David Runciman almost re-writes Karl Popper: Political Observer comments

Approaching Mr. David  Runciman’s essay published by The Times Literary Supplement on January 11, 2019, I have some thoughts, aided by other writes, who offer valuable insights into Popper’s thought/writings in general and specific ways.

Headline: Closed Minds

Sub-headline: The rise of conspiracy thinking


Mr. Runciman ‘reviews’ Michael Ignatieff and Stefan Roch, editors Rethinking Open  Society:New adversaries and new opportunities. Michael Ignatieff and Stefan Roch, editors What he focuses upon is Popper’s comments on the ‘conspiracy theory of society’:

The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper introduced a host of terms and phrases into academic discourse over his lifetime. They include “the open society”, “piecemeal social engineering” and “falsifiability”. But only one phrase coined by Popper has entered everyday language, though Popper himself is rarely (if ever) identified with it. In the second edition of The Open Society and its Enemies, published in 1952 (the original appeared in 1945), Popper included a new section where he discussed the anti-scientific view that a social phenomenon could be explained by “discovering the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon (sometimes it is a hidden interest which has first to be revealed) and who have planned and conspired to bring it about”. Popper’s name for this way of thinking is “the conspiracy theory of society”.

Mr. Runciman takes the capacious notion of that ‘conspiracy theory of society’ and applies it to political manifestations of the political present. Yet what does Popper’s idea/construct have to do with the present manifestation of ‘conspiracy thinking’ in the contemporary world? Is this a mere shift of focus? or a misapplication of a societal critique, to very specific political phenomenon have legitimacy! In the political world of a collapsed Neo-Liberalism ‘Populism’ has become a threat to those who consider themselves ‘Liberals’. That Populism being founded upon ‘conspiracy’.

We now live in an age when the idea of the “conspiracy theorist” has become ubiquitous. It is how many of the politicians who are identified in this volume as the new enemies of the open society are routinely described. Donald Trump is sometimes called “the Conspiracy Theorist-in-Chief”. Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, the League in Italy: all these leaders and movements seek to explain phenomena they dislike as the result of secret plots against them. The plotters vary from case to case, though the cast list is depressingly familiar: it’s the EU, or the banks, or the Russians, or the deep state, or, inevitably, the Jews. Jan-Werner Müller, in his essay in this collection, calls conspiracy theory part of “the logic of populism”. If populist politicians represent the overwhelming majority of solid citizens (“the people”), and yet those politicians are not getting their way, it must be because hidden forces have secretly blocked them.

The reader need only look at Mr.  Ignatieff, acolyte of  Isaiah Berlin and Responsibility to Protect (R2P) architect, and his Neo-Conservative allies, and those pretending to the status of ‘Liberal’ ,as evidence of  their status as the agents of political rationalism, or more aptly labeled fellow travelers : Anne Applebaum, Niall Ferguson , Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Ignatieff , Robert D. Kaplan, Mark Lilla , Jan-Werner Müller , Sir Roger Scruton among others.


For indispensable insights into Popper see Katrina Forrester’s review of ‘After ‘The Open Society’: Selected Social and Political Writings’ by Karl Popper, edited by Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norris Turner.

In After ‘The Open Society’, Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norris Turner have collected a range of his published and unpublished essays, letters and lectures that tell the story of this transformation. To the picture Popper presented of himself in his autobiography Unended Quest (1976), this volume adds a map of his intellectual development during his later years. He was sympathetic to Marxism at the beginning of his political life, but ended up a reactionary neoliberal. He was not alone: as he slid to the right, so did the liberal consensus. The essays here tell both stories. Popper begins the volume as the kind of liberal who cares about equality and ‘the social question’. By the end, he is a free marketeer, angry with the spoilt, irresponsible younger generation, with their complaints about capitalism, their drugs and their alcohol – by all accounts, a grumpy old man. This is a far cry from Marxism, but a far cry too from the man who in The Open Society aimed at uniting the dispersed left – liberals and socialists – under the banner of ‘humanitarianism’.

In the long march from socialism to neoliberalism, it is hardly a surprise to find that Popper was at his most interesting when he tried to combine the two. In the 1940s, he attempted to develop a political theory that would provide a practical basis for agreement among the anti-communist left. ‘Nothing is so important at the present time,’ he wrote in 1944, ‘as an attempt to get over the fateful dissention within the camp of the friends of the “open society”.’ He rejected the traditional, essentialist question of political philosophy – ‘What is the state, what is its true nature, its real meaning?’ – and asked instead: ‘What do we demand of the state? How do we want the state to be ruled?’ His answer formed part of what has been called his ‘negative utilitarianism’. Politics, he argued, should work towards the minimisation of human suffering, not the maximisation of human happiness. For Popper, this was a point on which the left could agree.


Here Prof. Forrester offers a definition of  the ‘conspiracy theory of society’ that is at odds with the definition presented by Prof. Runciman:

He objected to what he called the ‘conspiracy theory of society’ – namely, the idea that the capitalist system is evil or morally base.

I’m posting three screen captures from Charles Pigden’s Popper Revisited or What is Wrong with Conspiracy Theories? from 1995:


The second page of Prof. Pigden’s essay, as I have posted it,seems to  confirms Mr. Runciman’s claims, yet further reading seems to confirm the opposite. Prof. Pigden simply examines the claims of Popper, in the mode of an honest critic. Would that the reader of Mr. Runciman’s essay could say the same of its author.

Political Observer




About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
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