Review of The Desire for Mutual Recognition: Social Movements and the Dissolution of the False Self, by Peter Gabel, Routledge.

By Martha Sonnenberg

Peter Gabel’s new book, The Desire for Mutual Recognition: Social Movements and the Dissolution of the False Self, is at once a startlingly new and groundbreaking contribution to critical social theory, and a call to action for all who desire to be a part of transformative movement beyond a current world of alienated fearfulness, oppression, economic and spiritual deprivation, misogyny, racism and xenophobia. His book provides a refreshing perspective, and one necessary, in my opinion, to save a young progressive movement from the one dimensional thought which has characterized both the old and new left, and all revolutionary movements before and after. At a time when thousands of young people are exploring notions of “socialism” (Democratic Socialists of America, DSA, now reports its membership at upwards of 50,000), when the bastions of patriarchy are being rattled by the voices of #MeToo , this book offers an opportunity for these movements to avoid the flaws and failures of previous movements for change.

Gabel’s precursors may be the cultural Marxist critical theorists of the Frankfort School of Social Research in 1920’s Germany, most notably Herbert Marcuse, who became somewhat of a cultural guru for the New Left of the 1960’s, as well as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and others (Georg Lukacs, Wilhelm Reich) And while Gabel also draws from Marx and Freud (among others) he pushes beyond the limits of all of them, to show how and why each of us has both a “false self” created by the fear of the humiliation of rejection by others, and an authentic self which yearns for expression and which emerges when we can mutually recognize each other and let ourselves be truly known.

Gabel’s essential thesis is that our basic drive as human beings is our longing for mutual recognition of our authentic selves, and towards a loving connectedness with one another. The fear of the rejection of that longing (fear of “ontologic humiliation”) leads us to the creation of “false selves,” behind which our innermost desires are hidden and suppressed. Gabel’s discussion of the creation and maintenance of the false self is reminiscent of Gramsci’s notion of “cultural hegemony” and can be understood as a deepening exploration of how hegemony functions to maintain dominant authority. But Gramsci understood that people can be capable of creating “counter-hegemony” or a “contradictory consciousness” in a movement for self-transformation. Thus Gabel, like Gramsci, presents us with a profound and contemporary dialectic notion of “being” in that he sees people as agents of their own self-transformation even while inhabiting their false selves. The push toward authenticity, despite the power of the false self and despite fears of rejection, cannot be completely suppressed—it manifests itself, it expresses itself when we feel safe, loved…and when we are in the midst of social movement.

For anyone who has been a part of a social movement, the antiwar movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the movement for LGBTQ liberation—all movements which challenge the apparent hegemonic definition of reality–that feeling of being connected with others, of feeling that one’s being was meaningful and purposeful and appreciated is something that will never be forgotten. Gabel refers to this feeling as “the ricochet of mutual recognition.” He gives the example of Rosa Park’s action and the resulting Montgomery bus boycott— how her action became meaningful because of all the precedent small acts of civil disobedience, the culture and songs of the civil rights movement. Her action “had opened up a new possible space, as yet not fully revealed before Park’s action…the notion that “the colored section” might not be a fact, and by extension, that all such racial segregation might not also be “the way things are.” A new perceptual universe is opened.

Gabel states that his theory calls for a “spiritualized politics”, with an analysis that does not deny the importance of economics, but does not restrict itself to economics. The desire for mutual recognition, for that “vibrant life force that unites us,’ requires that we push beyond the limits of an economic transformation of society to allow a “psychospiritual strategy that elicits from each of us the capacity to sustain mutual recognition.” And this is where Gabel moves beyond Marcuse, Gramsci, and yes, Marx too, in that his critical theory is not for the use of leaders, or a vanguard, to reach and mobilize or educate a mass movement—rather, this critical theory is for the leaders themselves as well as those who make up the rank and file of a movement—it is for all of us to confront our fear-dominated heritage, in order to create what Gabel calls a “spiritually redemptive socialism.” If we do not attend to this psychosocial and spiritual dimension of our existence, if we remain tied only to the material and external aspects of society, we will be unable to sustain the “ricochet of mutual recognition” and our movements will, as they have, succumb to inertia, pessimism, cynicism, and a loss of their redemptive and transformative spirit.

There is ample historical evidence for Gabel’s point. We need only look at the model of the Russian Revolution, from its dynamic and creative beginning, in 1917, with art, poetry, theater, feminism stimulated by revolutionary élan, succumbing to the suffocating stranglehold of Stalinism. The same can be seen in the Chinese revolution, ending with the oppressiveness of the Cultural Revolution. The economic struggle was not enough. As each of these revolutions faced external challenges, the mutuality of presence that had been there in the beginning gave way to the alienated status quo of authoritarian control, with its attendant fear of the other.

We, of the 60’s generation, have witnessed the same process in our own movements as they dissolved, frantically pursuing an external task, becoming more and more dogmatic, relying on leaders who became increasingly autocratic, suppressing dissenters, degenerating into sects, undermining group confidence. The decline of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the late 60’s and early 70’s, as described by Mark Rudd, offers a chilling example of what happened: “We de-organized SDS while we claimed we were making it stronger; we isolated ourselves from our friends and allies as we helped split the larger antiwar movement around the issue of violence…Gone permanently was the sense of experimentation and openness of the early SDS.” And later, “If it was going to be a war between Marxist factions, we would not shrink from the battle of correct words and ideas.” (My Life with SDS and the Weather Underground, 2009) As Michael Lerner recalled of those times, “Watching the competing factions tear the organization apart at its June 1969 convention was a heartbreaking experience” Millions of activists, Lerner remembers, lost all confidence and felt “they had accomplished nothing” and that the only “real” struggle would be one modeled after the Soviet seizure of power, or the revolutions led by Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, or Mao Tse Tung.”(“Reflections on NAM”, Works and Days, 2010)

It is distressing that we can already see some of these tendencies emerging in the fledgling movement of today. Michael Hirsch described his perceptions of the 2018 DSA convention in New York, noting that most of what we see in the major positions of DSA , Medicare for All, free education, rent control, while important, do not go beyond a limited economic analysis, offering moderate ethical reforms, at best. And he noted the beginning of in-fighting: “A lot of discussion at the NY DSA convention seemed to be battling shadows. Some chastised others for being insufficiently Marxist…Others treated Marxist categories as so much empty rhetoric that got in the way of real organizing.” (Michael Hirsch, “Connecting Reform and Revolution: Socialists in the Mist”, New Politics, 2018) Further, women are becoming concerned about gendered divisions of labor within DSA chapters, noting that the “inability of men to listen to womens’ feedback…threatens the success of the entire progressive movement.” (“Statement on Women in DSA Leadership”, Rosie Bz and Annie DF, @bread and roses, 2018)

Gabel addresses these issues–why movements lose confidence, why so many of these movements deteriorated into soulless and hierarchical organizations, or worse, into in-fighting and vitriolic dissolution. They succumb to the fear of that which wages war against them. And those forces are real—as we experience daily the assaults of Trumpism on people of color, women, immigrants, gay, lesbian and transgender groups. To avoid these historic pitfalls in face of such assaults, Gabel calls for a spiritualization of political and social activism, in ways that are thought provoking, creative, and above all doable. He writes:

“…if we are to transcend our alienation so as to actually “change society”, we must heal and repair the life-world that we ourselves are living, rather than fix it as if it were something outside of us. This means that social activism must be…a transformation and elevation of social space that brings us into authentic contact with each other, and makes us present to each other while also enabling us to know that this is occurring and gradually become what we are intending.”

To “become what we are intending”–This is a profound declaration, and one that really makes Gabel’s theory revolutionary in ways not anticipated by his precursors. Here, he is closest to the thinking of Grace Boggs’ humanitarian Marxism, when she said, “To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more “human” human beings. In order to change, transform the world, they must change/transform themselves” (Grace Boggs, Living for Change, University of Minnesota Press, 1998)

Gabel challenges us to transform ourselves. He challenges us to understand our own internal contradictions between desire and fear, to confront our own false selves. He challenges us, even in the degrading midst of a Trumpist world, not to lose confidence in our abilities to create alternative social spaces that negate the apparent reality of “what is.” And finally, he challenges us to evoke and live to the best of our abilities in our vision of the world to which we aspire, to avoid anger filled “us vs. them” discourse and dehumanization of others struggling with us, lest we “flatten out” the world we want to create. How we behave, Gabel says, toward ourselves, toward others in our lives, in our movement, as well as toward those who may oppose us, is as critical, may be more critical, to social transformation as the goal we are trying to achieve. I hope that The Desire for Mutual Recognition, is carried around in the backpacks of DSAers, that it will be promoted, read and discussed by this newer generation of activists, (and by the older generation as well!) , because this book can help activists consciously understand what it means to be a part of a movement. This book can provide insights about the transformative changes they are realizing and experiencing, and hopefully, help them avoid the demoralizing effects the legacy of fear can have in undermining social movements. In these times dominated by small mindedness, fear, racism, chauvinism, injustice and inequality, Peter Gabel’s book provides an inspiring reminder that while the current situation may be real, it is not inevitable, and that social transformation is possible.

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