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Review of George Soros, In Defense of Open Society

Review of George Soros, In Defence of Open Society, Public Affairs, Hachette Book Group Inc, 2019. 

The name of George Soros is once again in the news. Mr. Soros has stirred up a lot of trouble over the years, but he probably doesn’t even know about half the accusations that are being thrown at him. Even President Trump has helped to spread the rumours. Although Mr. Soros has been a relentless self-promoter for more years than most of the population has been alive, the current conspiracies are unlikely to have any connection with him.

What is the real George Soros all about? His books give us some clues.

Soros has written many books and in 2019, published In Defense of Open Society. I find Soros and his books to be inspiring and intelligent, wiley and naive, irritating and fascinating.

George Soros is one of those last remaining larger-than-life characters from the 20th century. He has had an astounding career spanning continents, a World War, and the falling of the Iron Curtain in Europe. He is a billionaire investor and philanthropist. Soros became one of the most famous currency speculators in the world when on September 16, 1992, known as Black Wednesday, he shorted the British pound. In spite of the British government’s efforts to shore up the value of the Pound, currency speculators forced the value of the currency to fall. Famously, Soros is said to have made 1 billion dollars that day.

As of February 2018, George Soros had a net worth of 8 billion, having donated more than $32 billion to his Foundation, the Open Society Foundation. In 2013, at 83 years of age Soros became a husband for the third time and married his 42 year old girlfriend Tamiko Bolton.

Although his wealth and fame draw our attention to him, Soros’ ‘In Defense of Open Society’ is not focused on either earning money or becoming famous. Nor is Soros concerned with defending open societies because this would allow for greater money-making.

Soros’ roots were in the Hungary of the Communist era. He considers the countries of communist Eastern Europe to be models of closed societies. 

In contrast, French philosopher Henri Bergson and Karl Popper, whom Soros studied with in the 1950’s at the London School of Economics developed the idea of ‘open society’. Without digging into these philosophical roots, open society has to do with permitting and encouraging critical thought and free expression. This would be a society free of tribal affinities such as religion, national, or traditional economic formulas.

Soros begins his book by saying that he believes we are living in a revolutionary moment. He reviews some of his previous experiences of revolutionary moments such as 1944 and escape from the Nazis and the 1980’s and the collapse of the Soviet system. The book is a selection of some of his recent writings. 

Soros believes that open society is under threat especially through technology and he focuses on China’s role in this threat. In the second chapter, he discusses the challenges of political philanthropy. Academic freedom is a great concern and so chapter three looks at this subject. In chapter four, Soros addresses some high-level concerns with the banking system. Chapter five is about the European Union. In chapter six, he unpacks his understanding of reflexivity and connects this understanding with his prediction of the financial crisis and how to deal with it.

Tellingly, Soros' first chapters consist of remarks delivered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. For many critics, Soros is closely connected with Davos. For them, Davos represents a sort of elitist, jet-setting social class that rules the political and corporate spheres with velvet gloves. 

From this start, my mind never left behind questions about the prominence of George Soros. He would be renowned simply on the basis of his social status and wealth. But what about his ideas? Are his ideas valuable in themselves? And there is the thought that Soros and his ideas might be up on the stage because he is a wealthy, well-connected, and powerful person. And perhaps because his ‘progressive’ ideas are representative of the elites that rule the Western world?

Progressive ideology is most helpful when in critique mode and so this book is most helpful when criticizing the intrusiveness of social media, the oppression of China, how the global financial crisis was handled, and the tragedy of the European Union. The chapter on running a philanthropic foundation reveals an elegant, naive, well-funded fiasco. If you are curious about his well-known funding for opposition to closed national borders, it is not spelled out in this book. 

I enjoyed spending some time reading this awe-inspiring and uber-connected writer, philanthropist, and finance titan, but was left with some doubts about his motives and political accomplishments.