Thursday, 29 January 2015

As another wave of fascist thugs threatens our freedom, it's time to revive Karl Popper's reputation as a political philosopher of genius

I've just finished this article for the next edition of The Salisbury Review. I mentioned that I was writing it in my piece on "Is this all the fault of Islam"  earlier this month (here). Back in 2012, I identified Popper as one of my four greatest 20th Century intellectual heroes (along with Wittgenstein, Hayek and Jung) in a blog about the importance of political and economic feedback (here). So I'm delighted to be doing something - no matter how nugatory - towards celebrating Popper's role as a great defender of liberty. His contribution to political philosophy appears to have been almost entirely airbrushed from history by left-wing academics, who apparently view him as a traitor to their cause. Well, sod 'em - Sir Karl Raimund Popper CH FBA FRS was a brilliant, cantakerous, feisty, unclubbable, utterly honest fighter for truth and common sense: I'd love to have heard him on the issue of Islamofascism and the smiley-faced tyranny of the EU.

If you spot any howlers, please let me know!
The Open Society and Its Enemies - written in New Zealand during the early years of the Second World War by the émigré Austrian philosopher Karl Popper and first published in the UK in 1945 - was one of the most influential works of political philosophy of the last century. Nowadays, it is largely ignored or has simply been forgotten. In some ways, that’s understandable, given that some version of the political system Popper was advocating is what most of those living in Western-style liberal democracies have experienced – undoubtedly to their benefit - during the last 70 years. What struck readers as bold at the time can now seem unexcitingly old hat (or as one libertarian commentator recently put it, “namby-pamby”). 
But, rereading the book after nearly 40 years, I was surprised at how compelling it remains, and how relevant to present threats. In particular, Popper’s analysis of the persistent menace of totalitarian ideology can effectively be applied to a variety of current “revolts against civilisation” - most notably Islamofascism, but including the liberal fascism of the EU, the Green movement’s advocacy of global impoverishment, and the distinctly adolescent strain of anarchy espoused by the anti-globalisation mob. 
The task Popper set himself on the day in March 1938 when he learned that the German army had marched into his homeland was to explain why “open” societies – self-critical democracies whose members are responsible for decisions affecting their own lives – are doomed to suffer successive attacks by those wishing to establish “closed”, undemocratic societies where all decisions are made for their members by an irremovable elite. In doing so, Popper hoped to identify the means by which open societies could inoculate themselves against the poison of tyranny. Democracy (which he saw as a mechanism for limiting government power rather than enabling a dictatorship of the majority) was Popper’s preferred system because “only democracy provides an institutional framework that permits reform without violence”. Only by entrenching and shoring up democratic institutions can open societies defeat those wishing to revert to a more primitive, tribal, collectivist arrangement offering protection from the “strain of civilisation” which results from the threat of rapid social change and the burden of personal choice.
The idea Popper identified as underpinning all forms of totalitarianism was historicism, which he defined as a belief in “inexorable laws of historical destiny” – for instance, the “inevitable” establishment of an international Caliphate, or the victory of the Proletariat or the Aryan race, or the nirvana of Universal Equality. He saw such teleological beliefs as resulting partly from utopianism  - “a deep–felt dissatisfaction with a world which does not, and cannot, live up to our moral ideals and to our dreams of perfection” – and partly from sheer funk in the face of uncertainty. With the attempt to return to “a state of implicit submission to tribal magic” we inevitably arrive at “the Inquisition, at the Secret Police, and at a romanticised gangsterism… with the most brutal and violent destruction of all that is human.” 
Not everything Popper proposed resonates today. One of his less appealing ideas was that politicians should behave like scientists - their job, he felt, was to find the best solutions to problems by conducting small-scale experiments which could be reversed or modified if found not to work. He described this as “piecemeal social engineering”, in contrast to the large-scale Utopian variety favoured by closed society enthusiasts. This scientific approach seems unattractive to those of us who don’t necessarily view life as a series of soluble problems, distrust the very concept of social engineering, and feel that our politicians’ endless, hyperactive tinkering with every aspect of our lives suggests an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. 
Popper’s main field was the philosophy of science, and there’s one area where his desire to import scientific methodology is welcome: he felt the best form of society was one operating under the principle of open criticism. Tyrannies, he felt, were doomed partly because fearful henchmen are justifiably reluctant to tell their deluded, strutting leaders that their policies are failing. A similar point was made by Popper’s friend and champion, Friedrich Hayek (who was instrumental in Popper being awarded a key post at the LSE after the war), in The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944. As Popper was essentially a man of the social democratic left, one suspects that some of the classical liberal ideas he propounded – free markets, light-touch government (he specifically warned against interfering government officials), and a firm rejection of the concept of a centrally planned economy – are as much a result of Hayek’s influence as of genuine conviction. But if some of these views were indeed grafted onto Popper’s essentially soft-left core beliefs, he is to be commended for practicing the critical openness he preached.
Popper’s political ambiguity has contributed to his unpopularity with academics: there’s something in The Open Society to infuriate everybody. His lack of support among left-wing academics (the vast majority of the breed, obviously) probably stems from his contempt for Marx’s followers; his lack of belief in a powerful, beneficent state; his support for the individual over the collective; and his contempt for the ostentatious do-goodery of supposedly enlightened elites: “…our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous – from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows.” 
Popper was insufficiently critical of Marx himself for right-wing tastes, and rather too suspicious of unfettered capitalism, which he viewed as a ravening beast in need of taming. As for conservatives, Popper dismissed them as fear-filled reactionaries (although he modified this view in later life). Conservatives, in turn, were no doubt alarmed by his rather technocratic attitude to social and political traditions, which he felt could safely be jettisoned or modified when they had outlived their usefulness; his rejection of systems based on the need to accommodate human nature; and by his endless and rather wearying emphasis on the need for constant reinvention. 
But what really stands out on rereading The Open Society is how extraordinarily often Popper is simply right. For instance, he warns against politicians’ tendency to curtail personal freedom during times of war (impressively restrained of him, given that this was written as European democracy was fighting for its very life) – but, in a section that is possibly even more relevant in our slavishly multicultural era than when it was written, Popper insists that for a truly open society to survive there must be limits to tolerance. After conceding that the expression of intolerant beliefs needn’t always be suppressed, especially if their influence can be countered by rational argument and public opinion, he gives us this distinctly un-namby-pamby key passage: “But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” Sound familiar?
It’s not just the strength of most of Popper’s arguments which impresses. There is something heroic about the lack of moral preening or ideological rigidity, the absence of hysteria or extremism, the all-pervasive tough-minded common sense. It was written by an overworked man, often exhausted and ill, living in near penury, exiled thousands of miles from home, expressing himself in what was in effect a third language, labouring under an unsympathetic boss, in circumstances which made it well-nigh impossible to discuss his ideas with his intellectual peers (of whom there were, admittedly, only a handful). That he managed to produce such a powerful, influential document bears testament to his brilliance and the sheer force of his will – by all accounts,Popper was a pugnacious character.   
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Open Society is that it owed its success to the general reader. After all, it’s 800 pages long; most of it is taken up with detailed attacks on Plato, Hegel and Marx; it barely refers to the war; it was published in two volumes; and there is no concession whatsoever to sentimental populism – hardly a recipe for bestsellerdom. What it had in its favour was Popper’s ability to get his point across and to make ideas – even those in support of moderation - exciting: unlike most works of political philosophy, it is remarkably readable. 
Liberal democracy once more finds itself menaced by totalitarian thugs and their fellow-travellers: a propitious moment, one would have thought, to revive the reputation of such a staunch defender of liberty, and of this key work.  


  1. That is a really excellent summation. You are, I think, correct to imply that the book (unlike many other works in the same field) was accessible to the general reader.
    I was at LSE when both Popper and Oakshott were on the faculty. Indeed, I took classes from Oakshott's disciple - or, at least, admirer - Ken Minogue as well as attending Oakshott's lectures for the political philosophy paper of my degree. One of the recommended (more or less compulsory) texts for the course was The Open Society and its Enemies which (for me and anybody sentient) comprehensively disembowelled marxism then and forever.
    I have no idea but I suspect that Popper is no longer a set text for the general BSc(Econ) degree at the LSE. Of course, LSE has declined from being a respected institution to one which has sold itself to propagandise for fashionable contemporary causes. In one of the most egregious cases, a spurious "institute" has been set up under the LSE umbrella (UCL has done the same) using an American billionaire's name and cash to propagandise for the "global warming" fraud. Popper and Oakshott and your other intellectual heroes would have been disgusted (but not, I suspect, surprised).
    BTW (and if I've noted this before - apologies) am I the only commenter who is compelled to post using Internet Explorer rather than (my preferred) Firefox. When I try to use Firefox my comment just disappears - or is this a feature rather than a bug?

    1. Thank you very much indeed, Umbongo!

      How wonderful to have attended lectures by Oakeshott and Minogue. I enjoy reading Oakeshott, but his arguments have always been a bit too subtle for me to grasp - I find I reach the end of an essay which I thought I was following, only to discover that I can’t for the life of me figure out what he was actually saying: I suspect I may just be too thick for his sinuous thinking. No such problem with Kenneth Minogue and his no-nonsense Aussiness.

      I’m not sure I heard Popper’s name mentioned during three years studying Philosophy at Cambridge in the early ‘70s, (it might have cropped up once or twice in the context of logical positivism). I presume that’s because he was unenthusiastic about conceptual analysis and linguistic philosophy?

      As with you, The Open Society acted on me as a lifelong antidote to the lunatic creed of Marxism (The Great Terror and The Gulag Archipelago revealed the results of applying it – 100m dead and counting).

      Despite everything you say about the LSE, at least they were generous enough to award a PhD degree to Colonel Gaddaffi’s son, Saif al-Islam (“Sword of Islam”), in 2008 for his thesis, "The role of civil society in the democratisation of global governance institutions: from 'soft power' to collective decision-making?" I’m sure it’s an absolute classic.

    2. If only Gaddafi junior had been a warmist, he'd have been on the faculty at the Grantham Institute rather than in prison in Zintan. Mind you, I suspect the intellectual atmosphere in Zintan is more stimulating than in Houghton Street.

    3. Actually the lectures from Oakeshott were fairly straightforward surveys of political philosophy from the Greeks to the (then) present day. Accordingly, we didn't get much insight (in the lectures) into Oakeshott's own philosophy. The tutorials were different however and from both Minogue and Oakeshott we got fairly good doses of Oakeshott's views although, as you imply, once the tutorial was over, actually recalling what Oakeshott said (or Minogue said about Oakeshott) was . . er . . difficult. However, as you further imply, callow youth doesn't appreciate what it's given. I'd love to revisit those tutorials and concentrate on what was being discussed. At the time, of course, my short-term attention was rather more focussed on the willowy undergraduette I had arranged to meet in the bar after the tutorial. You know, youth really is wasted on the young.

    4. Scott: I’m not sure I heard Popper’s name mentioned during three years studying Philosophy at Cambridge in the early ‘70s, (it might have cropped up once or twice in the context of logical positivism) ...

      May I remember for you?

      You yourself identified an academic habit – lesser thinkers grubbing a living by elaborating microscopically different views of a greater thinker's hypothesis.

      Popper came up with falsificationism. Then, as you pointed out, Lakatos triumphantly distinguished it from naive methodological falsificationism. Hooray. Now a long debate on the relative merits of the two versions of falsificationism could be joined and the long winter nights could be usefully filled, to no effect whatsoever.

      Something similar happened to Quine and "referential opacity". A number of less employable academics went through the whole opticians' gamut trying to get papers published, e.g. "referential translucency".

      One reason I know my idea of "dematerialised ID" is lightweight is that there is no literature of rematerialised ID, prematerialised ID, supermaterialised ID, etc ...

  2. I too would like to commend our host. I was mostly aware of Popper through his views on science so I found that summation extremely useful, thank you.

    As for Firefox, it's working fine for me with this blog.

    1. Thanks a lot, GCooper - delighted to hear it made sense. According to a 2013 guide to The Open Society I read recently, even the Great Man's writings on science aren't in vogue with academics these days. Popper definitely needs a top-flight publicity agent.

  3. "As for Firefox, it's working fine for me with this blog"

    Bugger, that means it's my browser/computer!! Even so, thanks for the info.

    1. Don't despair, Umbongo - I just experimented by posting a comment using Firefox, withe the same result, but then I went into "Preferences", selcted "Privacy" and ticked "Accept cookies from sites", which automatically ticked the item below, i.e. "Accept third-party cookies", then tried to post a comment again - and it worked! Obviously you can tick and untick the box before and after posting a comment, but it's less time-consuming than having to open up another browser. If you already accept third-party cookies on Firefox, then I'm stumped - the only other thing I can suggest is clearing your cache, which sometimes clears up problems.

      I'm sorry the process is so laborious, and that you then have to identify yourself as a non-robot - but without that, the blog gets inundated with "Anonymous" spam comments advertising porn and roofing companies in Wisconsin!

    2. It works! Thanks

    3. I shall inform the Blog's IT department - they've never been thanked before, mainly because they've never been right.

  4. Ah, yes - the ludicrously named 'cookies'! That could explain it. I accept every one of these poisonous offerings - then ditch the lot every time I close and re-open the browser.

    It's utterly unreasonable of me, I'm sure, but I'd rather not be tracked around the Interwebs for the financial benefit of Messrs Page, Brin and Schmidt (whose name fortuitously rhymes with his grasp of ethical business behaviour).

    That might well be the answer.

    1. That doesn't sound in the least bit unreasonable. The only problem I find with deleting the damn things is that I have to log back into a variety of applications afterwards, which is a drag.