By Yavor Tarinski
« Concern with the problem of organization has meaning only for people convinced that they can and must struggle together (hence, by organizing) and who do not, from the very beginning, assume their own defeat is inevitable. »
~ Cornelius Castoriadis
The project of autonomy, as articulated by Cornelius Castoriadis, is a concept whose relevance is nowadays rapidly growing. I’ll emphasize 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 experiences 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 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. 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 left parties, that claim to represent the massive social movements, don’t seem to be able to increase 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. 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 current 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 jurisprudence, and, finally, in the institution of society.
And we can see that today’s forms of protests are tending to break with traditional forms of expression of popular dissatisfaction such as 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 recent 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 Direct Democracy Now movement from Syntagma Square, the Occupy, the Nuit Debout, the Yellow Vests where real attempts at self-instituting are made. Even during the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the US, popular assemblies sprung at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. We can even say that the modern forms of protest are unthinkable outside the general frame of direct democracy.
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, 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 political sectarianism.
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.
Once such perception of autonomy, according to Castoriadis, requires the abandonment of bureaucratic means of expressing our ideas:
To break with the conceptions and practice of bureaucratic organizations is also to break with traditional jargon, which has lost all meaning for people, and even has become an object of derision […] We must transform our way of speaking and writing, pitilessly eliminating from our speech and from our texts insider terms and a didactic expository style.
We can clearly see, that the massive social movements of the last decade 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 fluid contemporaneity, culminating in this way into a genuinely democratic tendency. An example for this we can find in activist Baki Youssoufou’s described the Nuit Debout movement in an interview:
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. […] This is a very new thing, and a paradoxical one, but a very powerful one.
We can also detect it in the call, issued by the first Yellow Vest Assembly of Assemblies:
We are strengthened by the diversity of our discussions. At this very moment, hundreds of assemblies are developing and proposing their own demands.
Democratic Individuals and the Need for Roots
Contemporary social movements do not subject the present merely to countless interpretations, but is being experimented with, in search for new ways to implement the principles of direct democracy, embedding them in the experiencing of everyday life. Through the public spaces, opened in this process, is being created the possibility of the emergence of new anthropological types, and more specifically the one Castoriadis calls the democratic individual, which the society today is not capable of reproducing. He detects certain dialectic relationship between democratic institutions and democratic individuals:
[W]e obviously should condemn any fetishism for the ‘soviet’ or ‘council’ type of organization. The ‘constant eligibility and revocability of representatives’ are of themselves quite insufficient to ‘guarantee’ that a council will remain the expression of working-class interests. The council will remain such an expression for as long as people are prepared to do whatever may be necessary for it to remain so. . . . [T]he council is an adequate form of organization: Its whole structure is set up to enable this will to self-expression [of the workers] to come to the fore, when it exists.
Furthermore, for Castoriadis this democratic individual cannot be detached from his organic community. Capitalism and the State aims at uprooting people from their social environment, while contemporary social movements, through the participatory institutions they establish, aim at rebuilding their communal relations. Castoriadis writes that:
Direct democracy certainly requires the physical presence of citizens in a given place, when decisions have to be made. But this is not enough. It also requires that these citizens form an organic community, that they live if possible in the same milieu, that they be familiar through their daily experience with the subject to be discussed and with the problems to be tackled. It is only in such units that the political participation of individuals can become total, that people can know and feel that their involvement will have an effect, and that the real life of the community is, in large part, determined by its own members and not by unknown or external authorities who decide for them.
Resurging Passion for Political Participation
Since 2011, with the first wave of public anger and creativity, expressed through the social seizure of public squares, many such unabated waves followed, showing the rising urge for popular participation in public affairs. And they have developed today into the formation of confederations of local participatory decision-making bodies. Castoriadis himself recognized the importance of federalism for the creation of a coherent democratic project.
Something similar is happening with the ecological movements, a large part of which was correctly criticized by Castoriadis for viewing nature in a de-politicized manner – as commodity. But today we see how growing number of climate activists are beginning to view problems such as pollution and climate change in a more systemic manner, articulating dynamic politicized proposals instead, like the formation of citizen assemblies.
In all these cases, workerism seems to have been abandoned by social movements and uprisings, as they seem to be increasingly aiming at reclaiming popular democratic control. This is something that Castoriadis has been arguing for long time ago:
People will not make a revolution over their wages — not today, in any case; they will not even make one for workers’ management as such, and rightly so, since workers’ management as such is only a tool, not an end in itself. People will make a revolution in order to make a radical change in the way they live, and this concerns the content of the revolution, its ends, and its values.
Many would object to what has been claimed so far, arguing that if we abandon the security of our ideological dogmas or distance with the less politicized segments of society, we run the risk of being absorbed by the institutions of the current oligarchic regime. But such fears can only lead to self-marginalization and elitist/didactic attitudes that lead only to inaction. To these fears Castoriadis has responded with the following:
Someone who is afraid of cooptation has already been coopted. His [sic] attitude has been coopted — since it has been blocked up. The deepest reaches of his mind have been coopted, for there he seeks guarantees against being coopted, and thus he has already been caught in the trap of reactionary ideology: the search for an anticooptation talisman or fetishistic magic charm. There is no guarantee against cooptation; in a sense, everything can be coopted, and everything is one day or another.
In a speech, delivered in Athens at 1989, Castoriadis said that what is 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 until 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.
1. Cornelius Castoriadis: The Working Class and Organization (Solidarity Pamphlets No. 22 and No. 23., 1959)
3. Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), p5
6. Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), p33
7. Cornelius Castoriadis: Political and Social Writings Volume 3 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p13
10. Cornelius Castoriadis: The Rising Tide of Insignificancy: The Big Sleep (unauthorized translation, 2003), p217
12. Cornelius Castoriadis: Political and Social Writings Volume 2 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), pp98-99
13. Cornelius Castoriadis: Workers’ Councils and the Economics of a Self-Managed Society (Fordsburg: Zabalaza Books, 2007)
16. Cornelius Castoriadis: Poltical and Social Writings: Volume 3 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p132
First published in Free Humanitas
One thought on “Political Organizing in the 21st Century”