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.