Castoriadis and the Political Question Today

Political activist Yavor Tarinski, author of “Short Introduction to the Political Legacy of Castoriadis” (Aftoleksi, 2020) answers to questions posed by the Greek political journal Aftoleksi on the topicality of Castoriadis’ thought today, during a public event.

What are the perspectives for the project of autonomy that Castoriadis’ thought offer?

Yavor Tarinski: Castoriadis offers an inclusive and holistic understanding of autonomy. He advocates for something quite different from what other autonomists support. Castoriadis challenges narrower understandings of autonomy:

  • the meaning advanced by autonomous Marxists, who advocate for a non-hierarchical, non-state action by a specific economic category – the working class;
  • the view of autonomy as absolute individual liberty advocated by certain anarchist trends;
  • the usage of the term by nationalists who signify by it national sovereignty from foreign influence.

For Castoriadis autonomy cannot be limited to certain economic categories, it cannot remain solely on the individual level, and cannot be sustained within national borders. In short, it cannot be achieved with the means of the current state of things.

According to Castoriadis, autonomy is a revolutionary political project that aims to radically transform society by restructuring the power architecture of society.

How topical is Castoriadis?

YT: Castoriadis’s thought has influenced, either directly or indirectly, various concepts that have emerged from social movements and militant theory in the last decade. One can think of the commons, degrowth, municipalism, etc. Castoriadian notions like self-institution and direct democracy as self-limitation have helped drive, at least to a degree, some of the significations behind these terms beyond the framework of economism and statism.

Although none of these concepts has been shaped solely by Castoriadis’ thought, his influence nonetheless has driven them towards a more political direction. Unfortunately he is not getting the recognition he deserves in this aspect, and this is one of the reasons I have been writing about his connection to contemporary democratic theories.

Which is the signification of direct democracy in today’s world?

YT: Direct democracy is of crucial signification for our future. The citizen disempowerment, which is a structural element of parliamentarism, has contributed greatly to troubling tendencies like social cannibalism (in the form of xenophobia and racism), irrational paranoia (in the form of conspiracy theories), a dogmatic capitalist handling of a pandemic, and the existential threat that is climate change.

Direct democracy, as a political project that strives to directly involve all members of society in the management of public life, does not promise a heaven on Earth but the creation of a setting of equality beyond dogmas, domination and exclusion. And this is a necessary precondition if we want to steer away from the dystopian future, paved by capitalism and statecraft.

Which is the relation of certain social movements with the project of autonomy?

YT: Glimpses of autonomy can be observed in many social movements of recent times. The elements of it were part of the alter-globalist movement, with its horizontal and decentralized processes. Then the project of autonomy became particularly evident in the Indignant movement (Movement from the Squares), where people reclaimed public spaces and formed popular assemblies, challenging in a more clear manner the political architecture of society. The French Nuit Debout also continued this effort at social self-institution. But the more recent movement of the Yellow Vests brought this basic element of autonomy, that is direct democracy, on a whole new level – it created a functioning confederation of local democratic institutions, thus articulating a clearer alternative of the status quo.

Germs of autonomy can also be detected in the Black Lives Matter movement in some of its demands for direct citizen control over policing and determination of the laws and norms that frame social life. As we can see, the project of autonomy is always present, with different strength and clarity, in each social movement. Furthermore, one can argue that it is an inseparable part of them.

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