A Manifesto of Openness


For a moment, all has been quiet on the beach of history. The last wave has receded, and with it the blood has almost drained, hissing, into the dark foaming sea; the blood of Ypres and of Gallipoli, the blood of Moscow and Stalingrad, the blood of Normandy and Berlin, the blood of Iwo Jima, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of the long atomic silence that followed them – all of this has almost been swallowed back into the surf.

This was the blood spilled in the Long War of the 20th century, the war pitting communism and fascism against parliamentary democracy. From 1914 until 1990, these three ideologies battled for legitimacy and dominance around the globe.

Since that war ended, a generation has come of age. Our grandparents confronted Fascism, and destroyed it. Our parents faced Communism, and buried it. In 1990, parliamentary democracy won. For a brief moment, the world has breathed easier in a time of peace.

And yet, history has not ended.

A new wave is coming. It will crash on the beach, and when it does, it shall envelop us all in its tumult. We have passed to a new step in the dialectic of history.

A new set of ideologies is emerging. So far they have appeared, unfinished, in our newsfeeds and on our screens. There have been reports from unexpected places: Tahrir Square, Zuccoti Park, the Bundy Ranch, the Spratly islands, and from the tangled mass of rubble that once was Aleppo. These are stirrings, pointing to some deeper truth, half-guessed.

They were just the forerunners.

Two ideologies will define our political near future. They are now coming into focus. And they are lining up in opposition, each recognizing the other as a rival.

These are the ideals of the open society against the ideals of the closed society.

The open society looks forward. It is built on a vision of the future where prosperity, liberty and opportunity are afforded to all. It values progress, inclusion, and interconnection.

The closed society looks backward. It is built on an illusory vision of a glorious past, seeking to preserve that past and protect societies from having to change their way of life. It values legacy, exclusion, and introversion.

Where the open society focuses on progress toward a better future, the closed society aims to restore the great legacy of the past.

Where the open society includes all who are willing to join and play by its rules, the closed society excludes all those who do not share in its identity.

Where the open society aims to strengthen the connections between people, societies and institutions, the closed society turns away from problems that do not concern it directly.

These two ideologies are now coming to centre stage in political life in every developed society in the world. Shots have been fired.

The age of left against right is over; the age of open against closed has begun.

So far, the closed society is winning.

Britain was the first to fall, with its vote to leave the European Union. Like all human institutions, the European Union is flawed. But in doing so, Britain succumbed to a nativist voice and turned its back on one of the most successful projects for peace and prosperity the world has ever seen.

Last month the closed society won an enormous victory in the United States, with the election of Donald Trump. A nation that was once the shining paragon of progress, openness and democracy has turned inwards, on a tide of frustration and anger.

Over the coming year, elections in France, in Germany, in the Netherlands, and in other countries will test the values of progress and openness still further. The struggle will only intensify. Accelerating technological progress, economic development, environmental stress and population growth mean problems are less and less likely to be contained by national borders.

It is time for those who support openness to step forth into the light and be counted.

The challenges facing our global society at the beginning of the 21st century are deep and complex. In the generation-long peace after the end of the cold war, globalization transformed almost every corner of the world. It continues to do so.

On the one hand, this explosion of technology, trade and commerce has brought many people prosperity and a quality of life better than they ever had before. Poverty has been reduced across the globe. Better nutrition, health and education have followed for billions of people.

On the other hand, all this material progress has come at a cost. Societies and cultures have been disrupted. The natural environment has been put under tremendous stress. And millions of people have been left behind, from Gloucester to Georgia to Guizhou.

More change is inevitable. In fact, this disruption, and the pace of it, can only increase. Change will never be this slow again. All of us have seen great changes in our lifetimes, but the accelerating pace of technological innovation is about to transform our societies, our economies, and even our bodies. Artificial intelligence, genetic augmentation, and widespread automation were once the stuff of science fiction. Now our lawmakers are wondering how they should be regulated. These changes will expand us – and test us – in ways few of us are even capable of imagining.

These challenges will not simply go away; they must be dealt with.

The question is how.

This is the stage upon which the contest of the open against the closed society will be fought.

The closed society springs from the fear and frustration felt by those left behind. That fear and frustration is very real. Many people still struggle to make ends meet, in a world that grows more interconnected and more prosperous by the day. Newcomers and interlopers seem to obtain every advantage, while they remain trapped. They feel marginalized in the communities that once held them at their core. They end up feeling like strangers in their own country, cut off from the promised land of prosperity. When elites continue to ignore them, frustration becomes anger. Focusing that anger on the illusion of a better past is the trick of the closed society.

In contrast, the open society sees a bright future built on more trade, more technology, more interconnection between nations, more movement of people and information. In places where these conditions are being achieved, a new future is opening up, allowing people to live freer, happier, more productive lives.

Like every vision of the future, this one is flawed. And the frustration and suffering of those left behind cannot simply dismissed. Its causes must be addressed.

To this end, the evidence is in favour of openness.

Throughout history, societies more open to change have flourished, while those closed to it have stagnated or perished. The evidence is incontrovertible: more trade leads to greater prosperity; More openness of speech and free exchange of ideas leads to more progress in science, technology and thus improves the standard of living; more equal societies are more prosperous, and develop faster; more immigration and free movement of people leads to more economic development, and more prosperity.

It is a question of evidence. Open societies are empirically more successful; they are better in any way that measurement is meaningful and possible.

This is why the open society’s first value, progress, is underpinned by the principle of evidence. The importance of verifiable facts has been challenged by the political games now taking place in Britain and in the United States. In both countries, governments have changed, elections been won, based on deception, misinformation and outright lies. These victories normalize lying and deceit, and in doing so they elevate attaining power over the value of good government. The same forces of deceit that corrupted the political outcome in Britain and America are at play in the rest of the world.

An open society must reject post-factual politics in the strongest terms. Evidence is the basis for progress.

Without evidence, true progress is impossible. Only power is possible.

An open society must base its vision, its actions, and its decisions on verifiable evidence, wherever that evidence is available. Where it is not available, the open society must admit this, and make the effort required to collect the necessary information and to spread understanding as widely as possible.

This evidence-based approach is underpinned by the second principle of the open society: humility. Where the facts do not support a course of action, the course must be changed. Where the facts are inconvenient to a narrative, they cannot simply be ignored. Above all, the open society’s second core value, inclusivity, is underpinned by the principle of humility. The global technocratic elite has been criticized justly and emphatically by those left behind, for being out of touch, self-obsessed, dismissive. This criticism is warranted, and it rightly calls out unacceptable behaviour. The open society must recognize the experience of all its members, and seek to understand them.

Mutual understanding is essential to building an inclusive future. However, this does not mean that an inclusive society should dismiss pride in one’s identity or origins – quite the opposite. It means that multiple identities must be mutually understood and accepted, each seen as a source of mutual strength rather than a reason for exclusion and division. History is full of examples where communities pitted against each other have retarded progress and mired themselves in conflict instead of creating prosperity. On the other hand, where inclusive values prevail and diversity is a source of strength, history shows us a record of success.

Inclusive communities work better because they make use of humans’ most fundamental evolutionary advantage: our ability to work together in teams. This is the origin of the open society’s third principle: mutual advantage. The open society’s core value of interconnectedness does not come from an idealistic utopian desire for harmony. It is a question of effectiveness. It is a truism that teamwork is essential to success at all levels of endeavour. When we work together we can achieve more than we can as individuals, even in aggregate. Now, on the global stage, faced with complex, systemic challenges, introverted and exclusive societies are at a disadvantage. Open societies must build interconnections, internally and externally, to help face these challenges, working together for mutual interest. Free trade, international cooperation on the environment, cultural exchange and the free flow of information – all of these draw on the principle of mutual advantage that strengthens open societies.

We are maturing as a society. Over thousands of years we have developed from isolated bands to warring kingdoms, to empires and nation-states. Over the centuries our development has made us ever more interconnected, more prosperous and more interdependent. Humanity now encompasses the globe in a light-speed web of interconnected thought. We are on the verge of further changes in technology, economics and society that will transform us as deeply as the invention of agriculture did. It is time for us to prepare for a new stage of civilization on this planet.

We are, in a way, like a child leaving home for the first time. The supporters of the closed society would have us stay in our childhood. It is true, childhood can be an idyllic time. The world seems simple and our needs are also. But children are also selfish, and do not understand their role in a larger world. It is time to be rid of our ingenuous illusions. The achievements of an imagined past will not protect us from the challenges of the future.

Those who cling to childhood and childish ways are justly criticized; they eschew their responsibilities and leave pain and misunderstanding in their wake. Growing up is often scary – but it is time for all of us to grow up, together. We are resilient and intelligent. We are even more intelligent the more we work together. We are up to the challenge.

Change is inevitable. We will not stop it by turning inwards and telling ourselves stories about how we can turn back the flow of history. That way lies destruction. The wave is coming, and we must ride it – eyes open, drawing strength from our differences, working together to build the best future we can.


December 2016

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