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Critical realism in times of crisis

A guest post by Hubert Buch-Hansen and Peter Nielsen

When we decided in 2019 to frame our book Critical Realism: Basics and Beyond around the topic of crisis, we had no idea that a new global health crisis was lurking around the corner. The COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic a few weeks after we handed in the final manuscript to the publisher in early 2020.

The phenomenon of crisis is neither new to our societies nor to critical realism. Critical realism itself emerged during the crisis period of the 1970s. As post-war institutions and prevailing worldviews in the West encountered widespread criticism and resistance, the validity of the dominant philosophy of science tradition, positivism, was increasingly brought into question. Appearing in an environment that was friendly to critical theory, critical realism is to no small extent a response to the resulting crisis of positivism.

As noted by Roy Bhaskar back then, a decisive epistemological difference between the natural and social sciences is that it is not feasible to conduct controlled experiments in the social sciences. However, extraordinary circumstances such as crises, transition phases or other extreme situations can, in the social sciences, constitute a partial analogy to natural scientific experiments.

The idea is that important matters become more visible and accessible under such circumstances, making it possible to obtain knowledge that is also of relevance in relation to more ‘normal’ situations. Appearances can become less deceiving when, say, deep social conflict becomes more visible. In the 1970s, for instance, an outburst of workplace resistance and wildcat strikes made conflicting interests regarding working conditions and capitalism more transparent.

Subsequently, much has happened to critical realism. Not only did Bhaskar develop the perspective in new and controversial directions; several other tensions and openings also appeared. Far from being a once-and-for-all settled perspective in the philosophy of science, then, critical realism continues to develop and to be interpreted in different ways.

One of the general trends in this context is that critical realists seek to address the challenges posed by postmodernists and radical social constructionists. Another trend is a growing interest in how critical realism can inform social scientific research.

However, contemporary critical realism is not only shaped by its own origins and subsequent academic challenges. It is also once again developing within societies that face multiple crises. The current social context is, however, very different from that of the 1970s.

In the wake of the economic and political crises of the 1970s, a neoliberal turn took place. In recent times, it has become increasingly clear that the neoliberal project and neoliberal capitalism have moved into a new phase, a phase of severe crisis. Until not long ago, the 2008 financial crisis was the latest in a series of ever more serious economic and social crises.

Three persistent, long-term tendencies, each of which is a symptom of crisis, have been observed in the advanced capitalist countries: declining economic growth, rising economic inequality and increasing indebtedness of governments, households and companies. These tendencies have all been deepened by the lockdowns in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On top of the multidimensional socio-economic crisis of neoliberal capitalism come the global crises of a rapidly escalating climate breakdown and biodiversity loss. Our thriving as human beings depends on the thriving of the planet we inhabit, yet because of our way of life – particularly in the rich countries – the life-giving systems of the Earth are under unprecedented pressure.

As a result of human activities that entail emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, the climate is heating, resulting in the melting of ice sheets and glaciers.  Recent years have also witnessed an increasing number of climate events such as droughts, storms, floods, forest fires and heat waves that are likely to be results of the escalating climate breakdown. The climate breakdown ultimately poses an existential threat to the entire planet.

The magnitude of CO2  emissions is closely correlated to the level of economic activity and growth. The drops in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) levels across the globe resulting from reduced economic activity due to the COVID-19 lockdowns will thus, at least in 2020, be accompanied by a decline of a few percent in global CO2 emissions – as was the financial crisis in 2009. Still, it is not at all clear what the long term effects of the pandemic will be on the climate crises. Following the financial crisis, GDP growth quickly picked up again, and so did the growth in emissions of CO2.

The climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommend that global net emissions of CO2 need to be halved within 10 years and be eliminated around 2050 if the risk of disastrous and irreversible climate change is to be reduced to 50 %. This means that emissions should be reduced by around 7 percent every year in this decade, not only in 2020. Such a turnaround in the emissions trajectory will necessitate a monumental transition of all aspects of the high-consumption lifestyles of the middle and upper classes.

However, crisis management so far has primarily been about re-establishing status quo, including a firm commitment to boost GDP growth once again. At the same time, the political and media agendas that one year ago revolved around the climate crisis are now dominated by the COVID-19 emergency.

In any case, the current deepening of crisis entails potential radical effects on the future course of society, depending on how major agents interpret, learn from and act upon it. Indeed, crises are moments in time when actions can more easily shape the future than is otherwise the case.

Our times, then, are permeated by deep and multidimensional crises and COVID-19 has added further fuel to the fire. Far from being separate, the crises are interrelated in various ways. As noted above, the COVID-19 crisis aggravate the crisis of neoliberalism and cast a shadow over the climate emergency. Importantly also, the climate crisis needs to be seen in the context of global neoliberal capitalism, a system premised on endless expansion, rapid depletion of natural resources, rampant consumerism and high mobility of people and goods. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that it is possible to tackle the climate crisis within the framework of this system.

When faced with severe crises, philosophy of science may seem to constitute a luxury you cannot afford. In our opinion such a stance is unwarranted. Critical realism has much to offer not only in efforts to shed light on the deep causes of the crises and on the complex ways in which they relate but also in finding ways to move beyond them. We hope that Critical Realism: Basics and Beyond will contribute to such endeavours.