Open so­ci­ety’s sur­vival is worth fight­ing for

THE (Times Higher Education) - - BOOKS - Matthew Reisz, books ed­i­tor

Af­ter an un­suc­cess­ful bid to be­come prime min­is­ter of Canada in 2011, Michael Ig­nati­eff wrote a strik­ing book about his ex­pe­ri­ences: Fire and Ashes: Suc­cess and Fail­ure in Pol­i­tics. He had failed to re­alise, he wryly ad­mits, that mod­ern elec­tions are ba­si­cally “re­al­ity shows” and that his ini­tially rather “aca­demic” ap­proach – “be­liev­ing that ev­ery voter de­served a So­cratic di­a­logue of many min­utes’ du­ra­tion” when out can­vass­ing – was hardly likely to bear fruit.

At the time, Ig­nati­eff told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion that he was “to­tally done and dusted” with prac­ti­cal pol­i­tics and was happy to be back in a uni­ver­sity set­ting. He is still work­ing within the academy, but as pres­i­dent of the Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­sity in Bu­dapest he has hardly man­aged to es­cape po­lit­i­cal pres­sures.

In­deed, given the hos­til­ity to his in­sti­tu­tion of Hun­gar­ian leader Vik­tor Or­bán, he re­cently re­ported: “If by Jan­uary 2019 I don’t get…an agree­ment with the Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment [re­lat­ing to a rule re­quir­ing over­seas uni­ver­si­ties to have a base in their home coun­try]… I can’t ac­cept new stu­dents in Bu­dapest. So I’ve got a gun to my head here.”

All this forms the con­text to an im­por­tant new book, Re­think­ing Open So­ci­ety: New Ad­ver­saries and New Op­por­tu­ni­ties (CEU Press), edited by Ig­nati­eff and post­doc­toral re­searcher Ste­fan Roch. In his in­tro­duc­tion, the for­mer re­turns to Karl Pop­per’s 1945 book The Open So­ci­ety and Its En­e­mies, which de­fined a form of pol­i­tics ut­terly op­posed to both Nazism and Stal­in­ism.

Other thinkers such as Han­nah Arendt and Isa­iah Ber­lin de­vel­oped a sim­i­lar lib­eral vi­sion around the same time, broadly sym­pa­thetic to the wel­fare state though putting greater stress on lib­erty than on equal­ity. Since Ge­orge Soros, the founder of the CEU, was once a stu­dent of Pop­per’s at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, there is a di­rect link be­tween such ideas and the uni­ver­sity Ig­nati­eff runs.

The open so­ci­ety ideal, his in­tro­duc­tion goes on, now faces much op­po­si­tion, not least in east­ern Europe, where “the fail­ure of lib­er­als to de­velop po­lit­i­cal in­stru­ments of power pre­pared the ground for other po­lit­i­cal forces with more ef­fec­tive or­ga­ni­za­tions and a shrewder sense of the fears and anx­i­eties un­leashed when the cer­tain­ties of the com­mu­nist order were swept away…Af­ter the un­con­trolled mi­gra­tion surge of 2015, open so­ci­ety ad­vo­cates rapidly lost the bat­tle for East­ern Euro­pean hearts and minds.”

Ig­nati­eff ac­knowl­edges a num­ber of “jus­ti­fied crit­i­cisms” of “open so­ci­ety ideals” (some of them de­vel­oped in greater de­tail by other con­trib­u­tors to the book, which is based on lec­tures and de­bates held at the CEU in 2017 and 2018). Yet he

Thinkers such as Han­nah Arendt and Isa­iah Ber­lin de­vel­oped a lib­eral vi­sion around the same time, broadly sym­pa­thetic to the wel­fare state through putting greater stress on lib­erty than on equal­ity

still ar­gues that such ideals “should con­tinue to in­spire us”, given that open­ness and a will­ing­ness to ques­tion one­self are “con­sti­tu­tive of the demo­cratic tem­per”.

He also wants “CEU, like any uni­ver­sity wor­thy of the name, [to] stand for val­ues with­out al­low­ing it­self to be­come a pris­oner of pol­i­tics or ide­ol­ogy”. These are surely causes worth fight­ing for in ex­cep­tion­ally dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances.

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