Karl Popper’s classic defense of the open society, against new enemies

If the most telling sign of an author’s influence is the words he has left us, as the linguist Geoffrey Numberg wrote on George Orwell’s centenary (IHT, June 25), then Karl Popper is, perhaps, an odd candidate for fame. Popper’s lingo may lack the spark of «thought police,» «doublethink» or «unperson,» but his critique of authoritarianism – although less allegorical than Orwell’s – is as prescient and forceful. Back in early 1943, nothing presaged the author’s later success. At the age of 42, Popper, a Viennese Jew, was living in New Zealand where he had fled to escape the malignity of Nazism, and was virtually unknown to Anglophone readers. In fact, had it not been for the intervention of Ernst Gombrich, an art historian and friend of Popper’s, and the economist F.A. Hayek, Popper’s most famous manuscript, «The Open Society and its Enemies» (originally titled «A Social Philosophy for Everyman») might have never made its way into the world. This was, after all, a world that deemed the whole of Western philosophy as no more than a footnote to Plato and a vehement critique of the Greek intellectual master was bound to raise publishers’ eyebrows. The work was eventually published by Routledge and the two volumes have been constantly in print ever since. This event, combined with Popper’s parallel appointment at the London School of Economics, were to change his life forever. Today, «The Open Society» is justly celebrated as one of the most devastating attacks on totalitarianism and transcendental, deterministic philosophies – what Popper terms «historicism» – that underpin them. What we now know as totalitarianism, maintains Popper, belongs to a tradition that dates as far back as our civilization itself. The writer sets out to assault totalitarianism at its root. In the process, he wrestles with the giants of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel and Marx. Not without success. Popper traces the appeal of these historical space-holders to the human fear of the unknown. The future is a form of the unknown; people find uncertainty about the future or the afterlife unbearable. As a result, many are attracted to religions or ersatz religions – transcendental philosophies that assert that history is governed by scientific laws. Knowledge of these laws, the theory goes, allows one to predict the future. In Popper’s words, historicist metaphysics is a «reaction against the strain of civilization,» for it is «apt to relieve men from the strain of their responsibilities.» It relieves people from the burden of having to think for themselves. His detestation of metaphysics may explain Popper’s condemnation of deterministic philosophies, but it would not suffice to make the case for liberalism. Thus Popper grounds liberalism in a non-authoritarian theory of knowledge, defending liberal society on the basis that it contains the conditions for knowledge to attain its greatest growth. This argument marks Popper’s own contribution to the so-called liberal epistemic turn. For Popper, life is an endless process of problem-solving. So he wants a society that is best suited for that purpose. The answer, for Popper, is an «open society.» The open society is thereby defended on scientific grounds as Popper sees «piecemeal social engineering,» the freedom for conjecture and refutation, as being best served in a free society that is open to criticism. This is because, for Popper, we can never be sure we have reached the truth. A theory, in order to be scientific, should be falsifiable. And the best theories are those that best survive criticism. He attacks holistic or utopian planning – that is the attempt to build a new society on the basis of a blueprint – as merely impossible, as «the sociological knowledge necessary for large-scale engineering is simply non-existent.» The growth of knowledge affects future developments; and since we cannot predict the former, we cannot safely predict the latter. To be sure, Popper’s doctrine is also grounded in moral premises. In utopian planning, Popper sees a machine set to crush the individual. Any actions which are not sanctioned by the end (i.e. the leader) must be liquidated. The utopianist, Popper says in «The Poverty of Historicism,» seeks «not only the transformation of society, according to plan, but also the transformation of man… for we ‘mould’ these men and women to fit into this new society.» If facts do not agree with theory, all you have to do is upgrade the theory – a truth uncomfortably familiar to the victims of communism. For Popper, utopianism’s evil is the failure to grasp that efforts to make heaven on earth are vain. The best thing we can hope for is to gradually minimize pain in each generation. «The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good,» he says. One is tempted to call him a negative utilitarian – but that is a description he would most likely reject. But what is the importance of «The Open Society» in the post-1989 world? To be sure, communism and fascism have almost been reduced to the status of dreadful memories. Few authoritarian enclaves remain – and even there, more and more people are expressing their desire for democracy, either with protests or with their feet, seeking refuge in liberal states. No menace seems potent enough to threaten the open society. From the outside, that is. The enemies of the open society that Popper attacked are gone, but new ones have surfaced. This time, from within. Paradoxically, as the world becomes more democratic, democracy inside Western societies is on the wane. The concentration of political power in the hands of big multinationals and media barons, the curtailment of human rights under the terrorist threat (exaggerated or not), and the growing signs of government and business dishonesty all underscore the persisting relevance of Popper’s ideas, if not as an exposition of the modern condition then, at least, as a warning. When the world’s superpower reverses the Orwellian postulate «war is peace» to justify its burgeoning militarism, there seems good reason to go back to Popper’s case for an accountable, transparent, liberal democratic state. Karl Popper’s «Open Society and its Enemies» has just been launched in a new Greek translation by Papazisis publishers. The two volumes have been translated by Irini Papadaki.

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