Reading Karl Popper and Seeing America’s Problem

Karl Popper wrote The Open Society and its Enemies during World War II — a time when the rise of fascism from nationalism was fresh in people’s minds. Its basic thrust is that fascism has certain philosophical points of origin: Plato, Hegel and Marx.

I started reading the two volume work recently, and have completed the first book about Plato. I’m on to volume II, which starts with Hegel.

Without going too deeply into the nuance of Popper’s arguments (it’s better to read the books), I can report that the The Open Society and its Enemies is worthy for readers today. Popper writes in an engaging style with a certain amount of dry, and sometimes devastating, humor. He is willing to blast this trio of heavyweight thinkers for the dangers they pose. He does it with verve.

Fascists, whether ancient or modern, are enemies of the open society. Popper defines the open society as one where “individuals are confronted with personal decisions.”

Plato looked at individualism as an agent of  decay of the ideal social order. Plato thinks that any social change is evil. Everyone maintains their station within the order, which is based on eternal forms. I had never really thought about Plato as a proto-fascist before, but on reflection I  think that Popper is onto something.

Popper thinks that the enemies of the open society are seeking to escape from the strain of change and difficult personal decisions and responsibilities. The open society may only provide citizens of liberal democracies what seems like a dull grind, but to Popper the escapism of fascist thinking is far more dangerous.

Yesterday, I came across a passage that seemed to evoke the problems of America circa the Trump years. Many Americans have a fantasy vision of how everything would go better if only we can return to a better and easier era. To me the most egregious form of this is MAGA (Make America Great Again).

In this passage, Popper is discussing the nationalism that marked the early 19th-century German state that employed him Hegel as its ‘dictator of philosophy.’ However, I think it also applies to red-hat wearing Americans today:

“Nationalism appeals to our tribal instincts, to passion and to prejudice, and to our nostalgic desire to be relieved from the strain of individual responsibility.” (Volume 2, chapter 12, section 3, p. 54)

To me, Trump makes no sense whatsoever, but to others he makes perfect sense. Popper is helping me understand this mix of nostalgia for an era that likely never existed with a desire to relinquish critical thinking.

Plato yearned for a society controlled by philosopher elites and upper-class militarists (sustained by lower class merchants and slaves). The idea is that this is how it was in tribal Greece, before democracy and trade began to change — a transformation symbolized by the city state of Athens. Plato didn’t have any empathy for the other or those less fortunate in his ideal society. He wanted to go back to the tribe.

This lens of looking at contemporary nationalism helps me understand the strange and lurid phenomenon of Fox News. It’s a fantasy sold to people who desire to give up on considering the facts. This phenomenon also exists on the left, but to me Popper’s description clearly evokes the Fox watching Trump voter.