The Open Society

Apocryphally or not, it is said that an obituary of Alfred Nobel which appeared in a newspaper in 1888 described him as a “Merchant of death”.  The obituary had actually appeared in error as Mr Nobel was still very much alive. But he took warning about his reputation from this and founded the Nobel Institute in Stockholm to ensure that his name was not just associated with explosives and death.

The Nobel prizes were intended to reward those who, during the preceding year, had “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. The peace prize was to be awarded to someone who had rendered “the greatest service to the cause of international fraternity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses”. The latest recipient is due to be announced this Friday. I don’t have any inside knowledge as to who the recipient may be, but there has been quite a lot of discussion in advance of this event about past winners.

Many are uncontroversial, at least now even if not at the time. Names such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela come to mind. Others remain controversial - one member of the Nobel committee who chose President Obama about 9 months into his period of office, said that they had done this in the hope of encouraging further work towards peace on the world stage by the American government. They had been disappointed. Other prize winners have not always lived up to their reputations – Aung San Suu Kyi who impressed us all with her steadfastness over opposition to the dictators running Myanmar (even if it meant neglecting her dying husband) is currently embroiled in accusations of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims by the government, of which she is the titular head. It seems that sometimes there is a degree of obsession in the make up of prize winners which can work to the disadvantage of the world at large.

For this year’s peace prize there are there are 318 candidates - 211 individuals and 107 organizations, but the rules of the organisation say that their names will not be divulged for 50 years. So we shall never know if the great peace-maker, President Trump, is amongst those considered. The Peace Research Institute Oslo is an organisation which has for the last two years produced a short list which contained the name of the eventual winner. The front-runners mentioned by them this year include two journalistic organisation - ‘The Committee to Protect Journalists’ and ‘Reporters Without Borders’ - although they say that an individual journalist may win. Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition politician who suffered a near-fatal poisoning in August, was also being tipped by some Nobel-watchers even before he was poisoned. Greta Thunberg is not thought a likely winner.

There is also the question of who might have been a worthy recipient if they weren’t already dead. Lately, there has been a lot of praise for that icon of lying in bed to promote world peace, John Lennon.  Lennon was a symbol, if not the symbol, of the Sixties, the decade of peace and love. This week would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday. For some, it seems, the pedestal on which he stands has grown even higher since his assassination. Sir Elton John, who was Lennon’s friend, has told the BBC that, had the former Beatle lived, he would have won the Nobel peace prize. Well, of course, his fellow occupant of the peace bed, Yoko Ono is still with us and so maybe we shall find that she is the latest prize-winner. After all, she co-wrote Imagine with John Lennon.

I’m not quite sure, though, how well John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s recipe for his Utopia would go down with people today, when nationalism and inward-looking policies seem to be increasingly popular.  ‘Imagine’ conjured up a vision of the brotherhood of man. There would be “no countries, nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too”. Likewise, ‘there would be no possessions and so no need for greed or hunger - and the world will live as one’. I’m not sure that the lack of possessions would actually lead to a Utopia, unless of course we all had free access to absolutely everything that we wanted to be able to use and enjoy. Perhaps Yoko Ono, current worth $700,000,000, could lead the way. But I suppose that if we had robots to do everything for us and manufacture whatever we wanted without destroying the earth in the process, it may work. Then we could all sit around strumming our guitars. In the meantime, we perhaps need to look for practical solutions to the world’s current problems in order to try to attain world peace.

One person who has done a lot to promote it is a billionaire philanthropist who is not Bill Gates. I refer to a different subject of so many conspiracy theories, George Soros. He was born in Hungary in 1930 and so lived through the German occupation. For very many years now, he has had dual American/Hungarian citizenship. He is a financier and bet against the survival of Britain in the ERM. On Black Wednesday - September 16th, 1992 - owing in part to the efforts of George Soros, the pound crashed out of the ERM and Soros pocketed a $1billion as a consequence, cementing his reputation as probably the greatest Forex trader of that era, even if not very popular in the UK.

Prior to that, though, he had already become one of the richest men on the planet and in 1979 had started the Open Society Foundation. Having managed not to be killed during the second world war, despite being a Jew, he ended up at the London School of Economics, when Karl Popper was there and had recently published his book, “the Open Society and its Enemies”. This was a critique of various approaches to the running of society, from Plato through to Hegel and Marx, all of whom he accused of supporting closed, authoritarian societies. I suspect that he thought there wasn’t much benefit in pointing out the defects in Nazism. Clearly, though, Popper’s views had a major effect on Soros and so where the Gates Foundation deals largely with medical issues, the various Soros Foundations look elsewhere.

Popper argued that no philosophy or ideology is the final arbiter of truth, and that societies can only flourish when they allow for democratic governance, freedom of expression, and respect for individual rights—an approach adopted by the Open Society Foundations in various countries. They try to create opportunities for the opening of closed societies through providing grants for education. Soros began his philanthropic work by funding scholarships for black university students in South Africa during apartheid and for dissidents in communist Eastern Europe to study in the West.

Today, his Foundations fund groups and individuals in more than 120 countries. At the same time they reflect the early influence on Soros’ thinking of the philosophy of Karl Popper. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he created the Central European University to foster critical thinking - at that time an alien concept at most universities in the former Communist bloc and now under renewed attack by the Hungarian government. With the Cold War over, he expanded his philanthropy to the United States, Africa, Latin America, and Asia, supporting a vast array of new efforts to create more accountable, transparent, and democratic societies. He was one of the early prominent voices to criticize the war on drugs as “arguably more harmful than the drug problem itself,” and helped kick-start America’s medical marijuana movement.

So then, as I am someone influenced by Karl Popper’s thinking in a number of ways, and seeing the immense amounts of effort and money ($32 billion since 1984) put in by George Soros to freeing societies from the closed minds which run them, I think that, at the age of 90, he would be a very worthy candidate for the peace prize.  It would certainly be an interesting retort to the conspiracy theorists who consider him to be a major part of the deep state. Indeed possibly one of the extraterrestrial lizards who control the world.

Paul Buckingham

7 October 2020

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