On the Need for Limits After the Time of the Coronavirus
On the Need for Limits After the Time of the Coronavirus: Lessons from Zhuangzi, Ellul, Castoriadis and Rensi for a post-cataclysmic world
In imagining the world after the passage of the twenty-first century coronavirus, COVID-19, what possible use could a philosophy dating back more than two millennia be to us? The philosophy I intend by that is not the philosophy of Plato or Socrates, their primacy is in the philosophical order is a given, but of the small handful of philosophers we are accustomed to calling Taoists or Daoists, namely Laozi, Liezi and Zhuangzi.1 The relegation of these philosophers to the realm of "Oriental wisdom" is a relatively modern phenomenon. That in the twenty-first century we should still adhere to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century prejudices is in large part due to Heidegger's amplification of an idea that was already dominant in Hegel’s vision of philosophy and history: that philosophy is a strictly Western dominion, and philosophy cannot exist elsewhere since it was invented in Greece. This is an ideological position which has done much to cut the world falsely in half, into “East” and “West”.2
So in this essay those other philosophers, or rather the ideas attributed to them, will be treated like any others, and I shall attempt to show that these thinkers who were active in a society in a place we now call China — that we in the West started naming China as recently as the sixteenth century — are not only of help to us in thinking through human society in the twenty-first century, but are also compatible with a body of important, though often less fashionable thought expressed in French and Italian, namely that of Jacques Ellul, Cornelius Castoriadis, André Gorz, and Giuseppe Rensi. None of the latter belong to the "obedience" that has dominated post-World War Two Western radical thought. Heidegger again, of course, and those in his grip. Heidegger was a man — for the man seems to have been as charismatic as the philosopher was beguiling — who already in the 1930s was an object of fascination for the French thinkers Sartre and Ricoeur.3 He would become an indispensable compass for those who would become the postmodern, demi-gods that are Foucault, Derrida and Agamben.4
What I set out to show here is how Jacques Ellul (who attempted to comment on contemporary China), Cornelius Castoriadis (despite his profound Hellenocentrism) and Giuseppe Rensi (the respectable professor of moral philosophy who would be locked up by Mussolini), together with Zhuangzi (the argued-over Daoist), whose philosophies proceed unwittingly in parallel like four ships in the night, can help us — we who can line them up and read across them — to understand and imagine how we might retreat from, or even transcend, the cataclysmic moment that humanity is currently experiencing, a moment of which the coronavirus may be seen as a tragic epiphenomenon.
In the light of humanity’s belated collective awareness of a climate crisis of its own making, of its vulnerability to health crises facilitated and exacerbated by needless travel, the need for the implementation of limits — to production, to consumption, to our domination of ‘Nature’, to the wielding of power — has, become urgent. But are limits alone sufficient to change the more disastrous possible outcomes, and even if they were by what political mechanism could they be instituted? The dual vectors of capitalism and unbridled techno-science have unrelentingly propelled humanity towards a stage in its history where limitation is already too late to save and preserve the system as we have known it. ‘Global society’ must become ‘societies around the globe’, and these must now fundamentally alter the way the planet’s resources are consumed and transported, and how we humans move about the planet.
A strategy of limits alone may be insufficient to inspire the younger generation and generations to come. Doubtless, we need to create a new culture in which limitless production and futile labour give way to a way of life that not only respects humanity’s environment but humans themselves. To create that culture requires a new way of imagining the world based on creativity, and the fulfilment of all. But while limits alone are insufficient, they are still essential to stop the pace of the damage, and to ensure humanity's survival.
Even before the Second World War the need for limits had been identified by two young French intellectuals who would go on to exert a major influence on "ecological" or "green" thinking. I refer to Jacques Ellul and Bernard Charbonneau, who already in 1935 had focussed on the problem posed by limits and the damage caused by the unlimited. They had specifically identified the problem of "technique" — a word in French that at that time encompassed both the sense of "technical" and "technological" and applied as much to method as to the hardware that implemented it — as the "decisive fact of modernity". Quentin Hardy succinctly resumes their argument:
The decisive fact of modernity: the technical brings about the triumph of instrumental reason. The technical is so much more than a set of industrial procedures, it is a 'general procedure', that is to say a series of imagined practices turned towards unlimited production, efficiency and the multiplication of abstract and oppressive mechanisms. Plunged into an environment which consists only of means that are totally mediatized, and thus with no hold on his or her surroundings, homo technologicus, finds her/himself in a universe of inevitabilities where the scale of everything (economics, media, industry, work) is beyond them. 5
Later, Cornelius Castoriadis would talk of the "unlimited expansion of rational control clearly and visibly incarnated in the early forms of 'capitalism', programmatically expressed by the rationalist philosophers of the seventeenth century (Descartes, Leibniz)" which would lead to "industrial capitalism…and then the intrusion of 'rationalization' into all domains of social activity, and ultimately the mad dash of self-regulated techno-science that we know today."6
A principal ambition of Charbonneau and Ellul was to interrogate the assumption that the technical —"technology" together with technical procedures — was neutral:
The technical engenders the development of power. Far from facilitating emancipation, power engenders imbalances and becomes uncontrollable, since it unavoidably summons concentration and gigantism.7
Ellul points to how the initial relationship between technique and humans has been inverted, how technology now leads the dance :
A human group strives to 'persevere in being', only adopts innovations gradually and tends to absorb them, but we have seen that the relationship has been inverted. Now it is the technical which encompasses and determines cultural forms, "civilization".8
So how can this Spinozan primacy of the human mind be re-established, how can the technical be brought back under control, be limited? When Ellul discusses limits he invokes Ivan Illich who stressed the distinction between thresholds and limits:
The thresholds represent the bounds between which the action of humankind (and the technical) must be situated so that survival remains possible. It's a question of necessity. And when we talk of nuisances, of pollution, the depletion of resources, we are fixing thresholds….These are just the minimum conditions for survival. But these count for nothing in the creation of a civilization, a culture, for here humankind must fix itself limits constitutive of the blueprint of a culture. Here appears the voluntary and the deliberative…"[Z]ero growth" in no way guarantees the emergence of a new culture, only the condition of its possibility….It is the fixing of limits which creates freedom, contrary to what we might be believe…I believe nothing is so fundamental as this problem of voluntary limits.9
In the European management of the 2020 coronavirus crisis, we were all witness to population's widespread failure to observe voluntary restrictions and constraints even when these concerned their own lives directly; limits on freedom of movement had to be imposed by the state. We have learnt to understand our obligation to consume as "freedoms"— eat what you want when you want, go where you want when you want — and are lost when told by the same authorities that all our lives summon us to consume so as to "grow" the economy, suddenly require us to desist. As in China, so in the West, the absence of real freedom has been replaced by pseudo-freedoms of consumption.
Imposed limits may temporarily save life, but ultimately the only limits that will deliver more than survival are, as Castoriadis emphasises, those that are accepted and applied voluntarily:
The only true limitation that democracy can bear is self-limitation, which can only be in the final analysis, the task and the work [oeuvre] of individuals (of citizens) educated by and for democracy.10
Castoriadis also spoke of limits in terms of humanity's cohabitation with nature. And here we hear the echoes of several enlightened philosophers whom today we call "Greek" or "Chinese" who thought — given the irreparable separation, the rupture that was the self-subtraction of humankind from the rest of the world, its rhythms and its practices to which it had previously belonged — that the most we could hope for was a convergence, what the Daoists summed up in the formula tian ren he yi 天人合一, that "the world and humanity converge as one." This formula acknowledges that the originary and ideal condition of humanity as an integral part of this world were well and truly lost, and that separation and alienation had long been the norm. Indeed, now as then, the maximum we can aspire to is a rapprochement, a cohabitation between humanity and the rest of the world. For Castoriadis, in words recalling Ellul and Ilich's position:
A change in attitude towards nature is indispensable. We need to rid ourselves of our fantasies of unlimited control and expansion, stop the boundless exploitation of our planet, cohabit with it lovingly like an English gardener.11
For Castoriadis this idealized English garden represents a human "cohabitation" with "nature". Nature, then would exist therefore alongside humankind, and survive because of human action and non-action. However, humanity would remain separated out from the rest of the world, from "nature". This is a pragmatic vision in which the English garden for all its desire to dominate nature as much as cohabit with it, is nevertheless preferable to a concrete jungle. Castoriadis, then does not conceive of the world as a monad, as an overarching entity to which humankind belongs. Again, Castoriadis, much attached to his Athenian model of democracy, pleads for a regime founded on self-limitation:
Autonomy, freedom, is not the mere abolition of external constraints or psychic drives, it means also establishing another kind of relationship between our deepest collective and individual impulses, and instances capable of sorting through them either to give them form or to prevent them appearing in reality. Such is the role of a thinking and deliberating subjectivity on the level of the individual, and of democratic institutions at the collective level, for democracy is the regime of reflexivity and of self-limited freedom 12.
As I said at the beginning of this essay, I do not wish to make an exception of Daoism, to give a special status apart from philosophy in general. However, I need perhaps to stress that the philosophy in question is not a manifestation of 'Oriental mysticism', but a reflective process based on observation that nowadays would be qualified as 'scientific'. We are not dealing with belief but with philosophy. It is not a 'wisdom', but a reflection that is more often than not political and always philosophical. The world of the Daoists was also that of Confucius, who established a political philosophy, or rather an ideology around the praxis of power, of governance, which prioritized big state governance, the urban, the large-scale public works, just as we saw in Europe and around the same time.
Ellul has an interesting theory on the (hi)story told by the Bible. He sees the overarching Biblical narrative as one recounting progression out of the country, out of the wild, towards the city, towards civilization. Everything starts in the Garden of Eden and ends in the Utopia of Jerusalem, which is the motif taken up by William Blake in his "and did those feet in ancient time". The last, celebrated stanza announces:
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant Land.
Perhaps Blake imagined an urban utopia surrounded by verdant pastures, and yet Paradise is the city constructed on, and ultimately against, the "green and pleasant land".
Confucius's philosophy, which in its neo-Confucian form is heralded as the foundation of modern "Asian values", follows a similar logic. For the Confucians, the physical environment in which humankind finds itself is to be controlled and explorited in order to construct a perfect world, or rather to reconstruct it, since for Confucius this global entity governed by a supreme sovereign is no utopia, it already existed in a remote past and has merely to be reconstituted. This ideal world is constructed around an urban civilization, contained behind city walls, far removed from the country and the peasants. For Confucius, what counts is the political world, perfect governance. The ideal for the elite is to aspire to the behaviour of a 君子 junzi, a sort of 'gentleman', who is guided by superficial rules, the rites, a social varnish, a surface civility. Such Confucian qualities were characterised by Laozi, in the Daodejing 道德經，in descending order: de 德, a sort of carisma infused by moral rectitude; ren 仁，humanity; yi 義，equity; and li 禮, the superficial civilities. And when these were exhausted or non-existent, then order had to be imposed by force：rang bi er reng zhi 讓臂而仍之. For Laozi 老子, who commented on this hierarchy of Confucian values, what mattered more was the possession of the Dao:
If you lose the dao, you are left with moral rectitude, if you lose moral rectitude there remains only humanity, if you lose humanity there is just equity, and when you lose that you are left with the civilities. And as for these civilities, they are the thin varnish of loyalty and sincerity, and the beginning of disorder.13
The dao, however was not reducible to pre-existing knowledge and acquired qualities, there was a deeper level of knowing how to (act or not act, speak or not speak). Laozi puts it thus:
Foreknowledge is but the flower of the Dao, and thus the source of stupidity. This is why the great personage inhabits the Dao's substance and doesn't dwell in its insignificance, inhabits its fruit and does not dwell in its flower.14
For the Daoists such as Zhuangzi 莊子, Laozi 老子 and Liezi 列子, life led in line with Confucian doctrine was life in its most reductive form. For Zhuangzi, the world to which we needed to aspire was not one peopled by mythic sage-kings acting wisely and applying rules of etiquette, but rather life beyond human civilization, beyond the dominance of the urban, beyond our separation from the world we had conceptualized as outside of ourselves.
Let us now come back to the question of power, and the Daoists' position on power. While it is often said, so as to deny its political philosophical legitimacy, that Daoism shuns power, it is not power per se that the philosophy questions but its exercise, and the dominance of the state in matters of governance. Daoist texts do not promote an anarcho-conservative abdication in the face of power, but rather a critical reflection on political practice. Thus, the generally held opinion that Zhuangzi, or at least the texts we attribute to him, wanted no truck with power is false. But it is an "idea found in all the Chinese commentaries which Western sinologists in turn took up".15 What Zhuangzi in reality attempted was a radical critique of the exercise of power. It was one of the commentators of the time, an ideological manipulator, a fabricator of "fake news", who reduced Daoism and in particular Zhuangzi, to the status of small beer in the syncretic ideology that was employed to maintain monarchical power after the unifications of states into what we erroneously call the "empire" or "imperial China". It was a certain Guo Xiang 郭象 who "transformed a caustic critique of power into an apology for abdication and moral indifference."16 And it is Zhuangzi's ideas on power that urge us to reflect further on the relations between power and desire and voluntary limits.
As Jean François Billeter notes, Zhuangzi points to how people "exhaust their energy and condemn themselves because they are the playthings of their own desire."17 Desire and power for Zhuangzi are intertwined; consciousness "being capable of acquiring the power to desire or to not desire, and thus freeing itself from error."18 This leads us back to a reflection on voluntary limits.
Power, and how we use it is also a central concern for Jacques Ellul. He stresses what he terms non-puissance, 'non-power', not impotence but rather a conscious decision and praxis of not employing our power, of limitting our power; just as world powers have succeeded, so far, in not re-deploying nuclear weapons.19 The ravages and excesses of recent globalization demonstrate negatively how important the application of a strategy of non-power could be. The celebrated maxim from Laozi wu wei er zhi 無為而治 "maintain order while not acting", so cherished by Western anarchists, would be a strong example of the exercise of non-power.
But to arrive at this we need to shed our old paradigms, our collective imaginary of power. We need to challenge what Ellul called lieux communs or common-places such as’you can't stop progress’, which are the keystone of the ideology that has us in thrall to the destructive machine of which the anthropocene is the product. 'You can't stop progress' belongs to a "catalogue of collective illusions and unconsciously skewed representations…, collective beliefs, dependent on presuppositions admired without discussion, with no contestation possible."20 Thus, those responsible for the condition of humanity today, and of the earth it has rampaged across, are not just the easily identified ogres, the strong men, the ruling classes, the wicked states or "evil empires". No, we are all of us engaged in a process of common evolution regardless of class or nation.21
As I have written elsewhere, the China at which we point the finger when we are affronted by climate change, the degradation of the planet or the exhausting of natural resources is no more responsible than the others. China has been allowed, indeed encouraged, to take its turn turning the handle of the barrel-organ of our world economy, but it cannot alone cease turning it or change the machine's music.22 That requires a collective exercise of non-power, a fixing of limits.
In a recent book, Demain l'Europe (Tomorrow Europe), Billeter sets out his vision for a new Europe, a republic that would be established if "they could see in it the means of satisfying their essential needs and desires, or at least a way of working towards a society that would satisfy them."23
But what strategy could be followed that might convince a hegemonic majority to adopt such measures? And who, which subject or groups of humans, which elite would fight this fight? How can a concrete world, or more modestly and simply European, project be established without gaining not only the consent but the participation of the greatest number? How when all the force of the techno-economic system, all the retrograde and nationalist political movements that have emerged over the past decades militate in the opposite direction? Billeter himself raises a doubt when he wonders whether the necessary "reflection on our essential needs and desires " will "still be possible if things take a turn for the worse. If catastrophe gains the upper hand and the battle of all against all starts up?"24 It is a catastrophe of a political, xenophobic nature that Billeter envisages. But the catastrophe, or rather the cataclysm, that is looming is increasingly climatic or sanitary in its nature, as the fire, floods, and epidemics of 2019-2020 have amply demonstrated. As to imagining another Europe, carved out of the world as a whole, as the coronavirus and the climatic crisis has demonstrated, how can one continent alone react alone once thrown into the midst of catastrophe?
We are indeed in the midst a crisis which touches every nation on every continent and indiscriminately lays low the mighty as much as it does the lowly. It took a pandemic to make the world pay attention, while for the past decade the appearance of refugees on Europe's shores had hardly any moral impact on wealthy countries that are themselves at the origin of these disasters.
I take no pride in having written two years ago for a conference on the anthropocene: "It will only be once those who hold the power and the wealth are similarly struck by such catastrophes that a reaction will be possible."25
We already know what strategies need to be put in place, what types of behaviour we must change, the question remains how to implement such changes and through what sort of social movement? The social isolation and confinement imposed in an attempt to contain the coronavirus pandemic showed to us the centrality of work in our lives. The reaction the world over was expectedly illustrative of the primacy of capitalist economic concerns. For governments and corporations, beyond the loss of profit there ran the fear of people gaining a taste for living their lives differently, worklessly. Indeed, the imperative of confinement flew in the face of the ideology of work. And yet, we also saw people's aimlessness once their work was taken away.
And yet there were immediate benefits. The closure of factories around the world meant that in the most polluted parts of the planet people once again glimpsed blue skies, and breathed fresher air. The planet was happier. Insects came back. Birds chirped — as they always did but now you heared them!
Given the ecological and human catastrophes that have occurred over the past few years, it should now be obvious that productivist work, or work that feeds into or off productivism, is undeniably damaging to our environment and brings about accelerated climate change. But more than the environmental damage it brings about, such work is outmoded as an appropriate activity for humans, and is an obstacle to human fulfilment.
The Italian philosopher Giuseppe Rensi (1871-1941) was an early critic of the ideology of work. In 1923, he demonstrated the benefits of a massive reduction in the time spent in this activity that can be so destructive of the human spirit. He roundly condemned the formula "chi non lavora non mangi" (whoever doesn't work doesn't eat), since for Rensi it was preferable to talk of the right not to work rather than the 'right to work' —"Non è già il caso di parlare d’un 'diritto al lavoro', ma, se mai, d’un diritto al non lavoro".26
Let us consider this key passage on the “morality” of Work from Rensi’s treatise:
If work is a noble thing, if it represents the exercising of a virtue…, there is no reason to be concerned with improving the conditions under which it is realized….If work is a virtue, if it is accompanied by reflections or repercussions of a religious nature, then its realization is therefore a religious or moral duty, and as a virtue no compensation is attributable. It is remunerated solely because the worker must be kept alive. Thus in a given society there is no call to increase this remuneration beyond the minimum required by the play of economic force…. All further pretension, when work is considered a noble affair, a moral duty, a virtue, an act completed out of religious intent, is absolutely unjustified. On the other hand, the demand for improvements in working conditions, a decrease in hours worked, and an increase in remuneration for work, proletarian “demands” , the call for the “emancipation” of the workers – can only derive its unilateral justification, can only become a social struggle, can only find consensus, support and admiration from a conception of work as having no moral or religious value, but as brutal, material, unpleasant, harmful and unhappy. That is why the morality of capitalist society…originally insisted on a conception of work as an ethico-religious phenomenon of the utmost importance.…27
Rensi reminds us of the Swiss poet and philosopher Henri Frédéric Amiel's elogy in regard to the dreaming "flâneur", the strolling, idler, who already knew the fulsome approval of Saint Beuve, Balzac, Bazin and Baudelaire:
We are too harried, too burdened, too busy, too involved! We read too much. We need to throw over board our baggage of worries, troubles and pedantry, make ourselves over as young, simple, childlike, live for the moment, grateful, naive, happy. We need to learn to be idle, which is not the same as lazy. In attentive and collected inactivity, our soul wipes away its creases, relaxes, unfolds, slowly regenerates like trodden grass on a path, and like the wilted leaf of a plant, remedies the damage, becomes once more new, spontaneous, true and original. Revery, like night rainfall, rejuvenates ideas turned tired and pale by the heat of the day….Revery is the Sunday of thought…. Flânerie…is not only delicious; it's useful. It's a healing bath which makes the whole being, both mind and body, lithe and vibrant once more; it's the symbol and the celebration of freedom; it's a joyful and welcome banquet, the banquet of the butterfly dipping and diving on the slopes and in the meadow. And the soul too is a butterfly.28
Both Amiel and Rensi criticized work for its negative impact on the human being, its way of alienating individuals, separating them from the world. Yet, like Marx, they could not yet see that beyond the impact on humankind, there was the destructive effect of industrial work on the physical and biological world. Now, in the twenty-first century there exists a double motive for a drastic reduction in the time given over to, if the abolition, of work: (i) the necessity to end productivism which along with mass consumption is continuing to wreak irreparable damage on this planet and on the human existence it sustains , and (ii) the overcoming of human alienation through the institution of a new imagination that would free creative forces and prioritize human creativity, a way of imagining in which play, flânerie, and revery would be not simply elements but the fundamental instruments with which we could fashion a new means, not merely of surviving but, of living.
But we are so alienated from ourselves and so unused to having free time which is not already filled with the baubles and devices of consumer society that the prospect of time we are free to fill otherwise is daunting. Witness, the near panic caused by people needing to find ways to occupy themselves during the confinement necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. Deprived of jetting off for week-end breaks, of splurging out at Disneyland, or just basic consumption in pubs and restaurants, people were thrown back in front of TV screens and video games. Of course, the elite could also fall back on consuming books, films and music and feeling virtuous for so doing. But how many people actually engaged in creating anything? What is crucial at present is to plan for how we shall use the time that will inevitably be freed up when the limits and bounds necessary to our survival are applied, for a policy and a politics of limits will inevitably demand a massive reduction in the time spent at work.
Although in order to prevent further dramatic climate change and the poisoning of our food supply, limits will indeed need reinforcement and stringent application, imposing limits on ourselves and on others will not suffice. Assuming that the instinct for survival will convince us all of the need for enforced and accepted limits, what then ? It would be a such a waste to "free" people from work simply to have them spend their lives in front of screens.
So how could people "employ" their newly freed-up time? Well, there would be the possibility of creating public art, of re-thinking in an environmentally friendly fashion how we use the land we live on. We could reshape urban and rural planning with much more ludic practices, create a sort of post-consumerist, post-work 'New Deal' for our environment in which creativity and 'art' have a dominant place. We could re-think our health services and start by making them more humane, and replace treatments and procedures of industrialized medicine and pharmaceuticals, with methods and remedies tailored to individual needs. We would need to replant medicinal plants from around the world, share medical knowledge and procedures from elsewhere, revisit and revive what has been abandoned.. In terms of technology, and the slim spectre of science that survives behind it, new technologies and products would only be developed where a community-wide need could be clearly demonstrated and not simply because they could bee. Committees including not only experts, not only the 'good and great" but ordinary citizens would give their opinions, and decisions would be arrived at democratically. Thus 'non-power' would become the a priori way of proceeding and the necessity to call on technological power would need to be proven on a case by case basis. The new policy would be based on what we need to do rather than what we can do. Not "Yes, we can", but "What we need".
New dwellings will need to be built, old ones will need to be restored, ways of building that have been been abandoned will need to be revived. The cheap and the profitable, will give way to the considered, the durable, and the liveable and will respect the wishes of communities and peoples ; there would be no more Grenfells And in each neigbourhood, artistic creativity will be prioritized: hands-on art practised by individuals and groups, public art, theatrical shows, music will have a central place.
All these activities will be at the heart of teaching and learning. A new history of the world will be given pride of place. It will be a history that will recount and explain the negative impact of European colonialism, and the ravages wrought by industrial capitalism. In other words, it will recount where we went wrong, it will be a "lest-we-forget" history for the twenty-first century.
And then, the urgent priority for the next three decades will be how practically to deal with the massive refugee crisis we have created. People would need to organize so as manage the mulitiple crises brought about by climate change, the fires, the floods, the food shortages. Survivors and refugees will need long-term help to re-construct their lives. In part, as a result of the movement of people to sustainable habitats, there will be a need for a large number of people to teach languages. Language barriers must fall, and the dominance of a few prestigious languages must be replaced by a new multilingualism.
Thus, in this new culture beyond the dominance of traditional "work", there will be a huge amount of work to do.
Happily, there is the work-as-play, what Rensi calls 'lavoro-giuoco'. A kind of "work" that may not be alienating and repetitive, not 'work as constraint'.29 And yet such work will inevitably have to be done by all of the people some of the time. After we strip away the ideology that masks this work-as-constraint, such work still needs to be done, just like our daily chores. How could it be managed? As André Gorz demonstrated over and over, this work that is, constraining but necessary can be organized weekly: ten hours a week, for example, or more imaginatively spread out over a life-time with individuals having the right to entire years of sabbatical leave with no such work to do at all, so that people whether young or old could devote themselves full-time to their passions.30 Chores within a household will always need too be done, and these can be divided out equitably. But that still would leave a signficant amoubt of ‘free’ time.
Thus, this moment after the age of mass production and consumption need not be lived as a misery, as deprivation, but rather as a liberation. Here we have the outline of a programme which will not simply assure our survival but which lays the foundations for the creation of a life worth living for our descendants.
To get to that stage, to call once again on Castoriadis, we shall need to proceed in a truly democratic manner, since the fixing of limits will be "the task and the oeuvre of individuals (citizens) educated by and for democracy". For, what is the use of "saving the planet", if it is to live under a dictatorship imposing not only limits to consumption, but limits of an ideological order. The education evoked by Castoriadis must be at popular demand, and respond to the needs of a new conception of society. This 'democratizing' form of education must not be top-down, but must be established and run, not by the state but, as a network of catering to communities' needs, the foremost need being the know-how to run their communities.
So when will this happen? Will the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic turbulence be sufficient to make national societies take heed and wish to organize themselves otherwise, and not via the interposition of a screen and the digital capitalism that lurks behind it? Probably not. But we will have been warned, and the lesson is there for us should we choose to learn from it and to act upon it. In the meantime, the nature and conditions of our survival become increasingly precarious and uncomfortable. That drastic limits will need to be imposed is certain. The only question is whether we choose to participate in their democratic installation, and go a little further so as to live better lives, or whether we wait for autocratic state machines to impose them.
1 The quest for the dao 道, the way, the path, but also the discourse was common to all philosophers of that time and place, a fragmented world in which no hegemonic state or government existed and which therefore allowed a philosophical space for contending schools. For Confucius, just as Hegel apprehended, the dao had a narrower, more pragmatic, utilitarian application: it was the way to govern and control the world understood as human society.
2 Heidegger hones an Orientalist problematic running through Montesquieu, Hobbes and Hegel. Non-Western thought is positioned as part of a negativity against which the positivity of (Western) philosophy may shine out. See Hegel’s Vorlesungen zur Geshichte de Philosophie (1833-36)/Lectures on the History of Philosophy. Given the damage that the Heideggerian hegemony has insidiously wrought in twentieth-century thought, the possibility that Heidegger himself in the late 1940s consciously and subconsciously appropriated the philosophy of Zhuangzi in his “Evening Conversation” is both disturbing and perverse; see Fabian Heubel, Gewundene Wege nach China: Heidegger – Daoismus – Adorno, Frankfurt, Klostermann, 2020.
3 See for instance the case of the surrealist poet René Char, who had fought in the resistance in Provence, and then not only befriended but became besotted with Heidegger who became a frequent visitor to Char's home. Char was far from being an intellectualized poet, but he was totally in thrall to the German philosopher.
I leave aside the case of Heidegger's lover and sickle Hannah Arendt, whose subaltern self-positioning with regard to Heidegger has been treated in depth by Emmanuel Faye. See his Arendt et Heidegger. Extermination nazie et destruction de la pensée, Paris, Albin Michel, 2016. See also: Emmaneul Faye, Heidegger:The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935, New Haven, Yale University Press,2011.
4 Agamben, indeed, on 26th February 2020 published an article minimizing the scale and the gravity of the coronavirus seeing the measures to fight it as a means by which the state advanced its dominance. Without denigrating Agamben’s work on the encroachment of the state, "the state of exception”, what is dramatic in his article is the way he misses the other major lesson : the virus is the direct result of an unbridled globalization — in which states have necessarily been complicit— which has almost entirely flattened time and space and facilitated the spread of disease.
5 Quentin Hardy, introduction à Bernard Charbonneau et Jacques Ellul, Nous sommes des révolutionnaires malgré nous, Paris, Seuil, 2014, p 36: [L]e fait décisif de la modernité : la technique fait triompher la raison instrumentale. La technique est beaucoup plus qu'un ensemble de procédés industriels, c'est un 'procédé général', c'est à dire un imaginaire de pratiques tournées vers la production illimitée, l'efficacité et la multiplication de dispositifs abstraits et opprimants. Plongé dans un milieu qui n'est que moyens, intégralement médiatisé, et donc sans prise sur son environnement, l'homo technologiques, se retrouve dans un univers de fatalités où toutes les grandeurs (économie, médias, industrie, travail) le dépassent.
6 Cornelius Castoriadis, Fait et à faire. Les carrefours du labyrinthe 5, Paris : Seuil, 1997, p. 220: "l'expansion illimitée de la maîtrise rationnelle….Clairement et visiblement incarnée dans les premières formes du 'capitalisme', programmatiquement exprimée dans les philosophes rationalistes du XVIIe siècle (Descartes, Leibniz)." "Au bout de quelques siècles cela donnera "le capitalisme industriel proprement dit, puis l'invasion de la 'rationalisation' dans tous les domaines de l'activité sociale, et finalement la course folle de la techno-science autonomisée que nous connaissons aujourd'hui."
7 Quentin Hardy in Charbonneau et Ellul, p 36.
8 "[…U]n groupe humain cherche à "persévérer dans l'être"*, n'adopte les innovations que progressivement et tend à les absorber : or nous avons vu que la relation s'est inversée : maintenant c'est la technique qui englobe et qui détermine les formes culturelles, la 'civilisation'." Jacques Ellul, Le Système technicien, Paris, Calman-Lévy, 1977, Le Cherche midi 2012 p. 305. *A reference to Spinoza, the essence of the human mind being a striving (conatus) to persevere in being.
9 "Les seuils représentent les bornes entre lesquelles l'action de l'homme (et la technique) doit se situer pour que la survie reste possible. Il s'agit de nécessités. Et lorsque nous parlons de nuisances, de pollution, d'épuisement des ressources, nous désignons des seuils…. Il s'agit alors simplement des conditions de survie. Mais ceci n'est rien pour la création d'une civilisation, d'une culture : ici l'homme doit se fixer à lui-même des limites qui constituent le dessin d'une culture. Ici parait le volontaire et le délibératif… la "croissance zéro" n'est en rien la garantie d'apparition d'une culture nouvelle, seulement la possibilité.… C'est la fixation des limites qui est créatrice de liberté, contrairement à ce que l'on croit…, je ne crois que rien n'est aussi fondamental que ce problème des limites volontaires." Ellul, Système technicien, p. 305 n. 25.
10 "La seule limitation véritable que peut comporter la démocratie est l'auto-limitation, qui ne peut être, en dernière analyse, que la tâche et l'œuvre des individus (des citoyens) éduqués par et pour la démocratie." Castoriadis, Labyrinthe, V, p. 207
11 "Un changement d'attitude envers la nature est indispensable. Nous devons nous défaire des fantasmes de la maîtrise et de l'expansion illimitées, arrêter l'exploitation sans bornes de notre planète, cohabiter avec elle amoureusement, comme un jardinier anglais." Castoriadis, Écrits politiques IV : Quelle Démocratie tome 2, Paris, Éditions du Sandre, 1990, p 384.
12 "L'autonomie, la liberté, n'est pas seulement l'abolition des contraintes externes ou des pulsions psychiques ; elle est aussi l'établissement d'un autre type de rapport entre nos poussées profondes, individuelles ou collectives, et des instances capables d'en faire le tri, de leur donner forme ou de les empêcher de se manifester dans la réalité. C'est le rôle de la subjectivité réfléchissante et délibérante au plan individuel, des institutions démocratiques au plan collectif car la démocratie est le régime de la réflexivité collective et de la liberté autolimitée." Castoriadis, Écrits politiques, IV, p. 387
13 故失道而后德 失德而后仁失仁而后义失义而后礼夫礼者忠信之薄而乱之首
14 前识者道之华而愚之始是以大丈夫处其厚不居其薄处其实不 居其华
15 Jean François Billeter, Études sur Tchouang-tseu, Paris: Editions Allia, 2004, p. 48: '[I]dée de tous les commentaires chinois, qu'ont reprise les sinologues occidentaux.' Billeter emploie le système de transcription phonétique de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), conçu par le jésuite français Séraphin Couvreur.
16 Billeter, Études, p. 48. According to a certain source, Guo Xiang's text is based on an incomplete commentary of he Zhuangzi by 向秀 Xiang Xiu (ca 223-ca 275); see David R Knechtges, Taping Chang, Handbuch der Orientalistik. Abt. 4, China. Bd 25:2, Ancient and early medieval Chinese literature : a reference guide, Leiden, Brill 2013, pp 1442-1443.
17 Billeter, Etudes, p. 60 : 'les hommes usent leurs forces et courent à leur perte parce qu'ils sont les jouets de leur propre vouloir.'
18 Billeter, Etudes, p. 61 : 'la conscience peut…acquérir le pouvoir…de vouloir ou de ne pas vouloir, et se libérer par là de l'erreur.'
19 Jacques Ellul, Théologie et Technique. Pour une éthique de la non-puissance, Geneva, Labor et Fides, 2014.
20 Jacques Ellul, Exégèse des nouveaux lieux communs, Paris, Calmann Levy, 1966, p. 17
21 Ellul, Exégèse p. 18.
22 Gregory B. Lee, « Le cadeau empoisonné de Versailles ou la Chine à la manivelle de l'orgue de barbarie », Mouvements, vol. 72, no. 4, 2012, pp. 79-88. https://doi.org/10.3917/mouv.072.0079
23 Billeter, Demain l’Europe, Paris, Allia, 2019, p. 37:« s’ils y voient le moyen de satisfaire leurs besoins et leurs désirs essentiels ou de moins œuvrer en faveur d’une société qui les satisfera ».
24 Billeter, Demain l’Europe, p. 38.
25 Gregory B. Lee, "Au-delà des limites : pour un nouvel imaginaire culturel", Transtext(e)sTranscultures 13 | 2018 : Représentations de la nature à l'âge de l'anthropocène, https://doi.org/10.4000/transtexts.1223: "Ce sera uniquement lorsque ceux qui détiennent le pouvoir et la richesse seront également atteints par de telles catastrophes, qu’une réaction sera possible. Nous savons déjà quelles sont les stratégies qu’il faudrait mettre en place, quels comportements il faudrait changer, la question demeure de savoir comment y arriver, par quelle force sociétale."
26 Giuseppe Rensi, L’Irrazionale, Il Lavoro, L’Amore, Milan, Unitas, 1923, p. 252-253.
27 Rensi, pp. 199-201: 'Quanto più, cioè, il concetto del lavoro è moralmente nobilitato e il lavoro stesso considerato come una virtù, tanto minor importanza assume il miglioramento delle condizioni dei lavoratori e tanto meno si tende a preoccuparsene….Se il lavoro è una virtù, se esso è provvisto di riflessi o ripercussioni di carattere religioso, allora il suo esercizio è un dovere morale e religioso, e ad esso non va quindi attribuito un compenso in quanto virtù; bensì esso va compensato solo perchè è necessario mantener in vita il lavoratore, e quindi non v’è ragione di salire in questo compenso so- pra il minimo possibile stabilito dal giuoco delle forze economiche (domanda ed offerta della merce lavoro, compra-vendita di essa) in una data società. Ogni pretesa superiore, quando il lavoro si consideri come un fatto nobilitante, un dovere morale, una virtù, un atto compiuto con effetti religiosi, è assolutamente ingiustificata. Invece, la richiesta di miglioramenti delle condizioni di lavoro, diminuzione della sua durata e suo maggiore compenso, le «rivendicazioni» proletarie, l’esigenza dell’«emancipazione» dei lavoratori – tutto ciò, attinge la sua unilaterale giustificazione, può erompere in lotta sociale, trovare consenso, appoggio, ammirazione, soltanto sulla base d’una concezione del lavoro come fatto di nessun valore morale o religioso, bensì bruto e materiale, penoso, dannoso, triste. Perciò la morale della società capitalistica…insiste originariamente sulla concezione del lavoro come fenomeno etico-religioso di grande importanza….'
28 Henri Frédéric Amiel (1821-1881), Fragments d’un journal intime, Genève, 1908, George & Co, tome I, p. 52: 'Oui, nous sommes trop affairés, trop encombrés, trop occupés, trop actifs ! Nous lisons trop ! Il faut jeter par dessus bord tout son bagage de soucis, de préoccupations et de pédanterie, se refaire jeune, simple, enfant, vivre de l'heure présente, reconnaissant, naïf, heureux! Oui, il faut savoir être oisif, ce qui n'est pas de la paresse. Dans l’inaction attentive et recueillie, notre âme efface ses plis, se détend, se déroule, renaît doucement comme l'herbe foulée du chemin, et comme la feuille meurtrie de la plante, répare ses dommages, redevient neuve, spontanée, vraie, originale. La rêverie, comme la pluie des nuits, fait reverdir les idées fatiguées et pâlies par la chaleur du jour…. La rêverie est le dimanche de la pensée….La flânerie…n’est pas seulement délicieuse ; elle est utile. C’est un bain de santé qui rend la vigueur et la souplesse à tout l’être ; à l'esprit comme au corps; c’est le signe et la fête de la liberté ; c'est un banquet joyeux et salutaire, le banquet du papillon qui lutine et butine sur les coteaux et dans les prés. Or l'âme est aussi un papillon.' Rensi, p. 237, offers a much truncated citation of Amiel's passage praising revery.
29 Rensi, pp. 252-253.
30 See for example, André Gorz, Penser l’avenir : Entretien avec François Noudelmann, Préface de Christophe Fourel, Paris, La Découverte, 2019.
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