By Jean L. Cohen

I first met Cornelius Castoriadis in the late 1970s when he came to New York City to lecture at The New School for Social Research, Stonybrook, and other nearby universities. At the request of Dick Howard, a mutual friend and fellow associate editor of Telos, my partner Andrew Arato and I hosted Castoriadis in our apartment for about a week. Back then, I was a graduate student in sociology at the New School, and, more importantly, involved in the above-mentioned Telos. Telos was an international new left journal of radical theory that published Castoriadis’ work as well as personal interviews with him. The journal brought together young graduate students and academics coming from involvement in the various movements of the new left with radical democratic, socialist and/or Marxist backgrounds. Telos published the work of critical theorists on the left and had contacts with major thinkers throughout continental Europe who were involved in the shift away from orthodox (and Trotskyist) to neo-and post-Marxism.

These thinkers shared a critique of Soviet-type societies while continuing to take seriously key elements of the Marxian critique of capitalism. They exposed the flaws of western democracies while remaining committed to the democratic project, further democratization, civil rights, and social justice; at home and abroad, east and west, north and south.

Castoriadis was one of the major figures in that group from France, along with Claude Lefort (whom I met in New York several years earlier) and Jean-Francois Lyotard (also a friend whom I met a bit later in New York). Castoriadis and Lefort had been co-founders of the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie in the 1950s (with LaPlanche), which Lyotard joined a few years later. A precursor to the new left, S ou B, as Castoriadis noted in an early interview published in Telos, was a vehicle for those in France moving away from Trotskyism while remaining on the democratic left. This approach fit with the Telos new left, critical theory, and democratic orientation, and these encounters led to long-lasting, deep friendships, and fruitful intellectual exchanges.

Along with the work of Lefort and Habermas (a kindred critical spirit in Germany, important for the Telos crowd), Castoriadis’ commitment to the democratic project, brilliantly presented in his magisterial The Imaginary Institution of Society, impacted the thinking of many in the journal and on the left. Clearly, by that time, he was already one of the major democratic theorists of the 20th century. He embodied the shift from the old to the new left infusing his personal brand of neo- and then post-Marxism with a deep concern for the political in general and democracy in particular. He shared this concern with Lefort and Habermas (the outstanding left democratic critical theorist in Germany then and now). Indeed, the efforts of those coming from the left socialist/Marxist tradition to rethink the political and democracy is what had the greatest impact on my own theoretical trajectory and inclinations. Whatever their differences, all three considered democracy to be a verité à faire: an unfinished project that must be defended and creatively developed in tandem with expanding social justice and inclusion.

What was distinctive about Castoriadis’ approach was his commitment to democratic autonomy not only in everyday politics but also on the level of the political institution of society itself. He sought to conceptualize the meaning of collective autonomy and democracy vis-à-vis what he called “the imaginary institution of society,” involving what today is known as the politics of the extraordinary, which included but was not restricted to constitutional politics and the constituent power (for Castoriadis, the “instituting power”). At stake is our involvement in and relation to what Castoriadis calls the “radical instituting social imaginary” and the “instituted social imaginary.”

Castoriadis’ retrieval of the concept of the imaginary, with his emphasis on the creativity of the radical social imaginary, was a major contribution to political and democratic theory. Accordingly, the imaginary dimension involves significations that give form and meaning to the institutions, laws, norms, and culture of society. They are social because they are instituted and shared by an impersonal, anonymous collective, yet cannot be ascribed to a macro-subject or set of individuals; the socio-historical field in which they arise is irreducible to someone or some group’s will. Individuals and groups are already products of a socialization process in the instituted imaginary of society. However, the radical dimension of the instituting imaginary persists in every society, no matter how much it is repressed. It involves the creation ex nihilo of new significations, meanings, and forms, for which reason the very distinction between the fictive and the real cannot be derived or deduced from that which went before.

Simultaneously, the idea of creation ex nihilo requires caution. Although creation cannot be deduced or derived from what went before (imagination, not deductive logic, animates it), it does not mean creation remains free from constraints: social, historical, psychic or natural. From this perspective, society must be understood as a self-creation, as self-instituted, and hence as capable of self-alteration. The instituted society that individuals are born into was the product of the radical instituting imaginary – that is to say, our product, and we can alter it because socialization is never complete (on the individual or group level), and repression of the creative radical imaginary never fully succeeds. Consequently, the instituted society is always subject to the subterranean pressure of the instituting society and the radically creative social imaginary.

How can we think about democracy from this perspective? To his credit, Castoriadis sought to reflect on democracy and political autonomy regarding the dynamics of the imaginary institution of society without the illusions of voluntarism, transparency, rationalism, or historical or structuralist determinism. Accordingly, his core concepts (autonomy, self-institution, politics and the political, democracy) indicate that we are the source of the significations, institutions, meanings, and norms that permeate the life of society and the concrete individuals constituting it. However, we can have either a heteronomous or an autonomous relation to the social imaginary institutions, norms, and values in place. We can cover up and deny the instituting work of the radical social imaginary by ascribing the origin of laws and institutions to external and meta-social sources, thus asserting a transcendent validity that supposedly ensures closure of meaning and questioning. Or we can develop “another relation” to these and our political and social institutions – an autonomous one.

In my view, the best interpretation of Castoriadis’ conception of autonomy entails explicit and unlimited interrogation (critical inquiry) of the given and a reflective and reflexive relation to society’s institutions, laws, and instituted imaginary. Accordingly, autonomy involves questioning the creations and social imaginary we inherit and creatively altering the laws, norms, and modes of being that we deem unjust. Autonomy consciously tries to change them for the better by creating new or additional forms, meanings, and significations – without the illusions of transparency regarding the instituted or voluntarism regarding the instituting activity. In short, an autonomous relation to the institution of society replaces closure with openness and reflexivity. An autonomous society allows the freedom to question, innovate, alter and provides an awareness that all this is possible, that a democratic autonomous society allows its members to participate in the process freely and equally on the level of both ordinary and extraordinary politics.

The best interpretation of Castoriadis’ view of autonomy is that it entails the lucid creation and alteration of political life without the hubris of assuming everything is always at our disposal, or possible, or that we can step out of our lifeworld and historical-situatedness when creating new imaginary significations and new political forms. Importantly, Castoriadis does not define autonomy on the social or political level as full transparency or the sheer exercise of will. Equally important is that he eschews the lure of investing such creativity in a macro-subject on the collective or individual level (a leader). A society is autonomous when it can question key dimensions of the social imaginary institution while being reflexively aware that it—not God, nature, or spirits—makes the laws.

Nonetheless, it is also true that some of Castoriadis’ formulations have led some to interpret his concepts—and especially his understanding of democracy—in a less generous way. His own ambiguities are to blame for that. I will give only one example. Instead of drawing the conclusion that no institutionalization of democracy is sacrosanct and that a plurality of institutional and non-institutional forms of political participation and action can qualify as instantiating democratic autonomy so long as they are open to revision and greater inclusion, Castoriadis, like Rousseau before him, deemed representative government to be anti-democratic and antithetical to popular sovereignty and self-government.

Thus, he fell into the trap of embracing a too-literal idea of direct popular rule (drawn from an idealized Greek model of assembly rule by the whole people) and abandoning the necessary mediations that every democracy must entail. It is one thing to argue for supplementing (and improving) existing forms of representative democracy with a plurality of additional forms of participation. It is quite another to reject representative democracy as perforce heteronomous. Perhaps this second reading and inclination of Castoriadis stem from his preference for the extraordinary level of politics, for “revolution,” and activity of the “instituting power.” But even on that level, I submit that mediations and representation are always necessary and desirable. Moreover, the instituting power can be active on the level of ordinary politics as well, as innovative yet non-revolutionary social movements demonstrate.

Let me conclude on a personal note on the occasion of his centennial. Castoriadis and I became and remained good friends throughout his life. I will never forget the delightful evenings in his various apartments in Paris (Quai Anatole France and then in the 16th Arrondissement), where he and his wife would serve a superb dinner and then we would retire into the salon to listen to Billie Holiday, cool jazz, and drink his favorite scotch – Chivas Regal. Castoriadis was a huge personality with a superb sense of humor and great wit; he stood out at parties where he often played jazz on a piano and loved life, enjoying it to the hilt. For me, Paris will never be the same without him.

Jean L. Cohen is the Nell and Herbert M. Singer Professor of Political Thought and Contemporary Civilization. She teaches contemporary political and legal theory; continental political thought; critical theory, populism and constitutional democracy; contemporary civilization, and international political theory.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Cornelius Castoriadis in his office during an interview with Le Monde Diplomatique. Creative Commons.