Business

George Soros to the rescue of the European ideal

By J Brooks Spector 5 April 2013

In recent days, NGO activists and their supporters have begun to be on the receiving end of an email from none other than George Soros about his latest project – Solidarity Now – urging them to come to the aid of, well, European civilisation. Not that he is talking about anything big or overwhelming there, but, then again, Soros is nothing usual himself either. J BROOKS SPECTOR took a closer look.

George Soros is an unusual man. One of the world’s richest people, he made his money in the kinds of speculative investments – buying and selling long or short positions with major amounts of money bet on the swings and roundabouts of the financial universe – that most of the rest of the world barely understands. He once made vast heaps of it by betting against the Bank of England, among his other investment projects. Soros is a Hungarian-American Holocaust survivor who has grown rich by his own wits and intellectual flexibility. Along the way he has been an avid consumer and purveyor of abstract ideas, grand, complicated investment strategies, and even grander plans to save the world. 

And just perhaps not entirely by chance he is also a strong supporter of that great, artificially constructed language – Esperanto. That was one of those visionary late 19th-century schemes that were designed to make the world a safer place – to make war on a horrific industrial scale increasingly unlikely – if everyone would only learn to speak in the same language. Esperanto would cut out all those tragic misunderstandings; and fewer linguistic misunderstandings would, in turn, mean fewer wars. Well, okay, that hasn’t worked out quite as planned, but it was a wonderfully imaginative idea. (And Star Trek’s famous and very useful universal translator with the same intellectual impetus probably owes its spiritual origins to the idea behind Esperanto as well.)

Anyway, after Soros had assembled more money than any one person can realistically use in a lifetime (just how many yachts does anyone need?), he began to endow a variety of foundations such as the Open Society Institute (OSI) that made real contributions to the rebirth and sustainability of civic society institutions and NGOs in the nascent democratic states in Eastern Europe and Africa after the collapse of communism (and Apartheid). Sometimes what the OSI has done was not flashy work, this keeping of whole tribes of NGOs alive, but democrats who believe in the power of civic institutions have lots of respect for the contributions the Soros institutions have made, and continue to make, around the world.

If anyone is counting, from 1979 to 2011, Soros’s donations totalled more than $8 billion to human rights, public health, and education causes. Moreover, his contributions played a significant role in the peaceful transition from communism to capitalism in Hungary. In 2007, Time magazine cited projects like his donation of $100 million given toward Internet infrastructure for regional Russian universities as crucial for the development of intellectual freedom. By 2007, Soros had given nearly $750 million to projects in the US as well. Still other important projects have included aid to scientists and universities throughout Central and Eastern Europe, help to civilians during the siege of Sarajevo, and funding for the Transparency International NGO.

The importance of free associations – like those his donations have supported – for democratic values and institutions has long been recognised by political thinkers and observers, perhaps none more vividly than in the writing of Alexis de Tocqueville, the early 19th-century French analyst of American society and politics. De Tocqueville had highlighted the central role voluntary associations play in the actual practice of democratic values. In our own time, Soros’s financial support closely followed upon this same understanding.

In the present circumstances, Soros has decided – in the wake of the financial crisis of the past decade, the continuing euro zone crisis and the virtual collapse of the Greek economy and the country’s government finances – that supporting democratic institutions now means saving the continent’s financial structure as well. As Soros wrote six months ago, the current euro zone crisis means: “The member countries [of the European Union] are divided into two classes – creditors and debtors – with the creditors in charge. Germany, as the largest and most creditworthy country, occupies a dominant position. As a result of current policies, debtor countries pay substantial risk premiums for financing their debt, and this is reflected in their cost of financing in general. This has pushed the debtor countries into depression and put them at a substantial competitive disadvantage that threatens to become permanent.”

Soros added, “I realised that the best place to start would be where current policies have created the greatest human suffering. Clearly, that place is Greece. Within Greece, the fate of the many migrants and asylum seekers stuck there particularly resonated with me. Clearly, their plight cannot be separated from that of the Greeks themselves. An initiative confined to migrants would reinforce the hostility they face from some in the majority. Europe has become divided into two classes – depressed debtors like Greece and controlling creditors like Germany. To reverse this, Europe must recapture its spirit of solidarity. A good place to start is where suffering is greatest, in Greece, among thousands of mistreated migrants.”

Thinking small is not in the nature of this man. In his appeal to putatively like-minded people, Soros’s email to people around the world explained, “We believe that to emerge from this crisis, Europe must reclaim its vision of a community based on solidarity. Solidarity Now supports civil society groups working in Greece and is setting up Solidarity Centres – a place for everyone in Greece affected by the crisis to gather and find solutions to shared problems. Established by the Open Society Foundations, Solidarity Now is a collaborative funding initiative, including small donations from people around Europe and larger contributions from philanthropies and individuals.”

In specific terms, Soros is supporting creation of a network of new local institutions he has dubbed “solidarity centres”. These “Solidarity Centres will offer space to new and existing civil society organisations in Greece, facilitating cooperative community solutions to pressing social and economic problems. Each locally run centre will address the unique needs of its community. Essential services provided at Solidarity Centres may include health, heating, housing, legal aid, job-seeking assistance, and support for vulnerable groups including the elderly, the sick, migrants, and asylum seekers.”

Needless to say there is a nice symmetry here – Greece and Greek knowledge have been one of the fundamental pillars of Western civilisation. To a man like Soros, it must seem inconceivable western civilisation can be maintained in its energy and vitality, without the preservation of modern Greece – even if that nation really only represents a small fraction of the modern European-wide economy. It’s the idea even more than cold numbers that seems to matter here.

Obviously, even a man as rich as George Soros has to realise his own money is insufficient for this newest cause – the salvation of Europe. And so, in his new email, Soros has also solicited the emotional and financial support from like-minded people around the world to back his venture.

In some ways, Soros’s engagement is simply the latest of many efforts to build on the idea of creating or re-creating a united European community. In fact, it is a wish that has been kicking around since the time of Charlemagne. Take a look at a map of Charlemagne’s Frankish empire – compared to the original European Economic Community –  and one gets something of a sense of just how persistent and powerful that idea has been. As HG Wells pointed out in his popular history of the world, the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, then the vast imperial dreams of Habsburg emperor Charles V, and then, more recently, Napoleon (and even Hitler in his deranged, demonic fashion) had all been motivated by some version of that same idea. And of course, pre-World War I, many in the European universe, while acknowledging they were divided by borders, languages, religions and histories, also saw their continent as one civilisation, with a common, shared heritage in the arts, culture, literature and science.

Seen in this light, George Soros, precisely because he survived the perversion of his beloved European civilisation at the time of the Holocaust, has cast himself in a central role in the salvation of the common European ideal – and its real-life manifestation in the European Union, the euro zone and related institutions. Or as Soros himself had written, “The European Union used to be what psychologists call a ‘fantastic object’, a desirable goal that fires people’s imagination. I saw it as the embodiment of an open society – an association of nations that gave up part of their sovereignty for the common good and formed a union in which no nation would have a dominant position.”

No one should have small dreams. And George Soros, now in his ninth decade, with money beyond counting and with energy left to dedicate to his pet projects, has given himself one of the largest dreams of all – saving European civilisation. DM

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Photo: Chairman of Soros foundation George Soros attends the Avoided Deforestation Partners organization conference on a sidelines of the UN climate talks in Cancun December 8, 2010.The world’s governments struggled on Wednesday to break a deadlock between rich and poor nations on steps to fight global warming and avert a new, damaging setback after they failed to agree a U.N. treaty last year in Copenhagen. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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