Democracy meets utopia

I have been asked a number of times what I think about the relationship of democracy and utopia, since these two concepts are in the centre of my current research. My experience is that most people today (at least in Western Europe) believe that the ideal society is necessarily democratic (this is a clear assumption expressed by John Rawls, Lyman Tower Sargent and Erik Olin Wright, to name a few examples).

The case was very different in the 18th and 19th centuries, when many considered the broadening of voting rights a threat, as this way uneducated masses would gain power. This is explained in detail by Bernard Crick, and such concerns are reflected in György Bessenyei’s utopian work The Voyage of Tariménes (1804), whereas in Imre Madách’s The Tragedy of Man (1862), the rule of the masses appear as a threat both in the scene that takes place in ancient Athens and also in the Paris scene during the French revolution. Even though that I agree with Erika Gottlieb, who claims that in many 19th century utopian texts Western democracy is seen as a political utopia in East Central Europe, caution is also present in such texts concerning giving power to the masses (well before José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses in 1930), and the figure of a good leader (king/queen etc.) remained powerful in literature and political imagination.

The appeal of democracy is well expressed by Furet and Costopoulos (1998, p. 65), who argue that “[s]ince the eighteenth century, democracy has presented itself to the modern individual as a promise of liberty, or more precisely, of autonomy.” And beyond liberty and autonomy, in popular political imagination democracy often appears as a promise of good government and, in short, good life or the ideal society.

This is where utopia and democracy meet. Unless utopia is understood as a blueprint for the ideal society, a clearly set goal which has to be achieved irrespective of opposition, if necessary, also by force, the ability to imagine in detail a good (at least better) society is instrumental in achieving a better life. Such imaginations of a better community, whether in literature, film or simply in friendly conversations may help positive changes in society, especially if utopia, the imagined better world is not seen as a destination to be reached at any cost, but more like a beacon on the horizon, a direction towards which we may go.

Zsolt Czigányik

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