Tipping point

Some will look at unemployment, smack their foreheads and declare, “No Wonder!” This, they will say, of course, is the cause of so much current unrest. And as it appears to be receding,[1] perhaps even inspiring the V-shaped recovery that the Trump administration appears to be relying on,[2] perhaps we can relax about that unrest.

And perhaps we can. Only perhaps. And only for the moment.

Whether we look at a seemingly intrinsic[3] hierarchically invidious monism,[4] a superior “us” versus an inferior “them,”[5] that finds its ugliest expressions most overtly in authoritarian populism and paleoconservatism[6] and in the systemic expressions of functionalist conservatism that seeks to preserve the position and privileges of the wealthy and powerful against everyone else,[7] either or both of which may motivate police brutality, especially against Blacks, and a willingness to sacrifice Blacks[8] and the old[9] to the novel coronavirus; an intellectually utterly discredited neoliberal[10] refusal to confront human need that hampers efforts to contain the contagion;[11] whether we look at the often white supremacist protests against lockdowns meant to limit the spread of that coronavirus, where protests interpret wage slavery and capitalist relations as ‘freedom;’[12] or the protests that have ensued from the police murder of George Floyd,[13] we are looking at grievances that in their roots are anywhere from decades to millenia old, perhaps even dating to a primordial infant learning to distinguish itself from its surroundings, learning that even as it depended upon others for support, it valued itself before them.

We are not looking at a single cause here. They may have come together to push our society to a tipping point of protest, perhaps, though I think this unlikely, even to a tipping point of substantial change, but the cause is not merely unemployment, not merely racism, not merely poverty, not merely COVID-19 (the disease that the novel coronavirus induces), certainly not merely police brutality, not merely any one thing. This is an example of what Joanna Macy calls ‘mutual causality,’ where many factors and the interactions between them come together to produce an effect,[14] where the whole is not necessarily greater, but is certainly different from the sum of the parts (with differences labeled as ’emergent properties’). It is an example of general systems theory at work.[15]

A sophisticated understanding of tipping points implies that tipping points themselves become factors; there are tipping points within tipping points. A naïve view takes these as linear and sees these as a chain of cause and effect. The latter view might even take these causes as having already reached their culmination. The coronavirus still lurks[16] and as even businesses experience difficulty paying their rent, the economy might still take a turn for the worse;[17] the present situation defies the naïve view.

The unemployment rate doesn’t fully capture the profound depth of joblessness right now. It is only a snapshot of those actively looking for work — not college graduates who enter a world with few job prospects or others who are out of work and have made similar decisions about sitting out until the country opens back up.

It doesn’t include people like Jennifer Bui, 28, a freelance content creator in Long Beach who has lost most of her income from work online since the crisis began and hasn’t paid rent since April. Bui said she didn’t think she qualified for unemployment payments and has been making do with a dwindling bank account and occasional grocery drops from her mother.[18]

Ominously, I doubt we have begun to see the ripple effects of the downturn, how what I have called “a neoliberal house of cards”[19] that this small drop in unemployment may not prop up.[20]

Even the crises that occupy our present attention, police racism, the coronavirus pandemic, a recession, are not a whole picture. We look at the climate crisis and capitalism as well; you may safely assume there are others, and you may safely assume we don’t even know what all they are. There is an entire context, a context of tipping points, and we do not know how many of these tipping points are needed to produce substantive change or really even how many we have. Even the question I pose here proceeds from linear causation—a fallacy.

We would do well to take it all seriously, to treat it even as existential, because just as we do not know what it takes to produce substantial change within our society, we do not know what it takes to begin a slide towards human extinction—or if, as I think likely, that slide has already begun. Justice matters, for ourselves, for our environment, for nonhuman animals.[21] We have a limited, perhaps even severely myopic, capacity to see how it matters, but we also need to consider what sort of species we ought to be, what sort of relationships we want with each other, what sort of relationships we want with our environment that sustains us, what sort of relationships we want with nonhuman animals that are each in their own way crucial to that environment.

Naïvety is stupid. It reflects our failure to comprehend and adapt to the world as it really is. It portends our downfall.

  1. [1]Eli Rosenberg, “Unemployment rate drops to 13 percent, as the economy picked up jobs as states reopened,” Washington Post, June 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/05/may-2020-jobs-report/
  2. [2]David Blanchflower, “Pandemic Economics: ‘Much Worse, Very Quickly,” New York Review of Books, March 26, 2020, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/03/26/pandemic-economics-much-worse-very-quickly/
  3. [3]Simone de Beauvoir, “Woman as Other,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Philadelphia: Westview, 2017), 268-270.
  4. [4]Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich uses this term in preference to ‘dualism,’ to reflect a binary relationship that isn’t a true binary because one side is always preferred to the other inTransforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005).
  5. [5]Lorraine Code explains that the preferred “us” can be male, white, young, heterosexual, rich, etc., in What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991).
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
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  9. [9]Gloria Jackson, as told to Eli Saslow, “‘I apologize to God for feeling this way,’” Washington Post, May 2, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/05/02/elderly-woman-coronavirus-lonely-expendable/; Laura Newberry, “The pandemic has amplified ageism. ‘It’s open season for discrimination’ against older adults,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-01/coronavirus-pandemic-has-amplified-ageism
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  12. [12]Jana Benscoter, “Dauphin, York DAs, say they won’t take immediate action against businesses that reopen in defiance of state order,” Harrisburg Patriot-News, May 9, 2020, https://www.pennlive.com/news/2020/05/dauphin-york-das-say-they-wont-take-action-against-businesses-that-reopen-in-red-phase-counties.html; Eric Cortellessa, “US far-right extremists are now calling social distancing a Nazi policy,” Times of Israel, April 17, 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-far-right-extremists-are-now-calling-social-distancing-a-nazi-policy/; Bryan Armen Graham, “‘Swastikas and nooses’: governor slams ‘racism’ of Michigan lockdown protest,” Guardian, May 3, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/03/michigan-gretchen-whitmer-lockdown-protest-racism; John F. Harris, “Admit It: You Are Willing to Let People Die to End the Shutdown,” Politico, April 30, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/04/30/coronavirus-shutdown-altitude-ethics-223569; Joe Lowndes, “The Morbid Ideology Behind the Drive to Reopen America,” New Republic, April 30, 2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/157505/morbid-ideology-behind-drive-reopen-america; Kari Paul, “Elon Musk rails against ‘fascist’ shelter-in-place orders in Tesla earnings call,” Guardian, April 29, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/29/tesla-quarterly-earnings-coronavirus-shares; Tony Romm, “Fake cures and other coronavirus conspiracy theories are flooding WhatsApp, leaving governments and users with a ‘sense of panic,’” Washington Post, March 2, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/03/02/whatsapp-coronavirus-misinformation/; Charles Thompson, “Two central Pa. counties say they plan to reopen ahead of Gov. Wolf’s schedule,” Harrisburg Patriot-News, May 8, 2020, https://www.pennlive.com/news/2020/05/dauphin-lebanon-county-officials-declare-themselves-ready-to-reopen-say-they-will-break-from-gov-wolfs-plan.html; Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tony Romm, “Pro-gun activists using Facebook groups to push anti-quarantine protests,” Washington Post, April 19, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/04/19/pro-gun-activists-using-facebook-groups-push-anti-quarantine-protests/; Charles Thompson, “A growing number of Pa. counties test Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency powers, saying they’ll decide if it’s time to reopen,” Harrisburg Patriot-News, May 9, 2020, https://www.pennlive.com/news/2020/05/a-growing-number-of-pa-counties-test-gov-tom-wolfs-emergency-powers-saying-theyll-decide-if-its-time-to-reopen.html
  13. [13]David Benfell, “On sending in the troops,” Not Housebroken, June 3, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/06/02/on-sending-in-the-troops/; David Benfell, “Pieties in defense of the status quo,” Not Housebroken, June 3, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/06/03/pieties-in-defense-of-the-status-quo/; David Benfell, “What are ‘proper directions’ for protest when peaceful protest is for naught?” Not Housebroken, June 3, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/05/29/what-are-proper-directions-for-protest-when-peaceful-protest-is-for-naught/; David Benfell, “The reason the status quo is not the answer is that the status quo cannot be the answer,” Not Housebroken, June 4, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/06/01/the-reason-the-status-quo-is-not-the-answer-is-that-the-status-quo-cannot-be-the-answer/
  14. [14]Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995).
  15. [15]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996); Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2014); Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995).
  16. [16]Joel Achenbach et al., “Coronavirus hot spots erupt across the country; experts warn of second wave in South,” Washington Post, May 20, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/coronavirus-hot-spots-erupt-across-the-country-experts-warn-of-possible-outbreaks-in-south/2020/05/20/49bc6d10-9ab4-11ea-a282-386f56d579e6_story.html; Joel Achenbach, Rachel Weiner, and Isaac Stanley-Becker, “Study estimates 24 states still have uncontrolled coronavirus spread,” Washington Post, May 22, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/study-estimates-24-states-still-have-uncontrolled-coronavirus-spread/2020/05/22/d3032470-9c43-11ea-ac72-3841fcc9b35f_story.html; Emma Farge with Peter Graff, “WHO warns of ‘second peak’ in areas where COVID-19 declining,” Reuters, May 25, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-who-peak/who-warns-of-second-peak-in-areas-where-covid-19-declining-idUSKBN2311VJ; Reis Thebault and Abigail Hauslohner, “A deadly ‘checkerboard’: Covid-19’s new surge across rural America,” Washington Post, May 24, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/05/24/coronavirus-rural-america-outbreaks/
  17. [17]Eli Rosenberg, “Unemployment rate drops to 13 percent, as the economy picked up jobs as states reopened,” Washington Post, June 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/05/may-2020-jobs-report/
  18. [18]Eli Rosenberg, “Unemployment rate drops to 13 percent, as the economy picked up jobs as states reopened,” Washington Post, June 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/05/may-2020-jobs-report/
  19. [19]David Benfell, “An impatient capitalist god demands human sacrifice. Now,” Not Housebroken, April 17, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/15/an-impatient-capitalist-god-demands-human-sacrifice-now/
  20. [20]Eli Rosenberg, “Unemployment rate drops to 13 percent, as the economy picked up jobs as states reopened,” Washington Post, June 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/05/may-2020-jobs-report/
  21. [21]David Benfell, “Elite priorities: Why social, animal, and environmental justice remains essential with COVID-19,” Not Housebroken, April 26, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/26/elite-priorities-why-social-animal-and-environmental-justice-remains-essential-with-covid-19/

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