A Short Animated Introduction to Karl Marx

Is Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism still relevant to the 21st century? Can we ever read him independently of the movements that violently seized state power in his name, claiming to represent the workers through the sole will of the Party? These are questions Marxists must confront, as must all serious defenders of capitalism, who cannot afford to ignore Marx. He understood and articulated the problems of political economy better than any theorist of his day and posed a formidable intellectual challenge to the values liberal democracies claim to espouse, and those they actually practice through economic exploitation, perpetual rent-seeking, and the alienating commodification of everything.

In his School of Life video explainer above, Alain de Botton sums up the received assessment of Communist history as “disastrously planned economies and nasty dictatorships.” “Nevertheless,” he says, we should view Marx “as a guide, whose diagnosis of capitalism’s ills helps us to navigate toward a more promising future”—the future of a “reformed” capitalism. No Marxist would ever make this argument; de Botton’s video appeals to the skeptic, new to Marx and not wholly inoculated against giving him a hearing. His ideas get boiled down to some mostly uncontroversial statements: Modern work is alienating and insecure. The rich get richer while wages fall. Such theses have attained the status of self-evident truisms.

More interesting and provocative is Marx’s (and Engels’) notion that capitalism is “bad for capitalists,” in that it produces the repressive, patriarchal dominion of the nuclear family, “fraught with tension, oppression, and resentment.” Additionally, the imposition of economic considerations into every aspect of life renders relationships artificial and forms of life sharply constrained by the demands of the labor market. Here Marx’s economic critique takes on its subtly radical feminist dimension, de Botton says, by claiming that “men and women should have the permanent option to enjoy leisure,” not simply the equal opportunity to sell their labor power for equal amounts of insecurity.

The video won’t sway staunchly anti-communist minds, but it might make some viewers curious about what exactly it was Marx had to say. Those who turn to his masterwork, Das Kapital, are likely to give up before they reach the twists and turns of the arguments de Botton outlines in broad strokes. The first and most famous volume is hard going without a guide, and you’ll find fewer better than David Harvey, Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital has guided readers through the text for years, and his lectures on Marx have done so for students going on four decades. In the video above, see an introduction to Harvey’s lecture series on volume one of Marx’s Capital, and at our previous post, find complete videos of his full lecture series on Volumes One, Two, and part of Volume Three. Harvey doesn’t claim that a kinder, gentler capitalism can be found in Marx. But as to the question of whether Marx is still relevant to the vastly accelerated, technocratic capitalism of the present, he would unequivocally answer yes.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Isaac Newton Lost $3 Million Dollars in the “South Sea Bubble” of 1720: Even Geniuses Can’t Prevail Against the Machinations of the Markets

The Aristotelian notion of “man” as a “rational animal” has seen its share of detractors, from the Cynics to Bertrand Russell to nearly the whole of Poststructuralist thought. Leave it up to Oscar Wilde to compress the debate between intellect and passion into a pithy aphorism: “Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason.”

We no longer need clever verbal barbs to refute too-optimistic assessments of human behavior. Economics is catching up: we have the language of neuroscience and psychology, which consistently tells us that humans decidedly do not behave rationally very often, but are driven by bias and biology in inexplicable ways. And for over a hundred years now, we've known that the clockwork Newtonian view of the physical universe turns out be a much messier and indeterminate affair, as does the universe of the human mind.

Why, then, has so much economic theory operated with a kind of dogged Aristotelianism, insisting that the units of capitalist society, the workers, managers, investors, consumers, owners, renters, speculators, etc. behave in predictable ways? We have case after case showing that intelligence and critical reasoning often have little to do with success or failure in the market. In such cases, however, one often hears the “madness of crowds” or other cliches invoked as an explanation.

To illustrate, market reporters and business writers have seized upon the story of Isaac Newton’s spectacular rise and fall in the so-called “South Sea Bubble” of 1720. We find the story in Benjamin Graham’s 1949 classic The Intelligent Investor, a widely-read book that attributes the irrationality of market systems to an anthropomorphic entity named “Mr. Market.”

Graham writes,

Back in the spring of 1720, Sir Isaac Newton owned shares in the South Sea Company, the hottest stock in England. Sensing that the market was getting out of hand, the great physicist muttered that he 'could calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of the people.' Newton dumped his South Sea shares, pocketing a 100% profit totaling £7,000. But just months later, swept up in the wild enthusiasm of the market, Newton jumped back in at a much higher price — and lost £20,000 (or more than $3 million in [2002-2003's] money. For the rest of his life, he forbade anyone to speak the words 'South Sea' in his presence.

The quotation in bold may or may not have been uttered by Newton, but the events Graham describes did indeed happen. As the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Zwieg relates, University of Minnesota professor Andrew Odlyzko found that “Newton had shifted from a prudent investor with his money spread across several securities to a speculator who had plunged essentially all of his capital into a single stock. The great scientist was chasing hot performance as desperately as a day trader in 1999 or many bitcoin buyers in 2017.” (Odlyzko estimates Newton's losses closer to $4 million.) Perhaps it was not a metaphorical “Mr. Market” who cost Newton up to 77% “on his worst purchases,” nor was it widespread “wild enthusiasm”—the mass movement of passion that Enlightenment philosophers so feared.

Perhaps it was Newton himself who, Elena Holodny writes at Business Insider, “let his emotions get the best of him, and got swayed by the irrationality of the crowd.” Maybe it's more accurate to say Newton succumbed to greed when the bubble expanded. “Throughout history,” Barbara Kollmeyer writes at Market Watch in her interview with author Richard Dale, “people—especially those at the top rung of society—have been greedy and gullible participants in financial bubbles. And Sir Isaac Newton was only human, after all.” (How many at the top rung of society fell prey to Bernie Madoff’s schemes? And a century before the South Sea Bubble, hundreds of wealthy investors lost their shirts in the Dutch Tulip Bulb craze.)

Some business writers, like investment editor Richard Evans at The Telegraph, recommend a calculable formula to avoid losing a fortune in bubbles, advice that takes rational agency for granted. Perhaps it should not. In addition to citing the contagion of crowds, nearly every discussion of Newton’s folly allows that a failure of emotional discipline played a significant role. Benjamin Graham invokes another Aristotelian notion—the idea that “character” counts as much or more than intelligence when it comes to investing. "The investor's chief problem," he writes, "and even his worst enemy—is likely to be himself."

Far fewer commenters note that the South Sea venture was itself a failure of character from its inception. The company had secured an exclusive monopoly on trade with South America; much of that trade involved selling slaves. It is also the case that the company artificially inflated its stock prices, and colluded with several MPs in insider trading schemes. The so-called “Bubble Act” of Parliament in 1720, presumably passed to prevent crashes like the one that devastated Newton, turned out to be corporate giveaway. The terms of the act had been dictated by the South Sea Company in order to prevent other companies from poaching their investors. Although these circumstances are well-known to economic historians, they rarely make their way into commentary on Newton’s great loss.

Economists instead tend to blame abstractions for economic events like the South Sea Bubble, or they blame the overreaching profit-seeking of investors, and maybe for good reason. The other explanations haunt the margins: the inherently exploitative nature of most forms of corporate capitalism, and the corruption and collusion between the state and private enterprise that inhibits fair competition and makes it impossible for investors to evaluate the situation transparently. For all of his scientific and mathematical genius, Isaac Newton was no exception—he was just as subject to irrational greed as the next investor, and to the predatory machinations of “market forces."

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Actually Is Bitcoin? Princeton’s Free Course “Bitcoin and Currency Technologies” Provides Much-Needed Answers

"Don't Understand Bitcoin?" asked the headline of a recent video from Clickhole, the Onion's viral-media parody site. "This Man Will Mumble an Explanation at You." The inexplicable hilarity of the mumbling man and his 72-second explanation of Bitcoin contains, like all good humor, a solid truth: most of us don't understand Bitcoin, and the simplistic information we seek out, for all we grasp of it, might as well be delivered unintelligibly. A few years ago we featured a much clearer three-minute explanation of that best-known form of cryptocurrency here on Open Culture, but how to gain a deeper understanding of this technology that, in one form or another, so many of us will eventually use?

Consider joining "Bitcoin and Currency Technologies," a free course from Coursera taught by several professors from Princeton University, including computer scientist Arvind Narayanan, whose Princeton Bitcoin Textbook we featured last year. The eleven-week online course (classroom versions of whose lectures you can check out here) just began, but you can still easily join and learn the answers to questions like the following: "How does Bitcoin work? What makes Bitcoin different? How secure are your Bitcoins? How anonymous are Bitcoin users? What determines the price of Bitcoins? Can cryptocurrencies be regulated? What might the future hold?" All of those, you'll notice, have been raised more and more often in the media lately, but seldom satisfactorily addressed.

"Real understanding of the economic issues underlying the cryptocurrency is almost nonexistent," writes Nobel-winning economist Robert J. Shiller in a recent New York Times piece on Bitcoin. "It is not just that very few people really comprehend the technology behind Bitcoin. It is that no one can attach objective probabilities to the various possible outcomes of the current Bitcoin enthusiasm." Take Princeton's course, then, and you'll pull way ahead of many others interested in Bitcoin, even allowing for all the still-unknowable unknowns that have caused such thrilling and shocking fluctuations in the digital currency's eight years of existence so far. All of it has culminated in the current craze Shiller calls "a marvelous case study in ambiguity and animal spirits," and where ambiguity and animal spirits rule, a little intellectual understanding certainly never hurts.

Enroll free in "Bitcoin and Currency Technologies" here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Will You Really Achieve Happiness If You Finally Win the Rat Race? Don’t Answer the Question Until You’ve Watched Steve Cutts’ New Animation

Illustrator Steve Cutts sets his latest animation, "Happiness," in a teeming urban environment, with hundreds of near identical cartoon rats standing in for human drudges in an unfulfilling, and not unfamiliar race.

Packed subway cars, a bombardment of advertising, soul-deadening office jobs, and Black Friday sales are just a few of the indignities Cutts’ rodents are subjected to, to the tune of Bizet’s "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle."

Rampant over-consumption—a major preoccupation for this artist—offers illusory relief, and a great deal of fun for viewers with the time to hit pause, to better savor the grim details.

The maximalist frames read like a gratifying perversion of Richard Scarry’s relentlessly sunny Busytown. As with Cutts' 80s-throwback Simpson’s couch gag: pop-culture references and visual input whip by at subliminal warp speed. 

They may also serve as an antidote to the sort of messaging we’re constantly on the receiving end of, whether we live in city, country or somewhere in-between. Check out the scene as Cutts pans up from the subway platform, 52 seconds in:

The panty-clad female model for Blah cologne’s fashionably black and white ad is emaciated nearly to the point of death.

“You’re better than laces” flatters the latest (laceless) shoe from a swoosh-bedecked footwear manufacturer, while a radiator-colored beverage floats above the motto “Just drink it, morons.”

Krispo Flakes fight depression with “the bits other cereals don’t want.”

Heaven help us all, there’s even a poster for TRUMP The Musical.

This freeze-frame scrutiny could make an excellent activity for any class where middle and high schoolers are encouraged to think critically about their role as consumers.

As Cutts, a one-time employee of the digital marketing agency, Isobar, who contributed to campaigns for such global giants as Coca-Cola, Google, Reebok, and Toyota, told Reverb Press in 2015:

These are things that affect us all on a fundamental level so naturally they’re a main focus for a lot of my work. Humanity has the power to be great in so many ways and yet at the same time we are fundamentally flawed. I think it’s the conflict between these two that fascinates me the most. As a race of beings we’ve made incredible achievements in such a short space, but at the same time we seem so overwhelmingly intent on destroying ourselves and everything around us. It would be very interesting to see where we’ll be in a hundred years. The term insanity is intriguing – it’s almost like we’re encouraged to act in a way that seems genuinely insane when you look at it objectively, but it’s often accepted as normal right now. I think we will have to evolve beyond our current thinking and way of doing things if we want to survive.

See more of Cutts’ animated work here. And while he doesn’t go out of his way to hype his online store, a gallery quality print of The Rat Trap would make a fantastic gift from your cubicle mate’s Secret Santa. (HURRY! TIME IS RUNNING OUT!!!)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Christopher Hitchens Dismisses the Cult of Ayn Rand: There’s No “Need to Have Essays Advocating Selfishness Among Human Beings; It Requires No Reinforcement”

Charges of hypocrisy, contradiction, “flip-flopping,” etc. in politics are so much mud thrown at the castle walls. Unless the peasants gather in large enough numbers to storm the palace and depose their lords, their righteousness avails them nothing. What does it matter to the current party in power, for example—who wears the national flag like a cape and has decided the civil religion and its Evangelical variety are one in the same—that its most-admired role model and (alleged) fixer is a corrupt Russian autocrat who murders journalists (or a Confederate general who led the armies of a treasonous slave state)?

So it is, on and on, with the political class.

Take Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. During these years, he was widely hailed as a major power behind the throne, no matter the policies of those who occupied it. He was “obliged to report,” Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair in 2000, “to Congress only twice a year, at formal occasions where he is received with the deference that was once accorded the Emperor of Japan.” I well remember the dowdy frisson accompanying those appearances in the 90s, the Bill Clinton bubble years. Hitchens only slightly exaggerates. But somehow, Greenspan retained this guru-like aura despite the fact that his position violated his sincerely-held beliefs as a member, he himself told Hitchens, of Ayn Rand’s “inner circle”

As Hitchens notes in the grainy video clip above, “a state Federal Reserve Bank is not part of the Libertarian program, though Mr. Greenspan seems a bit iffy about this self-evident proposition.” In addition to championing atheism and abortion rights, Rand, Greenspan’s “intellectual guru,” defined the rigid ideological disdain for government meddling in markets and social spending of any kind. Yet she ended her days on the government dime. But there are no contradictions for purveyors of theodicies. Randians, or “Objectivists,” if they prefer, must know that to everyone outside the circle, the philosophy looks like ethically-bankrupt cult logic, wishful thinking easily discarded when inconvenient. Still, adepts will write to tell us that if we only grasped the gnostic reasoning of such-and-such argument, then we too could pierce the veil.

Hitchens dispenses with this pretense, not as an anarcho-communist radical but as a sometime neoconservative hawk and sometime admirer of Rand (or at least a knowledgeable reader of her work). “I have some respect for the ‘Virtue of Selfishness,’” he goes on to say in his aside on Rand above—which occurred during a lecture called “The Moral Necessity of Atheism” at Sewanee University in 2004. (In his Vanity Fair essay, Hitchens pronounced himself a “Rand buff.”) And yet, the title of Rand's collection of essays provides him with the rhetorical essence of his critique, one drawn from a different strain of virtue—of a religious variety, even. After dismissing Rand on literary grounds, he says:

I don’t think there’s any need to have essays advocating selfishness among human beings; I don’t know what your impression has been, but some things require no further reinforcement.

The urbane Hitchens goes on to tell an off-color anecdote about Lillian Hellman with a moralistic undertone, gets a laugh, and pivots to a much older theological conflict to bring his point home.

So to have a book strenuously recommending that people be more self-centered seems to me, as the Anglican Church used to say in its critique of Catholicism, a work of super-arrogation. It’s too strenuous.

It’s trying too hard, that is, to convince us, and itself, perhaps, that its superstitions, self-defenses, and desires are natural law. Rand’s belief system has so little intellectual currency among thinkers on the left that few people spend any time bothering to refute it. But Hitchens did the political center a service when he took on defenders of Randianism in the media, such as he does in the debate below with David Frum, the now infamous neoconservative Canadian speechwriter for George W. Bush. Those who think the healthcare debate began with the election of Barack Obama may be surprised to see it conducted in almost the very same terms in 1996.

Frum defends a version of the libertarian view, Hitchens a social democratic perspective. When Rand’s name inevitably comes up near the end of the discussion (4:40), Hitchens articulates the same views: “I always thought it quaint, and rather touching,” he says with dry irony, “that there is in America a movement that thinks people are not yet selfish enough…. It’s somewhat refreshing to meet people who manage to get through their day actually believing that.” Like many others, Hitchens embodied a number of contradictions. Among them, perhaps, was his staunch, almost Catholic belief—despite his strenuous objection to religion—that selfishness… too much selfishness, a valorization of selfishness, a cult of selfishness… is self-evidently a rather sinful thing.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to Economist John Maynard Keynes

If you know anything about modern economic theory, you’ve learned the names Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes—generally pitted against each other as representing the divide down the center in Western political economy. While more radical thinkers like F.A. Hayek and, of course, Marx and Engels, hold sway over a significant part of the population, when it comes to the entrenched two-party system in the U.S. and so-called moderate Democratic and Republican politicians, we can handily refer to Friedman and Keynes, respectively, as advocating on the one hand very little government intervention into free market affairs and, on the other, a significant, very visible, guiding hand.

Keynes “believed that governments have it in their power,” says Alain de Botton in his School of Life animated introduction above, “to solve some of the greatest ills of capitalism.” Rejecting both communism and “the utter wisdom of the unfettered free market,” Keynes sought to chart a middle way, theorizing capitalist economies planned through "judicious injections" of money and “wise regulations” to “smooth out the peaks and troughs to which all economies seem fatefully prone.” Keynes himself was not prone to many financial ups and downs. Born in 1883 in Cambridge to a “well-to-do academic family,” writes the BBC, his “father was an economist and a philosopher” and his mother “became the town’s first female mayor.” He “amassed a considerable personal fortune from the financial markets” between the wars and became a “board member of a number of companies.”

At the height of the economic crisis in 1930, Keynes published an essay titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which he “outlined his belief that most economic problems could be overcome, and give way to an age where the chief challenge for human beings would be how to occupy their leisure time in conditions of mass prosperity.” His utopian outlook may have been partly conditioned by his position as “part of the British establishment.” But Keynes was a nuanced, creative thinker, a member of the Bloomsbury group—Virginia Woolf was one of his closest friends—who “recognized that good economics was as fundamental to well-being as good painting or literature, and in a deep sense not fundamentally different in its search for the wellsprings of fulfillment, and its attention to human error and blindness.”

Like Woolf, Keynes tended to view human well-being through a narrow class prism, with some of the ugly prejudices such a view entails. Yet his theory began by considering the needs of huge numbers of unemployed in Britain and the U.S. who should not have to live in precarity and poverty, he reasoned, until the market got around to correcting itself, if it happened to do so in their lifetimes. The interventionist theories Keynes elaborated in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, his great work of 1936, led to his creation in 1944 of the IMF and the World Bank, two of the most controversial global institutions of the past half-century for what many see as their disastrous, coercive meddling in the economic affairs of poorer nations.

While deficit spending may be a de facto practice of every government administration, it is the theory of John Maynard Keynes that most attaches it philosophically to the center-left. And while it may be that more Keynesian stimulus spending, with government as the “primary shopper in the land,” as Peter Coy argued in 2014, is just what a sagging, stagnant world economy needs, the perpetual challenge, as de Botton points out, is the question of just “who should pay for the loans” governments issue, or the services it funds to buoy the citizenry. Few people, no matter how wealthy, seem to want to shoulder the burden, however light it may be for some, even if Keynes’ “multiplier effect” can be shown to raise all boats once it takes hold.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Albert Einstein Writes the 1949 Essay “Why Socialism?” and Attempts to Find a Solution to the “Grave Evils of Capitalism”

Image by Ferdinand Schmutzer, via Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein was a complicated human being, with a wide range of interests. His personality seemed balanced between a certain chilliness when it came to personal matters, and a great deal of warmth and compassion when it came to the wider human family. The physicist struck up friendships with famed American activists Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and he championed the cause of Civil Rights in the U.S. He professed a deep admiration for Gandhi, and praised him several times in letters and speeches. And in 1955, just days before his death, Einstein collaborated with another outspoken public intellectual, Bertrand Russell, on a peace manifesto, which was signed by six other scientists.

Einstein saw a public role for scientists in matters social, political, and even economic. In 1949, he published an article in the Monthly Review titled “Why Socialism?” Anticipating his critics, he begins by asking “is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism?” To which he replies, “I believe for a number of reasons that it is.”

Einstein goes on, sounding something like a combination of Karl Marx and E.O. Wilson, to elaborate the theoretical basis for socialism as he sees it, first describing what Marx called “primitive accumulation” and what the socialist economist Thorstein Veblen called “’the predatory phase’ of human development.”

…most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

The science of economics, as it stands, writes Einstein, still belongs “to that phase.” Such “laws as we can derive” from “the observable economic facts… are not applicable to other phases.” These facts simply describe the predatory state of affairs, and Einstein implies that not even economists have sufficient methods to definitively answer the question “why socialism?”—“economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.” We should not assume, then, he goes on, “that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.” Einstein himself doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. He ends his essay, in fact, with a few questions addressing “some extremely difficult socio-political problems,” of the kind that attend every debate about socialism:

…how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

Nevertheless, Einstein is “convinced” that the only way to eliminate the “grave evils” of capitalism is “through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.” For Einstein, the “worst evil” of predatory capitalism is the “crippling of individuals” through an educational system that emphasizes an “exaggerated competitive attitude” and trains students “to worship acquisitive success.” But the problems extend far beyond the individual and into the very nature of the political order.

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands… The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

The political economy Einstein describes is one often lambasted by right libertarians as an impure variety of crony capitalism, one not worthy of the name, but the physicist is skeptical of the claim, writing “there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society.” Private owners always secure their privileges through the manipulation of the political and educational systems and the mass media.

The predatory situation Einstein observes is one of extreme alienation among all classes; “All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naïve, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.” Einstein believed that devotion should take the form of a socialist economy that promotes both the physical wellbeing and the political rights of everyone. But he did not presume to know exactly what such an economic future would look like, nor how it might come into being. Read his full essay, "Why Socialism?" here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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