The open pit

In the future, anyone opposed to the open society will be arrested, in the West. In the Middle East, perhaps only those who oppose the Islamic open society will be arrested; & in China, only the opponents of the Politburo’s.

A big talk piece by David Rieff in National Interest has prompted this observation. Rieff, the product of Susan Sontag’s earliest liaison, with the Freudian sociologist Philip Rieff, could almost be said to have been born an avatar of societal openness. An anarchic vagabond, caressed by the liberal intelligentsia, he has been undermining their claims to authority in ever less subtle ways. He is member, fellow, or senior fellow of various prestigious fora of the self-celebratory great & good, from the World Policy Institute, to the Council on Foreign Relations, to Human Rights Watch. Yet he now hints that the heroic project to bring the open society to the whole planet is a chimera, & that its leading exponents are titched. He is saying this cautiously; but read the article. Surely, finally, he can be disowned.

We may not have to wait long for the arrests, especially if Barack Obama is able to bestow upon America the incomparable blessing of four more of his invaluable years. For the idea of the open society is itself open to evolution, & we are about one Supreme Court appointment from declaring the U.S. Constitution entirely open to keep up with it. The open society now requires vigorous universal welfare arrangements, centralized policy control by czars, & ceaseless bureaucratic punishment of the non-cooperative. It is Obamacare writ large; & the sceptic of the open society, whose conscience will not row to its command, already finds himself exposed to what Austin Ruse has called, “the ugly claws & bared teeth of the pelvic Left.”

But we mention this only to be melodramatic. It is from want of courage that opponents of the open society agree to go silent & stand down. We have the spectacle of some rookery of alarmed penguins, fleeing the transgressive sea lion, who catches & flails them at his leisure from their rear. After each round, the surviving penguins congratulate themselves on reaching safety. Yet sometimes, rather than fleeing, one spritely little proximate penguin with his razor beak stands to announce, “the hell you are going to eat me,” & we have instead the spectacle of a blinded, bleeding, panicked & retreating sea lion.

This is not what Rieff is getting at, however. His position developed through his opposition to the U.S. military enterprise in Iraq, when George Bush & not George Soros was his target; but he is moving towards a fuller understanding that these two Georges, while opponents in any imaginable democratic ground game, were working all along from the same background assumption: that “democracy,” “civil society,” & the gamut of Western, post-Christian schemes for universal emancipation, are the inevitable destiny of the world; that every obstacle to this emancipation must be levelled & paved; that nothing in the end must obstruct the view of the open society. This was exactly the position Francis Fukuyama advertised in his famous “End of History?” piece in the same National Interest, nearly a quarter century ago. It was a useful article because it generously revealed the fatuity of his own position; & he has spent the rest of his career trying to recover his poise.

History has since continued, taking the usual unpredictable turns, & yet the astoundingly glib proposal that we must all work towards the inevitable triumph of the open society weaves ever more tightly into the progressive consciousness, along with freedom marches & “the American Dream.” The segue of blissful Hegelian fantasy into breaking-news nightmare may yet cause the sleeper to wake, but meanwhile he remains in a kind of moral & intellectual coma, perfectly convinced that he can fly.

Freedom cannot be imposed. Nor can one man define it for another; nor one society liberate another. We can work against a discernible evil — slavery, say; or abortion; or some specific tyrant, individual or corporate. We can resist a specific evil, by prudently framing a specific law. But in contradiction of the essential tenet shared by radical Islam & the secular Left: we cannot “command the good.” For the good does not answer to human command.

The paradox is not that the open society imposes a new, quasi-religious doctrinal order. Its demands are anyway constantly morphing, so that today’s categorical imperative will be tomorrow’s capital crime. The paradox is rather a cheap imposture: that glib claim to inevitability & foreknowledge, against a background of history that offered constant surprise. That is what links the open society to Auschwitz, & to Stalin; that idiot self-confidence. The open society delegitimates every opponent, & strips every minority of its peace. Having foreseen an end, it can when necessary justify any means. It goes beyond any Pope, or Caliph, or Caesar, in claiming the monopoly on both force & virtue. It is restrained, at every turn, by some “irrational” sense of decency; but that decency is external to itself.