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John Bruce Leonard

The Open Society and Its Enemies – Part 1

Series: The Open Society and Its Enemies

The concept of the ‘open society’ is riven by irresoluble internal contradictions.

There is a telling moment of encounter between the social critique offered by the Deep Right and that offered by the academic left in particular, which, though the two use entirely different terms and language, reveals nonetheless a point of ideological accord between what seem to be two diametrically opposed worldviews. This moment of encounter has to do with the question of the ruling ideology of today’s society, which we of the Right generally refer to as globalism, Atlanticism, etc., and which the thinkers of the academic left generally refer to as neo-liberalism.1 It would appear that neo-liberalism itself is a pretty quandary for the academic left; they duly recognize many of the problems and consequences of this ‘neo-liberalism’, and with all the keenness that decades of practice at ‘deconstruction’ have granted them, but the nature, roots and quality of this phenomenon remain elusive to them. It is my opinion that this incapacity on the part of the left to stab to the heart of so evidently potent a force in our society, indicates a failure of their worldview, a fatal blind spot which exists somewhat near to the core of their interpretative schema. To my mind, this is no wonder: despite their evident, and often quite evidently genuine, opposition to ‘neo-liberalism’ itself, it is my contention that their own ideas have generated the very monster which they would fight.

They, of course, would strongly dispute this claim. I have even come across the marvellous counter-suggestion that we of the true Right are somehow in cahoots with this ‘neo-liberalism’, and spiritually akin to it.2 It will be my purpose then in some of my coming articles to explicate in as deep a way as I am able the particular genesis of globalism or ‘neo-liberalism’ from out of the key concepts of the contemporary non-globalistic liberal left. It is my contention, to put the matter to a point, that the globalist nightmare into which the West is just now beginning truly to slide is nothing other than the natural logical conclusion of the ideas first presented in the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment, and developed by subsequent generations of academic leftists in particular.

The open society believes and must believe that the truth, far from setting us free, will be the very death of our freedom, by dissolving the justification the open society.

In the present essay, I shall begin this broad work by attempting a deep critique of that concept, so dear to liberals of all stripes, and shared most suggestively by certain arch-globalists, of the open society.3

This essay will be broken into two parts. The first will be dedicated to an internal critique of the open society, and to revealing its innermost contradictions; the second, to showing how and why the open society leads necessarily, and through a rigid and inescapable ‘historical dialectic’, to precisely the kind of capitalistic, oligarchic and tyrannical political orders that the best men of the left most certainly would repudiate with all their souls.

We commence from a perfectly uncontroversial point of departure: societies disagree between themselves as to what is the right way to live. These disagreements are not principally philosophical; they are principally customary. They become philosophical only when the confrontation between the customs of different societies is elevated to the level of contemplation, and then only within the minds of certain individuals who are fit for such confrontation by nature, education, and favourable circumstance. The variety of human societies at present or at least historically is a necessary condition for human philosophy, but it is not sufficient, because the majority of human beings when exposed to different customs remain simply suspicious of them, if not hostile toward them. Most humans are rightly creatures of loyalties and faiths peculiar to the societies in which they are born, or to portions of the same; if they were not so, then no society on the face of the Earth could long exist, but all would be quickly riven apart by the incessant internal disputations and feuding of their very members.

The disagreements between societies as to the right way to live lead to conflicts and wars between societies, and these conflicts and wars enforce the natural hostility of each society toward foreign customs and outlandish ways. The special character and quality of any given human society brings the loyalty and love of its members; when this is contrasted with or threatened by other societies, then the philosopher or the warrior is born.

But there are also internal disputes between different parts of one and the same society. The poor are sometimes at odds with the rich; the uneducated with the educated; the ‘left’ with the ‘right’; the vulgar with the cultured; the warriors with the civilians; the citizens with the immigrants; the rulers with the ruled; etc. Here, again, the disputes are not principally philosophical; they are political or social or ethocal, which is to say, stemming from differences in ethos. Each segment of society wants its agenda to become the agenda of the whole; each segment of society would rule and impose its peculiar desires, views or needs on society as such. It is uncommon for the different parts of one and the same society to want to change the very premises on which that society is built; in general, all parties agree as to the ends of society, and dispute only over the means. But at times, when it becomes apparent that the ends of society themselves are destabilizing the whole, and that the very first premises of society are guiding it toward decline and ruin, then the revolutionary or radical or extremist attitude crops up among human beings. In times like that, which are known as times of crisis, the parts of society might begin truly to disagree about first and last things.

Human beings are not beasts, and their disagreements, their conflicts, even their wars, are not merely based on violence or on force. Human beings are ‘rational animals’, which is not to say that they will everywhere and always act in accord with simple logic, nor arrive at valid and justifiable conclusions, nor even have a clear sense of why they do what they do: it is rather to say that human beings everywhere and always will feel the need to defend their irrationality with rationality, and to build rationalizations around even their most basic instinctive desires. This is not a matter of nothing; it is a fundamental aspect of human social existence, and it has enormous consequences for all social orders.

The open society, which purports to be the one society open to all possible human social orders, is in fact in the last analysis radically closed to all but its own.

Never has there been a wordless war between human beings. Human beings transform all quarrels into conversations. Their quarrels are neither perfectly rational – for it is never by reason alone that they are resolved – nor perfectly irrational – for it is neither by force alone that they are resolved. Both domestic and international conflicts are all carried out and concluded through a mixture of reason and force. Human beings are unique among the animals, because the quarrels between human beings depend on speech. Internationally, one cannot stop up the words of other nations; but to put an end to internal conflicts, it is often enough to put a limit on speeches. This is why war between nations is more common than civil war. The same fundamental observation has in past epochs been considered the indisputable justification for limiting freedom of speech. It is known universally that the tensions between different parts of one and the same society lead to internal conflicts and in extreme cases to rupture, to civil war or the upheaval of the prior social order, and the prevention of these unwelcome guests requires closure within society – the suppression of certain voices or interests, the censuring of certain ideas, the oppression of some who do not rule, but who can easily fall at odds with the rulers.

The open society attempts to resolve these internal social and political conflicts in a way which is totally novel in the history of human societies: namely, by positing a political order which passes no judgement on any other worldview, and which therefore avoids those deep tensions characteristic of other orders. It resolves the conflictual nature of societies’ basic premises, or of the conflicts between parts of one and the same society, by suspending its own judgement as to the best or ideal society, the best or ideal laws, or the best or ideal ruler. As regards first and last things, the open society is openly agnostic. It views itself as a kind of forum in which all social ideas can be publicly debated, and it thus postures as the one society which loves truth over custom. While closed societies – tribal or traditional or totalitarian as they may be – are dedicated to preserving their peculiar errors at any and all costs and preserving these unto perpetuity, the open society is dedicated instead to avoiding the necessarily bounded, erroneous quality of all tribal or political adherence to any single set of human ideals. By sponsoring no peculiar values and virtues, the open society permits the debate of all values and virtues in the ‘marketplace of ideas’; it encourages their conflict and their disputation, so long as these remain non-violent. It therefore appears to be the most philosophical of all societies, the one which depends the least on merely material concerns and which apotheosizes the quest for truth. Sign of this is the fact that all open societies everywhere protect the freedoms of association, speech, and press, which seem but social echoes of friendship and conversation, those two most philosophical of all human relations.

There are two grave problems with the idea of the open society, one in its fundamentals and the other in its praxis. We begin with the latter first, to commence from the superficial: we approach this question as though coring the trunk of a tree, proceeding initially contrary to growth, and treating first and last of the bark.

Now, the open society, to maintain its forum-like atmosphere, must remain forever agnostic, forever ‘sceptical.’ So soon as it accepts as true the arguments of this or that social or moral ideal, it must commit itself as well to putting this true ideal at least partially into practice, which means – it must overthrow itself, and establish a closed society in the place of the open society. The open society therefore must restrain itself ever and always to the state of evaluation of the various proposals for the best society; it cannot permit itself to consent to any of them — unless, that is, the best society proves to be identical to the open society. But even in this unlikely case, and supposing the open society were to reach such a conclusion, it would lose its character as the open society in adopting its own premises dogmatically. For if the best society is that society which permits all human beings of any worldview whatsoever to live as they see fit, save as they infringe on the rights of other individuals to do the same, then the open society can permit the free expression or manifestation of only those worldviews compatible with this worldview. All other worldviews, all closed, sectarian, intolerant worldviews, must be suppressed as false worldviews. In becoming aware of its superiority, the open society thus destroys its own basis; it mutates from the open society into something else.

The open society can therefore remain open only so long as it withholds judgement about its own worth as the best social order. The open society, or the society dedicated to permitting the truth to come to the fore, must guard against the arrival of the truth. It must be, not merely agnostic or sceptical, but explicitly relativist, hostile toward any and all degrees of presumed or real certitude. It believes and must believe that the truth, far from setting us free, will be the very death of our freedom, by dissolving both the justification as well as the special tenuous lifestyle of the open society. The open society, which postures as the champion of truth, becomes dogmatically hostile to the very notion of truth. Its worldview, without which it perishes or overthrows itself, is at bottom the relativistic worldview.

We may restate this realization as follows: the open society remains agnostic about all ideas of truth except its own. About its own relativism, far from being agnostic, it is dogmatic. Even if at first it is open to the idea that it might one day transform from the open and agnostic society into the closed but true society, it hardens over time into a degree of doctrinairism, for the simple reason that all societies wish to preserve themselves. The open society therefore comes finally to hold that the best society cannot be discovered by human investigations. That is how it resolves the paradox at its heart.

But this works as an inadvertent or incidental philosophical defence of the open society: because no society can be the best society, the best society will be that which makes no claims as to the best society, and which therefore permits incessant debate about the best society. The open society seeks to be fundamentally non-dogmatic, but it can only do so on the basis of a fundamentally dogmatic premise. At times the non-dogmatic aspect, at times the dogmatic aspect of the open society, manifests itself, depending essentially on how well off the open society is at any given point in time. When it is winning and prosperous, it can afford to be magnanimous with those who dispute its premise; but when it enters into times of crisis or penury, it, as all human societies, must defend itself more vigorously. The open society both requires and desires, then, great wealth, both in the state coffers and in private pockets. It weds itself necessarily and naturally to capitalism, and takes economic growth to be a fundamental standard for the well-being of society. The open society, which was to be the one least beholden to the merely materialistic concerns of economy and wealth, in the end is bound to them much more stringently than other societies, whose ruling classes are endowed with aristocratic contempt of mammon.

It is among the vulgarest delusions commonly inspired by the American Revolution, that one might remake society from scratch, basing it on true axioms and building it logically from foundation to steeple

These deep tensions at the heart of the open society are felt ever and always by conscious observers, and they make the open society elusive and evasive to analysis. Most human beings are not philosophical, and therefore no human society can be philosophical. This is no less true of the open society than of any other. The open society, which purports to be the one society open to all possible human social orders, is in fact in the last analysis radically closed to all but its own. This makes it identical to all other human societies: what differs in it is not the absence of dogmatic faith in a particular form of social order, but rather the invisibility of that dogmatic faith. The open society is characterized by dogmatic belief in its own openness. While all human societies hold themselves to be the best societies and for that reason celebrate their closure to other ways, the open society is singular in proclaiming itself to be immune to this delusion precisely. It is thus more difficult to free oneself of the dogma of the open society than of any other social dogma. The open society suffers essentially of the ‘double ignorance’, of which the Athenian stranger speaks in the Laws.4

To be sure, the peculiar closedness of the open society never or seldom finds expression in explicit legal prohibitions. There are, in the open society, no laws against investigating the underpinnings of the social order, nor against publishing the results of those investigations. The open society cannot proscribe such investigation without playing into an open hypocrisy which would be a hundred times more damaging to it than this or that firebrand pamphlet published here or there. The open society thus develops countless subtler ways of dealing with its internal enemies.5 Most of the time, it has no need to employ any of these: for it is a universal and virtuous characteristic of human beings in normal times to be loyal and faithful to the society in which they are born, and beneath whose protection, nurturing and education they have come of age. Most human beings born to the open society adhere to its ideals unconsciously and uncritically, and consider it, without any reflection to support this belief, the best society. The members of the open society are strongly reinforced in this loyalty by the peculiar relativistic dogma of the open society; it is harder to see through the illusion of the open society, wherein one speaks constantly of philosophical openness to other ways, than to see through the illusion even of the tyrannical society, which is proudly and obviously closed to other ways. There is thus in the open society even more than in other societies a natural pressure toward the perpetuation of the standing order, and this is quite sufficient to neutralize those few serious efforts to discover and publicize the errors, limitations, or contradictions upon which that order is founded. This preserves the open society quite adequately in all times, save in times of crisis.

We are living, however, in a time of crisis.

In normal times, most human beings do not concern themselves with the truth. They concern themselves with countless other matters which have nothing essential to do with the truth – vital goals and preoccupations which do not depend on the truth nor certainly culminate in it, as survival, wealth, honour, prestige, status, family, etc. So long as society demonstrates itself a generally capable watchman of the public security and the general welfare, most human beings are quite content to live their lives, indifferently ignorant of all deeper philosophical problems. So long as there is a degree of peace and a modicum of prosperity in the open society, the members of the open society are but little tasked to seek out anything so remote from their experience as the ‘truth’, and those few exceptional individuals who concern themselves seriously with the truth in any place and any time, the truly free spirits, are easily outnumbered and easily smothered by the vast enormity of human complacency.

But in times of crisis, everything is thrown to the wind. Society, failing to secure its promises to its citizens, becomes the object of ever stronger doubts and even cynicism. In moments like this, it becomes evident that there is a widening gorge standing between what such a society claims it will achieve, and what it really does achieve; the errors and failings, not to say the lies and mendacity, of society are increasingly brought to light, or at least are more easily felt impinging through the threadbare surface. The question ‘Why?’ comes readily to the minds and the lips of ever more individuals; ‘truth’ becomes a going concern, and one which some can even make their living on. ‘Why are we suffering this way? Why is everything beneath us suddenly so shaken and unsteady? Why has society led us to this impasse?’ It is widely felt that everyone has been enslaved to noxious falsehoods; and it is widely believed that the ‘truth shall set one free’.

What is meant by this sentiment? Not, certainly, what is meant when the philosopher thinks such a thing. Nor even what the artist or the free spirit might think of it. On the contrary. Very few human beings who do not concern themselves with truth in times of plenty, will suddenly begin to seek it in times of dearth. Just as they had abundant distractions from the truth before, now they have much more urgent questions to attend to than philosophical ones. Most people by the formula ‘the truth will set you free’ mean only this: society has failed to secure their desires or perhaps even their needs; its failure is due to an error or a contradiction in its construction. To establish ‘truer’ foundations becomes therefore a pressing requirement. Everyone begins inquiring into the ‘true’ society, by which is meant, a society which can guarantee such things as honour, wealth, survival, status, family, prestige, etc.

If you tell an entrepreneur that the present social system is broken, on account of specific economic policies, and if you argue furthermore and persuasively that he will not succeed in making himself affluent under these present conditions, he will perk up and listen to you. If you tell him then that we must shift our policies, say, from free trade to protectionism, in order to grant him the possibility of making his millions, he may well acquiesce to your logic, or at least he may well take your argument seriously or find himself in some way influenced by it. But if you tell him that free trade must be overhauled because it is based on the lie of the dignity of work and on the spurious excellence of wealth, when in fact there are many loftier things in this world than labour and lucre, he will dismiss you out of hand.

We must have sensitivity to the depth of the present crisis, the degree to which it entitles us to bring the errors of society to the light of day, the extent to which it opens the possibility of a profound shift in principle. Particularly as we have urgent goals, it behooves us to step lightly. It is among the vulgarest delusions commonly inspired by the American Revolution, that one might remake society from scratch, basing it on true axioms and building it logically from foundation to steeple, so long as one has sufficient public support and the right documents in place. This has never been done and never can be done amongst the societies of human beings. Popular movements interpret philosophy through the liquid lens of their native element, populism; they always end differently than they begin. Custom, as Herodotus said, is king – as much with us as with anyone. We can gain nothing by ignoring the fact; we may gain enormously by carefully attending to it.

References:

1 This name itself is of interest, insofar as it clearly echoes the idea of neo-conservatism, which is only apparently its contrary (it becomes clear on any even halfway capable analysis that the two concepts overlap if they do not coincide). This indicates that there has been in some sense a commandeering of both classical liberalism and traditional conservatism toward the realization of an often obscure but ever-present project, one carried out on behalf of precisely the same individuals, who adopt these evidently contrary positions, now one and now the other, either out of real but hidden rivalry between them, or as a kind of shadow play meant to fool democratic voters into believing that they have a legitimate electoral choice, where in fact they are given to choose between two tones of one and the same colour.

2See for instance the recent colloquium held by a group of evidently quite sincere academics on the subject of the ‘Alt-Right’, during which they considered no other book than The Real Right Returns by our own Daniel Friberg, as well as Arktos’ pubication A Fair Hearing. At certain points during this lengthy and in occasionally quite fascinating round-table discussion, the persons involved determined upon proving, in good Marxian fashion, that what they broadly and erroneously refer to as ‘the Alt-Right’ (when they do not absurdly and awkwardly insist on trying to call us ‘fascists’) is somehow secretly or semi-consciously wed to social-Darwinistic capitalism, and that we ourselves are thus proponents of ‘neo-liberalism’. The which would certainly make for a curious state of affairs, given that this same ‘neo-liberalism’ goes to great lengths to suppress our ideas and undercut our resources – even while it mysteriously does precisely the contrary with the very academics who are supposed to be its most relentless critics.

3I shall never tire of recalling that George Soros, pre-eminent representative of globalism, was quite literally the pupil of Karl Popper, perhaps the foremost theorist of the open society. And should one wonder if Soros himself has repudiated the ideas of his master in the many years (and billions of dollars) intervening, it should be sufficient to consider the name of his forefront organization: The Open Society Foundations. If, however, even this does not persuade, cf. his own words on the matter, as can be found here or here, among a great many other places.

4Plato, Laws, Book IX, 863c.

5Consider the famous book of Karl Popper, beginning already from its title: The Open Society and Its Enemies.

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