/ communism

The Anti-Individualist Manifesto

This article centers around an (often implicit) approach to reasoning, which I hold to be the greatest and most repulsive of sins in human thought: individualism. Regardless of underlying ontological assumptions, ethical frameworks, or overall correctness of arguments--individualism is a vaccine against complete and sound (systemic) analysis.

The case study through which I will elaborate and justify the above paragraph is a conflict between two rather different ideological and philosophical trends I've been exposed to the most over the last few years: effective altruism (EA) and Marxism. I never truly experienced an internal conflict between the two, rather, it was forced upon me by the communities I've found myself involved with. I was won over by Marxist thought a long time ago, but through civilized (and sometimes less so) debating with EAs, I've had the privilege of inciting and participating in stimulating ideological clashes, through which I've further developed my own political beliefs. Though further verbalization and personal catharsis are the primary motivators behind this text, I sincerely hope that it will be of interest to both EAs and Marxists (although EAs I've had contact with are probably already familiar with most of what I have to say).

Basic introduction to EA

The essence of effective altruism can be formulated in this rather simple thought: do the most good you can, i.e. live your life so as to reduce suffering to the greatest extent possible. The actual content of the philosophy revolves around discovering ways to do this effectively, and getting as much people as possible on board with this idea. However, it is not as simple as it sounds, which can be illustrated via a simple thought experiment: it may cost around $5000 to train a guide-dog in order to help a blind person in your local community--surely this sounds as the moral thing to do--but effective altruists beg the differ: those $5000 could save dozens of lives in third-world countries via simple donations of, say, anti-mosquito bed nets against malaria. So while our first instincts tell us that, of course we should help blind people in our communities, by introducing this sort of moral arithmetic--the mathematical grounding for utilitarianism--we're led to conclude that it is actually harmful overall to help blind people by training guide dogs for them (closely related to the concept of opportunity cost).

My involvement was actually mostly with Yudkowskian rationalism, topics of existential risk such as AI safety, insects, and various mathematical intrigues like decision theory or random armchair philosophizing from LessWrong, Slate Star Codex etc. The EA movement itself never really interested me that much--but I was exposed to it, and this is a critique of it as it is. I won't directly focus on organizations such as MIRI, ideas like anti-natalism, and other more esoteric concepts, but the actually-existing movement, and its ideology.

The Left Strikes Back

Though leftist critiques of EA are nothing new, I partially sympathize with the EA community in their disdain for them: all too often, these critiques are written from an uncharitable and an unfamiliar point of view, either assuming the reader prays to a statue of Lenin before morning coffee and cigarette, or completely failing (unintentionally or not) to comprehend the nuances involved in the matter (something which I contradictorily also sympathize with because who isn't sick of liberal Americans?) I believe the uniqueness and value of this particular critique lies in my proximity to the movement and (relatively) extensive engagement with its underlying philosophy (and a general perceptiveness for, as Žižek would put it, pure ideology).


To go back to the main theme, and in order frame my case, I will explain what I mean by individualism and how it's sneaked into (or inherent to) rationalist/EA thought, how it manifests in the actually-existing EA movement, and finally, reconcile Marxism and the ethical underpinnings rationalists claim to adhere to: consequentialism, and utilitarianism.

The main problem when analyzing movements is focusing on their nominal motivations (almost always positive), not analyzing the mechanisms through which they further their goals (the functioning of the movement), and, most importantly: not critiquing the underlying ideology of the movement. The nominal end of EA is reduction of suffering (as is of Marxism, where the "goal" is communism)--and that's not interesting at all at the moment (see the second-to-last paragraph).

Mechanisms of EA

The main mechanism through which the EA movement realizes its goals are charities, meta-charities, etc.: i.e. market transactions. As any Marxist would remark, this is terrible, as suffering is caused by the existence and dominance of the (global) market and Western imperialism. As such, there is not much left to critique, only to elaborate and prove, which I will not do in this article as the main focus is EA itself and its ideology.

Ideology of EA

In context of EA, ideology can mean two different things: the implicit individualism, or the explicit(ly dominant) neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is, from my experience, a view commonly held by prominent rationalist/EA movement figures, and many members. This property of the movement, though, is a combination of cultural background (rich white men) and the aforementioned individualism (the central point of this critique). To be fair, there are social democrats and socialists, but usually they do not hold very high status or don't discuss politics in this context at all (and are almost never revolutionary).

Individualistic Reasoning

The most important distinction between analytical paradigms is between individualisic reasoning and systemic reasoning. This is a point wider than just the distinction between EA and Marxism: almost all analyses that deal with systems (society, markets, etc.) can be categorized in this way. Both systemic and individualistic reasoning tend to be implicit in the sense that they generate the framework under which arguments are verbalized.

Individualistic frameworks are often more appealing to people in power, because their characteristic focus on decomposing the systemic problem into a set of agents and their interactions, and such a decomposition often implies a (passive) darwinistic order. Not that EA promotes social darwinism, far from it, the matter is that their reasoning leaves the problem solving to those with available resources--the powerful, the capitalists in thought and deed (which many influential EAs are).

Even worse from, and far more important than social darwinism, is the fact that individualism, largely drawing credibility from game theory and microeconomics, is not a neutral point of view, and unjustifiably and implicitly expands these models into a non-analytical and non-scientific context (discourse).

Systemic reasoning

So, what is the content of the alternative to the type of reasoning described above?

When looking at systemic problems such as poverty, housing, hunger, economic inequality (i.e. capitalism): the neutral point of view is analysys not through individual interactions, but through asking questions such as: what causes poverty? How to fix hunger in the greatest extent possible? Which social forces are behind homelessness, what are the problems these people experience and why? The main theme here is to look at root causes of problems, instead of merely symptoms.

EAs approach problems by essentially dumping money at them, fixing individual issues or symptoms instead of these root causes. And the root cause of most of the world's problems is market exchange of goods instead of production for social need and scientific planning of the economy. We need communism, not rich guys feeling smart.

On Marxism and utilitarianism

So finally, what about the underlying philosophical framework of EA, utilitarianism? Is it a part of the problem? No. It is utterly irrelevant. Utilitarianism in their interpretation is just mathematical individualism, but "doing the most good you can" is a tautology which any movement can ascribe to.

Final words

If you're an EA with socialist inclinations, I recommend these texts:

  1. Capitalism: an introduction
  2. Class: an introduction
  3. The Communist Manifesto
  4. The State and Revolution by Lenin