Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997)


Cornelius Castoriadis, was a philosopher, political thinker, social critic, practicing psychoanalyst, renowned Sovietologist, and economist who cofounded the now legendary revolutionary journal and group Socialisme ou Barbarie (1948-1967). Socialisme ou Barbarie developed a radical critique of Communism based upon the idea of workers’ management and exerted a great influence upon the student-worker rebellion in Paris in May 1968. Until his recent death, Castoriadis continued to write on politics, society, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and the imagination from his distinctive perspective that was inspired by the “project of autonomy”.


Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy
The Imaginary Institution of Society
World on Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination


Cornelius Castoriadis: Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy (excerpt)

Let us return now to politics, and start, so as to facilitate understanding, with what is proteron pros hemas, first with respect to ourselves: the individual. In what sense can an individual be autonomous? There are two sides to this question, the internal and the external.

The internal side: the nucleus of the individual is the psyche (the Unconscious, the drives). Any idea of eliminating or “mastering” this nucleus would be plainly ridiculous; that task is not only impossible, it would amount to a murder of the human being. Also, at any given moment, the individual carries with itself, in itself, a history which cannot and should not be “eliminated,” since the individual’s very reflectiveness and lucidity are the products of this history. The autonomy of the individual consists in the instauration of an other relationship between the reflective instance and the other psychical instances as well as between the present and the history which made the individual such as it is. This relationship makes it possible for the individual to escape the enslavement of repetition, to look back upon itself, to reflect on the reason for its thoughts and the motives of its acts, guided by the elucidation of its desire and aiming at the truth. This autonomy can effectively alter the behavior of the individual, as we positively know. This means that the individual is no longer a pure and passive product of its psyche and history and of the institution. In other words, the formation of a reflective and deliberative instance, that is, of true subjectivity, frees the radical imagination of the singular human being as source of creation and alteration and allows this being to attain an effective freedom. This freedom presupposes, of course, the indeterminacy of the psychical world as well as its permeability to meaning. But it also entails that the simply given meaning has ceased to be a cause (which is also always the case in the social-historical world) and that there is the effective possibility of the choice of meaning not dictated in advance. In other words, once formed, the reflective instance plays an active and not predetermined role in the deployment and the formation of meaning, whatever its source (be it the radical creative imagination of the singular being or the reception of a socially created meaning). In turn, this presupposes again a specific psychical mechanism: to be autonomous implies that one has psychically invested freedom and the aiming at truth. If such were not the case, one could not understand why Kant toiled over the Critiques instead of having fun with something else. And this psychical investment-“an empirical determination”-does not diminish in the least the possible validity of the ideas in the Critiques, the deserved admiration we feel toward the daring old man, the moral value of his endeavor. Because it neglects all these considerations, the “freedom” of the inherited philosophy is bound to remain a sheer fiction, a fleshless phantom, a constructum void of interest fur uns Menschen, to use the same phrase Kant obsessively repeats.

The external side of the question throws us into the deepest waters of the social-historical ocean. I cannot be free alone; neither can I be free in each and every type of society. Here again we encounter philosophical self-delusion, exemplified this time by Descartes-though he is far from alone in this respect-when he pretends that he can forget he is sitting upon twenty-two centuries of interrogation and doubt and that he lives in a society where, for centuries, Revelation as well as naive faith by no means suffice any longer, since a “proof” of the existence of God is henceforth required by those who think, even if they believe.

The important point in this respect is not the existence or nonexistence of formal coercion (“oppression”) but the inescapable internalization of the social institution, without which there can be no individuals. Freedom and truth cannot be objects of investment if they have not already emerged as social imaginary significations. Individuals aiming at autonomy cannot appear unless the social-historical field has already altered itself in such a way that it opens a space of interrogation without bounds (without an instituted or revealed truth, for instance). For someone to be able to find in him/herself the psychical resources and, in his environment the actual possibility, to stand up and say: “Our laws are unjust, our gods are false,” a self-alteration of the social institution is required, and this can only be the work of the instituting imaginary. For instance, the statement: “The Law is unjust” is linguistically impossible, or at least absurd, for a classical Hebrew, since the Law is given by God and Justice is but one of the names and attributes of God. The institution must have changed to the point that it allows itself to be put into question by the collectivity it enables to exist and by the individuals belonging to it. But the concrete embodiment of the institution are those very same individuals who walk, talk, and act. It is therefore essentially with the same stroke that a new type of society and a new type of individual, each presupposing the other, must emerge, and do emerge, in Greece from che eighth century B.C. onward and in Western Europe from the twelfth co thirteenth centuries onward. No phalanx without hoplites, no hoplites without phalanx. No Archilochus capable of boasting, soon after 700 B.C., that in flight he threw away his shield and that little damage was done because he could always buy another one, without a society of warrior-citizens capable of honoring above all else both bravery and a poet who holds this quality up, for once, to derision.

The necessary simultaneity of these two elements during a social-historical alteration produces a state of affairs which is unthinkable from the point of view of the inherited logic of determinacy. How could one compose a free society unless free individuals are already available? And where could one find these individuals if they have not already been raised in freedom? (Could freedom be inherent in human nature? Why then has it been sleeping over millennia of despotism, whether oriental or otherwise?) But this apparent impossibility has been surmounted several times in actual history. In this we see, once more, the creative work of the instituting imaginary, as radical imaginary of the anonymous collectivity.

Thus, the inescapable internalization of the institution refers the individual to the social world. He who says that he wants to be free and, at the same time, proclaims his lack of interest in his society’s institutions (or, another name for the same thing, in politics), should be sent back to grammar school. But the same link can also be established starting from the very meaning of nomos, of the law. To posit one’s own law for oneself has meaning for certain dimensions of life only, and it is totally meaningless for many others: not only the dimensions along which I meet the others (I can reach an understanding with them, or fight them, or simply ignore them), but those along which I encounter society as such, the social law-the institution.

Can I say that I posit my own law when I am living, necessarily, under the law of society? Yes, if and only if I can say, reflectively and lucidly, that this law is also mine. To be able to say this, I need not approve of it; it is sufficient that I have had the effective possibility of participating actively in the formation and the implementation of the law. If I accept the idea of autonomy as such (and not only because “it is good for me”)-and this, obviously, no proof can force me to do, no more than any proof can force me to square my words with my deeds-then the existence of an indefinite plurality of individuals belonging to society entails immediately the idea of democracy defined as the effective possibility of equal participation of all in instituting activities as well as in explicit power. I will not delve here into the necessary reciprocal implication of equality and freedom when the two ideas are thought rigorously, nor into the sophistries by means of which, for a long time now, various people have tried to make the two terms appear antithetical.

And yet, we seem now to be back at square one, for the fundamental “power” in a society, the prime power upon which all the others depend, what I have already called the ground-power, is the instituting power. And unless one is under the spell of the “constitutional delusion,” this power is neither locatable nor formalizable, for it pertains to the instituting imaginary. Language, family, mores, “ideas,” “art,” a host of social activities as well as their evolution are beyond the scope of legislation in their essential part. At most, to the degree that this power can be participated in, it is participated in by all. Everybody is, potentially, a coauthor of the evolution of language, of the family, of customs, and so on.

To make our ideas on this matter clear, let us revert for a moment to the Greek case and ask: What was the radical character of the political creation of the Greeks? The answer is twofold:

1. A part of the instituting power has been made explicit and has been formalized: this is the part concerning legislation properly speaking, public-“constitutional”-legislation as well as private law.

2. Specific institutions were created in order to render the explicit part of power (including “political power” in the sense defined earlier) open to participation. This led to the equal participation of all the members of the body politic in the determination of nomos, of dike and of telos – of legislation, of jurisdiction, and of government. Rigorously speaking, there is no such thing as “executive power.” (Its functions, which were in the hands of slaves in ancient Athens, are performed today by people acting more or less as “vocal animals,” and they may one day be performed by machines.)

As soon as the question has been posed in these terms, politic? has absorbed, at least de jure, “the” political. The structure and the operation of explicit power have become, in principle and in fact, in Athens as well as in the European West, objects of collective deliberation and decision. This collectivity is self-posited and, de facto and de jure, always necessarily self-posited. But more than that, and much more importantly, the putting into question of the institution in toto became, potentially, radical and unbounded. When Cleisthenes reorganizes, for political purposes, the Athenian tribes, this can perhaps be laid to rest as ancient history. But we are supposed to be living in a republic. Presumably, therefore, we need a republican education. But where does “education”-republican or not-start, and where does it end? The modern emancipatory movements, notably the workers’ movement but also the women’s movement, have raised the question: Is democracy possible, is it possible for all those who want it to obtain the equal effective opportunity to participate in power, when they live in a society where tremendous inequalities of economic power, which are immediately translatable into political power, prevail? Or in a society where women, though granted some decades ago “political rights,” continue in fact to be treated as “passive citizens”? Are the laws of property (whether private or “State-owned”) and of sex God-given, where is the Sinai on which they have been delivered?

Politics is a project of autonomy. Politics is the reflective and lucid collective activity that aims at the overall institution of society. It pertains to everything in society that is participable and shareable. De jure, this self-instituting activity does not take into account and does not recognize any limit (physical and biological laws are not of concern to us here). Nothing can escape its interrogation, nothing, in and of itself, stands outside its province. But can we stop at that?

The answer is in the negative, both from the ontological point of view-before any de jure consideration-and from the political point of view-after all such considerations.

The ontological point of view leads to the most weighty reflections, ones which, however, are almost totally irrelevant from the political point of view. In all cases, the explicit self-institution of society will always encounter the bounds I have already mentioned. However lucid, reflective, willed it may be, the instituting activity of society and individuals springs from the instituting imaginary, which is neither locatable nor formalizable. Every institution, as well as the most radical revolution one could conceive of, must always take place within an already given history. Should it have the crazy project of clearing the ground totally, such a revolution still would have to use what it finds on the ground in order to make a clean sweep. The present, to be sure, always transforms the past into a present past, that is, a past relevant for the now, if only by continually “reinterpreting” it by means of that which is being created, thought, posited now; but it is always that given past, not a past in general, that the present shapes according to its own imaginary. Every society must project itself into a future which is essentially uncertain and risky. Every society must socialize the psyche of the human beings belonging to it; but the nature of this psyche imposes upon the modes and the content of this socialization constraints which are as indefinite as they are decisive.

These considerations carry tremendous weight-and no political relevance. The analogy with personal life is very strong-and this is no accident. I am making myself within a history which has always already made me. My most maturely reflected projects can be ruined in a second by what just happens. As long as I live, I must remain for myself one of the mightiest causes of astonishment and a puzzle not comparable to any other-because so near. I can-a task by no means easy-come to an understanding with my imagination, my affects, my desires; I cannot master them, and I ought not to. I ought to master my words and my deeds, a wholly different affair. And all these considerations cannot tell me anything of substance about what I ought to do-since I can do whatever I can do, but I ought not to do whatever crosses my mind. On the question: “What ought I to do?”, the analysis of the ontological structure of my personal temporality does not help me in the least.

In the same way, the possibility for a society to establish another relationship between the instituting and the instituted is confined within bounds, which are at once indisputable and undefinable, by the very nature of the social-historical. But this tells us nothing about what we ought to will as the effective institution of the society in which we live. It is certain, for instance, that, as Marx remarked, “le mort saisit le vif “-the dead take hold of the living. But no politics can be drawn from that. The living would not be living if they were not in the hold of the dead-but neither would they be living if this hold were total. What can I infer from this concerning the relationship a society ought to will to establish with its past, in as far as this relationship is subject to willing? I cannot even say that a politics that would try to ignore the dead totally, and even to obliterate their memory, and thus a politics so contrary to the nature of things, would be “bound to fail” or “crazy”; its total self-delusion, its complete inability to attain its proclaimed aim, would not wipe it out of reality. To be crazy does not prevent one from existing. Totalitarianism has existed, it still exists, it still tries to reform the “past” according to the “present.” Let us recall, in passing, that in this it has only pushed to the extreme, systematically and monstrously, an operation which everybody performs every second and which is done every day by the newspapers, the history books, and even the philosophers. And if you were to say that totalitarianism could not succeed because it is contrary to the nature of things (which here can only mean “to human nature”), you would only be mixing up fhe levels of discourse and positing as an essential necessity that which ‘is a sheer fact. Hitler has been defeated, communism has not succeeded, for the time being. That is all. These are sheer facts, and the partial explanations one could supply for them, far from unveiling a transcendental necessity or a “meaning of history,” also have to do only with sheer facts.

Things are different, from the political point of view and once we have accepted that we are unable to define on a principled basis nontrivial bounds for the explicit self-institution of society. For, if politics is a project of individual and social autonomy (these being two sides of the same coin), consequences of substantive import certainly do follow. To be sure, the project of autonomy has to be posited (“accepted,” “postulated”). The idea of autonomy can be neither founded nor proved since it is presupposed by any foundation or proof. (Any attempt to “found” reflectiveness presupposes reflectiveness itself.) Once posited, it can be reasonably argued for and argued about on the basis of its implications and consequences. But it can also, and more importantly, be made explicit. Then, substantive consequences can be drawn from it, which give a content, albeit partial, to a politics of autonomy, but which also subject it to limitations. For, from this perspective, two requirements arise: to open the way as much as possible to the manifestation of the instituting imaginary; but, equally important, to introduce the greatest possible reflectiveness in our explicit instituting activity as well as in the exercise of explicit power. We must not forget, indeed, that the instituting imaginary as such as well as its works are neither “good” nor “bad”-or rather that, from the reflective point of view, they can be either the one or the other to the most extreme degree (the same being true of the imagination of the singular human being and its works). It is therefore necessary to shape institutions that make this collective reflectiveness effectively possible as well as to supply it with the adequate instruments. I will not delve here into the innumerable consequences that follow from these statements. And it is also necessary to give to all individuals the maximal effective opportunity to participate in any explicit power, and to ensure for them the greatest possible sphere of autonomous individual life. If we remember that the institution of society exists only insofar as it is embodied in its social individuals, we can evidently, on the basis of the project of autonomy, justify (found, if you prefer) “human rights,” and much more. More importantly, we can also abandon the shallow discourses of contemporary “political philosophy,” and, remembering Aristotle-for whom the law aims at the “creation of total virtue” by means of its prescriptions peri paideian ten pros to koinon, relative to the paideia pertaining to public affairs (civic education)-understand that paideia, education from birth to death, is a central dimension of any politics of autonomy. We can then reformulate, by correcting it, the problem posed by Rousseau: “Some form of association must be found as a result of which the whole strength of the community will be enlisted for the protection of the person and property of each constituent member, in such a way that each, when united to his fellows, renders obedience to his own will, and remains as free as he was before.” No need to comment upon Rousseau’s formula nor upon its heavy dependence upon a metaphysics of the individual-substance and its “properties.” But here is the true formulation, the true object of politics:

Create the institutions which, by being internalized by individuals, most facilitate their accession to their individual autonomy and their effective participation in all forms of explicit power existing in society.

This formulation will appear paradoxical only to those who believe in thunderlike freedom and in a free-floating being-for-itself disconnected from everything, including its own history.

It also becomes apparent-this is, in fact, a tautology-that autonomy is, ipso facto, self-limitation. Any limitation of democracy can only be, de facto as well as de jure, self-limitation. This self-limitation can be more than and different from exhortation if it is embodied in the creation of free and responsible individuals. There are no “guarantees” for and of democracy other than relative and contingent ones. The least contingent of all lies in the paideia of the citizens, in the formation (always a social process) of individuals who have internalized both the necessity of laws and the possibility of putting the laws into question, of individuals capable of interrogation, reflectiveness, and deliberation, of individuals loving freedom and accepting responsibility.

Autonomy is, therefore, the project-and now we are adopting both the ontological and the political point of view-that aims:

– in the broad sense, at bringing to light society’s instituting power and at rendering it explicit in reflection (both of which can only be partial); and

– in the narrow sense, at resorbing the political, as explicit power, into politics as the lucid and deliberate activity whose object is the explicit institution of society (and thus, also, of any explicit power), and its working as nomos, dike, telos – legislation, jurisdiction, government-in view of the common ends and the public endeavors the society deliberately proposes to itself.

Compiled by Romano Krauth

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