Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Castoriadis and Thucydides on the Greek riots

Why is Greek youth – or some of it – wreaking havoc and mayhem in Athens and elsewhere in Greece at the moment? The answer is obvious. Why wouldn't it? It is, because it can. The Greek state is so weak, terrified, discredited and incompetent that it cannot confront, dares not confront, a few hundred stone-throwing youths, allowing them to live out their destructive fantasies and enjoy for a short while a primitive state of freedom.

According to Thucydides, without externally imposed constraints, man is prone to barbarism. Here's how he describes the Plague of Athens during the Peloponnesian War:

'Nor was this the only form of lawless extravagance which owed its origin to the plague. Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property. So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honorable and useful.

'Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offences, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.

'Such was the nature of the calamity, and heavily did it weigh on the Athenians; death raging within the city and devastation without.'

Castoriadis agrees that man needs external constraints for civilised society to take place, and he chides Marxist and libertarian psychoanalysts for suggesting ‘that we only have to let desires and drives express themselves for universal happiness to follow. The result in such a case would rather be universal murder.’

The Greek riots are also a crisis of the country's education system, of Greek pedagogy.

Here's Castoriadis again:

'Pedagogy starts at age zero and no one knows when it ends. The aim of pedagogy (or paideia)… is to help the newborn and dreadful monster to become a human being, to help this bundle of drives and imagination become an anthropos… an autonomous being… with the capacity to govern and be governed…

'The point of pedagogy is not to teach particular things, but to develop in the subject the capacity to learn: learn to learn, learn to discover, learn to invent.'

Pedagogy, for Castoriadis, has the same aim as psychoanalysis, to help 'the individual become autonomous, that is, capable of self-reflective activity and deliberation' and both belong to the 'great social-historical stream of and struggle for autonomy, the emancipatory project to which both democracy and philosophy belong'.

Obviously, in Greece, the methods of making human beings out of dreadful monsters, of making citizens out of demi-citizens, are failing. This is not only because 'a man is educated by his surroundings… and what kind of education does a contemporary Athenian undergo living in the φρικτό τερατούργημα [the terrible monstrosity], which is today’s Athens?'; but also because since 1974 Greek youth has been educated to believe it restored democracy to the country through the Polytechnic 'uprising' and it continues to be in the vanguard of social change, rather than being taught that, because its paideia is inchoate, it has a subordinate role in society, in which it is not entitled to fully participate. This exploitation and idealisation of Greek youth has proved disastrous for it and the country.


David Ames Curtis said...

"Castoriadis agrees that man needs external constraints for civilised society to take place"...
What an incredible misrepresentation of the thought of the person who elucidated and advocated the "project of autonomy" (which by definition--autos-nomos--includes self-restraint, self-limitation), by turning him into an advocate of "external [sic] constraints"! I hope no one was truly misled by this amalgamation of incompatible ideas for political-ideological ends.

john akritas said...

Hello David
I don't think I said Castoriadis 'advocated' external constraints; all I said, or was trying to say, was that that there's nothing more antithetical to autonomy and freedom than chaos and violence, where the law – the rules of society – is disregarded or has been hijacked by, and becomes the privilege of, the strongest, loudest, greediest and so on – this is the scenario Thucydides describes as existing during the plague in Athens and, I maintain, is the true meaning of the Greek riots; and point out that even Castoriadis, associated with libertarianism, recognises that repression and limitation are necessary for the fruitful existence of individuals and society. There's a big difference between autonomy and anarchy, between self-control and no control. I don't know what you mean by my 'political-ideological ends'. I wish I had them.

David Ames Curtis said...

Dear John:

Your association of Castoriadis with "external constraints" is and remains incredibly misleading. Yes, "There's a big difference between autonomy and anarchy, between self-control and no control" (which goes along with the point I was making), but one must state clearly that Castoriadis was a critic not only of anarchism but of religion, nationalism, Marxism, nineteenth-century liberalism, representative democracy (i.e., liberal oligarchy), and today's (now rapidly being discredited) neo-liberal ideology of market fundamentalism, as well as of all forms of heteronomy with their appeal to extrasocial instances of authority (ancestors, God, laws of nature, laws of history, progress, etc.). The problem of an autonomous society, and of the project of autonomy, is how to achieve a self-articulating and self-legislating community that recognizes itself as such, not how to conform to "the law" in general or to existing heteronomous constraints. Appealing to the existing rule of law in order to oppose contestation of established society is a possible position, but, I would humbly assert, it has nothing to do with anything that can be honestly and accurately gleaned from Castoriadis's revolutionary writings. You would also need to take account in a much more nuanced way of Castoriadis's views on "chaos" and "violence" and to distinguish in a careful way between "repression" and "sublimation." It is unclear to me what useful purpose is served by your misleading instrumentalization of Castoriadis's words for ends alien to the project of autonomy he elucidated and advocated. You are of course free to say whatever you want, as am I to say that you are, out of ignorance or for ulterior motives, clearly in error.

john akritas said...

Interested readers should see the post, 'David Ames Curtis tells me off for (mis)use of Castoriadis':