(This book review was first published in Business Standard.)
George Soros is one of the wealthiest philanthropists in the world. What sets him apart from many others is not the money he spends but the fact that he is passionately committed to liberal democracy, open society and academic freedom. These political choices have won him an illustrious list of enemies including Viktor Orban in Hungary, Xi Jinping in China, Donald Trump in the United States of America, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.
If you want to learn about what Soros calls ‘political philanthropy’, read his book In Defence of Open Society (2019). It will give you an intimate view of what prompted him to start the Open Society Foundations and the Central European University with money earned from his success as a hedge fund manager. These institutions have been under sustained attack from the far right because of the agenda they wear on their sleeve. Since the book is autobiographical, what you will get access to is his own perspective. To learn about the views of his critics, you might have to look elsewhere.
Soros uses the term ‘open society’ as “shorthand for a society in which the rule of law prevails, as opposed to rule by a single individual, and where the role of the state is to protect human rights and individual freedom.” According to him, open societies should pay special attention to “those who suffer from discrimination or social exclusion and those who can’t defend themselves.” He distinguishes them from ‘authoritarian regimes’, which “use whatever instruments of control they possess to maintain themselves in power at the expense of those whom they exploit and suppress.”
Why is Soros, a man who lives in New York, inclined towards these issues in parts of the world that are deemed as dangerous? What makes him antagonize political leaders who are not known for rational dialogue? How are his political priorities shaped by events from his personal life? You will find answers to these questions in the book. Soros is a man of Jewish heritage, born in Hungary in 1930. When the Nazis occupied Hungary, and started deporting Jews to extermination camps, he was only 13 years old. Apparently, his family survived because his father made arrangements for false identity papers and hiding places.
Soros writes, “The year 1944 was the formative experience of my life. I learned at an early age how important it is what kind of political regime prevails. The Nazi regime was replaced by Soviet occupation, I left Hungary as soon as I could and found refuge in England.” Thereafter, he studied at the London School of Economics. His mentor was Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, author of a book called The Open Society and Its Enemies that was published in 1945. When Soros up the Open Society Fund in 1979, he defined its objectives as “helping to open up closed societies, reducing the deficiencies of open societies, and promoting critical thinking.”
Being a Holocaust survivor helped Soros empathize with the suffering of black people under apartheid in South Africa, and with oppressed people in other regions. His international grant-making network stepped in to support work that would champion their freedom. Though he was raised in a Jewish family, Soros does not identify as Zionist. That is an important distinction to make, especially because pro-Palestinian voices in mainstream media often equate Jewish with Zionist. That is simply not true.
Soros has been opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and has received flak from numerous Zionist organizations. His detractors also include anti-Semites who fall back on the stereotype of the rich evil Jew who controls financial institutions and, therefore, the world. Nobody is that powerful — a truth reinforced by In Defence of Open Society, a book which reveals the infrastructural, geographical and ideological challenges Soros had to confront despite all the funds at his disposal.
Does Soros address what is going on in South Asia right now, with the rise of populism and the muzzling of dissent? No. However, his reflections on crises in Europe would be useful for those who bemoan the decline of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and advocate for a South Asian Union along the lines of the European Union (EU). If we want to learn, the shortcomings are as worthy of attention as the accomplishments.
Soros writes,”The EU was meant to be a voluntary association of like-minded states that were willing to surrender part of their sovereignty for the common good. After the financial crisis of 2008, the eurozone was transformed into a creditor/debtor relationship, where the debtor countries couldn’t meet their obligations and the creditor countries dictated the terms they had to meet.”
This unequal relationship between member states has provided a fertile ground for xenophobic parties that are anti-European in character. The programme of fiscal retrenchment that led to the euro crisis has created a lot of resentment among young people in particular. They regard the EU as an enemy that has deprived them of jobs and a stable, promising future. It is hardly a surprise but populist politicians have found it worthwhile to exploit these sentiments, which got heightened with the refugee crisis of 2015.
Soros believes that, at first, most Europeans sympathized with the refugees fleeing political repression and civil war. However, they did not want their everyday lives disrupted by a breakdown of social services. The additional load on state-run service providers became a concern for them when they saw authorities struggling to cope. “The whole of Europe has been disrupted by the refugee crisis. Unscrupulous leaders have exploited it even in countries that have accepted hardly any refugees. In Hungary, Viktor Orban based his reelection campaign on falsely accusing me of planning to flood Europe — Hungary included — with Muslim refugees,” writes Soros.
This alarmist rhetoric has worked in multiple contexts because all it needs to do is stoke the fire of Islamophobia, and create the impression that refugees will take away existing jobs. Racism is rampant in Europe. Countries in Europe are beginning to look like fortresses as they create barriers for refugees despite the fact that many of these people are skilled workers, and will contribute significantly to the economies of host countries.
Soros proposes a policy solution geared towards protecting human rights, and also correcting the imbalance between member states. According to him, the EU has the right to safeguard its external borders but they must be kept open for lawful migrants. Member states must not close their internal borders because that would amount to a violation of European as well as international law.
Member states should not be forced to accept refugees they do not want to host, and refugees should not be compelled to settle in countries where they do not want to go. Soros had to flee with his family when the Nazis occupied Hungary, so a thoughtful response to the refugee crisis is something he is personally invested in. It is this personal dimension that makes the book engaging, else it would have been just another book by a billionaire.