The Home Office, Racism and Bureaucratic Power


In this short article, I want to think about the nature of bureaucracy and the contribution bureaucratic organisation plays in the current accelerated deportation regime and ‘hostile environment’. It will start at the top and move downwards through the organisation, using quotes from wider analyses of bureaucratic forms to reinforce my argument. I am not trying to explain the use of disciplinary state functions as an aspect of contemporary capitalism as such, though my argument is not entirely disconnected from such a critical goal.

To start at the top is to start with the imaginary dimensions of what it means to be a member of a society. As Paths and Bridges has discussed before, all societies exclude others as part of the work of defining themselves and all regimes of domination instantiate the human tendency to use others as a scapegoat to absolve itself, so that its members project their disappointment, frustration and self-hatred toward what is different (which is not to say that leaders and power holders don’t also hate the others and participate in this projection). In this sense, the expanded immigration and expulsion regime initiated under Theresa May’s tenure as Home Secretary (complete with the vans roaming the streets telling migrants to go home) and continued under her Premiership, is about exploiting the worst instincts of human beings, instincts that are not readily sated. As grist to its base and other voters who had moved toward UKIP, the Tory government under David Cameron made promise after promise to reduce migration (‘to the tens of thousands’), promises utterly out of keeping with the historical reality of the post-colonial world and the nature of contemporary capitalism. It was in fact a rejection of reality. There is a straight line from this to Brexit and the Windrush scandal.

As the insatiable appetite for a whiter and more racist England was set loose – and as charlatans and opportunists of many political stripes made capital from it – a callous, brutal target based deportation regime was set in motion. Above the bureaucratic order is a daemon. Once a daemon referred to an occult power shadowing individuals drawing them into its machinations in a process that was a reification of the human tendency to project our own desires and fears outward, displacing them onto the world. Here we have the institution of racism as a daemon, fused with the conquering chrematistic logic of capitalist modernity, a devouring monster that stokes more racism and more deportations. Many Leave voters saw Brexit as about ramping up this racism to the level of mass deportations – ‘sending them all home’.

In such circumstances, we can see how May’s instruction to Civil Servants to set targets for deportations created an insatiable monster. When translated to a power order this devouring monster can make and break careers. Ulf Martin explains the reality of the atmosphere inside of bureaucracy:

“In theory, bureaucratic rules are “rational” and set up by disinterested persons / sections and are executed as written. In reality, everybody involved is interested in making a career, not to work too much etc. Bureaucratic institutions are pervaded with power struggles: managers of lower levels of the hierarchy try to rise and hence make informal arrangements, perform mobbing, withhold information etc. The subordinates either try to do the same or resist or try to keep out of the game. In any case, the activities are motivated by goals that are “irrational” from a “higher” perspective and are not a conceptual part of the bureaucratic schemes.”1

Here we see the beginnings of a situation where the ostensible values, domestic civil rights and even international law is continually broken by those supposedly bound by it (as was continually the case in the Windrush scandal and is likely to be post-Brexit). My point here is not to exculpate the political classes for this monster of their making but to note that any bureaucratic system of hierarchy will – in fact necessarily has to – get around formal rules (and if necessary laws) to deliver its targets; and that that any system of professional advancement based on such targets will lead to abuses that are against letter of the system but fully consonant with the spirit (imaginary) of the ends or goals sought.

It’s worth noting that while Marx’s almost perfect pithy explicandum of bureaucracy from 1844 still retains a great deal of validity, the apex of the bureaucratic order is always happy to turn a blind eye – or even issue plausibly deniable instructions on the quiet – if the benefit appears to outweighs the cost:

“The highest point entrusts the understanding of details to the lower echelons, whereas these, on the other hand, credit the highest point with an understanding of the universal, and thus they deceive one another.”2

Moving down the system to the lower echelons, we find not just the jockeying for position and mobbing we see in the Senior Civil Service and higher management grades but also a specific process of socialisation that requires those tasked to execute the actual day to day work to identify with the goals and ends sought; and ultimately with the broader ideology that has created the need for such ends. While jobs with a disciplinary function (especially those involving socially approved discrimination against marginalised groups) are likely to attract more authoritarian and prejudiced personalities than others, the pure struggle to live a psychically integrative life requires – as we all see and probably feel on an everyday level – a certain degree, inevitably, of identification with the organisation one serves.

“The functioning of the administrative departments presents a very different picture. Here, at the bottom of the scale, we find clerks without real qualifications, employees whose professional training is rudimentary or non-existent. Between these employees and the managing director of the firm, the hierarchy of jobs is a hierarchy of power. The relations of dependence become determinant and to have a function is to define oneself, at each level, with regard to a superior, whether he is a branch supervisor, a departmental supervisor or a manager. In this context, the double nature of work thus reappears: it both corresponds to a professional activity and constitutes itself as the expression of an established social order, an order within which the firm exists. Indeed, from the top to the bottom of the scale, the relations are such that they serve always to reinforce the authoritarian structure of the administration. But that does not mean that the individuals situated at the bottom of the scale participate in the bureaucracy in the same way as the middle or upper strata. In certain respects, clerks are like the workers who carry out orders, deprived of any authority. They often earn less than certain categories of workers who are paid by the hour. Their work could not be described as ‘responsible’ and it cannot be assumed that they find in their work a basis for identifying with the aims of the firm. Nevertheless, they are not unconnected to the bureaucracy: they are its dependents…Now as soon as we try to circumscribe the properly bureaucratic sector and are led to highlight a specific type of activity, we uncover a dialectic of socialization which is of a different order than the dialectic of the division of labour”3

So, while, as Lefort notes, in general clerks (in modern British parlance, administrative and operational delivery grades) may not identify with the goals of any organisation they serve in, when the work is the forcible and coercive work of the Home Office (rather than say, the production of paperwork or statistics), the notion of a dialectic of socialisation weighs even heavier. This is bureaucratic order in its purest sense, in which one cannot be a thinking individual or moral agent because to be so one could not do the work of the organisation. When Marx linked bureaucracy and alienation he saw them as spiritually synonymous for this very reason.

In keeping with our psychoanalytic starting point, we deaprt from Marx here only because he suggests a tautology, if the irrational logic of the system pervades its charges, and society is a human creation – where does society draw this perversion from? His answer, the mode of production, only issues in further tautology. Our answer, the infant situation which hates the others because it represents the society that socialised it, thus making it renounce the pleasure principle has more weight. It also suggests a way out of this mournful situation, via the acceptance of a reality principle that doesn’t hate others, doesn’t embrace divisions based on artificial differences or demand people be punished for their otherness by bureaucratic systems. So, it is socialisation itself that must be our starting point, inevitable as much as it is unwanted. The dialectic of socialisation is something different, that does indeed stamp the wider social values (rather than the tendency toward the adoption of such values based on unconscious motives) onto the individual. So, as noted above, to survive or accept with apparent equanimity the horror of ruining anonymous individuals lives such an organisation must render its charges truly ideological (at least while carrying out their professional activity), often forcing them to split (in the Kleinian sense) into good and bad, lawful and unlawful, worthy and unworthy (white and black?), those that they deal with. It must numb those flux of human responses that cut against the hatred of others – such as love, compassion and justice – and render unthinkable inconvenient truths and inferences that might lead them to question their tasks.

Taking in these elements, the social imaginary, political power, bureaucratic hierarchy and individual alienation – a bureaucratic department becomes a racist megamachine in Lewis Mumford’s sense. This is the reason why, from top to bottom, the logic of bureaucratic power can only serve authoritarian ends.

by Joseph Aylmer


1. Ulf Martin, Pseudorational Control and the Magma of Reality (2016). Seminar at the Department of Political Science, York University.
2. Karl Marx, Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844)
3. Claude Lefort, What is Bureaucracy?, in The Political Forms of Modern Society (1986)


On the end(s) of human society; or why the question of ecology is the question of the meaning of existence

Hitherto, all radical movements have sought to end this evil old world, now the point is to save it


Over the last few weeks we have seen, in an impressive and sometimes spectacular way, protests and groups spring on the scene under the banner of Extinction Rebellion (XR) calling for urgent action by government and citizens to tackle the climate crisis. What will be said here is not related to the climate crisis as such, we should take that as a postulate of common knowledge that only the foolish or criminally cynical would deny. I wish to speak in favour of this new movement and make some observations on the political and civilisational dimension of a new ecology movement.

We need, across a wide range of different issues, heterogeneous social movements with a strong level of autonomous activism without either a behind the scenes leadership (of the ‘front’ kind) or a movement as messianic mission which would rapidly condemn the cause to becoming a sect.

There are tendencies in any movement that wants to see real social change but incline toward world rejection and authoritarianism because of the society that socialised its participants, as well as more general foibles of the human condition. As participants we must fight against those tendencies inside the movements and in ourselves.

Capitalism as a system could carry on with devastating climate change, indeed if people continue to believe in the values of capitalism it will carry on indefinitely until social collapse. The question is rather whether the values of capitalism – and it is a system of values before it is an economic system – is consonant with a habitable planet or democratic societies. Certainly, the effects of climate change will lead to increasingly authoritarian methods of controlling populations. What climate change forces us to recognise is that both the social order and its radical countercultures like Marxism – in terms of the structure of needs it suggests, the meanings we give our lives, the way we conceptualise the world as resources, social organisation as bureaucracy – is based on principles deeply tied to capitalist ontology.

The philosopher and social theorist Cornelius Castoriadis made a profound point when considering the traditional movements for social change and the newer ecological movement. Writing over thirty years ago, he noted that whereas the working class movement – in so far as it was not completely degraded by the poisonous effects of bureaucratic managerialism or Leninist totalitarianism – put into clear relief the dimension of authority, whether in society as a whole or in the workplace in particular, and called for the democratisation of society (sadly this critique was to fade as bureaucratic organisations inside and outside the workers movement came to dominate society), the ecological movement calls for us to reconsider, in his words…

“the scheme and structure of needs, the way of life, of society. And this constitutes a capital breakthrough in comparison with what can be seen as the unilateral character of previous movements. What is at issue in the ecology movement is the entire conception, the entire position of the relations between humanity and the world, and ultimately the central and eternal question: What is human life? What are we living for?…”

Where XR has been impressive, in so far as I have been able to follow it and in the conversations with participants I have had, is that it has attempted to confront these dual questions – the question of power and the question of the values, at the same time. While there is a danger that the focus on extinction may lead to an apocalyptic sectarianism, it doesn’t seem to be the dominant feature as yet. Rather, the focus on care for planet and participants, as well as the rather obvious fact that climate change will likely mean extinction for many in the Global South in coming decades, seems sober rather than alarmist.

What we have to address if we wish to do something about the climate emergency while securing a habitable planet and a democratic free society is start to create meanings and forms of activity that work toward the first goal – indeed, the first steps toward this have been brought into being by the collective work of so many thousands of people over decades, phrases and ideas that are at heart significations (that which holds and conveys meaning) such as ecology, sustainability, renewables, etc. Types of activity which fuse thought and action are part of the bringing into being of a new and different relationship between the planet and human beings and between humans ourselves. Sometimes, in keeping with the values of the society we live in, it has been posited that change will come through individual choices. However, this kind of myopia is ultimately a abdication of responsibility. The question of the values that dominate society are social questions that cannot be tackled by blind, anonymous market forces or noble individuals.

By fusing the question of authority and the question of values, we come to the heart of the social question – politics. Many astonishing ecological thinkers – Ellul and Charbonneau come to mind – rejected politics for many understandable reasons including that it degraded social questions to vulgar interests, however the values and meaning of human existence can only be tackled by way of politics in its broadest sense.

There is a danger, as Ellul’s and Charbonneau’s work points out in a extremely sophisticated way, that the very science that allows us to identify the climate crisis will overshadow and therefore undermine human actions by having us think we are dealing with a question of technique. Undoubtedly, scientific work on soils, renewable energy and a host of other things shall be crucial to creating a world where the values of ecology and democracy can prevail but ultimately, to tackle the climate crisis we will need a civilisational change that sees capitalist values like profit, ever expanding productive capacity and meaningless consumption abandoned.

This is the work of politics, particularly a politics that totally rejects racism, xenophobia, the veiled anti-semitism around pseudo-radical talk of elites, and the hatred of migrants and refugees that rationalises other people being degraded and destroyed, in favour of opening up of social life, the breaking down of divisions between people and for society to become self-managing rather than managed by bureaucratic fiat or hierarchical order. This means a high level of activism and engagement from the society as a whole, the complete opposite of the passivity and privatisation of our current society of television and consumerism.

Indeed, the change of values necessary is a whole rewriting of the underpinnings of modern life, to quote Castoriadis again

“The most beautiful and concise formulation of the spirit of capitalism I know of is Descartes’s well-known programmatic statement: We are to attain knowledge and truth in order to ‘make ourselves masters and possessors of nature’. It is in this statement of the great rationalist philosopher that one sees most clearly the illusion, the madness, the absurdity of capitalism (as well as of a certain philosophy and a certain theology that precedes it). What does it mean to ‘make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature’? Note, too, that both capitalism and the work of Marx and of Marxism are founded upon this meaningless idea.

Now, what becomes apparent, perhaps in fits and starts, through the ecology movement is that we certainly do not want to be masters and possessors of nature. First of all, because we have understood that this does not mean anything, it has no meaning – except to enslave society to an absurd project and to the structures of domination embodying that project. And next, because we want another relationship with nature and with the world – which means, too, another way of life and other needs.

The question, however, is this: What way of life, and what needs? What do we want? And who can answer to these questions, how, and on what basis? By answer I mean not in a state of absolute knowledge but, rather, in full knowledge of the relevant facts and lucidly.”1

These last questions can only be answered by political movements invested with compassion and care, prepared to live in the world in a different way and by different values, that doesn’t reject the world as a whole but instead invests life with a new horizon and mode of being in the world. What must be avoided is new identities in the millenarian style of Bolshevism, religious redemption or trans-humanism that is an escape from the problems of the human condition, instead we need more a grounded, more worldly society with a less hateful conception of self and other. A conception that sees our species of one among many and the Earth as our dwelling place that we may never totally understand but wish to preserve nevertheless. Democracy, both in form and content, is the only framework for this. This is where our social movements should aim.

by Joseph Aylmer


  1. Both quotes from ‘From Ecology to Autonomy’ (1980), reproduced in The Castoriadis Reader (1997, Blackwell).

Cornelius Castoriadis Interview (1990)


Castoriadis appearing in Chris Marker’s ‘L’Héritage de la chouette’ (1989)

Cornelius Castoriadis was born in 1922 in Constantinople (Istanbul) in what was the Ottoman empire, to Greek parents who were forced to move to Athens only months later in a Greek-Turkish population exchange. Castoriadis first became active in politics as a teenager in 1937 against the Metaxas regime when he joined the Young Communist League. In April 1941 Nazi Germany invaded Greece to aid fascist Italy’s faltering efforts to occupy the country. Castoriadis briefly joined the Greek Communist party (KKE) and shortly after became a Trotskyist – who were a heroic, embattled minority persecuted by the Communists and the occupying Axis forces (Germany, Italy and Bulgaria).

By 1943 the end was in sight for the Axis occupation (though their forces wouldn’t finally be driven from the country until 1945), and Greece descended into a civil war between the left and the right that would rage off and on until 1949 when the right backed by the US and Britain finally triumphed. Castoriadis who had criticized the tactics of the KKE and its armed wing, left Greece on a steam ship for France in 1945.

Once in Paris, Castoriadis resumed his studies and joined the Trotskyist Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI) in 1946. The post-war years of economic recovery, reconstruction and then boom with the relative stability and social peace that it delivered, refuted Trotsky’s prognoses for the aftermath of the Second World War and the general perspectives of the Fourth International majority that essentially clung to the letter of Trotsky’s expectations of a reprise of the social earthquakes that effectively ended the First World War but demonstrated little of the critical acuity Trotsky had still retained at the end of his life. An inability to acknowledge new realities inevitably entailed a failure to reorient. Internationally a minority across the FI argued that sobriety and recognising unpleasant facts was the order of the day.

In the PCI Castoriadis and Claude Lefort formed the Chaulieu-Montal tendency (Castoriadis was the former and Lefort and the latter) that was a prelude for their disenchantment with Trotskyism. Together they produced On the Regime and Against the Defence of the USSR (1946) which rejected the majority’s twin beliefs the Soviet Union was somehow still socialist (no matter how ‘degenerated’) and so should  be defended against imperialism. In 1948 about a dozen people including Castoriadis and Lefort left the PCI and formed the Socialisme ou Barbarie (S ou B) group and journal whose politics underlined working class self activity and self organisation and could essentially be summarised as libertarian communist or councillist. As a group S ou B had an elective affinity with other small heterodox groups of revolutionaries from the milieu of Trotskyism including links to those like the Johnson-Forest Tendency (CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya) based in the US – originally a faction of Max Shachtman’s Workers Party before they briefly returned to the common home of American Trotskyism, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) before finally eschewing Leninism. The Johnson-Forest tendency had dissented with Shachtman’s idea the Soviet Union was a form of bureaucratic collectivist society and argued it was state capitalist social formation instead. A similar state capitalist position would be adopted by the tiny Socialist Review Group in Britain, a forerunner of the International Socialists. More directly, the existence of S ou B inspired the formation of Maurice Brinton’s Solidarity group in Britain in 1960 who despite their limited resources, promoted Castoriadis’s evolving understanding of capitalism and his coalescing critique of Marxism, in the Anglophone world

Though these different groups advocated some sort of a return to the fundamentals of Marxism and continued fidelity to the revolution, S ou B’s political re-evaluation didn’t stand still and would eventually push it beyond Marxism.

S ou B probably never had more than a hundred members in the eighteen years of its existence before it was wound up in 1966 but their libertarian socialist politics and their rejection of the system East and West, exercised an influence far beyond their small numbers, particularly on the revolutionary events of May 1968. It is probably true to say that Castoriadis (also known as Paul Cardan) and Claude Lefort, who left S ou B in 1958 after political disagreements, were the guiding intellectual impetus of S ou B but they were by no means alone. The group stood on the margins of the French working class dominated by the PCF and the CGT but they did possess a few manual workers, most notably Daniel Mothe who was based at Renault’s giant Billancourt plant. Jean-Francois Lyotard was also a member of S ou B for a period. It was Lyotard, then teaching in Algeria, who penned the articles supporting the FLN’s war of independence against France’s brutal war to defend colonial power in contrast to the silence of the French Communist Party (PCF) though the group’s solidarity had few practical consequences given their marginality. Another notable member of S ou B, albeit briefly in the early the 1960s, was Guy Debord who was undoubtedly attracted to the S ou B’s avant letter theoretical heterodoxy, advocacy of proletarian councillism and global opposition to capitalism east and west.

In 1948 Castoriadis started working as an economist at the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), the forerunner of the OECD, set up to help administer the Marshall Plan in Western Europe. This work gave him an insight into the workings of modern capitalism that would prove influential in his critique of both bureaucracy and classical Marxist economic theory. Castoriadis was at the OEEC and then the OECD until 1970 when he became a French citizen and embarked on becoming a psychoanalyst after marriage to Piera Aulangier in 1968, a French psychoanalyst who had undergone analysis with Jacques Lacan for six years from the mid 1950s. Castoriadis’s engagement with Freud and psychoanalysis was a very important aspect of his later thinking and the development of his understanding of ontology.

As we noted, as a revolutionary in the immediate post-war years Castoriadis sought to grapple with capitalism’s nature west and east. Castoriadis regarded the Soviet Union as a species of totalitarian bureaucratic capitalism and he noted the reality that the working class had been usurped by the ruling party-state bureaucracy. The Soviet Union was not a ‘degenerate’ or ‘deformed’ form of socialism either amenable to reform or a political revolution but a social formation whose fundamental social antagonism was that between ‘directors’ and ‘executants’ – a cleavage defining the system globally.

So in the course of his activity in S ou B, Castoriadis became increasingly critical of Marxism on a number of levels, eventually challenging its account of history as objective fatality unfolding in progressive stages and taking issue with its economic reductionism. Finally, in a brilliant series of articles, ‘Marxism and Revolutionary Theory’, for S ou B’s periodical Castoriadis applied Marxism’s historicist powers of critique to Marxism itself and demonstrated that no ‘return’ to an original or ‘pristine’ properly revolutionary Marxism was possible. Henceforth revolutionaries would have to choose between Marxism or facing the world as it was as the key to unlocking revolution. (Maurice Brinton would translate a fragment under the name The Fate of Marxism for Solidarity’s publication, available here).

Castoriadis’s sharp rejection of Marxism was merely a prelude to a project that would see him spend the next three decades developing an alternative, distinctive and sometimes complex social theory that offered a strikingly different account of historical change and the constitution of society to that of Marxism, drawing on a number of different parts of the social sciences including sociology, philosophy and psychoanalysis. Castoriadis’s social theory was introduced in the path breaking work The Imaginary Institution of Society (1975) and extended in his multi-volume collections of essays Crossroads in the Labyrinth. It is simply not possible to summarise Castoriadis’s thinking after the S ou B years in few brief sentences given its breadth and depth but we can note that it encapsulated a number of interlocking concepts and themes whose starting point was a repudiation of Marxism’s determinism, on the one hand, though it might be considered as being rooted in the strongest and most original aspect of Marx’s own social and political theory, on the other, – that men and women make their own history, that their own self activity led to the creation (and recreation) of society. Except that Castoriadis went much further than Marx by exploring an ontology of the creation of society, of social-historical creation, mediated by the shared existing significations of the social imaginary, the depositing of new significations – ‘magma’ (a key Castoridian concept) that both captured the fluidity and sedimentation of society.

This conception of the creation of society was closely linked to a central, recurring concept of Castoriadis’s work – autonomy whose conceptual roots were originally derived from the councillism of S ou B, the preoccupation with working-class self activity and self management. Broadly Castoriadis understood autonomy as the growing freedom of every individual and so Castoriadis’s understanding of autonomy – pointing beyond the proletarian as the only relevant historical actor according to the schema of Marxism to the citoyen – subsequently outgrew its original libertarian socialist framework. If contemporary capitalism was characterised by complexity and heteronomy (law from another), Castoriadis in contrast, sought to both define autonomy’s scope in a hierarchical social world and champion autonomy as a political project to expand individual and collective freedom, fostering the autonomy of every individual as the potential harbinger of a properly autonomous society.

Castoriadis’s late preoccupation with autonomy and democracy and their enabling conditions resulted in a growing engagement with classical Greek thought and the Greek polis, particularly Athenian democracy, as one of the few historical instances where self government of the citizens briefly ensured democracy was ascendant, allowing autonomy to trump heteronomy (Castoriadis was of course aware that Athens citizens democracy excluded women and rested on a slave economy).

Paths and Bridges intends to explore Castoriadis’s distinctive recasting of social theory in proper detail in the near future and, in particular, explore his conception of autonomy, its relation to social struggle and democracy, and consider how and to what degree these Castoriadian concerns may play a role in helping to renovate the struggle for democracy and social justice and a myriad of related struggles globally. As an appetizer for this future endeavour, we offer this 1990 interview of Castoriadis (conducted seven years before his death) by two editorial members of Radical Philosophy, at Essex University, that ranged over Castoriadis’s life, thinking and politics.

Paths and Bridges


Radical Philosophy: What were the fundamental experiences which brought you to philosophy and politics, and to the exploration of the relation between the two?

Castoriadis: To begin with, there was always an intellectual curiosity for which I am indebted to my family. I came into contact with philosophy very early on, at a ridiculously early age in fact, at 13. I came to philosophy through classical manuals; to politics through Communist publications in Greece, around 1935, and then immediately afterwards, through the works of Marx. The two things have always been there in parallel. What attracted me to Marxism, as I saw at the time, was a very strong feeling about the absurdity and injustice of the existing state of affairs.

RP: What was the political situation in Greece at the time?

Castoriadis: 1935 was the eve of the Metaxas dictatorship which lasted throughout the war and the occupation. At that time, in the last year of my secondary education, I joined the Communist Youth, which was underground, of course. The cell I was in was dissolved because all my comrades were arrested. I started political activity again at the beginning of the occupation. First, with some comrades, in what now looks like an absurd attempt to change something in the policies of the Communist Party. Then I discovered that this was just a sheer illusion. I adhered to the Trotskyists, with whom I worked during the occupation. After I went to France in 1945-6, I went to the Trotskyist party there and founded a tendency against the official Trotskyist line of Russia as a workers’ state. We split in 1948-9 and started ‘Socialisme Ou Barbarie’, which went on until 1965 (the journal) and the group (1967).

RP: Is it true to say that you never really accepted Trotsky’s interpretation of the Soviet Union? Or did you accept it for a short time?

Castoriadis: For a very short time, yes. As soon as I moved out of Stalinism, the very first thing to grasp was the idea that the revolution had degenerated and that there was a bureaucracy which was just a parasitic stratum. But I soon started to reject this. You must realize that under the Metaxas dictatorship all left-wing books were burnt. And then there was the occupation. So one was not really in touch with the literature. Still, in 1942-3 in Greece, I had the good luck to find copies of Trotsky’s ‘The Revolution Betrayed’, Victor Serge, Ciliga’s book and Boris Souvarine’s ‘Stalin’ – a wonderful book which has been re-issued now in France. And it was already clear in ‘The Revolution Betrayed’ that Trotsky was contradictory.

RP: In what way contradictory?

Castoriadis: Well, he says, for instance, that Russia is on socialist state groundings because all property belongs to the state. But he goes on to say that the state belongs to the bureaucracy. So therefore property belongs to the bureaucracy. If one is logical, one asks, ‘What has all this to do with the workers’ state?’ The means of production belong to the bureaucracy. As I discovered afterwards, this idea had been around for some time already. One can see it among the inmates of the Russian concentration camps in 1926-7: the idea that the bureaucracy was becoming a new ruling stratum and exploiting class. What reinforced me in this conviction was the first Stalinist attempt at a coup d’etat in Greece in 1944. There really was something there, with the masses struggling under the leadership of the Communist Party; and for me it was crystal clear. If the Stalinists had gained power at that time, they would have installed a regime to that of Russia. I said so and wrote so at the time. It was the only time I was in disagreement with an older militant, Spiros Stinas, who I had worked with all this time, and who, in a certain sense, was my political teacher.

How could one account for this on the basis of the Trotskyist theory of the Russian regime, that is, a proletarian revolution which has degenerated? Bureaucracy was appearing as a quasi-autonomous historical force attempting to establish a regime for its own interest and outlook. The whole development of my political conceptions about bureaucracy – and in contra-distinction to this, what is socialism? – started at this time. If socialism is not nationalised property, not just a bureaucratic method of central planning, then what is it? Immediately the idea of autonomy arose. Socialism as self-government in production and political life; that is, collective organization and self-determination at all levels.

RP: How did your move away from Trotskyism affect your understanding of the Russian revolution? As I understand it, ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ was quite closely identified with the ideas of the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union? Did you identify politically with the Left Opposition?

Castoriadis: In a certain sense, yes. But they didn’t go far enough. Later on, I wrote a text about Alexandra Kollantai’s paper on the Left Opposition of 1921, and its limitations. But this is not our problem now. The defects are obvious there: about the role of the party, the role of the trade unions, and so on. Of course, Kronstadt was the last mark of some independent activity of the masses, which was crushed by the Bolshevik party. But once I started the critique of the bureaucracy, it evolved quite rapidly into a critique of lots of things: of the Leninist conception of the party, and then of Marxian economics. I had started working as an economist at this time, and was working on ‘Das Kapital’. I couldn’t make much sense of it in relation to actual developments. I couldn’t make much sense of it theoretically, either. Here starts all my criticism of the theory of value, which finds its final form in the text about Marx and Aristotle which appears in ‘Crossroads in the Labryinth’. Next came the critique of the Marxian conception of what socialism is all about, the bad utopian aspect of all this: the elimination of the idea of politics, the sort of paradisiac state depicted in the early manuscripts, where in the morning you are a fisherman, in the afternoon a poet, etc – I don’t know what you are after dark! There is also the idea, absolutely central to Marx, that labour is slavery and freedom is outside the field of labour. Freedom is leisure. This is written in so many words. Labour is the field of necessity.

RP: That’s more characteristic of the older Marx, isn’t it?

Castoriadis: It is in ‘Das Kapital.’ The kingdom of freedom can be built through the reduction of the working day. During the working day, you are under necessity. This is diametrically opposed to any idea of self-management by producers, and of production itself – once it is radically changed, and once technology is also changed – as a field of exercise of human capabilities and human freedom.

RP: There is also the idea of labour becoming “life’s prime want.”

Castoriadis: That’s in the early manuscripts. But this is abandoned in the system. Next came the critique of what one can call Marxist economism. The imaginary signification of the centrality of production and economy throughout history. This is obviously a retrojection of capitalist imaginary significations throughout the whole of human history. Then there was the philosophical work, which is there in ‘Marxist Thought and Revolution’, the first part of ‘The Imaginary Institution of Society’ which was published in the last five issues of ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ in 1964-5.

Socialisme ou Barbarie

RP: Could you say something about the experience of ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’? What was the political context in which you operated? And how, given your critique of the Leninist conception of the party, was the group organized, internally? How were its interventions made? What do you think are its enduring achievements?

Castoriadis: Well, the famous organizational problem was there all the time. After an initial period during which there was strong residual elements, including in myself, in favour of the Leninist conceptions of the party (which I gave up about 1950), there was still an internal divide concerning the problem of organization, between people who were saying that no organization is needed (the proletariat will do everything, we are just a group trying to work out some ideas) and others like myself, who insisted, as I still would insist, that a political organization is necessary. Not a vanguard party, certainly, but some sort of political organization. Political activity is collective activity, and it ends up with concrete acts, be it a publication or whatever. You have to take decisions. And so you have to have some rules about how you take decisions. Say, majority rules. Obviously, you allow the minority to express themselves, even publicly. But there are some points at which decisions have to be taken, and they have to be univocal. Some coordination of the general activities is necessary. But I said very early on that the only way to do this is on the basis of the idea of some sort of collective self-government. Also, the political organization could play the role, not of a model, but a sort of exemplary activity, showing the people that they can organized collectively; that they can rule their own affairs.

RP: It sounds quite Luxemburgian.

Castoriadis: If you wish. In a certain sense, yes. From this point of view, certainly. This led to splits with Lefort. He was against any formal organization – ‘We are an intellectual group, we publish a magazine, that’s all.’ You must remember the circumstances at the time. The Cold War started about 1947 and in Europe, especially in France, the Stalinists were all powerful, even if they did leave government in 1947. All the Left was with them. Remember the stories of Sartre and others, the fellow travellers? We were absolutely isolated. There was a period when, after the outbreak of the Korean war, we were less than a dozen in the group. And the audience was extremely limited, residual ultra-leftist groups. We cleared the ultra-left ground. Whatever was really of worth there came to ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ – not the Trotskyists, of course. But the situation was extremely hard. Later, after 1953, with Stalin dead, the Berlin revolt, the Czechoslovakian strikes in 1954, then Hungary and Poland in 1956, the atmosphere started changing, and the review gained some audience – never very important. At the time were selling about 1,000 copies of the magazine, which were read around. Then came the Algerian war, and the stand we took against the Algerian war. There was a kind of renaissance amongst the student youth at the time. People started coming and the group grew. Some time in 1958-9, in the whole of France, including the provinces, were about 100. By 1962, 1963, 1964 we could hold public meetings in Paris with, say, 300 or 400 people. But all of this, as you see, was extremely limited. Of course, after 1968 lots of people said they were in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’. To which I have answered that if all these people who say they were in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ had really been in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’, we probably would have grasped power in France some time around 1958.

RP: So you disbanded as an organization just before that moment, in the later 1960s, when the left began to open up and expand as a result of changes in the political and economic situation more generally?

Castoriadis: Yes. We had some people in the Renault factories who were producing a paper specifically for Renault workers. This was not a subsidiary of Socialisme ou Barbarie. It was produced by workers and so on. But all this was extremely limited. There was much more underground influence, unknown, anonymous; and it sprung out in 1968 in lots of people, including, for example, Danny Cohn-Bendit.

RP: Why did Socialisme ou Barbarie come to an end?

Castoriadis: This was a decision I pushed very strongly. First of all, there had been a split, a second split between 1960 and 1963. In 1960 I wrote a text called ‘Modern Capitalism and Revolution’, which was the most thorough critique of the classical Marxist position at this time: at the idea the proletariat has a privileged role to play, of the idea that economic problems are the main problems, and so on and so forth. It argued that the problem of the transformation of society is a much more general problem. There is the question of youth, the question of women, of the changing character of labour, of urbanism, and of technology – changing technology. All this created a strong reaction from part of the group, for which the theoretical representative was Lyotard, who at the time was playing the adamant Marxist. This led to a split in 1963 which weakened the group. We were the majority. We kept the magazine, they kept the monthly journal, ‘Workers Power.’ It was the first paper of this name. Later, the Italians published ‘Potere Operaio’. This was part of the underground influence. In Italy, lots of these people had been reading ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’. But the group was weakened.

Public influence was expanding, as I have said. We were selling more and more. People were coming to the meetings, but they would not actively participate. They were passive consumers of the ideas. And this was reflected on the review, because to produce a magazine the main problem is collaborators – the people who write. It’s very funny. We never had money, but publishing ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ was never a financial problem. We always managed. The problem was the contents. Not enough people were coming into the group. Also, my own personal collaboration was beginning to take a different form. I was digging deeper and deeper into the theoretical underpinning, both at Marxist theory and of what we needed for a new conception. This was the first part of ‘The Imaginary Institution of Society’.

RP: You were still working as an economist at this time?

Castoriadis: Yes. I was working at the OECD. The review was taking the bizarre aspect of a theoretical-philosophical magazine which was also pretending to be a revolutionary organ. It was the first in France, and all over Europe, for instance, to produce an extensive account of the Berkeley events. The review anticipated the movements of the 1960s. It is there, about the students, the women and so on. It is written down. But this was not enough. And so at some time in 1966, we said, ‘For the time being, the thing has become meaningless. We had better stop and begin again later.’ And two years later, of course, came 1968. I don’t know what would have happened if we had still been a group in 1968. But 1968 very quickly fell under the spell of the Maoists and the Trotskyists and so on – not at the beginning, I mean the great period, but very quickly. One can’t rewrite history.

RP: Did you have any relations with the ‘Arguments’ group, the people who left the Communist Party in 1956?

Castoriadis: Yes. But the relations were bizarre. Edgar Morin published a paper in which he both recognized the role of ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ and criticized it very strongly, saying we were obsessed with bureaucracy and making a sort of panacea or shibboleth out of self-management. There were answers in ‘Arguments’ on our part. But there was not very much contact, except on some personal levels. Later on, when ‘Arguments’ had stopped, Morin participated in some of our public meetings. He wrote a paper in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ but there was never a close collaboration. From the beginning, ‘Arguments’ took itself to be a review by intellectuals for intellectuals. We never abandoned the idea that we aim at the general public and not at intellectuals.

Philosophy and Imagination

RP: Perhaps we could switch the topic back to the issue of your intellectual formation. What were the main intellectual sources of your move away from Marxism? What did you draw upon to fuel your development away from an orthodox communist politics? You have defined your relationship to Marxism negatively in terms of the things you gradually gave up and finally more or less the whole thing had to be given and you embarked upon an independent intellectual project. Who inspired you in this second stage?

Castoriadis: It is quite difficult to answer your question in a modest way. I would say that the main source was the immanent critique. It does not work, this system which had fascinated me as a 13 year old boy: the idea that you have a coherent picture of human history and the world – that’s how it works – and its going to reach a happy final stage…

RP: You mentioned Aristotle…

Castoriadis: Yes but that was 1975. In the whole of my writings for ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ which have been published in paperback now in France, there is I think, in all one mention of Plato and one mention of Thucydides. That’s all. Before the first part of ‘The Imaginary Institution of Society’ (1964-5), there is no mention of any philosopher at all. It’s not that I didn’t want to mention one. It was because this was an immanent critique. The main thing that fuelled it was contemporary experience: the experience of working class movements. The theme was the critique of capitalism, the critique of the development of capitalist economies – the nonsensical character of the aims proposed by the capitalist economy which was more or less shared by Marxism; let’s increase material wealth and so on. Then after a point the questions became for me: ‘What is history?’ and ‘What is society?’ The work about the institution began here in 1959. There are already seeds in a 1953 article criticizing Marxist economics and speaking about creativity in history; and even before, in 1950-1, speaking about creativity and autonomy. The idea was there but it was not elaborated.

RP: It was drawn from Merleau-Ponty?

Castoriadis: No. Merleau-Ponty had nothing to do with it. There is no idea of creativity or creation in Merleau-Ponty, as far as I can see. I had been interested in philosophy since my adolescence. But I kept the two things separate. This is perhaps a bizarre personal trait. I didn’t want to mix political thinking and political activity with philosophy. Not for practical or pedagogical reasons – you don’t go to the workers telling them to read the ‘Third Critique’ – but this is a position which I still have. I don’t think you can draw directly from philosophy, as such, political conclusions.

RP: Yet in your recent writings you see philosophical reflection as quite central to the project of autonomy – not the whole of that project, but very central to it…

Castoriadis: That’s true. But my ontology is an ontology of creation: creation and destruction. Creation can be democracy and the Parthenon and Macbeth, but it is also Auschwitz, the Gulag, and all that. These are fantastic creations. Politics has to do with political judgements and value choices.

RP: For which you can’t find an ontological ground?

Castoriadis: No. I don’t think there is an ontological basis for value judgements. Once you enter the field of philosophy, you have already made a value judgement, Socrates’ value judgement: the unexamined life is not worth living (and the unlived life is not worth examining, as you say in Essex – this is true as well). But this is already a stand you have taken. In this sense, the decision to enter the reflexive domain is already a sort of grounding decision, which can’t rationally ground itself. If you rationally try to ground it, you use what is the result of the decision. You are in a vicious circle.

RP: So how do you draw people into the reflexive life? Through examples?

Castoriadis: Yes, through examples and through consequences. But you can’t force somebody rationally to be rational. There is no demonstration of the kind: if you don’t philosophize, you are absurd. Because the other says, ‘I don’t care about being absurd,’ or ‘I have to be absurd, otherwise I am not a true a Christian.’ Credo quia absurdum. You can’t ‘refute’ Tertullian.

So, for a long time, I tried to keep politics and philosophy separate. They joined in the first part of my article of 1964/65, ‘Marxism and Revolutionary Theory’. Once I had reached the idea of the institution, of the imaginary creation of history, I started re-reading philosophy with a different eye. And what I encountered there as forerunners in this field – but only at the level of subjective individual imagination, of course – was Kant and Fichte. Later, I took up Aristotle, much later. That is the first place you find an examination of the phantasia: the genius discovering the thing, and the limitations and impossibilities the discovery of phantasia creates for the Aristotelian ontology. Then another development starts. I had never stopped busying myself with philosophy. I came to France to do a PhD thesis in philosophy. (The theme of the thesis was that any attempt at a rationally constructed philosophical system leads to blind alleys, to aporias and to antimonies. Mostly what I had in mind was Hegel but not only). This remains an unfinished manuscript. So I was reading things and scribbling and jotting all the time, but not systematically. It was only after Socialisme ou Barbarie that I took this up again systematically. Even then my main sources of inspiration have never been, properly speaking, in the history of philosophy. They have been much more problems arising out of, say, psychoanalysis; out of the analysis of the socio-historical; out of the state of contemporary sciences – the crisis of foundations in mathematics, the aporias of contemporary physics, or problems of biology – the emergence of living things: what is a living thing? What is the biological closure of an organism?

As far as the problem of imagination is concerned, the main difference is that for both Aristotle and Kant, as for all philosophers, imagination is looked at uniquely from the point of view of the subject: the transcendental imagination in Kant, the imagination of the Transcendental Ego in Fichte, etc. There is nothing corresponding to the social-historical. The same is true of Heidegger. There is no substantial relation of Dasein to history; to society even less. If I have made a contribution, it is this: what I call the radical imaginary, the instituting imaginary, as a social-historical element.

I accuse all philosophers of ignoring the ontological status of, for instance of language. Language is institution. It is a fantastic paradigm of institution. The philosophers think – they think, therefore they talk, they use language, but they don’t care to say what language is and how it came about. And when they do say, they say, like Heidegger: the gift of Being. Everything is a gift of Being, including death of course. If one envisages the institution of language, one has to envisage a creative possibility which actualises itself in the anonymous collective, which is the instituting imaginary, which posits language, which posits rules, and thereby enables the singular human being – which is unfit for life qua singular human being, a biological monstrosity – it enables it to survive. I am very much attracted by some philosophers. There is no problem about it. I’m very much attracted by the Great Four – Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hegel. I always find food for thought there.

RP: You’ve referred to your classical predecessors, but someone looking at French intellectual history in the twentieth century can see a very strong thematic of the imagination. For example, there is one of Sartre’s first books, L’Imaginaire. When you arrived in Paris, you attended a course given by Bachelard, for whom the notion of the imagination is absolutely central. Then there is Lacan, of course, as well. You do seem to fit into a twentieth century French tradition of reflection on the problem of the imagination. Are there really no influences here?

Castoriadis: I think I come from a completely different direction. Sartre’s imaginary or imagination is purely negative. It is the possibility of envisaging that something could not be. It’s a negativizing faculty of the ego. For me, it’s just the opposite. It’s the capacity to posit something which is not there.

RP: Isn’t the philosophical structure of that process actually the same, with one side rather than the other being emphasized?

Castoriadis: But there is no given without imagination. In this respect, my view of imagination is much nearer to Kant. It’s constitutive, absolutely constitutive. The difference from Kant is that my imagination is creative in a genuine sense. The Kantian imagination, the transcendental imagination, always has to imagine the same thing. If the Kantian imagination started really imagining, the world would collapse. It has to posit the same forms, otherwise it’s just what he calls empirical imagination. We remain in the realm of the subject. Lacan’s imagination is a very bizarre thing. Vulgarly speaking, it is the illusion. Nothing more than that; the reflection in the mirror; the image in the mirror, and the image the other sends to me of myself. Lacan’s imaginary is the optical illusion.

RP: Is it not also connected to the lack? Isn’t it a more dynamic process – the filling of a lack? You make it sound very empirical, this notion of reflection…

Castoriadis: The attempt at filling a lack is desire. Lacan doesn’t link it to the imaginary as such, which for him, has to do with what he calls ‘demand’. It’s another realm. You have the lack, you have desire, you have the Law – which imposes the lack in a certain sense. But the imaginary is not a result of the desire – or of ‘demand’. It is exactly the other way round. Cows do not desire, for they have no imagination – not in the human sense. Bachelard is another thing. I followed Bachelard when I arrived in Paris, for half a year, because he was the only one worth following. Then he stopped. That year, he was engaged in discussing some aspects of science from the point of view of his own epistemological conceptions. It was interesting, but it didn’t go very far. I read Bachelard much later, but if you know his work you’ll see the differences. It’s imagination in a very loose sense. It’s not constitutive in character. And certainly, it’s not a social element.

RP: But there is that sense of creativity there?

Castoriadis: There is in a certain sense, a sense of creativity in Bachelard. That’s true. But I was never really attracted to his work.

RP: What about surrealism?

Castoriadis: I knew a bit about it because there were some Greek surrealists, and I was very fascinated by them. Then, when I came to France, I learnt much more. I was extremely fascinated by Breton and everything he had to say. At the time, the interest of Breton for me was the poetic dimension. Twenty five years later, ‘creation is poesis’, and I gave another meaning to poesis. It’s very difficult to make one’s own intellectual biography in a thorough and honest way. You are exposed to influences all the time that you don’t even know about; or you don’t know the way they are going to work through you, perhaps much later. But among the people who were for me the most important in France at that time was Breton. And then Benjamin Peret, who came later to ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ and published a text in the journal; and a younger surrealist called Jean-Jacques Lebel who was in the group and very much in touch with us.

RP: We were thinking on a more theoretical plane, about your interpretation of the Freudian unconsciousness. One can read Freud in a very deterministic way, but the notion of the creativity of the unconscious is obviously there if you read between the lines. It seems that it was the surrealists that picked up on that.

Castoriadis: They picked it up, yes; but they never theorised it. They used it. They interpreted it this way. It is the fantastic part of Freud, the Freud who is always talking about the imagination but never names the thing. But what else are the phantasies? The positivistic streak in him is very strong. After all, this is Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century, and there are problems of scientific respectability. He was already creating havoc by saying children were polymorphous-perverse people. If in addition he had said, ‘Whatever I tell it’s just the imagination of the subject…’, he would have been even more laughed out of court than he was at the beginning. Around 1911 he signed a manifesto calling for the establishment of a society for the diffusion of Positivistic Thinking, with Petzold, Hilbert, Einstein and some other people. He was a very contradictory character.


RP: You have said that your notion of the imagination is not related back to the subject, at least not only to the subject – individuals are formed within the context of a particular institution of society, and you have written about the heteronomous institution of society as that which has obtained historically; and about autonomy as a political value. Yet if the process of institution is not in some sense the outcome of collective activity, but is the matrix within which all activity takes place, how could there be an autonomous institution of society? It seems as though the institution of society always already precedes the empirical activity of human beings.

Castoriadis: This is the problem of autonomy, of the establishment of an autonomous society. I think that you can have, you can imagine, you can devise – and you have, up to a certain point, you did have, in the Western world – institutions which are not just institutions of closure. If we have institutions which not only allow but further the creation of individuals who are capable of discussing, or putting into question, if we create a public space where discussion is genuinely made possible, where information is available, etc., this is already something completely different, completely other, from the state of classically heteronomous societies, where you have to think what the institutions of society tells you to think.

RP: But doesn’t the philosophical structure of the concept of institution mean that, at an ontological level, it is tied up with heteronomy in a way that suggests that when one is speaking of autonomy and heteronomy politically one is actually talking about something else?

Castoriadis: We are working under the weight of inherited thought here. Behind what you say, there is a conception of autonomy which I would call metaphysical freedom, in the derogatory sense.

RP: Some Kantian notion?

Castoriadis: Kantian, or perhaps even to be obscene, Sartrean. That is, one would be autonomous if one were absolutely outside any external influence and fully spontaneous. Now, this is just nonsense. This is a philosophical phantasy, and it judges reality against this phantasy. It doesn’t exist. Autonomy, as I understand it in the field of the individual, is not a watertight frontier against everything else, a well out of which spring, absolutely spontaneously, absolutely original concepts. Autonomy is an ongoing process, whereby you always have contents which are given, borrowed –you are in the world, you are in society, you have inherited a language, you live in a certain history. You have been geworfen, as Heidegger says. You have not chosen to be in 1952, or whenever, neither have you chosen to be born in England. This is just the case. You will never know the great philosopher of the years 2100, who might have changed your way of thinking. It is in this world that we have to have a workable and effective concept of autonomy. Autonomy does not mean I am totally separated from everything external. And, in relation to my own contents, which are 99 per cent borrowed, have come from outside, I have a reflective, critical, deliberative activity, and I can to a significant degree say yes and no. I can also allow my own radical imagination, my flux of representations and ideas – we are talking about thinking now – to well up, and there to choose again; because my radical imagination may produce nonsense, or absurdities, or things which do not work. It is this ongoing process which I call an autonomous subjectivity.

RP: So the radical imagination is a kind of pure source?

Castoriadis: It is the permanent welling of representations, desires and affects which, in heteronomous societies, are practically 100 per cent repressed and appear only in Freudian slips, dreams, maladies, psychoses and transgressions. It is always with us, and can be freed; not that we would accept all its products. But it could be free to supply contents, new contents, upon which our reflective and deliberative activity can work. So if we consider the relation to the collectivity, the idea that I’m not free because the others are there, or because the law is out there, only really makes sense against this traditional phantasy. Others, and the existence of the law, are not just constraints. They are also sources of freedom. They are sources of the possibility of action. They are sources of facilitation. They are riches.

RP: So what you understand by the project of autonomy is the maximization of the possibilities of reflection, self reflection and deliberation? Is this an Idea in the Kantian sense?

Castoriadis: No, it’s not an idea in the Kantian sense.

RP: So it’s realizable, then, your concept of autonomy? It’s philosophically constituted in such a way that it is a possible object of historical realization. It must be materially possible?

Castoriadis: Yes. It must be materially possible. It’s not a utopia. And it’s not a Kantian Idea. It’s not an infinite distance. It’s not the polar star.

RP: And yet it’s already implicit within history, in the way that some people understand Marx to have thought.

Castoriadis: No. It’s an historical creation, an historical creation which is up to now unfinished.

RP: But if it’s not implicit in history, if it is to be created in an open history, how do we know it’s actually going to be realizable?

Castoriadis: We don’t. We work for it, but we don’t know in advance.

Market and Plan, System and Lifeworld

RP: Perhaps we could turn more directly to politics. It has become prevalent on the Left to say to say, ‘If the plan doesn’t work, then we’ve got to go back to the market. In a complex modern society we have to have impersonal forms of mediation, impersonal forms of collective regulation’ – in Habermas’s terms, the distinction between system and lifeworld. Habermas argues that, although systems should ultimately be under democratic control of the lifeworld, we can’t abolish the systems as such. The market and some forms of administrative-bureaucratic regulation of society must remain. This is the basis of his critique of Marx: that Marx has some notion of collapsing all social relations back into the immediacy of the lifeworld. It seems that a lot of your inspiration comes, albeit indirectly, from the early Marx. Where does your concept of autonomy place you in this debate?

Castoriadis: Marx was certainly wrong in thinking that all impersonal mediations have to abolished. This appears to be his critique of the commodity, and also money. I repudiated this as early as 1957 in a text called ‘The Content of Socialism’ which is in my Political and Social Writings. For me it’s quite obvious: you can’t have a complex society without, for instance, impersonal means of exchange. Money has this function, and is very important from this point of view. It’s another thing to deprive money of one of its functions in capitalist and pre-capitalist economies as an instrument for personal accumulation of wealth and the acquisition of means of production. As a unit of value and as a means of exchange, money is a great invention, a great creation of humanity. We are living in societies; there is an anonymous collectivity; we express our needs and preferences by being willing to spend that much on that item, and not on anything else. This doesn’t, to my mind create any problem. The real problem starts when you say ‘market’. Again, in this text from 1957, I said that the socialist society is the first society where there’s going to be a genuine market, because a capitalist market is not a market. A capitalist market is not a market, not only if you compare it with the manuals of political economy, where the market is transparent and where capital is a jelly which moves from one field to another instantaneously because profits are bigger there – and that is nonsense there – but because prices have nothing to do with costs. In an autonomous society you will have a genuine market in the sense both of the abolition of all monopolistic and oligopolistic positions, and of a correspondence of the prices of goods to actual social costs.

RP: Will you have a market in labour power?

Castoriadis: This is a problem. My position is that you can’t have a market in labour power in the sense that you can’t have an autonomous society if you persist in the differentiation of salaries, wages and incomes. If you do have this differentiation, then you keep all the motivations of capitalism, of homo economicus, and all the old hodge-podge starts again.

RP: Won’t this undermine the market?

Castoriadis: I don’t see why. There are no economic or rational grounds on which I can say, ‘One hour of this man’s work is worth three times that off some other men.’ This is the whole problem of the critique of value theory, and the critique of what underlies value theory, which is the idea that you can impute the result of production to this or that other factor, in a definite way. But in truth, you cannot do this imputation. The product is always a social product and an historical product. You have to take into account that whatever imputation of costs you do, it’s a relative imputation, geared to social needs and geared to the future – which has, of course, to have some relation to historical costs and reality. But you cannot have differential labour costs based on any rational or even reasonable justification. That’s a very hard point to swallow.

RP: So you don’t think there is any rationality to the capitalistic distribution of social labour through the wage relation, in terms of productivity? It’s purely political?

Castoriadis: It’s purely political. The present distribution of income, both between groups and between individuals, is the sheer outcome of a struggle of forces. Nothing more. This creates problems in relation to work discipline. If the work collective is not capable of establishing enough solidarity and discipline, in order to have everyone working according to some accepted collective rules, we reach the political hard core of the problem. Then there is nothing to do; no more than there is in the field of political democracy, if people are not willing to be responsible for the decisions of the collectivity, to participate actively and so on. This doesn’t mean that you have to maintain bureaucratic and hierarchical structures in production – on the contrary. The division of tasks is not the same as the division of power.

I spent a lot of my time trying to analyse the functioning of capitalist factories. I found that the capitalist planning of production in the factory is half of the term absurd. The factory works because the workers transgress the capitalist organization of production. They work against the rules, or at a distance from the rules, so production can go on. If they were to apply the rules, production would stop immediately. The proof is that ‘working to rule’ is one of the most efficient ways of breaking everything down. So much for the capitalist organization of hierarchy. As soon as you have hierarchy, you have this fundamental opacity in the production sphere, because you have the division between executives and directors: people who manage and people who execute. By virtue of their position, the workers have to hide what is going on from the eyes of the directors. This reaches delirious proportions in a fully bureaucratic society, but is the case practically everywhere. The collective has to take the basic decisions. It can delegate, but it elects and it can revoke.

RP: This will entail very high levels of political culture and activism.

Castoriadis: Yes, high levels of responsibility between people. That’s certain. You cannot have a truly democratic collectivity, not only self-management and production, but on the sheer political level, unless people are really active. But we shouldn’t fetishize this: one can think of institutions which facilitate this participation. Today, to be responsible, to attempt to participate, you would have to be heroic twenty four hours a day.

RP: This would mean a reduction of working time.

Castoriadis: Certainly. But there are other considerations. What is working time spent on? During the war in America production doubled between 1939 and 1942. And the workers were only working for about four hours in the factory. They were playing the numbers, or they were playing cards, or they were ‘working for the government’, as the Americans say – ‘Leave me alone, I’m working for the government’. That meant he was doing something which he would take home. What is the English expression? – moonlighting. In France they call it ‘la perruque.’ And in Russia, you know the tremendous extent of it. I would argue that present output under different conditions of participation of the workers could take place in four hours or six hours instead of eight.

RP: Would it be true to say that you are in favour of what is sometimes called indicative planning, via some general democratic framework at a social level?

Castoriadis: More than indicative. I don’t think there is a contradiction between market and planning in this respect. In an autonomous society one must have a true market, not just with consumer freedom, but with consumer sovereignty: which specific items are produced for consumption must be decided by consumers in the day to day vote of their purchases where everybody has equal vote. Today, the vote of Mr Trump is worth one million votes of the average American. That’s not what I mean by a true market. But you have general decisions about at least two things: the partition of national product, or national income, between consumption in general or investment in general; and the general share of the mass consumption between private consumption and public consumption – how much society decides to devote education, to roads, to erect monuments, to all public endeavours: and how much it decides that individuals are free to spend as they want. You need a collective decision about this. You have to have proposals and discussions, and bring forward the implications of decisions before the eyes of the people.

In this sense, you have to have planning, because the implications of the decision about investment and consumption have to be foreseen. If you decide that you will have so much investment, these are more or less the consumption levels you can count upon in the coming years. If you want more investment you will have to consume less. But maybe you will be able to consume more in five years time. If you want more education, you can’t have it for nothing. You will have to devote resources to education, and you have to decide where you take these resources from. Do you take them from private consumption? Or do you take them from investment, that is, from the future growth of productive facilities? Do you care about any future growth of productive facilities, or do you want to renew the existing capital? All this has to be brought forward, and it cannot reasonably be decided by market forces.

RP: This sounds like the kind of debate currently taking place in the Soviet Union?

Castoriadis: In a sense, yes. But I don’t accept this idea of Habermas’s that because you have to have the system you have to accept a degree of alienation or heteronomy. I don’t say you can be the master of everything. You can’t control everything. That’s not the problem. The point is that you can always look back, always change things, and establish mechanisms whereby the function of society is made controllable by people, though certainly not fully transparent.

Events in Eastern Europe

RP: You draw a contrast between the fragmented bureaucratic capitalism and totalitarian bureaucratic capitalism which makes it look as though the Eastern European societies were a more closed, more extreme form of the same sort of society which we have in the West. Yet they have a fragility which was quite unexpected. Do you think your interpretation of bureaucracy and capitalism needs to be revised in the light of more recent events? And, given that what perhaps the majority of Eastern Europeans seem to want at the moment is simply to exchange the plan for the market, in what sense was 1989’s ‘Springtime of Nations’ a manifestation of autonomy?

Castoriadis: Eastern Europe is different from Russia. It had an imposed and imported regime, which never had the same roots, and the same strength as it had in Russia. I don’t think the events in Eastern Europe, or even in Russia, have changed the characterization of the regime as it was. The regime was a form of bureaucratic totalitarian capitalism. But it was subject to deep internal antimonies, which I have analysed for a long time. From the time of the Hungarian revolution, and even before, people were resisting passively, but they were resisting fantastically, even in Russia. In Russian factories they were resisting fantastically. But this totalitarian regime, this bureaucratic totalitarian capitalism is not a timeless essence. It has a history. Already after Stalin’s death, it was obvious that it couldn’t go on as before. You had Khrushchev, and the period under Brezhnev, which I characterised as a stratocracy, in the sense that the regime had become totally cynical. Nobody believed in any ideas in this regime. The only objective was sheer force. Brute force for the sake of brute. The maximum possible social resources were put into the military sector. What we know now about what was going on proves that, if anything, my analysis fell short of the reality. The degree of the suppression of the civilian economy for the sake of the military was even bigger than I had originally reckoned at the time, in 1981.

The Polish and Afghan events played a very big role in the change, in the sense that Russian leading groups realized they were confronted by an impasse. They didn’t intervene militarily in Poland, they intervened in an indirect way through General Jaruzelski. And in Afghanistan they failed. What nobody had foreseen, me as little as anybody else, was the emergence of Gorbachev and the reforming group. This was totally unforeseeable. A big part of the thing is Gorbachev’s role as a civilizing autocrat. But it’s not just that. He also happened to be a very clever and able politician. And he certainly could not have risen to power without the support of the army and the KGB. That’s quite clear. They realised there was an over-extension of of Russia’s attempts to be a world power. This unleashed a series of events which culminated in Eastern Europe. There, people hated the regime and were ready to act, as soon as they were sure the Russian tanks would not enter.

I gave an interview to Esprit in 1982 called ‘The Hardest and Most Fragile of All Regimes’ in which I argued that, as long as the thing holds it appears to be like steel, but in fact it is extremely fragile – like glass – and could be pulverized from one day to the other. This is what happened. This amazed people, because all these organizations, these steely Stalinist people – ‘we are the vanguard of humanity’ – became sand from one day to the next. But the same thing is not happening in Russia. Which proves that there the thing has much more important roots. Up to now the process is much slower. You have ethnic strife, and you had this fantastic Miners’ strike in the summer of 1989, with demands which were not just economic but also political, but demonstrations by the people were only just beginning. But Gorbachev is overrun by events, both in the ethnic field and the general field – and that’s why he retreats constantly in external relations. I wrote in 1977 that of all the industrialised countries Russia is the first candidate for a social revolution. Up to now, the social revolution hasn’t appeared but…

RP: Are you hopeful?

Castoriadis: No. If the social revolution happens…that’s another point. We will probably have to pay the legacy of Marxism-Leninism for years from now. Its true that in Eastern Europe at the moment, people can’t think of anything else except a liberal capitalist society. Almost everything else has disappeared from the horizon. As an Hungarian friend of mine was telling me some months ago: in Hungary you can’t even pronounce a word which starts with ‘S’ – enough of it. Any word. This is the negative side of it. They are under the understandable delusion that the West is a utopia, a cornucopia. In actual fact, they are not even going to have that. They are going to have a very miserable situation. Even in the political field it’s not clear that anything resembling a parliamentary regime in the West will be easy to establish; except perhaps in Czechoslovakia or Hungary. We are confronted with history in the process of creation.

RP: Are there no grounds for hope, then?

Castoriadis: I don’t much like to talk of ‘grounds for hope’. I think that you have to do what you have to do – and hope for the best. If you take the rich, ripe capitalist countries, we certainly should not renew the discourse about insurmountable internal contradictions. Yet there are at least two facts which make it extremely difficult to believe in an indefinite reproduction of the present state of affairs. The first is the ecological limit, which we are nearer and nearer to. The second concerns the present state of capitalist society, but is somewhat analogous to the ecological question. Everybody is lauding the extraordinary efficiency of capitalism in the field of economic production. This is true. But up to now this has been achieved through the irreversible destruction of a capital of natural resources which had been accumulating for three billion years (or at least 700 million years). This has been thrown away, destroyed, over fifty years or a hundred years. There were sediments of forests, of land, of oxygen, of ozone, of a variety of living species, etc. But the same is true on the anthropological level. Capitalism can function – could function – because there was a capitalist entrepreneur who was fascinated and impassioned by producing things, and setting up new machines. Very often he was, if not an inventor, at least a quite clever design engineer – Edison and Ford, for example. This type is disappearing, More and more, you make money by playing in the casino, not by setting up production facilities. Capitalism also presupposes anthropological types – the bureaucrat, the judge, the educator – which are pre-capitalist products. If the prevailing philosophy and system of values is that you try to earn as much money as you can can, and to hell with the rest, one doesn’t see why you should have judges, or university professors or even schoolteachers. You will have them, but they will do their job in the worst possible way: trying to get away with as much as they can; being corrupt, if corruption is materially feasible, and so on. In this respect, capitalism is living by exhausting the sediments of previous norms and values, which become meaningless in the present system. Absolutely meaningless. But this is not a ‘ground’ for hope. An ecological catastrophe, for instance, could very well lead to a series of quasi-fascist dictatorships – ‘The holiday is over. This is your ration for the coming months; ten litres of oxygen. That’s all.’

Interviewed by Peter Dews and Peter Osborne
Essex University February 1990

Unremembrance Day; or the new cult of the dead

Otto Dix, In Memory of the Glorious Time, 1924.jpg

Otto Dix, In Memory of the Glorious Time, 1924

Written on Remembrance Day 2018, the centenary of the end of the First World War

In Britain, it seems the cult of the war dead is back and stronger than ever, driven from the top of the culture industry under the guise of an guileless goodness that evacuates the meaning from history and is manifestly a paean to dying for power. Indeed, upon visiting my hometown this afternoon I noticed that the streets were pinned with posters that noted names and other details of those killed in the Great War (1914-18), each poster is specific to the the very street in which it is placed. Like the omnipresence of the poppy on TV screens and the context-free commentary it is an obstacle to remembering. Or rather we are asked to remember that lots of ‘our’ men in uniform died, how sad this was and it should never happen again but not why it happened which might broach the question: should it have happened in the first place? It’s a call to merge with the dead, join up and march into unthinking obedience lest you offend the dead ancestors. In short, from the pools of blood and skin in Flanders fields a primordial politics emerges to stoke a myth more than familiar to the primal horde.

If some experienced the First World War as a kind of fatal blow to a straightforward identification with Western Civilisation for having automatically expunged the irrational element of the human psyche by means of the scientific method it seems that it neither discouraged the radicals from the idea of a march of history or the conservatives from associating death with glory. With respect to the latter, a cult of the dead was built in the imperial pomp of melancholy stone. The function sought is an affect. If one walks along the esplanade at Southsea at dusk to the spotlit naval cenotaph, a stone shaft with a globe on top, one is meant to see national honour and valiant sacrifice rather than empty tombs, barren wombs and an obelisk erected for an ocean of corpses. This is the work of the national myth of ourselves and the others.

Memorisation without history tends to make deaths meaningless because they are decontextualised from wider events. Memorisation without history prepares the ground for more deaths by making the meaning of history mass sacrifice. That the First World War was fought by poor conscripts for a British Empire that held hundreds of millions without rights or freedom is elided for obvious reasons but a national imaginary that invests so heavily in misremembering is surely built upon denying the consequences of a past that many find too painful to repudiate. The wages of this can be seen most clearly in the ideological narrative that spawned Brexit – nostalgia for a past that didn’t exist that only functions as a outlet for the idea that the I/We are the eternal victims of the others.

Every social order spends a great deal of time making sense of death but the particular form this takes is anything but inevitable, just or free from ‘politics’ (in the pejorative sense). Now that the last veterans have died and the movements for social progress that nominally considered themselves against such barbarism, have either faded into irrelevance or are busy defending new barbarisms of their own, the cult of the dead is free to become myth in the proper sense, free of any social anchor that could contradict its self-proclaimed sacrality. Long solemnly installed in avenues, parks and public squares the grey stones filled with ordinary names now can become abstract monuments to a death drive that obliterates the willing over barbed wire and machine gun fire and puts the unwilling or insane before the firing squad, the abyssal meeting with Ur-Mother-Nation is the consolation it offers to all.

In this new age of monsters our fear is that zombie nationalism is not a reversion to jingoism past but a palimpsest stretched to cover newer inchoate politics which are inarticulate precisely because they have not yet taken shape but are propelled by subterranean drivers, the same drivers as Brexit, Trump and post-fascism. This is Mytho-Praxis (1) in mass society, as the human links with the past are broken the significations of the social order can be reorganised for somewhat different purposes. The question that still cannot be answered is why did those 12 million die along that western front because the answer is that is was for nothing at best and for the despicable form of oppression that is colonialism at worst. If mourning on that basis is too difficult then a defence must be created that makes the sacred symbols of the war dead part of a common culture that repudiates that reality.

by Joseph Aylmer


(1) The term is taken from Marshall Sahlins, see Islands of History, The University of Chicago Press.

Cornelius Castoriadis on ‘Psychoanalysis and the Origins of Society’

A talk given by Castoriadis at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London on 7th December 1992. This has been written up, imperfectly, from the audio here to give this important and sometimes amusing talk another airing.

UPDATE: The original P&B transcription has been reread and edited by David Ames Curtis, Castoriadis’s preferred translator. We are grateful to David for making our rough transcription, provided for information, into an altogether more elegant and accurate text.


I am not going to talk about psychoanalysis as such. I have to presuppose that, at least roughly, classical Freudian theory is more or less familiar to everybody here. Nor am I going to take very much into account post-Freudian theorisations, mostly because they are parasitic of particular fragments of Freud’s thought, not very productive, and only too often expressions of fashions and fads.

Now, the title, I think, of this talk has been announced as ‘Psychoanalysis and the Origins of Society’. Perhaps this title is misleading. It should rather be ‘Psychoanalysis, Society, and Politics’ or ‘Possibilities and Limits of a Contribution of Psychoanalysis to our Understanding of Society’.

Ideally speaking, we have four main themes here:

  1. What does psychoanalysis have to say about the origins of human society? And this is more or less identical – I draw your attention to that – to the question: What does psychoanalysis have to say, as psychoanalysis, about the humanisation of the great apes?
  2. Now, second, what about history? Is history, psychoanalytically speaking, just an epiphenomenon? Or else what, or why not?
  3. What does psychoanalysis have to say about the content and structure of social and political institutions? In particular, here, domination and power, gender domination, labour, and knowledge.
  4. What does psychoanalysis have to say as to the possibilities, and the desirability, of the transformation of existing institutions, or about the proper institutions of society, that is, politics in the genuine sense of the word?

All that follows will be outrageously sketchy, of course. I will be rather brief on Freud himself, because of the postulate of common knowledge on Freud; I take it that you are all experts on Freud’s thought. Nothing about his epigones. And I will concentrate on the aporias, critiques, and, egoistically, on my own views.

Now, as to the first question, that is, the origins of human society, or humanisation of the apes. There is a curious complexity or confusion in Freud’s attempts to give an account of the origins of society. Of course, the main text here is Totem and Taboo, which is the most psychoanalytical, and, after thirty years, the main strands of thought, more or less, you can find again in Moses and Monotheism. Now, in between, at the end of the 1920s, you have two other books The Future of an Illusion, about religion, and Civilisation and Its Discontents, as it has been translated into English,which present a quite different picture, though it is by no means contradictory or incompatible with the previous one.

Totem and Taboo recites an individual history. Totem and Taboo contains a myth, you all know: there is a horde or a Cyclopean family; there is an omnipotent father, omnipotent in the physical sense, who forbids any access to the available women under his power to all his sons, castrates them perhaps, except for the last one who succeeds him. Someday, perhaps, says Freud, because of some invention, technical or otherwise, the up to then helpless brothers gather, decide to murder the father, after which they are seized by deep guilt feelings, they erect the father as a totem and this totem is the origin of the institutions. They perform an oath, among themselves, an oath ceremony whereby they swear that nobody will attempt any longer to have all the women to himself or kill or castrate the others, etc., etc.

Thats the classical picture. It’s a myth, it’s obvious. It’s a very important myth, in a sense. An aside: in a certain way, it is of course a repetition of the Greek myth of Ouranos, Kronos, and Gaia. I am torn here between my Freudianism and my cultural chauvinism, but I think that the Greek myth is, in a certain sense, more complete. Why? Because there is a question with the myth of Totem and Taboo – why the hell is the father castrating the male children? And the only answer to this is that this primeval father has read Totem and Taboo [laughter]. And knows what awaits. But when Kronos in the Greek myth starts eating up his children or, rather, swallowing them, he knows very well why he is doing it, because he has already castrated his own father, Ouranos, at the incitation of his mother Gaia, the Earth, who was really tired of the incessant lovemaking of Ouranos. So, never mind. As in all myths, the myth is a totality and its beginning presupposes the end; otherwise, no sense can be made of it. But this is not an objection against the myth.

Now, the Freud of Civilisation and Its Discontents or of The Future of an Illusion is much closer, in many respects, to the runofthemill, so to speak, sociological conceptions. Civilisation, says there Freud, is essentially a repression of drives. The civilising process is exclusively the work of minorities, which of course benefit from it as they go by ensuring privileges for themselves, and are or seem the only ones capable, after a while at least, of higher pleasures like sublimation, whilst the masses hate civilization, are hostile to civilisation, because it forces them to repress their drives. Now, Freud is very equitable in this respect; he says that the masses are absolutely right in hating civilisation. He has a sentence about a great experiment going on in some big Eastern country at that time but nobody knows what the outcome will be or if the results will be worth the cost, and we know there were no results but many costs. As the Communists used to say, to justify their murders, You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, to which I used to reply: But we can’t break eggs and make no omelette, right? So they have broken lots of eggs and didn’t make any omelette. Anyhow, Freud was very sympathetic to these attitudes of the masses, though you know very well how cultured a man he was and how he loved art and so on. He justifies them. There are many anarchistic accents, in some parts of the book, many Threepenny Opera aspects of the book. The only thing that helps the masses a bit to remain within civilisation are some slight elements of identification with the higher classes. Parenthetically, from the theoretical point of view, one should indicate here that this fundamental concept of identification, slowly elaborated from 1910 onward, has been very significantly and fruitfully put to use in another work of Freud’s, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego of 1920, despite the flaws of this work, which I won’t dwell on here, but one should retain this idea that this aspect of identification – whereby perhaps, I don’t know, the poorest English housewife somehow or other feels she participates in Queen Elizabeth – has always played a tremendous role in the cohesion of divided and dominated societies.

Now, in both cases – that is, Totem and Taboo and Civilisation and Its Discontents  – there is a view of human beings as exclusively directed and motivated by their drives, triebe he says in German; the otherwise excellent Standard Edition has monstrously translated triebe as instincts – something we ought to keep for animals. Drives (triebe)  – pushes, if you wish – are essentially or exclusively, as you know, sexual. Anyhow, they have to do with a pleasure principle which reigns without limits in the first stages of psychical development. Now, here arises a first aporia: animals, starting with bacteria, but we don’t need to go there, dogs, apes, lions have, of course, very strong drives or instincts and, in a sense, they are the same as humans – sex and hunger. Why isn’t there a proliferation of animal societies? Why are humans humanised? Why do oxen, or lions not have totems or taboos?

On this, there is an implicit answer in Freud, which in fact doesn’t explain anything. And that implicit possibility of an answer has remained unexplored up to today, which I am presently going to take up. The implicit answer is that humans possess consciousness, in contrast to lions, oxen and bacteria. Freud states repeatedly that this is the main enigma of psychology. What is consciousness? He would like very much – of course, he is under a delusion – to explain, psychoanalytically, how consciousness can arise; of course, he never succeeds in doing so and nobody could. Anyhow, this element will not do to differentiate us from animals or from higher apes. Consciousness as such does not add anything to anything. More precisely, consciousness adds to what happens a passive quality; this happens and I happen to be conscious of what happens and that’s that. In order to make a difference, consciousness must at least be active, a sort of operating rationality, as perhaps Hegel would say. But we know that these two things are widely different. All of us know that animals, despite our silly talk about ourselves as humans, are much more rational than humans. I mean, animals never do stupid things; they do the things they have to do, right? They are instrumentally efficient and we couldn’t say that they are conscious in the usual sense of the term. And humans are conscious and, at the same time, monstrously irrational. All of human history is there, from the beginning to this very day. Most importantly, if the drives or instincts are the only forces, this consciousness, rational or not, would always produce the same, save perhaps for minute adaptations to changing circumstances. And this is not what we know; we know there is a human history in a very, very, very strong sense of the word. This is the black hole of history in the midst of psychoanalysis about which, unfortunately given the constraints of time, I can’t say anything more here.

Now, the unexplored possibility of an answer, in Freud, about the difference between humans and animals is in the very important and very profound 1915 text about Triebe und Triebschicksale  – Drives and Their Vicissitudes, as the Standard Edition translates it. (i) Freud does not elaborate the answer, but one can draw it from the text and it boils down, with some extension, to the following: Drives have their source in the body (this is Freud), soma, whether we talk about animals or humans. They aim at the satisfaction of some need or, more generally, procuring pleasure, discharge, and then tranquility. The action leading to satisfaction is necessarily mediated by the psyche, even animal psyche or human. If you prefer, if you are an adamant biological positivist, whatever goes on in the central nervous system in order to trigger the action that will bring about the satisfaction, the psyche has to be influenced, of course, by the somatic push, the drive, the instinct if you talk about animals.

Now, these two realms, that is the soma and the psyche, are heterogenous. Freud is adamant about this and rightly so, despite the many difficulties of the problem. In the one, in the soma, we have physical movements, charges and whatnot. In the other, we have, as he said already from 1896 in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess, qualities and, mostly, representations (Vorstellungen); mind you, in German, in philosophy, Vorstellung doesn’t mean representation in the sense you have an object which is fully formed in a signed photograph that you keep near your heart – the Vorstellung is that you create an image out of an X that is out there and about which nothing more can be said except by means of another image which again you create through an electronic microscope or whatever. OK. There is something, but all you know are the successive Vorstellungen which you create about this something.

You have, then, these representations. Now, the somatic push can trigger the psychical world only by producing in it, or inducing in it, the appropriate image. This image is what Freud calls the Vorstellungsrepräsentanz des Triebes , that is, the representation, in the parliamentary sense, through representation, in the philosophical sense, of the drive in the soul (psyche). The somatic drive sends an ambassador, or makes emerge an ambassador, to the psyche because the drive can’t speak the language of the psyche. The language of the psyche is Vorstellungen, is representations. So the somatic drive has to have a representation which represents it; it is the M.P. of the drive with the psyche and has a psychical existence.

Here we get to the difference between animals and humans, which Freud at that time doesn’t mention he is not interested. The difference is very simple. In animals, this representation is fixed, canonical, and biologically functional, e.g., excuse me, for the he-dog the image and the smell of the she-dog is the canonical representation of the sexual object and that is that. The same is true for food, shelter, and so on. In humans it is not. It’s not, because, as we know, we have the so-called ‘normal’ people, we have fetishists, we have sadomasochists, we have homosexuals, and you can go on. And even the same person in different periods of his life may like small men, tall men, largebreasted women, thin women, whatever you want. There is no canonical representation of the sexual object. Of course, there is a minimal canonicity, if I may say so; otherwise, the human species would have disappeared. But this is not what is essential about sexual life. The essential thing about the sexual life of humanity is not that, from time to time, couples have copulated, in the missionary position or I don’t know how, and the female got pregnant. OK. Everybody knows it, what else is new? The essential thing is all the other things, and these other things are what is typically human [sounds in room]. I hope I haven’t shocked you [laughter].

How does this difference emerge? There is only one possible answer in this. It is because, in the human psyche, you have a terrible, monstrous, almost cancerous outgrowth of a function, which has a functionality with animals, which stops having this sort of functionality with humans, and this is radical imagination.

So, humans are defined essentially by an imagination with the following traits: first of all, there is a free or unmotivated flux of representations – you stay there, I’m talking, your attention is distracted, then suddenly you think of your gas bill, for instance; that has nothing to do with what happens around you; secondly, and most importantly, the domination of organ pleasure by representational pleasure, which means that imagination is defunctionalised and pleasure itself is defunctionalised. Sexual pleasure for a dog for a he-dog or a she-dog – is linked to the reproductive function; in humans, sexual pleasure is linked to the reproductive function what? once in 10,000 times. Right? This settles the problem. That boils down to saying that humans are mad animals and fundamentally unfit for life if left to themselves. Not because they would indulge in unlimited physical or organic pleasure that would be the point of Civilisation and Its Discontents but because they would remain enclosed in what is the pristine form of their existence, that is, a self-enclosed, representationally autarkic psychical monad indulging in the limitless pleasure of representation, and that is the hallucination of the newborn. We positively know that this is the natural state of the newborns, and we know – but with difficulty we confess to ourselves – that this is the normal state of grownups, because most of our time we are daydreaming and when we sleep we dream as soon as we can separate ourselves from “reality” within quotation marks.

One more word on this: This monadic initial state of the psyche supplies that which will remain for all the life of the subject, and even for philosophy, the matrix of meaning. If you want to have an idea of what is ‘full’ meaning for a human being, you have to think of an autarkic representational state of self-pleasure where the subject is omnipotent because it can form at will his or her representations so that they conform to pleasure and so that there is nothing that escapes the subject. That is omnipotence of thought – Freud calls it magical omnipotence of thought; in a certain sense, he was not very strict because it is not magical, it is real omnipotence of thought. Why is it real? Because it is omnipotent in the psychical reality. It is not omnipotent in relation to the ape. But psychoanalysis does not talk about apes. It talks about psychical reality, and there thought is omnipotent. And it is this meaning, this sense, that is the recovery of such a type of state, which is the constant quest of the human psyche all of its life long, and which you find as well in religion, ecstatic states, Tristan and Isolde, and whatever you want.

Now, obviously this is a state that fully contradicts the requirements of the human being qua biological being. You cannot feed on hallucinations; you hallucinate the absent breast, then you suck your thumb, and after a certain time the somatical processes make the baby scream. Not always – we have anorectic babies who would rather die than accept the breast. But there you have the total prevalence of representation. Happily, in most cases this somatic need imposes itself, and you are never born alone. There is an other present, generally the mother; and this somatic need, on the one hand, and the other, the mother, violently break this monadic state and force the infant to enter into a process of socialisation that is of a humanisation in a second and more current sense.

Now, of course, a socialised mother must obviously already be socialised herself; for instance, she must talk. Can we derive language psychoanalytically? Obviously not. In brief, there is not and cannot be a psychoanalytical answer to question of the origin of society because society must be there for human subjects to live and construct it. There is nothing in the human Unconscious capable of producing what are the defining characteristics of society, that is, institutions and social imaginary significations. Institutions: language, law, religion, or whatever you want. Social imaginary significations: gods, God, virtue, commodity, capital, interest, falling rate of profit, General Secretary of the Party, national honour, the Queen, and whatever you want. Or, a commodity. A commodity is a social imaginary signification. A car is a physical object; it is not a commodity, it is a car. It is a commodity because social relationships exist which make out of it a commodity. This boils down to saying that the psyche is irreducible to society, though the socialised individual you and me is virtually nothing but successive deposits, strata of socialisation. Psyche irreducible to society and society irreducible to the psyche because, again, nothing in the Unconscious can produce institutions. Nothing in the Unconscious can produce, create language.

One fundamental restriction to this: There is and always has to be a minimal correspondence between the requirements of the psyche and those of society, and this boils down to the following: institutions and social significations must provide the socialised psyche or the social individual with meaning. That is, they must create a diurnal world – a daytoday world, not a dreaming world where things and people more or less hold together and where, for the individual, life and death have meaning. That is, each society creates its own world; this world has to hold together, not according to the criteria of today’s science but according to its own criteria; and for the individuals, this is the true world and in this world everything is more or less in its place, and if something is not in its place you do something about it – you call the sorcerer, you call the priest, or you expiate, you kill the firstborns of families, and so on and so forth. You redress the order and the meaning of the universe.

So, where does society come from? The only possible answer is that society is a collective creation, a creation of the collective anonymous or of the social instituting imaginary. This imaginary, which you have to imagine, to represent to yourself, as a sort of creative faculty of vis formandi inhabiting every human collectivity, has to reckon, up to a point of course, with the underlying physical and biological reality, and this it always does almost always. But this is not the important aspect – thats why we cannot explain society by saying, e.g., that all societies always have to provide for production and reproduction of material life or for the sexual reproduction of humans. These are perfectly true statements, but they are perfectly tautological, and they do not explain anything either about the fantastic variety of social forms – all societies have to eat, OK; what does this explain? – or about their self-alteration. We have to grant the original creativity of the social historical field qua radical instituting imaginary. To insist, to be tiresome: ITotem and Taboo was enough, one can’t understand why there has been history. And if Civilisation and Its Discontents had been enough, why has there been what Freud inaccurately characterises more or less as a progress in rationality?

Now the point about the structure and content of social and political institutions. First, religion – here, Freud is clear, and I think basically correct, though one could and should supplement this with some very important points. He sees and in this he is not original because this starts with Plato and through Voltaire goes to Ivan Karamazov the essential role in religion in the repression of drives. ‘If God did not exist, you would have to invent him’ (ii), said Voltaire in order to keep the people quiet, and any prefect of police would say the same thing. But Freud goes much further because he says that religion – though he doesn’t say it in these words; these are my wordssupplies meaning. Freud says rightly, Illusion is an erroneous belief supported by desire. Not just an error. It is an erroneous belief, which is supported by desire.

What is desire here? Desire to know, desire to make sense, desire to protect the feeling of self that is threatened by the unfathomable vastness of the world. Desire for consolation, desire for a semblance of a solution to the most terrifying enigma, the enigma of death. And also, says Freud very correctly, giving meaning to the world. What is it for humans to give meaning to the world? Of course, it is to give to the world a human meaning. A meaning which makes sense, makes meaning for what humans mean by meaning. We could have an excursus on Heidegger, and Sinn von sein, here, but that’s not our point. Freud says very beautifully: With religion, Man fühlt sich Heimlich in umheimlich, ‘one feels at home with this extreme strangeness’ when the extreme strangeness of the world becomes home, becomes Heimlich because it is, I don’t know, the Word of God or the ire of Zeus or anything. How does it do this? Of course, generally by the anthropomorphisation of the universe, mostly relyingand that’s true of infantile projection, especially, says Freud on the paternal imago; that’s the Christian-Hebraic ancestry, but of course the same would be true, and has been true, for the projection of a maternal imago.

Freud thinks that religion can be superseded because, he says, humanity cannot remain eternally in the infantile stage; it must one day go out to the vast world. But he is very sparing as to the ‘How?’ this will happen. And this question is still with us, not only because of the persistence of religious creeds, but because behind this superseding of religion looms an enormous unknown. To put it very starkly, this unknown is this: Can human beings ever face frontally their limitation and their mortality? History has yet to answer this question. Theory cannot answer it. Historical experience shows one clear example and two half examples where they have more or less been able. The clear example, to my mind, is the Greek one, the proper Greek one, up to 400 [BCE]– not Plato, huh? Plato is not Greek [laughter]. Because up to 400 [BCE] there is no idea of a positive immortality in the Greek creeds. Either nothing is after death, or what is after death is worse than what is here on Earth. That’s that. So, here we are here, we do what we can do, and then after: nothing and that’s why nobody is happy before they are dead (iv). And certainly there was no political role for religion, properly speaking. The half examples are the initial Buddhistic creed, but this boils down to acosmism, that is, retreat from the world, and it also did not last but became an ordinarily instituted religion with holy men, monasteries, and things like that. And Modern Times, of course, modern Western-European times, including North America, where nevertheless one has mostly seen a secular religion of progress, both in Liberalism and Marxism which are absolutely identical in this respect: there is a promised land, asymptotically for the Liberals or, precisely, would-be defined for the Marxists, with the known catastrophic conclusions and results. Or otherwise, this demise of religion has offered only the meaninglessness of life for the ‘normal’ (in quotation marks) individual in today’s society and the ludicrous compensations for this meaninglessness it finds in supermarkets and TV masturbation [laughter].

Now, gender domination. As is well known, there have been attempts to give a psychoanalytical answer to the question: Why the inequality of genders and what makes genders what they are beyond anatomy, of course? This has been done either to justify the existing male domination – and here, certainly, the first culprit is Freud himselfor, more paradoxically in the recent period, especially among some American feminists, through some attempts to invert the Freudian scheme. But surely there is no reason why psychoanalysis could explain gender domination and the patriarchal organisation of society more than, say, the general asymmetric and antagonistic division of society between dominant and dominated strata. I mean, I have never seen a psychoanalysis trying to explain the birth of slavery by psychoanalytical considerations about, I don’t know what, the penis of the slaves or whatever. Anatomy, or destiny, says Freud. Freud makes a pastiche of Napoleon. Napoleon used to say, quite correctly: Geography is destiny; the place of France or the place of Germany is destiny. And Freud transforms it into saying Anatomy is destiny’ (v).

It is true. You are born a boy or a girl; okay, in a sense. Now, this anatomy or destiny can explain, or rather give support, to an instituted difference of sexes, but not to the domination of the one sex over the other. I mean, there are lots of hidden postulates, which are how to say? taken in under the carpet in order to consolidate the argument. Can we have a psychical derivation of this domination? The explanations that Freud gives, or which one can derive from him, beg the question – the little boy retreats before the father in fear of castration and in the hope that one day he will take his place; the little girl expects from the father, or later the father substitute, the gift of a child as a penis substitute. All this implies both the already instituted dominant position of the father and the exorbitant valorisation of the penis phallus, as the Lacanians would say instead, e.g., of the swollen pregnant woman. Why not?

Freud rightly insists at times, rather inconsistently with what has just been said, about the inherent psychical bisexuality of humans. I think that this is fully confirmed by clinical experience. It’s a psychical bisexuality because certainly it is not a biological datum; it is true that there are elements of hormonal bisexuality in humans, but in this there is generally a normally canonical, genderdefined resolution. I mean: male hormones or female hormones prevail. But the psychical bisexuality is true and it is very important, and it corresponds also to the well-known perverse polymorphism of children and, also, the onmisexuality of sexual fantasies – I mean any psychoanalyst worth his or her salt knows that in a sexual fantasy the subject is in all the positions at the same time, and the same is true, for instance, for sadomasochistic relations acted out, I mean. Thus, active as well as passive attitudes are there from the beginning in both sexes. That they become generally opposed and irreconcilable traits of genders, posited antinomically, is, again, an effect of socialisation, which has been posited by these significations as antinomic. Either you are passive or you are active. And women are passive why? And men are active why? There is a very nice sentence, a bit dirty, from Suetonius, I think, about Caesar, who, as you well know, was a quite important warrior and statesman and whatever, and who was known to be perfectly bisexual. And Suetonius reports that the Romans of the time were saying about Caesar whilst putting him in triumph, and so on and so forth that he was omnium mulierum vir and omnium virorum mulier, he was the husband of all the wives of Rome and wife of all the husbands of Rome (vi). So, where is passivity and where is activity?

To sum up, we cant find any structural necessity for the patriarchal organisation of society. The only structural necessity is that the dual, facetoface, almost fusional child/mother relationship has to be broken at some point. This certainly entails the entry on the scene of a qualitatively different figure, but certainly not of a dominant figure, of a dominant figure supplied with a penis. Now, given the fact that the institution of society must introduce some regulated relations of sexual reproduction, it must also certainly institute the social significations of man/woman as inseparable polarities, asymmetrical, but not necessarily unequal, one way or the other. And why this asymmetrical relationship has also been unequal is the explicandum in history that is not explained by psychoanalysis, by all the discourses. Male domination is, in the end, an arbitrary historical creation, which doesn’t make it less real, but does mean that it can equally well be done away with.

Now, domination proper. I think that the same is true about domination proper. I don’t mean by domination the division of society in general. There will certainly always be an articulation of society in various ways. I mean by domination the asymmetrical and antagonistic division, with monopoly of power and wealth on the one hand, obedience and poverty on the other. I will not enter into the criticism of the Marxian attempts to explain the birth of this, which, to my mind, fail miserably. The same is true of Freud’s attempt in Civilisation and Its Discontents, where he postulates that there is a sort of enlightened minority that imposes oppression on the ignorant masses and, in the process, draws most of the benefits of the oppression. Where does this minority come from? And why do the masses accept this situation? Because, as we know at least since La Boétie and Hobbes, of course the masses are physically much more powerful. The strongest man is extremely weak against ten weak men, or even five weak women. And here you have a sophism that very often you find both in anarchistic thinking and in feministic thinking in another way: Human nature is good but has been perverted by the dominant classes. Now, do the dominant classes not participate in human nature? From where did the dominant classes draw their own perversion, to pervert the others? So, this is nonsensical. The same is true here: you have a minority which is enlightened. Why is this minority enlightened? Why don’t they also indulge in I don’t know whatlimitless satisfaction of their drives? The fact of the matter is that domination cannot exist without the imposition of a system, or rather a magma, of social significations of a hierarchical character, and the emergence of these significations is a historical creation of which no explanation can be given. As I have written, it’s much easier to understand that, once you vanquish the enemy, you kill him, or you eat him (it’s very normal, zoologically speaking); it’s a totally perverse idea that you chain him up and you make him work for you apart from the technical prerequisites. There is the true invention, a true creation, which cannot be explained. Normally, you should eat your enemy, that’s all. Now, to enslave him and make him work of course is more profitable in the long run but entails, requires the transformation of the imaginary signification from: This is an alien, hostile monstrous human being to the signification: This can become my property. This cannot be derived from any development in the productive forces or all this nonsense; all these are external conditions.

Now, the persistence and conservation of dominationthat’s another point that is very important presupposes the internalization, by the dominated, of the existing relationships of domination. And, of course, this internalisation presupposes that this relationship is already imaginarily and really instituted. This is the circle of creation. You cannot have domination unless the dominated have internalised domination. They can’t internalise domination unless there is domination. These two things go together. The attempt to explain one from the other is to introduce physicalistic or mechanistic attempts at explanation in history. All this is not to say that we can’t find in the psyche elements equivalent to or homologous with the social significations. We did so already, for instance, relative to the projection of omnipotence onto the godly figures. Or indeed, much more profoundly, in the psychical requirement that the institution and the social significations provide meaning for the psyche. But in the same way that this universal requirement does not tell us anything as to why this meaning of life and world is so different among, let’s say, Confucian, Hebraic, Greek, modern worlds, not to speak about the Azande or the Nambikwara. It doesn’t tell us anything, either, about the institution of the social or gender domination. To wit, what the psyche and its socialisation carry together into the world is, first, meaning as closure, self-sufficiency, omnipotence; second this is the growing up of the infant somebody else – an other – on whomand this is the mother meaning, self-sufficiency, omnipotence are almost inevitably projected and who becomes the guarantor that there exists meaning, self-sufficiency, omnipotency, etc. So far, so good. Or, so bad.

But we know that further developments are possible. And they have existed. They have entailed a historical break and a new creation. Such as, for instance, the social imaginary signification that nobody embodies meaning, self-sufficiency, omnipotency and that such meaning, self-sufficiency, omnipotency as may exist are the creation of the collective, of the brothers and sisters; the latter, as we already said, have been historically repressed.

So, very briefly, I’ll finish with the last point. Does psychoanalysis anything to say about a proper form of human society and social institutions, that is, about proper politics? To this, one has to answer by asking another question: Does psychoanalysis have anything to say about what is a proper form of a human being? In other terms, does psychoanalysis know what its proper aims, its proper finalities, are? This question is much less idiotic than it may seem, given all the quarrels about the end of the analysis and the concept of normality or normalcy. I can only sketch briefly my own answer to this.

The aim of psychoanalysis, of course, is not knowledge per se. It’s knowledge insofar as it leads to a transformation of the analysand. This is why I call analysis a practical-poietical activity. Now, what is this transformation aiming at, or what ought it to be aiming at? I will not dwell on the repeated returns to Freud on the question of the end and the ends of analysis. There is only one answer that holds water. And this is: Psychoanalysis aims at the autonomy of the analysand. The meaning of this autonomy is not to eliminate the Unconscious, which is impossible and would be monstrous anyhow, nor even the domination of the Conscious over the Unconscious, but the instauration of another, new, different relationship between Conscious and Unconscious. This new relationship can be defined as one in which the subject is, as far as possible, aware of his or her unconscious drives; does not, strictly speaking, repress them; recognises them but can reflect upon them; and, through this reflection, deliberately decide if and how it will act them out. The motto of psychoanalysis ought to be: I know that this is my desire to kill you, for instance; I desire it, but, all things well considered, I will not, or I will, I have come to realise. This means inter alia that the subject is capable of positing his or her own laws of conduct and of thinking. But no man or woman is an island. We are all social beings; therefore, our autonomy is necessarily limited and can even be a delusion if it ignores our participation in a society and therefore the fact that we are coming under collective laws. This would appear and be a fully heteronomous condition, because the laws are the laws of the others. Save in one case. If the subject can justifiably and reasonably say that these social laws are also his or her own laws, not because they have been imposed on him or her but because he or she has fully participated, on an equal footing with all the others, in their institution. In other terms, real autonomous individuals can exist only in an autonomous, fully democratic society; and, vice versa, you can’t have a democratic society with a nation of sheep.

In this sense, psychoanalysis can be consonant only with a democratic polity and an explicitly, lucidly self-instituting society. And to be fair to the deepest strands of Freud’s thought and attitudes, and despite his frequent pessimism, this is the meaning of his pronouncements about ‘our god Logos’ (vii) and the need to get out of the infantile situation of humanity, out in the wide world. And this is also the meaning of the other half of the myth of Totem and Taboo, the half usually omitted, neglected, or suppressed: the oath of the brothers following the murder of the father, according to which nobody will any longer seek totality of power or of its perquisites for himself alone. What is unfinished in this myth, though certainly historically accurate on a metaphorical level, is that the brothersobviously Freud ignores the sisters, but we don’t have to ignore them in their oath link the rules with the transformation of the dead father into a totem, into something transcending society and transcending their own power. That is, they totemise their institution. What is in front of us, what the ancient Athenians in their way, the Westerners in another way, have more or less attempted, without fully and finally succeeding, is the full detotemisation of the institutions, the recognition that there can be no human society without institutions, but that these institutions are and always have been our own creation under the given constraints, that we have to recognise this fact and stop the search for transcendent, extrasocial guarantees of meaning, knowing that meaning can be found and created only in and through our own free and lucid activity.

Thank you.


i Editor: The ‘correct’ Standard Edition title is:  Instincts and Their Vicissitudes. Clearly, Castoriadis has trouble bringing himself to using what he said above was the Standard Edition’s incorrect translation of Triebe as “instincts” (instead of “drives” or, his suggestion: ‘pushes’). 

ii Editor:  Voltaire [1768], from Epître à l’auteur du livre des Trois imposteurs(OEuvres complètes de VoltaireedLouis Moland [Paris: Garnier, 1877-1885], tome 10, pp. 402-405); English translation: ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’ 

iii Editor: The ‘question of the meaning of Being’ appears on the very first page of Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. In, e.g., ‘The Greek and the Modern Political Imaginary’ (1990; now in World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997], p. 99), Castoriadis says: ‘Once again, it was Plato who created this ontology wherein Being equals the Good equals Wisdom equals the Beautiful  which later led someone like Martin Heidegger to repeat that the task of philosophy is to seek the meaning of Being, without him ever once asking himself the question whether Being has or can have a meaning and whether this very question has any meaning (it does not). 

iv Editor: In ibid., p. 98, Castoriadis references ‘Herodotus’s story about Solon and Croesus’ (Histories, 1:30-33): ‘[W]hen Croesus complained to Solon that the latter had not mentioned him among the happy men Solon has known, Solon responded to him, among other things: But you are still alive, it cannot be said of you that you are happy; one could say that only after your death. 

v Editor: Sigmund Freud, ‘The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex’ (1924), trans. J. Riviere, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 19 (London: Hogarth Pres, 1961), p. 178. 

vi Suetonius Divus Iulus 52. 

vii The Future of an Illusion, in Standard Edition, vol. 21, p. 54.


To be a stranger in this world – an Archimedean point for radical politics

“Whoever obeys the laws lives as a stranger here on earth. Thus we read in Psalm 119:19: “I am a stranger in the earth: hide not thy commandments from me.” Staying true to the law means living as a stranger on earth, even in the Promised Land. The law circumscribes a counterfactual order that compels its people to dwell in the world without entirely being assimilated to it. Monotheism fosters an existential unhomeliness. This estrangement from the world is what is meant by “progress in intellectuality.” (1)

“Modernity has no foundation, since it emerged in and through the destruction and deconstruction of all foundations. In other words, modernity is founded on freedom. There is nothing new in this thought, for in fact all representative modern thinkers and all modern foundational documents (for example, constitutions) confirm and reconfirm it. What I wish to do is to interpret it. The modern world is based on freedom: that is, freedom is the arche of the modern world. Yet freedom is entirely unfit to serve as an arche, because it is a foundation that does not found. As a Grund – to speak with both Hegel and Heidegger – it opens the Abgrund: that is, the ground opens the abyss. And since the modern world is based on freedom, on an arche that cannot found, it remains a world without foundation, a world that continuously has to reinvent itself. This is one of the main reasons why all the constructed models of the modern world are abstract, in the Hegelian sense of the word, and by definition counterfactual, and why all coherent narratives ring true for no more than a few decades.” (2)


Paul Delvaux, Landscape with Lanterns (1958)

There is a common argument that says that the problem of the recent decades is the eclipse of class struggle politics (from the left) and the rise of cosmopolitanism, ‘identity politics’ (left and right of the political spectrum) and struggles for legal recognition of minority groups. It suggests that a majoritarian resentment has generated a backlash (true) in which forms of majoritarianism – from the resurgent nationalism, to populism and even a crass racist secularism – have arisen. Indeed, this argument is often presented as a form of conspiracy that saw global ruling class power defeat the nation state and/or working class organization and, incidentally or intentionally, promote these ineffectual new politics. However, it might be more true to say that ‘class struggle politics’ fell into meaninglessness following a titanic struggle when the system reconstituted itself while those that identify with this majoritarian resentment are not the victims of power but rather the ensnared in an infantile drama that occasionally serves constituted power and might be the handmaiden to a terrifying resurrection of the basest forms of politics that modernity has precipitated.

In light of 1968 and the various ‘movements of the sixties’ the more advanced representatives of capitalist power understood that a renovation of the apparatus of legitimation was needed. This meant sweeping away the fusty old order of censorship and ‘moral’ watchfulness – succinctly illustrated in France where the cinemas that could not show the banned Vivre Sa Vie ten years before now played Contes Immoraux– while allowing the logic of commodification to colonise growing parts of social life. A mercurial intervention that expanded the horizon of freedom while distorting its meaning and praxis. The economic shocks of the seventies signalled the need to reconstitute the economic foundations of the old order as well.

So, this reconstitution had a number of fronts that are interrelated but not determinate of each other. The end of the social democratic era and the turn toward cosmopolitan capital under American hegemony took place at the same time as the struggles for recognition fought the political representatives of economic transformation. Despite Thatcher and Reagan being socially reactionary, society, including to some degree the future stewards of the system, ultimately decided in favour of the struggles for recognition (minimum programme). How much the ideology of cosmopolitan capital and the notion of human beings as anonymous, fungible and autonomous economic agents dovetailed with the social movements demanding the prising open of the closure of inherited identities, is a moot point that deserves further investigation.

With the fall of the consumerist dream that replaced the social democratic one, some have taken cosmopolitan capital and the struggles for recognition as not only allies but as essentially synonymous. With the end of these dreams and the certainty of an unknown future and the possibility it will not be pacific but malign and tempestuous, the desire for a ‘genuine’ place in the world not threatened by the Other arises from the infantile interior of the self. Due to a general crisis of meaning and ends in modern society, people on the right and left overwhelmingly  look for some kind of monolithic power to take them in hand.

No quarter must be given to this tendency. Democracy was forged by working class struggle because the impoverished masses knew they were strangers in this world. The bureaucratisation of the workers movement ended its revolutionary role in so far as it found a place in the world for significations created by a movement of people that were not so much practicing a rejection of the world as were rejected by the world. Similarly, in repudiaing inherited identity, the struggles for recognition of the post-68 era intimated that they were strangers in a world who needed to reconstitute or found themselves as subjects anew. Our groundlessness in this world, the fact we don’t know why we are here, and that we have to give meaning to our own lives, ends and projects, is the very condition of freedom. If being a stranger in the world led in the Axial age to a progress in intellectuality, it also stands for an opening of possibilities.

Letting traditional forms of identity circumscribe us smothers freedom and leads to its opposite, a harsh regime that imposes society’s goals and its subject’s identities from above (and ultimately in heteronomy). The project of human autonomy must always include the struggle for economic equality but economic equality in itself is not the project for human autonomy, as the human personality has needs that overshoots the bodies requirement for decent sustenance and shelter.

The revolutionary project has more than once been broken by an abstract rejection of the world and the concomitant danger of millenarianism. Thus, we cannot reject the world as constituted in toto. A conceptualization of ourselves as strangers in a world that is not our own, and as human beings who can only make good this baffling situation by creating society as autonomous individuals, a situation that cannot be naturalized or justified, nor escaped or overcome, but can only be worked upon is the Archimedean point for the project of human autonomy.

By Joseph Aylmer

(1) Jan Assman, The Price of Monotheism (2010, Stanford University Press).

(2) Agnes Heller, The Three Logics of Modernity and the Double Bind of the Modern Imagination (May 2005, Thesis Eleven Volume 81).

Escape From Brexit Island

“The island and the enclosed town therefore form a representation to which historical factors have given a form and a substance but which are nonetheless linked to the unconscious fantasy, which is non-historical and which we seek to uncover…

The island and the enclosed gardens within it constitute a representation of the maternal womb in which the child finds an immediate satisfaction of his needs. So a return to the uterus and a new fusion with the mother are experienced. The inhabitants of the enchanted islands are therefore a horde of brothers who have taken possession of the mother, having banished the father.”(1)

Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel


Ithell Colquhoun, Decoration for a Childrens Waiting Room (1936)


Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead (1886)

Origins of Brexit?

Many reasons have been given for Brexit – reasons that when aggregated might account for why a slim majority of the British people backed Leave in the June 2016 referendum (a majority of the 72% of eligible adults who actually voted). Yet we think there was one significant reason behind the Leave vote and it was identified by most observers shortly after. That reason was racism – and it enabled the Leave campaign to effectively turn a referendum on continued EU membership into a plebiscite on immigration and stoke Islamophobic fears about Turkey’s ‘imminent’ accession to the EU.

Many commentators searching for the longer term factors behind Brexit have invoked a political backlash against Britain’s ruling elite and political class. Only recently Will Hutton pointed to the role of the 2008 financial crash in eroding public confidence in the economic system and polity. The economy was radically reshaped in the 1980s via financial deregulation, privatisation and the removal of regulatory safeguards in the banking sector that would have prevented the risk and speculative excess that laid the ground for the financial crash. Instead the state was compelled to step in and nationalize the banks bad debt and liabilities at the eye watering cost of unknown billions to the British taxpayer and households.

Yet the global financial collapse might have been more severe – remarkable given its effects are still apparent in the hit taken by incomes and living standards in Britain, a decade later. As noted, the state – or rather its treasuries in the US, the UK and elsewhere decisively intervened by quarantining risk and bad debt and by reducing borrowing costs to zero and providing almost limitless liquidity (quantitative easing) and other measures. In 2010 Cameron and Osborne squeaked into government with the aid of the Liberal Democrats, formed a coalition and declared the necessity for vicious belt tightening and austerity. The diagnosis was profligate state spending and it was dubiously suggested this was the root cause of the 2008 meltdown rather than the unregulated avarice of the financial sector. As a confidence trick it displayed real chutzpah. When Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats ‘swallowed’ this bogus fable, students and households were thrown under the bus as the price for their ministerial posts and Cameron and Osborne’s credibility received a great boost. The 2008-9 national mood music that firmly blamed a footloose banking system was shredded in 2010.

But does this Brexit explanation hold water? Leave voters were supposedly the most distrustful of experts, elites and Westminster’s political class but otherwise displayed remarkable trust in the establishment – accepting Cameron’s argument that excessive state expenditure on services and welfare had to be drastically reined in. Cameron and Osborne had in mind the relatively discreet spending undertaken by Blair’s New Labour government on tax credits, Sure Start, eliminating the NHS waiting list (spending that was hugely popular), though it’s hardly likely they believed their own economically illiterate propaganda that Blair and Brown were somehow responsible for the global financial crash (the Tories had supported the measures Brown took to stave off the financial meltdown).

Finally such explanations not only err in their economic determinism or in elevating the economic above the political, social and cultural but obscure the fact the ‘economic’ is itself mediated by the ideological, cultural and the political. If the ‘economic’ was experienced immediately or as the dominant factor of experience, then economic shocks would be apprehended with lucidity. No two economists can fully agree on what the ‘economy’ is doing, why should ordinary citizens be of one mind? In principle we reject the primacy of the economic – a prejudice of Marxism and historical materialism, which is guilty of reductionism because the assumption everything flows from the material production and reproduction of social life, also assumes aspects of the social imaginary of society, the cultural or religious for example, are secondary or nugatory because the ‘economic’ is their truth, when instead in many instances its clear they have their own autonomous logic.

Neither is the idea of social inequality as an underlying driver of Brexit, particularly credible as an explanation. Social inequality might be an important factor but only in complex ways via the social and cultural significations and representations of individuals and social groups, meaning they are contested and admit of different views.

Struggles for recognition can strengthen or lead to the formation of social groups, fostering collective political will formation that refer in a feedback loop to common ethical or political horizons. So, a careful analysis of complex social reality is always necessary. Scotland demonstrates this point well. Every region of Scotland voted Remain in contrast to the far more sceptical English and Welsh. This suggests – to simplify greatly – that different political or cultural factors were shaping the ‘economic’ in Scotland to those operating in England and Wales. Also it is clear that Britain’s ruling elite and state managers care little for Scottish opinion or welfare and arrogantly assume Scotland will ultimately submit to the likely painful separation from the EU. Unionist disregard for Scottish wishes is likely to provide extra impetus to a second independence referendum. An establishment Unionist campaign that tried to repeat ‘Project Fear’ (jobs, industry and investment lost if Scotland separated from the rest of the UK) would mark a monumental hoax, blatant hypocrisy and ‘bad faith’ and yet it is hard to imagine the British establishment taking another course. As a possible hard Brexit looms possibly with a potential ultra-Thatcherite government, opinion in Scotland may favour steps to escape the dysfunctional relationship with the British state, and gain independence.

Yet there are some limits to the formation of solidaristic social groups via struggles for recognition, at least those modelled after more traditional collective struggles. The waning of worker’s struggles with the reorientation of the labour market away from the types of employment that provided a heuristic environment for the productivist centred ideologies of Social Democracy and Labourism (for myriad reasons not all determined by the strengthening of British capital vis a vis labour as is often assumed) has paralleled the all but total dominance of the ‘culture industry’ in mediating reality for most people. Indeed, as is often the case, it has been those excluded from the social imaginary’s normative horizon as mediated by the ‘culture industry’, that have proved the most effective partisans keeping alive the struggle for recognition. For example, the struggles of Black and LBGT peoples and other oppressed groups, have achieved the most conspicuous success stories of the last few decades, by prising open the closure of inherited social relations and opening up a space for the creation of new identities that allowed more autonomous, less psychically painful lives. We would argue that Brexit (like the Trump camp in American society) is a reaction against these struggles by those who cannot accept the legitimacy of new identities anymore than they can tolerate seeing Polish shops in their locality or overhearing Romanian in the local shopping precinct.

We have left aside the actual conduct of the referendum by both the Leave and Remain campaigns – for example, is clear now the Leave campaign illegally overspent, used Facebook data to micro target racist messages, accepted billionaire donations and still unknown sources of funding while Russian state social media avatars, also promoted Leave. Clearly all these factors impeded open, transparent and informed debate – a minimum for authentic, democratic will formation to take place. However one pivotal reason influenced the way people voted and that reason was racism. It was the rocket fuel of the Leave campaign, an ugly reality starkly underlined when the fascist Thomas Mair killed the Labour MP Jo Cox outside her constituency surgery a week before the poll.

Racism and Brexit

Much of the commentary leading up to the EU referendum sought to assure us the campaign debate would focus on prosaic constitutional arguments but as anyone who really understood British society was aware even before the campaign began in earnest, racism was likely to dominate. The general tendency to see racism as a moral failing or, as on the left, a tool of the powerful to maintain class rule by dividing the body politic and creating a constituency resistant to radical reform and supportive of the status quo, is of some relevance perhaps but if we were to end our argument here, we wouldn’t go any deeper than the surface of the referendum while the subterranean drivers of the issue would remain obscured.

Racism in Britain has deeper roots that prefigure the political. As we noted at the time of the campaign, long before the murder of one of the country’s most impressive anti-racist MPs, the referendum was a straight thumbs up or down to sanction more racism. This view was confirmed immediately after the result with many interpreting it as legitimising racist opinion. For these individuals when racism reaches a certain threshold and is seen as everyday doxa, it is no longer even racism. After all what is a referendum if not the ultimate act of legitimising a form of political speech and making the unreasonable seem reasonable? The referenduresult enabled bigots who would have previously hesitated, to openly air their prejudices. Private and not so private whispers desiring amplification and those who believed the right to be openly racist, had been won back by the conduct of the national ‘debate’ and its result, therefore felt empowered.

This should be honestly acknowledged as sections of the left have floundered getting to grips with the hatred that underpinned the referendum and the post-referendum political conjuncture. This left – supporters of the so-called Lexit – has been in denial about the racist furies unleashed by the referendum. Brexit demonstrated that the established political parties do not automatically represent the views of economic power or straightforwardly ‘privilege’ the material interests of the dominant elite. The left often assumed Tory leaders would never endanger the economy, that despite the Little England mentality of its members and some of its MPs, a combination of Tory pragmatism and the Tory-Business troika would prevent the ‘lunatics’ taking over the asylum. Some leftist claims that EU migrants immigration status would be secure due to the functional needs of the economy echo capital’s own ideological claims about its inherent rationality.

Perhaps David Cameron shared this calculation and believed he could deliver a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, simultaneously winning for the Remain campaign and exorcising the demon of Britain’s EU membership as a toxic issue within the ranks of the Tory party. However the whole referendum campaign and subsequent events have demonstrated that economic interest by definition is not homogenous and that what constitutes economic interest is also selectively shaped by aspects of the social imaginary, by politics or ideology and the latter is not identical with former. A startling example was Boris Johnson – still Britain’s Foreign Secretary at the time – reportedly remarking “fuck business” to restive audience of policy experts and anxious representatives of capital reluctantly pushed into publicly lambasting the government’s failure to reassure business, home and abroad, that their needs – a relatively smooth transition to post-Brexit arrangements with the EU that didn’t endanger their markets, their supply lines, raise costs or threaten their bottom line – were uppermost in negotiating Brexit with the EU. There was a broader cultural matrix of significations at work overriding ‘economic’ concerns while incidentally disclosing that politics was not “concentrated economics” as Lenin had once said. Rather, politics legitimises certain ways of being in the world, politically articulates the categorisation of meaningful significations on the level of social power and regulates the boundaries of acceptable opinion/action.

We have seen that political power can stake out social coalitions based on significations and representations cutting across social and class divisions. Brexit like Trump’s US triumph on a platform that pitted ‘America First’ against the forces of globalisation championed by most sections of US capital and the return of exclusionary nationalism, represent the destruction of the idea of capitalism as a total system. Indeed, the ‘rationality’ of capitalism is itself a fiction, a truth strikingly confirmed by the warming of the planet. What is evident here is not the logic of the system running out of control – the orthodox opinion – but the anonymous aggregation of various power structures and the ultimately blind, partially successful pursuit of power projects (including those with a popular component) producing unintended consequences that instrumental reason could not foresee (domesticated as ‘side effects’ from the dominant perspective). When the ‘rational’ illusion cannot be sustained any further as has happened several times in several places in the history of capitalism, then the potential for a terrifying interregnum appears. As Claude Lefort argued:

“…when power appears to have sunk to the level of reality and to be no more than an instrument for the promotion of the interests and appetites of vulgar ambition and when, in a word, it appears in society, and when at the same time society appears to be fragmented, then we see the development of the fantasy of the People-as-One, the beginnings of a quest for a substantial identity, for a social body which is welded to its head, for an embodying power, for a state free from division” (2).

In capitalism, where the dominant operational perspective is instrumental reason the criterion of success is simply economic growth and preventing society collapsing, rather than realising the ends of goal orientated action. ‘Things’ only tend to fall apart when they are too heavy to be caught, while the creativity of society remains capitalism’s enabling condition preventing social collapse. Indeed contra accelerationist opinion, the torpid pace of daily life creates spaces for countless makeshift solutions from below demonstrating that social collapse is rare though entropy might yet be the fate awaiting us all. In any case this only captures the zone of rational action. The Marxist critique famously acknowledges the possibility of social collapse as the mutual ruin of the contending classes but, as always with Marxism, we are given a projection of the problem into the economic-functional realm and here social crises are ultimately a disturbance of material life which can either end in progression to a higher level of economic rationality or collapse to a lower level.

It is a characteristic of capitalist ideology (including that prisoner of capitalist rationality, Marxism) that mass psychology is seen as a reflection of socio-economic trends and social crisis as an epiphenomenon of the economy. We have today what Cornelius Castoriadis identified as the collapse of meaning in society. The phantasm of everlasting growth and Progress resting on this premise, is a historical shipwreck but what ran aground was not the economic trend per se but an ontological vision.

The articulation of ontological visions that order social life more generally and where we derive our understanding of who and what matters has had to deal with the collapse of the capitalist future of eternal growth (and the socialist future of material abundance). Today a cultural ordering that is ultimately values based and excludes the Other, is uppermost. It is clear now that a historical analysis of political power in capitalism as an instrument of economic power is itself an untenable ideological construct. The encroaching entropy of capitalist modernity in the absence of a new ontological vision of what society’s means and ends – or fundamental raison d’etre – are, leads to a collapse into a metastasising universal hatred and scapegoating of the Other(s) which springs from the most archaic levels of psychic life.

Why Racism?

“Racism is the offspring, or a particularly acute and exacerbated avatar – I would be tempted to say a monstrous specification – of what, empirically, is an almost universal trait of human societies. What is at issue is an apparent incapacity to constitute oneself as oneself without excluding the other, and this is coupled with an apparent inability to exclude others without devaluing and, ultimately, hating them(3).

Cornelius Castoriadis

Famously Castoriadis revised Sigmund Freud’s argument in ‘The Future of an Illusion’ that many aspects of social life reveal a tendency to lean on the desire to return to an unmediated state of self-representational pleasure before socialisation. Misoxeny (or the hatred of strangers), Castoriadis argues is a form of self-hatred projected outwards. The pre-self and socialised self dichotomy is transferred from a psychic to a social relation, first as self and others, and later, when socialisation is more or less ‘complete’, as ourselves and others. The archaic self of limitless representative pleasure despises the socialised self for its compromise with reality – the domain of non-pleasure. The perfect ‘I’ (or ‘I’-mother) that needed no one else, at least as far as itself alone was concerned, here re-emerges to claim that our group needs no others as the Other is calamitous, evil, ignorant, the lazy and so on. The others – those who speak different languages or have different cultural traditions, must be devalued. If this obloquy was not directed at the Other, it would represent a tremendous narcissistic wound to the archaic, perfect self. This self would have to tread the painful path of becoming another and adopt a democratic, cosmopolitan worldview that essentially derived from the recognition of the Other. Patently this is a difficult, painful path for many.

It is surely no coincidence research often indicates that racism in Britain is strongest where there are fewer black or brown people, migrants or East Europeans. ‘Distance’ would appear to exacerbate racist and xenophobic anxieties while any reminder of the reality of urban Britain, of its multicultural cities, is a rude intrusion on the archaic, narcissistic self. Also the Tory party has long relied both explicitly and implicitly on racism to form a reliable social base and voters. Only recently it was revealed that Tory ministers suppressed many different academic studies since 2010 demonstrating that migrant workers didn’t impact the wages and employment of ‘native’ workers. Again we see two contradictory imperatives clash: the Tories requirement for an unenlightened electoral base and business’s need for access to cheap, flexible labour. But there are pockets of Britain like Boston in Lincolnshire where a relatively rapid influx of East European workers into a monocultural area has fuelled support for the right. An interesting aspect of this racism is that competition for employment can hardly be the ‘cause’ of local hostility and racism. Castoriadis’s psychoanalytical conception of the hatred of strangers as the projection of self hatred is far more convincing as an explanation – ‘local’ people suddenly have to ‘tolerate’ Polish shops or hearing the Romanian language in town. Moreover, the question of work retains some relevance but not how the left might imagine – not in competing for the same employment, effecting wages and conditions and so on – but rather the presence of migrant workers living both among and apart from ‘locals’, breaks a spell because it is an unwanted disclosure that the fruit and vegetables found in the local supermarket is derived from the low paid labour of Eastern European migrants.

The Far Right Rises

The voyage to Brexit Island is only a tendency of the psyche but like the appeal of Viktor Orban’s Fortress Hungary, the AfD’s weird mix of German nationalism, Nazi apologia and Stalinist nostalgia, and Matteo Salvini’s migrant and Roma free Italy, it is a path that many people across Europe are increasingly gravitating towards. Salvini claims the escalating violence against migrants and refugees is an “invention” of the left and declares the “good times” are over for “illegals”.

In successive national elections across Europe, parties of the populist right, many emerging from the fringes of the far right and neo-fascism, have appeared on the political scene. One aspect of the right’s renascence is how the logic of electoral participation has dictated a degree of convergence with more traditional elements of conservatism, leaving the ‘post-fascist’ far or populist right looking little different from the ‘respectable’ mainstream electoral parties, in their business suits. At least this is the picture on the continent where fascist street movements exist but where ‘post-fascist’ right populist electoral parties enjoy far greater presence in town halls and local or national parliaments, than is the case in Britain.

The latest advance for the far right is Sweden after the populist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats (SD) won 17.6% of the popular vote for the Riksdag in September 2018. The SD was founded in 1988 but didn’t break through the 5% threshold to give it seats until 2010. Some commentators have suggested the poll indicates a polarisation between the left and right in the electorate rather than an unambiguous triumph for the far right. Formally this might be so but part of the gloom felt by many relates to the fact that a party rooted in neo-Nazism won increased support though it did not do as well as some commentators had feared. Since the last election 163,000 migrants and refugees arrived, many of them Muslims, and the SD painted these migrants as an existential threat to Swedish life, social peace, language, culture and identity but also a drain on the already tight resources of the welfare state. In contrast though Sweden’s Social Democrats (SAP) are still the largest party (28.4%), a feat pulled off in every national election since 1917, the poll result was SAP’s lowest vote share for a century. All the parties constituting the Left bloc and the Right bloc have won support hovering just above 40% mark and that means the SD which doesn’t currently belong to the Right bloc could potentially play the role of political kingmaker though potentially weeks of negotiation separate this election from final agreement on a viable coalition or minority government.

This latest breakthrough for the ‘post-fascist’ populist right happened in the same week Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, defied the EU in the European parliament in Strasbourg which is on the verge of triggering article 7 that sanctions a member state for violating EU principles by removing its voting rights. Hungary is charged with undermining an independent judiciary and media and discriminating against the Roma community, asylum seekers and refugees. Orban’s response was to attack EU hypocrisy on the migrant and refugee issue and suggesting Hungary, a “member of the family of Christian nations for a thousand years”, was being punished for refusing to become a “country of migrants.” Unsurprisingly Orban vowed to continue ‘defending’ Hungary’s heavily policed borders.

Across Europe political recidivism is growing as populist parties of the right stoke hostility to migrants and refugees. A grand rapprochement of all the most base, backward, reactionary political views and instincts is taking place. In France Marine Le Pen pushed the Front National to the next electoral level after losing the Presidential contest against Emmanuel Macron a year ago. The Front National has now been rechristened the Rassemblement National (National Rally) in a move to increase the party’s electoral influence. Marine Le Pen has downplayed the anti-Semitic, anti-Arab roots of her party in a tactical bid to gain more respectability’, a key to winning votes beyond the support the party already enjoys but elsewhere ‘post-fascist’ populist parties of the right are ramping up the anti-migrant, anti-refugee and Islamophobic rhetoric.

Significantly the ‘post-fascist’ populist and far right’s advocacy of an undifferentiated nativist heimat eliminating difference and erecting walls against the Other, is mirrored in the peculiar odyssey undertaken by sections of the left across Europe that has started to repudiate multiculturalism as a flawed imposition of the liberal centre and so on. While the right sees migrants and refugees as carriers of lawlessness and miscegenation, and wants to police and discipline the Other as a prelude to expulsion from Fortress Europe, the left appears warm and welcoming. Yet though the left often attacks Islamophobia when it rears its ugly head in Europe, it has turned its back on the ‘Arab Spring’, the revolts of the ordinary people across the MENA, against authoritarian, kleptocratic and – in the case of Syria – genocidal rulers. These revolts have been denounced as US, Saudi or Israeli inspired regime change, or led by Salafist jihadis, against anti-imperialist or secular governments.

In other words a major part of the left has denied the people of the MENA their agency and is guilty of the most egregious orientalism and Islamophobia. Yet as we noted on the domestic front the left’s Islamophobia isn’t so apparent. At present a majority of the left wishes to ‘integrate’ refugees and migrants into social life in Europe but also complains of the strain on the welfare state (though it remains true that most of its fire is directed at austerity) and the threat migrant workers pose to ‘native’ workers wages and conditions. In Britain a decade ago Gordon Brown talked of British jobs for British workers, prompting considerable criticism from the left. Today Jeremy Corbyn, who in his heart believes the EU is a bosses club, has coquetted with abandoning the free movement of labour (one of the EUs four pillars – free movement for goods, labour, capital and services) and decried low paid migrant workers under cutting the wages, conditions and employment of ‘British’ workers though the extensive research undermines this staple of the right.

The logic of a powerful subterranean desire to return to the pristine intra-uterine realm of the womb exemplifies the nativist fantasies of the ‘post-fascist’ populist right but also has its analogue on the left which decries globalisation, neoliberalism, the EU as a 
bosses club, and suggests an exit from this world is possible for a simpler, undifferentiated utopia or community. So social equality is a desirable good for many reasons not least because it is a reciprocal condition for the autonomy and democracy to flourish but for large sections of the left, social equality is explicitly or implicitly thought to be a higher good than autonomy or democracy because it is an unconscious place holder for a political community where difference has been eliminated. Globally there is a rising almost irresistible majoritarian sense of entitlement – a coalescing determination to build a social order fundamentally based on the exclusion of the Other. In many ways this reactionary “politics of fantasy” (Carl Schorske) marks a collective psychotic break with reality. For example, Brexit was more popular among the older people who were energised to vote for it in 2016 and who desire a pristine faux Britain that supposedly existed somewhere in the past. The return to the womb is simultaneously restorative and phoney.

The only answer to this baleful new ontological vision is a critical position that rejects both the unconscious fantasy of a pure place in the world and the hatred of others it often engenders and, also, the capitalist vision of unlimited growth (and its counter-cultural echo in Marxism). Rather, we need struggles for recognition within the open framework of democratic political and economic arrangements that firmly push back against the archaic psychic drives that are increasingly surfacing from the depths after the collapse of meaning in late capitalism. Also a commitment to accepting the future is fundamentally unknowable is necessary to replace the rose tinted backward looking reactionary gaze or the determinism of the grand future orientated historical narratives, that either mark fantasies of ‘purer’ times or ideological constructs, promissory notes for a utopia, that in reality would only deliver suffering, violence and murder.

by Joseph Aylmer and Jules Etjim



(1) Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, ‘The Archaic Matrix of the Oedipus Complex in Utopia’ in Sexuality and Mind (1989, Karnac Press).

(2) Claude Lefort, ‘The Question of Democracy’ in Democracy and Political Theory (1988, Polity).

(3)Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘Reflections on Racism’ in World in Fragments (1997, Stanford University Press).

Notes on Syria and the Coming Global Thanatocracy

gericault 4

Theodore Gericault – from the preparatory paintings for The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819)


The Coldest Monster

In Thus Spake Zarathusta, Nietzsche called the state the coldest monster and we might add there is no state as cold as a thanatocracy. At present few genuine thanatocratic regimes actually exist but even using the most stringent definition (we use the loosest here), Syria unambiguously qualifies. Syria is a thanatocratic state whose kleptocratic ruling elite have tried to maintain their rule by freely resorting to genocide, systematically torturing and killing people on an industrial scale while using death, directly and indirectly to husband the populace in an escalation of governmental strategies to winnow targeted demographics and destroy those social ecologies felt to nourish rebellion. The genocidal destruction or disaggregation of some social groups by the thanatocratic state is accompanied by efforts to hothouse other demographics seen as compatible with the one overriding imperative: survival of the ruling elite.

Of course in the largely pacific global North and elsewhere many would look askance at the suggestion that Assad (and his allies) are responsible for the estimated half a million or more Syrian’s killed since 2011 as Assad certainly is. That is over half a million people killed out of a population of 22 million people while 5.6 million people have fled the country creating a grim refugee crisis with millions forced to live in sprawling camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and millions more displaced inside Syria. In his war to crush the revolt of the Syrian people, Assad and his allies have used tanks, fighter planes, rocket attacks, barrel bombs, white phosphorous, chlorine gas, sarin and other weapons, besieging towns, suburbs and villages – and their civilian populations.

Thomas Hobbes in Damascus

In a brief article ‘The Danger of a ‘State of Nature’’ written in September 2011 only months after the ‘Syrian Spring’ began, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, the veteran activist who spent many years in Baathist prisons under pere Assad, Hafez, first voiced alarm about the degeneration of the popular rebellion against Assad. Saleh traced this dangerous turn to the revolution’s defensive militarisation – a shift that was itself a reaction to Assad’s pitiless counter-revolution (1).

The Syrian revolution (and the ‘Arab Spring’) is the most important historical event since the collapse of the Soviet Union but has received little of the attention it deserves. This is perhaps because the ‘Arab Spring’ whose ground zero was Tunisia, encountered powerful headwinds after the early period of rising struggle between 2010-11. The Egyptian revolution was fatally thrown back when the country’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi was removed after only a year in office, in a counter-revolutionary coup d’etat staged by Egypt’s military. Another reason for the Syrian revolution’s neglect is the failure of the global left, especially in Europe and North America, to build a solidarity movement in its support. Rather insofar as solidarity was extended to any party in Syria, Assad’s thanatocracy has been the main beneficiary. The global left has been largely indifferent to the crimes of a regime where life is subordinated to death and biological precarity is the rule – with physical, social and cultural death imposed on incomprehensible numbers of people.

Despite the suffering of its people, Syria is commonly observed through the prism of post-truth and nihilistic scepsis. Much of the global left has joined the burgeoning ranks of cranks on social media peddling conspiracy theories promoting the demonstrably false view that Assad’s murderous regime was the target of attempted US regime change while viewing Assad’s revolutionary opponents through the spectacles of orientalism and Islamophobia. This diabolical consensus omnium parroted Assadist propaganda portraying Assad as an embattled secularist fighting opposition dominated by Salafist jihadis. In seven years of Assad’s brutal struggle to smash the ‘Syrian Spring’, few have tried to acquaint themselves with what is actually happening in Syria or listened to the voices of ordinary Syrian’s – people who despite their suffering are literally either invisible or ciphers for the paranoid fears and anxieties of the global North’s citizens.

In an arresting appropriation Yassin al-Haj Saleh invoked the seventeenth century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes to grasp the danger that faced the Syrian revolution, the morbid signs it was descending into a “primordial” ‘state of nature’ because of the brutal counter-revolution of Assad’s ‘neo-Sultanic’ state (as Saleh later characterised the Baathist state). Ominously, Saleh believed the revolution had begun to mirror the counter-revolution in the course of defending itself. Adversity engendered a struggle dominated by the “politics of survival” while the ‘state of nature’ was in principle antithetical to reason – the foundation of any politics. The fall into the ‘state of nature’ foreshadowed the destruction of politics and politics was the lifeblood of any revolutionary struggle as it embodied the autonomy and self-determination of the people (2).

Descent into the ‘state of nature’ indicated society was “losing its self-control” and the crystallisation of a social trend present in the revolution itself. Within months the open, “civic minded” nature of the revolution’s early days apparent in the role of a variety of civil society groups, the visible activism of women and so on, started to erode as the people fought Assad’s “brutal power.” Saleh argued the degeneration was apparent in the readiness to resort to arms for self-defence and the growth of religious influence that saw inherited identities displace more inclusive, secular identities within the anti-Assad camp. Inevitably there was a transition from slogans repudiating Salafism while underlining the democratic aspirations of the revolt to slogans with more traditional Islamic or religious connotations. In the revolution’s early weeks, the street protests were “civil, emancipatory, and humanist” but quite rapidly the revolution’s “public face” began to speak the “language of Islam” (3).

In subsequent years Saleh revisited the changing role of violence in Syrian society – the atomisation of the populace brought about by Assad’s ‘torture state’ and the problems the revolutionary camp faced as violence as self-defence became more indiscriminate and threatened to demoralise and undermine the revolution itself with the transition to “ultraviolence” or “militant nihilism” as Saleh would characterise it, in particular connecting the latter to the millenarian goals of religious fundamentalism in his own evolving evaluation of the political role of Salafism.

Reflecting on Assad’s “killing machine” Saleh pointed to the impact of earlier military and civil conflicts in the region, the civil conflict in Lebanon and the coalition invasion and occupation of Iraq, to illustrate the elective affinity between civil war and sectarian war or what Thomas Hobbes called the ‘war of all against all’ – the ‘state of nature’ where hatred fed hatred and killing led to more killing in a mimetic cycle similar to the cycle of violence and bloodletting Rene Girard thought defined the periodic sacrificial crisis that visited any society. As Saleh observed:

“This is the supposed ‘natural condition’ of mankind, in which everyone is at war with everyone else, much as Thomas Hobbes described in his ‘Leviathan’, during the middle of the seventeenth century. But the state of nature is not in fact a ‘natural’ condition; it is a historical conjuncture” (4).

Intriguingly the political and social backdrop to Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan’ (1651) was the English Civil War, a significant upheaval in what was an emerging capitalist society. The exact death toll from the three different phases of the civil war is not known though many historians estimate casualties as high as 180,000 dead from fighting and disease – about 3.6% of the population. A large proportion were combatants though about 40,000 civilians were among the dead. About 2% of the population are estimated to have been displaced. In comparison 2.6% of the British population was killed in the First World War though it must be conceded the English Civil War simply doesn’t compare with the modern mass fratricidal conflicts of either the C20th or our present century, where the nature of war and conflict clearly occupy an entirely different level altogether.


Detail from the title page of  Leviathan (1651)

In a recent, astonishing article ‘Love, Torture, Rape…and Annihilation’ written in exile, Saleh explores the relationship between hate, torture and rape against the backdrop of the Syrian experience. Saleh begins by noting how generally love unites humanity, especially the exclusive erotic love of lovers – it unites by separating ourselves from ourselves and so allows us to find ourselves. Love is revelation, mutual recognition and love as intimacy blurs boundaries as one becomes two or One of Us. In utter contrast torture annihilates boundaries in a quite different way, so as to pursue its victim into herself. Unlike love, torture is not a relationship but rather a non-bond of destruction that is brutally invasive and is conducted with a variety of goals and motivations by a torturer or the “torture state.” Saleh’s discussion is subtle and evidently derived from the experience of having spent many years in Baathist prisons. Yet the interest of Saleh’s analysis is its apprehension of certain global arguments about the nature of our age. Saleh distinguishes between three types of torture or violation. The first interrogatory or investigatory torture broadly aims to create a civil war within the individual victim so they betray themselves. In this circumstance an individual’s survival instinct and their commitment to a “higher obligation” or “social being”, are pitted against each other. In Syria before 2011 such objectives of torture might also include the destruction of proscribed opposition groups without necessarily aiming at the physical destruction of individuals. The second type of torture is retaliatory torture that aims to humiliate its victims and lead to either the physical or psychological destruction of the individuals. According to Saleh, Hafez Assad’s Tadmor prison and Bashar’s Saidnaya prison both aimed to “create an unforgettable memory, addressed far beyond the tortured person” to intimidate and deter the populace against rebelling. Thus, the tortured body was a “billboard” for obedience. The third type of torture, exterminatory, was self-explanatory.

The transition from death under torture to death by torture was consequential. It was a symptom of the systematic killing of people en masse on a regular basis over a more or less extended duration of time. In his essay on ‘necropolitics’ (discussed below) Achille Mbembe invoked the work of the Italian historian of the origins of the Holocaust Enzo Traverso who explored the affinity between the Nazi’s extermination camps and the industrial like processes of the production line characteristic of Fordist modernity. In 2013, a photographer employed by the Assadist state, known as ‘Caesar’ released 53,000 photos that constituted a routine bureaucratic catalogue of the emaciated waxy cadavers of those who had died under torture. In doing so ‘Caesar’, who fled Syria, provided a bleak glimpse of the state as organised killing machine – or as we contend, a thanatocracy. Saleh himself notes that all three types of torture have in practice blurred into the other two types while at a more general level pointing to a historical transition from one form of torture to the adoption of another form. For example, from the early 1970s until the early 1980s Syria may be said to have overstepped certain long established social boundaries or solidarities with the normalisation of torture. The ‘lesson’ of torture was intended to be internalised by everyone including the torturer who was transformed into a willing instrument of the ‘torture state.’ The transition to exterminatory torture – in our terms the transition to thanatocracy – was part of a genocidal continuum that disclosed the state had obtained “absolute freedom” to overstep human standards and boundaries without any normative or ethical limit other than the practical limit (5).

An important question arising from the Syrian tragedy is how much of what has unfolded in the last seven years encapsulates wider global trends in social conflict and war and how much events derive from trends immanent to Syrian society, to the specific nature or psychopathology of the Baathist state and its singular historical evolution? The answer to that question must surely be that a great deal is specific to the nature of what Saleh calls Assad’s ‘neo-Sultanic state.’ Yet it is also clear that Syria has a global significance in a variety of ways. For example, as Saleh argues in an interesting passage:

“There is a strong international dimension to the Syrian genocide that is almost unmatched in history and that could be linked, with further investigations, to emerging Islamophobia, as the most prominent form of racism in today’s world.”

Elsewhere in the same article Saleh pointed to the existence in Syria of a “permanent ‘state of exception’” specifically in relation to the fate of victims of torture. Also Saleh was alluding to an important debate about the contemporary nature of sovereign power (the state) in the globalised era especially the relations between the state, violence, the citizen, nomos, biopolitics, power and the state of exception. It was the Italian thinker and political theorist Giorgio Agamben who prompted this key debate about the nature and trajectory of sovereign power and the global state of exception in a number of works, particularly ‘Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life’ (1995) and ‘State of Exception’ (2003). Agamben did this by bringing together the threads of two different contributions to political theory in two different eras. Firstly, there was the subterranean debate between the conservative juridical thinker Carl Schmitt, who occupied important positions in the German legal establishment under the Third Reich, and Walter Benjamin about the ‘state of exception.’ The other strand drawn on by Agamben was Michel Foucault’s account of the biopolitical, biopower and governmentality.


Borrowing a neologism Achille Mbembe used in his influential essay ‘Necropolitics’ (2002), Assad has created “death-worlds” – deploying his “war machines” (6) in spaces or ‘zones of exceptions’ characterised by a unique form of social existence that has proliferated in the globalised era of late capitalism where whole populations become the object of the destruction unleashed by untethered or autonomous “war machines.” Populations are scattered, made “stateless”, exterminated, brutally subjected to resource or wealth extraction, deprived of the ability to make a living, besieged, subjected to “invisible killing” through starvation, coerced into becoming soldiers of the “war machine” and so on. Mbembe cited a Zygmunt Bauman article from 2001 suggesting sovereignty had become blurred in the era of globalised and asymmetric war. The emergence of martial non-state agents blurred the division between public and private and in some zones of the world overthrew the state’s monopoly of violence. This development was apparent with the appearance of “war machines” that could be said to function like private free booting mercantile organisations similar to the East India Company in the late eighteenth century. Often these “war machines” were at one remove from the state, or an extension of the state like a contractor able to work hand in glove with the state though this was not always so, and the relationship could be adversarial with the “war machine” fighting one or more states. The “war machine” might exploit transnational links and networks while operating in lawless crisis zones where the authority of the state was either weak or had broken down in a new age of ‘uncivilised wars’ as it was characterised by John Keane (7).

The collapse of formal economies or the struggle for resources or wealth might reinforce the dominance of the “war machine” or create the conditions for their rise such as the “militia economies” in civil war-torn parts of Africa. In some of these dystopian scenarios the “war machine” might aspire to displace or takeover the state and constitute itself as the sole sovereign power occupying a demarcated territory, effectively becoming a putative state. But in ‘New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in the Global Era’ (1999), Mary Kaldor observed that in some of these zones of conflict, the state encouraged the formation of armed groups or militias that would essentially operate at one remove from the state but on its behalf. For Kaldor the anatomy of war and conflict had been reshaped by neoliberalism and globalisation challenging the old Westphalian model of the inviolability of the state’s sovereignity and territorial integrity by bringing to the fore new transnational forces, potentially destabilising identity politics, the globalised war economy and the decentralisation of violence (8)

In this age, the coming age of thanatocracy as we will describe it, biological precarity was generalised as it touched more groups and populations. Also “governmentality” (Michel Foucault) is reshaped as contemporary forms of the subjugation of life to death – Mbembe’s necropolitics – change and populations become the object of the imposition of new techniques of policing and discipline. Mbembe’s overall argument strongly echoes Agamben’s own reworking of Michel Foucault’s account of modernity and biopolitics that Foucault sketched in his late 1970s College de France lecture course (9).

Agamben was interested in how biopolitics as a distinct aspect of sovereign power (the state) excluded certain groups, how the state or governmentality was characterised by a growing tendency to intervene in the lives of citizens to maintain a homogenous, racial identity. So how biopolitical strategies of sovereign power shaped the body politic with sovereign power capturing or promulgating ideological-imaginary narratives of racial and national identity and helped determine who was ‘inside’, a part of the citizenry, and who was ‘outside’, became a central issue of contemporary political thought (10).

Like Foucault’s biopolitics, Mbembe suggested the origins of necropolitics could be traced to the evolution of the modern state with its extension of the dispotif pouvoir underlining the powerful formative relevance of racism, colonialism, imperialism on necropolitics. The necropolitics of the state precipitated whole groups into the status of the “living dead” or placed particular groups outside of a population – literally as a foreign body. Groups like migrants and refugees were “becoming-object” and regarded as less than human. The modern state as the dominant sovereign power in most parts of the world, determined who mattered and who did not, who was a citizen and who should be cast outside the charmed circle of citizenship, who, finally was “disposable” (Mbembe). Populations who were marginalised or rendered invisible, could also be deprived of the full ability to make a living, forced to occupy an economically liminal space. An obvious example was the siege strategy of the IDF in Gaza and the West Bank, a peculiar combination of medieval and modern. Here we literally have a state of siege that is permanent, an indefinite form of the ‘state of exception’ whose end is hard to imagine or conceive. Whole populations were deliberately cut off from the possibility of pursuing any normal daily life in what was effectively a late colonial occupation where three powers overlapped and were condensed in sovereign power: disciplinary, biopolitical and necropolitical – with the power to give (shape) and withhold life.

Mbembe oddly claims that a weakness of Foucault’s conception of biopolitics was its failure to address the central issue of racism; that a population could be racially hierarchised. Elvira Basevich levelled a similar charge at Agamben claiming that the latter’s conception of the modern state retained a normative element because while the state qua sovereign power tacitly presupposed a legitimate citizenry invariably defined by the exclusion of the Other, so far as Basevich was able to judge Agamben hadn’t fully appreciated the degree to which the Other was identified on the ideological-imaginary grounds of ‘race’ or ethno-nationalism (11).

Necropolitics or thanatocracy?

Mbembe’s necropolitics thesis was a provocative reflection on war and conflict in the globalised era but there was a danger of downplaying the continued relevance of the state as sovereign power, of inadvertently proposing a normative understanding of the state when in fact the history of the state with the arrival of modernity, indicated the state to be a much less stable, more fluid entity than a dichotomy between state <> “war machine” would suggest. The state was still fundamental in the neoliberal, globalised era. It was a common misconception that the ‘neo-liberal turn’ of the 1970s meant a major scaling back of the state’s influence whether it was at the expense of transnational institutions or the world market. The picture of the changing role of the state – from the start the state was at the heart of the ‘neoliberal turn’ – was a great deal more complex than some of the misleading narratives of the state’s retreat. In addition, a defining axial feature of the global system was that it was still an ever shifting competing hierarchy of states though this wasn’t the only defining axial feature of late capitalism. This cautionary note proposing the state’s continued salience is not meant to imply Mbembe has radically misread the state’s fate but simply highlight that Mbembe’s understanding of necropolitics explicitly assumes the field of necropolitics is not exclusive to the state, that a non-state agency aspiring to sovereignty including exercising law making and law preserving violence as a manifestation of power (Walter Benjamin) in specific demarcated territories, could also practice necropolitics. Even so taking these strictures to heart and granting the relevance of necropolitics in the globalised era, we need to make clear what follows focuses on modern thanatocracy: loosely a state that regularly, systematically and actively puts significant numbers of its people to death (12).

The Assad State as Thanatocracy

To suggest the Assadist-Baathist state is a full blown thanatocracy doesn’t necessarily imply that it emerged from an unfolding internal logic defining all states or that thanatocracy merely occupies an identifiable location on a spectrum or typology of the modern state. Abstractly we may grant that any state could become a thanatocracy but of course in reality this is an extremely unlikely scenario for most states. That does not mean the Assadist-Baathist state as a thanatocracy is wholly singular or unique but recognising the Assadist-Baathist state as a thanatocracy merely takes us to the threshold of the analysis. Clearly all nation states claim a (territorial/defensive) monopoly of legitimate violence and ultimately that legitimacy refers not to the limits of violence any state might conceivably exercise but instead relates to the question of sovereignty: what power or authority is it that is able to exercise violence to maintain the social order and security of the state? The implication is that there exist no theoretical (or ethical) limits or boundaries to the violence that a state as sovereign power, might unleash, only practical limits. Ultimately, this is what makes a nuclear holocaust and humanity’s extinction, eminently possible. Exterminism was perhaps the reverse side of the coin of Jacques Camatte’s belief that global rebellion or social revolution was dead because capital had escaped the dance of death with its notional proletarian nemesis while humanity was undergoing a process of ‘domestication’ in late capitalism. Death and genocide were the heart of the state’s secret nature and this fundamental reality of the modern state was difficult to fully comprehend without the most sober of senses (13).

Sovereign power (the state) might appear to accept the ethical imperative or the popular will of the people (democracy and so on) or even diplomacy (international treaties and obligations) as limits or checks to the exercise of legitimate violence but this is deceptive because what sovereign power can apparently accept one moment, it may repudiate the next. Within the state, sovereignty ultimately resides in the cockpit of the executive, more or less insulated from any external popular pressure or influence. Therefore, in the final analysis, sovereign power will always resort to violence to safeguard itself as sovereign power. Leviathan would never repudiate itself.

When did Syria become a thanatocracy? Clearly Assad’s ferocious counterrevolution mobilised to crush the ‘Syrian Spring’, marked a qualitative step change in the murderous activity of the state’s extensive repressive apparatus but equally we might argue Syria had already crossed that Rubicon and become a ‘mass murder’ or “torture state” (Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s characterisation) at some point in the preceding four decades of Baath party ascendancy. This is the argument we favour because while it’s obviously true the killing has massively escalated since 2011 due to a scorched earth defence of Assad’s rule, a large proportion of those deaths would still have happened in the ‘normal’ course of Assadist rule but within the security and prison apparatus as they did before 2011 (14).

Global Thanatocracy?

Perhaps Syria is the only fully fledged thanatocracy within the global system today though a country like North Korea with its extensive if recently rationalised chain of gulags, that annually claims the lives of unknown thousands through starvation, shooting, disease and being worked to death, must be also be a candidate for this exclusive club. Yet there are other countries that are potential candidates for being classified as a thanatocracy. Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines is a marginal candidate and another – perhaps – less marginal candidate is Myanmar that has pursued the genocidal ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya Muslim minority. Yet while this brutal onslaught against the Rohingya Muslim’s is grave and horrific, it has been a temporally delimited act in terms of the military’s escalation of violence and terror whose chief objective is driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims into neighbouring Bangladesh while encouraging other ethnic groups to settle in the Rakhine region. However, we concede that as a borderline case this interpretation of Myanmar is open to dispute and invites further investigation. However, there should be no doubt the fate of the Rohingya people is not one whit less horrifying whether or not Myanmar is labelled a thanatocracy. Significantly, the Rohingya people have been denied citizenship in Burma/Myanmar since a 1982 Citizenship Law was introduced that extended citizenship to many different groups and ethnicities that are treated as part of the multi-ethnic social fabric of the country. This Citizenship Law was reinforced in July 2012 – only two years after the widely acclaimed arrival of democracy and return to civilian rule – when the civilian government released a list of the groups and ethnicities taken to be legitimate parts of Myanmar’s population. The Rohingya were omitted from the list.

Globally the subterranean biopolitical logic that assumes specific groups of citizens are discrete ethno-nationalist demographics belonging to a particular territory organised by this or that state, is increasingly visible and becoming an explicit theme of discourse across the political spectrum. In relation to Syria Yassin al-Haj Saleh traces the degeneration of the ideology of Pan Arabism, a faux radical ideology of the post-war years linked to anti-colonial, anti-Zionist radicalism, into its offspring Absolute Arabism of the 1970s. The telos of Absolute Arabism was paranoid, coercive uniformity and hostility to internal and external enemies (the former were the agents of the latter). After Hafez Assad’s seizure of power in 1970, Absolute Arabism eventually degenerated into a sectarian suspicion of the Sunni majority in Syria who were the object of a determined attempt to marginalise them and hold them down. The ‘official’ culture of the Assad ruling clique was seemingly secular and modern, supposedly setting its face against traditionalism. But this appearance (often intended for the consumption of the West) was extremely deceptive and in reality the ruling elite’s Absolute Arabism was profoundly contemptuous of the Syrian masses – racist and elitist and an echo of the West’s Islamophobia. In Syria, the ruling elite determinedly blocked genuine social mobility and operated like an internal First World complete with orientalist discourses. They sought to bolster their rule, wealth and power by favouring their own sects and allied clans. In Assad’s Syria, the sect has become a new form of fate – in Mbembe’s terms, the elite were practising a form of necropolitics by imposing a form of “invisible killing” on the marginalised masses (15).

In this context it is hard to deny that while the state as thanatocracy is relatively novel as a contemporary development, globally thanatopolitics is increasingly visible with the inflation of racism, nativism and nationalism in the context of social, economic and political crisis and arrival of decentralised war and conflict. As thanatopolitics metastasises the defence of the ethno-nation or its citizens defined against the Other becomes increasingly shrill, as Italy’s new coalition government of the Northern League and the populist Five Star Movement indicates. This newly elected government has wasted no time in attacking the Roma and refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe. The Other becomes a placeholder for all social ills of society, real and imaginary and the target of various moral panics that foreshadow the coming eco-malign emergencies and catastrophes of tomorrow. One ideological-imaginary technique that reinforces the faux ethno-nationalist identity, the imagined homogenous community where difference is eliminated, is to create a division between us and the Other that reflects the discursive bifurcation of inside/outside. The Other belongs outside not inside. If the Other somehow finds itself inside it is identified so it can be policed and administered and therefore eventually expelled or removed. The parabola of this logic is ultimately totalitarian.

Today Fortress Europe exemplifies this malign political logic as the refugee and migrant are painted as the socially disorientating carriers of disease, crime, unemployment, embodying reviled, unwanted religious faiths and cultures. Migrants and refugees are rarely regarded as potential citizens or the citizen elect as the disturbing drift of political tides in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Austria and elsewhere indicate. In Germany, which welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees many of them from Syria, Angela Merkel’s political capital is all but gone as her Coalition partners compel her government to row back on recent generosity toward migrants and refugees. Yet the free unfettered movement of labour – though a significant progressive social gain without any doubt – only existed within the borders of the European Union between its member states. Recently the Europe wide United for Intercultural Action (a network consisting of 550 antiracist groups), issued a report compiling the names of all the 34,361 refugees and migrants known to have died trying to reach Europe since 1993 of whom 27,000 of those named drowned in the Mediterranean. The UIA group admits this is a gross underestimate as many more unknown, unnamed refugees and migrants have died trying to reach Europe. Since 1993 European governments, of whatever political complexion, have adopted draconian, repressive and racist measures against migrants and refugees while diverting more resources to stopping this tragic human exodus reaching Europe (16).

The growth of nativism and racism across Europe is a barometer of the metastasisation of thanatopolitics or necropolitics as the defence of the citizen against the Other, who is a cipher for the coming eco-malign emergencies, a presentiment of catastrophe that increasingly colours global politics. As thanatopolitics spreads throughout political discourse and the national and global conversation, it threatens to extinguish all politics. The coming global thanatopolitics is inseparable from renascent fascism and comprehension of their malign troika is a precondition of effective resistance to them.

by Jules Etjim


(1) Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s article ‘The Danger of a State of Nature’ pp.65-76 appears in a ollection of his writings on the Syrian revolution ‘The Impossible Revolution: The Making of the Syrian Tragedy’ (2017).

(2) Ibid.p.65.

(3) Ibid. p.68.

(4) Ibid. p.75. Interestingly C.B Macpherson has queried the traditional, near universal reading of what Hobbes was arguing with his ‘state of nature’ hypothesis – suggesting that it wasn’t intended as an actual historical account of pre-state societies or proposing that a ‘war of all against all’ was inevitable in the absence of a sovereign power (the state) to “overawe” all ‘men.’ This is an argument we intend to revisit in the near future. See C.B Macpherson ‘The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke’ (1979 edition) pp.19-46.

(5) Yassin al-Haj Saleh ‘Love, Torture, Rape…and Annihilation: A letter to Samira’ is online.

(6) The coinage “war machines” originally belongs to Deleuze and Guattari but is adopted by Mbembe. Typically provocative but also loose in Deleuze and Guattari’s hands, the concept of free booting, autonomous “war machines” while insightful, should be treated with care and properly contextualised. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari ‘Nomadology: The War Machine’ (2010 translation).

(7) John Keane ‘Reflections on Violence’ (1996).

(8) Mary Kaldor ‘New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era’ (1999) p.138.

(9) See Achille Mbembe ‘Necropolitics’ (2002), Giorgio Agamben ‘The State of Exception’ (2003) and Michel Foucault ‘The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-79’ (2010).

(10) Also see Giorgio Agamben ‘Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life’ (1998).

(11) In defence of Foucault contra Mbembe, Foucault explicitly identified racism as a central and formative ideological narrative co-opted by the newly coalescing “governmental rationality” of the modern state. Racial homogeneity was the normative assumption underpinning the modern state’s definition of the ‘legitimate citizenry’. The racially defined citizens indicated the arrival of the biopolitical model of governmentality. For Elvira Basevich’s critique of Agamben see ‘Agamben on Race, Citizenship and the Modern State’ (2012).

(12) Walter Benjamin made the distinction between law preserving and law making violence in ‘Critique of Violence’ (1921). Benjamin considered law making and law preserving violence to be “rotten” because it derived from the phenomenal realm of law, power and violence, the profane realm of the state or ‘what is’ as opposed to the kingdom of justice.

(13) Jacques Camatte’s essay ‘On Domestication’ (1973) is collected in ‘This World We Must Leave’ (1985) pp.91-137.

(14) In fact the repression meted out by the torture prisons acted as a spur to the rebellion once the demonstrations and protests in Syria had already begun as people took to the streets inspired by the social unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. For example, on the 25 May 2011 the mutilated body of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb from Deraa, an early hotspot of revolt against Assad, was returned to his parents. Hamza had been picked up by Air Force Intelligence on a protest march and tortured: he suffered castration, broken bones, cigarette burns and gunshot wounds. The pictures his parents posted on social media caused outrage. See Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’ (2016) p.49.

(15) Yassin al-Haj Saleh discusses this sectarian, orientalist underpinning of the Assad elite’s rules at some length in ‘The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy’ (2017), see pp.98-113 and 213-287.

(16) See The Guardian Special Issue published on World Refugee Day that carried the names of all 34,361 refugees and migrants who are known to have died since 1993.

Forgotten nations at the end of the Russian Empire; their meaning for the history of the revolutionary project


Free Idel-Ural Movement proclaimed at a press conference in Kyiv, March 21, 2018

A few months ago, in Kyiv, an event of rare interest took place. The Free Idel-Ural movement was proclaimed. The location was symbolic, parts of the territory of Ukraine has been occupied by Russia for the past four years. Idel-Ural relates to the ‘Republics’ of the Middle Volga: Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, UdmurtiaMari El and Mordvinia which have been occupied for far, far longer. Supposedly autonomous religious and cultural entities they are closely controlled from Moscow. These territories are populated by Muslims and other groups who follow indigenous religions.

The prison house of nations that the February revolution of 1917 put on last notice was never torn down. The reasons for this are indissociable from modernity itself. A modernity that first conquered others to make them the same, then made them the others with no value and then dreamed up super theories that universalized history so that difference would become a thing of the past automatically. With the failure of these modern utopias we now find them at the mercy of cynical ideologies of power that pick and choose from the detritus of past imaginaries.

The fall of the Russian Empire unleashed a massive movement toward the autonomy of peoples. It was provisional, rife with problems related to traditional social forms transitioning in the face of modern technique and imported values. It is necessary to understand the events that led to these movements being physically destroyed and later forgotten by the world at large as implicit in a conception of revolution tied to an messianic telos of instrumental progress. An investigation into the democratic institutions that arose at the periphery of the Russian Empire at its fall is not really possible here, the information is scattered, lost and in languages that the author will never know. But we can note how these nations were expected to fold into the imaginary of those who now held the power of the Russian state, play the social roles (worker, peasant, bureaucrat) assigned in a schema and how the signification of rational mastery justified the Communists crushing those who they considered falling outside of their rationalizing anti-democratic project. They thought they put in train an inevitable historical transformation that followed structurally determinate laws but their actions now stand as evidence of the endless contingency of human affairs. Actions that reconstituted the Russian Empire which they had once taken as their project to abolish.


Blessed Be the Host of the Heavenly Tsar, a massive iconic depiction of the siege of Kazan in 1552. Now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.


Last November, a little-noticed centenary of a little-known event occurred. On 26th November 1917, the Tatar population of Crimea established the Qurultay, a national parliament. Apparently, ten thousand people gathered in Bakhchysarai to attend its sessions. Its Chairman was Noman Çelebicihan, a poet, and lawyer.

Later, on 23rd February 1918, Çelebicihan was executed on a vessel of the Anarchist-dominated Black Sea Fleet. Afterwards, his body was dumped overboard. These actions were likely in concert with the Soviet government who had seized the Crimean peninsula six weeks earlier, disbanded the Qurultay and suppressed the Tatar national movement.

Crimea, like in Georgia, in Ukraine, in the Northern Caucasus and in innumerable places across the Russian Empire 1917 was the year in which, because of the fall of the Imperial Monarchy, democratic ideas blossomed. Some, like in Georgia, were committed to a democratic socialist transformation, others, like in Crimea, were finally throwing off the imperial yoke and trying to marry modernity, self-government and the transition to statehood. We can look to some of the little-known events in Ukraine and the Middle Volga using the framework of a modernity split between rationalizing and democratizing strands.

Both the Crimean and the Volga Tatar’s considered themselves as the progeny of the Golden Horde, the Mongol occupation of the Western part of modern Russian and Ukraine. The Crimean Khanate and the Kazan Khanate had periods of independence, 1452-1588 and 1445-1552 respectively. Later, Crimea became an Ottoman vassal, then a Russian protectorate and later still was incorporated into the Empire proper. The Kazan Khanate was conquered much earlier, in 1552 by Ivan IV with much brutality over the civilian population.

The early Russian state was tutored by the Mongols, and the Islamic communities that they left behind became formal subjects of Tsar, while their internal affairs were generally a matter for their own elites. The Old Tsardom of Moscow saw Muslims and Steppe Nomads as “basically peers, albeit as heretical members of other high cultures”1. The Petrine revolution changed all this, European models were pursued that would lead to a wholly new state-led project of absolutist development.

The Muslim nobility were forced to convert or lose their lands in 1713. A military policy of the destruction of Mosques and forced Christianisation begun in the 1740s and was only abandoned after the Pugachev rebellion, when poll tax and military service grievances were added to the masses complaints. State building required rationalized tribute. Pugachev recruited from Tatar and Bashkir communities en masse. From the Eighteenth century onwards the Russian state intelligentsia took from these European models a ‘civilizing mission’. The idea of the nation-empire under one faith – another rationalization of difference into unity –  became a state goal,  albeit one, as previously noted, that was adhered to pragmatically. It meant the State backed down rather than risk outright revolt. The ‘Holy Wars’ of the nineteenth century were deferred.

The ‘memory’ of the Tatar states and the consequences of their conquest by Russia was key to the emergence of a national consciousness under the influence of Jadidism. The development of literary language and the idea of a Tatar nation arose in the nineteenth century. The more radical Jadidists sought to rid Arab and Persian words from the Turkic Tatar tongue altogether. The most famous figure in the Crimean Tatar movement was Ismail Bey Gaspirali, who advocated autonomy for Russian Muslims whom he thought formed a distinctive cultural complex.

The Young Tatar’s group helped found a distinctive Tatar identity their newspapers called for a break with Turkism, while textbooks, dictionaries, prose and poetry broadened the notion of a national culture. A unique language, form of Islam and the ‘memory’ of the two Khanates fed into a Tatar political imaginary that soon blossomed into a national movement calling for citizenship and popular sovereignty. By the late nineteenth century, both the Volga and Crimean Tatar communities had a far more literate population than the overwhelmingly peasant Russian speakers. 90% of Tatar schools ran on Jadid principles.


The Muslim congresses at the fall of the Empire still debated whether cultural autonomy or independence was the most judicious path for Russian Muslims. With the proclamation of the Crimean national party, Milli Firka, and later a Crimean Peoples Republic in 1917 it seemed that events had pushed independence as the answer to modernity’s call. Similarly, after the Bolshevik coup against the provisional government the National Assembly of the Muslims of Inner Russian and Siberia proclaimed the Idel-Ural republic (December 1917), with its capital in Kazan. But as Azade-Ayse Rorlich noted

“The dream never became a reality. A large Tatar-Bashkir republic whose borders would have been too similar to the Khanate was not an acceptable political alternative for the Bolshevik leadership”2

Like the Crimean Peoples Republic, the Tatar-Bashkir state was overthrown by the Red Army. In March 1918 after a hastily assembled ‘Soviet’meeting in Kazan that excluded peasants and the indigenous intelligentsia from attending, two individual ‘autonomous republics’ were set up by the Russian Communist Party.

The expectation of the Communists was that they formed the vanguard of a global revolution. The wage relation would render traditional social bonds as irrelevant and the undifferentiated masses would seize power in the name of generalized equality and technological progress. The values of a society were provided by the nature of its productive infrastructure, the ideas in peoples head were determined by this. This, needless to say, was an illusion.

In contrast, our argument that the values human beings hold and the ideas that motivate us are actually the creation of human collectivities, independent from and not determined (though no doubt influenced) by the functional-economic aspect of life (the instrumental).

The ‘rational’ and the naïve notion of our species as agents of maximization is as mythical as the idea that history is a process which moves toward an end independent of the ideas that motivate people. These ideas we should designate as relating to ‘rational mastery’, they suggest that human beings are, or at least should strive to be, computational machines in which the desire to gain more value from less effort (our own or others) is the everlasting mimetic object of activity. Nature is not a plain of existence, a particular locale or where we live but, rather, resources. The increase of outputs is the road to salvation, regardless of the means engaged to pursue this end or its effect on the human beings tasked as executants or the broader synergy of social relations. Not so dissimilarly, with the marketisation of the whole of society after the end of the social democratic era, the domain of rationalisation has now expended to bodies, leisure time and cognition itself in new ways. Employees are expected to style and train themselves to better serve the symbolic orientation of social power – the ultimate corroboration that we are dealing with an imaginary not the systemised ends of rational action.

To know and master nature is a key part of this idea. Rationalisation, as Max Weber saw it, marked the birth of a new type of praxis in which economic calculation, of space, materials, time and the self,  dominated our ‘operational’ behavior. The new system of production slowly finesses these ideas to turn a worker from a skilled craftsman to a tool which carried out the same activity innumerably. This became intrinsic to the new autonomous economic system of capitalism. The workers’ movement, from its inception, battled this rationalising project and its tendency to turn human beings into fungible objects. However, with the dominance of productivist ideology and the bureaucratization of the workers’ movement such struggles were relegated to the shop floor and the edges of oppositional ideologies.

Johann Arnason has convincingly placed in this rationalizing process in the broader context of European modernity and its intellectual heritage

Eighteenth-century thinkers envisaged a new international order that would reflect the liberation of humankind through knowledge and mastery of nature (Condorcet’s work on the progress of the human mind is a case in point). The utopian imaginary that is at work in such constructions has a historical background: it responds to European expansion by elaborating alternative images of a more harmoniously unified world, and the direction which it takes is determined by the Enlightenment’s critique of the old order within Europe, in this respect, as in many others, Marx’s early writings constitute a major turning-point in the history of the Enlightenment. The global frame of reference for his radical critique is perhaps most visible in the Communist Manifesto. It is here that we find a particularly ambitious and influential interpretive synthesis of the three dimensions of the globalizing process: the development of the capitalist world economy is expected to lead to a political revolution on international scale, and the latter will be guided by a theoretical project (or, as we must in retrospect call it, an ideological construct) of universal validity. A closer examination of Marx’s argument suggests that the cultural ideal of global human emancipation and self-realization – transfigured into a teleology of history – came first, and that the analysis of other levels is tailored to its demands. . Classical Marxism – that is, above all, the thought of the Second International – can be seen as an attempt to fuse this intellectual heritage with the strategy of the workers’ movement.”3

The Leninist,  later Stalinist, state was itself a utopian and authoritarian mutation from Second International Marxism, very much influenced by Russian populism and the idea of redemptive revolution. Its leaders thought themselves at the head of an enormous wave of rationalisation, which in this iteration would first – using the methods of war and Taylorism – turn society into a huge factory, then later, by way of a hugely unlikely Hegelian negation – these methods and means become their opposite, a free association of humanity. From the beginning of their rule the Bolsheviks would claim that only they had the expertise to govern toward this end, and no election – whether the ones they campaigned for in the factories committees, Soviets or by universal suffrage (the Constituent Assembly election of November 1917, convened in January 1918 and closed down the same day) had the right to deprive the party of its right to rule in the name of the working class and Marx’s historical construct. Revolutionary theory here becomes a form of heteronomy far more closed than any of the great world religions.

As early as March 1918, Lenin (in The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government) would justify turning workers into passive receptacles of orders, shooting those looking for local or national autonomy and bringing terror to bear against communities who would dare to protest their absolute control of the slave camp state they would soon begin to construct.

There is a large and convincing literature of workers and peasants struggles against the Bolshevik regime. Across the colonial periphery of the Russian Empire, there were other movements, based not on class but national oppression, that also attempted to found a new order. Like the worker-militants that considered the end of workplace and soviet democracy a barefaced power grab, they protested taking the role of objects in somebody else’s schemata that they never accepted or agreed to being subject to. Unlike workers they did not even have fictional rights; they existed outside of the historical drama – a reflection of alien class interests, non-historic peoples or reactionary dead-enders.

For us, the struggle for democracy is not an epiphenomenon of rationalization or modernization but the best way to create societies in which human beings, always plural and divided, can come to recognize each other as equals. The attempts by the Tatar congresses of bringing new polities into existence were stalled, problematic and sometimes had contradictory goals. They nevertheless knew there were limits to revolutionary voluntarism and they did not believe they could found a social peace on violence and oppression. In short, they recognized the other’s right to choose and speak and that the state and society were not the same thing. Bolshevik fanaticism lacked these qualities and proved no guard against the horrors of totalitarianism that engulfed the former Empire for seven decades.

For those of us who believe in the equality of people(s) without wishing to impose models of sameness on them, the question of democracy looms large. For those of us who believe that the dominant strain of modernity which makes consumption and ever expanding technical mastery the criterion of progress is incompatible with either the good life or a habitable planet a change of values is a prerequisite.

Politics is a symbolic space where power speaks. It speaks to orientate and organize, to dominate and master. It also speaks of its ends and goals. We shall follow Lefort in arguing that in democratic societies there is an open space where the social can speak, manage social division and make power account for itself. Power still speaks but it now knows it cannot hold a monologue. In dictatorship it may speak constantly, usually in the name of the people or history or fate (or fate as it is known by its modern moniker – necessity). It speaks to instruct, to warn or to sentence.

The modern state is part of the drive to rational mastery, it is a form, a container. Its contents may be more or less structured by the strictures of exclusion that are any forms purpose. In general, the modern counter-systemic movements has been riven between Jacobin conceptions of a future order based on utopian premises and more pluralistic visions that take into account social division as a fact of human societies.4 That division has to be worked through and cannot be overcome by fiat is really the basis of a truly democratic politics.

In Shmuel Eisenstadt’s sociological vision of the basic premises of different type of societies he noted that

The central core of civilizations is the symbolic and institutional interrelation between the formulation, promulgation, articulation, and continuous reinterpretation of the basic ontological visions prevalent in a society, its basic ideological premises and core symbols on the one hand, and on the other the definition, structuration and regulation of the major arenas of institutional life, of the political arena, of authority and its accountability, of the economy, of family life, social stratification, and of the construction of collective identities. Such definitions and regulations construct the broad contours, boundaries, and meanings of the major institutional formations and their legitimation and greatly influence their organization and dynamics”5

Our desire should be social forms which allow these different ontological visions of the world to have expression as part of the creative nature of world-building that is the most conspicuous aspect of human life. Doing this while allowing individuals and social groups broad autonomy and the ability to act on their thoughts, feelings, and desires is the challenge of the democratic strand of modernity. The productivist image of the working class as objectively revolutionary and the workplace as the most important heuristic arena and location of social struggle ultimately failed because the voices of individuals meant less than the ontological vision of Marxism that gave workers an identity from without, determined by theoreticians, party leaders or state managers, while giving others no identity at all. As we know from psychoanalysis speech precedes the creation of new relations, it gives them forms with which to start to posit the new. In this sense, Marxism as a total theory was always primed to become a ruling class ideology which provided society with its identity, goals, and meaning from the outside. The Marx of The Civil War in France was nowhere to be seen, replaced by pure heteronomy.

The development of a new revolutionary theory should proceed on the basis that the institutions, the values, goals, and meanings, of freer societies come from within societies, from the interior of individuals and from the dialogue and decisions of collective bodies the individuals together create. These bodies must be provisional and democratic, open to all, they would need to be capable of continuous re-articulation and re-evaluation of their own principles with the aim of understanding new circumstances and better fostering equality and autonomy.

We need not pretend that the small states or republics that arose at the end of the Russian Empire would have been any more likely to create free societies than countless other examples of small nations whose democratic experiments failed. Questions around class exploitation, gender oppression and differing ends of the always plural commonality may well have had them flounder or prey to internal authoritarianism. Nevertheless, their extinction at the hands of fundamentalist and imperialist heteronomy in the form of Bolshevism extinguished the possibility of the recognition of the other than is the foundation of the democratic experience.

By Joseph Aylmer



1 Andreas Kappeler, “Muslims of the Russian Empire” in Muslim Communities Reemerge: Historical Perspectives on Nationality, Politics, and Opposition in the Former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia Editors: Andreas Kappeler, Gerhard Simon, Gerog Brunne.
2 Azade-Ayse Rorlich . “One or More Tatar Nation?” in Ibid.

3 J.P. Arnason. “The Soviet Model as a Mode of Globalization” Thesis Eleven, May 1995.
4 S Eisenstadt, The Civilisational dimension in Sociological Analysis.
5 Ibid.

Fascism, Populism, Nationalism, Closure and ‘the Politics of Fantasy’


The recent ‘Day for Freedom’ rally in Whitehall may mark a qualitative change in far-right politics in Britain. Under the banner of ‘protecting free speech’, the rally drew a crowd consisting of more than the football hooligans and drunken racists that have been the mainstay of far-right street politics in Britain over the last decade. Somewhere between 2000-4000 people may have been present at the event – which was addressed by various ‘alt-right’ internet personalities, UKIP leader Gerard Batten and ‘headlined’ by former EDL leader ‘Tommy Robinson’.

Ostensibly a protest against the ‘political correctness’ of those that wish to censor criticism of Islam and denigrate ‘white Christian culture’. The participant quoted in The Guardian who also mentioned ‘cultural Marxism’ was closer to giving the game away. When political life in the UK is log-jammed by the commitment of both major parties to a patently irrational withdrawal from the EU in fidelity to a referendum based on lies, shamefaced misinformation and imperial nostalgia, it isn’t altogether surprising that the far-right is getting a shot in the arm. I would argue that both Brexit and the modern far-right in Europe exemplify the same phenomenon – ‘the politics of fantasy’ (a term coined by Carl Schorske1).

‘Robinson’, also quoted in The Guardian, claimed “The people of this country have been silenced for 20-30 years with the tag of racists. They have managed to silence people so that they are too scared to speak up when they see things that are wrong.” It’s a curious argument when the disgustingly Islamophobic and racist Daily Mail, Express, Sun and Star newspapers are available in every high street in the country – plus the most racist government in years deporting people in flagrant breach of the law.

The event was supported and promoted by RT (formerly Russia Today), the Kremlin’s English language news channel which specializes in disinformation and apologia for Russian state war crimes as well as those of its allies (particularly the Syrian Regime’s genocidal war on its own population). RT itself mixes unconvincing polemics against neoliberalism with hard right ‘analysis’ that promotes conspiracy theories and justifies the Kremlin’s expansionism as a response to Western Imperialism.

In Europe, the Russian state’s policy, outside of states that are available for ‘capture’ like Bulgaria and Greece2, is not so much the promotion of itself as a civilisational vanguard or even a maligned actor but the destabilisation of liberal democracy. For instance, (just to give a few examples) from funding parties such as the French National Front and Hungary’s Jobbik to the despicably cynical stirring up of religious and ethnic animosities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the aim is contributing to the hollowing out of democratic values through the spread of misinformation and ethnic nationalism.

The fascist Generation Identity group were apparently present at the Whitehall rally. According to The Intercept they are “a far-right youth movement that originated in France, campaigns against what it calls the “great replacement” – a theory that white European countries are going to be taken over by Muslim migrants. According to the group, “Islamic parallel societies” and mass immigration will lead to “the almost complete destruction of European societies within just a few decades if no countermeasures are taken.”

Repackaging fascist ideas in the language of civilisational struggle against Muslims is a strategy of various ‘post-fascist’ hard right electoral parties across Europe. With its clean-cut image, Generation Identity is trying to do the same with a pan (white) European fascist street politics. That Muslim immigration to Europe has been driven by the outcomes of European colonialism in the past or by the violence of post-colonial states in the present is neither here nor there, neither is the fact that Muslims remain subject to state harassment and oppression across the continent  – this ‘politics of fantasy’ has to project that situation in reverse in order suggest a highly libidinised spectacle of Majority victimhood.


Warsaw: 60,000 people participated in a demonstration against Islam and refugees in November 2017

Prevalent in all these arguments, whether fascist or nationalist and populist (like Brexit), is the idea that a weak-willed, blind or treacherous elite are allowing ‘the nation’ be destroyed by immigration and foreigners. Similarly, a minority but politically influential civil society (liberals and the left) which apparently favours foreigners over the ‘indigenous’ culture (Britishness, Englishness, whiteness) are a fifth column within ‘the nation’. This is ‘the politics of fantasy’ in Britain today.

Peter Homans, in his fantastic book on the origins of psychoanalysis3, draws on both the Amercian psychiatrist Robert Lifton4 and the German psychoanalyst (and member of the medical commision at the Nuremberg trials) Alexander Mitscherlich’s work5 on Nazism to suggest that for the Nazis – unlike the psychoanalytical movement which faced up to it in a depth psychological way – the loss of a (at least partially fictive) common culture of the past with the advent of modernity was considered so psychologically painful because it suggested the irreversible loss of a genuine place in the world that could neither be mourned or accepted. Instead, we find a rejection of reality and the projection of a delusional fantasy which blames some (inevitably racialised) ‘other’ for the ‘loss’.

Homans is worth quoting at length

“…by denying the painful psychological consequences of the social and historical changes that were taking place – in other words by refusing to mourn – the German Nazis became intolerant of chaos. Instead they sort to reinvent with great rapidity and astonishing creativity a total common culture in which a sacred symbolic structure overcame time, the sense of transience and diachrony… For them, the manic defence and persecutory activity successfully energised a new cosmology which abolished the ability to mourn and what I would call “the ability to be depressed.” It was if they had said, There has been no loss at all.”6

The persecution then later murder of the Jews while embarking in a total war for land and resources became the starting point for a fantasy future with a newly secure and righteous place in the world for the men and women who became the movement behind Hitler and his close subordinates. It was a venture to remake the world in the image of their own fantasy projection when the ‘loss’ of their own paramount place in the world was too painful to face. Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel wrote7 about how totalitarian regimes abolition of otherness – racial minorities especially – leaned on a desire to recapture the perfection of pre-oedipal life, with just the mother-child dyad standing for all reality. It is important to note here that while the fantasy of a ‘pure’, ‘clean’ and undifferentiated country may lean on the universal desire to return to dyad (or womb), this in no way mitigates the actions of racists and fascists. The fundamental fact of their hatred and inhumanity cannot be excused by this. Indeed, it is that a universal wish finds itself expressed in this way that designates fascists and fascist ideologies as special dangers to society. This same wish in mediated form has often been expressed in art, music and in political struggles for equality. All this proves is that human beings do need to feel at home in the world or else develop psychological frameworks for dealing with the groundlessness of modernity (Jan Assman has suggested that development of monotheism and the associated articulation of transcendental and mundane orders that replaced cosmotheism in the Axial Age was a similar sort of historical shift from one way of being in the world to another8).

While a squalid shitshow like Brexit or a racist hooligan mob in London seem a bit of a bathetic comparison to the baroque evil of the National Socialists, it is important to appreciate that the imperial nostalgia of Brexit and British fascists does ultimately rest on the desire to dominate and control others. It is not ‘freedom of speech’ wished for here but freedom from free speech, from hearing the reality of the modern world, different tongues, different accents and those of us who have an open attitude to a new historical situation where identity is not determined in a heteronomous manner but is mediated and informed – at least partially – by the autonomy of the person. Real freedom means being an autonomous subject that can fight for the values one believes in while dealing with disappointment. What Brexiteers and the fascists want (no matter how they might differ in other ways) is freedom for their delusional fantasy of domination, closure, separation, and national-racial superiority. It’s the fear of the condition of modernity – that we live in a groundless world not a sacred or determined order – that motivates them.

Whether by constitutional means or otherwise they wish to have their investment in this fantasy endorsed and legitimised. Whether its a white Britain where the British were a ‘people-as-one’ (in the sense used by Claude Lefort) or a reinvestment in the most backward ideologies of the past – empire, conquest, and domination – their quest of hatred is a quest for place and meaning. Across the world, we see a similar phenomenon, white Americans voting Trump out of a nostalgia for a time when blacks were passive victims or the curious phenomena of right-wing populists in Eastern Europe wistfully looking back at the Stalinist monoculture.

I would argue at the current juncture the rise of a fascist street movement in Britain that unites genuine neo-nazis with the racist hooligans of the former EDL is a bigger danger than the post-fascist populism of the electoral type seen on the continent. This is because the thing that the EDL and its associated splinters were lacking was ideological clarity and an effective centre (essentially leadership). It’s clear from the Whitehall rally the online savvy ‘alt-right’ and neo-fascists like Generation Identity are making a genuine attempt to capture this street movement. This must not happen.

The most effective recruiting grounds are the Brexit heartlands – as anyone who knows them the de-industrialised smaller towns and decaying monocultural seaside resorts are ripe for a right-wing social movement that would allow the psychic boredom, hatred, and lust for violence of white men to merge into something greater, more powerful and find that ‘place in the world’ that their desperate fantasies are about. Mass politics is always a question of psychological merger, where the isolated and alienated individual can find a social whole that transcends unpleasant individual circumstances and makes identity a group phenomenon.

This has to be countered on the streets with a vision of freedom that promotes individuality, freedom, diversity, and love. This cannot be a bureaucratic movement but a democratic one that will work through its difficulties in public in meetings and demonstrations. The politics of fantasy is a result of the failure of introspection. Where it is too painful to come to terms with the mess of our own lives and the way we have been thrown into the world in often extremely difficult circumstances. Psychoanalytic theory, as a hermeneutics of love, can be helpful here. To renounce preeminence, to be just another – no better or worse than anyone else. To value oneself as a subject striving to grow wiser. To value the opinions of other individuals and groups. To identify with groups but hold off – to the extent it is ever possible – complete psychological merger. All these things are an important means of creating an anti-racist and anti-fascist politics.

Thinking of fascism and right-wing populism as the politics of fantasy is useful. Liberal and Marxist accounts of these phenomena fail because they cannot grasp the radically non-functional nature of fascism, which finds its power in the space between the internal world of the individual and the social world of reality proper. The politics of love that counters the politics of hatred is one where we are together for each other not as ‘us’ against the world of others but as ‘us’ in a world of otherness. Mourning our lost preeminence (the pre-oedipal) and facing a world where our own societies, identities, and futures are an undetermined ‘open book of the essential powers of man’ if in that phrase we can decouple Marx’s radical humanism from his communism and economic-functionalist view of wo/man and history. That is the politics of freedom.

by Joseph Aylmer


1 Carl Schorske,  Fin-de-siècle Vienna (1979)

2 Mark Galeotti, Controlling Chaos: How Russia manages its political war in Europe (2017)

3 Peter Homans, The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis (1989)

4 Robert Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (1986)

5 Alexander Mitscherlich & Margarete Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn (1984)

6 Homans, ibid

7 Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, The Archaic Matrix of the Oedipus Complex in Utopia (1986)

8 Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism (2010)