Saturday, 31 January 2009

David Ames Curtis challenges me on Castoriadis and the Greek riots

It is somewhat intimidating (and challenging) to have David Ames Curtis – who has done more than anyone through his work and activism to promote the ideas in the English-speaking world of Cornelius Castoriadis (pictured) – comment on my blog and criticise me for my (mis)use of Castoriadis; particularly for my suggestion in this post, Castoriadis and Thucydides on the Greek riots, that Castoriadis – because of his assertion that the unfettering of our drives and desires would lead not to ‘universal happiness’ but to ‘universal murder’ – endorses the notion that, in my words, ‘man needs external constraints for civilised society to take place’.

Here is the exchange David Ames Curtis and I had on the issue of ‘external constraints’:

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:
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:
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.

Now, I’ve highlighted a section in the second of David Ames Curtis’ comments because it provides, as one would expect, a useful and lucid summary of the aims and implications of Castoriadis’ thought. (I’m especially grateful for the distinction between ‘repression’ and ‘sublimation’). The statement is incontestable and, indeed, if what I were trying to do in deploying Castoriadis against the Greek riots were to defend the Greek state, the status quo, the forces of law and order, the ruling Greek oligarchy or the range of heteronomous significations and ideologies that exist in Greece, then this would without question be a grotesque abuse and parody of Castoriadis’ ideas.

Rather, my intention in using Castoriadis against the Greek riots was to criticise the redundant, counterproductive and even regressive notion, which the Greek left is utterly beholden to, that ‘revolution’ or ‘radical social change’ necessarily takes place in the streets and inescapably involves, to use Castoriadis’ phrase, ‘bloodshed and gunfighting’. Castoriadis is explicit that revolution is only revolution if it means ‘radical change in the institutions of society’, a radical questioning of society’s heteronomous social imaginary significations and the positing of new significations inclined towards autonomy.

With this definition of what radical social change involves in mind, I refute the suggestion that the riots in Greece last December were a meaningful ‘uprising’ presaging a freer, more autonomous and democratic Greek society. I saw no evidence of the articulation of new significations inclined towards autonomy nor did the riots take place to a backdrop of ‘creative outbursts in the field of art and culture’ – another Castoriadian precursor to autonomy.

In fact, the rioters and demonstrators themselves declared that they were united by the slogan ‘cops, pigs, murderers’. This cannot be considered under any circumstances a serious rallying call for social change and, in fact, its only outcome so far has been to provide the justification for the resurgence of terrorism in Greece, so that before the ‘uprising’ or ‘revolution’ has even properly started it has shown itself prone to the obscene and corrupt violence of a self-declared vanguard.

I also wanted to stress, through Castoriadis, that radical social action can never mean being anti-social. In fact, it must always mean the opposite, and Castoriadis repeatedly states that there can be no individual autonomy without social autonomy. The aim of engaging in social action should be to become an enhanced citizen, taking responsibility for what happens in your society, improving the life of your community or city – its laws, environment, social relations and so on. Being a free individual, Castoriadis says, also means being a responsible individual – ‘loving freedom and accepting responsibility’. And this is what I understand to be the meaning of Castoriadis’ definition of autonomy as knowing how ‘to govern and be governed’.

Now, at what level, did the Greek riots – the trashing of the centre of Athens (and other Greek cities), with public squares, small businesses, schools and universities coming off worst – show citizens taking responsibility or performing as enhanced citizens or demonstrating their capacity to be governed? At no level. (And apart from this childish denial of social limits, an even more irresponsible and regressive feature of the riots was that the real and legitimate outrage at the death of the schoolboy Alexis Grigoropoulos and the public debate it might have ignited about reforming the police and about how Greeks want to be policed, was forgotten amid the violence, hysteria and lynch mob-like clamour for ‘exemplary punishment’ to be meted out to the policeman who killed the 15-year-old).

Castoriadis also says that autonomous individuals only emerge through paideia (education) and that ‘man is educated by his surroundings’. Regarding the importance of ‘surroundings’ to the autonomous ancient Athenians and their heteronomous contemporaries, Castoriadis says: ‘What kind of education did an ancient Athenian enjoy walking around his city, seeing the Acropolis, the Agora and the Stoa? And what education is a modern Athenian subject to living in the terrible monstrosity, which is today called Athens?’

Given what Castoriaidis says about the importance of ‘surroundings’ to the project of autonomy, and his description of modern Athens as a ‘terrible monstrosity’, I cannot understand why anyone aspiring to change Greek society, to make it more autonomous and democratic, would participate in or condone the smashing up and defacement of a city which already, through its sheer ugliness and unliveability, oppresses and degrades its citizens.

In fact, the riots were not a challenge to the decay of Greek society, but part and parcel of that decay, a contribution to the decay, a further cheapening of Greek social and political life, a reflection of all its self-indulgence, selfishness and anti-socialness.

It is clear to me, then, that the first thing an aspiring modern citizen – who aims to be autonomous and live in an autonomous society – must do, is abandon the notion, which suffocates Greek leftist thinking and doing, that politics and social activism means to participate in a demonstration, chant slogans, write them on walls, hurl abuse and petrol bombs at the police, smash a shop window, plant a bomb outside a bank or kill a ‘pig’. Rather than indulging in this primitive version of politics and participation, Greek radicals would be better off engaging in less glamorous and more time-consuming and selfless activities, like those the residents of Kypseli are currently involved in – guarding 24-hours a day their local park to stop Athens city council from turning this rare refuge of greenness into a car park. A worthy cause, one that involves citizens taking responsibility for their community and its surroundings, but one that hasn’t aroused the interest or support of Greece’s revolutionaries, presumably because they’re too busy preparing to storm the Bastille and occupy the Winter Palace.


Hermes said...

Excellent argument John. I am incapable of adding anything to it.

John said...

Hi John--

Your final paragraph is at the heart of the matter, I think, and explains why there's more cause for optimism regarding the global justice movement, which has grasped the importance of prefigurative activity, than the "traditional revolutionary left", which seems intent on re-creating 1917 at every opportunity.

It's in the global justice movement (I'm thinking here of writing by folk like David Graeber, Rebecca Solnit, and Jonathan Schell) that I can see Castoriadis's ideas enjoying a revival. They understand the importance of social autonomy for individual autonomy and, reciprocally, the relationship between social responsibility and personal responsibility, and they manage to translate their into actions that are revolutionary without being anti-social.

john akritas said...

John; I have to admit I've got no idea what the 'global justice movement' is – sounds like a version of Christianity - and I don't know the writers you mention. I guess, with an interest in Castoriadis, the natural conclusion is that I should be drawn to this kind of politics and activism; but I can't say I am. I remain a humble, skeptical observer, wary of normativeness and who spreads his sympathies thinly. More seriously, I do occasionally ask myself, when I've got nothing better to do, if the left can reinvent itself, do away with wretched Blairism – and Castoriadis and the type of politics you describe is no doubt the best way forward for it. The left has a chance now, with the economic crisis and everything associated with it, although I hope it doesn't encourage a trend to believe that somehow Marx and Marxism have been vindicated. This would be a travesty.

Hermes said...

I know this is going to be unpopular but I find this trend in Italy to be another example of "A worthy cause, one that involves citizens taking responsibility for their community and its surroundings" or "understanding the importance of social autonomy for individual autonomy and, reciprocally, the relationship between social responsibility and personal responsibility":

Of course, The Times reports it as some sort of anti-foreign push but from what I have heard it is a popular movement against globalisation and higher quality food.

john akritas said...

It's an interesting article and a fair point, H. Where does anti-globalisation end and xenophobia begin? In the UK at the moment we've got a series of strikes aimed at 'foreigners' (Italians and Portuguese) accused of taking 'British' jobs.

I guess a Castoriadian would say such protests are heteronomous.

Personally, I like both Middle Eastern and Italian food – Greek food is somewhere in between these cuisines, I suppose – and skewered meat goes back to Homer. I've also had some good times with Italians laughing about British food, trying to figure out, for example, what pot noodles are and how anyone can eat them. I also remember in Koufonissi I asked my restauranteur who were her preferred tourists and she said Italians, because they eat our food.

Hermes said...

I have always found it interesting asking the question what would constitute heteronomous or autonomous because I am not entirely clear. If a society and a person decided that they did not want to subscribe to the multicultural religion (which is arguably a law prescribed outside of the social and personal driven by ideological and commercial interests) and then decided they wanted to subscribe to their own customs with the ability to alter them as they see fit i.e. autonomously, then is that not a "Castoriadian ideal"? I guess the Castoriadians are not so autonomous as they believe because their interpretation of Castoriadis only seems to go one way. Perhaps, Castoriadis would hve understood the Lega Nord differently if he were alive today, maybe he would have interpreted them as Paul Piccone did, as a vital, fresh and autonomous expression of democracy.

john akritas said...

H. You and I have got no chance of becoming autonomous – in the strict Castoriadian sense. Like you, however, I wonder about the autonomy/heteronomy divide and why Castoriadis can elevate the pre-Socratic Athenian polis to such exalted democratic heights and champion as radicals Pericles and Themistocles, despite Athenian chauvinism and Periclean and Themistoclean hyper-patriotism.

'Themistocles was greatly admired for the example he made of the interpreter, who arrived with the envoys from the Persian king to demand earth and water in token of submission. He had this interpreter arrested and put to death by a special decree of the people, because he had dared to make use of the Greek language to transmit the commands of a barbarian.' (Plutarch).

If you did away with Athenian chauvinism and patriotism, I wonder if the sophisticated level of autonomy and democracy the city achieved would have been the same?

Hermes said...

This is one of Castoriadis's blindspots which we have covered before. Castoriadis exalts pre-Socratic Athens and Renaissance Europe but as far as the historical evidence is concerned both of these political entities were acutely aware and protective to some extent of their ethnic, cultural, religious, linguistic past. Castoriadis may counter and say that he uses these two concrete examples as a trigger to understand his abstract ideal but I doubt this very much as he was very much anti-Platonic and anti-Hegelian. Therefore, Castoriadis was reading back into history what he wanted to read to suit his project which in reality has never been achieved and will never be achieved completely.

Furthermore, the most serious problem lies with his apostles and disciples perhaps like David Ames Curtis. Most of them are Marxists or former New Leftists where they have not been able to leave behind their ideological baggage. As a result, they interpret the later Castoriadis through some weird outdated New Left prism and then project this confused admixture to contemporary problems of society.

John said...

Hi John--

The "global justice" movement is the preferred term for what is sometimes referred to as the antiglobalization movement (although they are not opposed to all forms of globalization) or the altermondist movement or variations thereupon. They are inspired mostly by anarchist forms of organization, i.e. consensus-based and non-hierarchical. They are definitely NOT Marxists, you'll be pleased to hear, although Marxist organizations have tried to leap abard the bandwagon.

Incidentally, I thought Pot Noodle was Japanese. Isn't it a variation on instant ramen?

troy said...

Why is 'cops, pigs, murderers' not a proper rallying slogan? By what measure can this argument be made? Because it does not conform to some ready-made notion of what proper 'activism' consists? Because it is 'childish'?

How might the simplistic two colour posters of May '68 have seemed to someone without our perspective? Not as the pared down rejection of indulgent over-design, but as the childish anti-art of wannabe revolutionaries, perhaps.

Let's remember why the Greek riots started. They weren't simply at the whim of a bunch of bourgeois kids needing a weekend of excitement. The cops killed a teenage boy. The subsequent demonstrations and street battles were a pitched demonstration that the might of the cops does not make right. You claim that the death of the boy was forgotten, but it would have been a greater travesty if the police had been allowed to either excuse themselves, or feign sorrow.

Also, on what grounds can the comparison be made between a) physical battles with the cops and property destruction and b) bloodshed and gunplay? The authority of the police is one of the most restricting heteronomies currently plaguing the economic North. Although you personally disapprove of the actions taken by the Greek anarchists in challenging this heteronomy, I think you would find an unwilling ally in Castoriadis if he were alive to offer his own opinion. If he were opposed to street battles, why did he support the actions of May '68?

That said, it is the spirit of debate over these matters that best invokes Castoriadis. And, although I likely have not been able to disguise my dismay at what I consider misrepresentation of the Greek actions, I have tried to retain a civility as I hope, someday, we're able to discuss and act upon greater matters.

john akritas said...

For further discussion, see the post, Another Instalment of Castoriadis and the Greek riots