Why Castoriadis is Still Important Today

Interview with Yavor Tarinski

Excerpts from an interview conducted by Irina Nedeva for the Bulgarian National Radio and aired on 03.02.2015.  


Why Castoriadis is important for you almost 20 years after his death?

According to me the analysis offered by Cornelius Castoriadis remains, 20 years later, as relevant as before. This is so because he manages to detect with high accuracy the problems that still surround us today and as a result of whom people does not live well. From the beginning of his writings he reveals the inherent problems of bureaucracy, the logic of political representation, the consumerist culture and the capitalist idea of unlimited economic growth. This criticism of his remains evidently abreast with our time.

Another important aspect of his thought is the question of significance. According to many, the presence of various myths in ancient societies was a sign of ignorance, while for Castoriadis every society, to be able to function as such, needs a set of significations. According to him every society creates its own significations and the ones of consumerism and political representation are not good enough as social binders. Maybe we can even say that they are among the worst humanity has ever known and because of this our societies are degrading. One can suggest that most of the classic ideologies that we know, such as Capitalism, Communism and even Anarchism (at least to a certain degree), participate in the current imaginary – in the sense that they tend to limit social struggles to fights over the right to consume “more-than-before”. Castoriadis says that this is not enough; we need to create new significations.

We can give the example of the “Islamic State” that has managed, after centuries, to return to the forefront of the Western world the idea of theological totalitarianism. We saw that even people that can be attributed to the western middle class, that can lead “satisfying” consumerist lifestyle, chose instead to go to a foreign place, where there is danger for their life, where they will have to kill and live in misery.  And all of this because they couldn’t find meaning in their relatively cozy lives and went to search meaning in God.

To this state of insignificance Castoriadis suggests to deconstruct the current significations and rediscover those of the project of Autonomy. It is based on the concept of the individual as active citizen in the classic sense of the term, as one that is actively interested and involved in the public affairs that affect his existence.

I will quote Castoriadis here, when regarding the Athenian Democracy “What were the Athenians up to? Indeed, something very interesting. It’s the Greeks who invented elections. It’s a historically attested fact. Perhaps they were wrong, but they invented elections! Who was being elected in Athens? The magistrates weren’t being elected. The magistrates were being appointed by drawing lots or by rotation. For Aristotle, remember, a citizen is someone who is capable of governing and being governed. Everyone is capable of governing, so lots are drawn. Why? Because politics is not the business of specialists. There is no science of politics. There is opinion, the doxa of the Greeks; there’s no epistimi.”[1] The politics is not for specialists, but today we see exactly the opposite. Can politics be returned in the hands of the people so they can be free, be able to think and chase their dreams without all this to be dressed in difficult terminologies that require specialists? Won’t society become dumber if the politicians are not experts?

It is important to note that for Castoriadis direct democracy is not a final goal. According to him it is a necessary precondition for autonomy to exist, but it is not the only one. Nowadays the social imaginary is dominated by heteronomy, according to which there is/are extra-social source/s that navigate our lives beyond our reach, like politicians, historic necessity, gods or traditions. For example one can live in a self-managed society, in which however people believe that certain things shouldn’t be done because of the demands of the gods. So if people are to take on the road towards autonomy they should break with the imaginary of heteronomy.

Castoriadis tries to demonstrate during all of his life that everything that happens in our societies is our own act. He speaks for the history as creation, not in a mystic, religious sense, but on imaginary level. It is a matter of choice. It is not coincidental that he gives as examples for autonomous societies, or at least such that get close enough to experience autonomy, the Athenian Polis and the self-managed city-states of the Middle Ages. Although he was aware of other cases of self-management throughout history, in this two he saw that the people were not guided by some pre-determined final goal. Instead they engaged in what Castoriadis calls constant interrogation. This is the basis of philosophy. What he called social and individual autonomy means just that: the individual simultaneously as an active citizen, constantly interfering with public affairs, and as philosopher, constantly doubting at all traditions and norms, not necessarily refusing them, but being able to determine them as right or wrong.

Concluding words?

One big problem today is that when people hear about rearranging society from the bottom-up they immediately ask to know if this has happened somewhere else and how it worked out. This is wrong. Since we can imagine it, we can also implement it in practice. The thing is to take the decision and then the necessary actions to change the political structure of society – a complete paradigm shift.


[1] Cornelius Castoriadis: Postscript on Insignificance: Dialogues with Cornelius Castoriadis, London, continuum 2011. p.11

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