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Open Society

Jeff makes an important observation before he gives the citation from the always insightful Prof. Bacevich. Jeff writes:

That strategy of openness has been structured around the imperatives of economic growth and expansion, on the assumption that the construction of an integrated global order will ensure not only the economic preeminence of the United States, but her geopolitical preeminence.

It is interesting that Jeff should bring up this discussion of a "strategy of openness," since Fareed Zakaria has come out this week with an affirmation of key elements of that strategy as the appropriate post-Bush strategy for the United States. In other words, the policy establishment will continue business as usual, minus the glaring incompetence of management. This has the feel, as all paeans to "open society" have, of whistling past the graveyard.

Zakaria argues this point in a smart way: by making it appear as if the country is rushing into a period of "hunkering down" and turning away from the rest of the world, he can make the actual same-old, same-old policies he proposes (these can be summed up briefly as: immigration good, Iran bad, growth good), with which the overwhelming majority of presidential candidates agrees, seem bold, counterintuitive, fresh and, above all, very open. In fact, these are fundamentally the same policies against which large parts of the country are in revolt. Zakaria simply proposes to put them under new, more worldly, more "open" management.

All this talk of openness has reminded me of the remark of a modern German politican (whose name escapes me) quoted by Malachi Hacohen in his interesting biography of Karl Popper, which said effectively, "We are all Popperians now." Hacohen was quoting this by way of showing the enduring legacy of Popper, whose idiosyncratic political ideas (a humane social democratic view that gradually developed into liberal anticommunist Cold War hawkishness) took form in his magnum opus against all totalitarian impulses, The Open Society And Its Enemies. It occurs to me that this German politician had a point, to the extent that virtually every politician and pundit across the spectrum feels obliged to say nice things about the "open society" and the dreadful George Soros often dresses up his brand of international meddling under the guise of his Open Society Institute. Most of us may be Popperians, but it is important to begin asking why we should remain so when the "open society" (which is neither open, nor a society) has proven to be such a failure?

Comments (8)

"Large parts of the country" are in revolt against the proposition that Iran is bad???

If I understand correctly, he's saying that Zakaria's support of open borders and the concept of America as a "melting pot and replaced it with the creed of America as multicultural mosaic," etc. is what is being opposed. Assuming my understanding of open society (open the borders, increase foreign trade to maintain growth and remain a world power) is right-if it's wrong please tell me what it is, because I'm pretty hazy on the exact meaning of the phrase-what do individuals do about it? I can only come up with being involved locally, supporting the local farmers' markets, actually knowing your neighbors, etc. Too bad there isn't a distributist party-support human cloning to bring back Chesterton and Belloc.

Well, that's not what someone like Popper meant by the open society. And, hopefully, no one here qualifies as one of its "enemies" as he used the term. As far as I'm concerned, if it weren't for "open society" concepts like, oh, y'know, freedom to criticize the government, this blog itself would not exist. In Egypt they throw their government-criticizing bloggers in prison. _That's_ a non-open society. Nothing to do with farmer's markets. No thanks.

I should have stressed immigration and globalisation as those things against which large parts of the country were opposing. Certainly a large part of the country doesn't regard Iran to be nearly as much of a threat as some, and I suspect probably a third of the country doesn't regard it to be as much of a problem as Zakaria does. However, it is these other two things that were my main targets. Also, to be precise, I don't think most Americans believe that Iran as a country is objectionable; those who have problems with it have problems with its government. So, the shorthand description was unfortunately too brief. It was also somewhat beside the point of the rest of the post.

Perhaps "open society" shouldn't be used by many modern politicians and pundits to describe the political and economic regime prevailing in the West, but this is the phrase they often use. They take it from Popper, though an argument could be made that Popperians are badly misusing Popper's phrase. To the extent that it is now used by people in Europe and America who favour social engineering, criminalising thought, and restricting discourse to an extremely narrow band of permissible ideas, it is directly contrary to Popper's own very idiosyncratic politics. The partisans of the "open society" believe it is legitimate, for instance, to ban political parties if they have the "wrong" sorts of ideas, as they have done to the VB in Belgium and as they constantly try to do to other nationalist parties throughout Europe. The exercise of control here is less formal, but not necessarily any less effective for not being enshrined in law.

Note that I did not say in the post that the quote about everyone being Popperian was true in its entirety (i.e., it is obviously not true that everyone actually shares all of Popper's interpretations of Plato, Hegel and Marx, for instance), and I did not say that Karl Popper's ideas are the ones actually motivating the defenders of what Jeff called the "strategy of opennness." Arguably, the advocates of the "strategy of openness" and the "open society" are actually new expressions of the destructive "historicism" that Popper criticised so fiercely and which he blamed for the great totalitarian crimes of the 20th century. Those who believe that history dictates that liberal democracy will, must, triumph--but who also believe that history could use a little push in the right direction--are historicists in this vein. They are the ones who will very often talk about "open societies," but they don't actually want societies that are open and bustling with a diversity of ideas. They want to reduce things to homogeneity and uniformity as much as possible.

Popper had a horror of Sozialtechnik and was mildly sympathetic to the ideas of Hayek, whom he knew and who arranged for him to come to America, so he would undoubtedly be horrified at the things being done today in the name of the "open society." I always try to put it in quotes, because it is *not* what it claims to be, but almost certainly its opposite. Hence I said "it is neither open, nor a society." Backers of the "open society," such as Soros, are not interested in a free and genuinely open debate. The "open society" is one in which all of the important debates have already been settled in favour of an elite that espouses some conventional egalitarian liberal creed. Multiculturalism, political correctness and the proliferation of "rights" are among the features of that creed, though there is certainly more to it.

I regret if all this was not sufficiently clear the first time around, and it was necessarily a brief treatment of a dense subject, but I would have hoped that the scare quotes would make clear that I was distinguishing the Eurocrat/Soros "open society" from an actually free society. Indeed, the "open society" of today's EU puts people on trial and tries to put people in jail for opinions, whether a Fallaci or Houellebecq or even someone as unsympathetic as David Irving, in just the same way that the Egyptian dictatorship does and for the exact same reason: to maintain control and crush opposition.

I should have thought that on a blog that declares its opposition to liberalism it should be fairly clear what I am referring to when I criticise the "open society."

Thanks, ya'll. I'm afraid I didn't think of googling open society until after I posted.

I have followed up on this discussion with a new post at Eunomia:


I appreciate the clarifications and understand better where you are coming from. Thanks.

Glad I could straighten out any misunderstandings. I have appreciated the questions and the discussion.

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