Recap: Adam Tooze's Tanner Lecture "Polycrisis"

Written by
Max Ridge
Feb. 6, 2024

Last November, Adam Tooze, the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Chair of History at Columbia University and director of the European Institute, delivered the 2023 Tanner Lectures on "The Last Dystopia: Historicizing the Anthropocene Debate in a Multipolar Age."

Tooze's second lecture, "Polycrisis," is summarized here by Max Ridge, a graduate student in the Department of Politics.

The intellect, Hegel alleged in The Philosophy of Right, usually apprehends its surroundings only as they fade. Our ability to reflect on the world, he thought, depends on that world’s passing away in the face of something new. In his second Tanner Lecture, Adam Tooze alighted on a recent example of this Hegelian tragedy. Throughout the 2010s, he said, policymakers converged on a single paradigm of climate-friendly growth. Yet the world shifted below their feet. A growing “polycrisis” increasingly upset the balance of geopolitics, embarrassing international cooperation as the climate catastrophe approached. 

Tooze’s second lecture returned to 2015, when economists, financiers, industrialists, diplomats, and climate bureaucrats neared consensus on how to manage two global dilemmas. At the UN General Assembly of that year, the “sustainable development goals” charted a course out of ongoing global inequality. The Paris Climate Accords of the same year coalesced around the idea of “net zero” to address climate change. Together, these two frameworks anticipated a future of green growth. Yet that future looked unsure. Economic growth meant more energy consumption, and more energy demand put pressure on available renewables. Even so, “sustainable development” and “net zero” represented monumental achievements of multilateral coordination and scientific ambition in Tooze’s view. Superseding the “Washington Consensus” of policymaking after the Cold War, the new generation rose through feats of financial planning and projection that would make the neoliberal wonks of the 1990s blush. 

A “cottage industry” of ecological modelling underwrote the new consensus, Tooze averred, as did the “cosmopolitan selection of the great and the good” that that industry assembled. The development goals in particular relied on a “baroque repertoire” of economic indicators, leaning on astounding resources of observation and financial modeling.[1] Net zero called on similar techniques. Decarbonization presupposed a massive degree of infrastructural investment in low-growth countries—a level of capital infusion far beyond the purview of public balance sheets. Instead, private institutions would underwrite “net zero,” though only after assurances of “derisking” by sovereigns. Owing to these similarities with neoliberal policies of yore—‘socialize the risks and privatize the gains’—Tooze remained skeptical of the new consensus. He asked if the ingenuity of the new generation of well-meaning elites belied an old-fashioned “bourgeois revolution that dare not speak its name.”

As Tooze suggested, however, the mental faculties of these would-be bourgeois revolutionaries outpaced their political remit in the years to come. Climate bureaucrats wrote political checks their governments could not possibly cash. The ambitions of the great and the good to ‘sustainably develop’ their way to a ‘net zero’ future ignored the multipolarity of their moment—and ours. Their designs suited a bygone world of singular American hegemony, in which the greatest polluters exercised dominance over low-emission countries while a NATO-led coalition reigned without contest. In our world, however, China releases the largest share of carbon of any country, and no international actor fulfills the role of a global leviathan. International planners face a kind of interregnum, in Gramsci’s phraseology, with no end in sight. For now, the Green paradigm remains, at best, a will without an executor. 

What caused this interregnum? The rapid growth of China, of course, challenged American power. Yet the overextension of the United States itself denatured the country’s hegemony amidst the unpredictable events of the 2010s. Indeed, in these years elite optimism coexisted with compounding crisis. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the panic over election interference and disinformation, Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine, the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, the Greek debt crisis, the European refugee crisis: each destabilized the foundations of international coordination in spite of the consensus that appeared at Paris and New York in 2015. Small wonder that, in the maelstrom of these events, Jean-Claude Juncker coined the term “polycrisis”—a word whose aptness only increased through the travails of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s intensifying claim to Taiwan, and COVID-19. Some of these shocks proved peripheral to the international system, while others (particularly the populisms of the United States, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe) emerged from the core. Today, the weakness of the international system shows itself in the most routine of events, from a caucus in Iowa to a cabinet shake-up in Westminster to an election in Argentina.

With this international picture in full view, Tooze then turned to Bidenomics—as much a creature of polycrisis as a failed attempt to transcend its circumstances. Through the public writings of Jake Sullivan and Larry Summers, the neoliberal ghost at the Bidenomic feast, Tooze offered a sober picture of President Biden’s economic agenda. His analysis hinged especially on the temporal contradictions of Bidenomics. It was “born on the middle of a crisis and,” owing to Trump’s looming presence in the next election cycle, “runs on a very short political clock.” It represents the best efforts of an octogenarian president to break with the conventional economic wisdom of the 1990s while introducing inflationary conditions to rival those of the 1970s. Most worryingly, it judges its success on the basis of “factory construction indicators” —outdated, even nostalgic measures of a domestic manufacturing industry that will never return. 

Altogether, Tooze concludes, the program of Bidenomics “warps” our sense of the future. Senate infighting reduced Biden’s economic agenda to a modest “nudge” towards green energy and manufacturing, leaving real long-termism (based on the growing care economy or infrastructural funding) on the cutting room floor. With Biden’s approval ratings so low, especially on questions of economic policy, his administration can afford little else. This includes the necessary bid to avoid a Cold War with China, the world largest carbon emitter, and instead pursue a policy of cooperation in pursuit of decarbonization. 

One can never have too many friends in a Gramscian interregnum. Yet the current approach to domestic economic revival presupposes rivalry with the world’s most populous country. At the heart of Bidenomics, perhaps, lies the inability of a waning class of Washington policymakers to either recognize that they are no longer the central protagonist of world politics or contend with the 21st-century economy American currently enjoys. 

Pratap Mehta and Angus Deaton corroborated Tooze’s sense of drift. Mehta recalled the pessimism of the 1970s. In that era, inflation dominated the fears of workers and capitalists alike. The state’s credibility as a market regulator declined, while bureaucratic rationality ceased to offer a compelling solution to political struggles. The specter of elite influence represented a convenient scapegoat for social decline. Overall, the origins of widespread crisis lay in politics rather than some deficit of scientific understanding. 

Political thinkers of the 1970s inhabited a world like our own, Mehta suggested, and Machiavelli knew this world well. He found no “underlying structure” to world order. International bureaucrats—whether they accepted the Washington consensus or its contemporary successor—wandered through a landscape of glory fit for risk-takers and war-makers. The rising appeal of autocrats after 2015 reflects an elite recognition of, or resignation to, this fact. 

Deaton provided a similar, if grimmer, reflection on the lecture. Meditating on his 2013 book The Great Escape, he mused that the rapid and global gains to working- and middle-class qualities of life throughout the twentieth century may have amounted to a “temporary golden age” from which we increasingly depart. Was it the personnel of the “cosmopolitan selection of the great and the good” who failed to ride the waves of polycrisis, or bureaucracy as such? Either way, it will have to be a new elite, in a new kind of working arrangement with working people, that confronts climate change, Deaton suggested. Onlookers will likely welcome a flight from Hegel and a return to Machiavelli: better to march unknowingly into the future than dwell on a passing world. Yet we may come to regret the price we pay for Machiavellian leaders. To paraphrase Cormac McCarthy: lost lambs cry. Sometimes comes the mother. Sometimes the wolf.