Cornelius Castoriadis, was a philosopher, political thinker, social critic, practicing psychoanalyst, renowned Sovietologist, and economist who cofounded the now legendary revolutionary journal and group Socialisme ou Barbarie (1948-1967). Socialisme ou Barbarie developed a radical critique of Communism based upon the idea of workers’ management and exerted a great influence upon the student-worker rebellion in Paris in May 1968. Until his recent death, Castoriadis continued to write on politics, society, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and the imagination from his distinctive perspective that was inspired by the “project of autonomy”.

The nucleus of the individual is the psyche (the Unconscious, the drives). Any idea of eliminating or “mastering” this nucleus would be plainly ridiculous; that task is not only impossible, it would amount to a murder of the human being. Also, at any given moment, the individual carries with itself, in itself, a history which cannot and should not be “eliminated,” since the individual’s very reflectiveness and lucidity are the products of this history. The autonomy of the individual consists in the instauration of an other relationship between the reflective instance and the other psychical instances as well as between the present and the history which made the individual such as it is. This relationship makes it possible for the individual to escape the enslavement of repetition, to look back upon itself, to reflect on the reason for its thoughts and the motives of its acts, guided by the elucidation of its desire and aiming at the truth. This autonomy can effectively alter the behavior of the individual, as we positively know. This means that the individual is no longer a pure and passive product of its psyche and history and of the institution. In other words, the formation of a reflective and deliberative instance, that is, of true subjectivity, frees the radical imagination of the singular human being as source of creation and alteration and allows this being to attain an effective freedom. This freedom presupposes, of course, the indeterminacy of the psychical world as well as its permeability to meaning. But it also entails that the simply given meaning has ceased to be a cause (which is also always the case in the social-historical world) and that there is the effective possibility of the choice of meaning not dictated in advance. In other words, once formed, the reflective instance plays an active and not predetermined role in the deployment and the formation of meaning, whatever its source (be it the radical creative imagination of the singular being or the reception of a socially created meaning). In turn, this presupposes again a specific psychical mechanism: to be autonomous implies that one has psychically invested freedom and the aiming at truth.

Freedom and truth cannot be objects of investment if they have not already emerged as social imaginary significations. Individuals aiming at autonomy cannot appear unless the social-historical field has already altered itself in such a way that it opens a space of interrogation without bounds (without an instituted or revealed truth, for instance). For someone to be able to find in him/herself the psychical resources and, in his environment the actual possibility, to stand up and say: “Our laws are unjust, our gods are false,” a self-alteration of the social institution is required, and this can only be the work of the instituting imaginary.

The necessary simultaneity of these two elements during a social-historical alteration produces a state of affairs which is unthinkable from the point of view of the inherited logic of determinacy. How could one compose a free society unless free individuals are already available? And where could one find these individuals if they have not already been raised in freedom? But this apparent impossibility has been surmounted several times in actual history. In this we see, once more, the creative work of the instituting imaginary, as radical imaginary of the autonomous collectivity.

Thus, the inescapable internalization of the institution refers the individual to the social world. He who says that he wants to be free and, at the same time, proclaims his lack of interest in his society’s institutions, should be sent back to grammar school. But the same link can also be established starting from the very meaning of the law. To posit one’s own law for oneself has meaning for certain dimensions of life only, and it is totally meaningless for many others: not only the dimensions along which I meet the others (I can reach an understanding with them, or fight them, or simply ignore them), but those along which I encounter society as such, the social law-the institution.

Can I say that I posit my own law when I am living, necessarily, under the law of society? Yes, if and only if I can say, reflectively and lucidly, that this law is also mine. To be able to say this, I need not approve of it; it is sufficient that I have had the effective possibility of participating actively in the formation and the implementation of the law. If I accept the idea of autonomy as such (and not only because “it is good for me”)-and this, obviously, no proof can force me to do, no more than any proof can force me to square my words with my deeds-then the existence of an indefinite plurality of individuals belonging to society entails immediately the idea of democracy defined as the effective possibility of equal participation of all in instituting activities as well as in explicit power.

And yet, we seem now to be back at square one, for the fundamental “power” in a society, the prime power upon which all the others depend, what I have already called the ground-power, is the instituting power. And unless one is under the spell of the “constitutional delusion,” this power is neither locatable nor formalizable, for it pertains to the instituting imaginary. Language, family, mores, “ideas,” “art,” a host of social activities as well as their evolution are beyond the scope of legislation in their essential part. At most, to the degree that this power can be participated in, it is participated in by all. Everybody is, potentially, a coauthor of the evolution of language, of the family, of customs, and so on.

Every institution, as well as the most radical revolution one could conceive of, must always take place within an already given history. Should it have the crazy project of clearing the ground totally, such a revolution still would have to use what it finds on the ground in order to make a clean sweep. The present, to be sure, always transforms the past into a present past, that is, a past relevant for the now, if only by continually “reinterpreting” it by means of that which is being created, thought, posited now; but it is always that given past, not a past in general, that the present shapes according to its own imaginary. Every society must project itself into a future which is essentially uncertain and risky. Every society must socialize the psyche of the human beings belonging to it; but the nature of this psyche imposes upon the modes and the content of this socialization constraints which are as indefinite as they are decisive.

These considerations carry tremendous weight-and no political relevance. The analogy with personal life is very strong-and this is no accident. I am making myself within a history which has always already made me. My most maturely reflected projects can be ruined in a second by what just happens. As long as I live, I must remain for myself one of the mightiest causes of astonishment and a puzzle not comparable to any other-because so near. I can-a task by no means easy-come to an understanding with my imagination, my affects, my desires; I cannot master them, and I ought not to. I ought to master my words and my deeds, a wholly different affair. And all these considerations cannot tell me anything of substance about what I ought to do-since I can do whatever I can do, but I ought not to do whatever crosses my mind. On the question: “What ought I to do?”, the analysis of the ontological structure of my personal temporality does not help me in the least.

If politics is a project of individual and social autonomy (these being two sides of the same coin), consequences of substantive import certainly do follow. To be sure, the project of autonomy has to be posited (“accepted,” “postulated”). The idea of autonomy can be neither founded nor proved since it is presupposed by any foundation or proof. Once posited, it can be reasonably argued for and argued about on the basis of its implications and consequences. But it can also, and more importantly, be made explicit. Then, substantive consequences can be drawn from it, which give a content, albeit partial, to a politics of autonomy, but which also subject it to limitations. For, from this perspective, two requirements arise: to open the way as much as possible to the manifestation of the instituting imaginary; but, equally important, to introduce the greatest possible reflectiveness in our explicit instituting activity as well as in the exercise of explicit power. We must not forget, indeed, that the instituting imaginary as such as well as its works are neither “good” nor “bad”-or rather that, from the reflective point of view, they can be either the one or the other to the most extreme degree (the same being true of the imagination of the singular human being and its works). It is therefore necessary to shape institutions that make this collective reflectiveness effectively possible as well as to supply it with the adequate instruments. I will not delve here into the innumerable consequences that follow from these statements. And it is also necessary to give to all individuals the maximal effective opportunity to participate in any explicit power, and to ensure for them the greatest possible sphere of autonomous individual life. If we remember that the institution of society exists only insofar as it is embodied in its social individuals, we can evidently, on the basis of the project of autonomy, justify (found, if you prefer) “human rights,” and much more.

Create the institutions which, by being internalized by individuals, most facilitate their accession to their individual autonomy and their effective participation in all forms of explicit power existing in society.

It also becomes apparent-this is, in fact, a tautology-that autonomy is, ipso facto, self-limitation. Any limitation of democracy can only be, de facto as well as de jure, self-limitation. This self-limitation can be more than and different from exhortation if it is embodied in the creation of free and responsible individuals. There are no “guarantees” for and of democracy other than relative and contingent ones. The least contingent of all lies in the paideia of the citizens, in the formation (always a social process) of individuals who have internalized both the necessity of laws and the possibility of putting the laws into question, of individuals capable of interrogation, reflectiveness, and deliberation, of individuals loving freedom and accepting responsibility.