As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Sean McMorrow looks at Cornelius Castoriadis’s “The Crisis of Western Societies” from Telos 53 (Fall 1982).
With the publication of “The Crisis of Western Societies” (1982), Cornelius Castoriadis returns to an early theme in his work by proposing that over the previous twenty years Western societies had begun to enter a new phase, one that could be considered to be a situation of crisis. In his earlier political thought—associated with Socialisme ou Barbarie—Castoriadis identified signs of a transition into this new phase, marked by a widespread bureaucratization of political decision-making that emerged alongside a general turn toward the privatization of social life. At the time of his revisitation of this theme, Castoriadis’s work had undergone what would be the first of two ontological turns: a turn that involved a radical rethinking of historicity, which understood the historical dimension of society as a socially contingent mode of creation that is central to the constitution of the world of a given society. This article reflects an articulation of his previous theme of crisis with regard to this broader rethinking of historicity throughout the 1970s, which extended political analysis into more foundational issues of social institution and cultural expression.
Castoriadis first discerns the crisis at the political level. It is argued that at the level of governance, the contemporary phase can be characterized as the decomposition of management mechanisms. He contrasts this situation with classical modern political power—here echoing Weberian lines—where legitimation of authority once required a “combination of the talents and abilities specifically needed to ‘obtain power’ under the respective type of government, and the talents and abilities needed to do something with that power” (20). In the contemporary phase, the legitimation of authority within the liberal-bureaucratic political apparatus of Western societies has collapsed into an impoverished role of merely “obtaining power.” Castoriadis contends that politics is marked by “a return to a ‘charismatic’ type of authority: the charisma is here simply the particular kind of actor who plays the role of ‘head’, or of ‘statesman'” (21), while the legitimacy of political power has been fragmented by lobbies of interests and specializations: “Contemporary ‘political’ society is becoming more and more fragmented, dominated by lobbies of every kind, which create a general blockage of the system. Each of these lobbies is capable of effectively thwarting any policy contrary to its real or imaginary interests: none has a general policy, nor, if it had, the ability to impose it” (22). Thirty years on, this situation is not only blatantly obvious to us but this observation has reached a degree of banality. However, Castoriadis insists that the crisis of Western societies is merely reflected in its political situation and cannot be exclusively discerned at the level of the political apparatus. He turns to an elucidation of the condition of contemporary crisis at the level of social institution, which is rooted in an altogether deeper tendency of depoliticization. The social dimension of this crisis can be inferred from the fact that Western governments, alongside their situation of fragmented legitimacy, “find themselves facing a society which is becoming less and less interested in ‘politics’—i.e., less interested in its fate as a society” (21). In the broader social context, Castoriadis gleans a new relation toward society in what emerges from this tendency of depoliticization: “Present society does not want itself as society, it endures itself. And the reason why it does not want itself is because it can neither make nor maintain a self-image which it could approve and value—nor create a project of social change it could adhere to and for which it would want to struggle” (26). Castoriadis was enamored with an impression, nowadays completely justified, that this new relation presented a sedimentation of this depoliticization tendency as an institutional dynamic within Western societies; he asks why this situation has seemingly become general and permanent.
In approaching an answer to this question, Castoriadis interrogates the self-representation of society as an essential aspect of its imaginary dimension, arguing that “no society can exist that is not something for itself: that does not picture itself as being something—which is consequence, part and dimension of what it ought to pose itself as ‘something'” (24). He positions the self-image of a society as its essential condition, perceiving a transformational dynamic of self-definition not too dissimilar from Merleau-Ponty’s later work: “Society poses itself as being something, a singular and unique self, named (identifiable), but otherwise ‘undefinable’ (physically or logically); in fact, it poses itself as a supernatural substance, but one which is sufficiently identified, detailed, re-presented by ‘attributes’, which are the currency of imaginary significations that hold society, this society, together” (24). This means that the people of a given society must be invested in the significations of the society, in order for that society to form a coherent worldview and for the political institution of society to gain any meaning:
Individuals must be respectively the carriers of this self-representation of society, “sufficiently as to need and use.” This is a vital condition of the psychic existence of the singular individual. But, much more important in the present context, this is also a vital condition for the existence of society itself. The individual’s “sense of being something” . . . which conceals for him the psychic abyss over which he is living, is not possible and, above all does not take on meaning and context other than in reference to imaginary significations and to the (natural and social) constitution of the world created by society. (25)
This point gives an insight into how Castoriadis conceptualizes the imaginary institution of society as an investment in its significations, which in turn forms the coherency and orientation of “social reality” and the mode of historicity for each society reflects this orientation. He argues that society no longer maintains an investment in the originary significations of its modern formation, and that this involves a collapse of the self-image that represents society as such. This forms a new relation toward society that coincides with what Castoriadis claims to be a typical attitude of contemporary Western individuals, whom act as if they are “submitting to society” (26). Yet, Castoriadis delves deeper, arguing that the most profound consequences of this social crisis are found in its historical dimension. It is at this level that the specificity of this new relation to society is most evident, particularly, in contradistinction with the classical phase of modern societies, whereby “the war-cry of liberalism at the beginning of the nineteenth century: ‘the state is evil’, has become today: ‘society is evil'” (26).
For Castoriadis, society must institute its own mode of historicity and in this respect society creates “its reference to its own temporality, its relation to its own past and future” (26). Western societies created a temporal orientation that revolved around a radical historical reflexivity, which involved an “intense preoccupation with the future” and concentrated on the projection of a new society. Central to this temporal orientation was the progress and universality of its central significations; this was the image that Western societies held of themselves. Castoriadis’s diagnosis follows that “amid the dislocation of values and motivations, what somehow or other cemented society together is in the process of disappearing” (20) and that what was behind this development was “the collapse of society’s self-image, the fact that these societies can no longer pose themselves as ‘something’ (except extrinsically and descriptively)—or that what they pose themselves as is crumbling, becoming shallow, empty and self-contradictory” (25). He argues that contemporary Western societies are lacking a coherent self-image and that this has significantly altered these societies to the point that they have been overcome by a new mode of historicity. Yet, the transformation of this new mode within Western societies is not marked by a rupture of originary significations, rather, it is marked by the continuation of such significations following the collapse of their temporal orientation. Castoriadis pointed to the novelty of this new mode of historicity, whereby “the epoch lives its relation to the past in a manner which does, as such, represent an historical innovation: of the most perfect exteriority” (27). The exteriorization of society’s self-image provides an altogether new mode of temporal orientation, which Castoriadis interrogates through the cultural dimension of Western societies: “Unfortunately, contemporary culture is becoming more and more a mixture of ‘modernist’ imposture and museumism. And ‘modernism’ has long since become an archaism cultivated for its own sake and often based on mere plagiarism tolerated only because of the public’s neoilliteracy. . . . Past culture is no longer alive in a tradition, but object of museum-knowledge and of mundane and tourist curiosities regulated by fashions. On this plane, banal as it is, the label of ‘Alexandrianism’ is applied (and is even beginning to be insulting for Alexandria); all the more so, since in the domain of reflexion itself, history, commentary and interpretation are progressively replacing creative thinking” (24). He views contemporary culture as parasitic, feeding off the founding significations of Western societies. This represents an ultimately negative theorization that foregoes any attempt to perceive new modes of subjectivity and political capacities within this new cultural dynamic—a direction that was already taken up by Michel Serres in his book The Parasite, which was published in English the same year. This idea raises significant questions about contemporary culture (and Castoriadis’s reading of it).
Despite this negativity, Castoriadis remained concerned with what he perceived as the “retroactive” response of Western societies and the consequences that follow from the disillusion of progress and universality within their foundational significations. This “retroactive” response defines the new mode of contemporary historicity in Western societies, one that retains a radical historical reflexivity in relation to its collapsed significations—the consequence of which for Castoriadis is as follows: “The paradox under which contemporary society lives its relation to ‘tradition,’ and by means of which it in fact tends to abolish this tradition. It is a matter of the co-existence of hyper-information with essential ignorance and indifference. The gathering of information and objects, never before practiced to this degree, goes hand in hand with the neutralization of the past: an object of knowledge for some, of tourist curiosity or a hobby for others, the past is a source and root for no one” (26). By retaining a radical historical reflexivity in the midst of the collapse of its significations, contemporary societies revisit its past through an exteriorized anamnesis—contemporary historicity is therefore marked by a memorialization of a past that is expelled from the temporality of a society’s self-representation. Herein lies the crucial issue of Castoriadis’s interrogation of the crisis; an abyss has been opened up within the contemporary historicity of Western societies, by which an objective and chaotic version of historical reflexivity has placed the political dimension of these societies into a temporal void. The crisis in Western societies concerns an inability to posit a self-image that provides a coherent sense of cultural orientation that is capable of defining a political project that is not subsumed by the logic of capital. In facing this crisis, as is generally the case with Castoriadis, he turns the discussion to its political imperative, asking whether contemporary human beings want this society, another one, or a society at all (26)?
1. Castoriadis considered privatization as a tendency toward the gradual disappearance of a communal sphere toward individual interests.
2. Castoriadis defines significations with reference to his social theory outlining the imaginary institution of society. Significations are more than mere representation, they are the world insofar as they shape the psyche, and as they hold particular orientations of meaning and value which are politically contested and collectively expressed within the institution of society; i.e., liberalism, nation, capitalism, God, etc.