Popper fought as an ANZAC in WW2. He was living in Christchurch but he was not allowed to put on a uniform because he was classified as an enemy alien so he wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies to help the war effort, or at least the reconstruction afterwards. He fought on the philosophy front in the stratosphere of ideas, taking on Plato, Aristotle, Hegel and Marx.
This piece was triggered by a particularly misleading commentary on Popper by Frank Furedi in Spiked last week where the Great Helmsman of Critical Rationalism was doxed as a warrior on the wrong side of the “cancel culture war.” Furedy took aim at Popper’s views on the need to move beyond primitive closed or tribal societies towards more open societies and he depicted Popper’s modern person as “an abstract person – someone detached from previous generations and their people, as well as from the past.” That is a very perverse read on Popper’s reference to non-tribal “abstract” societies by which he meant the catallaxy that supplements but does not replace our close personal relationships and semi-tribal allegiances like supporting the Irishtown football team.
The bottom line of this story is that the BLM movement can be explained as a mixture of temper tantrum and quest for meaning and community, driven by the intellectual errors of collectivism and racism propounded by Plato and weaponised in recent times by cultural marxism at all levels of education plus social media. That long story can’t be told here and I will only show how Furedi lost Popper’s plot, probably because he grew up as a Marxist and did no appreciate the book that Isiah Berlin described as the most devastating criticism of Marxism in the English language when it appeared in 1945.
The arguments that earned Furedi’s wrath are the concepts of the closed society, the open society and the “strain of civilization” expounded in Chapter 10. The open society and the closed society are “ideal types” that Popper used to explain the problems that emerge when people have more opportunities and variety in their lives while they have to shoulder more individual responsibility for their choices and actions.
A closed society resembles a herd or a tribe in being a semi-organic unit whose members are held together by semi-biological ties—kinship, living together, sharing common efforts, common dangers, common joys and common distress. It is still a concrete group of concrete individuals, related to one another not merely by such abstract social relationships as division of labour and exchange of commodities, but by concrete physical relationships such as touch, smell, and sight.
In more open societies there are is still a great body of more and less reasonable constraints and taboos but there is an ever-widening field of personal decisions, with its problems and responsibilities. As some of the organic character is lost it may, to a considerable extent, lose the character of a concrete or real group of men and it may become, by degrees, what I should like to term an ‘abstract society, or of a system of such real groups.
He made the point with a thought experiment (writing in the early 1940s) to envisage what he called a completely abstract or depersonalised society in which people practically never meet face to face [anticipating lockdown]. Business is conducted by individuals in isolation who communicate by typed letters or by telegrams, and travel in closed motor-cars. (Artificial insemination would allow even propagation without a personal element.)
He pointed out that our modern society resembles the abstract society in some ways. So without driving in closed cars we may walk in a crowded street and meet a great many people face to face without making any personal contact. Similarly, membership of a trade union may mean no more than the possession of a membership card and the payment of a contribution to an unknown secretary. There are many people living in a modern society who have no, or extremely few, intimate personal contacts, who live in anonymity and isolation, and consequently in unhappiness. For although society has become abstract, the biological make-up of man has not changed much; men have social needs which they cannot satisfy in an abstract society.
He quickly added some qualifications, There never will be or can be a completely abstract or even a predominantly abstract society—no more than a completely rational or even a predominantly rational society. People still form real groups and enter into real social contacts of all kinds, and try to satisfy their emotional social needs as well as they can. But most of the social groups of a modern open society (with the exception of some lucky family groups) are poor substitutes, since they do not provide for a common life. And many of them do not have any function in the life of the society at large.
And second, the picture highlights the losses in the (partially) abstract society and misses out on the gains, Personal relationships of a new kind can arise where they can be freely entered into, instead of being determined by the accidents of birth; and with this, a new individualism arises.
What Popper called the strain of civilization is the feeling of unease that can arise when we move from a familiar and settled way of life (home to school, school to university, university to work) and that feeling of unease will be widespread in times of rapid social change. It is not in itself a bad thing, it just has to be managed at the personal and institutional level to minimise pathological symptoms such as joining destructive social movements to gain a sense of identity and achieve some meaning and purpose in life.
As soon as one is sensitized to the strain of civilisation it is a recurring motif in historical and sociological studies, although it is not usually articulated in a robust theory that provides both an explanation and some pointers for a rational response. Children of the sixties and seventies may recall a book by Erich Fromm called The Fear of Freedom which was a psychological explanation of the appeal of fascism, couched in Marxist and Freudian jargon.
The theory of the strain of civilisation in times of culture clash or rapid social transition could have provided a framework for subsequent work on the problems of social change, multicultural societies and living with the resurgent tribalism of radical Islam (not to mention the rabid left) but it has never, to my knowledge, been used by any well known or influential anthropologist, historian or sociologist. This may reflect the dominance of people in those professions who were scandalized by Popper’s treatment of Plato and Marx, or it may be, as Roger Sandall has suggested, that it became politically incorrect in progressive circles after WW2 to talk about tribal societies in any way that implied that they are inferior.