Thursday, September 20, 2018

Meditations on Karl Popper

Meditations on Karl Popper
Michael A. Cramer, Ph.D.
September 20, 2017.

In a typical FaceBook fight with Robert Esteves, in which we were discussing whether or not it was appropriate to for the New Yorker magazine, to disinvite Steve Bannon from it’s ideas conference this fall, we naturally got into a discussion of Popper’s Paradox of Tollerence. This led me to go back and read Popper in detail. I’d read excerpts, but mostly those centering around the paradox itself. What I discovered shocked me, so I decided I’d have to write it up. Below is a discussion of Popper’s work. All references are to the following edition:

Popper, K. The open society and its enemies, Volume 1: The spell of Plato. London. Geroge Routledge & Sons, 1945. Reprinted 1947.  

The principle is introduced in note 6 to chapter 5, in a discussion of the principles of humanitarian and equalitarian rule in which Popper declares the first principle to be, “Tolerance towards all who are not intolerant and who do not propagate intolerance.” (205) This clearly implies that we should not tolerate the intolerant. The full description of the paradox comes in a discussion of three paradoxes, the other two being the paradox of freedom (too much freedom can lead to the loss of freedom) and the paradox of democracy (the demos could elect a tyrant). The full description of the paradox of tolerance reads as follows:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance : Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies ; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right even to suppress them, for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument ; they may forbid their followers to listen to anything as deceptive as rational argument, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, exactly as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping ; or as we should consider incitement to the revival of the slave trade. (226)

“The movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law” is the clearest statement of the principle in this note. If incitements to intolerance and persecutions are criminal, then in Popper’s formulation the very existence of New-Nazi groups, or the KKK, should be illegal, and they should have no public forum. This is the bases for laws in Europe banning NAZI symbols and hate speech, which go far beyond those we have in the U.S. Popper died in 1994, so he had time to comment on the ACLU’s arguments in Skokie. I wonder what he would say. (an internet search is useless since, by some odd coincidence, Popper’s American publisher is headquartered in Skokie).
The paragraph to which the note refers is this one:
Apart from these empirical arguments against the general theory of sovereignty, there is also a kind of logical argument which can be used to show the inconsistency of any of the particular forms of the theory of sovereignty ; more precisely, the logical argument can be given different but analogous forms to combat the theory that the wisest should rule, or else the theories that the ruler should be the best, or the law, or the majority, etc. One particular form of this logical argument that is directed against a too naive version of liberalism, of democracy, and of the principle that the majority should rule, is somewhat similar to the well-known ' paradox of freedom '. It has been used first, and with success, by Plato. In his criticism of democracy, and in his story of the rise of the tyrant, Plato raises implicitly the following question : What if it is the will of the people that they should not rule, but a tyrant instead ? The free man, Plato suggests, may exercise his absolute freedom, first by defying the laws and ultimately by defying freedom itself, and by clamouring for a tyrant 4 . This is not just a far-fetched possibility ; it has happened a number of times ; and every time it happens, it puts those democrats who adopt the principle of majority rule or a similar form of the principle of sovereignty as the ultimate basis of their political creed in a hopeless intellectual position. On the one hand, their principle induces them to oppose any but the majority rule, and therefore the new tyranny ; on the other hand, the same principle induces them to accept any decision of the majority, and thus the rule of the new tyrant. The inconsistency of their theory must, of course, paralyse their actions.5 We democrats who demand the institutional control of the rulers by the public, including the right of dismissing the government by majority vote, must therefore base these demands upon better grounds than a self-contradictory theory of sovereignty. (And, indeed, it is not difficult to formulate a consistent theory of democratic control.)” (108-9) (note 5 simply states that further remarks are to be found in Chapter 19).

This is a fascinating statement, since it brings us full circle to President Trump. He has made no attempt to hide is authoritarian tendencies and desires—his love of strong leaders, his attacks on a free press and the judiciary, his suggestion that the rule of law is inconvenient, his suggestion that maybe one day the US will have a president for life—the list is well known and seemingly endless. He is a textbook tyrant and, like others, he was elected by the people in the paradox Plato identified and Popper discusses here. He notes that Plato was responding to a real crisis—the rise of an open society and the anxiety that created. He notes that superstition and fear, time and again, will lead people to seek out an irrational, closed society because it feels safer, they will long to return to an idealized time of greatness. This was Plato’s goal with the republic. However, as Popper points out, Plato’s fear of tyranny (whether of the masses or the dictator) leads him to another form of tyranny. Popper’s solution is not to flee from the open society but to embrace it. Knowing full well that all forms of sovereignty are fallible, Popper throws in with Democracy as by far the best.

The lesson which we thus should learn from Plato is the exact opposite of what he tries to teach us. It is a lesson which must not be forgotten. Excellent as Plato's sociological diagnosis was, his own development of it proves that the therapy he recommended is worse than the evil he tried to combat. Arresting political change is not the remedy ; it cannot bring happiness. We can never return to the alleged innocence and beauty of the closed society. (176)

But there is another way that Delving into Popper has revealed something about the Trump administration. I had known from reading excerpts of Popper that Volume I of The open society and its enemies was primarily a refutation of Plato’s Republic, which Popper considers to be the first major text advocating totalitarianism. Popper’s work is well known to be an attack on both left-wing totalitarianism (Socialism) and right-wing totalitarianism (Fascism). (if you, erroneously, consider them to be the same thing it doesn’t matter in this case—Popper’s work repudiates totalitarianism, not just its various forms). However, what I never realized until reading further, was that it is also a full-throated repudiation of Thucydides. He sees Thucydides and Plato as having worked in concert to undermine Athenian democracy. Popper writes:
Much evidence of this development can be found in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, or rather, of the two great wars of 431-421 and 419-403 B.C., between Athenian democracy and the arrested oligarchic tribalism of Sparta. When reading Thucydides we must never forget that his heart was not with Athens, his native city. Although he apparently did not belong to the extreme wing of the Athenian oligarchic clubs who conspired throughout the war with the enemy, he was certainly a member of the oligarchic party, and a friend neither of the Athenian people, the demos, who had exiled him, nor of its imperialist policy. (155)

Like Plato, Thucydides saw democracy as the thing that had led to Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War. The history of the Peloponnesian war and the fall of Athens.” He writes “is still often told, under the influence of Thucydides' authority, in such a way that the defeat of Athens appears as the ultimate proof of the dangerous weaknesses of the democratic system.” (168). This is of course, a travesty in Popper’s eyes. He believes that, by clinging to Plato’s Republic and Thucydides' history, modern thinkers and philosophers, whether inadvertently or intentionally, re-inscribe the what Popper calls the “closed society”—tribal, tyrannical, oligarchic, totalitarian, whether ruled by a Plutocracy, a Dictator, or the educated elite.
This chapter of Popper’s book jolted me, because it reminded me of an article I’d read in Politico in 2017, titled “Why the White House is reading Greek history: The Trump team is obsessing over Thucydides, author of a seminal tract on war.”  (available from ) In it the author, Michael Crowley, writes about how several people within the Trump administration, particularly Matis and (at the time) Bannon and McMasters, were keen students of Thucydides, and looked at the U.S. relationship with China through the prism of the Peloponnesian war.
Thucydides is especially beloved by the two most influential figures on Trump’s foreign policy team. National security adviser H.R. McMaster has called Thucydides’ work an “essential” military text, taught it to students and quoted from it in speeches and op-eds. Defense Secretary James Mattis is also fluent in Thucydides’ work: “If you say to him, ‘OK, how about the Melian Dialogue?’ he could tell you exactly what it is,” Allison says—referring to one particularly famous passage. When former Defense Secretary William Cohen introduced him at his confirmation hearing, Cohen said Mattis was likely the only person present “who can hear the words ‘Thucydides Trap’ and not have to go to Wikipedia to find out what it means.”

The article goes on to note
…another Peloponnesian War aficionado can be found in the office of chief strategist Steve Bannon. A history buff fascinated with grand conflict, Bannon once even used “Sparta”—one of the most militarized societies history has known—as a computer password. (“He talked a lot about Sparta,” his former Hollywood writing partner, Julia Jones, told The Daily Beast. An unnamed former colleague recalled for the New Yorker Bannon’s “long diatribes” about the Peloponnesian War.)

This I found to be incredible. The article made clear that the architects of Trump’s foreign policy themselves embraced the very logic that Popper so eloquently disputes. The Politico article makes clear that, not only Bannon, but the Trump team in general embrace the closed society of Sparta over the open society of Athens. They buy into the myth Popper identifies—that efete, humanistic, democratic Athens was no match for the authoritarian, austere and war-like Sparta; that the open society should be abandoned for the closed one. We’ve seen it in Bannon’s writings, and heard it in Trump’s speeches, and we’ve heard it’s rebuttal among democrat’s and foreign leaders, but I did not expect to find it distilled to its essence in discussions of a 2,500 year old war between Athens and Sparta. It turns out that, in addition to being an argument in favor of an open society, Popper’s book is also an explicit condemnation of Trumpism.


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