Open and Closed Societies

Joachim Klose. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

Karl Raimund Popper first suggested the distinction between open and closed societies in his social philosophical work The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945/1993). He aimed to formulate a plea for rationality and freedom—one against all kinds of totalitarianism. Popper wrote as follows:

Neither the war nor any other contemporary event was explicitly mentioned in this book; but it was an attempt to understand those events and their background, and some of the issues which were likely to arise after the war was won. (1945/1993, Vol. 1, p. 6)

His considerations are, to a large degree, shaped by the examination of national socialism, as well as Stalinist totalitarianism.

Above all, Popper (1945/1993) radically opposed historicism and broke with the tradition of speculative historical philosophy. Historicism means looking at historical events from a metaperspective: The truly important actors on the stage of history are not individuals, but rather the larger nations and their important leaders, or the big classes and big ideas. Understanding the laws of historical developments in order to predict future developments and advise policy decisions is the goal (Vol. 1, p. 31). The simplest and oldest form is theistic historicism: the teaching of the chosen people. Other forms include naturalistic, spiritual, and economic historicism. In each case, there are specific historical laws that need to be identified and upon which predictions about the future of mankind can be based. According to Popper’s convictions, progress and improvement of the living standard are not achieved by collectives, which are empowered by a higher principle, but exclusively by self-reliant and erring subjects. Popper’s “critical rationalism” assumes that one may only justify those opinions and values that (at least tentatively) withstand critical examination. Rationality is fallible. Theories, or empirical-scientific systems, still need to be able to be disproven and thus should not be immune to critique; this is not possible in a “closed society,” in which dogmas and traditions determine social interaction. In such systems, changes do not occur due to acceptance of critiques, but rather due to new taboos.

Popper considered Plato, Hegel, and Marx to exemplify prophets of such social orders. As an opponent, he pleaded for the model of an “open society,” in which the individual finds his place in society through independent decisions. The shape of the open society results from critical discussions about the correct norms and values. “Critical rationalism” is the only reasonable way to make a gradual improvement of society possible. The plea for the “open society” thus not only results from moral decisions, but also from the way Popper sees himself, based on theoretical scientific principles. His demand that theories can be criticized and corrected implies the right to freedom of expression and the reversibility of political decisions. Thus, “critical rationalism” can be looked upon as the epistemology of a democratic-liberal, dynamic-pluralistic social order.

By linking skepticism with the legacy of Age of Enlightenment, Popper (1945/1993) built a bridge between Anglo-Saxon empiricism and the continental philosophy of conscience. The maxim “liberty, equality, fraternity” guides him. Only liberty enables human beings to bear responsibility; hence, liberty must be defended (Vol. 1, p. 163). Equality results from critical rationalism, while fraternity, in the Christian sense, is the foundation of rationalism in the occidental civilization (Vol. 2, p. 300).

Starting Points

Augustine’s City of God

Augustine’s teaching of two worlds divides humanity into two camps: a large camp of sin (civitas terrena) and a small flock granted divine grace (civitas dei). Neither links to state structures or earthly commonwealths. Real societies exist in a mixed form (corpus mixtus), which will only be separated at the time of the Last Judgment. The civitas terrena ascommunio malorum is shaped by hollow peace, pride, egoism, and imperiousness. Its objective is earthly peace, whereas the civitas dei distinguishes itself as communio sanctorum through peace of heart, humbleness, doxology, piety as the highest wisdom, and coexistence. It aspires to heavenly peace. As justice and real peace are only possible in the eschatological theocracy, Augustine concludes they can be neither the basis nor the goal of a state. This can be seen in the selection of politicians; they are chosen not based on individual suitability or performance, but through opaque decisions. Mundane communities are unjust, resting upon a solely pragmatic consensus about their goals. To demand more would mean proposing unrealistic moral claims. In this sense, a state’s ability to act is limited. Its tasks are defence, the preservation of earthly peace, and the protection of the civitas dei.

In Augustine’s opinion, politics can improve living conditions gradually at best. Human suffering is basically insurmountable. To make the world a better place, the political order does not need to be altered; rather, the people need to be perfected. The rules for an ideal society are known from Christian Revelation. Incidentally, human beings are themselves incapable of acquiring discernment, as only divine Revelation can guide the way to verity; hence, the political process as a means to find consensus and solutions is redundant.

John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government

Locke (1689/1992), a representative of British empiricism, held the view that all knowledge and ideas are rooted in sensory perception. For Locke, there are only two sources of experience: (1) sensation, referring to outer, material things; and (2) reflection, arising from internal operations of the mind. The conception of rationality takes a dominant position in Locke’s work; however, as it is limited, rationality is supplemented by faith (“natural religion”).

The starting point for the theory of the state is natural rights, which safeguard life and freedom. The natural state guarantees absolute freedom out of natural principles—self-determination and self-sustainment—as well as the state of equality. The social contract leading to the foundation of a state is a collective decision by a group of individuals to cede their rights to protect their immaterial (life, liberty) and material possessions (property) more effectively against both internal and external attacks. Signing the contract is voluntary and leads to the following outcomes: the election of the ruler, decision making according to the majority principle, the creation of legislative and executive institutions, and the right to resistance and tolerance.

Locke’s (1689/1992) revolutionary idea is that of ensuring the freedom of individuals, who seem to surrender their freedom, but in fact have contractually institutionalized it. What has thus far only been inscribed in the “heart” and “soul” of the people is now a contract. Freedom becomes the decisive criteria of the state’s actions and possesses a normative character for the individuals. Each individual possesses the right to resist, and the power transferred to the ruler by society may be confiscated if the ruler abuses his authority. Despite the honest transfer of power, Locke remains fundamentally skeptical toward the rulers: Security of the individual through the state must be met with security of the individual against the state. Therefore, the state is not given the right to meddle in its citizens’ spiritual affairs.

John Stuart Mill

For Mill (1859/1991a), freedom is the strongest desire of human nature. Plurality facilitates both moral freedom and rationality, and promotes creativity. Freedom is a fundamental precondition for social and intellectual progress. Any intervention intended to force individuals into certain behaviors is illegitimate and must be avoided. Any government should only be judged by how their individuals can practice and develop their skills.

The democratic society is a community whose individuals can freely deploy and apply their skills. Democracy is, above all, justified by the possibility for self-development and individuality. It safeguards individual perfection and is founded upon the principle to limit the freedom of the individual only for the purpose of self-protection or the protection of other members. When democracy is jeopardized due to the suppression of individual differences, minority opinions, and minority cultures, it needs institutions that build strong, resilient characters. An outstanding role is therefore given to education policy, since it provides the preconditions for elites and education, as well as the basis for the acquisition of personal freedom.

Intellectual elites are needed to counter the “tyranny of the majority” and “collective mediocrity.” The representative democracy possesses a class-based suffrage supported by the acquired education. For Mill, only educated personalities are eligible and would wield multiple votes. Democracy lives off the assumption that all citizens are interested in political participation and the shaping of society. Thus, society does not have the right to oppress the individual’s opinion. If an opinion is correct, then discussions enable the accepting of these positions as “secured” truths. If wrong, then one can gain a better and deeper understanding of the truth through falsifiability. As a result of the free competition among ideas, incorrect ideas are eliminated and errors corrected. There are no fixed truths, but in a forum of competing opinions, “No light that could be thrown on the matter from any side is shut out” (Mill, 1867/1991b). Ideas and actions must face critical assessment in the marketplace of ideas. Still, they only have temporary validity, as the debate is unfinished. Thus, individuality is not only a precondition for personal happiness, but also for others’ happiness. Sameness and uniformity threaten with decline or stagnation, thus impeding both scientific and social capacity for innovation.

While Mill is a utilitarian and aims at the maximization of happiness, Popper’s objective is the minimization of suffering.

Society and Community

The terms open system and open society were first used by Helmuth Plessner (1924/2001) and Henri Bergson (1932), respectively. Bergson distinguishes, in his philosophy of the organic life (The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, 1932) between closed and open societies. The “social instinct” is always targeted at the former for the purpose of the traditional community, but mankind must soar to the level of an open society (global society) in order to continue the creative élan vital. Plessner approaches the differentiation between open and closed society anthropologically, placing it in an area of tension between society and community. Hence, he borrows F. Tönnies’s (1991) conception and W. Wundt’s (2007) psychology of people, which differentiates between state and tribe. Three considerations about the open society precede Plessner’s reflections: (1) an ethnic-historical one, which traces back to Wundt’s differentiation between state and tribe; (2) a sociological one, which Tönnies has shaped with the terms society and community; and (3) an ethical one, which results from the demand to abandon the closed society in favor of an open one. Plessner distinguishes the closed society between a community of familiarity and a community of rationality, nationalism, and communism, respectively. He states, “Today the dictatorship is marching, either Bolshevik or fascist” (p. 43). Its power is legitimized by the ethos of the community. In his book The Limits of Community (1924/2001), he socioethically examined the individual positions he himself faced by the constraints of the community, that is, the attachment by blood (tribe) or matter (things of the world), and the freedom of the community (i.e., the mode of social affairs). Plessner (1924/2001) explained further:

This open system of intercourse is segregated into individual, peculiar spheres, depending on the requirements of specific value classes, for law, the customs and education, the state, the economy, and the “intercourse” in a more narrow sense. (p. 93)

Existentially, human beings are placed in an area of tension between society and community. Due to their eccentric position, they have to balance the roles (function) they take in society—their “masks,” their intrinsic existence, and their position in the community. This balance is equally a game between “diplomacy” and “tact,” and it is shaped by “prestige” and “ceremony.” Plessner (1924/2001) elaborated as follows:

All public positions rest on the principle of mutuality. Everyone gives one another as much scope as he would claim for himself; only out of the conflict of individual measures can the enlargement of one scope result—at the expense of another one. In every instant, the opponents are in control of themselves due to this just mode of playing, until the logic of these matters has decided. The harshness of the principles of life is thereby not alleviated, only the danger of a violent outburst at the expense of human dignity is eliminated. (p. 101)

Plessner’s theory of masks as a social theory of “limits” is also found in Niklas Luhmann’s (2002) theory of social systems.

Community and Nation

The concept of community arose in the second half of the 20th century from the critique of modern civil society. Until the 18th century, the term community was a synonym for society. Only as a result of the clash between the economically founded civil society and authentic, inner social stratification did the term gain lasting coinage and become a politically charged term for utopian solidarity and conservative, revolutionary ideals. In the romantic perception of a political system, the term assumed an emotional meaning, contrasting with a contractually and individually founded society. Tönnies (1991) distinguished community as an internally connected organism from society, based on exchange and contract. The historical process of modernity is the transition from community to society, from collective to individuality. The opposing movement is shaped by collectivization (Max Weber), in which action is based on subjectively felt togetherness. The concept of community culminates in the national community, marked by an anti-individualistic, normative-political holism. The term community becomes a rallying cry in the sense of an action group against the civil order in Germany in the 1920s. It was later borrowed ideologically by the national socialists (1933-1945), as well as by the socialists (1945-1989). All socialist utopias aim for the abolition of the civil-capitalist society.

The principle of nation-states is developed parallel to the concept of community. The stages of development include Wilson’s principle of national self-determination, the resistance to Napoleon’s invasion, Rousseau’s concept of the general will, Herder’s vision of a natural national border, Fichte’s “identity through language,” and Hegel’s belief in authority. Hegel’s philosophy and Ernst Haeckel’s Darwinism are the foundation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s teaching of the Übermensch (overbeing), which directly led to the national socialist racial doctrine. As Popper (1945/1993) explained,

The biological superiority of the blood of the chosen race explains the course of history, past, present and future; it is nothing but the struggle of races for mastery. In the case of Marx´s philosophy of history, the law is economic; all history has to be interpreted as a struggle of classes for economic supremacy. (Vol. 1, pp. 9-10)

From this, Plessner (1924/1991) further added,

As Nietzsche was a conscious opponent of society because of aristocratism, so does Marx appear hostile toward society due to the mobilization of the instinct of the masses. The individualist resolves society in favour of the big individual, whereas the socialist resolves it in favour of the community. (p. 34)

For Popper (1945/1993), the source and trigger of modern historicisms is above all the German idealism, particularly the historical philosophy of Hegel; the Marxist extreme left wing, as well as both the conservative center and the fascist right, founded their political philosophies upon it (Vol. 2, p. 39). Hegel is equally a link between Plato and modern forms of totalitarian ideas. Still, Popper interprets Plato one-sidedly, as he reads him only in a personal, rather than an institutional, context. Especially in the Politikos, the dialogue that serves as the link between Politei and Nomoi, Plato makes relative his one-sided, person-oriented view: Politei describes the theoretically perfect state, whereas his later works deal with the best practical approach to the ideal state. Essential are the institutionalization of the issuance of laws, the participation of various groups, and the abidance of the laws by everyone. Nevertheless, the rule of law is not sufficient to prevent the abuse of power. Therefore, Plato resorts to an older device—the mixed constitution. It combines—institutionally—monocratic, oligocratic, and democratic elements into the polity’s political foundation. To prevent the abuse of power and protect the freedom of the citizens, various societal forces are engaged. In Nomoi, Plato fundamentally readjusts his thinking toward an institution-oriented political theory, which has not been considered by Popper.

For Plato, the Spartans developed the best domestic solution to the problem of power abuse with their mixed institutions. Hence, Plato sees the political system of Sparta as an example for all other states. Plato compares the “real constitution” of Sparta with Persia and Athens: The unmixed Persian monarchy imposed too heavy limits on the freedom of the people, while the unmixed Athenian democracy left its citizens too much freedom. For Plato, the right mixture between democracy and monarchy is crucial.

Athens or Sparta

Sparta was considered to be the second most powerful polity—behind Athens—of the Greek states. The cities embodied two different social systems and constitutional models: military state and democracy. Sparta’s political stability and military clout were idealized by contemporaries and attributed to the public education system. Xenophon praised its military virtue at the beginning of the 4th century, and Plato believed the Spartan education and discipline enabled humans to lead better lives. Eventually, in the 4th century, Aristotle elevated Sparta to the model of a “mixed constitution”—possessing monarchic, as well as aristocratic and democratic, elements (kings, gerousia, people’s assembly). In this form, it later became exemplary for the Romans. Even today, Sparta is considered the epitome of a statutorily, strictly regulated, and exclusively military-oriented state. The “equality” of the Spartan citizens, expressed by the term hómoioi (equal), has fascinated thinkers in both antiquity and modernity.

The notion of a strict regulation of all areas of life and its focus on the state has been expressed by the 20th-century name “Spartan commonwealth.” This includes the commitment to common values and the state-sponsored education of young men to obedience and conscientiousness. Hence, Sparta epitomizes a myth that should be constantly questioned. How does Popper characterize Sparta and Athens? Which characteristics do the closed and the open society have?

Social Life

Citizens of an open society have a critical attitude toward their social customs. The norms determining everyday life and its institutions are accepted as the work of man (self-determined, worldly, man-made), whereas the closed society is attributed a different genesis. Its norms and institutions are perceived as given by nature (heteronomous, extramundane, God-given). While they can be criticized and changed in an open society, in a closed society, they are static and preserved emphatically. This leads to powerlessness and determinism. Constructive and creative dealings with norms and values do not occur; rather, the system of values upon which all actions are based is consciously or unconsciously taken over by an authoritative source. The norm-giving entity possesses the monopoly of sense. While the notion of what is desirable is determined by the value of humanity (liberty, equality, fraternity) in an open society, the “highest good” is dictated by a higher entity in a closed society.

Autonomy of Action and Social Differentiation

The character of social customs and the attitude toward societal institutions have consequences on human actions. While absolute autonomy of action prevails in the open society, it is limited in the closed one, as there are no alternatives to the existing rules of (social) life. The only freedom of the individual is to harmonize one’s actions with the effective rules or to fail. In an open society, the individual is free to act in accordance with the predominant rules or not. Thus, one can gain experience and learn from mistakes. This offers great personal scope and leads to individual independence. Nevertheless, individuals are also held responsible for the consequences of their actions and have to be able to defend ethically relevant decisions by using critical arguments. This is not demanded from an individual in a closed society, as long as one complies with the rules.

Popper (1945/1993) marked the closed society as a “semi-organic unit,” upon which the organic or the biological theory of the state can be applied (Vol. 1, p. 173). Its members regard their allocated social position as sacrosanct. Hence, the closed society allows social development to take place only incrementally, guaranteeing stability and order. In the open society, individuals are not bonded by biological-organic relationships. Competition for social positions is one of its most important features; its low social differentiation allows its members high mobility through competition. The structures of differentiation are unstable and versatile. Thus, the open society has an active social dynamic.

Position of the Individual

In the open society, the individual is, while emphasizing independence and freedom, the origin of thoughts and actions and, thus, the origins of the society’s development. The distinction “private-public” guarantees the liberty of personality development and self-fulfilment. In the closed society, the collective has priority over the individual. The individual defines himself exclusively through the collective and realizes his potential as part of the whole by functional association and subordination to the collective. The individual is primarily understood in a social status, rather than as a personal identity.

Tasks of the Commonwealth

No ideal of the state exists in the open society. The social engineering of individual planning rejects the goal of maximizing happiness and, instead, attempts to resolve the most urgent evils through gradual improvements. In contrast, the notion of an ideal state exists in the closed society. “Common good” means “happiness for all.” It dominates the collective aim in life, and a central-planning mechanism promises collective happiness. As everything that is foreign is perceived as destabilizing, one must be isolated from all foreign influences.

While it is the task of the state to protect the freedom of its citizens and to guarantee their best possible development in the open society, it is the task of the individual to maintain and bolster the stability of the state. The closed society is characterized by appropriation, subordination, coercion, and dictatorship; the open society is characterized by emancipation, maturity, independence, and equality. The consensus in the closed society is forced; a harmony of interests and determinism prevail. The open society is marked by a plurality of interests, voluntariness, and progress.

According to its different concepts, open and closed societies differ particularly in their methods of exercising power. While Plato asked in Politeia, “Who should govern?” and replied with his principle of “the rule of the wise men,” Popper (1924/1993) posed the question, “How can political power be controlled?” His response is the principle of democracy. The exercise of power is thus bound to policy and prejudice. Democracy controls the abuse of power institutionally, removes personal monopolies, and facilitates the peaceful dismissal of a government. Governance in a closed society is personal. The elite possess the monopoly of power; the leader, autocracy, and dictatorship are in command.

The principle of critical rationalism shapes the open society. The objective is to approach truth. Existing knowledge must be malleable, and critique is institutionalized, facilitating creative progress, tolerance, and openness. In the closed society, the scientific task of the commonwealth is to pass on reliable knowledge. Its objective is security, certainty, and conveying a binding worldview. In contrast to the open society, knowledge is protected against falsifiability. Hence, a monopoly on knowledge and interpretation prevails, and contradictions are avoided. As a result, dogmatism, ideology, and fixedness shape the closed society.


To which degree do human beings enjoy freedom in these two societies? In the open society, voluntariness shapes their situation. Various alternatives are at their disposal, and social reality is experienced as a reflection of the human will (convention). In the closed society, their lives are completely determined. They have no alternatives for development. Social reality is shaped by the reflection of practical constraints or “higher” powers (historicism).

In the open society, the individual is at the fore. One possesses a high degree of personal freedom and equal opportunities. Individual development is shaped by high social mobility and plurality. In the closed society, full attention is paid to the collective. The individual is “unfree”; equality of opportunities does not exist, and social immobility, enforced conformity, and uniformity dominate.

Scientific findings have a tentative character in the open society. They should be falsifiable. Errors are part of the system, and open critique is demanded. Critical rationalism promotes tolerance, openness, and a dynamic development. In the closed society, scientific findings are infallible. Dogmatics, fixedness, and ideology prevail.

The structure of the open society is characterized by (1) the nonviolent dismissal of a government, (2) the freedom of thought and communication, (3) the autonomy and responsibility of the individual, (4) the transfer of rationalism to the society, and (5) the rejection of historicism. The closed society is shaped by determinism, collectivism, and definitiveness.

If open societies do tend to revert time and again to communities, then whether general criteria exist as indicators of transitions from open to closed societies should be examined. What differentiates the closed society from classical theories of totalitarianism? Moreover, attention must be given to anthropological aspects to explicate what impedes the transition from the closed to the open society.


When comparing the mentioned structural characteristics of modern closed societies (socialism, national socialism) to classical theories of totalitarianism, it is striking to see that Popper (1945/1993) did not mention any instruments of repression. Eric Voegelin (1993), who interpreted fascism and communism from a socioreligious framework, also argued only according to the principle of the history of ideas: Voegelin understands fascism and communism as political “religions” vying to create the ideal society in the material world. He opines that the belief in immanent promises has been catalyzed by secularization as promoted by enlightenment. For Popper, religion does not define a society—religiously justified social orders more frequently characterize closed societies—and enlightenment has not paved the way for totalitarian tendencies, but has opposed them. Hannah Arendt (1955) interpreted totalitarianism as something historically new that could only evolve against the backdrop of the societal upheavals of the 20th century (the decline of nation-states and rise of mass societies). She finds the correlation between ideology and terror particularly remarkable.

For Arendt, ideology includes the citation of “historical laws” in Stalinism, and the “laws of nature” in national socialism. She associates the actions of the secret police and the erection of the camps with terror. Popper is silent on the repressive implementation of totalitarian ideology. Yet, he and Arendt share common ground on totalitarian ideology, particularly regarding the theory of history. However, Popper did not consider the mentioned societal model only as a phenomenon of the 20th century. Carl J. Friedrich’s (1957) concept of ruling power and structure is regarded as the most well-known classical societal model. Totalitarianism means an ideology, a party, a terrorist secret police, a monopoly on information, a monopoly on arms, and a centrally managed economy. As Friedrich is strongly oriented toward the instruments of totalitarian rule, there is little common ground with Popper’s understanding, which is more focused on totalitarian thinking. After all, the historian Ernst Nolte (1987) described bolshevism and national socialism as two structurally similar systems of government. Bolshevism not only preceded national socialism chronologically, but also caused its creation as a defense mechanism. Nolte does not reflect on the ideological roots of totalitarianism; as a result, there is also little common ground with Popper’s approach.

Compared with 20th-century-style totalitarianism, Popper (1945/1993) saw a totalitarian social order in Sparta’s social system. His bisection is perhaps too harsh as he contrasts the closed, totalitarian society with an open, democratic society. He does not sufficiently consider the structural peculiarities of totalitarianism as they reside in the scale of the rule, the systematic use of terror, the deliberate manipulation of the masses, and the pseudodemocratic mobilization of the masses. But Popper is most interested in the evolution of the closed society, in terms of the history of ideas, more than in the description of the instruments of power.

The transition from the closed to the open society is even today unfinished. Open societies must be vigilantly defended as they are permanently in danger of devolving. The political and spiritual profiteers of a hierarchic and homogenous social order are not the only supporters of the closed society. A dynamic and pluralist social order poses a challenge to the majority of the nongoverning population as well, a challenge that must be coped with incessantly. While it is difficult to build open societies, it is relatively simple to destroy them. Whether looking at Mussolini’s Italy in the 1920s, Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the 1950s, Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, Chile in 1973, or Latin American dictatorships and communist China in the late 1980s and early 1990s, ignoring all regional and political differences, a list of 10 coinciding aspects for the toppling of a liberal democracy or the flattening of democratic tendencies emerges. Their product is a totalitarian “fascist” system. The Colombia Encyclopedia defines fascism as follows:

[a] philosophy of government that glorifies the state and nation and assigns to the state control over every aspect of national life…. Its essentially vague and emotional nature facilitates the development of unique national varieties, whose leaders often deny indignantly that they are fascists at all. (as cited by Wolf, 2007, p. 21)

Two criteria unite various definitions of fascism: It refers to a military system that is opposed to democracy and attempts to destroy it ideologically and practically; and, fascism deploys terror against citizens to achieve this goal. Therefore, fascism implies a violent dictatorship instead of a liberal-democratic development of a society. Wolf (2007) explained as follows:

All dictators: invoke an external threat; develop a paramilitary force; create a secret prison system; surveil ordinary citizens; arbitrarily detain and release them; harass citizens´ groups; target writers, entertainers, and other key individuals for dissenting; intimidate the press; recast dissent as “treason” and criticism as “espionage”; and eventually subvert the rule of law. (p. 21)

Transition from a Closed to an Open Society

What is the allure of totalitarian ideologies and social systems? Why is the transition from a closed to an open society so painful? The transition itself triggers irritation and disorientation. Popper (1945/1993) explained as follows:

The strain of civilization was beginning to be felt. This strain, this uneasiness, is a consequence of the breakdown of the closed society…. It is the strain created by the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us—by the endeavour to be rational, to forgo at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, and to accept responsibilities. We must … bear this strain as the price to be paid for every increase in knowledge, in reasonableness, in co-operation and in mutual help, and consequently in our chances of survival, and in the size of the population. It is the price we have to pay for being human. (Vol. 1, p. 176)

Popper further described the longing for a guarded and well-regulated life, without facing the challenges of a complex world and the burden of independent actions, as follows:

This dream of unity and beauty and perfection, this aestheticism and holism and collectivism, is the product as well as the symptom of the lost group spirit of tribalism. It is the expression of, and an ardent to appeal to, the sentiments of those who suffer from the strain of civilization. (Vol. 1, p. 199)

All aspects described by Popper can be observed among the East German population in the transitional process from dictatorship to open society after 1989. East Germany has been shaped by a long experience with dictatorships. It experienced both German dictatorships (1933-1945 national socialism, 1945-1989 socialism) and had to walk the difficult road to freedom after the peaceful revolution of 1989. In this process, it was an advantage that the GDR was integrated into West Germany, as it was an economically powerful and successful democracy. What were the challenges and how were they met?

The Totality of the Totalitarian State

How dependent was the individual on the totalitarian state? Did all citizens support the dictatorship? How was the dictatorship enforced? The former GDR had 16 million inhabitants, of which 1.5 million were members of the ruling party, the socialist unity party. About 20% of the population, equivalent to 3 million citizens, actively supported the system and enjoyed more benefits compared to the general population. The overwhelming majority had a passive attitude toward the system; they looked for a niche and lived in a parallel world. How did one behave toward the political organizations and how could one escape the ideology? If one didn’t want to risk life and physical health or accept grave disadvantages, one had to compromise. The question posed after the collapse of the system was not if one had made compromises, but rather what the line of compromises looked like, and whether someone had agreed to minimal compromises, or even resisted or rushed ahead, in obedience and support for the system.

The system confronted every individual over and over with decision-making situations, which must be regarded as “ideological examinations.” In the case of a positive response, career advancement was guaranteed; if one diverged from the rulers’ expectations, then one was set back, criticized, summoned to educational talks, observed, or eliminated. The “ideological barriers” started rather harmlessly with the membership in a youth organization, but they were marked by significant consequences, if military service, party membership, or collaboration with the secret police were concerned. Often the decision was due to the advantages, such as university admission or job selection. It was suggested to individuals that the system’s generosity depended on his behavior, for the system as a whole could never be questioned.

Fear of the secret police only played a secondary role in the population’s consciousness of everyday life. Further, it only affected those not responding positively to the “ideological barriers” for conscientious reasons, such as conscientious objectors or the political opposition, who in turn became a burden for the secret police. The state party—with its indoctrination, ideology, and militant atheism—was omnipresent and, thus, difficult to resist.

What effect did the accommodating political behaviour have on the organization of democracy after the peaceful revolution of 1989? The schizophrenic education in GDR times (private world of experience vs. political compliance) has resulted in many citizens’ lacking of identification with the political system. There are no political milieus, and there is a large distance between political player and low political commitment. Less than 0.5% of the total population of Saxony are members of a political party.

Creativity of Deprivation

It is striking that characteristics of the negative system are perceived retrospectively as positive. Alongside the initially unequal economic situations after World War II, the GDR economy was not set up as a free-market economy, but rather as a planned economy following the Soviet model. This led to shortages right from the beginning, for which it became increasingly difficult to compensate in the time leading up to the economic collapse.

Deprivation led to a constant preoccupation with the provision of material necessities. Experience from economic crises shows that in crisis situations, people continue to live in residences and to eat. The question is: Under which circumstances? In the event of a permanent economic crisis, a shadow economy begins to emerge, shaped by a particular creativity and ingenuity to manage crises and alleviate deprivation. On the other hand, people lived systematically at the expense of the environment and ultimately of the economy itself; thus, the quality of living conditions was reduced to a critical level. In addition, due to the constant preoccupation with the material basis, a deep-rooted and distinctive materialism came into existence. In this regard, open and closed societies mimic each other.

Deprivation possesses the potential to produce motivation and creativity and leads to an intense exchange, and vivid communication; its loss is perceived as a deficit of the open society. Since books were not openly available due to small printings and censorship, they were even more intensively read, exchanged, and discussed. Some books were only available once; that opportunity had to be seized. Thus, reading occurred more systematically and intensively than in an open society. The ban on Western rock music had similar effects. Records were a communication medium. The lack of telephones led to more intense and unannounced visits. Hence, spaces of exchange and friendship were created and their loss after the peaceful revolution was experienced painfully.

Situations of deprivation are meaningful, for they motivate actions that are perceived as useful. Then again, a certain pressure to act is required in order to become creative. Although deprivation causes creativity, how much deprivation is necessary to be creative? What is it that prevents the individual from continuing the positive experiences of the dictatorship in an open society?

The Abundance of Time

The individual experience of time differs significantly between dictatorships and open societies. On the one hand, career opportunities are limited due to the power structure. Therefore, there is seemingly no professional telos to which one could aspire. The futurity of personal developments collapses back upon a long-lasting uniformity, making the future predictable and hinting at a relative security and stability. As career advancement largely depended on destiny and creative self-fulfilment was only possible to an extent, the heteronomously imposed work time was not considered time spent “living” but as a period of service and, thus, reduced to a minimum. Hence, life was structured by clearly defined rhythms, and a maximum of freely configurable time was available. But this free time was needed to compensate for the scarcity in society. The individual was constantly “organizing.” This led to a paradox known from the psychology of time perception: Unfilled time shaped by boredom is perceived at the time as “stretched” but, in retrospect, as having passed quickly. In contrast, the filled time of the present is experienced as very short but, retrospectively, as long lasting. It is similar when one acts over a period of time: The individual was in a permanent mood of disquietude, seeking to compensate shortages. In retrospect, the elapsed time of restlessness is perceived as filled, in contrast to the open society, where this coming to terms with the present is not needed. Self-motivation for creativity and personal responsibility is required.

Another aspect of time perception deals with the loss of the past and, thus, historic roots. Due to the ideological transfer of knowledge fixed in the history of the working-class movement, the wider historical context had been concealed from GDR citizens. The loss of the historical consciousness caused a detachment from the flow of time; the individual did not regard himself within the tradition or responsibility of the past. As its dangers are unknown, a responsible concept for the future is difficult.

Loss of Power and Empowerment

Societies are shaped by power structures. “Whenever people communicate with one another, the possibility exists that they orient themselves on mutual disadvantages and are thus affected. Power is a cultural universal of human existence” (Luhmann, 2003, p. 90). Thereby, it is not only a matter of the political-representative power of the system, but also of the power to interpret reality (endowment with meaning, ideology), the education system, and the distribution of resources. Their function provides means to sanction and threaten, which can be used as the foundation of power. The transitional process from a closed to an open society is accompanied by a reorganization of power in the entire society. Hence, the transformational process meant a loss of power for the majority of the East German population. This concerns not only the societal elites, exchanged in the wake of the transformation, but also the common man. In an economy of scarcity, those who own the goods or those who participate in the distribution of goods ultimately possess power. A saleswoman possessed the power to distribute, just as the possession of a car produced jealousy. The loss of power, as a result of the transformational process, led to a narcissistic mortification causing the transfiguration of the past, which cannot be compensated by any following social system.

Furthermore, some social areas lost their influence. The churches, shelter of the opposition and structural counterweight to the dictatorship’s monopoly on teleology, must now hold their own in the market of opportunities.

All power transfers are accompanied by injustices and power struggles. Only from the perspective of the loss of power can one explain why—despite material prosperity—a large part of the East German population is unsatisfied with the open society. This applies to the older generations to a greater degree than to the younger ones. The actual power of organizations substantially depends on the influence on careers and the filling of jobs (Luhmann, 2003, p. 104) Due to the change of elites, the typically more strenuous evaluation of East German biographies, and the social attachment of the new elites to their areas of origin, the East German population has been excluded from political and social responsibility over a longer period of time. This still has an impact, even 20 years after the peaceful revolution.

It is remarkable that due to the minimal willingness to compromise by many GDR citizens, who (accordingly) kept their distance from the state, filling the power vacuum seemed impossible after the peaceful revolution, although these citizens would have been capable of filling it. “Power” in the dictatorship was not understood as responsibility but almost exclusively for its abuse. Thus, there was also a responsibility that consequently abstained from power. This had the unsatisfying consequence that those who exerted power in the dictatorship were again pushing pack into social positions after 1989. This fact is one of the reasons for the GDR opposition’s reluctance to get involved in party politics. Even mere membership in a political party in a dictatorship brings one close to the political power and is suspicious. This aspect is amplified when one becomes aware that membership in the state party constituted a commitment to atheism and demanded secession from the church. Former GDR citizens do not primarily interpret parties as lobby groups, but rather as groups of identity and power. The GDR citizens’ distance from power is frequently misinterpreted as an inadequate adaptability and a lack of support for democracy.

Loss of Sense and Utopia

One of the seductive powers of socialism was its pseudoreligious system to explain the world. Its is based on the assumption that human beings are themselves capable of creating a society in which they can lead a “good life.” But the political utopias refer to a rationality dictated to every individual a priori. They are fictions of intramundane societies condensed to ideals or deterrents. Above all, they criticize the existing institutions and political conditions by contrasting them with a rational and comprehensible alternative. Their profane epiphanies consist primarily of concealed religious longing:

They transferred everything, what until then had been embodied by “God” and the “afterlife,” into this world and substituted it with words like “reason,” “history,” “society” or “providence,” but naturally not without equipping them with a spiritual—or, rather, metapolitical—content. (Fest, 1993, p. 52)

The two German dictatorships caused the churches to be greatly repressed in East Germany. While about 95% of the population had been members of a church in 1944, membership declined to only 29% by 1989; 80% of the population of East Germany’s cities confesses to atheism. This decline of religion is a globally unique phenomenon that only affects East Germany and the Czech Republic.

How does a postreligious society deal with its religiosity? If humans are able to abstract and if causal and transcendental experiences are part of being a human being, then one must ask what they believe in when they don’t believe anymore. As socialists and national socialists apostrophized a “new” man, their collapse meant the triumph of anthropology over the historical philosophy of men, as they have always been and will be above all ideals. But at the same time, it becomes apparent that the need of faith or promises to ease the inconsistencies of life is part of the condition humaine. With the collapse of the political system, the utopia breaks down as well. The promise of redemption, to which socialism stuck until the end, caused the collapse of their vision of the future to be perceived as a metaphysical loss. What is the substitute that will take its place? Interest in the churches has not gone up, contrary to hopes.

Comparisons of the populations of East and West Germany have shown that the majority of West Germans defend freedom instead of equality, while the ratio is reversed in the East. The utopia of a just society, in which everyone is equal, is followed by the demand for real equality at the expense of freedom. Equality destroys variety and, hence, beauty. This aspect is one of the most fatal consequences of the East German uniformity: The society suffered under “good taste” and beauty in a striking manner. If beauty has not always had a purpose, but rather suggested a dimension that exceeds the mere existence of reality, one encounters the religious dimension. Maybe it is the loss of beauty in the East German society that is the cause of its radical rejection of religiosity. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar professed that beauty is a disinterested entity that, once lost, gives the impression of never having existed in the first place. The loss of the socialist utopia has led to a loss of meaning, and the residuum of the demands for equality to suffering under the injustices of the world and material envy. The consequences can hardly be compensated for an open society.

Limits of an Open Society

It was Popper’s (1945/1993) desire to show why a functioning democracy is a desirable state, as well as what the open society is not. Thus, he provided a guiding principle that needs to be amended. He has, for instance, not shown what the functionality of a democracy depends on. Otherwise, one might be left with the impression that once democratic institutions are set up, little can go wrong.

According to Luhmann (2002, 2003), the present society is composed of various systemic and communicational cycles, and these function according to their own logic, develop their own language, and are shaped by a specific rationality. Social subsystems include the legal, educational, scientific, and religious systems. Remarkably, there is no connecting, inclusive band around all systems, apart from a generalized communication. In this functionally diversified society, all problems of the open society become apparent.

On the one hand, the open society is marked by disenchantment with politics and a lack of participation. The subsystems tend to become independent and to estrange themselves from the everyday life of the citizens due to their specific rationality. Politics can only set up a framework for the subsystems—not the systems themselves. Hence, politics only possess limited influence on the development of society, although suggesting rational predictability and controllability.

On the other hand, there is no rationality that would be suited as a binding corrective. In Popper’s (1945/1993) work, reason and rationality only appear singularly, but they have multiplied in the functional, diversified society. From the perspective of which rationality should criticism be passed? What might be politically reasonable could be economically questionable. Different rationalities criticize one another, for they are based on different premises. There is no binding or absolute rationality, as democracy has just denounced the idea of the absolute.

Moreover, there is no central ombudsman for complaints and criticism. Not only individuals, but also the subsystems are gaining freedom and autonomy in the open society. Yet, while people can be held to account, they cannot be directly addressed in the case of the subsystems.

In addition, the process of the open society does not answer all questions and does not describe the end of history. New anxieties and challenges will always emerge. Something that adds sense to these options—deep structures—is missing. Open societies tend to resolve this gap, which may result in national socialism or religious fundamentalism as apparent ways to give life meaning. Since it is impossible for open societies to revert due to the gained knowledge, they are at risk of veering toward national socialism. Furthermore, open societies depend on the support for their institutions and the belief in their values, as they convey neither a unifying force nor any sense of identification.


An open society requires consistent activity and creativity on the part of its citizens, and the desire to conquer and fill in areas of freedom. But there are also times when people feel comfortable, when they do not try out new ideas, or cannot carry them to their extreme. Instead, they accept and try to adapt. This apparently leads to a retreat to the private domain or the preoccupation with the closer living environment, respectively. The trust in democracy and freedom does not seem to suffice as a motivation to engage oneself in public affairs. The open society had no other perspective than the preservation of its openness. The loss of a motivating vision for the future leads to erosion. Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde professes that the open society is living on preconditions that it cannot create itself. It is the great—and probably inherent—flaw of open societies: They do not convey a palpable meaning of life that justifies the suffering and fears of the people. Liberal structures, division of powers, and a market economy, as well as laws safeguarding freedom, are the only mechanisms on which the open society is founded. They are the instruments that guarantee an orderly social coexistence, but not the matter itself.

Democratic institutions are means to facilitate freedom. They must be joined by a codex of predefined convictions, a consciousness about forms and institutions, reason and foresight, reliability, courage, tolerance, and adherence to the law. The conveyance of this codex is one of society’s tasks. The individual’s task remains to practice the perception of reality without simply accepting it, acting responsibly, and sharpening one’s sense for permanent dangers.