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What presents itself as the best type of society for embracing different ways of life is in reality the beginning of the greatest uniformity.

George Soros is well known for his philanthropic efforts and for the work of his world-spanning Open Society Foundations. He is also well known for having been inspired by the work of Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies. In his book-length essay, “My Philanthropy,” Soros defines the goal of his philanthropy as “(1) opening closed societies, (2) making open societies more viable, and (3) promoting a critical mode of thinking.”

Although Soros has developed his own theories, and often takes Popper’s idea of the open society in new directions, Soros still acknowledges his debt to Popper’s thought. Therefore, it is worth examining Popper’s open society theory more closely as a way of thinking about the philanthropy of Soros.

Published in 1945, The Open Society and Its Enemies criticized the forms of thought which Popper believed led to the totalitarian systems of Fascism and Communism. Popper held that the totalitarian impulse came from those who favored the form of life known as the “closed society.” The closed society, according to Popper, is “tribal.” It sees the world as controlled by magical forces, and its social institutions are based on taboos. Therefore, it possesses a stubborn rigidity in its forms of life, which supposedly have a supernatural justification. The closed society’s tribal morality also manifests itself in a lack of critical thinking: individuals take their cues from the social functions that the tribe requires of them. The result is that people in tribal societies do not think for themselves, or try to organize social life rationally, but conform to whatever taboos and norms happen to be presented to them.

In contrast, the open society is one that encourages rational reflection. While closed societies demand collectivism and put the tribe before the individual, open societies give individuals the freedom and responsibility to think for themselves. The open society is based above all on individualism, democracy, equality, and faith in reason.

Popper holds that the open society first rose in ancient Athens, but was soon challenged by its contemporaries. The totalitarian spirit, which for Popper is as old as civilization itself, was born of the attempt to stifle the progress of the open society. He singles out Plato as a prime example of this totalitarian spirit. According to Popper’s narrative, Plato witnessed the negative effects that the transition to the open society was having upon his contemporaries. The transition away from the tribal morality of the closed society to the “universal” morality of the open society caused civilizational strain, leaving people feeling adrift and disoriented. Plato diagnosed this problem correctly, but proposed a regressive solution. Rather than encourage people to march bravely forward into the new open society paradigm, he mounted a sustained attack upon democracy and freedom, seeking in the name of eternal values to roll back the clock to the closed society. To this day, the totalitarian impulse arises time and again due to civilizational strain and a hostility to the values of the open society.

Popper’s is a bold thesis, but it is simplistic, and risks collapsing diverse phenomena into a narrow interpretive framework. For example, can we really compare the metaphysical systems and communal forms of solidarity found in traditional societies with the “prophetic” historicism of Marx and the collectivism of Soviet Russia? Further, can we really compare Plato, whose dialogues time and again correct the notion that “might makes right,” to Hitler? Popper misunderstands the motivations of those who value traditional ways of life and deeply held beliefs, and confuses resistance to cultural decay with the impulse to radically change the world that was characteristic of both Communism and Fascism.

Popper’s misdiagnosis of the totalitarian spirit holds serious consequences for how we think about diversity of customs in our society.

Today, our philanthropic institutions talk a lot about advocacy for indigenous communities and strengthening local cultures. But under Popper’s understanding of totalitarianism, these groups represent closed societies. If cultural groups, trying to protect their traditions and customs, object to social shifts that threaten their way of life, it is hard to see how the open society theory could do anything but dismiss them, like Plato, as proponents of the old tribal morality. There is little room for dialogue if their motives are fundamentally irrational. They must ultimately be pressured to give way to the rational ways of life of the "open society."

For Soros, one of the most important takeaways from Popper’s ideas is that no single philosophy or worldview is in possession of the truth. Groups need to let go of “their truth” and work for an open society. But then it follows that the open society becomes, by default, the regnant paradigm, the overarching “truth” by which members of the society must live. If that’s the case, there is ultimately no room for diversity of thought and ways of life. Acceptance of individualism and a casting off of traditional customs becomes a prerequisite for membership, because everything else is “totalitarian.” Thus, what presents itself as the best type of society for embracing different ways of life is in reality the beginning of the greatest uniformity.

Anyone truly seeking to strengthen cultures and diverse, local ways of life should be willing to critique Popper’s fundamental misunderstanding of the source of totalitarianism.

Photo credit: Steve Bowbrick via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

32 thoughts on “George Soros, Karl Popper, and ironies of “The Open Society””

  1. Gaston Naboulet says:

    Yes Martine, all Nations are beautiful and have their stories, their customs, their traditions and their beliefs.
    But not a few nations feel threatened by the existence of other nations and that has always been the cause of conflicts and that means war.
    Nor is the segregationist dream of each nation having its own country fulfilled, because many nations have to learn to live with others in the same country.
    Precisely, all this is about imagining what kind of agreement could ensure coexistence in peace avoiding conflicts; and for that, rules, obligations and responsibilities are needed, and not just rights.
    The intention is to maintain as much of the cultural heritage as possible, but it is undoubtedly also about maintaining the achievements of civilization.
    Because there are cultural heritages that have less respect for the rights of the individual than others, and there are cultural heritages that have different considerations about the division of labor, about equality before the law, or about the role of men and women in the community.
    Starting with the basics. Will all nations be willing to accept coexistence with equality before the law? Will the subjects of law in this coexistence be all people, or will they be only the leaders of groups and corporations?

  2. Martine says:

    Open Society is nothing but big brother. faceless, unelected bureaucrats, like in the EU, trying to do away with cultural identity, and then personal identity, until everyone, and everything is the same, and similarly miserable. I would rather clap my hand and believe in fairies, then try and be some kind of faceless cog.

  3. John R says:

    See also: https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/07/25/how-the-west-was-won/, especially sections 3 and 4, replacing “universal culture” with “open society” as needed.

  4. Gaston Naboulet says:

    Mine is one more opinion, but my assessment is that the origin of totalitarianism is neither economic nor psychological, much less a spontaneous and democratic social phenomenon. I agree with Popper that the origin of totalitarianism is philosophical, it is a philosophy, a notion of reality, imposed from power.
    Plato subordinates objective facts to universal ideas and concepts. Popper would not agree with this approach, because experimentation is his thing, so he will put Plato’s ideas to the test in a hypothetical but plausible situation.
    What would happen if someone with power decided to stop admiring the universal concepts of Plato, like someone who looks at the stars on a clear night, to decide to assume them as their own?
    It is not a small leap, absolute idealism took Neoplatonism to the next level, which is to define the notion of reality as a social function, and its totally legal manipulation for those who manage to impose it. That is why it is the system of thought and the notion of reality of all totalitarianisms. Ideas and theories come first, and facts are secondary.
    The bottom line in absolute idealism is that identity is tribal and comes from groupthink and its narrative. Authority is a kind of qualified identity, because it cannot come from reason or facts, therefore it is obviously patriarchal.
    The survival and quality of individuals and their identities will depend on the purity and survival of their group paradigms.
    The welfare of the group will always be above the welfare of the individual; therefore, the worst possible crime is to attack the unity and uniformity of the group. Faced with such a war situation, the main obligation of all members is to identify, harass and segregate the group’s enemies.

  5. Gaston Naboulet says:

    The problem with these approaches is that underlies the assumption that all culture is necessarily based on the idealism of Plato or Hegel.
    In the end it all comes down to the abuse of collective nouns. An Open Society where all recognizable subjects are closed societies identified with a label, is not capable of conceiving a citizen.
    The central characteristic of Popper’s thought is respect for facts and evidence, rather than submission to a set of ideas, theories, group narratives, and patriarchs.
    In an open society according to Popper, different cultures can perfectly coexist under conventional norms. Everyone is free to believe or not in universal concepts, or even to deny objective evidence, but must refrain from imposing their beliefs on others.

  6. Gaston Naboulet says:

    I think there is a misunderstanding of what Popper is proposing and a worse use of his Open Society concept by Soros.
    The opening for Popper is to put rationality and empiricism above tribal identities. For Soros, openness is the recognition of a multiplicity of tribal identities.
    On the other hand, being for or against Plato denotes an ad hominem method which is quite rude. It is evident that Popper did not need to disagree with everything that is attributed to Plato, but surely he regrets his influence in relation to his essences and abstractions, to totalities and abstract categories.
    What Popper rejects and identifies with totalitarianism is not the Plato of the Republic, but something as basic as the search for the sublime through an abstract language that puts labels, genders, races, species, over objective facts and even people. .
    What makes a closed society for Popper is the prevalence of its identity, its race, its narrative, and its groupthink as exclusionary conditions. On the contrary, in an open society according to Popper, these are not essential or transcendental conditions but merely circumstances of individuals.
    That leads us without further ado to the metaphysics of absolute idealism as the basis of collectivism and its inevitable development towards totalitarianism.
    It is evident that Soros’s Open Society and its multiculturalism, its ideology of identities and genders, bears no resemblance to Popper’s Open Society; they just have the same name, and that’s pretty misleading.

  7. Lawrence Cheung says:

    Perhaps to understand the 2 volumes of Open Society and Its Enemy, one should take in the whole picture before attacking the few ideas that were presented in the first 1/4 of Popper’s Magnum Opus. He might have attacked tribalism and the misconceptions of historicism (in response specifically to Marxism), but he never said that they are ‘bad’ and should be banned. He simply unpacked the ultimate effects of those ideas on society, especially if they became the foundational beliefs of those in power. In contrast, he proposed an alternative idea called the ‘Open Society’, which as its name suggests, is open to changes, including from George Soros’ wet dream to George Soros’ nightmare, and vice verse. The key is that change is possible, based on the constituents’ collective intent. Thus it is open to corrective actions in case a change did not bring the intended results. This is not a cultural how-to, this is a structural how-to of world improvement. Once the structure of ‘openness to change (corrective actions)’ is firmly established and sustained, people (individuals and collectives) are free to choose what kind of world they want to live in, because there will be a mechanism to change it again if it doesn’t work out.

  8. Jim Riley says:

    There is one true foundational culture… It transcends all other pseudo cultures to the extent that they transgress it. The one true culture, meaning of life, if you will, is sustainability, or life itself, in a grand tautology. Any culture without this prime directive at it’s core is invalid and in effect a death cult, whether they deny sustainability’s importance directly or simply neglect to account for it out of ignorance.

    As such our long term collective interests supercede our short term self interests, especially as we begin to violate the laws of sustainability. This means we choose to limit our reproduction rates and consumption rates. We choose to mandate regulations on safety of all products with regard to the entire product lifecycle and it’s effects on all life on our planet.

    By definition, we are one family of humans, indeed all life on Earth is connected through evolution on this planet. This consciousness is the real truth. And the evolution of our universe leading to this dialog here, is, in fact, the greatest story ever told.

    The clock is ticking due to humans’ violation of first principles and embrace of death culture. We either grasp this core culture of life and sustainability and let it inform all other beliefs, or we will end this brief chapter in the annals of the evolution of the universe.

  9. Janet says:

    Dog chases tail.

  10. james mattinson says:

    I find it ironic that debates about how Society should structure itself always assume there must be a one size fits all solution.
    The needs of the San people of the Kalahari are far different to those of the Silicon Valley tribe.
    George Soros and his flock are making the same fundamental mistake as so many other New World Order designers before him. That is to focus on the Rights side of the Societal equation while ignoring Responsibility.
    The Golden Rule balances the equation and is equally valid in the Kalahari as it is in Silicon Valley – Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
    One other contention to consider:-
    All attempts to make the world a better place will prove futile unless the rate of growth of the human population is reduced to a rate that equates to an average of no more than 2.17 live births per female.
    Last word – Why do debates about Greek philosophers invariably exclude Diogenes who to my mind holds the candle to Aristotle, Socrates and Plato alike.

  11. Roland Quast says:

    In response to John Saudino’s comment. I believe both Popper and Soros have made many profound observations. I believe that Popper’s view of historicism to be very relevant to foreign policy and diplomacy. For example, what if the world didn’t know about the history of the Korean peninsular and its *value* as a staging point for the invasion of China and Japan? How can historical events predict accurately predict the future if there are an infinite number of possible outcomes? I also am intrigued by Soros’ theory of reflexivity in its ability to manipulate stock markets and people. This is where I see a dark side of Popper and Soros. As social creatures, belief can have a polarising and isolating effect on society and those groups in society. Social media and the internet amplify this by removing long form discussions for the accommodation of differing ideas. People turn things into a political match to have the final word on their understanding (in 280 characters or less). Too long; didn’t read (TL;DR), information overload. I believe Soros is manipulating this through reflexivity, in what I think of as a number of feedback loops of fear and setting the agenda (belief) of the desired outcome through propaganda. I believe that through this mechanism, he is facilitating the Spiral of Silence. I also find it ironic that his “Open Society Foundations” has a spiral as its logo. It’s a mechanism for isolating descent to achieve a desired outcome. The identity politics side of the orthodoxy his society endorses seems eerily like the novel, “Brave New World”. Using identity politics to rob people of their identity. I liken this to a form of cultural appropriation. I understand Soros’ background was an unimaginable hell.. and maybe a Brave New World might be an attractive world to someone like that. A dystopian, totalitarian world where there are no wars and everyone’s needs are met. Soros has said that he has fantasies of becoming a “great philosopher” (Youtube search Soros explaining the theory of reflexivity at the European Central University in 2010). I don’t think Soros will achieve this dream. I think Nietzsche’s Übermensch stands in his way. Tyler Durden (Fight Club) is a pop culture reference to this person. A leader who doesn’t care what other people think. A leader who wants to prove something. A leader whose modus operandi is to remembered for the Art of The Deal. It now seems that Soros isn’t the only American billionaire who wants to be remembered for something. While the left is busy squashing descent by eating its own intellectuals, Trump is gaining popularity in the polls. Are they food for the right wing? The question is (and the Washington post asks this same question), does Trump know he is Tyler Durden? Has history not seen something similar before? Maybe history doesn’t matter if you’re Karl Popper or George Soros.

  12. John Saudino says:

    You both understand and dont understand Popper here. Indeed what you say is correct…..he rejects any form of tribalism hook line and sinker, but this DOES NOT lead to uniformity as you incorrectly maintain. What it leads to is individual freedom, which, given the free Access to all Information that such a Regime implies, leads to the greatest diversity that is theoretically possible. Individuals CHOOSE what they want to believe and that can be anything….even the romantic, esoteric, and superstitious notions that are common among tribal communites. The danger the world is facing IS NOT the so called “globalism” that Popper and his desciple Soros represent, but the nativistic DICTATORSHIPS set up by nationalistic, tribalist, reactionary leaders who presuppose that THEY AND THEY ALONE represent the REAL culture that all their mindless Orc followers MUST adopt as their own… a Regime that can only be maintained by severe censorship and violent Repression. It does not matter if the dictator is called Ayatolah Khomeni, Mugabe, Erdogan, Putin, or Adolf Hitler himself…the result is the same. For the sake of the dictators personal Obsession with what HE interprets as cultural or religious integrity ALL are subjected to HIS will. The result is tyranny, war and death.

  13. Martine says:

    Orwell had it right. Open Society leads to things like the EU, faceless, unelected dictators. Nations have a right to their identity, and people have a right to believe in a higher power, and shall always continue to believe in one. Your attempt to turn the world into a grey, ugly thing, and every human into Spock from Star Treck is evil and sad. You have no right to label nationalism, or tribalism as bad, simply because you think it is. What we should be doing is strengthening different countries, and different communities, not trying to turn the world one impersonal blob with no history, and no culture. I think you will fail. I hope you do. I would like to see a world with countries perserving their identity, with people taking pride in their heritage. With competition being the primary motivator, as this fits the soul of humanity. When countries have perfected themselves, they can deal with each other peacefully. But each country must look out for their own first and foremost. Charity begins at home is the wisest thing anyone has ever said.

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