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In Defence of Open Society: George Soros’s worldview laid out

Book review: Insight into how billionaire thinks liberal democracies should work

In Defence of Open Society
In Defence of Open Society
Author: George Soros
ISBN-13: 978-1529343496
Publisher: John Murray
Guideline Price: £18.99

The impact of a political decision can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

George Soros discovered this as a 14-year-old running messages across Budapest for the Jewish Council during Hungary’s Nazi occupation in 1944. As the 89-year-old Hungarian-American Jewish philanthropist aptly puts it in the opening pages of In Defence of Open Society “in abnormal times the normal rules don’t apply.”

It became a life-long mantra for Soros. Particularly when thinking about three subjects the controversial billionaire is clearly obsessed by: money, politics and power. During the 1970s Soros began managing his own hedge fund in New York and personally profited more than £30 million. On Black Wednesday in 1992 Soros became known as “the man who broke the Bank of England” when he bet against the value of the pound and won an estimated £1 billion.

Soros differs from most billionaires in two distinctive ways. He is overtly political and also fancies himself as a public intellectual. He spends an entire chapter here debunking the consensus across mainstream economic theory that global financial markets have a self-correcting scientific logic where equilibrium eventually shows its face. Soros sees it in simpler terms: the entire global capitalist enterprise is a nervy game of roulette. The investor has won big at the table many times.


Soros’s wealth is now estimated to be in the region of $8.3 billion (€7.5 billion). But two years ago Soros transferred $18 billion (€16.3 billion) of his personal wealth to his Open Society Foundations. This book spends a great deal of its time discussing their ideological and social merits. The transnational networks help fund and promote democracy, education and human rights in 120 countries. Their central ethos is grounded in a liberal worldview Soros formulated while studying at the London School of Economics in the 1950s under the Austrian thinker Karl Popper. He claimed an open society is one that constantly shifts and changes in tune with powerful ideas, whereas a closed society is one that shuts down open discourse because its leaders claim to be in possession of one universal truth. Soros saw the damage the latter worldview can inflict on a society whilst living under both a Nazi and communist dictatorship in Hungary.

Soros is despised by conservatives. They see his foundations as importing a morally bankrupt cosmopolitan cultural system into what should otherwise be the private business of nation state affairs. Especially since his foundations haven’t been shy in poking their noses in four key areas of social policy that typically evoke a visceral and emotive response: immigration; reproductive rights; gender equality; and the legal status of recreational drugs. Soros spends considerable ink here discussing the latter issue. He notes that education and decriminalisation has yielded more positive results globally than the archaic Nixonian so-called “war on drugs” approach.

Relationship with Orbán

It’s given the billionaire’s enemies just the kind of ammunition they need to turn him into a mythical cartoon. Soros thus becomes a myriad of caricatures where a multitude of racist undertones emerge: Satan and Shylock reincarnated – a shady financial speculator using his blank cheque book to ubiquitously wield his influence on global power without leaving a trace of evidence behind. Reminiscent of the anti-Semitic tone imbued in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, these accusations aren’t restricted to lone wolf Twitter trolls with anonymous accounts hiding out in their mother’s basements.

Two years ago Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, spent 5.7 billion forints (€17 million) of taxpayers' money on a national billboard campaign depicting Soros as a cynical cosmopolitan outsider whose favourite pastimes include dissolving nation state sovereignty across Europe with with one hand, while pulling a magic lever that floods the entire continent with Muslim refugees with the other.

Soros says he refuses to be dragged into a personal war with Orbán. Although he does point to the ironic twist twist in this tale. It was money Soros’s foundations pumped into the Hungarian Ministry of Culture that helped kick start numerous pro-democratic movements across Hungarian universities during the 1980s. One of those evolved into Fidesz: the political party of Orbán.

Soros notes that they are now running a “mafia state” in Hungary. Soros also alludes to the fact that the Central European University he funded and founded in Budapest in 1991 was forced last year by Orbán’s government to move its operations (partially at least) westward to Vienna. The first time since the second World War that a university on European soil has been openly reprimanded by a government over ideology.

In Defence of Open Society also provides interesting insights into a multipolar world order where the rules of diplomacy are constantly changing. Soros has strong views on Ukraine’s political future; Trump’s attempts to undermine democracy in the United States; Putin’s role as both mafia don and Machiavellian prince; and the EU’s inability to keep a tight grip on monopolistic power through its infinite stream of bureaucracy.

The book has one minor weakness though: Soros’s insistence to always write from a distance. His tone can be aloof, cold, self assured and technical. But it’s an enthralling read nevertheless. Mainly because Soros always seems to find himself centre stage of the latest debacle that’s tearing the murky underworld of global politics asunder. Indeed Soros’s name is a useful metaphor for our present age of populist outrage, fake news and perpetual political scepticism. To the centre left stand the liberal metropolitan elites – dumfounded that the world they owned yesterday has suddenly vanished with no prior warning. To the far right stand the angry rabble – ready to take back a world they’ve been waiting in the wings to reclaim for quite some time.

George Soros is caught in the crossfire – on trial with no judge: accused of trying to control the world from above with his purse strings.