Hope and Democracy
Democracy rests on a vision. And all visions require hope. But it is not clear whether there is any deep or inherent affinity between the politics of democracy and the politics of hope. This is puzzling since in today’s world, the hope of becoming democratic is offered to many societies, even if this requires them to be invaded and remade at high cost to human life. Yet the relationship of hope, as an ethical and political principle, to the primary values of democracy is unclear.
Let us consider democracy first from the point of view of the slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Each of these values rests on the possibility that they are, in fact, achievable. Indeed, the slogan as a whole rests on the idea that these values are facts that have somehow been concealed or bypassed by human history and require only the sustained operation of reason for them to become transparent, compelling, and victorious. Yet none of these three values has anything special to do with hope, except in the instrumental sense that their appeal rests on the possibility that they are achievable. In this sense, democracy requires hope but does not seem to be built on it.
Let us consider democracy apart from its slogans and more from the point of view of its governing concepts. These concepts include some utilitarian ones, such as those of the greatest good of the greatest number; some practical ones, such as the idea of active participation in deliberation and decision making; and some moral ones, such as the idea of “the rule of law.” None of these governing concepts has anything special to say about hope.
Looking back to the twentieth century, the idea of rights — possibly the single most powerful idea to connect ethics, arguments, and mass politics — takes its full place as a central principle of democracy in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enacted by the United Nations in 1948. After this date, a central strand of democratic politics and of the politics of war and peace has been the question of human rights and its interpretation by individuals, by courts, and by countries. The idea of human rights or the rights of man brings us closer to the field of hope, since it is about claims that rest on universal capacities, aspirations, and possibilities. Even with rights, however, the bearers of rights are regarded as makers of arguments and claimants to public goods rather than as agents of hope. The discourse of rights does not fully engage that space between is and ought that is the address of hope as a collective sentiment.
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This short argument is elaborated in two books in progress: the first is titled The Capacity to Aspire and is an ethnography of hope in a transnational social movement; the other is The Quality of Life, an argument for a vision of human development that puts aspiration and imagination at the core of sustainable social change. I am grateful to Dilip Gaonkar for provoking me to write on this topic and for many exchanges that have enriched the argument.