Date: Sat, 10 May 1997 14:59:29 +0200 (MET DST)
From: Calin Dan

The Dictatorship of Good Will

Calin Dan

My back up floppy says that I finished the rough version of the following on >May 7, 1996, 10:30 AM<. It was just a routine farewell to an episode from my belated childhood as a hybrid (post ‘89) European, and never meant to be published. The reason to go public is that lately George Soros enjoys more attention in alternative circles than he used to, without necessarily an increase in the edge of the analysis. At this moment of global criticism, GS still seems a hard nut to crack.

My work with the Soros Foundation Romania started unexpectedly, on top of several other commitments I never gave up, and ended abruptly, through a combination of personal desire and transparent signals from the top that I had become undesirable. The reasons for this end are multi-layered; what matters is the label put on the crisis: "conflict of interest." This can be translated in many ways but is basically about how ideological hypocrisy is used in punctual cleansing operations; and the fact that the Foundation presents itself when necessary, with a puritan morale ignoring any suspicions of fraud. Does this suggest missionary fanaticism or a cynical manipulation of evidence?

According to its self-promoting public image, the Open Society Institute doesn’t operate with difficult human beings—humanly ambitious and professionally driven—but with professional altruists fighting anonymously for the salvation of the post-communist/post-industrial worlds. Corporations and sects are cultivating the same clinically anti-septic image, I guess.

Generally, all analysis of the Soros Foundations activities are based on two truisms - either speculating on the conspiracy side, or emphasizing the mediocre conflicts streaming out from behind an imposing facade. Other fixtures are: the fascination with the contradictory figure of George Soros himself; and the expedient, somehow embarrassed citings of the solid achievements that his philanthropy has facilitated.

This doesn’t speak necessarily about the limits of the analysts, but about the limits of the subject itself. What we have here is a case of philanthropy, issued by the mechanisms of the Western economic system, and therefore contaminated by the weaknesses and contradictions of that very system itself (of any power system). Since everything has been said about "late capitalism", "corporate ideology", "abolition of the nation-state" etc., there is not much left to add while criticizing the philanthropic offspring of the previous. Unless we believe in the genuine holiness of philanthropy, and are deceived by its mundane aspects.

Where GS makes a difference from the "classic" model is: a) in the way he plays with the media, both as a charismatic pop star and as an infrastructure promoter; b) in the scale of the philanthropy itself.

a) and b) are closely interdependent. The scale of his philanthropy brings (mass) media coverage; the media infrastructure promotion pushes further the unusual scale of GS’s global involvement. The critical analysis of the foundation has to be screened against the cloudy performance of GS himself in order to get some objectivity. I do not imply that the philanthropist is a theoretical fraud, but his generous, charming and very to-the-point statements, vectors, and plans are inevitably a personal discourse which cannot cover the reality in the field any other way but symbolically. This is actually what’s scary about GS - he is symbolic. Is the Soros Foundation’s future interwoven with the future of the region where it operates? What will happen to all the infrastructures and financial strategies of the SF (now Open Society Institute) after the disappearance of GS? Will they turn anonymous, like other similar operations. Will NGOs become the substitutes of governments? To what extent and to what ends? These are questions which do not get an answer in the following lines. They remain a target for more systematic approaches than mine. (May, 1997)

Open Societies and Closed Routines.

I first met George Soros at a conference organized for his staff dealing with visual arts projects. We were having a working lunch on the roof of the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, and rumors about the Biennial were the main presence at that moment, in a town filled with rumors anyway.

Another rumor was that "George" was going deliver a critical speech on our activities. All this added up to the inherent nervousness always connected to the prospective of meeting somebody who is simultaneously the boss who controls your income and an outstanding personality who controls a big share of the world’s finances, developing meanwhile a charismatic image through various media channels. I actually have no reasons to complain about GS, neither as a boss nor as a thinker. The two years I worked for him offered me a lot of opportunities to explore (and maybe understand a bit) the real world, as it appeared to our eyes after the falling of the Berlin veil. One of those opportunities was to witness GS himself : his capricious personality and his aura, which combines philosophic sainthood with the weaknesses of an old man surrounded by a team of women who’ve adopted courtship intrigue as a working style.

Nothing is settled in his environment, personnel position, work hierarchies, short or long terms strategies, networks for channeling information, or procedures for promoting initiatives. Everything seems questionable at the detail level, but the huge machine of philanthropy keeps moving at such an impressive scale that you constantly have a sensation of insecurity and doubt not only about the functioning mode, but also about the way it reflects on people. You start to develop a Kafkaesque feeling within the atmosphere, a structure too randomly oppressive to be understood. One on top of the other, the partial conclusion could be that you became part of (another) organization which values principles more than individuals. This might sound unfair when you think about the presence of the foundation in such terminal places like Bosnia, Chechnya, and Albania. Or about GS’s personal statements on fundamental issues such as closed societies, death in America, change in US drug policies, and the way those topics affect the lives of individuals.

I think that the main cause for the frustration the structures and the operational policies of the SF might raise is its scale. Both the projects of the SF and the philosophy of GS himself are dealing with large scale concepts and emergencies. A large scale has to step beyond the individual scale. What GS is doing by his philanthropic work is compressing history (as understood by him via philosophic training, personal experience, and professional insight) into a lifetime project. But history is beyond the human scale and therefore beyond the understanding of individuals. Individuals perceive their own discomfort and immediate needs. History is all about vectors, forces in conflicts, global equilibrium etc.—all concepts. Using them to inform one’s activity is tempting, because it gives the feeling of subsuming God, but it’s also risky, because except God, nobody is exempt from failure.

Is GS playing God? This is an irrelevant question insofar as it can be addressed to a dazzlingly high number of human beings of all levels of quality and social position. It is also a matter of what kind of God one wants to play, in terms of effectiveness and result.

Getting back to that luncheon episode, GS came there after a guided tour of the Biennial. The first thing he made clear was that he didn’t understand anything that was happening in the show, and what he did understand he didn’t really like. This was in 1993, and I must confess that I received with great pleasure and amusement his genuine remarks about an event and a world (the art world) that more and more people were finding suffocating and wrongly developed. In that sense GS was echoing opinions coming from the very young generation, and as we know, it is always wise to listen to the youth.

But then he continued: therefore, he didn’t understand what was the object of and the emergency in our activity as promoters of visual arts programs within his foundation. But, since his advisors told him that we are all outstanding specialists and that we do a great job, he will continue to support us in the future. That’s the moment when I started to develop the feeling of uneasiness which has grown in an obscure corner of my brain ever since. Now that time has put all kinds of personal experiences and general information in a wider perspective, I started to understand what transformed me then from a happy employee into a potential defector: the feeling of looped history.

The casual appearance of George on that terrace had nothing to do with my past as a humble survivor of the communist system of cultural activities. But the way he mixed confessed ignorance and tolerant acceptance reminded me in an unpleasant way of conversations with political activists in 80’s Romania; people who, without knowing their subject, were supportive (or not) according to the safest principle - recommendations from their close advisors. GS didn’t claim to understand, or like, but he still aimed to support. Can support and understanding be completely divorced and still breed together the same child?

The ups and downs of GS’s humor and his change of initiatives could be seen as part of a general strategy which uses chaotic motion in order to reach creative solutions. The billionaire himself is consistent in describing his techniques of financial investment that way, but his methods and the atmosphere they create are sometimes amazingly reminiscent of the scheming-and-plotting of top structures in the history of communist parties. Again, of course, the scale adjustments of his operations put this criticism at the level of detail, but the details are feeding a structure which seems to be unquestionable exactly because of its outstanding scale.

I remember perfectly another assembly where GS was represented by executives who had the delicate task of chopping out and changing the course of the same incriminated visual arts program, by putting it back where it should have been from the beginning: in the main stream of the foundation’s policies. This fact in itself is nothing exceptional, but since an air of democratic initiative had to be saved, everything was oppressed again by a thick air of hypocrisy similar to what I experienced in some unfortunate episodes where people had their Communist Party memberships withdrawn for some reason of no concern to the Party (like choosing to emigrate, for instance). This is the fate of organizations which rely on a democratic image, but are inevitably confronted with the necessity of top-to-bottom decision making: they have to compromise on procedures in order to save their image. The procedures remain in the end what they are: top-to-bottom decisions, where the voters raise their hands in a self preserving unanimity.

Another similarity with the closed systems GS abhors is the fact that no serious criticism has been addressed, up till now, at his person and his initiatives. The episode of "breaking the pound" is relevant in this sense: GS transformed the media coverage of the event into an open advertisement for his philanthropic activities, claiming that what he took from the pocket of the British tax payer went into projects supporting the more in-need societies of Central-Eastern Europe. This piece of charming cynicism proves of the comfortable position GS has acquired through his philanthropy. His capitalistic initiatives are exempted from the bad aura capitalism still has at the corporate level since GS seems to be a lonely gambler. More than that, he uses the system with a kind of romantic outlaw pose, taking from the rich in order to give to the poor. The fact that his activities are part of an oppressive financial system which nobody really understands in its mechanisms, escapes our attention exactly for that reason - because it is incomprehensible. People criticize big corporations which manipulate the public conscience via advertisement and oppress it via insistent sponsorship, but nobody questions fortunes built in the stock market because it’s too abstract to be connected to exploitation and fraud. Undoubtedly a philosopher and a sensitive spirit, concerned vividly with the emergencies of this shaking world, GS found the field which matches his addiction to success and power perfectly, and his humanism - stock market speculation is almost as elusive and fascinating as fundamental research in physics and mathematics. The name of GS’s business, "Quantum Fund", is pointing at this with (again?, maybe?) a spice of cynicism.

On top of it all, this is philanthropic activity, at least on the surface, on a far greater scale—or let’s say it’s far more visible—than anything experienced in modern times. I don’t know what would be the result of comparing its sum figures with those of philanthropic initiatives like J. P. Getty, Carnegie-Mellon, the Nobel foundations etc. But although they operate over the long term, they have smaller surfaces and therefore less impact than the OSI, which explicitly does not claim to operate long term (rumors of GS’s withdrawal from Central-Eastern Europe come as periodic tides of panic in the region), but has the ambition to cover all the demands a society in needs might have.

The McDonald’s Effect.

Finally, is GS playing a short term God game?—No more than McDonald’s, I daresay. Those who will be revolted by this approach I want to remind that McD.’s also has its humanitarian goals: to feed cheaply, safely and cleanly; to impose a certain life style (dynamic, practical, democratic); to entertain; to offer an image of wealth in simplicity. Everybody is equal at the McD.’s, and everybody is supposed to be equal in front of the SF. You pick up your grant as you pick up your double Mac, and there you go. One might say that this is a gross comparison, and it is, in order to stress the dominant attitude underlying any philanthropic initiative.

One might claim that McD. earns money from its operations, while OSI is not. But this is the point of view of the entrepreneur. The consumer sees what s/he gets, and this is the product of profitable use. What happens at the other end of the chain—the consumer has learned not to question this issue—is beyond control. From the consumer’s point of view, NGOs and fast food restaurants must perform the same task: deliver satisfaction. What matters in the end is that philanthropy operates in a way no different than profit. It relies on the same system of demand and offer, of punishment and reward, as oppressive capitalism itself. And at both ends of the link are the eternal enemies - the rich who provide jobs, goods, control, and the poor who provide work, profit, recognition. Understanding the philanthropic system any other way means cutting it completely from the environment which produced it. Philanthropy does not come from God, or at least not from a disinterested one.

The American Ideology.

The programs of the SF are perhaps gambling on the elites of tomorrow and rely on local societies for accepting or rejecting them in the long term. But there is another paradox generated by the imperfection of societies, be they open or closed. You cannot try to build an open system on the ruins of a closed one without relying on the remnants of the previous system. Even more, you cannot try to open a closed society without making compromises with those in charge of it - that means precisely those who do not fancy its opening. This is not a catastrophe in itself, just another relevant detail pointing to the fact that the SF is a power structure representing other power structures, operating within the environment of Power and according to Power regulations. To present it otherwise is just a clever marketing strategy.

GS makes it clear on every occasion that the national foundations are totally in charge of their policies and fully responsible for their priorities. This is not just a strategic attitude, and the fact that the SF operates so intensely on local scales reflects the fact that the OSI is, more than a straight philanthropic enterprise, a test of the way social/political bodies are able to absorb wealth coming through philanthropy and ideas imposed through money. Beneath this test there might be another project: selling initiatives and infiltrating the marketing policies of local governments. However this hypothesis can be tested only over the long term. Officially, no relation can be made between the financial operations of GS and his philanthropic activities. He also made repeated statements that he is earning much faster than he can spend, which - if true - proves that GS has reached a level beyond any moral strings, the level of pure will.

To expect from the SF internal behavior different from power based systems, or to hope for its operational platform to have a purist shape—unlike the shape of the field it’s implanted in—would be excessively naïve, or malevolent. But to listen only to the voices of those in need who the SF has helped or will help, or to the representatives in charge of helping, is somehow unwise. Even if only to give the SF itself some negative response other than the aggression of local nationalists, if not for finding improvement, a sample of (Eastern) European criticism should be offered to GS. The problem is that European criticism is no longer a strong concept and American criticism is not concerned with the issue, since the presence of GS is elusive there. Till his emotional statement about the necessity of helping a culture of death to develop in American society, GS was not really involved in the emergencies of his adopted country.

A consequence of GS (this almost too typical European)’s involvment in the region of his birth is the enhancement of the American ideology, detrimental to the social system of European capitalism. The developments of the European Community towards monetary unification is precisely in the direction of American ideology: liberal market and limited individual rights, enhanced productivity and limitation of social assistance, enhanced tolerance for the functions of capital mechanisms, limited tolerance for the machinery of small enterprise. Basically, the smooth denial of European diversification for American freedom. GS made it clear that this is the way it should be (among other occasions, in a harsh TV polemic with the former Minister of Finances in the Socialist French government). But then he changed 180 degrees and claimed that capitalism is bad. Those spectacular jumps do not change the essence of the OSF’s function in Central-Eastern Europe. In the vacuum installed there after 1989, the social engineering of OSI is not copying the traditional democratic model (still) available West of Berlin, but installs the paternalistic model of American ideology: 1. money for few, freedom for all; 2. become very rich and help the very poor.

Egalitarian Totalitarianism.

In fact, the main problem confronting GS the philosopher and philanthropist is an old one - but never exhausted, and it speaks about corruption’s relationship to power. This is not any more an issue dealing with morality, but with function. Power, as historically consumed, cannot function other than through corruption—which is not a behavioral pattern but a medium for channeling it. The sad part of the story comes when power tries to exercise itself under the umbrella of big ideals, because then the contradictions between means and goals become more evident. As a man and as a thinker, as a performer, and as a public figure various ways, GS has in his complex personality the necessary humor and cynicism to be aware of the dialectic conflict his foundation is based on. He is far too pragmatic to care about details, and nobody around him seems concerned about issues such as the power structures of philanthropy, because they seem irrelevant in the larger scheme of philanthropy itself. At this moment, the OSI is too big and too busy to care about criticism. If a systematic attempt in this sense is to be made, I foresee it will be either completely ignored, like God ignores nagging prayers, or destroyed, like dictatorial systems destroy their opponents. This has nothing to do in particular with the people involved in the foundations, but with the momentum that keeps the philanthropic machine moving, which has to function for its own internal reasons. No matter how open in its goals, the OSI is also a self-referential operation. The charm of the OSI is consistent as far as its possible to be both inside and outside its borders. The danger at this moment is that outside it there is nothing else than poverty, oppression and violence. For the countries who fit in that model of non-alternative, the OSI might turn into a dictatorship of goodwill through the insidious way of non-option. This is not the fault of the institution itself, as it is not responsible for the imperfections of this world, but it is only realistic to see that the foundation is part of this world, and not at all beyond its imperfection.

I like philanthropy and I try to benefit from it as much as anybody else. But I also like the clear status of the applicant in front of the people distributing the money. I like openness, I dare say. This is a point where I modestly agree with the statements of GS himself. Where I am not with him can be seen in a picture published by the Romanian media on the occasion of a visit GS made to my country of origin. I just realized that this is where I actually met GS the first time, not in Venice. It was the inauguration of the SCCA Bucharest, where I was appointed as Artistic Director. The crowd of local celebrities attending the event was so dense that George had to climb on a table to deliver his speech. It was a brave, somehow boyish attitude coming from an eccentric celebrity who wanted people to feel at ease, and at the same time not forget that they have to look at him in only one way - upwards. While organizing his tribune, he asked me to translate what he had to say. Therefore I am next to him in the picture, on the floor, amused by the situation, but without daring to join it completely. That makes all the difference between those who have and those who receive. We all like money and power whether we admit it or not, but only a very few of us are able to compromise to the end, and take to the end the consequences which make you powerful and guarantee the preservation of that power. Most people are in and out their (secret) ambitions. The very few, GS included, are only in.