by Michael DeLang
"In new democracies and closed societies, The Open Society retains its freshness and relevance. But in Britain and America, Popper is slowly being dropped from the university syllabuses; his name is fading if not yet forgotten. This, admittedly, is a penalty of success rather than the price of failure. Many of the political ideas which in 1946 seemed so radical and were so important have become received wisdom. The attacks on authoritarianism, dogma and historical inevitability, the stress on tolerance, transparency and debate, the embracing of trial-and-error, the distrust of certainty and the espousal of humility -- these today are beyond challenge and so beyond debate. If a resurgence of communism, fascism, aggressive nationalism, or religious fundamentalism once again threatened the international order based on the open society, then Popper's works would have to be reopened and their arguments relearned."
(Swans - March 14, 2005) I re-read the passage in disbelief. How long had these guys been feeding at the Fair and Balanced table that they failed to recognize the ominous conditions they describe as the very clear and present danger that we face in America today? But, to be fair, the book the passage is taken from, Wittgenstein's Poker, written by Dave Edmonds and John Eidinow, was published in 2001, probably penned a year earlier than that. The sentiment expressed was pre-Patriot Act and before the conception of the Homeland Security ruse. Americans had not yet even been introduced to the Diebold paperless voting system. It's true, the "family values" mills had already for some time been churning out their bigoted bilge, but they still fell short of the organizational reach they now command. As we celebrated the beginning of a new millennium, our nation had already long been drifting toward the acceptance of an authoritarian undermining of the principles of democratic governance crafted by its founding fathers. But it had been a long, drawn out, subtle and creeping march. A combination of the terrible events of September 11th and an unprecedented arrogance of rule served to both prompt and allow the current administration to ramp up and accelerate the process to a degree at which their totalitarian agenda should be clear to even the most politically naïve. It seems a proper time to re-open the works of Dr. Popper and reacquaint ourselves with his arguments.
Karl Popper was an Austrian-born and trained philosopher who fled his home in Vienna during the horrors of the Nazi occupation. He taught briefly in New Zealand, lectured frequently in the United States and eventually landed at the University of London. Having witnessed first-hand in his own home city the brutal suffering induced by totalitarian rule, Popper, a truly gentle and brilliant individual, decided to dedicate the remainder of his life and academic career to the formulation of a logical system of thought, derived from and able to withstand the scrutiny of scientific method, and designed to foster an individual social conscience in his students and readers that would recognize the value of the democratic spirit and the grave dangers inherent in its erosion. The majority of his humanitarian energies were manifested in nearly five decades of carrying his crusade directly to his students in the lecture hall. But he was astute enough to understand that the lack of civil vigilance that permits the perverse abuse of political power was a phenomenon that would long survive him, and so was charitable enough to leave behind a carefully written record of his formulations, insights and arguments so that his battles could continue after his passing.
Central to this written body of work is a book Popper entitled The Open Society and Its Enemies, usually published in two volumes, The Spell of Plato and The High Tide of Prophecy. Though written in an era still haunted by the horror inflicted by both Hitler's Third Reich and the Stalinist repression, Popper never makes specific reference to the political abuses or policies of either regime. His concern, rather, is with the philosophical underpinnings of the systems of thought that produce the intellectual justifications, which allow totalitarian regimes to exist and sometimes prosper. In the first volume, he argues that the influential philosopher Plato, who is to this day revered by many as one of the most important thinkers in history, wrote The Republic as pure polemic in an attempt to counter the seminal stirrings of democratic spirit contemporary to his day. Wild notions of self-determination, equality before the law, and the rights of individuals threatened to undermine the stability of the city and kindle a rebellion of the slave population. His own status as a privileged member of the ruling class at stake, Plato sought to provide a blueprint for a just society resistant to what he viewed as the decay of political change. In an attempt to ennoble his own cause, Plato appropriates the term "justice" as a shield for his anti-democratic social prescriptions. He demands that his ideal city can only be constructed on the solid foundation of Justice. Who among us, after all, would wish to oppose the pursuit of universal justice? As Popper points out, however, a careful reading of Plato's own works reveals that his conception of "justice" is closely tied to the preservation of the unity and power base of the ruling class. From The Republic, "Each man in our city should do one work only; namely, that work for which his nature is naturally best suited. Should anyone who is by nature a worker manage to get into the warrior class; or should a warrior get into the class of guardians, without being worthy of it; then this kind of change and of underhanded plotting would mean the downfall of the city," and "When each class in the city minds its own business, the money-earning classes as well as the auxiliaries and guardians, then this will be justice." Popper paraphrases, "The State is just if the ruler rules, if the worker works, and if the slave slaves," reminding us that we must always look to the aims and consequences of a leader's political actions in order to accurately define the terms of his political rhetoric.
Plato perceived and presented himself not only as the brilliant architect of the political framework of his Ideal State, but as a great moralist, as well. The rulers of his city, based on his theory of the Philosopher King, were suited to maintain that role in perpetuity only by virtue of their innate superior grasp of the nature of Truth, Wisdom, and Goodness. Popper denies Plato this high moral ground, again by quoting from Plato's own words. From The Republic, "It is the business of the rulers of the city to tell lies, deceiving both its enemies and its own citizens for the benefit of the city," and "Lies are necessary if your herd is to reach perfection; there need exist arrangements that must be kept secret from all but the rulers if we wish to keep the herd of guardians really free from disunion." A common example of the type of lies to which Plato refers, Popper states, is the "general tendency of all tyrannies to justify their existence by saving the state from its enemies -- a tendency which must lead, whenever the old enemies have been successfully subdued, to the creation or invention of new ones."
In the Laws, Plato demands there be "the severest punishment, even for honest and honorable people, if their opinions concerning the gods deviate from those held by the state." Popper responds, "Although Plato's 'patriotic movement' was partly the expression of the longing to return to more stable forms of life, to religion, decency, law and order, it was itself morally rotten. Its ancient faith was lost, and was largely replaced by a hypocritical and even cynical exploitation of religious sentiments." On the subject of morality, Popper writes, "Those who wish to make the State an object of worship believe that officers of the state should be concerned with the morality of the citizens, and that they should use their power not so much for the protection of the citizens' freedom as for the control of their moral life." Therein lies a demand that the realm of legality and state-enforced norms should be increased at the expense of morality proper, i.e., norms enforced by our own moral decisions based on conscience. This would tend to produce a social structure, Popper believes, that would lead to an end of the individual's moral responsibility, serving to destroy morality rather than improve it. He concludes, "What we need and what we want is to moralize politics, and not to politicize morals."
In the second volume, The High Tide of Prophecy, Dr. Popper takes on, respectively, the philosophies of Georg Hegel and Karl Marx, focusing on the debt that each owes to a too rigid faith in the dictates of a contrived historical determinism. Popper dismisses Hegel's entire philosophy as the efforts of a commissioned court apologist to devise an intellectual foundation that would appear to provide a rationally argued justification both for his keepers' power and the tactics they chose to employ to maintain that power. In his arguments, Popper purports to demonstrate that Hegel actually began with precepts of totalitarian doctrine and then worked backwards from there to formulate his philosophical system. His supporting arguments comprise a long, densely written exercise in academic philosophy not easily condensed to fit into an essay of this nature. I will say only that while he failed to provide adequate evidence to me of his accusations concerning Hegel's motives and intellectual integrity, he does succeed in exposing the fatal flaws in Hegel's thinking. He then proceeds to show how the flawed reasoning in the system causes it to be vulnerable to an interpretation that could lead to a justification for totalitarian rule.
In the following chapters, Popper portrays Karl Marx as a philosopher badly influenced by Hegelian philosophy. In his treatment of the philosopher, he expresses great admiration for Marx's moral grounding and humanitarian aims. But, while convinced of the purity of purpose in Marx's political philosophy, Popper posits that it suffers from two critical misconceptions that ultimately serve to betray his humanitarian goals. The first lies within the constructs of Marx's utopian vision. Marx prophesied an end to human suffering not as a goal towards which we must strive to move, but rather as a pre-existing and ensured future. Our actions could either facilitate History's inevitable march on it or, conversely, slow its progress and delay its achievement. His philosophy was meant as an attempt to create a climate for political awareness and action that would accelerate the process of an historical imperative. Popper's second major criticism of Marxist thinking concerns its misplaced faith in the moral power of the collective and the consequent devaluation of the moral responsibilities of those individuals who comprise the collective; a faith which neglects to account for the psychological dynamic by which a crowd is much more easily swayed than a reasoning individual by the rhetoric of demagoguery. While a mob tends to create and then react to its own momentum, an individual may pause to question motives and consequences. Popper believed that, as a result of these two philosophical weaknesses, the Marxist program becomes subject to distorted interpretations by which it can be turned around and used to hold down the very slaves it was intended to free.
The common thread Popper identifies running through the philosophies of Plato, Hegel, and Marx is a concept he calls "historicism." Historicist systems are predicated on the belief that society is subject to certain immutable laws of progress and that the only function remaining to the political or social scientist lies in the development of prophecies regarding a pre-determined eventual state of affairs. The prophecies are to be based on the study and understanding of these laws as they reveal themselves in the evidence of history. Once understood properly, the theory goes, the laws can be extrapolated to predict where we are going and, perhaps, how long it will take to get there. However, as Popper points out, because the history we have available to us is almost always a history of power and very rarely a history of people, the methods of historicism can yield the recipes for some pretty perverse and aberrant social conduct. A lie that succeeds becomes the truth. Because history is always written by the victor, it becomes a truism that every military venture ends in triumph. The cruel recurrent theme of the historicist perspective is that might makes right. In the case of those guided by visions of a utopian or apocalyptic nature, it simply transforms to future might makes right. Furthermore, and most importantly, while the historicist point of view offers the allure of relieving us of the burden of our social responsibilities as individuals, it also denies us any significant role in creating the world in which we must live.
In his conclusion to the second volume, Popper instructs,
"Instead of posing as prophets, we must become the makers of our fate. We must learn to do things as well as we can, and to look out for our mistakes. And when we have dropped the idea that the history of power will be our judge, when we have given up worrying about whether or not history will justify us, then one day perhaps we may succeed in getting power under control."
Karl Popper believed that the political climate most conducive to our becoming the makers of our fate is that of the open society; a society supported by a framework of guaranteed democratic principles. Among these principles he includes the equal treatment of all citizens before the law, regardless of social class or financial means; universal suffrage and the right to participate in democratic elections with the certain knowledge that one's ballot, once cast, will be counted as cast; an unfettered and participant press as well as an individual's right to hold and voice dissenting views regarding the policies of the governing body, unaccompanied by the threat of being branded an enemy of the state; and, finally, a written constitution, held sacrosanct by the members of the governing body, guaranteeing the continuing existence and exercise of these aforementioned rights.
So passionately did Popper believe in the importance of these principles that he further states,
"There is only one use of violence in political quarrels which I should consider justified. I mean the resistance, once democracy has been attained, to any attack (whether from within or without the state) against the democratic constitution and the use of democratic methods. Any such attack, especially if it comes from the government in power, or if it is tolerated by it, should be resisted by all loyal citizens, even to the use of violence."
(It is on this point, I must note, where I part company with Popper. It remains my opinion that we must never allow the character of the enemies of freedom to dictate the terms of our struggles against them.)
"In fact, the working of democracy rests largely upon the understanding that a government which attempts to misuse its powers and to establish itself as a tyranny outlaws itself, and that the citizens have not only a right but also a duty to consider the action of such a government as a crime, and its members as a dangerous gang of criminals."
There are some who point to the outcome of the last American election and declare that democracy has failed. The Popperian point of view suggests, rather, that it is only evidence that we, as the citizens ultimately responsible for its execution, are failing at democracy. Popper acknowledged, even insisted, that the open society provides neither certainty nor promises regarding the future. But I am in agreement with him in that it does offer our best existing hope. And so now seems, indeed, a proper time to re-examine and relearn the arguments of Dr. Popper; now, before they perish in town square bonfires of patriotic righteousness.