There is something to sympathise with when it comes to George Soros's position on what he calls “the open society”. However, judging him by his deeds, there are many reasons to be sceptical. Therefore, in loyalty to the ad hominem fallacy, perhaps his words can stand despite his deeds. Having said that, many of his words (though taken at different times) are also self-contradictory.
Soros's understanding of Karl Popper - from whom he got the idea of an open society - seems to be broadly correct in its largely unspecified details. (As primarily expressed in Popper's well-known book The Open Society and its Enemies.) It is that Popperian vision which people can have some sympathy with; not Soros's own take on it.
Here's George Soros on the – or his - open society. He says:
“An open society such as ours is based on the recognition that our understanding of reality is inherently imperfect. Nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth. As the philosopher Karl Popper has shown, the ultimate truth is not attainable even in science. All theories are subject to testing and the process of replacing old theories with better ones never ends.”
No one can deny that “our understanding of reality is inherently imperfect”. It's what the consequences of our accepting that are. It's also the case that “nobody [not even George Soros] is in possession of the ultimate truth”. But so what? No one claimed otherwise outside of crazed fanatics and dictators.
In any case, what Soros says on the subject of open societies seems written into modern democracies regardless of the work of Karl Popper. Indeed it can even be said that Soros's own version of Popper is a little vague; though it won't be anathema to any kind of totalitarian (whether Left or Right).
Why mention totalitarians? Because both Karl Popper and Soros experienced Nazi totalitarianism. Soros also experienced communist totalitarianism.
Soros (in his George Soros on Globalization and interviews) wrote:
“You know, I learned at a very early age that what kind of social system or political system prevails is very important. Not just for your well-being, but for your very survival. Because, you know, I could have been killed by the Nazis. I could have wasted my life under the Communists. So, that's what led me to this idea of an open society. And that is the idea that is motivating me.”
The obvious point to make here is that Soros sees the open society in very personal terms. Perhaps that's not a big deal. However, according to others and indeed himself, his experiences with the Nazis were entirely positive.
The interesting thing, according to Soros, is that the open society needn't be instantiated by any particular political system. Not even exclusively by Western democracies. This is what Soros himself had to say (in 2003) on the matter:
“First, there is no single sustainable model for national success. Second, the American model, which has indeed been successful, is not available to others, because our success depends greatly on our dominant position at the center of the global capitalist system, and we are not willing to yield it.”
There may not be a “single sustainable model for national success”. Nevertheless, it surely must be the case that we can rule out certain models – even many models.
All this also makes me think that if Soros's open society is so flexible (or so vague), then surely it can't be much of a productive (or substantive) political concept. If it isn't instantiated by Western democracies, then how much meat is there to his theory of an open society? (We'll see in a second that Soros's theorising about an open society is very different from his practice in politics itself.)
Does Soros give any examples of non-Western states that instantiate the open society? No. Does Soros give any speculative (or possible) realisations of an open society? Not really.
Soros's Politically-Specific Open Society
Soros's defence of the open society includes believing that “it's possible to be opposed to the policies without being unpatriotic”. In full:
“The people currently in charge have forgotten the first principle of an open society, namely that we may be wrong and that there has to be free discussion. That it's possible to be opposed to the policies without being unpatriotic.”
What if Soros only have a problem with Republican “policies”? Indeed what if his views, funding (of activist groups, etc.) and actions could very possibly lead to the destruction of the United States? Is all that still “patriotic”?
It was mentioned that Soros is keen to stress that his open society is flexible in nature. Yet Soros is extremely party-political when it comes to actually advancing his open society. For example, he states:
“This election transcends party loyalties. Our future as an open society depends on resisting the Siren's song.”
I love it! Yes, at first Soros says that the 2003/4 American “election transcend[ed] party loyalties”. Yet it's also crystal clear that he wanted his readers to reject the Republicans (or Bush) and embrace the Democrats. That “Siren's song”, after all, was sung by none other than President Bush. That also means that the/his open society is best advanced by the Democratic Party and not by the Republican Party. In fact Soros believed that the open society isn't advanced at all by the Republicans; at least not under George W. Bush... and now not under Donald Trump either.
Let's see what more Soros has to say about Republicans and his open society.
Soros pitted Bush W. Bush against his – our? - open society. Moreover, Soros portrayed Bush as even worse than a villain. He writes:
“The supremacist ideology of the Bush Administration stands in opposition to the principles of an open society, which recognize that people have different views and that nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth.”
Now all that's very heavy stuff. Apart from the loaded and rhetorical material about the “supremacist ideology of the Bush administration”, we can still ask if it's really impossible to square such a Republican administration with an open society. And if not, why not?
Soros even has the audacity to cite another case of Bush running up against an open society. According to Soros, “President Bush has shown that he is incapable of recognizing his mistakes”. Unlike Soros himself, Bush was/is not a Popperian fallibilist. Not only that:
“[Bush] insists on making reality conform to his beliefs even at the cost of deceiving himself and deliberately deceiving the public.”
Is that unlike all other American Presidents? There's certainly copious evidence that this can also be applied to other American presidents. Unless these things are only bad when the President discussed is a Republican; not, say, a Democrat.
Soros became even more explicit about the Republican Party when he said that the “Republican Party has been captured by a bunch of extremists”. So, here again, it can be said that the Republican Party doesn't seem to fit Soros's very own open-society template.
Soros continued and gave some reasons why the Republicans (as political actors) may be excluded from his open society. It's primarily to do with what he calls “market fundamentalism”. He continues:
“People who maintain that markets will take care of everything, that you leave it to the markets and the markets know best. Therefore, you need no government, no interference with business. Let everybody pursue his own interests. And that will serve the common interest.”
There is such a thing as “market fundamentalism”; though only in the sense that there's also anti-market fundamentalism, collectivist fundamentalism, fundamentalism about the importance of eating eggs, etc. Indeed one can take a fundamentalist position on anything. The problem is, however, that the vast majority of people who speak about “market fundamentalism” are against the market – full stop. This is just as those who speak about “neoliberalism” are against capitalism – full stop. Noam Chomsky, for one, is always talking about “market fundamentalism” and “neoliberalism” - thus many others do too. So does that mean that Noam would like a moderate market or capitalism – to misquote the man – with its gloves on (rather than off)?
As it is, Soros claims that he's not an anti-market fundamentalist. And, as a billionaire, he isn't. Indeed he went on to say that there “is a good foundation for this” market fundamentalism. Though it's only “a half-truth”.
Religion in an Open Society
Strangely enough (or perhaps not), Soros ties his political fallibilism into a stress on the importance of religion. His basic position is that because “understanding is imperfect”, then religion must come to our rescue. In his own words:
“Faith plays an important role in an open society. Exactly because our understanding is imperfect, we cannot base our decisions on knowledge alone. We need to rely on beliefs, religious or otherwise, to help us make decisions. But we must remain open to the possibility that we may be wrong so that we can correct our mistakes. Otherwise, we are bound to be wrong.”
This seems like a reasonable position; except for the fact that different religions believe and say different things. So what, exactly, is Soros talking about here? Is he referring to religions generally or the religions of the United States? For example, how would Islamic sharia law squared with the U.S's “separation of church and state”?
And just as it was stated that Soros is very particularistic about the political instantiation of his open society (despite his claims to the contrary), he's also very particularistic about religion within his open society (again, despite his claims).
Soros believes that some religions are more equal than others. Take George W. Bush again. His Episcopal (“Protestant yet Catholic”) religion doesn't appeal to Soros. Or at least as it's expressed through - or by - Bush himself. In the following, Soros is both patronisingly positive and negative. He writes:
“There is something appealing in the strength of [Bush's] faith, especially in our troubled time. But the cost is too high. By putting our faith in a President who cannot admit his mistakes we commit ourselves to the wrong policies.”
Again, Soros is saying things about Bush that he could have said about many other American presidents. But these presidents weren't both George W. Bush and Republican.
Conclusion: Open Societies and Global Government
Soros is often very specific as to how his open societies tie in with global government. Indeed he believes that the prime purpose of a global government is to bring about open societies.
Could it be, though, that Soros has got this the wrong way around? Surely, according to Soros's own lights, open societies should come first. It's open societies which should bring about a global government. After all Soros has often stated that “democracy can't be imposed on non-democracies”. Hence it must surely be the case that a global government can't impose open societies on states either. You'd think that Soros would believe that open societies must be the First Cause of all things global, democratic and political. Not so, says Soros himself:
“I advocate an alliance of democratic states, with a dual purpose. One, to promote what I call open society. I talk about an alliance of open societies which would first foster the development of open societies within individual countries, because there's a lot that needs to be done in that effort.”
In the above Soros stressed open societies. In the following he stresses global government – or at least global/”international institutions”. He continues:
“And secondly, to establish basic international law and international institutions that you need for a global, open society.”
Here again, global government comes first and open societies are said to follow. However, the idea of bringing about open societies seems ridiculous. Indeed international institutions - or a global government! - imposing open societies is no less silly and dangerous an idea than individual states attempting to impose democracies on non-democracies with the help of military power.