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