Interview with Cornelius Castoradis


QUESTION: What, for you, is ecology?

C.C.: It is the understanding of the basic fact that  social life cannot fail to take into account in a pivotal way   the environment in which social life unfolds. Curiously, this  understanding seems to have existed to a greater extent  formerly, in savage or traditional societies. A generation  ago, in Greece, there still were villages that recycled almost  everything. In France, maintenance of waterways, forests, and so on has been an ongoing concern for centuries.

Without any “scientific knowledge,” people had a “naive” but firm awareness of their vital dependence upon the  environment (see also {Akira Kurosawa’s} film Dersu Uzala). That changed radically with capitalism and modern technocracy,1 which are based on nonstop and rapid growth of production and consumption and which entail some already obvious catastrophic effects upon the Earth’s ecosphere. If scientific discussions bore you, you need only  look at the beaches or  gaze at the air in big cities. So, one  can no longer conceive of a politics worthy of the name that  would lack a major concern for ecology.

Q.: Can ecology be scientific?

C.C.: Ecology is essentially political; it is not  “scientific.” Science is incapable, as science, of setting its own limits or its goals [finalités]. If science were asked the  most efficient or the most economic means   of exterminating  the Earth’s population, it can (it should, even!) provide you  with a scientific answer. Qua science, it has strictly nothing  to say about whether this project is “good” or “bad.” One can, one should, certainly, mobilize the resources of  scientific research to explore the impact that such and such an action within the sphere of production might have upon   the environment, or, sometimes, the means of preventing some undesirable side effect. In the last analysis, however, the response can only be political.

To say, as was said by the signers of the “Heidelberg  Appeal” (which, for my part, I would call, rather, the Nuremberg Appeal), that science, and science alone, can resolve all problems is dismaying. Coming from so many Nobel Prize winners, it expresses a basic illiteracy, a failure  to reflect on their own activity, and total historical amnesia.2 Statements like this are being made when, but a few  years ago, the main inventors and builders of nuclear bombs were making public declarations of contrition, beating their  chests, declaring their guilt, and so on. I can cite J. Robert  Oppenheimer and Andrei Sakharov, to mention only them.

It is precisely the development of technoscience and  the fact that  the scientists have never had, and will never  have, anything to say about its use or even its capitalist  orientation that has created the environmental problem and  the present gravity of this problem. And what we notice today is the enormous margin of uncertainty contained in the  data and in the evolutionary prospects for the Earth’s My personal opinion is that the darkest prospects are the  most likely ones.

The real question, however, doesn’t lie here. It is the  total disappearance of prudence, of phronisis. Given that  no one can say with certainty whether the greenhouse effect  will or will not lead to a rise in the sea level, nor how many  years it will take for the ozone hole to spread over the entire  atmosphere, the only attitude to adopt is that of the diligens  pater familias, the conscientious or dutiful father of the family who says to himself, “Since the stakes are enormous, and even if the probabilities are very uncertain, I shall proceed with the greatest caution [prudence], and not as if  it were all a trivial matter.”

Now, what we are witnessing at present, for example  during the Rio Carnival (labeled a Summit), is total  irresponsibility. This total irresponsibility may be seen in  the determination of President George Herbert Walker Bush  and of the liberals {in the Continental sense of conservative  “free-market” advocates}, who invoke precisely the flip side  of the uncertainty argument (since nothing has been “proven,” let’s go along as before . . . ). It may be seen in  the monstrous alliance between right-wing American  Protestants and the Catholic Church to oppose all birthcontrol  assistance in the countries of the Third World, when the connection between the demographic explosion and  environmental problems is manifest. At the same time—the  height of hypocrisy—some claim to be concerned about the  living standard of these populations. In order to improve  this standard of living there, however, one would have to  accelerate  the destructive production and consumption of  nonrenewable resources.

Q.: During the Rio Summit, two conventions, which  some consider historic, were nonetheless adopted: the  convention on climatic change and the one on biodiversity.Are they part of this “Carnival”?

C.C.: Yes, for they propose no concrete measures  and are accompanied by no sanctions. They are the tribute  vice pays to virtue.

A word about biodiversity. One must nevertheless remind the signers of the Nuremberg Appeal that no one  knows at present how many living species are to be found  on the Earth. Estimates range from ten to thirty million, but  even the figure of a hundred million has been advanced.

Now, of these species, we know only a modest portion.

What is known with near certainty, however, is the number of living species we are rendering extinct each year,in particular through the destruction of the tropical forests.

Now, E. O. Wilson estimates that, in the next thirty years,we will have exterminated nearly twenty percent of existing  species—or, using the lowest total estimate, 70,000 species  on average per year, two hundred species per day!

Independent of any other consideration, the destruction of single species can lead to the collapse of the equilibrium,therefore the destruction, of an entire ecotope.3

Q.: Reading some of your articles, one gets the  impression that ecology is only the tip of an iceberg that conceals a reappraisal not only of science but also of the  political system and of the economic system. Are you a revolutionary?

C.C.: Revolution does not mean torrents of blood,the taking of the Winter Palace, and so on. Revolution

means a radical transformation of society’s institutions. In  this sense, I certainly am a revolutionary.

But for there to be revolution in this sense, profound  changes must take place in the psychosocial organization of  Western man, in his attitude toward life, in short, in his  imaginary. The idea that the sole goal of life is to produce  and to consume more—an idea that is both absurd and  degrading—must be abandoned; the capitalist imaginary of  pseudorational pseudomastery, of unlimited expansion, must

be abandoned. That is something only men and women can  do. A single individual, or one organization, can, at best,only prepare, criticize, incite, sketch out possible  orientations.

Q.: What parallel would you draw between the  decline of Marxism and the boom in political ecology?

C.C.: The connection is obviously complex. First,one must see that Marx participates fully in the capitalist  imaginary: for him, as for the dominant ideology of his age,everything depends on increasing the productive forces.

When production reaches a sufficiently elevated level, one will be able to speak of a truly free society, a truly equal  one, and so on and so forth. You do not find in Marx any  critique of capitalist technique, either as production  technique or as the type and nature of the products manufactured.

For him, capitalist technique and its products are an  integral part of the process of human development. Neither  does he criticize the organization of the work process in the  factory. He criticizes, certainly, a few “excessive” features,but as such this organization seems to him to be a  realization of rationality without the addition of quotation marks. The main thrust of his criticisms bears on the usage that is made of this technique and of this organization: they solely benefit capital, instead of profiting humanity as a whole. He does not see that there is an internal critique to  be made of the technique and  Organization of capitalist  production.

This “forgetfulness” on Marx’s part is strange, for,during the same age, one finds this type of reflection present   among many authors. Let us recall, to take a well-known  example, Victor Hugo’s Les misérables. When, in order to  save Marius, Jean Valjean carries him through the sewers  of Paris, Hugo indulges in one of his beloved digressions.

Basing himself no doubt upon the calculations of the great  chemists of the age, probably Justus Liebig, he says that   Paris casts into the sea each year, via its sewers, the   equivalent of 500 million gold francs. And he contrasts this  with the behavior of Chinese peasants who manure the land with their own excrement. That is why, he practically says,China’s earth is today as fertile as on the first day of  creation. He knows that traditional economies were  recycling economies, whereas the economy today is an  economy of wastefulness.

Marx neglects all that, or makes it into something  peripheral. And this was to remain, until the end, the  Marxist movement’s attitude.

Starting by the end of the 1950s, several factors were  to come together in order to change this situation. First,after the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist  Party, the Hungarian Revolution the same year (1956), then  Poland, Prague, and so on, the Marxist ideology lost its  attraction. Then began the critique of capitalist technique.

I mention in passing that in one of my texts from 1957, “On  the Content of Socialism,”4 I developed a radical critique of  Marx as having totally left aside the critique of capitalist  technology, in particular at the point of production, and as  having completely shared, in this regard, the outlook of his  era.

At the same time, people were beginning to discover  the havoc capitalism had wreaked upon the environment.

One of the first books to have exerted a great influence was  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,5 which described the havoc  insecticides inflicted upon the environment: insecticides  destroy plant parasites but also, at the same time,insects—therefore, the birds that feed upon them. This is a  clear example of a circular ecological balance and of its  total destruction via destruction of a single one of its elements.

An ecological awareness then began to form. It  developed all the more rapidly as young people, discontent  with the social     regime in the rich countries, were no longer   able to contain their criticisms within traditional Marxist  channels that were becoming practically ridiculous.

Criticisms predicated upon ever growing poverty no longer  corresponded to anything real; one could no longer accuse  capitalism of starving the workers when working-class  families each had one, then sometimes two cars. At the  same time, there was a fusion of properly ecological themes  with antinuclear ones.


Cornelius Castoriadis  (1922-1997)

 Kornelios Kastoriades was born  in Istanbul to a Greek family. Growing up in Athens he joined the Young Communists in 1937 and the Communist Party in 1941. During the war he read “several books that had miraculously escaped the auto da fes of the dictatorship: Souvarine, Ciliga, Serge, Barmine”. He joined a group on the extreme left of Trotskyism, and was involved in the resistance to the German occupiers. At the end of the war he was physically threatened by both fascists and Stalinists, forcing him to leave for France. Here he joined the French section of the Trotskyist Fourth International, but broke with it in 1948. Along with Lefort and Lyotard, he helped set up the Socialisme ou Barbarie group,( S ou B) initially made up of ex-Trotskyists and ex-Bordigists, often writing in its paper of the same name under the pen names of Pierre Chaulieu or Paul Cardan. He broke with Leninism, thinking that the revolution could be made only by the workers themselves, not by the party. Workers’ councils would be set up in the early stages of the revolution. He did think that some form of revolutionary organisation would be essential, uniting the revolutionary forces, and that once the revolution began, the revolutionary organisation would have to fight inside the organisation of councils to stop possible Leninist take-overs. Similar ideas are expressed in an ACF pamphlet The Role of the Revolutionary Organisation.

In the first issue of S ou B, the group denounced the Trotskyist characterisation of the Soviet Union as a “degenerate workers state”. They developed this in No 2 and 4, applying a Marxist critique to the Soviet Union itself, saying that the Party bureaucracy had collectively taken over the means of production and surplus of labour. By 1960 they were saying that the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, defined as the need to reduce workers to simple order-takers opens a crisis which touches every aspect of life. From 1964 , in No 36 up to the last issue of the paper No 4, Castoriadis definitively broke with Marxism.

The S ou B group exerted their influence outside France with Correspondence in the USA, Unita Proletaria in Italy, and the Solidarity group in this country. Indeed, Solidarity published many works of Castoriadis under the name of Cardan, and he influenced many libertarian socialists and anarchists. The influence of the group was apparent also in May 1968 in France, even though the S ou B group had dissolved 2 years before. As D. Blanchard, a former member wrote in Courant Alternatif, paper of the Organisation Communiste Libertaire “…The activity of the group was not limited either to a critique of Stalinism or the publication of a review. On the theoretical level, the analysis of the bureaucratic phenomenon in Eastern Europe found its echo in that of the bureaucratisation of workers organisations-unions, parties- and in the bureaucratisation of the vital organs of capitalism, the State, business corporations. To this study largely contributed… the daily experience of comrades in the workplaces. Finally, very conscientially, we were preoccupied with enlarging the field of political analysis in extending it, as had already been done by the workers movement in its most fertile moments, to the situation of women, of youth, the content of work, education, urbanism, leisure, consumerism, cinema etc.”.

In his last period, Castoriadis directed himself towards philosophical investigations, to psychoanalysis. In this period, his lack of knowledge of current social events and movements led him towards a tentative defence of the West – because struggle still remained possible within it- against Stalinist imperialism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union he revised his ideas, returning to a critique of market capitalism and globalisation. However, whilst he was full of sarcasm for the bosses and the madness of the system, there was a distinct streak of superficial sociologism in his writings. When asked whether the work abandoned by S ou B should be taken up again, he replied that, in the absence of a social movement that took on the critique of capitalism in its most modern forms, this was not possible!

The best of Castoriadis’ thought lies in his radical libertarian vision which puts at the centre of a critique of capitalism , not economic laws or a fatal contradiction leading to its collapse, but the action of people attempting to take back their lives at every level.



About sooteris kyritsis

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