The Age of Fallibility
by George Soros (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
(First published: October, 2006)
George Soros is a household name associated mainly with philanthropy, but also for his advocacy for “open societies”. More than any other member of the seriously rich, he has spread his wealth around in a manner directed at affecting change throughout the globe.
He is candid about his aims: to bring about change “to the benefit of mankind”. And he is not averse to blowing his own trumpet, albeit while stressing humility. This he has done in eight previous books. He now implies, in this, his ninth, that it may be his last and probably stands in place of an autobiography.
It certainly brings one up to date with his thinking and plans and gives a good insight into how and why he came to be the man he is. It is also obvious why he is the bane of the neo-con Right in the United States, while at the same time being regarded with considerable scepticism by much of the Left and the liberal intelligentsia.
The neo-conservative and Christian fundamentalist backers of President George W. Bush will obviously never forgive him for providing $50 million to kick-start a campaign to try to stop Bush from being re-elected. And although Soros is a dedicated anti-communist, he is also seen as a dangerous radical seeking to undermine the American way.
Yet it seems, especially from this latest literary foray, that he is may best be characterised as a liberal idealist, desperate to turn the United States and the rest of the world in the direction of the sort of open society he maintains was envisaged in the American Declaration of Independence. As such, much of his analysis has been criticised as naive and sometimes contradictory.
But it is very much a reflection of the personal history of George Soros. Like his hero and mentor, the philosopher Karl Popper, Soros experienced the totalitarianism of both the Nazis and Soviet communism. Popper developed his theories about what he called an open society and Soros has taken this up with a vengeance.
Followers of Popper and his use of trial and error fallibility theory, developed further by Soros as reflexivity, may feel at home here. But those who regard Popper’s theories as amounting to little more than scepticism will doubtless find much to annoy them. As will anyone with a sense that an historical narrative provides a rational source of guidance for future policy decisions.
In the prologue to this three-part book, the author notes that the first part contains the philosophical argument that “to persist in the pursuit of truth we must realise that false metaphors and other misconceptions can have unintended, adverse consequences”. Although he states that the discussion in Part One “will help make the arguments in Part Two more powerful” he also advises: “Those who are not interested in this argument should turn directly to the second part of this book.”
Part Two deals with what Soros considers to be “the most pressing problems of the present moment of history”. Among these are issues such as nuclear proliferation and global warming, but his prime concern is with what he sees as as the danger of a slide toward totalitarianism, caused largely by the failure of the United States, which remains his open society model.
He notes: “America has fallen into the hands of extremist ideologues led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who believe the truth can be successfully manipulated. They have successfully manipulated a born-again president and a feel-good public.”
He goes on to describe Cheney as “a paranoid, Strangelove kind of character” as he castigates the basis for the so-called “war on terror” as well as the “war on drugs”.
He is best when describing the dangers inherent in these campaigns which he categorises as part of the “politics of fear”. But there are obvious contradictions in his aims and analysis.
For example, he sees the goal of a stable, open society as being achieved through values such as co-operation, but at the same time acknowledges that he believes greed to be part of “human nature”. And while he harshly criticises “market fundamentalism” he does not find anything fundamentally wrong with the market system; he seems wedded to what some critics have termed “capitalism with a human face”.
Yet he, who made his considerable fortune by exploiting the system, also admits that success tends to be equated with wealth, but that “the untrammelled pursuit of success provides an unstable basis for society”.
And he also blames the “adversarial character of the political and judicial systems and the ever shaper competition that prevails in all forms of economic and social activity” for the fact that “the American public has shown a remarkable indifference to being deceived”.
Yet the system that operates globally is based on economic (accompanied by social) competition that is becoming increasingly sharp and with consequences that Soros obvious finds unacceptable.
Despite his criticisms of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the US administration, he also insists that the main threat to an open society (for which read: democratic/stable) is not the problem of leadership but of what he calls “followship”; the fact that the public at large is willing to be deceived. This smacks of blaming the victims.
The third part of this book is an appendix entitled The Original Framework, which Soros states was part of an an unpublished manuscript written in 1963. It was revised for inclusion in his 1990 book, Opening the Soviet System. With typical candour he admits: “The book was published in 1 300 copies of which I bought 1 000.” So he felt it worth inclusion in The Age of Fallibility which will certainly sell more copies, and not only to the author.
By turns interesting and annoying, this book provides considerable insight into a eccentric whose concerns are widely shared even if his analysis of the reasons and notions of the way forward may not be.