Popper's Return Engagement: The Open Society in an Era of Globalization

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THE NOTION of a contrast between open and closed societies, which was introduced by Henri Bergson and made popular by Karl Popper, is now familiar even to people who have read neither the former 's The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932) nor the latter's The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). We all make the rough and ready ideal distinction between an open society that admits anyone who will comply with several abstract general requirements, and in which, once admitted, we can see most of what is going on and freely express our opinion about it; and a closed society that imposes unquestioning conformity with a tangle of concrete obligations, and in which members cannot know much of what is going on at the top and could not express an opinion if they did know.

A current example of the former would be a society that defines its openness in such general terms that it ends up granting even ill-intentioned foreign fanatics easy entry, freedom of movement, access to financial and vocational facilities, and undisturbed use of public goods for terrorist purposes. A recent example of the second would be a society in thrall to a half-blind zealot that forbids genuine education, limits communications, drives out its trained talents and leaves half the remainder stumbling about in a burka.

Bergson and Popper did not go to that level of detail in specifying open and closed societies; they were speculative philosophers with no particular qualification or interest in political studies. It is nevertheless useful to look more closely at their respective specifications , not so much to see what they got right (which was plenty), as to notice the dynamic or historical perspective they used. While denying prophecy and pooh-poohing historical inevitability, both plainly saw the open society as mankind's common destiny. The persistence of closed societies would be the cause of recurrent wars, said Bergson, but wars among themselves rather than wars waged by closed societies against open ones. For Popper the impulse to the closed society would be the cause of recurrent revolt against freedom and reason within societies that were trying to make the transition from one condition to the other.

For Bergson, the primitive closed society attached the strictest obligation to custom, and the device on its banner read "Authority, Hierarchy, Immobility." It was self-centered, warlike, cohesive and disciplined by the absolute authority of a chief and of a static religion. It fit "the pattern of our species as the ant-heap fits the ant", and its members cared nothing for the rest of humanity. In sharp contrast was the open society, which began as a dream and was still an ideal, but one to which the democracies were making progress. In intention it was open to all humanity; it encouraged diversity rather than conformity; its religion and its morality were flexible and adaptable; it conferred rights. Such a society was our natural destiny but, wrote Bergson: "We do not believe in the fatality of history.... There is no unescapable historic law" carrying us toward it. Its coming would be, perhaps, something like what we now call globalization, but it would go beyond markets and materialism to a spiritual trans formation.

Here Bergson's besetting sin of rhapsody got the better of him. He foretold an open society the freedom and spontaneity of which would express the mystical elan pervading the universe. He warned, however--and here it is relevant to recall that Bergson was an exact contemporary of Sigmund Freud--that in human progress "the acquired overlay the natural" but does not oust it. The dispositions that supported the closed society "subsist immutable deep within all of us." Therefore, he averred, "the tendencies of the closed society have ... persisted ineradicable in the society that is on the way to becoming an open one." The danger of relapse was obvious. …