Beyond the Education of Desire

The Utopia of Councils in Abensour

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Paul Mazzocchi Sessional Instructor, York University, Canada pamazzoc@yorku.ca

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Abstract

While critical utopias sought to rescue the political import of utopia, recently scholars have questioned their overemphasis on literary forms and a disempowering pluralism. Challenging the applicability of these claims to one of the instigators of critical utopias, I provide a political reading of Miguel Abensour's understanding of utopia and connect this to councils as a concrete institutional infrastructure. This begins with a re-reading of his influential conception of the ‘education of desire’ in relation to the simulacrum as a utopian ‘model’ that, in rejecting identity-thinking, refuses to reduce utopias to a blueprint. I then turn to conceptualising the utopia of councils through the simulacrum on two fronts: first, as a form subject to innovation in the context of the dialectic of emancipation; second, as a content that aims to both ‘democratise utopia’ by embracing plurality and ‘utopianize democracy’ by expanding the realm of democratic space.

The critical turn in utopian thinking sought to rescue utopia from its seeming disrepute. The standard criticism of utopias saw in their utopian substitutionism – in which leaders and their sacrosanct models would absolutely and teleologically guide emancipation – the premonitions of totalitarianism. Ultimately, such blueprint utopias were accused of producing ‘a closed, static, authoritarian society that negates temporality and does violence to plurality and individual singularity’ (Abensour 2008: 407). Internalising these criticisms, utopian texts adopted a heightened attention to the dialectic of emancipation, or the idea that attempts at emancipation can produce new forms of domination. Moving away from blueprint models that would be timeless and impermeable to change, critical utopias adopted more dynamic and preliminary accounts of other possible worlds, emphasising dialogue, plurality, and continued experimentation (Abensour 1991; Moylan 1986; Nadir 2010).

While critical utopias were foundational to utopian studies, scholars have more recently questioned their political import and efficacy. To begin with, critics question their overly literary focus, which shifts attention from social transformation and a telic (or end-oriented) approach to ideology critique and a heuristic (or process-oriented) approach focused on the effects that different texts have on readers. The heuristic approach, critics argue, ignores ‘extra-textual’ issues including the specific content of social dreams and new alternative worlds. Moreover, in emphasising plurality, critics argue that critical utopias foreclose the possibility of commitment given the need to constantly account for the positions of other actors (Gardiner 2013: 30; Levitas 2007: 40; Levitas 2013: 113–124). In this direction, and in its service to rescuing utopia from its supposedly totalitarian perils, critical utopias are accused of going too far in the other direction, jettisoning blueprint models with solidity for preliminary and heuristic approaches that are so abstract and weightless that they ‘can be found both nowhere and everywhere’. Retaining utopia's political import requires returning to questions of how new worlds might arise and what they might look like (Ingram 2016: xx).

Miguel Abensour played a major role in the critical turn in utopian studies, with the concept that often centres scholars’ understandings of critical utopias, the ‘education of desire’, emerging from his work on William Morris. Given this, it is no surprise that the critique of critical utopias has been directed at Abensour, who is accused of ignoring or refusing institutions and focusing on plurality and difference to the point of denying the possibility of political commitment. While the concerns about critical utopias should be heeded, this article challenges their applicability to Abensour in offering a political reading of his work on utopia. In doing so, I argue that Abensour offers an institutional infrastructure for conceptualising utopian praxis, namely the council idea or council democracy – radically democratic bodies formed by the oppressed in revolutionary situations to challenge State and capitalist rule.

I develop the argument in two stages. First, I expand on Abensour's contribution to utopian thought. While the education of desire – the idea that utopian texts aim to inspire new forms of subjectivity – has been formative to utopian studies, appropriations of it have been divorced from the political concerns that centre it. Specifically, we need to understand the education of desire in the context of both the dialectic of emancipation and the simulacrum utopia. Against the possibility of regressing into new forms of domination via a blueprint, the simulacrum utopia offers a non-identical ‘model’ still attuned to principles of critique and dialogue. Second, I turn to understanding the councils as a simulacrum utopia. At the level of form, the simulacrum utopia refuses to reduce councils to a blueprint thus allowing for further experimentation and innovation, situating the councils within time as part of an ongoing emancipatory project. At the level of content, the councils aim at establishing non-hierarchical relations and new means of acting together or in-concert. This is not limited to a political relation but must be extended to the economy and everyday life.

Beyond the Education of Desire: The Simulacrum Utopia

Abensour's formative influence on utopian studies emerged through his work on Morris (1999), which argued that there was a shift in the function of utopian literature. While the older utopian tradition focused on drawing up blueprint models as perfect worlds to be created, Abensour argued that a ‘new utopian spirit’ emerged after the revolutions of 1848. While critics portrayed utopia as tantamount to totalitarianism in suppressing temporality, plurality, and the possibility of dissent in service of an eternal ideal, the new utopian spirit internalised these criticisms and laid down a new function for utopias:

the point is not for utopia . . . to assign ‘true’ or ‘just’ goals to desire but rather to educate desire, to stimulate it, to awaken it – not to assign it a goal but to open a path for it. . . . Desire must be taught to desire, to desire better, to desire more, and above all to desire otherwise; it must learn to shatter the dead weight, to alleviate the weakness of appetence, to liberate the firebirds of desire, to give free reign to the impulse of adventure. (Abensour 1999: 145–146)

Rather than offering blueprints, utopian texts sought to inspire the subjectivities that could bring a better world into being. In this direction, the new utopian spirit maintained a commitment to dialogical principles rooted in a non-hierarchical social bond and seeking to elicit a conversation about justice, freedom, and the possibility of a new political order.

Because Abensour's work on Morris was not translated until 1999, the education of desire was introduced to English-language readers by E. P. Thompson's (1976) summary of Abensour's unpublished doctoral dissertation (completed in 1973). Thompson's summary was subsequently adopted by Raymond Williams (1978), Ruth Levitas (1990), and other utopian studies scholars. But, as Christine Nadir (2010) argues, Thompson's reading led to a serious misinterpretation that was effectively canonised in the discipline: desire was treated as a unidirectional driving force of utopian aspirations. This ignored that Abensour situated the education of desire in the context of the dialectic of emancipation – the idea that attempts at emancipation produce new forms of domination. In his work on Étienne de La Boétie, Abensour (Abensour and Gauchet 1976) went so far as to argue that the desire for emancipation could produce the desire for domination, such that – far from being a panacea for utopia – desire was ambivalent, producing tensions within any utopian project (Holman 2022; Mazzocchi 2018). To circumvent this dialectic, the new utopian spirit attempted to identify ‘the centres or nodes’ in which emancipation capsizes into domination. According to Abensour (1991), this blind spot lay in ‘the fear of the outside’, which drives utopian thought towards repression of alterity via totalitarian closure. Against this, the new utopian spirit retained an écart absolu (absolute gap) or a continuing openness to alterity, which transforms utopia into an ever-evolving project subject to temporality, plurality, and experimentation such that something else – including another utopia – is always possible.

More recently, Levitas has criticised critical utopias, including Abensour's iteration of them. She argues that, by shifting to heuristic approaches, critical utopias have a politically disempowering effect. To begin with, critical utopias responded to postmodern challenges – that there will always be oppression, including in utopian transformations – by adopting a stance rooted in ‘provisionality, reflexivity, and pluralism’ (Levitas 2007: 40). In doing so, they turned to unmasking the ideological contours of existing societies without positing an alternative model or new modes of living, emphasising the new values to live by but failing to adequately distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ utopias. Moreover, Levitas argues, critical utopias ignore questions of materialisation or institutionalisation and, worse, undermine attempts at more substantive or enduring politics because of their fetishisation of negativity, which makes politics disruptive rather than lasting (2013: 124). Finally, Levitas argues that the values of critical utopias are themselves politically disempowering as they are rooted in ‘a kind of pathological pluralism, in which the acknowledgement of the positions and standpoints of others effectively undermines the capacity to occupy, even critically and provisionally, a ground of one's own, so that commitment is possible’ (2007: 40). In sum, critical utopias undermine the possibility of institutional form and a commitment that would facilitate social transformation.

Applied to Abensour, these lines of criticism contain a number of problems. To begin with, they reduce Abensour's work to a literary theory focused singularly on the function of utopian texts (i.e., how they should be read or how they affect readers), severing it from the political concerns that centre his oeuvre (2009). Relatedly, the suggestion that his work falls into an ideology critique that refuses positive content ignores that Abensour (2002) explicitly criticises critical theory for its lack of attention to the question of emancipation, which makes a fetish of the critique of domination or, worse, slides into catastrophism. The very essence of his ‘critical-utopian’ political philosophy lies not only in the critique of domination but in the simultaneous and connected utopian search for emancipation (Abensour 2009).

To avoid these shortcomings, we need to politically situate Abensour's understanding of utopia. To do so, I turn to an unexplored concept in Abensour's work: the simulacrum utopia. The focus on Abensour's work on Morris ignores that the education of desire is explicitly connected to the simulacrum as a new ‘model’ of utopia. Abensour also discusses the simulacrum in his essay ‘The History of Utopia and the Destiny of its Critique’ (originally published in two parts in 1973 and 1974). For both those adopting and criticising it, the education of desire constitutes a move away from modelling towards a heuristic approach that privileges process over substantive goals, literary form over political content. Hence, the utopia portrayed in a literary text performs a function – the provocation to action – that is divorced from or devoid of utopian content. The education of desire is treated as merely inspiring the desire for another world but not the substance of that world. As Levitas states of Abensour's work: ‘Desire, as throughout postmodernism, involves libidinal energy rather than simply a cognitive preference for a better society. What matters is less the portrayal of objects of desire in the text, but how the text itself acts on the act of desiring’ (2013: 113). Consequently, utopia is reduced to an ideology critique without providing specifics of the new utopian world or why subjects might want to bring about this new world.

This line of criticism ignores the characteristics of the simulacrum, which go beyond ideology critique. In ‘The History of Utopia’, Abensour suggests two key attributes of the simulacrum. The first, drawn from Deleuze's (1983) attempt to disrupt traditional notions of ‘model’, is a break with identity-thinking. As Abensour explains: ‘[The simulacrum] is built upon a disparity and this enables it to liberate difference from all subordination to the similar and the identical’ (2016: 47). The simulacrum – as a non-identical iteration of a model – sheds the characteristics of the blueprint model insofar as the blueprint is connected to a theory of identity that bases itself on subordination of the copy to a master model, suppressing difference and experimentation in favour of identical copies. Rejecting this hierarchical relationship, the simulacrum utopia liberates difference by accepting resemblance and experimentation. Gesturing towards its grounding in non-identity, Abensour states: ‘The simulacrum is a rupture with the world of essences, forms, or norms: it opens a new career to becoming and makes possible the invention of the new’ (ibid.: 47). Ultimately, utopias (emphasis on the plural) are no longer tied to an ‘original’, allowing for infinite possibilities such that utopia can always be otherwise. Utopia is thus not inhibited by the supposed necessities of history or nature, let alone a particular vision of utopia divorced from plurality, temporality, and democratic engagement.

While this liberates utopia from the restrictions of identity-thinking, openness is not merely an abstract openness that suppresses the possibilities of political commitment. On the contrary, form and content are directly connected through a dialogical relation at multiple levels, not just between reader and text and, therefore, not merely as a change in the way texts are read as Levitas contends (2013: 112). Dialogical relationships are found internal to the text, between reader and text, and between readers reading the text. In each of these relations, the content is not irrelevant, but it is also not a blueprint divorced from dialogue and temporality. Rather, difference is facilitated and accounted for in refusing the monological primacy of the original over copy, protagonist over antagonist, author over reader, one reader over another. In these regards, the simulacrum utopia functions as an open work. As Abensour describes it:

Utopia does not aim to turn those who receive it into disciples whose activity is determined in advance by the very organization of the work instilled; it aims instead to inspire a new historical praxis that, by breaking with the repression of written utopia, makes utopia appear as a simulacrum. To the exact extent that it is a break with any form of modelling, Morris's utopia is unfinished and incomplete, and moreover it is a play on this incompleteness. (1999: 148)

To treat the text – or its model of utopia – as sacrosanct is to return to a beleaguered image of utopia that, inattentive to the dialectic of emancipation, threatens to produce new forms of domination.

In elaborating on the dialogical quality of utopia, Abensour quotes the nineteenth-century French utopian Joseph Déjacque:

Happiness makes me sigh, and I evoke this ideal. If you find this ideal desirable, then do as I do and admire it. If you notice imperfections, then correct them. If the ideal as such does not please you, then create another one. My ideal is not exclusive – if yours should strike me as more perfect, I would willingly abandon my own for it. (Abensour 1999: 130)

As open work, the utopia portrayed in a text is not merely there to educate desire in a manner divorced from content. Rather, utopian content is offered for critical consideration: for adoption or challenge and amendment via dialogical exchange. The preliminary quality affirms the need to avoid regressing into a-temporal models or into blindly producing new forms of domination embedded in the text unbeknownst to its author. Abensour notes that by ‘escaping the constraint of imitation, [the simulacrum utopia] affirms the diverse, the multiple – in short, pluralism’ (2016: 47). This reiterates the openness that he sees as being central to utopia and acts as a check on the possibility of politics being reduced to utopian substitutionism with its threats of totalitarian domination and closure.

While this establishes the plural nature of utopia – its irreducibility to a singular model – these traits are mirrored in, and overlap with, the second key attribute: the simulacrum utopia is tied to the meeting of subjects intent on exchanging fantasies and dreams for a new world. This meeting requires that a space be created for a concrete community to materialise. But this space must be open and plural: it rejects ‘the time of the legislator-messiahs’ in favour of a collective and plural space open to multiple visions and their negotiation or mediation (Abensour 2000: 67). As Abensour quotes Pierre Klossowski: ‘it is necessary to create a sphere where one or many simulacrum may be able to mediate an exchange of complementary phantasms at the level of individuals, and thus permit a co-operation between these different groups’ (2016: 47). By refusing the hierarchy contained in a blueprint, the possibility of a plurality of utopias is emphasised against their alleged irreconcilability. Moreover, rather than asserting a binary between a concrete but closed utopian blueprint and an abstract and heuristic but politically meaningless utopia, the simulacrum as meeting place facilitates the mediation of different utopian visions. This opens the possibility of founding social bonds of association between individuals and groups within this materialised community.

If we connect the dialogical content of the simulacrum utopia to Abensour's reading (2017) of Thomas More's Utopia, utopia involves the production of what we can call a community of utopian readers. In Utopia, this community exists in the space of the garden, where the characters of Thomas More and Peter Giles openly discuss utopia with Raphael Hythloday. But bonds of friendship (horizontal equality within difference) are required for such a dialogue to take place. This runs counter to the dystopian world of court life, as a space of domination structured by a competition to appease a person of authority whose presence limits discussion to a hegemonic ‘common sense’ that reproduces the established order. As Abensour argues: ‘these two spaces designate two modes of sociality, one of which permits communication and the establishment of a living-together, while the other bars that possibility’ (ibid.: 37). The content of utopian visions is central to the discussion. But concrete visions can only be offered in the garden under conditions of friendship in which dreams of a new world can be offered and their assessment mediated precisely through the simulacrum as a meeting place for exchanging such dreams between equal and connected members. In the competitive world of court life (vertical inequality), the possibility of challenging the established order is foreclosed.

The community of utopian readers returns us to Klossowski's account of simulacrum. Discussing Marquis de Sade and Charles Fourier, Klossowski argues that the world of the former ‘does not concern itself with the mediating role that Fourier assigns to the production of objects in relation to the passions. The sole production that Sade acknowledges in this regard, if only on a personal level, is the book he is writing, and more generally those artistic diversions taken into account by the Society of the Friends of Crime’ (Klossowski 2017: 84). While they both acknowledge that the simulacrum – as a meeting space – requires ‘the formation of groups’, for Sade literary production fulfils its own purpose in creating a community of readers in the secret societies that his texts are catered to. Deeming these secret societies ‘impoverished’, Fourier saw the need to extend the principles of secret societies to society as a whole in the form of ‘affective groupings’. Jettisoning insular literary communities, this called for the creation of concrete simulacrums – a collective conglomeration of individual groupings – in which various utopian fantasies could be exchanged and lived in materialised forms. Of course, such a community would not annul difference or conflict; the point was to associate in order to combine, via mediation, in the context of plurality. As Roland Barthes explains, the phalanstery (as Fourierist simulacrum) was based on ‘differences and proximities, out of which Fourier creates the very principle of societal organisation, which basically consists in putting in a phalanstery contrasting groups of individuals, each group linked by an affinity’ (1989: 98). This asserts the need for an object or the political materialisation of human communities and human creative capacities as a means of discussing utopian life and its possibilities amid differences and contestation.

The Utopia of Councils as Political Form

While this discussion allows us to rethink his understanding of utopia, we need to recuperate the political core of Abensour's emancipatory project. This amounts to finding a political counterpart to the utopian simulacrum. Establishing this counterpart would also challenge the most frequent criticism of Abensour's account of insurgent democracy. For Abensour, democracy exists as ‘primarily an action, a modality of political agency’ (2011: xxiii) that attempts to create non-hierarchical social bonds against the oligarchic and sedimented forms that emerge within the State. Consequently, democracy exists against the State. But, critics argue, reduced to an oppositional action, this understanding of democracy denies the possibility of institutional forms because it is a negativity or purely insurgent (Esposito 2022: 148; Gauchet 2003: 160; Holman 2014: 439–442; Marchart 2018: 201–202).

Because Abensour works through a hermeneutics of emancipation rooted in critical readings of other thinkers, his own explicit political project often remains clouded in ‘rhetorical precautions’ (Cervera-Marzal 2012: 27). Yet, this belies that there is an institutional political form that recurs throughout his work: the council idea and its historical experiences.1 While the councils had been primarily of historical interest (Popp-Madsen 2021: 8), recently scholars have begun theorising a specific theoretical tradition of council democracy (Cervera-Marzal 2012; Dubigeon 2017, 2019; Kalyvas 2008; Kets and Muldoon 2019; Medearis 2004; Muldoon 2018, 2020; Popp-Madsen 2021). In this context, the councils are seen as a spontaneously arising institutional form for the emancipation of oppressed groups.

In his work, Abensour invokes the councils as the institutional embodiment of both insurgent democracy (Celikates 2010: 608; Dubigeon 2019: 259) and utopia (Cervera-Marzal 2012: 24). Perhaps because this occurs with his usual rhetorical precautions, little attention has been given to the councils as an institutional framework for his work. In particular, utopian studies scholars have not mentioned the institutional possibilities of councils at all. But this is also part of their general disengagement from Abensour's work on insurgent democracy, aside from passing references that reduce it to a repetition of the same suspicion of institutions that his work on utopia is accused of (Levitas 2013: 114–115).

To understand the councils in Abensour's work, we need to turn to his conceptualisation of a democratic-utopian emancipatory project (2020). The new utopian spirit involved a dialectical relationship between democracy and utopia (Mazzocchi 2015), structured by the need to ‘democratize utopia’ and ‘utopianize democracy’. While democracy and utopia each sought to establish a situation of non-domination, each held out particular perils that the other could correct. Utopia fell peril to the drive towards a reconciled and harmonious society that threatened to destroy the political as a mode of social institution. Consequently, the new utopian spirit internalised democratic principles of plurality and struggle. According to Abensour, this involved internalising the council idea against the Jacobin project of seizing and wielding centralised State power. In taking a decentralised or grassroots approach (Anweiler 1975: 4), the council idea asserted not only the plural and dialogical nature of democratic institutions but their constant need to be active in resisting the tendency towards hierarchy and homogenisation (Abensour 1991). At the same time, democracy must be utopianised to avoid regressing into ‘normal politics’ – a politics that reconciles itself with the established order in refusing the possibility of alterity (Holman 2022: 4). Normal politics emerges when an originally democratic revolutionary moment takes on formalistic qualities that suppress the participatory forms that brought democracy about in the first place. Ultimately, democracy goes from being extraordinary and based on constituent power to being ‘normal’ and based on constituted or constitutional power (Kalyvas 2008; Popp-Madsen 2021). Utopianising democracy entails incorporating the drive towards alterity or what is different – the absolute gap – so that democracy never settles into an absolute form as normal politics or, worse, counterrevolutionary repression (Abensour 2004). Put differently, this requires leaving open the possibility of self-renovation or re-founding after the initial institution of democratic forms.

At the level of form, the councils as an expression of the democratic-utopian, or the utopia of councils, constitute a simulacrum. While it can be conceptualised as a coherent theory and history, the council idea and experience is not ‘monolithic or homogenous’ (Dubigeon 2019: 257). Reflecting this, Abensour deploys discontinuous historical examples of the council idea, including the Parisian sections of the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the Russian Soviets, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and, more idiosyncratically, the London Corresponding Society and council-style institutions that helped to ‘make’ the English working class (1988, 2011, 2013; Abensour and Janover 2017). These examples speak to the persistent emergence of the council idea, which takes on new forms in concrete historical circumstances and under local conditions. Hence, as simulacrum, utopia is opened to new experiments and forms within each council experience, which is subject to innovation and invention. Paolo Virno (1996) draws out this quality when he suggests that ‘leagues, councils, and soviets’ are characterised by ‘Example and political reproducibility’. As Virno argues, the councils exist as an ‘idea’ but not as the ‘empirical application of a universal concept’ (ibid.: 203). Rather, each example constitutes an individual ‘species’ and, consequently, not a copy of a master blueprint. Hence, at the most basic level, councils are institutions established for the purposes of ‘acting in concert’ to challenge and replace exclusionary State institutions. But reproducibility situates them as ‘prototypes’ structured by similarity and experimentation, which makes them ‘capable of blossoming into new combinations of knowledge, ethical propensities, technologies and desires’ (ibid.: 203). Consequently, the councils exhibit the possibility of reproduction and innovation in light of the defeat or failures of the council idea in previous instantiations, as well as through forms of internal transformation.

Virno's account of reproducibility gestures towards what Abensour refers to as ‘persistent utopia’ (1996). By acknowledging that every utopia contains tensions and must attempt to preserve the desire for emancipation against regressions into domination, utopia becomes a persistent project. As Abensour explains: ‘Despite all its failures, disavowals and defeats, this impulse is reborn in history, reappears, makes itself felt in the blackest catastrophe, resists as if catastrophe itself called forth new summations’ (2008: 407). Hence, utopia is not a one-off but an ongoing project situated in time and across instantiations. This acknowledges not only that utopian projects can be suppressed via counterrevolutionary violence but through internal regressions into new forms of domination. Consequently, utopias must remain open to the same critical interrogation that they subject the established order to: every overcoming must be subject to critical interrogation not to suppress the possibility of action but to ascertain the need for subsequent emancipatory transformations. Refusing simplistic binaries such as heuristic and telic, persistent utopia is modelled on Adorno's negative dialectics: negation without realisation in a positive essence that, via closure, would occlude difference and suppress further innovation. We can call this rejection of identity-thinking a quasi-telic or weak-telic perspective. It acknowledges a telos that drives materialisation. But each telos or materialisation must be situated in time and re-opened, allowing for the possibility of a new telos or for transformation of the materialisation. This prevents a given telos from repeating the conditions of closure (the reproduction of the established order) that utopia sought to escape (Abensour 2012: 35–36). Utopia then becomes a persistent project and utopian realisation inspires further utopian strivings and transformations or what we might call a utopia beyond utopia.

We can see this persistence in the relationship between council experiences. While authors have situated the birth of the councils in various places, from the tribunes of the plebs in Rome to the Russian soviets (Anweiler 1975: 3–4), isolating a single origin is irrelevant to the simulacrum because there is no master blueprint. Rather, the council idea is reproduced in new iterations in its various emergences. If, hypothetically, we situate the birth of the councils in the Parisian sections of the French Revolution, the idea takes on new forms in 1871 (the Paris Commune), 1917 (the Russian Revolution), 1918 (the German Revolution), and 1956 (the Hungarian Revolution). In each instance, the councils emerge anew to spark the dreams of a new world and to structure the spaces and agencies aimed at making these dreams a new reality.

Of course, in the process of their rise and decline, a number of different relations can be established between these moments to explain the persistence of the utopia of councils. First, and in acknowledging their precarious and short-lived existences (Popp-Madsen 2021: 22; Sitton 1987: 90), an initial experience is abridged and forgotten through counterrevolutionary repression or through internal failure. These lost threads re-emerge in new forms. We can see this relationship between all of these moments, with the French Revolution succumbing to Terror and Thermidor, only to see the council idea re-emerge with the Paris Commune. With the Paris Commune's suppression, the council idea disappears again only to re-emerge in the Russian and German Revolutions. In these cases, re-emergence cannot be seen as identical repetition but must be understood as resuscitating and innovating on the original form. Second, the council idea enacts the ‘education of desire’ in the relation between council movements, helping them to spread. Centrally, the Russian Revolution's council idea – or the Kronstadt's attempts to keep it alive – operated as a simulacrum that inspired the council form to emerge in Germany (Icarus 2012: 11). Third, the council idea can re-emerge internally against new forms of domination. Hence, the power of the Russian councils was suppressed by the Bolshevik Party only for the Kronstadt to occur and for the council system to again re-emerge several decades later in the Hungarian Revolution.

Understood in this way, the councils constitute an institution in a multifaceted way in Abensour's work. To begin with, they operate as a utopian simulacrum subject to innovation and experimentation. In this meaning, they are an institutional body that continually re-emerges. But, far from just being a sporadic emergence, the council idea can take on a more amorphous, but no less important, institutional form. In this vein, Abensour draws on Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who defined ‘institution’ as signifying:

those events in an experience which endow the experience with durable dimensions, in relation to which a whole series of other experiences will make sense, will form a thinkable sequel or a history – or again the events which deposit a sense in me, not just something surviving or as a residue, but as the call to follow, the demand of a future. (Merleau-Ponty 2010: 77)

In this definition, institution refers to the sedimentation of experience into a coherent field of meaning that contains the conditions of possibility for action. Hence, the council idea as an institution (and institutional memory) gives sense and meaning to the world, which opens the possibility of resuscitation. But resuscitation is not return to a static form. Rather, sedimentation – or the congealing of disparate experiences into an institution as a coherent field of meaning – is exactly what facilitates giving new expression to the experiences that the institution draws together: as the instituting-instituted, the conditions of possibility are opened for transformations of the original institution. Such institutions bring forth a way of existence that does not determine or limit action but facilitates and opens it as possibility by virtue of a ‘greater plasticity, more openness to events, and a stronger disposition to welcome the new’ (Abensour 2011: xxviii). The council idea would thus be an experiential and practical matrix capable maintaining a connection to the original idea while also being capable of transforming itself in accordance with temporality, spatiality, and the condition of plurality.

The Political Content of the Utopia of Councils

In Abensour's work, the councils also possess a utopian content that mirrors Fourier's call for materialisation of the literary community as simulacrum. We can note that, in his reading of Marx, Abensour (2011) asserts the human need for political objectification via institutions or concrete forms of life. Institutions are a realisation of human species-being – human's creative capacity and social bonds given objective form. But, situating this within the dialectic of emancipation, any objectification must be subject to political reduction: it must be brought back to its specific temporality and to the subject that institutes it in order to prevent an alienation of the political object that would deprive human subjects of their self-realisation. This condition of political alienation – oligarchic politics, in which a part abrogates power and represents itself as representative of the whole over which it rules – spurs the attempt to establish democratic institutions that can prevent such a capsizing into domination.

Given the overlap between democracy and utopia, it is no surprise that Abensour gives a similar description of utopia, defining it as ‘a specific method of transforming society’: ‘It reconstructs the social destroyed by capitalism and the state, multiplying small communities “behind the state's back” and against the state in order to remake the social fabric, to reconstitute it, to remake the social bond’ (2008: 413). The councils play the role of transforming society by reconstructing the social on three interconnected fronts, helping to democratise and institutionalise utopia. First, the councils possess an internal and prefigurative content via their attempt to reconstruct social bonds through the formation of institutional bodies containing new modes of living- and acting-together. For Abensour, the concept of State goes beyond narrow understandings of the ‘State’ as a singular or homogenous institution. Rather, for him, the State refers to polymorphous forms of domination rooted in the command-obedience relationship, including in the capitalist division between directors or decision-makers and those who carry out their decisions (Holman 2020: 133). Against these relationships, the prefigurative aspect of the democratic-utopian aims at:

annihilating the division between governors and governed, or of reducing it to almost nothing, inventing a public space and a political space under the banner of isonomy. In short, this way for politics to be is a transformation of the power in potential to act in concert: it signifies the passage from power over human beings to power with and between human beings, the between being the place where the possibility of a common world is won. (Abensour 2011: 96–97)

Abensour is much indebted to Hannah Arendt here. For Arendt (2005), politics only exists under conditions of equality in which subjects are neither ruler nor ruled and are thus free. This is the precondition for acting in concert through modes of persuasion rooted in equality rather than force. Moreover, for Arendt, the councils were the institutional embodiment of such ‘spaces of freedom’ (2006: 256). Reading Abensour through this idea, the councils are the embodiment of the utopian community of readers as a materialised intersubjective space. The councils annul the command-obedience relationship through the institutionalisation of non-hierarchical bonds rooted in the equal right to act/participate in public life (isonomy). Hence, the councils represent a community of utopian readers through allowing for the discussion and enactment of new modes of life, including creating spaces for mediating different emancipatory visions.

Second, this prefigurative content takes on an external or insurgent element insofar as the councils challenge and aim to replace the State-relation as a governing political and economic reality. Ultimately, the internal utopian community (non-State) is formed precisely to challenge and replace the external oligarchic or dystopian community (State) with new institutions and relations. The councils are, thus, not merely temporary. The point is to make these political bodies, and the new social bonds produced by them, permanent through a reconstruction of the social order as a whole. As Abensour states, the councils ‘by contrast to the Jacobin tradition and against it, [assign] revolution the task of smashing the power of the State so as to replace it with a new form of the political link that remains to be invented’ (2011: 96). Back to the councils as simulacrum, that this remains to be invented means that the councils remain an ‘open work’ allowing for experimentation in the production of intersubjective space against the State.

Finally, at the same time as the councils challenge the ancien régime, they also retain an insurgent challenge to the potential emergence of a new State internal to the councils. In democratising utopia, this requires the internal transformation of councils as potentially new oligarchic or State relations emerge. Against such intrusions, the councils aim to assure that the demos or oppressed retain participatory avenues and agencies, defending plurality against new forms of political alienation. Abensour points to two institutional provisions aimed at combatting such regressions. First, the right to insurrection in the French revolutionary constitution of 1793. This right encouraged not the abolition of laws or institutions but institutional means to making sure laws remained anchored in the needs and demands of the people. Ultimately, the right to insurrection sought to defend and prolong the power of the Parisian sections, as an institutional space for asserting the people's capacity against their exclusion. Put otherwise, the sections, as the space of prefigurative content, must remain permanent expressions of ‘a vital, intense, non-hierarchical political bond’ (Abensour 2011: xxiv–xxv) against the increasingly authoritarian actions of the revolutionary government, which sought to suppress the sections and the popular agencies they represented. Second, the Paris Commune's ‘Communal Constitution’ made political delegates revocable. This provision institutionalised insurgency via a political reduction aimed at circumventing the councils transmogrifying into a State via the formation of a permanent professional political class (ibid.: 53).

Historically, the councils emerged in revolutionary situations and operated outside of power as strike committees that mobilised and empowered the oppressed, while also providing institutions for political self-education. While this embodied the prefigurative and insurgent moments, the role of the councils changed in the process of struggle, effecting a transition from organising struggles to replacing and taking on the role of existing political institutions (Dubigeon 2019: 266; Popp-Madsen 2021: Ch. 6). While Abensour situates the councils in the complex and paradoxical plane between the external State and the possibility of an internal one developing, this does not negate their character as permanent institutions rooted in the prefigurative moment and its expansion both temporally and spatially (2011: xli). To realise this democratic-utopian life, which only exists prefiguratively at the moment of irruption, institutions such as the councils must be founded to anchor these moments in time (Plaetzer 2022: 120), such that institutional plasticity allows for self-renovation and continued development. The right to insurrection and the revocability of delegates represent different attempts at establishing this. As Abensour states: ‘to safeguard the people's capacity to act politically it can turn to institutions that, at their inception, were meant to foster the exercise of that capacity’ (Abensour: 2001: xxvi). Hence, the political reduction enacted by the right to insurrection or revocability sets ‘in motion a circular flow between the present of the event and the past, insofar as this involves encounters among emancipatory institutions holding out a promise of liberty. Here, the people rose up against the liberating institutions’ lack of a present, demanding that these institutions be respected’ (Ibid.: xxvi). Ultimately, the councils must be drawn back to their revolutionary origin and the prefigurative community to resist the emergence of a new State. Moreover, this links insurgent institutions back to the principle of intersubjectivity, defying the ability to use them as a power over people and seeking to maintain their status as creating webs of relations between people.

Beyond these features, Abensour calls for expanding utopian-democratic spaces beyond accepted boundaries (Ingram 2006: 46) and against the polymorphic nature of domination. This emerges in his reading of E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. While the councils serve this project as part of the political infrastructure, the English working class sought to expand the public sphere beyond its narrow and exclusionary parliamentary form. This involved the production of ‘councils’ in various forms and social spaces (‘cafes, taverns, dissident churches, and large rallies’) (Abensour 1988: xlvi). Such institutions asserted the need for the broader creation of a plebeian public sphere in producing ‘another way of living together, another form of community’ (Ibid.: xxxiv) that challenged the oligarchic closure and control of public space. Back to the internal-external dynamic of the councils, the purpose was to develop internal forms of horizontal social bonds but to expand this prefigurative content by creating a broader public sphere that reflected them (ibid.: xlvi). Ultimately, this meant producing a community of utopian readers – a meeting space for subjects – as a materialised and institutional form that permeated the public sphere as a whole.

Moreover, if – as Abensour quotes the London Corresponding Society – ‘the number of our members be unlimited’ (1988: xlvi), the spaces of the democratic-utopian must also be unlimited. This meant expanding the council idea beyond narrowly political confines. In this direction, and despite his tremendous debt to her work (Abensour 2006), Abensour's call to utopianise democracy challenges Arendt's (2006) famous account of the councils, which refused to extend council forms of self-government to workplaces. Calls for this expansion were, in her words, the result of the ‘politically irrelevant desire of individuals to rise into positions which up to then had been open only to the middle class’ (2006: 266). Arendt separates the economic (as a realm of necessity) from the political (as a realm of freedom) with the councils being incapable of ‘organizing, or rather of rebuilding, the economic system’ (ibid.: 267).

Separating the economic and the political can reinscribe forms of economic domination, particularly given the formal adoption of such a separation under neoliberalism (Chari 2015). Against this tendency, Abensour argues for the expansion of the council idea: ‘it would also be necessary to see clearly that this plebeian public sphere does not rest on a strict separation of the political and the social. Its actors saw places of production as one of the places for expressing the political’ (1988: xlvii). This claim centres on the idea of the political institution of the social: that the social is the outcome of human actions that emerge through the struggles between the dominant and the dominated. That places of production express the political means that the economic is instituted out of such struggles and can thus be instituted otherwise. Refusing the division between the political and the economic, this suggests that workplace democracy is part of utopianising democracy in acknowledging that the plebeian public sphere – and its principles of solidarity – must be extended, opening up participatory spaces of horizontal self-government including in the economy.

At the same time, this requires transforming the nature of work. Abensour notes that Anton Pannekoek, a leading council theorist, lauded Morris and the utopians for developing ‘the “active side” of the new life, that is, the transformation of work itself, all the programmatic ideas on the upheaval of everyday life’ (2016: 46). In this light, utopianising democracy entails acknowledging the spaces of domination ‘forgotten’ by the political/economic or public/private divides and attempting to expand the realm of freedom – to politicise the economy as a realm of social institution. But ‘democracy’ would not simply replace capital by pluralising the command-obedience relationship that occurs in the workplace. The values of a democratic-utopian life would expand from the human social bond to include the relationship between humans and nature. Abensour invokes Walter Benjamin to this effect. Benjamin criticised social democratic principles – ‘the valorisation of work, the belief in continual progress, and the orientation toward the happiness of future generations’ (2008: 416) – for reproducing the capitalist production paradigm, even if under the guiding light of the social democratic state (Benjamin 2003: 393–395). Under such conditions, we would seemingly find another regression into State relations (command-obedience) only this time with a State bureaucracy directing the process of production. As Abensour argues: ‘such a conception of emancipation betrays the hold of the model of production, which itself valorises the exploitation of nature without discerning that such a “victory” bears within itself the possibility of the domination of man over man’ (2008: 416). Against the production paradigm, this calls for utopian experiments to develop new ways of conceptualising the relationship between humans, humans and nature, and humans and work.

The Persistence of the Utopia of Councils

Far from refusing the possibility of institutions, Abensour presents the councils – albeit subliminally – as the vehicles of utopian materialisation, spatialisation, and institutionalisation. But the councils also represent an example of a new ‘model’, namely the simulacrum utopia. Against the utopian substitutionism of traditional blueprint models, the simulacrum utopia opens the possibilities of new instantiations of utopia that transcend the image drawn up by the founder or the original movement. Consequently, the councils emerge as a ‘form’ but one that is subject to reproducibility and transformation. Likewise, they also present a ‘content’, namely the call to develop new social relations predicated upon horizontal bonds that prefigure and challenge the existing State formations, while also attempting to avoid the emergence of a new State. Finally, the councils call for an expansion of democratic-utopian spaces, including into the economic sphere with not only a democratisation of the workplace but a transformation of work beyond production paradigms.

That Abensour fails to provide a claim to one historical movement, moment, or experience being the finally found solution to the institutional puzzle of utopias speaks to the fact that a singular solution does not exist. This realisation was part of the new utopian spirit's attempt to escape the dialectic of emancipation: ‘The difference between the nineteenth and the twentieth century is that the former believed that it possessed, or could possess, the solution, whereas the latter makes the enigma its dwelling, forewarned that the historical and political domains are destined to remain endlessly in question’ (Abensour 2011: xlvi). The internalisation of the dialectic of emancipation acknowledges that the seminal experiences of democratic-utopian possibilities, including the utopia of councils, have largely been suppressed by counter-revolution or pacified by internal forms of domination. For Abensour, this does not suggest that institutionalisation, materialisation, and spatialisation are impossible. Rather, in acknowledging the dialectic of emancipation and accepting the enigmatic nature of politics that emerges from it, he undertakes a hermeneutics of emancipation that extracts from utopian experiences and experiments, such as the councils, the possibilities of prolonging the time and space of emancipation. Consequently, acknowledging the enigmatic nature of politics, including utopian defeats or failures, these experiences can educate the desire of future generations in eliciting them to resurrect the project of emancipation against normal politics. Yet, by emphasising the yet to be invented nature of emancipation, subsequent movements have the space for experimentation and innovation in relation to the new forms of domination that permeate their own epoch. This acknowledges the persistence of the utopia of councils, such that contemporary movements – such as anti-austerity struggles in the Global South (Holman 2013), the global Squares movement (Popp-Madsen 2021), Black Lives Matter, or Nuit Debout (Breaugh and Caivano 2022) – can be understood as carrying on and transforming the council idea in the context of new dystopian conditions and the attempt at their utopian resolution.

Note

1

It also bears mentioning that, as the editor of the ‘Critique de la politique’ book series, Abensour published multiple works on council democracy and expanded institutions of political participation, including by Ronald Creagh (1983), Jurgen Habermas (1988), Martin Breaugh (2007), Oskar Negt (2007), and Yohan Dubigeon (2017).

References

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Contributor Notes

Paul Mazzocchi is a sessional instructor at York University (Toronto, Canada). His work has appeared in Contellations, Critical Horizons, Utopian Studies, Theory & Event and Political Studies Review. He is the co-editor of Thinking Radical Democracy: The Return to Politics in Postwar France and A Politics of Emancipation: The Miguel Abensour Reader (forthcoming). E-mail: pamazzoc@yorku.ca

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Theoria

A Journal of Social and Political Theory

  • Abensour, M. 1988. ‘Présentation: La passion d'Edward P. Thompson’. La formation de la classe ouvrière anglaise. Paris: Seuil-Gallimard, xxviixlviii.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Abensour. M. 1991. ‘Le nouvel esprit utopique’, Cahiers Bernard Lazare 128: 132163.

  • Abensour, M. 1999. ‘William Morris: The Politics of Romance’. Trans. M. Blechman. In M. Blechman (ed) Revolutionary Romance. San Francisco: City Lights Books: 125159.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Abensour, M. 2000. ‘Utopie et emancipation’, L'inactuel: psychanalyse and culture (5): 6170.

  • Abensour, M. 2002. ‘Pour une philosophie politique critique?Tumultes 17–18: 207258.

  • Abensour, M. 2004. ‘Lettre d'un “révoltiste” à Marcel Gauchet converti à la “politique normale”’, Réfractions 12.

  • Abensour, M. 2006. Hannah Arendt contre la philosophie politique? Paris: Sens & Tonka.

  • Abensour, M. 2008. ‘Persistent Utopia.’ Trans. J. Ingram. Constellations 15 (3): 406421.

  • Abensour, M. 2009. ‘Avant-propos’. In Pour une philosophie politique critique. Paris: Sens & Tonka, 1146.

  • Abensour, M. 2011. Democracy Against the State: Marx and the Machiavellian Moment. Trans. M. Blechman and M. Breaugh. Cambridge: Polity.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Abensour, M. 2012. ‘Utopia: Future and/or Alterity?’ Trans. T. Chakraborty. In B. Bagchi (ed). The Politics of the (Im)Possible: Utopia and Dystopia Reconsidered. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publishing: 2346.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Abensour, M. 2013. ‘La conversion utopique: l'utopie et l’éveil’. In Utopiques II. L'Homme est un animal utopique. Paris: Sens & Tonka, 1360.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Abensour, M. 2016. ‘The History of Utopia and the Destiny of its Critique’. Trans. J.D. Ingram. In S. D. Chrostowska and J. D. Ingram, Political Uses of Utopia: New Marxist, Anarchist and Radical Democratic Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press, 356.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Abensour, M. 2017. Utopia: From Thomas More to Walter Benjamin. Trans. R. N. MacKenzie. Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing.

  • Abensour, M. 2020. ‘Utopia and Democracy’. Trans. M. Lorenzen. In O. Frausto, J. Powell and S. Vitale (eds), The Weariness of Democracy: Confronting the Failure of Liberal Democracy. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2738.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Abensour, M. and M. Gauchet. 1976. ‘Presentation: Les Lecons de la Servitude et Leur Destin’, In P. Leonard (ed), Le discours de la servitude volontaire, La Boétie et la question du politique. Paris: Payot.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Abensour, M. and L. Janover. 2017. ‘Préface’. In Le Mythe bolchevik: Journal 1920–1922. Paris: Klincksieck, viixxix.

  • Anweiler, O. 1975. The Soviets: The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils, 1905–1921. Trans. R. Hein. New York: Pantheon.

  • Arendt, H. 2005. The Promise of Politics. New York: Schocken, 93–200.

  • Arendt, H. 2006. On Revolution. New York: Penguin.

  • Barthes, R. 1989. Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Trans. R. Miller. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Benjamin, W. 2003. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 4: 1938–1940. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

  • Breaugh, M. 2007. L'expérience plébéienne. Une histoire discontinue de la liberté politique. Paris: Payot.

  • Breaugh, M., and Caivano, D. 2022. ‘A Living Critique of Domination: Exemplars of Radical Democracy from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo’, Philosophy & Social Criticism (online first).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Celikates, R. 2010. ‘Review: Pour Une Philosophie Politique Critique, by Miguel Abensour’, European Journal of Philosophy 18 (4): 605609.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cervera-Marzal, M. 2012. ‘Miguel Abensour, Cornelius Castoriadis. Un conseillisme français?Revue du MAUSS 40 (2): 300320.

  • Chari, A. 2015. A Political Economy of the Senses: Neoliberalism, Reification, Critique. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Creagh, R. 1983. Laboratoires de l'Utopie. Les communautés libertaires aux Etats-Unis. Paris: Payot.

  • Deleuze, G. 1983. ‘Plato and the Simulacrum’, October 27: 4556.

  • Dubigeon, Y. 2017. La démocratie des conseils: Aux origines modernes de l'autogouvernement. Paris: Klincksieck.

  • Dubigeon, Y. 2019. ‘A Theory of Council Democracy’. Trans. Olivier Ruchet. In G. Kets and J. Muldoon (eds), The German Revolution and Political Theory. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 257-276.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Esposito, R. 2022. ‘The Creative Force of Institutions: A Reply to Benoît Dillet's, Vanessa Lemm's, and Robert Nichols's Responses to “Three Paradigms of Political Ontology”Cultural Critique 115 (1): 143149.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gardiner, M. 2013. Weak Messianism: Essays in Everyday Utopianism. Bern: Peter Lang.

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