Following Brexit, Trump and the formation of a populist government in Italy, there would seem to be an open-and-shut case for open-and-closed.
And yet there’s a big problem with the narrative surrounding the concept. If one looks at the numerous opinion pieces that have appeared on the subject since 2016, almost all of them are written from an ‘open’ perspective. And no wonder! Who would want to identify themselves as being ‘closed’?
The associations of the word are not encouraging: closed mind, closed session, closed membership, closed shop, closed doors, closed borders. Contrast that with the associations of ‘open’: open minded, open hearted, open handed, open to offers, open door, open house, the open road – the list goes on-and-on .
At least the terminology of left-and-right sounds neutral to modern ears.1 The language of open-and-closed, by contrast, is one-sided in the impressions it conveys – and is intended to convey.
That’s something that any open-minded liberal ought to recognise. Some of them do. One such is Adrian Wooldridge – the current custodian of the Bagehot column in the Economist:2
“Open v closed clearly matters… [but] the division is too self-serving for comfort. It looks more like ammunition for a political war than dispassionate analysis, and thereby contributes to the polarisation that it claims to diagnose.”
Wooldridge also questions the idea that open-versus-closed is just another way of saying liberal-versus-illiberal:
“Consider Brexit. Remainers regard it as the quintessential revolt against the open society. Yet some of the most prominent Leavers, such as Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell, are classical liberals who regard the European Union as a protectionist bloc that is bent on subsidising inefficient industries.”
That said, there are some populist leaders who are clearly illiberal – because they’ve said so themselves. For instance, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has declared his intention to build “an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.”3
West of the old Iron Curtain, however, populist rhetoric tends to take a different tone. ‘Closed’ policies on immigration, trade and international obligations are often presented as a defence of liberal values – for instance, of secularism,4 women’s rights5 or a ‘level playing field’ in trade6 – against those who do not share western values or play by the same rules.
The downfall of self-serving narratives is that they’re also self-deluding. If the advocates of open think that open-versus-closed is an argument for-and-against liberal democracy, then they will lose – because that is not the battle being fought. Rather, it’s a battle to define what liberal democracy actually is.
From the open perspective, liberal democracy is a universal concept – one enhanced by the dismantling of barriers between different groups of people. From the closed perspective, liberal democracies, where they exist, are nurtured by, and particular to, specific national and cultural traditions – around which barriers are required so that freedoms can grow and develop in an otherwise hostile world.
There’s an already well-developed argument that the costs and benefits of dismantling barriers has had a hugely unequal impact on different parts of the population – and that the advocates of open are insensitive to this reality. But to the charge of insensitivity we must add hypocrisy – because for all the barriers that globalisation has brought crashing down, many of those that protect the interests of “open people” have remained mysteriously intact.
Adrian Wooldridge notes the inconsistency:7
“The post-1979 deregulation of the economy was one-sided. Working-class closed shops, such as that of the printworkers, were broken, while professional closed shops, notably for barristers, were left to thrive.
“Academics like to think of themselves as open to their core. But academia is rife with restrictive practices. The most highly prized commodity in academic life is tenure—that is, the right to an income for life whatever happens to the world.”
He concludes that “open people aren’t as open as they think.” I agree with that statement, but it hints at a more fundamental issue. The barriers that the advocates of open have built around themselves aren’t just economic, they’re also epistemic – there is something about their chosen narrative that prevents them from seeing its self-serving and hypocritical nature.
The biggest problem with the open perspective isn’t that it presupposes the other side is wrong, but that it is incapable of being right. If one automatically associates a ‘closed’ position on issues like immigration, globalisation and supra-nationalism with having a closed mind then there is no need to take it seriously.
You can build an awful lot of contempt and condescension on a platform like that. In taking the perpetrators to task, other UnHerd contributors like James Bloodworth, Paul Embery and Henry Olsen have done an excellent job; I, however, would like to go after a different target.
The false equivalence of open-versus-closed with rational-versus-irrational isn’t based on shallow rhetoric alone, it has a deeper intellectual foundation that also needs digging up.
In the second part of this essay, I traced the political narrative back to the middle of the last decade and Tony Blair. However, for the philosophical inspiration we have to go back to the middle of the last century and Karl Popper.
Popper was a philosopher and scientist, one the greatest thinkers of the modern age. His best-known work, The Open Society and its Enemies was first published in 1945. Written while the world was in flames, it is a brilliant, and enduringly influential, defence of liberal democracy
It revolves around the distinction that Popper makes between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ societies: A closed society is one in which individual actions are “determined by taboos, by magical tribal institutions which can never become objects of critical consideration”; an “open society” is one in which some taboos remain, but where there is an “ever-widening field of personal decisions, with its problems and responsibilities” (and, moreover, problems and responsibilities upon which there is “the possibility of rational reflection”).8
The “enemies” that Popper refers to are those who wish to recreate the closed society, albeit in contemporary, totalitarian form. In place of the tribe, the individual is subordinated to some other collective – whether based on class, race, nationality or religion; and in place of magic, there is ‘historicism‘ – Popper’s term for the idea that human affairs are determined by historical laws, just as the natural world is subject to physical laws. 9
One can see how all this might inspire the open-and-closed narratives of the 21st century. By removing barriers to immigration, international trade and the ‘pooling’ of sovereignty we weaken ‘tribal’ identities and thus expand the space for rational decision-making. Or as Tony Blair approvingly puts it:10
“…Globalisation trashes national boundaries, gives people a means of universal communication and spreads ideas and ideology as much as capital or technology.”
Popper’s work certainly inspired George Soros to found the Open Society Institute11, arguably the foremost advocate of ‘openness’ in the world today.
Popper died in 1994 and we can’t be sure what he would have made of the way his arguments have been applied in the 21st century. But what if Popper himself was wrong? Not about whether the open society is a good thing, but about how it can be sustained?
An open society, he says, is one where “individuals are confronted with personal decisions” – which they can, and indeed must, think through for themselves. However, his emphasis on “rational reflection” suggests that we grapple with the “problems and responsibilities” of modern life in the manner of a philosophy professor.12
The fact that philosophy professors exist and can think aloud upon matters of importance without being burned at the stake is of course a mark of an open society. However, if such a mode of thought were the only, or main, alternative to the tribal taboos of the closed society then the open society wouldn’t exist. The only reason why a society composed of autonomous individuals doesn’t descend into chaos is because of the existence of a constantly reinforced system of social norms.
None of us is perfect and neither is the world in which we live. Life is a daily struggle against our own worse instincts and those of other people. To live a good life (or, failing that, one that isn’t catastrophically dysfunctional) we need so much more than our own rational faculties. We also – indeed, mainly – depend on the incentives, expectations and encouragement we’re exposed to through our participation in collective human endeavour.
These relationships can be public or private, the requirements they place upon their participants can be formal or informal, and their influence on behaviour can be conscious or unconscious, but for want of a better description, there is a whole world of moral guidance beyond the Popperian extremes of “magical taboos” and “rational reflection.”
Popper places remarkably little emphasis on human connections. Indeed, he goes out of his way to distinguish the “organic character” of the closed society and the “abstract relationships” of the open society.
He even states that “most of the social groups of a modern open society… are poor substitutes [for the organic relationships of the closed society], since they do not provide for a common life.” Instead, he argues that “our modern open societies function largely by way of abstract relations” for instance those of the market place. He even appears to suggest that “real social groups” aren’t worth studying:13
“It is the analysis of these abstract relations with which modern social theory, such as economic theory, is mainly concerned. This point has not been understood by many sociologists, such as Durkheim, who never gave up the dogmatic belief that society must be analysed in terms of real social groups.”
It’s not surprising that anyone who shares Popper’s analysis would have little regard for group identity. If abstract relations – and the rules and formalities that govern them – are all its takes to keep the show on the road, then “real social groups” are at best an irrelevance and at worst an impediment to progress. So let’s dispense with all that irrational nonsense about faith, flag and family, and keep on rolling-out those international trade agreements, supra-national bureaucracies and commercial digital platforms until they encircle the world.
Except that in fields as diverse as behavioural economics, international development and the study of social mobility we’re discovering that real social groups matter. Even in the case of an especially abstract system of relations like the global banking system, we found out the hard way that the attenuation of human connections between lender and borrower, owner and manager, regulator and practitioner can have devastating consequences.
Popper got it wrong. The social structures we’re part of do indeed “provide for a common life”. They are every bit as important to the functioning of an open society as tribal social structures are to a closed society.
This is something that Émile Durkheim, who Popper so scathingly referred to, understood very well.
A leading French intellectual of the late 19th and early 20th century, he was one of the founders of the modern social sciences. Arguably, his most important idea was that of anomie, which literally means lawlessness or normlessness. Durkheim used it to mean the condition that people find themselves in when they are denied the relationships they need to sustain their moral wellbeing. This might be due to the decay or absence of social structures; or it may be because those structures are too restrictive – trapping the individual in situations where they can’t thrive.
Like Popper, Durkheim wrote about two kinds of society.14 The first, less developed, kind he calls a “mechanical solidarity”, not because it is industrialised (in fact such societies are typically pre-industrial), but because its individual members are in a fixed, unchanging relationship to one another like the parts of a machine. Tribal in structure, such groups are the equivalent of Popper’s closed society.
However, with developments like urbanisation, a different kind of society emerges – one in which individuals have evermore opportunity to choose the roles they play by acquiring specialised skills. Durkheim calls this an “organic solidarity” because relationships are neither fixed nor chaotic but self-regulating. They hold themselves together through the evolution of community-based norms and institutions that help align autonomous individual actions to the common good.
Organic solidarity corresponds to Popper’s open society, but Durkheim’s theory provides a much richer, more human account of how such societies actually work.
Durkheim also shows how organic solidarities fall apart.
The self-regulation of a system of independent components requires close contact between those components – so that mutual needs can be communicated, relationships negotiated and ground rules propagated. If, however, that close contact is disrupted – “if some opaque environment is interposed”15 – then self-regulation begins to break down.
“Machines replace men; manufacturing replaces hand-work. The worker is regimented, separated from his family throughout the day. He always lives apart from his employer, etc. These ‘new conditions of industrial life naturally demand a new organization, but as these changes have been accomplished with extreme rapidity, the interests in conflict have not yet had the time to be equilibrated.”
The consequences of the resulting anomie would have consequences that should be familiar to any student of modern history. However, the 20th century was also a time in which the conditions of the industrial workforce improved, especially in the post-war period. Working life became less regimented, women entered the workplace and there were opportunities to develop new skills: mastery of, instead of servitude to, the machine. Furthermore, there were opportunities to form new connections beyond the workplace – for instance, through the spread of home ownership.
But then, starting in the latter part of the 20th century, came a new wave of disruption. Here is Durkheim’s prescient description of what we now call globalisation:17
“…as the organized type [of society] develops, the fusion of different segments draws the markets together into one which embraces almost all society… The result is that each industry produces for consumers spread over the whole surface of the country or even of the entire world.”
Access to – and, consequently, the benefit derived from – these global systems of self-regulation is not equally distributed. In the West, opportunity has increased for so-called knowledge workers (though in a way sharply skewed to the very wealthiest quantities of the income distribution). For the remainder of the workforce there has been a shrinking of horizons, a stalling of social mobility, the stagnation of incomes and the imposition of new forms of regimented employment (as exemplified by the Amazon warehouse).
And right at the bottom of the pile, there is an underclass of the unemployed and under-employed. Writing at the end of the 19th century, Durkheim’s analysis is prophetic of the dependency cultures that would emerge in the latter part of the 20th century – in particular the inadequacy of the state as a substitute for strong family, community and workplace institutions.18
We can see the worst effects of anomie in social pathologies like America’s opioid epidemic. These may not be typical of life in the 21st century, but they provide a warning of what happens when the real social groups that support, connect and guide individuals fall into disarray or disappear altogether.
In the US, scholars from a wide range of viewpoints, including Charles Murray,19 Robert Putnam20 and Jennifer Silva21 have amassed a mountain of evidence to show that the growing divide between the richer and poorer parts of society is as much about social capital as it is about the financial kind.
On issues like family structure, parental time with children, engagement with civil society, membership of faith communities, health-promoting lifestyles, participation in education and stable, dignified employment, the “new upper class” (as Murray calls it) is maintaining or enhancing the self-regulatory structures essential to organic solidarity; while the “new lower class” is not.
For all that the cultural elites preach social liberalism, they are part of a class that, with modifications, practices social conservatism. Radically open ideas about breaking free of social conventions – for instance on marriage, family, education and work – are the subject of elite debate and experimentation, but it is those at other end of the social spectrum who are living the dream full-time. It is their lives, not those of the privileged, that have diverged furthest from the old order.
If those of an open viewpoint aren’t concerned about such matters, it’s because they don’t have to be. Having either escaped or benefited from the dislocations of industrialisation, deindustrialisation, globalisation, immigration and the dependency culture, they have remained secure within functioning organic solidarities – which they’ve been able to adapt, extend and refine on their own terms.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, uses moral foundations theory to analyse the gulf in understanding between liberals and conservatives in America (categories that correspond pretty well to open and closed, especially in the age of Trump). He found that of the five fundamental values that shape people’s political judgements, liberals are only sensitive to the two that are about how individuals within a group are treated (i.e. “Care” and “Fairness”); in this they differ from conservatives, who are also sensitive to the three values that are about group identity and cohesion (i.e. “Loyalty”, “Authority” and “Sanctity”).22
This makes sense. It’s difficult to be sensitive to what you’ve always had. But what open voters can take for granted, closed voters are having to fight for – or have already lost. They haven’t turned against the open society, they are struggling to feel part of it.
Having suffered so much damage to their economic strength and social cohesion, what remains is cultural identity. But when even that comes under sustained attack from those ill-equipped to understand it’s value, it would be surprising if the dispossessed did not rebel.
I’ll leave the final word to Émile Durkheim:23
“Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs.”