Whose Polycrisis?

February 13, 2023

‘if God the Father had created things by naming them, Elstir recreated them by removing their names, or by giving them another name’.-Marcel Proust (II, 566)

An emerging consensus originated in the US has declared 2022 as the year of the ‘Polycrisis’, with a view to marking the beginning of an era of turbulence and unrest in the global economy.  Under this conceptualisation, recent events including the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change catastrophes, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rise in energy and food prices are generally postulated as separate crises, which can have an effect on each other but nevertheless have separate origins.  This centrifugal analysis of events predicates on the decline of the uni-polar world order, as well as acknowledging the emergent structural weaknesses in the traditional western powers; all of which can be loosely interpreted as occurring in a period during which power is dispersing and perhaps as a consequence of this dispersion, the current drivers of crisis have multiplied, leading to a multitude of crises, in contrast to preceding historical instances.

In spite of the current use of the term, the origins of the Polycrisis date further and can be more sparsely contextualised. However, there is no doubt that it has now become an important neologism for conventional western media and policy institutes, especially adopted by Bretton Woods Institutions, as well as other leading investors.

Civil society has also used this term as a neat summary, however, theirs is a critical response and is not interchangeable with how powerful International Financial Institutions (IFIs), policy think-tanks and investors use the term.  In this sense, the instrumentalisation of this neologism, seems to have more value than its meaning, with the discernible possibility that any perceived political mileage of the Polycrisis, is a complete transformation away from its intellectual roots. Nonetheless, as an artefact, the intellectual roots and the political role of the Polycrisis merits an integrated analysis beyond its instrumentalisation.

A remarkable feature of liberal thought is the tendency towards identification of social phenomena through the selective elevation of their key distinguishing features, which are abstract enough to form ‘systems’ and neutral enough to subsume the inherent contradictions of capitalist development. Pandemics, climate breakdown, wars and global deflationary pressures are not mere externalities of the capitalist system but intrinsic to its operations- long predicted by a diverse group of thinkers. That these events converge in time is a political outcome, subject to planetary limits, not abstract systemisation, as the Polycrisis seems to imply.

Critical responses to the Polycrisis have pointed towards its disregard in accounting for the long and sustained crisis of the capitalist world order and a resort towards ‘brute empiricism’ to conceptualise things as they appear to be,  rather than questioning what is occurring beneath mere appearances. Prima-facie accounts often seek to capture the zeitgeist in the endeavour to simplify things. However, there is a need to differentiate between simplification and reductionism. As a concept, the Polycrisis is simultaneously all-encompassing as well as abstract.

In an attempt to grasp both these aspects, this short blog starts with a focus on three messages of the Polycrisis: a) the qualitative nature of change, b) the drivers or causes of crises and c) the role of Bretton Woods Institutions in adopting the concept. In addition, the blog proposes an alternative way of understanding the contemporary crisis, which hinges on the decline of the western capitalist model, followed by some thoughts on multipolarity and geopolitics.

a) Understanding what has changed

The multifaceted ‘Polycrisis’ and its disparate manifestations convince us of something, which is qualitatively different, compared to previous crises. The nature of the disruption is hard to understand; on the one hand, Polycrisis is about disparate crises haunting the world, whilst on the other, it remains inexplicable why a single European war should trigger a global disruption of such magnitude.  After all, if we are talking scale, since 2001 to date, the extremely expensive War on Terror ravaged entire countries, without any degree of comparable or even suggested global turbulence. For an Afghan, Yemeni or Haitian child aged 10 or so, the world has always been a continuum of so-called Polycrisis. Any turbulence in global capital and stock markets and commodity prices, would be a minor and irrelevant addendum to the ongoing dearth of access to life, in the majority of the non-Western world.

b) Poly perpetrators?

A key feature of the current crisis, which remains unaddressed by the Polycrisis concept are the substantive drivers of the crisis. While the Polycrisis is keen to explore the multiplicity and complexity of the current global order, the implicit causes of the seemingly conjectural crises appear as nebulous, automated and self-perpetuating. For example, the discussion paper by Lawrence et. al., describes a global Polycrisis as a situation when ‘crises in multiple global systems become causally entangled in ways that significantly degrade humanity’s prospects.

This methodology is reminiscent of modelling, as in the natural sciences, such as in the discipline of physics. In fact, all definitions of the Polycrisis although focusing on systems, are seemingly bereft of any identifiable agency.

Citing causal entanglements in political decision making is a strange analysis, diminishing the role of the powerful and the hierarchy of geopolitics. In describing a situation, which is no longer under any implicit control, we remain not quite sure about any obvious poly-perpetrators.

Who are they and what is their precise role in all of this?  

c) The Bretton Woods hijacking the crisis?

The Bretton Woods Institutions have effectively adopted the Polycrisis as an explanatory lens for the contemporary situation. The labelling of the crisis as too complex and multifaceted aligns with their on-going gospel of ad-hoc solutionism to political problems, and the linear mantra of debt-ridden liquidity for vulnerable countries.

The unwavering acceleration of private-sector led solutionism, may well be described as the availing of crisis as an opportunity. The coinage of the term Polycrisis unto itself had no substantial impact on the Bretton Woods Institutions’ conventional operations but rather, the term went solely to the further substantiation of their ongoing technocratic approach to poverty. The metanarrative of all official reports by these institutions builds on themes of complexity, multiple and uncontrollable drivers of impoverishments. This is also similar to a host of excuses used by financial investors, facing this seemingly unsolvable Polycrisis.

Alternative hypothesis

An alternative hypothesis of the current crises is the possibility that declining uni-polar world order does not necessarily equate to an elimination of imperial power and that the drivers of the current crisis are an essential outcome thereofThis hypothesis would suggest that we start our analysis from the crisis of the Western capitalist order and understand the recent implications of its global export.

1. Dynamics of declining uni-polar world order –entrenching extraction.

The pandemic was revelationary in highlighting the structural weaknesses of key developed economies in the West; stimulus packages to ameliorate the domestic impact of the pandemic were either inadequate and/ or profiteering at the expense of populations. In the run-up to the emergence of the Polycrisis narrative, in nearly every instance, the domestic private sector of most developed economies has consistently been bailed out disproportionately, as opposed to their citizenries.  To remedy this decline, Western economies have attempted to crudely pastiche China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and sought to bandwagon on the drive towards external infrastructure connectivity, as a solution to their economic woes; a remedy which was both too little and too late (See Table 1).

   Table 1: Stimulating the Private Sector Domestically and Globally- US, UK, EU.

Select Countries  Pandemic Profiteering Examples Global connectivity strategy
  UK Unite Report on the Corporate profiteering and the cost of living crisis

Tax Justice Report Pandemic Profits Who’s cashing in during covid?

UK’s Clean Green Initiative-2021 Over US$3,454 billion (five years 2021-2026)
EU Corporate Observatory Europe Report: When the market becomes deadly

Analysis of Next Generation EU (NGEU)

EU’s Global Gateway-2021 EUR 300bn (no new funds but recycling of old development funds)
  US Oxfam Brief: Pandemic Profiteers Exposed US-led Build Back Better World (B3W) 2021 (under the auspices of the G7) aims to contribute to US$40 trillion infrastructure gap in low

While these various infrastructure projects seek to further subsidise opportunities for the Western domestic private-sector, they remain fully oblivious to the unwillingness or inability of Western developed economies to decisively address the monopolistic and monopsonistic mutations in the OECD rent-seeking banks and merchantry, which represent a structural malaise and economic malignance that very much has global consequences.

To summarise: in addition to the implementation of global connectivity projects, which subsidise the western private sector, the role of the corporate and financial sector also needs attention in driving of global inflation.

Two obvious examples on food and energy prices:

  • On food prices and global hunger: The trend of rising food prices, precedes the Ukraine invasion and in fact remains unhinged from the basics of demand and supply, raising the simple question of what is driving prices?

As investigated by Lighthouse Reports through freedom of information requests, and detailed by journalists at The Wire, the transformation of food into an asset-class is led by the concerted speculative practices of international banks. As countries in the South are slowly being engulfed by hunger, the profiteering investors originating in the Global North remain without accountability.

  • On energy prices: The logical inference to be drawn from the Polycrisis is a case against poly-opportunists, where the vacuum resultant of the decline of traditional hegemons, is rapidly capacitated by the emergence of previously impassive, globally competitive, private-sector actors.

When the outcome of the prompt of a global energy crisis, is solely rampant profiteering and market abuses perpetrated a few energy companies, as identified even by the liberal bastion of President Biden in his vocal complaints about ‘war profiteering oil companies’, the case for regulatory and particularly fiscal intervention very certainly crystallises, yet remains very far from forthcoming.

How does the Polycrisis account for this crisis of western capitalism which accelerates both domestic and global extraction?

2. The world in the making: On multipolarity and geopolitics  

From a global perspective we must also ponder why the emergence of multipolarity- (progressive or regressive) should equate to a Polycrisis?

An interesting development in the current US-China-Russia analysis, is the now compulsive suggestion that ‘geopolitics’ is an all-encompassing and defining feature of contemporary politics. That the Global South has been the site of proxy-war throughout modern history stands peripheral to this and so the Polycrisis posits war and peace, as an exclusively Western binary, which fails to acknowledge the states of perpetual crisis and war in many developing countries. This is important because wars entail sustaining the process of existing capitalist order as well as reorder.

Consider the selectivity and uni-polarity of the consensus on contemporary sanctions, which are immiserating ordinary people’s lives. The militarisation of finance may have taken a seemingly new and unique route with Biden’s misadventures in Ukraine but as the gross and perverse inequity of the global debt situation attests, this militarisation  is historical, and even now remains an intrinsic part of US strategy in different regions such as Afghanistan and is in fact very far from novel.

The rise in contemporary attempts to circumvent the dollar in different iterations  including swap lines and the implementation of long debated proposals for a common currency is not simply a moment of crisis for many countries- but an opportunity. The recent discussion on the contours of a New International Economic Order (NIEO), beyond a mere reformatory agenda and one which would inevitably be marked by a state of permanent insurrection  speaks of a new world order which will remain in flux but also contains the possibility of monetary relief for developing countries through a new multilateralism. Whether we like it or not, a dispersal of power is not equivalent to chaos if it leads to opportunities for more levelling between states.

3. Roads which don’t lead to Davos

Janet Roitman’s book the Anti-Crisis, speculates on the multiplicities of crisis in a different way.  Importantly, it outlines the role of the problematization of what is described as a crisis, particularly in order to pre-empt intervention. This is a helpful approach in mapping the alignment of the Polycrisis with the Western multilateral response – a lending bonanza fuelled by high interest rates and the paucity of aid coupled with the ascendency of World Economic Forum (WEF) as an exclusive corporate hub for the policy making of poverty amelioration.  In a non-executive, non-treaty based Davos, as both the developed and non-developed world struggles to put food on the table, the incessant reference to the Polycrisis, seems to posit it as a vacuous catchall to describe all that impeding the elite’s vociferous demand for further financialisation.

Undoubtedly the current crisis is caused by the transformational role of financial and digital capitalism and the imminence of climate-change led human extinction. However, these are not anomalies to capitalism but part of its design, of which the consequences and spill-overs are unevenly distributed across the World. For example, even with its global permeation, as financial capitalism bereaves the working classes in the developed North, it continues to deepen extraction in the Global South, both actively and passively. Moreover, the global corporate takeover by big tech is not devoid of the footprint of digital colonialism.  The consistency in the commodification of nature leading to the breaking-point of extinction, cannot rationally be separated from the general extractive activities of capital.

Unless the Polycrisis seriously questions the drivers of power and finds ways of challenging them, it risks becoming yet another neoliberal policy buzzword.


Photo: Capitalism IS the Crisis May 25, 2013 March from Union Square to Washington Square New York, NY (Photo: Ed/Flickr)

Farwa Sial

Farwa Sial is a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester in the UK. Her research focuses on comparative development, Industrial policy, corporations, economic geography and the changing landscape of development assistance. She tweets at @FarwaSial.

Tags: polycrisis