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Anti-Capitalist Effective Altruism

August 26th, 2015

I really appreciate Snow's article in Jacobin looking at effective altruism from a leftist perspective. As a thorough consideration that engages with the arguments it's very welcome. Where I disagree with it, however, is primarily in the conclusion: it's not clear to me how Snow thinks socialists should use their time or money if they want to most improve the world.

The article clearly shows that poor suffer under capitalism, and I certainly agree with that, but it primarily uses this to argue against capitalism:

As charities and Effective Altruists publicize how badly the global poor need food, for example, capital acquires and controls their fertile land, using it to grow crops that can be sold for higher returns to populations with deeper pockets. The farming practices it brings require already-scarce water supplies and are slated to overdraw the sources of those supplies—to say nothing of ecological havoc like mass extinction and global climate change.
To an already socialist readership this is preaching to the choir: Jacobin readers are as a whole quite clear on the harms of capitalism. The problem is that it's not enough to object to a situation; we need to go beyond criticism to actually changing the world to make poor people better off.

Snow writes, quoting Gomberg that "the resources required to successfully relieve poverty through philanthropy or achieve radical systemic change are so huge that 'in doing more of one we do less of the other,'" and I agree. In considering ways to make a difference in the world we need to focus on whichever options provide the most benefit for our efforts, and we do have to make choices. While he spends much of the article saying what not to do, however, the closest he comes to saying what we should do instead is inviting us to "[question] an economic system that only halts misery and starvation if it is profitable" and "[challenge] capitalism's institutionalized taking." [1]

The problem is there's is an incredibly large range of activities that could fall under "trying to help people from an anti-capitalist perspective," and like with most things we should expect them to span a wide range of effectiveness. I would love to see Snow and others go beyond describing how badly capitalism fails the poor and address the problem of finding the most impactful ways to improve their lot.

(If anti-capitalists did work on this project, I do think there's some chance they would end up agreeing with some of GiveWell's recommendations. For example, it's much easier to mobilize and advocate for your own interests when you don't have malaria.)

[1] This is similar to my earlier criticism of Zizek's "Charity: First as Tragedy, then as Farce".

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