In this episode, we talk to Julie Mell, an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and author of the two volume book, The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender.
In The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender, Mell marshals previously untapped primary sources to upend the common historical narrative regarding the role of Jewish moneylenders in the development of the modern economy. On Mell’s reading, the prevailing understanding of the medieval Jewish moneylender–common to both antisemitic and philosemetic discourses in the 19th and 20th centuries– has no more basis in history than does the prevailing myth of barter.
At North Carolina State University, Mell teaches courses in medieval history, Jewish history, and economic thought; she also recently served as a fellow at the Center for the History of Political Economy and as a visiting scholar at the Centre for Hebrew and Judaic Studies at the University of Oxford.
The following was transcribed by Megan Reilly and has been lightly edited for clarity. See here for a French translation of the transcript.
Scott Ferguson: Julie Mell, welcome to Money on the Left.
Julie Mell: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.
Scott Ferguson: I was wondering if we could start by having you tell us a little bit about your scholarly background, your intellectual training, and what brought you to your current book project.
Julie Mell: Sure. I was a major in the history of religions. I started out interested in East Asian Studies and then gravitated back to Abrahamic religions by the end of college. When I was thinking about going on to graduate school, I was really struck by two fields. One was Rabbinic Judaism and the other was medieval history. As things turned out, I entered a master’s program in medieval history and worked with a very well-recognized women’s historian at the time. Meanwhile, I was not only working on Latin in my medieval studies program, but I had also been learning modern Hebrew. I had just come back from a summer in an ulpan in Tel Aviv, so I asked her if I could continue with modern Hebrew.
Fortuitously, at other universities that collaborated with ours and in the research area where I was a graduate student, there had just been hired a professor of Hebrew literature and a chaired professor in Jewish history who happened to be a medievalist. Through the confluence of those things, I ended up working on the Jewish community and medieval England. With my professor who was a women’s historian at the time–it was at a point where women’s history was transitioning into gender studies–there was a lot of discussion and debate around issues of difference and recognizing differences among women. She asked me to work on Jews in order to bring a major minority group in medieval Europe into conversations about gender and women’s history.
Actually, the first paper I wrote in graduate school was on medieval Jewish women money lenders. But even then, I had a sense when I finished that first research paper that there was something profoundly wrong about it, or there was something off. Women’s history at the time, and still today, very often has a heroic mode to it–you’re recovering voices, you’re recovering women’s economic activities where we’ve assumed there weren’t any–so the female moneylenders became the heroes, the heroines, of this piece of research. At the same time, I was aware in the background of all the stereotypes about Jews and money lending, which sat very uneasily with me. I actually abandoned that work and moved into a very different area. I ended up moving after the masters to religious studies to do a lot more training with the one Rabbinic scholar that ultimately oversaw my dissertation.
My plan when I started out with the dissertation that would eventually become the book was that I would work on a type of Hebrew text known in English as Responsa and in Hebrew as She’elot u-Teshuvot, or questions and answers. These are actually legal texts that are sent from one rabbi or one Rabbinic court to another, which they recognize as superior, asking for advice on a particular case or asking theoretical questions which they’ll frame as if it were a case. And we have many of these from medieval Europe. They have not been used very much at all for historical work. So I wanted to work on a gender issue in relation to economics through this kind of source. I actually had a dissertation project that was inspired by a Marxist-feminist work that was looking at the household as a form of work.
This was at a point in the nineties when a major turn to notions of identity, of performativity, were really at the forefront. I felt that there was something that had been lost in terms of the materialist base in a Marxist or socialist critique. What I wanted to do was examine this issue of separation between market and household. I was going to do it in this type of source known as Responsa using the Jewish community as an example for all of Europe. And the more that I got into the project, the more I kept thinking to myself, you know, the problem is nobody’s going to take the Jewish communities of Western Europe as a representative case study for Europe as a whole because they’re going to say Jews were different economically. And so, what initially started as an introduction–as an “I’ll set the story straight” over time–became the dissertation that turned into the book: The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender.
Maxximilian Seijo: So in the book, as you’ve just said, you critique what you call the “mythic meta-narrative” of the medieval Jewish moneylender. I was wondering if you can explain for our audience what this mythic meta-narrative is, and why it’s so deleterious for understanding the roles that Jews have played in political and economic life both past and present? Perhaps you could also talk about how the narrative has changed over time?
Julie Mell: That narrative is one that tells a story of European economic development as something which is spurred by the Jewish population as modernizers. The way this simple narrative goes is that in the early medieval period the Jews were the traders for Western Europe until European peoples–this is a very 19th century version right now–developed enough to take on trade for themselves. Once they had done so, they pushed Jews out of trade and Jews turned to the new economic niche of credit which was opening up. And so, they became the moneylenders for Europe. Moneylending, as we know from our wise modern perspective, is necessary, or credit is necessary for economic development. The Jewish moneylenders were actually benefiting Europe. Yet, at the same time, they suffered an antisemitic backlash for providing credit, or tagged as “usury” at the time.
They suffered a backlash precisely for doing the thing that was in Europe’s best interest–it is a tragic tale. This is the standard narrative that you’ve had from the late 19th century through today. We can talk a bit later about how it’s grounded in older layers of history, but as a mainstream academic narrative, it emerges in late 19th century Germany as a philosemitic story. In other words, it is one that’s sympathetic to the Jews, sympathetic to the plight that they suffered. Though it’s presented by members of the German historical school of political economy, it’s grounded in the work of Jewish historians and in the interwar period, and particularly during World War II as the Holocaust is happening. In the latter part of the war, there are a number of Jewish émigrés who take up the narrative and really refashion it in relation to the Holocaust.
That narrative has become the one that we find in history textbooks and in Jewish museums. It’s a common piece of history that a lot of people know. But one thing to point out about this narrative is that it’s dropped down in different places at different times. As a historian who looks for uniqueness and contingency in historical events, when I see the same narrative being used in three different places and periods of time, I become very suspicious. Medieval England and northern France in the 13th century is one locus for this narrative. Another is 15th-16th century Italy, and the third one is early modern Germany and the court Jews. It can be tweaked in different ways, but that’s essentially the narrative. I should point out that I call it a meta-narrative in the sense that the postmodern philosopher Lyotard uses it–as a grand narrative, or a master narrative. For me, that signals the fact that it’s a kind of framework. It’s the box within which we’ve been asking questions, but we’ve never questioned that box itself, or that framework. Once we do, I think that new avenues of exploration will open up.
Scott Ferguson: Can you tell us why you see this box, this meta-narrative, as so problematic and so damaging?
Julie Mell: It shares a lot of assumptions with antisemitic stereotypes. In fact, it’s really just an inversion of those stereotypes based on a liberal economic point of view; that the development of markets, commerce, et cetera, is positive, and therefore Jewish moneylending was positive. My own research has attempted to show that most Jews were not moneylenders, even in the very places and periods where we thought that most Jews were. Most of the Jewish population were quite poor. My target audience are really Jewish studies scholars, the Jewish public, Jewish museum curators, and so on, who are not antisemitic at all. Attempting to start there and change the stereotypes that are still very strong and still circulate really widely today is the best place to begin to revise this narrative. Hopefully once textbooks are rewritten and so on, then it will gain more purchase.
Scott Ferguson: You’re saying that both the positive and the negative version of this story, just to clarify, end up being equally problematic because they don’t challenge the meta-narrative. Is that correct?
Julie Mell: They both assume that Jews are in a way non-European, that they’re different, they’re other. It is the idea that Jews perform this modernizing role in the economy and that there’s some inherent connection–and this is framed differently by different thinkers–between Jews, Judaism, and money.
Scott Ferguson: This actually leads us nicely into the next question we had for you. We’re certainly interested in your project for pushing back against a problematic history of the Jewish people and this problematic figure of the Jew. But it also speaks to our interests in heterodox economics and Modern Monetary Theory, also known as neochartalism, which understands that money is a medium that arises–as another great myth of modernity goes–not from private barter relations between individual people, but from a centralized governance project, whether that project is the Catholic Church in the High Middle Ages or the emerging modern nation state. It struck us that your critique of the Jewish moneylender as an origin of modern European political economy really speaks to and helps flesh out the Modern Monetary Theory critique that barter is somehow this asocial, external, interpersonal activity that begins on the fringes of society and comes into the middle rather than actually starting as a governance project. And so, how much did you think about this barter myth while you were researching and writing your book? Has your thinking changed as you’ve come into contact with folks like us embracing your work and beginning a dialogue?
Julie Mell: That’s a great question. There are two different ways I would go with that. In attempting to figure out where this narrative came from, and what was inaccurate about it, I was led back into 19th century political economy and then to the school specifically known as the German historical school of political economy. The way in which they describe the historical development of the economy is in discrete stages. You generally go from barter to money to credit, that would be the most simple kind of schema, but you can get more complex ones up to seven or eight stages depending on which thinker you’re looking at. I became aware of the fact that the very same intellectuals that were thinking through the historical development of the economy were also those that were thinking about Jews as modernizers, or Jews as having an instinctive capitalist instinct.
Some of the names would be Wilhelm Roscher, Werner Sombart, and Max Weber, who carry the historical school forward and are bringing forward Marxism into academic discussion. For all these thinkers, the two really worked hand-in-hand; that is, the stages theory of economy or what you refer to as the barter myth is closely linked to this narrative about Jews as moneylenders. With the stages theory, you need an agent that’s going to propel movement from one stage to the next. And in this construct, Jews are defined as a non-European people–they’re on the outside, they’re already civilized. There’s an organic folk model for how nations evolve and develop that follows a pattern of the human life cycle.
The Jewish population is seen as older, more advanced, and mature. They then teach the Europeans, tutoring them in trade and economy and so on. If you have this stages theory, you also have to have an outside agent that’s going to propel that change forward. That’s how I saw the two linked, and they became disjoined in the 20th century with critiques. There are people who have critiqued the Jewish narrative. And there are a whole bunch of medieval historians who created the field of medieval economic history, who critiqued the stages theory. I’m going to pause there because you asked me to connect this to MMT.
Scott Ferguson: I think the connection to MMT is that MMT insists that there is no outside. Money doesn’t begin outside, it’s always internal to a centralized governance project. It seems to us that there’s a kind of homology here in critiquing the Jew as outsider who’s not, and money itself as outsider that’s not. And it seems to me that the Jew then becomes–we’ve long thought about the Jew as scapegoat–the Jew becomes here a scapegoat for an emerging modern Europe’s incapacity to deal with its own monetary technology as internal to itself.
Julie Mell: Yes, absolutely. The second part of my intellectual journey is that, in my initial interest in this relationship between the household and market, I lean on the Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi. Not only in The Great Transformation but particularly the work that he did later with the group of ancient historians, sociologists, and anthropologists at Columbia University in the 1950s was really an inspiration for the way in which I have approached the economy. If David Graeber is the one who coined barter myth–I’m not sure if that’s the case–he is also influenced by Karl Polanyi, because there’s a whole anthropological tradition influenced by him. What he says is that the economy is an instituted process. There’s no such thing as a separate market, rather it’s created and constructed by governments. And The Great Transformation that he wrote during the last years of the war has a brilliant study that argues that even the free market per se, is only possible when it’s constructed by governments and when it’s closely regulated by governments. What emerges out of this tradition of work around Polanyi is what’s known as substantive economics. And that is redefining economics not as money markets and trade, but rather as the substance that we require as human beings for continuing our lives, for improving our lives and so on.
In that way, it’s quite in line with MMT. What I was seeking in the dissertation–and it remains an open question for me, I haven’t solved this problem yet–was to find a way to narrate a European economic history from this Polyani-esque model, or economy as an instituted process, which gets rid of the barter myth. Maybe not surprisingly, a lot of medieval historians have contributed to that rethinking of money and coinage, people like Marc Bloch and others.
Maxximilian Seijo: In your book, you spend quite a bit of time on the medieval period and you suggest that the Jewish moneylender myth originates in the medieval period. I wanted to ask what the main social, legal, and cultural features that you find in medieval society are and how we’ve repeated those structures and perhaps the meta-narrative of those structures in a way which is wrong? To those ends, you started to mention some historians who’ve dealt with the medieval question of money and antisemitism. In your book, you draw on Giacomo Todeschini’s critical analysis of these medieval Franciscans and find the roots of modern market-based society in their thought. I was wondering how your story about medieval times and the Jewish medieval moneylender myth develop or even complicate his narrative?
Julie Mell: Let me respond to Todeschini first then maybe I’ll go back to those social-legal features of medieval society that do initiate this association between Jews and usury. I see Todeschini’s work and my own as a pair that fits together beautifully, although I did most of my work before I encountered his work and I have not yet really integrated his thinking into mine. He goes at it from the angle of intellectual history looking particularly at those new kinds of Christian movements like the Franciscans in particular that are defining the best kind of Christian life around the ideal of voluntary poverty. It’s those individuals who not only are the radical preachers and movers of medieval western Christianity at the time, but they also become the great intellectuals in the universities, so they’re the thinkers that are initiating new kinds of ideas about the economy: what are the limits, what’s permissible, and what’s impermissible?
My own work goes at it from the angle of, on the one hand, Jewish history and traditional economic history, and at the same time from 20th century historiographic tradition and how it’s been constructed. I think our work really sits well together. What he really brings out is that one of the things that has emerged by the 15th century is the notion of the good merchant over and against the bad usurer. This is depicted brilliantly of course in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice where you have those two ideals pitted against each other.
What is it that makes one different from the other? It’s not actually the economic activity that they’re doing, but it’s the valuation or the assessment of the value of their activity for the community as a whole. So a merchant is seen as a good merchant because whatever he’s doing economically benefits the Christian society as a whole. And the usurer, whether Jewish or not Jewish, is seen as bad because their economic activity is harmful to the good of the community as a whole. These labels of merchant and usurer are also deeply rooted in religious notions so that only a true Christian can be a good merchant. Jews in a way are already set up to be usurers by virtue of being non-Christians and the major non-Christian religious minority in Europe at the time.
We can still see these kinds of associations in the use of words like trust which can have an economic meaning, but also has a moral meaning as well. This intellectual history piece of it is really important. What strikes me most about Todeschini’s work is the way in which he’s uncovering the medieval Christian and theological roots of many of our basic economic concepts.
If I may, I’ll go in a little bit more about usury here. One of the misconceptions is that in the medieval period–and here you’ll hear it again, a stages theory–this is a narrative I do not agree with. In the earlier medieval period, there was a church dominated society, an agrarian society, and the economy was static. In the 12th and 13th century, we see what medievalists would refer to as a commercial revolution happening spurred by our cultural revolution and demographic growth and so on. The church now is put in a position where they can no longer hold the line against usury, but they have to give in to the market. So we have a model where market and religion are in conflict and tension with each other. Religion has to give way to the progress of a market society.
In fact, what’s happening is really different. There isn’t a prohibition on usury except for clergy until we hit this high medieval commercial revolution. It’s the very same Franciscan Dominican thinkers who hold up poverty as the ideal Christian life who are thinking out both what is permissible economically and what is not permissible. So they are the ones that really flesh out and create a concept of usury at the very same time that they’re creating all kinds of ways to loan and make a profit on that loan that’s perfectly legitimate. So they actually invent the term interest, and that has no negative moral implications to it. They are actually two things that go hand-in-hand. I know that other medievalists that work on this would agree with me here. Usury is really just a label that marks out someone as undesirable. Usury should not be understood as lending money on profit. It goes back to the first part of your question about social, legal, and cultural features that lead to the development of this inception of Jews as usurers.
I’ve told some of the story in terms of the Franciscans and the intellectual thought that’s going into economy. It’s not a surprise that the outsider, not one of the faithful who’s not a believer, would be tagged as a usurer. There is at the same time a development of anti-Judaism or some might even call it antisemitism in this high medieval period that I think runs together and crosses over with this economic discourse. So Jews are seen as an internal enemy during the period of early rampant crusading, who is dangerous and who wishes to harm Christian society out of sheer malice. One of the ways in which they could do that potentially is through their economic activity.
Having said that, one of the things I try to emphasize to other medievalists is that actually, there’s a whole church campaign against usury and that campaign is actually not focused on Jews. It’s focused on Christians and only later is it applied to Jews. Even in this notion of the Jewish usurer, we can see that stereotype developing in the 12th and 13th centuries. You have great intellectuals like Benard of Clairvaux who says, you Christian merchants are Judaizing because of your usury. Even in that context, the principle campaign against usury is not directed towards the Jews. I think actually our perception of Jewish usury is really shaped much more by a modern context of political antisemitism from the late 19th century on.
Maxximilian Seijo: And to heighten the point that you’re making there, money is central to the construction–and there are a lot of inversions along the way–of the way in which modernity thinks about Jews and how antisemitism has developed. I think what you’ve suggested and what Todeschini has suggested as well, is that the drawing of the line of what the community represents and who’s allowed in it, a lot of that work gets done in this period and money is central to that question. And politicizing that is, from a historical perspective, really important. I wanted to ask you, given that, how did the myth about the Jewish medieval moneylender change shape under modern fascisms and totalitarianisms? Specifically, how did the Nazis mobilize and reshape it?
Julie Mell: There’s a really good example if I can go from the macro down to a micro example in the thinking about court Jews during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. There’s a rather famous novel by Feuchtwanger written about one of the most famous court Jews known as Jud Süß. It spurs a lot of other accounts. There’s a first archival study done by Selma Stern. There’s a play version and there’s a film made in England in the late thirties which is a very sympathetic portrait of Jud Süß as a man. It’s the same narrative then that is taken and appropriated by the Nazis and made into one of the most viciously antisemitic of films known as Jud Süß. I don’t know if it still is today, but for many, many years it was banned in postwar Germany–something that was thought to have been seen by millions of people, to have been shown at Hitler Youth Evenings and so on. If you look at those two films, you could see in the second one that Jud Süß is demonized actually as a rapist, who is after the beautiful German blonde. So there’s a demonization and other kinds of accusations that are brought together there. To me, it’s a really striking example of how this kind of narrative can shift.
Another example would be the fact that Jews in Nazi Germany were demonized both as hyper-capitalists and as rabid Marxists. How can you be both at once? The figure of the court Jew is interesting because in the 30s, it really became a locus for these struggles between antisemites and German Jews over the question of Jewish emancipation and Jewish inclusion in the nation. The reason they become a touchstone is that they are seen as the precursors of emancipation in the sense that they were allowed to dress without a distinctive Jewish garb to participate in court society. These individuals became quite wealthy and a number of them, but not all of them, would shed their religious practices and certainly their religious dress and become art patrons and collectors and so on. They figure in a period when integration wasn’t yet allowed as an integrated precursor for Jews as a whole. But that very same kind of image of them then becomes for Nazi thinkers a great example of how Jews can present one face to the world and yet are something else.
So that falseness and fakeness makes them become a negative locus for that mover, for that modernizer that’s lying outside. And I haven’t done this work, but I would speculate that perhaps the Nazi ideas might be grounded in that notion of a stages theory of economic development in which all studies go through these stages in the same sequence arriving at a fully developed economy at the end of that role. The Nazi thinkers are drawing from that German historical school, which itself was quite philosemitic. They’re drawing the notion of the Jew as that outside agent that is affecting the modernization.
One of the underlying elements–whether it’s philosemitic or antisemitic–is that the notion that court Jews, Jewish bankers, and in the medieval period, Jewish moneylenders represent the Jewish community as a whole. They stand in for all other Jews and therefore one can say “the Jews” had a powerful economic role in Europe. So that’s one piece of it. And then we have to pay attention also to the fact that there’s a process of racialization that’s going on where Jewishness is being redefined not as a religion but really as a racial national essence which is alien from European peoples and alienated from European political and class structures.
Scott Ferguson: I want to give you a chance to potentially put something into relief that feels to me at the level of the larger stakes of your project and your claims. We’ve long known that the Jew as a figure has played the role of a scapegoat. And that figure, that phantom, if you will, played a central role in various moments in the rise of modern antisemitism, and maybe we could say culminating with World War II. But how does your rethinking of the myth of the Jewish moneylender and taking us outside of that meta-narrative frame rethink the critique of Jew as a scapegoat? How would you speak back to the Jewish community, Jewish studies scholars, and maybe Marxists who will also use the trope of the Jew as scapegoat? I’m curious if you have any thoughts about that.
Julie Mell: I would start there with Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. I’m not sure I can pull a quote out of my head about this, but she starts off with a critique of both the notion of a Jewish scapegoat and the notion of the Jews as all powerful, and she’s seeking for some way in between those two. An article that I’ve been working on goes on to unpack the way in which she appropriates and transforms the other narrative as the Jewish moneylender in order to answer that question. My reading of her is quite critical at that point, but I think her initial starting point, which is to firmly reject both the scapegoat and the notion of Jewish power, is right on.
My own work, I think does both, and it leaves us in a kind of uncharted terrain in terms of thinking through how we describe the variety and the diversity of Jewish economic life. How do we narrate Jewish history from the medieval period through the early modern ghettoisation expulsions to the emancipation, opening up of European life, and the integration that happens later? I think that’s really an open question. My lovely life companion likes to joke that my book writes Jews out of history. My argument does argue that Jews are not central in terms of economic development and that the scapegoating function is not, at least, a real part of the narrative.
There are points where it can be a kind of imaginary accusation, but it’s not real because most Jews weren’t in fact moneylenders. It leaves us at a point that’s more ambiguous, ambivalent, and therefore also to immediately integrate with political action. I was at the Association of Jewish Studies Conference in December, and one of the things that we discussed in the panel that I was on called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice was a pamphlet that they had put out that uses that narrative in order to explain antisemitism, explain Jews to non-Jews. It’s used for good purposes and yet I think it’s dangerous because it’s easy to flip it back on its head.
I wish I had a good answer for what we could substitute as a new narrative in order to answer that. It does’’t have the kind of defensive force that the concept of scapegoating does have behind it. This is part of my argument too: why this narrative became so important in the 20th century and something that people hold on to so strongly is that it really provided the best support against antisemitic rhetoric. My own feeling is that, where we are in terms of a post-Holocaust moment and the absorption of the Holocaust in North America and in Europe, has put us in a different place. Since the moment I was at the end of the book to today, the whole world has changed. There are ways in which the antisemitic rhetoric with new kinds of fascisms is rearing its head. With my more nuanced, careful, and ambiguous history, maybe the post-Holocaust setting that we’re in isn’t going to be strong enough to allow that to be sufficient.
Scott Ferguson: I would say in defense of your project to what your companion says is that you’ve made Jews no longer the center of history. To me, the great achievement here is that you’ve actually integrated Jews into history. It’s not simply that you leave us with ambiguity; you leave us with an important critical ambiguity. Also, you’re telling us that there is no outside and there are no figures that are outside. Political economy and social life and culture [are] complicated and contested. If we want to avoid fascistic tendencies or the rise of fascistic forms of governance, we have to fully reckon with our mutual inter-relatedness and our social interiority.
Julie Mell: That’s beautifully put. I have said on an intellectual level that the revision of our understanding of Jewish history has really important implications for our understanding of economic history more broadly, which I think you all responded to in recognizing that my book speaks to common interests with the MMT movement.
Maxximilian Seijo: I’m currently working on a project on the Jewish 20th century critical theorist Siegfried Krakauer. And he has this figure for what he calls himself–the so-called “wandering Jew.” He calls himself extra-territorial. Intellectual theorists have thematized this in talking about critical theory and his ideas, but it seems to me what your work shows, and you bring it together with heterodox economics, is that there’s really this reassertion of intra-territoriality and the ways in which they don’t eliminate or annihilate difference, but the different experience of being a Jew in the 20th century or throughout modernity and earlier. And I think, as Scott was saying, and as your work has shown, it really isn’t a difference that is categorical in a sense that changes the way in which we need to think about what our community is and what it represents and who deserves power and a voice in that community. Obviously, we would say everyone because everyone is already inside it. I think your work really puts into sharp relief the way forward that you were alluding to. In integrating Jews back into history, I think having that in mind is such an important idea.
Julie Mell: Thank you for that comment. That’s a wonderful way to see my own thinking expanding far beyond borders that I had imagined.
Scott Ferguson: I want to shift gears a little bit and go back to some of the origins of Modern Monetary Theory and chartalism which has a long history that takes us all around the world, to the medieval period and before. But in its high modern form, it was originated or re-originated by this figure, Georg Friedrich Knapp who happened to not only be a late 19th, early 20th century German, but he also belonged to the German historical school that is so responsible for philosemitic myth of the Jewish moneylender. And you may or may not have encountered or thought all that much about Knapp, but his claim was that money is a creature of the state. Implicit in what he was saying was that there is no outside, or there is no external private barter relationship that then is somehow absorbed by the center of the community. I was wondering if you’ve encountered Knapp in your work and if you’ve given much thought about that?
Julie Mell: I have encountered Knapp in my work as one of the representatives, as you said, of the German historical school, one of the younger ones of the German historical school, in particular, in terms of his model of the stages of economic development. After I was at the recent MMT conference, I returned home and I was reading up on neochartalism and discovered the surprising fact that Knapp is actually a basis for chartalism, someone that’s spoken about and referenced in chartalism. I was really struck by that because it seemed to me quite contradictory. I don’t have an answer for you today, but I have a hunch. It’s an issue that would be a great piece of research for an article. My hunch is that he is both. The way in which chartalism fits into his model–I’m speaking off the cuff here, I haven’t gone back to look at his stuff–it fits at the end of that sequence of economic stages. It’s a manifestation of the modern form of economy that’s at the end of the teleological trajectory. That’s my guess. If I’m right about that, then I think this tension between the barter myth and chartalism raises some critical issues for neochartalism and for MMT more generally. Those are really around the issue of whether the critiques of MMT scholars are applicable only to nation state models or whether they can be extended beyond the nation state. I think that’s a really important question to take up, not only because the EU still exists but because we’re at a moment in history where we still have strong nation states, but intellectually the thinking is moving to transnational models. That’s where, in terms of our political structures, where we’re headed. What do you think?
Scott Ferguson: I think those are all important and interesting tensions to think about. I will say that in my own experience, the history of chartalist thinking sometimes gives up when it comes to history. They’ll put chartalism in the present and then it gets lost at the origin. Not in MMT 101 soundbites for the public, but in a lot of the actual scholarship, there is a less positivistic and much more elastic understanding of what is meant by a state. We don’t mean a modern nation state. You might have noticed that I kept using the expression centralized governance. That can be overlapping, it can be nested, it can be called different things, and it can be organized in a number of ways. This is to get away from the disembedded barter, the disembedded market, and those sorts of imaginaries.
Maxximilian Seijo: I had done a little bit of reading a while back of Sombart talking about Knapp. Maybe this will illuminate something about Knapp that’s maybe only implicit, but it seems like Sombart seems to draw a distinction between commerce money and state money. There seems to be this sense that, as your intuitions suggested, there’s a contradiction happening and it’s happening simultaneously. There is both commerce or commodity money and state money and they both come from private actors who implicitly are often Jews and the state, and they’re trying to straddle this on both sides in order to not allow for the incoherence to actually change the way that they’re thinking–at least Sombart in this case–about the question of where the money comes from.
Julie Mell: That’s a wonderfully illuminating comment. It brings to my mind a distinction that I find troubling that runs alongside that one, which is the distinction between credit for consumption and credit for production. If the second is highly valued and the first is not, which ignores–to get back to Karl Polanyi–the basic definition of economy, which really hinges on consumption. We’re not economic actors in order to make profits, but in order to live.
Maxximilian Seijo: Right. And that consumption is inextricable from the production and the allocation of credit for such production.
Julie Mell: Exactly.
Scott Ferguson: For a final question, if we could come back to the present moment, I don’t think anybody here is an expert political scientist or political theorist who has mapped all of what’s going on right now across the globe. But as you noted, we’re at a moment where we’re seeing the rise of various kinds of neo-fascisms. And you mentioned that those neo-fascisms, some of them include and are turning upon the negative figure of the Jew. I’m curious if we could just zoom in a bit. Do you have any examples of that? Are there other examples of rising neo-fascisms that don’t call upon the figure of the Jew? And if they don’t, are they maybe working in the same kind of meta-narrative and frame, but without naming the Jew specifically? I’m just curious if you’ve been thinking about the present geopolitical context.
Julie Mell: I have. I would say that a number of events in Hungary are particularly disturbing. The neo-fascism there has gone much further than we’ve seen in other areas. I’m having trouble thinking of a specific instance right now that would be a good example of the antisemitism there. I’ll turn to the other side of that question. Do I see it appearing in other ways in other places? Yes. I think the figure of the Muslim and the Muslim immigrant is a much greater target than Jews in these new movements. It’s a really interesting question for me, whether there are patterns, tropes, or meta-narratives that have moved from antisemitism to this anti-immigrant language or anti-Islamic language. Yes, in certain ways, but I don’t think it’s the economic ones there. I would say the immigrant is posed as an internal danger to society in the same way that the medieval Jew was. The immigrant is seen as one that’s taking something that belongs to the citizens of that nation, that’s somehow a threat, one that’s heightened through the association that’s made unjustly between Islam and terrorism. There are similarities structurally that I see there. I see very much immigrant populations, not only the Muslim population, but immigrant populations in the US and Europe in a very similar situation to the Jewish population previously in history that is marked out as the unwanted outsider and so on.
Maxximilian Seijo: Well, Julie Mell, thank you so much for coming on Money on the Left.
Julie Mell: Thank you all so much. I enjoyed the conversation.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: Alex Williams (audio engineering), Megan Reilly (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art).