A “long and patient work of preparation” in an age of catastrophe: Remarks on Castoriadis’ political legacy

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Below is the speech of Harald Wolf* at the event organized by Aftoleksi in commemoration of the 100 years from the birth of Cornelius Castoriadis.

Good evening, and greetings from Göttingen to Athens, to you all! I am very pleased to be able to contribute something to your event – Yavor Tarinski kindly invited me to do so. Unfortunately, only as a phantom on the screen, but that’s more than nothing.

My name is Harald Wolf, and the title of my following contribution which I am reading now to you is “A ‘long and patient work of preparation’ in an age of catastrophe. Some short remarks on Castoriadis’ political legacy“.

But first a few words about myself. I have been working professionally as a sociologist and researcher in work sociology for almost 40 years now. Together with Michael Halfbrodt I have edited 9 volumes of Selected Writings by Castoriadis in German, and for a few years I am publishing now the journal Im Labyrinth, with further Castoriadis translations and other texts in the horizon of the project of autonomy.

In general, I think that Castoriadis’ political legacy does not consist in some definitive answers to political or theoretical questions that one has to either accept and proclaim (or to reject); but that he left us – as David Curtis put it in the preface to Castoriadis’ Political and Social Writings – “open reflections on prospects for social change“, reflections and their formulations, which can serve as inspirational themes for our own theoretical and practical improvisations. My contribution will consist of a few short improvisations on what at first glance might seem a rather inconspicuous theme in Castoriadis.

But I want to start with a feeling of increasing unrest, which you may share. Our concern is growing – because the rate of social catastrophe we are confronted with, to which we are exposed, is accelerating. Not just one danger, but a whole pile-up of several enormous dangers, all of which in principle call for immediate, very radical intervention more and more urgently – to pull the emergency brake (to borrow a metaphor from Walter Benjamin)… In the face of the multiple catastrophes that are occurring ever more quickly one after the other – let’s just mention the ecological destruction, human-made plagues, the thorough technization of everyday life, at work and at home, the expansion of neo-imperialist wars, the rise of neo-totalitarian regimes – impatience is growing at finally being able to pull many many emergency brakes.

I think, Castoriadis had basically seen the situation that way since the early 1960s. At the same time (this is basically just the other side of this accelerating tendency towards catastrophe) he saw the decline, the lethargy of the autonomy project – and the need for a fundamental reinvention of revolutionary, emancipatory politics. A key text here is Recommencing the Revolution from 1963: “Traditional politics is dead” and “Everything must be remade…”, the text reads. But in this text I also found a formulation for the first time that later appears again and again in variants; the sentence goes on: “Everything must be remade at the cost of a long and patient labor…” – And later in the text it says that “only through long and patient work“… the recommencing of the revolution can be reached. Almost 30 years later, in 1991 in the interview entitled The Crisis of the West Castoriadis said again: “There are moments in history in which all that is feasible in the immediate term is a long and slow work of preparation.”

But a long and patient work of preparation of what and where? I think that this means above all the work on and in a totally remade revolutionary movement; a movement, which ceases to be like a traditional political organization, like a party, for instance, that means: »an organization of specialists. Of specialists of revolutionary theory who have grasped the essence of society and history and show people the right way. And at the same time of specialists of revolutionary politics, who point the way to the seizure of power at the right moment. This traditional politics is dead, must be replaced by a new kind of politics that really aims at individual and collective autonomy – by making it, by instituting it – and by a corresponding movement.

How does this work, what is to be done for this? This movement, so it goes elsewhere in the text, “ought to become the place […] where a growing number of individuals relearn how to live a truly collective life, manage their own affairs, and realize and develop themselves while working in mutual recognition for a common objective [or project].”

How does this work, what is to be done for this? This movement, so it goes elsewhere in the text, “ought to become the place […] where a growing number of individuals relearn how to live a truly collective life, manage their own affairs, and realize and develop themselves while working in mutual recognition for a common objective [or project].” How do you reconcile this – this necessary “long and patient work” – with the feeling of increasing anxiety and impatience in the face of the huge problems mentioned at the beginning? I honestly do not know. This tension, which is in fact enormous, is probably not solvable. But the temptation is great – just as your invitation states “at a time when the unmediated preoccupation with politics and the passion of a radically liberatory perspective is receding” to cling to ideological dogmas, ready-made plans and authorities; to the “theory“, the “science” that proves that in the long run the victory is inevitable or something alike… Or to reflex reactions and big statements to every current catastrophic event, without any practical consequence. In other words: to fall back into traditional forms of politics. Avoiding this fall-back does not mean remaining inactive, on the contrary. It means, in the sense indicated above, to continue working patiently on the creation of spaces, of institutions for becoming autonomous. And as long as pulling the emergency brake is not in our power, does not depend on us, it remains pointless to speculate about it. Especially since the central question would always remain: what then? That means: which institution instead of the institution that produces catastrophes?!

For reasons of time, I can only try to put this in slightly more concrete terms very briefly using the example of digitization, an example that is obvious for a sociologist of work. In the context of the corona pandemic, digitization in its various forms – as surveillance, consumption, work and automation technology – has received, as you all know, another huge boost. Since a long time now, it is increasingly colonizing everyday life, people’s work and living environments. However, just as an autonomous assembly line (or an autonomous nuclear power plant) is an absurd thing (a contradiction in terms), so autonomous digitization is – in my opinion – a meaningless idea. Communicating, learning, discussing, coming together and helping each other to become autonomous: no human being can do all this things digitally, with computers or with the actually existing Internet. On the contrary: Informatization, digitization are bureaucratic-capitalist, heteronomous institutions whose “sense” and signification consists in preventing real learning and lively and lasting communication among equals, and which is in practice a permanent unlearning of how to discuss rationally, a permanent training in remaining heteronomous. You have to state that clearly and unequivocally and draw the conclusions – namely to get on with the long and patient mutual work of preparing (or rediscovering and passing on) meaningful forms of an offline agora; which includes, of course, a certain material culture that revolves not least around books, reading, writing and joint discussion and decision-making “in presence“. An offline agora as a space or a place (to repeat the formulation) “where a growing number of individuals relearn how to live a truly collective life, manage their own affairs, and realize and develop themselves while working in mutual recognition for a common project” – the project of autonomy.

Because, to end with another Castoriadis-quote: “[i]t is not what is, but what could be and should be, that has need of us.” Thank you for your patience, thanks again for the invitation and for the subtitles to Yavor. Hopefully, this was a bit food for your hopefully lively, controversial and prolific offline debate. Αντίο σας!


* Harald Wolf is among the main promoters of Castoriadis’ thought in Germany. He is co-editor of Castoriadis’ Ausgewählte Schriften [‘Selected Writings’] (9 volumes). He is also editor of the book Das Imaginäre im Sozialen: Zur Sozialtheorie von Cornelius Castoriadis [‘The Imaginary in the Social: On the Social Theory of Cornelius Castoriadis’]. Since 2018 he edits the German political journal Im Labyrinth: Hefte für Autonomie [‘In the Labyrinth: Notes on Autonomy’]. He also participates in Agora International as responsible for Castoriadis’ German-language bibliography.

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