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Knowledge & History

On an evening out Grant Bartley realises the importance of perspective and hears George Soros talk about markets, ignorance and the Open Society.

If you want a broad understanding of life, consider seeing current affairs from a thousand-year perspective. Then focusing on shorter terms, you can see other perspectives nesting inside that thousand years, like Russian dolls. Like mapping a coastline, history’s shape depends on the level to which you’re defining it – whether you’re seeing it in terms of one, ten, a hundred or a thousand years. It’s impressive how different reality looks from each vantage.

This was made possible for me and a thousand others aptly at the cultural centre of the British Empire (R.I.P.), in Kensington, London, where museums, colleges and music meet. I had been invited by an art angel called Hannah to the Royal Geographical Society, next to the Albert Hall, opposite Kensington Gardens, where the neoclassical effulgence of the Albert Memorial stood framed by white clouds in blue sky. This gilded tower of statues celebrates the people and (other) fruits of Victorian imperial splendour, but mostly Prince Albert. A full lecture theatre provided the setting physically, as considerations of time did culturally: the nature of the ideas, like the British Empire, was history. The show was a conversation between Alain de Botton, British TV personality and philosopher, and George Soros, adopted-US billionaire stock-market games-player and philosopher. It was one of a yearly series of conversations between interesting people arranged by the Artangel art commissioning agency to mark the Longplayer recital. That is, it was billed as a conversation, but de Botton essentially interviewed Soros, deferring to the man of power – thus aptly demonstrating one problem our culture has with freedom, as we shall see. Yet it’s quite possible that de Botton’s ideas would have been as interesting as Soros’. (For further events, go to artangel.org.uk.)

Longplayer is a thousand-year-long piece of music composed by Jem Finer. It’s Tibetan singing bowl and gong harmonics spliced up and recombined according to a program which ensures that the sequences won’t repeat until the end of this millennium. It sounded to me like whalesong translated into Tibetan and played on crystal wine glasses by Brian Eno. I suspect that the ‘Deep Vibe’ machine playing it (whatever it’s called) will only get through the full cycle if Mr Finer buries it in a concrete bunker powered by methane produced by subterranean algae, then loses the map. But it would be interesting to follow Longplayer’s progress, to see how long this sophisticated message to the universe actually keeps playing. (You can download some of it at longplayer.org.)

As well as preparing us for the lecture, Longplayer was metaphorically playing in the background of the discussion, whose underlying topic was reality and ideals. Soros seemed very philosophical, ideological even, about the ideal of the open society: an ideal he has philanthropized with millions of dollars, for Soros is a convinced disciple of his old university teacher Karl Popper. Soros speaks like Popper’s St Paul, with his intellect in the heaven of his ideals; but perhaps he lives more like his Constantine – more in ‘the real world’. I’m in awe that he finds the time to do both.

In The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), Sir Karl Popper argued that the rational social response to one of the major human conditions, namely our unquenchable curiosity, is to facilitate the freedom of thought and information. To paraphrase Soros’ relating of Popper’s argument: as long as there’s an irritating gap between our knowledge and reality we’ll want to fill it; thus the need to search for the truth is an essential characteristic of any reasoning mind which is not in possession of incontrovertible truth. Importantly, since no absolute truth of an ideological or religious nature will ever be established to everyone’s satisfaction, disputes and questioning will and should be on-going.

This truth about curiosity has profound ethical consequences for society, especially concerning power and information. Any authoritarian imposition of ideas, without the freedom to effectively dissent, contradicts the inherently questioning nature of rational minds. Any attempt to control minds and lives denies the human right and need to disagree and ask questions. Unfortunately, instigators of totalitarian ideologies such as fascism or communism assume they’ve arrived at the final, absolute truth, and therefore they also assume they have a right to impose this knowledge on citizens, ultimately aiming to control citizens’ lives through their thoughts. Societies like these, where the flow of critical information is suppressed, are closed societies. By contrast, as said, open societies facilitate freedom of thought and expression. To Popper, free enterprise-based democracies fitted this latter description, being free both politically and economically. Our free world’s free market, within its accountable political systems, is a rational response to human self-awareness, by Popper’s logic.

It’s a compelling argument, and it compelled George Soros.

Popper As A Guide To Making Money

In 1947 George Soros left Hungary for the free market. After a very brief career at Butlin’s holiday camp in the UK, then studying under Popper at the London School of Economics, and several decades getting ridiculously rich in the USA, Soros was instrumental in snapping the British pound out of the European Union’s Exchange Rate Mechanism, with who-knows-what political consequences. The function of the ERM was to allow its member countries to act like a unified market by restricting exchange rate fluctuations between their currencies, so smoothing import and export costs. By betting massively against the pound, Soros and other currency traders forced the Bank of England to pump a fortune into supporting the currency’s value – they then stretched that intervention beyond its breaking point. As the pound’s value plummetted, Soros made over $1 billion. He spent much of the proceeds funding universities and other civil society projects in the newly-democratized countries of Eastern Europe through his Open Society Institute.

A practical illustration of the Popperian nature of Soros’ approach to reality was given when de Botton asked Soros for his secret to working the stock market. Soros explained that he exploits the gap between the stock market’s understanding of a situation and the reality. His investments are guided by his theory of ‘reflexivity’, a concept in the social sciences explored by Popper but developed, popularised and applied to the finance markets by Soros. Contrary to approaches which see the market as tending to a kind of equilibrium reflecting the underlying value of the shares etc involved, Soros believes that in certain circumstances the underlying values are changed by the expectations of investors, and then in turn affect those expectations, so that there’s a two-way feedback loop between the views of the market and the underlying reality. This he believes can explain the boom and bust behaviour sometimes seen in markets as diverse as housing investments and currencies. He also thinks reflexivity in the social and political spheres means that nobody can reach a final truth about political and social questions, and that this requires an open society with dispersed power-bases and an unimpeded flow of information. This view is exactly what he supports with his philanthropy. So indirectly, Soros’ success also demonstrates the truth which underpins Popper’s open society. Or does it?

One of the big truths Soros knows, is how little consensus there is on ultimate truth. As Popper said, the only reasonable response to such deep disagreement is to search for deep truth, the best condition for which is a culture where the free exchange of ideas flourishes. Like Popper, Soros is inspired by a vision of society constructed around an ideal of truth: “The electorate has to be concerned with the truth,” he said emphatically. Vote that man Philosopher President!

Tangled Up In Greenbacks

There have been complications. First, Soros has found that modern democratic societies are not quite as open as he and Popper assumed. This is primarily because Soros has discovered that politics is not about truth, but about manipulation to get elected, for the sake of power.

There can’t be many curious awarenesses surprised by that revelation, I think. The challenge in our culture is rather to spot which messages the media feeds us are not some form of manipulation. Soros made it clear that he’s aware of the amount of spin on reporting of election campaigns and general news – but that isn’t the only kind of media distortion. We’re also manipulated by advertisers and entertainers who relentlessly bombard us with visions of how our lives should be; unsustainable and otherwise false as those visions may be. Our mass-cultured minds are encompassed by the agendas and ideas of wealthy interests, we may recognize upon just a little analysis. Popper’s rosy spectacles for looking at society that he passed on to Soros, seem to have ensured that his rich disciple took a long time to focus on reality here.

Now Soros has come to realize that in the free society he’s in, mass communication is effectively in the hands of a very select power club – a mass-media oligarchy. Unfortunately, restrictions on the flow of information are inevitable in any system where media power is accumulated by elites – for instance by the owners of multinational corporations. The preferred message of the elites to the masses tends to be promoted, and other voices marginalized. Thus we can see that ‘globalised’ culture has a restricted bandwidth, limited largely to the sort of ‘consumer society’ ideals you read or see on television. (These days, the media is the opium of the masses.) So practically speaking our society is not impressively open, even if its basic structure might make it appear so. The internet makes a difference, but the situation’s changing fast, and we have to see in what ways the net evolves intelligently, and remains open.

Soros seemed to understand Rupert Murdoch to be one of the biggest saboteurs of the open society, from the inside. That is, he’s one of the biggest information controllers, having access to more than two billion minds with his infotain[t]ment. But despite admitting that Murdoch is a nemesis of his free information ideals, Soros has traded stocks in Murdoch businesses, because, he says, “if I didn’t, someone else would.” Soros also buys and sells shares in arms companies. His more refined rationalisation of this behaviour is that his personal contribution to the stock market’s movements makes no difference to the destiny of large companies, therefore the opportunity to profit is amoral, and so is he when he does.

Soros is surely wrong about that. Trading arms and information-control shares is not amoral. Soros, as temporary part-owner of the companies involved, shares the responsibility for their activities. To avoid a share in the stock market’s profiteering guilt – to truly be amoral, that is, morally neutral – he must not indulge in any of its morally bad investments. To be positively moral here, as in other situations, he (one) must rather behave in ways which illustrate what is right – set a good example, to paraphrase Kant’s categorical imperative. In Soros’ case, this might mean only dealing shares in ethically-sound companies. What a good example would be for you, must spring from what you’re trying to create by your ideals. Indeed, what you’re trying to achieve demonstrates your real ideals.

The Unreal Thing

Soros says he wants a society characterised by maximum freedom of thought and expression. How could he be wrong about that? But like Popper, he assumes that this is inevitably achieved by free enterprise democracy. This assumption is debatable.

To maintain his open society beliefs, Soros seems to deny some crucial aspects of his day job, for the two ideals at work in his life, ‘profit’ and ‘freedom of thought’ often clash like continents along faultlines in the detail of how they apply. For instance, as argued, the free market concentration of media power in a small number of hands doesn’t help the open society ideal of the free flow of information, even if it is allowed for the sake of free enterprise. Unfortunately, the truth is that ideal of the free market is not the freedom of individuals, it’s the freedom to make profit (which only a minority comfortably do anyway).

Thus, advanced capitalist democracy might be the best state humanity has yet achieved, but in its gritty details, our busily-globalising economy often works in ways incompatible with open society ideals – that is, with freedom. For a visceral example, our highly-sexualised culture encourages a demand for prostitute slaves, of whom tens of thousands are trafficked every year globally and held captive in brothels in every major city in the West. What kind of freedom do these thousands of women have, except to make profit for someone else? This is only the worst of innumerable ways in which peoples’ possibilities are limited by their exploitation. The general point is that unrestricted free marketing evidently does not automatically produce the maximization of liberty. If the ideal of ‘freedom’ is realized through the slavery or destruction of others, it’s not realized at all. Thomas Jefferson’s declaration of the right to liberty conveniently didn’t apply to his slaves, and in a similar way as a global society we evidently still need to become consistent in the application of our ethics of liberty. We can take heart that history displays a strong trend for freedom; but perhaps the first next step is to realize where and how freedom is needed, which also means realize where it’s being denied.

We can see the inconsistency in Soros’ ideals, then: the incompatibility of the ideals ‘freedom’ and ‘whatever financial success demands’. Soros excused the incoherence with the comment that he’s a complex character. He must be knotted if it’s trying to harmonise those agendas. But does reality mean the open society can only ever be an ideal? Or does it mean there’s a large gap between reality and ideal over which the bridge to freedom has yet to be built? We have some hope it’s the latter.

Ideals In Time

If we want to resolve these contradictions of the current world, we could consider a longer view of a wider situation.

First, the history of society is a history of ideological change. So if the open society is the true ideal for humanity, perhaps we can change towards it. To see this as a genuine possibility needs a long perspective. (Idealism always has longer-term interests, or it would be the reality and not just the ideal.)

Like everyone else, to see the possibility of the fulfilment of his ideals, Soros must look beyond the reality with which he deals (and in which he deals shares). Perhaps Mr Soros could take a leaf out of The Phenomenology of Spirit (G.W.F. Hegel, 1807) and look for a coherent synthesis of his mismatched ideals – a more refined ideal towards which the world might develop, of ‘freedom in profit’? Thus it could be that the conflict between freedom and profit ideals must be resolved by financially nurturing free expression. To his personal credit and his financial debit, Soros already does this with his Open Society Institute. But moral integrity would also mean not financing or facilitating activities against freedom for the sake of profit.

Any optimistic longer perspective for society must envision a resolution of the contradictions in its most popular ideals. This rationalisation (in a good sense) of society’s goals and methods could also be seen in Popperian terms, as our development in understanding reality – in this case, an understanding of the truth about ideals. Yet the application of understanding is the purpose of the open society: freedom is for the sake of applied knowledge. So we could even give a Popperian justification of the need to make one’s ideals coherent.

Another Popperian angle would be to say that the enlargement of freedom through (Western) history is the slow political realization of the ideal of freedom of thought. First, democracy itself is an enlightened application of freedom of expression. Also, under the democratic paradigm, abuse and unjust control, that is, the unjustifiable repression of people, has been systematically legislated against. Slaves have been freed, women have gained the vote, and discrimination against people on the grounds of their race, gender or sexual orientation has been banned, at least in theory. This trend suggests further legislation towards the realization of freedom, for as long as democracy remains active. This knowledge would have cheered Popper. But long term, Soros is pessimistic. We haven’t learnt to deal with our powers, he said. We can’t handle the technology or the society we continually create to try to benefit ourselves.

A Perspective On Perspectives

These diverse visions of reality unfurled in the context of a thousand-year Buddhist chant chain. A central idea of Buddhist teaching is the changing nature of all things (there’s an extended vein of artistic irony within the Longplayer, then). The millennial context provided an appropriate frame for thoughts of freedom and ideology: ideas, ideals and cultures will ebb and flow within the span of the song.

The conversation between Soros and de Botton juxtaposed ideals and reality like a hall of mirrors. At some time in the evening I became aware that in the circumstances and the ideas being discussed, the borders of possibilities were intersecting in layers: tunnelling all the way down from a thousand year dream of music, down through the discussion of possibilities for future centuries and decades, down to the short-term ‘reality’ of politics and the market, down even to the ‘reality’ of the world we sense. From this perspective, the night was an artistic success.

Ideals are continually being enacted into life, through George Soros’ philanthropy as through probably all other human activity. Talk of the US election and the market involved short-term thinking, while talk of ideals and ideology invoked a longer-term awareness, concerned as it is with slower changes in culture and society. Soros’ ‘amoral’ involvement in the markets is a successful short-term response to reality, yet somewhat in contrast to his long-term plan for his ideal of freedom, I think. This itself is a telling illustration of the difference contrasting time-frame perspectives can make for views of what is real or realistic. Yet if we want to talk usefully about ideals, or history, only the longer perspective enables us to see clearly.

Sometimes ideals work over centuries, even millennia. But I think that whatever else, the ideal of freedom of thought and expression will still be around in a thousand years, when the music’s over and starts again. If it isn’t, something’s gone terminally wrong – like a record with a chronic scratch.

© Grant Bartley 2009

Grant is Assistant Editor of Philosophy Now. In an open society/capitalist synthesis, his book The Metarevolution is available as a free download and you can also order a hard copy (ie, an actual book) from Amazon for only £8.99, or $17.99.

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