The Capitalist Threat

NEW YORK: In The Philosophy of History, Hegel discerned a disturbing historical pattern -- the crack and fall of civilizations owing to a morbid intensification of their own first principles. I have made a fortune in the world financial markets, and yet I now fear that untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering the future of our open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.

The term "open society" was coined by Henri Bergson, in his book The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932), and given greater currency by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Popper showed that totalitarian ideologies like communism and Nazism have a common element: they claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth. Because the ultimate truth is beyond the reach of humankind, these ideologies must resort to oppression to impose their vision on society. Popper juxtaposed these totalitarian ideologies with another view of society, one which recognizes that no one has a monopoly on the truth; different people have different views and different interests, and there is a need for institutions that allow them to live together in peace. These institutions protect the rights of citizens and ensure freedom of choice and freedom of speech. Popper called this form of social organization "open society." Totalitarian ideologies were its enemies.

Written during the Second World War, The Open Society and Its Enemies explained what Western democracies stood for and fought for. The explanation was highly abstract and philosophical, and the term "open society" never gained wide recognition. Nevertheless, Popper's analysis was penetrating, and when I read it as a student in the late 1940s, having experienced at first hand both Nazi and Communist rule in Hungary, it struck me with the force of revelation.

I was driven to delve deeper into Popper's philosophy, and to ask why no one has access to the ultimate truth. The answer became clear: We live in the same universe that we are trying to understand, and our perceptions influence the events in which we participate. If our thoughts belonged to one universe and their subject matter to another, truth might be within our grasp. We could formulate statements corresponding to the facts, and the facts would serve as reliable criteria for deciding whether the statements were true.