Eduardo Colombo: The political space of anarchy (1)

We return to our series grouped under the title of “writers of May 68”, within which we have included Jaime Semprun, Miguel Amorós, Eduardo Colombo and Amedeo Bertolo. The reference to “May 68” is a political metaphor in this instance, for aside from Semprun, the other three writers were in their respective countries of origin at the time (Amorós was in spain, Bertolo in italy, and Colombo in argentina), but all four writers would be profoundly marked by the events of May and would endeavour to rethink anarchism in the wake of those events.

Having already presented a selection of essays by Semprun and Amorós, and an introductory piece by Colombo concerned with anarchism in argentina, with this post we initiate a translation of a collection of essays from spanish to english. Though the essays were originally published either in french or italian, our access to the spanish language publication dictates our choice.

The collection bears the title El espacio político de la anarquía: Esbozos para una filosofía política del anarquismo. The volume was published as a second edition in 2014 by two spanish anarchist collectives which no longer exists: the publisher Editorial Klinamen and Grupo Libertario Acción Directa. This translation is also a gesture of thanks for their work.

We will publish the essays in different posts, following the pace of translation. Our hope is that through Colombo’s work, as well as that of the other authors of this series, that english language readers may have access to some of the most important anarchist theory created in the wake of May 68.

What follows below is a publisher’s introduction, Colombo’s two prologues and a first essay. This last may be described as an exercise in the “history of ideas”, endeavoring as it does to identify ancient conceptual paradigms and how they have shaped human thought. Such exercises are however often fragile, for they do little more than throw up a theatre of conflicting ideas, rarely succeeding then in showing the “mechanics” of their real history, their connection or ties to events. The theatre gains flight and we are left simply gazing up at the spectacle; and depending on from where we look, the spectacle may appear very different indeed.

What Colombo lacks here, we suggest, is a genealogy in the Nietzschean or Foucauldian sense of the term (simplifying): an analysis of the contingent discursive and practical conditions for the possibility of ways of sensing, feeling, thinking and acting. They are, in Michel Foucault’s words, political histories of bodies.

The political space of anarchy: Outlines for a political philosophy of anarchism (2000/2014)

Eduardo Colombo

For my father.

Why Eduardo Colombo?

We hope that the present re-edition will help to spread the ideas of Eduardo Colombo, indefatigable anarchist comrade with a long history both in the field of action, as in that of ideas.

But, who is Eduardo Colombo? He is an anarchist comrade with a broad militant history, born in Argentina (Quilmes, 1929), doctor and psychoanalyst by profession. Politically active as a student from the 1940s on, it was at this time that he would discover libertarian ideas, ideas that he would make his own and never abandon. He was professor of social psychology at the Universities of La Plata and Buenos Aires, positions that he was forced to abandon after the military coup of the time (1966). During this period, he was also member of the Federación Obrera de la Región Argentina (FORA), and was responsible for the anarchist publication La Protesta, published in Buenos Aires.

His work in the field of ideas is abundant, especially along the lines of the actualisation of reflections initiated by our libertarian ancestors. Fundamental, in this regard, is work on the social imaginary and the public space, places from which his own reflections cross paths with authors like Castoriadis, whom he cites frequently, and whom he tries to take further, into the field of action.

Eduardo’s interest in seeking to establish a philosophy specific to and based upon anarchism, that is, a reformulation from the base and total of our world, from which then to structure our praxis in pursuit of the construction of a new society, also seems equally relevant to us.

It seems to us unquestionably important to diffuse the work of a contemporary anarchist writer, who turns our ideas upside down, obliging us to put them into discussion and to rethink them. Equally, it puts us, present day libertarians, in dialogue with comrades of other times, not to deify them, but to question them and ourselves, to take and give up what serves us and what does not in our present, for action striving towards anarchy.

Preface to the Madrid edition

The revolution cannot be anything other than a way of walking.

Gustav Landauer

The cresting of revolutions delimits a before and an after, an old regime and a new reality. This line however is fixed a posteriori, when new generations extend their sights to their past. The women and men who march in a revolution have no knowledge of the mark that their steps leave in History, they only live the passion and the struggle. When Camille Desmoulins calls out “To arms!” on the 12th of July of 1789, he does not know that the Bastille will fall on the 14th, and the anarchist proletarians of Barcelona that raise barricades in May of 37 do not know that they are living the end of a revolution.

We also do not know if our efforts and our struggles have entered upon the ascendant phase of insurrection, or if we continue to walk in the fog of our illusions. But, as we do not know, the only sensible decision is to embrace struggle, equality and freedom.

Between the years when the chapters of this book were written, from the first Castilian language publication by the Rio de la Plata, to the present Madrid edition, the social and ideological climate through which we move has suffered profound changes.

Two contradictory social processes have become more pronounced and struggle with each other at a distance, apparently without encountering or confronting each other.

In our neoliberal societies, under the cover of a collective reactionary imaginary, subjects, while the agents of their own acts, are slowly dispossessed of their capacities: to decide and to act for oneself are advised against, when they are not prohibited. The word of the expert has to be waited upon, the approval of the competent authority. In this way, this unconscious part of the State – theocratic or patriarchal residue that sleeps in each one of us – reinforces itself as the autonomy of the subject declines.

At the same time as, here and there, with ever more force, the effects of a long wave of history insinuate themselves and can be seen to appear in contemporary collective movements. This underground current which, since the Great Revolution, emerged sustained by the “militant proletariat” (the anti-authoritarian tendency of the First International) demonstrated that direct action was the necessary instrument to construct the plebeian social space. (1) This space, where freedom and equality are possible, contains as institutional forms the sovereignty of primary assemblies, mandates controlled by the base, delegation revocable at any moment, the negation of the representation of everyone by One.

At the outset of this 21st century, multitudinous, collective protest movements (Seattle 1999, Genoa 2001), with a certain tendency to generalise themselves and spread to other cities and other countries, began anew to produce themselves. The ephemeral “Arab Spring” stimulated the revolutionary imaginary (2010-2011, Tunis, Tahrir Square in Cairo), but what bestows a new importance on the succeeding protest movements is the presence, in all of them, to a greater or lesser degree, of anti-authoritarian, anarchist, premises, which we signal as characteristics of the plebeian space (15M in Spain, Syntagma Square in Athens, Occupy Wall Street or Oakland in the United States 2011, Taksim Square in Turkey 2013).

This movement of history has continued to modify the basis of enunciation from which heterogeneous ideas against the established imaginary again become audible, permitting anarchism to reach a level of diffusion that had been denied it during the last fifty years.

And, as it is an established fact that if arguments persuade or not depend less on their logic than on the climate of opinion within which they are developed, we can suppose that the propositions defended in this book, imagining a social space open to human autonomy, will now find a larger ambit of discussion, a place of shared reflection, that will permit us to think without shackles and act collectively, thereby expanding the limits of the possible.

As Proudhon wrote, “the idea is born of action and should return to action”, as Herzen affirmed that “thought without action is a dream” and as Bakunin showed in his life and in numerous passages of his writings, to persist in abstraction is to walk blind. In the course of its turbulent history, it is most likely not the anarchists who can be accused of this, but rather, perhaps, the opposite, that of having disparaged the moment of reflection, knowing that action without an idea tirelessly repeats the gesture of rebellion without taking up the project that sustains it.

Our present situation, I think, obliges us to address the problem of the institutional forms that configure an autonomous society: the criticism of representative politics, the seed of difficulties of collective delegation that usurpation carries with it, the incongruities of the generalisation of majority decision making, a decision that was never an argument for being right.

It is in the unfailing union of the idea and action that the lives of anarchists move and nourish themselves, carried by our obstinate passion for freedom.

Eduardo Colombo

Paris, September, 2014

Prologue (2)

Anarchy is a form, an organisational principle, a mode of representation of the political. The State is a different or contrary principle.(3)

The public space in which human beings can recognise each other as free and equal is a patient and unfinished historical construction. As with every institution, it depends on what they desire and what they do, and is thus intimately tied to the conquests of critical thought and the desacralisation of the world. Neither nature nor the “divinity” has given freedom to humanity. It gave freedom to itself, conquered it day by day in a hard and interminable struggle against established power. And as well against the desire to dominate that was in it.

Because the individual is not one, but multiple, it is in collective interaction that society constitutes itself, it is in the freedom of the other that my freedom is recognised. And it is in the other’s servitude that my freedom limits itself. “Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed”, La Boétie warned.

However, everywhere the people finds itself “in chains”.(4) Perhaps it is because people have a tendency to not concern themselves with freedom, that it is a value constructed in struggle, and that they forget it in the monotonous course of everyday doings, with neither the strength nor the will to desire it. “[L]iberty, a blessing so great and so desirable that when it is lost all evils follow thereafter, and even the blessings that remain lose taste and savour because of their corruption by servitude.” Therefore, if people do not possess it, it is because, it seems, they disdain it, given that if they truly desired it, they would have it.(5)

It would thus be necessary to think that human desire, far from being natural or innate, constructs itself and acquires its object and finality in the heart of a kind of society that demands conformity to the general rules that organise it. Arriving at the age of adulthood, men and women believe that the social forms which they found at birth are natural: tradition, authority, religion. The majority do not criticise the reality in which they live, they do not rebel against it nor try to change it; they submit to the order of the world. Except in those privileged moments of history which are revolutions.

In the modes and techniques of socialisation that make a subject a member of a group, of a class or of a culture, the processes of reproduction of domination, the alchemy of the political power responsible for the transformation of what is culturally arbitrary into a natural fact, is occluded. Paradox of the doxa, Bourdieu would say.

Human groups are not passive, inert forms, waiting, in the constant renovation of their members, for everyone to integrate themselves docilely and without conflict to the proscribed norms and the dominant values. A powerful founding violence, product of the expropriation of political power in the hands of an elite, mobilising passions and embittering some against others in the interior of the same class, social stratum or family, obliging the repetition of the learned gesture, the authorised word and the catechism possessing the imprimatur.(6) In this way, over the course of their lives, human beings are insensibly led to this fatal situation of societies which is the reign of the established, the reign that we could define, citing a French novelist: “Invent, create and you will die pursued like a criminal. Copy, repeat, and you will live happy like an imbecile.”(7)

It is therefore possible to think that voluntary servitude does not exhaust itself in conformism. There are certainly more active forms of submission to the State that result from the unconscious internalisation of the law in an androcentric and patriarchal society. The desire to command or to dominate, the dominandi libido, easily predisposes to obedience. With a keen eye, Rousseau noted it well: ” It is no easy matter to reduce to obedience a man who has no ambition to command”.(8)

Turning the phrase around, the good bourgeois translates: if you want to command tomorrow, learn today to bend the spine. A precept which is not foreign to “political realism”.(9)

Despite everything, the order of the world can and should be changed. As was seen in the past, as will undoubtedly occur in the future, this political apathy, this submission insistent on serving and this resigned acceptance of dispossession – material dispossession, dispossession of knowledge -, which is the usual state of the people, will one day come apart, dissolve and the Revolution will erupt onto history. Time loses its duration,(10) men and women breath the strong and rough air of freedom and the horizon of the possible expands. It is in the heart of the insurrection where a new imaginary is born which reorganises the present and opens another future. This other future will be, if human desire wishes it, human and social autonomy: anarchy.

In struggle, we always have, in our minds and hearts, an ideal image of society, but we know that an ideal society cannot exist. Utopia will hew out tirelessly an interminable present until the last steps of humanity.

Political philosophy is alien to the preoccupations of working people, but it traditionally provides the raw material that justifies and legitimates existing political power. This “philosophical matter” integrates itself into the collective imaginary and surreptitiously acts through dispersed elements carried by ideologies, institutions, practices, symbolic representations, giving form to a closed reality within the limits of the system of established exploitation and domination.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that, until the appearance of the new paradigm, which is to say, post-Enlightenment anarchism, the function of almost all classical and modern political philosophy has been “the justification of the political authorisation of coercion”, that is, in other words, to legitimate the right of the State to obtain, by force if necessary, the obedience of its subjects. In reality, even though covered over by the clothes of the law, and as the theory of the Reason of State demonstrates, all political power as sovereign power – it is of no importance whether it is delegated by god or the people – is, was and will be absolute, as is made evident when its very existence is put into question. And this for whatever regime one can think: democracy, oligarchy or monarchy. No constitution – except one quickly set aside(11) – recognises the right to insurrection.

In a short and violent history of a little more than a hundred years, the anarchist movement, hounded by repression, did not dispose of the leisure hours necessary to extensively and contradictorily reflect on the institutional forms of a future “anarchist society”. In the heat of action, there were more urgent matters to resolve.

This reflection is nevertheless necessary and the articles of this book attempt to outline some of the paths that take us towards anarchy, paths that still have no end if we see them deployed in an as yet unfinished history, but which in each moment of this history, in each present, we are upon the field of our action, the only propitious ground upon which to affirm, collectively, our political autonomy, our obstinate passion for freedom.

To make clear, from the beginning, the dimension of political theory in which the themes covered situate themselves, I will state abstractly and succinctly the basic propositions which sustain my reflection (being attentive to the difference between anarchy and anarchism):

Anarchy is the figure of a non-hierarchically organised political space by and for the autonomy of the active subject. (In a human society, any theory of action must, I believe, consider the subject as the agent of action and capable of acceding to autonomy as an individual and collective construction).

Therefore, 1) the basis of anarchism, from the perspective of political philosophy, is a radical relativism. A rupture with all heteronomy: men and women construct their own world, give themselves the rules or norms or conventions which govern their actions. Everything is within history, in the socio-historical, yet anarchism is not historicist.

2) Anarchism wagers on a principle of preference: For all men (for all men or women) freedom is preferable to (is better than) slavery. For all men (for all men or women) dignity is preferable to (is better then) ignominy.(12) (There is nothing that justifies or grounds a value outside of its socio-historical construction which develops through conflict, controversy and desire. There is no “human nature” which can be the cause of a value. Meaning or intentionality are not naturalisable).

Anarchism is an ethics and an ethos,(13) being a political theory.

Before concluding, I would like to pause over a few clarifications. Many of the theoretical terms used in the articles are dependent on a precise theoretical field and sometimes the context changes their meaning. To give one example, in previous paragraphs, the expression “libido dominandi” makes reference to the classical meaning of libido as desire and not to the psychoanalytic theory of drives and the libido (a theory which I do not share and which I have criticsed in other work).(14) By contrast, the word “phantasm”, which appears here and there in the text, should be understood in its strictly psychoanalytic sense of an imaginary scenario dependent on an unconscious desire.

The guiding thread that maintains the continuity of these works, written in the last twenty years, is a very much older preoccupation with first “authoritarianism”(15) and after with the institution of political power. Between 1982 and 1983, “Power and its reproduction” was written after long conversations with Amedeo Bertolo (on this occasion, Bertolo wrote “Potere, autorità, dominio: una proposta di definizione”),(16) and I include it in this volume because it contains many of the central ideas of my thought, even if today these ideas would be more sophisticated or more nuanced. For example: the theory of representation should be modified in favour of a process of representation dependent on the system of signs, as well as the consideration of the semantic problems tied to the indeterminacy of reference. Yet probably the only important thing to modify in this article is the impression, that could follow from its reading, that there is only one key of interpretation of the symbolic reproduction of power which is the articulation between the necessity of the rule and the arbitrariness of a law of prohibition (the Law). The determination of political power is assuredly multiple and the symbolic key is one of its interpretations.

And to conclude, I must thank the publisher Nordan for the encouragement to publish in Castilian articles that originally appeared in French and Italian. And to thank also and fundamentally the patient work carried out by Heloísa Castellanos, through dialogue, in translating and correcting the proofs.

Eduardo Colombo, Paris, October of 2000

With modifications introduced for the French edition (2008).

Centrality in the origins of the western imaginary

Paris, February 1992

Thus the Earth no more than any other world is at the centre; moreover no points constitute determined celestial poles for our earth, just as she herself is not a definite and determined pole to any other point of the ether, or of the world space; and the same is true of all other bodies. From various points of view these may all be regarded either as centres, or as points on the circumference, as poles, or zeniths and so forth. Thus the earth is not in the centre of the universe; it is central only to our own surrounding space.

Giordano Bruno, De l’infinito universo et mondi

The socio-historical institution of the world is humanity’s reality. Since the inaccessible obscurity of the remotest times of human thought, to constitute itself as such, it had to separate, discriminate, oppose, reunite. It had to organise the flow of perception and construct discrete and determined representations; it had to make of the chaos a cosmos. Human beings instituted(17) the earth and the heavens, created the gods and things. Man – the human collective – made itself, and by the same movement submitted itself to the resulting heteronomy of its own invention. Everything came from outside, from on high, from the centre. It saw itself as a creature, dispossessed and dependent.

At the same time, since the emergence of human thought, the systems of representation of the world organise themselves by means of antithetical categories such as hot and cold, clear and obscure, love and hate, high and low, superior and inferior. Probably, at a more abstract level, behind these contrary pairs is found the ancient and essential intuition which opposes the identical and the different, and whose biological anchor are sex and death; a biological anchor which functions as a semantic operator: sex as the difference between sexes, death as the difference between generations.

However these contrasting values, these unhappy couples,(18) do not function separately; on the contrary, an implicit and occult paradigm, constructed historically, organises them as profound symbols, and being at root unconscious, explicates and actualises them in a thousand different ways.

An example, apparently practically universal, can be found in the opposition of high/low. In a few lines, let us recall Carlo Ginzburg’s analysis(19): “It is significant that we say that something is high or superior – or inversely, low or inferior – without being aware of the reason for which what we attribute a greater value to (goodness, strength, etc) should be placed above.”(20)

Above are intelligence and wisdom, below are instinct and licentiousness. Thus we can speak of base passions and high ideals.

Different cultures placed in the sky the home of the gods, above the heads of men and women. Ancient Greece, in the mythologies of Homer and Hesiod, imagined a universe with three levels: the space above corresponds to Zeus and the immortal gods, that of the middle to human beings, and the space below to the dead, and telluric and disturbing forces.

The symbolism of what is on high has always been associated, and continues to be so today in our own culture, with religious cosmogony and in the same way with political power.

An ensemble of representations thus organised themselves around the poles of this dichotomy, attracting to them equally contrasting values, and these constructed unities express not only cognitive or affective categories, but also social categories: dominant/dominated, rich/poor. For this reason, they were protected by ancient prohibitions.

One of these amply generalised prohibitions is that which attacks directly thought. Jerome’s (347-420) Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgata, spread from the VIIIth century on and Saint Paul’s phrase, Noli altum sapere [Do not aim for lofty things] was interpreted for centuries as a vote of censure or as a reproach of intellectual curiosity. One of the first versions of the Bible in Italian, owed to Niccolo Malermi, translates Saint Paul’s phrase thus: “Non volere sapere le cose alte” [Do not seek to know heavenly things].(21)

The prohibition tended to reinforce the creation of a domain defined as elevated – cosmic, religious or political – where every inquiry is labelled as subversive. The heretics suffered the persecution of the Church and of the Empire for wanting to unveil the “secrets of power” and among them, the most hidden of all: the political utilisation of religion.(22)

The metaphors tied to centre and periphery can pretend to the same rancid ancestry as that of the couple high and low. And it is legitimate to think, as we will try to show further on, that a similar unconscious paradigm organises its respective symbols.

Every ancient image of the world contains an organised space, an inhabited microcosm, surrounded by the unknown, the obscure, the chaotic and dangerous. This cosmos has a centre, that is, a sacred place par excellence. It is here that the structuring force of the social, what truly institutionalises, shows itself. The mythical idea of a centre is correlative with the postulation of a hereafter. And the belief in “a hereafter” of the cosmos or of matter is the original conception which expropriates from the collective its capacity to create meanings and symbols, norms and values, to then project into the hands of an external legislator represented by the dead, the ancestors or the gods. The sacred power resides in the centre and it is there where humans go to communicate with its creators: the demons and gods, believing themselves to be created. They go to communicate and they go to submit.

“In cultures familiar with the conception of three cosmic regions – Heaven, Earth, Hell -, writes Mircea Eliade, the centre constitutes the point of intersection of these regions. A break with the levels is made possible there and at the same time, communication between these three regions.”(23)

In paleo-oriental religions, the centre of the world is found in the sanctuary and, by extension, the city which contains it. Babylonia was a Bab-ilani, a door for the gods, because it was through there that the gods descended to earth. Babylonia was also the centre where the relation with the inferior regions was established, given that the city was built upon the Bab-apsi, the door of the apsu, with apsu designating the Chaos previous to the creation.

According to the Mesopotamian tradition, human beings were created in “the navel of the earth”. Paradise was in the centre of the cosmos and it was also the navel of the world. Following a Syrian tradition, the creation of Adam took place in the same centre of the earth where the cross of Jesus would be raised, Golgotha, and, according to another tradition, this time Christian, the blood of Christ will fall upon Adam’s skull, buried beneath.

Mount Tabor, in Palestine, could mean tabbur, that is, navel, omphalus.(24) From a legend that dates back to the IV century, Tabor (or Thabor) was the name of the mountain where Christ announced his second coming and from where he rose to the heavens. The legend of Tabor will give its name to the radical wing of the Hussite movement, the Taborites, branded “anarcho-communists”.

If we return to ancient Greece, to a symbol that goes back far in time, to long before the creation of the polis, the omphalus was a mound, a knoll or a conical stone, an object of worship and a place where a primitive justice was dictated. It was considered the centre of the earth; it evoked a sepulchral image and it was related with chthonic powers.

The meanings and values associated with the centre are expressed in mythical-religious Greek thought by two terms: one is omphalus, navel, the other is Hestia, home [hearth, fire].(25) The hearth is a fixed place, placed in the centre of the domestic space, a sort of navel that rooted the human home in the depths of the earth and that, at the same time, was a point of contact between the earth and heaven. “The centre of the home is thus the point of the floor/ground in which is realised, for the family, a contact between the three cosmic levels of the universe. This is the image of the centre that Hestia represents.”(26)

If the centre is the sacred by antonomasia, in the periphery extends the profane. But the opposition centre/periphery reveals a change in the meaning of the centre, a change in which the metaphors of the centre will displace themselves from a cosmic-religious representation to a physical-mathematical representation of plane, abstract space (intelligible rather than sensible). The centre converts itself into an imaginary point of a circle, equidistant from all of the points that form the closed line of the circumference; or it transforms itself into the centre of a sphere.

Greek thought frees itself little by little from the religious representations which associated the centre with Hestia, goddess of the hearth, to make of it a political symbol: the common hearth or home of the Polis, the Hestia koine.

The home, in becoming common, installs itself in the public and open space of the agora and expresses thereupon the centre of the City. By including itself in a public space, the centre represents relations of reversibility, of equivalence and of equidistance which presuppose a new egalitarian institutionalisation of society. According to Vernant, “the centre translates in space the aspects of homogeneity and equality, no longer those of differentiation and hierarchy.”(27)

The profound transformation of the social imaginary, the intellectual and political revolution that the Greeks began to carry through from the first half of the VI century organises itself around two effective models: an explanatory model of the physical universe and a normative model of the polis, which institutionalises new types of social relations. Both one and the other presuppose, or go together with, a process of the desacralisation and rationalisation of the world.

The mythical image of the cosmos did not impede the astronomers of Babylonia from carrying out a detailed observation of the stars, nor to develop an appreciable knowledge of celestial phenomena, but their interpretation of these called upon the intervention of divine forces, the supernatural, and therefore the destiny of man, society, the kingdom, became dependent on the intention of the gods.

In Hesiod’s cosmogony, physical realities are personified and represented as forces and desires of gods. Gaia is the Earth-Mother, the secure and stable foundation. In the beginning, after the Abyss, empty without end, came “Gaia broad-chested, always the unshakable seat of all the immortals”.(28) Zeus reigns over the whole of the universe accompanied by Kratos (Power) and Bia (Force). “Their home is never far from Zeus, nor is there any abode or journey for which the god is not their guide, but always beside deep thundering Zeus they have their abode.”(29)

Zeus closed forever the passage that communicated with the subterranean forces of disorder. And human beings thought of themselves as in the midst of a universe with levels, mixed with the immortal gods – Olympus, however high it is, continues to be linked to the earth -, and shadowed by the night of Hades where everything disappears.

The “physicists” of Ionia were the first to go against the established religious traditions. Thales, the father of the school of Miletus, lived approximately between 640 and 548 BC; Anaximander was his friend and disciple, and Anaximenes the continuator. All of them “thought the principles which were of the nature of matter were the only principles of all things”, wrote Aristotle, and also that “nothing is either generated or destroyed, since this sort of entity is always conserved”.(30) These first philosophers constructed a theory of the cosmos based on phusis, nature, which requires no intervention by exterior forces.

According to Anaximander, – here we follow the analysis of Jean-Pierre Vernant -, if the earth is stable, if it does not fall, it is because being at an equal distance from all of the points of the celestial circumference, it remains unchanging in the “centre”. In a spherical conception of the universe, in a geometrical definition of the centre in relation with the circumference, “… we are no longer in a mythical space in which high and low, right and left have opposing religious meanings, but in a homogeneous space constituted by symmetrical and reversible relations.”(31)

The fundamental principle at the origin of everything that Anaximander postulated is the apeiron, the Undetermined, the Unlimited, a principle that is the common foundation of all reality, that which makes possible an organised universe on the basis of the equilibrium of forces and the reciprocity of positions. The cosmos is this represented by means of a circular, spatial schema where the centre constitutes the point of reference: symmetrically oriented in all of its parts, there is no absolute directionality in space.

As the Earth is situated in the centre of a sphere, in equilibrium and in a symmetrical space, it is dominated by nothing, it depends on no one, says Anaximander. “What is this idea of domination, which is of a “political” order and not a physical order, doing in this astronomical schema?” Vernant, who asks himself the question, adds as a response that in the traditional mythical image, the Earth should support itself upon something on which it depended and therefore it was under the power of something stronger than itself. In opposition, “for Anaximander, the centrality of the earth signified its autonomy”.(32)

Centrality, similitude, absence of domination: the values associated with the representation of the circle and the centre, thus of the fall of the archaic world, will be the values of the polis, of the political organisation of the City. Or at least in the short period of the Athenian democracy, after the reforms of Cleisthenes.

The isonomy of the geometric vision of the universe in Anaximander will be thought in the social field as the isonomy of the citizens, of those who are equal in the public space. The reflection in common of the demos implies the existence of social institutions which are in turn the object of discussion and of a conscious search, that is, the consequence of the existence of a political thought. “The logos, instrument of these political debates, gains thereby a double meaning. On the one hand, it is the word, the discourse that the orators pronounced in the assembly, but it is also reason, the faculty of arguing which defines man … as ‘political animal’, (as) a reasonable being.”(33)

The new symbolism of the circle and the centre appears concretely in urban space. The city is constructed around a central plaza, the agora. But the agora is not just a fixed place, it is fundamentally an institution. To exist, the agora presupposes that the citizens unite in a public space to discuss the “common thing”; that every one has the same right to speak – isegoria – and that each is equal before the law – isonomy -. For this reason, neither the Phoenicians nor the Babylonians knew the agora of the Ionian and Greek cities.

In the process of the construction of the polis, an older symbolism of the centre will collaborate with the idea of autonomy. In the traditional customs of the Greek aristocratic-military class, when the warriors were called to discuss and decide upon a resolution, they formed a circle which represented the place of free speech – parrhesia – and of isegoria, and he who wanted to speak moved to the centre of the circle, so as to address the others.(34)

At the beginning of the Second Book of the Odyssey, Telemachus convokes the Achaeans to the agora. When his turn arrives, the son of Ulysses walks to the centre of the circle formed by his equals, and there in the centre, he takes the scepter held out to him by the herald and speaks freely.

Herodotus tells of when the Persian conspiracy of the Seven took place, that would put Darius (522-486 BC) on the throne, the conspirators would debate the form of government that would be convenient to adopt. Otanes pronounced himself against the monarchy because “how should the rule of one alone be a well-ordered thing, seeing that the monarch may do what he desires without rendering any account of his acts. … On the other hand the rule of many has first a name attaching to it which is the fairest of all names, that is to say ‘Equality’; … I therefore give as my opinion that we let monarchy go and increase the power of the multitude; for in the many is contained everything.” Darius’ opinion will triumph, a monarch must be elected. Otanes answers: “I therefore shall not be a competitor with you, for I do not desire either to rule or to be ruled”.(35)(36)

In the same epoch, in Samos, the successor to the tyrant Polycrates, Maiandrios, wanted to be the most just among men without succeeding. Learning of the death of Polycrates, Maiandrios convoked an assembly of all of the citizens and told them: “I now give the power into the hands of the people, and proclaim to you equality”. Yet, when one citizen challenged him, he was reminded of the risks that he himself ran, regretted his gesture and kept tyrannical power in his hands.(37)

Thus, when the polis is instituted, the centre of the circle will represent a virtual point, from which all citizens are at the same distance, which renders them all equal. Power, kratos, will occupy this centre and yet it will escape expropriation by any one citizen, or some, while all have access to it, to the common place.

The centre therefore symbolised in the VIth century (BC) an egalitarian order whose image on the political plane was Hestia, the common hearth or home. Hestia was the name which the philosophers gave to the Earth, fixed in the centre of the cosmos.

Political symbol, the public, common hearth defines a space characterised by the reversibility of social relations as we said earlier, and its function is that of “representing every hearth without identifying with any particular one. Constructed in the centre of the city, in this meson (centre) in which kratos has been placed so that no one can appropriate it, the Hearth bears the name of Hestia koine because it symbolises the totality of a political community in which each particular element, under the reign of isonomy, is thereby the homoios [same] of all of the other elements.”(38)

Greek thought made an enormous effort at desacralisation, but its political results were ephemeral, and this effort remained entombed by the enormous weight of Time. In the IVth century BC, the hierarchical imaginary regained its credit little by little, despite the desperate struggle, on the philosophical plane, of first the sophists and later the cynics.(39)

Political reflection is newly subdued in the penumbra of the divine. The polis becomes again a kind of analogical model of a superior cosmic order. The ideal city described by Plato expresses this essential displacement in the imaginary signification of the centre. The Laws state: “the city will be divided into twelve parts, the first of which, that will receive the name of Acropolis, will be sacred, dedicated to Hestia, as well as to Zeus and Athena; a wall will enclose its boundaries and the division of the city as well as the whole territory into twelve parts will proceed from this centre.”(40)

The centre is no longer occupied by the agora, the space of free speech, but by the Acropolis devoted to the titular divinities. The Acropolis opposes the agora, states Vernant, as the domain of the sacred opposes the profane, as the divine opposes the human. “Plato’s city – P. Lévêque and P. Vidal-Naquet are correct in emphasising it – is built around a fixed point which, given its sacred character, binds in some way the human group to the divinity.”(41)

The Acropolis of Athens, a hill inhabited for two millennia before our era, was a military fortress and a religious centre which guarded the mark of its aristocratic origins. The fall of the tyranny of Peisistratos displaced the centre to the agora. Pericles, in the urban plan, privileged the Acropolis, the symbol of the strength and grandeur of Athens which dominated the city and the tumult of the agora.

The Acropolis, “the high city”, unites the traditional symbolism of the high and the centre, that is, a transcendent symbolism, an imaginary dependent on the sacred.(42) A sacred element representative of mystery, of the beyond, a principle of radical exteriority that presides over the primitive organisation of the social space thus inlays itself in collective life.

The society is thus instituted on the basis of heteronomy (exteriority to the source of the nomos, of the law) and the major consequences are two: first, heteronomy imposes a system of dispossession which excludes from collective practice the recognition of its very constituent capacity; second, it establishes a hierarchical system in which the power to decide descends from “on high”. The hierarchical system, in involving the whole cosmos, places in the centre the gods – or the dead ancestors – and demands accordingly a mediation between the beyond and common mortals; a mediation represented by a separate element of the society which will be the political power, whether under a hierocratic form (hieros: sacred, sanctified) or under the pseudo-rational form of the State.

The centre is no longer a geometric image, it is not the centre of a circle or a sphere; the centre is above, on high.

When we use the terms high and low, furthermore associating, without being aware of doing so, one with the superior or the elevated and the other with the inferior or the despicable, when we give to the centre the privileged character of organiser and decider, when we make it the place of command, we demonstrate daily that our own culture has not completely freed itself from the mythical world, from the weight of the sacred. For this reason, these terms are preponderant in the religious and political domains.

The unconscious paradigm that is carried by the respective symbols and the associated values of the centre/periphery and of the high/low is constructed on the basis of the hierarchical system, presupposed as natural and omnipresent at all levels of the cosmos. This was a typical image of medieval Christianity which Nicolas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno would begin to undermine.

In fact, the persistence of the said paradigm expresses the constituent heteronomy of the social from which we have not yet freed ourselves.


1.The first in a series of translations of essays by Eduardo Colombo published together under this title.

2. The Prologue corresponds to the revised version by Eduardo Colombo of the prologue to the French edition of this same work. (ed. note)

3. “The State as a paradigm of power”. This is a subsection of the chapter entitled: “State and Society”.

4. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: Le Contrat social. Chap. 1: “but he is everywhere in chains”.

5. La Boétie, Étienne de: Le discours de la servitude volontaire. Payot, Paris, 1976, p. 181.

6. Imprimatur is written in ecclesiastical Latin perhaps because it is thought that no vulgar language would be dignified enough to translate the pure vanity of an imprimatur. John Milton, Areopagitica.

7. Honoré de Balzac, Les Ressources de Quinola. Comédie en cinq actes en prose, précédée d’un prologue. Bruxelles, Sociétés belge de librairie, 1842, p. 40.

8. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: “Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes”. Oeuvres Complètes, Gallimard, Paris, coll. La Pléiade, 1964, vol. 3, p. 188.

9. In reality, this is an old idea tied to the hierarchical principle of command, as the maxim attributed to Solon attests to: “… it is not possible to be a good ruler without first having been ruled.”, Aristotle, Politics, III, 1277b, 7-15.

10. See in this book the chapter, “Revolutionary time and utopian time”.

11. “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”, of the Constitution of Year I (1793): “Article 35. When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.”

12. This principle could be thought differently, so as not to be a wager: the hypothesis that a free and equal society is a possibility accessible to the will and action of human beings is an unverifiable hypothesis. But, if logically it is unverifiable, then the contrary hypothesis, that such a society is not possible, is also not verifiable. Thus, for those who have understood it, to struggle to construct it is an ethical imperative.

13. An ethos, that is, a character, an interiorised normative order, an ensemble of ethical notions which regulate life.

14. Colombo, Eduardo, “Critique épistémologique de la notion de pulsion”. In Topique Nº 66, Paris, 1998, pp. 67-84.

15. I am referring here to the courses on social psychology given in the Faculty of Philosophy of the UNBA (Argentina) on Ideología y personalidad, and the publication by the publisher Proyección of La Personalidad Autoritaria by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson and Sanford (1965).

16. In Voluntà, 1983, Nº 2, Milano.

17. To institute is to found, to establish; to give (or give oneself) institutions. In the everyday use of the language, the most common meaning of institution revolves around everything that was the object of a decision or the result of human action, in opposition to what is natural or from nature.

18. Ramnoux, Clémence: La nuit et les enfants de la nuit. Flammarion, Paris, 1986, p. 7.

19. Ginzburg, Carlo: “Le Haut et le Bas. Le thème de la connaissance interdite aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles”. In: Mythes, emblèmes et traces. Flammarion, Paris, 1989.

20. Ibid., p. 100.

21. Ibid., p. 99.

22. Ibid., p. 105.

23. Eliade, Mircea: Images et symboles. Gallimard, Paris, 1952, pp. 50-1.

24. Eliade, Mircea: Le mythe de l’éternel retour. Gallimard, Paris, 1969, p. 25.

25. Vernant, Jean-Pierre: “Géométrie et astronomie sphérique dans la première cosmologie greque”. In: Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs. Vol. I, Maspero, Paris, 1965, p. 185.

26. Ibid.

27. Vernant, Jean-Pierre: “Espace et organisation politique en Grèce ancienne”. In: op. cit., p. 210.

28. Hesiod: Theogony, lines 116-7.

29. Ibid., lines 386-8.

30. Aristotle: Metaphysics. A, III 983b5-13.

31. Vernant, Jean-Pierre: op. cit., “Geométrie et astronomie …”, p. 175.

32. Ibid., p. 182.

33. Ibid., p. 177.

34. Ibid., p. 179.

35. Herodotus: The Histories. Book III, paragraphs 80-3.

36. The absence of government, anarchy, did not have a positive formulation in antiquity; for the Greeks, some form of arche was necessary for social cohesion. Otanes position, which Herodotus’ Histories transcribe is, as far as I know, the first occasion where “commanding and obeying” are placed on the same negative level.

37. Ibid., Book III, paragraphs 142-3.

38. Vernant, Jean-Pierre: op. cit., “Structure géometrique et notions politiques …”, p. 206.

39. Cynics: the name originates with Antisthenes (445-360 BC), who spoke in the gymnasium of Cynosarges, in the suburbs of Athens. “Cynosarges”: “The agile dog” or “the insignia of the true Dog”. The Cynic: “a true dog always ready to bark at mediocrity or the hypocrisy of the well-to-do and decent people, and taking apart with its teeth all forms of alienation, conformism or superstition”, in Paquet, Léonce: Les Cyniques Grecs. Ed. de l’Université d’Ottawa, Ottawa, 1975, p. 11.

40. Plato, The Laws, Book V, 745b-c.

41. Vernant, Jean-Pierre: op. cit., “Espace et organisation politique …”, p. 228.

42. Transcendent: In particular, what is not a consequence of the natural play of a certain class of beings or actions, but that presupposes the intervention of a principle that is exterior and superior to the same. Vocabulaire de la philosophie de Lalande.

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