28 April 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted a recognition that the people we usually pay the least respect to are in fact the most important to our wellbeing, writes Professor Martin Kornberger.
Delivery Driver

'Never let a crisis go to waste' optimists, barely having regained their voice, begin to prognosticate: COVID-19 as the turning point of globalisation, the transformation of capitalism, the end of liberalism, or the dawn of a rediscovered conservatism, including a reawakened appreciation of nature and the virtues of Leviathan? As these possibilities draw our minds into distant futures, inviting daydreams and nightmares alike, we might want to press the pause button and think through the state we're actually in—that is: crisis. While it has spared most of our bodies (to date), the crisis has no doubt infiltrated our minds, our thoughts, our conversations.

Indeed, crisis seems the new black. Born in 1974, I grew up as the Berlin Wall came down to the sounds of Brit Pop; liberation was followed by the proclaimed 'end of history'. Like a thick red carpet, time was rolled out in front of us, and we strolled towards the future in our Trippen shoes. Or so it seemed.

Disruption broke into this idyll, occasionally. But it was quickly embraced, even celebrated, as the lovechild of Silicon Valley startup culture and Schumpeterian creative destruction; bad for a few, good for the most, more like the birth-pain of future prosperity than a shock to the system. Disruption was spectacle, with opportunity as its stardust. It was pitched as a point of accelerated departure,a fulcrum moment for progress to leap ahead. Time was on an upward trajectory, with jumps and jolts, but upwards and onwards it went.

What makes crisis? What does it do to us?

And then, with the turn of the millennium, crisis entered the Theatrum Mundi: 9/11, the global financial crisis, the ensuing economic crises, the Euro crisis (remember Greece?). The 2015 refugee crises, then various political crises (from Trump to Brexit, Syria, Ukraine...) and now, COVID-19. It's crisis all the way down. This begs the question: what makes crisis? What does it do to us?

As so often, etymology opens the door to understanding: 'crisis' derives from the Greek word for decision or judgement. Think for instance of a turning point in the progress of an illness, where it either gets better or worse; or 'critical mass' in chemistry which is the tipping point needed for a reaction (critical derives from the medical use of the word crisis); or 'critical success factors' in business as those elements on which success and failure depend. In these examples, crisis marks a radical interruption of temporality that forces a decision, an interruption that divides the flow of events (sometimes history) into a 'before' and 'after'.

The French philosopher (and former teacher of current French President, Macron) Paul Ricœur called the crisis a 'pathology' of history, a dysfunction in regard to the link between past experience and future expectation. This reveals crisis-specific temporality: during crisis, the future is not uncertain (as it always is); rather, the future might never come, or at least not in the way that we would recognise it as such. Simultaneously, the crisis cuts us off from the past: there is no way back but through the doorway of nostalgia. This strange temporality is crisis' defining feature: crisis is an enduring presence, cut off from the future and the past alike; a moment that lost its mooring in the past and drifts across an ocean with no tomorrow in sight.

The crisis is, temporally, a great equaliser.

The unconditional presence of the crisis creates a strange equalising effect. Usually, people within one and the same society live with different time horizons. Ernst Bloch, the German philosopher, described this as 'non-simultaneity'. With this concept, Bloch illustrated that there are different levels of development, unevenly distributed across society, existing at the same time. Bloch developed the idea of 'non-simultaneity' in relation to the rise of the Nazi regime out of the Great Depression.

No doubt 'non-simultaneity' played a role in Brexit or Trump's election: for some angry people, time had gone backwards, while some lucky punters felt that progress and prosperity were not about to end any time soon. In this sense, crisis reintroduces simultaneity into society: we all live in the here-and-now, tomorrow is uncountable days away, and yesterday is only a faint memory for all of us. The crisis is, temporally, a great equaliser.

But as the crisis' enigmatic temporality does away with any illusion of linear progression from past to present and future, it also deprives us of our most basic orientation. Crisis, Ricœur argued, means "not knowing any longer what my position within the universe is; not knowing any longer which stable hierarchy of values should guide my preferences".

For Ricœur, crisis is always a crisis of decision-making: a moment in which a decision must happen; yet, neither norms of the past nor future goals are suitable points of departure for our thinking. Therefore, the emotional response to this crisis is not fear (such as fear from fire or other disasters) but existential angst, which has no identifiable object that could offer a foothold for a response rehearsed in prior learning. In these circumstances, Ricœur argues, engagement with the world as it is, in the moment, is the sole source of guidance for decision-making.

We rediscover the socius—the person next to us—who matters.

Indeed, engagement might be the only recourse during crisis. Because the future and the present have receded into distance, the crisis puts our focus on the present—exclusively, intensively, painfully, on who is around us, what happens around us. Albert Camus' The Plague (1947), a book that speaks clearly to this moment, tells the story of a crisis and, existentialist that he was, he tells us how we will prevail: through engagement with the people around us, that share with us the moment of crisis.

As an observer recently wrote about his experiences in Lombardy during the crisis: "We never get close, and yet we've never been closer" (The Guardian, 28 March 2020). Indeed, the wave of solidarity, from people singing on balconies to millions of volunteers, civil society standing up and spreading almost as fast as COVID-19, the crisis creates new and reinforces old bonds between people. We rediscover the socius—the person next to us—who matters. For many this comes with the startling recognition that some of the people to whom, in a world ordered by status, wealth, and power, we pay the least respect are, in this fresh perspective on the reality that surrounds us, the most important to our wellbeing: supermarket staff, waste collectors, delivery drivers, nurses, teachers.

So what marks the age of crisis? A solidarity without orientation, a present without future, a shared identity without past: a most intense, yet absurd experience. It makes us painfully aware how little we usually belong to this present, and how much more comfortable we have become inhabiting our spheres of the future: non-simultaneous, well-ordered, and profoundly unequal.

Martin Kornberger is Chair in Strategy at the University of Edinburgh Business School