Greek Uprising, Echoes of Castoriadis: 1968, Autonomy & the Self-Managed Society

Autonomous, the word (Auto + Nom(os)), is, of course, derived from the Greek. Auto meaning "self," "same," and "spontaneous," and nomos meaning "law" or "custom"—as in, "one who gives oneself his or her own law is practicing the act of self-governance."

Cornelius Castoriadis

Inspired by the recent Greek rebellion, I am reminded of the Late Greek/French theorist of Autonomy and Self-Management, Cornelius Castoriadis, who made the distinction between those that think society’s institutions, laws, traditions, beliefs, and behaviors are either the product of divine intervention (i.e. god/s) or hardwired into historical outcomes, and those who are aware of their self-conscious ability to transform society into something new and better. He called the latter "Autonomy."

Castoriadis, widely considered one of the most serious theorists of democracy, was an ardent proponent of direct democracy. He believed equality and freedom were inseparable. "In Greece," wrote Castoriadis, "democracy was also called at the outset isonomy, equality of the law for everyone." ("Socialism and Autonomous Society," Political and Social Writings, Vol. 3, Minnesota, pg. 316, 1979). In Greece, decades before the police killing of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos this December 6th, and in the immediate wave of uprising afterward, Greeks have resisted and rebelled against the material and social inequality that rules every moment and that makes "equality of the law for everyone" impossible. Greek resistance and rebellion is consistent with Castoriadis’ autonomous project.

Cornelius Castoriadis died eleven years ago on December 26th at the age of 75. He was a professional economist for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As a youth Castoriadis became a Marxist and eventually joined the Greek Communist Party (KKE) but soon left, becoming a Trotskyist and highly critical of the KKE. In December of 1945 Castoriadis left Greece for Paris where he later broke with Trotskyism and founded the legendary revolutionary journal "Socialism or Barbarism" in 1948, launching its inaugural issue in 1949.

The journal had such diverse and eclectic members as Claude Lefort, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Guy Debord. Castoriadis also had connections with C.L.R James and had heavily influenced the London Solidarity Group and Maurice Brinton, a pen name for Christopher Agamemnon Pallis, an Anglo-Greek born in India who not only provided first hand journalistic accounts of key uprisings such as the Belgian general strike of 1960, the Paris uprising in May ’68, but also wrote the pivotal pamphlet The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control about the suppression of workers’ power in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. (See Brinton," For Workers’ Power, AK Press, 2004 for this collection). Brinton translated many of Castoriadis’ writings into English for the London Solidarity Group.

Castoriadis wrote under various pseudonyms to avoid French deportation, including Paul Cardan and Pierre Chaulieu. During this period Castoriadis became a leading theorist of the French New Left and proponent of widely held views among youth and student participants, not least via his influence on Daniel Cohn-Bendit and others centrally involved in the May ’68 uprising in France which saw ten-million people rise up, turn society upside-down, then drift back into their everyday lives. These views included that orthodox communist movements were conservative and bureaucratic, and that Marxist theory itself was the source of these problems.

After being influenced by the 1956 uprisings and worker council formations in both Hungary and Poland, Castoriadis published his classic 1957 Workers’ Councils and the Economics of Self-Managed Society ("Socialism or Barbarism," No. 22). This was republished as a pamphlet by the London Solidarity Group in 1972, and their preface states "To the best of our knowledge [until Castoriadis] there have been no serious attempts by modern libertarian revolutionaries to grapple with the economic and political problems of a totally self-managed society."

Castoriadis is relevant now not simply because of his Greek origins, and the current Greek uprising, nor his travails through support of but eventual departure from Marxism and communism, (it is interesting that, as Castoriadis would have likely predicted, the KKE has criticized and distanced themselves from today’s youth lead uprising in Greece) or the influence of his thinking in ’68, but because the world still needs an answer to the hard question he addressed of what a new society might look like. Castoriadis’ main contribution one decade after his death is, therefore, that he sought to seriously answer this question.

By now the anger and passion of the current Greek rebels, who have also set off solidarity actions across Europe and around the world, is being challenged by exhaustion, fatigue, and the holiday season lull. But all signs indicate that any cooling down period will retain enough smoldering fuel to quickly heat back up with economic crisis, renewed anger at police brutality, state repression and corruption, and steadily worsening social and material conditions. Major labor and student demonstrations are scheduled to take place in the new-year, on the second Friday of the first month of 2009, and so most commentators expect the uprising to continue.

The first three-weeks of the revolt—a period when the Kathimerini newspaper published a widely quoted poll indicating that 60 percent of the Greek population shared the understanding that a social "uprising" was occurring—included mass mobilizations and demonstrations, barricades, clashes with police, the taking over of public institutions including three universities in Athens—the Polytechnic, Economics, and Law school buildings—the General Confederation of Workers (GSEE) building, and the law office of Kougias, the lawyer defending the policeman who murdered 15-year-old Alexis. The National Theater, a National T.V. station, radio stations, the French Institute, and various banks and police stations were also targets. There were also repeated attacks on the Christmas Tree, in the heart of Athens, in Constitution Square.

In the case of the occupation of the national T.V. station mentioned above, on December 16th students disrupted the televised broadcast of Prime Minister Karamanlis addressing Greek parliament on the state of the country. The televised occupation lasted almost two minutes. Their largest banner read "Stop Watching, Get Out Onto the Streets," and smaller ones "Immediate Release of All Those Arrested," and "Freedom to All of Us." The station then cut to commercials. (Video here)

On December 18th those rebelling dropped huge pink banners—calling for international solidarity with the uprising—at the ancient Athens location of the Acropolis. The banners bore the word "Resistance" in large black letters in Greek, English, Spanish, and German. In the third week of revolt reports claimed students were occupying approximately 800 high schools and 200 university departments across Greece. These institutions were taken over and transformed into centers of organizing and activism for revolt, for example the Polytechnic University in the Exarchia district of Athens, but also the "Liberated City Hall Of Aghios Dimitrios" whose communiqué declared:

"Within the frame of this insurrection, the City Hall of Aghios Dimitrios has been occupied since the morning of Thursday Dec. 11, so that it may become a place of counter-information, meeting, and self-organizing of the residents of the wider region and for the collective formation and implementation of actions. A main component of this occupation is the daily popular assembly with participation of up to 300 people, a process that functions in contrast to the entrusting of the management of our demands as well as of our struggles to whichever "representatives," elected or not. A process that tends to be implanted deeply into the consciousness of its participants [in] their role as political beings."

While some occupations currently continue many, such as the Polytechnic and other schools have concluded, at least for the time being.

According to Castoriadis, those who contest the established order by revolting against existing institutions to transform or create new ones act to serve their own interests. An "Autonomous" action then would be one in which people, as individuals or as a collective, act with their own independent objectives in mind. These objectives are totally different from the objectives of those empowered to rule society as order-givers over those disempowered as order-takers. The agents of change include workers in class struggle, but also students, youth, women, minorities, etc.:

"The transformation of society, the instauration of an autonomous society involves a process that cannot be accomplished either uniquely or mainly in the production process. Either the idea of a transformation of society is a fiction without any interest, or the contestation of the established order, the struggle for autonomy, the creation of new forms of individual and collective life are invading and will invade (through conflict and with contradictions) all spheres of social life. Among these spheres, none plays a ‘determining’ role, even in the ‘last instance.’ The very idea of any such ‘determination’ is nonsense." (Political and Social Writings, Ibid. pg.328).

Autonomous action addressing the Totality of social relations becomes possible when people defined by their genders, sexuality, class, culture, community, etc., see themselves as agents for themselves concerned with their own material and social fate in society.

The struggle against the established order and toward a new society demands new consciousness. Autonomy in consciousness means gaining as much understanding and insight as possible into the influences that shape our thinking and becoming as free as possible from alienation and rationalizing our oppressions. (See also Maurice Brinton, "Solidarity and the Neo-Narodniks," For Workers’ Power, AK Press, 2004, original 1972). Realizing autonomy in consciousness is a difficult process. It includes becoming aware of the oppressions that afflict us and their sources in the hierarchical institutions that define society. The struggle to free oneself and others from these oppressions is made very difficult as the oppressions are often produced and re-produced in obscure social and material patterns that surreptitiously shape the human condition and human needs. The struggle for autonomy is the struggle for emancipation from the institutions that produce and reproduce society’s alienation, class rule, sexism, and racism and to create new institutions that produce self-management, classlessness, diversity, and participation in all spheres of life.

In Castoriadis’ vision of a Self-Managed Society economic life is organized by federated workers’ councils, council administration, and economic planning. To avoid the command structures and bureaucracy of centrally planned economies the councils "will collect, transmit and disseminate information collected and conveyed to them by local groups." The center and periphery of a council society will have a "two-way flow of information" and there will also be a reorganization and transformation of work including the division of labor. For Castoriadis, equitable and full participation in the economy is key. (Workers’ Councils and the Economics of Self-Managed Society, Ibid.)

However, while Castoriadis was a pioneer in championing a non-market, worker council vision, much has been learned since by others who have developed more effective planning procedures that allow for greater council self-management than his early model from 1957. (Ibid.)

A modern-day leading candidate for a possible Self-Managed Society that is directly within the tradition of Castoriadis, and even inspired by some of his ideas on this topic, would be the Participatory Society vision. This vision shares many commonalities with Castoriadis’ proposal, especially in spirit and goals. In their specific conception, however, there are also some important differences.

The contemporary vision of a "Participatory Society" I am referring to (and described in greater detail in the book I have edited, Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century published by AK Press, 2008) encompasses new social and material relations in all spheres of life. It aims to be a self-managed society, meaning institutions would convey to people decision-making input in proportion to how they are affected by a decision. It also aims to be a solidarity society, meaning its institutions create a context in which people care about one another; and a classless society, meaning, its institutions convey to all economic participants comparable influence and wealth via a balanced division of labor, an equitable and fair remuneration scheme, and self-managed decision-making; finally, it means to be a diverse society, where there are multiple lifestyle outcomes and options to choose from.

In the current vision of a Participatory Society, the sphere that is (so far) most developed is the economy, although some insights have also been developed for other spheres of life. The vision is not a blueprint, nor detailed map. It will require further development by all who care to realize such a society. Also, it is not a society conceived for perfect human beings. It does not assume moral purity nor propose some heaven on earth, a place for angels rather than human beings. Instead, this vision comes from past and present struggles and thoughts—not least the work of Castoriadis—and is rooted in real world conditions for real people.

Advocates of this new view of a Participatory Society propose that social vision should broadly encompass the core structures for economic production, consumption, and allocation; political adjudication, law making, and legislation; culture and community religious, spiritual, national, ethnic and racial identifications and practices; and kinship procreation, child rearing and socialization of future generations; enabling as well of course, that all of society rests on a sustainable  ecological foundation which all species interact with and rely on.

This vision is spelled out in much more detail elsewhere and requires more space than is allowed here. Parecon, the economy of a Participatory Society, was initially developed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel and is the most developed part of the conception. A parecon is comprised of social rather than private or state ownership of productive assets; nested worker and consumer council’s and balanced job complexes rather than corporate divisions of labor; remuneration for effort and sacrifice rather than for property, power, or output; participatory planning rather than markets or central planning; and self-management rather than class rule.

We believe that this economic vision, and the overall proposal for a Participatory Society, is in the best spirit of Left history, theory, and practice. In the tradition of Castoriadis’ vision, it is an attempt to grapple with the question of what a Totally Self-Managed Society might look like in its basic institutions even as its members define its policies and trajectories. And once again, arriving at such a shared vision is a task that we will all need to participate in.

Chris Spannos is staff with Z, named after the 1969 Costa-Gavras film, also titled Z, that is about resistance and repression in post-war Greece. Chris has edited the book Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century (AK Press, 2008).

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