The cover of the album “Crisis? What Crisis?” from Supertramp features a man lazing about in a beach chair in a grim environment, blissfully unaware of the unpleasant world around him . There are plenty of ironies, as is often the case, to this image, including the fact that the band themselves felt under a considerable amount of pressure in order to produce a hit album to follow up the success of their previous album. The album production was rushed, the reviews were negative, and there were no hit singles from the album and the band did not like the material. It was a disappointment all around, even if retrospective reviews, such as from All Music, have been kinder. The irony, as is often the case, gets deeper, in that the success of the band in their following two albums led to a crisis that ended up in the departure of one of the band’s lead singers and a drastic downturn in the band’s commercial prospects. It turns out that the band’s success, and disputes over money and creative direction, were a crisis that the band could not handle.
What is it that separates a genuine crisis from fairly ordinary if unpleasant stress? For one, a crisis involves a situation where one does not have the tools or experience or resources to handle it. For someone with a large disposable income and massive amounts of savings, the loss of $20,000 in a bad investment would be a bit disappointing, but would not be a crisis. For someone living at the edge of survival, a medical bill of a few hundred dollars might spark a crisis. Examples can be reproduced ad infinitum. What made the crisis of the third century so serious for the Roman empire was the combination of economic, military, and demographic disaster with political problems and a series of emperors who lacked the ability to deal with the serious nature of their problems, to the point where it became popular to find scapegoats for national failure, leading to persecutions as well as numerous other terrible policies. The same is true in general–a large set of difficult and complicated problems in the absence of skilled leadership tends to lead to a situation of crisis.
Yet, as easy as it is to pile on the leaders to blame them for the failures of societies and institutions to deal successfully with crisis, there is usually a larger story as well. Crises are often the result of individual decisions that, when added up, lead to a massive problem. Our lives exist in the tension between individual and social pulls, the notable individuals with their actions on a grand scheme that command attention and the decisions of largely anonymous and unknown people that lead to the massive demographic realities that societies have to deal with when they look at the resource base to solve problems. Just as individual leaders in politics and culture set the pace for the population at large, so too the population, through the aggregation of their decisions and situations, sets the resources that those leaders have to work with, their logistical base. Both the behavior of powerful elites and the logistical capacity of the larger group play important roles in determining how much resilience there is in a system, how much room there is for error, and what level of heroism is required for things to turn out alright in a given situation .
The example of Novgorod in the fifteenth century is worthwhile to examine in this light. During most of the dark period of the late Russian Middle Ages under the Mongol yoke, the city-state of Novgorod had done well for itself in protecting Russia from invasion, and among its princes had been the heroic Alexander Nevsky. But as Moscow gathered in strength, the city of Novgorad had been expanding in population, only to find that its logistical base depended on a somewhat remote and vulnerable territory. Its city leaders attempted to remind the people of the greatness of the city’s past, but the people of Novgorod were unwilling to rise up in defense of their liberties, and eventually they fell under the yoke of Moscow, and their bell was removed, leaving them a provincial town in a growing empire rather than a free republic. The leaders of the city recognized there was a crisis, but they did not have the resources to deal with it, and so their regime crumbled. The same can be said of the Byzantine empire in the 15th century, with leadership aware of the dangerous state of affairs but without the logistical base to deal with the problems faced. Whenever a society or institution fails, it is not only leadership that may be failing, but the resource base from which solutions can be found. Even the most able leaders cannot deliver a society that lacks the capacity to deal with a crisis, but a society with large resources may be done in by poor leadership that brings upon it a crisis it cannot handle, like the foolish shah of Central Asia who brought his young state into war with the Mongol empire by killing the envoys sent to them, leading to the death of millions of people in his realm in cities like Bukhara and Samarkand.
Nevertheless, we can ask ourselves if we believe ourselves to be in a crisis a few questions to clarify matters in our own mind, so that we may face reality as honestly as possible. Are we faced with situations where the tried and true solutions of the past no longer seem to work, or where the old rules no longer seem to apply, or where existing institutions in our society are failing? Do we have a leadership that does not seem up to the challenges we face? Do we struggle to find the resources to cope with ordinary existence, much less the occasional and more serious difficulties that exist? Are there serious problems that exist in multiple areas–economic, military, political, social and religious–where a state of conflict in society has existed for decades? The more these questions can be answered affirmatively, the more serious the level of crisis exists and the more our ability to cope with reality will be tested by the fires of experience. Are we ready to pass the test?
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