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Open Societies and Closed Minds

Popper, Tribalism, Democracy, and the Defense of Civilization

Robin Fox

In slightly different form this essay appeared as a contribution to a symposium on The Culture Cult in the journal Social Science and Modern Society (May/June 2008). It is also expected to become a chapter in a forthcoming book. Sandall’s contribution to the symposium is here: The Culture Cult Revisited.

At the London School of Economics in the early 1950s, in the building that housed the student bar (The Three Tuns) and the student newspaper (Beaver), there was tucked away a small tearoom run by Mrs Popper. She was no relation to the great philosopher, but the coincidence was too good to overlook.

Karl Popper’s devotees gathered there for tea and scones and discussions of The Open Society and Its Enemies, and the logic of scientific method. The School’s Marxist students from time to time demanded a cooperative tearoom run by the Student Union. Their demands were always resisted. The students may have been predominantly Left, but they weren’t stupid. The notice on the tearoom door read:


Open : Democracy :: Closed : Tribal

Those of us who were pupils, then colleagues, and, insofar as it was possible, friends of Karl Popper, will be delighted with Sandall’s rehabilitation. For the reasons he so eloquently states, current anthropology is not friendly to Popper, sunk as it is in cultural relativism and fashionable neo-primitivism. But then it never was. As a student of both Popper and Raymond Firth in the early 1950s, I was considerably torn. Firth and the social anthropologists taught that Popper’s version of “tribal society” in The Open Society and its Enemies was seriously flawed.

His views on the “rigidity” of tribalism were, we were told, a sight too rigid. Sentiments like “…taboos rigidly regulate and dominate all aspects of life… The right way is always determined… it is determined by taboos, by magical tribal institutions which can never become the objects of critical consideration” (Open Society 152), and much more in this vein. Theirs was not a relativist horror of comparing the worth of the two kinds of society; they just thought he had the facts wrong.

Clearly, Firth argued, although Popper might have met a few acculturated Maori during his time in New Zealand, he knew nothing of actual tribal peoples. Firth had lived with the Maori as a Malinowskian “participant observer” and written a book about their economic behavior: The Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori. Firth had shown that their economic behavior was fundamentally “rational”: they weighed consequences, made sound investment decisions, calculated returns etc., just like their “civilized” counterparts. We were pointed to Bronislaw Malinowski, Firth’s mentor only recently gone from the LSE, and his demonstration that the Trobriand Islanders used “science” when lagoon fishing and only resorted to “magic” when faced with the uncertainties of the open sea (Magic, Science and Religion.)

Even there magic was only an adjunct to the rational arts of canoe design and navigation. For purposes of an essay on the subject I dredged up Paul Radin’s Primitive Man as a Philosopher, for examples of skeptical questioning by taboo-ridden savages. Popper, it was held, sailed too close to the wind of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s La mentalité primitive: to the notion of the savage lost in a state of pre-scientific “mystic participation.” Indeed Popper saw mysticism as a characteristic of the closed society (p. 265).

Lévy-Bruhl and Lévi-Strauss

At the same time that Popper was writing The Open Society (1945), Claude Lévi-Strauss was struggling with the same problem of “primitive mentality.” He opposed Lévy-Bruhl, Freud and Piaget in rejecting the idea that the thinking (or feeling) of savages was essentially that of children, and asserted the universality of rational thinking. His “elementary structures” (Les structures éleméntaires de la parenté, 1949) were not elementary because of the simple-mindedness of savages. The savage’s schemes of classification were based on the same rational (binary) logic as that of modern science. To think otherwise was part of “The Archaic Illusion.” Thus for the social anthropology of the fifties, Popper was reflecting an out-of-date idea of primitive mentality stemming from the social evolutionists of the nineteenth century rather than from modern ethnographic information.

But for me, this rehabilitation of the savage mind seemed to miss Popper’s point. He was not talking about different mental types but about different social types: different kinds of society. He did not doubt that tribal people could act rationally, or that contemporary Western thinking was not to some extent still magical and taboo ridden. But a radical break had occurred in the West in the 6th century BC in Athens, and after that a different kind of society from the tribal became possible.

In the closed society the social order was “natural” — part of nature. It was a given, set down in the dreamtime or by the gods or the ancestors. It was familial: the tribe was a family writ large and family loyalties were the model for morality. It changed, but change was not of its essence. Change was not welcomed; it was actively resisted. The rules and values of the society, which set a life’s course, were not the result of rational choice and deliberation, but were the givens of the culture. Within this framework means could be rational but ends were not questioned. Above all, the idea of individual moral responsibility, as opposed to loyalty to kin, clan and tribe, was absent.

The ‘open society’ as an ideal type

It is easy to criticize Popper’s picture by demonstrating the rationality of tribal people, but I think we must view his “closed” and “open” societies as Weberian ideal types. Depending on their degree of contact and their stage of social evolution, “tribal” societies might have degrees of openness. The great civilizations of India and China, for example (which Popper does not discuss), while being absolute theocratic despotisms, did have some open features. Confucius could travel around China peddling his ideas of good government to the tribal despots, and while he was not very successful, he was not persecuted.

Prince Siddartha could develop his ideas of personal responsibility for salvation within collectivist Hinduism where caste determined everything. Rome under the Republic and during the Pax Romana under Augustus was religiously tolerant to a fault. On the other hand, as Popper readily recognizes, our Western liberal democracies have many “closed” features, including, in his view, the English Public Schools and men’s clubs (p. 267). He could certainly have added the regimental system in the army and the behavior of sports fans, to say nothing of Grateful Dead concerts.

The open society must in fact be an ideal that actual societies strive to achieve. No society could be completely open, determining everything by rational decision. Most of the ends pursued at any time will have to be givens — established practices, or there would be no stability. Society would be like a person without habits and dispositions. It would be like the self-conscious centipede that had to think about each leg’s movement; it would be paralyzed.

But in the society aspiring to be open, the ends can be challenged and changed by “piecemeal social engineering.” To try to replace the bad old ends by new ends designed to be just as rigidly followed in order to achieve perfection, is to fall into the trap of “utopian social engineering.” It is to return to the tribalism of the closed society. It is for Popper the fatal weakness of doctrinaire socialism and Marxism in particular, and of all historicist philosophies of history that claim to know the inevitable process of change and therefore to predict the future and act on those predictions. Thus Popper appealed equally to moderate Tories who believed in muddling through, and to Fabian socialists who were for gradual pragmatic reform.

The strain of civilization

What Popper saw clearly (as Sandall points out) was “the strain of civilization” that afflicted the open society. The open society was difficult to achieve. It was not “natural” to us; we had to work devilish hard to make it succeed. Popper agreed with Freud that, as the latter would have put it, the burden of the super-ego was too great. Popper would have said the burden of individual moral responsibility. Too many of us too much of the time were only too happy to have some absolutist doctrine, some sacred text, or some charismatic leader take the burden of responsibility from us: to return us to the familial comfort of closed, tribal society, where it was all decided for us.

Above all there is a fear of the uncertainties of change — particularly rapid change. What is closed in the closed society is the future, either because it is thought to eternally repeat the present, or to recycle fixed ages, or to change in completely known and fixed ways. The closed society seeks to ignore, deny, and arrest, or to predict and hence totally control, social change. The open society accepts the unpredictable reality of change and deals with it.

This contrast was present from the start in the great conflict between democratic Athens (potentially open but with a heavy burden of closed features) and tribal Sparta (completely and utterly closed): the subject of Popper’s first volume (The Spell of Plato). Athens had passed consciously from a tribal society to a democratic city-state, which in turn morphed into a maritime empire. (Curiously, Popper, while making much of Solon and Pericles, does not mention the reforms of Cleisthenes which were critical to the change.)

Athens struggled to maintain its democratic openness, both against outside opponents and against inside forces. By becoming an empire it threatened its own democracy. The old order of tribal families, which Cleisthenes had tried to break down, hated democracy and conspired with Sparta, the archetypal closed tribal society, which just as consciously arrested change as Athens had embraced it. Many of the Athenian intellectuals took the pro-Spartan side. Plato, Popper’s nemesis, led the intellectual justification for a Spartan-style society in The Republic and The Laws. Plato’s relatives were active in the council of The Thirty Tyrants who conspired with Sparta and led a reign of terror in Athens.

If all this sounds very contemporary, then Popper has made his point. It is not just the gullible mob and the crypto-aristocrats who are ready to betray the open society: its own intellectuals are often in the forefront of the stampede. Why, asked Popper, were his intellectual contemporaries so bewitched by Fascism and Communism, just as Plato was by Spartanism?

Tribalism and bureaucracy

The sinister appeal of the closed society to even the best minds haunted Popper. The Western democracies are the most open societies yet achieved, but they too tend to become, or try to become, empires. Their growing complexity makes harsh demands on our capacity for rationality and individual moral responsibility. The “perennial appeal of tribalism” (my phrase not Popper’s), both to the masses and the elites, is often overpowering. When things are looking bad for us we cry out for a savior — a doctrine and a leader to return us to the safety of tribal society and the tribal mentality.

Max Weber was just as bothered as Popper by this. But he added an important point. He saw that charismatic leadership had an innate appeal, but he also saw that the growth of giant bureaucracies — indeed the very bureaucratic principle itself — added a new and dangerous variable to the equation. This was the most “rational” of rational social developments, and yet it had no inherent moral impulse. It could serve a vicious tyranny with the same amoral efficiency as it served a beneficent welfare state. Indeed it was the perfect instrument for totalitarianism.

Popper misses this. The Soviet Union under Stalin, and the Fascist dictatorships, were nightmares of bureaucracy as much as nightmares of tribalism. The tribal elements were the more spectacular (Nuremburg), but the bureaucracy got the totalitarian job done (Eichmann). The Soviet system eventually broke down because this form of government became perilously inefficient. The result of the breakdown is not the free enterprise democracy that was our hope, but a resurgence of Russian tribalism.

George Orwell is of course the great fabulist of this new-old phenomenon, and he portrayed dramatically the ruthless mix of tribal and bureaucratic elements in the reign of Big Brother and The Party. The Islamic dictatorships on the other hand (which, as Sandall notes, Popper does not consider) are predominantly tribal, with poorly developed bureaucracies precisely because they are tribal still in mentality. They are societies that have never opened. Most of the mistakes we make with them result from not appreciating this fact, and assuming that if offered the choice they will choose to be good individualistic liberal democracies. We saw what happened when the Athenians offered the model of democracy to Sparta. It was called the Peloponnesian War.

The unnaturalness of openness

The open society and its corollary of liberal democracy, contrary to some modern opinions on the subject, is not the inevitable end product of social evolution. It is not natural to us, and we live constantly on the edge in trying to maintain it. And as Sandall acutely notes, Popper never deals with the paradox that although the use of force is inimical to the ideal open society, without that force we cannot defend it against the forces of the closed societies — the totalitarianisms that threaten it. The only recourse I suppose is that we should use force sparingly and wisely. One out of two is not bad.

Sandall mentions Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her courageous book Infidel records in plain and moving prose one person’s 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. To those of us who take our openness, however tarnished, too much for granted, it is a rebuke and a warning. And it illustrates for us our great paradox: how tolerant can an open society afford to be of intolerance? In our open concern with not intruding on “religious freedom” or even of offending “religious sensibilities” are we letting the opponents of the open society fester and grow in our midst?

Holland and the rest of Europe are caught in a web of self-delusion on the issue; there is no easy answer. Miss Ali is under threat of death from the agents of the closed society. A fanatic has already murdered her colleague, filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the Dutch government, in its moral confusion, has withdrawn her protection. Friends of the open society, and of the human decency (Orwell’s favorite value) on which it must ultimately depend, should rally to her support. This is not an irrelevant footnote. The question of the survival of the open society is not simply an issue for academic discussion in journals. It is a life and death matter and we are all burdened with that individual moral responsibility for it that Popper saw as being at its heart.

Perhaps the most serious footnote to Popper’s argument is the objection that the distinction he draws is too stark. To say that Fascism and Soviet Communism are relapses to “tribalism” is to miss the point that both had elements of mass salvation religion about them, elements which, while certainly not open, were not tribal either.

As I have already pointed out, the road from tribal to open is long and complex and a major intervening stage is that of the growth of trans-tribal, trans-national religions, like Hinduism (to some extent), Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam (Judaism remained tribal, with the proviso that it would accept converts.) Among these, Roman Christianity and the Islamic Caliphate depended on large and complicated (and celibate) bureaucratic organizations to run their transnational governments, and all needed literate clergy. This was the thin end of the wedge. Despite their mysticism and totalitarianism, therefore, these religions were also the basis for developing education and critical thought.

The route in the West was from Magic and Mysticism, through Metaphysics and Scholasticism, to the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, to Positive Science and the modern world. This was a move beyond “tribalism” even though tribal elements remained strong throughout and always exercised their peculiarly human appeal. Thus for me the “closed” society can have elements that move well beyond the tribal, yet are not fully “open.” When we revert, it is to these elements: the savior, the doctrine, the assurance of meaning, the even greater assurance of salvation — in this world (Fascism and Communism) or the next (Islam, Evangelicalism), as much as to the raw tribal elements, that we turn to in our fear of freedom (pace Fromm.) Islamic societies are fundamentally tribal and closed in that sense, but they are also the product of a salvation religion which moves beyond the tribe and seeks to incorporate the world.

What Popper misses

This is perhaps what Popper misses. The salvation religions can be as decidedly opposed to tribalism as they are to the open society itself. The great churches in fact often seek to subvert completely that loyalty to the family and kin on which tribalism depends; they want the individual worshippers to be loyal directly to the church. They rarely succeed entirely because of the fundamental appeal of tribalism we have already canvassed.

Islam is an interesting and effective balance in which the religion has drawn on the energy of the tribe and clan in its success. But it is not a good formula for producing democratic societies, as we are discovering. Thus while I think Popper’s “open vs. closed” distinction holds, he was perhaps overly influenced by the Athens vs. Sparta contrast in his eagerness to refute Plato. He was therefore perhaps misleading to equate “closed” totally with “tribal.” Closed society is more complicated than that, or it would be easier to deal with.

This is therefore perhaps the place to note briefly that Popper never meant us to assume that a tribal society was an unreservedly grim place to be. Such societies when large and warrior dominated, could be truly savage places, but the small ones could be warm and supportive and in many ways very satisfying to their members. The Eskimo, he admits, seem to be a happy people. (Thus I have sung the virtues of the “Paleoterrific”—the old stone-age societies like those of Lascaux which Sandall does not want to admit as civilizations—technically correct; see The Search for Society.)

More open societies on the other hand, as de Tocquevelle noted for America, can be riven with anxiety and uncertainty, with alienation, anomie and angst. This was the point about the “burden of civilization.” It is why the closed society had its powerful attraction for us, even the intellectuals. There was a cost to maintaining an open system, but it was worth it. The alternative was the modern version of the closed society, which was inevitably totalitarian and repressive.

Culture:Kultur :: Folk: Volk

The argument between the two meanings of “culture” that Sandall discusses, Mathew Arnold’s version of “high culture” (“the best that has been thought and said and written”), and the anthropological notion of culture as the general life-ways of a people, might also seem like a purely academic matter. But insofar as the distinction affects our behavior in the real world, and it does, it is equally a matter of moral concern. I pretty much agree with what Sandall says, so I will here add some notes on the history of the idea of culture that might reinforce his admirable stand.

I might note that back in those balmy intellectual days at the LSE (see my Participant Observer: Memoir of a Transatlantic Life) the first essay students had to do in social anthropology was always on the idea of “culture.” We read Malinowski’s article of that name in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, and were expected to grasp thoroughly the difference between the Arnoldian and popular idea of culture as high thinking and aesthetics—”playing the piano, reading Byron and taking ballet lessons” as Firth used to put it, and the anthropological notion of culture as the total integrated way of life of a community. It was usually E. B. Tylor’s “enumerative descriptive” definition that was quoted then: “That complex whole which includes…” pretty much everything (Primitive Culture).

It is a measure of change in our own culture that this emphasis is now reversed and the anthropological meaning now dominates. No one now claims to be “cultured” or to have “cultivated” tastes. It sounds offensively elitist. Students find it hard to imagine a time when this was not true.

Anthropology and Kultur

The anthropological idea of culture is fundamentally German: Kultur. It would be hard for such an idea to arise in Anglo-Saxon thinking, basically utilitarian, empiricist and individualist. The German strain — Kantian, idealist and collectivist is much more open to it. It is interesting that the continental Pole, Malinowski, always thought of culture as his subject matter (A Scientific Theory of Culture), and thought it should be analyzed in terms of how it answered human needs. In this he was not followed by even his most immediate followers. They preferred A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (A Natural Science of Society), and called themselves “social anthropologists” (as Sandall notes.) They saw “society” or “social structure” as their subject matter (essentially following Emile Durkheim). But note the continuing insistence that what they were doing was “science.”

In this they took issue with Willhelm Dilthey’s (1833-1911) absolute and influential separation of Naturwissenschaften, the “nature sciences,” from Geisteswissenschaften, the “spirit sciences.” The first searches for causes (the model is physics), the second rather for patterns (the model is history). The methods of the one, Dilthey claimed, cannot be applied to the subject matter of the other. This debate runs through anthropology, with the issues of anthropology as science or history, and the recent popular upsurge of anthropology as a humanity as opposed to a science.

The Germans in American anthropology, Boas, Kroeber, Lowie, Sapir etc., and their students (Mead, Benedict, Kluckhohn, Linton, and latterly Geertz) tended always to favor the humanistic or historical side against the scientific. Franz Boas, who taught them all — and who started as a physicist in Germany — had learned profoundly from Dilthey, Humboldt, Wundt, Bastian and Frobenius and his thought was suffused with their ideas.

The non-Germans in America, deriving from Lewis Henry Morgan (Ancient Society) and his social evolutionism, tended to stick with materialist science, as in Leslie White (The Science of Culture), and G. P. Murdock (Social Structure), or Julian Steward (Theory of Culture Change), or Marvin Harris (Cultural Materialism: The Search for a Science of Culture). But they all shared the same idea of culture, differing only in how to analyze it.

The idea of Kultur in this anthropological sense, as Sandall observes, goes back to Johann Herder (1744-1803). It gets immediately entangled with Herder’s other basic notion of the Volk. This was the beginning both of German romantic nationalism, and of the anthropological concept of culture. Herder distinguished Volk—the people, from Reich—the state. (The Nazis conflated the two: “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!“) The state was, for Herder, destructive of the organic spirit (Geist) of the people — essentially the unspoiled peasants and rural villagers who enshrined the true, ancient soul of the people, which was lost in the cities.

The Volksgeist

The Geist of each Volk (the Volksgeist) was unique and produced its distinctive Kultur, which, being specific and organic and a ding-an-sich, could not be judged by the values of other cultures. Dilthey himself was a German romantic nationalist, and his insistence on the autonomy of the human sciences (which gave rise to “hermeneutics”) was part and parcel of protecting the uniqueness of the Geist of the German Volk. Dilthey and Herder were thus attacking the whole Enlightenment project of universal history and universal values, as enshrined in British empiricism, French materialism and Scottish evolutionism.

The concept of the uniqueness and superiority of the Kultur of the Volk has an interesting and wayward history. Academically it was reflected in Wundt’s Völkerpsychologie (Folk Psychology), and Bastian’s Völkergedanke (Folk Ideas), and Frobenius’ Kulturkreislehre (Culture Area Theory.) All this was transposed to American anthropology, largely by Boas. But in the wider world it fueled the fires of passionate romantic nationalism throughout Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Brothers Grimm began the collection of “Folktales” which preserved the Spirit of the Folk. Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang and Lady Gregory among many others collected “Folklore” from the peasants. Aarne and Thompson produced a massive and definitive Anatomy of the Folktale. “Folk languages” previously ignored or suppressed by the state began to be revived: Welsh, Irish, Scots Gaelic, Basque, Romansch, Breton, Provençal, Macedonian, Catalonian. The independent Irish government in 1922, as one of its first acts, appointed official “Folklore Collectors” in the Irish-speaking districts.

The German language was purified of foreign, particularly Latin, loanwords: producing Kinderwagen for perambulator or Fehrnsprechenmädchen for long-distance operator. (And we must not forget, Volkswagen.) Composers collected “Folksongs” and other “Folk Music,” and incorporated them into their nationalistic compositions: Dvorak, Liadov, Borodin, Canteloube, Grieg, Bartok, Vaughan Williams in England, Copeland in the USA.

National organizations like The English Folk Song and Folk Dance Society (of which I was once a member) were organized by Cecil Sharpe and his counterparts in other countries. “Folk Museums” sprang up: Boas started his anthropological life at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin. (Two of my earliest publications were in Ulster Folklife — published by the Ulster Folk Museum, and The Journal of American Folklore.) An American Folk Life Center was established in the Library of Congress. “Folk Costume” rapidly became “national costume” with the canny Scots textile industry inventing “clan tartans” from scratch to meet the demand.

A huge scholarly effort on philology and mythology got underway—to get the “essential spirit” or “ethos” (the Geist) of the Folk. “Folk Heroes” were discovered and created and we still use the term (Bruce Springsteen). Norse myths were collected and translated and Wagner rendered them into a grand musical expression of the Nordic Kultur of the Nordic Volk. Among other things this nationalist movement helped to import studies of the peasantry wholesale into anthropology, since all this “Folk Culture” was essentially that of the peasants. This was very useful since tribal, or as they were then called “primitive” societies — the accepted subject matter of the discipline, were vanishing as fast as anthropology was growing.

From Right to Left

But a funny thing happened to the Folk concept on the way to modern life. The movement had originally been unabashedly romantic, bourgeois, scholarly and profoundly nationalistic (the glorification of the nation), and centered on the rural peasantry. But the USA was a young culture with no deep folk traditions—certainly not uniform national ones. Above all it had no ancient peasantry that enshrined the folk values. It tried to invent a Folk as it went along, starting with the sturdy New England farmers, moving on to the frontiersmen, taking in the Cajuns and the hill folk of Appalachia, and then the pioneers, and especially the cowboys (totally products of the capitalist beef industry), and even the outlaws.

In some versions it is even the “family farmers” of the Midwest who embody the genuine folk values. (These, like the New England farmers, are a version of the “yeomen” of England, which were that country’s folk-substitute for an ancient peasantry.) But this ragbag of candidates emphasized the American problem: if you were going to glorify the Folk, who were they?

Sometime in the thirties, in the USA, with the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism and Communism, while remaining romantic, the Folk Movement turned sharply leftward and became a movement of the urban and rural proletariat, the labor unions, and generally of radicalism and protest. The nationalism was abandoned and a proletarian universalism substituted. The basic idea was still the superior virtue of the Folk, but it was more the Folk as in The International Workers of the World than the unique national Folk of the unique national Culture. Labor songs, protest songs, Dixieland and blues: the folk music of Huddie Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, and the whole panoply of jazz, soul, country, rock merging into hip-hop, rap and all the others.

The theme of only the culture of the proletariat, the downtrodden and the marginal, being genuine and virtuous, was revived during and after the Vietnam War with the “counter culture”: anti-war, the youth movement, hippies and dropouts. Bob Dylan was its hero; Woodstock was its grand festival, derivatives of threadbare work clothes were its uniform.

But note how easily the whole Folk Movement after its lurch leftward became hijacked by capitalist consumerism. Essentially a phenomenon of the US Depression era, it was globalized by the record industry, and by film and television, into a multi-billion dollar commercial enterprise. Elements of the “purity of the folk” continue to have commercial success in the New Age Movement, and the passions for alternative (i.e. folk) medicine, organic (read folk) foods and farming, anti-globalization and anti-GMF movements: all organized and funded, as were the original nationalistic folk movements, by the idealistic urban bourgeoisie.

The purity-of-the-folk doctrine, and its corollary of the superior virtue of the dispossessed and marginal, has many sources: St. Francis of Assisi, Rousseau, Tolstoy and the Narodniki, American populism and Yahooism, proletarianism and the Wobblies. In that London of the nineteen fifties, young upper-middle class socialists would routinely go off and try to live working class lives because for them only the proletariat was “authentic.” But within anthropology there is no doubt about the influence of the German nationalist ideas, however strange a twist the leftist lurch gave them.

The dominance of culture

We do not have to offer up the history of American “cultural anthropology” from Boas onwards, to see how it was part and parcel of the Folk Movement. It adopted its language, its ideas and its relativist and nativist values wholesale. Sandall tells the story very well. But if American cultural anthropology was a bastard child of German romantic nationalism, so of course was Nazi Fascism, which is its immediate cousin. (We could even say its “cousin-german,” but the pun would probably be lost on a modern audience.) What they held in common was the idea of the superiority of Culture/Kultur over the individual, and the doctrine of the uniqueness of each Folk Culture, and hence a strict relativism. (Mussolini was perhaps the most eloquent defender of cultural relativism ever.)

Where they parted company was in the Nazi insistence on the superiority of the particular culture of a particular race: the Herrenvolk (The “Noble Folk” or “Master Race” as we translate it). This had always been a part of the German romantic nationalist creed. Boas violently rejected the idea of the racial basis of culture, and certainly of the cultural superiority of any one race/culture, and anthropology generally followed him. But they persisted in their own Germanic cultural determinism, and substituted it for the racial determinism they abhorred.

A. L. Kroeber’s “absolute dominance of culture” over the individual, and the whole “culture and personality” movement (an offspring of “national character” studies) and the Sapir-Whorf linguistic determinism of the “language and culture” school, all were children of the German nationalist idea that the Geist of the Volk which creates its Kultur, is superior to the individual who is shaped by its demands. See Sapir’s “Genuine and Spurious Culture” — pure Herder — or the Benedictine search for the ethos of cultures, which was consciously indebted to Oswald Spengler.

In Germany it reached its metaphysical heights in the idealism of Hegel, which was rendered in materialist form by Marx: the proletariat became the true Volk and the bearers of revolution leading to the end settled-state of Communism. In its latest manifestation among anthropologists it is the doctrine of the “cultural construction” of reality. This is combined with an anti-scientism that would have warmed Dilthey’s heart, and is largely a borrowing from muddled European philosophers who never seem to have read Popper.

The superior virtue of the oppressed

Contemporary American cultural anthropologists would, if they knew about it, no doubt be horrified by Popper’s preference for open over tribal societies. This offends their basic cultural relativism. But consistency is not their strong point. In effect they reverse the process and preach their own doctrine of the superiority of the Folk. Margaret Mead greatly influenced the trend with her not too hidden admiration for the socialization practices of the Samoans.

Today, self-described “cultural anthropologists” universally embrace the doctrine of the wickedness of Western capitalism and its evil products, colonialism and globalization. (“Neo-liberalism” gets in there too. I think it means laissez-faire capitalism and free trade.) In this doctrine, virtue lies not with the “free world” but with the tribes and peasants, the urbanized poor and dispossessed (especially the Palestinians), and the indigenous peoples of the third world, however enamored these might be of the virtues of the closed society. The doctrine of multiculturalism asserts the superiority of folk cultures over their host societies, while the “indigenous peoples” movement does the same for “indigenous knowledge” over science.

Since it is culture that matters over individuals in this scheme, the result is “identity politics” where one’s fate is totally wrapped up in “race, gender, class and ethnicity.” The dominance of the interests of these collectivities and their “rights” over the individual is a useful formula for the closed society.

This doctrine pervades the whole culture. It is hard to find an independent movie these days in which the superior wisdom and virtue of the marginalized and the oppressed, and even the ignorant and simple minded, is not the central theme. The book market — via Oprah — is saturated with autobiographies of the lame and the halt and the homosexual. If you have not overcome poverty or a serious disease, survived a brutally abusive family, or triumphed over addiction or homophobia, then forget about publishing your life story. You will be rewarded not because of how well you write, but because of how much you have suffered. Stories of literate and articulate people leading interesting lives are regarded as simply quaint.

They belong to that Arnoldian world of “high culture” that multiculturalists see as their duty to belittle and bring down. The cultural anthropologists do not see themselves of course as attacking the open society. They see the result of their activities as greater “equality,” as a righting of “injustice,” rather than as a dumbing down of culture generally. The cure of inequality for them is not to raise up the depressed to participate in “high culture,” but to invert the Arnoldian hierarchy and make “low culture” the repository of virtue. And if the low cannot be raised, then at least their self-esteem can.

Sandall describes the dismal process very well. As to the pernicious influence of Isaiah Berlin, I don’t know. I always knew Berlin as a preacher of tolerance. What I know about Herder I learned from his Vico and Herder. As an assimilated continental Jew (like Popper: they were both eventually knighted) Berlin welcomed the benign pluralism of England. In any case, if he did have a great influence it was really only in England itself. I do not hear him much mentioned by the culture cult in the USA.

La trahison des clercs

But Sandall is right to link the neo-primitivism of the cultural anthropologists with the treason of the intellectuals that Popper so feared. Anthropology today more resembles one of Anthony Wallace’s “revitalization movements” than it does an academic discipline. It borrows all the appurtenances of academe—journals, research, footnotes, references, conferences etc., but it uses them in the way clever creationists use the same cover: to preach a doctrine. They do not see it this way of course. They are working for greater inclusiveness (they tend to say “inclusivity”) and “diversity”: they want to include more people in the open society.

To this end they passionately support “affirmative action” which again elevates the contingency of skin color over individual worth. Melanin matters more than merit. But they do not want to include more “oppressed” people at the cost of “assimilation.” They refuse to equate their open society with the high culture of the Western tradition, including its canon and including its science. This involves them in a paradox and no little guilt, since their whole enterprise, and their system of rewards, is derived from that high culture.

Their other paradox is that they attack “growth” on the Western economic model as inimical to the survival of indigenous cultures. But the only way to promote the welfare of these cultures (or rather the people in these societies) is through growth, and we have seen that postcolonial governments in the third world cannot manage this, that aid is largely wasted, that socialism always fails, and that the corruption of authoritarian politics leads to a reversion to tribalism. (Watch Kenya.) Their only hope lies with the unprejudiced globalizing economy that knows no barriers of race or tribe or nationality, or even “gender,” but only knows markets and profits. Many of the particularities of culture will disappear in this process, and it will be a bumpy road, but it is the only way to prosperity for the dispossessed of the world.

I said that most of the fathers of social science basically agreed that there was universal progress through lower to higher stages of what they called “society.” I have listed them so often I will forebear, but they shared Popper’s vision of something like the open society as the end product. They did not doubt that the shift was for the better. Tylor himself saw anthropology as a “reformer’s science” whose business it was to identify “survivals” of that closed society the better to sweep them away.

James Frazer mounted a massive scholarly effort aimed at replacing religion with science. Henry Maine saw the emergence of the idea of individual contract (open) as an unqualified improvement on the law of status (closed.) Tönnies might have been nostalgic for the security of Gemeinschaft, Redfield wistful about The Folk Cultures, and Durkheim might have feared the anomie of his state of “organic solidarity” — but they all, led originally by Comte and Spencer, saw the progression as generally upwards, and generally a good thing.

Popper’s optimism

Popper was a progressive and an optimist. At the LSE (again) I was secretary of the Rationalist Society, and we invited Popper to be our honorary president for one year, which involved him in giving a presidential address. He gave us a talk on “Moral Progress: Confessions of an Optimist” — a piece he later published (in Conjectures and Refutations).

He saw, as his predecessors at the LSE, L. T. Hobhouse (Morals in Evolution) and Edward Westermarck (The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas) had seen, that we were as a species moving towards a greater “inclusiveness” in that we progressively include more and more people, regardless of those irritating distinctions, in the circle of those to whom we had moral obligations: moving to the world as an open society. He saw in the United Nations, for example, with all its problems, a struggle towards this ideal.

But he also saw the extreme vulnerability of his open society. The continuing existence of “nations” at all, was the closed society fighting back. Angst and alienation dogged our civilized footsteps. If I had known then what I learned later I would have put it to him that human beings were in essence “closed” in mentality. They were in that essence no different from the cave-painters of Lascaux. Their brains, forged in the upper-Paleolithic, had not changed. They were evolved to be “by nature” tribal people, although these very brains were capable of so much more. They therefore preferred to live in relatively closed societies with perhaps experimental open elements.

That is why constitutional monarchies work so well and some of the most open societies prefer them (Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium, UK and latterly Spain.) Popper probably would not have disagreed (I did discuss this with him later) but he was nostalgic for Socrates and democratic Athens. The Athenians had given us a choice, and we still had to choose between them and Sparta. The whole history of the West was the history of this struggle to him. And it was now our task to give this choice to the world, even if the world was at heart Spartan not Athenian.

The least the intellectuals could do was to remind us of the choice: to advocate Pericles over Plato, Cicero over Caesar, Mill over Marx; to support the individual over culture, the content of character over the color of skin, citizenship over ethnic identification. It does not look good for the open society right now, but for me at least there is always the memory of Mrs. Popper’s Tea Shop and the bright spirit that presided over the scones and strawberry jam, and all the elevated and brilliant talk. That was high culture. Arnold would have approved.

Robin Fox is University Professor of Social Theory at Rutgers, where he founded the department of anthropology in 1967. His books most relevant to this topic are The Search for Society (Rutgers UP), Conjectures and Confrontations, The Challenge of Anthropology, and Reproduction and Succession (all from Transaction). See also his article “The Kindness of Strangers” in SOCIETY, vol. 44, no. 6 (2007). Personal recollections of Karl Popper can be found in Participant Observer: Memoir of a Transatlantic Life (Transaction).

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