Soros' fatal flaw

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Daniel Bessner purports to identify the fatal flaw of George Soros' philosophy, beginning with the observation that "On the radical right, Soros is as hated as the Clintons. He is a verbal tic, a key that fits every hole:"

Soros's name evokes "an emotional outcry from the red-meat crowds", one former Republican congressman recently told the Washington Post. They view him as a "sort of sinister [person who] plays in the shadows". This antisemitic caricature of Soros has dogged the philanthropist for decades. But in recent years the caricature has evolved into something that more closely resembles a James Bond villain. Even to conservatives who reject the darkest fringes of the far right, Breitbart's description of Soros as a "globalist billionaire" dedicated to making America a liberal wasteland is uncontroversial common sense.

"In spite of the obsession with Soros," Bessner continues, "there has been surprisingly little interest in what he actually thinks." I would have been tempted to simply snark that this is because his critics don't read his books, but Bessner tackles the issue more soberly:

Yet unlike most of the members of the billionaire class, who speak in platitudes and remain withdrawn from serious engagement with civic life, Soros is an intellectual. And the person who emerges from his books and many articles is not an out-of-touch plutocrat, but a provocative and consistent thinker committed to pushing the world in a cosmopolitan direction in which racism, income inequality, American empire, and the alienations of contemporary capitalism would be things of the past. He is extremely perceptive about the limits of markets and US power in both domestic and international contexts. He is, in short, among the best the meritocracy has produced.

This production began with his 1947 emigration to the UK, and his association with philosopher Karl Popper, who Bessner identifies as "his greatest interlocutor and central intellectual influence:"

Since 1987, Soros has published 14 books and a number of pieces in the New York Review of Books, New York Times and elsewhere. These texts make it clear that, like many on the centre-left who rose to prominence in the 1990s, Soros's defining intellectual principle is his internationalism. For Soros, the goal of contemporary human existence is to establish a world defined not by sovereign states, but by a global community whose constituents understand that everyone shares an interest in freedom, equality and prosperity. In his opinion, the creation of such a global open society is the only way to ensure that humanity overcomes the existential challenges of climate change and nuclear proliferation.

Unlike Gates, whose philanthropy focuses mostly on ameliorative projects such as eradicating malaria, Soros truly wants to transform national and international politics and society. Whether or not his vision can survive the wave of antisemitic, Islamophobic and xenophobic rightwing nationalism ascendant in the US and Europe remains to be seen. What is certain is that Soros will spend the remainder of his life attempting to make sure it does.

"Soros argued that the history of the post-cold war world," continues Bessner, "as well as his personal experiences as one of international finance's most successful traders, demonstrated that unregulated global capitalism undermined open society in three distinct ways:"

First, because capital could move anywhere to avoid taxation, western nations were deprived of the finances they needed to provide citizens with public goods. Second, because international lenders were not subject to much regulation, they often engaged in "unsound lending practices" that threatened financial stability. Finally, because these realities increased domestic and international inequality, Soros feared they would encourage people to commit unspecified "acts of desperation" that could damage the global system's viability.

Soros saw, far earlier than most of his fellow centre-leftists, the problems at the heart of the financialised and deregulated "new economy" of the 1990s and 2000s.

It was Bush's "militarist response to the attacks of September 11," continues, Bessner, that "compelled Soros to shift his attention from economics to politics:"

Everything about the Bush administration's ideology was anathema to Soros. [...] Soros worried, wisely, that Bush would lead the nation into "a permanent state of war" characterised by foreign intervention and domestic oppression. The president was thus not only a threat to world peace, but also to the very idea of open society. [...]

In his 2006 book The Age of Fallibility, Soros attributed Bush's re-election to the fact that the US was "a 'feel-good' society unwilling to face unpleasant reality". Americans, Soros avowed, would rather be "grievously misled by the Bush administration" than confront the failures of Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terror head-on. Because they were influenced by market fundamentalism and its obsession with "success", Soros continued, Americans were eager to accept politicians' claims that the nation could win something as absurd as a war on terror.

Bush's victory convinced Soros that the US would survive as an open society only if Americans began to acknowledge "that the truth matters"; otherwise, they would continue to support the war on terror and its concomitant horrors. How Soros could change American minds, though, remained unclear.

But, notes the piece, "During the 2016 Democratic primary race, he was an avowed supporter of Hillary Clinton."

If Soros continues to fund truly progressive projects, he will make a substantial contribution to the open society; but if he decides to defend banal Democrats, he will contribute to the ongoing degradation of American public life.

update (7/13):
Soros responded by calling Bessner's piece "a thorough and insightful examination of my philosophy and actions over a lifetime" but nonetheless identifies a "fatal flaw" in it - "a set of mistaken assumptions about the beliefs and convictions underpinning that philosophy and those actions:"

Bessner says I believe "in a necessary connection between capitalism and cosmopolitanism" and that I believe "a free society depends on free (albeit regulated) markets". He further asserts that my "class position made [me] unable to advocate the root-and-branch reforms necessary to bring about the world [I desire]".

To the contrary, I have been a passionate critic of market fundamentalism at least since I first discussed the phenomenon in my essay "The Capitalist Threat" in the Atlantic Monthly 20 years ago.

In the Atlantic piece he mentioned, Soros provided more background on his ideas:

The term "open society" was coined by Henri Bergson, in his book The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932), and given greater currency by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).

Written during the Second World War, The Open Society and Its Enemies explained what the Western democracies stood for and fought for. The explanation was highly abstract and philosophical, and the term "open society" never gained wide recognition. Nevertheless, Popper's analysis was penetrating, and when I read it as a student in the late 1940s, having experienced at first hand both Nazi and Communist rule in Hungary, it struck me with the force of revelation.

"When I had made more money than I needed," he wrote, "I decided to set up a foundation. I reflected on what it was I really cared about:"

Having lived through both Nazi persecution and Communist oppression, I came to the conclusion that what was paramount for me was an open society. So I called the foundation the Open Society Fund, and I defined its objectives as opening up closed societies, making open societies more viable, and promoting a critical mode of thinking. That was in 1979. [...] By now I have established a network of foundations that extends across more than twenty-five countries (not including China, where we shut down in 1989).

"After the collapse of communism," he continued, "the mission of the foundation network changed:"

Recognizing that an open society is a more advanced, more sophisticated form of social organization than a closed society (because in a closed society there is only one blueprint, which is imposed on society, whereas in an open society each citizen is not only allowed but required to think for himself), the foundations shifted from a subversive task to a constructive one--not an easy thing to do when the believers in an open society are accustomed to subversive activity.

The collapse of communism laid the groundwork for a universal open society, but the Western democracies failed to rise to the occasion. The new regimes that are emerging in the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia bear little resemblance to open societies. The Western alliance seems to have lost its sense of purpose, because it cannot define itself in terms of a Communist menace.

"Popper showed that fascism and communism had much in common," he wrote, "even though one constituted the extreme right and the other the extreme left, because both relied on the power of the state to repress the freedom of the individual:"

I want to extend his argument. I contend that an open society may also be threatened from the opposite direction--from excessive individualism. Too much competition and too little cooperation can cause intolerable inequities and instability.

Insofar as there is a dominant belief in our society today, it is a belief in the magic of the marketplace. The doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism holds that the common good is best served by the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest. Unless it is tempered by the recognition of a common interest that ought to take precedence over particular interests, our present system--which, however imperfect, qualifies as an open society--is liable to break down. [...]

I consider the threat from the laissez-faire side more potent today than the threat from totalitarian ideologies. We are enjoying a truly global market economy in which goods, services, capital, and even people move around quite freely, but we fail to recognize the need to sustain the values and institutions of an open society.

I've read two of his books, The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered (1998) and Open Society: Reforming Global Capitalism (2000), but this article is probably more than enough of a primer for most people.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on July 7, 2018 9:02 PM.

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