Skip to content

The Culture Cult revisited

The journal Social Science and Modern Society published a symposium on The Culture Cult in its May/June 2008 issue. Below is the discussion paper that was circulated summarising the book’s argument. This was followed by commentaries from Robin Fox, George Crowder, Peter Wood, Daniel Chirot, Brian Turner, David Stoll, and Joseph E. Davis. Fox’s essay can be found here: Open Societies and Closed Minds


The claim that “open societies” are now increasingly threatened would probably meet with little argument. But what is the nature of the threat, and what are its roots? Here less agreement might be found. Some would say an essentially religious clash of civilizations is the main cause, and point to the growing struggle between Islam and the West.

Others might point to Russia under President Putin, finding evidence of a long-standing political tradition that owes relatively little to the Russian Orthodox Church, but has always found liberty odious.

And then there’s a third and troubling possibility — that from an evolutionary perspective, taking a long view of our historic and prehistoric origins, open societies where voluntaristic principles prevail are new forms of human association only recently arrived from the distant tribal past, and in the more violent trouble spots around the world they never arrived at all.

The Open Society

That third possibility is pretty much how Karl Popper saw the matter. His 1945 The Open Society and Its Enemies started out from the contrast between closed autarkic Sparta and free-trading protean Athens, and used it to illuminate the conflict between Fascism and Communism on the one hand, and Western democracy on the other. With this in mind he concluded that the enemies of the open society comprise a bunch of awkward atavisms that humanity has never managed to transcend.

The revolt against civilization in both Germany and Russia could be locally explained in a number of ways — Prussian nationalism; the old communal obshchina tradition in Muscovy — but a general nostalgia for the tribal past was ultimately reducible to the strain of trying to adapt to the constant changes of modern life. “I suppose what I call the ‘strain of civilization’”, Popper wrote in one of the footnotes to The Open Society, “is similar to the phenomenon which Freud had in mind when writing Civilization and its Discontents.” Thinking about the intellectual attraction of Nazism and Communism he asked:

Why do these social philosophies support the revolt against civilization? And what is the secret of their popularity? Why do they attract and seduce so many intellectuals? I am inclined to think that the reason is that they give expression to a deep-felt dissatisfaction with a world which does not, and cannot, live up to our moral ideals and to our dreams of perfection… the revolt against civilization may be… a reaction against the strain of our civilization and its demand for personal responsibility.

We live in an age of semantic high anxiety, when words like “atavism” and “tribe” are thought unsuitable for tender ears. It is therefore interesting that in the key chapter of a book that is arguably the most significant 20th century contribution to political thought in our time — Chapter Ten, presenting Popper’s main argument and bearing the same title as his book itself — the noun “tribe” and its adjectival derivatives “tribal” and “tribalistic” occur over forty times, while his discussion of related matters using identical terminology continues in voluminous footnotes at the end of the book.

In Popper’s view, what Hitler, Stalin & Co represented were forms of “arrested tribalism”, and the more he considered the matter the more he saw a yearning for the past—closed, pre-rational, taboo-ridden, undemocratic, militaristic, and fearful of liberty—as equally ubiquitous and malign.


In general terms that is also the argument of The Culture Cult, a humble footnote to The Open Society that appeared in 2001. But the problem I saw and tried to write about was rather different. Where Popper was looking at political structures and the struggle between those that were “open” and those that were “closed”, I was more interested in questions of moral psychology.

The explanation Popper offered for the movements of the 1920s and 1930s was understandable in the political terms he proposed: both Fascism and Communism could be seen as violent reactions against individualism, gathering force through the late 19th century, in which dynamic enterprises and free men would be forcibly fixed and frozen by the state.

But in the year 2000, with Fascism and Communism both discredited, why, I wondered, were so many turning back toward Rousseau? What was the attraction of romantic primitivism? How had ethnic culture become a beau ideal? Cities certainly have their problems, but why did New Yorkers see tribal societies as exemplary and tribespeople as paragons of social virtue? Especially — and inexplicably — tribal societies whose hardships and bloody cruelties no pampered urbanite could possibly endure.

A 1935 book by Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas suggested where to look for answers, or where to begin. Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity was about “the unending revolt of the civilized against civilization”, and contained a chapter almost one hundred pages long on “The Noble Savage in Antiquity”.

Scores of names both of peoples and classical sources are described, the authors reporting that from the fourth century BC onwards “the Scythians apparently were to the ancients what the North Americans were to the primitivists of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries in modern Europe”, and going on to note that “in an ironic form the theme (of primitive wholesomeness and virtue, RS) appears in the comic writers, e.g. in Antiphanes, a poet of the Middle Comedy:

Are not the Scythians very wise, who give to new-born babes the milk of horses and cows to drink, but admit among them no evil-minded wet-nurses or schoolmasters?

Primitivism and the Human Comedy

Antiphanes, alas, points to a literary problem for anyone dealing with this potentially risible subject: it’s difficult for an author to keep a straight face. And if a writer of comedy in the 4th century BC felt that the tendency of his fellow Athenians to romanticise the milk-drinking Scythians was faintly ridiculous, and if an occasional grin peeps through Arthur Lovejoy’s prose, how should the rest of us respond to this sort of thing? Fascism and Communism are no laughing matter, and Karl Popper’s treatment of political atavism is appropriately grave. But what is one to say about the sentimental atavism of the Culture Cult—its compulsion to admire and imitate primitivity in every form?

Is it possible to write about the Oneida Community and John Humphrey Noyes, whose polygynous gerontocracy unknowingly mimicked the Australian Aborigines of Arnhem Land, without a smile? Even Noyes’s final expulsion from the community by the frustrated younger males who rebelled against his sexual monopoly has close Australian parallels.

Must one regard the exciting adventures of Lawrence of Arabia, all dressed up riding camels and blowing up trains with a bunch of Arab cut-throats, without a boyish grin? And what is one to say about the American actor/model Ms Lauren Hutton, who in 1996 enlightened her children by visiting the Maasai in Africa and forcing them to witness the sacrifice of a cow, and whose little boys were deeply shocked by the grisly spectacle? One of them burst into tears.

Plainly, something odd had been going on. And at the center of the confusion was a word that had been turned on its head—the word “culture”. In England the generic term employed in the comparative study of human social forms and sociability was for many years the neutral word “society”. Societies had different forms and structures, and comparing them, especially from an evolutionary standpoint, could tell you a lot.

But what was this new term “culture”? How had it come to be used sociologically? Wasn’t it more than a little tendentious, trailing mystical Germanic clouds and dangerously nationalistic sentiments, right from the start? Yet before long, first in America and then all over the English-speaking world, both word and thing became sacralized and placed beyond criticism on a pedestal in a political shrine.

The Two Cultures

The earlier Arnoldian sense of culture in English — a sense that would have been understood one hundred years ago by Bergson and Berdyaev, by Henry and William James, by Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell and H. G. Wells, and indeed any educated person you care to name — was in many ways synonymous with “civilization”. Matthew Arnold’s ideal of “the best that had been thought and said and written” was singular, universal, prescriptive, exclusive, hierarchic, and deeply concerned with judging both aesthetic and moral values on a scale of better and worse.

The singularity of Mozart was established by deeply considered and highly evolved aesthetic norms showing how clearly he stood head and shoulders above Salieri, while the exclusiveness of western music as a whole could be seen by exploring the rationalistic foundations of polyphony and counterpoint that Max Weber discussed and explained.

Then something happened: the English word “culture” in the sense employed by Matthew Arnold in his 1869 Culture and Anarchy got both anthropologized and Germanised — and anthropological culture was the opposite of all that. It meant little more in fact than a social system. As such, a “culture” (singular) included manners, customs, values, institutions — everything any organized human group might consist of, good, bad, or indifferent. It had nothing to do with aesthetics or higher thought, or indeed “higher” and “lower” in any form at all. Instead it was pluralistic, parochial, descriptive, and generously inclusive. Instead of being hierarchic it was promiscuously horizontal, while its aesthetic understanding both began and ended with the statement that all cultures were equally beautiful and true.

Ethnic Authority — Culture is King

Arnoldian culture, as the British Marxist Raymond Williams complained, had been hurtfully snobbish: it made people upset and resentful, especially sensitive men like himself, whereas anthropological culture was reassuringly democratic, was bravely indifferent to all questions of quality, and cheerfully subsumed manners, customs, habits, cuisine, ablution, handkerchiefs, nose-picking, and the shape and use of chamber pots (in which, as many of us would soon discover and as I hope I shall be forgiven for saying in these pages, most “cultural studies” may well belong).

Once this meaning took hold in America in the 1950s no evaluative ordering of humanity’s highly unequal social and artistic achievements was allowed. For the value of anthropological culture was not contingent upon knowledge, skill, beauty, or excellence: it was good by definition. No culture was better than another. No culture was worse. All were equal.

And this sprawling conception soon carried a philosophical rider that made the significance of the word altogether momentous: anthropological culture was no mere collection of traits free men might pick or choose among, accept or reject, approve or dismiss, love or hate. The rules imposed on its human membership were both collective and binding. It had a transcendent authority. Culture was king.

Berlin and Herder

How did this change come about? In America it was initially a curricular phenomenon. Built around an educational admiration for books like Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture and Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, it was propagated in high schools and departments of anthropology throughout the land.

But at a higher philosophical level, and starting out in England, it owed more to the energetic publicising of Herder’s ideas by the Oxford celebrity Sir Isaiah Berlin — ideas of irresistible appeal to the post-Marxist and post-religious liberal mind. From what Berlin tells us, the social thought of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), an 18th century Prussian enemy of the Enlightenment, enshrined some very Germanic dogmas.

These were that each national culture draws its inspiration from the spirit of the Volk and is a quasi-sacred thing; that the traditions of the Volk are unique, incomparable, incommunicable, and incommensurable; and that trying to assimilate ethnic or national particularity to the higher ecumenical world of universal civilization is wicked and should be stopped.

Herder also thought that each Völkisch political unit had a right to freely grow and fulfill itself without interference from anyone else. Rather oddly, and perhaps indicating an unfamiliarity with political thought, he doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that the glorious self-fulfilment of Culture X might logically lead it to annihilate Cultures Y and Z: cultural autonomy and cultural assertiveness were felt to be straightforwardly good things in themselves, and quite unproblematic.

Culture versus Human Rights

This chauvinistic Germanic component was disturbing enough. But in Berlin’s exposition of Herder there was also an eastern collectivistic feel about everything wholly inimical to individual liberty and modern citizenship. For example, it was clear that you belonged to your culture more than it belonged to you: your relation to it was subordinate, and its relation to you was proprietorial. Your culture owned you, as a Russian serf was ultimately owned by the Czar. The rights of the collectivity trumped all individual rights.

It followed from this that an individual and his culture were expected to form an indivisible organic whole. Just as ominous was the conclusion that for an individual to be separated from his culture was spiritual death. By the beginning of the 21st century, “culture” in its anthropological acceptation was the existential source of individual identity, and without it—so devotees of the Culture Cult would reason—you barely existed at all.

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood. The Culture Cult as a book stands opposed to this organic and proprietorial concept of culture. I regard the influence of the Latterday Church of Multicultural Saints and its 18th century prophet as extremely unfortunate — in the context of modern civil society Herder’s message is divisive, backward-looking, disruptive, and malign. But the value of various contributory national streams to the civilization of the Western world is abundantly clear, and nobody privileged to have lived in the USA can doubt that America’s ethnic mix has made it much richer than it might be otherwise — more intellectually dynamic, more open to human talent and aspiration, more sensibly humane, and generally more politically balanced, than any civilization hitherto.

The world has seen nothing like the passage from Ben Franklin to the Wright brothers to Steve Jobs. It may indeed never see another Abe Lincoln — something like Divine Grace is needed for that. All this, however, required that countless immigrants accept the secure and permanent foundation of American laws, customs, and civil and civilized behavior, making their own traditions a secondary concern. In other words it required assimilation — the very thing both Herder and Isaiah Berlin argued against.

Multiculturalism and Ressentiment

Here the twists and perplexities of moral psychology must be examined. Multiculturalism presents itself as the very embodiment of political virtue — sensitive, compassionate, and humane. But what is the ill-concealed underlying motive of the intellectuals who promote it? One immediately notices that anthropologizing the term “culture” meant first of all pulling down high standards, destroying distinction, demeaning excellence and anything else the aggrieved Welshman Raymond Williams felt to be hurtfully snobbish, and replacing all this with a flat educational plain where chamber music and chamber pots enjoy equal prestige.

Now, resentment of qualitative distinction is central to the Culture Cult (its main emotional dynamic being the exaltation of ethnic “culture” above “civilization”), a fact strikingly illustrated by the 18th century father of the doctrine, Johann Gottfried Herder himself. What follows must alas bring ressentiment into the equation — but without this ugly motive it is impossible to understand either Herder or the neo-primitivist demiurge.

Herder’s ethnic nationalism was the obverse of his resentment of civilization: that is why civilization had to be demeaned and denounced. And Isaiah Berlin obligingly provides the evidence. He reports that Herder was agitated and unbalanced, “by all accounts a deeply divided, touchy, resentful, bitter, unhappy man, in constant need of support and praise, neurotic, pedantic, difficult, suspicious, and often insupportable… Goethe said that he had in him something compulsively vicious — like a vicious horse — a desire to bite and hurt.”

But what made him like this? What galled his self-esteem? It appears that at the age of 25 this gauche and touchy provincial went to France, and then to Paris, the acknowledged center of civilization. But he failed to make an impression on the philosophes, and consequently — these are Berlin’s words — “suffered that mixture of envy, humiliation, admiration, resentment and defiant pride which backward peoples feel towards advanced ones, (and) members of one social class feel towards those who belong to a higher rung in the hierarchy.”

Here all too clearly we see the underlying animus that many people bring to multiculturalism today. For (if I may paraphrase page 96 of The Culture Cult), the modern attack on the achievements of Western civilization by Herder’s romantic heirs, on academic standards, on parliamentary government with its tiresome uncertainties and delays, on judicial impartiality, and along with this the claim that all cultures are “incommensurable” and must never be compared — all this flows naturally from a neurotic need to pull down whatever impairs one’s self-esteem.

It grows precisely from ressentiment and defiant pride, and as a social philosophy it most strongly appeals to those gripped by such emotions. Resentment is the natural by-product of the strain of trying to meet high standards (one of the strains of civilized life pointed to by Popper, Hayek, and Freud), while as any reader of Mein Kampf will quickly find, wounded pride compounded with populist rage is what ressentiment politics are all about.

The Open Society and its Vulnerabilities

Since 2001 at least some western intellectuals have had second thoughts about the intrinsic virtue of tribalistic culture and the intrinsic wickedness of civilization. As a state of mind romantic primitivism has usually preferred people who are remote, poor, and ill-organised; but when well-organised and very well-funded Middle Eastern ressentiment crashed planes into skyscrapers and blew up trains, turning the very openness of western civilization against itself and killing thousands of ordinary men and women, it was time for a reality check.

Such events disclosed a serious weakness in Karl Popper’s thinking. Is an ‘open society’ also supposed to be an ‘open polity’ with open borders? Médecins sans Frontières is all very well: but states cannot be run on such lines. Popper’s is a theory of society, not a theory of the state—and it seems to me that his book offers no clear account of the wider political preconditions that enable ‘open societies’ to both flourish and defend themselves. A minimal state of the kind Hayek advocated is steadily implied, but never adumbrated. Is there a Coast Guard? Are the borders secure? What role should the army play? Without these no open society can survive.

Popper more than once appeals to the stirring oration in which the Athenian leader Pericles proudly boasted that “Our city is thrown open to the world; we never expel a foreigner…” But what happens when you throw your city open to the world, only to find that the foreigners you have proudly refused to expel not only decline to assimilate, but defiantly form subversive cells in order to destroy it? When these same people have been given all the rights of law-abiding citizens—including the privilege of being hostile to their host? When the relation of a number of sinister enclaves to the open society around them is a conspiratorial blend of dissimulation and treachery?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Curiously, there seems to be no mention of Islam in The Open Society, and no indication whatever that Islamic resentment might emerge as one of the enemies of open societies in the years ahead. But that was before oil suddenly made small backward Arab chieftains into big international players. The Somali-Dutch-American Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Infidel, says she is planning to discuss this and other matters in a study that will bring The Open Society and Its Enemies up to date.

That sounds a very good idea. She is uniquely qualified to do so. As Robin Fox says in his own symposium contribution, her book Infidel documents her own journey “from the inside of the most closed of tribal societies — clan-dominated Somalia — to the openness of almost painfully super-open Holland. It is a personal journey that recapitulates the whole development that Popper (and most other sociologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) has traced for society as a whole.”

It is a pity Karl Popper and Ayaan Hirsi Ali did not meet. They would have found much to talk about. The Viennese philosopher might have expanded on his vision of the world of Pericles. While Ms Hirsi Ali could usefully have deepened Popper’s understanding of the conflict between individual, tribe, and nation, by offering vivid personal impressions of modern East Africa.

Anyway I think there can be little doubt that Popper would have recognized what is now happening in several places around the world. Metastasizing cells of stubbornly unassimilable jihadis, often united by language and nationality, many belonging to close-knit clans, galled by western modernity and feeling the strain of civilization in their bones, driven by a fanaticism more concerned to kill than convert — this surely represents arrested tribalism today.

Culture Matters :: Culture Counts

In recent years two books have appeared with very similar titles: Culture Matters, and Culture Counts. They deal however with very different subjects. The collection of essays edited by Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington in 2000, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Processes, automatically assumes that its readers will take the anthropological sense of the term culture to be meant. (Had its title been Anthropology Matters it would have conveyed much the same thing.)

A discussion of the problems of economic development and social change, it starts from the broadly Weberian proposition that beliefs and values, if not paramount, are causally important in economic affairs. Huntington recollects how Ghana and South Korea began from comparable levels of per capita GNP in 1960, but because each social system was driven by contrasting values and attitudes (affecting work, thrift, education, etc) only South Korea advanced. Essays from a range of distinguished authors develop this observation in different ways drawing on their own experiences—among them David Landes, Francis Fukuyama, and Seymour Martin Lipset.

Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, is something else. Anyone in a bookshop moving casually along the shelf from one title to the other might imagine that it too dealt primarily with social systems, and that was the sense of culture the title implied. Scruton’s book does have a sociological side; but its main purpose is redemptive and ultimately religious, concerned to reinforce western and Christian self-belief in the face of the external physical challenge of radical Islam, and the internal moral solvent of multiculturalism.

One might easily have said that it was also designed to reinforce the morale of a besieged Western Civilization; but the case is more complicated, since Scruton broadly accepts the vision of Oswald Spengler, who himself accepted Herder’s understanding: namely, that naturally vital things called “cultures” and an unnatural devitalized thing called “civilization” stand permanently opposed.

According to Herder, Spengler, and to a surprising degree Roger Scruton himself, it is the invariable fate of intrinsically virtuous “cultures” to be destroyed by the morally ambiguous principles of “civilization”— the latter emphasizing quantity over quality, and reason, science, and secularisation over the realm of feeling and intuition. (If this intellectual debt to the Great Doomsayer seems implausible, readers should consult the essay on Spengler in Scruton’s book The Philosopher on Dover Beach where it is fully set forth.)

High Culture

On the positive side, Scruton’s defence of what he distinguishes as “high culture” is admirable, his assertion that this involves “issues of judgment” is unassailably true, and the following statement is one I fully endorse. He writes that high culture “is supplied with its monuments and its durable styles by unceasing comparisons and choices, from which a canon of masterpieces emerges not as the object of a single collective choice, not even a choice that must be made anew by each generation, but as the by-product of myriad choices over centuries.”

Whether he is discussing humor as a form of judgment, the distinction between leisure and distraction, the moral paradox that highly cultivated people may also be worthless citizens (“aesthetes in jackboots”), or the need for sound educational principles, he always has something interesting to say. It is nice to see his recommendation that “Memorizing the classics of lyric poetry, reading aloud from the epics, performing the plays of Shakespeare: such ought to be the first steps in a literary education.” Not reading Harry Potter or the collected works of Maya Angelou.

Scruton and Spengler

Difficulties arise, however, precisely where one would least expect them in such a writer — namely, where logical rigor and scrupulous terminology are most required. This being in the use of the terms “culture” and “civilization” themselves. Time and again Scruton shifts uneasily between the concept of culture as social system, on the one hand, and the contrasting achievements of cultivation on the other — of the unique products of refined traditions of art, literature, and thought.

With all due respect, it seems to me that throughout his book there is a decided unwillingness to face up to the radical incompatibility of the horizontal/descriptive/value-neutral anthropological sense of “culture”, and the hierarchical/ prescriptive/aesthetic sense of the term. That this confusion comes from the Spenglerian assumptions underlying Scruton’s argument is likely — indeed, that alone can explain the statement that “there are as many cultures as there are civilizations”. By my estimate there have been only about a dozen major world civilizations, whereas the annals of anthropology contain thousands of cultures.

As for the oxymoron on page two that the art to be seen at Lascaux represents a “stone-age civilization”, one feels bound to say that efforts to assimilate the Upper Paleolithic to anything even notionally connected with civilization must fail. The entire etymological constellation involving civility, civilians, civilized conduct and civil society itself is meaningless in the context of even the most appealing stone-age paintings on the wall of a cave.

Posted in Open Societies & the Culture Cult.

Tagged with , , , , , , .