At first glance, it would indeed seem to be the case that the constant sequence of crises of the last decade or so points to some loss of meaning and value for the term. However, if we understand ‘crisis’ not as some exceptional moment or state of affairs but rather, closer to its original meaning, as a situation where some action or judgment is needed (‘critical’ as a condition where an active intervention is needed if the system in question, biological or social, is to continue) then things are much more complex. In opposition to some permanent ‘state of exception’, which is indeed a contradictory idea, we are in a continuing ‘crisis’ for some years now if by that we mean that the extended reproduction of western societies (or significant parts of them at least) can no longer be taken as a given.
Here I would say that capitalism as a whole is certainly not in crisis, just the opposite. It is indeed a bit of wishful thinking to declare the crisis of capitalism at a time when concentrations of wealth, corporate profits, and stock prices are all at history making levels (we should keep in mind that, as Marx himself had pointed out, crisis is often the solution, not the problem, for capitalism). Similarly, a great number of capitalist societies, especially many within Asia together with some in Latin America and the Africa, are the in midst of long economic booms with rapidly growing levels of consumption, employment, and economic security.
What then it is that is crisis, what is in need of some active intervention if it is to survive? Here I think the answers are clear, many core elements of western societies, especially North American and European, are no longer reproducible in the old ways and if they are to continue to exist then some real intervention is necessary, some new judgment is needed.
Detroit is in crisis, as is Greece. The notion of universities as refuges from market society and as centers of higher learning is very much in crisis; if any such refuges still exist it is only due to omission and oversight. Also in critical condition: the securing of political legitimacy through material concessions to the dominated classes, full-time stable employment, an environment capable of sustaining the existing range of biological life, even the distinction itself been biological life and political life seems to be rapidly fading away in ‘advanced’ western societies.
Thus, to designate our current situation as one of crisis is to point out the fluidity and contingencies of the moment. It may have been the case that for the last few generations social order in the United States and much of Europe was quite stable, reproducing itself with few difficulties. The lack of stability today is both a political opportunity as well as a great danger. Greece could become the first of many societies to rebel against the violence of global finance and reclaim politics or it could be a futile last gasp of humanistic values in an era of authoritarian liberalism and the dominance of market values above all else. In this situation, we are asked to make a judgment as to which way we want society to go, which old ideas and values we think are worth keeping and which should be allowed to perish and replaced with the new. We are obliged to intervene and attempt to direct the future of our societies since they are no longer on automatic pilot.