Towards a Critique of Open and Closed Societies
Both are inadequate for the state of humanity’s development in the 21st century
The term ‘open society’ is nowadays used merely as a catchphrase in political and social philosophy. This essay treats the term as such. Nevertheless, it might be useful to once study its origins. The focal figure in the development of this term is Karl Popper.
Popper is not so much concerned with the political and practical implications of the term, rather discussing an open society mainly from its epistemological point of view. His work, Open Society and Its Enemies popularized the term in the West and served as a sort of philosophical background and reinforcer of the prevailing representative democratic system, without the book necessarily advocating that. Three basic assertions are enunciated in this work.
First, there is an eternal opposition between the individual's needs and the needs of the collective society. Between giving precedence to individual values versus collective values. For Popper, human instincts favoring the “herd instinct of the tribe” are primarily counteractions to the hardships of freedom and liberty. Second, the revolt against individual freedoms is frequently encouraged by the thinking of intellectuals. Here Popper unleashes his arrows of critique towards two focal thinkers in the West: Hegel and Plato; but also Marx. Finally, Popper’s third assertion is that periods of social change create instabilities that can undermine liberty and freedom. An open society can best tackle these instabilities as opposed to a closed society.
For Popper then, the open society champions the individual, who has the freedom to meet his own personal decisions. Making use of his now-famous fallibility principle in social sciences, which has become the de-facto way of doing science, i.e., that we cannot essentially prove anything to be correct but only prove that something is not correct and that for a theory to be scientific one must be able to construct some experiment that could refute it, leads Popper to conclude that a society must be open to alternative points of view. An open society could best achieve this because of its cultural pluralism and acceptance of fallibility.
A closed society, on the other hand, aims to impose one version of reality and frequently claims ultimate truth. This goes against the principle of fallibility. It makes critical thinking impossible and leads to the destruction of knowledge in such totalitarian countries.
Incidentally, this should be considered the main argument against the reprehensible regimes of Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, which precedes in its importance even the humongous loss of human life caused by them: modern, powerful autocratic systems are bound to hinder the further accelerated development of knowledge.
Why a Closed Society Is Not Desirable
We shall define a closed society very broadly as one in which powerful autocratic systems reign supreme. In other words, where a unified and central government has been established, and the ruler’s absolute power over this government is guaranteed. It goes without saying that the range of these powerful autocratic systems, like most things, varies dramatically: on the one end, we have the high-end extreme, an Orwellian system, a system of which we must be on our guard of hindering at all the time especially given the tremendous technological advancements made so recently that have the potential of eternalizing such a reprehensible social-organizing way; on the other, lower-end, you have countries, which are officially democracies but are typically classified as hybrid regimes in the democracy index list. In the middle then would lie the ones that are openly authoritarian but which are frequently careful to maintain the aurora of democracy. Ironically, the latter authoritarian regimes are actively mining their system by trying to appear democratic. Because the imitation of democracy, the preservation of the outside flavor of it so to speak (which fundamentally has its root into that mightiest, oldest drive to equality), is the jumping point to a ‘real’, future democratic system. Once you give your people the right to vote for example, even though that might be just for appearances’ sake, you have essentially introduced the idea of democracy to them and a few, sublimated steps later, you reach democracy itself.
The standard to which we should hold a social-organizing system should not be one that references the individual, as Popper suggests to us but rather one that references the collective as a whole. What is more, what matters is not merely preserving this collective, that is to say, holding it to a certain standard of existence but rather further developing, enhancing, and refining it. If there is any direction towards which to channel the collective will to power of the species then it must surely be the one advocated by the second law of thermodynamics: increased complexity, i.e., pure expansion or rather overflow with development if we are permitted to use a metaphor.
Having set this goal to our sights but also for reasons that shall be explored further on, there really is no clear advantage that the open democratic society can claim over the average closed autocratic one. The most cliche example would here obviously be modern-day China but one need not look too deep into the pages of history to notice the pattern that for most of it, the autocratic system reigned supreme in the realm of Earth, and yet development was not hurt any more than it might have been in a democratic system. Indeed, it was Athens, the cradle of democracy, that executed one of the most refined minds that humanity has produced thus far. Alan Turing is another unfortunate case worthy of mention: he probably still had not given his magnum opus. But this is a weak argument.
The point is: most states so far have amounted to what we might today call closed societies, and yet these civilizations have indeed had their golden ages, where the feathers of human achievements were spread out in all their might and luminous glory. What has mattered so much thus far has been the stability rather than the form of socio-political organization of the state. Popper is wrong to characterize the closed society as one that impedes progress since it violates his only recently in the history of humanity discovered principle of fallibility. Fallibility is not a criterion by which to judge previous forms of social-political organization. Only a certain subset, like the three infamous afore-mentioned, modern-regimes of the closed societies, fit into Popper’s objections, not all of them, and what is more, the previous, older, ancient, indeed going as far back as the dawn of civilization systems are not even touched by this argument. Nay one might say, that democracy was 1000-fold more harmful back then than it might be considered to be today.
In reality, it is quite the opposite of what Popper claims: the closed society can issue claims of preponderance as opposed to the open society as we have seen it so far in modernity.
First of all, and most importantly, the democratic system is a system that cultivates the despicable last man with all its dandiness, while the autocratic one cultivates a stern and harsh morality. The former is undoubtedly superior and to be preferred to the latter. Incidentally, this is the second main major contribution of Musk to humanity: he is an agent of chaos that delays the advent of the last man.
As an example, compare the US of the early 20th century, where values like honesty and integrity, were still tolled on mass, with the US of 2022, where individualism and making as much money as possible, with no regard given to the machiavellian ways employed for this purpose, are extolled and so much so that being honest and having integrity puts one by default on the higher rank. Or take a quick look at the crypto-bros-culture: here are a bunch of folks, who fundamentally have the zero-sum view-of-life deeply imprinted into their souls, that want to live — and want to live good — essentially by bringing (almost) nothing to the table. There lurks a real danger for a society’s future when a huge chunk of it is incentivized to look for means of living without adding any real value to the economy.
One shouldn’t be so surprised, that unless the current trend reverses, that society as a whole would start finding it hard to punish even its criminals in the future.
Next, compare the US congress, where one half essentially is out to trip the other, with the unified Chinese system: in the former tremendous energies are wasted in inefficiency as one administration is bound to repel part of the programs started by the previous ones, in the latter, there is an admirable cohesion that has been signified in the recent past through the scientific outlook on development, the three represents, and earlier Dengism thought that spurred China to the path of over-development. This cohesion and stability guaranteed a significant pace of development for China.
But if we are once going to be honest, as with all times, what matters most, even in today’s fast-paced age, is not so much the form of system governing a people but the guaranteed stability of this system. It doesn’t matter so much whether this system is open or closed. The first and most important prerequisite to ensure the accelerated development of a society is stability. It is stability that allows for development and progress. Without stability, there is unfruitful chaos (though one might also argue that this is very useful in the long term). The second, and only applied to modernity, would be fallibility. So the question that we ought to be asking really is: which system is best able to guarantee this stability and fallibility given a very long amount of time? This essay tries to argue that neither the closed nor the open society is fit for these two criteria.
Fallibility is important because it inoculates the attitude of trying to develop as much as possible into the soul. Once one essentially grasps that one is by default most likely (perhaps spectacularly) wrong, the other binary alternative left seems to be only to keep expanding one’s knowledge base. While both the closed as well as the open society can maintain stability, as well as fallibility, for a very short amount of time, in the long-term they both fail miserably at this goal.
On the open society front, because representative democracy is based so much on deception and manipulation in its foundations, it is fundamentally unstable given even the most enlightened electorate.
The problem with the closed society, however, and again as with most things, is when it goes too far in its autocratic tendencies. And the argument that is here posed is that a closed society is bound to go too far in its closeness. It is bound to go too far because the ruling elite is bound to turn extreme personal power into an end in and of itself. And the ruling elites are bound to turn power into an end, because:
Dieser Welt ist der Wille zur Macht und nichts ausserdem!
Und auch ihr seid dieser Wille zur Macht und nichts ausserdem!
We can reason by the analogy of the Roman empire. We certainly would have wanted the Roman empire ruled by individuals such as Ceasar, Augustus, the Five Good Emperors, or Julian the Apostate but we most certainly would rather have wanted the senate to rule (in lack of better alternatives at the time) as opposed to degenerate emperors like Elagabalus or the weak ones immediately following the Five Good Emperors. The point here is: the leaders of a country should be, first of all, men of strong and robust principles (drives) and integrity but this is most often not the case. What mostly happens down the line with such autocratic systems is that a string of weak leaders comes to power and personal profit (i.e. power) becomes the end itself. Indeed this is the convergence point of all the dynasties that founded powerful states: the founders were usually higher men of strong drives, and sagaciousness while the bloodline down the line began to degenerate.
One of the most frequent causes for the failure of a society is the degeneration of its ruling elite, which is usually a reflection of a wider degradation of the society itself. Hence another question here is: could a gradual degradation of society be contained if the elites remained healthy? Usually, the ruling elites are but an average of the broader society. Would it be possible though to have the far, ‘better’ tail of the normal distribution of elite types ruling instead of the afore-mentioned average one?
Personal power must always be a means, the end being the further development of one’s people, or of humanity as a whole, as we are to hope this widening of the lenses to finally happen in the 21st century.
Then, although of lesser importance, we might not want a system that denies the law to its citizens either. Unfortunately, history and human nature show that all closed societies eventually converge to such a system.
Indeed, Stalin’s power-mongering reached such high spikes that he maintained for decades a monopoly on truth itself. Propaganda and disinformation are typical tools of the repertoire of closed and open societies but they reached unknown-before levels (relative to recent history) during Stalin’s rule. He didn’t just control people's lives, no, he wanted to go deeper than that. He wanted to control people’s minds. As typically happens with such individuals, they consider history to start with themselves and deform it to fit their own agenda. Everything that didn’t fit in line was censored. One couldn’t even speak of food shortages, hunger, individual incomes, price increases, unemployment, homelessness, natural disasters, ads for foreign goods, or even the names of government officials.
Incidentally, this drive to extreme power and control betrays a certain retardness of the rulers because they want to recall conditions of an earlier stage of humanity’s development. They want the same power level as Naram-Sin of Akkad had more than four millennia before but their people are not of the same level as the people of Akkad were four millennia before. Back then, absolute centrality of power was essential, the leaders rightfully were the shepherd leading the childlike, incapable of decision-making sheep. Today, if a comparison is once drawn, the quality of people has on average dramatically increased and they are many stages above the people of Akkad. Hence bursts of powerful autocratic drives, as was the case with the major dictators of the 20th century fundamentally represented a retarded movement that tried to revert the wheel of humanity’s development up to that point. A movement that fortunately failed. Few people seem to have grasped what really was at stake in 1939. Perhaps it wouldn’t be all too much an exaggeration to declare that one of the great filters was successfully passed in this period.
The most nefarious damage, however, is done, and this only became possible very recently in human history thanks to our god-like technological advancements, when such powerful distortion of reality becomes a hindrance to the drive of accelerated development of society as Popper correctly grasps. Perhaps the best exemplification for the Soviet empire is Trofim Lysenko who effectively created a pseudo-scientific bubble in the science of biology, whose positive feedback loops eventually led to a burst that caused famines with millions of casualties. His ‘insight’? Apply Marxist principles to plants. Something similar had already happened years before with the great purges in the military, where military science and initiative had been replaced with the military illiteracy and political conformity of the political commissars that had crept in everywhere in the system. Needless to say, this was a major factor in the scores of victories of the German army during the early stages of Barbarossa. Now suppose this Stalinistic state had not been reverted by Khrushchev, and on the contrary, Lysenkism had proliferated in other sciences as well. Given that society today is essentially a scientific society, with most things that make it function requiring hard-core science, such Lysenkism can lead to a crumbling of everything altogether.
And it's important to emphasize that this would not necessarily happen with a bang, its nefarious effects could rather stretch decades or centuries, and no one could thus see it coming or even notice it happening until it had actually happened.
Then, Mao’s sentiment that led to the infamous cultural revolution seems to have been: “I would rather see it all smashed to bits and pieces if I don’t have absolute control over everything”. Suppose for a moment that the gang of four had had the technological might of 2022 at their disposal. This might have enabled them to retain their power. Then further suppose that they had crushed out the opposite Deng camp as well as the moderate middle. Suppose then that at their expiry date, similar-minded folks had taken power. Suppose then… but enough.
The end state of the Orwellian dystopian world is very likely nothing less than the crumbling of the species altogether. This is by no means an exaggeration. For most of our history, and to be fair we’ll include only the last 50k years when the last great software update occurred, homo sapiens lived in a brutish-like state if a comparison with today’s society is once drawn: extreme egalitarianism but no development whatsoever. We cannot claim that we are so far removed from that state (given that civilization is if we are inclined to be charitable, at most 7k years old) that we can never go back to a similar one. And this is, incidentally, the main argument against globalization: if civilization is one and unified, it rises and goes down together. That’s why we need an escape pod, in other words, we need diversity. Seen with these lenses, the latest reforms that are tightening the closeness of the Chinese society might turn out to actually be quite useful for humanity as a whole.
In summa, quid est veritas? There is a higher truth in these autocratic systems and that’s the leader’s or the party’s truth. This is what ultimately condemns closed societies. Not those dull speeches about personal rights and freedoms, or some alleged inferiority when compared to the western liberal society.
There is an argument that war, albeit cruel and brutal, and which is typically associated with mass destruction, actually has had an immense influence on the long-term continual development of our species and this for very deep reasons, which are out of the scope of this article (but the interested reader can refer to this work for a first-principles elucidation of the idea). Reasoning by analogy to keep this argument short, the same could be the case for a heavy autocratic system that heavily represses everything, provided only that it does so in the short term. Thus a veering to and from extreme autocracy for a designated time interval, e.g. every 40 years or so. This could then turn out to actually be beneficial to the continual development of a society. Would China have had this unprecedented rate of development for a major nation in world history were it not for the madness of the previous century? On the surface, of course not, since they sequentially follow one another in time and, moreover, it couldn’t have happened otherwise. But my point here is that it is very important to realize the duality of man: man needs what is “worst” in him in order to achieve what is “best” in him.
And to emphasize, it is crucial that such powerful autocratic tendencies survive only in the short term, that is are cut short before they turn into the destructive tendencies that seek to perpetuate oneself as was elucidated above. Incidentally, this was where the brahmin system went wrong. Here we originally had high priests whose sole goal was to perpetuate their own type and power and who therefore made the castes extremely rigid. What they should have done is innoculate a slow change into these castes, for example by means of an assembly every five years that removes 1% from this or that caste and fills in the empty ranks with new, worthy blood from other castes. Such an inoculation of slow change would have probably made that ancient Indian society the most advanced of all times.
Why an Open Society Is Not Desirable
Always drawing comparisons based on the standard that was set in the previous section, the usual narrative given in favor of the open society might go something like the following:
Open Society is the most desirable form of social organization, first as a means to an end (the end being over-development) and then as an end to itself. It enables a society to understand the problems that it is confronting and to deal with them more successfully than other forms of social organization provided that it gives precedence to the pursuit of truth over the manipulation of truth and the people are willing to confront harsh realities.
This is a splendid pitch in favor of democracy. The only visible problem here is that it hangs on two very hard requirements: the pursuit of truth and being rooted in reality no matter what. Take any democratic system that has ever existed since ancient times, and one cannot say that any society has held these two requirements for more than a tiny fraction of time, which is, incidentally, no longer than what has been the case in autocratic systems.
Might the democratic system guarantee these two pre-requisites indefinitely in the future, for e.g. in the form of direct democracy? Well, that might as well be the case but it is no argument for adopting such a system for the present times. For the present times, as always, the truth is that representative democracy is a failed form of social organization. The rest of this section focuses on the veracity of this statement.
First of all, the most important point against such an open system is the argument put forth by Nietzsche, who turned out to be prophetic in yet another direction. For more than 75 years now, the West has run the democratic experiment en masse. And what has been the result of it in Europe, for the most part, if not the following:
But why do I speak where nobody has my ears? And so let me shout it into all the winds: You are becoming smaller and smaller, you small people! You are crumbling, you comfortable ones. You will yet perish of your many small virtues, of your many small abstentions, of your many small resignations. Too considerate, too yielding is your soil.
Aber, dass ein Baum gross werde, dazu will er um harte Felsen harte Wurzeln schlangen!
Then, the quality of a democracy is inevitably tied to the quality of the electorate, from which it follows that if you have an electorate of low quality, you shall have a parody of democracy instead of a real one. This explains, to a certain degree, the discrepancies between the various democracies thorought the world. But even given a high-quality electorate, one still cannot maintain a high quality of democracy (for more than a speck of time) and this is because of the rulers’ powerful drive to manipulate the truth with the purpose of keeping their grip on power intact. The countries that are worse off in a representative democracy, therefore, are those that both have a low-level electorate as well as a powerful manipulative machine working at all times at deforming reality. Albania is the case in point.
But even highly developed societies are not exempt. A good example here would be the reelection in 2004 of Geroge Bush. His greatest sin would suffice for our purposes: the invasion of Iraq in blatant violation of international law. How did Bush then achieve his reelection in the most developed country, in the most developed age of Earth? Thanks to a very powerful right-wing propaganda machine. The essence of this propaganda machine could probably be captured in the following quote by Karl Rove:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
It is this powerful distortion of reality that turns a real representative democracy into a bad joke with a bad punchline. What happens in every democracy, is that political discourse is not aimed at discovering reality but rather in manipulating it in order to get elected yet again. This means that free political discourse does not produce the necessary far-sighted policies that Popper might have thought it does any more than an autocratic system that suppresses this free discourse does. The difference between a democracy and an autocracy here would be that the latter is honest, it suppresses dissidence freely and openly, whilst the former is deceptive and must resort to manipulating reality and exploiting cognitive biases in order to suppress dissidence.
This is more broadly called the principal-agent problem. The principals, the people of representative democracy, elect their leaders, the agents of the system. These agents are supposed to champion and work for their people but instead, they champion and work for their own personal power first and foremost. And, again, just as with the closed society, where we saw that power in and of itself becomes an end, the same happens in the open society. The cause of this remains the same: the agents’ weak eyesight, who do not see power as a means to an end, the end being the further development of their society but rather turn it into an end in and of itself.
And the people know this. They are tired and sick of this. Most people in most of the open societies of the 21st century believe that the system is rigged and is out to get them. This is then duly reflected in the voter turnout in every election. For representative democracy to work, one can not just have the majority, more than 50%, of people voting, no, a prerequisite of this system is that almost everybody who is eligible to vote does exercise this right. Otherwise, it becomes clear that the people do not want such a system. In other words, voter turnout should be at levels of 90%, at the very least but preferably higher than that.
What is then the average voter turnout for our precious representative democracies? The average voter turnout for the top 8 countries in the democracy index list, which have a democracy index higher than 9.0, is only 77%. For the next 15 countries, whose democracy index lies between 8.0 and 9.0, it goes down to 71%.
This is the best trust that this system can create folks! This is the best that it has to offer!
For the United States of America, the mass manufacturer and exporter of democracy to other countries that are childlike and need a good parent to teach them what is right and wrong, the paragon of democracy so to speak, the average voter turnout is a ridiculous 53.63%. Just a bit lower and one cannot even call the country a democracy, on principle at least, anymore. What does this serve to show but the simple fact that the people do not want this kind of representative democracy? That they are rather stuck with it, because previous generations felt it to be a fair and judicious system, and as always in human affairs after the system has become entrenched, people shrug from expending their energies (and what massive energies are needed!) to change the system altogether.
In the political battle for power, a drive to truth, a commitment to abide by facts, reason, integrity, and honesty have actually become a handicap. The system breeds politicians that are apt in distorting reality and overblowing everything. Nay, there is no real choice for such a type of human being as our politicians today are: they simply need to use all the arsenal of distortions in order to win elections and if they don’t, reality severely punishes them by losing.
One of the most potent tools of this arsenal you might ask? Exploiting every single cognitive bias that we have some research for. Here is one of the biggest abominations of our recent global culture: capitalizing on behavior, originally evolved to help the poor, fearful, wretched creature go through the day and especially make it through the night, on every single level. The best exemplification of such exploitation to be sure is the equally abominable consumer society, which might even turn out to bring the planet’s resources to a grand collapse.
Such extreme exploitation, which is usually unabashedly passed off as “research”, should be banned and made punishable by law for the most part. Companies must compete with the value that their product or service brings to the table, not with a “3 more left in the stock”-highlighted font down the product. Politicians should compete with their drives, vision, and integrity, not with nudge theory. Once you demonstrate that such exploitation, apart from dehumanizing its targets, actively mines the public good for the interests of a few, there really is no reason for not legislating it.
To conclude, this short essay tried to demonstrate that neither representative democracy nor authoritarianism is the answer. The goal of a political system should be to best manage the single most important resource that there is: the people. I believe that with these two systems incredible potential goes squandered. While we could afford failed experiments as a species in the field of socio-political organization in our past, the enormous growth of science and technology today will certainly put a high toll on future, similar failed experiments.
I believe that it is rather high time that we tried another system, one that is fit for the advanced scientific society of the 21st century: Technocracy.
Thanks for reading.
As always, constructive criticism and discussion of any kind are highly appreciated.
Remember what physics teaches us: One’s goal is to be less wrong about everything.