The Multidimensional Crisis and Inclusive Democracy, Takis Fotopoulos (2005)

Chapter 12:

The foundations of the new liberatory project


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What is the foundation of freedom and democracy


An autonomous society is inconceivable without autonomous individuals and vice versa. Thus, in classical Athens no citizen is autonomous unless he participates equally in power, that is, unless he takes part in the democratic process. In general, as Castoriadis observes, no society is autonomous unless it consists of autonomous individuals because “without the autonomy of the others there is no collective autonomy ―and outside such a collectivity I cannot be effectively autonomous.”[1] It is therefore obvious that in the social context, the very acceptance of the idea of autonomy inevitably leads to the idea of democracy.


But, even if we take for granted the connection between freedom/ autonomy and democracy, the question still remains about the foundations of democracy, indeed freedom itself. Traditionally, most libertarians, from Godwin to Bakunin and Kropotkin, based their ethics and politics, freedom itself, on a fixed human nature governed by necessary and universal laws”, by which —in contrast to Marxists who emphasised economic “laws”— they usually meant natural laws. This reflected the same nineteenth-century incentive which led Marx to develop his “scientific” economic laws, namely, the incentive to make the liberatory project look “scientific” or, at least, “objective”.


However, the use of an “objectivist” method to justify the need for an inclusive democracy is both problematical and undesirable. It is problematical  because few still believe today, after the decisive introduction in twentieth-century science of uncertainty, that it is still possible to derive any “objective” “laws”, “tendencies” or “directionalities”  of social evolution. It is undesirable because, as the case of the socialist project has shown, there is a definite link between the “scientification” of that project in the hands of Marxists-Leninists and the consequent bureaucratisation of socialist politics and the totalitarian transformation of social organisation. So, one may assume that if inclusive democracy ever replaces the present heteronomous forms of political and economic organisation, this will represent not the actualisation of unfolding potentialities for freedom but simply the conscious choice among two social possibilities, which schematically may be described as the possibility for autonomy versus the possibility for heteronomy.


But, if modernist “objectivism” seems problematical and undesirable, this does not mean that post-modernist subjectivism is less problematical, as it may easily lead to general relativism and irrationalism, if not to the complete abandonment of radical politics and conformism. The democratic project is incompatible with relativism, because it explicitly denies the view that all traditions, as in this case the autonomy and heteronomy ones, have equal truth values. Thus, although one may accept the post-modernist view that history cannot be seen as a linear (Kant et al.) or dialectical (Hegel, Marx) process of Progress that embodies reason, this does not imply that we should assign equal value to all historical forms of social organisation: from classical Athens, the Swiss cantons and the Parisian Sections, to the present “democratic” regimes. This type of general relativism, which is adopted by post-modernism, simply expresses the latter’s abandonment of any critique of the institutionalised social reality and a general retreat to conformism, as Castoriadis[2] rightly points out. Furthermore, adopting the post-modern rejection of universalism implies the abandonment of any idea of a liberatory project, as the project of autonomy/democracy is of course very much a “universal” one.[3]


Finally, the democratic project is incompatible with irrationalism because, democracy, as a process of social self-institution, implies a society which is open ideologically, namely, which is not grounded on any closed system of beliefs, dogmas or ideas. “Democracy,” as Castoriadis puts it, “is the project of breaking the closure at the collective level.”[4] Therefore, in a democratic society, dogmas and closed systems of ideas cannot constitute parts of the dominant social paradigm, although, of course, individuals can have whatever beliefs they wish, as long as they are committed to uphold the democratic principle, namely the principle according to which society is autonomous, institutionalised as inclusive democracy. It is indicative that even in classical Athens, 2,500 years ago, a clear distinction was made between religion and democracy. It is not accidental for instance that all the laws approved by the ecclesia started with the clause that “this is the opinion of Demos” with no reference to God. This is in sharp contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition, where, as Castoriadis points out, the source of the laws in the Old Testament is divine: Jehovah gives the laws to Moses.[5]


So, the democratic project cannot be grounded on any divine, natural or social “laws” or tendencies, but on our own conscious and self-reflective choice between the two main historical traditions: the tradition of heteronomy which has been historically dominant, and the tradition of autonomy. The choice of autonomy implies that the institution of society is not based on any kind of irrationalism (faith in God, mystical beliefs, etc.), as well as on “objective truths” about social evolution grounded on social or natural “laws”. This is so because any system of religious or mystical beliefs (as well as any closed system of ideas), by definition, excludes the questioning of some fundamental beliefs or ideas and, therefore, is incompatible with citizens setting their own laws. In fact, the principle of “non-questioning” some fundamental beliefs is common in every religion or set of metaphysical and mystical beliefs, from Christianism up to Taoism. This is important if we take particularly into account the fact that today’s influence of irrationalist trends on libertarian currents has resulted in the silly picture of  scores of communes organised democratically and inspired by various kinds of irrationalism (not unlike similar religious sects in the past, e.g. the Christian Catharist movement extolled by libertarians as democratic!)[6]


The fundamental element of autonomy is the creation of our own truth, something that social individuals can only achieve through direct democracy, that is, the process through which they continually question any institution, tradition or “truth”. In a democracy, there are simply no given truths. The practice of individual and collective autonomy presupposes autonomy in thought, in other words, the constant questioning of institutions and truths.


But, if it is neither feasible, nor desirable to ground the demand for democracy on “scientific” or “objective” “laws” or “tendencies”, which direct social evolution towards the fulfilment of objective potentialities, then this demand can only be founded on a liberatory project. And such a liberatory project today can only constitute a synthesis of the democratic, the socialist, the libertarian and radical green and feminist traditions. In other words, it can only be a project for an inclusive democracy, in the sense of political, economic, “social” and ecological democracy.


Still, the fact that the democratic demand can only be founded on a project which can neither be “scientified” nor “objectivized” does not mean that it is just a utopia in the negative sense of the word. A liberatory project is not a utopia if it is based on today’s reality. And today’s reality is summed up by the unprecedented multidimensional crisis we saw in the first part of the book which engulfs all societal realms (political, economic, social, cultural) as well as the Society-Nature relationship.


Also, a liberatory project is not a utopia, if it expresses the discontent of significant social sectors and their, explicit or implicit, contesting of existing society. Today, the main political, economic and social institutions on which the present concentration of power is founded are increasingly contested. Thus, not only basic political institutions are questioned in various ways (ch. 4), but also fundamental economic institutions, like private property, are challenged in a massive way (see e.g. the explosion of crime against property in the last quarter of a century or so).


Finally, a liberatory project is not a utopia if it reflects current trends in social change. And the project for an inclusive democracy that will be outlined in the next chapter does express the democratic trends that were first expressed dramatically by May 1968 and today by the organisational forms of the antiglobalisation movement in the North and similar trends for democratic organisation, beyond representative “democracy” and the market economy, in the South.


Toward a democratic rationalism


Today, it is possible to define a liberatory project for an inclusive democracy without recourse to controversial objective grounds or to post-modern neo–conservatism. For this, we have to define the liberatory project in terms of the demand for social and individual autonomy,[7] which implies that:

  • we responsibly choose autonomy, as well as its expression in democracy and we explicitly rule out the possibility of establishing any “objective” laws, processes or tendencies that, inevitably or “rationally”, lead to the fulfilment of the autonomy project.      

  • we avoid the trap of objectivism without succumbing to liberal individualism, as many ex Marxists and libertarians today do, and

  • we see democracy  not just as a structure institutionalising the equal sharing of power, but, also, as a process of social self-institution, in the context of which politics constitutes an expression of both collective and individual autonomy.

Thus, as an expression of collective autonomy, politics takes the form of calling into question the existing institutions and of changing them through deliberate collective action. Also, as an expression of individual autonomy, “the polis secures more than human survival. Politics makes possible man’s development as a creature capable of genuine autonomy, freedom and excellence.”[8] Therefore, a democratic society will be a social creation, which can only be grounded on our own conscious selection of those forms of social organisation that are conducive to individual and social autonomy.


All this implies a new kind of rationalism, beyond both the “objectivist” types of rationalism we inherited from the Enlightenment and the generalised relativism of postmodernism. It implies a democratic rationalism, i.e. a rationalism founded on democracy as a structure and a process of social self-institution. Within the context of democratic rationalism, democracy is not justified  by  an appeal to objective tendencies with respect to natural or social evolution, but by an appeal to reason in terms of logon didonai, (rendering account and reason), which explicitly denies the idea of any “directionality” as regards social change.


So, if our aim is to reach a synthesis of the autonomous-democratic, libertarian socialist and radical green and feminist traditions, I think that our starting point should be the fact that the social imaginary or creative element plays a crucial role with respect to social change. This implies that the project for democracy may be grounded only on our own conscious choice between the heteronomous and the autonomous tradition.


However, once we have chosen, broadly, the content of the liberatory project, some definite implications follow regarding our interpretation and assessment of social reality. In other words, the very definition of a liberatory project conditions the “way of seeing” and criticising social reality. Therefore, the grounding of a free society on a conscious choice does not deprive us of an ethical criterion to assess the various forms of social organisation. In fact, the degree to which a form of social organisation secures an equal distribution of political, economic and social power is a powerful criterion to assess it. But this is a criterion chosen by us and not implied by some sort of evolutionary process.

To conclude, if we take for granted that autonomy and democracy cannot be “proved” but only postulated, we value autonomy and democracy more than heteronomy because, although both traditions are true, still, it is autonomy and democracy which we identify with freedom and we assess freedom as the highest human objective.


[1] Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 76. 

[2] Castoriadis, “The Era of Generalised Conformism”.

[3] See Fotopoulos, “The Myth of Postmodernity”.

[4] Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 21.

[5] Castoriadis, “The problem of democracy today”, p. 23.        

[6] See G. Woodcock, “Democracy, heretical and radical”, Our Generation, Vol. 22, Nos. 1-2 (Fall 1990-Spring 1991), pp.115-16.

[7] For a definition of the liberatory project in terms of social and individual autonomy, see TID, Ch. 5; see also Cornelius Castoriadis, L' Institution Imaginaire de la Societe (Paris: Seuil, 1975).

[8] Cynthia Farrar, referring to the thought of the sophist philosopher Protagoras. See her article, “Ancient Greek Political Theory as a Response to Democracy” in Democracy, John Dunn, ed., p. 24.