The open society: elusive but essential

By Daniel Devine 

samuel zeller 358865 credsThe rise of populist parties across Europe and disaffection with mainstream politics are said to endanger the open society. But what is an open society? A new project by OSEPI and d|part, supported by five country partners, tries to find out what open society means to the citizens of six European countries, and what trade-offs they are willing to make to achieve it.

Whether the open versus closed divide is defined as cosmopolitans vs non-cosmopolitans, the nationalists vs globalists, or somewheres vs anywheres, understanding its causes and manifestations is key to grasping European politics today. The Voices on Values project shines its spotlight on areas where the open society is most at risk, and attempts to do so by finding where citizens and elites place the limits between open and closed societies.

The term open society was first coined by Henri Bergson in 1932, and popularised six years later by Karl Popper in his book The Open Society and its Enemies. Both agreed that closed societies value security, self-preservation, conformism, nativism and tribalism, The two didn’t see eye to eye on what they meant by open society. Bergson defined it as one “which will, in principle, embrace all humanity” whereas Popper saw it as meaning “faith in man, in equalitarian justice, and in human reason”. They did, however, agree that its institutions were those of liberal democracies.

An open society has become an elusive concept in today’s Europe: there is little consensus about its core values, or on what separates open and closed societies. An open society can be defended with apparently contradictory arguments. In a discussion about plans to ban the burka, Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said, “We are an open society […] we’re not burka”, arguing that “to ‘show one’s face’ is the expression of democratic coexistence”. Does this mean that de Maizière sees conformity as an open society value, when others might argue that freedom of expression is much more important.

It is not just where lines are drawn but also for what reasons. When british Lib-Dem politician Nick Clegg evokes social mobility as an open society value, he is stretching the expression’s commonly assumed meaning. But the concept’s elasticity is one of its virtues, as it can be reformulated to meet changing political conditions.

Daniel Devine is a PhD student at the University of Southampton and research consultant to OSEPI.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Daniel Devine.