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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

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Janet says:

    Dog chases tail.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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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