From Reappraisal to Confidence

A Review of “Rethinking Open Society. New Adversaries and New Opportunities”

Ferenc Laczó
13 sierpnia 2018

Michael Ignatieff and Stefan Roch (eds.). Rethinking Open Society. New Adversaries and New Opportunities. Budapest: CEU Press, 2018. ISBN 978-963-386-270-4. 356 pgs.

Self-critique and reinterpretation

As Michael Ignatieff, Rector of Central European University in Budapest explains in the introduction to this important volume, the duty to promote the open society ideal comes with an obligation to subject the ideal itself to constant re-interpretation and critique. As closed or only seemingly open societies run by single party autocrats or self-declared illiberal democrats look to be ascendant across the globe, Rethinking Open Society offers a timely exploration of how this ideal can be made relevant for the 21st century and how the contest with its new enemies might best be waged. Drawing on a recent lecture series at the Central European University, the volume contains contributions by a host of prominent and rather diverse thinkers and scholars, such as Anne Applebaum, Timothy Garton Ash, Robert Kaplan, Ivan Krastev, Mark Lilla, Jan-Werner Müller, Pierre Rosanvallon and Roger Scruton. Many of them provide succinct summaries of and new reflections on their recent projects to understand key facets of the crisis facing liberal democracies and ways to counter the trend.

In his splendid introduction and concluding remarks to the volume, Ignatieff clarifies the agenda and summarizes the key insights of the volume, providing a balanced assessment of both the significant virtues as well as the notable shortcomings of open societies and their recent friends.

Ignatieff highlights the anti-utopian, morally individualistic core of the open society idea and recaps how this idea has its deepest roots in Central and Eastern Europe – where also some of the fiercest attacks on it are currently being waged. Employing Jan-Werner Müller’s Cold War liberalism concept to situate the spread of the idea of open society, Ignatieff makes clear that it was by no means an exclusively neoliberal notion (even though some of its propagators admittedly supported the neoliberal restructuring in later decades). He also emphasizes that in its original Popperian conception, open society is as much an epistemological frame as a political or socioeconomic agenda, which ultimately aims at the development of sceptical but passionate citizens.

Ignatieff is laudably self-critical when he argues that recent proponents of open societies may have paid insufficient attention to social and economic exclusion, neglected communal and emotional bonds in favour of a one-sided individualism, and trusted in civil society and the rationality of political life in a somewhat naïve fashion.

Partly in reaction to these shortcomings, authoritarian populists have proven skilful in using the language of democracy to assault key principles of democracy.

However, as Ignatieff rightly notes, illiberal democracy remains a contradiction in terms. His belief in the epistemology behind open societies and their institutional framework of powers and counter-powers remains undaunted: he reaffirms that trust in the adventure of modernity can conquer contemporary fears and anxieties and open societies could prove more successful in the 21st century too.

At the same time, he usefully reminds his readers that history has no libretto. In order to make sure that the new and seemingly self-assured enemies of open society will not come to represent the wave of the future, Ignatieff closes with an urgent call to address at a pragmatic policy level open societies’ deep collusion with such regimes (336).

By focusing on the guiding principles of the Central European University, co-editor Stefan Roch’s contribution to the volume offers insights into the tensions of the open society ideal as a university mission.

Roth focuses on some of the major dilemmas of the CEU project, such as the discrepancy between the ambition to train local elites and the profoundly international character and shifting constituencies of the university, or how an egalitarian and problem-centred education on non-essentialist foundations can best be used to implement and yield relevant skills and expertise on a competitive market.

Moreover, Roch distinguishes between the internal (CEU as a laboratory of practicing the values of an open society) and external (CEU as an instrument of societal-political transformation) aspects of the ideal as reflected in CEU’s own history to argue that a considerable shift has taken place since the early 1990s from a political interpretation of the open society ideal toward a more epistemological one – which might indeed be more in tune with Popper’s original conception.

Roch offers a subtle and convincing overall interpretation, however, more concrete information on the increasingly globalised constituency of the university and the changing priorities of its curricula would have been welcome.

Sharp questions

A host of further contributors pose similarly sharp questions that, as Ignatieff remarks, “cut to the core of the open society ideal” (329). Stephen M. Walt approaches the ideals of liberalism sympathetically while subjecting them to a realist corrective. Covering five distinct errors liberals have recently committed, Walt singles out their belief in historical teleology and voluntarism – their liberal hubris, for short – as their key vices in the post-Cold War decades.

He argues that open societies cannot take root if imposed from abroad as they need to be properly adapted to particular historical and cultural traditions; aggressively promoting open society abroad might instead contribute to undermining liberalism at home. What Walt suggests is a cautious but partial retreat from universalism. He asserts that defending and strengthening liberalism at home remains the best way to promote it abroad. At the same time, as he is confident that self-isolation and censorship will not advance societies in the 21st century, he ultimately pleads for patient confidence in a liberal future.

If Walt’s chapter amounted to a qualified support of liberalism, Roger Scruton’s is a conservative critique that aims to defend the liberal values he cherishes from what he views as the radical logic of progressive liberalism. Raising the controversial question when social order might be jeopardised by extending freedom, Scruton depicts liberal individualism and the liberal ambition to challenge all particularistic constrains in the name of universalism as one-sided and ultimately self-defeating. Free individuals can only flourish under conditions of modern citizenship and in communities of mutual trust, he asserts. Scruton’s explicitly conservative take on contemporary liberalism may be a unique contribution to the volume, however, his insistence on bounded communities and the positive value of attachment to them is echoed by several others, such as, perhaps most notably, Mark Lilla and volume co-editor Ignatieff.

Given such repeated endorsements of opening liberalism towards nationalism, the rather cursory treatment of the various forms and historical evolution of the latter appears all the more surprising and unsatisfying.

Counter-arguments and counter-strategies

In two nuanced but perhaps more predictable contributions, János Kis and Jan-Werner Müller dissect self-declared illiberal democrats and populists. In his precise though fairly dry chapter, Kis argues that the ongoing illiberal attacks on liberal democracies demand a revision of mainstream thinking about what democracy is and what are key reasons for cherishing it. Kis starts with the relevant observation that illiberal democracy, a concept invented with a critical impetus, is today happily embraced by the political leadership of Hungary and Poland.

Self-declared illiberal democrats wish to articulate a rival conception of democracy: advocating majority rule without any concessions, they leave liberal rights unprotected. However, as Kis demonstrates, what they suggest in the place of liberal democracy is not democratic at all: systematically disadvantaging minority groups or damaging significant personal interests amount not only to violations of liberalism but also to democratic deficits. Kis concludes that democracy comes to an end through the abolishment of liberal constitutionalism as procedurally democratic decisions will lack democratic legitimation.

Jan-Werner Müller addresses closely related questions, devoting his chapter to articulating a conception of populism, discussing the mechanisms of populist rule and reflecting on counter-strategies.

Müller argues, on the one hand, that populism is an anti-pluralistic and exclusive form of politics, and it is therefore mistaken to consider it a useful corrective to democracy. On the other hand, he shows that populists may have needed more traditional conservatives to assume power but that – through their appropriation of the state, mass clientelism, and attacks on the legitimacy of civil society protests – they have proven apt at governing as populists. Müller sees substantial arguments, moral claims and empirical evidence as the best counter-strategy: while there is a need to draw clear normative lines, there is no strategically sound alternative to deliberation and debate with populists.

Müller’s reasoning is generally convincing, though his discarding of the cordon sanitaire approach in the last part of his article might be considered superfluous in the light of his earlier remarks on how populists have already started to rule as populists: there is indeed no alternative to engagement.

The crisis of democracy

Exploring the fraught relationship between capitalism and democracy and drawing on Wolfgang Streeck’s theorization of the evolution of contemporary capitalism as an attempt to buy time in particular, the first half of Dorothee Bohle’s contribution shows how well the stages identified by Streeck apply also to Central and Eastern European countries and that they have very much taken part in the rise of “privatised Keynesianism” in the early 21st century.

Approaching some of Müller’s concerns from a different angle, the second half of Bohle’s incisive chapter offers several arguments why the issue of debt could prove conducive to populist legitimation strategies. The author’s contrasting of international responses to the democratic debt revolt in Greece and the anti-democratic revolt in Hungary succeeds at contextualising and accounting for two of the most controversial chapters in recent European politics. Accordingly, Bohle’s conclusions regarding the future reconciliation of democracy and capitalism are not encouraging.

Béla Greskovits’ chapter is similarly interested in questions of political economy while it consciously zooms in on the Hungarian case to explore “the dynamics of and the links between building a right-wing civil society before, and an illiberal state after, electoral victory” (296). While making clear that he finds Fidesz’s robust and reactionary elitist regime societally divisive and detrimental to democracy, Greskovits makes an earnest and laudable attempt to comprehend the problems and constraints the Orbán regime has faced. He points to the disjuncture between the radical rhetoric of this illiberal and increasingly authoritarian regime and several notable continuities in its economic policy choices and those occurring before 2010 – notwithstanding all the conspicuous support Fidesz has provided to establish a government-friendly “national bourgeoisie”. Greskovits is at his slightly provocative best when he remarks that the strategy of depleting without replenishing human capital resources may be considered a grave sin of the current Hungarian regime and may look like a huge hindrance in terms of advancing the country in the international hierarchy; then again, increasing investment in education, research and development cannot really offer a solution in a country either where the young beneficiaries of such policies would likely continue to emigrate.

In his conclusion, Greskovits ponders what potential lessons friends of open societies might draw from the successful mobilization of civil society when Fidesz was still in opposition and that greatly helped the party impose its own illiberal hegemony once elected with a supermajority – a question that deserves to be more widely discussed and debated.

Last but not least, Pierre Rosanvallon suggests several sophisticated and ambitious ways how the democratic project could be relaunched in an age of declining performance and disillusionment. He proposes that, contrary to populist temptations, democracy’s forms and mechanisms ought to be complicated by multiplying the means through which the general will expresses itself, by broadening the modalities of representation, and by establishing pluralistic forms of sovereignty. His ideas regarding narrative representation alongside delegation-representation as well as the advisability of reformulating the foundation of the democratic ideal through “the power of nobody” and “the power of anybody” indeed promise an enrichment of democracy. His more overarching suggestions to conceive of democracy not as a regime but rather as a form of government and reshape the relationship between the governed and those governing them through positive distrust – as opposed to the negative distrust of populists – is similarly intriguing.

Pierre Rosanvallon’s ideas belong among the most original and valuable contributions to the discussion on the crisis and potential futures of democracy today; it is indeed a shame how few of his constructive ideas are taken up in other contributions to this volume.

Rethinking Open Society includes a variety of disciplinary approaches as well as political preferences and amounts to a prominent document of a truly open dialogue. The contributors, supporters of open societies, develop a largely concurrent diagnosis: their often self-critical perspectives reappraise and update their ideals, and help counter pessimism and rebuild confidence.

While the volume excels at devoting sustained attention to key themes, this comes at the price of largely ignoring a host of major and similarly urgent themes with direct bearing on the present and future of open societies – environmental trends and politics, gender issues and anti-gender mobilization, ongoing digital transformations and the threats to privacy, the global embeddedness of the socioeconomic and political crisis of the Western middle classes, or the related though specific predicament of youth in wealthy societies with limited job prospects. Notwithstanding such omissions, this remains a nuanced and excellent volume, both sufficiently diverse and focused to merit sustained attention.

Ferenc Laczó is an Assistant Professor in European History at Maastricht University.