Tag Archive: power

The continuing relevance of the Open Society

Vielleicht ist an diesen wenigen und sehr verkürzten wie pointierten Beispielen etwas deutlich geworden, dass Karl Popper in seiner Offenen Gesellschaft zeitlose Vorschläge für politische Reformen in Demokratien gemacht hat, die weiterhin große Aktualität haben. Die endgültige Zähmung der dunklen ökonomischen Dämonen, die Marx durch eine „soziale Revolution“ erreichen zu können glaubte, ist nach Popper nur in einer Demokratie möglich. Doch zur Erlan­gung dieser Erkenntnis müssen wir nach seiner Meinung einsehen, „dass die Kontrole der physischen Macht und der physischen Ausbeutung das zentrale politische Problem ist und bleibt“. [258-9]

The only legitimate aim of violent revolution

I am not in all cases and under all circumstances against a violent revolution. I believe with some medieval and Renais­sance Christian thinkers who taught the admissibility of tyrannicide that there may indeed, under a tyranny, be no other possibility, and that a violent revolution may be justified. But I also believe that any such revolution should have as its only aim the establishment of a democracy; and by a democracy I do not mean something as vague as ‘the rule of the people’ or ‘the rule of the majority’, but a set of institutions (among them especially general elections, i.e. the right of the people to dismiss their government) which permit public control of the rulers and their dismissal by the ruled, and which make it possible for the ruled to obtain reforms without using violence, even against the will of the rulers. In other words, the use of violence is justified only under a tyranny which makes reforms without violence impossible, and it should have only one aim, that is, to bring about a state of affairs which makes reforms without violence possible.

I do not believe that we should ever attempt to achieve more than that by violent means. For I believe that such an attempt would involve the risk of destroying all prospects of reasonable reform. The prolonged use of violence may lead in the end to the loss of freedom, since it is liable to bring about not a dispassionate rule of reason, but the rule of the strong man. A violent revolution which tries to attempt more than the destruction of tyranny is at least as likely to bring about another tyranny as it is likely to achieve its real aims.

There is only one further use of violence in political quarrels which I should consider justified. I mean the resistance, once democracy has been attained, to any attack (whether from within or without the state) against the democratic con­stitution and the use of democratic methods. Any such attack, especially if it comes from the government in power, or if it is tolerated by it, should be resisted by all loyal citizens, even to the use of violence. In fact, the working of democracy rests largely upon the understanding that a government which attempts to misuse its powers and to establish itself as a tyranny (or which tolerates the establishment of a tyranny by anybody else) outlaws itself, and that the citizens have not only a right but also a duty to consider the action of such a government as a crime, and its members as a dangerous gang of criminals. But I hold that such violent resistance to attempts to overthrow democracy should be unambiguously defensive. No shadow of doubt must be left that the only aim of the resistance is to save democracy. [ch. 19, 414-5]

The theory of unchecked sovereignty

It is my conviction that by expressing the problem of politics in the form ‘Who should rule?’ or ‘Whose will should be supreme?’, etc., Plato created a lasting confusion in political philosophy. It is indeed analogous to the confusion he created in the field of moral philosophy by his identification, discussed in the last chapter, of collectivism and altruism. It is clear that once the question ‘Who should rule?’ is asked, it is hard to avoid some such reply as ‘the best’ or ‘the wisest’ or ‘the born ruler’ or ‘he who masters the art of ruling’ (or, perhaps, ‘The General Will’ or ‘The Master Race’ or ‘The Industrial Workers’ or ‘The People’). But such a reply, convincing as it may sound—for who would advocate the rule of ‘the worst’ or ‘the greatest fool’ or ‘the born slave’?—is, as I shall try to show, quite useless.

First of all, such a reply is liable to persuade us that some fundamental problem of political theory has been solved. But if we approach political theory from a different angle, then we find that far from solving any fundamental problems, we have merely skipped over them, by assuming that the question ‘Who should rule?’ is fundamental. For even those who share this assumption of Plato’s admit that political rulers are not always sufficiently ‘good’ or ‘wise’ (we need not worry about the precise meaning of these terms), and that it is not at all easy to get a government on whose goodness and wisdom one can implicitly rely. If that is granted, then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad government; whether we should not prepare for the worst leaders, and hope for the best. But this leads to a new approach to the problem of politics, for it forces us to replace the question: Who should rule? by the new question: How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be pre­vented from doing too much damage?

Those who believe that the older question is fundamental, tacitly assume that political power is ‘essentially’ unchecked. They assume that someone has the power—either an individual or a collective body, such as a class. And they assume that he who has the power can, very nearly, do what he wills, and especially that he can strengthen his power, and thereby approximate it further to an unlimited or unchecked power. They assume that political power is, essentially, sovereign. If this assumption is made, then, indeed, the question ‘Who is to be the sovereign?’ is the only important question left. [ch. 7, 132-3]

Democracy, majority rule, tyranny

And indeed, it is not difficult to show that a theory of democratic control can be developed which is free of the paradox of sovereignty. The theory I have in mind is one which does not proceed, as it were, from a doctrine of the intrinsic good­ness or righteousness of a majority rule, but rather from the baseness of tyranny; or more precisely, it rests upon the decision, or upon the adoption of the proposal, to avoid and to resist tyranny.

For we may distinguish two main types of government. The first type consists of governments of which we can get rid without bloodshed—for example, by way of general elections; that is to say, the social institutions provide means by which the rulers may be dismissed by the ruled, and the social traditions ensure that these institutions will not easily be destroyed by those who are in power. The second type consists of governments which the ruled cannot get rid of except by way of a successful revolution—that is to say, in most cases, not at all. I suggest the term ‘democracy’ as a short-hand label for a government of the first type, and the term ‘tyranny’ or ‘dictatorship’ for the second. [ch. 7, 136]

Popper’s criterion of a democracy

Democracy cannot be fully characterized as the rule of the majority, although the institution of general elections is most important. For a majority might rule in a tyrannical way. (The majority of those who are less than 6 ft. high may decide that the minority of those over 6 ft. shall pay all taxes.) In a democracy, the powers of the rulers must be limited; and the criterion of a democracy is this: In a democracy, the rulers—that is to say, the government—can be dismissed by the ruled without bloodshed. Thus if the men in power do not safeguard those institutions which secure to the minority the possibility of working for a peaceful change, then their rule is a tyranny. [ch. 19, 424]

How can we get rid of you?

[I]n the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person—Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates—ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.

The eternal danger to liberty

There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.

Science, the liberal society

Consonant with is transcendental aims, science strives to be the social formation that can tolerate even those who are corrupt: who seek advancement, power, advantage, to serve the cause of anti-science. It relies on its institutional strenghts to overcome such individual lack of acceptance of scientific ideals and concentrates solely on the cotribution, if any, such individuals make to ongoing projects. Thus venality and dishonesty – provided they are not pervasive – are compatible with making a scientific contribution. Science is the most liberal version of the open society … . [80]

The fundamental question of politics

The argument of The Open Society and Its Enemies is that wherever there is power there is the possiblitiy of abuse. This renders the fundamental question of politics not ‘who should rule?’ but, ‘how can we design government so that bad rulers can be removed without violence?’ [30]

The learning machine

My aim is to show how over ten years of fruitful work he remained engaged with the social aspects of the quest for knowledge, working out, supplementing, and generalising ideas about society that were embryonic in his philosophy of science. A fully fleshed-out vision of politics and society emerged which today would be termed the knowledge-using, knowledge-gathering, knowledge­-embodying society. It is, in many ways, a magnificent vision and an intellectual tour de force. Popper presents society as a learning machine, and the learning machine as a Socratic seminar writ large.

Wholehearted though my admiration is for this vision, I take seriously Poppers injunction that we learn from criticism. In criticism I argue that there are serious deficiencies in holding up the Socratic seminar as a model for life in society in general, and for scientific work in particular. The republic of science Popper envisions is susceptible to the corruptions of power just as is the broader body politic, and its citizens need the kind of checks on power that Popper demanded on governments. Even more troubling: the central Socratic and scientific value of truth conflicts at times with other values important for social life. [6]

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