This special issue demonstrates how theorizing the present in terms of crisis generates insights into contradictory experiences of historical time. The core questions addressed are these: What are the temporal forms through which crisis is expressed today, and what are the political implications? The contributors pay close attention to the nonsynchronicity and the discordance of times that constitute the present. The contributors ask how contemporary crisis can be better understood with reference to long-term and ongoing colonial and racial histories. This article functions as both an introduction to the special issue as well as a development of some of the key theoretical coordinates, first thinking through the relationship between crisis and everyday politics, disentangling crisis theory from its association with determinism, and then showing how crisis theory challenges conventional understandings of political agency. Recent work in Black studies offers significant ways of understanding how subaltern actors improvise and forge unfamiliar forms of agency in times of brutal constraint. With reference to this work, the article argues that understanding crisis not only as an “object” of study but as a “method” has generative implications for theorizing the present.

“Always historicize!,” Fredric Jameson's (1981) imperative for good theoretical work, was written and widely cited at a time when “history” and “theory” were frequently perceived as antagonists in ongoing polemics surrounding the reception of “French Theory.” It has less polemical connotations today. Depending on where one is writing from, the idea that theorizing is an intrinsically historical practice seems hardly debatable as a starting premise. To theorize is to grapple with the difficulties of periodization, the specificity and elusiveness of the present moment, and the many temporalities that constitute it. When the present becomes overwhelmingly characterized in terms of “crisis” these challenges are exacerbated. How does one articulate the relationship between crisis as tendency, intrinsic to the development of capitalism, and crisis as event, where those tendencies break out into a more generalized situation of tumult and instability?

This special issue focuses on these temporal and methodological challenges and reconsiders the analytical value of crisis as a means through which to theorize the present. The dynamism of the notion of crisis is partially attributable to its dual character, evident in etymological origins of the Greek word that signified both “quarrel” or “divorce” and “decision” or “judgment.” “Objective” crisis and “subjective” critique seem to be fused as part of the same domain (Koselleck 2006: 359). The objective condition being analyzed is problematized by the judgmental criteria being deployed to diagnose it (368). This has consequences for how we understand the notion today and helps us begin to address major problems in its usages. First, the hyperbolic and ubiquitous use of the word in inaccurate and misleading ways. Fabricated crises abound today, amplified in the media by various actors of populist reaction, reinforcing the closure of political horizons and alternative possibilities; crises are often deployed as modes of governance for precisely these ends. But the appropriation, banalization, and obfuscation of concepts like “crisis” is a common occurrence and a weak excuse to give up on them. Amid the noise of fabricated crises, very real ones persist in shaping our present moment in more structurally constraining ways, and a critical lucidity regarding such distinctions is necessary for any theorist of the present, hence the need to keep thinking through crisis via critique. Second, another common problem is the role of crisis as a catch-all explanation. When confronted with a conundrum regarding present catastrophes or diminishing political horizons, the ways in which stories about capitalist crisis are narrated can sometimes foreclose the possibility of further analysis and leave one with the impression that an explanation in terms of crisis is all that is required. Crisis becomes the end of the story, rather than the beginning. It can sometimes close down analysis rather than opening it up. Theories of capitalist crisis do have considerable explanatory value for many of the upheavals and malaises of the present, as outlined in the following pages; however, in addition to this explanatory function, the main body of my introductory article will go on to demonstrate how theories of crisis can have mobilizing and generative analytical value. This is already evident implicitly in the dual character operative in the original notion of crisis as mentioned above, but it is activated in different ways today by theorists and actors, as I will discuss below.

While the idea of crisis is bound up with the birth of critique and the entire project of modern critical theory, its Marxian usages have been revived in recent years to try to offer an alternative explanation for the set of events often narrated in terms of “neoliberalism,” “globalization,” and their much-debated continuities and/or afterlives. Instead of focusing on ideological battles or nefarious “elite” actors, theories of crisis draw our attention to structural constraints and contradictions. In this regard, one of the many aspects of Marx's account of crisis that has been revisited in twenty-first-century radical theory is the thesis of “relative surplus populations” from the chapter on the “general law of capitalist accumulation” in the first volume of Capital. Here Marx (1990: 716) argues that capitalist accumulation is driven by the role of workers as both subjects and objects within the valorization process, meaning that the proletariat produces wealth but is also produced by capital as wage-laborer. In addition to playing a central role in its own reproduction, the working population also produces “the means by which it is itself made relatively superfluous; and it does this to an extent which is always increasing” (783). This is partially attributed to rising levels of productivity, where workers make technological advances that then threaten to render workers more superfluous in the process. It is one of the many systemic contradictions of capitalism that produces crisis. In the twentieth century it seemed that Marx's reading of the relative surplus population did not correspond to the historical direction of capitalism in dominant Western economies. Marx had claimed that the becoming-superfluous of the working population takes place under capitalism “to an extent that is always increasing” (783), but the expansion of industrial capitalism, and the exceptional rates of growth and employment seen in Western economies during the decades following World War II, meant that capitalism was absorbing more and more people into labor markets. However, the early 1970s saw the beginning of a “long downturn” (Robert Brenner), consistently declining growth rates, and various indications of a secular crisis that even bourgeois economists have come to acknowledge in terms of “secular stagnation.” It is in this context that Marx's account of an expanding surplus population has found a renewed relevance and even more so since 2008. How is it that historically high rates of proletarianization have gone hand in hand with the rejection of more and more people from the formal labor market? Revisiting Marx's arguments concerning the causal relationship between accumulation and crisis, specifically re-interrogating the “relative surplus populations” thesis, has been essential for contemporary theorists seeking to explain such contemporary paradoxes (Benanav 2020; “Misery and Debt” 2010; Denning 2010; Gilmore 2007; Bernards and Soedeberg 2019).

To give another brief example of how crisis has provided an alternative account to the dominant narratives of neoliberalism or globalization, it is worth turning to Giovanni Arrighi's work, which has served as a productive reference for contemporary debates (see, for example, Clover 2016). Placing the US “long twentieth century” within a sequence of cycles of systemic accumulation with recurring patterns of structural limitations, Arrighi showed how an expansion of military endeavors simultaneously taking place alongside deindustrialization and the switch to finance-oriented activity in the economy formed a repertoire of symptoms and responses to the systemic contradiction of rising overcapacity. At such points, Arrighi (2005: 87) explains that “capitalist agencies tend to invade one another's spheres of operation; the division of labour that previously defined the terms of their mutual co-operation breaks down; and competition becomes increasingly vicious.” The capacity to compensate for losses in core spheres such as industry with innovations in new ones such as finance has been a recurring means of all declining centers of world capitalism to enjoy a “belle époque” of significant but ultimately temporary reinflation of wealth and power. These temporary fixes nevertheless always deepen the underlying overaccumulation crisis, exacerbating competition, social conflicts, and interstate rivalries to levels beyond the hegemon's capacity to control (Arrighi 2005: 88). This has been another useful framework for rereading the intensification of social conflict and violence, underpinning the era of “neoliberalism” or “globalization,” mutating in recent times but still exacerbating the kinds of conflicts Arrighi pointed to.1 Arrighi's “postcript” to the 2010 edition of The Long Twentieth Century provided a helpful clarification and updated reconsidering of his theory. His notion of “terminal crisis,” for example, was not an overly optimistic wager on the imminent collapse of capitalism, but referred instead to the probable end of a “dominant regime of accumulation” (Arrighi 2010: 371). Even if China seems like the logical successor to the US as the major force in global capitalism, systemic instability is such that any cohesive project of global hegemony, as seen in previous cycles of accumulation, may no longer be possible.

Crisis as periodizing, historical explanation, then, has been a key focus of some of the liveliest debates in contemporary critical theory that have taken place over the past decade (see, for example, journals such as Viewpoint and Endnotes). While indebted to this work, this special issue is less directly concerned with large-scale debates on periodization and instead focuses on the question of temporality. Much valuable work has taken place on temporality in contemporary theory in recent years (Tomba 2012; Harootunian 2010; Noys 2014b; Rancière 2018); we build on this work by interrogating temporal questions on a granular level, in dialogue with, or via, specific political scenes, and expanding this by asking how the theorization of present crises can be better understood with reference to longer racial and colonial histories.

The wager of the special issue is that theorizing the present in terms of crisis permits us to interrogate fraught and contradictory experiences of historical time in greater detail. The first core question we seek to address is the following: what are the temporal forms through which crisis is expressed today? In this sense, the contributors pay particular attention to the nonsynchronicity and the discordance of times that constitute any experience of the present, but they go beyond a purely theoretical or speculative level of analysis to interrogate the form and contents of different experiences of the present.

The impasses of the present have led radical theorists to turn to the future and the past for clues for understanding and finding a way out. This has often come at the expense of a patient working through of the present in its fissured, uneven, and complex textures. A typical example of this came from the proponents of a left-wing accelerationism, where the present was treated as a problem to be solved by constructing a new hegemony and a new future, but its claims to novelty were compromised by the fact that it relied on a very familiar vision of the future based on twentieth-century modernism (Srnicek and Williams 2014). While accelerationism, as an explicit project, has receded from theoretical credibility on the left, contemporary theory abounds with comparable rushes to the future that end up repeating the past and failing to grapple with, and work through, the present's limits, contradictions, and possibilities, as Benjamin Noys expands upon in this special issue (see also Noys 2010, 2014b).

The recent debates on fascism are also indicative of how theorization of the present requires further working through of its specific temporal forms and contents. When considering the legacies and actualities of fascism today, the present moment has frequently been measured against interwar European fascisms to an extent that has obscured fascism's different manifestations and complexities on a global scale. The interwar analogy became a rigid framework to measure the present against in order to decipher whether it is truly “fascist” or not. In his critical engagements with these tendencies, which he builds upon in this special issue, Alberto Toscano (2023) has argued that while certain temporal patterns of fascism might repeat—think, for example, of the peculiar combination of archaisms and futurisms—the temporal content of different manifestations often differs significantly and invites close study. Today, for example, we find a nostalgia for modernism, a nostalgia for the trente glorieuses (the postwar period of growth seen in France and other Western economies), in contrast to the premodern nostalgic content often fueling earlier manifestations of fascism. Furthermore, the relationship between fascism and contemporary crisis might better be understood by moving away from the Eurocentric angle of recent debates and paying closer attention to a rich archive of Black anti-fascist theorizing which has showed the extent to which fascism is, or always was, operative within liberal democracy. From the perspective of Black political prisoners in the US, such as George Jackson, for example, fascism did not look like interwar Europe or future dystopia but an ongoing aspect of the present (Toscano 2020; Jackson 1996). This shows the necessity for studying the discordant temporalities that make up the present with particular attention to how race, class, and gender play crucial roles in the temporal dimensions of how crisis is lived.

The core contribution of this special issue then is to bring together articles that interrogate the specific temporalities of the present as a historical experience of crisis and to foreground racial and colonial histories as crucial in the constitution of crisis. Each article works through different manifestations of crisis with close attention to its discordant temporalities. The range of contributions includes study of the temporalities of transnational capitalism and the “cycle of struggles” that have arisen within them over the past decade, the specificity of anticolonial temporalities and the ways in which they express themselves in the present, the conjuncture of the pandemic and climate crisis in 2020 as a means of reconsidering more long-term and ongoing crises stemming from imperialism and settler-colonialism, and the clash of times and differentials of speed within extended urban crises, where a temporality of “on-going temporariness” characterizes the struggle to survive and navigate such upheaval.

This notion of ongoingness, of crisis understood less as a punctual event, relates to the second core question we address in this special issue: crisis for whom? Many of the symptoms associated with recent capitalist crisis, for example, are not so new for racialized and other vulnerable populations. From this perspective, the crisis came long before any “long downturn” in the West. Black and Indigenous theorists have often evoked Sun Ra's “It's after the end of the world” to clarify the state of extreme precarity that has been the ongoing reality for many subaltern peoples throughout the modern world, particularly stemming from the aftermath of colonial conquests understood as apocalyptic events (Horne 2018). The analytical stakes of this ongoingness are developed in this special issue by situating the current matrix of crises in relation to the long-term, ongoing colonial histories that shape them.

In the remainder of this introduction, I further develop some of the key theoretical coordinates of the special issue with particular attention to how theories of crisis can have mobilizing analytical value for theorizing everyday politics. Part of my argument here can be understood as a response to critics of the notion of crisis, such as Jan Roitman, who rightly notes the problematic use of crisis as a term that seems self-explanatory. This is the danger of the methodology of “catch-all explanation” I referred to above. Roitman (2013: 3) argues that crisis tends to serve “as the noun-formation of contemporary historical narrative,” a “means to access historical truth.” While there are such problematic usages of crisis theory, this is nevertheless a limited reading of the ways crisis can be mobilized. In this special issue we rethink crisis as an active critical activity, crisis-theorizing, rather than the conclusive noun formation suggested by Roitman. I develop this reading of crisis in what follows, first by revisiting Hall et al.’s ([1978] 1982) Policing the Crisis, to make some further wagers on the political dimensions of any crisis, disentangling the notion from its associations with economic determinism. Foregrounding analysis of race, I turn to recent scholarship in Black studies to develop the notion of crisis as method. Some of the theorists I engage with here do not always use the language of crisis, but I argue that their work has vital implications for the concept. Contemporary Black studies offers particularly instructive lessons for thinking through the heterogenous ways actors live and survive ongoing conditions of brutal constraint. Moving beyond thinking of crisis merely as an “object” of study, then, in dialogue with various contemporary theorists, I offer a provisional outline of how crisis as method might play an energizing role in contemporary theory and show how it also offers insights into the complexity of the historical present, as explored in various ways throughout this special issue. This notion of crisis as method allows us to articulate the possibility for agency and politics against fatalistic or deterministic conclusions that have often been associated with crisis theory, while also using the notion of crisis to develop a reading of agency that is incompatible with liberal intentionality.

Policing the Crisis

Policing the Crisis maps the emergence of a new “law-and-order society” in 1970s Britain, a time and place in which Hall and coauthors wrote that there seemed to be “no viable capitalist solutions left” to the crisis, but where, at the same time, there was “no political base for an alternative socialist strategy. It is a nation locked in a deadly stalemate: a stalemate of unstoppable capitalist decline” (Hall et al. 1982: 309). The disintegration of social consensus underpinning hegemony led a new right-wing bloc to search for legitimation in other ways, turning to increasingly coercive measures but implementing coercion via creative constructions of consent. Moral panics around crime played essential roles in schooling the public for a new “law-and-order” society and in constructing a fragile consensus that would form the basis of Thatcherism, or as Hall described it, “authoritarian populism.”

Despite Thatcher's successful messaging of there being “no alternative” to the neoliberal reforms pursued, Hall's mapping of this moment stresses how the outcome of crisis is never predetermined and always the result of political struggle. While Hall's writing shows how this conjuncture is partially defined by real structural crises and limits specific to the breakdown of the postwar social compromise in Britain within the beginning of the “long downturn” of Western capitalist economies, we also get a sense of how the conjuncture of crisis is partially a political construction. One way this comes across is in a new mode of governance by crisis. An actually existing crisis, largely economic, becomes appropriated by the repressive apparatuses of the state. It comes to be viewed as the result of “planned or organized conspiracies.” In this context, British society became fixated by the idea of a conspiracy against the “British way of life” (Hall [1988] 2021: 23). This was exemplified by the depiction of the miners, amid the oil crisis, as being unpatriotic and in cahoots with the Arab oil embargo, as if working within a broader conspiracy against British society (20). We can see the pertinence of such analysis today where the government wages war on universities, where “gender ideology” and “critical race theory” form the bases of contemporary moral panics, and in postcolonial states where conspiracies of treason are concocted against journalists and public freedoms. In the context of a pandemic where conspiracy theories about vaccines, particularly but not only on the far right, have proliferated, it is also important to underline that there has been no shortage of conspiracies concocted by ruling governments in the West and what is left of the political “center.” Fredric Jameson (1988: 356) remarked that conspiracy serves as the poor person's cognitive mapping in times of disorientation, an understandable if impoverished attempt to grasp the totality of globalized capitalism. But, following Hall, we can see today that conspiracy also serves as a form of governance for political formations grasping at what little consensus can be sustained in times of crisis.

The internal dynamics of the political crisis sketched by Hall in 1970s Britain entailed constructing a “law-and-order” society as a fix to problems such as declining profits, declining demand for immigrant postcolonial labor at a moment of severe imperial decline, problems in other words, in which there was no longer the political willpower or the economic capability to address according to the preexisting terms of societal reproduction. Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2022: 209) has developed the analyses of Hall and coauthors to show how, in a different context, economic and social crises collide and combine into the crisis that prison expansion “fixes.” Whether it be the contemporary US example or 1970s Britain, both instances show how preexisting ideological “surpluses” of the state—their long imperialist histories driven by racial and colonial technologies—are key to “fixing” the different crises that manifest.

Another way that crisis-as-governance can be understood is in the suggestion that it is a response to actually existing subversive political threats. Focusing on a central problem of Policing the Crisis, new forms of racialized policing, the authors write that contrary to the claims of many at the time, “it was because the blacks and black areas threatened to become a policing problem of a much wider kind that the alienating social conditions of blacks suddenly became a ‘police’ concern” (Hall et al. 1982: 332). While this demonstrates the changing politics of crisis on the part of the state, it gives important insight into the shifting forms of political subjectivation of (in this case) Black working classes that take place amid crisis. It is through race that Black members of the class live and come to consciousness of structured subordination, and also organize to fight. As unemployment rose, growth declined and more and more people began to be thrown off the job market. Black unemployed workers in Britain were disproportionately affected and began to be thought of as forming a new racial class, whether understood as a rising “lumpenproletariat” or “sub-proletariat.” What Policing the Crisis reminds us is that from the perspective of the state, this “racial class” needs to be policed not simply because they are perceived as merely products of a nefarious economic process, now becoming “surplus” to the requirements of capitalism in decline; they were also viewed as a problem because they were an actually existing or potentially subversive political organization. The existence of “incipient” Black revolt in the early 1970s became compounded (331), from about 1974, by a new set of factors, largely to do with the expanding economic recession. It is suggested that a Black “lumpenproletariat,” becoming increasingly conscious of a shared condition of wagelessness and increased precarity, posed a potential political threat to the state.

Starting with the ways in which the politics of blackness were and are seen as a threat from the perspective of the state, what is at stake is an understanding of “surplus” classes in times of crisis which goes beyond reading them as merely passive outcomes of processes of economic decline. Within these very real trends toward immiseration, the close readings of Hall and coauthors offer us important insights into how the politics of surplus life are more complex than is sometimes suggested by large-scale accounts of crisis narrated from the perspective of the state. The methodology here, further developed by Gilmore (2007, 2022) and others, allows us to see how political crisis is partially fueled by a response to the actions, or potential actions, of subaltern peoples who forge resistance, and within that crisis which emerges, this methodology allows us to see how such actors might find possibility for liberatory action within the conditions of severe constraint dictated by the crisis.

“Undersocieties” and Everyday Survival

Contemporary theorists of the Black Radical Tradition might refer to this as the “insurgent sociality” (Fred Moten) that is also prior to, and in excess of, the most brutal forms of constraint. We can think, for example, of the practices of everyday improvisation and “hustle” necessary for survival for those abandoned by declining state welfare programs and low demand for labor. While recent years have seen various attempts to actualize or locate communities of care and social reproduction independent of the state, particularly in the context of the pandemic, where the possibility of a “democratic biopolitics” has been evoked, surviving “organized abandonment” (Sotiris 2020; Gilmore 2022) far more often takes place without any consciously political intent. People are more and more compelled to survive by eking out a living in informal economies, very often just beyond the borders of legality. In the Middle East prior to the Arab Spring, the intensification of both neoliberalism and political authoritarianism made survival barely possible without participation in economies that were both informal and extralegal. Most Tunisians, for example, depended upon the informal economy, but street traders, who made up 40 percent of the informal workforce, remained outlawed. Traders faced harassment, beatings, fines, and confiscation of property (see Bayat 2021: 47–49). Asef Bayat's work draws attention to the “undersocieties” that experiment with nominally mundane forms of social survival beyond the state. Not consciously political, these experiments create the grounds for potentially contentious politics. This entails the “quiet encroachment of the ordinary,” not in terms of public acts of refusal, but more asymmetrically implementing counter-norms where masses of people simultaneously doing the same thing, by their very numbers, inaugurate new subversive norms: the “normative practice of the factual,” or what Bayat (2021: 27–28) describes rather as “the factual and normative power of the subaltern acts in everyday life.”

These acts of surviving immiseration, by the very fact of not passing via consciously identifiable and “political” forms, carry more enduring political potential, particularly for surviving police states. Although autocratic regimes regularly crush dissenting parties and organizations, it is much more difficult to block connective actions forged through “diffused socioscapes” and “everyday lifeworlds.”

These dynamics are not confined to the Middle East or the Global South. Some of the most brutal police murders of Black people in the US, Tobi Haslett (2021) writes, “extend from more quotidian debasements.” Haslett draws attention to the expansion of armed state presence ever deeper into the lives of the urban poor as well as specific practices such as ticketing Black people at outrageous rates in cities like Ferguson, partially as a means of fending off fiscal meltdown. More generally, many young Black people murdered in recent years had been harassed repeatedly and it is significant that this has sometimes been for selling counterfeit cigarettes or other seemingly banal activities. When informal ways of surviving lumpenization (and organized abandonment by the state) become widespread in ways that potentially undermine, or act just beyond the parameters of, state authority, then the state often returns bringing warfare rather than welfare. The dynamics of crisis at play here include a core tension between surplus lives being simultaneously “excluded” and “included” in differentially violent ways. Today more and more people are seen as surplus to the requirements of formal labor markets, subjected to “wageless life” (Denning 2010). Their conditions are sometimes compared to the dynamics of settler colonialism where the state seeks simply to expel them rather than exploit them. But in the absence of the disciplining mechanism of the formal wage, the state has to find other modes of discipline for them, most often in the form of intensive policing or more generalized production of “carceral geographies.” So contemporary crisis entails a renewed coloniality in capitalism's operations, but imagery of total exclusion, states of exception, and so on, can be deceptive. Coloniality also goes hand in hand with different forms of “differential inclusion” (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013).

It should also be noted that for many this coloniality is not so new. The Black Panther Party, among others, made a powerful critique of the colonial nature of policing before the beginning of the “long downturn.” As suggested in the opening, this is one of the major challenges for any theorization of the present as crisis: for racialized and marginalized people it does not necessarily represent an exception or a rupture. For Black radical theorists, for example, the fascistic tendencies in the present do not represent a “return” to the 1930s but the “ongoing fact of racialized state terror” (Toscano 2020). It is thus crucial to think through the relationship between recent capitalist stagnation and longer histories of racial capitalism in order to be more precise concerning the different dynamics shaping the present. Achille Mbembe (2017) has suggested a reading of the present in terms of a “Becoming Black of the world,” according to which some of the conditions suffered by transatlantic slaves may become generalized for the world's subaltern peoples. This provocative hypothesis could provide one basis for mapping the relationship between continuities and ruptures simultaneously at work in the present conjuncture of crisis. Mbembe (2019: 178) suggests that racialization is intensifying but is taking different forms, particularly for a “subaltern category of humanity, a genus of subaltern humanity, which, as a superfluous and almost excessive part for which capital has no use, seems destined for zoning and expulsion.”

But while the intensification and expansion of racism, coloniality, and carcerality wreaks havoc, these dynamics also show fragilities. The more the state “goes to war against social reproduction . . . the less control it maintains” (Harney and Moten 2018). While contemporary crisis brings with it intensifying political authoritarianism, the state's resources are finite, and the opacity of everyday subaltern life regularly eludes its grasp and gaze. Bayat's “undersocieties” are described not as hidden but as illegible: opaque formations that are visible but diffuse and not entirely penetrable. This is a source of strength and potential political surprise. Exclusive local knowledge often remains internal, denied, or unreadable, to a large extent, for elites or external authorities. Again, the opacity is not necessarily part of a “deliberate strategy” to confuse; it is immanent to the “subaltern lifeword” that makes subjectivities less readable and behavior unpredictable (Bayat 2021: 30–31).

The limits of state power and potential within the everyday sociality of “subaltern lifeworlds” can be further traced through close study of the rhythms and temporalities of those lifeworlds. AbdouMaliq Simone has shown how the “temporariness” that characterizes contemporary subaltern life is not only a symptom of dispossession, of not having any solid structure to rely on, but can also be understood as a rhythm where people experiment, in ways that resist a return to the “terms of order.” For Simone (2020: 1139), “while the global assault on black life may be relentless, there is something about the shift, the temporary, that indicates that something else besides this is underway, a remaking of urban life whose dispositions are far from certain.” This offers an alternative way of theorizing contemporary subaltern urban life where, in the face of intensifying and disordering effects of dispossession and uncertainty, the temptation is to fall back on normative appeals to “order” and the certainty and rootedness of inhabiting. Simone instead proposes the uninhabitable as method, which I would argue is an energizing example of theorizing crisis as method. While this resonates with Bayat's theorization of a politics of “undersocieties” forging possibility within disorder, Simone makes a more explicit connection with the politics of refusal. On one level, the logic of refusal differs with Bayat's key concepts, such as the “quiet encroachment of the ordinary,” since the notion of refusal seems to suggest a public act of defiance, whereas everyday encroachment takes place without conscious or public political content. But the specific modes of refusal suggested by Simone, Moten, and others may not be so different from what Bayat suggests in another sense because these modes of refusal are not actually concerned with communicating or even directly confronting power. They do not necessarily make public claims. The refusal here is about refusing to ask for what has been denied. The refusal is not pronounced but is instead implied, indirectly, by acts and forms of sociality. These acts do not bypass communication or mediation, but they have a more asymmetrical relationship to power than is conventionally associated with acts of refusal. They attempt to foster their own opacity. In this regard, Simone (2019: 39) is interested in the pockets of indeterminacy that endure beyond the temptation toward narratives of catastrophe and “cheap gestures of redemption” in contemporary urban life. Taking the “uninhabitable as method” means attunement to practices of navigating uncertainty in ways that are impermeable to calculation, neat individuation, and settling (93). This means paying attention to how people “use the dispossessions they may experience in the intensified uncertainties of urban life in order to discover what might have been present and possible all along” (30). Many people in extreme situations of dispossession still have something worth “preserving,” something that endures beyond the idea of ownership and possession.

While this is specific to contemporary upheaval, it also evokes the sociality that exists prior to the intervention and repressions of crisis governance. It echoes Fred Moten's refusal of that which the world of the political has refused to Black lives. What Black study powerfully does is not to call for that refusal but to study and foreground the ways in which it is already operative in existing forms of sociality. Refusal is, then, not about spectacular displays of defiance but the granular details of everyday practices of survival, care, and social indeterminacy that do not fit into the terms of interpretation with which political theory arrives on the scene.

Black study is so important for theorizing crisis because it reminds us that forms of social disorder are not merely “problems to be solved” (see also Myers 2023). Moten suggests that studying and theorizing entails investigation of instability, “a courting of tumult, of riot, of derangement, of the constitutive disorder of the polis, its black market, border and bottom, the field of minor internal conflict, of the minor occasion or event through which the essence of an interminable struggle takes form. It means settling down in the uninhabitable” (Moten 2018: 173). This implies studying the improvisational creativity of those in situations of brutal constraint, but it also means an affective alignment with the constitutive disorder of everyday sociality, the messiness that makes up the social at its most surprising and disarming, and that is not reducible to the mess created by capitalism in crisis. This challenges us to think crisis theory beyond the (necessary) registers of explanation and clarification, to tarry and dwell with the constitutive opacities of the social and incorporate these as methods for theorization. Just as diasporic practice teaches us an attentiveness to the heterogenous ways in which people make and remake themselves, entirely at odds with the categories fixed on them by the state, Moten's writings on insurgent and aesthetic sociality similarly exemplify how rigorous thought is not reducible to ordering and categorizing.2

The larger stakes of this for contemporary theory are how the methodological claims of Black study, briefly outlined here, provide a challenge to normative orientations of critique, but I would argue this implies an even stronger challenge to dominant “anti-critique” and “postcritique” currents. Black Study can be aligned with key traditions of theoretical critique that find energizing resources in negativity and refuse the facile calls to “construct rather than deconstruct!” that abound within the postcritique turn. Key texts in this turn (Srnicek and Williams 2014; Latour 2010; De Sutter 2019) exemplify a problematically technocratic thinking. The critic cedes place to the designer or the return of the “intellectual” who “solves” problems and poses constructive solutions for the future. Against this tendency, I would argue for critically potent energies and affinities that refuse the affirmative and technocratic treatment of problems as objects to be solved. In these modes of theory, engaging with any problem means producing new ones. For Etienne Balibar (2020: 234–35), to problematize entails not only the diagnosis of an urgent situation or a “taking position” but a transformation of the “disposition of positions,” redrawing the lines of demarcation of what Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible.” Critical interventions do not accept problems as “given” but seek to reconstruct and reconceptualize basic assumptions in the field. This has often been forgotten within recent polemical writings of postcritique, which have unhelpfully ossified an opposition between the “constructive” or “speculative” potential of theory against the more “critical” tendencies. Latour's (2010: 475) claim that what “performs a critique cannot also compose” is a typical but highly misleading claim that falls apart when held up against actual instances of “critique” within the modern canon.3 While “critique” in its Kantian form demonstrates the limits of applicability of some theory or set of concepts, in many forms—the critique of political economy, for example—it has gone much further than this, by proposing an alternative set of tools for understanding social forms. Despite the claims of anti-critical polemicists, critique's essential work of negation has often been inseparable from “constructive” outcomes (see Mattick 2019; Noys 2010; Brown 2021). At the same time, I would argue that critique might be reevaluated in light of Black study in terms of a shared refusal to take on a policy-like role of posing solutions. The word problematize, for example, used by Balibar above and so central to a tradition of French philosophy interested in the adventure of thought, can be related to Black study's methodologies of opacity. For R. A. Judy and James Edward Ford III, Black study “narrates thinking as generating complexities and complications in their density rather than resolving difference in its translucence” (Judy in Ford 2018: 188). The thinking in Black study, and the richest traditions of critique, is not taking place at a distance or in a position of exteriority. It is about intense proximity, and even some of the most canonical examples of critique have emerged from a proximity that is informed by heightened consciousness of the critic's own complicity in their object of study. This is accentuated by Moten's understanding of theorizing as entailing a courting of the “constitutive disorder” of the polis. This gives us a sense of how we might start to think crisis as method and not only object of theoretical research, which will be developed below. How might the understanding of theory thus far outlined help us better understand the temporalities and politics of the present? In the following section I answer this question by analyzing the relationship between agency and crisis.

The Revenge of History/The Return of Politics

Our historical and political “present” is one that is constantly defined and situated in comparison to the “end of the history” narrative and “presentist” temporality that was claimed to characterize the 1990s. For economic crashes, surprisingly interventionist monetary policies, new wars, unexpected populist movements, and the election of neofascist politicians, such tumultuous twenty-first-century developments are often narrated in terms of a return of “history” or “politics.” The arc of economic determinism apparently underpinning and stretching beyond the Washington Consensus and broader certainties of early twenty-first-century globalization finds itself destabilized by a return of all sorts of political determinations. And from jihadi terrorism of the Islamic State to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such chaotic events are often narrated in terms of a “revenge” of history in response to the tale once told by the liberal West's apparent ending of history.

Of course, the task of theory is to interrogate beyond the semblance of temporal cohesion and examine the collision of temporalities and the discordance of times constituting any historical present. Ernst Bloch, as well as Louis Althusser and Balibar, have provided particularly useful and widely cited theories such as “non-contemporaneity” to think through the temporal contradictions of the present. Harry Harootunian (2007: 475) has traced how this character of the present came crashing into wider popular consciousness in 2000s America where Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans had the effect of waking the media up to the reality of Third World conditions being widespread within the contemporary imperialist core, where there were manifestly “all of the signs of unevenness reserved for the world beyond Euro-America.” As disinvestment effects not only welfare states but their wider social infrastructures, imagery and symptoms of crisis associated with an “elsewhere” to Euro-America become perennial in centers of capitalist decline. If the infrastructures of industrial and Fordist capitalism were so central to the emergence of the organizing rhythms and habits of everyday lifeworlds charted by mid-twentieth-century writers and theorists, then disinvestment, deindustrializing decline, and the wider realities of crisis have been instrumental in the emergence of a new temporal experience of the “everyday,” what Lauren Berlant describes as the everyday that disorganizes. This is a temporal regime of crisis where people experience not only precarity across different workspaces and informal economies but a profound uncertainty in wider social life. While such disorganizing tendencies necessarily accentuate and exacerbate the confrontation and discordance of uneven temporal registers, a key concept proposed by Berlant is “crisis-ordinariness.” This is where crisis differs from trauma and catastrophe. It takes on a more banal and normalized affect and has a more durational quality than does a time-based event or spectacular or exceptional occurrence.

Crisis perhaps better describes the reality of daily life for many today because it does not have the same connotations of exceptionality as trauma. It is the ongoing reality for many who are compelled to find ways of surviving its daily effects, in routine ways that can be both banal and creative. This crisis-ordinariness also gestures toward a more complex relationship between agency and structure. Berlant (2011: 54) attempts to analyze the present beyond a rigid confrontation between agency and structure, and to think through more entangled relations where crisis-shaped subjectivity is explained “amid the ongoingness of adjudication, adaptation, and improvisation.” Crisis-ordinariness entails a tragic reading of the present, a tracking of the present in terms of its various “impasses,” tarrying with dead ends that sometimes reveal glitches in the consistency of the present. Close readings of impasses can sometimes paradoxically open out on to unexpected horizons. The horizon of some kind of political possibility also emerges from a reading of crisis destabilizing any monolithic opposition between agency and structure. Gilmore (2007: 248), for example, writes that power

is not a thing, but rather a capacity composed of active and changing relationships enabling a person, group, or institution to compel others to do things they would not do on their own (such as be happy, or pay taxes, or go to war). Ordinarily, activists focus on taking power, as though the entire political setup were really a matter of “it” (structure) versus “us” (agency). But if the structure-agency opposition isn't how things really work, then perhaps politics is more complicated, and therefore open to more hopeful action. People can and do make power through, for example, developing capacities in organizations.

While one organization on its own can do little but “tweak Armageddon,” combinations and powerful alignments working in concert can “shake the ground” and make movement happen. The relative lack of agency is not dismissed but reconsidered as being forged through structural constraints rather than confronting them fully formed.

Crisis theory thus recenters politics in the form of an attentiveness to “power” as an active and changing relationship, but it also challenges the rhetorical appeal to “agency” as a synonym of “resistance.” Walter Johnson (2011: 25), writing in the context of key debates in slavery studies, has offered a compelling critique of how “[agency] has come to serve us not as a container by which disparate versions of historical subjectivity (the terms through which human beings understand themselves as historical actors) might be analyzed and compared to one another but as crypto-liberal account of the thing itself.”

Rather than mapping the specific forms through which historical subjectivity comes into being, an abstraction is made of that subjectivity. It is searched for, “revealed,” and gestured toward as a revelatory example of “agency,” but one that fulfills a narrow and predictable narrative role. This rhetorical move, whether it be in slavery studies, other histories of trauma, or various forms of critical theory, entails “revealing” the persistence of a human attribute as proof of “agency” beneath the surface of cruel political events or manifestations of power. For Johnson, this has generated a reading habit underpinned by the assumption that “beneath all history there lies a liberal individual subject waiting to be emancipated into the precise conditions that characterize the lives of the imperial bourgeoisie of the twenty-first century” (25). Such gestures inevitably sideline more meaningful investigations into the murky conditions of historical subjectivity, how they emerged, what was at stake, and what was unique in their formation. They also often end up conflating “agency” with “resistance.” In this regard, it is important to be aware of the forms of human “agency” that are not examples of “resistance” but constitute practices of collaboration (with oppressor) and betrayal. As Johnson (2003: 116) explains, awareness of these distinctions actually magnifies our understanding of the accomplishments of resistant slaves: “there were powerful reasons to simply go along and time and again resistant slaves overcame them.”

This is instructive and consequential for theorizing contemporary crisis because we lose sight of the politics at stake in any given situation of extreme duress if we conflate “agency” with any activity of “resistance.” Navigating crisis-ordinariness entails all kinds of negotiations and practices that can move in and out of spheres of complicity. Sometimes these practices contain the kernel of politicization, actors become subjectivized and galvanized within a larger movement. Sometimes they find less galvanizing outcomes. The duress under which subaltern actors navigate the everyday means that mere survival can justifiably be compared to “resistance” in many cases. Crisis-ordinariness demands attention to the sometimes incredible, sometimes less inspiring actions in which people figure things out. These insights from slavery studies and recent scholarship in Black studies are particularly significant for thinking contemporary crisis, for some of the reasons alluded to earlier, including Mbembe's thesis of a “Becoming Black of the world.” Theorizing the specificity of the contemporary moment—its novelty—means paying close attention to the analyses and practices of those for whom colonial policing and other symptoms of crisis governance are not so novel. What are the historical lessons for forging agency within impossible positions of constraint today?

Historic and ongoing acts of experimentation and improvisation within enclosures provide further insight into crisis-agency. In the carceral geographies that have constituted the afterlives of slavery in the US, scholars such as Saidiya Hartman have examined the conditions of life in post-slavery spaces of enclosure: the ghetto, the prison, and so on. In these conditions, improvisation is defined as unforeseen collaboration in spaces of enclosure, “the secondary rhythms of social life capable of creating an opening where there was none” (Hartman 2018: 284), exceeding interpretive grids. Study of the specific practices and actors mapped by Hartman, Gilmore, and others shows the possibilities and openings that have been created in situations of impossible constraint, the very opening being created through the totalizing enclosure's glitches and blind spots, suggesting for us, as outlined earlier, a more complex and fluid conception of agency. Intensifying patterns of gentrification and policing in contemporary cities marked by crisis governance, particularly targeted toward racialized young people, have seen the emergence of new forms of “improvisation” that Hartman described in earlier moments of racialized capitalism. The musical forms and wider ecologies of Black social life in the twenty-first century exemplify an attitude of defiance attuned to this history: no matter how much urban life and space is policed, the music seems to taunt totalitarian efforts to cordon off possibility (see Brar 2021).4

The relationship between agency and crisis, then, can be further unpacked with reference to the dual aspect of the ancient Greek understanding of the word, as mentioned at the beginning of this article—signifying both “divorce” or “quarrel” and conclusive “decision,” encapsulating the spheres of “subjective critique” at the same time as “objective crisis.” This suggests the dialectical possibilities for rethinking agency contained within the very concept of crisis. Reinhart Koselleck notes that the semantic quality of the concept “always admits alternatives pointing not just to diametrically opposed possibilities” and also cuts across such opposites. “It is precisely through the multiplicity of mutually exclusive alternatives that the various uses of the term may point to existence of a real ‘crisis’ even though it is not yet fully captured in any of the interpretations of the moment” (Koselleck 2006: 370). This indexes the potential for reconstructions of the spatial parameters of crisis by actors testing its limits, but it also resonates with theorizing crisis as a process of reconstruction and transformation cutting across the “political divisions” of any one time, refusing to accept the given choice of alternatives and instead (following Balibar) redrawing the field of positions. If “crisis” destabilizes a core subjective-objective opposition, we could think of how it might relate to the ways in which the concept of agency destabilizes oppositions of active-passive. The irony of the concept of agency is that, while used to evoke the capacity and potential for action, it is also often used as a synonym of passivity. It encompasses both “active initiator” and “passive instrument” (Anderson 1980: 18), as in the “agents of foreign power” (Anderson 1980; see also Noys 2010). Debates in the social sciences and IR theory have thus often prioritized the vocabulary of “actor” to distinguish a more active political subject from the “agent” understood as potentially passive instrument (Hollis 1994). However, like the notion of crisis, perhaps the more productive route for treating agency is in inhabiting and tracing the ambiguities, rather than trying to salvage an unambigiously “active” actor. Where agency was once thought of as a “principle of action” on the part of the agent (in the more potentially active sense), it has often been conceived as a “decentring of action” (Balibar 2014: 17–24). Decentered, it refers to an ambiguous zone that does not simply correspond to the agent, who is caught up in its web of relations but may find ways of actively shaping the zone in which it finds itself. Studied in dialogue with “crisis,” then, I have suggested such ambiguities are worth dwelling with for potentially dynamic vectors of reading. Our reading of crisis has disentangled its association with determinisms and economisms to develop a political reading of crisis, but at the same time we have been critically cautious of inverse tendencies that rush to affirm action and agency without working through structural constraints. The argument I have developed is that crisis theory shows that, contrary to many accounts of agency, intentionality is not necessary to exert or discover domains of agency. The actions of “undersocieties” discussed above in relation to Bayat, for example, are not intentionally political acts but they become political in the process. An absence of intentionality does not preclude politicization. Agency, like crisis, is thus a domain of uncertainty. If agency is about the capacity to do things, then it also has to entail the capacity to not do things. The element of contingency distinguishes it from pure determinism. I have thus linked agency to crisis to disentangle the latter concept from its associations with determinism as well as to show how, moving in the other direction, crisis theory can help us develop a more refined and fluid conception of political agency. Our account of crisis has stressed how the outcomes are not inevitable. There is not one single political form or mode of struggle that corresponds to a time of crisis. Actors may find themselves compelled and oriented toward certain actions to survive. But the form those actions take can differ drastically. The notions of agency and crisis, then, refer to indeterminate zones of potential politicization that demand careful study.

By way of conclusion, I once again turn to the work of AbdouMaliq Simone, whose contribution to this special issue closely studies such indeterminate zones, comparable to the “off-grid,” opaque, “everyday lifeworlds” discussed earlier. Simone challenges us to think of the relations that are forged in such spaces as not simply realizing “unexpected potentialities” or developing alternative worlds or usages. The relations of the urban extensions he examines in Jakarta and elsewhere are more comparable to noise, disrupting legible instrumentality or coherent connection. Simone also challenges us to think beyond the register of repair. The everyday economies in these spaces often amplify the essential brokenness of the world, of things not being in their proper place, but being exchanged in a way that is often devoid of the will to restore functionality. In this account, brokenenness is generative of “a continuous circulation of materials across different hands, different sites and different uses.” While Simone does not use the vocabulary of agency, his perspective suggests that, in such conditions, it may not always be possible to distinguish between the “active” and “passive” conception of agency. This portrait of the everyday politics of crisis also suggests that it may not be possible to distinguish between phenomena that are an expression of crisis and those that are responding to crisis. Studying these opaque spaces does not mean abandoning such distinctions but, as argued above, being ready to incorporate noise, opacity, and dwelling with ambiguity, in ways that do not compromise on rigor, as part of our methods of crisis theorizing. Crisis theorizing thus helps map fluid, complex, and contradictory expressions of agency.

Implicit in all this is a reconsideration of the relationship between theory and experience. In recent years liberal identity politics and anti-intellectualisms of various kinds have attempted to place theory in a subservient role to the apparent authority of lived “experience.” This follows a broader historical trend that Koselleck elaborated on (building on observations of Jacob Grimm), noting the changing meanings of “experience” from a term that used to imply active inquiry, investigation, and ongoing movement and instead came to mean something more passive, concerned with the “mere perception or registration of objects, without a sense of movement and inquiry” (Grimm, quoted in Koselleck 2002: 45). Stuart Hall (2019b: 304) rightfully argued that “lived experience” does not provide epistemological authority in and of itself and so a “detour through thought” is necessary, but reconsidering and reviving the sense of fluidity once implied in “experience” could suggest a greater proximity to “theory.” Critical estrangement and detours of various kinds are thus investigated in this special issue and provide provocative contributions in reconsidering fundamental understandings of the role of theory.

Notes

1

One could arguably read recent global conflicts, from “vaccine nationalism” to the war in Ukraine, within the Arrighi narrative of “unravelling hegemony” and “chaos and governance” in a global system incapable of rediscovering a renewed project of growth and hegemony.

2

We could also think here of Adorno and Horkheimer's (2002: 182) remark that “classification is a condition of knowledge, not knowledge itself, and knowledge in turn dissolves classification.”

3

Latour tends to compare critique to a hammer in order to argue that with such an instrument you “cannot repair, take care, assemble, reassemble, stitch together.” This is intended to reinforce the argument that critique is only good for destruction. But as Benjamin Noys (2014a) explains, the elisions in such a statement speak volumes: “with an actual hammer, what you can, precisely, do, is ‘assemble’ and ‘reassemble,’ as anyone who has used a hammer well knows.” In addition to misrepresenting, where not simply ignoring, the complex dynamics at work throughout the history of critique, the very metaphors and analogies Latour uses to critique critique do not even hold up on their own terms.

4

For an alternative perspective on Black social life, temporality, and crisis, see the special issue of this journal coedited by Ibrahim and Ahad (2022).

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