Saturday Sep 21

Part 1: The Idea of Open Society as a Tool to Open Societies

We speak about “closeness” and “openness” as terms characterizing relations between groups, and not relations within a group: a group can only be closed or open to another group. We’ll first consider the open case. To itself a group is always perfectly open by definition; if it should have sub-groups, it means that we are dealing with a macro-group, in which several groups are bound together in some way; a group-open-to-itself is the logical atom we are using here. But if that holds, it looks like we have shown the opposite of what we wanted: suffice to imagine a society that consists of just one group, and we have imagined a “perfectly open society”.

However, a society that consists of only one group means in practice that all its members are equally defined by one factor only, and that factor can only be death. A one-group society is a dead society. Or if alive, it is “still alive”: it has stagnated, and stagnation will inevitably produce extermination. Paradoxically, the opposite case, that of a perfectly closed society, produces the same practical result: stagnation and death. For a perfectly closed society should all consist of groups that are totally impervious to any human being. This means that it would consist of as many groups as there are individuals. That entails not only the lack of commercial or intellectual exchange, but also the total lack of exchange of words – and signs – and even of the “sweet commerce” that Shakespeare and Milton wrote about. So our perfectly monadic society will have to die due to non-procreation.

To avoid stagnation and death, differentiation is needed, and that means creation of new groups. Let’s imagine a society that uniformly believes in Ptolemaic astronomy or Newtonian physics. Then along come Copernicus and Einstein and beg to differ; out of that differentiation the uniform group breaks down into two new groups: the traditionalists and the innovators; finally the innovators win, the group differences are dissolved, and once again we have only one group, which now believes uniformly in Copernican astronomy and Einsteinian physics. That’s how astronomy and physics have progressed.

That progress is paid for by a temporary destruction of the status of perfect self-openness of the uniform group. This is a risky thing to do, even in science, and I chose an example from the development of science precisely because in science the risks are minimal. Yet in the times of Copernicus the Catholic Church would punish any attempt to break the uniformity and create the group of the believers in a revolving Earth; and even in Einsntein’s times relativistic physics was branded as “Jewish science”, and Einstein had to emigrate not only because he was a Jew, but also because he was an innovative physicist.

In both of these cases we see the same pattern: it is the one-perfectly-open-group that resists progress by resisting its division by the creation of a new group. The formal act of destroying uniformity, or, say, “equality before Ptolemy” destroys openness, for Copernicus is closed to all but those that share his new thinking; initially, he’s closed to everybody and is a group of one.

We may infer from this that such a behavioral pattern of the uniform group is always bad, because it thwarts progress and turns a society towards death. But we must realize that the risk mentioned is run not only by the innovator, but by the group itself. For even in science there is no a priori guarantee that the innovation would be beneficial. In matters social, of course, the risk is immeasurably higher. Communism and fascism were innovative ideas that to multitudes looked like a good idea at the time, and spread to practically include the majority of the groups in their societies. (On the other hand, these innovationists had the trait that not all members of the other group were eligible for joining them, e.g. Jews couldn’t join the SS, or Russian aristocrats – the CheKa, at least as a rule.)

Karl Popper grasped the duality and the risk involved in any innovation, so, he insisted that “we don’t know”, but must proceed “by trial and error”. We may now say that the duality in question is general, and results from the fact that we have here an openness that has been replaced by a closeness, hopefully to produce progress. “The old society worked, imperfectly, but it worked - would say people of the Flat Earth Society, or diehard fascists, or communists, or - let’s continue with Christians. Say we have a proposal for an innovation here which breaks our uniform belief in God, the belief which makes us Christians understandable and equal to one another. That proposal for an innovation would divide us into two groups, which will no longer be equal in the eyes of one another even if both claim to be equal before God, as one will be of “catholic” and the other of “protestant” mode of worshipping. That inequality is sure to create tensions, intellectual and moral, which might produce controversies, which might generate wars. True, in the end we might all adopt the innovation (or, as happened, would devoid it of its inborn intolerance) – but is it worth it? Maybe we should just quietly put Dr. Luther away and pass that innovation?”

I am drawing examples from different areas, to emphasize that in the open-closed scheme, innovations that in our cultural tradition are dubbed “good” (new physics, Protestantism) and “bad” (fascism, communism) have an equal start: as unknowns. Which shows why Popper was right in insisting that the choice to be made in such cases can not be “scientific” – but purely moral: a choice of faith.

On the other hand, people have devised some effective safeguards against a total arbitrariness in such choices. To begin with, knowledge – and that’s despite the fact that so far we stressed on its inadequacies. We must now own up that when we say of the outcome of an innovation “We don’t know”, we say it with plenty of self-ironic hubris. Of course we don’t mean “We don’t know anything”, but “We know (or we have tried to amass and learn) all that human culture has produced on that subject, but that is still not enough to make a prediction”. True, because otherwise we’d find ourselves in the realm of predetermination and historicism.

However, we do know enough to make “an informed (to the best of our abilities) choice”, and also to make a forecast with some degree of probability. But when we are judging whether we should try an innovation that bears on our entire group, we come to the problem of the “haves and the have nots” – in knowledge. It clashes head-on with our tradition of democratic decisions regarding all-group concerns. Maybe, if seen anthropologically, democracy can be explained and its relation to openness (declared important by Popper, but remaining obscure) can be clarified?

Democracy and openness: separate but not

Lets us consider a society in which groups are created and dissolved freely, and, in some cases, forcibly disbanded by the power structures for fear of some negative consequences of their existence. That would be a “normal”, living society. If it is a democracy, then we’ll have the case when in one aspect all the group walls are down and the whole society forms just one group. That would be the group of the voters: everybody is equal before the vote, so the group is open to itself. (Excepting the individuals who the majority of the group has agreed to treat as exceptions, such as children or some convicts - or, historically, women, blacks poor people etc.)

However, this absolute openness of public power directly to the individual does not entail an open society. For nothing forbids such a democracy to vote that all surrounding societies are inimical, so our society must react with maximal self-isolation and preparedness for war, thus becoming a closed society to its neighbors. Similarly, we may democratically vote illegal the creation of all new groups, so in all matters except voting it becomes a closed society to its members too. Both these votes annihilate the openness of our society, yet they would be fully democratic. We can see that democracy and openness are not tied and one can exist without the other.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t just ignore Popper’s intuition that open society and democracy are so closely connected or even intertwined that he speaks of “the breakdown of tribalism and the rise of democracy”, where “democracy” apparently stands for “open society”; we also have W. H. Auden, who, in poetic bluntness, named democracy “the completely open society”. However, the contradiction with the conclusion that democracy and open society are separate entities, at which we arrived thinking anthropologically, is only apparent. We looked at democracy as already established, so we saw it as a single group, perfectly open to itself, which, however, could produce closeness in its society.

However, before arriving at the stage when it could make all its members equal before public power, societies have passed through a series of non-democratic systems. Anthropologically, this means that in their relation to public power the members of society formed different groups, which after a point became ordered, consolidated and solidified as a hierarchy. And the progress from a hierarchy of groups to one single group was a definitely a process of gradual increase of opening of that society regarding political power. Therefore, when we look at Popper’s and Auden’s intuitions in terms of groups, we see that they were quite right – when thinking of democracy in its becoming. When we think of democracy’s being, the same anthropological optics shows us that democracy and openness don’t presuppose nor guarantee one another.

Having established that, we should qualify it, just like in the case of knowledge above. Yes, in theory nothing ties democracy to openness, so more democracy does not necessarily mean more openness. But it may mean that, which is the practically important point. And in today’s world, it usually does mean more openness.

Let’s look from the other end: a dictatorship may have open relations abroad, and allow for the free creation and dissolution of groups at home. Thus, it would display all the traits of an open society, externally and internally, except in relation to public power. But this is the case only if we are analyzing it logically, in theory, in order to establish possible behaviors. In real life, where we are interested in probable behaviors, a dictatorship is much less likely to behave as an open society than a democracy.

To start with, a dictatorship can’t afford to allow the creation of groups based on criticism of the dictatorial system. But that entails watching all groups all the time, forall of them may become clandestinely critical. Simplest is to suppress all of them. This is what in fact happened in the so-called people’s democracies: all spontaneous groups were practically forbidden. And this has been the pattern in all dictatorships practically all the time.

Contrariwise, democracy constantly breeds openness, because it constantly breeds groups. To begin with, there are the groups of people opposed to the ruling group. A democratic government can not ban such groups, for it would be banning the opposition, thus destroying an institution that prepares voters for the next election, etc.: it will be compromising democracy.

We can now understand the character of the link between democracy and openness: it is a link that exists in history and not in logic. It is not a link of necessity, but of conjuncture. However, it is a con-juncture of democracy and openness which, history tells us, recurs often enough to allow us to formulate meaningful statements based on its probability. More we can’t do, but that is enough; the rest is historicism.

Before moving on to the next stage of understanding whether open society work in general helps one judge concrete cases of the work of the Open Society Foundations, I’ll share a final methodological intuition. I have been siding with Popper’s choice of unity of method for natural sciences and humanities ever since I read about the issue at university (unlike many others, among whom George Soros), and just for the reason that Popper gives: no sense in mathematizing the humanities, sense in humanizing the sciences. That has prompted me to think of their respective lines of development in parallel. For example, when I’ve been writing of “translating” from Popper’s language of open society into the language of anthropology in search of better understanding, at the back of my mind was an analogy with the Lorenz transformations of propositions from classical into relativistic form; or when thinking of freedom and equality (and other apparently irreconcilable pairs of notions for describing and especially prescribing a society) , I’ve been wondering whether our understanding in the humanities is not governed by something akin to Bohr’s principle of complementarity: we can’t have both (e.g. freedom and equality), but we could have a full description of — or prescription for — a society only if we do somehow have both. But we don’t, at least not in the sense of classical determinism: our understanding of societies is then based only on probabilities, like in quantum physics.

That ana-logic, linking non-classical methods in physics and sociology, could help us realize why Popper posits that there is no pro-open or pro-closed pre-determination for the historic trajectory of a society: we can only have different degrees of probability pointing that way or the other, depending on historic contingencies - but no certainty of the historicist-Utopian kind. Moreover, it could be that the inherently flawed understanding of society on which Soros’ reflexivity is based (and with which I quite agree) is not only due to the paradox of participation (which should remind one of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle), but also on complementarity a la Bohr.

Soros, who, logically following his choice of disunity of methods, writes against the invocation of indeterministic physics while addressing bum-bust theory, also hints at such complementarity, when he writes of the “…ongoing conflict between rights and obligations that requires compromises that need to be worked out and reconsidered all the time.” Isaiah Berlin, Soros says, “referred to this latent conflict between different social values as “value pluralism.”

But, as indicated, I’d rather see such values not as an indefinite pluralistic array, but as a series of complementary pairs, as we could describe an ideal-type society using only one of these values, and we could also have an Utopian dream of having a society in which they are both fully realized - but in practice can never have both and so must compromise. In any case, that Soros’ financial fund was named Quantum looks to me most appropriate!

Practice-guided understanding of open society work

In order to ascertain that now we are ready to speak of a practical understanding of open society work, let’s check the previous stages when we ascertained that we were not yet ready to do so.

First, we concluded that our practically aimed interpretation of Popper could not yield a concept of open/closed society, but just an ethical principle. So we couldn’t define open or closed society, but we could produce the ethical commandment “If something is a society, then it ought to be made more open.” What was “open” we left undefined, arguing that ethical principles could practically work without that, just like the moral commandment “Do good” has been historically applied to human practice, with positive outcome, without a universally accepted definition of “good”. As a result, we abandoned the assumption that in order to do “opening” work we had first to define “open” and “closed” society. Sufficed that a society obtained, then we’d be ethically obliged to try making it more open.

However, just as the “Do good” commandment needs concretizing translations to be applied effectively to particular situations, our motto “Opening work is always appropriate” needs such translations too. We considered first a translation into the language of politics, and applied it to the material supplied by the work of the Belarus Open Society Project. It turned out that the Project had been mistaken. We of the Project thought that we had translated the commandment to “open society” work into the language of politics in order to practice it, but instead of translation, we had unconsciously effected a substitution: we had started doing pro-democratic work (as that was the accepted concretization of political work in Belarus at the time) instead of pro-opening work.

In our supposedly “opening” work we had been guided by concepts, sometimes well and sometimes badly, but they were all political concepts: we hadn’t advanced at all towards conceptualizing “opening”, for we hadn’t been engaged in “opening“ work. (We did learn a lot about transitional politics and so corrected some of our political premises, but that’s beside the point.) The analysis of the Project’s political practice showed that in translating our ethical commandment into the language of politics, we made a bad translation, and logically found ourselves lost.

Then I tried here another translation of the ethical principle, this time into the language of anthropology, and started seeing societies just as groups of people, not as power groups. From that point of view, both the perfectly open society and the perfectly closed society didn’t make practical sense, as in practice they would be dead societies. So I abandoned the initial common sense idea that in order to understand “which society to change and which not”, we should found our judgment on academic-type static definitions of “open” and “closed” societies.

We realized that not an open or closed, but just a living society is, internally, a society in which groups are created (which makes it more closed) and dissolved (which makes it more open) constantly and freely. Externally, a living society is one which is engaged in commerce with other societies, also constantly and freely. All these creations and dissolutions of internal groups, and the import and export movements can be visualized as alternative inhalation and exhalation, the breathing of a living organism.

What we in our practical approach can’t produce is a scale of openness/closeness by which to measure the absolute position of such living societies and classify them according to achievement, because that would presuppose a definition of “perfectly closed” and “perfectly open” at the extremes of the scale. We neither need try short(or long) list the traits that we believe are characteristic of an open society (as, e.g., Champion did): provided groups are formed freely, when their time comes there will emerge the groups that want free trade, and human rights, and implementation of laws with compassion, and tutti quanti; and they will have their chance to convince the whole society that their ideas are worth adopting society-wide, after which they shall dissolve.

All we can say is that should anything interfere with that process of “normal breathing”, it should be opposed, peacefully if that should do it, and by violent means if inevitable. For anything that interferes with an organism’s breathing causes it to die from suffocation, and we can’t have that!

Of George Soros’ philosophy and practice of open society work

When speaking of the lack of definition of open society in Popper, I mentioned Soros’ attitude: Soros avoided a definition at  "managerial” level, and sought a definition at “work” level.

Now I’ll make a further distinction. George Soros sees his work predominantly as communicating the idea of open society, and convincing people worldwide that all should choose to create a global open society. My work with open society has revolved around concrete policy and grant making, and consequently I’ve been looking for a definition that could help in that work. I don’t think that Soros’ approach to defining open society may help in policy and grant work (or I would have said so from the start of this essay). Conversely, I hope that my approach may eventually help communicating open society, for the anthropological approach which I am applying here tells us a lot about what open society is and is not, and we can tell that to people. So here I shall focus on those bits of Soros’ thinking that distinguish him from some contemporary schools and trends in social thought, and draw some parallels to Popper, thinking that there are deep similarities between the two, despite the fact that Soros himself usually emphasizes the differences.

a. A practical approach to a definition

In search for a definition “in operational sense”, i.e. that would help convince people, Soros recurrently regrets the fact that open society is a not very popular, difficult notion, not ready-made for mobilizing people:

Unfortunately, the concept of open society is not generally recognized. What is more, it is not an easy concept to understand and to use as a political principle. The trouble is that nationalism is a much more effective principle for mobilizing political will than a belief in open society.

When dealing with “direct definitions” of open society, we already traced the self-critical way in which Soros dealt with the subject; he uncovered the contradictions inherent the “universal principles” that he had introduced himself, as a result of which instead of uniting, they divided people; as to the principle of fallibility, which admittedly is a trait shared by all humans, it has even less mobilizing potential as a slogan than open society has. Soros is very much personally involved in open society, so it is understandable that back in the “golden” early 1990s he thought “open society” to have been a very effective mobilizing idea:

The democratic movements that came to power after the revolutions were led by intellectuals, playwrights, philosophers, music professors, all devoted to the concept of open society.

However, in “the book of his life” on open society, written on the basis of his experience throughout the 1990s, Soros is exact:

In establishing my foundation network, I had no difficulty finding people who were inspired by the principles of open society even if they did not use the same word. I did not need to explain what I meant by open society: Everybody understood that it stood for the opposite of the closed society in which they lived. (p 120).

So, these people were probably doing the right thing by open society, but not necessarily because they were “devoted to the concept” (of my relevant personal experience I wrote already, and it tallies). These people were politically devoted to the vague “winds of change” if anything, so when these winds subsided, it happened as Soros continues:

…the appeal of open society as an ideal started to fade even in the formerly communist countries. People got caught up in the struggle for survival, and those who continued to be preoccupied with the common good while others were lining their pockets had to ask themselves whether they were clinging to the values of a bygone age - and often they were. People grew suspicious of universal ideas. (p 121)

Thus we have a picture in which the ex-practitioners of open-society-change in ex-communist countries had become suspicious of universal ideas, while contemporary theoreticians looked at them through the plastic glasses of postmodernism, and found them pathetic. That is another reason to be added to those already enumerated by Soros why open society is hard to “sell” today: it is not “sexy”. (Overcoming my aversion, I am using that crass ad jargon here to indicate the level of political thinking that it manifests.)

The issue is vast, and beyond my task here, so I’ll limit myself to a declaration: the open society project is a modernistic project par excellence. That’s why people who would implicitly agree with its moral substance balk at enlisting publicly as its protagonists: they are afraid of being called outmoded and naif. “Come on, what charity are we talking about, when I am being manipulated through language here by that human being that is casting herself in the “beggar” stereotype, but I am too versed in games of lingo-power not to see through her ruse, and won’t be humiliated and give (in)!” Similarly, “What help are we talking about, when in promoting openness/ democracy/human rights etc., we are being manipulated by global capitalism to enslave our sisters from ex-communist countries?!” Et We could, of course, translate open society work into postmodern language, and most interesting things might crop up – only their practical added value would be nil, same as if we translated the mechanics of moving a box into relativistic or quantum language.

Soros is one of those for whom opening societies is more important than mainstream academic applause, so he embraces the idea of universals, doubtless fully aware of its negative resonance today. And in doing so, he gets very near to understanding open society as a concept stricto sensu. Soros writes, in that same often-quoted-here Chapter Open Society as an Ideal: “…open society is both an ideal and a description of reality” (p 120)

This is an understanding that looks like having come from rather classical philosophy, in this case Hegelian. But we already saw that some Hegel is relevant in a Weltanshauung that in many ways derives from Popper. And I already made the case, I hope, for the understanding of a concept – any concept in the strict sense - as a conjunction of “an is and an ought”, in which neither the is, nor the ought can be deduced from one another. We are not dealing here in – call it innocent – modernistic reason, against which Soros has rightly written:

When the original political ideas of the Enlightenment were translated into practice, they served to reinforce the idea of the nation state. In trying to establish the rule of reason, people rose up against their rulers, and the power they captured was the power of the sovereign. That is how the nation-state, in which sovereignty belongs to the people, was born. Whatever its merits, it is a far cry from its universalistic inspiration. (p 124)

Today people engaged in opening societies should be dealing in – call it experienced – modernistic reason, but in a modernistic and not postmodernistic exercise. This is more easily understood in post-communist countries: opening there is clearly aimed at curing them of communism (and, as said, I won’t go into the issue here, so I am not examining the case of opening established democracies in modernist/postmodernist terms).

Communism is a disease of modernity and its effects can be overcome most effectively within the modernity frame of reference. In such cases the postmodern look simply doesn’t see the illness and refuses aid, declaring that there is no cause for it; worldwide, it doesn’t recognize the problem of opening societies and refuses to deal with it on the ground of the problem’s non existence. Without taking issue with postmodernism, Soros sees the dangers of the attitudes that would ignore the open society problematique.

There was his warning to the West that Eastern Europe needs a Marshall Plan: postmodernist intellectuals and consumerist statesmen pooh-poohed it in unison. His pain after failing to convince the so-called “international community” (which around year 2000 possibly even existed), made him insightful about a crucial and least understood political phenomenon (least understood both at home and abroad) - Russia:

Putin will try to reestablish a strong state, and he may well succeed. In many ways, that would be a desirable development. As the Russian experience taught us, a weak state can be a threat to liberty. An authority that can enforce the rules is indispensable for the functioning of a market economy. By accomplishing the transition from robber capitalism to legitimate capitalism, Putin may well preside over Russian economic recovery (…) But Putin’s state is unlikely to be built upon the principles of open society; it is more likely to be based on the demoralization, humiliation, and frustration that the Russian people experienced after the collapse of the Soviet system. Putin will seek to reestablish the authority of the state at home and the glory of Russia abroad. Russia is not lost, on the contrary, it may revive under Putin. But the West has lost Russia as a friend and ally and as an adherent to the principles of open society. One thing is crystal clear: The prospect we face in Russia could have been avoided if the open societies of the West had been more firmly committed to the principle of open society themselves. (pp 262-263)

Fourteen years after this was written, when Putin, still in power, grabbed Crimea from Ukraine in a military aggression, aimed also at crushing the overwhelmingly pro-open Majdan regime, we might have reread these lines of Soros rather than heed Cold War pundits like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger, who became voluble and geopolitical again. On top of everything, Soros has demonstrated that the open society perspective produces valid forecasts where “professional politologists” are dumb at best.

b. Open society ethics and managerial ethics

George Soros is very much akin to Karl Popper in the foundation of his understanding of open society: it is ethical and not logical or pragmatic. When that understanding is to be translated into concrete policies for OSF, it bifurcates: there is the ethical approach, but also a parallel pragmatic approach. Occasionally these two contradict.

The ethical approach puts the interests of open society above the interests of the individual practically involved in open society; and, expectedly, that altruistic principle applies to any dealings in matters social. For example, Soros writes:

There is a common flaw in market fundamentalism, geopolitical realism, and vulgar social Darwinism: the disregard of any motivation other than narrow self-interest. (p 305)

Soros puts the case even more acutely: not only that our approach should be moral, all social values are moral in their nature:

Market values are amoral while social values are quintessentially moral. Market values are about winning; moral values are about doing the right thing, win or lose. If we were guided by what others do, we would be acting as participants in a race where winning is what matters. If we really believe in moral values, we ought to do the right thing even if others do not. The free-rider problem simply does not apply, because the objective is not gaining competitive advantage but doing the right thing. (p 155)

This might entail persevering work in a situation in which rewards are not forthcoming:

One of the main obstacles to early crisis intervention is an adverse risk-reward ratio. Nobody earns laurels for solving crises that have not yet erupted; if the prevention is successful, no crisis arises. Only the failures register. What government or institution is willing to accept such odds? I believe the obstacle could be overcome with the help of the moral argument I proposed earlier: When it comes to doing the right thing, people must be prepared to fight the losing battles. (p 320)

Here we are approaching the bifurcation point.  First, we have to effect a disambiguization of the notion of “winning”. We must differentiate between “winning egoistically” and ‘winning altruistically”. To win altruistically means to achieve the goal one has set, which goal is to benefit others to start with; the victory is not of an individual acting against other individuals, but of an individual acting for society:

There are (…) times when no strategy seems to work, for the trend is already set. The dissolution of Yugoslavia was a case in point; the Ferghana Valley may be another. In these cases, we have to fall back on Sergei Kovalev’s prescription and keep fighting the losing battles. Paradoxically, it will ensure ultimate victory because people who are willing to fight losing battles keep the flame of freedom alive. Society comes closer to the ideal of open society than it would be if people merely pursued their self-interest. That is the justification for doing the right thing irrespective of what others do. (322)

This approach also gives precedence to long-term over short-term perspectives, despite the unfavorable odds:

What to do? I do not see a strategy to reverse the prevailing trend, which leaves me two options: continue doing what our foundations do best: support education, civil society, and the rule of law - or abandon the entire effort. The effort seems futile, and in some respects it may even prove to be counterproductive. For instance, if we succeed in enforcing the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan because the president is relatively well intentioned, he is liable to lose the election to a tougher character. But I am convinced that it would be a mistake to pullout. The Ferghana Valley represents a case where it is worthwhile to continue irrespective of near-term results. We are sowing the seeds of open society, and some of those seeds will take root. The prospective loss ratio is daunting, but the seeds that survive may become extremely valuable exactly because so few will have survived. I recall that in Hungary, when I wanted to establish a business school, the best candidates to head it up had studied abroad on a Ford Foundation scholarship twenty-five years previously. (321)

Soros says “I am convinced”, and continues the project; if he weren’t convinced he would close it down. Apparently, that conviction/non-conviction is not a result only of the ethical principles involved. In Soros’ theoretical picture there are some pointers what these other principles – or circumstances – might be. Examples:

… [national Open Society Foundations] take responsibility for their actions. I am often surprised by what they do. Some of the best programs are those that I never envisioned. Admittedly it is a hit-and-miss affair. We have had some great successes, some indifferent results, and occasional failures that require a change of personnel. Still, I am an independent agent. I can afford to admit and correct my mistakes; that is why my efforts have been for the most part successful. (p 324)

This is straightforward enough: here “failure” means “failure due to human error” of judgment, and is reduced to a managerial problem: replace the inadequate humans with adequate ones, problem solved. Difficulties appear, though, when Soros looks for reasons for policy making that are neither based on ethics, nor on human (mal)performance. For example, he writes of Putin’s Russia in 2000:

I remain committed to supporting the work of the foundation as long as it receives support from Russian society and is allowed to function freely. The quest for an open society is a flame that could not be extinguished even by Stalin’s terror. I’m certain that it will stay alive in Russia, whatever its future. (p 264)

At this point the rationale starts to be heavily taxed by facts. In 2000 Russian society didn’t support the work of OSF; later its freedom to function was curbed, together with the freedoms of other NGOs; but Soros’ support for it has continued. Bulgarian society never supported the work of the national OSF; at best, in the 1990s it was suspicious of it as it was suspicious of all NGOs, yet support for it continued. Belarusian society never supported the work of its national OSF, and in 1997 the regime closed it down; yet OSF work for Belarus continued until the end of 2012. On the other hand, Soros gives an example when social support counted: not that the national OSF was closed down, but its leadership was changed, for having adopted a line of behavior that was apparently OK in terms of open society, but distanced it from the concrete society it was supposed to open. That was in Croatia during the First Yugoslav War. Soros writes:

They [local Board members in Yugoslavia] remained eager to cooperate with each other; they saw the conflict not in terms of Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Albanians but in terms of open versus closed society. This put them at loggerheads not only with the ruling regimes but also, in the case of Croatia, with society at large. The Croatian foundation was in danger of being confined to a ghetto of its own creation, and reluctantly I changed the leadership to make the foundation more acceptable to a broader segment of society. (pp 312-313)

So, despite the fact that “support by society” and “free functioning” sound like basic common sense conditions for support – the practice of OSF apparently takes them into account in some cases, but ignores them in others. I believe that arbitrariness could be drastically reduced (for one can never totally eliminate it) if both “the ideal and the description” of open society, as Soros’ formula goes, were better understood and merged into a working concept.

Deyan Kiuranov of Sofia, Bulgaria was active in the Bulgarian anticommunist opposition and afterwards worked as a political scientist for NGOs and Soros’ Open Society in Bulgaria and Belarus. Follow excerpts from his essay “The idea of open society as a tool to open societies”; notes and references are omitted and available on our webiste at

Part II in v. 49 #3, will continue to explicate the notion of an open society.

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