Our Multidimensional Crisis: Institutional Breakdown

The signs are all around us – our crisis continues to deepen and to engulf us in its complexity.

Manuel Castells, in the introduction to The Power of Identity:

The Iraq invasion was the return of the state in it most traditional form of exercising its monopoly of violence, and it followed a major crisis of international governance institutions, starting with the United Nations, marginalized by the United States, and the apparent triumph of unilateralism in spite of an objectively multilateral world.  [snip]

Not only was the United States drawn into protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as al-Qaeda wanted, but its inability to build a global governance system led to a multidimensional, global crisis of which the financial collapse of 2008 was only its most damaging expression.[snip]

. . .. in the long term the trends that characterized the social structure ultimately imposed their logic, but in the short term the autonomy of the political agency could oppose such logic because of the interests and values of the actors occupying the commanding heights of agency.  When such is the case, as during the Bush-Cheney administration period, the discrepancy between structure and agency induces systemic chaos, and ultimately destructive processes that add to the difficulties of managing the adaptation of the nation-state to the global conditions of the network society.

Translating Castells’ academic language: A multilateral world was, for a time, defied by the Bush administration which believed in a unilateral world; because the Bush administration had willingness and sufficient power to act on its views, it was able to do so until reality eventually caught up with them and all hell broke loose.  The wars dragged pointlessly on, international systems failed to cope with the unfolding disaster and ultimately even the economy crashed.

Systemic chaos ensued and the result was a multidimensional crisis – a crisis of legitimacy for democratic governments, a crisis of legitimacy for economic institutions, an existential crisis of international and multinational institutions, as well as the economic crash and the impending disasters of climate change.  Amidst the host of problems we face, the most pressing is the crisis of institutions and their resulting inability to implement effective solutions.  Most of our problems have technical solutions – effective regulation of the financial sector, Keynesian models for boosting employment and demand, renewable and clean energy – but the crisis of our institutions defies technical solutions.  Our governments, businesses and nonprofits are mired in a critically dysfunctional state which impairs our ability to implement technical solutions to our problems.  This institutional dysfunction combined with a crisis of legitimacy has resulted in deepening of our various crises.

The Euro-zone, as for example, has been shaken to its core with nations actively discussing abandoning the Euro, and with a deep mismatch between the policy prescriptions coming from Germany and the actual policy needs of nations like Greece.

In the US, our democracy is facing a profound crisis of legitimacy – not just from the right which is actively rejecting the legitimacy of the Obama administration and Democratic elected officials, but from a huge portion of the population that doesn’t bestir itself to vote, believing voting is a waste of time and energy (what Andrew Gelman describes as the 30/30/40 nation – 30% Democratic, 30% Republican, 40% nonvoting or voting for minor party candidates).  Even people participating in the system, actively voting, contributing money and volunteering time can feel badly disenfranchised as their leaders knowingly lie to them (unskewing polls and such nonsense).  I find myself echoing Barney Frank – sure the Democrats aren’t perfect but the Republicans are nuts.

A series of unclear and confusing electoral outcomes (starting in 1992 with Bill Clinton’s popular vote plurality win) through the election of 2012 which delivered mixed outcomes (a Republican house?  Democrats adding seats in the Senate?  The outcomes are confusing) have deepened the sense of many voters that the system itself is broken beyond repair and not to be trusted.  Although the system actually worked as was designed to work, a result such as 2000 when the popular vote winner lost the election, introduces tremendous uncertainty and distrust for the system into the general public and the body politic.  Had 2000 been followed by something other than the multitudinous failures of the Bush administration, it could have been regarded as a fluke; instead, the Bush administrations governmental malfeasance made the system appear even more chaotic and broken.  2010’s backlash result – the recently defeated Republicans scoring huge electoral victories – are the result of systemic uncertainty and chaos, not the causes of it.  2012’s contradictory outcomes are the result of the systemic uncertainty and chaos.

The deep mismatch between public concerns and actual political action are part of the feedback loop in a democratic crisis of legitimacy.  Elected officials inability to address public concerns and redress civic problems reinforces the perception of a broken system.  People want action on the climate crisis, on a bad economy, on economic and social inequality, they want an educational system designed to meet the needs of our era.  Yet our government is bogged down in trench warfare over public broadcasting and contraception, debates over whether or not billionaires can afford an extra 4% in taxes.

Rather than ebbing, the multidimensional crisis continues to metastasize.  The 2008 election held a moment of promise for so many Americans that the crisis might be resolved.  Yet, the 2010 election guaranteed the end of any forward momentum by the government toward resolving our problems; the concrete outcomes of that election, including gerrymandering of a host of Congressional districts, have frozen government in place.

The system struggles gamely on, trying to right itself.  Throughout 2011, while the Federal government misdiagnosed the problem as too big a deficit and too much spending on social programs, the problems facing us refused to recede.  In the background, you could hear the gears of government grinding as the institutions and systems tried to work.

I’ve quoted Margaret Wheatley’s book Finding Our Way in the past and will probably quote it again many times – “The playwright Arthur Miller noted that we know an era has ended when its basic illusions have been exhausted. I would add that these basic illusions not only are exhausted but also have become exhausting. ”  It’s become harder to deny the truth – we’ve exhausted the basic illusions that defined an era and we are exhausted by them and its time for us to move into a new era.  The signs are around us that we are at the end of one era and the beginning of another.

We’ve reached a crucial inflection point.  Unlike certain previous turning points, ours is a muddled and confused one.  The choices in 1932 were clear – the crisis was so abrupt, so painful, that it was impossible to go backwards.  The crisis of our era is slower moving – it seems like a series of crises rather than a single, complex multidimensional crisis.  We are facing a single systemic crisis every bit as encompassing as the Industrial Revolution, a basic transformation of the assumptions about society.  Castells calls it the Rise of the Network Society.

The answers are neither profound nor mysterious.

To repair a system, connect it more deeply with itself.  Wheatley points out that the primary task of leaders in our era is to make sure our organizations know themselves.  The technical solutions to our problems are often relatively simple.  The Keynesian solution to the 2008 crash worked in so far as it was actually tried.  Even climate change which is perhaps the primary crisis of our time requires lots of technical adaptations.  We are more than capable of applying the technical solutions to our our unfolding crises.  But our political system has been rendered inoperable by the deeper forces at work within out multidimensional crisis – forces which have raised questions about the legitimacy of democratic governments themselves.  (FWIW, Castells addresses the idea that the network society makes it far easier to create a scandal around a particular politician or leader and makes it easier for opponents to create scandals in return, all of which casts the entire political establishment as a corrupt and scandal-ridden entity).

We face a systemic crisis of human institutions – the old ways of organizing and running society are increasingly ineffective, we haven’t developed new ways yet.  Our era is defined by a crisis which requires us to admit, first off, that we don’t know what to do.  Well functioning governments and organizations could respond to our problems.  Our organizations don’t know themselves and so are incapable of applying the technical solutions to our problems.  And so the crisis continues to unfold.

I am not some happy chirpy gerbil optimist.  Things can go wrong and they often do.  Disaster is sometimes no more than a heartbeat away.  Yet the solutions to our problems are equally around us all the time; things often go right.  Success is sometimes no more than a heartbeat away.

What do I mean by a systemic crisis?  When institutions and organizations find themselves increasingly unable to cope with changing circumstances and real world problems, it is a symptom of a system in breakdown.  That we have to work harder and harder just to maintain the status quo is a symptom of a system in breakdown.

Think about the campaigns against gay marriage.  These campaigns have spent millions of dollars and countless hours of volunteer time in an attempt to maintain the status quo; even their victories have been painfully self-defeating, putting the issue of gay marriage front and center.  Castells argues that

Gays and lesbians continue to be imprisoned and executed around the world, yet in a number of countries, including the historically homophobic United States, they have won battle after battle (though losing some as well), in the streets, in the courts, in the media, and in the political system, so that they have undoubtedly torn down the walls of the closet to live out in the open, thus transforming the way society thinks about sexuality, and therefore personality as a whole.

The GLBT community has engaged in “Project Identity”:

Project identity: when social actors, on the basis of whatever cultural materials are available to them, build a new identity that redefines their position in society and, by so doing, seek the transformation of overall social structure.

The gay rights movement, including the movement for marriage equality, has deliberately and intentionally sought to change the status quo.  In the last year, we’ve seen polls showing that public opinion has shifted in favor of marriage equality and of course in 2012 we saw voters in 4 states affirm marriage equality.  The religious and cultural right has expended and will continue to expend vast amounts of energy, time and money to sustain the legal status quo, but their efforts seem increasingly doomed to fail.  That the discussion is even happening tells us that the status quo with regard to marriage has changed.

In a host of other areas, organizations including businesses and government are expending vast resources in an effort to sustain the status quo.  The campaign against climate change is another key example of the increasing effort required to keep things as they are.  Religious and political fundamentalism – everywhere – are movements dedicated at restoring things as they were.  Think about the 2012 election.  Conservative donors, PACs and Super PACs spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fail to achieve outcomes that two decades ago would have been taken for granted.

The underlying social, political and economic systems have shifted.  Efforts to sustain the status quo or restore what was considered the status quo will not cease.  These two realities will remain part of our lives – I don’t expect them to end.  An increasingly desperate and revanchist right wing poses a series of challenges for even a healthy political system.  Our ailing political systems face even deeper risks.  A violent right wing uprising could do damage lasting for generations.  Even those of us on the left have our attachment to the status quo, though ours is to the social democratic United State of the 1960s and LBJ’s Great Society and the activist government of the 1930s and FDR’s New Deal.  That these programs work is irrelevant if the political institutions required to support them are incapable of doing so.

Therein lies our challenge – with each passing year it becomes more and more difficult to sustain the status quo with regard to programs of social insurance and social uplift.  This is not to suggest that we give up.  But we need to be realistic.  In a shifting and systemically chaotic environment, the status quo is going to require both our creativity and our commitment.

If this picture of our current circumstances seems grim, that’s intended.  The multidimensional crisis we face is not going away any time soon because our governmental and political institutions are incapable of dealing with them.  Many of the problems and challenges we face are eminently solvable.  We can address climate change, unemployment, inequality, poverty, hunger, prejudice and any number of problems.  But we can only do that if our institutions function.  Right now, they don’t.  At the root of our apparently unsolvable problem are political systems that have broken down.

  1. #1 by Richard Warnick on November 19, 2012 - 12:24 pm

    I like the meme of the 30/30/40 nation. The 40 percent are certain the political system doesn’t represent them, but the two “30s” are none too sure themselves because they know they’ll get betrayed by the politicians they vote for time and time again.

    Or you could say it’s a 2/29/29/40 split, because 2 percent of Americans are rich people who know their interests will be represented no matter which party wins.

  2. #2 by cav on November 19, 2012 - 1:10 pm


    The happy, chirpy gerbils-optimists

    “In a shifting and systemically chaotic environment, the status quo is going to require both our creativity and our commitment.”

    And even creative, committed attachment to the status quo is helpful at all just why? Because?

    Seems like just what we’ve been doing so well all these years. It’s only perpetuated these criseas (plural of crisis) into this ‘perfect storm’ we’re all clutching our pearls over.

    Give yer kitty a scritch. Test those hammock ropes. Idle – better -motor off. Happy Thanksgiving.

  3. #3 by cav on November 19, 2012 - 2:39 pm

    Congressional Reform Act of 2012

    1. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman/woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they’re out of office.

    2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.

    3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

    4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

    5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

    6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

    7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 12/1/12. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen/women.


  4. #4 by cav on November 19, 2012 - 2:50 pm

    Take .02 and call me in the morning.

  5. #5 by cav on November 19, 2012 - 3:00 pm

    The plural of ‘data’ is not ‘anecdote’.

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