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.