The Soros Syndrome

George Soros announced a few weeks ago that he is giving $100 million to Human Rights Watch—conditional on the organization to find a matching $10 million  a year from other donors. He’s been rewarded with  ringing cheers for his disinterested munificence.

The relationship of “human rights” to the course of empire is nicely caught in two statements, the first by HRW’s former executive director Aryeh Neier: “When we created Human Rights Watch, one of the main purposes at the outset was to leverage the power, the purse and the influence of the United States to try to promote human rights in other countries.”

Set this remark, startling in its brazen display of imperial self-confidence, next to Soros’s recent statement on National Public Radio PR, that in the expansion of HRW prompted by his big new donation “the people doing the investigations won’t necessarily be Americans.… The United States has lost the moral high ground and that has sort of endangered the credibility, the legitimacy of Americans being in the forefront of advocating human rights.”

Soros the international financier made his billions as a currency speculator; he could destroy a country’s reserves, hastening its social disintegration. Then Soros the philanthropist could finance HRW’s investigations into the abuses his operations helped to induce. He offers in his single person an arresting profile of liberal interventionism in our era, in which direct economic and political destabilization (mostly calibrated in concert with the US government) has easy recourse to the moral and political bludgeon of a human rights report, which is in turn used to ratchet up the pressure for a direct imperial onslaught—whether by economic sanctions, covert sabotage, aerial bombing or a blend of all three. The role of human rights NGOs in NATO’s attack on the former Yugoslavia is a prime example.

Or take a look at Soros’s meddling in Georgia. His millions and the NGOs under his control played an active role in installing the unstable and decidedly authoritarian Mikheil Saakashvili. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies quoted a former Georgian parliamentarian as saying that in the three months before the 2003 Rose Revolution, “Soros spent $42 million ramping up for the overthrow of Shevardnadze.” Former Georgian Foreign Minister Salomé Zourabichvili was also quoted in the French journal Hérodote explaining, “The NGOs which gravitate around the Soros Foundation undeniably carried the revolution. However, one cannot end one’s analysis with the revolution and one clearly sees that, afterwards, the Soros Foundation and the NGOs were integrated into power.” Consult Human Rights Watch’s rather muffled report on Georgia three years later, and you’ll find the statement that “U.S. backing of President Saakashvili’s government has led to a less critical attitude toward human rights abuses in the country.”

Soros created his Open Society Institute, but as a CounterPuncher seasoned in the political and intellectual topography of the region put it to me, “In East/Central Europe Soros’ outfit  is anything but an ‘Open Society.’  They fund a very narrow range of intellectual production and starve those at intellectual variance with them… Many of the leading figures were members of the Cold War emigres in exile. Very reactionary, or very neoliberal if younger.    On the ground they have  indeed  ‘privatized political action’, as you put it. They have also privatized intellectual production, as the neoliberal state has drained the pool of resources from the academy leaving only the foundations to fund it.  This follows the patter set by  Bill Simon in 1974, who argued that the ‘funding spigot’ needed to be turned off to the ‘wrong’ people and ‘turned on’ to the right ones.  This could be best enabled by privatizing policy creation after the democratic ‘excesses’ of the 1960s and 1970s and privatizing it until the state could be recaptured.”

With Soros’s extra money, HRW will be dangling big funds at its non-American recruits. Regarding the hefty salaries that will surely follow, it’s worth raising the experience of Eritrea, which immediately got into trouble with the NGO system after independence in 1991. Eritrea-based journalist Tom Mountain tells me, “For one, Eritrea won’t allow the NGOs to pay above civil service salaries. Why? NGOs come into a country and find the best and brightest and give them salaries ten or twenty times the local rate, buying their allegiance and often turning them against their country. Two, Eritrea has implemented a 10 percent overhead policy, and all the NGOs that couldn’t or wouldn’t comply with the documentation were kicked out, about the same time Eritrea kicked out the UN ‘peacekeepers’ here.”

In other words, foundations, nonprofits, NGOs—call them what you will—can on occasion perform nobly, but overall their increasing power moves in step with the temper of our times: privatization of political action, directly overseen and manipulated by the rich and their executives. The tradition of voluntarism is extinguished by the professional, very well-paid do-good bureaucracy.

I’m still not sure why Ralph Nader, in his vast 2008 novel Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us, embraced the proposition embodied in the title (unless the whole exercise was an extended foray into irony). As an international class, the superrich are emphatically not interested in saving us, beyond advocating reforms required to stave off serious social unrest.

For many decades the superrich in this country  thought that the major threat to social stability lay in overpopulation and the unhealthy gene pool of the poor. Their endowments and NGOs addressed themselves diligently to these questions, by means of enforced sterilization, exclusion of Slavs and Jews from America’s shores and other expedients, advanced by the leading liberals of the day.

More recently, “globalization” and “sustainability” have become necessary mantras, and foolish is the grant applicant who does not flourish both words. NGOs endowed by the rich are instinctively hostile to radical social change, at least in any terms that a left-winger of the 1950s or ’60s would understand. The US environmental movement is now strategically supervised  and thus neutered as a radical force by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the lead dispenser of patronage and money.

As for the role of Western NGOs in the third world, I recommend a glance at the great Indian journalist P. Sainath’s classic 1996 book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought:

“Development theology holds that NGOs stand outside the establishment. They present a credible alternative to it. The majority of NGOs are, alas, deeply integrated with the establishment, with government and with the agenda of their funding bodies… They also provide white collar employment. Nepal, next door, has over 10,000 NGOs  —  one for every 2,000 inhabitants. Compare that with how many teachers, doctors or nurses it has per 2,000 citizens.  Funds flowing in through its 150  foreign NGOs account for 12 per cent of Nepal’s GNP.

“The trouble with the word NGO, Non-Profit or whatever,” Sainath wrote to me, “ is that they can mean anything or nothing. A football club is an NGO.I think this term came up when voluntarism died in the west. Have a look at the salaries of the top execs of the Non Profits and NGOs. Voluntarism is a much older tradition – certainly in countries like ours, going back to the days of the Buddha.

“There is undoubtedly a small percentage of them that do great work and in so doing, go way beyond those terms. I respect and admire those, but they are a very small percentage. On the other hand, you will find that every big corporate house creates its own NGO  –  there are tax breaks involved apart from the PR and very importantly, they can help market penetration.

“Hence an NGO ‘studying water’ and drought discovers and recommends to a state government that the best solution is drip irrigation. And it just so happens that at the time, the said corporate coyly mentions that it has imported millions of drip irrigation kits from Israel or wherever for a very modest price and these are available for the salvation of humankind.

“On the other hand, I have to say again, there are some that deserve respect and admiration. Very often, these are small groups that do NOT take corporate or foreign funding but work on local initiatives — some old Gandhian groups, some left-wing groups, people who believe in promoting self-reliance and don’t want to transfer the dependency of villagers from government to themselves. Sometimes these become movements. But the largest group are the mainstream, white-collar employment groups.

“Another phenomenon of the liberalization-privatization period are groups that openly run on semi-corporate or corporate or entrepreneurial lines —  ‘social entrepreneurs’ and what have you.  The jargon would fill a lexicon. They scorn the not-for-profit stuff.”

Many of these are into micro-credit and have pretty much destroyed what began and is a legitimate tool for poor village women to make life marginally less hard for themselves. Now giant multinational banks and corporate finance outfits have moved steadily towards capturing the micro-credit sector.

Indeed, the amazing career of “micro-credit” as a strategy for “development” is very instructive. Western NGOs  and their rich donors ecstatically seized on the term. For one thing, it had something bracingly austere about it: micro-loans are by definition small, and therefore obviously eschew large political ambitions, like organizing politically to force the government into serious action or, if necessary, overthrowing the government and enforcing macro-actions like land reform and economic redistribution.

In 2006,so Sainath reports,  “the government of Andhra Pradesh passed a law, enthusiastically supported in the legislature, to curb the interest-gouging activities of some NGO/non-profits and other groups. The chief minister told the House that these people are worse than moneylenders. Indeed, they were charging interest rates that effectively turned out to be between 24 and 36 per cent and even higher.”

Back at the dawn of the twentieth century Lenin and Martov were organizing their international Congresses and looking for grant money to this end. Martov, the Menshevik, told Lenin he must absolutely stop paying for the hotels and halls with money hijacked by Stalin from Georgian banks in Tblisi. Lenin reassured Martov, and then asked Stalin to knock over another bank  which he did, Europe’s record bank heist up till that time. It was one way, perhaps the only way, past the grip of cautious millionaires. Then as now.

“Joe Biden is subsidizing rapists!”

Yes, where could we be but in in Delaware, where JoAnn Wypijewski  reports from  Christine O’Donnell’s backyard.  And why is the vice president thus squandering our tax dollars?  But of course! Joe Biden and the Justice Department have been subsidizing rapists through the Violence Against Women Act.

It’s all in our latest newsletter. Also in this terrific issue: Patrick Cockburn reports from Kabul on the only realistic U.S. option – a deal with the Taliban and Pakistan. Moscow: Follow the money — Boris Kagarlitsky on what  the battle between President Medvedev and Mayor Luzhkov is really all about.  The CIA: Steve Hendricks tracks down a renderer.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.