The transformative power of crisis

How destruction leads to the best of humanity

Any societal crisis - political, environmental, military, a pandemic – shakes our lazy assumption that our leaders are really in control. In that moment of both vulnerability and clarity, we have a rare opportunity to evaluate our political systems, to be truly human, and to decide how we want to live, writes Ruth Kinna.


The embrace of crisis usually conjures images of riot and ruin. Michael Bakunin, Marx’s rival and the purported model for Wagner’s Siegfried, sent shock waves across Europe when he described the ‘passion for destruction’ as ‘creative’. But an anarchist approach to crisis is an optimistic reaction to disorder.

‘Crisis’ evokes collapse, disorder and discomfort. Economic crisis, climate crisis, mid-life crisis, a crisis of conscience are familiar renditions. With them usually comes the hope that the crisis will pass and normality will be restored.

But if ‘crisis’ marks the peak in a disruptive process, it is also possible to imagine fruitful changes to the status quo as well as the restoration of business as usual. In the best of worlds, crisis may even herald a positive transformation, revealing the shortcomings of the old ‘normal’ and triggering advances.

This is the way that Marxists present the ‘crisis of capitalism’. In outline, the argument is that production for profit creates pressures in the economic system which eventually become intolerable, mobilising demands for fundamental, revolutionary change. Anarchist socialism has a similarly positive spin on crisis but with an important difference. In anarchism, the potential benefits of a breakdown cannot be specified in advance. There are no cumulative social forces, such as those embedded in Marx’s theory of history, ready to sweep away the old and usher in the new. Instead, the transformative potential of crisis relies on the responses it provokes.

‘Crisis’ evokes collapse, disorder and discomfort. But an anarchist approach to crisis is an optimistic reaction to disorder.

Anarchists present two strong reasons for embracing crisis as an opportunity. First, it counters our complacent assumption that our leaders can control events simply because they have the authority to do so. Second, by exposing vulnerability, crisis precipitates innovative, practical experiments in community organising. In doing so, crisis also taps altruistic habits and practices that are usually associated with ‘caring’ occupations like nursing or limited to close family and friends.

Upsetting our assumptions about our leaders is part of a wider  critique of leadership and government. The anarchist view is that government institutionalises unwarranted and repressive hierarchical divisions between leaders and led. This division fools everyone into thinking that the powerful have real competency and real control. Leo Tolstoy, one of the most influential anarchists of the nineteenth century, evoked Plato’s metaphor of the ship of state to challenge this idea. Plato described the chaos that ensues when ordinary seamen compete for control of the wheel and deride the philosopher who possesses the wisdom to steer the right course as a ‘stargazer’. In response, Tolstoy imagined the predicament of the ship’s company at sea. In calm waters everyone thinks that the captain commands the ship’s passage, but this confidence quickly ebbs away once the storm hits. The captain is revealed both to himself and the crew as feeble and useless in the face of the crisis.

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Why is this revelation productive? For anarchists, the realisation that no-one is better positioned to command or protect the rest acts as a psychological release mechanism, opening the way to self-reliance. In other words, powerlessness activates empowerment. In 2011 Occupy Wall Street resurrected ‘leaderfulness’, the term coined by the syndicalist union the Industrial Workers of the World, to describe this change of perspective. The central idea is that strength comes from co-operation rather than division.

The argument about practical organising and altruism is not a naivety. It is based on observations of behaviour in times of stress. Anarchists are not alone in arguing that crisis accentuates solidarity. The phrase ‘the wartime spirit’ is a familiar shorthand term used to define the social cohesion and shared sense of purpose that is said to have prevailed in the UK in the 1940s. Anarchists use the term ‘mutual aid’ to describe a similar idea of co-operation.

Strength comes from co-operation rather than division.

The idea was pioneered by another nineteenth-century anarchist, Peter Kropotkin. Challenging the Social Darwinist mantra of the ‘survival of the fittest’ Kropotkin argued firstly, that co-operation was essential for basic survival and secondly, that co-operation was a vehicle for the practical expression of empathy and compassion. Mutual aid, in short, was a spontaneous, organisational response to human need.

One of Kropotkin’s favourite examples was the Lifeboat Association. To return to Tolstoy’s storm, Kropotkin believed that a crisis at sea not only jolted us from our habitual reliance on leaders, but also took us into the water to rescue the drowning. Yet unlike the Victorian artist G. F. Watts, who created a monument in London’s Postman’s Park to commemorate the heroic self-sacrifice of individuals who had died saving others, Kropotkin stressed the collective aspects of mutual aid. His view was that organisations created to meet emergencies changed society for the better by enhancing the scope for collaborative, caring ways of living. They still do. To give a recent example, Common Ground - set up in New Orleans the wake of Hurricane Katrina - now functions to support environmentally sustainable, economically viable Gulf Coast communities.

Kropotkin would not have been surprised to see a plethora of local community associations mushroom during the Covid pandemic. He would have been heartened to see them organise on both sides of the Atlantic under the banner of mutual aid. The question that he, like Bakunin and Tolstoy, would ask about crisis organising is: what social habits do we want to preserve, and which do we want to set aside?

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