Balázs Trencsényi (Central European University)

Abstract: My presentation is based on the work I have done in the last 5 years on analyzing crisis discourses in Eastern and Western European contexts of the last 100 years. In this presentation, I focus on what we can learn from analyzing the interwar conceptualizations and what are the limits of these analogies and comparisons.

On the whole, comparing the interwar discourses on crisis to the post-2000 uses of the concept seems particularly instructive as it sheds light on the underlying “regimes of historicity” shaping political ideologies and systems. It is often argued that the recent “illiberal” ideological reconfiguration was triggered by the collapse of the modernist imaginary and of evolutionary models of development. Symptoms of disorientation have also been frequently linked to the “postmodern condition,” which came to be philosophically and aesthetically articulated from the late 1970s onward (as against the modernist/developmentalist visions which dominated the 1950s and ‘60s). But in the history of political thought the dynamics of transformation seem somewhat more complicated. One can hardly identify a single moment when the modernist framework of representation was abruptly replaced by something radically different. It was a more ambiguous and not so one-directional trajectory. On the one hand, the interwar years already witnessed the shaking of the modernist futural vision and the creation of alternative modalities that might be described as anti-modernism. Significantly, while they did not completely overlap, one can notice some substantial resonances between anti-modernist and postmodernist political and aesthetic sensitivities.

The entanglement between anti-modernism and postmodernism might well provide yet another reason why some of the interwar ideological modalities started to attract special attention in the last decades. Importantly, the rise of populism and neoliberalism was intertwined with the shaking of the linear/modernist vision and in some ways these ideological streams are rooted in “Sonderweg” discourses or “alternative modernities.” Thus, both populists and neoliberals reject the image of an inherent historical evolution towards greater liberty, considering the actual tendencies (toward centralization and étatism) extremely dangerous, and arguing for the need to return to an abandoned path of organic development. Furthermore, they both stress the centrality of a quasi-transcendent meaning-constitutive and self-regulating principle: the “will of the people” in the case of populism, and “market mechanism” in the case of neoliberalism. Such a principle creates its own historicity which is characterized by an alternation between periods of purity or unrestricted unfolding versus times of ideological and social contamination or external hindrance.

Resonance or even genealogical links of course do not imply full convergence. The changing meanings and discursive functions of the very notion of crisis over the last hundred years is a case in point. Rather than indicating a decision of life and death, or pointing to a dramatic transformative process, in the last decades crisis has come close to becoming a shorthand for identifying a problem area where there seems to be no solution in sight. This transformation of the understanding of crisis is also reflected in the recent attempt to give “crisis scholarship” a separate academic identity, with a focus on “creeping crises” which have no clear beginning or ending, defined against the conventional definition of crises as dynamically unfolding, having well-defined starting and end points.