Unlike most of the billionaire class, George Soros is not an out-of-touch plutocrat, but a provocative thinker committed to progressive ideals – which is what makes his failures so telling.
In late May, the same day she got fired by the US TV network ABC for her racist tweet about Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, Roseanne Barr accused Chelsea Clinton of being married to George Soros’s nephew. “Chelsea Soros Clinton,” Barr tweeted, knowing that the combination of names was enough to provoke a reaction. In the desultory exchange that followed, the youngest Clinton responded to Roseanne by praising Soros’s philanthropic work with his Open Society Foundations. To which Barr responded in the most depressing way possible, repeating false claims earlier proferred by rightwing media personalities: “Sorry to have tweeted incorrect info about you! Please forgive me! By the way, George Soros is a nazi who turned in his fellow Jews 2 be murdered in German concentration camps & stole their wealth – were you aware of that? But, we all make mistakes, right Chelsea?”
Barr’s tweet was quickly retweeted by conservatives, including Donald Trump Jr. This shouldn’t have surprised anyone. On the radical right, Soros is as hated as the Clintons. He is a verbal tic, a key that fits every hole. Soros’s name evokes “an emotional outcry from the red-meat crowds”, one former Republican congressman recently told the Washington Post. They view him as a “sort of sinister [person who] plays in the shadows”. This antisemitic caricature of Soros has dogged the philanthropist for decades. But in recent years the caricature has evolved into something that more closely resembles a James Bond villain. Even to conservatives who reject the darkest fringes of the far right, Breitbart’s description of Soros as a “globalist billionaire” dedicated to making America a liberal wasteland is uncontroversial common sense.
In spite of the obsession with Soros, there has been surprisingly little interest in what he actually thinks. Yet unlike most of the members of the billionaire class, who speak in platitudes and remain withdrawn from serious engagement with civic life, Soros is an intellectual. And the person who emerges from his books and many articles is not an out-of-touch plutocrat, but a provocative and consistent thinker committed to pushing the world in a cosmopolitan direction in which racism, income inequality, American empire, and the alienations of contemporary capitalism would be things of the past. He is extremely perceptive about the limits of markets and US power in both domestic and international contexts. He is, in short, among the best the meritocracy has produced.
It is for this reason that Soros’s failures are so telling; they are the failures not merely of one man, but of an entire class – and an entire way of understanding the world. From his earliest days as a banker in postwar London, Soros believed in a necessary connection between capitalism and cosmopolitanism. For him, as for most of the members of his cohort and the majority of the Democratic party’s leadership, a free society depends on free (albeit regulated) markets. But this assumed connection has proven to be a false one. The decades since the end of the cold war have demonstrated that, without a perceived existential enemy, capitalism tends to undermine the very culture of trust, compassion and empathy upon which Soros’s “open society” depends, by concentrating wealth in the hands of the very few.