Monday, 6 October 2008

Castoriadis on the Meaninglessness of Capitalism

In a minor essay entitled The Crisis of the Identification Process Castoriadis really touches base. He sums up the crisis of meaning in capitalist societies - the crisis which is at the root of our search for alternatives.

Every society, he says, needs to develop a self-representation - it needs to come up with an idea, or an image (this being the work of what Castoriadis calls the social imaginary) of what it is (in our case, an idea of who we are) and an idea of what it is up to (an idea of the ends of social action). This self-representation has to move people - Castoriadis goes on to talk about societies loving themselves - and the conception of the ends of social action needs to motivate people. In the words of the psychoanalyst, these must be representations that people cathect.

Modern societies instituted two central significations: the ever-increasing rational mastery of nature and society, and the search for a form of social freedom, whether it be liberal, socialist or revolutionary. The second has virtually withered away, and what remains is no more than rare acts of voting and frequent acts of shopping - neither of them capable of defining a "we" that has some solidity.

To quote: "The sole signification truly present and dominant today is the capitalist one, that of the indefinite expansion of "mastery," which at the same time-and here we come to our central point-finds itself emptied of all the content that might endow it with the vitality it once enjoyed and that could, for better or for worse, allow the processes of identification to be carried out.

"One essential part of this signification was its mythology of "progress," which gave a meaning both to history and to future-oriented aims and which also gave a meaning to society, such as it was, as supposedly the best support for this kind of "progress." We know that this mythology is now falling into ruin. But what, we may ask, is today the subjective expression, for individuals, of this signification and this reality that is the "expansion," apparently "unlimited," of "mastery"?

"For a small number, it is, of course, a certain "power," whether real or illusory, and the increase thereof. For the overwhelming majority of people, however, it is not and cannot be anything but a continual increase in consumption, including alleged leisure, which has now become an end in itself. What is becoming, then, of thegeneral model of identification that the institution offers to society and that it proposes to and imposes on individuals as social individuals? The model is now the individual who earns the most and enjoys the most. Things are as simple and banal as that."

This reminds me of Thatcher's rise to power in the U.K., which was supposed to be some kind of renaissance of British culture - a re-invigoration of what Castoriadis would have called the British imaginary. In practice I don't remember much more happening than a war with the Argentinians (over a handful of islands whose real value was never made particularly clear) and a campaign launched in the media to "Buy British".

It also makes me think of the prevailing image of governments in the West - especially in Europe. The government tries to project itself as little more than a competent manager of the economy. In Europe there is absolutely no attempt to engender a self-consciously European culture with a new social identity and a new sense of purpose as Europeans. From the standpoint of the party politician, society is little more than the market and the institutions that support it. Once society is identified as the coexistence of consuming monads the need to define - to create - some sense of "we" simply cannot register.

As a psychoanalyst Castoriadis emphasizes the psychological role that an enduring sense of this "we" can play for the individual. The identification serves as a defense against death - the identification with an imagined imperishable collectivity is a way of living with one's mortality. The absence of this helps to explain the modern individual's desperate need for a continual supply of distractions. In the words of Cornelius: "The modern individual lives in a headlong flight from the knowledge both that he is going to die and that nothing he does, strictly speaking, has the slightest meaning. So he runs, he jogs, he shops in supermarkets, he goes channel surfing, and so on-he distracts himself."

However much liberals insist that there is a liberal society (and for the market to work there must be a society of sorts) there is still this lack of a meaningful sense of who we are, what we are doing and where we are heading. Some liberal theoreticians might have an answer to that question and feel happy with it, but in actually existing liberal cultures no answer is instituted - we are not (consciously) doing something together, striving to achieve some collective goal. As individuals we are just out to maximize our personal happiness, and as politicians we are just trying to tweak the money supply to ensure that there is continual economic growth (because if gaps started to appear on the supermarket shelves the entire liberal edifice would crumble).

Toward the end of the essay Castoriadis makes a point that has been on my mind for a while now: going beyond capitalism requires going back to the past. History has become virtually meaningless. The liberation of the individual as a consumer presupposes that the past is made irrelevant (because history is our past, not mine). As he puts it: "I do not see how a new historical creation could effectively and lucidly stand up to and oppose this bizarre formlessness in which we live unless it were to instaurate a new and fecund relation to tradition. ...Thatdoes not mean that we should restore traditional values as such or because they are traditional; rather, we should establish a critical attitude whereby we are capable of granting recognition to some values that have been lost."

In a sense, a new radicalism will also have to be a new conservatism.

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