Chapter Four

Democracy in Theory

The Open Society and its Enemies is the story of democracy, with an exhaustive explanation and reasoned advocacy of it, not as the best of all possible worlds, but as the best practical scheme so far invented, and one which is capable of almost indefinite improvement. Popper does not dodge the question: what is democracy? `We may distinguish two main types of government. The first type consists of governments of which we can get rid without bloodshed; that is to say the social institutions provide means by which the rulers may be dismissed by the ruled, and the social traditions ensure that these institutions will not easily be destroyed by those who are in power. The second type consists of governments which the ruled cannot get rid of except by way of a successful revolution - that is to say, in most cases, not at all. I suggest the term "democracy" as a shorthand label for a government of the first type, and the term "tyranny" or "dictatorship" for the second.' And then, very characteristically, he adds `and should anybody reverse this usage (as is frequently done nowadays), then I should simply say that I am in favour of what he calls tyranny' (O.S., i, 124). For Popper is impatient with those modern philosphers who see their task as being to find out what words or statements `really mean'. A witty spoof of this kind of philosophy appeared in the Guardian's 1978 April-fool edition of The Times which reported that:

"a team of philosophers at Oxford has discovered a new meaning of .the word 'and'. This brings to 18 the number of meanings found since the project began in the 1930s and puts the philosophers ahead in the competition with Cambridge scientists who are discovering sub-atomic particles."

Popper's method is to identify the realities he wants to talk about and give them suitable names. This involves pointing out that other philosophers and common usage have sometimes given the same name to different realities, with obvious confusion. Definitions, Popper says, should be read from right to left: `democracy is a system where the government can be dismissed by the people' is better stated as `a system where the people can dismiss the government is called democracy'.

Throughout history men have asked the question `what is?', wanting to know the `essential nature of'. Popper points out that this has on the whole been an unproductive question. It is usually not possible to find a satisfactory answer. It was only when essentialism was abandoned in favour of nominalism that science began to advance. This term means giving names to things but has come to mean asking the question: how does it behave, what are its properties and characteristics? We still do not have satisfactory answers to the questions about the essential nature of light, matter, atoms, electricity, etc., but we nevertheless have a wealth of knowledge about them and how they behave.

Popper's definition of democracy may seem bare and inadequate; but he points out that in no conceivable system can you or I rule. In no conceivable way can the differing ideas of sixty million people be combined in, say, British foreign policy. The essential point is that in some general way the rulers are controlled by the ruled, even if it amounts to no more than that they can be dismissed. (I shall suggest in Chapter 11 how it may be possible to achieve a `plastic' control without necessarily going to the length of dismissal or the threat of it.)

Popper's philosophy of politics diverges from that of Plato (and so much in modern politics that can be traced back to Plato) in that he rejects the question that was paramount in Plato's eyes, the question `who should rule?'.+ To Popper this is a red herring. The really important question is how the rulers, whoever they are, can be controlled. He elaborates this as `How can we so organise political institutions that even bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?'

Who should rule would indeed be the vital question if the theory of unchecked sovereignty were true, that is if it were true that whoever has the power can do as he likes. This theory is in fact taken for granted by those who in modern times think the important question is who should dictate, the capitalists or the workers. But Popper points out that no political power is ever unchecked. `Even the most powerful tyrant depends upon his secret police, his henchmen, his hangman.' He is forced to play one group off against another.

The open society

Popper's theory of historical development is based on the idea of two extreme forms of society - closed and open. In their pure form both may be theoretical abstracts. A society completely closed in his sense may never have existed. Certainly no completely open one has. But direction and change towards or away from greater openness is easily detectable.

The closed society is the typical tribal society in which each man has a fixed place and role and where there is no provision for a change of status. `Taboos rigidly regulate and dominate all aspects of life. They do not leave many loop-holes. There are few problems in this form of life, nothing really equivalent to moral problems. I do not mean to say that a member of a tribe does not sometimes need much heroism and endurance in order to act in accordance with the taboos. What I mean is that he may rarely find himself in the position of doubting how he ought to act.' In the open society on the other hand there is constant changing of social position: `Many members strive to rise socially, and to take the places of other members. This may lead, for example, to such important social phenomena as class struggle' (O.S., i, 101). Taboos remain and all known societies have a certain rigidity of class structure. But there has been a fitful, irregular, and often temporarily reversed movement away from the completely closed society in the direction of greater openness at any rate since the Athens of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. Popper thinks that the beginning of seafaring and commerce, both of which demand some individual initiative, were the start of the movement helped on by the beginning, for whatever reason, of criticism, of the idea that doctrines and taboos and customs and `knowledge' might be looked at objectively and criticised.

Roberts, in his history already quoted, points to the special historical importance of the Hebrew prophets. Until their time, might was right. The king was the law. Their great innovation was the idea of an absolute standard by which even the king might be judged.

"It is not too much to say that, if the heart of political liberalism is the belief that power must be used within a moral framework independent of it, then its tap root is the teaching of the prophets. This was a vital step in the development of those institutions and traditions which, in Popper's definition of democracy, enable the ruled to rid themselves on occasions of the rulers."

The breakdown of the closed society in Athens led quickly to the rise of democracy in the age of Pericles; but it was short-lived. One of the most influential contributors to its fall was the great philospher Plato. The first volume of The Open Society is devoted to an analysis of Plato's political thought and the way in which it has led to confusion down to the present time by its apparent concern with freedom and justice while advocating a totalitarian regime. One vital issue which Plato succeeded in confusing for all future generations was that of individualism. This word, Popper points out, has two distinct meanings; the opposite of collectivism and the opposite of altruism, unselfishness, public-spiritedness. Plato ignored the first sense and managed to convince his contemporaries and posterity that individualists were necessarily selfish egoists and the only alternative to selfishness is collectivism, that there is no such thing as the unselfish altruistic individualist. Popper unmasks this deception and points to Charles Dickens as a perfect example of this supposedly non-existent type. `It would be difficult to say', he wrote, `which is the stronger, his [Dickens's] passionate hatred of selfishness or his passionate interest in individuals with all their human weaknesses; and this attitude is combined with 'a dislike not only of ... collectives, but even of a genuinely devoted altruism, if directed towards anonymous groups rather than concrete individuals (c. f. Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House "a lady devoted to public duties")' (O.S., i, 101). Plato attacked individualism, Popper believes, because he recognised that, even more than equalitarianism, it was such a power in the new humanitarian creed.

"The emancipation of the individual was indeed the great spiritual revolution which had led to the breakdown of tribalism and to the rise of democracy ... This individualism, united with altruism, has become the basis of our western civilisation. It is the central doctrine of Christianity ('Love your neighbour', say the scriptures, not `love your tribe') and it is the core of all ethical doctrines which have grown from our civilisation and stimulated it."

Compare also Kant's saying `Always recognise that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means to your ends.' `There is no other thought', says Popper, `which has been so powerful in the moral development of man' (O.S., i, 102).

His idea of historical development as a general trend from the closed society towards the open one may at first sight look like historicism, the very idea he most consistently attacks. But Popper does not say that history, inevitably moves in a steady progression onward from the closed society. On the contrary history records many reversals - the dark ages, the Fascist domination of Europe in the 1930s and '40s, and of South America and South Africa now. The opening of human society is something that has happened. He hopes it will go on. He thinks we should encourage it; but its advance is not inevitable although it is linked with the growth of knowledge, which is also capable of being halted and reversed.

Throughout the ages writers have invoked the organic theory of society, they have likened human societies to living organisms, drawing an analogy between the members of a tribe or nation and the members or limbs or organs of the body. Popper concedes that in the closed society there is some justification for this analogy but from the moment that a society begins to `open' the analogy breaks down completely. For there is nothing in the individual organism remotely corresponding to, for instance, the class struggle. There is no kind of tendency for a leg to become an arm or a heart to take the place of a brain. John Donne's well known sermon describes an attribute of the closed society, for although it may be true that `no man is an island', it is palpably untrue in a society even as open as ours that `The bell' always `tolls for thee'. Far from losing by the death of others, individuals in our society frequently profit both materially and psychologically and are in no sense diminished. The closed society is like an organism in the sense that it is united by physical factors of bodily contact and direct personal relationships; the open society is characterised by a degree of abstractness. The abstract society is an unrealisable imaginary society outlined by Popper to illustrate an extreme. In it individuals never actually meet in the flesh but interact by letter, telephone, bill, cheque (and even artificial insemination!).

The increasing abstraction of the open society is one of the factors leading to what is called the strain of civilisation. It is created by the effort which life in a partially open and abstract society demands from us and is felt most in times of rapid social change. It arises from `the endeavour to be rational, to forgo at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, and to accept responsibilities. We must, I believe, bear this strain as the price to be paid for every increase in knowledge, in reasonableness, in cooperation and in mutual help, and consequently in our chances of survival'. It is of the same nature as the strain felt by the child on leaving the shelter of the parental home.

"There is no return to a harmonious state of nature. If we turn back, then we must go the whole way, we must return to the beasts. If we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both security and freedom (O.S., i, 201)."

The state

Karl Marx defined the state as `an organ of class discrimination, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; its aim is the creation of an "order" which legalises and perpetuates this oppression'. For Popper the state is a society for the prevention of crime, its essential function being the protection of the meek and weak in both the physical and the economic sense. It is an organisation for the restraint of physical and economic bullying.

Marx gave an appalling account of the working conditions of his time. Popper quotes from Das Kapital a number of examples of children working a fifteen-hour day from the age of under seven and of young women working even longer, in some cases to their death. `Using the slogan "equal and free competition for all" ', Popper commented, `the unrestrained capitalism of this period resisted successfully all labour legislation until 1833, and its practical execution for many years more. The consequence was a life of desolation and misery which can hardly be imagined in our day.'

"Marx's burning protest against these crimes, which were than tolerated, not only by professional economists but also by churchmen, will secure him forever a place among the liberators of mankind ..I believe that the injustice and inhumanity of the unrestrained `capitalist system' described by Marx cannot be questioned, but it can be interpreted in terms of ... the paradox of freedom. Freedom defeats itself if it is unlimited. Unlimited freedom means that a strong man is free to bully a weak one and to rob him of his freedom. This is why we demand that the state should limit freedom to a certain extent, so that everybody's freedom is protected by the law. Nobody should be at the mercy of others but all should have the right to be protected by the state (O. S., ii, 124)."

He quotes with approval the apocryphal story of the judge who told the accused `Your freedom to swing your fist is limited by the proximity of your neighbour's jaw'. In the same vein is the comment on her adopted country by a G.I. bride after twenty-five years in the United States: `This is a country where they scream freedom from the roof tops; but what's the use of freedom when you're afraid to go out at night?'

The formal or legal freedom, despised by Marx, the right of the people to choose and dismiss their government, is the only known device by which we can try to protect ourselves against the misuse of political power. It is the ultimate control of the rulers by the ruled. And since political power can control economic power (see below), political democracy is the only means for the control of economic power by the ruled. Without democratic control there is no earthly reason why a government should not use its power for purposes very different from the protection of the freedom of its citizens. The remedy against economic exploitation and injustice `must be a political remedy similar to the one we use against physical violence'.

Economic power

Marx, misled by the power in his day of the capitalist over the workers, thought that economic power is necessarily superior to political power. Politics, he wrote, could do no more than `shorten the birth pangs' of the inevitable revolution. Hence the need for the state to own the means of production, distribution etc., and hence the British Labour Party's belief in the need to own `the commanding heights of the economy'. The argument, roughly, was that he who has the money has the power because if necessary he can buy guns to enforce his power. But, Popper argues, this is only the first stage. Those that have the guns can see this too; and so you may end up by having both the money and the guns in the same hands. Marx failed to see that even in his own day the capitalists owed their power of exploitation to the political power of the state which legalised their profits and protected them against personal violence and theft. Bertrand Russell (1938) gave two historical examples to demonstrate that political power was necessarily superior to the power of money.

"Julius Caesar was helped to power by his creditors who saw no hope of repayment except through his success; but when he had succeeded he was powerful enough to defy them. Charles V borrowed money from the Fuggers in order to buy the position of emperor; but when he became emperor he snapped his fingers at them and they lost what they had lent."

The pre-occupation of the British Left with ownership has had two unfortunate consequences. Firstly there has been this tendency to blame people - capitalists, managers etc. - and thus to imply that all that is needed is to hand over the running of things to new managers with the right (i.e. Left) ideas. Disillusionment sets in when the ownership is changed and the management given to people of socialist sympathies and the result is not only a service or industry that loses money, but one that shows even less signs than the privately-owned one of being run in the interests of its customers. Probably no private company would have dared to treat its customers as cavalierly as did the publicly-owned electricity supply industry. Having induced people to invest in electric appliances for space and water heating by offering attractive off-peak discounts, they then proceeded to cut the discount very substantially.

Secondly, the obsession with ownership and the political attitude of management has diverted thought from the important consideration of how an industry should be run and what its priorities should be. It is typical of the muddle over public ownership that the Labour government's own Transport Policy white paper should insist on the need to preserve competition between three nationally-owned industries - rail, air, and bus - on the inter- city passenger services, when part of the rationale for public ownership was the elimination of wasteful competition.

In Shaw's play The Apple Cart, any invention to make a commodity more durable was immediately bought up and suppressed by the powerful monopoly, Breakages Ltd. British Rail's research engineers have come up with an ingeniously simple solution (which G. Freeman Allen described) to the important problem of transferring goods cheaply and safely from road to rail and back to road. This has been suppressed, according to Joseph Hanlon, as effectively as if Breakages had been involved, by the bureaucratic, inverted Heller, technique of estimating (or rather over- estimating) the costs of development.

On the whole the theory prevailing, though not often spelt out, in the Labour Party (an organisation now somewhat averse to theorising) is what Popper called a Vulgar Marxist Conspiracy Theory (O.S., ii, 101), in which the exploitation of workers is seen as a malevolent conspiracy by capitalists. This theory, Popper pointed out, has largely replaced in both overt and quasi Marxist circles the `ingenious and highly original' doctrine of Marx himself that capitalists as much as workers were helpless puppets pulled by economic wires, helpless victims of historical forces.

An extraordinary apparent contradiction between fact and theory faced both Marxists and quasi Marxists when early in 1979 the workers who went on strike against low wages were not the exploited employees of capitalist industry but their less well-off brothers in the public services. Their bosses could not possibly be seen as grinding the faces for the sake of profit. Their bosses' only purpose was to provide services for a public which included those worse off than the strikers; and the former were certainly the ones who suffered.


Marx took the appalling conditions of early industrial life as being an essential part of capitalism and predicted that inevitably they would get worse. It is one of many of his prophecies which did not come true. It would have been true of unrestrained, laissez-faire, capitalism, Popper believes; but even while Marx was writing, partly as a result of his writing, the restraint of capitalism was beginning. The conditions he so vividly described have everywhere ceased to exist.

Economic interventionism has everywhere been adopted, and this has undoubtedly resulted in an enormous improvement in working conditions and in living standards too. Economic interventionism has had two arrows to its bow. The first was legal - the British Factory Acts, limiting by law the hours of labour and the age of the employed, were the first restraint. Later followed the trade unions, which gave the employed the means of bargaining with the employers. `Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains' was a piece of advice that was taken and a prophecy that did come true. They did unite and did lose their chains - and not much else.

Revolution and peaceful change

Marxism and other revolutionary theories, Popper pointed out, suffer in a democracy from an inner contradiction at least as fundamental as that which Marx attributed to capitalism. It is this: in order to attract sufficient support revolutionaries must campaign for the improvement of the conditions of the workers that they wish to recruit. But what if their campaign succeeds? If wages rise and conditions generally improve, they must say it is not enough. They must demand more. But with each improvement fewer and fewer workers are dissatisfied with the status quo. The revolutionaries are thus `forced to fight for the immediate betterment of the workers' lot, but to hope at the same time for the opposite'. The contradiction produces a stage in which `it is hard to know who is the traitor, since treachery may be faithfulness and faithfulness treachery'. Popper wrote this during the war but it is still very much to the point. The British Left is still very much divided between those who want to do something `within the system' and those who want to destroy the system and are therefore forced to be two-faced. They have to advocate better conditions without really wanting their advocacy to succeed.

The difference between the views of Marx and Popper in regard to the nature or function of the state draws attention to the ambivalent way in which we now regard the chief agent of the internal power of the state - the police. Popper regards the police as the most important element in the maintenance of freedom. They are the means by which the law is enforced; and freedom from every kind of bullying and exploitation ultimately rests on their ability to uphold the law. This view has nothing to do of course with the moral character of individual policemen nor whether there is widespread corruption in any particular police force. A police force is essential, just as a government is essential. Popper's interest in the police as such is the same as his interest in all other political institutions: how can we so organise the police that even bad policemen cannot do too much damage? It seems to me that one of the things we might do is to relieve them as far as possible of their function as enforcers of what may be unpopular government or local government policy and so let them concentrate on being the protectors of the public. I have in mind the setting up of more separate forces like the customs officers and the traffic wardens, distinct from the police, to take over such things as the activities of the drug squads.

There is an asymmetry in this matter of law and its enforcement which is somewhat analogous to the asymmetry between the possibility of refuting a theory and the impossibility of confirming it. Changes in the law must be made by democratic discussion and not by force; but once the change is made it must be maintained by force. One can think of it as a kind of ratchet mechanism, the discussion and democratic decision being the winding up, while the police are the pawl that prevents slipping back to lawlessness.

Two kinds of intervention

The state must intervene to prevent physical and economic bullying; but Popper makes an important but little recognized distinction between `two entirely different methods by which the intervention of the state may proceed. The first is that of designing a legal framework of protective institutions. . . . The second is that of empowering organs of the state to act ... as they consider necessary for achieving the ends laid down by the rulers' (O.S., ii, 131-3).

At first sight one might imagine that the second method of leaving a matter to the discretion of a committee or official would be less restricting than laying down a definite law; and it does seem that this is often assumed to be the case.

The operation of the fire precaution laws is the example of this difference of method which first comes to my mind. The first method would be to lay down by law that, for example, all buildings of more than three storeys must have an external fire-resistant escape stairway. This might prove unnecessary or impossibly costly, in which case the law would be amended to require this only in certain specified circumstances. What we have in fact is that, if such a building is occupied by more than one household (one household can burn so far as the law is concerned), then means of escape must be provided `to the satisfaction' of some authority who may be the fire officer. This is the second method. Now this kind of arrangement is open to all kinds of abuse and can even make life more dangerous for the people it is supposed to protect. Here are two instances known to me. In one case a couple, who let their second-floor rooms to summer holiday-makers, were told that they must do some £1,500 worth of fire-precaution work. They were not told that, if they ceased to let rooms, they need not make any changes at all, as they would be a single household. In another case an eighty-year-old widow who lived alone upstairs in her four-storey house, but had a young couple living in her semi-basement, was told that she must evict them. She was thereby condemned to live entirely alone and was deprived, in the event of fire, of the help of an able-bodied couple. Had there been a steel fire escape from her top storey where nobody slept, she would have been allowed to keep her basement tenants - a slight case of tunnel-vision!

The lack of a definite standard that can be disputed has meant that architects have to play safe. You cannot wait until you have erected an expensive building and then find that the fire officer will not approve it. You put in double the number of fire doors that he could conceivably demand; and you put springs on them so strong that elderly people cannot open them. (They then have to be propped open and so lose all purpose.) While the main staircase used to be the central feature of many public buildings, play-safe architects now have often to hide it away and box it in behind spring-loaded doors. There would be something to be said for the system if it really saved lives. But the fact is that the four fires that have cost the most lives in the past decade have all been in new buildings which must have been passed by the fire officers. Lord James of Rusholme, chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission, in a letter to The Times (8 September 1978) protesting about the aesthetic damage being done by over-enthusiastic fire precautions, said that in `the many historic buildings of the University of Oxford ... only one death by fire appears to have been recorded in the last 400 years'. He added that `the risk taken by the public in using such buildings is ... negligible when compared with the risk taken on the roads to get to them'.

In the case of the first method (of state intervention), I exchange of information. The rulers must know what the Popper says: `The legal framework can be known and understood by the individual citizen ... Its function is predictable. It introduces a feature of certainty and security into social life. When it is altered, allowances can be made, during a transitional period, for those individuals who have laid their plans in the expectation of its constancy.' The other method (personal intervention by civil servants etc.), he says, `must introduce an ever-growing element of unpredictability into social life, and with it will develop the feeling that social life is irrational and insecure. The use of discretionary powers is liable to grow quickly, once it has become an accepted method, since adjustments will be necessary, and adjustments to discretionary short-term decisions can hardly be carried out by institutional means'. The tendency, he says, must create `the impression that there are hidden powers behind the scenes, making people susceptible to the conspiracy theory of society with all its consequences - heresy hunts, national, social, and class hostility.'

It seems to me likely that the growing tendency to govern by these discretionary powers is a major cause of discontent and of the widespread feeling that democracy is a sham. Whichever party is in power, `they' will carry on regardless. Popper himself gives several reasons why governments and civil servants tend to adopt the discretionary method; but, he says:

"The most important reason is undoubtedly that the significance of the distinction between the two methods is not understood. The way to its understanding is blocked to the followers of Plato, Hegel, and Marx. They will never see that the old question `Who shall be the rulers?' must be superseded by the more real one `How shall we tame them?' (O.S., ii, 133)"

Democracy and induction connected

To return to the essential point of democracy: the control of the rulers by the ruled must depend on a two-way people want and what is the effect of their ruling, and the people must know what the rulers are trying to do and why. The rulers are bound to make mistakes; and rational government can be carried out only if it is subject to criticism so that the mistakes can be pointed out and the lessons learnt.

There is an obvious parallel between the above paragraph and the concluding paragraph of Chapter 1, where it was emphasised that science depends on communication between scientists and potential critics.

We are now in a position to appreciate the far-reaching importance, already mentioned, of the fact that induction is not a valid method and of Popper's solution of the resulting problem, his demonstration that science, and action generally, can nevertheless be rational. If induction were the source of knowledge and if a theory could be corroborated by finding confirmations of it (white swans), then scientists working alone or in groups, committees of experts etc., could be left on their own to arrive at the truth or the next best thing. But the fact that induction is not valid and that truth emerges as a result of criticism - of attempts to refute theories (to find black swans) - means that critics, who may well be people who know far less than the experts, are necessary to the process. For no man can be relied on to criticise sufficiently searchingly his own ideas; and no planner can know all the implications of his own plans.

In the political and social fields there has been an attempt to emulate the success of the physical sciences by taking over their machinery. Computers, statistical methods, decision-theory - these it is sometimes thought, will give to political decisions the validity that they seem to have given to scientific results. The idea arises from a misunderstanding of science. These things are the trappings, the apparatus, of science. The validity of the results depends, as we have seen, on their public-ness, on the fact that anybody with the necessary skill can repeat the experiments and calculations for himself and point out any mistakes.

This is the connection between science and democracy. This is why each depends on the other. Technology can flourish in secrecy and under tyrannical regimes, but new knowledge depends upon open-ness and on public criticism for its validity. Politicians and planners can use their expertise to work out anything from the rebuilding of a city to a new pension scheme, but they will not see all the snags without the aid of the people affected.

This is perhaps the most important of all the conclusions that arise from Popper's work; the fact that experts and specialists of all kinds from physicists to civil servants are not sufficient unto themselves, cannot find out the truth or lay down the law by themselves, but depend on the public at large in order to substantiate the truth and the validity of what they do, although even then there is no certainty. This is the case for democracy.

Chapter ThreeChapter Five

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