M.A. Thesis: The Transformative Effects of Crisis: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the New Economic Cultures in Spain and Greece. Janosch Sbeih. Schumacher College, 2014

An excerpt from Janosch Sbeih:

“The etymology of the word ‘crisis’ tells a lot about the characteristics of such an event. According to the Oxford English Dictionary Crisis comes from the Greek word kerein, meaning to separate or cut, to make fixed, settled (Williams, 2012). The earliest registered use of the word, dating back to the 1500s, is in relation to medical and also astrological events, which were believed to be closely related. In this context, crisis describes “the point in the progress of a disease when an important development or change takes place which is decisive of recovery or death; the turning-point of a disease for better or for worse” (OED, 2014). Crisis is defined in contrast to ongoing progress – initially progress of an illness, and by the seventeenth century, “of anything” (Williams, 2012). A crisis can be understood in two ways. First, as an obstacle to be overcome, a bump in the road of progress that that needs to be dealt with in order to return to the “normal” state of affairs.

Alternatively, a crisis can be understood as the convulsion in the transition from one system to another, as a deciding phase in a change of systems. Media and governments universally frame the current crisis in the first sense, as a temporary turbulence which needs to be addressed through technical fixes in the current system. Every response is geared towards the reinstallment of a functional pre-crisis system. As we live in a growth-dependent economic system, the central question of the mass-media and policy-makers is “how do we get the economy to grow again?”. In contrast, people who are critical of the current economic system and work towards structural change tend to conceptualise the crisis in the second way, namely, as a moment that marks the transition into a new system. Long-term critics and grassroots activists often feel that their views are being validated through the crisis, as the economic system proves to be inherently unstable and governments look out only for the needs of the banking sector. People on the ground thus need to rely on each other and take matters in their own hands to save themselves and each other through the crisis. Many decide that it is time to change how the society works and push for political and economic change. The former takes shape in occupations, demonstrations and practices of direct democracy while the latter can be found in the establishment of and participation in alternative economic networks. Both are prefigurative in the sense that the movements embody the values people want to see in politics and the economy. On a small scale in the individual initiatives, they are thus already practising the changes they want to bring about in society at large. The political and economic ideas that people advocate in these movements are not necessarily new and many have been practising them already for years before the crisis. It has been argued that severe downturns tend to accelerate deep economic shifts that are already under way which is why these ideas that have been around for a while suddenly gain traction through the crisis (Williams, 2012).

Edgar Morin (1976, 1984) who advocated in the mid-1970s the development of the scientific study of the crisis as such (“crisology”) suggested that a crisis can be an event that both reveals and has an effect. It reveals what usually remains invisible; it forces us to see things that we are usually unwilling to confront. The crisis reveals aspects that are inherent to reality and are not merely accidents; it constitutes a moment of truth. In the current case, it can be said that the crisis reveals unbridled capitalism, in particular financial capitalism, in all its brutality and its extreme injustice (Wieviorka, 2012). Above all, it reveals the dynamics of debt which structure our global economy to a large extend while at the same time destabilising it and stripping it of resilience. It is interesting to observe that in this context the Bank of England published for the first time a report that openly states that money is created ex nihilo as loans by private banks (Graeber, 2014). The crisis thus reveals threatening dynamics that have been going on long before 2008. As an event that has an effect, Morin considers that a crisis sets in motion not only forces of decomposition, disorganisation and destruction, but also forces of transformation (Morin, 1976, 1984). In these cases it is also a critical point in a process that includes dimensions of construction, innovation, and invention. The focus of my dissertation is the transformational dynamics of alternative economic practices that this particular crisis fuels and set in motion. Continuing the idea that a crisis both “reveals” and “has an effect”, Edgar Morin invites us to admit that the crisis demonstrates that what a matter of course was is in fact a source of difficulties and presents problems: what worked had its limits, its drawbacks, and its inadequacies. The crisis therefore constitutes an incentive to invent something new; but an incentive that is imperative as the system that previously helped us structure our lives became deeply dysfunctional and cannot further be relied on.”

Photo by PFNKIS

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