DEMOCRACY & NATURE: The International Journal of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY vol. 5, no. 1, (March 1999)
On the Bookchin/Biehl Resignations and the Creation of a New Liberatory Project
DAVID AMES CURTIS
It was with sadness and a certain frustration that I read in Democracy and Nature (9: 198-202) that Murray Bookchin and Janet Biehl have resigned from the D&N International Advisory Board, Murray complaining, among other things, that the journal has become too "Castoriadian" in its orientation. The sadness stems from the fact that I found inherently appealing D&N's effort to examine what it considered the best of Bookchin and Castoriadis so as to encourage the emergence of a "new liberatory project." Indeed, I have met many people who, like the late Ben Perry of Philadelphia Solidarity, felt that the work of these two libertarian socialists, both of them concerned with issues of ecology, offers us the best chance for reconstructing such a project. Moreover, any reader can note significant areas of overlap between the ideas of Castoriadis and those of Bookchin, even if their emphases often differ and their terminologies sometimes clash. The frustration derives, however, from the fact that I do not recognize Castoriadis's ideas in those that Mr. Bookchin criticizes while attributing them to Editorial Board member Takis Fotopoulos, as well. And Murray has had ample opportunity to familiarize himself with them, for Cornelius reports having sent Murray copies of books he has published over the past two decades.
Democracy & Nature's Editorial Board has already done a fine job (9: 203-11), I think, of responding in general terms to Bookchin's resignation letter. Perhaps I, as Castoriadis's American translator and thus someone somewhat responsible for facilitating his reception in the English-speaking world, can offer some useful insights as regards Bookchin's objections to Castoriadis's views and to the alleged influence over D&N that these views have acquired. I do so, however, with some trepidation. Today, unfortunately, the messenger often becomes the message, with the ideas (and the stakes behind them) then becoming lost in personality disputes.
How am I to proceed so as not to heighten anyone's wariness or confirm anyone's apprehensions? I think most of us would agree that, should someone feel impelled by disagreement with an individual's views to resign from a journal expressly intended to encourage discussion of a new liberatory project that extends beyond individual personalities, it is better that the resignation be based on a disagreement over the actual views of the person with whom one differs rather than on a mistaken impression of those views. Further, I submit that, for the very sake of continuing this liberatory project, it should be left to the reader to decide both what those views are and whether they are worthy of support, instead of engaging in arguments centering on personalities. Here I hope to be of some service by bringing the reader's attention to previously published Castoriadis texts and to those now appearing in English, in some cases for the first time (in the Blackwell Castoriadis Reader [CR, April 1997] and in Stanford's World in Fragments [WIF, August 1997]). The reader can then judge, based on the points I make and the texts I cite, whether some misapprehensions have provoked what seemed to me precipitous resignations, tendered in protest against Castoriadis's perceived increasing and increasingly negative influence over Democracy and Nature.
What are the objections to Castoriadis that Bookchin raises in his resignation letter? First, that the journal has become infested with "Castoriadian ‘imaginaries'" (themselves associated with "postmodernism") and with the "highly subjectivist, ahistorical, relativist, and politically social-democratic implications of Castoriadis' theorizing" (9: 199). Let us unpack these objections one by one and examine them in light of Castoriadis's writings.
While it is true that the author of The Imaginary Institution of Society (IIS; new paperback edition, Polity Press, May 1997; MIT Press, 1998) does examine our (human) imaginary creations, it is a common mistake in the reception of Castoriadis's work to think that "the imaginary" is intended in a postmodernist way. Not only does Castoriadis expressly criticize "postmodernism" as indicative of a contemporary "retreat from autonomy" characterized by "generalized conformism" (WIF: 32-43), but, far from positing "the imaginary" in "subjectivist" terms, his philosophical breakthrough concerning the imagination is predicated upon a challenge to such traditional dichotomies of Western philosophy as the subject/object one. After showing how Aristotle's original "discovery of the imagination" (WIF: 213-45) disrupted the Aristotelian distinction between thought and feeling, Castoriadis goes on to enunciate a "principle of the undecidability of origins" (ibid.: 345) as concerns the subjective and objective contributions to the encounter that we call experience.
What is perhaps difficult, though not impossible, to understand is that Castoriadis's critique of an uncritical objectivism does not entail a wholesale acceptance of "subjectivism," since the latter is also a target of his criticism. Now, no one would deny that the subjective exists from the simple self-reproducing life form to Socrates, who kills himself to preserve his philosophical convictions. What Castoriadis recognizes, in "The State of the Subject" and other WIF texts, is the ontological status of this subjective aspect of overall reality: as a form of existence, a subjective entity such as a paramecium or a philosophical system has as much of an objective status as a stone or a star. He also elucidates its ontologically symbiotic, almost parasitic, relationship with what thereby becomes the "external world" whose independent logical organization the subject or self somehow must, each time, both lean on and recreate in order to survive. So, Cornelius, like Murray, opposes an unbridled "subjectivism," just as both criticize "postmodernism." (Additionally, Cornelius explicitly tries to rescue will, responsibility, deliberation, and conscious action from the "death of the subject" discourse championed by structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction.)
Nor can Castoriadis be considered "ahistorical." In IIS, he does argue that history can be understood, and can even exist, only inasmuch as it is socially instituted that is, immersed in a "magma" of "social imaginary significations" but, as he also asserts there, no society can be understood, or can even exist, except as a historically situated society that undergoes (knowingly or not) an ongoing historical self-transformation. In fact, without becoming a "historicist" Castoriadis extends the meaning of this indissoluble realm he calls "the social-historical" to such an extent that even philosophy itself, according to him, cannot be conceived of or practiced apart from the social-historical context of its birth in ancient Greece and its subsequent development in Western societies ("The ‘End of Philosophy'?" in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy [PPA; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991]).
Of course, it depends upon how one defines history. After repeating his misplaced charge of "subjectivism," Bookchin complains that Castoriadis replaces "historical development with an archipelago of ‘imaginaries'" (D&N 9: 200). What Castoriadis does reject in IIS is the primarily Hegelian and then Marxian position that there is an inherent "rationality" or secret but guaranteed "progress" to history, since, for him, history is above all our collective capacity for the ongoing creation of new and unforeseeable (social-historical) forms. Early on (in 1947) and rightly so, as we now see in the wake of now-discredited totalitarian Marxist claims he also rejected the idea of socialism as an "inevitable" stage (see Political and Social Writings [PSW] 1: 45-46). Now, it really would be convenient if "historical development" were predetermined, progress guaranteed, and an endpoint of history already known. But we are no more the masters and possessors of history or of a knowledge of its secret and unalterable development by "stages" than we are of nature, something a sophisticated ecological thinker should probably have glimpsed by now. In fact, the (thoroughly imaginary) belief in an objective historical development, unaffected and unconstrained by anything "imaginary" (in the strong sense, merging the subjective and the objective, as Castoriadis intends, or in the weakest and most inconsequential sense possible), threatens to paralyze our ongoing political action as much as the attitude that nature is our plaything threatens to destroy our chances for continued survival on this planet (see "Marxism and Revolutionary Theory" [MRT, 1964-65], the first part of IIS: 112-3; now in CR: 188).
As for "relativism" (which is normally associated with a thoroughgoing historicism, not an "ahistorical" outlook), I challenge anyone to find a single kind word Castoriadis has ever had to say for it (except as concerns the scientific theory of Relativity). Indeed, the last chapter of the new Reader contains a broadly negative assessment of both skepticism and relativism (CR: 387-88). Again, the fact that Castoriadis questions absolutist points of view on the philosophical and political planes alike does not necessarily mean that he endorses the contrary in either case. He is no more a friend of "relativism" than Bookchin is.
But what about those "politically social-democratic implications of Castoriadis' theorizing" that have allegedly turned Fotopoulos into an advocate of "Bernsteinian evolutionary social democracy" (D&N 9: 200)? Takis and the rest of the Editorial Board have already defended themselves without much difficulty on this score (9: 207). As for Castoriadis, I've never heard him use the phrase "social democratic" except as an epithet to condemn a former Socialisme ou Barbarie comrade (much as Murray does to Cornelius here). Indeed, Castoriadis is constantly challenging those reformists who believe that socialism or an "autonomous society" can be achieved automatically, by means of incremental changes, and without a thorough revolutionizing of existing social, political, economic, and psychical conditions. At the end of "The Movements of the Sixties" (1986), he articulates what for him is "the only important division":
There are those, like myself, who consider that the margins of freedom contained in the contemporary regime are but the sedimented by-products of movements of this type that have been going on for centuries; that, without these movements, the regime not only would never have produced these freedoms but would have, each time, unrelentingly whittled them down (as is happening now); that, finally, humanity can certainly do better. And there are those who think they seldom dare say it, except "on the Right," but their arguments and their reasoning boil down to the same thing that we live in the finally found form of a free and just political society (some reforms, of course, remain to be accomplished). The discussion cannot but stop here, and everybody can make their choices or confirm ones they have already made (WIF: 56).
These are not the words of a progressive gradualist (which seems to be the thrust, here, of Murray's objections to social democracy: "evolutionary").
Second, Bookchin complains of his own piece in #8 being "followed by a Castoriadis article that advocates that old bromide, workers' control of industry" (D&N 9: 199). Besides the fact that no positive "evocation of workers' control" (ibid.: 200) is to be found in this or any other Castoriadis text, from the first issue of Socialisme ou Barbarie onward, this claim is particularly puzzling since Bookchin himself, I am told, knows of and even recommends the classic critique of (Leninist) "workers' control," The Bolsheviks & Workers' Control, written by Maurice Brinton of Socialisme ou Barbarie's sister organization, London Solidarity. Castoriadis advocated, and advocates still, workers' management not a spurious "control" over a separate and thus uncontrollable managerial apparatus as integral to the conscious and deliberate self-institution of an autonomous society. He has certainly criticized and expanded upon "On the Content of Socialism, II" (CS II, in PSW 2: 90-154), his classic 1957 elucidation of the self-management of economic units by workers including all technical, clerical, and other support staff in order to eliminate its productivism and other shortcomings, but he has never abandoned it. For this reason, I have reprinted the key sections of CS II in the Castoriadis Reader. This Reader concludes with "Done and To Be Done," which articulates some of these new elaborations.
Third, in his resignation letter Bookchin regrets that he hasn't the time to criticize Castoriadis's "concept of autonomy" (D&N 9: 200). Yet, he already expounded on the question "autonomy or freedom?" in #8. Readers of the Greek edition must have been surprised to learn that autonomy culminates in "the imperial Roman cult of libertas" (D&N 8: 3) and at best indifferent to the proposition that freedom, as a good word of Germanic origin (8: 4), is preferable. And not only speakers of "Romance languages" (ibid.) but also most English speakers could have told this libertarian socialist/municipalist that a good Latinate word remains viable after all.
But is such quibbling necessary? Castoriadis uses both French words liberté and autonomie almost interchangeably and without difficulty, just as he does their English-language counterparts, liberty/freedom and autonomy. What I take to be Murray's political-etymological main point that, in the English-speaking world, autonomy has historically been associated with subjectivism, individualism, "negative liberty" liberalism, mere lifestyle anarchism will not necessarily convince readers of an international, multilingual libertarian socialist journal that this word is now verboten. Moreover, readers committed to confederal municipalism may still have horizons broad enough to allow for multiple meanings and usages, and they will not necessarily be so uninformed about the world at large as to think that Bookchin's latest watchword, communalism, is an "(as yet) unsullied" term (8: 12): Think of English speakers on the Indian subcontinent! In any case, no one word or slogan is going to, by itself, change the world or dispense people from having to think for themselves how what they seek in terms of liberty, freedom, autonomy, or independence differs, e.g., from the grossest forms of an incoherent "neoliberalism."
In short, I see nothing more than minor terminological squabbles of a parochial nature at work in Bookchin's objections here. Both Castoriadis and Bookchin are strongly critical of any form of "individualism" that ignores the collective moment of a society's institution. Indeed, the paragraph (8: 15-16) where Bookchin, citing a text of his own from the mid-Sixties, talks about the necessity of structured institutions, about "freedom [as] individual as well as social," about a false mythical situation where "everyone is to be so psychologically homogeneous and society's interests so uniform in character," and about the consequent need for democratic debate and decision-making by majority rule could easily be interpolated into a passage from Castoriadis's mid-Sixties text, MRT (see, e.g., in IIS: 101-14; in CR: 177-89). Castoriadis's use of the Greek-derived auto-nomous, far from being synonymous with "parochialism" (Bookchin at D&N 8: 12), is intended to signify that, individually and collectively, we can and should be responsible for making our own laws (nomoi) in a democratic fashion with a recognition that society cannot exist without institutions and that, therefore, we need not and should not indulge in an "anything goes" form of irresponsibility.
Fourth, Bookchin discovers in Castoriadis an "embarrassing idealization of the Athenian polis (particularly on the issue of slavery) to a point of vitiating what we can learn from the polis in discussions of direct democracy" (D&N 9: 200). This claim is particularly distressing because, in contrast to run-of-the-mill political correctness and one-dimensional attacks on "the West" or "Eurocentrism" today, both of these authors have made valiant efforts to popularize, for a left audience, the direct-democratic implications of ancient Athenian political life. Far from offering an "idealization," Castoriadis has emphasized in terms remarkably similar to Bookchin's (compare D&N 8: 6n.4 to PPA: 82 and 105) that the Athenian polis is for us neither a "model" nor an "antimodel" but a "germ" for continued reflection and action. While it should be clear to everyone that he is inspired as much by the soviets in their original form, by the Hungarian Workers' Councils, or by the general assemblies that formed in May '68, as he is by the Athenian democracy, it has become a common misconception that Castoriadis is referring exclusively to ancient Athens when he now discusses direct democracy as if his previous writings had never existed or no longer applied! To counter this misconception, I have included in WIF "The Greek and the Modern Political Imaginary" (1990), his assessment of the ancient and modern contributions to the emancipatory project; there and elsewhere Castoriadis recognizes again expressing himself in language remarkably similar to Bookchin's that there are numerous instances, including the obvious ones of slavery, the permanent disenfranchisement of women and aliens, and Athenian imperialism, where the implicit universality of Greek philosophical thinking was lamentably not translated into Greek political practice (though the legacy of universalism, once revived, became a rallying cry for some modern inclusive emancipatory movements).
Castoriadis makes three additional points all three controversial, though each one, I think, defensible. First, that the Greeks did not normally think slavery required justification, as there was for them nothing just (or unjust) about enslaving people, including such noble characters as Andromache and Cassandra (WIF: 97); contrary to the current tendency to conflate early modern racist defenses of involuntary servitude with the Greek attitude toward chattel slavery (Spartan helotry usually taking a back seat in these discussions), he points out that the first philosopher ever to think of offering a "justification" for slavery was Aristotle, at the end of the classical period (ibid.). No defense of slavery here, for Castoriadis endorses neither the classical Greek view nor Aristotle's. Second, that slavery existed throughout the ancient Mediterranean world but democracy existed only in (some) Greek cities; pace M. I. Finley, it is wrong to posit democracy and slavery as necessarily developing "hand in hand," for the latter developed "hand in hand" with oligarchy, not democracy, in Rome. Bookchin makes a similar point about "all Mediterranean societies of that time" employing slaves and about how we should not "judge the [Athenian] past by the present" (8: 6n.4). The third and most crucial point is that what is interesting about the Athenian direct democracy, despite its evident limitations, was: (i) its heightened level of grass-roots political participation by free peasants and artisans (at D&N 8: 33, Castoriadis says that Athens compares favorably with the modern "democracies" since the latter state-bound and oligarchic, though liberal use "representative democracy" as a way of excluding the vast majority of people from the exercise of effective decision-making power) and (ii) its hitherto unprecedented ability to question itself as to its beliefs, practices, and laws as well as to undertake a conscious and deliberate (though not "perfect") self-institution and self-alteration for a period spanning several generations. Bookchin says very similar things:
I have long cited Athens with admiration for one reason: the polis around Periclean times provides us with striking evidence that certain structures can exist policy making by an assembly, rotation and limitation of public offices and defense by a nonprofessional armed citizenry. . . . The Athenian experience [is] all the more remarkable for what it uniquely introduced into social life, including an unprecedented degree of free expression (8: 6n.4)
These lines could easily fit anywhere in Castoriadis's classic text, "The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy," which is now reprinted in abridged form in the Reader.
Finally, Bookchin discerns in D&N "a distinct line that of Castoriadis and Fotopoulos" (D&N 9: 200), whose ideas are "very much a part of academic thinking today and the subjectivism so widespread in the existing society" (9: 201). I hope I have, by now, dispensed with the mistaken claim about "subjectivism": No more than Bookchin does Castoriadis champion an "ahistorical" approach (though they disagree on what constitutes history and how it is to be judged), "relativism," or "postmodernism." The two preceding claims, however, require further examination. Again, my perspective as Castoriadis's translator may be of some use.
Has there been an "academicization of Castoriadis"? His writings do now appear in university and other academic presses, but also in an anarchist publication like Drunken Boat. When I first undertook to translate his work, I approached forty publishers; one of them, a university press, accepted my proposal. But Philadelphia Solidarity was also still reprinting old S. ou B. translations until Perry's death. An anarchist press that publishes Bookchin once approached me about publishing more of my Castoriadis translations but later informed me that unspecified breaches of political correctness on Castoriadis's part were to blame for its decision not to go ahead. No doubt, his principled refusal to endorse either Brezhnev or Reagan, George Bush or Saddam Hussein, has cost him some support on the "Left," both academic and nonacademic. Castoriadis came to academia relatively late in life and he is not primarily a university professor: he was, like Takis, an economist for twenty years, and he is today also a practicing psychoanalyst as well as a public speaker who addresses both popular and academic audiences. For my part, I remain unconvinced that Castoriadis's firm stand in favor of radical social change will ever make him a darling of the "academic Left," whose structuralist, poststructuralist, and deconstructionist irrelevancies he has never ceased to denounce (see, e.g., "The ‘End of Philosophy'?", in PPA, or "The Movements of the Sixties," in WIF). Reading more of Castoriadis, and reading him more carefully, might convince Bookchin of profound similarities in their views and broad overlaps in their concerns not only about academia today but also about a wide range of other topics.
As far as a distinct Castoriadis/Fotopoulos line is concerned, I must express my multiple sense of astonishment. Only three texts by Castoriadis have appeared in D&N's first nine issues, while Bookchin articles appear in all but one. The first Castoriadis contribution is merely a reprint from Dissent. The second, I am sorry to report in my professional capacity as a translator, is an embarrassingly inept translation from the French ("Chinese peasants . . . smoke earth mixed with their own excrement," D&N 5: 85); I offered to render this text into English for D&N but was informed that a "translation" had already been prepared. The third, the one that most proximately has raised Murray's ire, is a inelegant translation from the Greek that shows little knowledge of now standard Castoriadis terminology in English. D&N readers can barely read Castoriadis's views in his own words (the Chinese peasants example in reality concerned a contrast between traditional methods of soil conservation and wasteful modern methods of waste disposal).
I was, of course, greatly pleased to see Fotopoulos making extensive and creative use of my and others' translations of Castoriadis's writings as a way of presenting the "autonomy project" to D&N readers. What is distinctive, though, is Takis's usage of these writings. The common method for those who distinguish (I believe mistakenly) between an "early" and a "later" Castoriadis is to treat the earlier, Socialisme ou Barbarie writings as political, but uninteresting philosophically, the later work as philosophical, but without significant political consequences. But Takis, in expounding his political ecology, cites the more recent volumes in English The Imaginary Institution of Society and Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy abundantly, the three volumes of Cornelius's Political and Social Writings (1946-79) almost never and then in negative fashion or as no longer relevant. Takis uses Castoriadis's more recent thoughts on the "autonomy project" as a justification but for his (Takis's) own views, as is, of course, his unobjectionable right. A key and enduring element for this "autonomy project" that is found in Castoriadis's writings workers' management (conflated by Takis, too, into "workers' control") drops out, however, and wage equality, a foundation stone for workers' management and a recurring tendency in modern autonomy movements according to Castoriadis, is dismissed as "impractical" and "negative in the utopian sense" (D&N 8: 66). If we are to accept these perfunctory arguments, we might as well agree with liberal critics who, on the same thin grounds, reject all forms of direct democracy and radical egalitarianism, and so give up and go home. I am not, of course, demanding an endorsement of any or all of Castoriadis's views; I was just hoping for a thorough consideration of those views as a whole when formulating the elements of an "autonomy project" that borrows from them.
Fotopoulos proposes to replace "workers' control" with "community control," without asking who makes up a community. Community control vs. workers' control is largely a false dichotomy, based on suspect terminology. A community is overwhelmingly made up of working-class people, broadly defined to include technicians, tertiary workers, artists, etc., and those who have worked (retirees, the unemployed), can no longer work (the disabled), or who do not yet work (children and students); "wages for housework," moreover, is one feminist response to domestic labor, and the present system indirectly acknowledges the latter in the form of Social Security survivor's benefits for spouses. Workers need not be defined (and they have not been defined by Castoriadis) in exclusively "vocational" terms (Takis's phrase, in his new book, Towards an Inclusive Democracy: The Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need for a New Liberatory Project [London and New York: Cassell, 1997]: 247), since their life is not just their work. We tend to forget, in this era of downsizing, outsourcing, and the bottom line, that the workplace once was a site for the contradictory and conflictual reunification of social life (from informal groups on the shop floor to international movements of working-class solidarity, passing by way of canteens, dances, mill factory baseball teams, etc.) and could be again. I am not arguing for the proletariat as the "subject of history," some form of workerism, a metaphysical privileging of the workplace over the community, or anything else of that sort, nor am I ignoring the present fragmentation of working conditions in "postindustrial" times (cf. Towards: 253). With the ongoing depoliticization and privatization of individuals in society at large, however, "community" is no more necessarily a privileged haven for (re)socialization today than the workplace once was alleged to be. Increasingly divorced from the workplace, it too experiences fragmentation and disruption. "New social movements" including the women's, students', minority, and ecology movements have arisen in many cases beyond the confines of the workplace, strictly defined, and they have contributed significant new elements to the liberatory project, beyond what the workers' movement ever envisioned or proposed. But they have no more provided a solution to the overall political problem of how to unite and cooperate in order to tackle the overall problems of society than the workers' movement did. The problem thus remains in its entirety.
As concerns the workplace, Takis's answer elected and revocable "supervisors" (Towards: 247), themselves subject to "the community" is thus not just beside the point (since the point is the reunification of work life with community life, not the creation of new divisions via "community ownership and control" whereby workplaces and resources are "leased" to workers in a "moneyless" and "marketless" economy [Towards: 257]). It ignores the considerable innovations worker's management already treated in CS II as also having to be "the management of society" (PSW 2: 132-52; in CR: 86-105) could contribute, precisely from an ecological standpoint, to the reconstruction of society, since environmentally wasteful and destructive practices go on all the time in the production process, and not just among consumers in "the community." Only if people are themselves managing their own work at all levels will they be willing and able constantly to rethink and reorganize all aspects of the technical apparatuses they operate. Indeed, even under the exceptional and distorted conditions of an oxymoronic "employee ownership" (ESOPs) today, workers can show a willingness to end environmentally and economically wasteful practices, if they know that their innovations do not immediately entail a loss of jobs. Ironically, Fotopoulos seems to share Bookchin's, not Castoriadis's, negative ideas about workers' management when, echoing Murray's concerns about an autonomist "parochialism," Takis negatively identifies so-called workers' control with "the particular" and his "community control" with the "general interest" (Towards: 253).
But the crucial issue does not lie in this misconception of the problem. It concerns, rather, the very character of the "liberatory project." In the wake of Bookchin's resignation, Takis rather optimistically surmises that, because neither Castoriadis nor Bookchin endorsed his new book, his own "attempted synthesis" of their views may have "achieved at least one major aim, that is, to be a real synthesis and not just a ‘Castoriadian' or ‘Bookchinite' clone." He modestly adds, "whether of course this is a successful synthesis is something for readers to judge" (D&N 9: 209), but if we are to posit that there are "Castoriadians" and "Bookchinites" among those who are truly inspired by these two freethinkers, I suppose there might one day be "Fotopoulists," as well. For my part, I humbly submit that this whole personality-oriented way of posing the question of the furtherance of the liberatory project is misguided.
A liberatory project is an ongoing social-historical creation: as such, it is anonymous, unattributable to designatable individuals, launched into an indeterminate future that exceeds any one person's or persons' control (in the end, we're all dead; and, while we're alive, no one is omnipotent and omniscient). Individual people and groups can contribute to the conditions under which it might emerge, grow, sustain itself, and become the permanent (though never "guaranteed") condition of a society, but this project will not come about via the "synthesis" of some people's ideas in a journal. If an international journal of politics and ecology like D&N is committed to the "autonomy project" and/or to "freedom" defined in terms of confederal municipalism, "communalism," or any other extension or restatement of libertarian socialism under present conditions, its main job, in my humble opinion, is to examine closely and elucidate critically what people's exemplary potentials for free or autonomous action are today, not to offer them ideal "models" (a point on which Bookchin and Castoriadis would probably agree) to . . . well, to do what with? . . . copy. There's enough conformism in the world today without libertarian socialists going out of their way to encourage more of it.
This last point goes to the heart of what the "autonomy project" is all about and has direct relevance to world conditions today. To the extent that we conceive of a liberatory project as open-ended, we see that talk about "models" obscures this key feature. On the other hand, exemplary creations, both individual and collective, are worthy of critical analysis and of widespread dissemination as "germs" or potential springboards for subsequent exemplary creations provided that we realize we are doing so on our own responsibility but that we not confuse ourselves with the overall liberatory project.
Clarifications of impasses also are important, even necessary. Rejection of the "workers' control" vs. "community control" one is, in my view, basic, just as elucidation of the stakes involved in the massive, worldwide desocialization process Fotopoulos calls the international neoliberal growth economy is key though the equally massive global hypersocialization of the private sphere via bureaucratization, mediatization, a collective drive toward conformism, and so on, should also be examined in depth. The primary aim of those attempting to encourage the emergence of a new liberatory project should, again in my personal opinion, be to spread the message that people can themselves in an integrated way take back not just "control" over, but management of and collective decision-making in, their workplaces and their community life. However, even this message will fall on deaf ears if it is not formulated in tandem with and respect for people's present (halting and fragmented) tendencies and aspirations toward autonomy (or, freedom) but is presented, instead, as an exhortation to conform to a prefabricated "model" (no matter how well thought out). The world is a big place and one cannot dictate in advance people's responses to their situation, so we should not prejudge where the community at large or the workplace new efforts at realizing a liberatory project may emerge in any given neighborhood, city, region, country, or hemisphere.
Let me say again, in conclusion, how sad I was to read of Mr. Bookchin's and Ms. Biehl's resignation letters. Bookchin's criticism of the potential for undemocratic manipulation in consensus-based decision-making (D&N 8: 5-9), for example, was nothing short of splendid. I therefore hope that Mr. Bookchin and Ms. Biehl will continue to offer their perspectives on the creation of a new liberatory project and to share their contributions toward its fulfillment. I hope, too, that the reader will come away from this reply by noting the many points of convergence and overlap between Murray's and Cornelius's approaches to the problem of furthering the liberatory project while recognizing that it is up to the reader to think for herself how best this project might be furthered and to act upon her own responsibility toward its instauration.
Boston Paris, April August 1997
N.B.: This text was composed before Castoriadis’s untimely death on 26 December 1997. Persons interested in his work and his leagcy may consult the Cornelius Castoriadis / Agora International Website: <http://aleph.lib.ohio-state.edu/~bcase/castoriadis>
1. In the Castoriadis Reader's final chapter, Castoriadis replies to his critics. This 1989 text, "Done and To Be Done," includes his reply to a text by Joel Whitebook that Theodoros Papadopoulos thinks contains telling criticisms of Castoriadis (see Papadopoulos's very positive review of Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, in D&N 8: 170-71).
2. A point made by Castoriadis scholar Andreas Kalyvas in response to reading Bookchin's resignation letter
3. He states elsewhere that "the sole possible refutation of skepticism is the human community or the very life of the skeptic; if, however, one reflects on this, one sees that it is the same thing" (WIF: 342).
4. In a pre-S. ou B. text, Castoriadis spoke of "the working class exercis[ing] supervision and control" (PSW 1: 41). By the first issue of S. ou B., however, he negatively contrasted mere "worker's control" with workers' management (PSW 1: 104).
5. Conversation with International Advisory Board member John Ely.
6. See also Castoriadis's 1993 talk, "The Athenian Democracy: False and True Questions," in my translation of Pierre Lévêque and Pierre Vidal-Naquet's classic 1964 essay on the birth of Athenian democracy, Cleisthenes the Athenian: An Essay on the Representation of Space and of Time in Greek Political Thought from the End of the Sixth Century to the Death of Plato (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1996). A less expensive, paperback edition recently became available from Humanities.
7. On this point, Vidal-Naquet, too, challenges Castoriadis. See their respective contributions to a colloquium I organized on the occasion of the 2,500th anniversary of Cleisthenes' reforms; my translation of these talks (including Castoriadis's, cited in the previous note) appears as a supplement in Cleisthenes the Athenian.
8. See, e.g., "The Revolution Before the Theologians: For a Critical/Political Reflection on Our History," in WIF.
9. Alex Richards, "The Academicisation of Castoriadis," in Edinburgh Review, 78/79 (1988): 226-31
10. Two recent Castoriadis translations are to appear in issue #3 (1998) of this journal of "art, anarchy, and rebellion" though this association no more makes of Castoriadis a "life-style anarchist" than an ivory-tower academic, even if one wishes to confine oneself to thinking in terms of such epithets. Allow me to note here that a grass-roots, activist anarchist journal, Not Bored!, has also discovered recently the relevance of Castoriadis's work (see "Workers' Councils, the S.I. & Castoriadis," NB!, 26: 44-53).
11. In the draft version of his review of Cleisthenes the Athenian for D&N, university instructor and D&N IAB member John Ely seems to think that Castoriadis's attending of a dinner with the professors who invited him to an Arendt conference is damning evidence of his academicization. But in a country that has an active mass Left, like Brazil, Castoriadis addresses popular meetings of upwards of 1,000 people.
12. See, in my WIF Translator's Foreword, a discussion of this mistaken tendency to divide up Castoriadis's work into an "early" and a "later" period.
13. On this point, see "From Ecology to Autonomy" (now in CR), Castoriadis's 1980 speech to a mass meeting of 800 European ecology activists in Belgium.
14. "For example, after the [United Airlines Employee Stock Ownership Plan] buyout a group of pilots, ramp workers, and managers devised a way to use electricity instead of jet fuel when planes are idling at the gates, thus saving the airline about $20 million a year. The only capital investment required was longer ladders so the ramp workers could plug in the electric cables" (Roger E. Alcaly, "Reinventing the Corporation," in The New York Review of Books, April 10, 1997, p. 38).
15. Among the infinity of dead, living, and yet-to-be-born persons whose ideas past, present, or future are not to be identified exclusively with the liberatory project or somehow confounded with it is, it goes without saying, Cornelius Castoriadis.
16. It is this aspect of Socialisme ou Barbarie's revolutionary orientation that most interests a young historian of the group. See Stephen Hastings-King's "On the Marxist Imaginary and the Problem of Practice: Socialisme ou Barbarie, 1952-6," in Thesis Eleven, 49 (May 1997). This special issue, which I have edited in honor of Castoriadis on his 75th birthday, also includes a number of other articles that, rather than offering hagiographical summaries of Castoriadis's life, explore specific themes in his writings that have proven relevant to the contributors' own work.
17. May the reader note that, given both space constraints and my lack of a thoroughgoing knowledge of Bookchin's work, the present piece is merely a response to his D&N resignation letter, composed at the explicit request of the D&N Editorial Board, not a full consideration of his overall views.
David Ames Curtis is a Paris-based American writer, translator, editor, and citizen activist who has worked as a community organizer in the Carolinas and a feminist union organizer at Yale University. He has been published in American, European, and Australian books and journals. Curtis’s Castoriadis translations include: Political and Social Writings (3 vols.), Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, World in Fragments, and The Castoriadis Reader. He has also done two book-length translations of Pierre Vidal-Naquet: Cleisthenes the Athenian and The Jews: History, Memory, and the Present. With Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Curtis directed research for Yale’s Black Period Fiction Project and rediscovered the first novel published by an African-American woman, Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig.