Thursday 22 June 2023

How did Karl Popper's Open Society attack on totalitarianism, itself become totalitarian?

I only know of Karl Popper's book The Open Society and its Enemies at second-hand - initially from Popper by Brian Magee (1974); and from references in Popper's autobiography which I read aged nineteen - and in many other places. 

I never read the big book itself, because (for most of my adult life) I already knew I would agree with it - and there seemed no point. 

The basic idea is that societies must be (like science a century ago) open to dissent, indeed encouraging of all debate; and thereby error can be corrected, and a closer approach to the truth can be discovered. 

Yet there can never be a positive formulation of truth, exception provisionally - for further evaluation - so societies must always remain "open".* 

The notion was one of a dynamic society; always questing, always critical, always self-correcting; always hypothetical, never dogmatic. 

I never revised my positive attitude to the Open Society until after I became a Christian. 

However; in the early 2000s I was re-reading Popper's ideas, and became aware that their major supporter was a chap called George Soros+ - who funded specific people (one of whom was a colleague), organizations, publications promoting the Open Society. 

What a helpful chap!

GS was supporting the autonomy of civil society, protecting freedom of expression, encouraging a free interaction of arguments... and so on. 

(+Yes, that George Soros.) 

So, how did Popper's Open Society ideas - apparently formulated specifically to explain why early 20th century totalitarianism was morally wrong and intellectually bankrupt; end-up by seamlessly evolving-into a primary rationalization for a global totalitarianism of greater scope and thoroughness than ever was achieved before? 

I think the reason is simple - which is that the Open Society is a godless ideology, a secular and atheistic society, promoted by those who have abandoned their religion; which therefore is all-about means and nothing-about ends. 

Indeed, the open Society idea tries to make a virtue of its own deficiencies; by claiming that only a life, society and world based upon process-merely is genuinely good. Goodness has been redefined as process!

Any idea that there is a good that ought to be pursued by various means, is declared totalitarian. It is replaced by the idea that good inheres in the means - good is 'whatever results from the proper process'. 

And the 'proper process'? Well...

Articulated as such, the Open Society is now a universal rationalization for the direction and content of official modernity - however that is currently-defined... 

Nowadays, justice is whatever results from the legal process (regardless of the corrupt actualities of that process); education is 'whatever-happens' at officially-validated schools and colleges; 'quality' is whatever-emanates-from 'quality-assured' (auditable) management systems...

Democracy is whatever emanates from the actual system of voting (including whatever latest corruptions and disregarding all propaganda and ideological coercion) - and whatever comes from the 'democratically-elected' government is therefore good. 

Science is whatever professional and accredited scientists are saying today. 

In a nutshell; the Open Society is a philosophical justification for The System is Always Right

It turns out that - lacking God or any roots in the spiritual - the 'Openness' of an Open Society can be redefined into its opposite.  

Why not? 

So long as the society - the System - continues to declare itself "open", then it is said to be superior to others that are based-on ideas of truth being separable from process.

If the Open Society is wrong now, is revealed as evil and totalitarian ; then maybe it always was intended thus - maybe it was engineered (under demonic influence) as a stalking horse against God, divine creation and The Good? 

That is suggested by the obvious fact that those who adhered to these 'liberal ideas' so very seldom jumped the ship and blew the whistle, when Openness became ever more obviously closed censorship, exclusion of dissent, and micro-control of mass thought and behaviour. 

And, because no Good was allowed to be distinguishable from approved-process - because Goodness was held to inhere in The System itself; all this vast apparatus of totalitarian control was routinely deployed against whatever was true, beautiful or virtuous. 

(As we may see all around.)

The flaw was always there - when Popper talked of the need to be illiberal in defense of liberal ideas - intolerant of "intolerance"; yet neglected that he had abolished all criteria for knowing the truth or the good. Liberalism was un-rooted, set-adrift, opened to endless redefinitions in light of the expediency of the-current-system protecting itself. 

Anyway; the fate of Popper's Open Society over the past century is a case history of the way in which (like Zombies) - ideas and ideals, as well as persons and institutions, can-be (have-already-been) subverted, killed, hollowed-out, and replaced with their opposites.  

In other words: an inverted-world, of inverted values: where Open means Closed; freedom means omni-surveillance and micro-control; and where the Open Society is a ruthless, world-wide, oligarchical, piratical-looting dictatorship. 

*This links with Poppers 'falsification' idea of science; whereby - supposedly - an hypothesis can never be proved, but can be refuted. Science can demonstrate wrongness, but not rightness. This concept of science is (if taken seriously) a vast negation of knowledge - as science moves from error to error, based on hypothesis that have Not Yet been disproved, but may be at some future point. (It also removes the individual scientist's personal motivations, ability and truthfulness from consideration - because "science" is the process, not the person! In other words, this is writing a blank-cheque for corruption and dishonesty in science.) By Popper's account, this makes science into an 'open society' in miniature - the first such, and the most highly-developed. Yet, science too is now a closed society. While continuing to pay loud and continuous lip-service to the same ideals of a century ago - science now is in actuality a merely branch-office of the totalitarian bureaucracy, like everything else - its role merely to manufacture rationalizations for... whatever the global leadership class currently want to do. 


Inquisitor Benedictus said...

It is based on a pseudo-Socratic intellectual humility. Socrates' intellectual doubt was an existential situation for him — he really lived it. People think "Socratic irony" means pretending to be ignorant so you can later catch out your opponent. That's not the irony of Socrates. His irony was that he really believed he was the most ignorant of men, that everybody was more informed than he was, and yet, to his amazement and disappointment, he discovered time and time again that his interlocutors were just as clueless about the first principles of existence as he was. Thus, he concludes he has only one advantage: he *knows* that he knows nothing. This is why the Delphic oracle called him the wisest man in Athens, a report which astonished Socrates when he heard it.

Modern skepticism is not authentically Socratic. It merely pretends to be. The "Socratic irony" they practice is really the base, crass sort of tricking your opponent by pretending you don't have an answer, when you really do have an answer and are certain of it. And the opponents are us, people of faith. And the answer is secularism, rationalism, empiricism, liberalism. So these atheists and practical atheists invoke the inheritance of ancient Athens and the great man Socrates, when they are in fact mere liars and sophists — the arch-enemies of Socrates. (Note: Socrates never denied faith. His rationalism had clear limits. He was a very pious man who was frequently found in prayer.) So by an "Open Society" they mean one open to endless rationalistic sophistry wearing away at what remains of the foundations of Christian and other civilisations. To the extent that they "tolerate" faith it's always done with very clear and very strong caveats: don't dare assert that your faith has any importance beyond your private conscience and your church walls. Society belongs to us, the enlightened ones. We tolerate your religion like an adult tolerates fables given to children. Public discourse belongs to reason and science. Bring "God" into it and we will send you into exile back into the "dark ages".

But society isn't founded on reason. It's founded on authority. Ultimately, on the authority of God. But the secularist clergy (largely Freemasons) usurped the clerical offices that were once held by the Christian clergy of Europe. It has been a clear, naked usurpation of power and authority. Yesterday, the Christian priests told us and our children what to think and how to live; now the priests of "science" do so — only they feign this humility and pretend they are helping us teach ourselves while the indoctrinate us, because they are liars and sophists.

Bruce Charlton said...

@IB - I agree with your estimate of Socrates - as I've previously written here

I don't - however - agree that 'society' is founded on authority; because the (presumed) most ancient hunter-gather societies do not have 'government': they are run as extended families, and the authority model is inadequate (much too reductive) to describe families.

But civilization has been founded on authority - that seems true. What we have now (especially for the past 60 or so years) is the bizarre situation when human authority is tyrannical and also, deliberately - explicitly, self-destroying.

My guess is that this is because demonic control began to take over - so the system is run for Their benefit - not for the benefit of human beings (not even for the benefit of the top-level rulers). Think about how the 'elites' have all-but stopped reproducing, and destroyed their own dynasties, and largely destroyed the civilization (and power) they would in the past have bequeathed to numerous legitimate descendants.

Inquisitor Benedictus said...

I believe that families are founded on patriarchal authority; but yes, it is a somewhat limited expression in that "authority" can be taken in the crudest possible sense as the mere power of command. I would try, however, to develop a concept of authority that includes the greater powers/values of love, trust, fellowship, creativity, etc. When I say society is founded on authority and not reason, I mean that its foundations are not up for debate (as opposed to Rousseauian "social contract" theorists who would have us believe it's a matter of freely consenting, rational individuals). The children don't get to decide on the authority of their parents, and even democratically elected governors, once elected, govern by the authority of God (even if they foolishly deny the Source of their authority).

Bruce Charlton said...

@IB - There I disagree! I guess you may be referencing remarks in the Epistles?

But I don't regard such advice as having anything particularly Christian about it - it a matter of generic expediency, pragmatism, church order etc - probably mostly necessary in practice, but not part of God's plan or Christ's salvation.

I believe also that voting is by its essence immoral because a removal of responsibility for choice -

No Longer Reading said...

Interesting and informative post.

In addition to what you bring up another issue is that the idea of neutrality is often believed to be in some sense more fundamental than the closed societies. Proponents of this kind of idea would say that it's just what happens when you remove the restrictions. And so from that perspective, they would say that it's justified because it's the ground state, the most natural arrangement.

In theory an open space is prior to anything filling it, but once the first thing emerges, then we no longer have an open space. And so we find that in practice, neutrality isn't a negative value, it's a positive value.

There must be some powerful force that maintains neutrality by keeping any particular positive commitment from becoming too powerful. But in order to do that, you need some positive motivation animating this powerful force. And open-ended neutrality is neither as motivating nor as good as some positive vision of the good.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - "There must be some powerful force that maintains neutrality by keeping any particular positive commitment from becoming too powerful. But in order to do that, you need some positive motivation animating this powerful force. And open-ended neutrality is neither as motivating nor as good as some positive vision of the good."

Yes, that's very well put. Openness and neutrality get filled, what fills them will subvert openness and neutrality - then a counter-force must continually be re-imposing openness - and the motivation and power to this so must be greater than the immediate self-interest of those who are currently occupying the (once open) ground.

This is why science arose and came to its peak under the higher morality of Christianity with its ideal of truth which transcended the self interest of scientists or government. Once the strength and power of that ideal began to decline, so did science.

Avro G said...

The Bible tells us that the heart is desperately wicked. People like GS seem bent on ignoring this apparently not self-evident truth in favor of a society based on Cole Porter - Anything Goes. And when anything - literally ANYTHING - goes there is no limit, no brake on man’s folly and wickedness. The guiding principle of the psychotic billionaire class is, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, We Never Make Mistakes. If you never make mistakes the very idea of repentance - admitting error and resolving not to repeat it - becomes absurd. Without this basic Christian idea, it is hard to see how anything like science as formerly conceived is possible. Not to mention that there can be no hope of redemption for individual souls.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Avro - It was apparent prophesied by Dostoyevsky when he said (something like) "Without God, anything is permitted". This turns-out to be a plain truth; despite generations of atheists claiming that things are more complicated than that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@cecil - Rather than having ancient origins, I regard this as a distinctively 'modern' way of thinking - i.e. post medieval, and developing first in Western Europe and Britain. Even its 'legalism' is hollow - since the laws can be made vague, contradictory and changed without limit. Perhaps 'bureaucratic' is a better way of thinking of it - certainly that is how it has worked-out in practice (a subject I've written about extensively here - maybe repetitively!: it is a bit of a hobby horse...).