The Heart of the Matter

Peter Gabel's new book explains why we're alienated and how to change it.

Posted Feb 06, 2018

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"A human being is a part of a whole…but he experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness." —Albert Einstein

Peter Gabel's brilliant new book, The Desire for Mutual Recognition: Social Movements and the Dissolution of the False Self, seeks to understand both the source of our collective suffering and the prospects for a radical social change movement through a lens that draws from psychoanalysis, critical social theory, and his own sophisticated brand of phenomenology—what Gabel calls a "phenomenology of social being." His language is the high-brow language of philosophy but his aim is a down-to-earth plea for a dramatic shift in how we understand human alienation and the conditions necessary to effect social change through what he calls a ”spiritualization” of politics. Through illuminating the drawbacks of liberalism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, existentialism, and deconstruction, Gabel urges us to create a social movement that expresses and honors our deepest longings for love, understanding, and recognition.

Recognition is at the heart of Gabel’s theory. He posits that it is in the nature of “being” (Heidegger’s concept of Dasein), manifesting itself from the first instant of life, before language and representational thought, that human beings long for mutual recognition.  By mutual recognition, he is referring to an authentic and loving connectedness, something similar to Martin Buber’s “I-thou” relationship and also to what some attachment theorists call empathic attunement.  All of us long to be lovingly "seen" for who we really are, and we seek to love others in the same way.

While we all want to experience this sense of being joyfully present with the other, we never quite get enough of it. This is because we are systematically “misrecognized” by our caretakers, who, themselves, weren’t truly recognized by their caretakers. As any psychotherapist will tell you, failures of empathy are ubiquitous. No one can give what they didn't get. Love and approval are inevitably conditional and riddled with the fears and projections of our caretakers, and, thus, the trauma of misrecognition is endlessly and continuously reproduced in our families, schools, and everyday work and social life. People adapt to what they didn't get by developing  "false" selves, isolated and separated from one another, as if by following the “rules,” mirroring the fearful and withdrawn states of others, and being the perfect person that everyone else needs us to be, we can finally get some small shred of the truly authentic love that’s really needed—love for who we really are, not for our performance. 

This process of adaptation and compromise is automatic and normal. The way things “are” becomes the way that things are “supposed to be.” Both literally and metaphorically, we walk down our streets, and go through our lives obeying the rules by subtly averting our gaze from each other, fearful of the vulnerability inherent in making real eye contact. We develop roles and mistakenly identify our true selves with these roles—waiters, psychologists, Democrats, Americans—as if these performances reflect our essence--which they do not.

But as Gabel reminds us, our frustrated desires for mutual recognition do not go away. Instead, they are repressed behind a false self which functions to protect us from revealing our innermost desires to others who might fail to reciprocate.  Gabel argues that attempting to be truly present to others without the confidence that they will do the same, risks an ontological humiliation, the danger of which continually keeps us from risking too much or expecting too much from others.  So we adapt, comply, and conform to social norms all the while feeling hollow inside. Sadly, these false-self relationships come to seem better than nothing—they are, after all, relationships—even though they feel alienated and even though our true longings for mutual recognition are buried safely and hidden behind our defenses—what Gabel calls a “moat.” 

But while hidden behind a moat, defended by our false selves, and enforced by fears of humiliation, our deepest longings for authenticity and connectedness always push toward consciousness, like whispers seeking expression. For Gabel, alienated social life is the best of a bad bargain. All of us are split personalities with the hunger for love and recognition always in conflict with the need to protect ourselves from the danger of humiliation. This hunger for love becomes especially manifest in the world when it is tapped into by social movements.

In the background of Gabel’s book is the depiction of the human spirit at war with itself, always seeking reciprocity and connection while at the same time keeping itself withdrawn and artificially separate. We identify with our roles, or other abstractions such as our race, our position in the social hierarchy, or our nation as if these things were real when in fact they are imagined. We invest these static things with reality, as if they exist, “out there,” external to who we really are, when in fact, they are collectively sanctioned defenses. We then strengthen these false identifications by projecting all of our bad feelings onto others, some enemy, which then reinforces our sense of belonging—in our collective imaginations—to a superior group.  A false but gratifying “we” is created by demonizing a “they.”

Liberalism, for example, posits an ideal of people separate, free, and equal under the law. Gabel argues (as does Yual Harari, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind) that this is an imaginary and highly idealized construction. It exists in our consciousness, not as a “thing” that is “out there.” Gabel notes that seeing life as a competition of free, equal and autonomous individuals, while on some level expressing a psychological need to see oneself as part of a community of “citizens” is, in its essence, a collective fantasy in which isolated and disconnected monads peer out at each other from behind the “moats” built in childhood, each regarding the other as either threats to one's freedom or as a means to an end.

Gabel goes so far as to argue that even hierarchies, including class distinctions, represent a shared imagined story that affords people the safety of knowing their place, secure from the danger of a vulnerable and authentic meeting of the minds. Hierarchies, for Gabel, are hiding places, which render essentially human connectedness into something static, rigid, and external to our human essence, a social creation in which people can feel “above” or “below” others.

Gabel’s description of the alienation of everyday life is powerful and, in my opinion, accurate. The evidence is overwhelming, for example, that we have an epidemic of loneliness in our society.  We are isolated from one another, and often feel helplessly caught up in bureaucracies that feel like "things" out of our control.  We all have a need to belong, a need exacerbated by the decline of civic and social communities of meaning so poignantly described by Robert Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone.

Gabel’s book explores the psycho-spiritual basis of modern alienation and shows how conservative values like patriotism, American exceptionalism, male superiority, and even ideologies of white supremacy perversely reinforce our sense of belonging, of community, by projecting outward all that we are afraid of onto images of a demeaned Other—people of color, gays, immigrants, Muslims, etc.  By creating a “them,” we manage to eke out a real, albeit feeble, sense of “us.”

The phenomenology of being strangers to ourselves and each other, of a split between our "true" and "false" selves, seems to me applicable to many aspects of modern life. Sociologists and psychologists have long attempted to describe these "softer" forms of alienation and suffering. Erich Fromm, C. Wright Mills,  Betty Friedan, David Riesman, Christopher Lasch, and others, sometimes drawing from psychoanalysis or social this psychology, other times from a Marxist or critical theory tradition, have all tried to explain the social and psychological sources of estrangement and isolation in modern life. By describing the nuances of the movement of the self towards authentic connectedness, alternating with fearful withdrawal, Gabel presents a deep and coherent theory that explains the essence of modern alienation.

While The Desire For Mutual Recognition is a bid for social change activists to change the cause and cure of the psychosocial suffering in our society, it extends its reach into reformulating our understanding of economic life and class conflict.  Gabel shows what happens when we look at economic life from inside the lived experience of workers, managers, owners, and consumers rather than from the outside as a “system.” From the inside, Gabel shows how we are all coerced into reproducing relationships with each other as false selves, peering out from behind our moats at others who enact the roles, for example, of fellow workers, bosses, or customers. Each of us plays out our role as if it were a thing that is real and “out there,” and thus we create patterns of interaction that make up “the economy.” But this “economy,” for Gabel is a simply a collective hallucination of sorts that delivers material survival things in the most alienated way possible. 

Only when a social movement—say, a strike—surges up and calls into question these collective role agreements or when a catastrophe upends business as usual, does the falseness of the economy-as-a-thing become evident.

Gabel’s descriptions of the social phenomenology of everyday life that results when the traditional norms of society break down are especially compelling. For example, he describes the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco during which, amidst the external devastation and the collapse of traditional norms and rules, people came together in spontaneous acts of altruism, mutual aid, and togetherness. Many people have had similar experiences, for example, in the aftermath of 9/11, Katrina, and other natural disasters (Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell: Communities that Arise in Disaster, provides many detailed examples of this phenomenon). Gabel describes what happened as a "ricochet of mutual recognition," in which our false self-defenses temporarily break down and our natural and heartfelt longings for mutual recognition break through and over our individual and collective “moats” in spontaneous and widespread ways. It feels as if it happens "all at once," because the underlying longing for authentic connection is so powerful and so close to the surface that when external trauma makes it safe to come out of hiding it does so with explosive and exhilarating force.

Gabel wants to investigate how such phenomena can be created intentionally as part of a social movement which in its essence reflects an uprising of desire breaking through the chains of alienation. He believes that such a “ricochet” of recognition occurred in the 1960s in the almost simultaneous emergence of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movements, the environmental movement, the rise of the counterculture, experiments in collective living and working, the abandonment of conventional family and work choices, countless new programs for the poor, the explosion of non-profits and volunteerism, etc. While each of these movements have their own unique history, Gabel argues that they all occur close enough in time and space that they represent a historical moment in which the upsurge of desire for relationships of greater love, mutuality, and recognition burst forward and spread throughout the society, indelibly shaping the lives of millions of people. Whatever we think of “the 60’s” and its problems, few people can say that they haven’t been affected.

Thus, Gabel spends a great deal of time discussing the preconditions for a radical social change movement. He argues that such a movement must be intentionally created on three different levels: First, individuals need to learn how to comfort themselves, to heal their inner divide, and become more "present" through activities such as meditation or other humanist approaches to individual growth. Because these are individual strategies, they are inherently limited, but for Gabel, they offer important opportunities to begin to heal the split in the self. However, since he views this split as essentially a social phenomenon, he doesn't believe that individual attempts at healing can possibly be successful in creating a better world.

Thus, he argues that the second level at which change needs to be found is in the creation of supportive communities and groups that make safe the expression of wishes to give and receive mutual recognition. Progressives should create groups that support people’s deepest needs and provide reassurance against their deepest fears. At this level, Gabel underlines the importance of supportive families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and political organizations. Since he says that people disrupt group functioning out of fear, not malevolence, our task should be to create the conditions of safety for people to be their best selves.

Finally, Gabel argues that a third level is necessary to create social change; namely, that we need to bring an intentional focus to goals and ideals that can draw people towards a future in which their deepest longings can be realized. Examples abound —fighting for Social Security as a form of intergenerational protectiveness and love, not as simply an entitlement, or advocating for universal medical coverage as an expression of the ethics of caring rather than programs that simply address physical health. Only then, Gabel argues, can Martin Luther King's arc of the moral universe truly bend towards justice.

Gabel’s prescriptions for political change involving the intentional creation of supportive communities and standing for a vision of love and mutuality is aligned with the long tradition in the progressive movement that argues for the importance of individual change and the creation of alternative institutions that give people a real experience of a better way of life (Gabriel Metcalf has written about the surprisingly extensive history of such efforts, including their successes and failures in his book, Democratic by Design: How Carsharing, Co-ops, and Community Land Trusts Are Reinventing America).   

Further, so many of us have had repeated experiences in progressive movements watching change being undermined by the apparent psychopathology of individuals and the common tendencies toward intolerance, divisiveness, and paralysis so often found in groups. By explaining these phenomena using his theory about the continual conflict in both individuals and groups between the desire for mutual recognition and the fear of vulnerability, Gabel helps us see how paying attention to the emotional substrate of our movement for social change is crucial to its success, not only crucial to it's effective functioning, but also its capacity to spiritually nourish us. Gabel calls this a type of psycho-spiritual politics (his friend and collaborator, Rabbi Michael Lerner, refers to this as a "politics of meaning”). In my reading, it is a call for us to find a way to become our best selves and create a better world in the process.