Not far from where the Acropolis stands today, during a mild Mediterranean winter around 431 BC, Pericles gave a funeral oration to honor Athenians killed in the war against Sparta. His eulogy was sculpted into a powerful political defense of Athenian democracy in contrast to the autocratic Spartan regime. In that valedictory speech, Pericles crystallized the distinction between open and closed societies as a fundamental political divide. Athenian democracy, as he saw it, was the moral, political and economic protagonist of its time because it was open: Our city is open to the world […].
From the first syllables of recorded political time, the antithesis between open and closed is an evergreen theme in the marketplace of ideas. But as the world grows smaller, the open versus closed divide, previously reserved for states with rival political systems, appears to have metastasized within our societies. The choreography of profoundly conflicting viewpoints has been gloriously staged in the world’s political theater: the election of Donald Trump in the US, the Brexit vote in the UK, the Turkish referendum, the dictatorial style of Hungary’s government, the rise of Marine Le Pen in France, culminate in a persistent motif where the outcome of elections is not limited to a routine transfer of power, but could have a far-reaching impact on the very character of the societies we live in. The recent French dilemma did not escape from a configuration where political battles returned to the basics, and the contenders offered diametrically opposite philosophies on how the world is and should be.
Contemporary political antagonism revisits old debates, once assumed to have been settled in the post-Cold War era: Will we opt for economic cooperation over protectionism? Inclusion of outsiders over preservation of indigenous communities? Stronger democracies over authoritarian leaders? Will we try to shape the future or try to suspend it? In other words, will we choose to live in open or closed societies? The financial crisis and the pace of economic recovery have their place in the mosaic of justifications for this inward clash. Yet, the deeper political forces behind it arise out of a chorus of divergent attitudes towards the future and the instruments with which we will meet its perplexities.
What appears like an ideological metamorphosis of otherwise open societies is not godsent. It is true that the future comes faster and more often than it used to; flooded with insecurity, it sometimes seems that it may not include many of us. The raging voices that are gaining momentum idealize the past, identify enemies abroad (and at home) while propagating the view that they can veto the unappealing aspects of the future by sheer political will. In an ever-connecting world, these phantasmagorical claims open the gates to an onrush of despotism as a necessary means to implement an agenda of economic isolation and authoritarianism. This Spartan promise reveals itself as an antidote that can balance out the uncertainties of the future.
What we need to recall to our collective political memory is that the level of progress that we have conquered is premised on the tenets of the open society, not very different from the creed defended by Pericles over two millennia ago: a political architecture based on openness and inclusion; adaptiveness to change and cooperation; with human rights, equal opportunities, migration and free trade as the keys to our prosperity. These principles may not inform the technocratic answers for the challenges of an emerging world, but they are the moral compass that can navigate us through the waters of uncertainty that the future brings.
Sparta may have won the Peloponnesian war, but it was the open spirit of Athens that endured and shaped the West. We are now at a point where we don’t know how the West will look like in a few years from now. Even after Macron’s victory, the Le Pens of the world will not sink into oblivion. Only the magnifying glass of history will detect if the rise of advocates for closed societies proves a minor setback in the grand scheme of things – an electoral echo of angst about the elusive future that lies ahead – or is the prologue of a normative shift from Athenian democracy to Spartan rule.
In either case, in this war of ideas, the values of the open society and liberal democracy must not, once more, be left undefended; and when progressives win a battle, as we did in France, it is these values that we need to apply and, what is more, to expand.