Castoriadis: Democracy’s advocate

Catoriadis Une vieCornelius Castoriadis was an economist at the OECD and its precursor, the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), but he was also one of the 20th century’s leading thinkers on society and politics. We asked François Dosse, author of a newly-published biography, to discuss Castoriadis’ thinking on democracy, a theme we’ll be coming back to.

Castoriadis was highly critical of modern-day Greece, but he considered that the Ancient Greeks had created something totally new that we should think about to shake off the torpor he diagnosed in our times. In the fifth century before the current era, Greece created political democracy, with the emergence of the city, the polis, with its community of citizens and institutions whose only foundation was that which they wished to grant it. That said, Castoriadis didn’t argue that this historical experience should be treated as a model. Rather, we should seize it as a fertile seed to create a true democracy.

To support his argument, Castoriadis had to break with the long-standing “continuist” vision. This sees Ancient Greece as a sketch of future Western democracy at a time when the individual didn’t yet exist. This would mean that Greece was the cradle of democracy, but modern democracy went much further in the flourishing of democratic values. This view was summed up in 1890 by the historian Ernest Lavisse: “our history starts with the Greeks”.

Castoriadis on the other hand based his position on the change in Ancient Greek historiography in the 1960s that looked afresh at the subject to rediscover the uniqueness of the Greeks and the exceptional nature of the Greek imagination at the time. According to Castoriadis, the polis that is born in the eighth to fifth centuries BCE is a radical invention that cannot be explained away by some causal system. The feeling of belonging to a common space and its translation into political terms cannot be reduced to a simple desire for territorialisation, since Themistocles said he was ready to found Athens again elsewhere. Castoriadis rejects all the explanations based on a single cause, for example that these cities were born because of the hoplite revolution or the demographic crisis.

The main reason for this invention is to be found in the political imagination of an autonomous community that in this way constituted itself on the basis of a voluntary collective act and rejected all forms of heteronomy. The people (Demos) proclaims its sovereignty (Autodikos) as well as political equality (Isonomia), creating an institution, the people’s assembly (Ecclesia) and proclaims the rules of a society that fully assumes its autonomy, with no transcendental foundation. These Ancient Greeks created a direct democracy for the first time in human history. Castoriadis insisted on the fact that a truly democratic regime is defined in opposition to any form of the delegation of power or representation, that do however characterise modern democracy, which is nothing more than an oligarchy according to him.

In Ancient Greece, politics was not considered as a specialisation reserved for a particular social category trained to exercise authority, as opposed to activities linked to a techne. Politics is everybody’s business and cannot be confiscated by a caste of wise experts. And to the extent that politics is everybody’s business, practical wisdom (Phronesis) is the responsibility of the whole community of citizens.

The other facet of autonomy realised by the Ancient Greeks is existential, and concerns the relationship with the meaning of existence. Another singularity of this Ancient Greece that Castoriadis links to the political dimension, is that there is no revealed religion from Homer’s era already, no promise of eternal life, of individual salvation after death, since the Greek religion offers no horizon of hope. Everything therefore is self-centred on Earthly experience and hope. As Castoriadis says, “What makes Greece is not measure and harmony, nor an evidence of truth as revelation. What makes Greece is the question of non-meaning and non-being.” According to Castoriadis, this sentiment of the absurd, of the certainty of finitude, engenders a reaction that nourishes an imagination founded on rationality, the law, the cosmos.

This democratic deepening is only possible if society conquers more autonomy, a major theme of Castoriadis. It is on the horizon of all his thinking as an objective to draw ever nearer to. It has to be understood in a double sense. It is the conquest of an individual capable of giving the full force of his being (what Spinoza calls the Conatus and Ricoeur names “capability”). In this sense, Castoriadis considered psychoanalysis of great help in reconciling a desire to be and what is done, a personal realisation. But autonomy is first and foremost the fact that a society should strive consciously for its self-determination, give itself limits and rules that can be controlled and revised at any moment by the citizens.

The theme of autonomy expresses the conviction that a human society can be self-governing, both politically and as concerns the economy, deciding what it considers to be good, giving a sense to collective action. From this point of view, Castoriadis defends a radically atheist position, rejecting any form of transcendence, and all heteronomy according to which society would have rules external to itself (although this didn’t stop him dialoguing with Christian intellectuals). His vision appeals to human responsibility because an autonomous society is one that is fully responsible for itself and its orientations. Human freedom lies on the horizon of autonomy. This harks back to what Thucydides meant when he said you have to choose: “rest or be free”.

To me, what seems fundamental is that Castoriadis’ thinking, which is never a system even if it is a very coherent whole, is a work opening on our future that gives us some keys to thinking about the 21st century. He did in fact feel early on the changeover in how we think about history, what we can call “presentism”, and the crisis provoked by the collapse of one of the three terms that time is composed of, the future – the future that foundered in the tragic 20th century. It’s up to our era, at the outset of the 21st century, to rethink a project of the future that isn’t dreadful, to react against barbarous temptations. Castoriadis invites us to revisit our past, not as a museum or tourist attraction, but to reinforce the determination of what Koselleck calls our “horizon of expectation” and he called our “socio-historical imagination”.

Useful links

Castoriadis: l’avocat de la démocratie. François Dosse (The original French text of François Dosse’s article)

Openness and Transparency – Pillars for Democracy, Trust and Progress Speech by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría at the launch of the Open Government Partnership

Democracy: What future? OECD Observer article by Patrick Love

Institutional (in)competence in 21st century politics was one of the discussions at the 2014 OECD Forum

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  1. Therese - 05/10/2014 Reply

    Interesting article, and timely in light of recent news about Hong Kong residents’ movement for democracy.

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