The Capitalist Threat

What kind of society do we want? "Let the free market decide!" is the often-heard response. That response, a prominent capitalist argues, undermines the very values on which open and democratic societies depend. 

A Capitalist

IN The Philosophy of History, Hegel discerned a disturbing historical pattern -- the crack and fall of civilizations owing to a morbid intensification of their own first principles. Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.

The term "open society" was coined by Henri Bergson, in his book The (1932), and given greater currency by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Popper showed that totalitarian ideologies like communism and Nazism have a common element: they claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth. Since the ultimate truth is beyond the reach of humankind, these ideologies have to resort to oppression in order to impose their vision on society. Popper juxtaposed with these totalitarian ideologies another view of society, which recognizes that nobody has a monopoly on the truth; different people have different views and different interests, and there is a need for institutions that allow them to live together in peace. These institutions protect the rights of citizens and ensure freedom of choice and freedom of speech. Popper called this form of social organization the "open society." Totalitarian ideologies were its enemies.

Written during the Second World War, The Open Society and Its Enemies explained what the Western democracies stood for and fought for. The explanation was highly abstract and philosophical, and the term "open society" never gained wide recognition. Nevertheless, Popper's analysis was penetrating, and when I read it as a student in the late 1940s, having experienced at first hand both Nazi and Communist rule in Hungary, it struck me with the force of revelation.

I was driven to delve deeper into Karl Popper's philosophy, and to ask, Why does nobody have access to the ultimate truth? The answer became clear: We live in the same universe that we are trying to understand, and our perceptions can influence the events in which we participate. If our thoughts belonged to one universe and their subject matter to another, the truth might be within our grasp: we could formulate statements corresponding to the facts, and the facts would serve as reliable criteria for deciding whether the statements were true.

Capitalism out of Control There is a realm where these conditions prevail: natural science. But in other areas of human endeavor the relationship between statements and facts is less clear-cut. In social and political affairs the participants' perceptions help to determine reality. In these situations facts do not necessarily constitute reliable criteria for judging the truth of statements. There is a two-way connection -- a feedback mechanism -- between thinking and events, which I have called "reflexivity." I have used it to develop a theory of history.

Whether the theory is valid or not, it has turned out to be very helpful to me in the financial markets. When I had made more money than I needed, I decided to set up a foundation. I reflected on what it was I really cared about. Having lived through both Nazi persecution and Communist oppression, I came to the conclusion that what was paramount for me was an open society. So I called the foundation the Open Society Fund, and I defined its objectives as opening up closed societies, making open societies more viable, and promoting a critical mode of thinking. That was in 1979.

My first major undertaking was in South Africa, but it was not successful. The apartheid system was so pervasive that whatever I tried to do made me part of the system rather than helping to change it. Then I turned my attention to Central Europe. Here I was much more successful. I started supporting the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia in 1980 and Solidarity in Poland in 1981. I established separate foundations in my native country, Hungary, in 1984, in China in 1986, in the Soviet Union in 1987, and in Poland in 1988. My engagement accelerated with the collapse of the Soviet system. By now I have established a network of foundations that extends across more than twenty-five countries (not including China, where we shut down in 1989).

Operating under Communist regimes, I never felt the need to explain what "open society" meant; those who supported the objectives of the foundations understood it better than I did, even if they were not familiar with the expression. The goal of my foundation in Hungary, for example, was to support alternative activities. I knew that the prevailing Communist dogma was false exactly because it was a dogma, and that it would become unsustainable if it was exposed to alternatives. The approach proved effective. The foundation became the main source of support for civil society in Hungary, and as civil society flourished, so the Communist regime waned.

Individualism / Communitarianism After the collapse of communism, the mission of the foundation network changed. Recognizing that an open society is a more advanced, more sophisticated form of social organization than a closed society (because in a closed society there is only one blueprint, which is imposed on society, whereas in an open society each citizen is not only allowed but required to think for himself), the foundations shifted from a subversive task to a constructive one -- not an easy thing to do when the believers in an open society are accustomed to subversive activity. Most of my foundations did a good job, but unfortunately, they did not have much company. The open societies of the West did not feel a strong urge to promote open societies in the former Soviet empire. On the contrary, the prevailing view was that people ought to be left to look after their own affairs. The end of the Cold War brought a response very different from that at the end of the Second World War. The idea of a new Marshall Plan could not even be mooted. When I proposed such an idea at a conference in Potsdam (in what was then still East Germany), in the spring of 1989, I was literally laughed at.

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