The long read: Unlike most of the billionaire class, George Soros is not an out-of-touch plutocrat, but a provocative intellectual committed to progressive ideals which is what constructs his failures so telling

In late May, the same day she got fired by the US TV network ABC for her racist tweet about Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, Roseanne Barr accused Chelsea Clinton of being married to George Soros's nephew.” Chelsea Soros Clinton ,” Barr tweeted, knowing that the combination of names was enough to elicited a reaction. In the desultory exchange that followed, a very young Clinton responded to Roseanne by praising Soros's philanthropic work with his Open Society Foundations. To which Barr responded in the most depressing style possible, recurring false claims earlier proferred by rightwing media personalities:” Sorry to have tweeted incorrect info about you! Please forgive me! By the route, George Soros is a nazi who turned in his fellow Jews 2 be murdered in German concentration camps& stole their wealth- were you aware of that? But, we all make missteps, right Chelsea ?”

Barr's tweet was speedily retweeted by conservatives, including Donald Trump Jr. This shouldn't have surprised anyone. On the radical right, Soros is as hated as the Clintons. He is a verbal tic, a key that fits every pit. 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” kind of sinister[ person or persons] 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 preoccupation with Soros, there has been astonishingly little interest in what he actually thinks. Yet unlike most of the members of the billionaire class, who speak in platitudes and remain withdrawn from serious participation with civic life, Soros is an intellectual. And members of the public 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 “wouldve been” things of the past. He is extremely perceptive about the limits of marketplaces and US power in both national and international context. He is, in short, among the best the meritocracy has produced.

It is for this reason that Soros's failures are so say; they are the failures not merely of one man, but of an entire class- and an entire route of understanding the world. From his earliest days as a banker in postwar London, Soros believed in a necessary connection between capitalism and cosmopolitanism. For him, as for most of the members of his cohort and the majority of the Democratic party's leadership, a free society varies depending on free( albeit governed) marketplaces. But this assumed connection has proven to be a false one. The decades since the end of the cold war have demonstrated that, without a perceived existential foe, capitalism tends to undermine the very culture of trust, compassion and empathy upon which Soros's ” open society” depends, by concentrating wealth in the hands of the very few.

Instead of the global capitalist utopia predicted in the halcyon 1990 s by those who extol an end to history, the US is presently ruled by an oafish heir who enriches their own families as he dismantles the” liberal international order” that was supposed to govern a peaceful, prosperous and united world. While Soros recognised earlier than most the limits of hypercapitalism, his class stance constructed him unable to advocate the root-and-branch reforms necessary to bring about the world he desires. The system that allows George Soros to accrue the wealth that he has done has proven to be one in which cosmopolitanism will never find a stable home.


The highlightings of Soros's biography are well known. Born to middle-class Jewish mothers in Budapest in 1930 as Gyorgy Schwartz, Soros – his father changed the family name in 1936 to avoid antisemitic discrimination- had a tranquil childhood until the second world war, when after the Nazi invasion of Hungary he and his family were forcing them to assume Christian identities and live under false names. Miraculously, Soros and his family survived the war, escaping the fate suffered by more than two-thirds of Hungary's Jews. Feeling stifled in freshly communist Hungary, in 1947 Soros immigrated to the UK, where he analyse at the London School of Economics and got to know the Austrian-born philosopher Karl Popper, who became his greatest interlocutor and central intellectual influence.

In 1956, Soros moved to New York to pursue a career in finance. After spending over a decade working in various Wall street positions, in the late 1960 s he founded the Quantum Fund, which became one of the most successful hedge fund of all time. As his fund amassed staggering earnings, Soros personally emerged as a legendary merchant; most famously, in November 1992 he earned more than$ 1bn and” broke the Bank of England” by betting that the pound was priced too highly against the Deutschmark.

Karl
Karl Popper, whose writings were a key influence on Soros's thinking about the' open society ‘. Photograph: Popperfoto

Today, Soros is one of the richest humen in the world and, along with Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, one of the US's most politically influential philanthropists. But unlike Gates and Zuckerberg, Soros has long pointed to academic philosophy as his source of inspiration. Soros's thought and philanthropic career are organised around the idea of the “open society,” a word developed and popularised by Popper in his classic run The Open Society and Its Foes. According to Popper, open societies guarantee and protect rational exchange, while closed societies force people introduced to authority, whether that authority is religion, political or economic.

Since 1987, Soros has published 14 volumes 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 1990 s, Soros's defining intellectual principle is his internationalism. For Soros, the objective of contemporary human existence is to establish a world defined not by sovereign nations, but by a global community whose constituents understand that everyone shares an interest in liberty, 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 concentrates mostly on ameliorative projects such as eradicating malaria, Soros genuinely 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 expend the remainder of his life “re just trying to” make sure it does.


Soros began his philanthropic the action of 1979, when he” determined after some reflection that I had enough fund” and could therefore devote himself to constructing the world a better place. To do so, he established the Open Society Fund, which quickly became a transnational network of foundations. Though he made some endeavour at funding academic scholarships for black students in apartheid South Africa, Soros's primary concern was the communist bloc in eastern Europe; by the end of the 80 s, he had opened foundation offices in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union itself. Like Popper before him, Soros considered the countries of communist eastern Europe to be the ultimate models of closed societies. If he were able to open these regimes, he was able to demonstrate to the world that fund could- in some instances, at least- peacefully overcome oppression without necessitating military intervention or political subversion, the favoured tools of cold war leaders.

Soros set up his first foreign foundation in Hungary in 1984, and his efforts there serve as a model of his activities during this period. Over the course of the decade, he awarded scholarships to Hungarian intellectuals to bring them to the US; provided Xerox machines to libraries and universities; and offered awards to theaters, libraries, intellectuals, artists and experimental schools. In his 1990 volume Opening the Soviet System, Soros wrote that he believed his foundation had helped” demolish the monopoly of dogma[ in Hungary] by making an alternate source of financing available for culture and social activities”, which, in his estimation, played a crucial role in producing the internal collapse of communism.

Soros's use of the word tenet points to two critical elements of his thought: his fierce faith that ideas, more than economics, shape life, and his confidence in humanity's capacity for progress. According to Soros, the dogmatic mode of thinking that characterised closed societies stimulated it impossible for them to accommodate to the changing vicissitudes of history. Instead,” as actual conditions change”, people in closed societies were forced to abide by an atavistic ideology that was increasingly unpersuasive. When this dogma eventually became too obviously unplugged from reality, Soros claimed, a revolution that overruled the closed society usually resulted. By contrast, open societies were dynamic and able to correct course whenever their dogmas strayed too far from reality.

As he witnessed the Soviet empire's downfall between 1989 and 1991, Soros needed to answer a crucial strategic question: now that the closed societies of eastern Europe were opening, what was his foundation to do? On the eve of the Soviet Union's dissolution, Soros published an update of Opening the Soviet System, titled Underwriting Democracy, which revealed his new strategy: he would dedicate himself to constructing permanent organizations that would sustain the ideas that motivated anticommunist revolutions, while modelling the practices of open society for the liberated people of eastern Europe. The most important of these was Central European University( CEU ), which opened in Budapest in 1991. Money by Soros, CEU was intended to serve as the wellspring for a new, transnational, European world- and the training ground for a new, transnational, European elite.

An
An activist removing an anti-Soros poster in Budapest, Hungary. Photograph: Bernadett Szabo/ Reuters

How could Soros guarantees to freshly opened societies would remain free? Soros had come of age in the era of the Marshall Plan, and experienced American largesse firsthand in postwar London. To him, this experience showed that weakened and exhausted societies could not be rehabilitated without a substantial investment of foreign aid, which would alleviate extreme conditions and provide the minimum material base that is conducive to the right ideas about democracy and capitalism to flourish.

For this reason, in the late 80 s and early 90 s Soros repeatedly argued that” only the deus ex machina of western assistance” could attain the eastern bloc permanently democratic.” People who have been living in a totalitarian system all their lives ,” he claimed,” need outside assistance to turn their aspirations into reality .” Soros insisted that the US and western Europe give the countries of eastern Europe a substantial amount of pecuniary aid, provide them with access to the European Common market, and promote culture and educational ties between the west and the east” that befits a pluralistic society “. Once achieved, Soros avowed, western Europe must welcome eastern Europe into the European community, which would avoid the continent's future repartitioning.

Soros's prescient pleas went unheeded. From the 1990 s on, he has attributed the emergence of kleptocracy and hypernationalism in the former eastern bloc to the west's absence of vision and political will during this crucial moment. “Democracies,” he lamented in 1995, seem to” suffer from a inadequacy of values …[ and] are notoriously unwilling to take any ache when their vital self-interests are not directly threatened .” For Soros, the west had failed in an epochal undertaking, and in so doing had disclosed its shortsightedness and fecklessness.

But it was more than a lack of political will that held the west during this moment. In the epoch of” shock therapy“, western capital did flock to eastern Europe- but this capital was invested mostly in private industry, as opposed to democratic institutions or grassroots community-building, which helped the kleptocrats and anti-democrats confiscate and maintain power. Soros had identified a key problem but was unable to appreciate how the very logic of capitalism, which stressed earning above all, would necessarily undermine his democratic project. He remained too wedded to the system he had conquered.


In the wake of the cold war, Soros dedicated himself to exploring the international problems that prevented the realisation of a global open society. After the 1997 Asian financial crisis, in which a currency breakdown in south-east Asia engendered a world economic downturn, Soros wrote books addressing the two major threats he believed beset open society: hyperglobalisation and marketplace fundamentalism, both of which had become hegemonic after communism's collapse.

Soros was contended that the history of the post-cold war world, 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 routes. 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. Ultimately, because these realities increased domestic and international inequality, Soros dreaded 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, their own problems at the heart of the financialised and deregulated” new economy” of the 1990 s and 2000 s. More than any of his liberal peers, he recognised that espousing the most extreme forms of its capitalist ideology might result the US to promote policies and practices that undermined its republic and threatened stability both at home and abroad.

In Soros's opinion, the only way to save capitalism from itself was to establish a” global system of political decision-making” that heavily regulated international finance. Yet as early as 1998, Soros acknowledged that the US was the primary opponent of global organizations; by this point in time, Americans had refused to join the International Court of Justice; had declined to sign the Ottawa treaty on banning landmines; and had unilaterally enforced economic sanctions when and where they find fit. Still, Soros hoped that, somehow, American policymakers would accept that, for their own best interests, they needed to lead a coalition of republics dedicated to” promoting the development of open societies[ and] strengthening international law and the institutions needed for a global open society “.

But Soros had no programme for how to modify American elites' increasing antagonism to forms of internationalism that did not serve their own military might or supplied with direct and visible economic benefits. This was a significant gap in Soros's thought, especially given his insistence on the primacy of ideas in spawning historical change. Instead of guessing through this problem, however, he simply declared that” change would have to begin with a change of positions, which would be gradually translated into a change of policies “. Soros's status as a are part of the hyper-elite and his belief that, for all its hiccups, history was headed in the right direction built him unable to consider fully the ideological obstacles that stood in the way of his internationalism.


The George W Bush administration's militarist response to the attacks of September 11 obliged Soros to change his attention from economics to politics. Everything about the Bush administration's ideology was anathema to Soros. As Soros declared in his 2004 The Bubble of American Supremacy, Bush and his coterie espoused” a crude kind of social Darwinism” that assumed that” life is a struggle for survival, and we must rely mainly on the use of force-out to survive “. Whereas before September 11,” the excesses of[ this] false ideology were kept within bounds by the normal functioning of our democracy”, after it Bush” deliberately promoted the fear that has gripped the country” to stillness opponent and win support for a counterproductive policy of militaristic unilateralism. To Soros, affirmations such as” either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” eerily echoed the rhetoric of the Nazis and Soviets, which he hoped to have left behind in Europe. Soros fretted, wisely, that Bush would result the nation into” a permanent state of war” characterised by foreign intervention and domestic persecution. The chairwoman was thus is not merely a threat to world peace, but also to the very notion of open society.

Nevertheless, Soros was confident that Bush's” extremist ideology” did not correspond” to the beliefs and values of the majority of Americans”, and he expected that John Kerry would win the 2004 general elections. Kerry's victory, Soros foresaw, would spur” a profound reconsideration of America's role in the world” that would result citizens to reject unilateralism and embracing international cooperation.

But Kerry did not win, which forced the philanthropist to question, for the first time, ordinary Americans' political acumen. After the 2004 election, Soros underwent something like a crisis of religion. 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 preoccupation 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 persuaded 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 intellects, though, remained unclear.


The financial crisis of 2007 -2 008 promoted Soros to refocus on economics. The breakdown did not surprise him; he considered it the predictable outcome of marketplace fundamentalism. Rather, it convinced him that the world was about to witness, as he declared in his 2008 book The New Paradigm for Financial Market,” the end of a long period of relative stability based on the US as the dominant power and the dollar as the main international reserve currency “.

Anticipating American decline, Soros started to place his hopes for a global open society on the European Union, despite his earlier fury at the union's members for failing to fully welcome eastern Europe in the 90 s. Though he admitted that the EU had serious problems, it was nevertheless an organisation in which nations voluntarily” agreed to a limited delegation of sovereignty” for the common European good. It thus provided a regional model for a world order based on the principles of open society.

Soros's hopes in the EU, however, were quickly dashed by three crisis that undercut the union's stability: the ever-deepening international recession, the refugee crisis, and Vladimir Putin's revanchist assault on norms and international law. While Soros believed western nations could theoretically mitigate these crises, he concluded that, in a repetition of the failures of the post-Soviet period, they were unlikely to band together to do so. In the last 10 years, Soros has been disappointed by the facts that the west refused to forgive Greece's debt; failed to develop a common refugee policy; and would not consider augmenting imposing sanctions on Russia with information materials and financial support Ukraine required to defend itself after Putin's 2014 annexation of Crimea. He was further disturbed that many nations in the EU, from the UK to Poland, witnessed the re-emergence of a rightwing ethnonationalism supposed lost to history. Once Britain voted to leave the union in 2016, he became convinced that” the disintegration of the EU[ was] practically irreversible “. The EU did not serve as the model Soros hoped it would.

Hungarian
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban in parliament for a vote on the' Stop Soros' anti-immigration laws that he introduced. Photo: Tamas Kaszas/ Reuters

Soros experienced firsthand the racialised authoritarianism that in the last decade has threatened is not merely the EU, but republic in Europe generally. Since 2010, the philanthropist has repeatedly sparred with Viktor Orban, the authoritarian, anti-immigrant prime minister of Hungary. Recently, Soros accused Orban of” trying to re-establish the kind of sham republic that prevailed[ in Hungary] in the period between the first and second world wars “. In his successful re-election campaign earlier this year, Orban expended much of his time on the campaign trail demonising Soros, playing on antisemitic tropes and claiming that Soros was secretly plotting to send millions of immigrants to Hungary. Orban has also threatened the Central European University- which his government derisively refers to as” the Soros university”- with closure, and last month parliament passed new anti-immigration legislation known as the” Stop Soros” laws.

But while Orban threatens Hungary's open society, it is Donald Trump who threatens the open society writ big. Soros has attributed Trump's victory to the deleterious impacts market fundamentalism and the Great Recession had on American society. In a December 2016 op-ed, Soros was contended that Americans voted for Trump,” a con artist and would-be despot”, because” elected leaders failed to meet voters' legitimate expectations and aspirations[ and] this failing led electorates to become disenchanted with the prevailing versions of republic and capitalism “.

Instead of reasonably distributing the wealth created by globalisation, Soros argued, capitalism's “winners” failed to ” compensate the losers”, which led to a drastic increase in domestic inequality- and indignation. Though Soros believed that the US's” Constitution and organizations … are strong enough to resist the excesses of the executive branch”, he worried that Trump would form confederations with Putin, Orban and other authoritarians, which would make it near-impossible to build a global open society. In Hungary, the US and many of the parts of the world that have attracted Soros's attention and investment, it is clear that his project has stalled.


Soros's path ahead is unclear. On one hand, some of Soros's latest actions suggest he has moved in a left-wing direction, particularly in the areas of criminal justice reform and refugee aid. He recently created a money to assist the campaign of Larry Krasner, the revolutionary Philadelphia district attorney, and backed three California district-attorney candidates similarly devoted to prosecutorial reform. He has also invested $500 m to alleviate the global refugee crisis.

On the other hand, some of his behaviour indicates that Soros remains committed to a traditional Democratic party ill-equipped to address the problems that define our moment of crisis. During the 2016 Democratic primary race, he was an avowed advocate of Hillary Clinton. And recently, he lambasted potential Democratic presidential nominee Kirsten Gillibrand for recommending Al Franken to resign due to his sexual harassment of the radio host Leeann Tweeden. If Soros continues to fund genuinely 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.

Throughout his career, Soros has made a number of wise and exciting interventions. From a democratic view, though, this single wealthy person's ability to shape public affairs is catastrophic. Soros himself has recognised that” the connection between capitalism and democracy is tenuous at best “. The problem for billionaires like him is what they do with this information. The open society envisions a world in which everyone recognises each other's humanity and engages each other as equals. If most people are rubbing for the last pieces of an ever-shrinking pie, however, it is difficult to imagine how we can build the world in which Soros- and, indeed, many of us- would wish to live. Currently, Soros's cosmopolitan dreams remain precisely that. The question is why, and the answer might very well lies in the fact that the open society is only possible in a world where no one- whether Soros, or Gates, or DeVos, or Zuckerberg, or Buffett, or Musk, or Bezos- is allowed to become as rich as he has.

A longer version of such articles first appeared at nplusonemag.com

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