The Soros Effect on Central and Eastern Europe

John Horvath   6.10.97

As the limelight on George Soros continues to grow, his name and deeds are increasingly becoming headline news in parts of the world where his influence and activities have traditionally been least felt. Some have gone to the extent to observe that he has, in effect, become a "media virus". Subsequently, because of the heightened coverage he has been receiving, much misinformation has been generated lately as to his philanthropic activities - especially in Central and Eastern Europe. John Horvath is asking what Soros really wants.

The Soros Effect on Central and Eastern Europe
 The Soros Network
 Soros and the Making of Europe

An example of the misleading information is a recent Australian radio report (Background Briefing, hosted by Tom Morton) on Soros entitled  The Freedom Broker . Although the report was extensive and generally well done, assumptions were nevertheless passed off as self-evident truths. Consequently, inherent conflicts between the "Open Society" concept and the actual societies in Central and Eastern Europe in which it is being applied were masked. In addition to this, an overly generalized and negative western view toward the region was sustained -- and even reinforced.

The Ungrateful East

To the casual observer, the fact that Soros' "noble aims aren't always applauded" (especially in Central and Eastern Europe) may appear puzzling, given the fact that so much money has been donated by him toward worthy causes in the region. Yet there is more to the unacceptability of Soros and his activities, at least from a Central and Eastern European perspective, than the fact that "Soros has been accused of being everything from an agent of international Jewish capitalist conspiracy to a Communist collaborator."
An internationalist Jewish conspirator and/or communist collaborator?
One of the main tenets of the Open Society concept, as understood by Soros, is that society should be open to risk and not be afraid to play with new ideas. While the notion that a society should be open to new ideas and different points of view is laudable, it is the risk element that makes many wary of the Open Society concept. Soros regards himself as an "uncertainty analyst", and as Tom Morton pointed out, "Soros is a man [...] who thrives on risk and uncertainty." Furthermore, Soros has been credited for being one of the few to have "correctly spotted a major historical shift, from the certainty and security of the post-war period, to an age of increasing risks and uncertainties." As Morton sums up, "he's a man for our times."
East- and Central Europe is tired of change
While much of this may be true, what Soros and his supporters overlook is that Central and Eastern Europe has gone through a different social experience than western industrial nations, and the sweeping changes that were ushered in during the last decade of this century has been very burdensome to many people in the region - socially, economically, and psychologically. The "our times" that Morton mentions, therefore, is not globally applicable. Generally, Central and Eastern Europeans don't want to take risks; in fact, there are many who harbour back with a certain degree of nostalgia and sentimentality to the "good old days" under communism. These good old days have nothing to do with a love of communism in itself, but the brief period (roughly from the late sixties to the mid-eighties) in which people had a certain amount of security and, above all, stability. Unfortunately, western observers tend to regard such longings for the recent past as plain conservatism. Admittedly, for some it has to do with the fact that they lost the privileges they had under the old regime. As for the rest, however, the conservative attitudes they hold are not so easily discernible. Because of this, foreign observers regard these people as ignorant, for they are resisting change that is in their own interest.
The Open Society concept is trapped within the western paradigm
What these observers fail to realize is that people in Central and Eastern Europe are a little tired of change. They had already taken enough risks at the beginning with the change in system, and for many the promises of a better life have been slow in coming or unfulfilled altogether. Others are torn between feelings of gratification and dissatisfaction, for they are not sure that the advantages of the post-Cold War era outweigh the disadvantages. Furthermore, the new factors on which their place in life now depends are uncertain and not clearly understood. The talk about an Open Society and taking risks is fine when there is a margin to spare - a margin for risk. However, since most in the region do not have this margin to play with (or if they do, then it is quite slim), and that there is a measure of risk in anything that is untried, many feel more comfortable in sticking with something that is certain. In addition to all this, change is habitually feared by Central and Eastern Europeans not only because of the risks involved, but because of the region's tragic historical experience of change. The underlying premise of western industrial societies - and this goes for uncertainty analysts as well - is that change is identified with new and better ways of producing or organizing things. This means not only tangible things (such as commercial products) but includes other things as well, such as ideas. Hence, the Open Society concept is trapped within this western, industrial paradigm; as with capitalism, it has formed an article of faith which surmises that the whole community unquestionably benefits from the advance of change. For the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, however, change has come to mean something entirely different. For centuries, caught in a vice between the ambitions of empire builders from east and west (Prussia/Germany, Austria, Russia, the Ottoman Empire), change has traditionally meant that someone at one time or another had seized land, exacted rents, levied taxes, etc, all for the enrichment of an outsider - at their expense. This being the psycho-historical experience of change in Central and Eastern Europe, it should come as no surprise, then, that many are wary of Soros and his Open Society concept. Many feel the historiographical process of domination continuing unabated: foreign capitalists have now replaced the empire builders of old. Since foreign capital has already made its mark in the region, people are understandably less susceptible to believe in a "limousine liberal". Thus, the reason Soros isn't applauded in Central and Eastern Europe is not merely because a few regard him as an internationalist Jewish conspirator and/or communist collaborator, but because he is simply a foreign capitalist.

Hidden Meanings

Along with the Soros paradox (a successful capitalist disseminating anti-capitalist views), what makes people wary of him and his activities is the vague concept of the Open Society itself. People can't help but feel suspicious when a successful businessman throws money around - and a lot of it - for not very clearly defined reasons. In Central and South America, people have already had a comparable negative experience of this when Rockefeller, under the guise of philanthropy, successfully displaced farmers from their land which, in turn, served the business needs of Standard Oil. The fact that Soros has been busy in the region with not only his philanthropic activities, but also is very much involved in media and communications infrastructure, has been worrying some that history may be repeating itself.
The Open Society concept poses a threat to democracy
Apart from his business interests, questions are raised as to what exactly Soros means by the Open Society. Ralf Dahrendorf, an economist and close friend of Soros, affirms that most of Soros' philanthropy is attributable to his mentor, Karl Popper. Popper's book, "The Open Society and its Enemies", does not define properly what the Open Society is, but merely points out what it is not and what it seeks to do. Along with facilitating non-violent change, "institutions" would be responsible for "piecemeal" social engineering as opposed to holistic social engineering, i.e., changing society all at once or in a big way. Aside from not properly defining the Open Society, Popper's concept has been criticized in a number of ways. The non-violence aspect to the Open Society comes under stress when put to the test, especially when confronted with the issue of nationalism. At the 1996 "Geist und Natur" (Mind and Nature) world conference in Hannover, for example, Popper observed that the outbreak of the Second World War was due in large part to the effort to avoid war in the first place. Does this cryptic observation, then, sanctify the use of violence? What is perhaps most troubling is Popper's notion of piecemeal social engineering. There are certain similarities between this and the social engineering values of Nazism and Communism, albeit the threat to personal safety is not the same. Common to all is social engineering and population control serve as a primary focus, in which popular discontent can be suppressed or channeled so that it doesn't forcefully or violently confront the controlling mechanisms of society -- be it the State, the Party, or "institutions". Hence, wherein Nazism, Communism, and Popper/Sorosism differ is the level in which social engineering takes place: Nazism bases it values on a national level; Communism on an international level; and Popper/Sorosism on an individual level. The Open Society, therefore, appears to take on the form of a society run by a benevolent oligarchy, and in which a small-scale private life is combined with large-scale constraints that are controlled and monitored by various institutions. With the doctrine of control-throughempowerment as its focus, people would become more concerned about their own immediate environments rather than worry about the big picture, which instead would be the reserve of a technocratic elite. Reform would replace revolution, and the State would ultimately fade into insignificance. Since the State in a democratic society is theoretically made up of its citizens - in other words, we are the State - the decline of State power in favour of certain institutions (of which we are not a part) means that a citizen, in theory, loses a degree of political power. Although we may still have the right to hold dissident views, the fact that these dissident views can't be acted upon by ourselves and in our own way renders such a right almost meaningless. It may be good for the individual psychologically (to say what they have on their minds) but that is about all. In the end, what would appear as the hallmarks of an Open Society - a general dissatisfaction and apathy toward the political process and state apparatus, coupled with an ensuing lack of social responsibility - poses as a direct threat to democracy. Whether this is how it will all operate remains yet to be seen. Still, in the absence of a properly defined concept, when Soros talks about the Open Society it invariably comes to mean both everything and nothing at the same time.

What Soros Really Wants

Soros is not the first person, nor will be the last, to believe in a misconceived and complicated ideology that sounds nice but carries little relevance. When all is said and done, Soros is merely part of a new group of commercial philosophers to have made their appearance in the post-modern period. Many of these "pomosophers" ["pomo" = post modern + "sophos" = wise] are business people and popstars with nagging conscious', who like to surround themselves with a host of intellectuals and artists in order to satisfy their vanity and make themselves feel intellectually important. In Europe, for instance, a like counterpart to Soros is Burda, who incidentally has close personal ties with Stoiber, the right-wing premier of Bavaria. Thus, even pomosophers can be dichotomized between left and right variants: in this case, Soros supports the pomo left; Burda, the pomo right.
What really matteres me was the concept of an open society
What Soros really wants, at the end of the day, is to be recognized as a major philosopher and to be granted respect for his ideas and activities. As Robert Slater, Soros' biographer, rightly pointed out: "Soros wants that respect; he didn't get it from Gorbachev, he would have loved to have become a kind of economic advisor to an American President, or to a Secretary of State, and I think it's always bothered him that a lot of the attention that he's gotten has been from the fact that he made so much money." As the story goes with most famous philosophers and prophets, if they aren't already predestined for greatness (usually signified by a miraculous birth or beginning of some sort), then they are either outcasts or successful members of society who undergo a psychological experience, or awakening, the result of which is a fundamental shift in their values. This culminates in a fortuitous and blessed change in their life and, in turn, that of the rest of humanity. In other words, they "see the light". Soros appears, or makes himself appear, to be following in this same tradition among philosophers and prophets. As Morton relates, "in his autobiography, Soros says that he underwent a psychological crisis in the early '80s. For a long time, he simply couldn't accept that he was a success, and the more money he made, the more insecure he felt. He separated from his wife and his business partner, and decided that he needed a new orientation in life." According to Soros himself, "after a great deal of thinking, I came to the conclusion that what really mattered to me was the concept of an open society." Many more examples of this ostentatious personality can be found in a full six hour audio tape version of his autobiography.

The Good, Bad, and Ugly

It wouldn't be a problem if the issue at hand was simply the vainglorious aspirations of a philosophically-stricken capitalist. Unfortunately, the Background Briefing radio report (and many others like it) indubitably cast a negative light on Central and Eastern Europe in face of their coverage of Soros. The first mistake they make is an overly generalized view of "good areas" and "bad areas" within the region. For instance, the Czech Republic is usually regarded as among the best. Background Briefing made mention of the Velvet Revolution and Soros' support of some of its leading figures, such as Jan Urban who, in turn, attributed to Soros the survival of the Civic Forum during the critical stage of Czechoslovakia's transition from communism.
Central and Eastern Europe - a hotbed of racism and nationalism?
By contrast, Hungary is usually criticized for its "vicious political attacks" on Soros as well as its racism and anti-semitism. Little mention is made of the fact that anti-semitic and anti-roma (i.e., anti-gypsy) attitudes are as rampant in the Czech Republic and Slovakia as in Hungary, indeed as anywhere throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, Background Briefing failed to mention that while Hungary has been critical of Soros' activities, it was the Czech Republic that went so far as to make the Central European University (CEU, then with twin campuses in both Budapest and Prague, relocate and centralize itself in Budapest alone. More extensively, the predominant western view of Central and Eastern Europe, as exemplified in the Background Briefing radio broadcast, is that the region is a hotbed of racism, anti-semitism, and renascent nationalism. Yet Tom Morton et al. don't have to look that far in order to find racists, anti-semites, and nationalists. It was not long ago that an Australian politician and member of parliament had caused a furor when she categorically stated the need to introduce more stringent measures to control immigration in order to stem the flow of undesirable Asians. Indeed, it can be argued that Australia is perhaps one of the most racist countries in the Pacific rim. To be fair to Australia, this double standard seems to apply to most western, industrial nations. Canada's problem with nationalism in the east is well known and continues to threaten to break apart the country; at the same time, in western Canada, racism against Asian immigrants is very much apparent. Many long-time residents of Vancouver (who regard their province as "God's country") lament the changing face of their city and promptly dub it "Hongcouver".
Discrimination of the East
In Europe, meanwhile, the EU is in many ways more anti-semitic and racist than Central and Eastern Europe, let alone Hungary. In Denmark the Nazi Party is legal, while in France the far-right has had much more political success through Jean-Marie Le Pen than in Hungary, where Istvan Csurka and his far-right Truth and Life party were not even able to elect a member to Parliament. Also, in Romania, voters had elected the moderate Emil Constantinescu and ignored attempts by former President Ion Iliescu when, in order to bolster his troubled re-election campaign during the run-off, he relied on anti-Hungarian rhetoric so as to instill fear and hatred toward the country's large Hungarian minority. In the Background Briefing report Martin Krygier, Professor of Law at the University of New South Wales and former lecturer at the CEU, reinforces a lingering western bias and chauvinism toward the east -one that hadn't disappeared with the Iron Curtain. This bias and chauvinism is widely prevalent and permeates all levels of discourse, including some activities supported by Soros, such as Nettime's meeting in Slovenia earlier this year. The conference title,  The Beauty and the East , unmistakably carries with it condescending notions toward what many artists and alternative thinkers - including some from the Central and Eastern European region - have toward "the east". There is no question that racism and ethnic discrimination exist in Central and Eastern Europe. However, it is no more unique to the region than it is in the west. Indeed, as the east tries to open its societies, the west is busy closing theirs. Stripped of its hypocrisy, the fortress mentality of the EU and anti-immigration sentiments of Canada, the US, and Australia ends up making Central and Eastern Europe look freer in this respect. In addition to casting a hypocritical eye toward the east, many in the west possess a confused and misconstrued notion of nationalism. Nationalism in and of itself is a cultural value which many individuals incorporate into their identity - along with other socio-cultural values such as family, region, city, etc. It is without doubt that intolerant nationalism and xenophobia are of the most destructive social forces to human dignity and liberty. Unfortunately, western observers are far too often unemphatic toward the complexities of Central and Eastern Europe's ethnic and cultural mix and simply regard the entire region en bloc, as Krygier does, as nothing more than "renaissant nationalist countries". Not only are the differences in the east levelled to the point of obscurity, using nationalism as a base denominator, the west also fails to realize that they, too, are a grouping of renascent nationalist countries themselves, albeit of a different kind. Americans are fond of referring to their nationalism as patriotism, a term which supposedly strips it of any of the negative connotations that are attached to the former. In reality, however, nationalism and patriotism are one and the same thing. Not only this, but in the west a more potentially dangerous form of nationalism has evolved.

Economic Nationalism

Economic nationalism probably poses a bigger threat to humanity than ethnic-based nationalism, for not only is it global but also covert. The myth of world trade disguises a system of world delivery by which the control and exploitation of natural resources by multinationals not only displaces people in underdeveloped nations and leaves the majority of humanity in dire misery and poverty, but also is a threat to the survival of future generations because of its induced environmental degradation. At the other end of the line, consumers and small-scale, local enterprises alike find themselves overwhelmed by the power of multinationals on the market, which leaves little room for choice and independence.
Advertising jingles operate as the national anthems for multinationals
Economic nationalism is a problem not only because it is the way business is done nowadays, but also because it shares many of the negative attributes of ethnic-based nationalism. Symbols are used not only for advertising purposes but also to reinforce allegiance (not only do the flags of multinationals flap in the wind, their symbols are also present on items of clothing, to the extent that the "swoosh" of Nike functions in much the same way as the swastika of the Nazis). Likewise, advertising jingles operate as the national anthems for multinationals. The political power of multinationals has become so great that their power rivals even that of the state. In fact, many operate as a state unto themselves. As a result, the economic policies of most nations is such that countries now compete for the business of companies, whereas before companies competed for the business of countries. Ironically, Soros himself touches on this very same problem in his article to the Atlantic Monthly of February this year entitled  The Capitalist Threat . In it he also sees certain similarities between capitalism and Nazism (as well as Communism), albeit mainly in their belief in a spirit of certainty and the possession of a scientific truth. He stops short, however, of actually equating modern-day capitalism as an economic variant of nationalism. Perhaps if Soros would concentrate more on this aspect of the capitalist threat - which would entail spending more time and money tackling the problems of poverty directly rather than the problems of philosophy indirectly - then maybe he would be able to get some of the respect he is looking for.

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The article reprinted from Telepolis