A Breaking Point?

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Major changes in the course of a nation or a civilization are often associated with a single event, whereas the causal explanations are always much more complicated. Thus, a British tax on tea becomes the focal point for the American Revolutionary War, or the tearing down of the Berlin Wall for the collapse of the Soviet Union. While such isolated occurrences are convenient bookmarks for understanding history, human events are produced by interconnected factors too numerous, uncertain, and complex to be explained in any singular manner.

In the same way that our individual lives are subject to conscious, unconscious, and genetic forces of which we are woefully unaware, our social relationships are distinguished by a widespread ignorance of the interconnected influences that organizational systems have upon our lives. Events seem to have a sui generis quality to them, not unlike the response of most Americans who could not understand the events of 9/11 as a reaction against foreign policies they had been told would protect them from attacks! Just as the courses of complex systems are impossible to predict, so it is difficult to unravel the causal explanations for complicated past events. It is little wonder that the study of human history has not always provided clear direction.

On the other hand, a single event can become a focal point for the release of energies that have accumulated beneath a broader surface. The long-building pressures that develop along continental plates and erupt into earthquakes or volcanic activity, find a social analogy in tensions and conflicts that collect, unabated, in ways in which we deal with one another in society. At some point, a Rosa Parks may refuse to move to the back of a city bus and spark a civil rights movement. But an amassed energy underlay her act of defiance. Had she not been the trigger, some other person or event would have provided the cause celebre.

The study of chaos, or complexity, is providing us with insights into such dynamics. In simple systems, there tends to be a fairly linear, proportional relationship between input and output. For example, if "x" produces "y," "x + 1" will produce "y + 1," and so on. At some point, however, a further increase in output generates disproportionate, nonlinear patterns. This creates a "bifurcation point," one in which "x + 4" produces not "y + 4," but "z," with "z" representing turbulence. The phrase "the straw that broke the camel’s back" is a popular expression of a system that has become nonlinear (i.e., where effects are grossly disproportionate to an immediate input). The slowly increasing flow of water from a faucet; the rising smoke from a cigarette; arrhythmic heartbeats, provide examples of linear patterns being thrown into turbulence.

These same patterns are at work within social systems. Accumulated entropic pressures — such as undigested distortions arising from years of government interference with the marketplace — may erupt into a turbulent state. This turbulence will either be met by an intelligent response, or the system will likely collapse into entropic death.

Our current American society has been in this state of turbulence for some time, without much focused intelligence guiding alternative courses of action. Because governments thrive on conflict — which they promise to "manage" — America is characterized by cross-currents of demands people make upon one another, a destructive force arising from endless divisions, confrontations, politically-enforced expectations, and discord. Such conflicts find expression in efforts to micromanage the personal and social lives of others; a disrespect for the inviolability of one another’s lives and property interests; quarrels over the role that "spiritual" versus "secular" values are to play in legal and political policies; disputes regarding the sanctity of life, and the social value of "wars" and "peace;" and the relative importance of the "individual" versus the "collective."

A distrust of governmental power and a desire for individual liberty that was gaining ascendancy even as we moved into the 21st century, collapsed into a widespread groveling worship and obedience to an imperial president and a willingness to expand state powers after 9/11. A viciousness that can only be regarded as a loosening of unconscious "dark side" forces, beset America with such ferocity that even those who knew better feared to openly resist the impulse for herd-thinking. Suddenly, the idea of endless wars against endless enemies was not only acceptable, but patriotic; such wars could even be unprovoked, and the possible use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations became widely accepted; men and women could have their personal lives subject to widespread searches, surveillance, and interrogation; the torture of "suspects" became an established practice that one leading radio talk-show babbler equated with fraternity hazing; "due process of law" has been held captive in foreign-based prisons; while lawyers who defended "terrorist" suspects were, themselves, prosecuted as "terrorists" for doing so.

Taxpayers who, four years earlier, bitterly complained about growing tax bills, now offer few protests to a government that has taken spending and an accompanying national debt to exponential heights. So-called "red state" farmers who used to object to the EPA regulating their lands in order to protect the nesting grounds of the kangaroo rat, rushed to the voting booths — waving their flags — to reelect George W. Bush.

The American political system no longer lives up to even its illusions of constitutional limitations and procedures. Congress votes for a measure even before it is fully drafted (the Patriot Act), and legislates the medical treatment for an individual patient (Terri Schiavo). People have their homes taken, through eminent domain, to be turned over to corporations to build factories, shopping malls, or sports stadia. Prison construction has become one of America’s growth industries, providing housing for a growing list of persons convicted of victimless crimes. An imperial president declares and conducts wars as suit his pleasure, with almost no objection from a Congress into whose exclusive hands such constitutional authority was given.

Most Americans suffer from a lack of moral and intellectual centeredness; an absence of what the late Joseph Campbell labeled "invisible means of support." As a result, the Iraq war has severely damaged — perhaps even destroyed — the character and integrity of many Americans. A willingness to kill innocent people — even when the stated purpose in doing so was known to have been grounded in lies and deception — has produced adverse consequences that may be beyond the capacities of even a full-blown catharsis to correct in time to save the existing system. Far too many Americans embraced the mindset of serial killers, willing to vent their rage upon any convenient target.

Americans have become, in other words, a mass of conflicts and contradictions. On 9/11, one of my colleagues asked me what I thought of all of this, to which I replied that most Americans will have to go through a prolonged examination and catharsis of who and what they have become. Events since 9/11 have confirmed that there is still so much turmoil, so much entropy that has not yet worked its way out of the minds of most of us. As the study of chaos might suggest, it may take a complete social collapse from which new social premises and systems can emerge to make America, once again, a free and creative place.

I have long thought that the oppressive and destructive American political system will eventually reach a breaking point where the addition of one more intrusion upon the lives of people will produce a nonlinear reaction (i.e., a consequence out of all proportion to that singular factor). Like the Boston "tea party" or the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, some will mistake this single event for what may prove to be the "cause" of the collapse of the American nation-state. Something which, standing by itself, would seem to have little significance — like a woman refusing to move to the back of a bus — may become the focal point for the release of long-suppressed emotions and resentments.

As the Iraq war, the use of torture at Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, and the pathological lying of the Bush administration make clear, most people are too cowardly to openly confront the state when it is engaged in its most abusive practices. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and other tyrants knew what their modern wannabes know; namely, that most people will suppress and internalize their resentment of despotic acts. But such feelings remain a source of discontent — both within the individual and society — contributing to the turbulence that threatens the state. Like water that builds up behind a weakened dam, some marginally insignificant event may unleash the restrained forces and overwhelm the structure.

A possible candidate for such an occurrence might be the Terri Schiavo case. While deciding whether to terminate the life-support for this woman had great meaning to her family, it was the kind of decision that is made, daily, in hospitals across the country. Thousands of families are faced with such a dilemma each year. Why did this particular case arouse so much attention, generate so much emotional energy, and implicate all branches of government? What mobilized such intense energies — not so much from politicians and special interest groups desirous of exploiting the situation to their advantages — but on the part of so many others? Might this event be a focal point for bringing to the surface the underlying conflicts, contradictions, and grievances which, particularly after 9/11 and its aftermath, remain unresolved?

Again, as a student of chaos and complexity, I have no way of predicting how complex systems will play themselves out. It is most likely, however, that the present turbulence will not sustain itself, and that the forces underlying it will eventually erupt. The Schiavo case could become the proverbial "straw" upon the back of the camel.

Think of the influences that were at work here for a matter of weeks. A world divided between "religious" and "secular" thinking found expression in the media and in the streets outside Terri Schiavo’s hospice. The intrusion of federal and state governments into the most private of matters met with libertarian opposition. The "brave new world" of biological engineering — wherein the human and the machine became inseparable — was confronted by sentiments that insisted upon the inherent dignity and inviolability of the individual.

The very meaning of "life" was on trial in the Schiavo case, an inquiry that could not be conducted without exploring the deeper property question: "who owns and controls your life?" Terri Schiavo might very well become the Rosa Parks of a widespread reaction to years of pent-up frustration with a political system that is beyond the powers of the citizenry to effectively control; a system that has consistently denied self-ownership and insisted upon metastasizing its control over the lives of everyone.

Whatever impact it might otherwise have, the Schiavo affair will not cause a major political upheaval. It could, however, serve as a focal point for latent pressures that may have found expression in the sad fate of this woman. Our current turbulence need not result in an entropic freefall. The response to turbulence can be a creative one, generating new systems in which "order" arises out of fluctuation; in which freedom and an openness to change represent the health of any system; and in which organizations are looked upon only as tools to be used, and not as structures to be revered and preserved.

The current corporate-state system is beyond repair and should be abandoned. Trying to salvage its antiquated and life-destructive forms is as senseless as trying to rehabilitate a Jeffrey Dahmer. The time will come, and soon, when we shall be called upon to discover new social systems and new ways of thinking about what it means to be a human being living in society with others. Whether such fundamental changes are brought about through conscious effort on our part, or are thrust upon us by events that trigger a collapse of institutional viability, remains to be seen.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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