The man who broke the bank ...
Billionaire speculator and philanthropist: can George Soros reconcile the two sides of his personality? By Anthony Sampson; Soros on Soros by George Soros John Wiley, pounds 14.99
Saturday 23 September 1995
This book takes the form of long interviews with an American banker and a German journalist, who ask admiring questions: "Well, George, You've been an incredible odyssey..." But, as the title suggests, it is really a dialogue with himself, in which he can be very candid.
He admits to having had a messianic complex; he feels himself larger than life, defying the law of gravity; he is still amazed at his accomplishments. But he does not really face up, I think, to the contradiction between his two roles.
His story is certainly remarkable. As a young Jewish boy in Hungary he was 14 when the Nazis took over; after the Communists came in, he left for England, went to the LSE where he studied with Karl Popper and then to New York where he soon became a brilliant fund manager.
By the early Eighties he was very rich, but self-effacing and little known outside the financial world. I got to know him then, fascinated by his questioning and wide-ranging intellect. In the middle of a financial crisis he would be walking across Hyde Park, discussing Latin American or South African politics with constant curiosity.
He was already interested in the idea of setting up foundations to help to bring about an "Open Society" in Russia and Eastern Europe. When Communism collapsed, he spent more and more of his fortune on promoting freedom and education in those countries.
He decided that he needed to be famous to get access to top people like George Bush and Margaret Thatcher, so he rapidly opened up to the media. Ironically, he did not become really famous (as he points out) until he made a billion dollars from the collapse of sterling. Now his high profile enables him to move markets, with all the dangers that implies.
Today he relishes his international exposure and he sees his own development as linked to the fate of the world. "My whole life has been one long effort to integrate the various facets of my existence ... An open society is one in which a person like me can live and prosper." He sees no contradiction between his money-making from speculation, and his mission to establish institutions to protect democracy in countries in turmoil; and he now invests in the same countries where he has foundations.
But Soros's two sides are more in conflict, I think, than this book chooses to explore. For in this global market-place the process of speculation which made his fortune is always liable to destabilise national policies and commitments.
It remains doubtful whether Russia can survive the ruthless incursions of the "robber capitalists" investing in Mafia-like activities. But Soros, as he explains, could not resist joining them: "here was an embryonic financial market with tremendous upside potential".
Soros describes his intense disappointment, after he was financing his foundations in Eastern Europe, when he looked behind him to find that no western government was following him. In 1989 he pressed for a new Marshall Plan to support democracy in Eastern Europe, which he hoped Mrs Thatcher would support. He should have known that she was instinctively hostile to any form of foreign aid. And the global market which had enabled Soros to make his billions was also making it harder for any government to commit itself to any such long-term assistance.
Soros has a genuine sensitivity to global dangers which comes from his own experiences. He is now rightly concerned that the West, as well as the former Soviet empire, is threatened with disintegration because it takes its open society for granted and is not prepared to make sacrifices to maintain it. But this book suggests that he may have become too absorbed in his own personality to see the problem altogether clearly.
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