March 13, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Truth Shall Set You Free
WE COMMENCE from a perfectly uncontroversial point of departure: societies disagree between themselves as to what is the right way to live. These disagreements are not principally philosophical; they are customary. They become philosophical only when the confrontation between the customs of different societies is elevated to the level of contemplation, and only within the minds of certain individuals who are fit for such confrontation by nature, education, and favorable circumstances. The variety of human societies at present or at least historically is a necessary condition for human philosophy, but it is not sufficient, because the majority of human beings when exposed to different customs remain simply hostile toward them. Most humans are creatures of loyalties and faiths peculiar to the societies in which they are born, or to portions of those societies; if they were not so, then no society on the face of the earth could long exist, but all would be quickly riven apart by the incessant internal disputations and feuding of their very members.
The disagreements between societies as to the right way to live lead to conflicts and wars between societies, and these conflicts and wars enforce the natural closure of each society toward foreign customs and outlandish ways. The special character and quality of any given human society brings the loyalty and love of its members; when this is contrasted or threatened by other societies, then the philosopher or the warrior is born.
But there are also internal disputes between different parts of one and the same society. The poor are sometimes at odds with the rich; the non-educated with the educated; the left with the right; the vulgar with the cultured; the warriors with the civilians; the citizens with the immigrants; the rulers with the ruled; etc. Here, again, the disputes are not principally philosophical; they are political or social or ethocal. Each segment of society wants its agenda to become the agenda of the whole; each segment of society would like to rule and to impose its peculiar desires, views, or needs on society as such. It is uncommon for the different parts of one and the same society to want to change the very premises on which that society is built; in general, all parties in question agree as to the ends of society, and dispute only over the means. But at times, when it becomes apparent that the ends of society themselves are destabilizing society, and that the very premises of society are leading it on toward destruction, then the revolutionary or radical attitude crops up among human beings. In times like that, which are known as times of crisis, the parts of society might begin truly to disagree about first and last things.
Human beings are not beasts, and their disagreements, their conflicts, even their wars, are not merely based on violence or on force. Human beings are “rational animals,” which is not to say that they will everywhere and always act in accord with simple logic, nor arrive at valid and justifiable conclusions, nor even have a clear sense of why they do what the do: it is rather to say that human beings everywhere and always will feel it necessary to defend their irrationality with rationality, and to build rationalizations around even their most basic instinctive desires. This is not a matter of nothing; it is a fundamental aspect of human social existence, and it has enormous consequences for all social orders.
I once was witness to a devastating war between two ant colonies, one red and one black, that had founded their colonies too near to each other, oblivious each to the presence of the other. Their respective queens had sunk the seeds of their kingdoms deep into the earth, and had begun to propagate the new generation which would erect their societies. New tunnels were built, and the red colony amassed as well a hill of pebbles about its gate. Their populations began to grow and to thrive. By and by their workers began to range across the earth in search of food, and thus encountered the members of the other colony. Skirmishes were waged at the line of encounter, and soon a massive battle for supremacy of the territory was underway. It was something to watch as the smaller and faster red ants assailed the stronger and better armored black ants several at a time, or as big-headed warriors would clash in the open field, each striving with the other to cut the life from its foe. Before long the entire landscape was riddled with the corpses of the little beasts.
But note this well: this was never a dispute over “custom.” The black ants did not invent sophisticated arguments to claim, for instance, that it is absurd and wasteful to make hills of pebbles, nor did the red ants contrive to proclaim that these black ants were too primitive even to form up battlements for their own defense. Neither side proposed conditions for armistice or surrender; they fought until there was no one left to fight. The dispute was one of simple resources and the simple force required to seize them; it was decided wordlessly by the trial of respective powers. No human being and no human society ever resolved its conflicts so quietly.
On the contrary, human beings transform all quarrels into conversations. Their quarrels are thus neither perfectly rational—for it is never by reason alone that they are resolved—nor perfectly irrational—for it is neither by force alone that they are resolved. Both domestic and international conflicts are all carried out and concluded through a mixture of reason and force. Human beings are unique among the animals, because the quarrels between human beings depend on speech. Internationally, one cannot stop up the words of other nations; but to put an end to internal conflicts, it is often enough to put an end to speeches. This is why war is more common than civil war. The same observation has historically been considered the indisputable justification for limiting freedom of speech. It is known universally that the tensions between different parts of one and the same society lead to internal conflicts and in extreme cases to civil war or the upheaval of the prior social order, and the prevention of these unwelcome ends requires closure within society—the suppression of certain voices or interests, the censuring of certain ideas, the oppression of some who do not rule but who can easily fall at odds with the rulers.
The open society attempts to resolve the internal conflicts of society in a way which is totally novel in the history of human societies: namely, by positing a system which passes no judgement on any other worldview, and which therefore avoids the deep tensions which characterize other systems. It resolves the conflictual nature of societies’ basic premises, or of the conflicts between parts of one and the same society, by suspending judgement as to the best society or the best ruler. As regards first and last things, the open society is agnostic. It views itself as a kind of forum in which all social ideas can be openly debated, and thus postures as the one society which loves truth over custom. While closed societies—tribal or totalitarian as they may be—are dedicated to preserving their peculiar errors at any and all costs and preserving these unto perpetuity, the open society is dedicated instead to avoiding the necessarily bounded, erroneous quality of all tribal or political adherence to any single set of human ideas. By sponsoring no set of values and virtues, the open society permits the debate of all values and virtues in the “marketplace of ideas”; it encourages their conflict and their disputation, so long as these remain non-violent. It therefore appears to be the most philosophical of all societies; sign of this is the fact that all open societies everywhere protect the freedom of association and speech.
There are two grave problems with the idea of the open society, one in its fundaments and the other in its praxis. We begin with the latter first, to commence from the superficial: we approach this question as though coring the trunk of a tree, proceeding initially contrary to growth, and treating first and last of the bark.
Now, the open society, to maintain its forum-like quality, must remain forever agnostic, forever “skeptical.” So soon as it accepts as true the arguments of this or that social or moral ideal, it must commit itself as well to putting this true ideal to practice, which means—it must overthrow itself, and establish a closed society in the place of the open society. The open society therefore must restrain itself ever and always to the state of evaluation of the various proposals for the best society; it cannot permit itself to consent to any of them, unless the best society proves identical to that of the open society. But even in this unlikely case, and supposing the open society were to come to such a conclusion, it would lose its character as the open society. For if the best society is that society which permits all human beings of any worldview whatsoever to live as they see fit, save as they infringe on the rights of other individuals to do the same, then the open society can permit only those worldviews compatible with this way of life. All other worldviews must be suppressed as false worldviews. In becoming aware of its superiority, the open society thus destroys its own basis; it transforms from the open society into something else.
The open society can therefore remain open only so long as it withholds judgement about its own worth as the best social order. The open society, or the society dedicated to permitting the truth to come to the fore, must guard against the arrival of the truth. It must be, nor merely agnostic or skeptical, but explicitly relativist, hostile toward any and all degrees of certainty. It believes and must believe that the truth, far from setting us free, will be the very death of our freedom, by dissolving both the justification as well as the lifestyle of the open society. The open society, which postures as the champion of truth, becomes dogmatically hostile to the very notion of truth. Its worldview, without which it perishes or overthrows itself, is the relativistic worldview.
We may restate this realization as follows: the open society remains agnostic about all worldviews except its own. About its own worldview, far from being agnostic, it is dogmatic. Even if at first it is open to the idea that it might one day transform from the open and agnostic society into the closed but true society, it hardens over time into a degree of doctrinairism, for the simple reason that all societies wish to preserve themselves. The open society therefore comes to hold that the best society cannot be discovered by human investigations.
But this works as an inadvertent or incidental philosophical defense of the open society: because no society can be the best society, the best society will be that which makes no claims as to the best society and permits constant debate about the best society. The open society seeks to be fundamentally non-dogmatic, but it can only do so on the basis of a dogmatic premise. At times the non-dogmatic aspect, at times the dogmatic aspect of the open society, manifests itself, depending essentially on how well off the open society is at any given point in time. When it is winning, it can afford to be magnanimous; but when it enters into times of crisis or near crisis, it, as all human societies, must defend itself more rigorously. The open society, which was to be the one least beholden to the merely materialistic concerns of economy and wealth, in the end is bound to them much more than other societies whose ruling classes are endowed with contempt of mammon.
These tensions at the heart of the open society are felt ever and always by careful observers, and they make the open society somewhat difficult to pin down, somewhat elusive and evasive to analysis. Put generally, human beings are not philosophical, and therefore no human society can be philosophical. This is no less true of the open society than of any other. The open society, which purports to be the one society open to all possible human social orders, is in fact in the last analysis radically closed to all but its own. This makes it identical to all other human societies: what differs in it is not the absence of dogmatic faith in a particular form of social order, but rather the presence of a dogmatic belief in its own openness. While all human societies believe themselves to be the best societies and for that reason celebrate their closure to other ways, the open society is alone amongst all in proclaiming itself to be immune to this delusion. It is thus more difficult to free oneself of the dogma of the open society than of any other society on earth.
To be sure, the peculiar closedness of the open society never finds expression in explicit legal prohibitions. There are, in the open society, no laws against investigating the underpinnings of the open society, nor against publishing the results of those investigations. The open society cannot proscribe such investigation without playing into an open hypocrisy which would be a hundred times as damaging as this or that book published here or there against its principles. The open society has countless subtler ways of dealing with its internal enemies. Most of the time, it has no need to employ any of these: for it is a universal characteristic of human beings in normal times to be loyal and faithful to the society to which they are born, and beneath whose protection, nurturing, and education they have come of age. Most human beings born to the open society adhere to its ideals unconsciously and uncritically, and consider it, without any reflection to support this belief, the best society. The members of the open society are strongly reinforced in this loyalty by the peculiar relativistic dogma of the open society; it is harder to see through the illusion of the open society which speaks constantly of philosophical openness to other ways, than to see through the illusion of the tyrannical society, which is proudly closed to other ways. There is thus in the free society even more than in other societies a natural pressure toward the perpetuation of the standing order, and this is quite sufficient to neutralize those few serious efforts to discover and publicize the errors, limitations, or contradictions upon which that order is founded. This preserves the open society quite adequately in all times, save in times of crisis.
We are living, however, in a time of crisis.
In normal times, most human beings do not concern themselves with the truth. They concern themselves with countless other matters which have nothing to do with the truth, goals and preoccupations which do not depend on the truth nor certainly culminate in it, as survival, honor, wealth, prestige, status, family, etc. So long as society demonstrates itself a generally capable watchman of the public security and the general welfare, most human beings are quite content to live their lives, indifferent to deeper philosophical problems. So long as there is a degree of peace and a modicum of prosperity in the open society, the members of the open society are but little tasked to seek out anything so remote from their experience as the “truth,” and those few exceptional individuals who concern themselves seriously with the truth in any place and any time, the truly free individuals, are easily outnumbered and easily neutralized by the vast enormity of human complacency.
But in times of crisis, everything is thrown to the wind. Society, failing to secure its promises to its citizens, becomes the object of ever stronger skepticism and even cynicism. In moments like this, it becomes evident that there is a widening gorge standing between what such a society claims it will achieve, and what it really does achieve; the errors and failings, not to say the lies, of society are increasingly brought to light, or at least are more easily felt impinging through the threadbare surface. The question “Why?” comes readily to the minds and the lips of ever more individuals; “truth” becomes a going concern, and one which some can even profit from. “Why are we suffering this way? Why is everything beneath us suddenly so shaken and unsteady? Why has society led us to this end?” It is widely felt that everyone has been enslaved to noxious falsehoods; and in consequence, it is widely believed that the “truth shall set one free.”
What is meant by this sentiment? Not, certainly, what is meant when the philosopher thinks such a thing. Nor even what the artist or the free spirit might think. On the contrary. Very few human beings who do not concern themselves with truth in times of plenty, will suddenly begin to seek it in times of dearth. Just as they had abundant distractions from the truth before, now they have much more urgent questions to attend to than philosophical ones. Most people by the formula “the truth will set you free” mean only this: society has failed to secure their desires or perhaps even their needs; its failure is due to an error or a contradiction in its founding. To establish “truer” foundations becomes therefore an urgent requirement. Everyone begins inquiring into the “true” society, by which is meant, a society which can guarantee such things as survival, honor, wealth, prestige, status, family, etc.
Consider. If you tell an entrepreneur that the present social system is broken, on account of specific economic policies, and if you tell him furthermore that he will not succeed in making himself affluent under these present conditions, he will perk up and listen to you. If you tell him then that we must shift our polices, say, from free trade to protectionism, in order to grant him the possibility of making his millions, he may well acquiesce to your logic, or at least he may well take your argument seriously or find himself in some way influenced by it. But if you tell him that free trade must be overhauled because it is based on the lie of the dignity of work and on the spurious excellence of wealth, when in fact there are many loftier things in this world than labor and lucre, he will dismiss you out of hand.
We must have sensitivity to the depth of the present crisis, the degree to which it entitles us to bring the errors of society to the light of day, the extent to which it opens up the possibility of a profound shift in principle. Particularly as we have urgent goals, it behooves us to step lightly. It is among the vulgarest delusions commonly inspired by the American Revolution, that one might remake society from scratch, basing it on true axioms and building it logically from foundation to steeple, so long as one has sufficient public support. This has never been done and never can be done. Popular movements interpret philosophy through the liquid lens of their native element, populism; they always end differently than they begin. Custom, as Herodotus said, is king—as much with us as with anyone. We can gain nothing by ignoring the fact; we may gain enormously by carefully attending to it.
Now, the open society, as all societies, has not only to contend with the strife within its borders, but also with the conflicts outside of its borders. The open society is agnostic, and preaches tolerance toward different laws and customs, because it refuses to come to any explicit conclusions about the best society. But it is the only society in the world to do so. The open society, which should, if it remains true to its premises, consider no other society its enemy, faces nonetheless the universal hostility of all societies which are not themselves open societies. The open society is the great pariah of the world. But because the only society which can even dream of becoming an open society is a society of powerful economic and military standing, or a society protected by such a one, open societies tend to be powerful or well defended. The open society thus cannot be openly attacked by its enemies; its enemies must dream subtler ways of undermining it. The open society, if it is to stave off these dangers, must approach the world beyond its borders with a degree of perspicacity and secret suspicion, which it claims ever to foreswear in its inner relations. This mandates the development of a strong military and a sophisticated intelligence system. But to both military and intelligence, openness or “transparency” is not only inimical but deadly.
The open society, as any society, cannot therefore be perfectly candid. If any open society you please were at this moment to publish the full extent and findings of its espionage, it would risk total collapse within a month. Beyond the fact that many of these secrets could be used to destroy it, the most devastating revelation would be the degree to which the practices of the open society contradict the principles of the same. Its citizenry, who are by and large duped by its specious claims of moral superiority, would not be able to abide its hypocrisy, and they would clamor for immediate purification. So the open society must be closed to the degree that its enemies are powerful, and it must also develop sophisticated and capable ways of mystifying this closure so that the populace does not become aware of its extent. One knows that the King has his secrets, and one is well inured to the fact; but the President must always seek to appear as though he were the frankest and least tainted man in all the world. One must believe that even such secrets as he does possess are innocuous.
The open society is therefore constrained to contradict itself incessantly in the most shameful and irritating of ways, on account of the simple fact that it cannot remain perfectly open toward its adversaries and its foes abroad. The open society is slowly corroded by this contradiction, not only through the acidic influence of its own concealed hypocrisy, but also because individuals within the open society who are basically inimical to the open society, can take advantage of these bad necessities to work at compromising the open society from within.
The true lovers of the open society, its truest protagonists and supporters, are thus constrained to realize that the open society, the one human society which refuses to pass moral judgement on the customs and laws of other societies, is the only society which is compromised merely by the existence of other customs and laws. Of all human societies, it is the most delicate. The global diversity of beliefs and social styles, of customs, religions, and ways, which the open society over all other societies purports to love and promote, is in fact the greatest toxin to the open society. The only way the open society can be perfectly open is if it is surrounded on all sides by other open societies which hold to its same principles.
Yet even if it is fortunate enough to find itself surrounded by open societies, or successful enough to make all surrounding nations adopt the principles of open societies, its trouble nonetheless persists. There is always and everywhere the doubt that what my neighbor is doing might not be not identical to what my neighbor says he is doing. The open society, even if contiguous exclusively with other open societies, would persistently have to wonder if its neighbors really were open societies, or if they were not merely posturing as such to lure it into a state of dependency and ingenuous vulnerability. It would have to wonder if those states, like it itself, were not merely apparently open, while in fact holding many secrets and contradictions, and it would have to wonder as well what those secrets and contradictions might be. It therefore would not be able to dismantle its complex militaristic and espionage apparatus, nor bring all of its actions perfectly to light. It would continue to promulgate itself as the open society, even while it acted secretly and behind state doors as the closed society. Not even a global confederacy of open societies can suffice to render the open society open; only a unique government ruling all the globe, which no longer has to fear any external enemy whatever, can achieve that end.
The open society, everywhere and always, necessitates the dream of a single world order.
The road to the single world order is fraught with trouble. The open society can neither conquer its enemies by brute force—for it can hardly hope to remain an open society, when its members include individuals who almost certainly harbor deep and abiding resentments against it—nor can it, as other societies do, strongly condemn its closed neighbors and argue against their ways—for it is committed to the principle of openness in the face of all possible social orders. Being able neither to force its enemies to adopt its principles, nor to freely shame the world into opposing those which do not, it must then seek to convert its enemies to its position. For only those who are already enamored of the principles of the open society will be willing to consider the idea of a single world open society. Then all or most of the societies of the world must first become open societies, before they may unify into a single and global open society.
It is not easy to convert all the peoples of the world to the principles of open societies, and it is impossible to force them to do so. One can take advantage of civil wars and the internal disorder of foreign states to bring about new open societies throughout the world; but this kind of geopolitical maneuvering is never easy and still less is it cheap, and it is always compromised in certain cases by other and more pressing matters of geopolitical defense and security. The open society is best able to achieve its ends when it becomes an undisputed global superpower, as has been the case of the United States since the collapse of the Soviet empire. But even in this brief period of American apotheosis, it has become clear that the military route toward the production of a world society is not adequate to the task. The disastrous experiments of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan more than prove that point. The people of the world must be prepared to accept the open society; it cannot be foisted upon them by merely political or military means.
Then a number of other strategies are sure to be employed by the open society toward the preparation of the single world order, as: globalization, and the widespread distribution of those tempting products that the open society dedicates itself to manufacturing and perfecting; the infiltration of all the countries of the world with Western markets, Western medicine, and Western ideals; the favoring of those countries which are slavishly dependent on the open society, and clandestine efforts to undermine those which are not; the encouraging of the idea of a “global community” through technological innovations which “connect” the “citizens of the world”; the favoring of policies of open immigration and “no borders”; the constant and propagandic humanizing of the faces and traumas of distant peoples; the attempt to render all human beings everywhere more uniform and homogeneous; and finally, the relentless combating of all articulations of differences or inequalities between human beings, which might incite the old ideas of distinction and separation which once universally governed human societies. Put simply, the open society supports revolutions where it may; and where it may not, it slowly indoctrinates and bribes the peoples of the world to its own ideals through what it calls its “culture.”
The single world order is yet very far from us, and it is possible it is unattainable. But we must contemplate it, for the simple reason that it exerts the power of a final ideal over the minds and hearts of the many today.
Once the single world order is achieved, and the last obstacle to a truly open society has been overcome, the nature of the open society will at last become evident to all eyes. The single world order will then have no enemies but internal. Because the open society was originally intended as a novel way of addressing the internal conflicts of society, it would seem then that the single world order will finally be able to live up to its destiny as a perfectly open and perfectly transparent society, as a philosophical society, dedicated to endless improvement. But the open society is premised on the idea that society must be an open forum for the debate of how to attain the best social order, and this presupposes that there might be a best social order which is not the open society. It is therefore possible that human beings in the open society will conclude that there is a social order which is preferable to the open society. The single world order cannot countenance this possibility, because it threatens that unity which is, as has been seen, the overriding prerequisite for the open society.
The open society therefore cannot maintain its control over the entire globe, unless it is capable of cowing the great majority of human beings and convincing them that the open society is the best society. It can do this only by closing itself to all other possible social orders. The single world open society must perforce become the single world closed society.
The question arises then as to what to do with dissidents. The single world order might be able to maintain its absolute hegemony though simple technological means, by the subtle sophistication of the forces at the disposal of the state. It would thus become the a perfect technocratic totalitarian state, some variant on the theme proposed by Brave New World, but without even the land of the Savages to provide a foil for it. In the meantime, or failing this possibility, the single world order will have to resort to more traditional tactics to undermine heterodoxy, such as propaganda and de facto control of the press (both of which will be greatly simplified by the monolithic quality of power in a single world order), ideological mastery of education systems (which will no doubt fall within the unitary possession of the state), increasing manipulation of historical knowledge, and the continual repetition and inculcation of those public dogmas which are most useful to the open society: namely, the dogma of human equality and the dogma of moral relativism. Those who challenge these dogmas will not have to be silenced so much as ignored. So long as they do not gain much support among the wider public, the single world order can simply let them scream themselves hoarse. But it cannot permit any “reactionary movement” to come of this challenge.
This means that the single world order will have to immunize its people to the claims of its scattered opponents. Since the easiest way to keep its people subdued is to keep them fat and distracted, it will produce a ceaseless and brilliant river of new technologies to ease the toils of its people, assuage their sufferings, and augment their pleasures, as well as a flood of toys and entertainments to pander to the animal in them and to wear away at all remaining moral and intellectual resistance. Our modern technology will readily provide it the means to do all of this: for science, which is nothing but a valueless philosophy, and which therefore cannot threaten the world state in any way so long as it agrees to tread carefully about certain clearly delineated issues, will be quick to offer itself as tinkermaster and serf to this new king, in return for a constant flow of funding to feed its slakeless obsession with “information.” It will happily generate the wonders and the miracles by which the new religion perpetuates its rule, in return for the patronage of the same.
By and by, after long enough of this continual exposure to this regime, the citizens of the world state will not even realize the degree to which they have been transformed into unthinking slaves. The size of the state, and the degree of its control over the only means of communication (as telephones or the internet) which could conceivably unite the few remaining disparate rebels, will make all possibility of revolt vanish to naught. Those who dissent will be left to pass their lives lonely and isolated and purposeless, their small protestations lost to the great thunderous chattering that by then will be the one remaining vestige of the human voice.
The single world order, combined with the technological prowess we human beings presently have at our disposal, would result in the establishing of final and unbreachable borders around our nation and our ideas, where today we have permeable and passable ones. It would require building in the place of the present more or less open society, a radically and universally closed society, which tosses the doctrine of “openness” like a blanket to smother the challenge of dissidents. It would mean the uprooting of all human cultures and all human ways, in favor of a single race of vapid, colorless individuals fit for slavery, and neutered to philosophy. It would mean the replacement of church by state, the establishment of a soulless social religion which confers no immortality and offers no moral guidance, but which is adhered to universally, and whose inadequacies are compensated for by an endless phantasmagoria of carnal gratifications. It would mean the founding of a universal, doctrinaire, and potentially perpetual, tyranny on Earth, against which there could be no recourse, nor any hope of escape, because it is as ubiquitous and all-powerful as a god.
All that could be hoped for in such a time, would be the coming of a world-wide disaster, of such magnitude and such ineluctable natural power, that the single world order could not resist it. Then those individuals whose souls have somehow not been buried in the morass, those few individuals somehow still open to the promise within the human soul, might glimpse once more the possibilities arising from a sudden crisis in the social order, and awaken to the truth of their sordid and inhuman condition.