In her latest volume about George Soros—not a biography but a critical appraisal of his clout—Emily Tamkin closes with something of a fanciful thought experiment for someone who has graced his pet causes with well over $34 billion since 1979. Asking whether the world would be a better place had Soros donated that amount instead to a more neutral cause—say, something like the arts—Tamkin answers, “no.” In implying that she finds the impact of Soros’ inexhaustible philanthropy on net somewhat ambiguous, Tamkin also puts the valuation of the harm done by Soros at just under $34 billion.
“George Soros doesn’t need to be a part of this conversation.”
To be sure, Tamkin doesn’t characterize Soros’ philanthropy as expressly harmful. As U.S. editor of The New Statesman, her progressive leanings unquestioningly accommodate the billionaire’s professed dedication to an “open society.” Instead, she means that his career as an international financial predator, which has raked in the billions he’s able to contribute to philanthropy, complicates Soros’ legacy and calls into question the very economy of moral offsetting.
Focusing on the provenance of philanthropic fortunes is a journalistic genre popularized by the likes of Jane Meyer of The New Yorker and Christopher Leonard of New America. Tamkin, however, spares Soros the kind of contrarian scrutiny that her confrères relentlessly employ on other magnates. The Koch brothers (to cite just one example) have come to epitomize dark money as the result of just that kind of journalistic treatment—a cartoonish pair of right-wing 80-year-olds using billions’ worth of oil reserves to fuel pollution, gun violence, and inequality.
None of this is to take the Koch’s defense; full disclosure: I once worked at one of their non-profits, and welcome the spotlight conferred on them. But the unsparingly mistrustful way they are covered in the media provides a stark contrast to Soros’ rather benign public image, even though the unspeakable riches he has made as a hedge fund tycoon are no less “dark” than the Kochs’ oil-based wealth. This double standard is heightened as the Kochs overhaul their philanthropic portfolio to break into bipartisan territory—from the Tea Party’s bread-and-butter libertarianism to open immigration, community-based programs and criminal justice reform—and Soros dives head-first into radical woke politics. Yet somehow, the tripwires around each of these names have been laid in exactly inverse ways. Defending the Kochs turns you, according to most media, into some kind of right-wing nutjob—as does finding fault with Soros.
This double standard is made even worse by the reek of anti-semitism that, somewhat inexplicably, even the faintest critique of Soros triggers in mainstream conversations. A charge of anti-semitism was leveled against Michael Anton in mid-September for suggesting that Soros-funded activist groups may be laying the groundwork for contesting the November election result with further rioting if Trump wins. Notre-Dame Professor Patrick Deneen was recently attacked as an anti-semite on Twitter by German writer Yascha Mounk, for simply alluding to unnamed “cosmopolitan elites” at a debate for a French magazine.
Most recently, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was interrupted on Fox’s “Outnumbered” for his alleged anti-semitism when he alluded to Soros’ role in electing scores of pro-defund-the-police district attorneys. (In the wake of Floyd’s murder, these DAs, overwhelmingly funded with Soros’ PAC money, and campaigning on BLM-friendly platforms, are now butting heads with law enforcement nationwide.)
“I am not sure we need to bring Soros into this,” anchor Melissa Frances interjected, dog-whistling the anti-anti-Soros viewership. Another guest on that segment, Liberal FOX pundit Marie Harf piled on, confirming that exposing Soros’ funding of left-wing causes is politically incorrect verboten: “George Soros doesn’t need to be a part of this conversation.”
In a piece for The American Mind, Gingrich later defied this edict and called the omissive way the media handles Soros’ aggressive electoral involvement as a “Soros cover-up.” Nonetheless, Soros remains untouchable, even as he rises to become one of the country’s largest political donors. In April, a POLITICO report estimated his spending ahead of the 2020 cycle at nearly $30 million.
THE MORAL SITUATIONALISM OF GEORGE SOROS
When it comes to probing his inner motives, both Soros and his more conspiracist detractors harken back to his experience as a Hungarian Jew in the 1930s and 40s. According to the official narrative, his family—Soros was né Schwartz—spared countless other Jews the horrors of deportation by forging fake Christian identities just as they had done themselves. Others—right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza among them—point to his father’s membership in Budapest’s Judenrat, the council of collaborationist Jews tasked with odiously rounding up deportees and confiscating Jewish property.
Perhaps the best way to understand Soros, then, is as a moral situationist: someone willing to adjust his ethics to fit his interests at any point in time, whether private or philanthropic.
Whether Soros’ experience of Nazi occupation was that of the oppressors, the oppressed, or some combination of both, it has likely dimmed as a motive for his present-day philanthropy (he was only between the ages of 9 to 15 then). Yet, even as his political investments reach record levels, a discussion of his present motives has been made all but impossible by the thicket conspiracies and taboos that shroud his image. For this, anti-Soros conspiracists are as guilty as those dismissing the slightest Soros-skepticism as an anti-semitic trope, making it almost impossible to have a sober conversation about the actual influence that the man wields.
As per Soros’ own telling, he likes to portray himself as the mere executioner of Karl Popper’s theory of the open society—a lifetime fixation that began as an undergraduate tutee of Popper’s at the London School of Economics (LSE) after World War II. Shortly after graduating, Soros wrote a book detailing this obsession (which, by his own admission, was mere regurgitation of Popper’s writings). In 1966, after he had made a fortune in America, Soros convened a seminar of philosophers at his Bedford estate in upstate New York to serve as a sounding board to test the idea of a first philanthropic foray with Popper’s framework as a basis.
In her book, Tamkin quotes an attendee of these salons—and Popper himself—as being somewhat underwhelmed by Soros’ actual grasp of philosophy. Many a big-buck philanthropist has been doubted for allegedly concocting grand, all-encompassing narratives that are mere marketing whitewash, but Soros’ invocation of the “open society” sounds particularly hollow. For all his claims that the framework is his life’s pursuit, he only began advocating for it in the 1980s, after three decades solely dedicated to filling his pockets.
Perhaps the best way to understand Soros, then, is as a moral situationist: someone willing to adjust his ethics to fit his interests at any point in time, whether private or philanthropic. One with a knack for grand narratives—or what others have called a “messiah complex.”
But what exactly is an “open society,” and is that vision commensurate with the public in countries that Soros spends fortunes trying to “open up”? To take him again at his word, his intellectual vagaries begin with a rejection of totalitarianism. Soviets and Nazis, Soros joins Popper in stating, were destined to unleash suffering on a mass scale for deludedly claiming an “ultimate truth.” His twin premises of fallibility (everyone’s worldview is necessarily partial and flawed) and reflexivity (basing policies on one worldview alone will bring unintended side effects) make the “open exchange of ideas” humanity’s sole hope of progress.
The first issue with this vision has to do with how Soros understands “totalitarianism.” Along with Hitler and Stalin, Soros condemns the “market fundamentalism” that governs our economies as “totalitarian.” For some reason, Soros’ own friends in high finance, with whom he likely shares worldviews and philanthropic portfolios, fail to register as “market fundamentalists.” He has no issue with equating “market fundamentalism” with Nazi and Soviet regimes, while ignoring his own fealty with the milieus that cash in on, to one degree or another, liberalized financial markets.
What happens when “opening society” means deeming opposing views as beyond the pale, even when they’re held by a majority?
The second issue lies in whether the kind of “civic empowerment” he seeks to foster in the hopes of “opening” society is really a means to level out the public square, or if it’s just a way for his own preferred lot of voices to gain the upper hand. What happens when “opening society” means deeming opposing views as beyond the pale, even when they’re held by a majority?
Soros’ quest for voices to empower has been fraught from the get-go with—you guessed it—fallibility. (After all, Soros is “a practitioner of fallibility” by his own recognition.) In the 1980s, South Africa was low-hanging fruit for putting the “open society” framework into practice, but Soros got gamed. He pledged to donate a lot of money in student scholarships to black South Africans living under apartheid. The South African government let him do it, but, at the same time, cut its spending for similar programs by the same amount without informing him.
In that clumsy start began Soros’ transformation into a global philanthropist, an ambition that lasts to this day. He followed his campaign in South Africa with large investments in printing costs and scholarships to the UK for Eastern Bloc dissidents seeking to break the Communist Party’s monopoly on information. Soros insists that societies are never open enough (a funny concept of “open”) and that they need constant tendering by people with his mindset. He kept up his funding of civil society groups in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, working against the prequel of national-populism that he decries for having taken over Hungary and Poland in recent years.
Ironically, he partook in some of the dysfunction that spurred that very nationalism. In Russia, he was a major buyer in a state-run auction for privatized company shares, an auction that he later blamed for cheaply enriching oligarchs (like himself). In 1992, he maneuvered to “break the Bank of England,” attempting to devalue the pound and prompting the UK’s exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) of pegged pre-Euro currencies. Had Soros not massively shorted the pound, financial journalists agreed at the time, Britain would have never been forced out of the ERM. (Would Brexit have happened had Britain not had that first run-in with the European system? Nobody knows. But Soros’ spine must chill at the mere speculation: he has donated several million to a campaign to reverse the British people’s stated will in their 2016 referendum, and keep the UK in the EU.)
Through it all, Soros has earned enemies aplenty: “breaking the Bank of England” was coined at the time of Black Wednesday by the Daily Mail. Malaysian PM Mahathir bin Mohamad once called Soros a “moron” for the similar role he played in fueling the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Still, there’s a conundrum about the thicket of smears that have accompanied Soros’ name. Despite his investments spanning half the globe, the conspiracies portraying him as a globalist plotter only emerged after his involvement in the United States.
In 1996, Soros turned his focus to helping legal immigrants retain their benefit checks in the wake of President Clinton’s Welfare Reform Bill and helping others gain residency and citizenship in the United States, much like he himself had done in the 1950s. To his credit, he was an early backer of prison reform and drug decriminalization, even when going against the “War on Drugs” still earned you scorn for “importing all the world’s misery to America,” in Nancy Reagan’s words. And it was George Soros who pioneered the cross-partisan modus operandi that is now standard practice across the American third sector. (The Kochs, for instance, are a key ally of Soros on the issues of criminal justice and foreign policy.)
he core flaw of the “open society” framework is that it’s peculiarly rigid and is inelastically implemented across the most varied national contexts.
Then and there began Soros’ honeymoon with America’s left, a journey that has taken him towards ever more radical territory: funding abortion through Planned Parenthood, funding the anti-Israel campaigns of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement (which have far deeper roots in anti-semitism than most of Soros’ detractors), and, more recently, funding BLM-linked so-called “racial justice” groups.
And one doesn’t need to embrace the presumption that his larger aim is to ethnically reshuffle Europe and America to seriously question Soros’ moves in the immigration space. His support of migrant caravans journeying up through Central America to the Mexican border is still only alleged. Still, his support of legal aid NGOs in Hungary had a clear effect in stoking the inflow of yet-to-vet asylum-seekers across the Serbian border throughout Europe’s migrant crisis of 2015. Even if you have doubts that cracking down on said NGOs (as Viktor Orbán’s government did with a transparency bill the media called “anti-Soros”) repairs the harm done, one can’t help but wonder, how exactly did stifling the will of his fellow countrymen “open up” Hungary? Soros knew full well that Hungarians saw the inflow of migrants as a threat. Once again, his pre-baked sensibilities mattered more than the sensibilities that prevailed in the countries he got involved in.
The Rubicon between philanthropy and political advocacy was crossed in 2004, when he put $27 million toward a SuperPac backing John Kerry’s campaign to defeat the so-called “American supremacist ideology” (Soros’ own words) that led George W. Bush to intervene in Iraq. (This he did even when it meant contradicting a plethora of earlier endorsements of campaign finance reform. Then, Soros accused big Republican donors of putting their thumbs on the political scale—only to follow up by putting his own.)
There’s a short-sightedness in Soros’ philanthropy that’s deeper than all this. By parachuting millions into slowly-opening societies, the magnate has been paradoxically nurturing a closed mindset in their midst. Tamkin reports Soros as having some awareness that his money attached onto whoever accepted it a reputation for being “detached from their home base,” but he doesn’t seem to have learned the lesson.
The heart of Soros’ weakness is not his early philanthropic amateurism, nor his intellectual superfluousness, nor even the incongruence between his anti-capitalist rhetoric since 2008 and a lifetime making a killing in hedge funds. The core flaw of the “open society” framework is that it’s peculiarly rigid and is inelastically implemented across the most varied national contexts. Soros applies this framework invariably, with a dismissive insouciance of the practical ramifications on the countries he targets.
Drowning the leftmost radical causes in money—whether it be pro-open borders NGOs in Hungary or campaigns to defund police departments in riot-infested American cities—doesn’t magically move the bulk of public opinion in that single direction. Instead, his investments risk anathematizing entire societies and sowing distrust. Soros’ philanthropic experiments close, not open, societal cohesion. He may be disillusioned one day to find out that his long-standing infatuation with radical “discourse” directly trades off with radical dialogue. The pity is that if he ever does realize his mistake (which is unlikely), it will have been at the expense of the majority of dissenters who felt drowned, not empowered, by a gush of Soros’ money.
The potential of big philanthropy to divide societies and stoke tension is only poised to loom larger in our era of heightened polarization—but Soros seems to be upping the ante regardless. To curry favor with a growingly radicalized American left, he has spent $220 million this summer on BLM. Whether he does it out of political expediency or sincere belief, it is hard not to see these’ investments as undermining any purported sense of the phrase “open society.”