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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