On Open Societies

I had a couple of thoughts on the geopolitics of the culture war that I wanted to share and get the sub's thoughts on, both concerning how 'open societies' - defined broadly as liberal democracies with protections for freedom of speech and relatively little censorship - will fare in the modern informational age.

First, there's the issue of whether open societies have a fundamental security flaw in the informational age. Essentially, the worry goes something like this: thanks to the power of modern social media and technological developments like AI-assisted microtargeting of ads, it's increasingly easy to influence people's attitudes and beliefs. Regardless of your views about object-level issues like Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Brexit vote, it would be kind of surprising if the geopolitical rivals of the West weren't at least trying to use these tools to sow discord and influence public opinion. By contrast, it's harder for the West to do the same trick in 'closed' societies like Russia and China, where public access to information is more tightly controlled.

Three responses I've heard to this.

  • The Pessimist response basically endorses the worry: we've just found a design flaw in the open society model. Either the West will have to find other avenues of competition with its rivals (economic, military) or else abandon some of its principles regarding freedom of information.
  • The Optimist response acknowledges the worry but holds that open societies will ultimately emerge from this trial stronger. There are a few ways you could argue for this, but one would be to claim that the current impact of these strategies is only due to their novelty, and the Western public will soon develop 'informational antibodies' to these tactics as they become endemic, becoming more skeptical or rational in response. This could ultimately work in the West's favour, much as Europeans' greater exposure to infectious diseases in the Middle Ages meant that they suffered far less harshly in the Columbian Exchange.
  • The Sceptical response denies one of the major premises of the worry, namely that 'informational dirty tricks' are particularly effective. On this view, the ability of foreign powers (and presumably non-state actors) to influence public opinion in open societies is very limited and way overhyped.

The second related issue concerns the present status of the West's ideological weapons. It's often asserted that some of the key weapons in the West's arsenal during the Cold War were capitalism and liberalism - Levi Jeans and free speech. In an era where state capitalism has largely displaced communism as the main alternative to free market liberalism, does the West have any powerful memes left?

One view I've heard from more hawkish progressive friends is that modern progressivism - with its emphasis on liberating people from traditional strictures of gender role, sexuality, and gender identity - is itself a powerful meme that can give the West an ideological advantage over its rivals. I'm not totally convinced by this myself, given that much of social justice is focused on the interests of relatively small minorities who are unlikely to wield enough power to, e.g., reform the CCP. But perhaps progressive ideals about gender in particular have some 'memetic threat value' for more traditionalist countries. Note, for example, the Chinese government's attempts to crack down on and censor the MeToo movement.

The opposing position (often given by reactionaries) is that progressivism is something more like an auto-immune condition for the West - that the focus on identity politics and the emphasis given to categories like gender and race has the power to corrode liberal institutions and transform the West into a society in which identity-based rent-seeking displaces meritocratic and liberal norms, thereby weakening its geopolitic cohesion and competitiveness. Such critics might note, for example, that the ethnic diversity of countries like the US make it more vulnerable to racial politics than its rivals.

I'm genuinely open-minded about both questions, so would love to hear what the sub thinks.