Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
The Social Movement as a Parallel Universe
by Peter Gabel
In "Yes, We Can?" -- my recent Tikkun Daily blog post about the midterm elections -- I argued that the response of progressive forces to the Republican victory and the depression it has generated should be to form ourselves into a "parallel universe" to provide ourselves with an independent base or ground on which to stand and recover from the unrequited hope we extended to Barack Obama in 2008. Some readers mistook this to mean that I was suggesting withdrawing from the existing political world into some kind of private space or respite from the existing system, when what I meant to say was that we now have to recover our collective social being from the dependency "we" developed on Barack Obama at the time of the euphoria of the 2008 election. I put "we" in quotes because the unity formed at the time of the election was a thin band of reciprocating recognition mediated through and too heavily dependent on all of us watching Mr. Obama on television during the six-month period from the start of the primaries through the presidential election. The dissolution of that thin band, which achieved some finality in last November's midterm congressional election, has cast us back into isolation and the pain of disappointed hope attendant to that, but it also has created the opportunity to re-form into a more solidly constructed form of mutual recognition, which is what is actually required for us to be effective in changing the world.
As I wrote here long ago in a piece called "What Moves in a Movement" -- and as we've in different ways emphasized throughout the twenty-five years of existence that we are commemorating in this issue -- a social movement can only emerge and gather steam as a social force if it acquires the density of authentic mutual recognition, if through our participation in it we gain a new sense of our social worth, power, and authority in our very collective being. In a social movement, no one actually physically moves anywhere; the word "movement" actually refers to the acquisition of social gravity that results from the invisible force of a new kind of authentic mutual recognition, a vitalization that occurs collectively through a new inter-experience that provides the ground or support for new idealistic social values. Values without this ground are mere concepts, indeterminate abstractions like freedom, equality, and community that can mean anything and that are given their actual meaning-in-the-world by the life force (or lack of it) present in the social field that gives rise to these values and expresses them in public. What moves in a movement is the life force that animates it and that in turn results from the authenticity of mutual recognition -- of spiritual communion and understanding -- that provides the movement with its social weight and capacity to influence the social field as a whole.
For a movement to gather this force and to gain the influence to bring about social change, it must find a way to form itself on a ground independent of the society of the whole, and yet within that society. The problem with the Obama victory was that it generated a very widespread but thin unity that could only have brought about the "change we can believe in" if Obama himself -- who was excessively responsible for the initial unity as the charismatic mediating embodiment of it -- had remained fully expressive of the transcendent idealistic quality that we saw in him long enough for actual groups to form in support of him. This would have required a conflict-filled initial two years in which Obama would have had to fight for an idealistic new vision against the Republicans and Fox News and the cynical "reality police" (as Michael Lerner calls them) long enough for pro-Obama groups to have formed on college campuses, for movement-building demonstrations to have emerged in public space, and for other forms of social activism to have achieved manifestation in new group formations that could then have provided the embodied collective life force to alter the social energy field. Obama's failure to provide that leadership in a circumstance that was totally dependent on him has revealed the inherent weakness or vulnerability of that initial situation, and the recent elections have officially deflated our collective balloon. Unsupported by a wider movement stitched together and vitalized out of real and consistent public activism, the Obama moment has expired without Obama, leaving us facing in mutual solitude the awareness that in these circumstances, "No, we can't."
However, the very failure of the Obama moment can serve to remind us that it is we ourselves who must provide the support within social being itself for our hopes for a loving and idealistic world. To say that a social movement must emerge in a "parallel universe" is to say that a new sense of We must arise as a quasi-independent source of personal and social identity alongside our social self within "the system," within the existing social nexus in which we occupy conventional professional and familial roles. Many of us who are in later life and who read and write for Tikkun experienced this side-by-side double reality during our youth in the movements of the 1960s, when the culture felt palpably contested as a struggle between two social and existential realities, "our" reality, which for a time was based on a transcendent sense of social connection and possibility, and the inherited reality, which was more artificial, fear-filled, and even robotic in its social quality. Our movement reality was in this sense parallel to the received one but also engaged with it, in struggle with it, and making demands of it that are still being negotiated to this day in a social space influenced by the pull of both worlds and by the ongoing struggle of hope versus fear that distinguishes these two worlds, a struggle that we have addressed in these pages in virtually every issue since our founding.
To continue to fight for the transcendent spiritual-political vision, to give it new life and to spark a renewed confidence in it, we must find a way -- probably mainly not through the media -- to anchor each other in social space through our own parallel and autonomous rotation of recognition and solidarity, through our own liberatory circle of mutual confirmation. It is on the basis of this that we will reacquire the collective strength to emerge from our current withdrawn state and to exert actual "pull" on the empty and artificial mutuality and chatter that out of fear demands that we give up our utopian longings and accept the leveled-down state of the world as it is. When we engage in tikkun olam, we stand together in a future space and pull the present toward it, but on the basis of a present, felt intimation of that future that is not itself dependent on the world as it presently is. In just this way, a mountain climber throws his pick upward well beyond where he or she currently stands to gain an anchor point ahead, and then uses the taught line thereby established to measure each step of his or her forward motion.
Peter Gabel is associate editor of Tikkun and the author of The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning (available through our online store).
Source Citation: Gabel, Peter. 2011. The Social Movement as a Parallel Universe. Tikkun 26(1): 25