Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Open Society & Its Enemies

"The Open Society & Its Enemies" by Karl Popper - "Volume 1: The Spell of Plato": A Review
This book gives a clear discussion and criticism of the political philosophy which stems from Plato - the philosophy which seeks to fix society in an ideal state, and arrest it there. But Karl Popper does not simply seek to attack this philosophy; he also shows us how we may learn from Plato's mistakes, and so set forth a framework of political philosophy for a democracy.
What is "democracy"? Popper sees it as a convenient label for "governments which we can get rid of without bloodshed - for example, by way of general elections; that is to say, the social institutions provide means by which the rulers may be dismissed by the ruled." He points out that he regards the label of "democracy" as simply a shorthand means by which he may describe this sort of government, and that if anyone wishes to append a different label, he would not mind. It is the type of government described that concerns him, and not the choice of descriptive label.
Popper argues that Plato "created a lasting confusion in political philosophy" when Plato stated the fundamental problem of politics in the question: "Who shall rule the state?" In fact, to ask this question means that it has already been decided that political power is sovereign, unchecked, with the problem being "to get this power into the best hands." This is the problem of establishing a good government.
In contrast to this, Popper suggests that we should "face from the beginning the possibility of bad government." This alters Plato's approach so that we "replace the question: Who should rule? by the new question: How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?" This is why "removal governments" (or, to use the shorthand label, "democracy") is so important: the if we can remove bad governments by peaceful means, then we are some way towards checking the power of bad or incompetent rulers. Moreover, as Popper points out, the various methods of democratic control (such as general elections and representative government) "are to be considered no more than well-tried, always open to improvement."
Another main thread in Plato's thought is the approach which Popper describes as "Utopian engineering". This approach is to draw up a complete blueprint for the society at which we aim, before "we begin to consider the best ways and means for its realisation, and draw up a plan for practical action." For example, in the case of a small island, we might draw up a draft plan for developments in housing, business, farming, roads, water resources etc. over the entire island, and then seek to implement it. One danger of the Utopian approach, as Popper points out, is that in order to implement the blueprint, it "demands a strong centralised rule of a few, and which therefore is likely to lead to a dictatorship." This is because "the reconstruction of society is a big undertaking which must cause considerable inconvenience to many, and for a considerable period of time." This means that those engaged upon such an undertaking will have to be deaf to many complaints."
This is a fascinating book, written with great clarity and perception. Moreover, unlike many books on philosophy, it is a book which makes you think!

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