Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Open Society

This is a continuation of a previous post, The Just Society.

Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.
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.
Karl Popper
British & Austrian philosopher, The Open Society and its Enemies

Greek Goddess of Peace: Eirene (Peace) bearing Plutus (Wealth). Roman copy after a Greek votive statue by Kephisodotos (ca. 370 BC), which stood on the agora in Athens.
Photo Credit: Bibi Saint-Pol,  2007

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:
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.
—Preface to the Second Edition.

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. 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. Such explains the current emphasis on airport scanners, city surveillance vehicles, wiretapping emails and websites, and other methods to collect and store information of anyone they deem necessary, which might be every person.

They find legal (but not moral or ethical) justification in the wars they undertake. The terror, however, is felt equally within the nation 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. 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.

Statue of Liberty:  This has been a powerful symbol to countless immigrants who viewed it on their way to Ellis Island in New York. Liberty and political freedom are the hallmarks of a well-working democracy. As Karl Popper points out: "We do not choose political freedom because it promises us this or that. We choose it because it makes possible the only dignified form of human coexistence, the only form in which we can be fully responsible for ourselves."
Photo Credit: Rebecca Kennison, August 27, 2001.
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. 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. The writing is on the wall, and the warning signs are there for all to see, Prof Chalmers points out:
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.
As is common with other once-leading Empires of historical standing, many of the political and business elites are blind to these warning signs. Such is America's zeitgeist.  

Open Societies Benefit the Many

Even so, it was Karl Popper's desire that the ideas of liberal democracy prevail. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy so eloquently put it in regards to 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.

No one nation today meets these criteria, but some are closer than others. There are nations that have been traditionally more open. Canada, where I reside, has had a long tradition of liberal democratic and socialist values, in stark contrast to our southern neighbour. More so 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.

On this side of the Great Divide, there is more than an ocean that divides us. In North America, where all things done by the State has the imprimatur of law, the Constitutions of Canada and the United States are being stretched to unusual unforeseen places. We are far from the principles of an Open Society, and few people would consider that such a welcome change will take place soon. Much has to be done to change the thinking of the masses of people, and galvanize them to positive action. (Remember the saying, Paradigm Shift, common in the 1990s?)

Even so, there are organizations and people working assiduously to bring about change, such as 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."

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.

And, as Howard Zinn so eloquently stated, it is up to us, the majority of citizens doing small acts, to keep liberal democracy alive. I am always hopeful, perhaps a hope against hope, of change for the betterment and strengthening of liberal democracy happening soon.

If someone is reading this in ten or twenty years, I am sure that things are already better.

Ed note: In other news, about future plans to post my my novel-in-progress, see Announcements.

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