Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.
—Howard Zinn, American historian
—Howard Zinn, American historian
We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than only freedom can make security more secure.
British & Austrian philosopher, in The Open Society and its Enemies
In a article that The Atlantic Monthly magazine published in February 1997, George Soros writes in "The Capitalist Threat":
The term "open society" was coined by Henri Bergson, in his book The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932), and given greater currency by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Popper showed that totalitarian ideologies like communism and Nazism have a common element: they claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth. Since the ultimate truth is beyond the reach of humankind, these ideologies have to resort to oppression in order to impose their vision on society. Popper juxtaposed with these totalitarian ideologies another view of society, which recognizes that nobody has a monopoly on the truth; different people have different views and different interests, and there is a need for institutions that allow them to live together in peace. These institutions protect the rights of citizens and ensure freedom of choice and freedom of speech. Popper called this form of social organization the "open society." Totalitarian ideologies were its enemies.Some might be surprised that Soros, who amassed a huge fortune under capitalism's system, would write such an article. Not if you understand that capitalism works best under a open, read: transparent, liberal democracy where ideas are weighed and argued in the open. An Open Society is better than a closed society, notably if you value liberal democracy and its values of individual liberty, equality, fairness and individual dignity. In his landmark and thoughtful book, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), Karl Popper wrote in the preface to the second edition about the dangers of authoritarianism and a single-vision dominating society and its institutions:
I see now more clearly than ever before that even 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. For these troubles are the by-products of what is perhaps the greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history, a movement which began three centuries ago.
It is the longing of uncounted unknown men to free themselves and their minds from the tutelage of authority and prejudice. It is their attempt to build up an open society which rejects the absolute authority to preserve, to develop, and to establish traditions, old or new, that measure up to their standards of freedom, of humaneness, and of rational criticism.
It is their unwillingness to sit back and leave the entire responsibility for ruling the world to human or superhuman authority, and their readiness to share the burden of responsibility for avoidable suffering, and to work for its avoidance. This revolution has created powers of appalling destructiveness; but they may yet be conquered.
|Karl Popper [1902-1994]: The Austro-British philosopher was a vigorous defender of liberal democracy. "You can choose whatever name you like for the two types of government. I personally call the type of government which can be removed without violence 'democracy,', and the other 'tyranny.'|
Photo Credit: LSE Library: Taken in the 1980s.
Closed Societies Benefit the Few
Karl Popper was somewhat prescient. A closed society, whose attributes include constant surveillance, limit of civil liberties, and a pathological distrust of everyone's motives, stands in direct opposition to an Open Society. Their aims differ. By nature, governments like to know and somewhat control what its citizens are doing. At times, these measures are necessary, the question is to what degree they are needed to protect both its citizens and the ideals of democracy and freedom. Liberal democracies exhibit the least control, autocratic tyrannies the most.
In a closed society, the state is generally a distrusting and fearful cadre, fearful to let its citizens think and distrustful to let people roam freely, whether physically or intellectually. They tend to find legal (but not moral or ethical) justification in the wars they undertake. The terror, however, is felt equally within the nation and in the hearts of its people. Aligned with like-minded amoral corporations and the sanction of religious authorities, the proponents of a closed society have found a way to enrich the coffers of the few at the expense of people's civil liberties. If money is to be made, anything can be justified in the name of National Security, a meaningless catch-all phrase that could have been coined by George Orwell.
Such measures will not only do nothing or little for national security, but will assuredly cripple individual civil liberties and weaken the nation life. The fact that these events are taking place is not too surprising, if you follow the arc of history. Not to put too fine a point to it, but the German Weimar Republic was a liberal democracy for 14 years (1919-1933) before Nazism took over the German nation. After Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, the regime became totalitarian, and it made laws contrary to its Constitution.
Such things can take place in nations that are suffering economically and are facing both economic and moral bankruptcy. Instead of looking inwardly for solutions, they use nationalism, religious ideology, propaganda and other similar tactics and strategies in an attempt to regain status and control. The strategy has short-term effects and is doomed to failure.
Closed Societies do not prosper, and eventually fall apart economically, socially and, of course, morally, because they fail to harness the full potential of all its citizens. Equally problematic, empires with imperialistic views do so at the expense of democracy at home, a point that Chalmers Johnson, public intellectual and professor emeritus at University of California at San Diego, makes in Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. (It is interesting to note that Prof Johnson worked for a time as an analyst for the CIA.)
The United States, the leading military superpower, is inexorably becoming such a society. At least that is the theory put forth by some political analysts. Its history as an Empire started at the end of the Second World War, in 1945. If it continues it profligate ways, including maintaining a huge military presence overseas, its days as a democracy is in peril. There is no schadenfreude expressed here at this real possibility, since the American democracy's fortunes influence us all. Yet, Prof Johnson sees things as bleak:
We are on the cusp of losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire. Once a nation is started down that path, the dynamics that apply to all empires come into play – isolation, overstretch, the uniting of forces opposed to imperialism, and bankruptcy. Nemesis stalks our life as a free nation.It's a dark picture, no doubt. Perhaps Prof Johnson is overstating and slightly exaggerating the threat the U.S. faces, but if he's doing so, it's an exaggeration for effect, an hyperbole in service of a higher truth. Democratic ideals are too important to allow them to slip away. The U.S. is a great nation with a long distinguished history of democracy and individual rights, notwithstanding its periods of darkness that have hovered over it when it has felt threatened—whether real or imagined. Not perfect by any means, but no nation is.
Open Societies Benefit the Many
We return to Karl Popper, whose desire centred on the ideas of liberal democracy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes about the influence of The Open Society: "His most impassioned and brilliant social works, are as a consequence a powerful defence of democratic liberalism as a social and political philosophy, and a devastating critique of the principal philosophical presuppositions underpinning all forms of totalitarianism."
In open societies, the government is responsive and tolerant, and political decisions are made in a transparent, flexible and accommodating way, serving the needs of the citizens rather than those of the political, commercial and social elites. The state keeps no secrets from itself in the public sense. The society acts in a non-authoritarian manner in which all citizens are trusted with the knowledge that the state holds. Political freedoms and human rights are the central foundation of an open society. Not only in the legal sense of the law, but in its spirit and intent.
Of course that's an ideal. No one nation today meets all these criteria, but some are closer than others. There are nations that have been traditionally more open, including Canada, the U.S., and the Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. as well as Belgium and the Netherlands. There are others, of course, which do not get the world's media spotlight, but they are humming along just fine. Their societies, for the most part, are more inclusive and tolerant. Although it must be said that the saying, E pluribus unum ("Out of many, one), forms part of the Seal of the United States..
We return to George Soros, who established the Open Society Foundation in 1984. Its motto is Building Vibrant and Tolerant Democracies. Equally important, imagination is more powerful than knowledge, hope more powerful than fear, and love more powerful than hate. And, as George Soros points out, "Open societies can prevail only when people can speak truth to power."
Such was the case with the Soviet dissidents, including the Refuseniks. In the dark days of the Soviet Union, particularly under the iron and cruel grip of Stalinism, few would have dared conceived the fall of the Soviet Union happening in their lifetime. Well, we know what happened in 1991, after the former Soviet Union could no longer function under the combined weight of its own internal contradictions, a rising military budget, immoral failings and international pressure. Other eastern bloc nations soon followed once the people's desire for democracy and freedom became a predominant force.
Totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, hate openness, chiefly because they do little good for their citizens, and totalitarians don't want to discuss and examine the evidence openly. Totalitarian regimes are ultimately interested in secrecy and control and in imposing their single-vision dogmas on the populous. Democracies work best when society is open and tolerant of other points of views and where diverse views can prevail.
As Howard Zinn so eloquently stated, we as citizens have a part to play in ensuring the health of liberal democracy. I remain hopeful, perhaps a hope against hope, of seeing changes that would lead to the strengthening of liberal democracy and its institutions in many places of the world, notably where they are now weak. That would be beneficial for all humanity.