There’s No Such Thing as Good Philanthropy

In the world of philanthropy, George Soros is about as good as it gets. But allowing plutocrats, even progressive ones, to decide what's best for the rest of us is fundamentally unjust and undemocratic.

A view of the champagne flutes at A Dinner with Rick Bayless and Daniela Soto-Innes, part of the Bank of America Dinner series at Hôtel Plaza Athénée on October 14, 2016 in New York City. Dave Kotinsky / Getty for NYCWFF

George Soros, the billionaire-financier-cum-philanthropist, has become the bête noire of the global far right. Everyone from radio host Alex Jones, who has referred to the hedge-fund manager as a “fundamentally evil” “Nazi collaborator”; to Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán, who passed a “Stop Soros” law that bans “supporting illegal migration”; to Donald Trump confidante Rudy Guiliani, who lambasted the philanthropist as a “horrible human being,” has made Soros central to their politics. To the reactionary right, Soros is the perfect embodiment of the “globalist” (read: Jewish) capitalism they vilify for its supposedly anti-national, anti-Christian, and anti-white cosmopolitanism.

But who, exactly, is the real Soros? Born in Hungary in 1930 as György Schwartz, Soros and his family survived the Holocaust by assuming Christian identities. After World War II, Soros moved to the United Kingdom, where he studied at the London School of Economics under the Austrian-Jewish exile philosopher Karl Popper. In the mid-1950s, Soros migrated to New York City, and in 1970 he launched one of the first — and most successful — hedge funds. He soon racked up a fortune, and, in 1979, founded a philanthropic organization he christened the Open Society Fund, after Popper’s influential 1945 treatise, The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Popper’s book was a foundational text for Cold War liberals, providing a philosophical justification for liberal democracy’s superiority. Popper defined an “open society” as one that “sets free the critical powers of man,” whereas a “closed society” was one in which governments force people to abide by an official doctrine such as Nazism or communism. Open societies were superior to closed societies because they allowed for the free exchange of ideas and thus social progress; closed societies necessarily descended into static decay.

Soros was profoundly influenced by Popper’s ideas. Upon establishing his foundation, he explicitly dedicated himself to opening “closed societies.” And in the context of the late Cold War, this meant, for Soros, focusing on liberalizing the Soviet Union and the nations of Eastern Europe. In 1984, Soros established his first foreign foundation in his birth nation of Hungary, and by the decade’s end he had created foundations in Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.

This raft of new organizations attempted, as the Open Society Foundations’ (OSF) website puts it, to “encourag[e] dissent behind the Iron Curtain.” Perhaps most importantly, Soros’s foundation network helped spread samizdat throughout the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union by donating photocopy machines to a diversity of dissident organizations. Though the impact of Soros’s foundations is difficult to determine, it’s fair to say that in the late 1980s they played at least a minor role in opening the public spheres of several Eastern European countries.

Soros himself, however, remained relatively unknown until September 1992, when the financier made around $1 billion by shorting the British pound (an action that forced the United Kingdom to remove its currency from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism). This windfall, Soros notes, “brought an important change in my status as a public figure. … Suddenly I had a voice that could be heard.”

In subsequent decades, Soros has published a plethora of books, articles, and op-eds addressing topics from high finance to international relations to epistemology. Unlike many members of the billionaire class, Soros made clear he was dedicated not only to making money, but also to the world of ideas. And his ideas were taken seriously. In 2014, to take just one example, the Journal of Economic Methodology devoted an entire issue to exploring his philosophy.

Alongside his writing, Soros used his wealth to advance a series of progressive causes, including criminal justice and immigration reform, marriage equality, and Puerto Rican reconstruction.

Soros’s theory of change even made room for a modicum of democratic participation. When advocating drug policy reform, for instance, the OSF supported a ballot initiative that allowed citizens to vote to legalize medical marijuana.

Soros has further sought to draw down the US military’s role in the world, donating significant funds to the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a new anti-militarist think tank (of which I am a fellow). Here, Soros has taken a page from the playbook of US libertarians and has concentrated his energies on building an intellectual cadre capable of combatting the bipartisan foreign policy establishment.

But the philanthropist’s most heterodox opinions are found in his critique of “market fundamentalism,” the idea, as he put it in his 1998 book The Crisis of Global Capitalism, that “all social activities and human interactions should be looked at as transactional, contract-based relationships and valued in terms of a single common denominator, money.” Soros has long criticized this notion as a perversion that prevents human beings from reaching their full potential; against many of his class, he has promoted significant government regulation of the economy. During the financial crisis of 2008, Soros went so far as to advocate bank nationalization, a plan rejected by Larry Summers, who informed the billionaire that his idea “amounted to socialism and would never be accepted in America.”

Interestingly, in his new book, In Defense of Open Society, Soros presents the pursuit of money as, ultimately, worthless. Recalling the moment he decided to become a philanthropist, Soros writes:

On one occasion [in the 1970s], I subscribed to a very large amount of a new issue of British government bonds on short notice without previously arranging the necessary financing. I was rushing around the City of London, trying to find a credit line, and while walking down Leadenhall Street, I thought I was having a heart attack. “I took on this risk to make a killing,” I told myself, “but if I die now, I end up as the loser. It doesn’t make sense to risk my life to make money.” That is when I decided to do something worthwhile with my money and set up a foundation.

The question, then, is why an astute, intelligent person like Soros dedicated so much of his life to piling up so much unnecessary money. To explain this decision, we might look to Soros’s historical experience, which perhaps accounts for why he — and many other people of Jewish descent at midcentury, from Milton Friedman to Alan Greenspan to Murray Rothbard — placed their faith in capitalism.

The first half of the twentieth century was bad for Jews. It started with a series of pogroms in the Russian Empire and culminated in the Holocaust, in which six million European Jews were exterminated, and the Doctor’s Plot, in which Joseph Stalin falsely accused a number of Jewish doctors of conspiring against the Soviet Union. To a transatlantic generation of Jews like Soros, capitalism seemed to offer a means to escape the irrationalism that they concluded was endemic to nationalism, whether of the Nazi or Soviet variety. In a capitalist society, Soros and others hoped, Jews would finally be judged on their merits (in this case, their ability to make money, the sine qua non of capitalist exchange) as opposed to their racial background. Capitalism, in short, appeared to provide a rationalist means for Jews to enter society as fully enfranchised persons.

This is not to excuse Soros’s pro-capitalist politics, but to understand it. If socialists hope to convince people to reject capitalism, we must examine not only its pathologies, but also its appeal. After all, Soros was correct: in a capitalist society, money really does make your life better, and in most instances prevents your persecution. Our task today is to persuade the majority of Americans — and indeed, the majority of the world’s peoples — that the very purpose of socialism is to extend freedom to everyone, and to make clear that the problem with capitalism is that true freedom is available only to the wealthy. It is on this last point that Soros, who despite his criticisms of market fundamentalism remains a capitalist, unfortunately falters.

In Defense of Open Society is, like several of Soros’s previous books, a collection of already-published pieces. As such, no coherent argument emerges, and the book reads like a series of disjointed policy recommendations: US foreign policy should emphasize diplomacy; social media companies should be regulated; the European Union should be reinvented; Western elites should unite against Chinese and Russian authoritarianism, and so forth.

Soros does not lack for confidence, and in most instances he is certain he knows best. He recalls, for example, that in 1992 he proposed that International Monetary Fund aid given to post-Soviet governments “be earmarked for the payment of pensions and unemployment benefits and its distribution closely supervised” so as to ensure a stable transition to capitalism. Western officials chose a different tack: “shock therapy,” which helped foster the widespread kleptocracy that fueled Russians’ disillusionment with capitalist democracy. Soros “firmly believe[s] that if [his] … proposal had been followed, history would have taken a different course. The people of the Soviet Union would have seen some practical and tangible benefits from Western aid, and their attitude toward the West would be quite different.” Soros might very well be correct — shock therapy was an unmitigated disaster. But his certitude uncomfortably echoes the certainty that he finds so deplorable in closed societies.

By far the most interesting parts of In Defense of Open Society concern Soros’s reflections on his philanthropic career. The financier’s basic understanding of his philanthropy is that, though he personally is “both selfish and self-centered,” he nevertheless has established a “selfless foundation.” He was able to do so, he affirms, because his developed “consciousness” — namely, his recognition of the inherent fallibility of all human beings (an idea he borrowed from Popper) — has made him “self-aware” and, in some sense, able to transcend his narcissism and work for the greater good.

It helps, Soros says, that he uniquely embodies three qualities: wealth, perspicacity, and an interest in human betterment. It is this mixture, Soros claims, which has enabled him to establish a selfless foundation exempt from falling prey to “the influence of special interests that are in conflict with the common interest.” Implied here, of course, is the notion that Soros is able to determine “the common interest” without much democratic input — that plutocrats like him, by virtue of their wealth, can decide what’s best for the rest of us.

While Soros himself appreciates that his “success in the financial markets has given [him] a greater degree of independence than most other people,” he does not suggest creating a world in which everyone, not just the Soroses (or the Gateses or DeVoses or Zuckerbergs) enjoys a similar freedom. Instead, he meekly argues “that our democracy would function better if a few more people” — by which he means plutocrats — “advocate[d] policies that are in conflict with [their] business interests.”

But if the recent history of capitalism has taught us anything, it is that the overwhelming majority of oligarchs will happily accrue absurd amounts of wealth to everyone else’s detriment. When we depend on the wealthy for social transformation, social transformation never occurs.

Soros, who in the final analysis remains a dedicated support of capitalism, can’t quite countenance this simple, repeatedly proven, fact: a world of billionaires — which is to say, a world in which some people have power and most people have none — is a world in which there will never be a truly open society.

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Daniel Bessner is the Pyle Associate Professor in American Foreign Policy in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington; a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft; and a contributing editor at Jacobin.

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