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January 30, 2012

A Totalitarianism of Openness?

by Kyle Becker

Karl Popper is famous publicly for his political treatise The Open Society and Its Enemies, but he is also well-known among academics for his work in the philosophy of science.  Readers may recognize in the above-cited title the phrase “open society” – it is shared by the mainstay organizing and funding arm of billionaire activist George Soros.

The controversial philanthropist did not agree with everything Karl Popper wrote, and therefore one must be careful not to consider the men as analogous thinkers. For example, George Soros criticized the theorist in an editorial by claiming, “Popper failed to recognise that in democratic politics, gathering public support takes precedence over the pursuit of truth.”

To say Popper believed in pursuing the truth is quite slippery indeed.  In the theorist’s view, the truth can only be approached, never finally apprehended. Popper’s ideology is skeptical to an extreme; it presupposes that there can be no such thing as certainty in a theorem or maxim, and therefore, the best a scientist can do is to falsify hypotheses. What withstands falsification over an extended period of time, with repeated trials, can be held contingently as a theory.

Those familiar with the New Left may recognize a certain parallel in Popper’s thinking suggestive of an overlap: the New Left’s idea of Critical Theory is to condemn Western Civilization relentlessly without defending alternative political theories, such as the publicly disesteemed socialism.

Soros thus displays in his comment on Popper a point of view more in line with the thinking of communist grand strategist Antonio Gramsci, whose ideas are compared to Popper’s in a well-formulated and researched article published on the blog The Soros Files. Gramsci believed in carrying out a “long march” through the cultural institutions of the West, such as the schools, universities, courts, and media.

Gramsci thus was more of a Left Hegelian than a Marxist, per se. Though Gramsci did recognize the key role of the economic “base” in achieving the left’s goals, he believed that the culture could be shifted to accept Marxist material relations through manipulation of the ideational “superstructure.” His position-and-maneuver strategy implies mobilizing interests to seize material advantage in a democratic environment; the nation under socialist transformation would thus be moved towards the left’s end goal through a “two steps forward, one step back” advance.

The left would make it impossible to retreat because it would never compromise on principled grounds; the opposition would always be forced to compromise as a matter of being “reasonable.” Thus Soros’ funding of media outlets belies such a strategy: the left are always held aloft as paragons of virtue and compassion, while those on the right are displayed as singularly corrupt, unprincipled, and unreasonable fanatics.

Thus we have all the left’s talk of “tea party terrorists,” just for wanting their tax money spent wisely and the private sector left alone to create more meaningful jobs. The cries of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. are not only Alinskyite tactical maneuvers, but part of the grand strategy to remake the culture into an ideological terrain where the right’s arguments are prima facie evidence of ill intention. The right’s vantage point of displaying judgment and rationality in light of material reality and constraints of human nature is evidence of “closed mindedness.”

What remains when the culture is transformed into the left’s desired ideational habitat is one where a “totalitarianism of openness” dictates the externally expressed thoughts of the people, who suppress all objections to government manipulation based on judgment and self-interest. This “political correctness” is thus a tool for the culture to remake humanity into malleable, plastic individuals with no sense of self-determination, only an existential anomie fed by hedonistic satisfaction, escapism, and even self-loathing.  The reverse of this individual state is the seeking of collectivist exuberance in mass rituals, cult of personality worship, and Marxian state religion. Equality and democracy are the Kantian categorical imperatives breaking down all ideological, or as a Popperian might see it, dogmatic barriers to total freedom.

The best synopsis of this leftist utopian vision is perhaps the lecture by Evan Sayet “How Modern Liberals Think,” given at the Heritage Foundation.  Drawing on the work of Dr. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, it makes the counter-intuitive argument that the left’s thinking is essentially nihilistic, and therefore, leads ineluctably to totalitarian outcomes.

This is not to claim that Karl Popper was a nihilist; but if we probe his ideology, we might find more than enough to evidence that it is open to the point of assaulting judgment as a basis of values or rational thought. If one juxtaposed the thinking of Ayn Rand, for example, a Popperian would find her an unrepentant totalitarian. But the application of Rand’s ideals in reality would make totalitarianism impossible; the sanctity of the individual and the forbidding of force initiation are two values whose adherence would lead to a world where the only tool man would have for dealing with reality and other human beings would be reason.  This is the truly open society that would be brushed off by Popper, and condemned by George Soros.

According to an article on George Soros’ study of and embracing of Karl Popper:

Open Society and Its Enemies focused on closed societies that suppressed reason—ones he condemned as “magical, tribal or collectivist”—but didn’t say much about the open society itself, beyond freedom of scientific inquiry and the freedom to dissent.

But without a baseline of confidence that there is such a thing as objective reality, a society would invariably fall into a void of extreme skepticism to the extent that they would be incapacitated and democratically demobilized. They would cease being a threat to billionaires and oligarchs like George Soros. They would entrust society to scientists and “experts,” pliably complying with the dictates of the ruling class out of a nagging sense of self-doubt that one’s own personal view could possibly be right. And not just right; uncompromisingly, certainly, and defensibly right. Human beings who would cling to the forgotten right, the Lockean right to self-defense, would be esteemed as “fanatics,” and dismissed as dogmatic and unreasonable. But if defending one’s interests against the depredations of the community, and exploitation and oppression by the state, is unreasonable, then what is reasonable?

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