Autonomy: The Legacy of Ideal

Written by Nikos Vrantsis. What follows is a review of Yavor Tarinski’s book Short Introduction of the Political Legacy of Castoriadis (Athens: Aftoleksi, 2020).

Cornelius Castoriadis is considered one of the crucial voices of the twentieth century. However, the academic community surrounds his work, with the kind of respect reserved for thinkers considered obsolete: displayed in half lighten showcases in the back rooms of thought museums. However, Castoriadis’ forward looking critical thinking is more relevant than ever.

With an insatiable spiritual appetite and an enormous ambition, Castoriadis constantly cast his gaze on new unexplored domains (ranging from psychoanalysis to ancient history), to inform and update his system of thought. At the core of his work lies his defence of the constructive capacity of human beings — their power to collectively imagine and autonomously create the institutions that govern them. He grasped the dramatic consequences (ontological, social, ecological) of the current state of affairs that turn these human creative capacities blunt; a system progressing successively, recklessly and dogmatically, from one catastrophe to the next.

In the middle of one such catastrophe, that can be seen as a systemic entropy — the pandemic of Covid-19 — a small volume was published, in the form of an e-book, dedicated to some fundamental concepts of Castoriadis’ corpus. Yavor Tarinski, the author of this e-volume, a political activist and an  ardent and adept scholar of Castoriadis, presents in a systematised manner several of his essays dedicated to Castoriadis— texts that were written by Tarinski during the last couple of years.  With this compilation of essays he does not try to exhaust the vast corpus of Castoriadis’ universe. His gesture is rather political, carefully selecting ideas that can inform our immediate, urgent condition.

Οne of these ideas revolves around the political role of science. The pandemic regenerated a discussion around the institutions more appropriate to manage the crisis. In a schematic way, we, the people are offered a binary option: one the one hand lies a supposedly neutral, scientific apparatus that promises an evidence based management of the world, which is contrasted to a discredited voluntarism of populism, in the form of clueless representatives that reject science. Tarinski dedicates part of his book, utilising Castoriadis’ insights to showcase the arbitrariness of this scheme, reminding us that science is never neutral and never stands in vacuum, since it is not about setting regulations or limits before its goals but discovering ways of achieving them. If scientific resources are mobilized to discover ways to destroy the planet, they will ultimately do so, not because they are evilor bad hearted, but because this is what they are supposed to do(Tarinski, 43).

 Reading this insightful reminder, one recalls the anecdotological autographic references of Haim Hanani, a professor of the Technion Institute of Technology, who proposed to include humanities in the school syllabus to meet the refusal of the rest of the professors. Hanani made his point another way. He asked a student group: what technical information do you need to plan a pipeline to transport blood  from Ashdod to Eilat — two cities located some 250 kilometers apart. The students utilised cutting edge methods to measure the topography along the route, check the pipe layout, and test corrosion resistance. When these bright young scientists submitted their results Hanani announced that they all failed: “I did not ask to test your ability to plan a blood pipeline, but to examine your moral sensitivity. None of you asked whose blood will flow though the pipes, or who wants to build it in the first place.”

Not much progress has been made since. The so called “hard science” is not necessarily concerned with the moral use of its finding. As Tarinski (36) clarifies “environmental sustainability could be enforced, for example, by a totalitarian regime (like eco-fascism) to the expense of democratic and human rights. This is why, he suggests, scientific excellence should be included in a political horizon that is morally accountable and controllable. Citizens are constantly excluded from determining how acquired knowledge is used to serve what goals.

It is easy to sense the author’s distrust towards uncontrollable government institutions — regardless what party is ruling — whose sole concern revolves around growth. State policy can no longer set a horizon that exceeds annual balanced and surplus budgets of an ever-growing national economy, regardless of the side effects of this unchallenged growth goal.

This distrust is neither unjustified nor difficult to explain. A few days after the publication of this e-book — during the nationwide lockdown measures taken to counter the spread of a pandemic that was caused because of this fraudulent global obsession with Growth — the right wing, greek government passed a legislation to speed up oil extraction — a motion that was formerly initiated by the previous, left government — rendering landscapes that are protected by Natura protocols, available to corporations of the extractive economy.

In Tarinski’s texts, political ecology and degrowth are presented as incompatible with the current representative political regime: “There is a need for general descaling, with authority as the main target for de-escalation, decentralizing it down to very grassroots, where people rethink their relationship with nature and with themselves. “

 This is where two trajectories meet: where Castoriadis meets Boockhin — a connection presented in the last chapter of this digital volume. Castoriadis and Boockhin critically point to the devastating social, political and environmental consequences of the hegemonic ontology founded on extreme atomization and competitiveness. In their parallel intellectual trajectories  — which intersected at times — they challenged the epistemological foundations of this apparatus. Castoriadis challenged growth as the sole, hegemonic goal that monopolises our collective and individual imagination. Boockhin challenges the epistemological hegemonism of Darwinism that informs and justifies the symbolic and literal survival of the fittest.

For Bookchin, Darwinism is not the moral tale nature provided to humanity, but rather a projection of our societies onto nature; it is the narrative that we chose to listen to, silencing all other narratives: We must emphasize here that the idea of dominating nature has its primary source in the domination of human by human and in the structuring of the natural world into a hierarchical chain of being (Bookchin,2006:38).

 To counter social darwinism’s focus on the individual struggle of species to fit into a competitive environment, he focuses on the ideals of collaboration and diversity necessary to sustain an ecosystem as a whole. His narrative of Social Ecology counters competition as foundational and natural, touching to the concept of  autonomy used by Castoriadis to highlight the need to decentralise authority and scale it down to the very grassroots, where people themselves are able to rethink the relationship with nature and with themselves (Tarinski, 34).

This is where the concept of self-limitation and its importance for democracy and ecology comes in. Castoriadis, as Tarkinski (23) notes, defines democracy as the regime of self-limitation. The third chapter of the volume — which is justifiable the lengthiest one —  explores this notion of self-limitation, a concept relevant to another discussion that erupted during the pandemic; a discussion around social responsibility and individual attitude towards — sometimes absurd — statist orders.

 During the lockdown measures, we became witnesses of a resurgent discourse around, an implied “inherent irresponsibility” of autonomous schemes and anarchists. One the one hand, self portrayed “responsible” statist actors were juxtaposing themselves to the “irresponsibility” of particular collectives. One the other hand, thoughtless “autonomous” schemes that interpreted the outbreak as a predetermined plan to achieve statist repression (see discussion revolving around the controversial articles of Agamben). As Tarinski notes: Direct democracy has come to be conceived by many, including several critics, as a regime that disconnects society from laws and regulations, resulting in its depolitization and degradation.”

The author activates this crucial concept developed by Castoriadis —whose thought, of course, precedes and transcends the pandemic — to suggest the virtues of self-management and autonomy. In short, his argument seems to imply, and rightly so, that under these emergent condition, self-limitation is the right decision, but one that does not result from government directives, but from a collective awareness and reflection of individuals and their communities; a decision that might very well have been taken regardless of state orders. Self-limitation stems not from compliance with State orders, but from a collectively decided autonomous stance stemming from a sense of  responsibility towards the community.

The author’s main polemic leaves non untouched. It is directed towards a hegemonic fantasy that has assimilated everything, even alternativeness. From the very first text, which consists of excerpts from an interview of Tarinski on Bulgaria’s National Radio, we see this bold critical stance: One can suggest that most of the classic ideologies that we know, such as Capitalism, Communism and even Anarchism (at least to a certain degree), participate in the current imaginary in the sense that they tend to limit social struggles to fights over the right to consume more-than-before” (Tarinski, 13-14).

 Here lies the moral bet of autonomy. Under a current atmosphere of social disruption, political disenfranchisement and ecological decay, autonomy attempts to respond with a collective creation of an actual existing condition that will re-politicize individuals, currently indifferent and voiceless, engaging them in small-scale, powerful and flexible communities, where they will be able to create their own institutions, their own imaginary that goes beyond a will to consume and accumulate.

Tarinski refers to some hopeful social movements that surfaced in this  tragic decade. The Occupy, Indignados, the Yellow Vests. But a question here that remains unanswered is whether these movements — justified reactions against arbitrary government decisions and austerity policies — can overcome this reactionary state and form a durable and viable alternative. There are such paradigms: cooperative movements, alternative food production schemes, CLTs etc. However, despite suspicion towards representative institutions, alliances should be explored and forged with actors across the political spectrum, willing to give space to autonomy.

Τhe legacy of Cornelius Castoriadis, sensitively brought to us in the pages of the book released by Yavor Tarinski, is valuable, offering a compass and an orientation to reach a horizon beyond the fraudulent promise of growth and the betrayed satisfaction of catastrophic over-consumption.

References

  • Bookchin, Murray. Social Ecology and Communalism. (London: AK Press, 2006).
  • Castoriadis Cornelius. The Imaginary Institution of Society (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998).
  • Yavor Tarinski. Short introduction to the Political Legacy of Castoriadis (Athens: Aftoleksi, 2020).

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