Home » Digital culture » Can Utopia and Dystopia be defined using Democracy?

Can Utopia and Dystopia be defined using Democracy?

Why am I asking this question?

As part of my E-Learning and Digital Culture course we were given a model by Hand and Sandywell that defines utopia and dystopia using democracy as a measure.

I am not at all sure that I agree with these measures for Utopia and Dystopia. Using democracy to define them seems a very coloured view.

As part of my philosophy mooc I am learning how to question things and not accept things at face vale, to be a little sceptical.

My process

In order to come to a conclusion I read as many definition of the three words as I could. I have noted some of them below along with my own thoughts.

Once I had a clear idea of the meaning of the words I then came to my own conclusion. It could be argued that this is not the best way to argue this question but it is my method.

Definitions of Utopia

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The Free Online Dictionary –  “An ideally perfect place, especially in its social, political, and moral aspects.”

Wikipedia -“ is a community or society possessing highly desirable or perfect qualities.”

Dictionary.com – “an ideal place or state. / any visionary system of political or social perfection./ An impractical, idealistic scheme for social and political reform.”

Merriam-Webster –  “a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions / an impractical scheme for social improvement.”

Urban Dictionary -” a theoretical “perfect” realm, in which everyone is content, where things get done well by people who are happy to do them, and where all the problems which have plagued our world for millennia no longer apply. Whoever came up with the idea was drunk, stoned, tripping or insane. maybe all four.”

Oxford Dictionary on-line– “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.”

Cambridge Dictionary – “(the idea of) a perfect society in which everyone works well with each other and is happy”.

Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – “A place state or condition ideally perfect in respect of  politics, laws, customs and conditions.”

Encarta – “The word utopia was coined by Thomas More (1478–1535) as the name of the island described in his Libellus vere aureus nec minus salutaris quam festivus de optimo reip[ublicae] statu, deq[ue] noua Insula Vtopia (1516). While More wrote in Latin, he based his new word on Greek. More combined topos(place or where ) with u or ou (no or not ) to create nowhere,but in “Six Lines on the Island of Utopia,” part of the larger work, he suggests that the word eutopia, or good place, is a better descriptor. Thus, from the time of More’s original coinage, the word utopia has been conflated with eutopia to mean a non-existent good place.”

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More must have the greatest claim to the definition of Utopia as he invented the word. For me Utopia is an ideal. If I want to be totally unselfish about my Utopia then it has to be as good as it can be for the greatest number of people.  I can’t accept that democracy is automatically utopia for everyone or even for the greatest number of people.

Definitions of Dystopia

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The Free Online Dictionary –  “An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.”

Wikipedia – “a community or society, usually fictional, that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia.”

Dictionary.com “-a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression,disease, and overcrowding.”

Merriam-Webster – “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.”
Urban Dictionary – “A bogus utopia run on propaganda; ruled by a repressive government which breaks promises, dashes the hopes of its citizens and destroys wealth.”
Oxford Dictionary on-line– “an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. The opposite of Utopia.”
Cambridge Dictionary – no entry.
Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – no entry.
Encarta -“Dystopia is utopia’s polarized mirror image. While utilizing many of the same concepts as utopia—for example, social stability created by authoritarian regimentation—dystopia reads these ideas pessimistically. Dystopia angrily challenges utopia’s fundamental assumption of human perfectibility, arguing that humanity’s inherent flaws negate the possibility of constructing perfect societies, except for those that are perfectly hellish. Dystopias are solely fictional, presenting grim, oppressive societies—with the moralistic goal of preventing the horrors they illustrate.”
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The word Dystopia is not as old as Utopia. For me it is the mirror image of  Utopia, so if Utopia is perfect then Dystopia is as imperfect as it can be. Everything is horrid and people have their imperfections magnified. Again it is mainly thought to be a fictional society.  The politics of utopia and dystopia have some similarities but are viewed differently. Can a democracy result in an oppressive society? There are some people living under communism that believe it can.

Definitions of Democracy

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The Free Online Dictionary –  “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.”

Wikipedia -“a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Democracy allows eligible citizens to participate equally—either directly or through elected representatives—in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. It encompasses social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.”

Dictionary.com – “government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.”

Merriam-Webster –  “government by the people; especially : rule of the majority /  a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”
Urban Dictionary – “A form of government where the leader is chosen by popularity rather than ability to run a country.”
Oxford Dictionary on-line-” a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives:”
Cambridge Dictionary -“the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves.”
 Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – “Government by the people: that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and exercised either directly be them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In modern use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege.”
Encarta -“The term democracy indicates both a set of ideals and a political system—a feature it shares with the terms communism and socialism. “Democracy” is harder to pin down, however, than either “socialism” or “communism”; for while the latter labels have found in Marxism an ideological matrix, or at least a point of reference, democracy has never become identified with a specific doctrinal source—it is rather a by-product of the entire development of Western civilization. No wonder, therefore, that the more “democracy” has come to be a universally accepted honorific term, the more it has undergone verbal stretching and has become the loosest label of its kind. Not every political system claims to be a socialist system, but even communist systems claim to be democracies. Since World War ii, “democracy” encompasses everything; as stated by a UNESCO report: “… for the first time in the history of the world … practical politicians and political theorists agree in stressing the democratic element in the institutions they defend and in the theories they advocate”
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Looking at the definitions there seems to be two main thoughts here one is that everyone has the right to be represented and the other is majority rules. Encarta seems to have the best explanation – it is hard to define.  I like the Urban Dictionary definition, this was certainly true of Athens. Athens considered itself a democracy even though eligibility to vote was highly restricted.

Observations about Democracy

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; democracy simply doesn’t work.”  – Kent Brockman

According to the minimal standard, roughly half of the world may be included in the realm of democracy; according to the medium standard the number of democratic countries dwindles; and according to the high standard a mere dozen or so countries have achieved a satisfactory degree of democracy. And it requires little effort to imagine how easily the label “democratic” can be turned into “undemocratic,” and vice versa, simply by switching from one standard to another. – Encarter

If only eligible people are represented then we may not have the ideal society for the majority of the people.  Different societies have different ways of determining who is eligible to vote. This eligibility may depend on sex, age, race, literacy or a number of other factors.

I have lived in two democratic countries. The method of selecting representation doesn’t always lead to majority rule as it depends on the system .

In the UK for example the first past the post system can mean that the majority do not get their preferred party in government. For example in the 2010 election David Cameron’s party had 36.1% of the popular vote. This then means that 63.9% of the population is not represented by the controlling party. (Source – Wikipedia)

In France people vote directly for the President and again for a representative on the government. The government may be a different party to him (I say “him” because so far it always has been).  In the 2012 election nearly 85% of those eligible to vote did so. (I am not eligible to vote) Of those 51.7% voted for Mr Holland the rest for Mr Sarkozy. In a final election there are only ever 2 candidates. (Source – Ministry of the interior data)

Correct me if I am wrong but in the USA it is the House of Representatives and not the people who elect the President. There have been Supreme Court hearings over the number of seats in some states.

The Democratic Republic of Congo. Need I say more? – It doesn’t do exactly what it says on the tin.

Conclusion

Utopia is a perfect society. Dystopia is an imperfect society. They are mirror images of each other and are both so extreme as to be unattainable.

One person’s utopia can be another’s dystopia depending on the viewpoint.

Democracy is imperfect. It can only be as good as the system used. It would depend on the ideal of the society and who they consider are eligible.

The ideal of a democracy where everyone has equal rights to decide does not in itself create utopia. Where everyone has equal rights to very limited resources for example.

Therefore I don’t agree that utopia and dystopia can be defined with democracy.

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