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Saturday, January 28, 2023

France and the Dilemma of Electoral Politics in the Twenty-first Century

French workers currently live nearly two years longer than their counterparts in member states in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), composed of roughly the world’s most advanced capitalist countries. Further, they retire with full benefits, on average, nearly three years earlier than their counterparts in the OECD. Thanks to a rich history of militant struggle for a shorter workweek, a greater share of national wealth, and social benefits for retirees, workers in France enjoy a higher standard of living and a much longer secure retirement than most workers in other countries.

Of course, a better, longer, more secure life comes at a cost; France devotes much more of its GDP to support retirees than other OECD countries. It should be an obvious truth that it costs more to live longer.

And the people of France want to keep this system and improve it. They believe that spending more national wealth on the people is sensible and just.

With the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, and his corporate backers threatening to raise the retirement age by two years, the opinion polls consistently show that the vast majority of those polled oppose the change. 

To bring this opinion to the attention of France’s elites, two million people rallied and marched throughout France on Thursday, January 19; in Paris alone, the march extended for two and a half miles. 

Rather than bow down to the demands for austerity and competitiveness made by capital, working people in France are fighting to retain what earlier generations have won. They do not see the fate of the elderly as negotiable. 

Instead, the people defend senior benefits as an act of solidarity and not charity.

By delaying retirement benefits for two years and shortening the retirements of French workers, politicians believe that they could save as much as 150 billion dollars per year. Of course, this “savings” will never benefit working people.

However, it is thievery with the stolen national wealth redirected toward shoring up the fortunes of the ruling class.

The day after the massive demonstrations, President Macron announced that his administration planned to increase French spending on the military by 115-120 billion dollars per year over the next six years! So the proposed savings will go into the pockets of the armament industry and further increase the tensions in Europe unleashed by the war in Ukraine.

Since the consolidation of nation-states, rulers have used war and the threat of war to rally support. Not only is the war in Ukraine a reckless step toward regional, if not global, war, but the governing cliques are using it to justify their hold on power. Military spending is exploding across the region. Fear of a mythical Russian march to the sea serves the interest of all of the capitalist powers in the Euro-Atlantic area.

As it was in the twentieth century, war is the answer to the collapse of the traditional parties; war is the distraction from the inability of the center forces to rule effectively; war is the answer given to the masses searching for political alternatives to the misrule of the few. 

But if the majority of French voters oppose Macron’s initiative, how did he get reelected? He never hid his agenda from the people. If sixty to eighty percent of the voters oppose his policies, what is the secret of his electoral victory?

Macron’s election was the result of the dilemma presented to voters in nearly all of the so-called “advanced democracies” -- those countries organized around mature capitalist economic relations, but governed by a parliamentary system with nominally universal suffrage. 

Where these countries exist-- especially the US and Europe, but others as well-- voters must choose between two ugly options. They can support political parties that have abdicated social welfare for the individualistic, winner-take-all “justice” of the market. Or, on other hand, they can opt for the bogus anti-elitist populism of the refashioned right.

Understandably, many voters have turned against traditional parties that have been won over to “serving” social justice through the mechanism of private firms, NGOs, foundations, and charitable institutions. The US Democratic Party, UK Labour, the German SPD, Italy’s Democrats, etc. have abandoned their traditional posture of partisanship for the working class and surrendered to the philosophy of “a rising tide lifts all boats” -- the politics that is dismantling the welfare state safety net.

With the traditional center-left disregarding the working class and with working people slammed by a global shift in wealth distribution, a privatization and dismantling of public infrastructure, and a radical restructuring of employment away from high-paying jobs, voters are looking for alternatives.

Sections of the traditional right-- refashioned to attack indifferent elites, construct handy scapegoats, and offer easy, but misdirected solutions-- have rushed to fill the political void. Politicians like Trump, Boris Johnson, Orbán, Le Pen, Meloni have opportunistically capitalized upon the vacuum left by the mutation of the center-left parties. Their faux-populism captured much of the forgotten working class, desperate for an alternative, any alternative.

As the traditional center-left lost ground, it raised the alarm of extremism, even fascism. Like the bourgeois parties of the past, the mainstream parties resort to fear-mongering, rather than a critical examination of their trajectory, their departure from their purported advocacy for the masses. Whether it was touting the danger of the ultra-right or trumpeting the emergence of fascism, the center-left sought to rally voters around a united front against Trump, Le Pen, Meloni, et al., a solely defensive strategy that, at best, only forestalled the continuing influence of right-wing populism.

It is in this context, following this cautious, defensive strategy, that Macron won re-election. Against the rise of the right-populist National Rally party and its presidential candidate, Marine le Pen, the traditional French parties-- including the center-left and the new left-- unconditionally threw their support behind the “safe” alternative. The left neither sought nor received any major concessions from Macron for their votes. While they drew some satisfaction from stopping Le Pen, the left now faces a Macron determined to strip the working class of hard-won gains, ironically, a move that Le Pen does not support.

Those on the left who embrace the tactic of unconditional unity against the right as an electoral strategy should take a hard, sober look at how it played out in France. Happily, millions of French citizens are rising to the challenge now posed by rallying behind a “lesser of two evils,” a “lesser” that may prove far more destructive of living standards than the “other evil.” 

As history all too often proves, giving voters something to vote against can, at best, temporarily retard the advance of the false friends of the people. Decades of fealty to the “lesser evil” myth has only spawned an ever more skeptical, cynical, frustrated electorate, desperate for an alternative. Absent a left that stands for something, voters will continue to consider faux-populism as a legitimate alternative.

Greg Godels

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Good Bye, Slavoj

With a dismal start to the new year, it was hard to find a ray of hope among war news and parliamentary foolishness.

But gifts often come from unexpected places. My daily dose of CounterPunch-- the website co-founded by one of my journalistic heroes, the late Alexander Cockburn-- served up a gift: an article by Gabriel Rockhill burying the infamous pseudo-Marxist, Slavoj Žižek, in the dung heap that he merits.

Žižek is an intellectual pederast. By that, I mean that he is one of the latest in a long line of frauds, peddlers, and opportunists who seduce young people hungry for new ideas, for radical thinking, for a vision beyond the staid, ivy-covered walls of academia. He seduces them in the cheapest, most disreputable way, by weaving long, convoluted, purposefully obscure tapestries from manufactured, tortured words and clever, but paradoxical phrases. For the inexperienced, those hungry  for a perspective only available to those who with the patience to decrypt, Žižek and his ilk are irresistibly attractive. 

Many of us-- I suspect Rockhill as well-- have fallen under the spell of one or more of these intellectual conjurers in our studies. 

As long as there has been a left, there have been the distractors, the obscurantists, the charlatans who derail movements by diverting the energies of promising young people into the weeds of opaque theory.

In my student era, it was thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and others in the so-called Frankfurt School, who painted a dark picture of left prospects, directing radicals towards cultural critiques and the political efficacy of the lumpen proletariat and third world movements and away from working class agency and the then-influential Communist movements. It was not uncommon for young activists to carry unread copies of Marcuse’s books in their book bags to impress their friends. 

Later generations of radicals were subjected to “post-Marxist” French and German thinkers, who wrote nearly unreadable texts filled with neologisms and sentences constructed (or encoded) to be deliberately provocative and ambiguous. Much of this was scattered around the vague, but radical-sounding philosophical pole of postmodernism (and post structuralism). Intellectual hipsters collected the profound-sounding works of Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, and others.

The fall of the Soviet Union only encouraged the growth and spread of confusion from thinkers who were intent upon “rethinking,” “reimagining,” or replacing Marxism. Before that devastating event, the existence of a real, existing socialist community was a splash of cold water to the faces of the academic dreamers.

Sadly, the handful of serious Marxists holding university positions are blocked from notoriety, while the poseurs like Žižek achieve celebrity status. And the best practitioners who combine theory and practice, like Michael Parenti, can’t get a teaching job or academic support at any level.

Common sense and experience should show everyone that prestige and recognition in an advanced capitalist country like the US will not find its way to authentic revolutionaries. Marxists like Herbert Aptheker, Phillip Foner, James Jackson, Victor Perlo, Henry Winston etc. never found their books reviewed in the New York Times, or their letters published. Conversely, manuscripts published by elite publishers and billed as dangerously fresh and original, like Hardt and Negri’s Empire (Harvard University Press), are invariably a trip towards an ideological dead end. 

One can almost measure a thinker or his or her work’s value by its distance from acceptability or celebrity-- the more independent and challenging to the status quo, the more distant.

Žižek enjoys wide acceptance by the capitalist establishment as the iconic left thinker, a figure posed as the embodiment of rebellion and resistance to power. Far too many fail to see the contradiction in the ruling class promoting the agent of its demise. 

Now comes Gabriel Rockhill, exposing Žižek for the scoundrel that he is. 

Capitalism’s Court Jester: Slavoj Žižek is a very long, demanding article. To smother the popularity of this intellectual fraud, one must delve into his entire career, his chameleon-like disguises, his shifts and maneuvers, his reliance upon obscure phrases and freshly minted words, his looseness with the truth disguised as “playfulness,” and his limitless opportunism. Rockhill tracks all of this, but at the cost of enormous research and documentation.

Sadly, this scholarship doesn’t fit well into the Twitter world, but no one should give an ounce of legitimacy to Žižek without reading this critique.

Rockhill recounts his own infatuation with Žižek during his formal education, his own encounter with the man, and his disillusion with his virulent anti-Communism and anti-Sovietism.

Amusingly, Rockhill dubs Žižek “the Elvis of cultural theory,” an apt description for someone who appropriated Marxism the same way that Elvis borrowed and diluted rhythm and blues for the amusement of a white, middle-strata audience at a time when the authentic practitioners were denied media access because of segregation and racism.

Žižek’s role in the anti-Communist opposition to the Yugoslavian leadership in his homeland is exposed and elaborated by Rockhill, noting the celebrity philosopher’s deep involvement with the post-Soviet regime and its move toward capitalism.

Further, Rockhill documents the convergence of  Žižek’s thinking with US (and imperialist) foreign policy, as well as his near xenophobic Eurocentrism.

The Discreet Charm of the Petty-Bourgeoisie, Rockhill’s penultimate section, takes the reader into the Lacan-Badiou-Nietzsche weeds that are the nourishment of the herbivorous Žižek. Rockhill does his best to render the discussion perspicacious, but I suspect that it is still two removes from clarity. Nonetheless, there are gems of Rockhill’s insights in the section.

I fear that Rockhill’s brilliant takedown may be lost to the tastes for brevity, shallowness, or anti-theory that plague so many on the US left. The fact that the CounterPunch link on its email blast to me took me to the wrong article only underscores my fear. 

Read this wholesome, nourishing article!

Greg Godels

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Let Them Die!

In the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s satirical world (A Modest Proposal), we might facetiously attribute the recent decline in US life expectancy to a concerted effort to strengthen the social safety net.

Politicians have been maintaining for decades that it would be necessary to reduce social security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits to keep the systems solvent. Leaders of both political parties have urged cutting benefits, changing eligibility requirements, or raising the already-high age thresholds to preserve the reserves for future recipients. Alarmists have persisted for decades, and seniors and the poor have passionately and successfully resisted cuts and changes. 

But now comes a new way of stretching the available funds for the poor and elderly: Enable and encourage them to die earlier! 

From 2019 to 2021, a calloused response to a pandemic emergency, shamefully inadequate mental health support, a poor outcome, profit-driven healthcare system, unprecedented inequality, and a ruthlessly self-centered, individualistic civil society knocked off nearly two-and-a-half years from the expected lifespan from birth. In the US, a person born in 2019 would be expected to live to be 78.8, while the same person born in 2021 would be expected to die at 76.4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What a clever way to lessen the burden on the social safety net! No doubt, hundreds of billions of dollars will be saved! And undoubtedly, our representatives will give the savings to the military.

My guess is that many free-marketeers and debt-hawks wish that they had come up with this solution even earlier. It is far less politically volatile than raising the eligibility thresholds.

Of course, shortening life expectancy by two-and-a-half years cheats millions of the money that they have invested in social insurance. The hundreds of billions “saved” corresponds to the hundreds of billions invested in a secure future. Responsible government has stolen those benefits from those denied the same life chances that other advanced economies ensured their people over the same period.

Certainly, money is nothing compared to the prospect of premature death. The CDC estimates that the 5% drop in life expectancy between 2020 and 2021 alone accounts for 1.2 million “excess” deaths, the largest percentage drop in life expectancy since World War II. 

While the CDC has not yet offered a further analysis of life expectancy by race and ethnicity, The Wall Street Journal reveals a recent study that shows Native Americans suffering the largest drop (1.9 years) in 2021. The eight million or so US citizens who identify as Native American have lost 6.6 years of their expected lives since 2019, now living 65.2 years from birth. 

Thanks to US age eligibility, that means that Native Americans will pay into Medicare while never receiving any significant return in benefits! Further, they will only receive, at best, a token return in Social Security benefits for a lifetime of contributions! 

Similarly, an African-American worker should expect to receive approximately six years’ less of benefits than his or her white counterpart, given the disparity in life expectancy. 

Thus, many white retirees are “free riding” on the benefits earned by early deceased minorities, a stark rebuke to the racist depiction of minorities as welfare grifters.

In a society where losing one million, one hundred thousand victims to a viral infection is taken in stride, it may be more impactful to express human losses in dollars and cents.

In a society that places the health of its people in the hands of private profiteers and distributes life-giving drugs based on the ability to pay, it should be no surprise that life expectancy is declining.

In a society where citizens are expected to bear accidents, misfortune, and poor life choices alone and with no social scaffolding, death is a predictable outcome.

In a society where life-prospects are locked into an ordering based upon income and wealth, it should be no surprise that the poor and less fortunate are most likely to die prematurely.

If the US is the bellwether of capitalism and its trajectory, then the world must come to live without capitalism. 

Greg Godels


Monday, December 12, 2022

Some Political Wishes for the Coming Year

As the holidays approach, children traditionally anticipate Christmas by submitting their gift wish lists to Santa Claus.

While (most) adults have long abandoned any belief in the Santa Claus myth, the idea of a wish list or a set of resolutions for the new year still resonates.

My wish list follows.

First, I wish that the idea of socialism would again become popular, but I would rejoice if it would at least be discussed seriously in the US. Now I don’t mean the weak-tea version of socialism associated with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) or with Senator Bernie Sanders. That kind of socialism is really a Cold War relic-- a brew of schoolhouse participatory democracy and a minimalist welfare state stirred into a consenting capitalism. But capitalism doesn’t mix well with social democracy, except when capitalism anticipates an existential threat from real socialism, like the popularity of Communism. The political marginalization of European social democracy after a diminished Communist specter following the Soviet collapse of 1991 proves that point.

Real socialism-- to be crystal clear-- cannot amicably coexist with capitalism. There can be no lasting peace treaty between capitalism and socialism, despite the best efforts of many socialists and Communists (there have been few if any of the rich and powerful who sincerely advocated coexistence with socialism in the centuries since socialism was first envisioned). 

For real socialism to take root, the power of the state must be wrested from the capitalists. History shows no sustainable road to socialism through power-sharing with the capitalist class.

That is not to say that there cannot be a transitional period in which capitalists and socialists struggle for dominance over the state, but that period will not be stable. That is not to discount the importance of parliamentary struggle in fighting to establish a socialist-oriented state. That is not to preclude a socialist program that engages with national specifics, class alliances, and shifting tactics. But socialism must be the professed and uncompromising goal of those who claim to be socialists and winning state power must be accepted as a necessary step to achieving any real socialism, where socialism is both the absence of labor exploitation and the ending of the dominance of the capitalist class. Any “socialism” that doesn’t respect these truths is engaged in self-deception.

But what, you may ask, is People’s China? Clearly there is labor exploitation in the People's Republic of China, where powerful private capitalist companies exist alongside state enterprises. And it is just as clear that the Chinese Communist Party maintains a tight grip on state power. For over forty years, the balance of forces between these two realities has shifted frequently, with the CCP leadership, nonetheless, claiming firm control and a commitment to socialism.

Whether genuine Marxists in the CCP can ride this tiger is yet to be decided. Partisans of socialism must follow this development with a critical eye, but an open mind. 

Advocates for socialism-- real socialism-- are not so naive as to believe that socialism is around the corner or that socialism is likely to solve the immediate problems of the working class. It is useful, however, to be reminded that when Lenin left Zurich to return to Russia just months before the 1917 revolution, he spoke to young revolutionaries, explaining that he likely would not see socialism, but they surely would. He was spectacularly wrong. 

But even a heavy dose of pessimistic realism does not explain the absence of the word “socialism” in the political narratives of progressives, the self-styled left, and even self-proclaimed Marxists living in the US and Europe. Moreover, in conversation, eyes roll or go glassy when the idea surfaces. Everyone is an anti-capitalist; everyone is against some form of hyphenated capitalism-- disaster-capitalism, neoliberal-capitalism, financial-capitalism, etc. etc. But no one is for socialism!

You can see this dismissal in the current debates over inflation raging through the left. All disputants recount the effects of inflation on poor and working people. All recognize the negative consequences of official policy-- raising interest rates-- on all. All fumble for alternative solutions, most of which have a past history of failure. None will pronounce this as a contradiction-- an intrinsic failure-- of the capitalist system. All are too busy trying to repair capitalism to even hint that there might be a better alternative. Will there ever be a better time than today to inject socialism into the conversation? 

We suffer from the leftover fears of Communism and socialism in the wake of the Cold War. We are suffocated by the limited options allowed by our corrupted two-party system. And we are overwhelmed with cynicism and a poverty of vision.

Surely a frank, honest discussion of socialism is in order.


My second wish would be for left clarity and unity on the war in Ukraine. To a great extent, the left’s poor understanding of the relationship between capitalism, imperialism, and war has spawned wide divisions in an already fractious left. On one hand, liberals and social democrats discount the history of conflict in Ukraine and mechanically apply a simplistic concept of national self-determination to what is, in fact, a civil war. They see Russian intervention as simply a violation of Ukraine’s right to decide its own future. Using their logic, it is as if the US Civil War was construed as a war over the South’s right to self-determination and not a war over slavery. Or in a twentieth-century instance, it would be as if the war in Vietnam were viewed as a fight for the rights of the people in an artificial South Vietnam to choose their own destiny.

Both the idea of the South’s right of secession (state’s rights) and the “freedom” of South Vietnam were abusive of any legitimate right to self-determination. Neither took the measure of the desire of the masses; both served the interests of privileged elites or foreign powers.

Leading historian of the Korean War, Bruce Cumings, reminds us that civil wars are complex conflicts with complex histories and little is gained by pondering who started the war in assigning blame. Obsession with determining the immediate “aggressor” in the Korean War clouds the understanding of the deeper causes, colliding interests, and political stakes at play to this day.

Without a historical context, without understanding the conflict and clash of vital interests within the borders of Ukraine, a defense of US meddling in Ukraine constructed on the facade of self-determination is wrongheaded and dangerous. There can be no self-determination when the US and its allies undermined an elected government in 2014. That intervention effectively put an end to any pretense of Ukrainian self-determination.

On the other hand, many self-styled anti-imperialists view the Russian invasion as a war of liberation, with Russia removing Kyiv’s oppressive government, thwarting US and NATO aggression, or defending the interests of the people of Eastern Ukraine. They both overestimate the selflessness of the motives of the now capitalist, former Soviet Russian republic and underestimate the dangers unleashed by an invasion that opens the door widely to a further reaching, more intense war. 

They also fail to see that in its essence the conflict in Ukraine has been a civil conflict since the demise of the Soviet Union. Without the ideology of socialism, that conflict has been driven by a scramble for wealth and power with ensuing corruption, manipulation, and crude nationalism. Foreign powers-- East and West-- have manipulated this scramble, forcing it to a proxy showdown. Any escalation-- whether it is a coup, an invasion, or the continuing arming of belligerents—would further risk pressing the war beyond the borders or at a greater tempo and should therefore be rejected.

Behind some defenders of the Russian invasion is the neo-Kautskyian theory of multipolarity. This view sees US imperialism, and not simply the system of imperialism, as the force disruptive of a peaceful, stable, and orderly world order. It is possible, even likely-- according to the theory-- for capitalist countries to conduct international affairs benignly if only a predatory US were tamed. They go beyond denouncing US imperialism as the main global enemy to imagining a viable, cooperative capitalist order without US dominance. Like Kautsky, multipolarity projects an era of “balance” between imperialist powers and the softening of rivalries. 

Lenin rejected this view. Like Kautsky’s theory of super- or ultra-imperialism, multipolarity reflects an inadequate understanding of class dynamics-- the unlimited drive for competitive advantage by the capitalist state-- and a failure to recognize that socialism is the only answer to imperialism’s destructive anarchy.  

The carnage of imperialism’s last hundred years since the Kautsky/Lenin debate surely underscores these truths.


Along with the revival of Kautskyism, neo-Malthusianism threatens to confound the thinking of the left in addressing the critical environmental crisis. No-growth as a facile answer to the abuse of our environment is as misguided today as it was in Marx’s time. The critical question is how the global economy grows and not how much it grows.

My wish is that the left does not ignore the class issues-- nationally and internationally-- in developing a program to address this vital matter. A no-growth solution that freezes in place the internal and global inequalities, or exacerbates them, cannot be accepted. A program that does not address the connection between imperialism, militarism, and war in despoiling the planet is inadequate. 


As the lights go out on the nine-and-a-half-billion-dollar midterm electoral extravaganza, leaving a bad taste and a strong sense of emptiness and disappointment, we can only wish that the US left will take a critical look at the two-party system with the idea of uniting to create some independent presence in electoral politics.

May 2023 be a year of deeper discussion beyond chirping on the shallow platforms crafted for triviality and abasement by the ruling class.

Greg Godels

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Free Market Follies

This is not the first era of capitalist excess that forces normally lapdog journalists and the compliant mainstream commentariat to cast scorn and derision over one of their “entrepreneurial” icons. But surely this is one of the more ridiculous and revealing exposures of market hubris.

After failing to obtain fresh financing, the cryptocurrency exchange, FTX, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Friday, November 11. Like an overripe watermelon falling on hot pavement and spewing seeds and pulp in every direction, FTX’s troubles splashed before the public, revealing a noxious slurry of corruption, arrogance, class chauvinism, and spinelessness.

We learn that a privileged 30-year-old son of two Stanford law professors managed to create a firm in 2019 recently valued at $32 billion and also said to have amassed a personal worth of $26 billion before FTX’s collapse. Affecting t-shirts and shorts and going by the hip moniker, SBF, Sam Bankman-Fried was Peter Pan to his small executive group of “Lost Boys” and his FTX Neverland. Playing Wendy to SBF’s Peter Pan in this drama is a 28-year-old math prodigy-- the daughter of two MIT economics professors-- Caroline Ellison. They, and their co-executives, played out their fantasy in a luxurious mansion in the Bahamas (You can get a taste for SBF’s maturity and acumen in this post-crash YouTube interview which appears to have him splashing in the bathtub or in the surf, judging from the background noises).


SBF and his playmates “earned” their treasures through trading magical cryptocurrencies and investing in allied companies. To most of us, cryptocurrencies were and are baffling. In the US and most of the rest of the world, we already have a currency (dollars, renminbi, euros, etc.) or, if we don’t like our currency, we can exchange it for another. Why create another shadowy, tech-based means of exchange?

My own ignorant prejudice was that cryptocurrencies were possibly of use to criminals-- drug dealers, organized criminal syndicates, anyone hiding ill-begotten money. 

Similarly, tax evaders might welcome an arcane, semi-private money with no blank spaces specified on the tax return. Maybe militant, intensely principled anti-tax libertarians are embracing cryptos.

 Or cryptocurrencies might merely be the latest piece of financial engineering designed to capture speculative wealth on the upswing, as hipsters joined the herd of quick-wealth seekers pressing values skyward. Whether tulips, derivatives, or cryptocurrencies, manias have been sure-fire methods of amassing wealth for those who leave the game before the bubble bursts.

Anyone following the financial press must have surely noticed that journalists and commentators were decidedly ambiguous about crypto, neither embracing nor challenging crypto’s legitimacy.

But it wasn’t a burst of the crypto bubble that shattered SBF’s Neverland, though that may be forthcoming (the crypto universe has lost roughly 72% of its value). Instead, it was the apparent revelation that FTX had funneled large sums of customers' cash to the allied investment company, Alameda Research. 

Believe it or not, Wall Street has rules, though certainly not to protect the general public, the productive economy, or the petty investor. But moving billions of dollars outside of intended investment purposes violates the rich peoples’ club’s sense of fair play. 

Apparently, FSX’s Neverland was unsupervised. While some veteran investors walked away from the “opportunity” to invest in FSX, while some corporate leaders were skeptical in spite of SBF’s youthful wit, charm, and idealism, celebrities and politicians were eager to endorse the risky venture. No one-- including the young entrepreneur’s family and circle of associates-- found anything extraordinary about a small, insular, conceited clique growing a business from zero to tens of billions of dollars in less than three economically rocky years!

His shaky regard for business “ethics” and corporate legality makes the fawning adulation of SBF even more problematic for his admirers. He was, after all, the second largest individual contributor to the Biden presidential campaign after George Soros. And he supported numerous other liberal causes as well.

Behind SBF’s liberal largesse is a “philosophy” popular with the rich and powerful called “effective altruism.” In its most crude, accessible form, it urges the wealthy to accumulate enormous sums of money in order to give more generously to charitable causes. In its simplified form, it appears little different from the paternalistic philanthropy of the old robber barons who built libraries, museums, and endowed some schools to justify their extreme exploitation of the working classes. For many, effective altruism will ring true of an apologia for securing unconscionable amounts of wealth by giving a bit of it away.

But in this era of extremes, of market fundamentalism, of commodification of everything from public services to ideas, academic philosophers have risen to the challenge of providing a more secure, intellectually satisfying, outwardly rational justification for acquiring obscene wealth.

And they have stepped to the intellectual plate in the twenty-first century.

Now moral and political philosophers have always performed the role of justifying or explicating the dominant moral, legal, and political ideas of their time. Some have said and some can say that they mirror the ideas espoused by their ruling classes. On occasion, a few philosophers have misjudged the moment and paid with their lives by anticipating the emerging ideas of their era-- for example, Socrates or Giordano Bruno.

After World War II, moral and political philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition were unabashedly occupied with defending the core ideas of Western liberalism. 

At the height of the Cold War, for example, the UK philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, was acclaimed for his windy, but far less-than-convincing special pleading for what Marx would call “bourgeois rights.” Later, John Rawls would dominate the field with his sophisticated, rigorous defense of Western social democracy-- an impressively expanded opus based on his earlier paper (1958), Justice as Fairness. His was the most ambitious attempt to ground Western capitalism and its bourgeois democratic superstructure on a rational foundation.

With the end of the Cold War, Anglo-American political and moral philosophy had little to do but celebrate and navel gaze. A new generation of moral philosophers explored the less-than-weighty questions of sentiments, emotions, and feelings and the other immediate concerns-- like animal rights, identity, and individual regard-- of the petty bourgeoisie.

In our current moment of absurdity, of unprecedented inequality and wealth concentration, a small, but influential group of philosophers has emerged to provide a patina of social justice to the bloated wealth accumulated by Bezos, Soros, SBF, and their ilk.

This opportune school of philosophy has become associated with a young, earnest Oxonian professor named William MacAskill. MacAskill has promoted two key ideas: earning to give and longtermism

MacAskill’s quick ascent to the higher rungs of one of the world’s most celebrated schools of philosophy, and his media celebrity no doubt is owed to his project to give elites a moral justification for their fantastic wealth. 

Earning to give differs from the previous acclaim heaped on philanthropic benefactors in two ways. 

First, unlike prior moral praise for the wealthy, earning to give does not envision charity as supererogation-- a philosopher's term for morally commendable acts outside of obligation-- but locates philanthropy firmly in the realm of obligation, of duty: it is a duty for the rich to part with their wealth to benefit humankind. 

Mogul Andrew Carnegie did not have to fund libraries, yet he did it out of a good heart-- so goes the conventional view. But MacAskill contends that duty compels Carnegie to dispose of his wealth for the greater good. In this sense, MacAskill is making a strong case that the rich aren’t doing the rest of us any favors with their charity because they are morally obligated to do good with their wealth. We owe them no thanks for doing what they must.

The second aspect of earning to give is the accompanying duty to accumulate as much wealth as possible in order to maximize giving. It is not enough to give generously; one must make every effort to get more to give more. Thus, MacAskill justifies the capitalist maxim revealed by Marx to “Accumulate! Accumulate!” by attaching it to the effective altruistic demand to “Give more! Give more!”

It is a sign of the backwardness of our times that few in intellectual circles question the brazen elitism, the abandonment of democratic process latent in earning to give. When did it become a commonplace, an axiom, that social justice should be placed in the hands of the rich and powerful? Should the disposal of society’s wealth be decided by the fortunate few or democratically by the people through their elected representatives? It should be apparent that earning to give-- as a means of meeting the peoples’ social needs-- is inherently undemocratic.

But there is more: MacAskill and his circle have also contrived the clever, but misguided concept of longtermism. Effective altruism asks rich benefactors to look beyond the range of classical utilitarianism, beyond giving to alleviate the inequalities and injustices of the here and now. 

Instead, MacAskill’s theory requires all acts of effective altruism to consider how each act might impact future generations. Thus, if the five dollars that could feed a starving family today might be repurposed to help fund an NGO that will help thousands in the future, then that is where the five dollars should go. Longtermism effectively expands our moral concerns well beyond the eight billion inhabitants of our world today to the possibly infinite number of global citizens that the future will produce. The eight billion-- as an immediate concern-- are accordingly diminished. In fact, they are erased from the philanthropic calculus of the obscenely wealthy. 

Longtermism grants Jeff Bezos or George Soros and their counterparts the right to ignore the damage left in the wake of twenty-first century capitalism-- the vast inequality, poverty, insecurity, and war-- in order to “service” the needs of trillions of hypothetical and potential humans who may come into being in the limitless tomorrows. This clever, but ultimately cynical philosophical gambit trivializes the common-sense responsibility that moral and political philosophy has acknowledged-- for literally thousands of years-- as existing between each of us and our brothers and sisters.

Quite simply, longtermism is an evasion of that responsibility that we each owe to one another. It allows the very rich to maintain their gated communities, to step over the real, existing homeless, to justify obscene wealth inequality while pretending to lead morally exemplary lives. After all, they are looking after the interests of the trillions yet to be born!

We arrive at this destination precisely when we have intellectually disconnected the idea of wealth accumulation from its roots in exploitation. Too few of us think of the very rich as securing their vast wealth by exploiting the labor of others. The exploitation of workers seems very old fashioned, very nineteenth century. We have abandoned any notion that masses of private riches are really socially generated and socially owned wealth-- commonwealth-- to be allocated democratically for the good of all. That would be the unfashionable notion of socialism.

We assume that great wealth is the desert of the few; they have “earned” it. So we accept such bizarre, desperate ideas as effective altruism as a credible road to social justice, as a legitimate moral and political posture. Let us praise the rich for endowing chairs of effective altruism, funding foundations to plan for an unknown future, and creating forward looking NGOs that anticipate tomorrow’s problems, while sidestepping the horrors of today.

A philosophy that promotes this cynicism coexists within a social order that legitimizes financial toys and encourages adolescents to play with them. 

Pray we survive. 

Greg Godels