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The Open Society

June 30, 2018


One of the most powerful things I read when I was studying history at University was the philosopher Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and its Enemies.” Written at the end of the Second World War it made the argument, starting with Plato’s Republic, against the closed ideologies of totalitarianism. Popper’s argument is that in trying to order society and insulate it from external change, totalitarian regimes inevitably fall into abuse: suppressing the truth and oppressing their citizens. Manipulation of the historical narrative is one of their principal tools.

I read this work through the lens of the mid 1980s and the latter days of the Soviet hegemony. Popper’s argument appeared a self-evident truth as the communist regimes of Eastern Europe staggered towards their eventual decline. Recent events have made me think, once more, about these arguments as, again, liberal democracy appears to be under threat, a narrow nationalism is on the rise and the principles of the open society challenged and subject to question.

At the heart of the debate is our attitude to the movement of ideas and of people and how we embrace change in our world. Whether, as default position, we are open to change and new developments or whether we wish to look back and lock down the world, in some sense, in a paradigm of a personal, sectional or national past.

All of this appears to be playing out in a large way in current events whether over Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump or the emergence of different shades of nationalist and popularist politics across Europe and elsewhere. The impact of globalisation, the shift of economic and political power from the West, the scale of migration and economic pressure and public austerity all seem to be fuelling a shift against the values of liberal democracy and towards a more inward facing creed of nationalism. History never repeats itself exactly but the parallels with the 1930s are far too close for comfort.

My experience and study of history would teach me to side with Popper. That is that human development and progress has usually been linked to open societies and the free interchange of ideas of people and the creative energy that this unleashes. Nowhere epitomises this more than ancient Athens, the single most brilliant example of human development, in the Western world at least, which in a period of less than 200 years created the building blocks of western intellectual, political and cultural activity and whose legacy can be profoundly felt today.

In saying this it is important not to discount the anxieties which have fuelled the emergence of popularist and nationalist feelings nor is it necessarily wrong to value and want to cherish the past or defend traditional values or activities. The 20th century might have succeeded in condemning the Welsh language and the cultural traditions it embodies to the scrap heap of history. It has taken a significant act of national will to resist that secular trend and to preserve a crucial part of the DNA of the Welsh nation and people. Many people can very legitimately see change as a threat to aspects of life they value, and which have constituted an important part of their own identity.

I think in our own times three factors exacerbate the tension between the new and the old. The first is the ever-accelerating pace of technological and social change and, now, the increasing level of interaction between them. The Internet as mass phenomenon is no older than my children and there is every possibility that the next generation of technological change around robotics and Artificial Intelligence will happen even more quickly. This puts an enormous strain on our powers of adaptation.

The second is the shifting balance of generations in our society with the growing numbers of older people and the declining proportion of younger people in society. In 2020 it is estimated there will be, for the first time in history, a greater number of people aged 65 and above than under 5. While there have always been tensions between younger and older generations these are made sharper by the change in the profile of society.

Finally, there is the sense that the hegemony of the west, as we have known it, and the sense of privilege which has gone with that is coming to an end. This creates particular issues and the politics of decline at a time when overall resources are challenged are never easy to manage.

The quality which, for me, is most important, in managing the tensions of these times, is tolerance. In supporting an open society, it is crucial we do so in a way which is respectful of the past and is understanding of those who are left behind by change. While we must always call out hatred and discrimination towards others we must do so in a way which is, in its own turn, measured and free of hatred and intolerance. In an increasingly divided world that is not an easy ask but is an essential if we are to avoid a return to some of the horrors of totalitarianism which Karl Popper was motivated to write about in 1945.


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