one expects others to expect they will. The result, he argues, is that financial markets exhibit self-amplifying patterns. This is the cyclical element. But when a stock market boom goes bust, the beauty contest turns ugly and investors seek refuge in liquidity. This flight-to-safety kick starts a downward spiral in the broader economy as consumption levels drop, traders become even more uncertain about the prospects for profitable investment, and attempts by monetary and fiscal authorities to restore investor and consumer confidence become less and less effective. This is the secular or epochal element: a business cycle that is breaking down can breed chronic and even permanent unemployment.
The General Theory had an enormous impact on the subsequent development of crisis thinking, and aspects of its argumentation can be found in both the Marxist and neoclassical traditions. There is something of the early Keynes, for example, in Baran and Sweezy’s suggestion that military expenditure can stave off depression, and the same can be said for the faith in a more benign form of demand management that comes with the so-called neoclassical synthesis in macroeconomics.49 But as Jan Toporowksi points out, Keynes’s attempts to refine his theory of crisis were a response to the failure of monetary policy to prevent the Great Depression, and the fact that he ended up advocating a socialization of investment reveals just how destabilizing he thought stock markets had become: the problem was not capitalism per se, but rather the fickle financial logics it had spawned.50 This emphasis on the power of finance has been kept alive on the fringes of the economic establishment in the work of heterodox theorists like Hyman Minsky, whose recent rediscovery is testament to how radically Keynes’s ideas about finance were domesticated during the era of actually existing Keynesianism.51 From the perspective of crisis thinking, however, the point is that Keynes saw his time as an era of crisis rooted in the twinned cycles of business and finance. Such a moment could not be fully understood with reference to the capitalist mode of production in general, he thought, for it grew out of a historically unprecedented subordination of industrial capital to finance. Keynes therefore imagined crisis in fundamentally different terms to Marx. Rather than any basic laws of capitalist civilization, epochal crises are generated—and ultimately resolved—through the contingent evolution of economic institutions.
Though few have commented on it, Keynes’s perspective on crisis would end up being fleshed out by heterodox Marxists. This may seem like something of an irony, but it is in keeping with what Thorstein Veblen, an early pioneer of evolutionary economics, often referred to as the blind power of cumulative causation.52 Ideas, much like practices and institutions, move without predestination and mutate along the way. From the vantage point of evolutionary economics, crisis thinking emerges in the work of Veblen and travels through Keynes into Left Keynesianism and Regulation School Marxism.53 But from the vantage point of Marxist theory, Keynes’s ideas on crisis feed into a longer debate over causality, contingency, and agency in capitalist history. As we will see, this second trajectory turns out to be crucial to the development of crisis thinking in the late twentieth century, opening up a space for the emergence of a strange loop between the idea of crisis and the process of history.
If we start with the evolutionary tradition, then the Regulation School appears as a further development of Keynesian crisis thinking. This is explicit in the pioneering works of figures like Michel Aglietta and Alain Lipietz, who occupied positions of relative influence within the French civil service. Writing against a backdrop of persistent stagflation during the 1970s, Aglietta and Lipietz set out to understand the foundations of capitalist growth and stability. In order to do this, they supplemented the notion of a capitalist mode of production with the concept of historically specific accumulation regimes, arguing in turn that each of these regimes relies on the support of an associated mode of regulation.54 According to Lipietz, such periods of correspondence between the economic process and social norms or institutions are not a “pre-ordained part of capitalism’s destiny” or even a product of conscious design.55 Nevertheless, their accidental discovery at a particular point in time is integral to the evolution of capitalism, enabling a set of historically specific contradictions to be managed or “mitigated” in new and unexpected ways.56 Global Fordism is the paradigmatic example of this—a thirty-year period of international growth and stability, the likes of which the world has never since seen.
As Ronen Palan points out, the Regulation School vision of international order and change had a decidedly Marxist-Hegelian character.57 But by focusing on the question of social reproduction, Regulation theory pushed Marxism beyond Marx, seeking to situate capitalism itself within the contingent evolution of social relations at both the national and international scales.58 This effort brought with it two new and distinct figurations of crisis. On one hand are crises that have not yet transpired and exist only as tendencies kept in check or mitigated by an effective mode of regulation. These crises are immanent to a social formation and, in particular, to its regime of accumulation. On the other hand are crises that mark the dissolution of an accumulation regime and the beginning of a struggle through which a new one might be found. Rather than a mere playing out of structural logics, these crises are transformative thresholds, marking the point at which such logics themselves undergo change, yielding an entirely new set of institutional arrangements and associated crisis tendencies. It is in this sense that Regulation theory follows Keynes, resuming his attempt to wrest crisis from both nature and necessity.
To do this, however, Aglietta and Lipietz had to relinquish the event of crisis as a site of theory. This was a consequence of their debt not to Keynes but to Louis Althusser, one of Lipietz’s teachers and a hugely influential figure in French Marxism at the time. Following Althusser, the early Parisian Regulationists envisioned social formations as complex and overdetermined—there is no “general ‘contradiction’” that drives their evolution.59 Yet Lipietz was also clear that the concept of regulation was meant to moderate some of the more structuralist elements in Althusser’s account of social reproduction and, in particular, restore a sense of agency to the process of history.60 The effect of this double move was to relegate the concrete analysis of crisis events onto either side of their occurrence. On one side, there is the retrospective reconstruction of emergent contradictions within a social formation; on the other, a prospective identification of new and potentially stabilizing complementarities between institutional forms and the classes that struggle on their behalf. In neither instance is the transformative threshold itself opened up to investigation. What happens during a crisis?
One obvious answer is class struggle, which conceivably has a role to play in the constitution of crisis as well as its aftermath. In this respect, Regulation theory lags behind an older tradition of social and political crisis theory in Marxism, which begins with the early Marx and runs from Gramsci through to Poulantzas, Offe, and Habermas. But how exactly do classes struggle through crisis? What happens when the logic of class struggle meets the logic of crisis? This question was not a proper object of Marxist theory until formulated by Régis Debray, a Left Bank philosopher who turned strategic advisor to Latin American revolutionaries in the 1960s.61 Debray was another of Althusser’s students, and this is evident in the way he describes the outbreak of crisis as “objectively overdetermined” (113). A crisis is a knot in history’s fabric of contradictory relations. Debray also anticipates the position that Lipietz would eventually adopt, arguing that such events are “epoch-making” (99) and hence cannot be entirely reduced to the logics that either precede or follow them. But rather than stopping here—that is, with the epistemic uncertainty that accompanies the overdetermination of crisis—Debray goes a step further. “In every crisis situation,” he writes, “there is an interplay of darkness and clarity”:
The objective conditions provide a background, a containing framework of propositions, which restricts the spectrum of possible initiatives or responses to events, but that background then seems to fade. . . . So much so that the outline, the thing that can be seen by everyone, shifts from the objective to the subjective, the indeterminate, with the individual initiatives of a few characters suddenly thrust into the forefront of the stage. (104–5)
In this visual metaphor, “darkness” is the slipping away of certainty that accompanies the overdetermination of crisis, while “clarity” is the shape given to such an event by those who speak out on it. Crucially, though, this latter process is as much a question of political praxis as it is one of theory. Try as we might to “untangle” the knot of crisis, what it demands is instead to be “cut” (111). He continues: “We must try to untangle it in theory . . . but only so as to be able to make practical decisions . . . [based on] resolutely simple, even simplistic-seeming, formulae for action” (111). In other words, it is only through the strategic reductionism of social agents that crises can ever be envisioned and resolved in one way rather than another.
Debray may be a marginal figure in conventional histories of crisis thinking, but within political economy, he marks the confluence of two key trajectories. Following the lead of Marx and Keynes, he affirms both the historical novelty and path-shaping power of crises. Yet he also explicitly recovers the unity of subject and object inherent in the Greek notion of krisis, enabling him to ask how accounts of crisis feed into the very processes they purport to explain. By making both these moves at once, Debray profoundly refigures the relation between crisis and history. History doesn’t objectively determine crisis; crisis episodes find their place in history through the subjective interventions they elicit. As we will soon see, these interventions themselves entail a recursive deployment of the crisis concept and its prior applications to history.
Since the 1980s, there has been a range of further developments in crisis theory. The most recent among these is a return to heterodox theories of money and finance, be these in the Marxist, Keynesian, or post-Keynesian traditions. There has also been a steady stream of further advances in the Regulation approach, both within and beyond the original Parisian school. Here is not the place to provide an overview of this literature; interested readers have a wealth of other sources to consult.62 Instead I want to emphasize the legacy of Debray’s ideas, particularly in relation to Roitman’s critique of crisis thinking. To the extent that Marxist and even Keynesian accounts operate on the basis of a distinction between productive and financial capital, there is some truth to Roitman’s characterization of contemporary crisis narratives. “Crisis,” she writes, “signifies a purportedly observable chasm between ‘the real,’ on the one hand, and what is variously portrayed . . . as fictitious, erroneous, or an illogical departure from the real, on the other.”63 But it does not follow from this that all crisis theories are blind to the imaginary character of crisis or to the constitution of crisis through narrative discourse. After and with Debray, crisis becomes the name for an event that agents themselves imagine to be a turning point within history. This is the hallmark of what I call the new crisis theory, which attempts to fold the narrative grammar of crisis into the task of crisis theorizing.
The new crisis theory is not a unified school; it comes in a variety of flavors, emerging over the past twenty years through the institutional and cultural turns in comparative and international political economy. Colin Hay, for example, is a British political scientist whose early work was developed in direct response to the Althusserian moment in crisis theory. For Hay, the theoretical question posed by crisis is that of how structural change might emerge from a situation characterized by subjective indeterminacy.64 Following Debray, he conceives of crises as both overdetermined and indeterminate—overdetermined, because there are always too many contradictions behind the breakdown of an accumulation regime, indeterminate because there is never any certainty about which diagnosis will prove to be path shaping. Hay’s response is to posit narrative as a device that bridges these two registers. Before a crisis can be said to exist, contradictions must be discursively recruited as “symptoms” and incorporated into a “meta-narrative of crisis.”65 But once such a meta-narrative does emerge, it opens up a space of struggle between itself and other competing narratives, mapping out a “discursively selective terrain” that privileges some narratives of crisis over others.66 Crucially, though, this process of discursive struggle is itself indeterminate, for just as contradictions can be recruited as symptoms of systemic failure, so too can they be negotiated in ways that absolve that same system from blame. Structural change—or historical change, if you prefer—is thus a nonnecessary response to systemic failure, and its eventuation is contingent on the public narration of that failure as a crisis of preexisting structures.
A similar line of analysis can be found across the pond, in US political science departments, where it has become increasingly common to argue that agents need simplifying ideas in order to overcome the uncertainty that comes with crisis.67 There are echoes of Debray in this formulation, but here the nature of uncertainty is somewhat different. Rather than a corollary of overdetermination, uncertainty instead specifies the inability of agents to derive their interests from existing economic structures. One of the first to develop this argument is Mark Blyth, who does so via the concept of Knightian uncertainty.68 During periods of economic instability, Blyth argues, agents become “unsure as to what their interests are, let alone how to realize them.”69 But because purposive action requires both means and ends, agents need some kind of mechanism for overcoming uncertainty if they are to ever respond to it. For Blyth, it is the “ideas that agents themselves have about the causes of uncertainty” that enable them to identify goals and formulate strategies.70 Moreover, it is through the attempts agents make to impose their ideas on others that collective or institutional responses to crisis take shape. Business and policy elites might wage wars in the name of their various “crisis-defining ideas,” and these inter-elite debates may themselves be held to account by “everyday discourses constructed by mass public agents.”71 In both instances, processes of interpretation and persuasion are integral to the dynamics of crisis. This vision of the crisis event yields a double function for the concept of crisis. Crisis designates an event that agents “interpret as necessitating change,” but at the same time, it also entails the “processes of persuasion” that such events ignite and which ultimately determine the very nature of the change they produce.72
Most recently, Bob Jessop has sought to incorporate Hay’s notion of discursive selectivity into a more avowedly Gramscian theory of crisis.73 Jessop’s framework defies simple summary, but within the context of this discussion, three points are worth emphasizing. The first is that Gramsci’s account of hegemonic leadership provides a class basis for the subjective interventions that crises elicit.74 This is implicit in Debray, increasingly less visible in Hay, and more or less absent in Blyth. The second is that the subjective indeterminacy of crisis is understood through the lens of complexity and systems theory. Specifically, Jessop argues that the reproduction of an accumulation regime is always dependent on complexity-reducing imaginaries, which are what enable a subset of economic activities to be identified as an object of intervention or management.75 Once the contradictions that these and other activities produce are construed as symptoms of systemic crisis, efforts at complexity reduction lose their unity and competing imaginaries proliferate. The indeterminacy of crisis therefore stems not from overdetermination or complexity itself, but from the multiplicity of ways in which complexity might be reduced. Finally, the eventual diagnosis and resolution of a crisis episode are seen to hinge on the emergence of a “master economic imaginary,”76 whose role is to coordinate and lend structural coherence to the visions and strategies of key economic agents. Crises are therefore periods of hegemonic struggle. During such periods, agents vie to remake social relations from within, and imagined economies serve in equal parts as weapons and bridges in this process.
So what, then, is the upshot of all this theorizing? What does it mean to think crisis in connection with ideas, narratives, and imaginaries? Although there are significant differences among its various branches, what the new crisis theory underlines is the deep intersubjectivity of crisis. Crises do not simply exist; they must be collectively imagined into existence. To be sure, things happen—asset prices fall, people lose their jobs, their pensions, their homes—but these occurrences constitute a crisis only when publicly imagined as belonging to a crisis history. This is a fundamentally new chapter in the conceptual history of crisis, wherein the narrative quality of crisis interacts with the narrative dimension of history’s process.
We are now in a position to grasp the strange loops that ground the relation between contemporary history and crisis. The intersubjectivity of the crisis event opens out onto and empowers what Koselleck calls “the historical imagination.” For a crisis to even exist, let alone be managed or resolved, present-day agents must imagine a relation between their time and prior events or processes. They must articulate a crisis history. This is the narrative quality of crisis, and it is this quality that the new crisis theory emphasizes. Crisis episodes are constituted and traversed through causal stories that connect past, present, and future, identifying failures, apportioning blame, and mapping out a path forward through the wreckage. But in order for a crisis to be properly historical (rather than legal, medical, or religious), these stories have to be routed through the historical record. In this way, the temporal dimension of narrative lends crisis histories a doubly recursive character. The first recursion is a loop through the figures of crisis theory, yielding so many narrative templates for cyclical and epochal crisis. The second, however, is a loop through the archives of history, such that accounts of past crises feed back into the contemporary narration of crisis.
This is clearly evident in the recent history of capitalism, which has been marked by a persistent reappearance of crises past. The imagined crises of neoliberalism, for example, have been decisively shaped by the crisis of the 1970s. In the British context, the crisis of Keynesianism and the postwar welfare state has served as a touchstone for much subsequent discussion of economic and political disorder, “seemingly appealed to, and conjured, in each wave of industrial unrest, in each hint of political turmoil and, until recently, whenever the election of a Labour government looked credible.”77 But as Hay rightly points out, the crisis of British Keynesianism was an imagined crisis to begin with, emerging through a bitterly fought struggle over who and what was to blame for the breakdown of postwar growth and stability. Contemporary crisis discourse thus builds narratives up from narratives.
The fact that the 1970s have been conjured as a crisis of Keynesianism reveals the extent to which a prior crisis narrative can haunt the historical imagination, shaping the way later events are narrated and responded to as crises. But past events can live on in more than one narrative construction, and there is no a priori reason why any of these must be conjured in the service of extant visions of historical development. In recent years, for example, many Marxist commentators have returned to the period of the 1970s, using the classic lens of profitability crisis to generate new narratives about the reemergence of global finance and the rise of debt-based accumulation.78 Some have even recast the crisis of the 1970s as the beginning of a long-wave transition from wage labor to a fully automated, postcapitalist economy.79 This latter process, in which past crises are returned to and refigured in the practice of contemporary crisis narration, is most obvious with respect to the Great Depression.
The meaning and significance of the Great Depression has been the subject of sustained controversy and revision, both in its own time and the eighty or so years since. As financial historians Michael Bordo and Harold James have observed, “The Great Depression analogy refuses to go away.”80 The result has been a proliferation of possible relations between the 1930s and the contemporary period as signal chapters in the history of financial capitalism. Was the subprime crisis of 2008 a replay of the Great Depression? Did it mark a continuation or reversal of processes that began back in the 1930s? Or was the subprime crisis the fulfillment of some long-latent destiny, already present but only intimated by the advent of the Great Depression? The short answer is that it was all of these things, albeit at different times and to different people. I return to these questions at length in Chapters 3 and 4. The broader point, however, is that crises are always and everywhere metahistorical. Crisis episodes take shape through a return not only to inherited figurations of crisis but also to other past crises that appear to be somehow similar or affiliated. Returning to the historical record in this way is a structural necessity; it is what the time of crisis demands in the register of history. But moving from the historical record to a contemporary crisis narrative entails a leap beyond the domain of concepts. This is an open and fundamentally practical operation, oriented toward the task of diagnosing and intervening on the historical process itself. In this way, the concept of crisis is at once both a vector of the historical imagination and a mode of history production. Crisis obtains through the recursive narration of crisis and history, a strange looping back through past figurations and accounts of crisis. The next chapter develops this argument by delving into the history of historical writing, showing in greater detail how the narrative operation sets up a feedback loop between history’s imagined and developmental aspects.
1. Koselleck’s key works in this regard include Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Oxford: Berg, 1988); “Some Questions Regarding the Conceptual History of Crisis,” in The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, trans. Todd Presner (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 236–47; and “Crisis,” Journal of the History of Ideas 67, no. 2 (2006): 357–400.
2. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 237. As he points out, this apparent two-sidedness is in fact a foundational unity, reflecting how modern ideas of subjective critique and objective crisis were still “conceptually fused” under the Greek notion of krisis. Koselleck, “Crisis,” 359.
3. Janet Roitman, Anti-Crisis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); in the following discussion, quotations are acknowledged by page numbers in parentheses in the body of text.
4. Koselleck, “Crisis,” 370, quoted in Roitman, Anti-Crisis, 18.
5. With Aristotle, for example, decisions in the courts are the means through which individuals become citizens and the political order becomes just. See Aristotle, Politics, trans. Ernest Barker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 84–97.
6. Koselleck, “Crisis,” 359.
7. Ibid., 359–60.
8. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 245.
9. Randolph Starn, “Historians and Crisis,” Past and Present 52, no. 1 (1971): 4.
10. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 237.
11. Quoted in Starn, “Historians and Crisis,” 4.
12. Koselleck, “Crisis,” 361–67.
13. Ibid., 362–63, 368–70.
14. Ibid., 368–81.
15. Ibid., 389.
16. Roitman, Anti-Crisis, 18.
17. In Jacob Burckhardt, Reflections on History, trans. M. D. Hottinger (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1979), 213–68. In the following discussion, quotations are taken from this edition and are acknowledged by page numbers in parentheses in the body of text.
18. Quoted in James Martin, “The Theory of Storms: Jacob Burckhardt and the Concept of Historical Crisis,” Journal of European Studies 40, no. 4 (2010): 323. Martin also provides an extended discussion of Burckhardt’s political leanings, developing a rare counterbalance to conventional accounts that portray him as either a liberal humanist on the one hand or a proto-fascist on the other. In truth, his worldview is not so easy to pin down.
19. Burckhardt, Reflections on History, 216, 248–29. See also Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians, trans. Harry Zohn (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1999), 68, 164–65.
20. Starn, “Historians and Crisis,” 9.
21. Koselleck, “Crisis,” 374.
22. Ibid., 374.
23. Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital, trans. Joachim Redner and Robert Savage (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 25.
24. For a broader discussion, see Liana Vardi, The Physiocrats and the World of the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
25. For a discussion of scarcity and the physiocrats, see Michel Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978, trans. Graham Burchell (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 29–49. Foucault is expressly interested in developing a genealogy of government rather than a history of concepts, but he too notes how “the event” of scarcity seems to disappear within the theoretical and practical universe of the physiocrats, its very suggestion being “gradually corrected, compensated for, checked, and finally nullified” (40) through a series of individual and collective mechanisms characteristic of untrammeled market society.
26. Paul Mattick, Economic Crisis and Crisis Theory (London: Merlin Press, 1981), 23, emphasis added.
27. William Stanley Jevons, “Commercial Crises and Sun-Spots,” Nature 19, no. 472 (1878): 33–37.
28. This terminology was first used by Léon Walras, who founded the general equilibrium framework with his Elements of Pure Economics, trans. William Jaffé (London: Routledge, 2003).
29. Mattick, Economic Crisis and Crisis Theory, 30–31.
30. For example, see Robert Lucas, “An Equilibrium Model of the Business Cycle,” Journal of Political Economy 83, no. 6 (1975): 1113–44; Robert Lucas, Studies in Business-Cycle Theory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983); and James Hartley, Kevin Hoover, and Kevin Salyer, eds., Real Business Cycles: A Reader (London: Routledge, 1998).
31. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Routledge, 2002), 13.
32. See Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 302–4, and The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1979), 182–84. For a complementary discussion, see David Blaney and Naeem Inayatullah, “Undressing the Wound of Wealth: Political Economy as a Cultural Project,” in Cultural Political Economy, ed. Jacqueline Best and Matthew Paterson (London: Routledge, 2010), 29–47.
33. See Joseph Schumpeter, Theory of Economic Development (Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1980).
34. Joseph Schumpeter and Richard Clemence, Essays on Entrepreneurs, Innovations, Business Cycles, and the Evolution of Capitalism (Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1989), 112–17.
35. According to Hayek, every market agent must be involved in the process of economic discovery, because without competition for customers, producers would be unable to identify and meet the diverse demands of individuals. See Friedrich von Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 3: Political Order of a Free People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 67–68. On reward and punishment, see The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 71–84, and Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 2: The Mirage of Social Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 107–32.
36. Friedrich von Hayek, Prices and Production (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1931), 98ff.
37. Marx’s writings on crisis are notoriously fragmented, and this has spawned an entire cottage industry in critical exegesis. I focus here on the comments in volume 3 of Capital, as it is these that have come to underpin the orthodox branch of Marxist crisis theory. See Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 3 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), esp. 247–59.
38. David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (London: J. M. Dent, 1969), 64–76.
39. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (Harmondsworth: Penguin Pelican, 1973), 754.
40. Koselleck, “Crisis,” 395.
41. Marx, Capital, 3: 251–55.
42. Ibid., 257–59. See also Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition, trans. Samuel Moore (London: Verso, 1998), 41–42.
43. During the twentieth century, there were countless reformulations of Marx’s theory. Useful overviews are provided in Michael Bleaney, Underconsumption Theories: A History and Critical Analysis (New York: International Publishers, 1976); Anwar Shaikh, “An Introduction to the History of Crisis Theories,” in U.S. Capitalism in Crisis, ed. Anwar Shaikh (New York: URPE, 1978), 219–41; James O’Connor, The Meaning of Crisis: A Theoretical Introduction (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987); and Simon Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1994).
44. For example, see Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, trans. Joris De Bres (London: Verso, 1998); Anwar Shaikh, “Political Economy and Capitalism: Notes on Dobb’s Theory of Crisis,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 2, no. 2 (1978): 233–51; and Paul Mattick, Economics, Politics, and the Age of Inflation (London: Merlin Press, 1980).
45. More precisely, Luxemburg argues that a structurally induced underconsumption renders capitalist societies dependent on external sources of demand, which are secured by states through an imperial conquest of the noncapitalist world. See Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, trans. Agnes Schwarzschild (London: Routledge, 2003), 247–306.
46. See Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968), 117–214.
47. David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (London: Verso, 1982).
48. John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London: Macmillan, 1936).
49. In fact, once divorced from their claims about the structural basis of underconsumption, Baran and Sweezy’s account of crisis management ends up looking remarkably similar to Alvin Hansen’s vision of the “smoothed” or “managed” business cycle. See Hansen’s Fiscal Policy and Business Cycles (New York: Norton, 1941). Paul Samuelson coined the term neoclassical synthesis in the third edition of his textbook, Economics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955), 212. The idea of a synthesis between Keynesian and neoclassical ideas was first suggested shortly after the publication of The General Theory, by John Hicks in “Mr. Keynes and the ‘Classics’: A Suggested Interpretation,” Econometrica 5, no. 2 (1937): 147–59.
50. Jan Toporowski, Theories of Financial Disturbance: An Examination of Critical Theories of Finance from Adam Smith to the Present Day (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2005), 88, 94–95, 134. As Keynes himself put it in The General Theory (320), it is only “with markets organized and influenced as they are at present” that uncertainty can breed permanent under-investment—meaning that epochal crisis hinges on a coupling of industry to the cycles of finance.
51. See Hyman Minsky, Stabilizing an Unstable Economy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986).
52. Thorstein Veblen, The Place of Science in Modern Civilization and Other Essays (New York: Huebsch, 1919), 436.
53. We know from one of his reading lists that Keynes used Veblen’s Theory of Business Enterprise (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1978) while lecturing at Cambridge before World War I. See Toporowski, Theories of Financial Disturbance, 80.
54. “Accumulation regime” refers to a sustainable pattern of investment and consumption within a capitalist social formation; “mode of regulation” refers to the ensemble of norms and institutions that stabilize this pattern and enable its reproduction.
55. At one point, he describes them as “chance discoveries made in the course of human struggles.” Alain Lipietz, Mirages and Miracles: The Crisis in Global Fordism, trans. David Macey (London: Verso, 1987), 15.
56. Michel Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The U.S. Experience, trans. David Fernbach (London: New Left Books, 1979), 383.
57. Ronen Palan, “Transnational Theories of Order and Change: Heterodoxy in International Relations Scholarship,” Review of International Studies 33, no. 1 (2007): 47–69.
58. See Alain Lipietz, “From Althusserianism to Regulation Theory,” in The Althusserian Legacy, ed. E. Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinker (London: Verso, 1993), 99–138. See also Robert Boyer, “Is a Finance-Led Growth Regime a Viable Alternative to Fordism?” Economy and Society 29, no. 1 (2000): 111–45.
59. Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), 100. Compare with Lipietz, “From Althusserianism to Regulation Theory,” 127.
60. Lipietz, “From Althusserianism to Regulation Theory,” 120–38.
61. Régis Debray, Prison Writings, trans. Rosemary Sheed (London: Penguin, 1975), 87–160. In the following discussion, quotations are taken from this edition and are acknowledged by page numbers in parentheses in the body of text.
62. For example, see George Cooper, The Origin of Financial Crises: Central Banks, Credit Bubbles and the Efficient Market Fallacy (New York: Vintage Books, 2008); Costas Lapavitsas, Profiting without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All (London: Verso, 2014); Anastasia Nesvetailova, Financial Alchemy in Crisis: The Great Liquidity Illusion (London: Pluto Press, 2010); and Bill Lucarelli, The Economics of Financial Turbulence: Alternative Theories of Money and Finance (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2011). On the Regulation approach in particular, see Henk Overbeek, “Transnational Class Formation and Concepts of Control: Towards a Genealogy of the Amsterdam Project in International Political Economy,” Journal of International Relations and Development 7, no. 2 (2004): 113–41; Ronen Palan, “Is the Competition State the New, Post-Fordist, Mode of Regulation? Regulation Theory from an International Political Economic Perspective,” Competition and Change 10, no. 2 (2006): 246–62; and Robert Boyer, “The Global Financial Crisis in Historical Perspective: An Economic Analysis Combining Minsky, Hayek, Fisher, Keynes and the Regulation Approach,” Accounting, Economics and Law 3, no. 3 (2013): 93–139.
63. Roitman, Anti-Crisis, 11.
64. Colin Hay, “Crisis and the Structural Transformation of the State: Interrogating the Process of Change,” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 1, no. 3 (1999): 317–44.
65. Ibid., 333, 335.
66. Colin Hay, “Narrating Crisis: The Discursive Construction of the Winter of Discontent,” Sociology 30, no. 2 (1996): 253–77, at 261.
67. For the paradigmatic expression of this view, see Wesley Widmaier, Mark Blyth, and Leonard Seabrooke, “Exogenous Shocks or Endogenous Constructions? The Meanings of Wars and Crises,” International Studies Quarterly 51, no. 4 (2007): 747–59, esp. 752–53. The broader disciplinary context for this intervention is laid out in the introductory chapter of Rawi Abdelal, Mark Blyth, and Craig Parsons, eds., Constructing the International Economy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 1–19.
68. Blyth invokes the American economist Frank Knight in order to emphasize what he sees as the epistemological character of uncertainty. See Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1921). Keynes offered a more extreme, ontological account of uncertainty in his Treatise on Probability, which was originally published in the same year as Knight’s book. Keynes’s treatise can be found in his Collected Writings, vol. 3 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973).
69. Mark Blyth, Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 8.
70. Ibid., 32.
71. Mark Blyth, “Powering, Puzzling, or Persuading? The Mechanisms of Building Institutional Orders,” International Studies Quarterly 51, no. 4 (2007): 761; and Leonard Seabrooke, “The Everyday Social Sources of Economic Crises: From ‘Great Frustrations’ to ‘Great Revelations’ in Interwar Britain,” International Studies Quarterly 51, no. 4 (2007): 795.
72. Widmaier, Blyth, and Seabrooke, “Exogenous Shocks or Endogenous Constructions?” 748, 749.
73. Over the last decade or so, Jessop has published extensively on what he calls the cultural political economy of crisis construal and construction. Key texts include Bob Jessop, “Critical Semiotic Analysis and Cultural Political Economy,” Critical Discourse Studies 1, no. 2 (2004): 159–74; Bob Jessop and Ngai-Ling Sum, “Towards a Cultural International Political Economy: Poststructuralism and the Italian School,” in International Political Economy and Poststructural Politics, ed. Marieke de Goede (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006), 157–76; Bob Jessop, “Crisis Construal in the North Atlantic Financial Crisis and the Eurozone Crisis,” Competition and Change 19, no. 2 (2015): 95–112; and Bob Jessop, “The Symptomatology of Crises, Reading Crises and Learning from Them: Some Critical Realist Reflections,” Journal of Critical Realism 14, no. 3 (2015): 238–71. On the broader framework that underpins this analysis of crisis, see Ngai-Ling Sum and Bob Jessop, Towards a Cultural Political Economy: Putting Culture in its Place in Political Economy (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2013), especially parts 1 and 2.
74. Jessop, “Critical Semiotic Analysis,” 166–70; Sum and Jessop, Towards a Cultural Political Economy, 72–90.
75. Jessop, “Critical Semiotic Analysis,” 162–63.
76. Bob Jessop, “The Knowledge-Based Economy,” Naked Punch Review 10 (2008): 83–44.
77. Hay, “Narrating Crisis,” 253.
78. For example, see John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), and Andrew Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (London: Pluto, 2012).
79. Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (London: Allen Lane, 2015).
80. Michael Bordo and Harold James, “The Great Depression Analogy,” Financial History Review 17, no. 2 (2010): 127.