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Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift. Interviews & Debates 1974-1997 (translated by Helen Arnold; New York: Fordham University Press, 2010)

In the decades of “Socialisme ou Barbarie”, Castoriadis moved away form Marxist theory and further developed his powerful criticism of the Soviet Union, which he categorized as a bureaucratic party state and eventually a state defined by “stratocracy”, rather than a socialist one. In the beginning of the 1970s he became a French citizen, whilst also quitting his position as an economist at the OECD.

Still he was very active in shifts and turns of the political struggle and in addition to formal written and published texts, some of his important contributions were given in occasional papers and interviews. A selection of these occasional papers and interviews from this period of Castoriadis’ life are published in the book reviewed hereby, A Society Adrift. This is an English translation of the book, which was published originally in French, following a complex editorial affaire caused by the issuing of competing anonymous open-access online translations of Castoriadis’ writings.

The book is divided into two parts. The first one deals with Castoriadis’ basic concepts or problématique, such as the concepts of “autonomy” or the “Project of Autonomy” and “Imaginary significations”. In this part there is also a long interview and revealing reflection from 1974 on the period of “Socialism ou Barbarie”, entitled “Why I am no longer a Marxist”. In the second part of the book there are interviews and texts were his problématique is applied to specific issues.

All in all the collection of texts and the book structure give a comprehensive overview of part of Castoriadis’ career, especially the period after “Socialisme ou Barbarie” had been dissolved. As the editors of the book state in their introduction to the French edition, the book can serve a double purpose. On the one hand it can be a useful guide for those who encounter for the first time Castoriadis’ writings and ideas. On the other hand the book can also serve as a “handy résumé” of Castoriadis’ positions and stands on different issues. For both these purposes there is a useful addition to the texts themselves, because the book has a special chapter comprising an extensive chronology and bio-bibliography, which greatly facilitates the understanding of the context of the different publications and relates them to important facts in Castoriadis’ life. This adds greatly to the value of the book. By the same token, the editors’ note to the French edition and a good deal of their footnotes is very beneficial.

The publication of this collection of texts by Cornelius Castoriadis is in itself a worthy enterprise at any time. To publish it immediately following a major financial collapse in western liberal democracies, which Castoriadis dubbed “liberal oligarchies”, shows indeed an exceptionally good timing. The awakening of the public interest in politics and the general participation of common people in all sorts of protests and discussion on how to rebuild society is in essence an exercise in democratic thinking. It is an exercise in direct and participatory democracy. It questions the representative democracy that has been a “democracy” without “democrats”, leading to the withdrawal of citizens from public affairs, which Castoriadis criticized.

The concepts of the “project of autonomy” and also the notion of the “Imaginary significations” are in fact an interesting framework for the analysis of the present situation in western liberal democracies. They can become a meaningful contribution to the diverse discussion and understanding that is to be found in the wide variety of grass-root and protest movements calling for democracy, democratic participation and the democratic reconstruction of society.

Castoriadis has something to offer present-day radicals. He produces a general theoretical framework that emphasises autonomy in the sense that both individuals and society are aware that they themselves are the continuous creators of laws and regulations of society through direct democracy. But in doing so he also points out to the new radical generation that the answers are not to be found in some external forces, be they liberal phrases like the “rule of law”, the “market economy” or totalitarian conceptions of historical necessity of some sort.

The publication of Castoriadis’ texts and interviews in the book A Society Adrift is thus a well-timed and interesting enterprise. The book itself and its cover are a nice artefact of about 260 pages: the 1926 painting of the Dadaist George Grosz, “Eclipse of the Sun”, is a very fitting picture on the book’s cover!