Matthew Quest: Cornelius Castoriadis & the Future of Autonomy


Matthew Quest, a scholar and activist who specializes in Africana Studies, political philosophy, and the legacy of CLR James, reviews the book Castoriadis and Autonomy in the Twenty-First Century (Bloomsbury, 2022), written by Chris Spannos and Aftoleksi co-editors Alexandros Schismenos and Nikos Ioannou.

This study in political philosophy by three Greek scholars on Cornelius Castoriadis’s thought and how this can be a touchstone for the search for autonomy in the twenty-first century, is very stimulating. It is divided between critical reflections: the West and Eurocentric visions of Modern Greece; inquiry into the concept of time and its meaning for politics; the crisis and insignificance of contemporary politics; and future projections marked by direct democracy and limited economy. The book offers a brief biography of Castoriadis, the Greek philosopher who made his mark on French radical politics. Castoriadis was a mediator between the old world, societies are in decay, and a new beginning, unfolding forms of freedom and popular self-government we should reflect.

Who Was Cornelius Castoriadis?

Castoriadis is an important measure for weighing political projections for the future. As leader of the Socialisme au Barbarie circle in France he developed original ideas about the content of the future socialist society against what he termed bureaucratic capitalism in the 1940s and 1950s. His ideas inspired the French Revolution of 1968. Similar to figures like Murray Bookchin and CLR James, he was a product of social movement experiences where “radicals” failed to sustain their independence from the one-party state and welfare state.

These intellectual legacies, if unheralded, saw that even most dissident Marxists and independent socialists did not take seriously direct democracy, workers self-management and the autonomy of women, people of color, and colonized people. Castoriadis evolved to leave behind the authority of Marx and Lenin to pursue what he termed the project of autonomy. While anarchists and left libertarians have an affinity for Castoriadis, he argued all social organization will have authority. The question is how it is delegated and controlled by the direct self-government of ordinary people.

The authors highlight three neglected aspects of Castoriadis’s life that many tend to ignore when considering his philosophical texts. He was born in Turkey and his life was shaped by the aftermath of the Greece-Turkey war where there was forced exchange of involuntary migrants. As a teenager he was a caregiver to his dying mother, who plunged into illness and madness. Castoriadis also fled to Paris, France, in the midst of the Greek Civil War in the 1940s between communists and Western-backed nationalists. In a Greek environment where many left dissidents were assassinated by both sides in the midst of insurgent events, before leaving abroad he had to hide in a cellar for four months.

Do We Exist in a World of Pre-Politics?

The volume also discusses concisely Castoriadis’s approach to psychology. The psyche is formed by a dominant socialization through language that cannot be attributed to the individual but which makes humans functional or adjusted to society’s institutions. However, through the radical imagination, and through education by encountering others, our consciousness can be a bridge between the dominant society and an instinct toward autonomy. Castoriadis believes however, that humans will not fulfill this autonomy without a socialization that supports it — the forms of direct democracy would support human self-realization and self-management. This is worth underlining. For in this manner, Castoriadis suggests a stage of pre-politics, a condition where humans presently cannot sustain their own liberation and self-government.

The authors note that while direct democracy can correct this, heteronomy is often justified as a means by which societies protect themselves from other societies, from the future, and their own citizens. However, this strikes me as reminders that direct democracy need to take seriously judicial affairs, foreign relations, the policing of crime, and the risk of ecological disaster. For Castoriadis, revolution was not the seizure of state power above society, the overthrow of a handful, but radical transformation of society through first workplace councils, and later he placed a greater emphasis on popular assemblies of citizens.

Future struggles against fascism and authoritarianism may find a plurality of sides will degrade. The authors argue that we are living through a decisive moment: the end of history as we know it. This end is not the one declared as capitalism’s victory at the end of the Cold War of the twentieth century, but pending ecological disaster, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, consolidation of the far-right, the threat of crypto fascist and authoritarian regimes.

The ascendancy of tyrannical regimes is found consistently or intermittently in contemporary India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Brazil, Hungary, Kenya, Greece, Britain, the U.S., and France. There is also the social alienation of the internet age, where there are artificial friendships and anonymous crowds swarming perceived enemies as most often the values of the dominant order are sustained.

What Do We Say to the “Socialist-Curious”?

If there are new existential dangers and shadows over a collective future, we also may be witnessing new social breakthroughs. The authors perhaps overstate the proliferation of a new generation of “socialist-curious” people and movements to decolonize the university, particularly in the United States and South Africa. This is surprising exactly because the authors are aware of the problems of Popular Front Stalinism and social democracy through modern Greek history and how the orthodox left has derided and attacked left libertarians and dissident currents of left communism. A movement for meaningful autonomy must break not simply with aristocratic conservatives but the elitism of progressives and socialists. But as they record movement trends, the authors also see their limitations insightfully.

Progressive and social democratic visions stop far short of direct democracy and only on occasion speak of workers self-management in subordinate terms to the state. Their impulse to cooperatives is a land trust where self-management is not taught or encouraged among the actual people who toil. They are alert that the Green New Deal framework is not a rupture with wage labor/capital relations and accumulation dreams. Alert, unlike few other thinkers, that the critique of neo-liberalism is most often pro-capitalist; the authors understand that a return to considering socialist futures means coming to terms with the failure of the Marxist imaginary epistemically and economically. Marxism is a force of heteronomy; it is inconsistently a voice of workers self-emancipation, and most often a bourgeois sociological diagnostic of how capital is organized, as advice is offered for other forms of accumulation and subordination of toilers.

If the empire of capital and the state are still facilitating “heartbreaking” oppressions, the question posed through Castoriadis is can we break out of a decades-long “retreat into conformism,” and encourage social, political and ideological contestation again? Obviously, racism, patriarchy, and imperialism divide and denigrate humans. Yet, the production of a plurality of social identities in response to victimization and disparities of power, reveals only a scramble for survival under claims of propertied citizenship and civil rights. There is a dearth of searching for new forms of freedom and popular self-directed politics and government. This dilemma gets to the heart of what is required: clarification of autonomy.

Many identitarian movements, progressive or conservative, claim autonomy, as they claim independence, and self-determination. But rarely is autonomy clarified as self-organization in contrast to sponsorship by the state, elite representative government, party politics, ethnic and patronage politics, and the diversification of management of subordinate lives. This is crucial where we see a proliferation of activists for, and sponsored by, hierarchical government. This cannot be misunderstood as insurgency but is an effort to contain it.

Do We Desire Autonomy or Heteronomy?

Following Castoriadis, the authors pose a question. Do we desire autonomy or heteronomy? That is do we wish to directly govern ourselves or do we wish to be directed by a plurality of institutions and cultural forces under the state and capitalist society?

Heteronomy, the authors suggest, throws off human capacity for a social imaginary. By regimenting time, the terms we labor, the terms of what is productive, what it means to grow, learn, work, and obey, the decay of social reproduction and ecological destruction is rationalized. Basically, we are told there is no community just isolated families and alienated individuals. We are not just alienated but directed by a variety of social forces to believe this.

International readers, from whatever location they may be reading, whether in imperial centers or peripheries, must respect the authors effort to clarify the location from which they speak. This is not important as a result that we must respect their or Castoriadis’s Greek identities or origins. Identity and origins don’t guarantee ethical viewpoints. There are no progressive peoples.

Rather, the authors are aware that Greece, ancient and modern, has been invented as the cultural foundation of the imperial West and Europe. The authors, as Castoriadis in his own way, also wish to claim the direct democratic heritage associated with Ancient Greece as valuable for meditation, as they have been activists fighting for direct democracy in the Greece of the new millennium.

The authors interrogate an ancient Greece that bequeathed reason and aesthetics to justify contemporary nation-states and republics, while abstracting and falsifying the democratic principles and practices that were actually present for significant moments in its history. Also, by incorporating Greece into the Western imaginary it has undermined Greece viewing itself as a plural society.

Greece: Ancient, Modern, and Plural

Still, if a multi-cultural identity should evolve for Greece that included people descended from Turkey, Iran, Bulgaria, Albania, India, the Philippines, and Africa as equals, what is to stop the degeneration of society that renews an aspiring imperial exceptionalism like the United States? That struggle, a local phase of a world problem, will require along with a direct democratic vision a targeted attack on ethnic patronage politics and diversity in managing subordinate lives. It also requires a left libertarian rethinking of cultural nationalisms.

A word about the contemporary meaning of the classical Athenian city-state is in order. Many sneer or hiss at Athenian expressions of direct democracy whether in economic planning, judicial affairs, foreign relations, etc. as a result that Athens and Greece more broadly also was marked by slavery, subordination of women and immigrants, and imperial tendencies.

What is required for a new perspective on the Athenian direct democracy, as a thought experiment, is that oligarchy (rule of the wealthy) and tyranny often existed side by side with its emerging liberating struggles. Specters of imperialist war, wars for national liberation, and civil war shadows ancient and modern societies. And so, the ancient heritage for the modern world is not to dress up racism and imperialism with the great works of artists, philosophers, and scientists. Rather, it is to recognize that struggles for new forms of freedom and popular self-government are imagined historically when society is on the brink of catastrophe. This is how to understand experiments in direct democracy, not as a beautiful totality, but as a process struggling to be born under adversity and within human limitations.

The Brink of Catastrophe and Self-Limitation

The authors ask us to consider self-limitation along with popular self-management. That the economics of the future will not be marked by production for production’s sake, pursuit of a plurality of goods, and endeavors in pursuit of profit because technologically we can do so. Instead, our political economies must focus on necessities for social and economic reproduction, and containment of the global climate crisis. This means economic production must be disciplined not to profits, growth, or accumulation but must place as central human survival, creative imagination, and social transformation.

This volume asks us to consider that direct democracy is a plausible, not simply a beautifully ordered, regime. Human community can gain the benefits of cooperation despite human limitations and imperfections without relying on a master. For Castoriadis, Ancient Athens is a germ or a seed for critical thinking just as the Russian soviets, the Paris Commune, popular committees in the Spanish Civil War, or the workers councils of the Hungarian Revolution.

There can be no eternal model, prototype or culture that gives rules or laws that will not be superseded in practice. Direct democracy is not based on ideal people. One can even argue that its decentralization and forms of non-hierarchy are well-positioned to contain and undermine the threat of tyranny and other human limitations.

Our Own Law-Givers: Direct Democracy as Self-Institution

Castoriadis argues gaps between laws, rules, and reality, are not accidental in a direct democracy but essential. This is a result that no regulations should be able to contain the perpetual alteration of society. In fact, it is heteronomy, the idea that we can be directed in politics and government from outside ourselves that kills initiative by, and sovereignty of commoners. Dynamic tensions exist between oppressive institutions wishing to sustain themselves and everyday people creating and directing their own institutions, as they imagine and design their own society. Castoriadis explains the way we avoid elitist law-givers is the sustaining of confidence that we can create our own laws and can change them. On this basis there is a collective knowledge of what he terms self-institution.

Castoriadis believes the project of autonomy is not individual freedom through capitalist society, where there is an illusion that one can do what one likes, and how one likes, so long as one can consume it and pay for it. Rather, it is when one gives laws and organization to oneself, in the philosophical sense, a collective practice of direct and popular self-government can be pursued based on self-limitation. It is another way to say direct democracy is an awesome responsibility. Interrogating, critically reflecting, and deliberating, we must purposefully decide what needs to be done. Whether progressive or conservative, there is no state, ruling class, elite representative government or political party in the world that wants everyday people to sustain lives in this fashion. They may wish you to reflect on and cheer on what hierarchical leaders and planners. However, rupture with such personalities is what is required.

Many who reflect on philosophy allow human limitations to condemn aspirational political projections as utopian that can only produce tragedy. Castoriadis clarifies that “tragedy” is not fate. Rather, it is the absence of self-governing order or order through catastrophe. Tragedy, as acted out in classical theatre or in response to contemporary crisis, clarifies that justice of the gods and justice of the laws of the land do not suffice. Therefore, it is posed to the audience (who we wish to be active not passive), what do they want, what do they believe, but most importantly what will they do? Will they take the reins of government and society and what forms must these take?

Modern liberal societies, in contrast to fascist ones, are also hostile to direct democracy. Representative and participatory democracy for its rulers are forms of public relations that reinscribe subservience. Their socialization engineers the “truths” they wish us to believe and follow. They do not provide information or organize perspectives and proposals for popular and direct self-government.

Leaving Critiques of Neo-Liberalism Behind; Organizing Popular and Direct Self-Government

A strength of this volume is it at times recognizes the critique of neoliberalism, or the very idea of neoliberalism itself, is an obstacle to critical thinking. While at other junctures, it normatively accepts the epoch we are living through is fruitfully termed neoliberalism. The analysis of the heteronomy of neoliberalism really should be termed more consistently how capitalism reproduces itself. The critique of neoliberalism by many often obscures they object to one form of capitalism, not capital accumulation itself.

While these authors perceptively show that the recent financial crisis, the imposed structural reforms on Greece, tended to be justified by suggestions that Greeks needed to culturally overcome laziness, and its Ottoman and Oriental past, and contemporary Islamic influences, this shows the culturally plural identity of Greece that has been suppressed up to now.

We have to remember that the great failure of the Syriza experiment (it defeated itself, left libertarians did not defeat it) was how it framed neoliberalism. Syriza sold out the country because it could not think beyond capitalism but saw the world as divided between blocs of national capital. Toilers were mobilized by Syriza, but disciplined, to defend Greece as a hierarchy of social classes.

One of the most challenging aspects of this book is the discourse on Castoriadis’s views on the socio-historical dimension of time. It seems valuable to understand if we are to overcome heteronomy. How do we experience time? An image or sense of eternity? Is time objectified or made a space that is permanent, inevitable, and stable? What might have been, and what has been, points to one end, that is always present.

Concepts of Time, Faith, and Politics

Another way to speak about this is the circle of life, people are busy being born, living, and dying, and this appears to be inevitable and eternal. The rituals of life, especially faith, tend to reinforce this idea. Castoriadis and the authors explain this sense of eternity is overseen by Gods that make judgments and shape our lives. Gods’ “presence” intervenes from above. If time will not be experienced randomly, then it must be shaped by a transcendental will.

Castoriadis and these authors believes faith in God conceals our existential problems. For if the enigma of time is not the question of immortality, where our souls go marching on (if our bodies do not), then we must deal with the problem of death. The authors argue that the problem of death is intensely personal and social. If time is defined by birth and death, we only know when we are born and the prospects of dying by family or community around us.

Time is “the self-generation of absolute otherness.” This is a difficult concept. But I think Castoriadis suggests that where we misread time, we misread our capacities to and the necessity of governing ourselves. In other words, we create “sub-realities” like “chaos,” “the abyss,” or “Groundlessness.” What comes from the observer or observed is undecidable; many conclude we are powerless in the face of the unknown.

Left libertarians inspired by Castoriadis need to reconsider how historical social motion toward popular self-government appears, disappears and reappears (not simply because of state repression). We have not discovered all the answers why this appears so.

Popular Self-Government Appears, Disappears, and Reappears

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Our hope in the project of autonomous and popular self-government has not been proven by consistent measures. We strive to clarify it for these human impulses are not consistent and may never be.

When and how each human learns about various challenges to their self-government is intermittent and unpredictable. If we accept that direct democracy is a plausible government for humans with limitations; Are people of faith more limited than others? Why is not faith imagined as an asset? Does faith make human life more insignificant and give us less of a capacity to govern ourselves?

Castoriadis’s concept of time seems to suggest reliance on a transcendent metaphysical or supernatural power is an aspect of heteronomy, for we are not directing ourselves if deities control our destiny. What if the faithful see themselves as children of God and co-creators with God, where the church in contrast clearly sees a hierarchy of humans closer to the most-high, than the laity?

The authors seem to be concerned with the rise of religious right authoritarianism in contrast to what they appear to distinguish as post-enlightenment theology which at its best combines faith with inquiry about authority. Left libertarians need to do more critical thinking about people of faith as they will be the multitudes participating in direct democratic popular assemblies.

Nationalism: A Product of Forgetfulness and Historical Error

This volume in challenging nationalism, cites Ernest Renan who reminds that nations can only be created by forgetfulness and historical error. In other words, any appeals to a patriotism toward a hierarchy of social classes as having a common destiny has not properly recorded for political education and strategy what nationalists and aspiring rulers who appeal to nationalism have actually done to the toilers below them in their shared history as a country.

Socialization is impossible without a past. But functionality within hierarchical institutions is based on not historically understanding their nature and remembering what they have done to us. The authors don’t appear to address why direct democratic forms, in contrast to the lies of nationalism, should make humans feel more creative and adjusted. Workplace councils and popular assemblies can speak to the perennial search for roots, especially by historically conquered people, but they don’t speak to the affinity for languages, ethnicities, and the cultures shared by humans that share these.

Radical internationalists who are left libertarians must show the care of reflecting on and helping to develop popular histories that show specific peoples and their historical and necessary ruptures with states and ruling classes and how they culturally have expressed this.

Where the authors challenge the metaphysics of nationality, they seem to approach religion through their discourse of time as recognizing that it is both personal and social. There seems to be a subtle respect for a personal imaginary in the discourse of time and religion that is not evident in the discussion of nationalism. Why?

If we should be opposing old social significations of religion that point toward feudalism and monarchy, are there concepts of religion and time that do not do this? And what are the organizers of direct democratic institutions doing in order to better recognize and record these?

The authors challenge the nation-state as the representative of the unified will of the people. This is crucial but raises a question. Does the Castoriadis tradition of thought encourage cultivators of the popular will? And does it acknowledge any metaphysics in this?

Is Cultivating the Popular Will a Revival Campaign?

For example, is cultivating the popular will a type of revival campaign? Has the popular will to directly govern appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in comparative world history? It seems that it is partially an act of faith that the popular will can return to complete their freedom and direct self-government overcoming past mistakes. And yet if humanity will never be complete, with all its capacities fully integrated, but always marked by blind spots and limitations, and that this recommends direct democracy as a form of government, the challenge to an eternal concept of time at the very least seems incomplete.

If a concept of time requires proper decision making to avert the destruction of humanity and the planet, then the proper activity needs to be revealed (where it has not been clear to the multitudes previously) and certain insurgent acts, the smashing of certain institutions, may be necessary to pave the way toward a self-directed liberating society. We may not transcend millennial moments or battles that seem final; hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, pandemics, nuclear weapons, and just protracted war, can create these sensibilities. Without seeing this in terms of apocalyptic faith, this is what the authors appear to mean by a new sense of the pending “end of history.”

In dialogue among the grassroots, it does not matter where and how these instincts and elemental drives toward popular and direct self-government are revealed or the source that authorizes them. It only matters after gathering information what are the quality of the perspectives and proposals placed forward and how we will carry them out.

Castoriadis’s intellectual legacies are indeed rich but as a philosopher there is one legacy of Marxism it appears he did not consistently discard. Social revolution cannot be replaced or made synonymous with the preservation of a total epistemology, synonymous with the project of changing the world, that we must preserve and defend. His discourse on time needs to be interrogated further in that spirit. Though it is worth clarifying our philosophies and worldviews, Castoriadis is on sound footing where he suggests that the laws and rules we give ourselves, need not contain us from making adjustments to advance autonomy. This is true for ethnic and faith communities, and their initiative to create their own, and take part in culturally plural, direct democratic forms.

International Symposium: 100 years from the birth of Cornelius Castoriadis (Program)

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