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Castoriadis and Modern Political Theory Author(s): Sunil Khilnani Source: Revue europenne des sciences sociales, T.

27, No. 86, Pour une philosophie militante de la dmocratie (1989), pp. 405-418 Published by: Librairie Droz Stable URL: . Accessed: 24/08/2011 20:49
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un politique II ne fautpas ecouter ; des qui parleau nomde... ou se trompe, ces mots,il trompe peu importe. qu'il a prononc et le penseur le politique Plusque toutautre, politique parleen son Ce qui est,bienevidemnompropre et soussa propre responsabilite\ la modestie ment, supreme.2 I to be in Castoriadis is inescapably Readingtheworkof Cornelius voice and temperament: he the presenceof a powerfully distinctive speaks his mind. Since in politicsall we are ultimately humanly interested in is whatotherhumanbeingsas humanbeings(and not or whatever as the voice of Logos, Reason,Being,Theory, happens to be the current candidateforepistemic authoritativeness) say and of readinghis workis both unusual and the firstexperience think, sometimes attractive.But is this restless, hectoring personalvoice and intellectsimplya self-indulgence, an eccentricexpressionof and tastes? Or is it linkedto a powerful individual dispositions style to a senseof whyits motivations and modeofcognitive apprehension, also be our motivations?Is it above all joined to a coherent might thesemotivations viewof how,and to whatextent, might reasonably mode of politicalconduct? forus the basis fora practicable provide In short,does Castoriadispossess and providea crediblepolitical theory?3 of the existing to the injustices In his seditiousaversion political towardsavailablemodes of and social order,his visceralscepticism this order,and his entireconviction that, because understanding the domainin whichnew politicalforms is primarily humanhistory betteris possible,his workhas are createdand invented, something as a politicaltheory. Is it one thatcan a claim upon our attention be sustained?
1 I am grateful and Geoffrey Hawthorn to JohnDunn,Anthony Giddens, of thisessay. on a draft fortheircomments 2 Cornelius de la societe,Paris: EdiL'Institution Castoriadis, imaginaire fromCastoriadis's work tionsdu Seuil, 1975, quotations p. 9. All extended French. are givenherein the original 3 Thereare, of course,manyotherquestions whichmight be asked of whichincludescontributions diverseoutput, Castoriadis's to, amongothers, thephilosophy of language, of bureaucracy, title theory, psychoanalytic sociology and nucleardeterrence strategy.



must a modernpoliticaltheory What,in its barest description, be? Whatminimal criteria mustit be able to meet? Thereare at least threesuch criteriawhichmay be identified, any and each of which a modernpoliticaltheorymust in some degreebe able to firm it musthave a cognitively satisfy. First, graspof politicalrelations and arrangements as theynow are, and be able to give a fullaccount ofhowthey havecometo be thatway.Second, reasonably it must be able to specify a conception of human good, political value, which is not merelyimaginatively cogentbut whichis also as an account ofwhatwe might coherent wisha possiblehuman world to be. Third,and most exigently, it mustprovidea preciseassessment of how, and at what risk,we mightact so as to bringthe situation as we now findit nearerto thatwhichwe wouldwishit to be. A plausiblemodern needs to be powerful in its politicaltheory causal understanding, in its normative vision,and (and compelling fromthe latter) realisticin its judgementabout what separately can in factbe brought and politically about.4 humanly II of Castoriadis's The motivational are reasopriorities enterprise nablyclear: an acute sense of the structurally unjust economicand political divisionof labour to be found in modernsocieties,and fromthis,an agitatedimpatience with the intellectually following idiomof existing anaemicand imaginatively understandconstricting take one idiomof modern ingsof thesesocieties. He does,however, and action veryseriously: Marxism. Of all politicalunderstanding Marxismmost forcefully modernpoliticaltheories, articulated the causal account of the formation claim to providea definitive and to revealtheexploitative ofmodern socialorder, foundareproduction and evaluation tions of this order,and to unitethis understanding of actionwhichwould necessarily witha modality establisha structo makevalue fact. promised turally just social order. Marxism Yet, as Castoriadis relatively earlyon saw, in those areas where Marxismachievedpoliticalpower,it in fact rapidlysucceeded in inteldeforming society. The earlypart of Castoriadis's massively the extent lectualand politicalcareerwas givenover to establishing and to discovering its causes. Confronted of this deformation, by as a politicsof state government of Marxism the ruinouseffects he le sortde toute was pushedback to a moregeneral question:"est-ce
4 I take these definitional criteria in a brazenly wholesale fashion from the work of JohnDunn. Withina disciplinewhich has a feeble and generally incoherent up to and about, this seems to conceptionof what it is collectively me by some meausure to be the most precise and helpfulway of settingout least at what a modern political theorycould hope to be. See in particular John Dunn, WesternPolitical Theory in the Face of the Future (Cambridge: Press, 1979),and The Politics of Socialism (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1984). CambridgeUniversity



5 theorie rvolutionnaire qui est indiquepar le destindu marxisme?" To answer this,he firstelaborateda trenchant argument showing mustbe rejectedboth as an economictheory of the why Marxism of thecapitalist and as a theory mechanisms of reproduction system, of historical on neither countand largely forempirical development: reasons was Marxismcorrect, Castoriadisconcluded.6 But he did not succumbto a fussytinkering withthe internal detailsand fine in the hope thatit might be corrected. The grainof Marxist theory centralstake of his critiquewas more general. Marxism'sfailure, to do withthe typeof theory it is. That him,had hugely according a fundamentally shouldhave endedup by conrevolutionary thought to the dictatesof existing can onlybe understood forming thought when Marxism is seen as symptomatic and derivative of the entire tradition of twenty fivecenturies of Western"inherited thought".7 Castoriadis's account and characterization ofthistradition provides thephilosophical basis for, in turn, his ownstrategy ofunderstanding, his visionof political of political value,and his judgement possibility. It is a remarkableaccount,which demonstrates the formidable critical energiesof his restive intellectualimagination. In this account,inherited thoughtis shown,even at its best and most inventive to be driven moments, to radically by an obsessivestriving reducethatwhichis strange and uniqueto something knowable and Plato and Aristotle, representative. Spinozaand Marx,all have operated witha flawed whichassumesthat"to be is to "unitary ontology" be determined". The consequence has been a profound and recurring of the 'objects' whichinherited seeks ontological mistaking thought to thinkor renderinto thought: it pursuesfixity and determinacy over areas which cannot be renderedfixed or determinate.For theviolently distortive are Castoriadis, capacitiesof existing thought most clearlyand damagingly instanced in its attempts to grasp the character and properties of the social world. To theprimary inherited question"whatholds society together?", two dominant proffers thought typesof response. The firstis a and society to a natural "physicalist" approachwhichreduceshistory kind: thatis, to a set of givenand fixedneeds whichit is thenthe to serve. In its methodological function of social organization form, thisapproach functionalism: conclusions appearsas a question-begging are insertedinto premisesand presentedas 'explanations'. The modeoffers an accountof humanhistory in terms second,"logicist",
5 L'Institution imaeinaire,op. cit.. p. 17. 6 See ibid., chao. 1. 7 There are some sharp resonances between the work of Castoriadis and that of Roberto Mangabeira Unger: the strategiesof understanding deployed by both share a powerfulnegativeand critical analytic impetus,linked to a sense that dramaticpoliticaland psychicupliftis genuinely possible. A starting point for comparingthese two emigre thinkerswould be their accounts of what Castoriadiscalls "inherited Cf. Unger,Social Theory:Its Situathought." tion and Task (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1987), p. 138: "The can be written of the paradoxical of modernsocial thought as the history history relationsbetween the idea of emancipationfromfalse necessityand the theoretical stages and concepts throughwhich this idea was worked out."



of changing combinations of essentially immutable elements. In its at its best, as a form poorestformthis appears as structuralism; of rationalism.By stressing eithercausality or rationality, both the and logicistapproachesare blind to the emergence of physicalist new forms and creations in and through time,history: la question de l'histoire est question de Emergence de l'alterit^ radicale ou du nouveauabsolu... et la causality est toujours negation de ralte*rite\ d'unedouble identity dansla repetition identite*: position des memes les memes de la causesproduisant identity ultime effets, causeet de l'effet chacun a l'autre ndcessairement puisque appartient ou les deuxa un meme.8 Bothapproaches excisetime, and so eliminate thedomainwherenew emerge. Inheritedconceptionsinvameaningsand significations fromhistory, relatethe former to something riablyseparatesociety otherthanitself, an external as imageor telos,and thenviewhistory whichhelpsor hinders a disturbance to makeitself society's attempt of thatexternal telos. adequate to or representative Neither is inherited better at the character thought any grasping 9 worldas of such crucialconstitutive aspectsof the social-historical or thepsyche. In each case, it triescompulsively to reduce language what is in itselfa unique creationto merely beinga representation thatis alwaysalreadygiven. Thus,dreamsare taken of something of the unconscious to be representations psyche. But a dreamdoes whichalreadyexists,it creates,calls into not stand for something being: Le revedonnela representation inconsciente tellequ'ellees?...cela ne rsulte brouilie pas d'op^rations survenues, ulterieures, qui auraient des figures claires et distinctes; maisde l'etre de la psyche sparees, n> de representations... qui est genese The specialcharacter oflanguage cannot be captured by thedominant of it: boththestructuralist viewof language as a selfunderstandings enclosed systemof termswhose meaningsderivefromtheirdifference and oppositionto each other (so dissolvingreference into and the view that languagemust correspond or be signification), are properties adequate to how the worldis, that truthor validity of theworldthatlanguage mustsomehow are at best partial reflect, since theyignoreon the one hand the open character of language est partoutouvert;car la signification ("le lexiquedes significations ou a proposde ce mot,peut pleined'un motest toutce qui, a partir etre socialement and on the other dit, pense, represent^, fait"11), hand its essentially creativecharacter, the fact that therecan be
s Ulnstitution imaginaire. op. cit.,p. 240. Castoriadis relation joins the two termsso as to stressthe internal between and history: see VInstitution society imazinaire. ov. cit.. chaD.4. io Ulnstitution imaginaire, op. cit.,p. 374. ii Ibid., p. 332.



but constitute that termswhichdo not referto a pregiven reality - whichserveto termslike "God" or "citizen" forexample, reality: societiestogether, hold certain actingas "central imaginary significa- create theirreferents tions" and so define only once instituted, whatis real fora givensociety. of inherited The defective ontology thought operatesby meansof what Castoriadisterms an "identitary-ensemblist logic" (basically, the logicof closed sets). To the extent thatsuch logichas a genuine But it gripon the world,it can be moreor less effective. cognitive and can never is necessarily serveas a basis fortheconclusive partial, modes of understanding. Most imporinsightclaimedby existing the identitary misses the factthat logic of inherited tantly, thought such as the social-historical domainsof creativeactivity world,the containand are constituted and language, psyche, by an irreducible the"radicalimaginary". current element: Against usagesof theterm in Lacanianpsychoanalysis), Castoriadis offers his own (forexample, The imaginary is not an imageor reflection definition. of something rather, alreadygivenor in existence; incessante et essentiellement II est creation inditermin&e (socialde figures/formes/images, et psychique) k partir historique desquelles il peutetrequestion de "quelquechose".12 settlement magmaof potential bubbling significations By placingthisceaselessly and conceptually at the core of humanbeing, bothconstitutively and us to see humanhistorical formation as a continual by thusrequiring Castoriadisimposesupon us a upsurgeof radicallynew meanings, our dimension. of sheerly contingent recognition this unstable core of the sense potential meanings, By occluding the domain of human creativity is in whichpoliticsis essentially of thisloss are apparentin the supposition, lost. The consequences fromPlato down to modern commonto Western politicalthought that there exists a completeand predeliberalismand Marxism, rationalorderof the world. Politicsis thenreducedto a termined techniquewhich strivessomehowto link the orderingof human order. Castoriadis, withthispredetermined underaffairs however, but "as a collective tands politicsnot as an instrumental technique oriented towardschanging as belonginstitutions", explicitly activity ing above all to the domainof praxis. One readyand helpfulway workis to see it as moving Castoriadis's in the line of of situating in Marx'sattempt to Praxisphilosophy.This has its modern origins consciousness of the shiftthe locus of reason fromthe reflective of the acting Kantianknowing subject to the purposiverationality distanceshimself fromMarcuse'sand Sartre's subject. Castoriadis of thisline: he defines reformulations praxisas "thatdoingin which the others are intendedas autonomousbeings consideredas the of theirown autonomy". In essentialagents of the development
Ibid., p. 7.



his view,the mostimportant sense of praxisis not its instrumental the "radiits essentially creative forth to bring one,but rather ability callyother". Ill Castoriadis's towardsall modes of underdeep-seated scepticism draws whichlongforontological closureand determination standing and builds upon developments and physics in modernmathematics the Bourbakigroup'stheory of sets, quantummecha(forexample, of philosowiththe deconstruction nics).13 It converges strikingly can be found and that phicalclaimsto epistemic authority adequacy in theforceful of thelaterWittgenstein, Martin arguments Heidegger, WillardQuine,and JohnDewey. This line of thought has its most dramatic recentpresentation in RichardRorty's accountof the trajectoryof modernWesternphilosophy.14Rortyattacks what he viewsas Western ambition to mirror and capture nature philosophy's in propositional iorm. Like Castoriadis's, Rorty'sargument places on thehistorical and cultural of humanknowledge, weight relativity its intrinsically mutableand conventional quality. This presseshim to theconclusion thatthecentral of Western presumption philosophy is a futile one: propositions, do not model the worldas it language, schemasand descriptive is, butrather vocabugiveus newconceptual laries. Moreimportantly, he concludes too thatthispresumption is a insidiousone. Wheretne philosopher, in Rorty s deprepolitically about knowingwnich catorypnrase, claims to know "something else knowsso well",thepurveyor ot social and political nobody knowinto the social and political ledge claims a similarexclusiveinsignt reaims. Whether manifested in the formof a Leninistvanguard Partyor the developmental plans imposedupon nationaleconomies by tneWorldBank and the I.M.F.,sucii claimsare hollow. But to see, and to see through fullythe necessarily pretentious affectation to possess authoritative social understanding is not to arrive at any immediately self-evident at all (or even potentially we should and can determinate) consequencefor wnat politically do. 16 Indeed,it is precisely the pointof sucn arguments thatthere is no foundational humanknowledge which (called,say,philosophy) can tellus anything, or anything about politics. If philoconclusive, does have anything to say about politics, it is in a sophicalinquiry
13 Castoriadis discusses these developmentsand their philosophical consequences in "Science moderneet interrogation Les Carref ours du philosophique", labyrmthe (Paris: Editions du Seuil. 19/6),pp. lt/-zi/. 14 Richard Rorty,Philosophyand the Mirrorof Nature (Oxford: Blackwell, 15 See Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982), chap. 11. Also Rorty's Northclitte lectures, reprintedas "The of Language","The Contingency of Selfhood", and "The Contingency Contingency of Community", in the London Review of Books, 17 April 1986,8 May 1986, and 24 July 1986 respectively.



ratherthan substantive form. Casto(usuallynegative)procedural does not see the breaking of the hierarchy which riadis,however, subordinates as in any way disabling:rather, politicsto philosophy it accordspolitics a correct as an irreducibly statuts separatedomain of human activity, with its own specificformsof knowledge and activity. IV Does thissharpdrawing in of the aspirations to ontological comand epistemic harboured social underpleteness security by existing standinghave any consequencesfor how in practice we might better thinkof the causal propertiesof the human world? To show that indeed it does, Castoriadisplaces at the centreof his work an account of institution.In the everyday understandings of lay amateurs, institution is usuallytakenas a pluralnoun: institutions are seen as "things", inhuman objectswiththeirown specific whichare resistant to humanalteration and change regularities in the worstbut ordinary bureaucratic sense of the word. In the theories of theprofessional clericsof social and politicalunderstandare standardly viewedas fulfilling certainneeds,as ing,institutions "functional-economic" utilities which ensure possessing instrumentally of social structures. Castoriadis acknowledges the reproduction thesesenses, butwitha moreacuteear fortheactivevoicehe fastens on the sens in which institution is an activity, a process: human - bring into being - their social structuresand beings institute orders. He insiststhatwe see institutions as impermanent solidificationsof the magmaof imaginary significations: theyare historical and belief. That precarioussites of humanmeaning resting-places, are best understood humaninstitutions as complicated and constiunstable of humanmeaning and beliefis a view coagulations tutively thathas been stressed in a rangeof quite diffeby thinkers working contexts. (It lies, forexample, rentintellectual at the heartof the it has recently been tradition, Hegelianconception). In the analytic 16 But where stressedby Charles Taylorand AlasdairMaclntyre. ofMaclntyre themoreconservative sees thisprecarioustemperament as a threat, ness and instability Castoriadis takes quite emphatically 17 it as an opportunity. of humancollective To see the fragility to comprehend creations, cases they thatin many credulousness and elementary persist through dull habit is certainly to (at the veryhighestlevel of abstraction) of politicalpossibility: discovera dimension need not go on things
i See, for example, the essays collected in Charles Taylor, Philosophical Press. 1985), and Alasdair Papers, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Maclntvre,Againstthe Self -Images of the Age (London. 1971). !7 Again the resonance with Unger: cf. Social Theory,op. cit., p. 65: "To understandsociety deeply is always to see the settled from the angle of the unsettled."



does not as theyhave done and do now. But it equally certainly attendant of success to the as (and imply anyjudgement probabilities Human stateofaffairs. to createa better risks)in actually attempting instance in the first insists, is, as Castoriadis creativity quite rightly a fundamental fact of history. But to installit also as a supreme themostintellectually and supremely valueis notnecessarily political to thinkwhat,in these finaldecades of the way of trying edifying alone it might be prudent to do. This century millenium, politically has seen some of the least felicitous examplesof human political creativity. V 18 So too is he of course,is well aware of thisfact. Castoriadis, the alertto the pressing acknowledgequestionwhichfollowsfrom external economic mentthatthereare no overruling laws,no binding on humanaction:whatthendirects or exigencies determinations political action? If the epistemicsoapbox on which politicalthought and discoursehas hitherto placed itselfis kickedaway,if in ontoclosureof what politically might logicaltermsthereis no necessary have we againstmalignor evenjust plain worse be, whatguarantees this set of worrieswhichmotipoliticaloutcomes? It is precisely lucubrations. But where Habermas vates Habermas's intellectual - vainly, of certitude in Castoriadis's view- some principle pursues located outside, beyond,historyCastoriadishimselfoffersus a rooted of politicalvalue whichremainsfirmly vision,a conception in terms are the central and in history.Creativity, autonomy, praxis humancollective thisconception.As a visionof disalienated activity Marx. But,accordwiththatof theyoung sharessomething it clearly of the mechanisms in elaborations his theoretical to Castoriadis, ing forothersthe Marxmissedforhimself and obscurred of capitalism drive to subject tendential thepervasive factthatcapitalist reification, of a claimeduniverthe domainof humanactivity to theimperatives matched was onlya part of the process,necessarily sal rationality, Castoforautonomy. and opposedbya contrary thestruggle tendency: a cognitive riadis thus seems to give the drive towardsautonomy an analysisof and historical basis. He justifiesthis firstthrough workrelations, whathe sees as the"conflictual structure" ofcapitalist and secondly a psychoanalytical accountof the constitution through as a social individual.Giventhepremisses of thepsyche of his more Castoriadismust and does stop shortof however, generalthought, to thistendency. He acknowledges ascribing anynecessitarian quality
is Indeed by far the greaterpart of his early thinking and writingon the outcome of the Soviet revolutionwas given over to showingjust how badly wrong political creations can go. See the articles in Cornelius Castoriadis: 2 vols., edited and translatedby David Ames Political and Social Writings, Curtis (Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press, 1988).



that ultimatelythe pressure for greater autonomy must rest on a collective willed desire or preferencefor one futurerather than any other. This vision of a communityof free agents, acting towards each other in non-instrumental ways, participatingin individual and collective self-creation, has a good deal to commend it, and mightunder certain circumstancesbe compelling. As a vision, it would certainly be more compelling were it linked to some specification of how it mightbe broughtabout, instituted. So far,however,Castoriadis has offeredsuch specificationin only the most meager terms. It is clear that he takes the ideals and institutionalforms of Athenian democracy very seriously. He shares the modern sense of liberty as a fundamentalpolitical right,but to this he returns the more ancient conceptual dimension of the responsibilities and the participatory duties which arguably gives the term its full meaning.19 In asking us to subscribe to this considerably more demanding sense of political commitmentthan that to which we are currentlyaccustomed, Castoriadis does not seek to defend it from the potential damages of either the eminentlymodern Wildean intuition ("Socialism is an excellentidea, but it would take up too manyevenings")20or the more intricatelymodelled arguments (in the view of some, rationalizations21) for individual political inaction produced by Game Theory. For Castoriadis, such views are essentially misguided in their conof new (and ception of what politics is: the collective self-creation benign) institutions. Ce que nous appelons politique rvolutionnaire est une praxis qui et l'orientation se donnecommeobjet l'organisation de la socit en vue de l'autonomiede tous et reconnaitque celle-cipresupposeune radicalede la socit transformation qui ne sera, k son tour,possible de l'activit autonomedes hommes.22 que par de*ploiement He has a vivid sense of the key historical moments of such collective creation: the invention of democracy in ancient Athens, the creation of Soviets in 1917, the formation of worker's councils in
*9 For a skillful defence of the claim that these two dimensionsare in principlenecessarilylinked,ses QuentinSkinner"The idea of negativeliberty: in Richard Rorty,J.B. Schneewind philosophicaland historicalperspectives", and QuentinSkinner,PhilosophyIn History:Essays on the Historiography of Press, 1984),pp. 193-221. Philosophy(Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity 20 For an earlier and more elaborated formulation of this intuitionsee, Benjamin Constant,"The Libertyof the Ancientscomparedwith that famously, edited and traslatedby BiancamariaFontana PoliticalWritings, of the Moderns", Press, 1988), pp. 309-328. (Cambridge: Cambridge University 21 See, for example,Michel Plon, La thiorie des jeux: une politique imaginaire (Paris: Maspero, 1976). 22 L'Institution imaginaire, op. cit, p. 106. Compare Ungers characterization of the "radical project*in Social Theory, op. cit., p. 76: "The project of seeking that weaken the individualand collectiveempowerment by creatinginstitutions hierarchiesover our practical or or hold of preestablishedsocial divisions passionate dealingswithone anotherand impartto normalsocial lifesomething of the heightened masteryover contextthat characterizesmomentsof revolutionaryconflictor invention."



of in 1956. Moments whereit seemedthe politicaldivision Hungary labourhad collapsed,moments humanempowerment. of definite But it is hardly haveaccess plausibleto claimtodaythatwe might to a set of coherent viewsabout thepossibility of creating large-scale and durablesocietalstructures elabowhichdo not involvea highly rate politicaldivisionof labour. The counterpart to Castoriadis's insistence thata genuinely is both feasible democracy participatory whichcould theonlyfrom of humanpoliticalsociety and,ultimately, is a denialof thenecessity or potential possess legitimacy, legitimacy of any politicaldivisionof labour.23 The insistence and denial are open to several typesof objection,of varying gravity. First,it is clear thateven the democracy of the ancientpolis, as Moses Finley showed,rested on a fairlyelaborate divisionof incontrovertibly labour.24 Second, as it stands,Castoriadis'sspecification both of what a politicalsocietyof autonomous and empowered individuals look like,and of theconditions underwhichit maybe possible might to bringabout such a society remains (or perhapsall too hopelessly to the questionof hopefully) vague. He has certainly giventhought whathis visionwouldin practice to it is not evident entail, although what extent he would still stand by ideas firstoutlinedmore than thirty yearsago.25 But the real forceof thisobjectionrestson the second consideration: the conditions of possibility.It may indeed be possibleto map out institutional forms and procedures such that in principle it couldbe agreedthatthey wouldbe morejust and more efficient thanthosecurrently in existence, and sucha mapping would be a necessary forbringing condition about Castoriadis's vision. But it would hardly be sufficient.All societies today rest on and structures whichallocateeconomic and politicalresources reproduce between their members.Any at transforming these unequally attempt structures must anticipateresistance. What modalityof political actionwouldbring abouta reallocation; how,in Marx'ssharpphrase, are the "expropriators to be expropriated"?This, of course,is to come upon the treacherous but unavoidable area of the "politicsof the transition".
23See, forexample, "La polis Grecque et la creation de la democratic", in de Vhomme Domaines du Seuil. 1986), (Paris: Editions p. 289. 24 It is of coursetruethat the male citizenry of the ancient polis could, if it so chose,actually determine state action. But I take one of the main conclusions that from MosesFinley's ofancient to be that emerges study politics in the circumstances of significant economic whichprevailed disparity among the citizenry of the ancient of political labourdid in polis,a clear division factdevelop: there wereidentifiable leaders whogoverned, exercised statepower. The authority of thosewho governed, their to enforce rested ability decisions, not (as it does to a considerable extent in the modern state) on access to coercive but on economic and material factors.Thus,forexample, the power, establishment of patron-client relations relations between (that is, reciprocal factorin helping to ensurethe legitimacy and unequals)was an important of specific See Moses Finley, Politicsin the Ancient city-states. durability World (Cambridge: Cambridge Universitv Press. 1983). 25See "On The Content of Socialism", Parts Mil, in Social and Political Writings, op. cit.,vols. 1 and 2.



factof the statefrom themassivehistorical Third, by considering an unshakeably as a constraint to be dismantled perspective, negative senses in which and dispersed, Castoriadisavoids those important states simplyare the centralformwhich modernpoliticalagency of hitherto unmatched and concentration may take. The formation is the central levels of coercive and destructive defining power of politicalmodernity.The belief that such power characteristic of partistructures to and controlled by large-scale maybe returned is, at the veryleast, to make a mistakein patorydecision-making - as it wouldseemCastootherwise causality. Andto think political - is to be forcedto think muchharderabout how the riadisdoes26 be madeless untruststatesmight and actionsofparticular intentions both to theirown membersand to the membersof other worthy if it is acknowto affect. Fourth, are in a position stateswhomthey then of modern feature politics, ledgedthatstatesare an unavoidable is notthatbetween formodern contrast theimportant theory political of and a vision of the participative "totalitarianism" potentialities division the forms of those between but Athenian political democracy, limits of labour (the state) whichdo possess and place enforceable this on governmental power,and those whichdo not. By figuring to be it across in and contrast, specificcontexts, may possible perthe ceive more clearlywhat factorsare relevantfor establishing of obligation natureand extentof the networks particular linking statesto their citizenry. of politics is a conception termin such a contrast One important and cooperatively which places value on agents participatively theirown politicalorder. Does Castoriadisgive us some creating of hold such a politicalcommunity what of sense conceivably might such he Because individuals autonomous conceptual places together? he cannotinvoke and moralstresson humanagencyand autonomy, or normatively some extraneousinstrumentally bindingprinciple: of labour,not theweight division of theeconomic not thenecessities not fraternal acknowledged of tradition, love, not some universally even nor distributive of binding intersubjectively justice, principle comaction. Whatwouldbe the necessary normsof communicative the of mix intricate some two?) of psychological, ponents(material, such a bond? of trust of a conception JohnDunn has arguedforthe centrality takes which in anyviewof politics agencyseriously: whatthereis in the end forhumanbeingsto In political agency of how otherhumanbeings withis onlytheirjudgements reckon human to act. No onecan Knowhowanother being can be expected
26 See, for example, his remarkablydisabused (though now obviously out Devant la of date) analysisof Soviet and Americannuclear power and strategy: guerre (Paris: Fayard, 1981).



will act in the future. Trust is a policy apt for conditionswhere is unavailable,as in the case of the free acts of another knowledge 27 (p. 84-5) will always remain.

Castoriadis's stresson indeterminacy and opacityas both a causal of the human and domain (because this opacityhas as its property sense as a value in itselfis in an important counterpart creativity) a recognition that this domain is constituted by the free acts of humanbeings, rhetorics and henceis not tractable to the predictive to scientific in of imputed Yet, place these,Castounderstanding. riadisdoes notgrant textured anymoreintricately wayof conceiving and believing in the regularities of the human domain. Nor does he givea satisfactory accountof whatmayserveas limitsto reduce the evidentlevels of risk and hazard raised by a community of and autonomous individuals.He is scornful of theliberal empowered resort to Constitutions, whichhe rightly sees as beingthecontingent outcomesof- and always subject to- specificrelationsof power. in his understanding is onlypossibleifa society Autonomy, constantly itselfas the sole sourceof its own normsand laws. In recognizes this view, democracyis essentially a tragic political mode: it is or pre-given and mustperpetually subjectto no external face limits, the possibilityof collective hubris. He does, however,speak of such ancientAthenian as the grapheparaapprovingly procedures 28and (and more nomon, of institutions whichthrough ambiguously) education(paideia) would internalize in individuals a conception of But thisis a deeplyproblematic as self-limitation. autonomy area, whichdemands muchgreater elucidation on his part. it remains Castoriadis himself Though thin, mayhave good reason to trusthis conception as it stands. In an important sense, the forceof his entireargument is to insistthatany specification of his vision must remainthin,since to attempt to give futurecreations or imaginative anymoredeterminacy is to remainstumbling solidity within thecage of inherited obsessions. The future is by ontological definition and ontologically inaccessibleto us: how epistemically could we knowwhat it might look like,let alone whether it works? Castoriadis's is to steerclearbothof theprevisionary vocabustrategy laries of Marxismand other"total theories"whichclaim absolute and of the know-nothing knowledge, of conserdo-nothing principles vativethought.For him,politicalactivity, is based on knowpraxis,
2* John Dunn, "Trust and Political Agency",in Diego Gambetta, Trust: Makingand BreakingCooperativeRelations (Oxford!Blaekwell 198RV nn 71-Qr 28 On this, see Finley,Politics in the AncientWorld,op. cit., pp. 53-55;also Moses Finley.DemocracyAncientand Modern. 2nd edition (London: Hogarth Press, 1985),p. 72 and pp. 113-118. 29 For a somewhat different view of the liberatingpotentialities of such institutions of "self-government", see, for example, Michel Foucault, The Use Pleasure: The of Historyof Sexuality,vol. 2 (London: Viking,1986).



and provisional:fragmentary ledge which is always fragmentary or history, of humanity because therecan be no exhaustive theory because praxisconstantly createsnew knowledge. provisional VI This exultationin the possibilitiesof political creationyokes view modernimaginative modes: a Romantic two powerful together of aestheticself-invention, and a post-Enlightenment of conception as the realm of human collective creation. To the modern politics ear, joiningthesetwo idiomsproducesan appealingtone of authenhuman voice which addresses us as human a recognizably ticity, beings. But this tone must also be able to persuadeus as human beings. Why should we trust Castoriadis'svision? Why, more his judgement?Those modern shouldwe trust importantly, political visions which have been able to persuade significant numbersof humans to struggle to give such vision institutional solidityhave not onlya perspective on whatmight offered be possiblebut also - a senseof what(given at leastrhetorically thedetected regularities is politically of all thathas gonebefore) likely, probable(or,as in the case of Marxism, inevitable). Because Castoriadis places such value and on the implications on radicalcreativity, thismusthave forour of politicalcausalityand possibility, he is leftwith understanding weak vocabulary for specifying an analytically the probableresults of such creativity. as in otherdimensions In politics, of life,it is important always a sense of the opacityof the future, to entertain simplybecause it will be theoutcomeof whatwe (at theveryleast) believeto be free sensibleto see it as pure and sheer actions;but it isn'tparticularly possibility.To thinkof politicsin this way is not to enhancepolitical judgement. Politicaljudgementmust be based on a sound of the causal properties of the social and political understanding visionof humanvalue; but what sets it world,and on a compelling and important offas themostdifficult of a politicaltheory moment and providereasonsforparticular to identify is its ability agentsto than theywould otherwise have done, with a good act differently in benignoutcomes. chanceof such actionsresulting his insisIt is hard to avoid the forceof Castoriadis's scepticism, about the social and politicalworldis alwaysan tencethatthinking ratherthan a more or less suave deployment effortful of activity of instituinstruments alreadyforged. So too his characterization tion as a crucialbut perishableaspect of the human domainis a valuable one. Indeed,as a looseningof the atrophiedimaginative of professional and routine and intellectual ligatures understandings of the social and politicalworld,readingCastoriadisis a bracing of what we mightrightly see as gymnastic.But as a conception



and politically of value, it is too slim to be compellingly humanly attractive.Andas a wayof thinking aboutwhatit wouldmakegood is virtual. If it is as a political politicalsense to do, its existence that Castoriadiswishes his work to be read, he has yet to theory createone.