After the end of history: Utopia, cities, and the populist imagination

Bierema, Sebastiaan Broeils
Following the electoral success of populist movements in Europe and the Americas throughout the 2010s, liberal democracy is widely believed to be in crisis—a stark contrast to its jubilant victory over alternative systems of government in the early 1990s. It has been common for democratic theorists to compare the current ‘crisis of liberal democracy’ to the ‘crisis of parliamentary democracy’ of the 1920s to 1940s—interpreting contemporary populism as an echo of the utopian movements of the early twentieth century. This comparison has thus far been decidedly partial: not only do its investigations remain largely incomplete, but the comparison is wielded in a partisan manner to evoke the dystopian consequences of this utopianism. This thesis expands on this comparison between populism and utopianism—centring the imagination and the built environment. Conceptualising populism as a form of utopianism treats it as a process of World building, albeit one specific to a liberal-democratic horizon. Drawing on the work of Cornelius Castoriadis, the instituted imaginary describes the World a society has created for itself, whereas the utopian imaginary brings an alternative World into being. The values and power relations of the imaginary are manifest in the concrete, physical spaces of the city as well as in the institutions of the liberal democratic system. As the social imaginary is inscribed in the built environment, it is in turn experienced by citizens moving through these spaces, meaning that the built environment is central to the development of utopian/populist imaginaries. This process whereby a society can re-imagine itself is central to liberal democracy; in other words, liberal democracy is a never-ending series of crises and perceived crises. Consequently, populist sentiments—and attempts to build a utopian future—appear not as a threat to liberal democracy but as an endemic and unavoidable part of it.
NUI Galway
Publisher DOI
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland