WHAT IS A CRISIS?
By the rector Gerard-François DUMONT*
The term "crisis" is frequently used, particularly in the titles of the articles, books, broadcast or telecast. To throw a first light on its use, we take two examples of the year 2001, especially interesting as they refer to two completely different temporalities. In April 2001, precisely on the 1 - st of April, a crisis blows up between China and the USA concerning an American spy-airplane EP-3. This plane which, according to the USA, was in the international air space of the Pacific, confronted with a Chinese airplane which pilot disappeared; then it would have compelled to touch down on the Chinese Island Hainan by the Chinese hunter, infringing under enforcement the Chinese sovereignty. As the USA cares to receive back the 24 American militaries and of that of China to use the incident born "the crisis of the spy-plane" , doing harm namely the intensification of the diplomatic and economic exchanges between the two powers. After the negotiations, interposed particularly by the media, the crisis untied for the essential in less than twelve days with the recuperation and the returning of the American militaries in their country.
In the same moment, the French minister of Home Affairs, pleading for "the collective mobilization" for the benefit of "security" , does not hesitate to write, in the French well-known daily newspaper, that France has "destruction" due to "an economic and public crisis" which lasts "for already thirty years" .
A precise term, but tarnished
These two examples conduct imperatively to interrogate themselves about the word "crisis": it is used in the first case for an incident apparently cyclical, solved in less than two weeks , and, in the second case to nominate a phenomenon which will last for already thirty years and which will be thus undoubtedly structural. The use of the same word to nominate so different temporalities illustrates maybe simply the significance less and less precise given to the considered word.
Really, the contemporary history of the word "crisis" gives an example of the manner how a word sees its use evolve, and sometimes change . According to three senses given to the word "crisis" in the French dictionary Robert, we find a common denominator: the word is applied to short periods. In the first sense, medical, crisis is "the moment of an illness characterized by an undergone and generally definitive modification, good or bad". The crisis is then the acute manifestation of an illness, appendicitis crisis, asthma crisis, liver crisis, and cordial crisis... In the second common senses by extension of the medical senses, the crisis is "a sudden and severe emotive manifestation " (mad laugh crisis, nerve crisis, crisis of anger...).
In its third sense, appeared by analogy in 1690, a crisis is "a grave phase in the evolution of things, events, ideas". It is a moment of extreme tension, paroxysm, conflict, modification, interfering when the regulations and the retroactions of the political or geopolitical systems is not sufficient any more or does not play any more. What is the intensity that we granted to it or that it really has, such crisis can be immortalized, only if it is political, geopolitical or economic.
The political internal crisis is a conflict which affects the chiefs of a State, the nature of its institutions, or its society regime: it leads to a governmental reorganization, to a modification of the government if the precedent was compelled to retire, to constitutional adaptations, or to a change of the regime. As to the geopolitical crisis, it happens from a conflict in the relations between two or several States, between an international organization and one or several States, or between two or several international organizations. It can finish or by the desire to find an agreement between the protagonists, or by sanctions towards a State (suspension or exclusion from an international organization), or, in the worst case, to lead to an armed conflict.
Stricto sensu, the economic crisis nominates the stop of the growth, the moment when the conjuncture returns. When it is acute, the economic crisis corresponds to the detonator of the depression. Economic crisis proceed necessarily. According to the Marxists, they are written in the same principle of the capitalist system. According to the liberals, the economic activity not being regular and knowing various movements, the apparition of a crisis is in the nature of things: therefore, the formidable economic growth of the USA in the 1990s could not last (it became exponential) without a readjustment supposing a time of slowing down, thus crisis born from the very nature of the things. The consolation of the inevitable character of the economic crisis happens namely from its temporary character.
If the previous definitions are clear, since the second half of the XX century, the used sense of the word "crisis" evolved giving frequently to this word a durable significance. While the crisis from 1929 remains joined to the year quoted, the just formulation "the crisis from 1974" as to the petroleum increases from October 1993/ January 1974 is an statement that misfires. We do not say anything more: "the petroleum crisis from 1974" or "the petroleum crisis from 1979", formulation conforms to the above mentioned sense of the word "crisis", but: the first petroleum "shock", or the second petroleum "shock".
Enlarging and changing the initial sense of the word "crisis", we apply it to the ensemble of the period born from the initial rupture and not only of this last one. Besides, in an extremely large sense, as in the second example quoted in the introduction, we use the term crisis to indicate the ensemble of the phenomena arising during the years after the crisis stricto sensu, and thus the ensemble of a period. Obviously, such as it is sometimes used, the word "crisis" loses partially, even completely, its initial sense relating to a moment of rupture, to a short period.
This evolution of the use of the word happens maybe from the fact that the word "crisis" became doubtless something like the word "joker", which avoids maybe to use other less convenient term because more exigent for the critical reason. For example, since the beginning of the European construction in the 1950s, the journalists used with a considerable frequency the word "crisis". So, in fact, this construction knew a little amount of real crisis, that is ruptures, even if it a following of tart negotiations. The veritable and real crisis passed in July 1965 when France decided to suspend its participation in the European instances. The journalistic "crises" in the European construction are nothing in relation to the gravity of the European crisis of the first half of the 20-th century , frequently regulated by violent method (war, transition of population...).
In the end, the word "crisis" seems henceforth tarnished, used "for all sauces". Gerard Chaliand considers that the world from today is not worse than that from yesterday, but the media, sellers of alarms, give this impression. Going farther, it finds even to the world a character of stability rather pronounced despite of some number of perturbations less numerous from his point of view at the end of the XX century than in the previous periods. It suggests implicitly that the actual world knows fewer crises, and thus there is an abuse of the word "crisis". Nevertheless, with the Soviet implosion, it will be normal to assist to an augmentation of crisis between the States as the number of state actors considerably increased, while various international actors appeared or took more importance, affirming their presence namely wishing to interfere in the crisis, quits to complicate the resolution. Also, the humanitarian diplomacy is interested to the crisis susceptible to justify its interference, while with the development of the right of interference , the internal events of a country can become international crisis between the countries not interpreting in the same way this right of interference.
The thing that precedes invites to try to make a list of the use or of the absence of the use of the word "crisis". It is necessary at first to consider the events entitled "crisis" and which would deserve _ treatment different between those which are in fact reported to processes and those which correspond to the initial sense of the word "crisis", integrating the concept of rupture. In the second place, there are real crises, which they try to put down, to pass under silence, refusing to nominate them for what they are. At last, there is the use a little adapted of the word "crisis", when they speak to indicate more complicated realities.
Crisis or process?
The media do not hesitate to publish about "the Algerian crisis", "Zairian crisis", "Yugoslavian crisis", or still "the crisis of the mad cow ". So these events are not necessarily "sudden and violent manifestations". The mass murders of civil faces in Algeria are certainly violent, but they can not be considered as sudden. The "Algerian crisis", so difficult to understand as we do not benefit of the information given under the form of flash by wireless and television, it is not a crisis in the original sense as, since 1962, any precise rupture does not appear in the history of a State which does not manage to build to itself. The situation in Algeria at the beginning of the XXI-st century seems rather the consequence, even simple the following of a long process, of the refusal resumed to take into consideration the historical reality of the Algerian territories, in a way to take political decisions in frequent disharmony with the needs of the population, or disgusting methods regularly used by the power or some oppositions. We take an example illustrating this protocol: Yves Lacoste reminds that the awful periodic acts of massacre of the civil innocent peoples were already committed (then not F.N.L. - Front of national liberation) during the war of Algeria, and passed even before the cancellation of the first turn of the legislative elections in 1991. In Algeria, we have thus affaire with "a series of the successive phenomena forming a whole, and coming to a determined result" . The series of the phenomena is included in the ideological choices inappropriate but rendered possible in particular due to the hydrocarbon resources; it has for result not only the inability to build "an Algerian nation", but simply to perfect a State. Since years, someone hopes that this process will lead on a salutary crisis, but everything happens as though its very nature hindered or at least detained considerably such an issue.
Also, "the Zairian crisis", which arose at the departure of Mobutu, then a kind of balkanization of Zaire, it is not in the proper sense a crisis, but the result of a long process of decomposition, contradictory to the significant riches that Zaire benefits.
As to that we nominate frequently as "the Yugoslavian crisis", the statement which recovers a period spreading out for at least on ten years (1991-2000), it was facilitated and doubtlessly prolonged by the inability of the peoples from Europe , and especially of the Countries members of the European Community to use their power to prevent conflicts, then to facilitate the peace. But is it the result of an initial crisis, in the sense of a historical rupture, or was it entered in the historical more former process? In fact, it follows from a double ancient process, renewed by the more recent period. The ancient process follows from the political and cultural boundaries frequently unstable the Yugoslavian grounds, particularly in view of religious fractures: from one hand, the Catholic people remained faithful to Rome; from another hand, the orthodox people, with the auto-cephalic Churches, sometimes too faithful to the national established authorities instead of giving enough importance to the hierarchy existing outside the boundaries. And this one is not facilitated when two authorities, in Istanbul and in Moscow, dispute this summit of symbolical hierarchy where the diplomatic and liturgical party carries sometimes away on the valors that it ought to be taught. At last, it is necessary to consider the Muslim world, the inheritance from the ottoman authority. The Yugoslavian events are explained also by a modern process, the political Authoritarianism of Tito, which methods used to conserve the power could to lead only to a danger of disintegration. And these risks could not be prevented, in view of refusals to see the western diplomacies enough generalized, and naive western commentators which adjoined the inverse use of the words under the regime of Tito: the "federalism" meant "autocracy", and the Yugoslavian "self-management", so boasted by some political parties from the Western Europe which made an ideal from it, was really only an "economic collectivism".
As to the "crisis" of the mad cow, it can seem surprising to criticize the formulation, when they recollect the brutality with which it appeared in the media in 1996. However, it follows clearly that it is not a temporary phase, when we state different stages of its evolution. Besides, this "crisis of mad cow " is not the product of a brutal rupture, but a logic consequence of the behavior of some people who, considering themselves God, forgot the common sense, which should be the rule of any animal rise. The events around the problem of the mad cow are thus not born from an initial crisis, but from an evaluative process created by a generalization of absurd modes of animal alimentation.
As show the above-mentioned examples, it is necessary to state that the word "crisis" is sometimes used - vainly - to indicate not a rupture, but a series of phenomena, a process. There are however appropriate uses of the term crisis.
This term, in the initial sense of the word, concerns the events, which introduce ruptures, modifications. In order to reveal them, it is necessary to avoid naming prematurely "crisis" any unusual event. For example, in view of the complexity of the political game, there can arise attempts to generate crisis that we are going to name rapidly and vainly "crisis", while they are only inconsistent events, without real effect, and without consequence. For example, a political leader, or a political figure which tries to position as a political leader, threatens to denounce an agreement of the government to underline his point of view or to test his real weight in report of force. Or a minister leaves in a resignation, and the comments believe to announce a governmental "crisis". Ten days later, the entire world forgot the threat or the "deafening" resignation. There was not a real crisis. The media ephemeral event can be explained because its author was himself in crisis: "The certainly speak, about his own crisis", observes Umberto Eco .
In exchange, there are real political crises. Therefore, the electoral defeat of the right party in the French legislative elections from the 1 - st of June 1997 introduces a crisis inside its main party, R.P.R. (Association for the Republic), for a long time headed by the President of the Republic who, dissolving prematurely the national Assembly where he disposed of an overwhelming majority, is the responsible of the defeat. In some days, the issue arrives as the President going out from this political movement informs that he will not ask the resumption of his mandate, keeping place to the unique candidate to his succession, Philippe Seguin. In fact, the policy, by nature, knows numerous attempts of crisis or of periodic crisis which protagonists hope at the end to benefit from a better rapport of forces. The political history of a country represented by a political commentator, is first of all the history of the rapport of forces, which evolve in the rhythm of crisis.
Other events form real crisis. For example, in 1996, the grip of knowledge by the Belgium opinion on the pedophilia affairs created a rupture in Belgium, in the measure as we assisted to some return of the national Belgium sense, which seemed already widely disappeared while succeeded institutional reforms. From one hand, and for the first time since decades, the Belgians privileged the care to protect a common moral, even than to put forward a Walloon or Flemish appurtenance. From another hand, a respected person, but does he seem more and more distant from any solution by an institutional system more blown up than federal, reappeared to deliver forceful messages, which content went outside that the Constitution allows: They speak about the king of the Belgians, reminding implicitly to each one that the moral debt of the citizen from Belgium was more important than his Walloon, Flemish or Brussels appurtenance.
We take henceforth the example of a social crisis, connected to the closing of a factory, and located abroad a large automobile constructor. During a half of century, since its nationalization the next day after the Second world war, Renault is an automobile enterprise with a capital exclusively contained by the French State and which President is appointed (and is withdrawn) by the Ministerial council. This enterprise symbolizes a social completely nice model, and also in some measures disputable, because financed, in some opacity, by the French tax bearers. Then a law from 1993 organizes its partial privatization, at first in November 1994, then in July 1996. A state returns then the party of its capital to 46 %. At the beginning of 1997, the chiefs of this enterprise open a crisis informing the closing of their factory of Vilvorde, in Belgium. This event is frequently quoted for its syndicate effects, with, the 7-th of March 1997, the first manifestations of the workers joining syndicalists from some more countries of the Europe. The essential is maybe not there, but in the declarations of the Renault responsible faces and those of the State face to the reactions begun by this closing: confirming the closing, and thus the state refusal to interfere in the management of Renault, they mark a fundamental rupture, the end of a long cohabitation between the French State and Renault. For a long time, the French tax bearers were implied "not to reduce to despair Billancourt " . The social preferential advantages of the workers from Renault - advantages that he will be silly to criticize the pleasant character for those who benefit from this - were in a large party on the account of the State which subsidized Renault, directly or indirectly, or perceived eventually less taxes on the societies. The French tax bearers paid for a long time the insufficiencies of Renault competitiveness . The Vilvorde affair signs the end of days. Renault is henceforth partially private and, in a period of stability of the prices and of the least growth, it is more difficult to make accept the new public subventions that the State made for Renault of time of Thirty famous. As to the Belgium tax bearers, they do not consider themselves concerned by the closing of the factory from Vilvorde, as it is a French enterprise. The Vilvorde affair marks thus this rupture, at the end of an epoch where the large national automobile enterprise could have a social policy independent from the economic and financial considerations.
The inflationary and inappropriate use
Despite the necessity to distinguish the processes and the real crisis, the word "crisis" knows an inflationary use. The party of explanation of this phenomenon can follow from the development of the diplomacy of the opinion: to prove its efficiency, it is necessary to present as crisis that is not really in order to receive additional means or to prove the efficiency thwarting "a crisis" in fact partially created, even imaginary.
Another example, the immoderate use of the term induces for example to speak about "the crisis of the Third world". Therefore, the Third world, statement proposed by Alfred Sauvy in 1953 to enclose all the countries that political power was then weak (or occurring), and which economic weight was minor, corresponds then to a geographical precise field. It incorporates at first the twenty nine countries from Asia and Africa integrated in April 1955 in Bandung (Indonesia) to underline their existence, the colonized countries by the same continents, and the countries of Latin America absent in Bandung in view of their too great dependence from the USA. Therefore, in Bandung, we find Japan, then classified among the underdeveloped countries, and also Southern Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand... This partial list show how absurd it is to speak about "a crisis of the Third world". The notion of the Third world used in singular - and Alfred Sauvy recognized it being alive -, should not be more used, as it does not correspond more to a whole having a character of international homogeneity. Can we consider in the same ensemble a country as Chile which had, since 1974, a significant growth permitting to it to reimburse the totality of its international debt, while it was the country the most burdened in debts from the world, and Burma, a very rich country but impoverished by a terrible political burden? Can we consider that the Indian Union is only a country of the Third world, while we find whole parts of the economy calling to the newest technologies, and competitive with the industrial countries, even if other parties of the economy are slightly productive, poor, even very poor?
Also, we can read or hear the statement "of Maghreb crisis": it could be justified only if the history of Maghreb was lighted by a phenomenon of rupture suddenly occurring in a given moment. So it is not anything. The political chiefs from Tunis, Algeria and Morocco, since the 1960s, conducted the respective countries to hardly difficult results. And if we want to recollect that Libya and Mauritania make also part from Maghreb, we realize that Magreb is a kaleidoscope.
How many times did we hear to speak about " a global crisis of overpopulation ", or "about an African crisis of overpopulation "? Therefore, these expressions are completely unsuitable, because these crises are mythical, referring frequently to territory of weak denseness and to the potential significant riches (Zaire, Gabon, and Angola...). They are even more inappropriate if we consider the logic of the demographic science that allows easily to understand the evolutions . Besides, they are inappropriate if we reason upon ancient and exceeded projections, not taking into account the importance of the demographic recession in numerous countries .
Considering the augmentation of the mono-parental families in a country as France, some of the journalists do not hesitate to speak about "a family crisis". So the reality is more complicated. In France, the statistical services do not offer any knowledge of the evolution of mono-parental families' flux. The unique score is a warehouse stated after dates very remote one from others at the moment of inventories (1975, 1982, 1990, and 1999). A warehouse very much heterogeneous. In fact, we can reasonably analyze as if they were homogeneous these different mono-parental families: the wonder woman who wanted a child, but mainly not a husband; the person who declares living in mono-parental home hiding the partner whose existence could question some social advantages; the person with children abandoned by the partner in the year of the birth or after; the person with children, that the destiny made widower or widow; the person living in a mono-parental home owing to divorce. Besides, these different situations can be very various from a financial and administrative point of view, from the point of view of an apartment, and according to the regular payments or not of a food pension. To consider a total number of the mono-parental homes it does not almost light the sociological realities and an eventual rupture that seems have been made in the ideal image of the family.
Concerning the marriages in Europe, the use of the word "crisis", wanting to recover the nuptial phenomenon of lowering, is also disputable. As the evolution, various according to the countries , is dependent on the phenomena of the society, including the problems of regulation. The in-depth examination of the number of marriages in France, and also in other countries having changed repeatedly the regulation (Austria and Sweden for example) shows very clearly the influence of public decisions on the number of marriages. That is called "a family crisis" is thus an ensemble of more complicated phenomena, which, in reality, find frequently their origin at the beginning of a societal evolution among which the family is only the receptacle, or the thermometer.
In the ideal, it would be convenient thus to distinguish the crisis from the processes, to refuse to use the term crisis for the phenomena of a more complicated nature or simply mythical.
The refusal to see
At last, it is necessary to consider another type of crisis when real crises, insufficiently or not at all taken into account, generate durable phenomena in the reason even of the refusals to treat them as crisis.
It is clear, for example, that the judges show in France, in the 1990s, a crisis of policy, during the put in process of felonious means used for financing the political parties. Even if the guilty interpellated by the Justice were minor in relation to the overwhelming majority, honest, of the elected, their questioning underlined roughly a forceful derive from the public interest and a removal from the senses of the common goods of the high levels of responsibilities. The political chiefs seem doubtlessly have called to clear this crisis, accepting to light collectively and immediately the scandals, appeared or temporarily hidden. A large part preferred to deny this crisis, to try "drown the fish", or to bend, namely forcing to vote by the legislator complex procedures of financing political parties which, in fact, complicate the exercise of citizenship and of the democracy, without reconciling the French with the policy. The crisis not being really treated, a bitter feeling remains among the population some more years after, whence a growing number of persons not entered in the electoral lists and a rise of abstention from voting.
This example shows that the crisis not or badly caring can have negative durable effects . Two cases especially elucidating are those of the Three Mile Island in 1979 and of Chernobyl in April 1986. Then where a reactor of the nuclear station Three Mile Island jumps in 1979, every responsible fails to manage this crisis: the given information is inappropriate, a defensive and shriveled attitude, aggravates the problem, and the refusal to take efficient steps the crisis predominates. We know the result: the development in the whole world of a psychosis more intense and more durable than that caused by the crisis itself, and generated by its bad management.
Also, at the night from the 25-th of April till the 26-th of April 1986, one of the four reactors of the nuclear station Chernobyl (Ukraine) blows up. The radioactive debris are pushed at more than 2000 meters of height in the clouds which are going to move to the Europe, then there at the discretion of the winds. In France, they want to stifle the crisis. A communiqué from the 29-th of April 1986 from the central Services of protection against the ionic shines add: " In France, if we find out something, there is only a pure scientific problem". The formulation could be a beautiful theme of examination, as we can be interested what means "a pure scientific problem "? Then, the 6-th of May 1986, the ministry of Agriculture, denying in his turn the crisis, brings a conclusion that wants to be definitive: " the French territory was completely saved". As the Schengen space did not exist still, should we consider that the customs officers managed to stop the cloud at the boundary? The outcome to this lie did not cease to make outcomes, as the problem of sanitary consequences in Chernobyl always make discussions in France in 2001. The administrative initial logic consisting to refuse to see a crisis made perennial outcomes.
The journalist Bernard Nicolas showed the difference between the crisis treated in time and thus fast exceeded and another crisis badly treated and which outcomes become durable. In the first case, Perrier offers a remarkable grateful example, before even being able to analyze the technical reason, a problem of manufacturing. In the second case, the affair of infected blood , while the responsible faces and the experts knew, conducted to an "official" lie that immortalizes the consequences of the crisis.
Face to the inflationary use of the term "crisis", it is necessary thus to exercise all its critical reason to understand precisely the thing that recovers the use which is made. The intellectual and cultural reaching to realize in order to take in account clearly every crisis stated in its origin, to operate its consequences, to hinder durable outcomes, risking to continue its bitter taste, are important. They remain essential, mainly in relation to the desire of silence on a transparency, face to the old ideas which continue to privilege the rights to the devoirs, the hierarchical to the reticular, the due to the responsibility, the individualism to the group feeling. Whence the reflection of Pierre Gadonneix: "Nothing is so dangerous than the optimism and the consent, they hinder to be prepared for the crisis" .
The answers and the comments brought to the question exhibited in the title of this study request especially the prospective reflection. In fact, this last one has for object to answer to the question "when will be the nearest crisis?" in view to anticipate it and regulate it.
So, more we give an extended and inexact definition to the word crisis, more we make an immoderate use, more we make impenetrable its own reality, and it is more difficult to recognize the indicating signs and to precise the recommendations of an action. We lose thus the advantages of the initial sense of the word crisis that meant etymologically decision, choice to act to get over a difficulty. It is thus important to add to the word crisis its veritable sense in order to manage better its future.
G. - F. D.