Critical junctures are periods when institutions are amenable to change in a way that they are not amenable most of the time
Excerpted from KMO:
“I think that it is important to distinguish between historical epochs or epochal changes (cfr. Epochalism) and what Robert McChesney, the author of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, calls critical junctures. Critical junctures are periods when institutions are amenable to change in a way that they are not amenable most of the time. Robert McChesney writes that critical junctures occur when there is a disruptive new technology, when established institutions are discredited, and when there is an economic or political crisis. The examples he gives mostly have to do with journalism. Around the turn of the 20th Century, American journalism had, deservedly, a very serious credibility problem. Newspapers had open political allegiances. Journalists were obviously for sale and self-interested in their reporting, and few people considered them credible sources of information. In response to this credibility crisis journalistic institutions voluntarily adopted the standards of conduct that we now consider characteristic of ?professional? journalism, which is to say a commitment to objectivity and the separation of editorial content from reporting.
Another example of a critical juncture is the Great Depression. It would not have been possible to institute the New Deal and the extensive reorganization of civic society that took place during FDR?s tenure as president without the economic crisis of the 1930s. During that critical juncture, the existing institutions and way of doing things obviously were not working. Social progressives were able to institute wide-ranging reforms which became institutionalized and endured for decades; things like Social Security, Medicare, and the various components that make up the social welfare state. Over the course of my lifetime those institutions have been slowly dismantled in the United States by the forces of neoliberalism, but they were established very quickly at a critical juncture, and they lasted for generations.
Another example of a critical juncture which allowed for sweeping institutional change came on September 11, 2001. Within two months of that day Congress passed the USA Patriot Act which created the Department of Homeland Security and initiated the rapid creation of a high-tech surveillance state.
The legislation that would become the USA Patriot Act was conceived long before September 11, 2001. The neoconservative think tank The Project for the New American Century published a paper in the year 2000 with the title Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategies, Forces, and Resources For a New Century. The authors of that paper described what they thought needed to be done to preserve American dominance on the global stage. They knew that there would be considerable resistance to their agenda because when the Soviet Union dissolved, there was a lot of excitement in the West over the expected ?peace dividend? that would come with the end of the Cold War. The New American Century authors thought that the path to continuing America?s superpower status was to create a never-ending state of war, and they wrote that ?a new Pearl Harbor? event would open up the possibility to enact the changes they thought necessary to achieve that perpetual war orientation. Just such an event presented itself on 9/11, and the champions of the domestic police state and renewed imperial reach abroad were ready, and now, as a result, we get to pose nude for TSA agents at the airport and can barely be bothered to feign surprise at the revelation that our every phone call, email, text message and Tweet is being intercepted and stored by the NSA in collusion with the all the major telecommunications and internet companies.
So, I think that it is important that we distinguish between epochal changes which actually unfold over centuries but which wishful thinking has us compressing in our imaginations so that the outcomes are visible within our lifetimes and critical junctures which do create moments of instability in which major institutional changes occur which can endure for decades. We should be ready to act on critical junctures when they present themselves. I’ll say more about that at the end of the talk. But first I want to talk about why people are so susceptible to epochalism and, in particular, the epochalism of the fast collapse from peak oil narrative.”