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Against Self-Centred Socialism


A certain kind of self-centered politics is blocking the left’s best aims. Instead of directly seeking justice, it defers to a neoliberal-mimicking logic of self-interest. It often makes justice conditional on, and secondary to, self-interest. And that plays right into ruling-class hands. They couldn’t wish for an easier to deal with opposition, which plays the same grubby, greedy game of “what’s in it for me,” that elites love.

There are unattractive parallels here between Marxism and Thatcherism. Since the beginnings of the organized left there’s been a necessary stream of self-interested reasoning, since its founders fought for gains for the then bottom-of-the-pile working class. Per the slogan carved into Karl Marx’s tomb and popularized in English as “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” But many workers do now have things to lose, which can be used to muddy justice priorities (concrete examples such confusions are offered below) .

Giving more workers something to lose was a crucial strategy that British prime minister Margaret Thatcher used to smash the power of organized labor and cement the rise of a more self-centered politics. She sold off public housing cheaply quickly converting working class tenants into homeowners with middle-class-ish “interests.” She was quite open about her mission, as distilled in her quip “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul.” Her soul-reshaping mission, later called neoliberalism, seems closer to an outright soulectomy, and shockingly soulless greedocrats have been non-stop neoliberally napalming society into scorched-earth barrenness ever since. She famously declared “there’s no such thing as society” and her potent social-poison erodes many societies still. Reagan enthusiastically joined her soul-reengineering project. As did center-leftish leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, who plied the Thatcherite ruse that “there is no alternative” to self-centered politicking and market worship. So total was her ideological triumph that when asked what her greatest achievement was Thatcher replied “Tony  Blair,” since he continued her self-focused anti-society mission. That was before her descent in dementia, but, as we’ll see shortly, we have yet to escape the political dementia her ideas caused.

To see how confusions on overly self-interested political logic play out on the left today consider this interviewbetween Jacobin staffer Meagan Day and Current Affairs founder Nathan Robinson (about his book Why You Should Be a Socialist). Day notes a “dogma on the Marxist left that people must be motivated to fight for socialism by material self-interest.” She qualifies that with “we’d be foolish to overlook the importance of principle, moral conviction, and belief in fairness and equality.” Robinson astutely responds “We have to be careful about what we mean by self-interest. It can’t just be ‘Join us and you’ll get a bigger paycheck.’ Some people are going to have to make certain sacrifices for the opportunity to live in a world in which all people are cared for.” He says many socialists “don’t like to see others … struggle and suffer, and they can’t feel comfortable with that even when they’re not suffering or struggling themselves.”

Expressing what in my opinion is the epitome of self-centered socialism’s darkest side, geographer Matt Huber attacks the idea of our global-north “imperial mode of living,” in Jacobin. That expression was coined by German political scientists Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, to squarely face that all global north citizens “benefit from the ecological and economical exploitation in the poorer parts of the world.” Denying that Huber writes it as “highly debatable whether we should understand the working-class gains of the postwar decades in Europe and North America as deriving from fundamentally exploitative, imperial processes” (he offers no evidence, and his Jacobin editors seem untroubled by the unsupported assertion). To my mind, it’s inexcusable that a socialist can dismiss resource advantages extracted by centuries of violence by racist empires. Huber’s desire to seek political support by offering material gains to global-north workers openly ignores the vast international infrastructures of suffering that underpin rich-nation lifeways. Abundant evidence of ongoing international exploitation isn’t hard to come by, for instance scholars estimate that “unequal exchange” results in $10.8 trillion per year drained from the Global South “enough to end extreme poverty 70 times over.” Yet Huber seems to put gains in global north living standards above basic resource justice for the global poor. Hence he deforms the very idea of Marx’s international solidarity into lifestyle leftism: twisting the old slogan into workers of the world unite unless that crimps your YOLO lifestyle. Huber’s style of material-incentive driven politics can be as toxic as boss-class greed. Here’s how George Orwell grasped this utterly unjust global living standards game: “Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation—an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.” Another of Orwell’s telling lines notes that in England “the ordinary man spends more on cigarettes than an Indian peasant has for his whole livelihood.” Do global-north gains in living standards outweigh securing the basics for the planet’s poorest? Ecological realities impose exactly such global tradeoffs (as Huber, author of Climate Change as Class War, surely knows all too well).

What does class solidarity concretely mean? Backing only policies that improve your own “standard of living” when your “rational self-interest” happens to align with your class allies? I scare-quote those terms since they often fuel much ludicrously lax logic, moral error, and loony and poisonous politics. Robinson whittles this into a point from legendary leftist Eugene Debs: real solidarity means treating “other people’s struggles as your own.” I side with Robinson and favor a less traditionally Marxist, more directly moral and fairness-seeking socialism—centered on resource justice for those at the bottom. This could be called leastism, a politics that looks with the eyes of those that have the least and that focuses first on their needs.

By now, I suspect a schism in reader reactions. Some will bristle at any challenge to their cherished tradition of my-standard-of-living-centered politics, while others will instinctively feel ungreedy policies focused on the needy are just obviously right and vital. These opposing impulses coexist uneasily in the left’s loosely allied tribes. We could call the two camps: selfish lefties versus otherish lefties. The first group’s motives mimic those of the selfish boss-class. While the second group grasps that we can’t ignore moral aims and duties when they have nontrivial costs; they are willing to put their money where their mouthed principles are. In contrast, those in the first group seek the cheap grace of “recreational righteousness”— they’ll do what’s right if that happens to match their material interests or is easy or fun or doesn’t cramp their Instagram-able best life.

To be fair, many selfish lefties are just going along with the ambiently asserted-to-be-normal political game of greed dolled-up as “rational.” It’s what they’ve been edu-indoctrinated into. Conservative writer Michael Lind usefully describes a “diploma divide” that drives a “new class war.” It pits college grads against the rest (including what Thomas Piketty calls the “Brahmin left” which seems more dedicated to cerebral-showboating seminar-room socialism than concrete gains for the poor who’ve never heard of, and care not one jot about parsing esoteric texts or the “Gramscian struggle for hegemony,” etc.). America now has 10 million economics-welding business degree totinggraduates who run the greed machinery that governs our lives. This managerial cadre puts various flavors of greed deep in the heart of our major institutions (even purportedly do-gooding foundations and N.G.O.s with million-dollar-plus salaried CEOs). This administrative elite lavishly lobbies in its own (class) interests which slavishly salivating politicians lap up and pander to. It funds think tanks and academic research which feed elite-norm preaching media like NPR (aka “neoliberal propaganda radio”) or the New York Times. This hybrid entity, academedia (a merger of academic capitalism and corporate media), speaks in, and polices, elite insider shibboleths, like Latinx, which only 2 percent of Latinos use). All this influences the views of even non-economics grads steering them toward fat-cat friendly agendas and doctrines focused firmly on financial incentives. And don’t forget that influential media is now severely skewed by class. Batya Ungar-Sargon’s book Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracynotes that journalism used to be a working-class trade. The big circulation newspapers began “as a populist revolution against elite journalism” but most journalists are now themselves members of the elite. They’re mostly graduates, often of elite colleges, and now seem much less interested in afflicting the comfortable (their college classmates and class peers), even if they still sometimes comfort the afflicted (though mostly selectively, in true courteous courtier fashion, to not unduly threaten their peer elites or the grad gravy train).

In a Politico piece called “The Right’s Economic Populism Is Breaking Progressives’ Brains,” influential progressive think-tanker Matt Stoller says that while some people “think politics is fundamentally a moral endeavor… I have a different view.” For Stoller “political economy” is at the helm, i.e. systematized self-interest (a euphemism for selfishness) steers the ship of state. Here he means politics in the sense of horse-trading for legislative votes, but the same self-focused spirit steers much of our leadership class. Despite his purported progressiveness, Stoller’s rejection of politics as a moral project risks hindering or harming the justice progressives are supposed to seek. But Stoller’s championing of materially motivated pig-trough politics is hardly confined to progressives.

That a greed-über-alles worldview reigns in the political class is well documented by sociologist Elizabeth Popp Berman. In Thinking Like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in US Public Policy, she documents how ethical reasoning came to be dismissed as “economically illiterate.” She recounts the rise of a bipartisan “economic style of reasoning” which enthroned economic efficiency as the overarching aim, usurping the very idea of the public good (meanwhile “market efficiency” systematically enforces severe pro-rich, anti-poor biases, see here for details).

Those preaching unbridled self-interest and greed as just normal human behavior have enabled enormously noxious neoliberal nonsense, like deeming it “rational” to gain by harming (or exploiting to the point of ruin) workers, infrastructure, public goods, communities, countries, ecologies, skies, etc. Even the entire biosphere. Selling off, or damaging, vital parts of your one-and-only spaceship’s life-support system—as “rational self-interest” claptrap routinely encourages on climate—may make you richer for a while, but it has an air of collectively suicidal stupidity—it’s obviously the very opposite of rational, if survival, or breathable air for your kids, seem like logically good goals to you. Societies that permit or promote profit by harming what provides their own needs, can’t last long (this could be called onco-capitalism, since it rewards societal cancers).

Conceptual resources to combat the enormous mess we’re in can be found in the work of philosopher Susan Neiman. In a bracing, short book, Left Is Not Woke, she usefully captures the spirit of Thatcher’s soul-sucking mission by noting that neoliberalism was “less an economic than a moral revolution.” But since economics is always all about resources, hasn’t it been a moral business deep in its bones from the very beginning? Its founder, Adam Smith, never made the neoliberal mistake of, in Neiman’s words, inflating greed “to eclipse every other aspect of humanity.” Neiman finds that key “assumptions that support the most admirable impulses of the woke come from the intellectual movement they despise.” This echoes Thatcher’s victory of getting her enemies to use her mental model —too much of the left now uses their opponent’s conceptual schema, even if often unwittingly. Neiman links woke views on power to Michel Foucault (French philosopher and underage-sex advocate), Carl Schmitt (Nazi legal theorist), and ancient Greek sophists (like Thucydides, of “might makes right” fame). All were Machiavellian political realists who held that “claims to justice are developed to disguise power-driven interests.” Neiman writes most of the political class “assume it is simply human nature to further your own interests … and to disguise those interests with moral rhetoric.” It’sere’s David Wallace Welles in the New York Times calling neoliberal rhetoric an “alibi” for the greed of a “self-​congratulatory ruling class,” tarted up as “noblesse oblige.” But its noteworthy that someone as influential as Stoller openly denies the need for even a moral fig leaf in embracing political economy as a contest of greeds or power-driven interests.

Even militantly milquetoast New York Times columnist David Brooks bemoans “inhumane systems in which material incentives” ruthlessly reign. He writes that “a lot of our public thinkers have vastly underestimated the importance of the moral and social motivations woven into human nature.” That’s led to a politics laser focused on greedy and narrow economic self-interest (all of which by the way Brooks spent decades enabling with his high-perch elite-flattering op-eds). Only a tiny fraction of humans fit what psychologists call the hyper-selfish “dark triad” traits of  Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. Yet somehow, we’ve woven these worst and pathological impulses into the very fabric of society’s institutions (with apologies to Mitt Romney, corporations are people, Machiavellian, narcissistic, psychopathic people, my friend). This leaves the decent masses beholden to and trapped in undesirable and dire systematic evils.

Our self-centered credentialed overclass now too often uses its power to economically and politically kneecap our capacity for collective moral action. A once-clearer line between right and left was that for the latter personal gains were always weighed along with the needs of others, especially the less fortunate, whereas the former often feel God, or his earthly successor, the ungodly market, gives the poor all that they are due (mostly punishingly harsh conditions and shorter lives). A greed-is-normal-and-good creed creates a gross intra-elite solidarity that must be vigorously reviled and resisted. Those who kowtow to the asserted to be mandatory material incentives end up protecting status-quo privileges (even if unwittingly, or reluctantly). They connive with the rich in further entrenching their power by win-win wheeling and dealing. But that sort of weaselly maneuvering won’t solve the avalanche of woes created by avaricious overlords like Biden’s chief of staff, Jeff Zients, a private-equity ghoul who advised fellow bosses to tell workers “the social contract is never coming back.” (Maureen Tkacik of the American Economic Liberties Project, rightly called private equity an “unmitigated evil“—an evil that has the President’s ear).

Besides, a left politics that appeals mainly to material self-interest easily spawns self-sabotaging disloyalty (an internal contradiction Marx perhaps might fruitfully have paid more attention to). Lucky (or talented-and-lucky) self-centered lefties too easily become class traitors. Philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò calls this “elite capture,” whereby justice-seeking rebels can be tamed or bought off with prestigious parties and trinkets (consider Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s fast fall from fierce “moral clarity” to Vanity Fair covers to voting to derail strike action, right alongside Biden’s phalanx of plutocrat-controlled sock puppets). Once it’s not in their immediate self-interest to support working-class causes, they can jump ship and ascend into bourgeoise blessings. That’s the logic behind that odious Obama-beloved language “ladders of opportunity.” The talented can climb away, leaving less fortunate prior class allies, the supposedly less “merited” masses, to rot in under-resourced prole-holes, fit only for disposable deplorables for all the greedy bastard bosses and their materially-motivated leftish lickspittle allies concretely care.

Speaking of Obama’s priorities, what was the intended message behind those infamous first post-POTUS photos (available here)? Obama’s hyper manicured, optics-obsessed ego couldn’t wait to parade his partying with the billionaire buddies whose finances he’d fattened while in office. Consider the violent contrasts between pictures of Jimmy Carter building homes for the poor in his nineties with Obama reveling and cavorting with plutocrats on private islands and inking $65-million Netflix deals. A staggeringly steep decline from public service to private greed.

In the pretzel-logic of our politically topsy-turvy times, self-centered “socialists” and other selfish “lefties” can easily conspire with capitalists and the investor class via their union pensions. Labor reporter Hamilton Nolan reports an investment manager saying the quiet part out loud: “if you’re managing teachers’ pension money and you want to just raise everyone’s salary, that is on the backs of teachers, which is not ethical.” The material incentives of the working class aren’t as simple as in Marx’s time. Nolan nails this ensnaring scenario as “profits reaped by the exploitation of the new workers fund the retirement plans of the old workers.” In the “absence of a very strong political culture, personal greed will often supersede ideological unity” aka solidarity. That ungreedy political culture is rare. And unionized greed can indeed impede justice. For instance, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System puts 17 percent of its nearly half a trillion dollars in assets into private equity – that’s the same “unmitigated evil” noted above.

Aggressively policing politics to enforce the reign of greedy material incentives is key to how the powerful protect their interests. In the neoliberal-napalming decades supposedly merited elites (right and “left”) have made out like bandits, as thin-gruel trickle down created Dickensian conditions so dire that poor Americans live on average 15 fewer years than the rich. Globally, such sins are even more gruesome. In 2020 2,370,000,000 humans lacked adequate food(that’s 1 in 3 humans less food-secure than rich-nation pets). While global north do-gooders gush about equal human dignity, for the world’s hungry (including 150,000,000 kids permanently stunted by malnutrition) something more edible than dignity is rapidly needed. Howsoever rousing the rhetoric, always follow the resources. The global poor can’t eat rights. Global north lefties shouldn’t ignore the clear moral and justice demands arising from the fact that 85% of humans can barely dream of ever climbing up to a rich-nation poverty line. The global extreme poverty line that elite-comforting progress-cheering pundits celebrate is now $2.15 per day. That’s purchasing parity adjusted to be roughly what that buys in the U.S, so just 6 percent of, or 1/16th of, the rock-bottom US federal poverty line.

The contemporary covert colonial resource regime, which Huber denies exists, has usefully been called the “global color line.” The authors of Feminism for the 99%, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser use that mind-shaking phrase to refer to our continuing de facto global racial hierarchy. They say capitalism’s worst sins, “slavery, colonialism, apartheid, and [now] the international division of labor,” have always (roughly) tracked the global color line. Citizens of black nations compared to those of white nations are 39 times more likely to face extreme poverty, and 12 times likelier to die before the age of 5. Black-nation incomes per capita averages 1/7th of white nations (but even those averages mislead, Africa’s median income is 1/12th that of the global-north). And only 1 percent of Africans achieve the global-north median level of resource access. That’s how much less black lives matter in concrete resource terms. The U.N.’s Olivier De Schutter notes current methods will take 200 years to end poverty at $5 a day. So that’s 8 generations for the largely non-white global poor to get to 1/8th of our poverty. This immoral mess means our de facto Global Jim Crow will extend into far the 23rd century. And during each of those unjustifiably injurious generations the resources per capita gap between rich and poor nations is set to continue to grow. Beware those celebratory charts of ‘progress’ on global poverty (as linked here), they mask the ugly reality that the GDP per capita gap between rich and poor nations is growing, not shrinking (here’s the relevant World Bank chart). Our current self-focused political economy amounts to a global plot against the poor.

A politics that presumes the need to bribe everyone to do what’s right (a core doctrine of the neoliberal win-win recipe) simply extends the reign of our elite’s wicked worldview. It further entrenches the currently powerful and cements their faith in financial incentives above all else. Neiman recalls civil rights era thinking and rejects the once-rightwing-only view that “talk of justice is just a smokescreen for power.” She quotes scientist Francis de Waal: humans evolved to be “moral beings to the core.” Sadly, that’s less true for economists and the inhumane soulless overclass they influence1 (studies show economics classes measurably worsen selfishness). In Moral Clarity, Neiman writes, “Western secular culture has no clear place for moral language, and its use makes many profoundly uncomfortable.” In another germane book, Evil in Modern Thought, Neiman regrets that lefties have relinquished “moral concepts [which are] the most powerful ones in our language.” Her books labor to resurrect moral arguments and reanimate righteous rhetoric. We need a principled solidarity that’s willing to pay the price of acting rightly (to work on behalf of the weak, not pander to the greed of the degreed overclass).

History testifies against the now almost elite-wide view of politics as necessarily a what’s-in-it-for-me game. Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone fame, notes the: “standard social science view” is that “economics drives everything, and then policies and everything else follows. The one thing we’re sure of is that that story is not true.” His data show the key role of moral change in transitioning from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era. In around 1900 ordinary Americans “became convinced … they had a moral duty to worry about other people… changed from an ‘I’ morality to a ‘we’ morality.” Reforms now taken for granted, like minimum wage, child labor, and women’s voting, required ethical leadership and moral arguments. Putnam says America again now needs “a moral reawakening.” A stark contrast with the me-first moral myopia common in elites. Their worldview is anthropologically and historically ignorant (but profitable for them).

Moral confusion and political cowardice, often masked by material incentives, hinder us from even trying to do what we know is right. We must never concede that greed is a force akin to gravity. It’s not built into the fabric of the social cosmos, even if it conveniently feels that way to hyena-hearted elites. As Putnam notes, major societal advances are typically won in the teeth of fierce opposition from political realists who declare, for instance, that abolition, or women’s suffrage, or civil rights, are unrealistic or impossible. Justice often demands that precisely such impossibles can, and must again, be made to happen, whatever “political realists” claim. Should we only seek justice if it’s financially advantageous or free or fun? Shrugging and shirking when it’s costly?

For many people questions of justice or morality or ethics shouldn’t ever be a matter of money. The precise function of moral or ethical logic and loyalties is that they should be what can’t be bought. What neoliberalism and its “economic style of reasoning” does is train elites to violate that norm, asserting in effect that everything is up for sale (given sufficient incentive, you’ll sell out any loyalty). That rightly makes many unschooled in neoliberal ways suspicious.

We all have inalienable interests beyond a faux-autonomous sovereign neoliberal self. And even your narrow “self-interest,” rightly understood, depends deeply and utterly on your many other-oriented interests in the health and viability of all that you depend on (like the society that Thatcher denied existed). We each have collective or social or moral interests that we can’t disentangle ourselves from (or sell out for material gains).

Our hearts and souls must once more be stirred to overturn today’s oppressive politics of greed. A politics of grace must prioritize protection and gains for the vulnerable and ensure material progress first for those who have the least. It’s uplifting to see Cornell West’s 2024 presidential campaign centering the “least of these.” That’s the Debs solidarity test. Or as perhaps the world’s most famous proto-socialist put it “as ye do unto the least of these … ye do unto me.”

Are not the ordinary, unremarkable, “unmeriting” masses due at least respect and resources enough to live with a basic degree of dignity? Isn’t that just as true globally? If all humans are due equal dignity? We must reverse Thatcher’s soul-sucking revolution, as Putnam notes, we’ve done before (moving from a “me” to a “we” morality). We must be clearer about what our concrete moral commitments are. And about what costs we will shoulder to live up to them. Let’s stop using the same morality-bypass move that bosses use to betray our duty to heal the soul of our soulless politics.

In conclusion, writer Pankaj Mishra regrets that Russian and Indian elites “have succeeded in bending the moral arc of politics and journalism towards greed.” Hasn’t our free-world elite done exactly that too? The left must fight those bent on systemic greed. And battle for a ruthless grace.

1.     The spiciest Federal Reserve footnote ever: in 2021 long-time Fed economist Jeremy Rudd wrote “the primary role of mainstream economics… is to provide an apologetics for a criminally oppressive, unsustainable, and unjust social order.