Late last month, the same day she got fired from 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 provoke a reaction. In the desultory exchange that followed, the youngest Clinton responded to Roseanne by praising Soros’s philanthropic work with his Open Society Foundations. To which Barr responded in the most depressing and expected way possible, repeating false claims earlier proffered by the likes of Glenn Beck and Dinesh D’Souza:
Sorry to have tweeted incorrect info about you!I Please forgive me! By the way, 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 mistakes, right Chelsea?
Barr’s tweet was quickly retweeted by conservatives, including Donald Trump, Jr. This shouldn’t have surprised anyone. On the radical right, Soros comes up almost as often as the Clintons, invoked by media personalities—Beck and D’Souza, but also Alex Jones, Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, and Sean Hannity—as a one-word answer to the question of liberal hegemony. He is a verbal tic, a key that fits every hole. Soros’s “nam[e] evoke[s] an emotional outcry from the red-meat crowds,” former Republican congressman Jack Kingston recently told the Washington Post. They view him as a “sort of sinister [person who] plays in the shadows.” This version of Soros is often indistinguishable from the anti-Semitic caricature that has dogged the philanthropist for decades—and rich Jews like him for centuries. But in recent years the caricature has evolved into something that more closely resembles a James Bond villain. The elders of Zion had nothing on this new, all-powerful Trump-era Soros. Even to conservatives who reject the darkest fringes of the far-far right, Breitbart’s description of Soros as a “globalist billionaire” dedicated to making America a liberal wasteland is uncontroversial common sense.
Over the last decade, the anti-Soros rhetoric on the right has migrated from message boards and fringe platforms like InfoWars, to Twitter, and back to InfoWars, now a mainstream platform. But in spite of the obsession with Soros, there is surprisingly little interest in what he actually thinks—in anything that isn’t a hagiographic account of his career in high finance or a murky tale about his philanthropic commitments. Unlike most of the members of the billionaire class who speak in platitudes and remain withdrawn from serious engagement with civic life—Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg come to mind—Soros is an intellectual. The person who emerges from his popular books and many articles is not an out of touch plutocrat, but a provocative and consistent thinker unambiguously 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. Soros is as comfortable with Wittgenstein as he is with Warren Buffett, which makes him a sui generis figure in American life, someone whose likes we will not see again for quite a while. 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.
It is for this reason that Soros’s failures are so telling; they are the failures not merely of one man, but of an entire class—and an entire way 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 depends on free (if regulated) markets. But this assumed connection has proven to be a false one. The decades since the end of the cold war have demonstrated that, absent a perceived existential enemy, 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—one of whom is Soros.
Instead of the global capitalist utopia predicted in the halcyon 1990s by those who proclaimed an end to history, the United States is presently ruled by an oafish heir who enriches his family as he dismantles the “liberal international order” that was supposed to govern a peaceful, prosperous, and united world. While Soros recognized earlier than most the limits of hypercapitalism, his class position made him unable to advocate the root and branch—read: anti- or post-capitalist—reforms necessary to bring about the world he desires. The system that allows George Soros to accrue the wealth that he has has proven to be a system in which cosmopolitanism will never find a stable home.
The highlights of Soros’s biography are well known. Born to middle-class Jewish parents in Budapest in 1930 as György Schwartz, Soros—his father changed the family name in 1936 to avoid anti-Semitic discrimination—led a tranquil childhood until World War II, when after the Nazi invasion of Hungary he and his family were forced 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 newly communist Hungary, in 1947 Soros immigrated to the United Kingdom, where he matriculated 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 City to pursue a career in finance. After spending over a decade working in various Wall Street positions, in the late 1960s he founded the Quantum Fund, which became one of the most successful hedge funds of all time. As his fund accrued staggering profits, Soros personally emerged as a legendary trader; most famously, in November 1992 he earned over $1 billion and “broke the Bank of England” by betting that the pound was priced too highly against the Deutschmark.
Today, Soros is one of the richest men in the world and, along with Gates and Zuckerberg, one of the United States’ most politically influential philanthropists. But whereas Gates lists middlebrow authors like Steven Pinker and John Brooks as his favorite thinkers and Zuckerberg doesn’t seem interested in much besides tax evasion and pablum, Soros has for decades pointed to academic philosophy as his source of inspiration. Throughout his career, he has committed himself to writing systematically about social, economic, and political ideas. In particular, he has highlighted Popper’s 1945 classic The Open Society and Its Enemies as key to his worldview.
Since 1987, Soros has published nine books (two of which he updated and rereleased), two essay collections, and a number of pieces in the New York Review of Books, New York Times, and elsewhere. These texts make clear that, similar to many on the center-left who rose to prominence in the 1990s, Soros’s defining intellectual feature is his internationalism, or, in the words of the alt-right, his “globalism.” 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.
Soros’s commitment to internationalism is as much personal as societal. He has described himself in terms that echo the archetypal wandering Jew, writing that he does “not belong to any community” and takes “pride in being in the minority, an outsider.” Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t moderated the brutal onslaught of anti-Semitic attacks he has been subjected to throughout his life, especially since he began working in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Despite this assault, Soros has not embraced ethnonationalism or religion but has been straightforward in his derision of the particularities of national and ethnic identities. 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 blitzkrieg of the anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and xenophobic right-wing nationalism ascendant in the United States 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’s thought and philanthropic career are organized around the idea of the “open society,” a term developed and popularized by Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies. In Popper’s schema, open societies guarantee and protect rational exchange, while closed societies force people to submit to authority, whether that authority is religious, political, or economic.
Soros has attempted to open foreign societies he deemed closed by creating within them the infrastructure and culture upon which he believes the free exchange of ideas and capital must rest. He has also tried to combat two ideas hegemonic in the United States that he considers antithetical to the open society: the belief “that the common interest is best served by allowing everyone to look out for his or her own interests,” which he terms market fundamentalism; and the conviction that US interests are best served when the nation is a hyperpower. And he has promoted a global open society by encouraging the reform of international institutions like the World Bank and United Nations, which he considers atavistic, cumbersome, and incapable of solving the grave problems the world’s peoples presently face.
Soros began his philanthropic activities in 1979, when he “determined after some reflection that I had enough money” and could therefore devote himself to making 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 effort 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 1980s, 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 could demonstrate to the world that money could—in some instances, at least—peacefully overcome oppression without necessitating military intervention or political subversion, the favored 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 United States; provided Xerox machines to libraries and universities; and offered grants to theaters, libraries, intellectuals, artists, and experimental schools. In his 1990 book 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 [dissenting] cultural and social activities,” which, in his estimation, played a critical role in producing the internal collapse of communism.
Soros’s use of the word dogma points to two critical elements of his thought: his fierce belief that ideas, more than economics, shape life, and his confidence in humanity’s capacity for progress. For Soros, progress was in the final analysis an intellectual problem. Throughout his writings he repeatedly stands Marx on his head, returning him to the original Hegelian position. According to Soros, the dogmatic mode of thinking that characterized closed societies made 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 finally became too obviously disconnected from reality, Soros claimed, a revolution that overturned the closed society usually occurred. Closed societies were thus very different from open societies, which were dynamic and able to correct course whenever their dogmas strayed too far from reality. In some sense, then, Soros considered the Eastern Bloc’s collapse overdetermined, though he still believed human action was necessary to bring about the final breakdown.
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 updated version of Opening the Soviet System, titled Underwriting Democracy, which revealed his new strategy: he would dedicate himself to building permanent institutions that would “sustain the ideas that motivated [anticommunist revolutions]” while modeling the practices of open society for the liberated peoples of Eastern Europe. The most important of these was Central European University (CEU), which opened in Budapest in 1991. Funded by Soros, CEU was intended to serve as the wellspring for a new, transnational, European world—and the training grounds for a new, transnational, European elite.
In its first years, most of CEU’s professors hailed from Western Europe or the United States and educated a mixed constituency of Western and Eastern European students, though Soros only provided the latter with full scholarships. In this way, the university attempted to construct an Eastern European elite whose members were committed to open society and able to steer their countries in the liberal capitalist direction Soros hoped they would go. At the same time, Soros continued to promote intra-European solidarity. For instance, in Hungary the foundation supported “Western know-how programs,” such as “media workshops” that trained Eastern Europeans in western cultural and professional mores, and “East-East programs” that published materials created in other Eastern European countries in Hungarian. While he never framed his project in this way, Soros was in effect attempting to solve the age-old “Jewish question” by building a pan-European society in which religion, ethnicity, and nationality were publicly inconsequential.
Despite the creativity and relentlessness of his philanthropic efforts, from the beginning Soros was anxious that his project would fail in the long term. “There is no easy transition from closed to open society,” he wrote in 1990, eight years before Viktor Orbán would emerge to prove him right. “It is not enough to remove the constraints of a closed society; it is necessary to construct the institutions, laws, habits of thought, yes, even traditions of an open society.” How could Soros ensure that newly 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. This was a critical experience that demonstrated to him 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 would enable the right ideas about democracy and capitalism to flourish.
For this reason, in the late 1980s and early 1990s Soros repeatedly argued “that only the deus ex machina of Western assistance” could make the Eastern Bloc permanently democratic. “People who have been living in a totalitarian system all their lives,” he claimed, “lack the knowledge and experience necessary to bring [open society] about. They need outside assistance to turn their aspirations into reality.” Soros insisted that the United States 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 cultural and educational ties between the west and the east “that befit a pluralistic society.” Once accomplished, Soros avowed, Western Europe must welcome Eastern Europe into the European community, which would prevent the continent’s future repartitioning.
Soros’s prescient pleas went unheeded. For the remainder of his life he attributed the emergence of kleptocracy and hypernationalism in the former Eastern Bloc to the west’s “lac[k] [of] vision and . . . political will” during this crucial moment. “Democracies,” he lamented in 1995, seem to “suffer from a deficiency of values . . . [and] are notoriously unwilling to take any pain when their vital self-interests are not directly threatened.” For Soros, the west had failed in an epochal task and in so doing had revealed its shortsightedness and fecklessness.
But it was more than a lack of political will that constrained the west during this moment. In the era 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 seize and maintain power. Soros had identified a key problem but was unable to appreciate how the very logic of capitalism, which stressed profit 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 realization of a global open society. After the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, in which a currency collapse in Southeast Asia engendered a world economic downturn, Soros wrote three books—1998’s The Crisis of Global Capitalism, 2000’s Open Society, and 2002’s On Globalization—that addressed the two major threats he believed beset open society: hyperglobalization and market fundamentalism, both of which had become hegemonic after communism’s collapse.
Soros argued 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 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 center-leftists, the problems at the heart of the financialized and deregulated New Economy of the 1990s and 2000s. More than any of his liberal peers, he recognized that embracing the most extreme forms of its capitalist ideology might lead the United States to promote policies and practices that undermined its democracy 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 United States was the primary opponent of global institutions; by this point in time, Americans had refused to join the International Court of Justice; had declined to sign the Mine Ban Treaty; and had unilaterally imposed economic sanctions when and where they saw fit. Still, Soros hoped that, somehow, American policymakers would accept that, for their own best interests, they needed to lead a coalition of democracies 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 program for how to modify American elites’ increasing hostility to forms of internationalism that did not serve their own military might or provide them 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 engendering historical change. Instead of thinking through this problem, however, he simply declared that “change would have to begin with a change of attitudes, which would be gradually translated into a change of policies.” Soros’s status as a member of the hyperelite and belief that, for all its hiccups, history was headed in the right direction made 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 compelled Soros to shift his attention from economics to politics. After the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, he concluded that it was US unilateralism and its attendant disregard for other countries that prevented the cooperation upon which a global open society must depend. For this reason, between 2001 and the 2004 presidential election, Soros dedicated himself to rebuffing—publicly, loudly, and repeatedly—the Bush Administration’s arguments about the need for unrestrained American hegemony. Bush also inspired Soros to align himself explicitly with the Democratic Party, which he had never done so vociferously before.
Everything about the Bush Administration’s ideology was anathema to Soros, who fulminated against the administration at the very moment self-described center-leftists like Tom Friedman were genuflecting to power in a performatively masculine obeisance. As Soros declared in his 2004 The Bubble of American Supremacy, Bush and his coterie embraced “a crude form of social Darwinism” that assumed that “life is a struggle for survival, and we must [therefore] rely mainly on the use of force 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 fostered the fear that has gripped the country” to silence opposition and win support for a counterproductive policy of militaristic unilateralism. To Soros, assertions 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 worried—wisely—that Bush would lead the nation into “a permanent state of war” characterized 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.
But the Bush Administration’s foreign policies forced Soros to confront an intellectual puzzle; while he believed in most instances the creation of open societies could be accomplished through financial measures, he admitted that it sometimes necessitated military intervention, as in the examples of the Somali, Haitian, and Bosnian civil wars. How, then, could he square his liberal internationalism, which accommodated the possibility of violence and bloodshed, with his rejection of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy? To do so, Soros developed the notion of “the people’s sovereignty.” According to Soros,
Sovereignty belongs to the people; the people are supposed to delegate it to the government through the electoral process. But not all governments are democratically elected and even democratic governments may abuse the authority thus entrusted to them. If the abuses of power are severe enough and the people are deprived of opportunities to correct them, outside interference is justified. . . . By specifying that sovereignty belongs to the people, we can penetrate into the nation-state and protect the rights of people.
Soros therefore explicitly endorsed the “responsibility to protect,” a legal doctrine popular amongst liberal jurists like Samantha Power in the 1990s and 2000s. But why didn’t Saddam Hussein’s oppression of Iraqis violate the people’s sovereignty, as the Bush Administration argued in the run up to the Iraq War? Like other liberal internationalists, Soros had arrived at an unstable and unsatisfactory, yet widely held, position: foreign intervention was justifiable when a member of the elite who had the world’s best interests at heart said it was.
Nevertheless, for Soros the idea of the people’s sovereignty was more than just a matter of convenience. It was proof of his remarkable, if unexamined and ultimately shallow, faith in ordinary people’s political instincts. He was certain, for instance, that Bush’s “extremist ideology” did not “correspon[d] to the beliefs and values of the majority of Americans,” and he expected that John Kerry would win the 2004 presidential election. Kerry’s victory, Soros anticipated, would spur “a profound reconsideration of America’s role in the world” that would lead citizens to reject unilateralism and embrace 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 faith. Adopting the chauvinism common to many émigrés to the United States throughout its history, in his 2006 The Age of Fallibility Soros attributed Bush’s reelection to the fact that the United States 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 United States 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.
The financial crisis of 2007–2008 encouraged Soros to refocus on economics. The collapse did not surprise the philanthropist, who considered it the predictable upshot of market fundamentalism. Rather, it was most important for convincing him that the world was about to witness, as he declared in his 2008 The New Paradigm for Financial Markets, “the end of a long period of relative stability based on the United States 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 (EU), despite his earlier anger at the union’s members for failing to fully welcome Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Though he admitted that the EU had serious problems, it was nevertheless an organization 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 crises that undercut the union’s stability: the ever-deepening international recession, the Middle Eastern 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 ten years, Soros has been disappointed by the fact that the west refused to forgive Greece’s debt; failed to develop a common refugee policy; and would not consider augmenting Russian sanctions with the materiel 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 United Kingdom to Poland, witnessed the reemergence of a right-wing ethnonationalism thought lost to history. By January 2016, these various crises led Soros to affirm that “the EU [was] on the verge of collapse”; once Britain voted to leave the union the following June, he became convinced that “the disintegration of the EU [was] practically irreversible.” The EU did not serve as the model Soros hoped it would.
Soros experienced firsthand the racialized authoritarianism that in the last decade has threatened not only the EU, but democracy in Europe generally. Since 2010, the philanthropist has repeatedly sparred with Viktor Orbán, the nationalist, Euroskeptic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant prime minister of Hungary. Recently, Soros accused Orbán of “trying to reestablish the kind of sham democracy that prevailed in the period between the First and Second World Wars in Admiral [Miklós] Horthy’s Hungary” for the sole purpose of “perpetuat[ing] [himself] in power.” The prime minister, for his part, has alleged that Soros’s foundations desire to undermine Hungary by making it easy for people who “come from a different [i.e., Islamic] way of life and a different culture” to settle there. For Soros, Orbán’s behavior recalls that of the fascists; for Orbán, Soros is a Jewish foreigner who cannot possibly comprehend the interests of real (Christian) Hungarians.
The battle between Soros and Orbán has heated up since March 2017, when Hungary’s Ministry of Human Capacities informed Michael Ignatieff, the rector of Central European University—which Orbán’s government derisively refers to as “the Soros university”—that CEU might be closed for awarding “foreign university degrees here in Hungary while not conducting teaching in [its] country of origin, as prescribed by Hungarian regulations.” According to a press release published by the ministry in early April 2017, which reeks of anti-Semitism,
The Soros university has enjoyed privileges unavailable to any other institution of higher education in Hungary. Even though its students are only required to attend a single course, the university has been able to issue them with two degrees—Hungarian and American. This may be good business for George Soros, but in the competition between universities it represents an unfair advantage.
Though CEU was reaccredited for five more years last February, Orbán—who won a landslide reelection in April—has refused to end his standoff with the university. (He has also pledged to introduce a “Stop Soros” bill.) A starker symbol of the failure of the open society in Hungary—Soros’s nation of origin and where his foundation got off the ground—could hardly be imagined.
But while Orbán threatens Hungary’s open society, it is Donald Trump who threatens the open society writ large. Even more than Orbán’s attack on CEU, Trump’s election demonstrated to Soros that “[o]pen societies are in crisis.” Trump is everything Soros is not: he came from wealth, he is racist, and he appears to have no major interests besides himself. The president stands, literally and figuratively, in opposition to open society and everything Soros holds dear.
Soros has correctly attributed Trump’s victory to the deleterious effects market fundamentalism and the Great Recession had on American society. In a December 2016 op-ed, Soros argued that Americans voted for Trump, “a con artist and would-be dictator,” because “elected leaders failed to meet voters’ legitimate expectations and aspirations and that this failure led electorates to become disenchanted with the prevailing versions of democracy and capitalism.” Specifically, instead of fairly distributing the wealth created by globalization, capitalism’s “winners” failed to “compensate the losers,” which led to a drastic increase in domestic inequality—and anger. Though Soros believed that the United States’ “Constitution and institutions . . . are strong enough to resist the excesses of the executive branch,” he worried that Trump would form alliances with Putin, Orbán, and other authoritarians, which would make it near impossible to build a global open society. In Hungary, the United States, and many of the parts of the world that have attracted Soros’s attention and investment, it is clear that his project has stalled.
Despite Soros’s tremendous efforts on behalf of ordinary people, in issue areas ranging from gun control to sex worker rights to education, he has never seriously grappled with the idea of the public. Strangely for someone whose project relies on changing people’s minds, in his many books Soros never once discussed education. For Soros, the majority of the demos is little more than a phantasm, occasionally glimpsed but seldom engaged; it is the elites who truly matter. In this, Soros is a typical meritocrat, speaking in grand terms about making the world a better place, but always reliant on a supposedly cognitively superior elite.
Soros’s disinterest in the public is difficult to square with his prescription for social change. Because he adheres to an ideas-driven philosophy of history, his ultimate solution to many social problems is to declare that people must experience a “change of heart.” In a 2010 lecture, for example, Soros proclaimed that capitalist democracy could be protected only if citizens followed “a rather simple rule; people should separate their role as market participants from their role as political participants. As market participants we ought to pursue our self-interest; as participants in the political process we ought to be guided by the public interest.” How, exactly, such a massive ideological shift might occur remained shrouded in mystery, as it did throughout Soros’s career.
Soros’s future path 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 super PAC to assist the campaign of Larry Krasner, the radical Philadelphia district attorney, and backed three California district attorney candidates similarly devoted to prosecutorial reform. He has also invested $500 million to alleviate the global refugee crisis. Possibly more than any other public figure, Soros recognizes the sheer injustice at the heart of the American carceral state and empathizes with the brutal lives most migrants are forced to lead. On the other hand, some of his behavior 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 supporter of Hillary Clinton. And recently, he lambasted potential Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand for urging Al Franken to resign due to his sexual harassment of the radio host Leeann Tweeden. If Soros continues to fund truly progressive projects, he will make a substantial contribution to the open society; if he decides to defend banal Democrats, however, he will contribute to the ongoing degradation of our public life.
Throughout his career, Soros has made a number of wise and exciting interventions. From a democratic perspective, though, this single wealthy person’s ability to shape public affairs is catastrophic. In one of his many insightful moments, Soros himself recognized 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 recognizes each other’s humanity and engages each other as equals. If most people are scraping 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—wants to live. Presently, Soros’s cosmopolitan dreams remain exactly that. The question is why, and the answer might very well be 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.
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