Critique of Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies”

I keep reading Karl Popper’s book “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (1945), and trying to understand his stand on various issues.

There is much in the views of Karl Popper with which I agree, but there are some fundamental things with which I disagree.

Let me start with the things I agree with. I agree with his views on Plato and Marx. He thinks of Plato as a totalitarian, and of Marx as admirable in his descriptions and analyses of capitalism of his day, but as totally wrong in his prophesies. I also agree with him on the need of governments to take a “negative utilitarian” stance — meaning that governments should strive to minimize harm, rather than to try to promote a nebulous good or happiness. I also agree with him on the need to be rational, and the need for an open society which allows for free speech (including the right of assembly and protest). I was also impressed by his description of an “abstract” society — very insightful and prophetic.

After these agreements, you may wonder what possibly would I disagree with. There are several things: his stance on definitions and “essences,” and, what appears to me to be a disparaging view of nationalism. But here I will not discuss these. The fundamental disagreement which I have with Popper is over his non-critical view of liberal democracy. In other words he approves of mass democracy, with a parliament and a president or a prime minister. And he seems to be nonchalant about the fact that dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler gained power in liberal democracies. Well, it is understandable when some dictator grabs power through a revolution or a military coup. But for liberal democracies to sprout dictators — to use Popper’s favorite method of modus tollens — constitutes a refutation of liberal democracy. But he does not see this. And he does not seem to have the imagination to envision other hypotheses about an acceptable form of democracy. The most glaring omission is that Popper never mentions Switzerland, which is, in my opinion, the best form of liberal mass democracy. The difference between Switzerland and all other forms of liberal democracy is that Switzerland does not place executive power into the hands of one individual, but disperses it among seven co-equal individuals. Furthermore, Popper seems to have no conception of anarchism. He could have cited the anarchism of Nestor Makhno in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War (1918-21), or the anarchism during the Spanish Civil War and Revolution (1936-9). But, he does not.

Another point. He tries to distinguish “utopian engineering” from “piecemeal engineering.” Put otherwise, he is expressing a faith in social democracy as contrasted with revolution. I find that this distinction is not clear, for the simple reason, that a single piece of legislation could constitute a revolution. For example, according to Crane Brinton, the French Revolution occurred when Louis XVI agreed to the demands of the Third Estate that all three Estates meet together as the National Assembly. Another piece of social engineering — the passing of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which freed the slaves, was a revolution. And I can envision that the following other amendments to the U.S. Constitution which would also constitute revolutions. Introducing a Swiss style Federal Council, or an agrarian amendment giving each citizen the right to a chunk of free subsistence land — would both be revolutions.

The problem with this approach to “piecemeal engineering” revolutions is that it will not work, because of the structure of liberal democracies. They are structurally controlled by the rich, and the rich will never legislate such revolutionary amendments.

Ukraine: A Bad Case of Democratic Dictatorship

As you may or may not know from my previous postings that I regard placing political power in the hands of one person — be it a president or a prime minister — a form of democratic dictatorship. It is democratic simply because the population has elected these rulers directly or through their representatives. As an alternative, the Swiss do not have either a president or a prime minister, but a Federal Council of seven co-equal individuals.

This unfortunate state of affairs of one-man rule is offset in federal states, i.e., countries which are divided into regions with locally elected governors and mayors, with locally managed police, prosecutors, and courts — as is, for example, the case in the United States. So, in such countries the central dictatorship is limited.

Not so in Ukraine. Ukraine is not federated, nor, for that matter, even properly decentralized — except for mayors and local legislative councils. The president is elected by the whole country. And he makes five top-level appointments: the prime minister, the head of the army, the prosecutor general, the minister of internal affairs (police), and the minister of foreign affairs.
(The other minsters are appointed by the prime minister.) The president also has some influence on the appointment and dismissal of judges.

If any of these appointees does not do the will of the President, they are dismissed. So, do you think they do the President’s will? Specifically, there is central (i.e., President’s) control of whether to prosecute or not, and there is central control of when or where to send the police or army.

The current President of Ukraine is Volodymyr Zelensky, a professional comic with no political experience. The parliament is totally controlled by the President’s political party. He is a Russian-speaker, who is rapidly trying to improve his command of the Ukrainian language. His sympathies are clearly with Russian speakers. This was evident for years in his televised comedy show which was done in Russian.

Because of the ongoing conflict with Russia in the Donbass region, the President’s will is here especially critical. So, what is his strategy in face of Russian aggression? Any country with a patriotic leader would welcome volunteer troops to fight against an agressor. But not this President. He wants to disperse volunteer combatants, and leave the fighting to the regular army. Furthermore, he is prosecuting volunteer fighters — calling them “terrorists.” And what is he doing with the regular army? He is withdrawing it from the front, and letting the aggressors advance by taking more territory.

I call this “treason,” but then what can you expect from a Russian democratically elected dictator?

Capitalism vs Anti-Capitalism

There seems to be a renewed interest in what is called “socialism.” And there are all sorts of debates available on the internet, titled “Capitalism vs Socialism.” And as I listened to these debates, it is apparent that talk is at cross purposes. For one, no one in the current debates about capitalism seems to know how to define “capitalism.” All proffered definitions are inadequate. It cannot be defined simply as a market economy, because a market economy has always existed — it is called trade or barter. It cannot be defined by the incentive of profit, because that incentive again has always existed. It cannot be defined as a form of chattel slavery or serfdom. And it cannot be defined by an employer-employee relationship, because this too has always existed, as, for example, with mercenary armies.

Capitalism — though it had prior existence — did not loom large until industrialization, i.e., until there occurred large scale factory production which needed workers. It is the method by which workers are recruited (or forced to seek work) which distinguished capitalism from such systems as slavery and feudalism. And perhaps a clear case of “recruitment” is illustrated by the British way of obtaining field workers in Africa — without resorting to slavery or feudalism, — simply by imposing a “hut tax,” which is equivalent to a contemporary property tax on real estates.

But the root of capitalism is really even more basic. It consists in forbidding people to occupy subsistence land for free. And to enact such a policy there must be someone who by force prevents you from taking up free subsistence land. And that someone nowadays is the government. So, if the necessary condition for capitalism is this exclusion from taking up free subsistence land, and this exclusion is the work of a government, capitalism should be seen as a political matter, and, thus, the study of economics is better referred to — as it was in the past — as “political economy.” It is only, by abstracting the political element that the system thus engendered can be called “economics.”

The upshot of my discussion is this. Anyone who talks about capitalism without mentioning the necessity of excluding people from taking up free subsistence land, does not know what they are talking about.

Given this understanding of capitalism, the antithesis of capitalism is — if there is a government — the permission, or the right, of taking up free subsistence land.

The only one of the recent writers who saw this clearly was Jerry Cohen, who vividly portrayed the situation by using Al Capp’s fanciful cartoon creature, the Shmoo, as representing the fruits of subsistence land.

What is called “socialism” is meant to be a corrective to capitalism — not necessarily its antithesis, which, rightly understood, is anarchism (or “libertarian socialism”).

The state or “authoritarian” socialist corrective relies on using a centralized government to institute welfare programs. The nearest remedy or compensation for depriving people of a free access to subsistence land, is something like a negative income tax, or a universal minimum income.

What is presented by Richard Wolff as the “new socialism” or worker-owned and operated enterprises, seems to be a form of state socialism and social democracy. Wolff offers the Mondragon Corporation as a model. Such businesses are not antithetical to capitalism — and, in fact, are just one form of a capitalist undertaking, as are various communal enterprises, such as the Amish or the Anabaptist Mennonites. They are not antithetical to capitalism as long as their land could be purchased, and they are subject to property taxes.

Democratic Dictatorships

It seems to be a widespread, if not a universal, belief that liberal democracy, by which is meant that everyone is entitled to vote, is the best form of government. This may very well be true for a small community of about 150 persons, where everyone knows everyone else. But it certainly is not true for great masses of people — voting in the thousands and millions. Such voting is beyond the competence of the majority of people.

Where such mass voting takes place, the overwhelming majority of those elected are either rich or the friends of the rich. Why? Because it takes money to persuade masses of people how to vote through advertisement and other forms of mass persuasion.

Take as an example the Congress of the United States. Most of these representatives are very rich or are, in fact, millionaires. So it is also in every country which has a parliament.

Now almost all countries have either a President — elected by the masses, and/or a Prime Minister — elected by rich parliamentarians. In either case, both a President and a Prime Minister express the interests of the rich. I know … I know . . . There is always something which is called a Labor Party, or a Socialist Party, or, as in the United States, the myth that the Democratic Party represents the workers. No such thing. They all represent the interests of the rich.

This is almost inevitable because of mass democracy. Propaganda always wins elections. The question is: who controls the propaganda? And the answer is — the rich.

And what kind of rule do the rich like? They like the rule of a single individual — either a President or a Prime Minister. In addition to already working for the rich, such “leaders” can also be bribed or threatened — both domestically and by foreign powers. I look upon both a President and a Prime Minister as Democratic Dictators. For the most part — at least in theory — their powers are prescribed. But under some circumstances they can become a Mussolini, a Hitler, or an Abraham Lincoln in which, because of real or invented threats to the national interest, Habeas Corpus is suspended, and martial law prevails — making the Democratic (faux or limited) Dictator into the full blown real Dictator.

What lesson am I trying to impart? First, that mass democracy does not work for the poor classes. Second, if you do use mass democracy, use it as the Swiss do. Don’t elect a President or a single Prime Minister — elect — what amount to — seven co-equal Prime Ministers, representing different parties and different interests.

Why am I watching and reading the “news”?

As a starter, I want to know what is going on around me and around the world. Why? Now that question has several answers. The first is that it satisfies my curiosity. The second is that it is entertaining. The third is that I am drawn to the spectacle of disasters — both natural and man-made, like hurricanes, floods, crimes, riots and wars.

So far I have restated a view like that of George Carlin, the comedian of the “passing show.”

However, unlike George Carlin who cynically said “fuck hope,” I harbor, what perhaps is, a delusion of hope. I hope to somehow influence events for the better. That is why I am on Facebook, and that is why I have a site called “Escaping from Bullshit.”

But even if I have very little influence, there is at least the satisfaction of having — hopefully — a good understanding of what is going on, and of having expressed that understanding to others. As to influence on others, my efforts are probably like that of Sisyphus, Tantalus, and Prometheus, or the characters in “Waiting for Godot.” In other words, I am pessimistic, if not quite as cynical as George Carlin.

As to what is called “news,” it is a misnomer. It should be called something like “criticism of the passing show,” as contrasted with Carlin’s “laughing at the passing show.” Why do I say this? Because both the people presenting the news and the audience are deeply involved with value judgments. For example, they like what the President or Prime Minister is doing or they do not, and they may or may not have recommendations. And, I suppose, people want to have a target — a person to blame or praise. And they do. Everywhere there is a leader — a prominent and powerful President or a Prime Minister to criticize: a Trump, a Putin, a Merkel, a Macron, a Boris Johnson, etc., etc. — except in Switzerland. Those “unfortunate” Swiss do not have any specific person to blame for their “misfortunes” — whatever they are.

This focus on what a leader, or a government is doing, is ok as entertainment, but as far as criticism and protesting is concerned, it seems — for the most part — ineffectual, futile — at least for policy issues. If they are successful, at best, such serious protests (which are mis-called “revolutions”), they result in substituting a bad leader with possibly even a worse one. This is my sociological observation. The most world-wide protest, which I am aware of, was the protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Yet, it happened. There are presently world-wide protests against ecological damage. I suspect they will be ultimately ineffective, and we will suffer the consequences.

What is needed is not “news” in the sense of “criticism of the passing show,” but a criticism and change (revolution) of the political, economical, and social INSTITUTIONS. In every country — except Switzerland — their Constitutions are assumed to be good — even praised. The criticism is that the Constitutions are not adhered to — that there is corruption.

In the United States right now, there is talk of a “Constitutional crisis” — meaning that President Trump is violating the principles of the Constitution, and they are calling this activity “imperial Presidency.”

From my perspective, the problem is that there is this institution of a President, to begin with. It seems crystal clear that if you give too much power to a single individual, he or she will tend to use it to his or her benefit at the sacrifice of everyone else. All countries should get rid of the office of a President or a Prime Minister, and adopt the Swiss example of placing the executive power in a council. Switzerland has a Federal Council consisting of seven individuals.