Social Imaginaries

Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2015

Johann P. Arnason, Suzi Adams
Pages 135-149

The Imaginary Dimensions of Modernity: Beyond Marx and Weber

This paper discusses the formation of Castoriadis’s concept of imaginary significations and relates it to his changing readings of Marx and Weber. Castoriadis’s reflections on modern capitalism took off from the Marxian understanding of its internal contradictions, but he always had reservations about the orthodox version of this idea. His writings in the late 1950s, already critical of basic assumptions in Marx’s work, located the central contradiction in the very relationship between capital and wage labour. Labour power was not simply transformed into a commodity, as Marx had argued; rather, the instituted attempt to treat it as a commodity was a contradiction in itself, between the subjectivity and the objectification of labour. Castoriadis then moved on to link this claim to Weber’s analysis of the interconnections between capitalism and bureaucracy. The main contradiction of modern capitalism, whether wholly bureaucratised as in the Soviet model or increasingly bureaucratised as in the West, now seemed to be a matter of incompatible systemic imperatives: the need to control and to mobilise the workforce. Finally, difficulties with this model – and with the revolutionary expectations based on it – led to a more decisive break with classical theories and to the formulation of a bipolar image of modernity, where the vision of an autonomous society is opposed to the logic of calculation and domination, embodied in capitalist development. On both sides there is an imaginary component, irreducible to empirical givens or systemic principles. In this regard, Castoriadis remained closer to Weber than to Marx, but he also anticipated, in a distinctive way, later emphasis on the cultural dimension of modernity, and more specifi cally the notion of modernity as a new civilisation.