“Polycrisis.” If you haven’t heard of the word, it’s likely that you soon will, courtesy of the World Economic Forum, which is meeting this week in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss the theme “Cooperation in a Fragmented World.”
The world, according to the just-released WEF Global Risks 2023 Report, has entered an era of “polycrisis.” Though the expression sounds like a buzzword designed by management consultants to persuade everyone that they are cleverest people in the room, the term was in fact coined by the French philosopher-sociologist Edgar Morin in the 1990s. It was Morin’s way of arguing that, instead of seeking monocausal explanations of major problems (capitalism, colonialism, etc.), the real causes were to be found in the complex relationships between these things.
Precisely why this was considered a radical insight escapes me. As a rule, historians like Thucydides or Alexis de Tocqueville, whose persuasive powers still carry weight today, generally shied away from single factor accounts of epochal crises such as the Peloponnesian war or the French revolution. It was largely Marxist theoreticians who tended to advance monocausal descriptions of upheavals such as the reformation or the first world war.
Over the past six months, however, “polycrisis” has acquired traction as a way of describing a multitude of severe political, economic, social and environmental problems that are entangled with each other and thus difficult for one actor or set of actors — governments, businesses, NGOs, etc. — to provide decisive solutions.
From this arises an imperative very dear to the WEF: closely-coordinated global cooperation — so that organizations, guided by the WEF, can collectively untangle and defuse today’s volatile conditions before a catastrophe ensues.
So far, the WEF report maintains, our world has dodged a July 1914-like bullet. But, runs the argument, such is the pace of ever-unfolding interrelated political, economic and environmental crises that we disdain greater global coordination at our peril.
There is, the WEF report states, “still a window to shape a more secure future.” But that window is closing. “Some of the risks,” it claims, “are close to a tipping point. This is the moment to act collectively, decisively and with a long-term lens to shape a pathway to a more positive, inclusive and stable world.”
But one thing we know about crises is that they provide rationales for expansions and centralisations of state power which become difficult to retract after the crisis. It doesn’t matter if a state response to the crisis substantially fails or proves counterproductive (e.g. mass lockdowns in response to Covid). Governments invariably like to keep their enhanced powers alive and well, because, you know, “just in case.”
It’s also revealing that the WEF report’s preferences for action are all of the top-down variety. There is little consideration of how bottom-up approaches to the world’s present challenges provide scope for more experimentation and a legitimate plurality of policies.
Instead, for the WEF report’s authors, the complexity which is innate to the polycrisis concept necessitates endless collective action through the highest levels of government, business and NGO-world working hand-in-hand.
That’s a justification for corporatism (the WEF’s leadership’s preferred governance model, which I’ve written about here) and the diminishments of liberty which accompany that. Nor is there any recognition that one-size-fits-all collective approaches are rarely suited for understanding or navigating complexity.
Yes, today’s world is a risky and complicated place. But when has it not been? By all means, politicians, CEOs and NGO types should discuss the multifaceted difficulties they confront. Yet the WEF report’s penchant for top-down collective solutions tells us that Davos Man hubris remains a global problem in itself: one that a more self-aware WEF leadership might care to reflect upon in the future.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.