In an economic system that rewards the shameless pursuit of self-interest, and that deprives those who are kind and altruistic, the people with the fewest scruples will be the most likely to get to the top. But there will also be another tragic consequence: Ordinary, non-sociopathic people will be incentivized to care less about others. If security and comfort aren’t guaranteed to all, but are only granted to those who win a brutal “crabs in a barrel” struggle to beat everyone else to the top, some people will do whatever it takes to make sure they don’t end up at the bottom, even if that means stepping on others in the process. This is the tragedy of the scabs who cross picket lines. The labor movement is right to detest those who are willing to hurt their fellow workers in order to help themselves, and it’s necessary to stigmatize scabbing if a “solidarity ethic” is going to prevail. But the incentives that cause people to scab are powerful, and the strikebreaking worker is often just trying to survive in the same cruel economic conditions as everybody else. The true villain is not any individual barrel-dwelling crab but whoever imprisoned the crabs in the barrel to begin with.

Similarly, in the prisoner’s dilemma, people are pitted against each other and betrayal is rewarded. The two prisoners are taken off for interrogation: If one snitches, and the other is silent, the snitch goes free and the silent one serves three years. If they both snitch, they both serve two years. If they both stay silent in solidarity, they both receive one year. The tragedy of the prisoner’s dilemma is that the “rational” self-interested option is to snitch, which makes both prisoners worse off than they would have been if they could have stayed loyal to one another. In situations like this, it is hard to create fellow-feeling and trust, and we can sympathize with the self-interested decisions of those trapped in a game they did not choose.

Prisoners’ dilemmas and barrels of crabs came to mind as I read this recent New York Times op-ed, “I Want To Be Rich And I’m Not Sorry.” The author, Jessica Knoll, tries to justify her self-interested view of the world, explaining frankly that her aim in life is to have piles of money so that she is more powerful and successful than other people. Money is power, and she wants power, therefore she wants money.

On the face of it, Knoll’s position is difficult to sympathize with. She frames her own pursuit of wealth as an issue of female empowerment, which seems an almost caricatured example of what my colleague Yasmin Nair has called “bourgeois feminist bullshit,” i.e. the belief that feminism is about rich women getting to do a lot of stuff, even if that freedom is only possible thanks to the labor of a large caste of oppressed poor women. (Author Cindy Gallop commented in reply to Knoll that “I want every single woman to unashamedly set out to make an absolute goddamn fucking shit ton of money.” Gross.) When Barack Obama left office and immediately began making millions giving paid speeches to Wall Street, a friend and I joked that perhaps he believed he could best give back to society by trying to diminish the average black-white wealth gap, which he intended to do through becoming as personally rich as possible. The critique that Yasmin and others have made is that according to a certain kind of individualistic race/gender politics, social justice is advanced by diversifying the ranks of CEOs, rather than by trying to give ordinary workers more power. This kind of feminism, Yasmin argues, does not help women as a whole. In fact, it hurts them in the aggregate even as particular women may be doing better than ever before.

But I don’t actually want to be too harsh to Knoll’s position, because I don’t think it’s just out-of-touch bourgeois obliviousness. Instead, it’s the tragic consequence of living in a country that doesn’t offer women real material security. To see what I mean, consider Knoll’s argument. She says that she was sexually assaulted at the age of 15, and decided that she needed success in order to become invulnerable:

I decided I could not consider myself successful unless I was somebody powerful, somebody nobody could hurt. Success became a means to wrest back control, literally to increase my value. There is a metonym for that: money. Success, for me, is synonymous with making money. I want to write books, but I really want to sell books. I want advances that make my husband gasp and fat royalty checks twice a year. I want movie studios to pay me for option rights and I want the screenwriting comp to boot. … [T]o be perfectly blunt about it, I want to be rich…  I want to make the kind of money that allows me to jet to Mexico on a Tuesday, to meaningfully contribute to nasty politicians, to afford a shark of a lawyer if any man ever lays a finger on me again.

She says that success means independence, independence requires money, and that girls are not raised in a way that helps them understand that and fight for it:

Ever since I was a little girl, my fairy tale ending involved a pantsuit, not a wedding dress. Success meant doing something well enough to secure independence… Only in fiction have I been able to create women who aggressively seek money and power the way men seek money and power. Women who will kill to protect their measly slice of the pie. If we want to close the wealth gap, we have to come at it from every angle. We have to stop paying women 80 cents to a man’s dollar and women of color substantially less than that. We have to start raising girls the way we raise boys. … This trickles down to the way we socialize kids — girls are expected to be caretakers, boys the ones who will deliver a return. If you want to create your own wealth, the confidence to take calculated risks is a necessary skill. Placing the needs of others above your own is not.

I’m a socialist, so you might expect me to be disgusted by Knoll’s naked ambition to join the ruling class. (And many self-respecting writers would recoil at her claim that she’s more interested in selling books than writing them.) But a lot of what she says here is completely correct. It’s true that money brings power and protection, and that if you have money, it’s less easy for people to victimize you. Poor women can get trapped in abusive relationships out of economic necessity. Not so if you have the means to leave. Poor women can be exploited by their bosses without having any recourse, whereas rich women can tell their bosses to fuck off. In a highly unequal world, the only ones who can truly feel safe are those shielded by a thick cushion of wealth. “I want to get rich so that nobody can push me around and abuse me anymore” is an understandable thought to have.

But there’s something strange about it, too. Knoll notes that we live in a capitalist patriarchy, where the people who adopt the stereotypically masculine attributes of aggressiveness, greed, and indifference to others achieve financial security and the people who have the stereotypically feminine traits of altruism and self-deprecation are taken advantage of. But instead of saying that we should stop rewarding arrogance, she says that women should stop being humble. She says that “we have to start raising girls the way we raise boys.” But one could equally well say that “we have to start raising boys the way we raise girls.” Knoll takes the dominance of male traits as a given, and says that girls should adopt them. But doesn’t this cede too much ground? It amounts to saying “Men are greedy loathsome dicks who measure human worth in money, therefore gender equality means I should become a greedy loathsome dick who measures human worth in money.” Instead of demanding more from men, this philosophy suggests every woman should be just as sociopathic, status-driven, wealth-obsessed, and unpleasant as men have gotten away with being.

For socialist feminists, the point is not to win at the men’s game but to change the rules. Leftists look at a world in which security and independence come with money and instead of saying “Clearly I need as much money as I can get my hands on,” they say “Everyone deserves security and independence regardless of how much money they have.” Knoll believes that it’s bad that we encourage women toward “placing the needs of others above your own,” because it gets in the way of their success. But altruism should be encouraged, and wealth is immoral. The problem is not that women are told to be good people, it’s that men aren’t, and that people are forced to choose between goodness and security.

You might be pessimistic, as I imagine Knoll is, that a world of universal material security is possible. You might think the only solution is for individuals to try to win the rat race, because it’s not going away. But, first, I think that cynicism is only really possible because the American national ideology drills it into people. Social democracies do exist, and in them women are freer and more secure, and they don’t have to fear that unless they have as much money as possible they could lose their healthcare, their childcare, their legal rights, and their ability to fight back against victimizers. But second, the individualistic ideology is a dead end, because it will only ever help those few people who manage to win the competition. And as with the prisoner’s dilemma, a world in which all participants are pitted against each other usually results in everyone being worse off than they would be if they cooperated. Solidarity is the only solution, and the feminist project can never be about helping women internalize masculine values and win a social dominance contest. It’s about making sure life is better for everyone, and that those who are the victims of trauma don’t need to become tough and brutal in order to be protected in future, because a nurturing and altruistic society ensures that everyone takes care of each other, and that the world’s riches are shared among all.

If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation or purchasing a subscription. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.