Democracy. In our world, no word is more synonymous with the idea of a ‘good society’. ‘The government of the people, by the people, for the people’, was Abraham Lincoln’s legendary definition of a society in which all people are free and equal. It is a society from which tyranny and barbarism have been banished, and where reason and justice hold sway. Democracy as the realisation of the highest ideal of civilisation. Yet the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset complained that in fact, mass democracy is not the ultimate form of democracy: quite to the contrary, it inevitably results in the very opposite, in despotism, in the degeneration of values, and ultimately, in totalitarianism. In The Revolt of the Masses, he links the rise of mass democracy to the emergence of new movements such as fascism and bolshevism. Intellectuals such as Johan Huizinga, Paul Valéry, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, and Nicola Chiaromonte also expressed their doubts and concerns about the significance of mass democracy and its impact on our highest values, on culture, knowledge and the future of democracy in European society.
Are the questions and analyses of these twentieth-century thinkers at all relevant to twenty-first century Europe? Or is ‘mass democracy’ mostly a phrase used by an intellectual elite which is reluctant to recognise that in a free society, every person has a right to his or her own lifestyle – that they can determine what matters to them and what does not according to their own personal religion, tradition, and ideology? What kind of society do we live in, and what are the consequences of today’s predominant powers, values, and ideas? What is the basis of democracy, and how can it continue to be a civilising force?