The Financial Times has chosen George Soros as its Person of the Year. On light of attacks by anti liberal groups, billionaire philanthropist and liberal standard bearer merits the title particularly in 2018.
Listen to audio discussion led by Robert Shrimsley and Anna Dedhar, Financial Times.
Wednesday, 19 December 2018
The Financial Times: FT Person of the Year: George Soros
The philanthropist has become a standard bearer for liberal democracy, an idea under siege from populists
By Roula Khalaf
For a man facing daily attacks for his activism and liberal vision of the world, George Soros was in a curiously buoyant mood on a sunswept afternoon in Marrakesh. He had just visited South Africa, home to his first philanthropic foray in the late 1970s, when he funded black students under apartheid. This time he learnt that Soros-backed investigative media and civil society groups had helped thwart an allegedly corrupt nuclear power plant contract with Russia.
“It was a tremendous boost to reinforce my belief that we are doing something right,” says Mr Soros. “We haven’t stopped having a beneficial influence.”
Influence has come at a painfully high cost for the 88-year-old father of the hedge fund industry and one of the world’s most prominent philanthropists. From his native Hungary to his adopted America, the forces of nationalism and populism are battering the liberal democratic order he has tirelessly supported. The man once described as the only individual with a foreign policy must contend with the rise of strongmen across the globe — and a vicious backlash designed to delegitimise him.
The Financial Times’s choice of Person of the Year is usually a reflection of their achievements. In the case of Mr Soros this year, his selection is also about the values he represents.
He is the standard bearer of liberal democracy and open society. These are the ideas which triumphed in the cold war. Today, they are under siege from all sides, from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Donald Trump’s America.
For more than three decades, Mr Soros has used philanthropy to battle against authoritarianism, racism and intolerance. Through his long commitment to openness, media freedom and human rights, he has attracted the wrath of authoritarian regimes and, increasingly, the national populists who continue to gain ground, particularly in Europe.
“I’m blamed for everything, including being the anti-Christ,” scoffs Mr Soros. “I wish I didn’t have so many enemies, but I take it as an indication that I must be doing something right.”
There are so many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories targeting Mr Soros that it is difficult to keep count. Hardly a day goes by without a statement, a tweet or an image depicting him as a master manipulator of global politics.
The venom, long concealed among extreme right networks, has leaked into the mainstream: Mr Trump, who resents Mr Soros’ support for the Democrats, has peddled allegations that he funded the caravan of central American migrants, claims that have appeared to have partly inspired the October attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Earlier that month, Mr Soros was the first in a series of Trump critics targeted with an explosive device sent to his suburban New York home. “I have been painted as the devil. The fact that extremists are motivated by false conspiracy theories about me to kill hurts me tremendously,” says Mr Soros.
Across the Atlantic, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, once a recipient of a Soros education grant, has instrumentalised the billionaire in his electioneering, falsely accusing him of masterminding EU plans to flood the continent with migrants. Mr Orban’s party plastered on billboards Soros imagery that critics said echoed Nazi posters of the “laughing Jew”. This month, the Central European University, which Mr Soros founded in Budapest in 1991, said it was being “forced” to move some courses to Vienna in what it described as a “dark day for Europe and a dark day for Hungary”.
In Britain, too, the country where Mr Soros completed his studies and owns property, he is remembered for being the man who “broke the Bank of England” with his 1992 bet against the pound. Decades on, he is maligned for his opposition to Brexit and for the financial muscle he lends to Best of Britain, a group campaigning for a second referendum over membership of the EU. Facebook also joined the disinformation campaign, commissioning research that tried to discredit the billionaire. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief financial officer, suspected him of shorting Facebook stock after he hit at the social network in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Mr Soros comes across as resilient, even energised by the assaults. A voracious consumer of information who also listens intently, he is in reflective mood, trying to make sense of the new world disorder. He calls himself, rather too modestly, a “failed philosopher”.
“We had history on our side in the early years. It was a time when open societies were very successful and were gaining ground,” he says of recent decades. “But the course of history has changed. That’s the problem that I’m trying to understand. What has made closed societies gain ground.”
Mr Soros has many homes but the FT meets him in Marrakesh, where he is due to attend a conference. He is seated in a courtyard past the orange grove in the opulent La Mamounia hotel. Casually dressed in a blue striped cardigan, he asks his visitors to speak through a microphone because he is hard of hearing. In Hungarian accented English, he jokes that he is the man with golden ears, a reference to his gold-plated hearing aid. Though he complains that his memory is fading — “I only remember the future”, he quips — he remains sharp and on top of the details.
Critics of Mr Soros have pointed to irreconcilable contradictions in his personality — he made his fortune as a ruthless speculator, with little regard for the consequences of his mega bets, but gives it away with messianic zeal. They detect in his philanthropy a sense of repressed guilt. Those who know him well, however, say the same strand of rebellion and high tolerance for risk runs through everything he has accomplished, whether in fund management or philanthropy.
“The roots of who he is lie in the trauma of an adolescent coming of age under Nazism and fascism, as a Jew in hiding, witnessing, at formative age, the darkest instincts and behaviour of humans,” says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, the small US liberal arts school, and a longtime associate.
Born to a Jewish family in Hungary, Mr Soros was 14 when the Nazis invaded in 1944. He survived an occupation that cost the lives of 500,000 Jews by carrying fake identity papers. Guided by his resourceful lawyer father, Tivadar, the family split up and the young George was sent to live with an agricultural official, pretending to be his godson. George accompanied the official on visits to take inventory of confiscated Jewish property, an experience over which he had no control but one that would haunt him, becoming the basis of nasty claims that he had collaborated with the Nazis.
What affected Mr Soros even more was an earlier event when he was asked by a Jewish Council to deliver deportation notices to lawyers. “One lawyer told me he was always a law-abiding citizen . . . and therefore nothing can happen to him if he obeys the order,” he says. “That made a tremendous impression on me. I realised that there can be unjust laws that you obey at your peril.”
It was as the communists consolidated power in Hungary that Mr Soros, then 17, decided to make an escape. He fled to London, where he worked as a porter and waiter. Though he felt deeply unwelcome at first, Britain gave him his start in life. While studying at the London School of Economics, he came under the intellectual influence of Karl Popper and his idea that only open, democratic societies could flourish. These ideas would later become the basis of his philanthropy.
Driven by a competitive streak instilled by his father, who encouraged his sons to play sports (he still plays tennis), Mr Soros went to Wall Street in the 1950s as an arbitrage trader, where he would eventually set up his Quantum fund and become one of the world’s most successful speculators. “The way I came out ahead on the moneymaking is that I was as critical of my own decisions as I was of the system,” he explains. “I abandoned positions that didn’t work; I cleaned up on my wins and I was generally first in, first out.”
He only burst on to the international scene, however, after his infamous 1992 bet against the British pound, which helped force the UK to withdraw from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday. The short position he built netted him more than $1bn in profit.
By that time, he had been befriending and financially supporting dissidents across the eastern bloc for a decade or so, establishing the first Open Society Foundation in Hungary in 1984. An early recipient of support was a student group led by Mr Orban. The fall of the Berlin Wall provided fresh impetus to advance his liberal agenda and when his proposal for a Marshall Plan for eastern Europe was ridiculed, he set out to implement it in a private capacity. In 1992, for example, he established a $100m programme to pay scientists’ salaries in the former Soviet Union and Baltic states and distribute scholarly journals to libraries.
Mr Soros branched out as the cold war wound down, supporting issues ranging from migration to drug policy, and taking on the discrimination against the Roma in Europe and, more recently, the Rohingya in Myanmar, where a visit a few years ago brought back memories of childhood persecution. Today, even amid an intensifying vilification campaign, he has new targets in mind. A non-practising Jew who says he believes that man created God in his image rather than the other way round, he is considering becoming more active in Israel, where he is dismayed by a controversial law declaring only Jews have the right to self-determination in the state.
“George is the permanent campaigner but instead of having a gilet jaune [like the French protesters] and work boots, he’s got a very large cheque book and a liberal agenda and he never gives up,” says Mark Malloch Brown, the former British official who is one of Mr Soros’ oldest friends. “His is not the Kissingerian theory of changing the world from the top down. It’s the idea that if you give seed money for people with powerful ideas, then if you’re lucky these ideas catch fire and change the world.”
Mr Soros says he never considered seeking elected office and those who know him agree he would not be good at it. Impulsive and prone to abruptly changing his mind, he is a person of sweeping ideas who is resistant to being “bureaucratically trained”, as Mr Malloch Brown puts it. Yet he has inserted himself into debates that are polarising western societies, leaving him open to the charge of political interference.
One of the largest donors to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 US presidential campaign, Mr Soros was stung by the election of Mr Trump (he also wrongly bet the stock market would fall in the wake of a Trump win). He had long disapproved of Mr Trump and once refused an offer for office space in a Trump building, but contends that he will be a passing phenomenon: “He [Trump] is his own worst enemy, a narcissist who wants the world to revolve around him and has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.”
In the 2020 presidential vote Mr Soros plans to stay out of the primaries and back whoever emerges as the Democratic opponent to Mr Trump. More immediately, his foundation is involved in what he sees as important advocacy for a fair 2020 census that could address the under-representation of minorities.
The world, according to Mr Soros, is in a state of revolutionary ferment. But he is not losing hope, even for Britain, where he is encouraged by the prospects for a second Brexit referendum. Yet a new vote, he says, would have to be won with a significant margin because Britain must remain in the EU with conviction, rather than for pure economic calculation.
He is still passionate about the European project, but is outspoken about its failings. The EU reminds him, in some ways, of the waning days of the Soviet Union, with a Brussels bureaucracy failing to understand that it is losing the battle. “The EU was built by visionaries who knew the weaknesses of what they were doing but had reason to believe that when the moment comes the political will can be summoned to take the next step forward.” Now, he says, the EU is in the hands of constitutional lawyers “who find loopholes to get things done so things that ought to be simple become very convoluted”.
In his twilight years, Mr Soros is looking beyond his formidable legacy. Having originally planned that his foundation would last his lifetime, he completed the transfer last year of $18bn from his family office to the Open Society Foundations. That reduced his fortune to $8bn, according to Forbes magazine, but ensured that his activism would take on a life of its own. And he has found a successor in philanthropy: his son, Alexander. “We fight for principles, we fight irrespective of the results, win or lose,” he says. And, almost as an afterthought, he says: “I don’t like to lose so much.”