Nick Clegg has made a speech to Demos and the Open Society Foundation on his vision of the open society. Entitled The Open Society and its Enemies, he is obviously channelling Popper’s vast and influential work. Like so much of Clegg’s utterances, it’s a bizarre mix of the delusional and the misguided. In many respects, one of the best ways to understand the neoliberal project – of which Clegg is undoubtedly a part – is to get a handle on its delusions and evasions. Clegg’s speech is as good a way as any to get into that process.
It’s worth though taking a moment to reflect on the significance of Popper. Written in exile in wartime New Zealand, Popper’s great work The Open Society and its Enemies is both a tome for its times and a work that has acquired totemic value in some rather unlikely circles. It is at one level a counterblast for empiricism against ideology – but in the 1980s, with the active encouragement of the older Popper himself, it became associated with free-market liberalism. Popper was a stauch supporter of Margaret Thatcher, who reciprocated the admiration. But it’s quite obvious that the method Popper deploys against Plato, Marx and Hegel can also be turned on neoliberalism – which, even more so than in the 1980s, appears to have lost all sense of empirical grounding.
We British are an open-spirited people. But we are hobbled by closed institutions. By instinct we believe in fair play and giving everyone a fair chance in life.
But our politics and economy are distorted by unaccountable hoards of power, wealth and influence: media moguls; dodgy lobbyists corrupting our politics; irresponsible bankers taking us for a ride and then helping themselves to massive bonuses; boardrooms closed against the interests of shareholders and workers. The values of the hoarders are increasingly out of touch with the spirit of openness alive in the UK.
It is not often you’ll hear me say this, but I agree with Tony Blair. In his words “the big difference is no longer between left and right, it is between open and closed”.
So what is an open society?
It is a society where powerful citizens are free to shape their own lives. It has five vital features:
i) social mobility, so that all are free to rise;
ii) dispersed power in politics, the media and the economy;
iii) transparency, and the sharing of knowledge and information;
iv) a fair distribution of wealth and property; and
v) an internationalist outlook
By contrast a closed society is one in which:
i) a child’s opportunities are decided by the circumstances of their birth
ii) power is hoarded by the elite
iii) information is jealously guarded
iv) wealth accumulates in the hands of the few, not the many; and
v) narrow nationalism trumps enlightened internationalism
Closed societies – opaque, hierarchical, insular – are the sorts of society my party has opposed for over a hundred and fifty years.
The obvious question, of course, is just what planet Clegg thinks he’s living on. If you wanted to list the essential political agenda of the coalition of which he is a (admittedly not very influential) part, it would look awfully like those five characteristics of the closed society. Whether Clegg is simply delusional, or now so impotent in Government that the only outlet he has for his beliefs is making sideswipes at Tories in obscure lectures to think-tanks, is not something I could judge. But it is obvious that by almost every test that Clegg sets for the open society, the coalition is failing. We are becoming less equal, social mobility has undoubtedly fallen (the man who has perhaps done more than anyone to keep able children from poorer backgrounds to get a higher education touches dizzying heights of hypocrisy in this passage), wealth has been ruthlessly redistributed from poor to rich, and Clegg’s government has in eighteen months probably done more to damage Britain’s relations with Europe than a decade of Thatcher’s relentless handbagging. And at every stage Liberal Democrat MPs and Peers have meekly trooped through the lobbies to vote the Tory agenda. Whatever you may think of Popper’s writing, he was a courageous and outspoken individual in a way that Clegg and his party simply could not begin to comprehend.
But one issue that Clegg ignores is that of empiricism. This Government has done more than any in recent history to take Government away from an evidential to an ideological base. In every sphere this has been the case – look at the recent committment to increase motorway speed limits – but most of all it has been true in the economic sense. At the heart of the Coalition agenda is an economic policy that is built on delusion and faith – the faith that reducing public expenditure will encourage prosperity. It is a statement for which there is absolutely no empirical evidence, and is based on pure ideology and faith in the confidence fairy. Social policy is based on ideological tropes about the family and morality that simply do not stand up to empirical scrutiny. And party politics is based on three parties slugging it out across an ideological consensus that is increasingly detached from the daily realities of life for the vast majority of the population.
Popper feared the triumph of ideology. The government of which Clegg is nominally a leading member is delivering exactly that.