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Popper's Return Engagement

March 1, 2002 Topic: Society Tags: AcademiaSociology

Popper's Return Engagement

Mini Teaser: Karl Popper, the champion of the open society, still speaks to the struggle between tolerance and repression in an era of globalization and in our post-September 11 world.

by Author(s): Neil McInnes

The notion of a contrast between open and closed societies, which was introduced by Henri Bergson and made popular by Karl Popper, is now familiar even to people who have read neither the former's The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932) nor the latter's The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). We all make the rough and ready ideal distinction between an open society that admits anyone who will comply with several abstract general requirements, and in which, once admitted, we can see most of what is going on and freely express our opinion about it; and a closed society that imposes unquestioning conformity with a tangle of concrete obligations, and in which members cannot know much of what is going on at the top and could not express an opinion if they did know.

A current example of the former would be a society that defines its openness in such general terms that it ends up granting even ill-intentioned foreign fanatics easy entry, freedom of movement, access to financial and vocational facilities, and undisturbed use of public goods for terrorist purposes. A recent example of the second would be a society in thrall to a half-blind zealot that forbids genuine education, limits communication, drives out its trained talents and leaves half the remainder stumbling about in a burka.

Bergson and Popper did not go to that level of detail in specifying open and closed societies; they were speculative philosophers with no particular qualification or interest in political studies. It is nevertheless useful to look more closely at their respective specifications, not so much to see what they got right (which was plenty), as to notice the dynamic or historical perspective they used. While denying prophecy and pooh-poohing historical inevitability, both plainly saw the open society as mankind's common destiny. The persistence of closed societies would be the cause of recurrent wars, said Bergson, but wars among themselves rather than wars waged by closed societies against open ones. For Popper the impulse to the closed society would be the cause of recurrent revolt against freedom and reason within societies that were trying to make the transition from one condition to the other.

For Bergson, the primitive closed society attached the strictest obligation to custom, and the device on its banner read "Authority, Hierarchy, Immobility." It was self-centered, warlike, cohesive and disciplined by the absolute authority of a chief and of a static religion. It fit "the pattern of our species as the ant-heap fits the ant", and its members cared nothing for the rest of humanity. In sharp contrast was the open society, which began as a dream and was still an ideal, but one to which the democracies were making progress. In intention it was open to all humanity; it encouraged diversity rather than conformity; its religion and its morality were flexible and adaptable; it conferred rights. Such a society was our natural destiny but, wrote Bergson: "We do not believe in the fatality of history. . . . There is no unescapable historic law" carrying us toward it. Its coming would be, perhaps, something like what we now call globalization, but it would go beyond markets and materialism to a spiritual transformation.

Here Bergson's besetting sin of rhapsody got the better of him. He foretold an open society the freedom and spontaneity of which would express the mystical élan pervading the universe. He warned, however-and here it is relevant to recall that Bergson was an exact contemporary of Sigmund Freud-that in human progress "the acquired overlay the natural" but does not oust it. The dispositions that supported the closed society "subsist immutable deep within all of us." Therefore, he averred, "the tendencies of the closed society have . . . persisted ineradicable in the society that is on the way to becoming an open one." The danger of relapse was obvious. Writing in 1932, it is possible that Bergson had an eye on Germany, and on the recrudescence of murderous tribalism taking shape there.

Karl Popper certainly had his eye on Germany, for he called the denunciation of the closed society written in his New Zealand bolthole "my war effort." It bore the telltale mark of many such war efforts: while stigmatizing the closed society imposed by Nazism, it was prudently discreet about identical conditions in our wartime ally, the Soviet Union. Marx was lavishly praised as one of the great liberators of mankind, and Stalin was commended for "making bold and often successful experiments in social engineering." This sort of complaisance toward communism was not uncommon during the war; Hayek sinned similarly if less egregiously in The Road to Serfdom. In later editions and under Hayek's influence, Popper corrected his aim, and The Open Society became one of the gospels of the campaign against the closed society of Stalinism.

Years later Popper's benign attitude toward Marx and communism (redolent of the Red Vienna of his youth) paid an unexpected dividend: he was taken up in China. In 1987 at a conference in Wuhan, Fan Dainian and Du Ruji (both of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) and Shanghai philosopher Ji Shu-Li agreed that Popper's ideas were of the first importance to the Chinese people. After covering themselves by citing Popper's Marxist credentials, the trio told a doubtlessly surprised Chinese leadership that they themselves were true Popperians, for they had abandoned "utopian social engineering" for "what Popper calls piecemeal social engineering." Nothing was said of what Popper calls the closed society, lest some of the leadership's fresh Popperian laurels wilt instantly.

Popper has received more critical celebration of late in the West, both in symposia such as Popper's Open Society after Fifty Years: The Continuing Relevance of Karl Popper, and in a massive biography, Karl Popper: The Formative Years, by Malachi Haim Hacohen. Unlike his Chinese acolytes, these scholars are keenly interested in what Popper says about the closed society. Popper begins: "In what follows, the magical or tribal or collectivist society will also be called the closed society, and the society in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions, the open society." Closed societies differ among themselves but all are marked by "their magical or irrational attitude towards the customs of social life, and the corresponding rigidity of those customs." Their taboos and obligations exempt men from moral problems: there is never any doubt about how to act. What must be done might be difficult but it involves no personal responsibility, only a group responsibility based on magical ideas. In later editions, following Hayek, Popper identified the closed/open contrast with that between concrete social relations, which are face-to-face and personal, with abstract relations, which are impersonal and anonymous. As the latter come to predominate, Popper theorized, the society moves from closed to open.

Popper was never one for definitions (not out of laziness but on closely argued logical grounds), so what he says about the open society has to be pieced together. He did not identify open societies with any particular political or economic regime-not with free-market capitalism, for which, as a social democrat and former Marxist he had little sympathy, nor with political democracy, in which he saw little but a mechanism for voting governments out of office. (Hayek had this same blinkered vision of democracy as something that happens once every two, four or seven years, rather than the procedures of everyday public life.) The open society is simply the locus of "the traditions of a free people", the site of myriad personal decisions. It liberates the critical facilities of human beings.

Actually, there is little to be gained from more elaborate definitions; on the contrary, it is easy to exaggerate the differences between closed and open and end up with useless "ideal types" that have never really existed. Besides, no matter how stark the contrast, such contrast does not by itself necessarily entail clash or conflict. Closed societies can stew in their own juice indefinitely and disturb no one else, while the era of directly forcing modernity on "backward" (traditional) peoples was one chapter-the "colonial" one-that is now concluded in the history of the open society. What interested Popper-and it is the main reason we bother today with the concept of the open and the closed society-is what can go wrong in the transition from one to the other when modernizing forces are unleashed within a traditional culture.

What can happen, said Popper, is that the privileged, educated strata of the old order (not the common people, who are merely uncomfortable with the new ways) can seek to arrest the opening up of a society they have been used to rule. They will resort to violence, impose tyranny, begin a reign of terror against the innovators. They will seek the support, including even the armed intervention, of any other closed society that has managed to arrest modernizing trends. They will attack prominent symbols of the open society wherever they find them. Although their slogan is "back to the society of our fathers", they themselves are "morally rotten"; nihilism is common among them. And they will try to wrap the whole business in "a hypocritical and even cynical exploitation of religious sentiments." Although educated themselves, they will lead what soon becomes a "revolt against reason and freedom." Such reflections are surely relevant to the question that Daniel Pipes recently posed in these pages-Does poverty cause militant Islam? Popper, too, would probably say no; it is the insecurity of a challenged privileged class that is the more likely source of violent reaction.

Despite the ferocity of this counterattack, the defense of the closed society fails, for there can be no turning back. We can never return to the alleged innocence and beauty of the closed society. . . . The more we try to return to the heroic age of tribalism, the more surely we arrive at the Inquisition, at the Secret Police, and at a romanticized gangsterism. . . . [W]e must end with the most brutal and violent destruction of all that is human. There is no return to a harmonious state of nature. If we turn back, then we must go the whole way-we must return to the beasts. (Popper's italics.)

Popper's Plato

It is obvious that the passion behind this eloquence stems from a horror of Nazism, and yet one cannot help being struck by the relevance of much of it to the irruption of anti-modern violence, notably in Islamic societies, in our own time. So one is tempted to ask what Popper's eloquence is worth as sociology: Where are the historical cases of a closed society cracking up in this way, under what Popper calls "the strain of civilization", on the path to the open society? He himself produces only one case-Greece in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE-but he treats it in such depth that it fills his first volume, "The Spell of Plato", entirely.

The Greeks, Popper says, were the first to take the step from tribalism to launch the "great revolution" that is the transition from the closed to the open society. This particular transition started with overpopulation among the Athenian ruling class of landed proprietors. They sought to relieve the pressure by ritual colonization, the foundation of "daughter societies" overseas. The consequent seafaring, foreign trade and imperialism threatened to dissolve the old ways of life; by the 6th century BCE, revolt and reaction had begun, emulating the resistance put up by threatened tribalism in Sparta. "The strain of civilization was beginning to be felt", stressed Popper. The oligarchs, the privileged or formerly privileged ruling class of Athens, led the charge against what they saw as one complex: democracy, monetary commercialism and naval policy. They sought the intervention of "the arrested oligarchic tribalism of Sparta"; the educated men led this betrayal, which became the Peloponnesian War. After the fall of Athens, the Spartans installed their puppets, the Thirty Tyrants, who began a reign of terror that in just eight months claimed as many lives as had ten years of war. Yet ultimately the reign of terror failed.

We have a witness to this first breakdown of a nascent, opening society, a hostile witness whose own family was implicated in the treacherous reaction, namely Plato. Popper says his aim is "to present Plato as a totalitarian party-politician, unsuccessful in his immediate and practical undertakings, but in the long run only too successful in his propaganda for the arrest and overthrow of a civilization he hated." His Republic was a model for an authoritarian and immobile closed society. Popper also tries, quite unfairly, to pin a charge of historicism-the belief in laws of history that warrant prediction of the future-on Plato. The only credit Plato gets is that he, "with deep sociological insight, found that his contemporaries were suffering under a severe strain, and that this strain was due to the social revolution that had begun with the rise of democracy and individualism."

Anti-Plato diatribes are an old tradition that periodically rediscovers itself with surprise (as with, not least, Georges Sorel's Le Procès de Socrate, 1889). Popper wrote his contribution to this tradition with the enthusiasm of one determined to scandalize the learned world. He succeeded hugely, and after fifty years his interpretation has survived as a one-sided but arguable presentation. What has been criticized is the fact that he raised only one instance of the crack-up of a society in transition, ancient Greece. In his second volume, "The High Tide of Prophecy", he had a field day exposing the historical necromancy of Hegel and Marx without ever suggesting that their historicism had anything to do with such events as unfolded in ancient Athens. Therefore, say critics, there is a "sociological deficit", a lack of evidence in Popper.

This rather misses the point. Popper was not practicing sociology and he was not a social scientist. (If he had been, he would have countered, as he argues in his many works on the philosophy of science, that science is not advanced by induction-by basing generalizations on a collection of instances-but by means of bold hypotheses that can then be submitted to attempts at falsification. This is a position within the philosophy of science that has been subjected to "shattering polemic" as fundamentally irrationalist, but this is not our concern here.) The point, rather, is that Popper was operating with the same psychological theory as Bergson: the primitive mentality of the closed society survives in Western man and surfaces again in times of stress. The revolution the Greeks began is still going on, forever threatened by the "perennial revolt against freedom." That is why he only needs one instance: "This struggle touches our feelings, for it is still going on within ourselves. Plato was the child of a time that is still our own." The strain of civilization "is still felt even in our own day, especially in times of social change. It is the strain created by the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us. . . . It is the price we have to pay for being human." Westerners do not have to live through experiences similar to those of the Athenians at the time of the first breakdown of a transitional society; it is enough for the going to get rough for them to suffer the same primitive emotions, to relive "the birth trauma of our civilization."

Between Contingency and Necessity

If Popper's curious version of the doctrine of reminiscence, or of the return of the repressed, were to stand up, it would be completely ethnocentric. It could have no relevance to races and nations that had never heard of Plato's Athens and that are not civilizationally descended from them. But that Popper was being ethnocentric had already been noticed by those who asked why a man writing in New Zealand, with the wreckage of the old closed Polynesian society all about him, would go looking for his examples in far-off ancient Greece. His reason was that he was exclusively concerned with Western nations, which were tied to a Greek heritage that Polynesia knew nothing of.

That does not invalidate Popper's account of how transitional societies may come to grief, however. Instead, it clears the way for applying it to societies that have no memory of Greece or significant intellectual link to it, and are having their own first experience of the break-up of the closed society-for example, Islamic societies that have been pitchforked by the petroleum industry and the avalanche of Western pop culture into a modernity that unnerves them. Might not their privileged educated classes be reacting like that of Plato's time, resorting to tyranny and terror, and to the exploitation of religion? And if they are-and they are-can we be confident that they, too, will ultimately fail? It is questions like these that make Popper's return engagement as fascinating as his first.

But where would we get that confidence? Surely not from the writings of Bergson and Popper, who will have nothing of historical inevitability. Among other things, The Open Society and Its Enemies is a sustained attack on all varieties of historicism in the sense of historical prediction based on supposed laws of history. And yet Bergson and Popper both insist, as Ian Jarvie writes, that "history is the struggle to navigate the transition from an earlier and less desirable form of society to a later and more desirable form." The transition, they warn, is not smooth, but revolts and relapses are nonetheless only temporary. History is a one-way street that leads from the closed to the open society. So despite all that Popper says against historicism, there is a Grand Narrative of Western history in him after all. Critics say there is "a whiff of Hegel" here, and there is. There is also more than a whiff of common sense, for no one really doubts that, however long it takes, the open society will eclipse the closed. If our philosophers have worked themselves into self-contradiction on the point, it is by pushing their campaign against historical inevitability too far, pushing it to the extent of denying entirely that there are regularities and long-term trends in history, laws in social and economic affairs.

That is surely the case with Popper. He was, as Hacohen's biography shows, at heart a lifelong social democrat and an exponent of piecemeal social engineering. This latter is a form of extreme voluntarism; it asserts that "we" (whoever that is!) can at any time take control of institutions, run them, redesign them, and in general turn them to our purposes. For that faith, we need complete historical lawlessness, the absence of objective obstacles to our will and of any contrary historical drift. But of course there are irresistible long-term trends in history. So, rather paradoxically, Popper insists on contingency in history so that human effort can seem capable of achieving necessary, piecemeal historical advance.

This paradox can be problematic. Just as The Open Society and Its Enemies began its long and successful career there set in a massive historical drift with all the force of inevitability that no one could resist: the dissolution of Europe's overseas empires. Even colonies that had no wish for "freedom" were cut loose by metropoles that knew they were doing wrong-take Papua New Guinea, for example-because the winds of change were blowing so hard that resistance was useless.

Or take the case of the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet empire, which seem to us now to have been inevitable and seemed so beforehand to a few wise men and women. Because Popper feels obliged to deny that anything happens for more than contingent, meaningless, accidental reasons, he argued, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union: "First, the Soviet regime might have lasted longer still, perhaps forever; it was not some law or destiny but a series of definite events-and definite decisions taken by real-life people at their own risk-which brought about its collapse." But this is preposterous. Was nothing more general proven, nothing about the necessary failure of central planning, nothing about the inevitable bankruptcy of tyrannies that deny intellectual freedom? If communism collapsed almost by accident, why not start again but be more careful next time?

Come the Culture Cult

Popper's political nominalism and voluntarism did not diminish his faith that the transition from the closed to the open society was proper, necessary and ultimately inevitable for all peoples. So he must have been astonished by the rise of the "culture cult", the doctrine that closed societies must be protected from modernization since all cultures are equally valuable and deserving of preservation; as Ranke would say, each is unmittelbar zu Gott. To see how opinions have changed on this, one might consider one of the few references Popper made to the Maori when he lived eight years among them. In The Open Society he says, "The early Greek tribal society resembles in many respects that of peoples like the Polynesians, the Maoris for instance. Small bands of warriors, usually living in fortified settlements, ruled by tribal chiefs or kings, or by aristocratic families, were waging war against one another on sea as well as on land." There were differences, of course, but the two tribal societies had in common "their magical or irrational attitude towards the customs of social life, and the corresponding rigidity of those customs." For all I know, the Maori of that day would (apart from frowning at the incorrect plural "Maoris") have taken no offense, perhaps have been flattered, by this comparison with the ancient Greeks. Not so today.

Today Popper's comparison would be seen as an inconsiderate and possibly racist reminder that until 1840 the Maori lived in a cruel, ignorant, authoritarian society, "closed intellectually, socially and politically", devoted to perpetual warfare, environmental depredation and cannibalism-not occasional ritual cannibalism but cannibalism as a regular source of food. Roger Sandall says, "A long century of moral transfiguration has finally reached its apogee. With the cosmetic improvements of sundry members of the Culture Cult, only the most decorous and edifying version of the Polynesian past is allowed on public view-a genteel world of wise ecologists, mystical sages, gifted artists, heroic navigators, and pacifists who would not hurt a fly."

A similar falsification of the past has been inflicted on the Australian aborigenes, American Indians and most other peoples whose traditional society has been irreparably damaged by Western conquest. To please the culture cult they are condemned to stay in the wreckage of their old closed society-defined as "traditional"-rather than seek improvement in the open society around them-castigated as a type of imperialism or colonialism. One consequence is that the grandchildren of men and women who could and did read books in English are today illiterate, both in English and in their "native" tongues. Academic anthropologists are content to see them remain illiterate, as well as unemployable, sick and drunk, rather than risk having them lose the tatters of their old culture in the new.

This story of the contemporary glorification of the closed society does not take us far from Popper, for in recent times we have learned a lot about the conditions in which he lived as he wrote The Open Society and its Enemies. He spent several years in bitter contention with the head of his department at the university in Christchurch, an anthropologist named Ivan Sutherland (1897-1952). Sutherland wrote in praise of Maori society and had the delusion that he could actually join a Maori tribe and be accepted into its culture. He pursued this delusion until he began to lose his reason, and took his own life. Thus, the contest of the closed and the open society was not for Popper, as it was for most of his readers, a bookish matter, but an issue of flesh and blood, a painful daily struggle of intellect against unreason.

It was so, too, for another reason. Most people outside the culture cult have an attachment to the open society that is no more urgent or present in mind than their support of motherhood. Not so Popper. He was dedicated to the ideal of the open society with a rare passion, with an enthusiasm and a breadth of vision that often still shock his disciples. They shock his biographer, for one. Hacohen is so dismayed by the extent of openness that Popper envisages for society that he sets out on the task (curious in a biographer) of rescuing his subject from his dearest beliefs, in the name of causes that Popper would have dismissed as merely sectional and limiting.

Popper envisaged that in graduating to the open society, men would ultimately shed all of the old, partisan allegiances, especially nationalism and confessionalism, as he himself had done in leaving his native land and in denying all connection with the Jewish faith of his ancestors. "Racial pride", he declaimed, "is not only stupid but wrong, even if provoked by racial hatred. All nationalism or racialism is evil, and Jewish nationalism is no exception." His uncompromising cosmopolitanism and his resolute secularism, writes Hacohen, "left Popper a permanent exile, a citizen only in an imaginary Republic of Science. . . . Discounting all national, ethnic and religious identity as culturally primitive and politically reactionary, Popper posited a universalist vision of the scientific community and the Open Society where none of them counted."

Hacohen's several references to science are judicious, for Popper conceived of the truly open society as modelled on the scientific community (or what he imagined the scientific community to be, which it probably is not): policies would be put forward the way scientists put up hypotheses, and political programs would be implemented in the spirit of experimental science, on a trial-and-error basis. For anything like that ever to happen, all the passions and interests of real politics would have to drain away. So they would have to before Popper's social engineering could be applied: it assumed that all social issues were basically technical problems that could be solved in a calm, rational trial-and-error way. That he proposed "piecemeal" rather than "utopian" engineering changes nothing; politics is not just engineering, and the open society will never be just a laboratory.

"Like Kant", says a critic, "Popper is so deeply committed to a form of reductive and atomic individualism-refusing to grant even the existence, let alone the importance, of all forms of 'collective' behavior-that he is unable to provide anything but the 'thinnest' or most mechanical and instrumental-technological-interpretations of the institutions and traditions upon which the future of liberal societies depends." In imagining the open society, Popper was under the influence of the Austrian socialists' Sozialtechnik and the bloodless politics of the Vienna Circle of logical positivists: the vision of a society that could reform itself scientifically and where science would determine ethics, politics and economics. Ironically, perhaps, it reminds one of the world of Plato's Republic at its worst.

A society as open and abstract as the one Popper sought sounds like a cold, draughty place to those of us who come still trailing clouds of partisan loyalty from the old closed society. Before every last one of us is divested of the attachments that made the old society cohesive and secure, we would have to undergo a moral transformation not far short of that mystical rebirth that Henri Bergson saw at the dawn of his open society. In the meantime, while sincerely preferring the open over the closed polity, most people would nevertheless shrink from a society as open, as abstract and as impersonal as Popper (and Hayek) conceived of.

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