The Project of Autonomy in the 21st Century

By Yavor Tarinski


During the fifth edition of the international anti-authoritarian festival ‘B-Fest’ (2016) was held a panel, entitled ‘The Project of Autonomy in the 21st Century’. Speakers were David Ames Curtis, Alexandros Sxismenos and Yavor Tarinski. Here is transcribed version of Tarinski’s speech.

We have gathered today to discuss the contemporary emancipatory visions, and in particular the project of autonomy, a concept whose relevance, in my opinion, is nowadays rapidly growing. In my intervention in this panel I’ll emphasize on the contemporary social movements and the similarities of their activities with the project of autonomy.

Today we are witnessing the rise of multiple crises, encompassing our society, our individual experience of life, as well as the very nature that is keeping us alive, and thus the question of what is to be done is of ever growing importance. But it seems that the conventional solutions can’t be of help anymore.

If before we were saying that the representative democracy was in crisis, now we can say with growing confidence, that today it is on its knees. The abstention rates during elections are in their all time highest, even in countries with traditionally high electoral activity, like Greece[1]. Political parties across Europe that win elections rarely gather enough seats to rule alone, and are thus forced to engage in unstable coalitions to form governments. Even the so-called radical parties, that claim to represent the massive social movements of the last years, doesn’t seem to be able to increase noticeably their membership base or to initiate lasting social mobilizations on a large scale.

The traditional ideological movements (trade unions, anarchist federations etc.), on the other hand, that are out of the institutions of power and act as their opposition, are also in crisis. Traditional ideological organizations fail to increase their membership base, ceding back instead[2]. This is so due to many reasons, the basic one amongst whom is that the proposals they articulate are rarely something more than a reproduction of old patterns of thinking and acting, and thus they are unable to interact adequately with the contemporal reality.

Due to this, new forms of political activism are emerging, that highly resembles the project of autonomy. Castoriadis describes it in The project of Autonomy is not a Utopia as “the project of a society in which all citizens have an equal, effectively actual possibility of participating in legislation, in government, in jurisdiction, and, finally, in the institution of society.”

And we can see that the today’s forms of protests are tending to break with traditional forms of expression of popular dissatisfaction like strikes, marches etc, and are trying instead to open public spaces, where individuals can engage collectively with public affairs. In the constant eruptions of societal creativity during the last years direct democracy is successfully conquering the imaginary of protesters, activists, communities, not leaving a lot of space for political vanguards of any sort. Such were the cases of the Indignados, the Occupy, and nowadays the Nuit Debout, where real attempts at self-instituting were made. We can even say that the modern forms of protest are unthinkable outside the general frame of direct democracy.

And what makes these new forms strikingly different from the traditional ones is their contextual character. The Imaginary of the traditional movements was based on ideologies, thus creating amongst them tendency towards the adoption of their own narratives, incompatible and often even quite hostile towards the rest of society. As I have shown elsewhere[3], this results in the establishment of a non-contextual way of thinking and acting, which prevents, or at least makes it very difficult, for radical political organizations to interact with people as well as with reality, leading to their sectarization.

Castoriadis noted in an interview, entitled Autonomy Is an Ongoing Process, that:

“Autonomy is an ongoing process, whereby you always have contents that are given, borrowed—you are in the world, you are in society, you have inherited a language, you live in a certain history. […]It is in this world that we have to have a workable and effective concept of autonomy. Autonomy does not mean I am totally separated from everything external. And, in relation to my own contents, which are 99 percent borrowed, have come from the outside, I have a reflective, critical, deliberative activity, and I can to a significant degree say yes and no.”

We can clearly see, that the massive social movements of the last years are not trying to fit the present into certain ideological frame, developed in different time and context (from the present one), but on the contrary, they are striving at achieving greater synergy between ideals and contemporality. As the activist Baki Youssoufou described the Nuit Debout movement in an interview[4]:

“This movement is more open. We are taking the time to look at one another, to take care of everyone, to be inclusive, to spend more time discussing questions – because not everybody has the same background. We also have to try to revisit our language and our practices and to make our ideas more contemporary.

[…] We need to adapt our ideas and actions to the present time. We need to adapt our way of doing things to social medias like Facebook and Twitter. […] This is a very new thing, and a paradoxical one, but a very powerful one.”

Thus the present is not being subjected just to countless interpretations, but is being experimented with, in search for new ways to implement our principles, embedding them in the experiencing of everyday life. Through the public spaces, opened in this process, is being created the possibillity of the emergence of new anthropological type, and more specifically the one Castoriadis calls[5] the democratic individual, which the society today is not capable of reproducing.

And we see, that from 2011, with the first wave of public anger and creativity, expressed through the social seizure of public squares, many such unabating waves followed, showing the rising urge for popular participation in public affairs.

Something similar is happening with the ecological movements, whom Castoriadis correctly was criticizing for viewing nature in a de-politisized manner – as commodity – but who today are beggining to view problems like pollution and climate change in more systemic manner, articulating politicized proposals like de-growth, reclamation of commons, etc.

But most striking proove for the strenght of these emerging new significations is the Nuit Debout movement in France. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, many predicted an upcoming domination of the far-right on institutional level, as well as in the broad societal imaginary. But Nuit Debout proved them wrong, overpassing the initial economism of the resent anti-austerity protests in France, giving them more holistic character and answered to the barbarity of theological fundamentalism, as well as to that of bureaucratic capitalism, with direct democracy, non-hierarchy and solidarity. It is showing us maturity, shaped by the same  democratic discource of popular struggles during the last years.

In a speech, delivered in Athens at 1989[6], Castoriadis have said that “what’s pre-eminently needed today and seems to be missing for the time being, is passion for public affairs, responsibility, participation”, to which, as it seems untill now, the contemporary social movements are answering with promising signs, containing the germs of one possible future. The question is not to be too impatient, entraped in the imaginary of “one-night” revolution, and to continue participating patiently in the creation of the building blocks of tommorrow.





[5] Castoriadis in The Idea of Revolution



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