Castoriadis in the context of post-socialist Eastern Europe

1404856_1055703617815224_7784966476886222580_oBy Yavor Tarinski

This year marks 95 years from the birth of the big philosopher Cornilius Castoriadis as well as 20 years from his death. A long period of time in which much have changed but somewhat his thought remains as relevant and as fresh as during those rebellious days and nights of May ’68 when the Parisian youth, influenced to a large extent by him and his associates, challenged the dominant and bankrupt significations of that period, proposing instead new and radical narrative, rooted in one democratic tradition.

But if drastic changes have taken place in the Western world, where Castoriadis lived and worked, such have unfolded also, if not even to a higher degree, in Eastern Europe. Much can be said about that but I will limit myself to few notes here.

The post-Soviet era came with promises for blurry notions of “freedom” that irritated the social imaginary after many decades under the iron grip of centralized bureaucratic apparatuses. But the changes that came brought fragmented bureaucratic capitalism that deepened further the already severe crisis of civic culture.

This was no surprise for Castoriadis, who himself was never fooled by the “free world” of the West, and neither by the “people’s republics” of the East. Furthermore, his analysis on the effects social pacification would have on the power relations inside society offers clear explanation for the grotesque forms of social organization in contemporary Eastern Europe. For Castoriadis the withdrawal of peoples from the public sphere, the disappearance of political and social conflict, allows the economic, political, and media oligarchy to escape all control.[1] These processes are being unfolded in extreme rapidity in the countries of Eastern Europe, where people have first-handedly experienced both soviet-style socialism and corporate capitalism and as a result of this the imaginaries of these societies have submerged into deep cynicism, arguably worst than the alienation of the western consumerist culture. Thus are being produced regimes whose irrationality is pushed to the extreme and which are riddled with unseeingly unhidden structural corruption.

In this signification-less environment traditional ideological projects seems impotent to provide germs for the emergence of new significations which could give once again life to these societies, descended into deep cynical lethargy. Instead they are often used as tools by elitist circles to abdicate from broad public affairs. Besides this for decades the established powers in these countries have exercised their iron grip on power under Marxist ideology. Thus local populations have grown extremely wary, if not even hostile, towards notions such as “people power”, “internationalism” and “revolution”.

Meanwhile the post-socialist governments, in their effort at enforcing their new western capitalist ideology, made everything in their powers to erase the past. Thus extreme tribal nationalism rose among the local populations to fill the gap left from this sense of uprootedness. Alternative political activities remained to their bigger part entrapped in the ideological narratives of times long gone, referring to realities of the 19th and 20th century, not corresponding to the new temporalities. Thus dissenting voices were channeled through ideological sects, that fit the description given by Castoriadis as groups that set up as an absolute a single side, aspect, or phase of the movement it stems from, making this aspect the truth of the doctrine and the truth as such, subordinating everything else to it and, in order to maintain its ‘faithfulness’ to this aspect, severs itself radically from the world, living henceforth in ‘its’ own world.[2]

Somwhere in this harsh environment I was introduced to the thought of Cornelious Castoriadis and the project of autonomy. It’s potentials for challenging the present day oligarchies, in their new liberal clothing, with the non-ideological paradigm of direct democracy, were impressive. Even more so was its radical break with economism that has left such corrosive effects on the imaginary of the East European people. As Castoriadis noted, the doctrine of the socialist regimes borrowed heavily from capitalism’s imaginary that bases all of social life on the idea that economic “betterment” was the only thing that counted or that would yield the rest by addition. This imaginary continued to be vulgarly pushed foreword by the pro-western oligarchies that took power in the post-soviet era. Thus economism sedimented among large sections of eastern European societies, replacing citizens with taxpayers and dulling creativity with cynical consumerism.

The project of autonomy, advocated by Castoriadis, represented radical break with it, as well as with traditional ideological sectarianism, plaguing the social movements there. It also offered rootedness in one democratic historical tradition which to replace the shallow tribal nationalism. Castoriadis called for people to engage in political affairs and recreate the public space and time, that has been severely and continuously degraded by the party commissars of the past and the business oligarchs of the present.

It is not by chance that Castoriadis’s thought reached these societies so late – both the socialist censorship and the cannibalistic market have made it difficult for such ideas to make it through. Instead his thought reached us “from below”, and here I speak especially for the Bulgarian context in which I have spent most of my life: through activist channels and international exchange of ideas with social movements from neighboring countries. However during the last years his ideas are beginning to reach growing number of people in Eastern Europe, books of his are being published, and political activities are taking place, seemingly influenced by his concepts of autonomy and democracy. New generation of political thought and action is emerging in this part of the world and only time will show what alternative projects will appear in the future and what effect they will cast on these societies.

[1] Cornelius Castoriadis in The Project of Autonomy is not Utopia (1993)

[2] Cornelius Castoriadis: The Imaginary Institution of Society, The MIT Press 1998, p.10

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