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  • Democracy and Utopia
  • François Furet (bio)

The subject of democracy and utopia may be approached in a philosophical fashion. Since the eighteenth century, democracy has presented itself to the modern individual as a promise of liberty, or more precisely, of autonomy. This is in contrast to earlier times when men were viewed as subjects, and consequently were deprived of the right of self-determination, which is the basis of the legitimacy of modern societies. Ever since the democratic idea penetrated the minds and peoples of Europe, it has not ceased to make inroads nearly everywhere through a single question, inherent in its very nature, that crops up continuously and is never truly resolved. That question, which was posed very early on by all the great Western thinkers from Hobbes to Rousseau and from Hegel to Tocqueville, was as follows: “What kind of society should we form if we think of ourselves as autonomous individuals? What type of social bond can be established among free and equal men, since liberty and equality are the conditions of our autonomy? How can we conceive a society in which each member is sovereign over himself, and which thus must harmonize the sovereignty of each over himself and of all over all?” [End Page 65]

In the course of these probings into the central question of modern democracy, one is necessarily struck by the gap between the expectations that democracy arouses and the solutions that it creates for fulfilling them. In the abstract, there is a point in political space where the most complete liberty and the most complete equality meet, thus bringing together the ideal conditions of autonomy. But our societies never reach this point. Democratic society is never democratic enough, and its supporters are more numerous and more dangerous critics of democracy than its adversaries. Democracy’s promises of liberty and equality are, in fact, unlimited. In a society of individuals, it is impossible to make liberty and equality reign together or even to reconcile the two in a lasting way. These promises expose all democratic political regimes not only to demagogic appeals, but also to the constant accusation of being unfaithful to their own founding values. In premodern systems, legitimacy, like obedience, found its guarantee in la durée. In the democratic world, neither legitimacy nor obedience is ever lastingly secured.

A century and a half ago, one of the best minds of French liberalism, Charles de Rémusat, explained how the congenital instability of liberal democracy is a consequence of the limitless vistas that it makes available to the human imagination:

The speculations of social philosophy, particularly when everyone gets involved in them, have an inconvenient way of making people disgusted with real things, of blocking all contentment while the dream of the absolute remains unrealized, and of casting discredit upon all the opportunities for improvement and progress that fortune offers to nations. All that is not yet ideal is misery. If the principle of authority is not established without restriction, all is anarchy. If pure democracy is still to come, all is oppression. There is never anything to do in the present except start a new revolution, and it is necessary to agitate incessantly, to roll again and again the dice of politics in an attempt to turn up some abstract number that may not even exist.

Thus the modern world is a place that is particularly sensitive to the claims of utopia. It is necessary, in this context, to give the word “utopia” a slightly different meaning than it had in earlier centuries. Before the modern era, the word referred either to a literary genre or to an eschatology tied to Christianity. In the first case, it attached to that type of work in which the author imagines a perfect social universe, exempt from human vice and wickedness, outside of space and time. In the second, it designated the messianic emotions that animated a number of popular insurrections in Christian Europe, notably at the end of the Middle Ages, through the passion for obtaining eternal salvation by means of action here below. The utopia of democratic times, however, belongs to a third category, one that was unheard of...

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pp. 65-79
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