Terminological Reflections: Crisis, Collapse, Catastrophe, Singularity, Shock, and Apocalypse

By George Caffentzis
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This is a period when the word “Crisis” is frequently in use and even its medical roots are making a return to collective awareness. Though it was often deployed to describe social, political and economic affairs in the 19th century, the term suffers from semantic inflation in the 21st. It is widely recognized that it now has a variety of meanings and an ever-growing trail of cognates like “collapse,” “catastrophe,” “singularity,” “shock” and “apocalypse.”

Let me first turn to “crisis.” There are a variety of dimensions that crisis can be assessed. I will list just four: (1) a crisis can be of capital’s or the working class’ social reproduction; (2) a crisis can be a crisis of capitalism or a crisis within capitalism; (3) a crisis can be planned or unplanned; (4) a crisis can arise from chronic long-term tendencies (the falling rate of profit; overproduction) or be the product of a transient conjuncture. Of course, the disjunctions are inclusive not exclusive. Not taking the possible inclusivity of the disjunction into account, there are 16 possible crisis types that are available.

This framework for the theory of crises, although rather elaborate, does not include a number other terms recently used to describe the transcending of the limits of a social structure like capitalism. They include “collapse,” “catastrophe,” “shock” and “singularity.” Each of them had their own genealogy and politics, of course.

“Collapse” had its popular root in the peculiar demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. What had been claimed to be the most powerful entrenched political party in the planet, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, armed with nuclear weapons and in control of an army of millions, somehow peacefully went out of business without a shot being fired. The CP in the SU was not “pushed” out of power either by an internal working class revolt or by an external agent, it just simply “collapsed” the way that a physical structure like a bridge or a building breaks down with just “normal” usage. Actually existing communism was apparently too heavy for its own foundations.

This term was developed by Joseph Tainter in his timely 1988 book, “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” and then more recently by Jared Diamond in his 2005 book,

“Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” It has increasingly been used to describe the possibility of the United States economy suffering a similar fate to the Soviet Union’s. Dmitry Orlov has ironically deployed the term to describe the fate of the United States in some not-too-distant future that is experiencing the impact of Peak Oil using the Russian experience as a standard.

“Collapse” is an attractive term for those who want to view society not as the product of class struggle but as an energy-processing structure, with a given set of rules of social reproduction that increase in complexity in the face of problems. Inexorably, increasing complexity at first brings increasing “energy capture” but eventually it becomes subject to the law of diminishing returns. This leads to collapse, i.e., a sudden return to a lower level of complexity. Some Peak Oil supporters like Richard Heinberg have adopted this notion as a way of describing their vision of the consequences of living on the “other side” of Hubbert’s curve. From this perspective, some societies have rules of reproduction that are sustainable and that lead to “success” while others do not and lead to “failure,” i.e., collapse, given changing environmental constraints.

The meaning of “collapse” in this context is closest to that of “a crisis of social reproduction” I mentioned above. (If, according to this reversal of the classical “progressive” stage theory of history scheme, Communism collapsed back into Capitalism, then will Capitalism collapse back into Feudalism?)

Naomi Klein uses the term “shock” in her critique of neoliberal economics. In fact, it is a term of art of neoliberal economics which argues that since markets tend to equilibrium, the only way to describe forces that drive markets out of equilibrium are extra-systemic “shocks,” whether they be wars, changes of taste or climate, etc.

Finally, there are terms coming from the field of non-linear mathematics like “catastrophe” and “singularity.” They have had a faddish presence in economics and philosophy in the past. In this discontinuous and turbulent climate, they undoubtedly will get re-examined. I should also mention, my personal favorite, a borrowing from theological discourse: Apocalypse. As I wrote of the “end of world” apocalyptic discourse in 1980 when the “Club of Rome” rhetoric was giving way to nuclear “exterminism”: “Whenever the ongoing model of exploitation becomes untenable, capital has intimations of mortality qua the world’s end. Every period of [capitalism] has had its apocalypses…that mark every change in capitalist development and thought.”

We seem to be in a similar situation now. We are waiting for a recession, of course, but not only that. There is a discontinuous break on the horizon, similar to the one experienced after the crisis of 1973-1980. Will the whirlwind bring us a crisis of capitalism, a collapse into feudalism, a shock into another form of capitalism, an apocalyptic turn? Let us remember not all descriptions of discontinuous change are equivalent and each has a different politics.

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