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<nettime> Soros - the dictatorship of goodwill
Calin Dan on Sat, 10 May 1997 15:20:16 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Soros - the dictatorship of goodwill


The Dictatorship of Good Will
Călin 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 the attention George Soros
enjoys lately in more alternative circles than he did before, without
necessarily an increase in the edge of the analysis. At this moment of
global criticism, GS seems to still be 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 option and transparent signals from the top that I
became undesirable.
The reasons for that end are multi-layered, but 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 about the fact that the Foundation presents
itself when necessary with a puritan morale ignoring any suspicions of
fraud. Does that speak about missionary fanaticism of about cynical
manipulation of evidence?
According to the 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.
Corporation 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 behind an imposing facade. Other fixtures are:
the fascination with the contradictory figure of George Soros himself; and
the expedient, somehow embarrassed mention of the solid achievements that
his philanthropy 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 are believing in the genuine holiness
of philanthropy, and get 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 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 descreened 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
at the point statements, vectors and plans are inevitably a personal
discourse which cannot cover the reality in the field otherwise but
symbolically. That is actually the scary part about GS - he is symbolic.
Is the Soros Foundation's future interwoven with the future of the region
where it operates? What will happen with 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? At what extend
and to what ends? Those are questions which do not get an answer in the
further lines. But 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 the rumor of the Biennial was the main presence at that moment
in a town filled with rumors anyway.
Another rumor was that "George" will deliver a critical speech on our
activities. And this was adding up to an 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 or 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. And one of those
opportunities was GS himself, with his capricious personality, with the
aura of philosophic saintity and the weaknesses of an old man surrounded by
a team of women which adopted the 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, procedures for promoting initiatives. Everything seems under
questioning at the level of details, but the huge machine of philanthropy
keeps moving at a such impressive scale that you have all the time a
sensation of insecurity and doubt about the functioning mode, but also
about the way it reflects on people.

And you start to develop a feeling about the Kafkian atmosphere of 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 thing about the presence of the foundation
in such terminal places like Bosnia, Tschetschenja, Albania. Or about GS's
personal statements on fundamental issues as closed societies, death in
America, change of the US drug policies and on the way those topics affect
the lives of individuals.

I think that the main cause for the frustrations the structures and the
operational policies of the SF might raise is scaling. Both the projects of
the SF and the philosophy of GS himself are dealing with large scale
concepts and emergencies. And large scale has to step over the scale of the
individual. 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 life time project.
But history is beyond human scale and therefore beyond the understanding of
the individuals. What individuals perceive, is their discomfort and their
immediate needs. What history is about is all vectors, forces in conflicts,
global equilibrium etc. All concepts.
Using them as matter for one's activity is tempting, because it gives  the
feeling of substituting God. But it is also risky because, except God,
nobody is exempt of failure.
Is GS playing God? This is an irrelevant question, as far as it can be
addressed to a dazzling high number of human beings, of all levels of
quality and social position. It also is a matter 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. And the first thing he made clear was that he didn't
understand a thing from what was happening there, and from whatever he
understood he didn't really like much. 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 found
suffocating and wrongly developed. In that sense GS was echoing opinions
coming form 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
and the emergency of 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 is the moment when I started to develop a
feeling of uneasiness, which grew in an obscure corner of my brain ever
since. Now, when time put in a wider prospective all kind of personal
experiences and general information, 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 in the communist system of cultural activities.
But the way he was mixing confessed ignorance and tolerant acceptance
reminded in an unpleasant way conversations with political activists in the
80's Romania; people who, without knowing their subject, were supportive
(or not) according to the safest principle - recommendation from the close
advisors
GS didn't claim to understand or like, but he assumed to support. Can
support and understanding be completely divorced and still breed together
the same child?
The ups and downs of GS's humor, 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
that way his techniques of financial investment.
But the methods and the atmosphere remember sometimes amazingly well the
scheming-and-plotting characteristic  for the history of the top structures
in all communist parties history. Of course and again, the scale
adjustments of his operations put the criticism at the level of details.
But the details are feeding a structure which seems to be never
questionable exactly because of its outstanding scale.
And I perfectly remember another assembly, where GS was represented by
executives who had the delicate task to chop a head and change the course
of the same incriminated visual arts program, by putting it back where it
should have belong from the beginning - in the main stream of the
foundation's policies.
The fact in itself has 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
when people where withdrawn their Communist Party membership for some
reasons which were of no concern for the Party (like choosing to emigrate,
for instance). This is the faith of organizations which relay on a
democratic image, but are inevitably confronted to the necessity of
top-to-bottom decision making: they have to compromise on the procedures in
order to save the image. But 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 was addressing, up till now, his person and his
initiatives. The episode of "breaking the pound" is relevant in that sense:
GS transformed the media coverage of this event into an open advertisement
of 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
acquired through his philanthropy. His capitalistic initiatives are
exempted of the bad aura capitalism still has at its corporate levels,
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 build in the stock exchange market because this is 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
perfectly his addiction to success and power and his humanism - the stock
exchange speculations are almost as elusive and look as 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 all, a philanthropic activity whose scale is, at least on the
surface, far bigger than anything experienced in modern times. Or let's
say, far more obvious. I don't know what would be the result if adding up
the figures in philanthropic initiatives like the J. P. Getty,
Carnegie-Mellon, the Nobel foundations etc. But although they operate on
long term, they have smaller surface and therefore less impact than the
OSI, which explicitly does not claim to long term operations (the rumors
about the withdrawal of GS from the Central-Eastern Europe come as a
periodic tide of panic in the region), but has the ambition to cover all
the demands a society in needs might have.

*The McDonald's Effect.* So, is finally GS playing a short term God game?
No more than McDonald's, I dare say. To those who will be revolted by this
approach, I want to remind first that McD.'s has also its humanitarian
goals: to feed cheap, safe and clean, 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 so, in order to
stress the dominant attitude on 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 a product of profitable use. What happens at
the other end of the chain - the consumer learned not to question this
issue, which is beyond control. From the consumer's point of view, NGOs and
fast food restaurants must behave the same: deliver satisfaction.
What matters in the end is that philanthropy operates in no different way
from profit. It relies on the same system of demand and offer, of
punishment and reward as the oppressive capitalism itself. And at both ends
of the link are the eternal enemies - the rich who provides jobs, goods,
control, and the poor who provides work, profit, recognition.
Understanding otherwise the philanthropic system 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 gambling maybe on the
elites of tomorrow and rely on the local societies for accepting or
rejecting them on a long term. But here is another paradox generated by the
imperfections of societies, be they open or close. You cannot try to build
an open system on the ruins of a close one without counting on the remnants
of the previous. Even more, you cannot try to open a close society without
making compromises with those in charge with it - that means precisely
those who do not fancy the opening. This is not a catastrophe in itself, it
is just another relevant detail pointing at 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 the
priorities they make. This is not just a strategic attitude, and the fact
that the SF operates so intensely on local scales is reflecting the fact
that the OSI is, more than a strait philanthropic enterprise, a check up on
the way social/political bodies are able to absorb wealth coming through
philanthropy and ideas imposed through money. Beneath this check up there
might be another project - selling initiatives and infiltrating the
marketing policies of the local governments. But this hypothesis can be
checked upon only on 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 reached a level beyond any moral strings,
the level of pure will.

To expect from the SF other internal behavior than in power based systems,
or to hope from its operational platform to have a purist shape, unlike the
shape of the field where it is implanted, this would be excessively naive
or malevolent. But to listen only to the voices of those in need that the
SF helped or will help, and to the representatives in charge with helping
is somehow unwise. Even if for giving the SF itself some other negative
response than the aggressivity 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
that the American criticism is not concerned with the issue, since the
presence of GS is elusive there. Till the emotional statement about the
necessity of helping culture of death to develop in the American society,
GS was not really involved in the emergencies of his country of adoption.

A consequence of the involvement GS - this almost too typical European -
has 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 goes precisely in
the direction of the American ideology: liberal market and limited
individual rights, enhanced productivity and limitation of social
assistance, enhanced tolerance functioning of the capital mechanisms,
limited tolerance for the machinery of small enterprise.
Basically, the smooth denial of European diversification for the 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 a
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 the Central-Eastern Europe. In the vacuum
installed there after 1989, the social engineering of OSI is not recoping
with the traditional democracies model which is (still) available West of
Berlin. But installs the paternalistic model of the 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 the philosopher
and philanthropist GS is confronted with is an old one - but never
exhausted, and it speaks about the corruption related to power. This is not
any more an issue dealing with morality, but with function. Power, as
consumed in historic times, cannot function otherwise but by 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 of various
sorts, GS has in his complex personality the necessary of humor and
cynicism to make him aware of the dialectic conflict his foundation is
based on. But he is far too pragmatic to care about details. And around
him, nobody seems concerned to question such issues as the power structures
of philanthropy, because they seem irrelevant on the larger scale 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 will be made, I can fore see it 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 moving the philanthropic machine, 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 you can be both in 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
the good will by 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 meet the statements of GS himself.
Where I am away from him can be seen in a picture published by the Romanian
media on the occasion of a visit GS made in my country of origin. I just
realize 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 do 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 in that
picture I am next to him, 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, no
matter if we admit it or not. But only a very few are able to compromise
until the end and to take until the end the consequences which make you
powerful and which guarantees the preservation of that power. Usually
people are in and out their (secret) ambitions. The very few, GS included,
are only in.


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