Climate Change, domination and the temporality of Direct Democracy

By Yavor Tarinski

[Being masters or possesors of nature] has no meaning – except to enslave society to an absurd project and to the structures of domination embodying that project.

~Cornelius Castoriadis[1]

The debates surrounding Climate Change almost always contain certain urgency and it couldn’t be otherwise as it is an issue that, if unattended on time, will develop into a catastrophe with existential for humanity consequences. So of course, there is need of a well coordinate action on global scale so as to avoid the grimmest of projections.

This is where things get complicated: there are several approaches to thinking how such much needed steps towards tackling climate change can be initiated. The sense of urgency that surrounds this issue plays crucial role in the framing of our thinking about the issue.

There is certain danger that arises when translate this urgency into political projects, because it can easily be equated with the temporality of domination. See, the temporality of centralized and bureaucratic structures is supposedly the one of quick, unburdened by mass deliberation, decision-making that, according to some, is what we need in such dire situations.

The Temporality of Domination and Bureaucracy

We can already see proposals in this line of thought surfacing the debate around climate change. Anatol Lieven, in his book “Climate Change and the Nation State” advocates that the drastic action required to resolve this crisis can best be carried through the current governmental, fiscal and military structures[2]. French climatologist François-Marie Bréon goes even further by suggesting that the fight against climate change goes contrary to individual freedoms and democracy[3], leaving us with no other option but some sort of “green” authoritarianism.

This is the domain of the temporality of domination, where a fast pace is introduced on short-term level. Decisions, in bureaucratic and oligarchic settings, are made in an automated-like manner and are enforced on society. The real decision-making power is limited to a certain narrow section of the social whole or a specific mechanism (like the capitalist market or the state machinery), while the vast majority remains genuinely cut off from it.

While this faster pace is enforced on short-term level, on a longer one we observe what philosopher Paolo Virno calls déjà vu. According to him, “[d]éjà vu arises when the past-form, applied to the present, is exchanged for a past-content, which the present will repeat with obsessive loyalty – that is to say, when a possible-present is exchanged for a real-past.[4] This is so because bureaucracy and domination replicate themselves and their structure in every chunk of space and time, to which they are given access to. In other words, the political content of society is predetermined and no genuine structural change is allowed to it. Yes, there are reforms taking place at times, electoral spectacles are broadcasted live, but in this temporality the general structure is unalterable.

There is a serious problem with the temporality of déjà vu, as it tends to retain the very foundational basis that has led us to the current multidimensional ecological crisis – i.e. the imaginary of domination and hierarchy. As founder of social ecology Murray Bookchin advocated, the notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man.[5] For him it was the social relations based on domination that have gradually led, over long periods of time, human societies to view nature, and fellow human beings alike, as a pool of resources waiting to be exploited.

Philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis points at the similar ways in which human beings and nature are being exploited:

For example, cities, a marvelous creation of the late Neolithic, are being destroyed at the same pace as the Amazon forest, broken up into ghettos, residential suburbs, and office districts that are dead after 8 p.m. It is therefore not a matter of a bucolic defense of “nature” but, rather, of a struggle to safeguard human beings and their habitats. In my view, it is clear that such safeguarding is incompatible with the maintenance of the existing system and that it depends on a political reconstruction of society, which would make it into a democracy in reality and not in words.”[6]

It is this interlinked exploitation that has led Bookchin to conclude that the real battleground on which the ecological future of the planet will be decided is clearly a social one.[7]

This realization that social domination is directly interlinked with environmental exploitation has, one can argue, been more widely accepted by an increasing part of the ecological movement. But it is the urgency of climate change that has been exploited by authoritarian tendencies to pollute with their project the alternatives that are being developed by social movements around the world.

The Temporality of Direct Democracy

The direct democratic alternatives that aim at uprooting every form of domination within society, as well as in our relation with nature, has a radically different temporality from authoritarian ones.

First of all, since within the project of direct democracy every form of bureaucracy and social hierarchy is abolished, public affairs and issues (political, economic, cultural, ecological etc.) are collectively decided upon by all members of society. Thus, people obtain more genuine control of the pace of everyday life, as they have the possibility to actively participate in the shaping of its content. Author Kristin Ross exemplifies this trend through her personal experience with the self-managed communities that inhibited the autonomous ZAD in France:

[T]he actual temporality of situations like the ZAD, that interests me enormously and it is one of the reasons why I have returned there so frequently. Because I like the way time moves there. And the way that what happens to time when you are not, say, working for a salary. Obviously, we are not talking about a situation that is entirely outside of the State, outside of capitalist temporality, but there is a way in which time moves differently, because salary labour has been pushed to the outskirts of peoples’ life. And that means, that, for example, interruptions are different, or what counts as an interruption is different. Because people engage in a task and everybody works on a task and you are constantly interrupted by people who need something, or the horses have escaped, so you have to stop what you are doing and catch the horses, and then someone comes over and says that we need a text right now, about what is the demonstration in Nantes. And so, you stop and you write the text, but you see, none of that could happen if you were pushing a time-clock. So, the flow of time, the flow of peoples’ pursuits is very different.[8]

As bureaucratic mechanisms like the capitalist market are no longer allowed to exploit and commodify everyday life, people are able to experience a radically different temporality that does not pressure nor oppress. It directly resembles the time of democratic deliberation as exemplified by the Zapatistic principle of “command by obeying[9]. The decision-making in the Zapatista municipalities is based on a process of consultation that constantly moves forward and backwards, which they express through the imagery of the snail and its spiral shell[10]. There are no bureaucrats, bosses or profit-motives which to pressure everyday life. It is reminiscent of the slogan “[popular] councils don’t dance to the rhythm of the parliament!”[11], which emerged during the Germen revolution of 1918-19. Instead, this new genuinely democratic political architecture allows people to engage in deeper reflection and deliberation, creating preconditions for the creation of laws and norms that have been decided upon by huge majorities and thus society is much more inclined to willingly and consciously abide to them without the need of police enforcement so typical for hierarchical regimes.

The French Yellow Vests are yet another contemporary example of how genuinely participatory procedures tend to alter social temporality. By adopting a democratic confederalist structure[12], the thousands of people that consisted this movement challenged the content of the week. The contemporary system has determined that the role of the weekend is for the workforce to take a break from the pressure of work, which has consumed the rest of the week-days. There is obviously no space for genuine political activity in this time-frame. The Yellow Vests proposed a radical alternative: they organized their demonstrations and general assemblies on those days that people were supposed to engage in passive consumerism, advancing in practice a temporality, in which political participation is more valuable than the passivity of economism.

The culture of direct participation that emerges within direct democratic settings, on the other hand, counters the déjà vu effect of bureaucracy and domination. With people en mass taking active part in the management of public affairs are created preconditions for a temporality that is rich in political events. By opening politics to wide popular participation, social structures, institutions and laws can be altered by society, unlike the enclosed character of oligarchic systems. In this sense, the temporality of direct democracy resembles that of a revolution, as it opens different future paths. In short, the former is a permanent revolutionary experience as it recognizes history as a human creation.

What is to be Done in the age of Climate Change

Don’t get me wrong, climate change is an utmost urgent matter that requires action here and now, but if we agree that domination is its root-cause, then it is only logical to abandon every trace of it when exploring solutions. In this line of thought, we must remain vigilant regarding the efforts of authoritarian tendencies to pass bureaucratic measures under the guise of “emergency”. To allow elements of domination to pollute the alternative solutions advanced by social movements and communities around the world is to actually waste even more precious time, as we will be only scratching the surface of the problem, dealing with its symptoms, while leaving its root intact.

What is crucial is opening a genuine public space where the widest possible amount of people can directly participate in the development and implementation of solutions to the climate crisis. The ultimate question here is not simply finding the fastest way to implement measures, as this often might translate as authoritarianism. Instead, the goal is involving, the sooner the better, the widest possible amount of people in developing and implementing coherent and well-thought solutions that will hold through time and will be widely accepted.

Author John Dryzek suggests the following features of wide public deliberations as potentially crucial for issues such as climate change:

“It can generate coherence across the perspectives of actors concerned with different facets of complex issues. It can organize feedback on the condition of social-ecological systems into politics. It can lead to the prioritization of public goods (such as ecosystem integrity) and general interests over material self-interest. It may even expand the thinking of its participants to better encompass the interests of future generations, distant others, and non-human nature.[13]

If we do not take decisive collective action against the very root of the climate crisis – namely domination in all its forms – we are simply wasting more time and are delaying the catastrophe. Castoriadis warns us that from experience we now know that the present-day (economic as well as scientific) technobureaucracy is organically and structurally incapable of possessing the prudence required [to self-limit itself], for it exists and is moved only by the delirium of unlimited expansion. Instead, he suggests that only a genuine democracy, one that instaurates the broadest possible processes of reflection and deliberation wherein citizens as a whole participate, that can radically alter the current self-destructive path of humanity.[14]

The threat of climate change is too grave for us to continue thinking that we can work our way around it without major (revolutionary) changes that will radically alter the very social fabric beyond capitalism and statecraft.


[1] David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p247.

[2] https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/313/313184/climate-change-and-the-nation-state/9780141990545.html

[3] https://www.liberation.fr/planete/2018/07/29/francois-marie-breon-la-lutte-pour-le-climat-est-contraire-aux-libertes-individuelles_1669641/

[4] Paolo Virno: Deja vu and the end of history (London: Verso Books, 2015), p18.

[5] Murray Bookchin: Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1986), p71.

[6] Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), p248.

[7] http://social-ecology.org/wp/1986/01/what-is-social-ecology/

[8] Kristin Ross: A Coffee with Kristin Ross: On the continuations of May ’68 (Athens: Babylonia, 2019) pp5-6.

[9] https://www.jstor.org/stable/40403712

[10] https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/128115/1/bpd20.pdf

[11] Erich Mühsam: The Creation of the Bavarian Council Republic: From Eisner to Levine (Greek Edition by Vivliopelagos, 2020), p39.

[12] https://socialistproject.ca/2019/04/yellow-vests-struggle-to-reinvent-democracy/

[13] https://www.humansandnature.org/democracy-john-dryzek

[14] Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), p249.

Source: Resilience

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