Dominic Chavez/World Bank
World News /25 Feb 2018
02.25.18

On the Internet Democracy: An Open Letter to George Soros

Dear Mr. Soros,

I doubt that you remember me, but I was actually introduced to you once. I am the guy who created Smolny College–the first liberal arts college in Russia. You generously supported this project and I am very appreciative of your support.

My reason for writing this letter is not Smolny. It is your recent article entitled “The Social Media Threat to Society and Security” published by Project Syndicate. In this article you criticize the existing social media. You argue that it has become a threat to open society. You propose to establish a system that would regulate the platform giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and others. You also make an implicit connection between what you call “the unregulated monopoly” of these giants and a possibility of the emergence of the mafia state in the United States, similar to Russia and North Korea. I gather from your other comments that this suggestion refers to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

Many people know you as a financier who almost caused a collapse of the British pound. You are also well known as a political activist and a philanthropist who uses his vast financial resources to support his projects in these areas. Fewer people know that in your efforts to change the world you draw your inspiration from Karl Popper, the famous British philosopher whose ideas drive your activism.

One can understand that a wide-eyed young man can become fascinated with a famous philosopher. Great ideas can certainly have a lasting impact on a young and impressionable mind. But you are no longer that young man. You are now a mature adult person with a life-long experience. You should know that ideas are not eternal. They all change. What we know today is different from what we knew when we were fifteen and from what we will know 20-30 years from now. To use Dylan’s refrain, “The times they are’a changin” and we change with them.

The ideas of Karl Popper are not universal. They also belong to a particular time and place. They owe their existence to liberalism and the Enlightenment project. The Enlightenment project is now more than two hundred years old. It originated in the crucible of the 18th and 19th century and was shaped by such prominent thinkers as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hume, Locke, and many others. Karl Popper also belongs to this cohort.

There is no need to revisit these ideas. A simple search on Google will suffice. This is also not a place to offer another criticism of these ideas. Critiques of the Enlightenment are abundant. Let me just say here that we live in a different age and these ideas are not the only ones we have. There are many new ones that are more relevant to our age than those formulated two hundred or even fifty years ago.

Critique of the Enlightenment has often focused on its elitism. The Enlightenment tradition has engendered social and political practices that are elitist in nature. It is not surprising, therefore, that Enlightenment thought has been associated with racism, misogyny, and other forms of exclusion and domination. You have adopted these ideas and made them your own. You have used and continue to use these ideas in guiding your activism. These ideas have critically shaped the practice of the Open Society Foundations (OSF)–the institutions that you have created to realize your transformative plans for the world. This practice is elitist and it critically relies on bureaucrats that run these institutions.

Bureaucratic rule is hierarchical in nature. In other words, the main type of interactions in it is hierarchical based on command-control. For this reason, they are not conducive to creative and innovative decisions that generally thrive in non-hierarchical environments. Also, under bureaucratic rule those in control of hierarchies stand in opposition to those over whom these hierarchies rule. Those at the bottom look up their bosses. They do their best to please them, which often involves lying. Such practice is characteristic for many countries where the OSF operates, including Russia and Kyrgyzstan.

As I have already mentioned, I organized Smolny College—the first liberal arts college in Russia that the OSF generously supported (for which I am very grateful). When I was involved in the Smolny project, I worked closely with OSF functionaries. Based on my experience, I can say that these functionaries are rigid, unimaginative, and largely self-serving bureaucrats who pursue their own interests first and foremost. I recall one occasion when Ms. Genieva, the erstwhile top official of the Moscow branch of the OSI, told me in front of her entire board that American education had nothing to offer to Russia because Americans, in her view, taught only “feminism and athletics.” I am sure this has never come up in reports from Moscow. The Moscow branch in general was not particularly generous with its money. They used this money primarily to support projects proposed by friends of the top bureaucrats, rather than to support the most promising projects. In the end, Smolny did not get any money from them. I wrote about the episode I have recounted above to the OSF headquarters in Budapest and was rewarded by a demotion and humiliation. The situation at the St. Petersburg branch of the OSF was even equally bad. Under the watchful eye of the bureaucrats in the OSF headquarters, it was nepotism and favoritism pure and simple. All the bureaucrats cared about was good reports; and reports were always good. But they hardly reflected the real situation on the ground.

Another typical example of how reliable bureaucratic reports are involves the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, that the OSF has created and is generously funding. I was once on a team of visitors to this institution. One of the issues we discussed with the administrators and faculty at AUCA was the use of English language. Despite frequent statements in various reports to the effect that English should be the most important language in AUCA, Russian was actually prevalent as a language of instruction. In my personal meetings with members of the faculty, I asked them what language was more important for AUCA students—English or Russian. They all without exception named Russian. When I asked about the reason for this preference, they said that Russia, not the West, offers their students best opportunities for employment. As I recall, one of the faculty members looked at me with incredulity and said: “Because Russians are our elder brothers.” I bet these attitudes were not reflected in the reports that were submitted to the OSF Headquarters.

And then there is Smolny—my pet project. When I started this project in 1996, the situation in Russia was very fluid. Many Russians still cherished hopes to build their country as a democracy. I wanted to help them achieve that goal. I wanted to do it in the only way I knew how by creating an educational institution that would promote true democratic practice, that is, practice that would be universally inclusive and empowering. In my conception the educational practice in this institution was to foster creativity in both faculty and students. This approach would help students gain control over their creative capacities.

I knew that in order to achieve this goal, Smolny needed a system of genuine faculty governance where faculty would have the power to have a major say in vital decisions relevant to the education process, hiring, and promotion. I also wanted to empower students and give them control over their education. These were my intentions when I organized Smolny College. Initially, I was quite successful. But as time passed much of what I had achieved was systematically dismantled by the Smolny administration. And they were able to do it by securing the support of the OSF and its leadership, most notable of Leon Botstein—president of Bard College–who sits on every conceivable OSF committee or board. With the connivance of the OSF leadership, the Smolny bosses soon succeeded in replacing democratic practices by favoritism, nepotism, and outright bribery. They transformed Smolny that in many of its features began to look like another traditional educational institutions similar to many others that existed in Russia and earlier in the Soviet Union. When I protested against these developments and tried to reverse this tide, the OSF leadership humiliated and dismissed me from the project.

There are many more examples that I can cite. I can mention Vladimir Dubrovsky, a prominent Russian human rights student and activist, who was dismissed from the Smolny faculty under some false pretext. I can refer to Pavel Lysakov, one of the few Smolny faculty who has a degree from Columbia and regularly publishes in Western journals and who has been consistently denied promotion out of sheer jealousy and vengeance. I can bring up the case of Stefano Maria Capilupi, a dedicated teacher and a gentle soul, who loves Russian culture, who transplanted himself to Russia from Italy. Stefano worked hard to make his classes interesting and to develop ties between Smolny and educational institutions in Italy. Yet despite his hard work, he was removed from his position and denied renewal because the son of somebody very important needed his job. Favoritism also began to play the central role in the practice of admitting students. I think you are getting the picture.

These examples illustrate my main point: the practice that you implement at the OSF is based on elitist ideas. This practice is dominated by hierarchical interactions. As a result, this practice promotes exclusion and domination.

In my recent writings and particularly I show that elite rule in America and Europe is the principal cause of what many researchers identify as the “deficit of democracy.” This deficit of democracy is the main source of numerous problems we currently face. The problems we face require creative solutions. However, the domination of neoliberal elite hierarchies makes such creative solutions impossible.

As has already been mentioned, the principal type of interactions under elite rule is hierarchical. Hierarchies operate on the principle of command-control. This top-down approach cannot foster creativity; it can only conserve and optimize what has already been created.

The fact that our civilization is dominated by hierarchical interactions is the main reason why we do not have new and creative solutions. The two major parties in America—the Democrats and the Republicans—both represent elite rule and both offer no creative solutions to our current problems. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton offered anything new in the last elections.

The emergence of social media and networks is one of the most important developments in the contemporary civilization and it has far reaching consequences. This development has brought dramatic technological advances. However, its main results are not technological. The emergence of social media has had profound democratizing effects on our social and political practice. Millions upon millions of common people use social media on a daily basis. Networks offer them wide opportunities for communicating with each other, making their ideas public and exchanging them. People use networks to gain access to multiple sources of information that would otherwise be very hard to access. The Internet empowers them. They can create political alliances and mass movements on a global scale. The Arab Spring or the Maidan movement in Ukraine would have been impossible without social media and its networks. But most importantly, networks help common people grow, evolve, be creative, and to find their own place in the universe of equals.

Social media networks are democratic by nature. They include all individuals as equals and allow them to express themselves freely. Such free expression affirms and empowers each individual and the network as a whole. The domination of hierarchies would prevent networks from performing this vital function. It would simply turn networks into extensions of hierarchical control and would destroy their creative capacity. Your proposal to use some outside force to regulate networks would have the same deadening effect on social media networks, just like the predominant practice in your organization has had a deadening effect on Smolny and AUCA. I find it interesting that you do not advocate a similar regulatory approach in the case of hedge funds, such as your own the Soros Fund Management and the Quantum Group.

I do not attribute the recommendation you make in your article to some insidious or unsavory motivation on your part. The problematic nature of the social practice that you advocate is due, in my view, to your adherence to the old and tired ideas.

If there is anything we can and should appropriate from great thinkers of the past, it is not their specific ideas. Somebody once asked Bertrand Russell whether he would be willing to die for his ideas. He answered: “Which one?” Indeed, which one? Ideas will change with time. What does not change is the very practice that these great thinkers used in producing their ideas. This practice cannot thrive under hierarchical control. It requires a broadly democratic approach that operates on universal inclusion and the empowerment of all.

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