By Louise Vanhee
“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” — Milton Friedman
Reinhart Koselleck provides us with a historical and etymological reading of the word crisis. The word crisis finds its origin in ancient Greek with various meanings attached to it; to “separate” (part, divorce), to “choose,” to “judge,” to “decide”; as a means of “measuring oneself,” “to quarrel,” or “to fight” (1). In ancient Greece, it had a predominantly political meaning. Later on, it was used to describe military situations, illness, religious occurrences, economic events, etc. The vast amount of historical events that Koselleck describes in detail, pertaining to the use of the word crisis and its meaning in that specific event, leads us to believe that it’s often used in a different manner and with different connotations. He even sums up four interpretative possibilities; crisis can mean “a chain of events leading to a culminating, decisive point at which action is required”, “a unique and final point, after which the quality of history will be changed forever”, “a permanent or conditional category pointing to a critical situation which may constantly recur or else to situations in which decisions have momentous consequences”, or “a historically immanent transitional phase”.
Looking at these four possibilities and returning back to the root(s) of the word crisis, the core concept of what makes something a crisis is quite clear. Crisis has to do with something that challenges us – or one person, or a specific group of people – and requires us to make a decision. It is not something that will resolve itself on its own. Sometimes this decision is made hastily and in an unconscious matter. Nevertheless, the decision – or multiple decisions – that ultimately resolves the crisis or attempts to, changes the situation drastically.
This is exactly what Noami Klein warns us about. We are now in the midst of a global crisis, and decisions have to be made – will be made, that is inevitable. Whether those will be ‘good’ decisions or ‘bad’ decisions, that is still undecided. The fortunate elite of the world will always be the first to gather knowledge about an upcoming crisis: “What causes the crisis? Who is at risk? How can we prevent it?” but also “How can we profit from it?” The corona crisis has made it abundantly clear that the schism between poor and rich is still very much intact, and much larger than we gave it credit for in certain places. Whilst homeless people in Las Vegas were ordered to sleep in the same parking lot, in freshly painted squares separating them from each other at the required 1,5 meters, the multimillion dollar corporations behind the casinos and hotels had other issues to deal with (2). Locks. The ‘24h-365 days a year’ Las Vegas strip has never in its history closed down and was now confronted with the issue of having to put locks on all the casinos and hotels.
Why not use one of the hundred now empty hotels to house these people in temporarily? Because that idea had never been ‘lying around’? According to Klein, times of crisis will be used to enhance the fortune of the richest corporations, and to politically make dubious decisions while the rest of the country is dazed and confused in the midst of the crisis. Remember that the rich always see it coming first? They are more informed and knowledgeable — and simply put, rich — and therefore able to adapt to the crisis much faster than normal people. They will attempt to push ideas that enhance their profit that previously seemed too outlandish, but now in a crisis atmosphere might pass. Klein argues that the same tactic should be used by others — those with ‘good’ intentions — as they also have a stack of ideas lying around that could now finally be implemented.
Are the only tools we have to fight a crisis really the ideas that are already ‘lying around’? Or can we create new ideas during the crisis, inspired by the crisis? I believe we can. Otherwise we have to believe that somebody once had an idea of putting a bunch of homeless people in imaginary boxes on a parking lot, and that this was the idea which was the most convenient and suitable to address this crisis — and that it was ‘lying around’. Just like Koselleck quoted Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls”, I strongly believe that this is true. We are being challenged, and decisions must be made. But a crisis sometimes confronts us with questions that don’t have answers yet. Occasionally, we might be able to adjust an old idea that was ‘lying around’ to provide the necessary solution. But often, we have to think quick on our feet and come up with something completely new. New ideas that surface during a crisis are not any less viable in my eyes. Perhaps they will take longer to be implemented than ‘old ones’, but they are no less important. California’s governor Gavin Newsom proved this when implementing ‘Project Roomkey’ at the end of April to house the homeless during the pandemic. In the five weeks since the start of the program, over 7000 people have been provided with temporary shelter (3). Unlike Las Vegas, California is not only using empty hotels to house the at-risk homeless population, but has also set up unsold trailers and RV’s to function as temporary housing. Many homeless advocates and state officials are now realizing the benefits of this setup and new ideas have sprung up that might allow this initiative to become permanent. Jennifer Friedenbach, director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, argues that some hotels might go bankrupt due to the crisis and could easily be bought up by the government to allow the shelter to remain while at the same time giving the community an economic impulse (4).
I am not yet able to give you a list of all the questions that surround the arts and humanities during this crisis, nor am I able to provide any solutions either. But perhaps, after some contemplation, I will find an idea that was lying around. Or I’ll think of something completely new.
(1) Kosselleck, R. & Richter, M. W. (Apr., 2006). Crisis. In Journal of the History of Ideas, (Vol. 67, no. 2), pp. 357-400. University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/30141882
(2) Koran, M. (March 31, 2020). Las Vegas parking lot turned into ‘homeless shelter’ with social distancing markers. The Guardian. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/30/las-vegas-parking-lot-homeless-shelter
(3) Palmer, P. (May 15, 2020). Project Roomkey: Can state program help resolve Los Angeles homelessness? Eyewitness News. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from: https://abc7.com/los-angeles-homelessness-coronavirus-project-room-key-governor-gavin-newsom/6184507/
(4) Kim, C. (Apr 21, 2020). It took a pandemic for cities to finally address homelessness. Vox. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from: https://www.vox.com/2020/4/21/21227629/coronavirus-homeless-covid-19-las-vegas-san-francisco