TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The True Meaning of Autonomy

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, Yonathan Listik looks at Cornelius Castoriadis’s “Socialism and Autonomous Society,” from Telos 43 (Spring 1980).

Cornelius Castoriadis’s opening line in “Socialism and Autonomous Society”—”Henceforth, the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ will have to be abandoned”—clearly indicate that he is breaking with orthodox Marxism. But one must not rush to a conclusion since upon closer inspection the dissonances are not that relevant to Marx’s overall project as presented by Castoriadis. His criticism of notions such as the “dictatorship of the proletariat” could automatically place him outside the Marxist discourse. Nevertheless he manages to illustrate, even within orthodox Marxism, the minor position of canonical notions, compared to Marx’s essential project of an autonomous society: a society composed of free and sovereign people.

According to Castoriadis the essential issue debated by society is the balance between liberty and equality, and this is the core difference between socialism and capitalism: capitalism values liberty, and socialism values equality. Neither extreme would be perfect, but the discussion centers on what level of freedom is worth sacrificing for the desired level of equality. Castoriadis argues that this is false since the two concepts are not truly separate; society makes the two concepts exclusionary where in fact they are complementary. Capitalism presents this inherent contradiction of the two concepts because it assumes that total equality and liberty are impossible together. This creates a problematic society because the exploitation of the poor by the rich is legitimized as the only possible system. In this sense, the Soviet Union was as capitalist as America. It assumed that the exploitation of the majority by the few was inevitable in the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Socialism, according to Castoriadis, must combine both liberty and equality. Socialism aims at creating an autonomous society through the ultimate realization of both these values. A socialist society must be just, and in order to be so it must not diminish liberty or equality: for Castoriadis, there is no fight for equality if there is no fight for autonomy. Castoriadis is not concerned only with enlarging individual autonomy. Indeed, autonomy here does not share the same meaning that it has in liberalism. Real liberty and equality are not distinct from one another (as in liberalism) but are rather complementary in the exercise of democratic society.

Many before Castoriadis have emphasized that economic equality is not Marxism’s final goal; rather, it is a freer society of autonomous individuals. However, Castoriadis’s innovation lies in the idea that a perfect society is not desirable. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should not try, with a measure of humility, to recognize and correct the errors on the way to this goal: “A just society is not a society that has adopted just laws, once and for all, rather it is a society where the question of justice remains constantly open—in other words, where there is always the socially real possibility of questioning the law and it foundations” (104, italics in original).

Castoriadis’s argument remains relevant today. The problem lies not in implementing the laws but in changing them. Even the best laws become outdated, so the solution is not the perfection of the ultimate societal structure. The objective is to create an open system, one that people are empowered to change it. The people must rule themselves, as only autonomy brings equality and freedom. Liberty is not an exemption but an action in the public space, and it requires the individual to take action. In its essence, liberty means to “give oneself one’s own law.” Moreover, in order for liberty to create an autonomous society, the participation must be equalitarian: “[S]ince the idea of a society without any power is an incoherent fiction, the first answer to the question of liberty is the equality of all in the participation in power. A free society where power is really exercised by a collectivity in which all participate effectively in equality” (94).

Castoriadis goes beyond the notion that cultural and moral issues are at play. He introduced the notion that Marxism is not absolutely right but that at least it has the right principles. Marxism must not be a vision of the perfect world but the critical posture of perfecting it. Since the aim is an autonomous society and the system is bound to fail, it must be open for the collective to challenge and fix it. This is the only form of realizing the democracy to which socialism aspires: “To abolish heteronomy does not mean to abolish the difference between instituting society and instituted society—which would be impossible anyway—but to abolish the enslavement of the first by the second. The collectivity will give itself rules, knowing that it gives them to itself, that they are or will always become inadequate, that it can change them—and they bind it as long as it has not changed them in a regular manner” (105).

Read the full version of Cornelius Castoriadis’s “Socialism and Autonomous Society” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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