A growing interest in Claude Lefort is bringing to light his radical insights on modern democracy, totalitarianism, and human rights. While the notion perhaps most closely associated with Lefort is that of ‘the empty place of power,’ this article offers a reading of Lefort from a unique angle: his concept of the myth of the One. I demonstrate that to Lefort, the phantasmagorical appeal of the One–the desire for harmony, unity and stability–is the force that continually endangers the democratic project, while the distinctive and unavoidable characteristic of democratic society is its ‘inability’ to name itself as One–a coherent and established social self. Thus, the main challenge of society is its symbolic self-institution. The discussion illuminates Lefort’s singular stance in the study of totalitarianism (Arendt), his rejection of the imaginary (next to Castoriadis), his debt to the structuralism scheme (Lévi-Strauss), as well as his conversation with anarchist voices (La Boétie, Clastres) and with psychoanalysis (Lacan). Ultimately, what Lefort coins ‘symbolic division’ condenses the pledge of democracy to embrace a neurotic self, a bodiless body, a nameless identity in an empty space of power. As such, Lefort’s anti-myth of the One promises to be a vexing objective.
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© 2023 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
- Claude Lefort
- Etienne de La Boétie
- consensus - dissensus
- political imagination
- unity and division in democracy