vol.8, no.1, (March 2002)


The incompatibility of myths and democracy Takis Fotopoulos’ reply

Takis Fotopoulos



I would like to make two preliminary comments before I discuss the important issues raised by this response. First, it is encouraging indeed to see comments like those preceding Thomas Martin’s response which recognise the journal’s policy in airing diverse points of view, even very hostile to the journal’s problematique. Such comments, coming from a well known libertarian whose stand on rationalism was strongly criticised by D&N, are particularly valuable and show that a fruitful dialogue is always possible, irrespective of how diverse the views supported by the people involved are, provided of course that all parties appreciate the significance of democratic exchange and are willing to promote it (as thankfully is the case here) rather than to engage in abusing monologues, (as unfortunately is usually the case). Second, I would like to apologise for the length of my reply which exceeds that of Martin’s response. This was due not only to the importance of the issues raised but also to the fact that the articles to which the present exchange refers have been published more than two years ago and I therefore had to quote extensively from them to refresh the reader’s memory. Of course, Martin is fully entitled, if he wishes to continue the dialogue on the matter, to use equal space to the amount of space I used here.

I will start with the issue of terminology. The author stresses that although he  rejects rationalism as the primary or central way of perceiving and dealing with the world he would call the alternative ‘non-rational’ rather than “irrational, because ‘one can be intuitive, emotional, even spiritual without being “irrational”.  However, the definition I gave to an irrational belief system at the very beginning of my article (a system whose core beliefs are not derived by rational methods, i.e. reason and/or an appeal to ‘facts’, but by intuition, instinct, feeling, mystical experience, revelation, will etc.)[1] makes clear why I characterised Sorel’s (and Martin’s) suggested ‘alternative’ as irrational.  Therefore, I think the reason for this terminological confusion is that Martin tends to identify rationalism, in the sense defined above, with ‘objective’ rationalism (i.e. the rationalism which is grounded on ‘objective laws’ of natural or social evolution) on which science is based. This becomes obvious, for instance, when he argues that ‘one can also use a form of dialectical reasoning without being ’rational’ in the sense of Descartes, the Enlightenment, and the whole modern scientific world-view’.

But, as I stressed in my article:

what matters in distinguishing between rational ideologies and irrational belief systems is the source of ‘truth’. If the source of truth of the core ideas is reason/’facts’, despite the fact that these ideas cannot be shown to be ‘objective’ (in the sense of general acceptability as in natural sciences), then we are talking about a rational (and refutable) ideology. On the other hand, if the source of truth of the core ideas is an irrational method (revelation, intuition etc) then we are talking about an irrational (and irrefutable) belief system.’[2] 

Therefore, it is perfectly possible for one to be rational without being ‘objectively’ rational, as long as s/he uses rational methods. But, it is impossible for someone to be rational when they use non-rational methods (intuition, feeling etc) to derive their conclusions. This is an important rather than  just a pedantic distinction since irrational belief systems, like the ones based on myths, are ‘non-refutable’, i.e. non-amenable to rational discussion in the sense of a discussion  informed by reason and evidence.

Next, Martin creates a pseudo-dilemma. Starting with Naess’ flawed ecosophical premise that an individual is just ‘a component of an eco-systemic Self’ he asserts that we have to choose between Western thought, which ends up with the absorption of the individual into the whole (the essence of fascism) and his own ‘post-Western’ thought, in which autonomous individuals are inseparable elements of a greater whole, something that he characterises as ‘a tall order’ that ‘would require a non-rational expression’.

But, there is of course a rational alternative, as I have described in my article and also my book Towards An Inclusive Democracy[3], if we define freedom in terms of  individual and social autonomy. In this problematique, an individual is not just ‘a component of an eco-systemic Self’, as Naess wants it. Individuals do not live  Robinson Crusoe-like lives but as members of communities and societies, i.e. as social individuals. The existence of this crucial intermediate stage between the individual and the eco-system, that is society, which is omitted by eco-sophists and others, raises the critical question of how individuals can be autonomous within it.  Social autonomy, as I stressed in my article, means that society not only posits its own laws but also recognizes itself as the source of its norms. Similarly, individual autonomy means to make one’s own laws, again, knowing that one is doing so and in full awareness of one’s desires and true wants. It is obvious that  individual autonomy is impossible without social autonomy and vice versa; in fact,  individual autonomy is only possible when the social individuals take a direct part in the formation and implementation of the social laws which condition their activity—something which presupposes that social organization is based on direct democracy.

In this sense, autonomy signifies the unlimited self-questioning about the law and its foundations, whether these foundations are traced back to religion, some form of social ‘evolution’, or myths. In other words, democracy itself and, of course, philosophy, are not products of some historical evolution but, instead, are creations, which represent a break with instituted tradition. Democracy, as a process of social self-institution, implies a society that is open ideologically i.e. a society which is not grounded on any closed system of beliefs, dogmas, ideas or myths. This is because, as I emphasised in my article, there is a complete incompatibility between an inclusive democracy, which is premised on the constant questioning of any given truth, and all forms of irrationalism (which take for granted certain ‘truths’ derived through irrational methods) as well as of ‘objective’ rationalism (which lead to closed systems of ideas). It is obvious that any system of religious or mystical beliefs, as well as any closed system of ideas, by definition, excludes the questioning of some core beliefs or ideas and, therefore, is incompatible with citizens setting their own laws and making their own ‘truths’ about their society.

In fact, the incompatibility of democracy to any form of irrationalism, including myths, is illustrated even by Martin’s ambivalent stance on democracy when, on the one hand, he declares that he believes in democracy (‘in no sense do I reject democracy’) and on the other he effectively undermines this belief  declaring  that a  ‘face-to-face democracy’ at best leads to ‘endless debate, preventing us from doing other useful things’ and at worst to ‘corruption and manipulation that characterizes every so-called democracy in human history’.

However, the fact that forms of ‘face-to-face democracy’ in the West have led (not always) to phenomena like the ones he describes was not due to the democratic institutions themselves but to the fact that these democracies were in fact partial democracies and/or were functioning under extreme economic conditions, facing the imminent danger of extinction from without. This was always the case beginning with the classical Athenian case and continuing with democratic forms of organisation in revolutionary periods (Paris sections of 1793, Spanish assemblies in the civil war and so on). These are therefore cases which hardly offer themselves for the kind of sweeping generalisations that enemies of democracy use and Martin, unfortunately, repeats here.

Furthermore, Martin clearly misses the point when he talks about ‘many non-Western societies (which) have functioned quite well as egalitarian democracies, without hierarchy or domination, because they all agreed on a ‘mythical goal’ that transcends each individual in the society’. But, It is exactly because the type of non-Western societies he describes where based on myths that they can not be characterised as democracies, irrespective of the kind of democratic procedures may have been using. Democracy is not simply a set of procedures but a regime and a way of free thinking, which is not in any way constrained by myths, tradition or closed systems of ideas. Alternatively, one would have to characterise as democratic the forms of organisation and decision-taking prevailing not only in the societies implied by Martin but even among Christian monks of various denominations!

In fact, it is because of this crucial misconception of democracy that Martin cannot see the intrinsic relationship between fascism, Nazism and myths, asserting instead that it was not the use of myths that was conducive to the rise of Nazi totalitarianism but the fact that they insisted on their objective truth. But, myths are wrong as the basis of a social organisation not because they are not true but because they are myths, i.e. they have not been derived by rational methods (which by the way does not just mean ‘facts’ as Martin states degrading the concept of the rational)  and therefore can not be refuted by rational methods. Similarly, it is not  the objectivity or otherwise of a myth that may lead to genocide or mind control (although obviously if a myth is claimed to be ‘objective’ as well, this may enhance its power) but its very irrational basis. Although, of course, nobody would disagree with the use of non rational methods in the world of art,  as I also pointed out in my article, it would be both futile and dangerous to attempt to interpret social or natural reality through the use of non-rational methods. It is myths of the non- ‘objective’ kind anyway that led to abominable massive crimes in History in the wars between supporters of various religious denominations. It is similar myths, seen as ‘stories about ourselves’, which have led to similar massive crimes between ethnic communities, as recently as in Yugoslavia.

This brings us to the central theme of Martin’s article and response. A genuine anarchist society, for him, means a ‘nonrational’ society that needs its unifying (though not objectified) myths—which seems also to be the main thing that attracted him to Sorel. However, what Martin forgets is that myths are not propagated anymore by word of mouth as it happened in Sorel’s time but by all- powerful mass media and particularly television which is the main, if not exclusive,  source of information and culture in general for the bulk of the population. If therefore it was possible, even in Sorel’s time, that the ‘myth’ of the general strike could still be produced and reproduced ‘from below’, today’s myths are mostly those  produced and/or encouraged ‘from above’, i.e. from the elite-controlled mass media. For instance, it is the patriotic myths propagated by the ruling elite in the USA about the causes of the September 11 bombings which have created the war hysteria that have given the legitimisation for the present ‘war against terrorism’, used by the elite to crash any resistance movement in the world. It is therefore obvious that unless the peoples have a criterion to choose between the various myths  (i.e. which of those myths are promoting their freedom and which not –something that can only be done through the use of rational methods) inevitably they will choose the ones implied by the dominant social paradigm. Particularly so when most of the myths today originate in the elite-controlled media and re-enforce the ‘dominant social paradigm. This is not only because the ‘establishment myths’ may be propagated more easily at a massive social scale but also because their adoption makes people feel ‘safe’, as they know that, by conforming with them, they  are doing the ‘normal thing’, they behave as they are expected to behave.

Martin then protests against my statement that non-rational trends in anarchism are ‘compatible with the dominant trends in world society at large’ or ‘could well form an integral part of the neoliberal consensus’. However, in the editorial (from which these sentences have been taken) I explained why this compatibility arises. As I stressed there, this is because ‘these trends push anarchism away from rationalism, democracy and autonomy (in the sense of individual and collective autonomy) toward Irrationalism, non-democratic forms of social organisation and individualistic autonomy respectively’. In other words, this compatibility arises not because the anarchists supporting such views, (many of whom do indeed end up with the sort of lifestyle anarchism rightly criticised by Bookchin) adopt the dominant capitalist values but because their own values, particularly irrationalism and individualistic autonomy, and the consequent non-democratic , if not ‘apolitical’, forms of organisation they adopt, could well coexist with the capitalist order , not threatening it in any significant way. To put it simply, although such trends may be ‘non-systemic’, in the sense that they  do not adopt the dominant social paradigm, they are under no circumstances  anti-systemic, in the sense of explicitly seeking to overthrow the system. No wonder that several of the activities of such movements (LETS schemes, credit unions etc) are even used by several Western elites (e.g. in Britain) in order to ameliorate the effects of neoliberalism.

The problem therefore with today’s anarchism is not that it, as Martin puts it,  ‘is mired in the same nineteenth-century assumptions and priorities as Marxism and capitalism themselves’ i.e. ‘on reason, dichotomy, reification and linear thinking to dominate the human mind’. Although it is true that many of the assumptions of Marxism and anarchism have to be thrown away today (for example the idea of Progress, ‘objective’ rationalism/‘scientism’, the belief in economic growth etc) the use of rational methods and the move from myths to reason do represent a conquest of the human mind and should constitute the basis of any liberatory project. In fact, as I stressed in my article on antisystemic movements[4], the problem with today’s anarchism is, exactly, that the more it moves to irrationalism, postmodernism and ‘pragmatism’ the less it can claim to be a liberatory or antisystemic movement.    

Next, Martin states that he does not advocate faith or intuition as currently defined --although he does not offer an alternative definition-- and that  he would agree with democratic rationalism, provided that  “rationalism” was redefined in a manner that would not set it up as the opposite of ”non-rationalism”, or “myth”, or “intuition”. However, Martin himself counterpoises reason to intuition and approves of Sorel’s definition of myth as ‘knowledge acquired through intuition rather than from empirical sense data’.  The question therefore is: if knowledge of the world is not based on reason what would be its basis--feelings and intuition (however one may define them), or mystical experiences? Martin’ s logic that ‘reason has enslaved us; the path to liberation, then, is the rejection of reason’ reminds one of the simplistic logic used by deep ecologists and others that the cause of the present ecological crisis is science and technology and/or industrialism rather than the type of science, technology and industrialisation that has inevitably developed within the constraints prescribed by the dynamic of the market economy. Furthermore, his argument that ‘the essential quarrel with reason is that it paralyses our propensity toward spontaneous action’ throws us back in time, way before the mid19th century when antisystemic activists discovered that a system could only be overthrown by an organised antisystemic movement rather than by spontaneous insurrections easily suppressed by the elites. It was reason that led to the creation of the socialist and the anarchist movements not intuitions, and the crucial issue today is to examine the real causes for their failure rather than to condemn reason as the cause of that failure!

Martin then goes on to argue that ‘there are surely certain deep truths accessible through intuition or myth’ and that he would not equate Zen satori with the experiences of Christian believers who flock to see images of the Virgin in tortillas etc. However, the issue is not whether there are ‘deep truths’ accessible through intuition or myth. Even natural scientists may rely (at least partly) on intuition in the process of making scientific discoveries. The issue is whether the methods used in deriving conclusions about reality are rational, so that these conclusions are refutable. It is on this basis that I strongly disagreed with his statement that ‘science and religion are equally valid in their own spheres’. This statement makes sense only if we assume that science and religion are valid only  in the spheres of interpreting reality and faith respectively-- but I suppose this is not what Martin (and Sorel) meant by this statement. Furthermore, as regards the difference between Zen satori and Christian enlightenment, in fact, the differences between them are not as significant as Martin assumes, as  they are both mystical traditions. As a fervent Zen supporter for instance points out:

the mystical traditions tend to fall into at least two categories. One holds that the deity principle or creative force lies outside themselves…The Christian school follows this general orientation…The schools of Buddhist mysticism, including that of Zen, reflect the second orientation. They teach that the universal principle, or Buddha nature, already exists not only within each person but everywhere else.[5] 

It is therefore clear that on both occasions what has to be demonstrated is taken for granted, i.e. that there is a deity, or, alternatively, a universal principle. No wonder that the fathers of the Christian church (particularly of the orthodox variety) were hostile to any rational methods, whereas the Zen masters ‘despised all theorising…(and) developed methods of pointing directly to the truth’[6]. Thus, supporters of religious myths, unlike what Sorel and Martin assume, do believe that their own myths are true, in fact the ultimate ‘truth’, but they do not bother to make such ‘truths’ refutable  to persuade the rest of us about their existence! Therefore, the crucial issue is not that reason is supposed to show the ‘truth’ whereas myth does not bother about the truth --something that implies a rejection of the ‘Western dichotomy’ between ‘truth’ and ‘myth’, as Martin assumes. The crucial issue is that whereas rational ‘truths’ are refutable and can be rejected, as has happened many times in History, myths, are non refutable ‘truths’ and this is why they remain usually fixed over time. It is this primitive way of thinking involved in religions and other forms of irrationalism which is particularly dangerous today, as I attempted to show in my article, given that the current resurgence of various forms of irrationalism threatens to turn us back not only to the era before the Enlightenment but even before classical Athens!

Another indication of Martin’s confusion between rationalism and ‘objective’ rationalism is his critique of my article with respect to the predictability of a revolutionary shift. Sorel’s (and Martin’s) argument is that a revolutionary shift is unpredictable because it occurs in the mythic realm, something that implies that History is beyond logical understanding. My argument was that although revolutionary shifts are unpredictable the reason for this is not that they occur in the mythical realm, as Martin argues, but because objective rationalism (though not rationalism in general)  is impossible, as I made explicit in my article: 

the reason we can not predict it is because we cannot assume a rational process of History, with its own ‘laws’ determining it, (since ‘objective’ rationalism is impossible in the analysis of social phenomena) and not because the shift occurs in the mythic realm’.[7] 

However, Martin quoted the above extract omitting the crucial sentence which I emphasised and making in the process inexplicable the distinction I drew between ‘a rational process’ in History (which presupposes that we have adopted an objective kind of rationalism) and the mythical realm.  Obviously, between ‘history as a rational process’ and ‘history unfolding in the mythical realm’ there is an all important intermediate state, which is ignored by Martin, in which history is neither  unfolding on the basis of some ‘objective’ laws that we supposedly discovered (‘objectively’ rational) nor is unfolding in the mythical realm. In this intermediate state, to which I was referring, history in general and revolutionary shifts in particular can still be interpreted (though not “explained”, in the sense that natural scientists explain various phenomena) through the use of rational methods.

It is the same confusion between rationalism and ‘objective’ rationalism that induces Martin to ask: “You say that the moment of revolution (the ‘bifurcation point’ in systems language) may appear to be mythic ‘because the break with tradition, in many people’s minds, takes mythical dimensions.’  Where else but in people’s minds, may I ask, does this break take place?’ Of course, nobody disputes the fact that myths and rational explanations take place in people’s minds, but this is not the point. The point is whether the revolutionary shift itself takes place in the rational realm and therefore can be explained (although not predicted) with the use of rational methods (as I suggest) or whether instead  it takes place in the mythical realm (as Martin suggests) .

Next, Martin comes back again to what he calls the ‘false’ dichotomy of rationalism and irrationalism arguing that the problem is not with myths themselves but with the way we see them as either true or false rather as stories about ourselves. As it is clear by now, in the ID problematique, the problem with myths has nothing to do with how we see them, i.e. as true or false, but with the fact that they are not refutable, which renders them unfit as  a source of knowledge and dangerous as an inspiration for action. Furthermore, this problem  is not solved even if myths are not fixed, as Martin assumes.Therefore, even if, in a future anarchist society, a myth is open to constant revision and evolution, ‘as were the myths of pre-classical Greece’, this does not solve the fundamental problem of their non-refutability. Although it is true that Greek myths were not fixed –something that was crucial in preventing the conversion of Greek religious myths into dogmas (as in the Judeo-Christian tradition), it is equally true that the myths prevailing at any moment of time were  non-refutable by rational methods. This implied, among other things, that myths used  the concept of causation in an arbitrary way, inevitably leading to arbitrary conclusions. Therefore, although Greek myths were very important with respect to their contribution to art and poetry, they were irrelevant to the development of science and philosophical inquiry. This is why Kant called the Greek move from myth to reason as the rise of spirit from immaturity to maturity, since it was when Greeks made this move that they ‘recognised themselves as the creators of mythical forms which up to then they had conceived  as a world above and beyond them’.[8]  But, it is only when people recognise themselves as the creators of all their institutions and myths that democracy becomes possible. This is why reason is the foundation of  democracy.

Finally, it is  curious indeed that Martin attempts to present me, after all this,  as a supporter of ‘objective ‘ rationalism when in fact a basic tenet of the ID project (which I also repeatedly stressed in my article) is the explicit rejection of objectivity and objective rationalism—although for different reasons than the ones mentioned by Martin.[9] This is the impression one gets from his statement that: ‘the real value of objective rationality, you claim,  is that we can use it to show whether core beliefs are valid or not’. However, what I did was to compare irrationalism with objective rationalism in order to show that, although I reject both as sources of heteronomy, still irrationalism is a worse form of heteronomy than objective rationalism because  an ‘objectively’ rational ideology (unlike an irrational myth) can be shown to be wrong, as it is based on a particular interpretation of social and economic trends. In this problematique, no one would of course  dispute the use of our rational and conscious abilities to study and comprehend our emotions and intuitions—despite the reservations one may have about the Freudian attempt to ‘scientify’ its conclusions.

At the end of my reference to Sorel and Martin in my article I raised two important questions. First, is it accidental that, as Martin admits, ‘Sorel's primary impact in the twentieth century was on the authoritarian ideologies of the Right and Left’? Second, If there is a problem in separating Stalinist totalitarianism from some, at least, elements of Marxism, why shouldn’t there be a similar problem in separating fascist totalitarianism from some similarly basic elements of Sorelian thought? Martin attempts an answer only to the first question. For him,  the Sorelian world view was perverted and put to nightmarish uses ‘because the foundations of Western civilization (patriarchy, domination, hierarchy) were still too strong for it’. But, this is exactly why I accompanied my first question with the second one. Similar excuses about the failure of socialist statism (Marxism) at the hands of Stalin are given by Marxists, i.e. that it failed because the objective conditions were not ‘ripe’, the revolution was surrounded by hostile forces, the civil war etc, and not because there was something wrong with the ideology itself. Isn’t Martin doing the same with the Sorelian ideology when he blames other factors for the nightmarish use of it and avoids any intrinsic links between this ideology and totalitarianism?

[1] Takis Fotopoulos ‘The Rise of New Irrationalism and its Incompatibility with Inclusive Democracy’, Democracy & Nature, vol 4, no. 2/3, p 1

[2] ibid. p 7  

[3] Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy (London/NY: Cassell/ Continuum,1997)  ch 5

[4] Takis Fotopoulos,‘The end of  traditional antisystemic movements’, Democracy & Nature, vol 7 no 3 (2001) , pp. 415-456

[5] James H. Austin, Zen and the Brain, (Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 2000), p. 15

[6] F. Capra, The Tao of Physics, (London: Fontana, 1976), p. 133

[7] Fotopoulos ‘The Rise of New Irrationalism’ p. 41

[8]  Wilhelm Nestle, From Myth to Reason, (Greek edition, Athens: Gnosi, 1999), p 39)

[9] See Takis Fotopoulos, ‘The “objectivity” of the liberatory project, Society & Nature, vol 1 no 2, pp 1-31