Karl Popper’s The Open Society & Its Enemies

Karl Popper’s monumental work on political philosophy, The Open Society & Its Enemies, had sat on my bookshelf for two years, silently rebuking me for my neglect of it, but the political developments of 2016 encouraged me to finally give it its due. Consider what has happened in this historical year: Britain voted to undo four decades of involvement in the European Union, setting off a chain reaction that threatens to destroy the European Parliament; in the United States, Donald Trump, as unlikely and buffoonish a presidential prospect as that country had ever seen, toppled an establishment candidate by redrawing the electoral map, giving the Republican party more power than it has had in nearly a century. Various liberal publications – among them the New York Times and The Economist – have declared Angela Merkel’s Germany to be the last hope for liberalism, which, if true, would be bad news indeed for liberals, for it seems to me unlikely that she will prove immune to the winds of change sweeping over the West. Why has this happened, and how might a book published more than a half-century ago offer any insights into our present situation?

Popper’s work is valuable because it is an expression of liberal values, perhaps a definitive one, but it accomplishes this not merely by listing what is to be cherished within the liberal tradition, but by criticizing ideas and ideologies within that tradition that are, in Popper’s view, illiberal. His chief targets are Plato, Hegel and Marx, men who, in Popper’s judgment, have had a pernicious influence on the development of societies, especially because that influence has rarely been clearly expressed. I will confine myself to sketching, in barest outline, his synopsis of Plato’s political philosophy, and I ask you if there are not frightening parallels with our present moment: Plato believed that the best possible state was one ruled by philosophers, men who were, not by profession but by breeding, superior in intellect and understanding, capable of steering the whole of the society in a desirable direction. He was an unabashed opponent of democracy, sensing (correctly) that to allow the public to govern their own affairs would expose all of society to error and caprice. Furthermore, because only the philosophers, the enlightened leaders, could discover the Ideal, only they were qualified to lead society in its direction. Accordingly, it is for the few to lead and the many to follow, and blind obedience is, for Plato, a virtue:

The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace – to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals…only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.

Popper accuses Plato of betraying the teachings of Socrates, who did not view the acquisition of knowledge as conferring special status but as a perpetual source of humility: to learn is to discover the extent of our own ignorance. Though both Plato and Socrates extoll the virtues of the philosopher, Plato defines philosophy differently: for him, it is not a method of enquiry or a way of existence but a category of being. Here is Popper:

His [Plato’s] lover [of truth] is no longer the modest seeker, he is the proud possessor of truth. A trained dialectician, he is capable of intellectual intuition, i.e. of seeing, and of communicating with, the eternal, the heavenly Forms or Ideas. Placed high above all ordinary men, he is ‘god-like, if not …divine,’ both in his wisdom and in his power. Plato’s ideal philosopher approaches both to omniscience and to omnipotence. He is the Philosopher-King. It is hard, I think, to conceive a greater contrast than that between the Socratic and the Platonic ideal of a philosopher. It is the contrast between two worlds – the world of a modest, rational individualist and that of a totalitarian demi-god.

One of the popular criticisms against the European Union, and one frequently made against the alliance of politicians, journalists and academics who form America’s “establishment,” is that they – the putative leaders – have become unmoored from the societies they purport to rule over. Like Plato’s philosopher-kings, they have been bred almost from birth in a world apart from their fellow citizens, in posh daycares and private schools, from whence they attend expensive private universities where they are initiated into a language – and taught a set of concerns – that are almost wholly alien to the wider society. You can get a sense of the contempt with which Plato regards the common Athenian by his willingness to countenance lies and deceit on the part of the rulers, provided it is “for the good of the society.” “It is the business of the rulers of the city, if it is anybody’s,” he writes in the Republic, “to tell lies, deceiving both its enemies and its own citizens for the benefit of the city; and no one else much touch this privilege.” Plato accords to his philosopher rulers the maximum amount of power because he envisions a supreme end, visible only to this elite, towards which society must be directed.

The fundamental question for Plato, then, is who should rule? Plato’s answer was the enlightened, the wise. But Popper urges a different approach:

But if we approach political theory from a different angle, then we find that far from solving any fundamental problems, we have merely skipped over them, by assuming that the question ‘Who should rule?’ is fundamental. For even those who share this assumption of Plato’s admit that political rulers are not always sufficiently ‘good’ or ‘wise’ (we need not worry about the precise meaning of these terms), and that it is not at all easy to get a government on whose goodness and wisdom one can implicitly rely. If that is granted, then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad government; whether we should not prepare for the worst leaders, and hope for the best. But this leads to a new approach to the problem of politics, for it forces us to replace the question: Who should rule? by the new question: How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?

It is a marvelous irony, for those able to see it, that the presidency of Barack Obama, characterized by the consolidation of executive power, should be followed by the presidency of Donald Trump, who will likely use those same powers to undo so much of his predecessor’s changes. How can this not lead to tribal politics, to deepening divisions between left and right, when so wide a gulf separates the Democratic and Republican vision for the country? Popper distrusted all those who had a grand plan for society, who wished to submit it to a higher principle; he understood that such a vision required a strong, centralized government – a prerequisite to totalitarianism – if it were to be carried out, and that it would inevitably violate Kant’s categorical imperative by treating human beings as means to an end, rather than as an end unto themselves. Instead of this “Utopian engineering,” as he called it, he advocated for “piecemeal engineering”:

The politician who adopts this method may or may not have a blueprint of society before his mind, he may or may not hope that mankind will one day realize an ideal state, and achieve happiness and perfection on earth. But he will be aware that perfection, if at all attainable, is far distant, and that every generation of men, and therefore also the living, have a claim; perhaps not so much a claim to be made happy, for there are no institutional means of making a man happy, but a claim not to be made unhappy, where it can be avoided. They have a claim to be given all possible help, if they suffer. 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.

This approach is decidedly less sexy, but also far more practical and far less dangerous.

I think one potential window through which to view the events of 2016 is provided by Popper’s analysis of Plato. The governing institutions of Europe and America, bent on achieving a grand, overarching vision – an admirable one, to be sure – of Unity, Equality and Diversity, lost sight of the more quotidian problems of governance, and ultimately lost touch with the very people who had elected them to begin with. If I am right in this conjecture, what the media have labeled a “populist revolt” may well be a manifestation of democracy, rather than a revolt against it. And Karl Popper – unlike the pontificators in the media and academia – would not have been surprised.