The Influence of Soros, Emily Tamkin. New York: Harper, 2020
Summary: More than a biography, an exploration of George Soros’ origins, how he made his money, and the motives behind his use of it in his Open Society Foundation, and the resulting contradictions.
If one were to believe some of my conservative friends, George Soros is the devil incarnate, masterminding a left wing plot for world domination and the undoing of American and global institutions, whether through currency markets or through an invasion of immigrants. I’ve found myself wondering, who is this figure–a noble capitalist, or the devil incarnate, or someone else. The chance to read Emily Tamkin’s investigative reporting on the life of Soros offered a chance to dig a bit deeper.
What Tamkin does in this book is draw the profile of a man of noble aspirations caught in the dissonance between how he acquires and wields his wealth, and the causes he supports through it. She describes his rise from a holocaust survivor from Budapest Hungary, a Jew whose lawyer father secured for the family and a number in their circles false identity documents that allowed them to pass as Christians. Some conspiracy theories have them betraying others, but the truth appears simpler, they did what they had to to survive, helping some others along the way. After the war, Soros goes to the London School of Economics, where he encountered the work of Karl Popper including Open Society and Its Enemies. Not only does Popper draw parallels between communism and fascism, but he argues that since nothing can be known with certainty, the best society is one open to diversity, allowing a striving toward understanding. These ideas are crucial to understanding Soros.
Tamkin traces Soros rise in the financial world of international arbitrage, the buying and selling of securities in different markets, making profits off of price differences. After working for other investment firms, he finally set up his own firm, the Soros Fund, later Quantum. He made, lost, and made more money, even breaking the British bank at one point, as well as the currencies of several other countries.
That was until 1979, when he set up the Open Society Fund. His first efforts toward his vision of open society was scholarships for black South Africans. He then turned to dissident movements in Eastern Europe, including his native Hungary, supporting Viktor Orban, who later became opposed Soros efforts when he came to power. Eventually, he established Central Europe University in Budapest, attracting scholars from throughout the world–his vision of open society in microcosm. In subsequent years, his attention would turn to the Balkans, later to Baltimore, where he funded approaches to addiction focused around harm reduction rather than incarceration. In 2004, he turned to elections, funding the opposition to George W. Bush in his concerns about the Iraq invasion and the suspensions of civil liberties in the Patriot Act. He also intervened with funding in the elections in the Republic of Georgia.
Perhaps here was where the narrative of George Soros as the arch-nemesis funding a liberal, far left conspiracy gained traction. While Tamkin dismisses the conspiratorial elements, she highlights to dissonance between Soros use of monetary manipulations and his wielding of vast wealth with the idea of an “open society” where all, and not just the wealthy get to play. He would argue that his own efforts gave lots of operating room to the NGO’s he funded to determine their own best course. He was not the mastermind pulling all the strings. Tamkin notes that this is the inherent conflict of wielding of wealth, whether done by Soros, or the Koch brothers, or Bill Gates, or the Ford or Rockefeller Foundations. None were utterly virtuous, albeit perhaps legal, in how they earned their wealth, and none without agenda. But the question is, is it possible to create the open society Soros envisions, when it is controlled by such powerful entities.
It is a question left unresolved by this book. Yet Tamkin on the whole appears grateful that Soros has tried to do what he has done–despite failures and opposition, with all the inherent contradictions. She helps us understand both why he is vilified, and why it is not quite that simple, and that it might be his enemies motivations that are being projected onto Soros. She comments less on this, but it also seemed to me that unlike some who invest in philanthropy, Soros took political sides and made political enemies. What is sad is that his vision of an open society gets lost, one where those with diverse backgrounds and ideas may meet, where all forms of totalitarian society are opposed.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.