By Yavor Tarinski
We are no more nature rendered self-conscious than we are humanity rendered self-conscious. Reason may give us the capacity to play this role, but we and our society are still totally irrational – indeed, we are cunningly dangerous to ourselves and all that lives around us
The dominant narrative today tells a story of linear progress, in which humanity is gradually becoming more reasonable and rational. We are told that we travel from ages of darkness toward times of enlightenment. And, supposedly, this tendency can be delayed, but cannot be stopped. Or so the narrative goes…
The reality, however, seems much different. Our societies are in a trajectory towards self-destruction, in regards to existential threats such as climate change. There seems to be very little rationality and reason when it comes to the attitudes of the ruling elites to the environmental crisis. One after another, their summits lead to nothing, while ridiculous tech-fixes are being discussed, in the name of an obviously irrational capitalist dogma that suggests unlimited economic growth is even possible on a finite planet.
This very same narrative finds as reasonable also the advance of economism into all spheres of human life. A trend that produces time scarcity and bureaucratization of everyday life (by going as far as to commodify even human relations), and that ultimately makes people more miserable and alienated.
There is, however, a growing amount of research, studies and data that challenge this linear perception of progress towards ever-growing rationalism. Instead of that there is, throughout human history, a continuing clash between political paradigms. In early cities two antagonistic centers of power emerged – the public assembly on the one hand, and the temple, on the other. The former attempted to empower an ever-growing amount of people (what we call direct democracy), while the latter gave birth to the rule by narrow elites (what came to be known as oligarchy).
The latter managed to impose its dominance, not through rational debate and reasoning, but by the power of sheer force and deception. Despite that, the domination of elites met the resistance of people in the face of popular uprisings and revolutions: such were the French and the American ones, during which commoners began setting up institutions of popular self-management, which Hannah Arendt calls Lost Treasure of the Revolution, to challenge the rule of the few.
Nowadays there are also existing examples where societies have rejected oligarchy and have instaurated direct-democratic systems instead: the most notable of whom are the Zapatista self-managed caracols and the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria. In these cases local populations have rejected the exploitation of centralized governments and multinational corporations, and have instead developed their own complex models of self-management that tend towards the inclusion of all in decision-making processes. But even when outside of such revolutionary environments, the people show much different priorities from the elites. One such example is the deliberative council on mobility that was initiated by the local government of the city of Bregenz, Austria. It was attended by randomly selected citizens who were to propose visions and priorities for the future of traffic in the area. The proposal, developed by the council, focused heavily on the expansion of pedestrian walking, public transport, cycling, and public spaces. This was in stark contrast to what authorities and businesses envisioned – investment in infrastructure that promotes car traffic and gentrification.
As we can see, there is a constant power struggle between oligarchic rule from above and the democratic aspirations from below. The supposed rationality of the former is often questioned, or outright challenged, by common people. The bureaucratic mechanisms and processes of today use reason and rationalism as ideological veil with which to cover their exploitive and unjust nature. Often this leads to practices that threaten the very future of humanity, such as the continuing ravaging of nature. That’s why Cornelius Castoriadis calls the contemporary system pseudo-rational – it claims to be based on rationality while acting in irrational and unreasonable manner.
Advocates of authoritarian modes of governance such as Slavoj Zizek, have suggested that a totalitarian-like state that will not “burden” people with political issues will offer them instead a lot of free time to engage with things they supposedly prefer. The history, however, speaks to the exact opposite: whenever the people have claimed their right to directly participate in the decision-making processes that determine the future of their community, there was explosion of human thought, creativity, and science. Most notable examples for that were the Ancient Athenian Polis and the medieval Italian independent cities, both of which had their limitations and shortcomings, but nonetheless allowed for mass civic culture to develop around participatory institutions and mechanisms like popular assemblies, citizen committees, councils of delegates, sortition etc. It was within these urban environments where citizens organized life in common around political deliberation and agreement, which allowed for rational thinking and reason to proliferate, as democratic processes provided the means for traditions and established “truths” to be put into question.
The rationality of the periods in question had nothing to do with the determinist rationalism advocated by the supporters of oligarchy. Instead, it characterized what Castoriadis called “the quest for truth”. He valued rationality not as a supposed linear progression, but as a quality of thought that always asks for reasons/grounds and justification, and distinguishes between different forms of validity. In this sense, rational thinking and reasoning has to do with processes of public deliberation, where opinions have to be backed with logical arguments, and not with deception or coercion.
Unfortunately, this type of rationality is in retreat in our contemporary world, and instead, as Castoriadis suggest, the dominant pseudo-rationality puts end to thinking and creation. Murray Bookchin, another thinker who valued reason as a quality of thought, underlines that today we and our society are still totally irrational – indeed, we are cunningly dangerous to ourselves and all that lives around us. He continues by suggesting that reason, which was expected to dispel the dark historic forces to which a presumably unknowing humanity had been captive, is now used to enhance the efficiency of domination .
In order to overcome the current state of pseudo-rationalism and to lead humanity to reason, Castoroadis suggests, we need to cease adhering to a heteronomous institution of society and the internalization of the representations in which this institution is embodied. According to him, this implies introducing certain number of (not simply procedural) rules that render rational discussion possible. In other words, for reason and rationality to have place in our societies, revolutionary changes have to take place.
First and foremost, this implies nothing less than a radical reconfiguration of the political architecture of our societies. Setting up new institutions that will allow and encourage public deliberation and mass participation in decision-making, so that space is given for well-argumented dialogue to take place. In one such setting people will be allowed to move from infant-like national subjects and consumers into conscious citizens-stewards that take full responsibility (both collective and individual) for the trajectory of their social and natural environment. Public assemblies, participatory municipal councils and popular committees can provide the fertile ground for reason and rational thought to re-emerge. Otherwise, within the framework of the current system, there is simply no place for rationality – everything is, instead, being used to enhance and justify a completely unreasonable order that empowers disproportionately a tiny percentage of the population, dooming the rest to a life of servitude and conformity. All social, natural and cognitive resources are being used by the system to justify top-down bureaucratic rule.
Moving in one such direct-democratic direction that will allow for rationality and reason to proliferate won’t be an easy task. First and foremost, because the dominant pseudo-rationalism contaminates the imaginaries of many who come to oppose oligarchy. On the one hand, there is large section of the Left, that is deeply submerged in parliamentarism and economism, thus accepting the pseudo-rational linear determinism, which suggests that humanity is unavoidably moving towards increasingly larger scales that require further political centralization and fetishization of economic relations. As a result of that, they often come to blindly accept statecraft, labor as commodity, domination, and other systemic components of the status quo, instead of challenging them.
On the other hand, there is this troubling rise of conspiracy theories, that although critical of humanity’s current state, tend to offer analysis that undermines action and promotes cynicism instead. In the worldview of conspiracists, our societies have progressed so much that bureaucratization and technocracy have become all too powerful for people to initiate any genuine change. According to them, every event is part of a grand plan that is orchestrated by untouchable-like secret society. Such worldviews more often than not lead to retreat from public affairs and search for “deeper” esoteric meanings, in which to search shelter from the ills of the system, or in backing authoritarian leaders. This is when, to use Bookchin’s words, the rational is replaced by the intuitional, and palpable social opponents are replaced by their shadows, to be exorcised by rituals, incantations, and magical gymnastics.
Then there are the dogmatic ideologies. Those submerged in such a mindset often prove unable to examine current events without looking at them through the contextuality of the time period, within which their ideology initially emerged. There is little space for dialogue and argumentation when an ideological dogma from another century determines your opinion on current affairs, thus there cannot be rational and reasonable dialogue. A stark example of this is what Syrian author Leila Al Shami calls “anti-imperialism of idiots” – the narrow geopolitical views of those who ideologically still live in the Cold War era and for whom there still is a Soviet bloc. For such people, all regimes who oppose the “West” are somehow related to communism, and no sign or evidence of the anti-communist sentiments of the likes of Putin can change their mind.
All of these trends tend to take for granted the dominant determinist pseudo-rationalism. Instead of that, social movements fighting for social change should embrace rationality, not as an ideology of a linear progression, but as a quality of thought, which always seeks for argumentation, reason and justification. The type of rational thinking that will open paths toward different valid choices, instead of narrowly justifying what currently exist. A suitable setting for this is a social order based on the greatest possible citizen participation, where power is redistributed equally among all, and the replacement of coercion by deliberation. Political architecture of this kind will have to be decentralized, with decision-making being placed at the heart of where we all interact – in neighborhoods and in communities. And in order for this decentralization to be sustained, without degrading into parochialism, confederal relations have to be established between local self-managed units. As Bookchin suggests, the confederation of municipalities, as a medium for interaction, collaboration, and mutual aid among its municipal components, provides the sole alternative to the powerful nation-state on the one hand and the parochial town or city on the other.
The first steps towards something like that is the creation and maintenance of spaces where constructive dialogue can take place. Such can be physical hubs like open assemblies and social centers, as well as digital platforms and journals. The important thing is that the struggle for a direct-democratic society requires, as Harald Wolf reminds us, a long and patient work of preparation. The project of direct democracy, of which reason and rational deliberation are an inseparable part, has to be made appealing and desirable for a growing amount of people. This is a necessary step towards a popular revolutionary change that will overturn the oligarchic authority of the elites, opening instead paths toward multiple alternatives.
 Janet Biehl (ed.): The Murray Bookchin Reader (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1999), p39.
 James Surowiecki. Review of Better and Better: The Myth of Inevitable Progress, by Indur M. Goklany. Foreign Affairs 86, no. 4 (2007): 132–39. (available online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/20032420)
 Hannah Arendt: Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: The Viking Press, 1961), p5.
 Charles Taylor, Patrizia Nanz, Madeleine Beaubien Taylor: Reconstructing Democracy: How Citizens are Building from the Ground Up (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020), pp60-61.
 David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p240.
 David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p393.
 Ingerid S Straume and Giorgio Baruchello (eds.): Creation, Rationality and Autonomy: Essays on Cornelius Castoriadis (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2013), p19.
 Ingerid S Straume and Giorgio Baruchello (eds.): Creation, Rationality and Autonomy: Essays on Cornelius Castoriadis (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2013), p20.
 Janet Biehl (ed.): The Murray Bookchin Reader (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1999), p39.
 Janet Biehl (ed.): The Murray Bookchin Reader (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1999), p98.
 David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p390.
 David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p391.
 Janet Biehl (ed.): The Murray Bookchin Reader (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1999), p66.
 Murray Bookchin: Free Cities: Communalism and the Left (2008), p27. (Available online at https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-eirik-eiglad-free-cities)