Electoral Democracy and Beyond: A Philosopher's Plea for Realistic Utopias

Phillipe van Parijs

Phillipe Van Parijs is one of the most influential political philosophers working today. With doctorates in Philosophy from Oxford, and Sociology from the Catholic University of Louvain, his work lies at the intersection of political philosophy, political economy and epistemology. Van Parijs is best known for his work on the maldistribution of work and leisure in contemporary capitalism, and its implications for freedom, equality and solidarity. Those concerns have led him vigorously to defend individuals’ right to an unconditional basic income in his philosophical work, and as an activist, to found the Basic Income European Network in 1986 - subsequently renamed the Basic Income Earth Network in 2004, given the urgent ecological situation.

In this interview, Lucille Lacroix from the Institut des Etudes Politiques Paris (‘Sciences Po’) asks Philippe Van Parijs to reflect on the tensions between idealism and realism in his work as a philosopher and activist, and what it can tell us about contemporary democratic politics. If for too many, electoral democracy remains an unrealizable ideal – a utopia – the dispiriting and, sometimes, sordid realities of electoral democracy have left many Europeans deeply disenchanted with democratic government, disillusioned with their leaders, fed up with party politics, and alienated by the machinery of representative democracy.

The Interview

Lacroix: The concept of utopia is one that seems particularly crucial to your work, and one that you seem to come back to in most of your writings and interventions. Not to start this interview in an overly depressing way, but it is no secret that 2020 has been a particularly rough year, with the pandemic adding itself to all the problems we’ve already had to face for years, whether we think about climate change, the rise of nationalism, religious extremism, or the numerous economic and political crises happening all around the world. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of reasons to be particularly optimistic about the future of humanity, or to believe that positive political change can and will happen. Yet, as recently as a few weeks ago (during the Parma Foundation webinar around Richard Bellamy’s latest book on October 27th), you restated your belief in utopianism, and even declared that you would “be a utopian up to last breath”. This is quite a bold statement, which, I believe, begs the question: why?

Van Parijs: In at least two senses, you don’t need to be an optimist to be utopian. Indeed, in the original Leibnizian sense of “optimism”, utopianism and optimism are incompatible. If you believe that we live in the best possible world, imagining better futures is pointless. Unsurprisingly, Leibniz himself was very dismissive of what he was the first to call “utopias” (in the plural). () Secondly, if you want to keep striving for your utopias, it is advisable to be a short-term pessimist. Short-term optimism is a recipe for recurrent disappointments, short-term pessimism for recurrent good surprises. And they are more than welcome to keep utopian flames awake. One cannot be a utopian, however, without believing that there is hope, that things will get better one day, though possibly after one’s last breath.
      Such a long-term optimism underlies my utopianism, but it is an active optimism: utopias will not materialise unhelped. They need us to think and plead, act and fight if they are to become reality. “Votre malheur, c’est d’avoir raison trop tôt” ("Your bad luck is to be right too early"), I was once told by the person who introduced me before a lecture I gave on basic income in Paris, in 1994. This perplexed me for a while, until I realised that it was an apt description of my job. Proposing workable ideas for a better society, but “too early”, that is while the lack of political support still makes them utopian. Without some people “being right too early”, most of the institutions we now take for granted would never have come into being.
     Consequently, ever since the 1990s, I have been consistently and increasingly pleading for utopian thinking. In 2015-2016, I coordinated the Année Louvain des utopies pour le temps present, a year-long series of very diverse events meant to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the publication, in Louvain, of Thomas More’s Utopia. () In August 2016, I gave the opening lecture at the Denver congress of the American Sociological Association titled Real Utopias and chaired by my late friend and fellow utopian Erik Olin Wright. () And in 2018, I published a book on the future of Belgium with Une utopie pour notre temps as its subtitle and L’utopie fait la force as the title of its prologue (Belgium’s motto is “L’union fait la force”). ()
     This idea of the “power of utopia” is remarkably expressed in a 1949 article by Friedrich Hayek: “The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and thereby an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote… We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia.” () The eventual hegemony of neo-liberalism proved Hayek right. We need utopias — different from Hayek’s, though — not only to indicate the direction in which we need to move but also to give us the strength to move, step by step, in that direction.
     This long reply should more than suffice to explain to you why I shall be utopian up to my last breath, indeed to the point of wishing my grave to carry the inscription “Utopist tot in de kist” (“Utopian all the way to the coffin”, a variant of the Flemish saying “Optimist tot in de kist”). But since you refer to our “particularly rough year”, I still want to add something. There are unavoidably moments when some or all of our utopian endeavours seem to stagnate or even to regress. In such circumstances, two sentences keep coming to mind. One is a maxim attributed to my fellow Brusseler (and father of the Dutch nation) William the Silent: “Point n’est besoin d’espérer pour entreprendre, ni de réussir pour persévérer”. (“There is no need to expect in order to undertake, nor to succeed in order to persevere”, with the 16th century French word “espérer” understood in the sense of today’s Spanish word “esperar”). The other is a quote from Walter Benjamin that forms the punchline of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, one of the cult books of May 1968, which I read over fifty year ago: “Nur um der Hoffnunglosen willen ist uns die Hoffnung gegeben”. (“It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.”) ()

Lacroix: In your book Qu’est-ce qu’une société juste? you write that the task of the philosopher is essentially to clarify and articulate ideas and concepts in a coherent and systematic way. () But you also said in a 1997 lecture that “political philosophy has never been for me an idle game played for the pleasure of making subtle distinctions and smart points, but a crucial part of the urgent task of thinking what needs to be done to make our societies and our world less unjust than they are, or simply to avert disaster”. () It is also a well-known fact that you are politically engaged, very actively advocating for an unconditional basic income (UBI), for example, or making concrete proposals for political change in Belgium or the European Union. How do you conceive of the link between your activism and your philosophical work? When you declare yourself a utopian, is it rather the philosopher or the activist talking (or perhaps both)?

Van Parijs: In the opening pages of Qu’est-ce qu’une société juste, I do ascribe an analytical task to the political philosopher, but I also quote Paul Valéry: “Les vrais problèmes des vrais philosophes sont ceux qui tourmentent et gênent la vie” (“The true problems of the true philosophers are those that torment and hinder life”). All along, I have taught and tried to practice a conception of philosophy that was at the same “analytical and existential” or, less pompously, “ni luxe ni blabla”. () My first two books were dealing with epistemological issues for which I felt a need to clarify. () But the problems on which I focused in the rest of my philosophical work were, as I intended from the start, mostly of a political nature. I saw as my job not just to formulate problems but also to offer solutions and spell out the concrete institutional implications of these solutions. Between this sort of political philosophy and principled activism, there is no great distance, but instead much potential for mutual feeding.

Lacroix: You are a realistic utopian, meaning, in part, that you are aware of the very concrete difficulties of implementing a utopian project, and thus advocate a pragmatic approach to political change. In that sense, you seem to believe in the virtue of compromise, a notion to which you even dedicated an article in 2012. () If the strength of utopianism resides (at least in part) in its motivational effects, don’t you fear that such willingness to compromise could undermine the mobilizing force of utopias? (The example of UBI is probably a good one here: how far are we willing to compromise without making UBI less attractive as an ideal?)

Van Parijs: I am a realistic utopian in the sense that I intend the utopias I advocate to be sustainable once implemented. But I am also an opportunistic utopian in the sense that I recommend being on the lookout for any opportunity to bring its implementation closer. We need a coherent vision of a sustainable just world to guide us and help motivate us. But we cannot be too fussy about how to move forward. Compromises will often be crucial steps. They are not deals in which neither party gets all it would like to have. They are deals in which neither party gets what it feels entitled to. It would be better to move forward from consensus to consensus against the background of a shared conception of justice. But that could easily be desperately slow. It is therefore wise to settle for compromise. Coalitions with uncomfortable bedfellows should not be ruled out either. There is no “non-ideal theory” to guide us along such paths. Next to the “ideal theory” that spells out the ideal of a just world, there is only the non-ideal mess in which we have to use our judgment so as to achieve immediate improvement without losing sight of the more ambitious horizon.

Lacroix: A core aspect of the utopian project you wish to promote is obviously the unconditional basic income. From my young Western European point of view, it seems to me like left-wing political activism nowadays is mainly focused on two big sets of issues: climate change on one hand, and what is often referred to as more “identitarian” issues on the other (mostly feminism and antiracism). If UBI does seem to be appealing to a lot of climate change activists, and you talked about the links between UBI and ecological issues several times, I feel like it is not discussed nearly as much in feminist, antiracist, or minority rights movements in general. Firstly, do you share that sentiment and, if so, how do you explain it? Do you think that UBI could serve as a rallying and motivating project for these movements too?

Van Parijs: There are many women who advocate for basic income on feminist grounds, and the basic income proposal was picked up by the Black Lives Matter movement. Moreover, whatever its amount and however one (sensibly) funds it, the introduction of an unconditional basic income would mean overall a redistribution of purchasing power and bargaining power from men to women and from privileged majorities to disadvantaged minorities. But a basic income is of course intrinsically universalistic and is not meant to serve the interests of all members of a particular gender or ethnic group. Take the case of a highly paid female professional. She has good self-serving reasons to support gender quotas and similar measures, but not to support a substantial unconditional basic income. Firstly, the higher taxation of her earnings will not be fully compensated by her entitlement to a basic income. And secondly, the greater bargaining power conferred by the basic income to other women who provide her with domestic and other services will trigger an increase in the cost of her lifestyle. This can easily lead to some ambivalence and even hostility towards basic income among a certain type of feminists, as it does in labour unions that represent primarily decently paid and secure insiders. Such reservations should of course not prevent us from trusting that basic income will keep serving as a powerful attractor for the distributive dimension of the demands of all oppressed categories. But these demands are also often to some extent demands for recognition for which basic income is only indirectly relevant.

Lacroix: As already mentioned, Europe is currently facing a rise in populist and nationalist ideologies. Interestingly, it seems possible to suggest that one reason why these ideologies are attractive to so many people is precisely because they are, in a way, utopian (or dystopian, one might say): they promote big and ambitious political projects of closed borders and national sovereignty, promising to establish strong and unified societies. The same can be said for religious extremism, which also contains and promotes an ideal of the perfect society. Has the far-right become better than the left at constructing and promoting utopias? On a related note, how do you make a convincing distinction between good and bad utopias, or utopias and dystopias?

Van Parijs: I also believe that part of the attraction of both nationalistic populism and religious fundamentalism lies in their promise of a radical alternative to the depressing present, one that is far from politically achievable now and is in this sense utopian. Whether a utopia is good or bad, whether it qualifies as a eutopia or as a dystopia, depends both on its sustainability and its desirability. There are utopian proposals that are animated by the most honorable intentions but whose implementation turns into a nightmare, owing to unanticipated perverse effects. Hence the importance of subjecting utopian proposals to a ruthless multidisciplinary critical scrutiny. The utopian thinking we need is not complacent daydreaming. There are also utopian proposals that are animated by indefensible ideals of internal oppression or external domination. A good utopia needs to be justifiable to all those affected when treated as free and equal persons. It must therefore be both freedom-friendly and equality-friendly. Whether a proposal qualifies as such is not always clear-cut. There is often room both for empirical disagreements about likely consequences and for philosophical disagreements about how these likely consequences are to be assessed. As always, listening to each other’s arguments is the only way to resolve disagreement.

Lacroix: The increasing preference for more extreme political discourses, along with growing abstention rates, seem to indicate a more general feeling of mistrust towards traditionally established political parties, both at the national and European levels. What can be done, in your opinion, to make political parties more appealing to people, at both levels? Do you think it is desirable, or even helpful for European democracy that one move to pan-European parties? Or is that just a recipe for increasing nationalist hostility to the EU?

Van Parijs: A low turnout is not necessarily a symptom of disillusionment. It can be an indication that citizens are not so dissatisfied, that they feel no need to bother (when they are really worried they turn up in large numbers, as Americans did to get rid of Trump). It can also be due to the fact that voters see no big difference between contending parties that converge on a reasonable course. But it can also reflect a feeling of despair: those elected turn out to be powerless — subjected to constraints at a higher level or forced into compromises perceived as capitulations — or they misuse whatever power they manage to grab. Getting rid of elections will not help. It is better to be governed by people we choose rather than directly by ourselves — where would we find the time? — or by people picked at random — who would sanction them if they did a poor job? Getting rid of political parties will not help either. A sound electoral democracy requires a political landscape structured by relatively stable polity-wide organizations with rival views of the common good — not single-issue or regional parties. We should not idealize the past. It would be hard to claim that party systems worked consistently better in the 20th century. But electorates have become more demanding, less staunchly loyal, as manifested in their volatility, and politicians have become more vulnerable, owing to the proliferation of media.
      This does not mean that electoral systems cannot be improved, for example in order to avoid both excessive exclusion from parliamentary representation (as with the British or French systems) or excessive fragmentation (as with the Israeli or Belgian systems). Whether or not they affect turnout, allocating a subset of the seats in the European Parliament to trans-national lists — as your reference to pan-European parties suggests — or creating a country-wide constituency for a subset of the seats in Belgium’s federal parliament, would be welcome reforms in my view, as they would strengthen polity-wide organizations with a political message intended to appeal to the whole of the relevant citizenry.

Lacroix: Ultimately, what appears to be at the core of a lot of these discussions is citizens’ attitude towards electoral democracy. So many people, of all political stripes, feel excluded from politics and more of them appear to be doubting the value of representative democracy itself. Is there a utopian dimension to electoral democracy that could be drawn on to make it more appealing to people who are disillusioned with representative government, or do you think it is best just to see electoral democracy as a practical tool, and perhaps lower people’s expectations about what it can be expected to accomplish?

Van Parijs: Electoral democracy is not an end in itself. It is indeed just a practical tool that must help us take collective decisions that are as efficient and fair as possible. As such, it suffers from some intrinsic defects and limitations. To correct these, it can and must be coupled with other institutions and practices that help enhance, in very different ways, the quality of the information and/or of the deliberation on which collective decisions are based.
      The most obvious intrinsic defect of electoral democracy is short-termism. Politicians who want to stay in power, or to replace those in power, cannot help but think of the next election. To ensure that care is being taken of the longer term, including the fair claims of unborn generations, it may be necessary to delegate power to agencies, national or supranational, with a specific mandate that constrains the choices that can be made with a view to pleasing today’s electorate. It is important not to define these mandates too narrowly — as is arguably the case for the exclusive price-stability mandate of the European Central Bank. But being immunized from direct electoral pressure, i.e. a “democratic deficit”, is precisely what enables institutions such as the European Commission to provide important complementary tools in the service of the long-term general interest, though not of a sort very likely to dissipate the disgruntlement of the electorate.
      By contrast, I do believe in the re-enchantment potential of a second complement to electoral democracy, a tool that could help address both its short-termism and its tendency to be hijacked by partisan strategies, while increasing the diversity of active citizen participation. In Belgium, the idea of gathering a randomly selected sample of citizens in order to discuss important political problems and possible solutions was memorably experimented in November 2011 by the one-day bottom-up G1000 event. () Despite some design defects, it has since inspired a number of more local, yet more permanent, initiatives. The most fundamental challenge is to enable the less constrained, well informed deliberation hosted by such assemblies to influence public decision-making without letting randomly chosen, unaccountable citizens, take the decisions themselves. In the Belgium book mentioned earlier, I propose that Belgium’s federal senate be replaced by an ad hoc assembly of randomly chosen citizens mandated by the elected Chamber to come up after 12 or 18 months with proposals about specific issues of special relevance for the long term, in the light of hearings with outsiders and discussions among themselves. If adopted by a majority in the Chamber, these proposals follow the usual legislative path. If not, a national referendum is organized. () Similar designs may be difficult to implement on a larger scale but would also make plenty of sense at a more local level.
      Electoral democracy does not only suffer from short-termism and partisan rivalry. It also flattens the impact of people’s preferences: whether a lot is at stake in some election for a particular citizen or nothing at all, whether he or she is well informed or not at all, his or her vote counts for one and only one. The street, therefore, is a third important complement to the voting booth: those who are specially interested in an issue, whether or not out of self-interest, and those who are more informed about it than their co-citizens, can and must take to the streets — literally through demonstrations, sit-ins, pickets, etc. or virtually through petitions, open letters, European Citizen Initiatives, etc. How much time and other resources citizens invest in such actions, how many risks they are willing to take, will reflect the intensity of their preferences far more effectively than the voting process.
      It is important, however, that such actions should not consist exclusively, or even mainly, in NIMBY protests (‘Not In My Back Yard’), or other forms of resistance to political decisions taken or about to be taken. They must also be of the PIMBY type (“Please In My BackYard”) or more broadly focus on constructive proposals, whether as alternatives to the plans of the public authorities or out of the blue. Criticizing, denouncing, stigmatizing, pestering elected officials is sometimes necessary, but helping them to do the right thing by mobilizing in favour of a well-worked out plan consistent with the general interest — a realistic utopia, small or big — is often so much more fruitful. In my own personal experience, the 2012 Picnic the Streets action that led to the pedestrianization of Brussels’ central lanes will remain a paradigmatic example of what such bottom-up actions can achieve. Like autonomous agencies and citizens’ assemblies, however, such practices remain complements to electoral democracy, not substitutes for it. It is in the end elected politicians who will have the responsibility — and will sometimes need the courage — to take the decisions and make sure that they are properly implemented.

Lacroix: As a Belgian citizen and a citizen of the EU, you devoted a lot of your work to the notion of people. It seems to me that many European countries are currently facing what we could call a “national identity crisis. For example in France, we are hearing more and more people denouncing the supposedly “communautarist” or “separatist” attitudes of French Muslims, demanding that they integrate better with “the French people” and its “Republican values”. Meanwhile, other voices, particularly academics and activists concerned with issues of racial justice, point out that we should rather denounce the way in which our conception of the French people and Republic has often tended to marginalize these Muslim populations (and these people are in turn accused of worsening the fractures of our country, or even of being complicit with Islamist terrorism, what is now called “islamo-gauchisme”). There is a lot to be said about all this, but I would say my main question is this: do you think a utopian project for our times needs to include a redefinition of “the people”? If so, what would that definition look like, how should it take the EU into account and how might it work?

Van Parijs: I find it useful to distinguish “people” as “demos” and “people” as “ethnos”. For a population to form a demos, it needs to be involved in a common conversation. For a population to form an ethnos or, if you prefer, a nation, it does not need a common origin, but it needs a shared culture. In both cases, there are linguistic requirements. For a thick shared culture to exist, the sharing of a native language is a major factor, as it will naturally lead to exposure to the same cultural heritage and mass media. For a common conversation to thrive, the sharing of a lingua franca, possibly but not necessarily the native language of a subset of the population concerned, is sufficient. What is needed for a deliberative democracy to work and for social justice between the citizens to be effectively pursued is a demos, not an ethnos. But it is easier if the demos is also an ethnos, not only because it guarantees a richer, more fluid, more inclusive conversation, but also because it facilitates the nurturing of a strong common identity and the flourishing of the solidarity supported by this common identity.
      However, much of the institutional part of our struggle for more justice in the world must consist in getting democracy to work and social justice to be effectively pursued at the level of demoi that are not ethnoi. This holds for the European Union, but also for Belgium and, even more, for Brussels. This position may be described as anti-nationalist. For example, Flemish nationalists typically claim that Belgium is doomed because it failed to become a “people” in the required sense of an ethnos or nation. Many also claim that, if Belgium falls apart, Brussels, not being able to form a “people”, should not become an independent polity but will need to be governed by the two neighbouring nations of Flanders and Wallonia. I believe instead that the Belgian demos, like the European demos, must and can be strengthened. () And I also believe that Brusselers must be recognized as a “people” in the sense that matters, while recognizing that turning again and again its fluid and diverse population into a “people of Brussels” is a huge challenge. () Even demoi that are not ethnoi can develop, with appropriate institutions and narratives, a common identity respectful of their cultural diversity and, on that basis, a non-national solidarity, a fraternity without any pretense of consanguinity. But intercommunication is key, and hence the linguistic dimension. On the local level of my native city, this is one of the fronts on which I definitely intend to remain actively involved in my remaining years, in particular as chair of the newly created Brussels Council for Multilingualism. ()

Lacroix: Finally, you also regularly insist on the idea that a utopian ideal of justice should be thought of as intergenerational. If the need for change seems to be rather evident for a lot of young people – even when they don’t know (or agree on) how to go about it –, many older voters, who have seen too many politicians ‘betray’ them with false and empty promises, tend to be more cynical and disenchanted, and consequently more inclined to use their electoral power “in excessive manner to benefit their unavoidably short-term self-interest” (), even if that means voting for more authoritarian candidates. What, if anything, can utopian thinking offer to such voters and the politicians who appeal to them?

Van Parijs: Most fundamental for this purpose is that each of us should identify with multi-generational communities that will survive us. This need not be more difficult for older people. It may even be easier. These communities may simply be our families, but they can also be our cities and our villages, our religious confessions and our political parties, our associations and our universities, our nation-states and even the European Union. This is why I am not an unqualified anti-nationalist. Countries should be able to request from their citizens that they “not only ask what their country can do for them, but also what they can do for their country”. But the nation is only one of many multi-generational communities for which this must hold. And a commitment to the nation as to any other community must not be a commitment to trying to make it bigger or stronger than others, but a commitment to making it function well, so that it can behave in a fair and generous way towards both its members and the outside world. In many cases utopian? Sure. And so what?