Tocqueville anticipated me
- After ‘The Open Society’: Selected Social and Political Writings by Karl Popper, edited by Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norris Turner
Routledge, 493 pp, £16.99, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 415 61023 0
In October 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that George Soros had violated insider trading laws more than two decades ago in dealings with the French bank Société Générale. Soros has given billions of his personal wealth to fund liberal political organisations, notably his own Open Society Foundations, which operate on a global scale and have supported anti-totalitarian movements from Poland’s Solidarity to Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change, as well as countless other organisations that promote human rights. He has promised to give $100 million to Human Rights Watch over the next ten years. The decision of the European Court, however, brings Soros to book for the nastier things he does when he’s not being a philanthropist. His teacher and mentor, Karl Popper, might have seen this as an example of the paradox of unintended consequences. Soros’s actions also illustrate one of the central puzzles of Popper’s liberalism. Like Soros, Popper wanted to have it both ways: he wanted to unify the humanitarian left while celebrating the openness of the free market, with all its imbalances. Did he succeed?
Popper began his academic career as a philosopher of science in Vienna, where he mixed with the Logical Positivists. Being, as he put it, ‘of Jewish descent’, he fled Vienna for New Zealand in 1937. The Open Society and Its Enemies, published in 1945, made him famous. He took a job at the LSE, where he remained for the rest of his life – Soros was one of his students there. Before this, his reputation had rested mainly on his Logik der Forschung (1934), in which he gave an account of explanation and claimed to have found a way round the problem of induction – the question of how empirical observations about the world lead to general laws of explanation. Popper argued that the laws of science are not based on the principle of verification, but on the principle of ‘falsifiability’. The claim that ‘all swans are white’ cannot be verified by any number of observations of white swans; however, the claim can be falsified by the existence of only one black swan. Popper regarded the attempt to translate experience into verifiable knowledge as misguided. Instead of searching for illusory certainty and trying to confirm hypotheses about the world, we should aim at bold but robust hypotheses that are less false. Popper thought his ‘fallibilism’ applied to both natural and social sciences. But while many believers in the unity of the natural and social sciences were interested in applying scientific laws to society in order to predict social change, Popper argued that in natural science unconditional predictions, in any case very rare, are peculiar to some natural systems and not others: they should never serve as a model for predictions about human society. There was little room for certainty in science, and in politics there was even less.
The Open Society was one of a number of contemporary works of political theory (others included Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism and Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom) that saw both fascism and communism as forms of totalitarianism. Popper attacked what he saw as the logic underpinning totalitarianism: the collectivist, anti-rationalist and historicist ideas of Plato, Hegel and Marx. He claimed that they put tradition before reason and the collective before the individual, and that they believed in laws of history which could explain the past and predict the future. Popper saw this as dangerous nonsense. Grand theories of history allowed political actors to get away with murder. Worse still, they could deny the realities of unintended consequences and justify wicked actions as necessary steps on the path to utopia.
Popper sought a theory of politics that took ‘fallibilism’ seriously, and it was clear to him that any politics that rested on historicism wouldn’t do. What was needed was a political system that allowed for trial and error, for mistakes to be made and acknowledged. Popper claimed that The Open Society was part of his ‘war effort’, an attempt to discredit totalitarianism, but he also intended it to be useful to political actors in building the peace to come.
Trial and error can mean different things in different political contexts. The soft left version would be a system based on benign reform and responsible social engineering. At the far right of the spectrum would be the capitalist Wild West of extreme risk and massive reward, but also social inequality and potential market failure. Soros started out in the Wild West but, with his bankrolling of left-liberal reform movements, turned social engineer. Popper moved in the opposite direction. In After ‘The Open Society’, Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norris Turner have collected a range of his published and unpublished essays, letters and lectures that tell the story of this transformation. To the picture Popper presented of himself in his autobiography Unended Quest (1976), this volume adds a map of his intellectual development during his later years. He was sympathetic to Marxism at the beginning of his political life, but ended up a reactionary neoliberal. He was not alone: as he slid to the right, so did the liberal consensus. The essays here tell both stories. Popper begins the volume as the kind of liberal who cares about equality and ‘the social question’. By the end, he is a free marketeer, angry with the spoilt, irresponsible younger generation, with their complaints about capitalism, their drugs and their alcohol – by all accounts, a grumpy old man. This is a far cry from Marxism, but a far cry too from the man who in The Open Society aimed at uniting the dispersed left – liberals and socialists – under the banner of ‘humanitarianism’.
In the long march from socialism to neoliberalism, it is hardly a surprise to find that Popper was at his most interesting when he tried to combine the two. In the 1940s, he attempted to develop a political theory that would provide a practical basis for agreement among the anti-communist left. ‘Nothing is so important at the present time,’ he wrote in 1944, ‘as an attempt to get over the fateful dissention within the camp of the friends of the “open society”.’ He rejected the traditional, essentialist question of political philosophy – ‘What is the state, what is its true nature, its real meaning?’ – and asked instead: ‘What do we demand of the state? How do we want the state to be ruled?’ His answer formed part of what has been called his ‘negative utilitarianism’. Politics, he argued, should work towards the minimisation of human suffering, not the maximisation of human happiness. For Popper, this was a point on which the left could agree.
He didn’t, however, hope for unity within the left as a whole. The great battle was against collectivism, and he was interested in uniting only the ‘individualist’ left. Unlike those who opposed state communism, or social planning more broadly, on the grounds that it was inefficient, Popper opposed it because he thought it dangerous to liberty, and potentially tyrannical. These arguments would become part of the standard liberal critique of communism. But although Popper opposed the communist state, he didn’t oppose the state as such. Few mid-century liberals – even market liberals such as Hayek, who acquired a bad reputation for putting profit over people – were against all state intervention. Indeed, Popper often sounds like a welfare statist, praising state institutions for their protective role and their promotion of freedom. He argued that liberals – even those who were concerned about excessive state action – could not oppose the ‘socialisation of suffering’ and the institutions required for its practical realisation. Thus he supported public hospitals and public education, and even believed that the state should be responsible for maintaining full employment. Like many 20th-century liberals, he felt it necessary to take seriously the ‘social problem’.
Writing in 1940, he argued that ‘liberalism and state interference are not opposed to each other. On the contrary, any kind of freedom is clearly impossible unless it is guaranteed by the state.’ The open society must protect its citizens. Popper wasn’t, at this stage, against all social planning, merely transformative social planning. He distinguished between utopian and piecemeal reform: the utopian invents a blueprint for a society, then tries to put it into practice; the piecemeal reformer seeks to avoid suffering and injustice by making small changes at an institutional level, proceeding by trial and error. Piecemeal reformers, who can more closely monitor the effects of the changes they make, have a better chance of avoiding unintended consequences.
Wary though he was of the dangers of the unintended consequences involved in large-scale planning, Popper didn’t want to alienate those who cleaved to an interventionist state. Socialism was still the dominant political ideology of the left and it isn’t surprising that he had some socialist sympathies. Hayek, who had none, was more unusual. In 1947 Hayek set out to build an international alliance of liberals to combat collectivism and promote the free market. The Mont Pélerin Society was intended to be – and indeed became – the centre of neoliberalism. Popper was a founding member, as was Milton Friedman. When Hayek first suggested the idea to Popper and proposed a list of participants, Popper recommended that he add others to the left of the liberals he had already invited – his suggestions included Orwell, G.D.H. Cole and Herbert Read. If Hayek wanted to unite individualist humanitarians against the collectivist threat, Popper advised, he must extend an olive branch to the defenders of interventionism: those who wanted to cure society’s ills by increasing social equality through redistribution were no less genuine in their wish to promote freedom than those who defended market solutions. ‘Anything that looks like a general attack on interventionism makes this union impossible, for it is rightly felt, by socialists, as an impossible and undesirable wish to return to laissez faire.’ But at the first meeting, Orwell, Cole and Read didn’t appear. The recent history of neoliberalism might look a little different if they had. In a number of the essays collected here Popper sounds a lot like John Rawls, who emphasised the importance of distributive justice and the need for social policies that improve the lot of the least well-off: a far cry from Friedman’s market liberalism, and from the neoliberalism of today. This was a road not taken: Popper’s – and Hayek’s – less fiercely anti-statist version of neoliberalism quickly became its moderate face. The gulf between economic liberals and social liberals grew wider. Once neoliberalism had been radicalised, there was no chance that the olive branch would be extended to interventionists or, indeed, accepted by them.
One of the most interesting exchanges from this period is a series of letters between Popper and the philosopher Rudolf Carnap. (It’s clear that Popper, too, thought they were interesting, since he sent Hayek a copy of his responses to Carnap’s questions.) In 1946, after reading an attack by Popper on Marx and historicism, Carnap wrote to ask ‘whether or to what extent you still regard yourself as a socialist’. Popper replied that he rejected the term ‘socialism’, but claimed that he shared much with the socialists: a belief in the ‘greater equalisation of incomes’, in ‘experimentation in the political and economical sphere’, and even in the partial ‘socialisation of means of production’. The public ownership of industries and services could work well, he suggested, and it was certainly important that the state have the power to break up monopolies. But he attached two provisos, which, he thought, brought out the differences between the socialist position and his own. He argued that socialisation would be possible only if ‘the considerable and serious dangers raised by such experiments are frankly faced, and means are adopted to meet these dangers’, and if ‘the mystical and naive belief is given up that socialisation is a kind of cure-all’. Freedom could not be ‘saved’ without ‘improving distributive justice, i.e. without increasing economic equality’. More important, it could be achieved only if its defenders were willing to use trial and error, to accept that socialisation sometimes would promote freedom, and sometimes would not. Popper believed that income disparities might be even greater in a socialised, centralised economy. It was also more likely, he believed, that in such an economy powerful people would have too much control over individuals’ thoughts and actions. As Carnap pointed out in response, Popper differed from socialists in other ways, too – notably in his lack of concern for issues of economic power and exploitation, and in his emphasis on distribution rather than production.
When did Popper leave all this behind? In a 1956 letter to the American journalist Henry Hazlitt, a neoliberal and one of the founding members of the Mont Pélerin Society, Popper retracted the ideas he’d outlined in The Open Society that now seemed to him too statist and too Keynesian, in particular the concern with full employment. He still thought it important to reduce poverty and support public education, but no longer had the goal of increasing equality. From this point on, he starts to look more like a Cold Warrior. His attacks on totalitarianism in general became attacks on communism in particular, and what he perceived as the choice between the open and the closed society became ever starker. Where once he had tried to unify the individualist left, he now became a critic of it. By the early 1970s he had declared himself in ‘diametrical opposition’ not only to Marxists, but also to the New Left. Radical students saw him as a representative of the conservative establishment; he saw them as representing the decline of Western civilisation. He objected to what he called the ‘conspiracy theory of society’ – namely, the idea that the capitalist system is evil or morally base. Yes, the open society was in ‘urgent need of reform’, but it was still the case that people had never had it so good. During the postwar decades, he withdrew from public life, spent less time at the LSE and became more and more intellectually isolated. Though he never described it in quite these terms, he came to see the biggest problem in the capitalist West as that of moral decline. Indeed, it sometimes seems that, for Popper, all that was morally objectionable in society could be blamed on individual failures of moral and intellectual responsibility. When he listed what was wrong with the world, alcohol, drugs and crime were high on the list. These were not just symptoms, he believed, but were themselves the problems. In democracies, it was not the structures of society that were at fault, but the citizens: when things go wrong, they have only themselves to blame. By 1981, Popper was so angry at outright opponents of capitalism that he claimed he didn’t care about social inequality any more. What did it matter if the rich got richer?
Despite Popper’s continual assertions that he remained a critic of modern politics, the West appeared to get off scot-free. All he cared about was whether or not a government could be removed without bloodshed. If it could, it was a democracy. Many political theorists of Popper’s generation had been sceptical about idealistic visions according to which democracy expresses the ‘general will’. They argued that such visions obscured the reality that democracies are competitive systems in which voters elect leaders – so-called ‘elite democracies’. Popper certainly shared this view. But whereas his fellow Austrian Joseph Schumpeter had argued that real-life competitive democracies tended to be less competitive – and less open – than free markets, Popper didn’t spill much ink on the flaws in his model of the open society. He may have wanted it to be open to critical discussion, but he was surprisingly uninterested in the question of how to ensure that such discussion would be open to everyone and conducted on equal terms. Though he advocated a continual ‘fight against bureaucracy’, he didn’t see the need for an equivalent fight against private corporate interests.
While it isn’t so surprising that Popper gave up on equality (it was always an instrumental good for him, a necessary step on the path to liberty), it is striking that he gave up on – or at least toyed with giving up on – aspects of individual freedom. In his later writings, population growth is a constant concern. In 1972, after the publication of The Limits to Growth thesis, with its Malthusian predictions of economic and social collapse, he wrote that in order to preserve life on earth, we must find ways to address the problem, and to do so without coercion. How? Education, he argued, was the only way out, the only way to slow population growth without constraining freedom. How to avoid giving up on freedom in the face of this danger is a recurrent theme in After ‘The Open Society’. He is less obviously troubled by threats to freedom of speech. In 1989, he declined an invitation to sign the Society of Authors’ letter declaring support for Salman Rushdie after the fatwa was declared. By this time he seems to have become open to arguments for censorship. The last essay in this volume argued that the power of television must be controlled and violent images restricted. Only then could a democratic society remain ‘civilised’. Popper’s suggestion here was that the primary function of ‘civilisation’ was to reduce violence – censorship was the cost of keeping a society open.
This picture of Popper in old age is not a flattering one, but a picture of the younger Popper might not be very flattering either. Though he listed modesty and a readiness for critical debate as the highest intellectual virtues, he was famously dogmatic – and the dogmatism shines through in these writings. For a man who declared (in a technical context, it’s true) that there is ‘no such thing as justification’, he seems to have spent a lot of time justifying himself. Many of the early essays are directed at the (many) critics of The Open Society who saw it as polemical, emotional, even hysterical. His defence – that although it aimed at peace, it was also his ‘war effort’ – was reasonable, but his tone was sometimes less so. He wrote letters to friends that included third-person defences of his work so they could pass them off as their own. And he could appear remarkably self-important: in a lecture on Tocqueville, he noted how impressive it was that in some of his views on the paradoxes of freedom and equality, ‘Tocqueville anticipated me.’
These quirky and revealing writings show that Popper was not as consistent as he would have liked to think. But the editors sometimes seem too close to him to notice. Jeremy Shearmur was Popper’s assistant for many years, and gives the impression that he wants the reader to feel as he did on first reading some of these essays – when one unpublished fragment tails off, he tells us that ‘alas no more material follows.’ Popper’s own inconsistencies – particularly his celebration of individual freedom and unwillingness to face up to its consequences – are reflected in the editors’ decisions. And terminology that reminds us of Popper’s historical context has been removed, thanks to a somewhat squeamish political correctness: as the editors make clear in the introduction, they have ‘changed the use of Mohammedans for the followers of Islam, as it is now recognised as offensive’. But the updating – or whitewashing, take your pick – of Popper’s terminology doesn’t extend to eliminating the term ‘Negro’, which he apparently continued to use as late as 1988. By then, he was out of touch. The idea of The Open Society may have had a long and illustrious afterlife, but as the title of this volume inadvertently suggests, the political writings that followed are perhaps best understood as a long and not so illustrious footnote to the ‘war effort’ of Popper’s middle years.