[F]or the impulse of mere appetite is slavery, while obedience to a self-prescribed law is liberty.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau[1]

The philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis has often been credited with saying that “democracy is the regime of self-limitation.” [2] But since for him the only true democratic form is direct democracy, this claim might seem a bit odd. Direct democracy has come to be conceived by many, including several critics, as a regime that disconnects society from laws and regulations, resulting in its depolitization and degradation. This concept has understandably raised concerns about what would be the outcomes of the more excessive actions of the masses.

The essence of direct democracy however, as presented by Castoriadis, differs considerably from such chaotic and nihilistic logics. For him, the primary meaning of the term democracy is political, being before all a regime in which all citizens are capable of governing and being governed — with both terms (democracy and self-limitation) thus being inseparable. Democracy, in other words, is understood as a form of explicit societal self-institution, through reflectiveness and self-limitation.

According to Castoriadis, democracy is not mere process for collective decision-making that can exist in parallel to or within non-democratic oligarchic frameworks, as proposed by thinkers like Jürgen Habermas or Chantal Mouffe.[3] For him, democracy is rather the basis of the project of autonomy — a social condition in which society recognizes no external limits to its instituting power. That is, unlike different forms of what Castoriadis calls “heteronomy,” societies where laws and regulations are derived from extra-social sources like capitalist markets, nation-states, gods, historic necessity, etc., a democratic community’s sole limits result from its self-limitation through collective positing of the law.

Castoriadis observes that institutions and laws that suggest what cannot be done, but also what should happen, are what make society function. Without such regulations, the thought goes, social ties disintegrate. In his own words “society is there precisely at the moment when there is a self-limitation of all the brothers and sisters.” [4] His emphasis on democracy is, in this sense, not a rejection of organization and legislation, but of certain sources of organization and legislation.

Forms of social limitation

Every society does not only offer, but in some way it enforces certain roles, values, beliefs, ways of life, etc to its individual members. Each societal form provides only a certain set of possibilities to its population, since one cannot be everything nor do whatever he wants. Thus, we can speak here of limitation, but despite the negative connotations of this term, it most certainly also carries a positive trait: by forbidding certain things, society simultaneously draws patterns of what should be done, therefore giving distinguished meaning to its form of life.

Every social order determines different sources for this prohibition. But what cultivating an autonomous, essentially democratic setting means is that the limitations will be self-imposed by society in its entirety. In heteronomy, on the other hand, prohibition is being set extra-socially. This does not mean that such extra-social sources (i.e. sources that are external to the actual and living society, such as gods, nation-states, founding heroes or natural laws when they are presented as immune from human influence[5]), are not in some way connected to or reachable by society, but that they monopolize power, taking it away from the general populace. According to Castoriadis, they are still a product of society’s self-creating capacity. [6] It is because of this relatedness that a revolutionary political shift is even conceivable.

Of course, although every society is based on some set of limitations, people do not always abide by these. History is filled with examples of single individuals, communities, and even whole societies that break away from established social norms and prohibitions. The question is “why”? Contrary to what is argued by many critics of autonomy, people transgressing popular limitations is not a phenomenon limited to the seemingly chaotic direct democracy. In fact, it can be argued that, paradoxically, this trend is more common under heteronomy, due to its non-participatory character, because people in those societies feel alienated from the laws and institutions.

This paradox is due to the disharmonious relation between the individual and the social collectivity. No matter what roles society dictates to its singular members, there will always be some among them who will be breaking with the prohibitions. Indeed, one’s individuality is never completely determined by the role that is being attributed to him or her. In fact, these oversteppings of limitations, the breaking of the norm, potentially contain the germs of new possibilities and can become the seeds of social transformation.

Under heteronomy, however, limitations are misleadingly conceived as deriving from a source outside of ourselves, often deriving from narrow managerial elites, who are the only ones able to intervene and alter them. This is so because the heteronomous regimes are based on the scepticism of the ability of large collectivities to consciously determine their destinies. Thus, despite the historic democratic experiences of autonomy, such as the Athenian Polis, or the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, as short as they might have been, there is this false world-view of popular inability for self-instituting being constantly reproduced by genuinely heteronomous entities like the State or the capitalist market to justify their own existence.

Democracy, on the other hand, is based on the rejection of fixed and objective laws, actions, and thought. This seemingly ‘nihilistic’ concept suggests that everything is possible and certain dangers do give reason for people to be wary. For instance, in regard to the absence of a “norm of norms,” Castoriadis refers to the Greek concept of hubris. [7] According to him, hubris does not simply presuppose freedom, but the non-existence of fixed norms, the essential vagueness of the ultimate social bearings of our actions. However, this does not mean that we are destined to run amok, but that there is the space for us to create our meanings, laws and limitations ourselves, since as Castoriadis suggests, hubris exists where the only ‘norm’ is self-limitation.[8]

Castoriadis suggests that despite the danger of monstrous acts that democracy presents, democracy simultaneously opens the possibility for self-criticism and self-evaluation, which are at the core of self-limitation.[9] Traces of such critical re-evaluation could be found in the Euripedeas’s play “The Troades” (The Trojan Women), produced in 415 BC during the Peloponnesian War. It represents the critical commentary of one Athenian on his fellow citizens and the slaughter they conducted on the people of the Aegean island of Milos. With his play Euripides attempts at visualizing the Greek hubris, staging it one year after the massacre, warning the Athenians with the words “such monsters, we are”. He suggests that although the people of Athens can decide and do certain thing, they shouldn’t always implement it in practice, it is in up to them to determine which act is “monstrous” and which not.

Democracy and Self-Limitation

Self-limitation within democracy decisively shapes the relation between the individual will and collective decision-making. An autonomous society allows all its individual members to directly participate in democratic processes, giving them space to express their views, needs and proposals. Here lies the most positive aspect of the democratic self-limitation: it potentially predisposes society towards lawfulness. By allowing all citizens to participate in the shaping of every law and regulation, direct democracy makes the citizenry the only creator of social limitations, thus making the need of transgression of those limits less likely.

However there will be times and topics on which unanimity will not be reached and some particular opinions will be contradicted by the collective will. In such cases, those that disagree with the given decision will have to comply with it, regardless of the degree of their disagreement. Democratic decisions are rarely unanimous, and however we may organize processes to give everyone the opportunity to express their views, make their needs known and understood, and present their arguments these will still sometimes be contradicted by the collective will. This means not just that what an individual wishes does not occur, it also means that individuals will sometimes be required to comply with laws with which they do not agree.

Some argue that this means that there is an ineradicable element of heteronomy even within the most democratic society, but it is important to make a distinction between decisions that are made without any input by those who are affected by them, and those in which all affected have the effective opportunity to participate. The term ‘heteronomy’ is best reserved for the former. And although autonomy is characterized by the latter, it inevitably means that sometimes individuals are forced to obey laws they would not have chosen for themselves, otherwise we cannot talk of decision-making.

One example for such a relation is Socrates’ attitude towards the laws and institutions of Ancient Athens. He perceived the regulations of the polis as his own, and felt obliged to submit to them, even when he strongly disagreed. This attitude derived, to a large degree, from his recognition of and gratitude for the city’s role in his education, not to mention the possibilities it gave him to lead truly free life. He knew that he had joined the Athenian polis voluntarily and had the right to participate in its self-instituting, which made him recognize himself as a part of the social collective, even when disagreeing with some of the collective decisions.

Submission to laws and regulations, however, can never be completely guaranteed. Heteronomous approaches typically prescribe severe punishment to the transgressors through apparatuses of oppression. In such cases, despite the penal threat, there is strong drive among people to transgress laws, since they don’t have even the slightest opportunity to take part in their shaping, and thus feel alienated from them. This, however, does not mean that in the democratic conditions of autonomy, obedience to regulations will be entirely voluntary. But because of the participatory nature of self-limitation citizens will feel, to a larger degree, social prohibitions as their own and will be less tempted to overpass them. This does not dismiss the fact that even under democracy, in its most pure direct form, society will have to be able to impose its collective decisions on those individuals that will still proceed in transgressing them.

On the Contamination of the Revolutionary Project

Although democracy is unthinkable without self-limitation, in certain historic moments multiple contaminations of revolutionary thinking took place that pulled these concepts apart. The workers’ movement in general, and specifically Marxism and Marx himself, were from the beginning steeped in an atmosphere in which the growth of the forces of production, worker-managed economic growth, was made the universal criterion for social emancipation. For these thinkers and activists, production was considered the main locus of all public life, and the idea that progress could and would go on indefinitely was taken for granted. [10] This embrace of the capitalist imaginary contaminated the working class’ project of autonomy. An autonomous society is completely incompatible with the idea of mastery, advocated by capitalism’s paradigm of unlimited economic growth. Rather, an autonomous, de-alienated society would by nature take up the role of steward of the planet.

Castoriadis suggests that, if the projects of autonomy and economic growth have contaminated each other, then one must know how to distinguish them, which is in no way an easy task. This does not mean that we must make choice between material progress or environmentally-minded primitivism. We are not talking of abandoning scientific research on the pretext that some very dangerous things might come out of them, but that there are nonetheless some very dangerous outcomes that can result from the transition from research to its economic application, which raises questions that muse be democratically negotiated by the collective. This is where democratic self-limitation comes in.

Today, more than ever, the question of setting controls on the evolution of science and technology is posed in radical and urgent manner. The unrestrained development of technoscience, driven solely by competition, proves to be destructive for the planet as well as for us, creating a crisis of an existential character. Castoriadis calls for breaking the currently prevailing illusion of omnipotence that humanity feels. [11] It is true that we are, as he suggests, privileged inhabitants of a planet that is perhaps unique in the universe. But our very existence is dependent on it and on certain fragile conditions, which our civilization is about to disrupt and even destroy. To avoid the upcoming catastrophe humanity needs to reconsider all the values and habits that rule over us.

This does not mean that we should abandon knowledge and science and return to primitive forms of existence, as some modern lifestylish trends suggest. Giving them up means renouncing our ability to be free. But the tricky part is that, as Castoriadis explains, knowledge is like power – it requires caution. We should, therefore, at least attempt to comprehend what our researchers are in the process of discovering and be attentive to the possible repercussions of what we are about to learn. Here the question of democracy arises again, in multiple forms. Under the present oligarchic order, and within current hierarchical structures, the final say over all these matters is in the hands of competing politicians, corrupted bureaucrats or business oligarchs, with narrow technoscientists as their advisors. Society-at-large is thus being excluded from the political determination of how should acquired knowledge be used, and what goals must be set before future scientific research.

Self-Limitation and Education

Among the main excuses for the exclusion of the general public from decision-making on matters of supposedly scientific character is the public’s lack of appropriate education in these matters. This argument is essentially paradoxical, however, since, most often, contemporary political representatives and businessmen themselves lack such knowledge, and are driven solely by hunger for power.

In a democratic society, the centrality of education is beyond discussion. In a sense, it can be said that direct democracy is an immense institution of continuing education, a permanent process of self-education for its citizens, and it could not function without that. A democratic society has to appeal constantly to the lucid activity and the opinion of all citizens, since by its essence it is of reflective character. This is exactly the opposite of what takes place today, with the reign of professional politicians and all kinds of “experts.”

The issue of education cannot be resolved by mere “educational reform,” as is often advocated by parliamentary governments of various sorts, since, as Castoriadis suggests, education begins with the birth of the individual and continues until their death. [12] Education takes place everywhere and always. It is embodied by the everyday life and culture taking place within the city. He invites us to compare the education Athenian citizens received when they participated in the self-management of the polis or attended performances of tragedies with the kind of education a television viewer or electoral voter receives today. Therefore determining certain limitations requires first and foremost the educative inclusion of all of society into political affairs so as self-limitation to be possible.

Ecology and Democracy

The above said provides us with the basis to rethink the way we view ecology – a term tightly connected to self-limitation. For years political elites, environmental scientists and experts have been discussing and deciding on the state of the environment behind closed doors. From the 19 th century and onwards hundreds, if not even thousands, of environmental treaties have been signed in this manner, with results that can be labelled as questionable at best.[13] The rest of society is supposed to conceive of ecology in romanticized, semi-mythologized “love of nature.”

Castoriadis insists that ecology is, above all, essentially political. He argues that science is, by itself, incapable of (and not supposed to) setting its own limits and goals. If scientific research is set to discover something, it will do so, even if that means finding a way to destroy the planet. This does not mean that science is inherently flawed, but that it does not by itself include democratic deliberation that can determine what is “good” and what “wrong”. In other words, scientific research has an essentially social character.

Ecology is neither scientific, nor technophobic. It is, above all, the necessity of self-limitation of the human societies in relation to the environment, on whose fragile conditions the very existence of humanity depends. Castoriadis traces this logic back to the ancient Greek attitude. He argues that theirs was not based on balance and harmony with nature, but from the recognition of the environmental limits on our actions and the need of self-limitation.

But, for ecology to overcome current environmentalism and move towards a revolutionary direction, according to Castoriadis, it must aim at provoking profound changes in the psychosocial attitude toward life of the modern human, or in other words, in humanity’s imaginary. [14] The idea that the sole goal of life is to produce and to consume more—an idea that is both absurd and degrading for human beings—must be challenged and abandoned; the capitalist imaginary of pseudo-rational pseudo-mastery, and of unlimited expansion, must be abandoned. Moreover, It must be recognized that such a profound change can be achieved only by people working on grassroots level. A single individual, or one organization, can, at best, only prepare, criticize, incite, sketch out possible orientations and provoke the social collectivity to change. Thus one ecological, essentially revolutionary, approach can only be social in character.

Degrowth and Self-Limitation

An important trend among ecological circles nowadays has become the “degrowth paradigm.” It is based on a theory of radical reduction of human impact on nature through deliberate negative economic growth. To some extent it is influenced by Castoriadis’ critique of the obsession with economic expansion, found among capitalist, as well as socialist, regimes. [15]

One problem with this trend, however, is that it places of economic shrinkage at the centre of social change, as the very name de-growth suggests. This movement often focuses on the technical part of how such process can take place, rather than on how to radically restructure the organizational basis of society as a whole. [16] Thus, people from this tendency have often found themselves proposing reforms within the parliamentary regime, as have happened, in similar manner, with advocates of the commons. In this we can detect reproduction of the pseudo-scientific folly of techno-fixes beyond politics.

Castoriadis’ notion of self-limitation differs significantly in this respect. While recognizing the immense importance of degrowing our economies to environmentally sound levels, it nonetheless suggests that this process should be preceded by the de-scaling of political power, i.e. from oligarchic to direct-democratic. [17]

In a sense, degrowth can be viewed as self-limitation that is restricted to the economic sphere, which by itself is problematic in several, mutually supplementing, ways if it is not included into one holistic political project that encompasses all spheres of human life. First, it participates in the current imaginary of economism, viewing the economy as the highest human activity. It thus tries to navigate social change along the economic lines, already sketched by capitalism. In other words, it narrows the possibility of radical social alteration to alternative forms of consumption, renewable energy sources, environmentally sound production methods etc. without taking into account their scale or who the beneficiaries from such practices might be.

Second, by determining as its main goal the creation of a “society of degrowth”, it pretty much leaves open the political approach through which it will be implemented. If the sole target is to de-scale the economic footprint of humanity over the environment, then all political strategies can be used.[18] This by itself is very problematic. Environmental sustainability could be enforced, for example, by a totalitarian regime (like eco-fascism) to the expense of democratic and human rights. [19] This could mean that the current ecological crisis might be avoided to only slam humanity into another political, social and cultural crisis, provoked by the dystopian character of totalitarianism. Thus degrowing the destructive impact of one human sphere through economic means alone will simply not suffice. There is need of general descaling, with authority as the main target for de-escalation, decentralizing it down to the very grassroots, where people themselves to rethink their relationship with nature and with themselves.


Democracy, as inseparable part of the project of Autonomy, is the dual self-limitation of intrasocial regulations and laws, necessary to maintain the integrity of our societies on the one hand; and the limits we set before our activities regarding nature, on the other.

But to be effective, democracy has to be detached from the imaginary signification of universal rational mastery, which has been contaminating revolutionary thought for many years. We can see clearly contemporary economic growth being forced with the cost of most basic democratic rights. So, democracy too, in its direct, most authentic form cannot be achieved through technological progress or abundance of resources, but by the deliberative self-limitation of society itself.

In a world of unlimited economic growth and hunger for power, those that feel the harshest prohibition are the people and communities that strive at limiting the authority of those that exploit humanity and nature for their narrow profit. This should not surprise us since, as Hannah Arendt suggests, the notion of everything is possible is an idea that can be found in totalitarian regimes like Nazism. [20] But unlike the numerous “autonomous” and anarchist trends that seek unlimited individual independence in an institutionless world, the democratic self-institution proposed by the project of Autonomy in Castoriadis can give birth to real political freedom for the creative citizens of a vital society. This requires, however, that social movements and politicized individuals abandon the convenience of heavily ideologized activist groups with sectarian character and immerse instead, into the public affairs of their cities and societies, self-organizing alongside their fellow citizens in an attempt to self-institute the public space of tomorrow. Such might be our only hope to preserve the fragile planetary conditions that allow us to exist, those same conditions the current system is in the process of destroying.

Yavor Tarinski is an independent researcher and a militant in social movements. He currently participates in the political journal Babylonia.gr, and is also a bibliographer at AgoraInternational.org, and member of the administrative council of the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology. Yavor writes for various international websites and is author of books and brochures on direct democracy, the commons etc.


[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1998), 20.

[2] Marco Deriu: Democracies with a future: Degrowth and the democratic tradition (in Futures vol.44 issue 6, 2012), 556

[3] Cornelius Castoriadis: The Problem of Democracy Today (in Democracy & Nature, The International Journal of Politics and Ecology vol.3 issue 2, 1997), 18-35

[4] Cornelius Castoriadis: The Rising Tide of Insignificancy: The Big Sleep (unauthorized translation, 2003), 27

[5] Chiara Bottici: Imaginal Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 147

[6] Jeff Klooger: Psyche, Society, Autonomy (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 7

[7] Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (unauthorized translation, 2010), 193

[8] Fisher & Katsourakis: Performing Antagonism (London: Macmillan Publishers 2017), 295

[9] Nana Biluš Abaffy: The Radical Tragic Imaginary: Castoriadis on Aeschylus & Sophocles (in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 8, issue 2, 2012), 48

[10] Cornelius Castoriadis: The Rising Tide of Insignificancy: The Big Sleep (unauthorized translation, 2003), 226

[11] Ibid, 94

[12] Cornelius Castoriadis: Democracy and Relativism: Discussion with the “MAUSS” Group (unauthorized translation 2013), 56

[13] Dimitrios Roussopoulos: Political Ecology: Beyond Environmentalism (Porsgrunn: New Compass Press, 2015) 44-45

[14] Cornelius Castoriadis: The Rising Tide of Insignificancy, 113

[15] Cornelius Castoriadis: The Imaginary Institution of Society (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998), 101

[17] David AmesCurtis (Editor): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 417

[18] Serge Latouche: Farewell to Growth (Oxford: Polity, 2009)

[19] Cornelius Castoriadis: The Rising Tide of Insignificancy, 116

[20] Hannah Arendt: The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: A Harvest Book, 1979)