How the Survival of Open Societies is Endangered

Published on 11th February 2020

We live at a transformational moment in history. The survival of open societies is endangered and we face an even greater crisis: climate change. It is threatening the survival of our civilization. These twin challenges have inspired me to announce the most important project of my life here tonight.

As I argue in my recent book, In Defense of Open Society, in a revolutionary moment the range of possibilities is far wider than in normal times. It has become easier to influence events than to understand what is going on. As a consequence, outcomes are unlikely to correspond to people’s expectations. This has already caused widespread disappointment that populist politicians have exploited for their own purposes.

Open Society has not always needed defending as it does today. Some forty years ago, when I got engaged in what I call my political philanthropy, the wind was at our back and carried us forward. International cooperation was the prevailing creed. In some ways it prevailed even in the crumbling and ideologically bankrupt Soviet Union – remember the marxist’s slogan “workers of the world unite”? In contrast, the European Union was in the ascendant and I considered it the embodiment of the open society.

But the tide turned against open societies after the crash of 2008 because it constituted a failure of international cooperation. This in turn led to the rise of nationalism, the great enemy of open society.

In the middle of last year, I still cherished some hopes that there would be another reversal towards international cooperation. The European parliamentary elections produced surprisingly favorable results. Participation increased by 8%—the first uptick since the Parliament was established. More importantly, the silent majority spoke up in favor of greater European cooperation.

But by the end of the year my hopes were dashed. The strongest powers, the US, China and Russia remained in the hands of would-be or actual dictators and the ranks of authoritarian rulers continued to grow.

The fight to prevent Brexit—harmful both to Britain and to the EU—ended in a crushing defeat.

Nationalism, far from being reversed, made further headway. The biggest and most frightening setback occurred in India where a democratically elected Narendra Modi is creating a Hindu nationalist state, imposing punitive measures on Kashmir, a semi-autonomous Muslim region, and threatening to deprive millions of Muslims of their citizenship.

In Latin America a humanitarian catastrophe continues to unfold. By the beginning of this year almost 5 million Venezuelans had emigrated, causing tremendous disruption in neighboring countries. At the same time, Bolsonaro has failed to prevent the destruction of the rain forests in Brazil in order to open it up for cattle ranching. In a further blow, the UN climate conference in Madrid broke up without reaching any meaningful agreement.

To top it all off, Kim Jong-un threatened the United States with its nuclear capabilities in his New Year’s speech and Trump’s impetuous actions heightened the risk of a conflagration in the Middle East.

Let me now turn to another vexing topic, the relationship between the United States and China. It has become incredibly complicated and difficult to understand. The interaction between the two presidents, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, provides a useful clue. Both face internal constraints and various enemies. Both try to extend the powers of their office to its limit and beyond. While they have found some mutually beneficial reasons to cooperate, their motivations are completely different.

President Trump wants the world to revolve around him. When his fantasy of becoming president came true, his narcissism developed a pathological dimension. Indeed, he has transgressed the limits imposed on the presidency by the Constitution and has been impeached for it. At the same time, he has managed to gather a large number of followers who have bought into his alternative reality. This has turned his narcissism into a malignant disease. He came to believe that he could impose his alternative reality not only on his followers but on reality itself.

Trump’s counterpart, Xi Jinping, suffered a traumatic experience in his early youth. His father had been one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. He was expelled, and his son, Xi Jinping, grew up in rural exile. Since that time, the goal of Xi’s leadership became to reassert the Communist Party’s dominance over Chinese life. He called it the “Chinese dream” of a “rejuvenated” China capable of projecting its power and influence throughout the world. Xi Jinping has abolished a carefully developed system of collective leadership and became a dictator as soon as he gained sufficient strength to do so.

When it comes to their motivations, they are totally different, Trump is willing to sacrifice the national interests for his personal interests and he will do practically anything to win re-election. By contrast, Xi Jinping is eager to exploit Trump’s weaknesses and use artificial intelligence to achieve total control over his people.

Xi’s success is far from assured. One of China’s vulnerabilities is that it still depends on the United States to supply it with the microprocessors it needs to dominate the 5G market and to fully implement the social credit system that is a threat to open societies.

Xi Jinping also faces some impersonal forces like demographics working against him. The one child policy, in effect until 2015, created a shortage of both young workers and child-bearing women and a surfeit of old people. These trends are bound to get worse. The decline in the working age population is now relentless.

The Belt and Road Initiative has required giving large loans, some of which will never be repaid. China can ill-afford this because its budget deficit has increased and its trade surplus has diminished. Since Xi Jinping has centralized power in his hands, China’s economic policy has also lost its flexibility and inventiveness.

To make matters worse for Xi, the Trump Administration has developed a comprehensive and bipartisan policy towards China, which has declared that China is a strategic rival. This is the only bipartisan policy that the Trump Administration has been able to produce and there is only one man who can violate it with impunity: President Trump himself.

Unfortunately, from an open society point of view, he is capable of doing so, as he has demonstrated by putting Huawei on the bargaining table with Xi Jinping.

With this background, let me put the tumultuous events since the beginning of this year into the proper perspective.

President Trump didn’t have a strategic plan when he authorized the launching of a missile that killed the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Suleimani, and an Iraqi pro-Iranian militia commander; but he has an unfailing instinct that tells him how his faithful followers would respond to his actions. They are jubilant. This made the task of the Democrats, who impeached him, extremely difficult. The trial in the Senate is shaping up to be a strictly pro forma affair because the Republican majority in the Senate is united behind Trump—although Chief Justice Roberts, who is presiding, may surprise us.

At the same time, Trump’s economic team has managed to overheat an already buoyant economy. The stock market, already celebrating Trump’s military success, is breaking out to reach new heights. But an overheated economy can’t be kept boiling for too long.

If all this had happened closer to the elections, it would have assured his reelection. His problem is that the elections are still 10 months away and in a revolutionary situation, that is a lifetime.

From an open society point of view, the situation is quite grim. It would be easy to give in to despair, but that would be a mistake. The public is beginning to be aware of the dangers of climate change. It has certainly become the top priority of the European Union – but we can’t count on the United States while Trump is in power because he is a climate denier.

There are also grounds to hope for the survival of open societies. They have their weaknesses, but so do repressive regimes. The greatest shortcoming of dictatorships is that when they are successful, they don’t know when or how to stop being repressive. They lack the checks and balances that give democracies a degree of stability. As a result, the oppressed revolt.

We see this happening today all around the world. The most successful rebellion so far has been in Hong Kong, but it comes at a great cost: it may well destroy the city’s economic prosperity. There are so many revolts going on in the world that it would take too long to examine each case individually.

Observing this torrent of rebellions, I can venture a generalization about the ones that are likely to succeed. They are typified by Hong Kong. It has no visibly identifiable leadership and yet it has the overwhelming support of the population.

I began to form this conclusion when I learnt about a spontaneous movement of young people turning up at rallies held by Matteo Salvini, the would-be dictator of Italy. They held up cut-out signs of sardines proclaiming “sardines against Salvini,” and explaining that there are many more sardines than sharks like Salvini, so the sardines are bound to prevail.

Sardines are the Italian variant of a worldwide trend led by young people. This leads me to conclude that today’s youth may have found a way to confront nationalist dictatorships.

I see another constructive force emerging worldwide: the mayors of major cities are organizing around important issues. In Europe, climate change and internal migration are high on their agenda. This coincides with the main concerns of today’s youth. Uniting around these issues could create a powerful pro-European, pro-open society movement. But it’s an open question whether these aspirations will succeed.

Taking into account the climate emergency and worldwide unrest, it’s not an exaggeration to say that 2020 and the next few years will determine not only the fate of Xi and Trump, but also the fate of the world.

If we survive the near-term, we still need a long-term strategy. If Xi Jinping succeeds in fully implementing his social credit system, he will bring into existence a new type of authoritarian system and a new type of human being who is willing to surrender his personal autonomy in order to stay out of trouble. Once lost, personal autonomy will be difficult to recover. An open society would have no place in such a world.

I believe that as a long-term strategy our best hope lies in access to quality education, specifically an education that reinforces the autonomy of the individual by cultivating critical thinking and emphasizing academic freedom.Thirty years ago I set up an educational institution that does exactly that. It is called the Central European University (CEU) and its mission is to advance the values of the open society.

By George Soros.

George Soros is chair of Soros Fund Management LLC. As one of history’s most successful financiers, his views on investing and economic issues are widely followed. 


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