The Value of Self-limitation

Fire at Full Moon, 1933

Real democracy does not mean that “it is forbidden to forbid”, but that the norms and the laws which regulate our lives are made by the members of the community not by some extra-societal entity. In this article Yannis Ktenas highlights the importance of self-limitation in a direct democracy.

Yavor Tarinski, in many of his texts in New Compass, stresses the importance of self-limitation in a regime of direct democracy.1 This means that the citizens of a democratic community should be able to protect themselves against themselves, to set some boundaries to the otherwise unlimited variety of possible political decisions. This is, of course, just another way to say that real democracy does not mean that “it is forbidden to forbid”, but that the norms and the laws which regulate our lives are not imposed to us by some extra-societal entity (God, the State, Nature, the Market), but by us – the members of the community.

This is made clear if we examine the etymology of the word autonomy. Autos means oneself and nomos means law. An autonomous community provides the law to itself. In a way, democracy is always self-limitation, since people create laws and make decisions that always contain an element of restriction. But self-limitation goes beyond that. As Cornelius Castoriadis used to put it, the democratic paradox consists exactly in this: in a democracy, people can do anything; still, people should also know that they should not do anything.2

In this text, I will briefly discuss three reasons that highlight the great significance – and even necessity – of self-limitation in a society that is not governed through the State apparatus, but directly from the members of the community. Of course, all three reasons are very closely related and, in a way, one can only distinguish between them for theoretical purposes.

Philosophically speaking, autonomy is based on the realization that there is no ultimate criterion of the rightness or goodness of our actions; even more, there is no ultimate criterion for the meaning with which we endow our lives. There is no external judge that can assure us whether we acted morally or not, rightly or wrongly. Autonomy is connected with a philosophical conception of life and the world as things that have no inherent meaning. Every decision we make, every value we choose to support is in a way arbitrary, meaning that it does not correspond to a solid ontological fundamentum inconcussum. Otherwise, we shouldn’t search for democracy and autonomy, but we should try to find this fundamentum and follow its dictates

In the political field, an autonomous community is not regulated by the State and its laws. The members of the community carry the responsibility of creating the laws and making all the important political decisions themselves. Furthermore, they carry it constantly and not only every four or five years. Democracy is the regime where potentially everything could be questioned (even if this does not happen all the time). If one does not fall in some kind of Marxist fallacy, according to which the resolution of economic contradictions will eliminate the need for political debate and even disagreement, she can easily understand that there is absolutely no reason to believe that the decisions of a democracy will always be correct. There is no intrinsic limit that could prevent a democratic community from creating a sexist, racist, etc. law. The only way to avoid such severe mistakes is to consciously and constantly set limits to our own decisions, deliberating on their probable consequences for our community, but also for minorities and other communities.

It is well known, since Montesquieu, and even since Aristotle, that every political regime cannot function unless it creates the types of human beings that correspond to its needs. Every society institutes the anthropological type that suits it. Through a procedure which Freud called sublimation, every person that is born in a specific society takes up its values, its schemes, its ways of thinking and acting and constitutes an identity by “choosing”, or by being forced into, one of the socially available roles

It is clear that most of the historical societies have instituted their members by suppressing their creative imagination and their deliberative capabilities. In almost all of the societies that have existed, it was not even possible to think that the social norms were not fair. It was impossible to even raise the question, not because of fear or bare violence, but because of the way that the social institution had formed the members of these heteronomous communities, making them suitable for it.

On the contrary, an autonomous community does not suppress the creativity and imagination of its members, nor does it eliminate their ability of critical thinking. Quite the opposite: exactly in order to be able to function, it creates persons with high abilities of deliberation, critical reflection and imaginative power. But it goes without saying that these persons are also far less submissive and obedient. This is primarily a good thing, but it also bears a risk, that can only be controlled – but never completely eliminated – through the self-limitation of these free persons. Along with the crucial ability of questioning the law, one should also develop the ability of accepting some kind of law and a high sense of responsibility that comes along with freedom.

Risk is the price to pay for those who seek freedom. If we want it to be not too high of a price, we should already from now train, by committing ourselves in practice to the principles of self-limitation and responsibility. We should not forget that the notion everything is possible is considered by Hannah Arendt as an idea that suits to Nazism.
3Similarly, the notion of limitless economic growth is a basic axiom of our capitalistic societies. On the contrary, we should learn how to live by rules, not because somebody told us so, but because we want to, and because we recognize ourselves as co-creators of these rules – something, of course, that is not true in the present societies.


1 See, for example, here and here.
2 C. Castoriadis, “La polis grecque et la création de la démocratie”, in Domaines de l'Homme, Seuil, 1999.
3 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, available here.