Soros and the Open Society

So I’m back, and a happy new arbitrary period of time to my readers (both of you!).  Despite the continuing infirmity of my computer, I should be able to keep updating here.

In the last few weeks I have read quite a lot of books which impressed me profoundly: Real England, which makes me think I don’t hate the UK quite as much as I once thought (although I still don’t want to live there); Sexuality and Socialism; Is That A Fish In Your Ear?, which altered my view on language so much that I will feel compelled to post about it at some point; and I’m now speeding through a polemic called Against Love, which I’m finding thoroughly enjoyable and very well-written.  Before that, though, I read George Soros‘ book The Age of Fallibility, and considering how determined I had been that I was going to hate it, I strangely agreed with quite a lot of what it said.  Soros’ analysis of the structure of global power seems quite accurate, even if I don’t like the focus of his solutions.  The fact that it was written in 2006 dates it clearly, as he spends a lot of time raging against Bush and warning of a global financial crisis based on housing prices and mortgages, which looks awfully prescient, and praising the European Union for its stability, which doesn’t.

The first section of the book is devoted to a detailed and willfully confusing expatiation of Soros’ philosophy of life.  The only major impression I got from it was the vague feeling that the whole thing could have been summed up in about ten pages.  He insists that this is essential for an understanding of his discussion of more specific political and financial issues in the second section, and – to the extent that I understood any of it – this is true.  The focus seems to be the unknowability of truth, which produces societies ranked from ‘open’ to ‘closed’ – a closed society claims to be in possession of The Truth, be it a religious doctrine, market fundamentalism, or Nazism.  This assumption inherently destroys the validity of speech against that Truth.  An open society, however, accepts it own fallibility and recognises that it can only struggle towards an ideal, probably without reaching it, and that the ideal might change at the society’s understanding of reality grows.  Out of all the philosophical, rather than geopolitical, arguments Soros advances, I find this the most persuasive, which is lucky because the whole book is more or less based on it.  The one flaw I can see is that although Soros starts by denying the possibility of knowing the truth, he is quite selective about the doctrines to which that applies.  For instance, the prevalence of capitalism today could be taken as a Truth.  So could democracy and the rule of the people.  This does not mean they are invalid (although I take issue with the former) but to discount some ideologies as the hallmarks of a closed society ignores that an open society needs its own Truths, and distinguishing between the two arbitrarily, rather than on the basis of discussion and debate, is a risky endeavour, and surely goes against the idea of the fluidity of open society in the first place.  The development of feel-good societies in the West – another topic that Soros touches on – is connected to this criticism: surely a feel-good society requires the belief that there is some ultimate Truth or Method for dealing with problems, even if the only people who know it are politicians.  An open society must by nature be an inquisitive one if it is to keep striving for solutions, but a feel-good society sees no need for this because it is always telling itself, or being told, that solutions are readily available.

As far as Soros’ geopolitical understanding goes, a lot of what he writes in this book is obviously out of date in our slowly-collapsing world.  His estimation of how far perceptions of the United States have sunk in Europe are no longer valid, with the new wave of conservative leaders there more willing to regard the Americans as a helpmate.  The West is less willing now than it was in 2006 to construct a world order which would circumvent the Americans as a source of power.  Nevertheless, Soros’ assessment of the United States as a superpower which has, since the end of the Cold War, lost any sense of responsibility toward the rest of the world, is accurate.  It would be patently impossible to put together a coalition of nations to deal with, say, climate change without including the United States – at least if you wanted to achieve anything.  This puts the United States more than any other country in the position of being forced to reconsider its national interests for the sake of global ones – never mind that the whole concept of national interests is inherently short-sighted, as it can hardly be in the long-term national interest of the United States for the Earth to be rendered uninhabitable – yet it refuses to do so.

Soros never delves into the question of why exactly the United States, out of all the nations of the world, should be stricken by market fundamentalism to the extent that it applies it to the survival of humanity.  He ascribes so many trends to the malign influences of Bush the Second and, to a greater extent, Cheney and Rumsfeld, that I would be interested to see a follow-up volume on Obama, although I have no idea whether it would be more or less hopeful.  What I am sure of, though, is that it would advance a new version of the theory of open society, and that flexibility and clear willingness to alter his philosophy is what I most appreciated: Soros seems utterly convinced of his own fallibility, but no less determined to act for all that.  I would be hard-pressed to think of any politician who had similar levels of modesty.

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