History and Transcendence

I have learned much from and been deeply influenced by Peter Gabel’s writing and organizing. I consider him one of the most important social theorists of our time. I offer this response to his “Spiritual Challenge to the Law” as a comrade and friend.

To me, Gabel’s particular contribution as a theorist of emancipatory social change resides in his understanding and articulation of how structures of social power (economic, racial, etc.) don’t just manifest in the exterior world, affecting people only indirectly through the material consequences of these power structures. Rather, social power has to be internalized and processed within people’s psychological and emotional being. Gabel is correct that one must pay attention to how ideas like patriotism, meritocracy, the rights of the unborn, or performing the social role of bank teller might satisfy (or not) psychological needs and desires that are not being satisfied in other ways. Without considering these needs and desires, we cannot account for how the Right has accumulated so much social power or understand how it might be countered.

I mostly agree with Gabel’s actual concrete descriptions of particular social phenomena, his empathic evocation of how people have come to embrace their ideologies, and his opinion that appeals for them to join change movements must address their psychological and emotional needs and attachments, not simply their material interests (whether it’s white working class Americans or the “little Germans” whose humiliation fueled their openness to atrocity).

Gabel—and Tikkun generally—have fostered an important politics opposing alienation and the “surplus powerlessness” associated with it. His essay “Transforming the Legal Arena,” for instance, identifies the false constraints of prevailing legal ideology, which limit the possibilities for justice and the realization of the desire for mutual recognition. Beyond providing a critical description of contemporary society, understanding the dynamics of people’s alienation and powerlessness are critical in actual effective organizing, whatever the issue. The dynamics of alienation are common across many social hierarchies, so there is a common feature to the powerlessness of bank tellers and elite law students, for example, despite their otherwise vastly different places in the social order.

A Universal Problem

Where I disagree with Gabel—and with the Tikkun line generally—is in the attempt to universalize the psychological phenomena of alienation and make the desire for recognition the ground and filter for understanding just about everything. Here, the desire for recognition is an example of the philosophical problem of the “abstract universal.” An abstract universal attains its truth content by abstracting from concrete particulars rather than, in true dialectical fashion, comprehending the particulars in the universal, the highest form of Hegelian dialectical achievement. The “abstract universal” is a formal, and therefore possibly empty, truth.

Thus, the imposition of the “desire for mutual recognition” as the universal that ties us all together in common humanity onto the description of every social phenomena is ahistorical and undialectical—it fails to account for the concrete particulars of time and space that give exercises of social power, whether by gender, class, race, regionalism, social role, etc., a particular spin and story. Each sector and intersection of expressions of social power has its own particular narratives and complex ways of coping and compensating, particularities that are flattened and ultimately ignored by posing alienation as the psychological root of all social injustice and dislocation.

For instance: imagine I’m arguing with my spouse J., as I’m told all couples do, in one way or another. I think that she is complaining about something about me unfairly—actually, it’s the failure to wash out the coffeepot this morning after I poured the last cup for myself—and it’s hardly unfair, as this is not the first time she’s mentioned this issue. Bear with me, and now imagine that I see in J.’s complaint her need for assurance that she is recognized, cared for, actually present to me in our relationship, and of course this is all there, so I immediately apologize and tell her how much I love her and reassure her and recognize her there in the present moment...

I’m assuming that other couples, or I guess anyone in any relationship, is familiar with this moment—the “premature apology” that is offered too quickly and leaves the apologizee feeling empty.

Without trivializing either side of the comparison, my point is that the imposition of the “desire for mutual recognition” on every social phenomenon is like the “premature apology.” It expresses a truth of the situation—my apology, and the reassurance that my coffeepot oversight does not mean I do not value her, addresses J.’s need for recognition—but abstractly and emptily. It is true but too removed from the actual, local situation to comprehend its particulars, say the past oversights, the specific triggers that leaving dishes might set off for J., my sense that J. has over-internalized the value of prompt rinsing, our history of the division of household labor, our sex life, my past trauma as a restaurant dishwasher, and did I mention my mother? Now I’m abstracting, J. points out, to avoid dealing with the f-ing coffeepot. She is right.

Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

In his essay advancing a “spiritual challenge” to the law, Gabel’s account of affirmative action exemplifies this tendency toward the abstract universal. He (beautifully) describes the movement for racial affirmative action as being motivated by a collective coming together to recognize and repair the history of centuries of oppression inflicted on African Americans. He then describes this moment, infused with the spiritual truth of human connection, becoming distorted and misrepresented as the achievements of the Civil Rights movement became legalized in the individualist language of the Fourteenth Amendment, which failed to comprehend or reflect the spiritual force of the redemptive moment that gave rise to affirmative action as a social policy expressive of this deeper human connection and meaning.

At a high level of abstraction, the picture Gabel presents is true: that is sort of what happened. But the picture leaves out the particulars and flattens the actual ways that racial power has worked to legitimate various hierarchies of American life, and how what constitutes racial justice itself is highly contested among those actually engaged in the struggle. There is no doubt in my mind that the social movement Gabel evokes—the loose combination of the civil war, antiwar, and counterculture—constituted a broad wave of progressive force, a spiritual connection with each other and a hope for the future that we all felt, and were confident others felt too. And yet…

It is also true that the image of racial justice that I and most of the other white radicals held at the time was naively integrationist and assimilationist, that white people, no matter how radical, tended systematically to underestimate that ways that racial power was at issue in deeply ingrained social practices and institutional structures, beyond the “White Only” signs that were our common first target, that white leftists at the time tended to see racism in individualistic terms of whether they were prejudiced or not (“I don’t see race”), and tended to be categorically unaware of the more radical ways to understand race that black nationalists had articulated for over a century, and likewise unaware that the black community itself was rife with complex sex and class divisions.

I’m not trying to say that Gabel is wrong to recognize the dis-alienating spiritual connection in the movements of the 1960s that he describes. This spiritual bond was definitely there and it is a recognizable dimension of other times and places when people come together for progressive change. And I agree with Gabel’s account of how law works as an ideology, representing our lives to us according to a particular grid of representation that presents itself as neutral and apolitical but in fact is the legitimating ideology of much illegitimate power.

I’m instead saying that Gabel is trying to make universal what was necessarily local in time and space and therefore contingent. Presenting the 1960s movements as unproblematically redemptive with respect to race is like the “premature apology” applied to race relations. The white experience of the Civil Rights movement expressed the truth that whites had historically oppressed African Americans and owed compensation, but in an abstract, universal way that ignored the particularities of how that power was exercised and manifested, and that tended to invite African Americans to integrate into white institutions without any recognition of the value of historically black institutions or of the cultural assumptions of dominant white ones.

This doesn’t mean to me that we should denounce the participants in those movements, but it does mean that a critical understanding should be historicist and therefore always open to the possibility that what appeared unproblematically redemptive in a particular moment doesn’t stand immune to critique, negation, and transformation on second analysis. The claimed universals of the present ought not be permitted to colonize the future. The universal language of colorblindness that Dr. King invoked and that Gabel quotes was in its time and space an important negation of the claims of white supremacy and the logic of racial segregation that the law supported. But its redemptive power was also bound to that local struggle, and it would have little to contribute to any deeper understanding of race that should befit a radical analysis of social transformation. Without colorblindness itself being negated, progress toward racial justice may not be possible.

So, to summarize: I find Gabel’s actual descriptions of the phenomenon of people coming to embrace ideology and his sensitivity to how to address their authentic needs in organizing for social change compelling and invaluable; I have no difficulty allying with him on particular political projects. I just don’t see the point in universalizing the need for recognition as the guiding “truth” of social movements, and I see how such an impulse can easily lead to an avoidance of critical analysis. I don’t think there is or need be any canonical way to articulate and conceptualize this project of human freedom. I think of myself as a historicist in this way, opposed to these universalizing claims because of their tendency to stand on the side of closure by trying to colonize the future with the universalizing claims of the past—the premature apology. The project of the “true left” as I understand it, is to continue to critique, negate, and transform: to continually keep trying to break on through to the other side.


Click here to read Peter Gabel's response. 


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