The open society: elusive but essential

By Daniel Devine

The 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 evokessocial 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.