Crossroads in the Labyrinth

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* Book: Les Carrefours Du Labyrinthe. (Multiple volumes). Cornelius Castoriadis.


English: Crossroads in the Labyrinth. Cornelis Castoriadis.


Michel Bauwens, 2004:

Castoriadis was at first a 'post-Trotskyist' dissident activist and intellectual, who, faced with the defeat of the socialist project, continued on thinking about how to construct a more humane society.

The books starts with two long essays on psycho-analysis and science, which I skipped for the two last essays on Technology and Equality.

The essay starts with retracing the etymology and usage of the concept of Techne with the ancient Greeks, culminating in the common notion of the neutrality of technology. Marx subsumes the concept under that of labour, the key to man's autoproduction, but his youthful acceptance of the complexity of the notion, gradually makes place for a more positive appreciation of technology as embodying the rational mastery over nature, but which is unfortunately hijacked by capital.

Castoriadis challenges the Greek notion that 'technology imitates nature'. Rather it is 'absolute creation', it does precisely what 'nature cannot do'! It is an act of creation, but also part of the total creation that is the social system. Material technology is augmented with the social technology that makes society possible.

The traditional vision, since Aristoteles, is that technology is a means, and by itself 'neutral', as it is the end that has values. If technology does have a value, it is 'efficiency'. This is of course fallacious, when the totality of technical means is considered, it is not just a possession of society, but 'possesses' that society as well. Even a 'total revolution', conscious of this technological determinism, would still be determined by it.

The historical-materialist determinism is also problematical, because technique cannot be abstracted from the totality of social relations.

   - L’ensemble technique est privé de sens, si on le sépare de l’ensemble économique et social.
   - “Organisation sociale et technique sont deux termes qui expriment la création et l’autoposition d’une société donnée. Dans l’organisation sociale d’ensemble, fins et moyens, significations et instruments, efficacité et valeur, ne sont pas séparables. Toute société crée son monde, interne et externe, et cette création n’est ni instrument, ni cause, mais ‘dimension’, partout présente." (p. 307)
   - “Le monde moderne est sans doute 'déterminé', à une foule de niveaux, par sa technologie; mais cette technologie n’est rien d’autre qu’une des expressions essentielles à ce monde, son ‘langage’, à l'égard de la nature exterieure et interieure.” (p. 311)

Technology as it exists today, is not a function of knowledge, or of its growth, but of a fundamental cultural re-orientation concerning the goal of this knowledge, apparent since the formulation by Descartes, that we aim to be the 'masters and owners of creation'.

Castoriadis also stresses that technology is also a function of social conflict, particularly 'within the enterprise', and that this pushes preferentially towards technology, without workers. Thus there is a 'capitalist' technology, rather than technology 'in general'.

In Marxism, technology was a given, part of the 'realm of necessity'. This is no longer the case: not only techniques, but technology in general, are challenged. Technology has become a political question. Today we know that for social change to be possible, it will be necessary to re-invent the technical assemblies, which will require self-managed groups working closely with technicians. A key issue will be the continued requirement for universalisation.


Essay 1: Value

See: Castoriadis on Value.

  • Article: Valeur, égalité, justice, politique: De Marx à Aristote et d'Aristote a nous. pp. 325+

This essay starts with a long quote by Marx on Aristotle's analysis of the equality in value of material objects on the market. If beds and horses could both be traded through money, then this means they have something in common. But they have not, he said, it is just practical convention. He couldn't see that this commonality was human labour, because the slavery-based society did not let him see the equivalency of human labour (in addition to their usage value). But since concrete labour (of the taylor, the butcher) is differentiated, it must be abstract labour. This labour is seen as a substance/essence.

This use of Substance is profoundly Hegelian and based on a series of reductions from concrete phenomena that are in fact impossible to carry out. The concept of a 'Travail Simple, Abstrait, et Socialement Necessaire', based on a fictive average, never occurs in reality, as it would require a totally open and competitive free market has never existed. LIkewise, if 'socially necessary' cannot be determined, neither can 'Simple Work' (Travail Simple) be deduced from concrete complex work, because work also never functions as a pure market.

The key problem is autonomy in Marx, who oscillates between 2 positions, which cannot be reconciled:

   - capitalism for the first time, transforms work in something that is equal and can be measured
   - capitalism makes transparent something that was already the case from the beginning

To make it more complicated, he adds that all this is also a capitalist fiction, reduction, and that humans are singularities, to be revealed in communism. Thus Marx cannot reconcile his historicizing and his ontologizing.Thus, perhaps Aristotle was not limited, but right in saying that labour is different, and that it is society that equalizes it ? As Aristotle rightly sees it, it is a practical fiction only:

   - “L'égalisation (des objets, des travaux, des individus) est chaque fois opérée suffisamment pour le besoin/usage de la société."

Aristotle does not see work as Substance, because it isn't there -- this fiction of measurability which can only arise in capitalism -- and his aim is not to uncover economic processes, but is essentially 'political': his interest is in the foundations of the polis. If Aristotle was the discovered of the economic, it was subordinated to the political, as a means to an end. Greek philosophers are important precisely because of their break with tradition, their search for the just. For Aristotle, is just both what is legal and what is equal. He acknowledges though that the law is not always perfect, it remains an ideal.

Participation in the undivisable vs partaking justly in the divisible

Equality is defined as pertaining to the participants of the polis and concerns both distributive justice (to each its right part) and corrective justice (equality corrected when it is transgressed). Also, equality concerns what can be divided and is exclusive, and is thus different from participative goods , which cannot be divided, such as language for example. Total justice is for Aristotle, the creation of the social-participative realm, the conditions of its accessibility, and the distintion socially-constituted, between 'le partageable et le participable'.

Directly quoted from the french-language text:

- “Socialiser les individus, c’est les faire participer au non-partageable, à ce qui ne doit pas être divisé, privativement, entre les membres de la communauté. Le juste dans la distribution consiste à une certaine proportionnalité (content quatre termes, c.a.d. 2 rapports concernant 2 objets.

- “Ce n’est qu’une fois cette Proto-valeur, cette axia posée axiomatiquement qu’il peut y avoir réponse à la question du partage ‘selon’ (p. 373).

- La société ne serait pas, si l'échange n'était pas, ni l'échange, si l'égalité n'était pas, ni l'égalité, si la commensurabilité n'était pas (Aristotle, quote p. 381) - Toute la problématique se  noue ici: la société présuppose la commensurabilité, mais celle-ci n’est pas ‘naturelle’. Elle ne peut exister que par convention/institution! Elle ne peut être posée que par la société, pour que la société puisse exister. Bref, la société présuppose la société, elle est création d'elle-même.

To recap, A is to B as object a is to b. This presupposes a common measurability. And here we are back at the key problem: how to compare the worth of man. But what this worth is, is subject to debate: liberty, dignity, 'merit', etc ...

Castoriadis writes: "What also interests me about the political nature of the decision about the political nature of the yardstick of worth, is that it places the cause of the type of society, inside man, inside his 'collective imaginary'. (quoted from , La constitution imaginaire de la societe, page unknown).

Thus value is not rational, but axiomatic, and is fought over, argued about by different parties. As it is the yardstick of worth which will determine 'just proportionality'. It is an eminently political question. The axia (proto-value), depends on the nomos (the constitution/institution of society), which is always already there. How do we then go from the proto-value in social justice, to value in the economic ? What is the equal thing which is exchanged there ? Money is a 'good enough' convention, which permits objects to be compared.

A final note on Marx

Marx made a difference between arithmetic equality, which Aristotle had said was inoperable, and geometric equality ('according to a criteria'), for what he called the first and second phase of communism. In the first phase, you get back what you give (equivalent value for hours of work), but in the second, "each gives according to his capacities, and gets according to his needs". In the first phase, applying an equal measure to inherently unequal individuals, is not true equality; but in the second phase, differentiation is applied, to the criteria established by the individuals themselves, but applying this same rule for all. What is totally missing in Marx is how these needs and capacities are socially constructed. He escapes the issue of the paideia, i.e. training for community.