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When the lights go out: the attack against Popper’s open society ideal in Hungary

Austrian-British philosopher, Karl Popper, argued for the existence of several lights to illuminate the truth. This is the essence of an open society and what the Hungarian government is fighting against.

Stefan Roch
24 May 2017
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MEPs discuss the situation in Hungary with Prime Minister Orbán. European Parliament/Flickr/Some Rights ReservedAccording to Ralf Dahrendorf, Karl Popper described the pursuit of knowledge to his students as searchlights which illuminate details of the world. To Popper, knowledge is not absolute, and cannot be possessed in its entirety. This pursuit of knowledge is the ability to be critical, to expose falsehoods and simplifications and to gradually improve our understanding of an ever-changing and complex world. The searchlight principle applies as much to science as to politics. The purpose of science is not to find proof towards a final theory but to refute existing theories when they do not stand the test of time. This demands that scientists expand knowledge through criticism while remaining open to other explanations and one’s own human limitations.

Popper argued against a single and authoritative light source illuminating what ought to be true. 

Applied to politics, this means the refutation of ideology and the demand to institutionalise critiques towards those in power through regular open and fair elections and a functioning and vibrant civil society. Popper argued against a single and authoritative light source illuminating what ought to be true. He argued for the existence of several lights which illuminate parts of the truth, such as a functioning legal system, civil society, fair elections and an open media. This is the essence of an open society and what the Hungarian government is fighting against.

Since the Orbán government came to power it has taken aim at all sources of knowledge and criticism. The political opposition has been actively discredited. A formerly free media was brought under government control with only a few free sources remaining with little resonance beyond Budapest. The constitution was rewritten, education centralised and critical civil society actors hassled by tax authorities. What the government tried and has largely succeeded in doing, is to take full control of the political narrative in Hungary.

This aligns with Jan-Werner Müller’s observation that authoritarian/populist governments, such as the Hungarian, have a reductionist and moralistic view of the political, in that they claim it is them and only them who represent the people. Whoever disagrees with this claim is either wrong and ought to adopt the government’s reasoning or is simply not a part of the people. It is here that the government’s attack on a society’s main searchlight, free academia, is rooted.

Authoritarian/populist governments, such as the Hungarian, have a reductionist and moralistic view of the political, in that they claim it is them and only them who represent the people.

Through introducing a new higher education law, the government made the existence of one of Hungary’s most prestigious higher education institutions, Central European University (CEU), nearly impossible. It is a university which has its programs accredited in the US and Hungary and does what any other university does, engage in open discussion, free research and teaching. Yet the government has not been shy to treating CEU like an enemy of the state through pushing the law through the parliament in a fast track procedure, falsely accusing the university of cheating, ignoring any procedural and substantial constitutional safeguards and staging a verbal war against CEU’s founder, George Soros. 

Authoritarian regimes’ influence on the wellbeing of their people, as Orbán knows very well, is limited and the miracles these regimes claim to perform are merely smoke and mirrors. Yet these regimes create unsurmountable dissonances when they claim to fully represent the people with all their hopes, aspirations and demands, yet practically lack control over basic economic or societal means, such as in Hungary, which is entirely dependent on foreign investments and subject to the free movement of people within the EU.

The real problems Hungary is grappling with are considerable, complex and deeply rooted. Hungary’s health-care and education systems are blatantly underfunded and close to collapse, relative poverty is high, homelessness and alcoholism are stark societal problems and 13 years after Hungary joined the EU a critical amount of well-educated young people still choose to leave the country. These problems are pressing, they are felt closely by anyone who lives in the country and demand exactly what Popper passionately supports in an open society: open and inclusive consultation, finding small-scale and practical solutions, openly admitting mistakes and widely sharing success.

One can say Popper saw this coming when he wrote in “The open society and its enemies”: The secret of intellectual excellence is the spirit of criticism; it is intellectual independence. And this leads to difficulties which must prove insurmountable for any kind of authoritarianism. The authoritarian will, in general, select those who obey, who believe, who respond to his influence. But in doing so, he is bound to select mediocrities. For he excludes those who revolt, who doubt, who dare to resist his influence. Never can an authority admit that the intellectually courageous may be the most valuable type. 

Popper is clear that in an authoritarian regime, academic freedom is not accepted. The searchlight may at any time highlight an uncomfortable truth and disobey authoritarian control. Yet Hungary is not Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany, the cases Popper was writing about at the time. The Orbán government has been democratically elected. It remains unthreatened in the Hungarian political landscape and CEU poses no political opposition. So why is it attacking CEU and its founder George Soros?

As it attacks free and critical institutions to deflect from its own incapability, it actively accepts the decay of a society it claims to fully represent.

An authoritarian regime such as the Orbán government does not possess the means to tackle such complex problems precisely because it turns off the searchlights that can highlight and assess the complexity of the societal and political reality and are instrumental in the search for appropriate solutions. As it seeks to kill off any possible threat to its power, it undermines all sources of societal and political advancement. As it attacks free and critical institutions to deflect from its own incapability, it actively accepts the decay of a society it claims to fully represent.

This is the real tragedy of the current Hungarian experience. The uncontrolled rage against free and critical institutions from the side of the government is entirely parasitic. The Orbán government promises its people that by torpedoing the searchlights of free academia, civil society, the judiciary and an independent media, Hungary will enter a bright future. Yet in fact what is happening is that Hungary is becoming a very dark place.

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