Life & Death


Societies imagine and create their institutions based on needs, values and ideas that are fictitious, meaning they are based on arbitrary truths (about what is right, good, moral etc). An ‘autonomous’ society is one that willfully acknowledges the arbitrariness of those truths. What this essentially means is that such a society recognises itself as its creator, sees the logic behind and purpose of its institutions, knows how and why it came about and towards what future it strives.

The Age of Reason dissolved some of the old dependencies and created an idea of humanism very different from the present atheistic version of it. At the core of this emancipation was not some quasi-scientific belief that humans are animals whose lives and behaviours are governed by insuperable Laws, but that humans are themselves regulators of the world they inhabit, capable of shifting the winds to fit their ideas and aspirations. It was an effort to create the ultimate autonomous society. The results are all too well-known.

The ideological projects that began in Europe in the late eighteenth century (French Revolution), found their culmination in early twentieth century (Russian Revolution) and saw their incontrovertible collapse some twenty years ago may have been less that successful in bringing about the world they envisaged. Their significance, however, should not be measured by the rate of their success, nor wagered against the misery that they generated in their unfolding, profound as both might have been. These projects are notable in their unashamed claim that man is alone and that it is man alone who can change his condition. Not Gods; nor genes or memes.

The philosopher John Gray, a nihilist of the deepest dye, will have us think that belief in progress is a trick our mind is playing on us, possibly a memetic remnant of our Christian past. Instead of hallucinating about transforming our world, he claims with tragic futility, we should capitulate to our ephemerality and rapacious animality, lest we start resembling the naïve ideologues of the past. This sort of passivity, premised on an assortment of quasi-scientific and quasi-philosophical ruminations nurtures the quintessential anti-citizen: a self-absorbed individual whose main–if not only–concern is his physical and spiritual betterment, as much withdrawn from collective matters as possible.

And yet, it is precisely through participation in a process of a self-relating truth that we can gain access to our immortality, obviously not in the sense of transgressing our corporeal mortality which seems to be an age-long obsession, but in the sense of experiencing and participating in a dimension of immortality in our very lives. Living in relation to subjectivised truths opens up the possibility of transgressing mere survival (meant as an existence condemned to its unbearable finitude) and extends the possibilities of autonomy. This creative work cannot be but political and politicised.

The collapse of explicit ideological narratives and, subsequently, the absence of politics that articulate a specific idea and plan about where societies should go has created an enormous existential void. With no Gods or Party, nor gospel or manifesto to tell us any­thing about our origin or our destination, we seem to be inhabiting a world where political, economic and social phenomena are driven by themselves, governed by the logic that things are just because they are and that they cannot be any other way but that.

Blindly following prescriptions of rationality has become the definitive ideological mantra of our time. The Gulf onslaughts were substantiated not by political objectives based on ideas or visions, but by the algorithmic processing of what was presented as objective knowledge, ‘intelligence’. When the data proved downright doctored, moral (and, largely, legal) agency disappeared, simply because there was no agent to assume it. In the case of environmentalism, the discussion about what world we want has, again, been trumped by the urgency of quickly and without much dithering acting on the available science. The recent financial crises have been dealt with in the same fashion: the opportunity for reflection on the national and global circumstances that pro­duce such degenerative conditions has been irretrievably hijacked by a hysteric effort to cover up the effects by applying cures that are presented as ineluctable in their own self-proclaimed ‘objectivity’.

By depending on objective truths (truths measured merely by their factual accuracy) that are not internalised and towards which we are disengaged, we are giving up on any possibility of emancipation and autonomy, we are relinquishing the prospect of any meaningful life and we are condemning ourselves to a wretched hedonist (if even so) survival, deprived of any desire proper.
Man is split between, on the one hand, avoiding death and, on the other, avoiding a life devoid of anything that would make it worth living. As Castoriadis pointed out, this is our tragic knowledge: that nothing is worth as much as life; but if nothing is worth more than life, then life isn’t worth anything.

To break out of this vicious circle, subjectivity must be reinvented. This is no time for self-important and sterile agitation. To do away with a sense of helplessness that seems endemic in Western liberal societies, requires that we engage in envisaging a future for our societies and we articulate those visions based on needs and desires that we recognise as ours and we see as capable of instigating a universality. This will inevitably render us answerable. But, if there is a way out of a miserable individualistic survival and into what one might call a ‘real’ life, it is through a process of collectivisation that stems from personal engagement to a fully lived truth. Nothing is insurmountable. No Gods, no genes, no memes.

  • About

    Alexandros Stavrakas was born in Athens, Greece. He studied politics, philosophy and economy, followed by graduate studies in philosophy at the LSE and anthropology at UCL. He has written articles, translated, lectured and worked as contributing editor. He is the Editor of Bedeutung Magazine.