The idea is familiar and sounds attractive. But attractive ideas can be used in different ways, and not always those you expect. Some interpretations of ‘Open Society’ actually conflict with others. The latent battle of ideas within is not obvious from a superficial look at definitions.
Yet the idea has become embroiled in some of the most significant political controversies of our time. Some might argue it has played a part in decisions affecting the fate of entire nations and the lives and deaths of people in them.
People choose to die for ideas. People can also be killed because of the ideas of other people. Seen in this light, spending a little time thinking about ideas is not time wasted.
In the course of this new series of blogs, I shall be looking closely at the idea of Open Society. I shall try to be succinct, each time, highlighting a specific contradiction that can be uncovered in the conceptual roots of the idea. I’ll say enough about the opposed interpretations to account for how people who promote the idea in practice might in fact be promoting something they hadn’t imagined.
To begin with, then, Open Society is an idea first elaborated in the 1940s by philosopher Karl Popper. His book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, was very much a response to the world situation of his time, and he took a definite political stance. Whether or not one shares his perspective, philosophically or politically, his argument is cogent within its own set of assumptions. But I come to be writing about the idea now – 70 years on – because it has been made more famous through its uptake by a person who was directly influenced by the philosopher. I am talking of course about billionaire financial trader George Soros. As a student, Soros had looked to Popper as a mentor, and he went on to adopt Popper’s idea as the very name of his Open Society Foundations (OSF).
The political activities Soros has supported in the name of Open Society are controversial. Some have been strongly condemned in many parts of the world. On the other hand, there are vast numbers of constituent organisations of the OSF that employ a great many people who are aiming to make the world a better place.
So there seems to be something profoundly contradictory at work here. In fact, there are several potential misconceptions, and I shall give here just a first example. It relates to a puzzle we will keep coming back to, about the meaning of ‘people power’. This sounds like something we, as people, should probably be in favour of, if we are not part of the elite, and yet some terrible things can happen under the name of People Power. Those terrible things don’t need philosophy to deal with, but to understand how they might have been avoided, and might be avoided another time, some conceptual clarity can do no harm.
‘People power’, on the view of Popper, was no better than ‘elite power’, as found in Plato’s ‘Philosopher King’ (or as Popper saw it in Hitler’s dictatorship). Popper did not support populism. He favoured securing the rights of people to live under democratic conditions. He wanted a firm democratic, secular, constitution within which people would be empowered through freedom to live their lives as they choose. He took the classic liberal view that a belief in allowing a single ‘popular will’ to make political decisions is the thin end of a totalitarian wedge. For Popper, then, people should be protected against tyranny by a form of government that protects pluralistic acceptance of different points of view. The people are empowered to decide on who governs them; they are not in power.
When Soros advocates People Power, and even provides practical support and resources for activists in its name, he seems to be doing something very different from what Popper had in mind. Soros does say he supports pluralism, but he sees it as compatible with the direct empowerment of selected groups of people in what he calls ‘civil society’ (another deeply tricky concept!). He does not talk about the protections of a state’s constitution because he wants to diminish the power of states altogether (another thing we’ll come back to!). Soros is less concerned about the dangers of populism than about what he sees as the freedom-impinging constraints of state powers. He claims that power should really reside with people rather than with states. This could look like embracing a form of populism that runs counter to pluralism. That can be a problem if the two are mutually contradictory.
Given that power arguably rests today not so much with states as the mega-wealthy corporate and financial elite, there are clearly further questions to ask in relation to the issue of populism. But those take us way beyond philosophy. So just an unphilosophical thought to end on. I mentioned that ‘people power’ sounds like something we should probably be in favour of, if we are not part of the elite. But Soros is part of the elite…
 In these blogs I am providing excerpts of a longer argument, with each post highlighting a specific philosophical question and indicating some of the practical implications of it. For those interested, the academic version of the argument in full is available as a working paper: ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’ Enemies’. Any suggestions for improvement of that paper will be gratefully received.