Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation

New enemies of the open society

Ethic 11.03.2024 Manuel Arias Maldonado Translated by: Jpic-jp.org

Karl Popper warned that the open society can only be maintained as such if it retains the structure of liberal democracy. And for this it requires a political culture capable of renouncing the calls of the tribe. Today, however, the list of enemies of open society is getting long.

Perhaps the great problem of an open society is that few people want to live in an open society. It is difficult to come to a different conclusion in view of contemporary political reality: liberal democracies are under attack from the old nationalisms and the new populism, while the outlines of a new Cold War are being drawn abroad, this time pitting democracies against authoritarianism.

All this in a world where, according to The Economist magazine's index, barely 8% of the population lives in a "full democracy" and only 7% in "flawed democracies"; in total, only 15% of the world's population is made up of citizens rather than subjects, as the eminent Austrian jurist Hans Kelsen called those without political rights. For those of us who expected more from the fin-de-siècle version of the end of history, this is a disappointing outcome; the waves of democratisation now seem to be dying on the shore. But that is how ideals work: they suffer in contact with reality, especially when they are demanding.

And what is an open society?

The concept comes from Karl Popper, who presents it in La sociedad abierta y sus enemigos (The Open Society and its Enemies), a two-volume history of political thought that appeared in 1945. It is the year that saw the defeat of Japanese imperialism and Nazi totalitarianism; the Soviets, in that time, were about to close their iron fist on Eastern Europe, and the Chinese Communists were soon to come to power. Although historian Samuel Moyn includes Popper among the representatives of "Cold War liberalism" in his recent Liberalism Against Itself, in the company of Judith Shklar or Isaiah Berlin, the Viennese thinker anticipates the contest between the liberal and communist blocs; his genealogy of totalitarian thought - different from the one Hannah Arendt would publish six years later - is fed by the bitter political experience provided by the inter-war period. His central thesis is that a society in which critical reason is peacefully exercised is distinguished from those organised around reverence for authority, respect for traditionalism or the rejection of scientific thought.

Persuaded like his fellow citizen Friedrich Hayek of human fallibility and the limitations of our knowledge, Popper is sceptical about the possibility of attaining truth: for the irrefutable is not necessarily true. Hence the search for truth is compatible with fierce opposition to intellectual dogmatism. Popper established a link between the latter and political authoritarianism; whoever seeks to impose a worldview or ideology ends up resorting to violent coercion and authoritarian rule, since otherwise he will not succeed in repressing the natural human tendency to produce new ideas.

It is only natural that such premises would lead to the vindication of liberal democracy as the only possible form of government for the open society: one that allows for the peaceful removal of bad rulers from power and puts gradual reform before grand social engineering. It is fair to underline, in any case, that Popper's political realism did not prevent him from recognising the importance of the material conditions that allow the citizen to develop his life plan: social policies are not a collectivist's whim.

In any case, Popper conceptualises a society that is governed by means of a representative democracy; the emphasis is not on the morphology of the political regime, but on the type of society that this political regime makes possible. In other words, liberal democracy would be the natural political form of the open society; no other meets the requirements of the latter. Among these requirements we have:

  • The principle of limited government that establishes restrictions on what public power is authorised to decide;
  • The recognition of fundamental rights which provides the individual with a sphere of free choice;
  • The maintenance of the rule of law and the separation of the powers of the state;
  • The existence of a public sphere where independent media operate and citizens express their opinions in different ways;
  • The functioning of a free market where individuals and companies operate under the supervision of public authorities.

Clearly, it makes no sense to separate open society and liberal democracy: each is a condition of the other.

However, an open society requires a political culture capable of producing citizens who exercise civic tolerance and renounce tribalism. To accept pluralism is to renounce imposing our worldview on others, and to do so by understanding that the open quality of society has both a moral (equal right of all to treasure their ideas) and an epistemological (there is no such thing as perfect knowledge) foundation.

Closed societies are not capable of progressing at the same pace as open societies; they are not just, nor can they be. If Popper defined an open society as one in which the individual is responsible for his or her personal decisions, as opposed to a tribal or collectivist society, we can broaden the concept to mean a society that places personal freedom at its core and remains open to the outcome of exchanges that take place within it. And even if it refuses to fix its definitive form, the open society can only remain open - to new ideas, technologies, moralities - if it retains the institutional structure of the rule of law and liberal democracy. When these weaken, society becomes more closed.

Needless to say, Popper did not think that Westerners already lived in open societies. The question is whether we are further away from it today than we were yesterday; whether the world has slipped backwards in its slow progress towards open society. And the answer, again, depends on expectations. In the early 1990s, post-Soviet societies - including Russia itself - were expected to democratise without exception; the same was true for a China that was called - Tiananmen gave a glimpse of disaffected youth - to replace one-party rule with multi-party government. But it is clear that the open society did not exert the centripetal force necessary for those hopes to be realised.

We now know that this was an exceptional moment, misinterpreted by those who experienced it as the beginning of a new era; the defeat of Soviet communism was mistaken for the global embrace of liberal democracy. Brief springtime, instead! The 9/11 attacks and the 2008 crisis put an end to Western complacency.

The outlook today is bleak: China is further away from democracy than ever before (the case of Hong Kong is eloquent) and Iran's theocracy has not conceded ground to its reformists. There has been little progress in Latin America, where some democracies have ceased to be democratic (Venezuela) and others have lost stability (Chile, Peru) or succumbed to the charms of populist leadership (Mexico, Brazil). Asian countries such as Indonesia and Thailand have not yet completed their transition to democracy, although Malaysia remains stable and the Philippines has not yet destabilised. While some of its societies seem to be learning to change governments without violence (Sierra Leone, Liberia), Africa has revived the tradition of military coups d'état (Niger, Gabon, Burkina Faso). It can be said that liberal democracy, while suffering, is resisting; what cannot be said is that it is advancing.

Looking inside democracies, there is little to celebrate; the ideal of an open society is not exactly in vogue. And when was it ever? We would need to open your eyes: in the decades after the end of the Second World War, European communist parties maintained considerable strength in European societies, and the youth that mobilised in the late 1960s joyfully waved Mao's Red Book. There was a boom in political violence in the 1970s; there was extreme left-wing terrorism, as there was anarchist and extreme right-wing terrorism and even - there is ETA or the IRA - nationalist terrorism. France went through a turbulent process of decolonisation and there were race riots in the United States. In other words, the Glorious Thirties had their sad moments. Of course, it is not a question of comparing the contentiousness of two historical moments more than half a century apart, but of sparing ourselves a mirage: the one that draws on the horizon of the past a massive support for the open society cause.

Flash forward: liberal democracies have been in turmoil since the outbreak of the 2008 financial crisis. Wherever the promise of indefinite economic growth loses credibility - as developed societies are confronted with the undesirable effects of modernisation and globalisation: climate change, economic inequality, migratory tensions - ideological movements and political forces push in the opposite direction to the open society.

It is a long list:

  • Populism that exploits the democratic ideal of popular government to stimulate social unrest and, when it comes to power, disables liberal controls and imposes an anti-pluralist vision of society;
  • Ethnocentric nationalism that acts in its own name or permeates populist discourse, calling for the right to self-determination or the abandonment of supranational entities such as the EU;
  • Identity politics that questions enlightened universalism and disrupts public conversation through the application of the culture cancellation in the framework of the culture wars;
  • The deployment of extreme versions of familiar political doctrines (conservatism, feminism, environmentalism) and the spread of new discourses (decolonial theory, woke ideology, degrowth), all of which have in common the rejection of pluralism in the name of the greater good - dogma - that their advocates claim to represent.

These phenomena do not occur in a vacuum. The political style of populism has contaminated liberal democracies and few parties renounce using its tools to compete for power. There we have the growing personalisation of politics, with the renewed prominence of strongmen and providentially oriented Caesarist leaders; the importation of the American method of primary elections to European parties has reinforced this disastrous plebiscitary tendency.

Nor do citizens who participate in the public sphere via social networks refrain from expressing the desire for their political tribe to prevail over the rest: neither tolerance nor deliberation are at their best. It is thus reasonable to ask how many citizens are really democrats. Or, to put it another way: how many would accept without batting an eyelid to live in an illiberal political regime - an acclamatory democracy - where their own would rule forever? Add to this the return of statist statehood and the new legitimisation of public interventionism, which, in view of what happened during the pandemic, will have no difficulty in being put into practice.

It would seem that the cause of the open society is weakening in sight. This does not mean that it will disappear: it is still the best way of politically organising the peaceful coexistence of heterogeneous human groups without renouncing the exercise of personal freedom and collective self-government. But its new enemies are already here. And they give no respite.

See, Nuevos enemigos de la sociedad abierta

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The comments from our readers (2)

Bernard Farine 02.04.2024 Je n'avais jamais travaillé la pensée de Karl Popper et c'est intéressant. Sur le fond, je pense aussi que nos sociétés sont en danger d'affaiblissement de la société ouverte, en particulier par l'extension des régimes autocratiques, mais aussi par la remise en cause des acquis sociaux. En effet, nos sociétés dites libérales ont aussi des tendances de fermeture et l'auteur, très sensible à certains régimes, néglige par ailleurs la pression du néo-capitalisme (et les dirigeants politiques qui le soutiennent plus ou moins ouvertement) qui met aussi en danger le caractère ouvert de nos sociétés en bloquant tout ce qui provoquerait une meilleure répartition des richesses ou ce qui nuirait à sa conception de la croissance (exponentielle) au profit la protection de l'environnement et de la biodiversité. On sent l'auteur frileux par rapport aux nouveaux mouvements sociaux pour l'environnement, le féminisme, le décolonialisme, etc. L'emploi du terme "woke" qu'il perçoit comme un danger interne à la société ouverte est significatif . Aucun auteur ne revendique le wokisme. Ce terme est employé exclusivement et de façon péjorative par les adversaires des penseurs qui développent des théories dites "intersectionnelles". Mais qui peut nier qu'une femme noire souffre plus d'injustice qu'une femme blanche ou qu'un homme noir parce qu'elle est femme et noire ? Les mouvements d'intolérance, en particulier dans les universités américaines, sont plus liés au discours "politiquement corrects" qu'aux études intersectorielles. Ces mouvements de pensée doivent aussi pouvoir coexister dans une société ouverte sans quoi elle serait aussi totalitaire.
Paul Attard 02.04.2024 An open society, fine, but will an open society accept Christianity or the Christian message? ‘Leave me alone, I don’t want to hear’ is what they say. I suppose what we have is the best that we can expect!