The Federalist Principle in Castoriadis’ Project of Direct Democracy

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By Yavor Tarinski

A much more humane society is possible and desirable.

~Cornelius Castoriadis[1]

The philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis insisted that what he envisioned as project of autonomy- the project of a society in which all citizens have an equal, effectively actual possibility of participating in the institution of society – is far from a utopian vision. On the contrary, he was convinced that it is possible and its realization depends only upon the lucid activity of individuals and peoples, upon their understanding, their will, their imagination.[2]

With this reasoning Castoriadis counters a specific line of thought, which serves as main argument in defense of the current oligarchic regimes – the question of scale. Rousseau writes in 1762 that a real democratic government requires, among other things, a small state, where the people can assemble easily and where it’s not hard for each citizen to know all the rest.[3] And although a lot of time has passed since the publication of The Social Contract, this argument, in one form or another, is still being used today in order to invoke the inevitability of parliamentarism. The conclusion of one such reasoning is that there are only two feasible political systems – on the one hand there is some sort of totalitarianism, while on the other, there is representative oligarchy (wrongly named “representative democracy”). So, the closest we can get to freedom, this narrative suggests, is via the second option.

Castoriadis, however, throughout his works, challenges this line of thought, advancing a third political model, based on direct popular decision-making – what he calls direct democracy. He suggests, that if we accept the dominant argument for the problem of the scale, then we will end up with nothing but bureaucracy and the abuse of power.[4] Instead, Castoriadis insists that direct democracy is possible on the scale of millions, and even billions of people, when there is suitable organizational forms and structures that can ensure the greatest possible participation of all.

It must be noted here that for the philosopher of autonomy direct democracy cannot exist in an enclosed environment. According to Castoriadis, in the state of highly closed societies there is nothing that prepares the people that consist them to challenge established institutions and significations (which, in this case, represent the principles and bearers of closure), and furthermore, everything is constituted therein so as to render impossible and unthinkable this sort of challenging.[5] Thus, there is a genuine need for the establishment of interconnected relations that transcend communal and social borders, in order for the democratic values of constant interrogation and critical thinking to thrive.

The Federation of Councils

What he advances, of course, is not some sort of a giant assembly where all of Earth’s population to gather and deliberate, but a different, more appropriate type of, what he calls, central power that is effectively subjected to the people’s ongoing control.[6] More specifically, Castoriadis speaks of the institution of a central (federal) assembly of councils, through which local councils and other grassroots decision-making bodies form a federation that is an expression of popular power, and not mere representation of it.[7] In this way the problem of centralization is avoided, as the organs of local self-administration remain the only bases of the central power, which will exist only as a federation or regrouping of all the councils.[8]

It is clear that Castoriadis’ idea of democratic federation has little to do with what have come to be known as the State: the former gives the institutional framework for self-governing municipalities to coordinate with one another, while the latter subjugates all social spheres to one homogenous bureaucracy. A key difference between the two can be found in the underlining structure on which each one is based upon. For the State, this is the Parliament, where the general population elects representatives once every few years, vesting them with huge amount of power, and then can do little to interact with the policies that this governing body enacts. The most society can do in such case is to either go out in the streets to protest or to vote for different political party in the next election. As regarding the second option, Castoriadis underlines the fact that once in office, these irrevocable representatives will do everything in their power, in order to ensure their reelection.[9] This is one of the reasons why the phenomena of so called “political dynasties” dominating the political life seems to be such a common occurrence in parliamentary regimes around the world.

In the federative system advanced by Castoriadis, on the other hand, there are no parliaments composed of irrevocable representatives. Instead, the underlining structure is what he calls central assembly of councils, attended by revocable delegates that are being elected directly by the general assemblies of grassroots communities or larger geographical groupings.[10] These people can be revoked at any given time by the institutions that have appointed them in the first place. Castoriadis suggests that this central assembly of councils will meet in plenary sessions, probably twice a week, or as deemed necessary. The delegates that consist of this organ, he continues, will have to give an account of their mandate (which will also have to be relatively short) to the grassroots institutions that have elected them. Castoriadis concludes that a compromise would have to be reached between two requirements: as a working body, the central assembly of councils should not be too large, but on the other hand it must afford the most direct and most broadly-based representation of the people, areas, and organs of which it is the outcome.[11]

When comparing the two models, one can distinct a major difference: on the one hand, the position of political representatives in a parliament is a position of power that lays beyond popular control; on the other hand, the delegate of a public assembly is not vested with any authority, but is tasked to transfer a decision or a proposal by his community to other communities that are part of the same federation, for which he is held constantly accountable and can be revoked.

In other words, in Castoriadis’ vision the delegates that attend the federative organs would have only subsidiary powers pertaining to the execution of popularly-made decisions and to current affairs.[12] The power lays in the hands of the general population and is exercised through different democratic tools that allow broad and direct participation. The cornerstone of this project of direct democracy are the grassroots political units, consisting of up to 100,000 inhabitants – the dimension of an average city, a metropolitan neighborhood, or an agricultural region of around twenty villages – where a genuine self-management can be practiced.[13] It is on this level that the people will deliberate and decide upon policies that they want to be implemented. These decisions will then be presented and coordinated at federal level by recallable delegates elected by these units.[14] Castoriadis insists that at all those levels, the principle of direct democracy would have to reign: all decisions principally affecting populations at a certain level would have to be made by direct vote of the interested populations, after information {is circulated} and after deliberation.[15]He also believes that in parallel to all these assemblies and councils, other tools like plebescites can also be used for questions such as the adoption of federal law by the means of federal referendum.[16]

For Castoriadis, one such decentralized system has the potential to allow for the peaceful and harmonious co-existence of a mixture of diverse populations. He recognizes that in today’s world there are identificatory passions and mutual myths that create divisive stereotypes and obstruct democratic participation.[17] On the other hand, in a reasonable and pacified world, Castoriadis suggests, these populations will be organized in autonomous communes that will federate as they wish[18], so that no incentive be given towards ethnic homogenizing by a bureaucratic structure like the Nation-State.

Resolving the Antinomy of the Contemporary System

One important problem that Castoriadis detects in the way that contemporary societies are structured is that, in his own words, capitalist technology, and with it the whole allegedly rational organization of production that goes along with it, aims at transforming workers into passive objects, into pure executants of tasks that are circumscribed, controlled, checked, and determined from the outside—that is, by an apparatus that directs production. [19] But at the same time, he observes, society manages to function as long as this transformation of workers into passive objects does not succeed.[20] The system function, because people don’t follow all the bureaucratic rules to the letter. This is reminiscent of David Graeber’s suggestion that bureaucracies are utopian forms of organization since they are organized in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as expected.[21] In a wat, there is this common recognition by both thinkers that the system is obliged to count on the very same people whom it strives at turning into machines. People are constantly excluded from all essential social decision-making processes, but nonetheless societal functioning cannot but rely on some initiative by the grassroots.

The overcoming of this antinomy, for Castoriadis, goes through the overthrow of the dominant form of organization by common people working collectively to completely undertake the direction of their activity. And since this antinomy is being reproduced in all spheres of social activity, its resolution, according to him, implies the collective management of social activities by the autonomous organs of those who participate, and importantly, the establishment of federative relations between them.[22]

Castoriadis and Bookchin’s Libertarian Municipalism

Castoriadis is not alone in his support of the federative principle. The revolutionary tradition has come to know many advocates of it. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is among the most notable such example, claiming that the federation’s essence is always to reserve more powers for the citizen than for the state, and for municipal and provincial authorities than for the central power, is the only thing that can set us on the right path.[23] Since his time, other thinkers have made significant contributions to the concept of federal alliance between free communities. Among them is Murray Bookchin, who’s politics share many similarities with the political project advocated by Castoriadis, while their philosophies differ significantly.

For Bookchin, what he calls confederation is as equally important as self-sufficiency. What he means by this term is the interlinking of communities with one another through recallable deputies mandated by municipal citizens’ assemblies and whose sole functions are coordinative and administrative.[24] Just like Castoriadis, Bookchin views the confederation as a major alternative to the Nation-State. He seeks its historic expression in the American and French Revolutions, as well as in the Spanish Civil War of 1936.

In short, what he envisions is confederations not of nation-states but of municipalities and of the neighborhoods of giant megalopolitan areas as well as of towns and villages. In this setting, Bookchin suggests, the federative connections between communities will not be of informal character, but will be binding and municipal minorities might have to defer to the majority wishes of participating communities.[25] Traces of this logic can be found in Castoriadis’ concept of self-limitation – central element to his direct-democratic project – which indicates, among other things, the legislative authority society exercises over its members.[26] In other words, it signifies the creation of rules and regulations by a majority of the social whole, which bind everyone, even those who might disagree.

Bookchin emphasizes on what he conceives as a crucial distinction that is intrinsic to federative organizational approaches, such as his project of libertarian municipalism – namely, the differentiation between policy-making and administration. In the democratic confederations envisioned by him policies are decided upon by communal assemblies consisted of free citizens, while the administration of these decisions on a larger scale is performed by confederal councils composed of mandated, recallable deputies of wards, towns, and villages. While local communities, in Bookchin’s project, are autonomous, they are nonetheless not isolated from the wider society. According to him, if a grouping, part of one such confederation, decides, for example, to violate certain human rights or permit ecological destruction, then the rest of confederated communities have every right to prevent such malfeasances through the confederal council. Libertarian Municipalism suggests that the assertion of a shared agreement by all to recognize civil rights and maintain the ecological integrity of a region is not something that is decided by central institutions (as is the case today), but by the majority of the popular assemblies conceived as one large community that expresses its wishes through its confederal deputies. In this way the process of policy-making remain firmly at the local level, while its administration lays in a trans-local, multi-communal one that overcomes isolationism and promotes interconnectedness and complexity – what Bookchin has termed Community of Communities. Castoriadis also underlines the importance of reinforced agreements – constitutional ones – in a direct-democratic federation. After being agreed upon, he suggests, their revision will be subjected to more procedures – such as more restrictive conditions, qualified majorities, longer periods of reflection – before being able to alter then, so as for the integrity of individual liberties, rights, and rules, to be guaranteed. (Democracy and relativism p49) In the end however, both thinkers agree that you can do so much in this direction, there is no magic solution that will guarantee that no mistakes will be made – horrible acts have been committed by both monarchic and representative regimes. As Castoriadis suggests, Nothing or no one can protect humanity from its own folly. (The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy” [1983; CR, pp. 282])

For Bookchin, the federative principle, in its libertarian dimension, exists in growing tension with the nation-state that can be implemented in practice by grassroots organizational struggle and not by the summits of the state. Because of this he speaks of dual power – the instauration of networks between democratized municipalities delegitimizes the existing authority of statecraft. Such confederal links will not emerge overnight, Bookchin suggests, instead they can potentially follow after sporadic attempts of dispersed communities to increase their people-power. It is only when there already are such groupings that try to reclaim the control over their destiny, that they may come to the realisation that some type of federative union is needed to overturn the current institutions of domination. It also implies that there are active social attempts at challenging the prejudices, habits, and sensibilities which nationalism and capitalism promote: in other words striving to replace feelings like parochialism with a generous sense of cooperation and a caring sense of interdependence.

The Federalist Principle in Practice and the Case of AANES

Castoriadis sought examples for the implementation of the federalist principle in historic revolutionary experiences. One such was the French Revolution, in which the philosopher characteristically says that we see a fantastic labor of explicit self-institution by society[27]. Within the processes that constituted this important historic experience French society reinstituted itself on the basis of the local communities, among which a federation was established. According to Castoriadis, this federative element (that allowed for genuine self-governance to be practiced), constituted the fecund period of the French Revolution and symbolized the irruption of self-instituting.[28] Unfortunately however, at certain point, due to various factors and not because of some inevitability, the grassroots withdraw from the public space and allowed for elites to establish once again heteronomous regime.

Let us now turn our attention to one contemporary example of a society where a dairect-democratic confederation, reminiscent of Castoriadis’ vision of a stateless federation, has been implemented in practice – the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, more widely known as Rojava. There, after a radical shift in the political orientation of the Kurdish Freedom movement, a new system has been implemented, based on self-managed municipalities that coordinate with each other via federal processes that result in what has been termed Democratic Confederalism. Let us examine some of the similarities between this model and what Castoriadis has advocated for.

The AANES system has at its grassroots level the Commune, which is the decision-making body of a living quarter (up to 350 families[29]) of a city or a village. Each such body establishes six committees – educational, feminist, social, economic, peace, and self-defence – that work on certain issues and present them to the communal plenary sessions. The Commune, although located at the very base of society, can be considered as the highest decision-making body, since, as A.A, the chief administrator of the Movement for a Democratic Society, says: “The value of the commune’s signature is more than the ministry’s signature, as the minister cannot do anything if the commune does not approve it.”

This grassroots decision-making body strongly resembles the self-governed units envisioned by Castoriadis. In both cases the highest authority lays at the base of society, where everyone can have access to it.

Several communes in a certain region gather in another place called “People’s House”.  Decisions that concern the territory in question are made at this level. People’s Houses are also responsible for supervising the communes. In the canton Qamislo, part of the AANES, there are 97 communes who meet at 7 People’s Houses (Approximately 1 PH per 13 communes)[30].

At the communes there are also elections being held for selecting delegates to serve at each city’s council. These are bodies that deal with city wide-issues. And from that level people are send to participate at canton-level institutions – the Legislative Assembly and Public Council. Each AANES canton consists of several cities: for example, there are 12 cities in the Jazira canton[31]. The approved laws in the cantons are filtered back in the communes, which means that the lowest levels are taking part in the macro level of decision-making, making it a bottom-up process. There is also a federal assembly for coordinating the cantons, which reminds of what Castoriadis calls central power.

Similar to the federative system advocated by Castoriadis, there are indications that delegates that take part in the different regional levels are revocable by their electorate[32]. In this way, a grassroots control is exercised.

Unfortunately, such examples today are a very rare thing. Except of AANES and the autonomous caracoles (municipalities) of the Zapatistas[33], there are hardly any other implementations of direct democracy at social-wide scale. One of the reasons, according to Castoriadis, is because of the tremendous persistence of the imaginary of the Nation-State, which makes it seem that the peoples already constituted in States are in no way inclined to abandon “national sovereignty,” while the other ones are especially preoccupied with the idea of achieving an “independent” state form, whatever its cost and whatever its content.[34] As long as this is the dominant imaginary condition of our societies, it will be difficult (but not impossible) to imagine a different type of social order – one based on federations of self-governed local units – that could lay the foundations of a truly democratic future.

Footnotes: 

[1] Cornelius Castoriadis: Figures of the Thinkable (unauthorized translation, 2005), p352 (Available online at http://www.notbored.org/FTPK.pdf).

[2] Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), p5 (Available online at http://www.notbored.org/ASA.pdf).

[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract (Jonathan Bennett, 2017), p34 (Available online at https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/rousseau1762.pdf).

[4] Cornelius Castoriadis: Postscript on Insignificancy (unauthorized translation, 2017), p105 (Available online at http://www.notbored.org/PSRTI.pdf).

[5]  David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p311.

[6] Cornelius Castoriadis: Postscript on Insignificancy (unauthorized translation, 2017), p105.

[7] David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p58.

[8] David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p89.

[9] http://www.athene.antenna.nl/ARCHIEF/NR01-Athene/02-Probl.-e.html

[10] David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p95.

[11] David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p95.

[12] Cornelius Castoriadis: Postscript on Insignificancy (unauthorized translation, 2017), p152.

[13] Cornelius Castoriadis: Democracy and Relativism (unauthorized translation, 2013), p42 (Available online at http://www.notbored.org/DR.pdf).

[14] Cornelius Castoriadis: Democracy and Relativism (unauthorized translation, 2013), p43.

[15] Cornelius Castoriadis: Postscript on Insignificancy (unauthorized translation, 2017), p152.

[16] Cornelius Castoriadis: Postscript on Insignificancy (unauthorized translation, 2017), p152.

[17] Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), p134.

[18] Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), p134.

[19] Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), pp146-147.

[20] Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), pp146-147.

[21] David Graeber: Utopia of Rules (New York: Melville House, 2015), p31.

[22] Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), pp146-147.

[23] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/pierre-joseph-proudhon-the-principle-of-federation

[24] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-libertarian-municipalism-an-overview#toc3

[25] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-libertarian-municipalism-an-overview#toc3

[26] David Ames Curtis (ed.): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p251.

[27] Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), p191.

[28] Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), p191.

[29] https://mesopotamia.coop/introduction-to-the-political-and-social-structures-of-democratic-autonomy-in-rojava/

[30] https://mesopotamia.coop/introduction-to-the-political-and-social-structures-of-democratic-autonomy-in-rojava/

[31] https://mesopotamia.coop/introduction-to-the-political-and-social-structures-of-democratic-autonomy-in-rojava/

[32] https://uclpimedia.com/online/what-can-we-learn-from-rojava

[33] The communities that constitute the movement of the Zapatistas have built a de facto autonomous system of self-governance in the Mexican state of Chiapas (For more information visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zapatista_Army_of_National_Liberation)

[34] Cornelius Castoriadis: Postscript on Insignificancy (unauthorized translation, 2017), p152.


Presentation of the above text was delivered by Yavor Tarinski within the framework of the International Conference: “Cornelius Castoriadis: 1922-2022. One hundred years since the birth of the philosopher of autonomy“, that took place in March 11-13, 2022, at Department of Political Sciences, AUTh, Thessaloniki.

Below is the recording of the same presentation:

 

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