Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson joins Money on the Left to discuss his Modern Monetary Theory-inspired “cli-fi” novel, The Ministry for the Future (2020).
Throughout his distinguished Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke award-decorated career, Robinson has repeatedly offered visions of the future that are grounded in, and speak directly to, urgent present problems. These stories, including and especially his widest-known work in the Mars Trilogy, simultaneously condemn dominant logics and chart paths for the possible redemption of humanity as a terraforming (and terra-destroying) species.
In Ministry for the Future, Robinson explores a more proximate future on Earth, one characterized by massive climate catastrophes, widespread political violence, and economic super depressions. Most critically, the novel tests out a messy, but nevertheless workable way toward collective climate restoration, fashioned by an improbable assemblage of intergovernmental agencies shadowed by clandestine black wings; ecological activists armed with untraceable drone technologies; heroic scientists; environmental preservation groups; and Central Bankers.
Money, too, plays a central role in advancing Ministry’s fraught utopian story of climate restoration and is crucially anchored in an MMT-driven framework for equitable and sustainable political economy. In our conversation, we hear from Robinson about the influence of MMT on his thinking in and beyond his work in Ministry, as well as about how this thinking aligns with and deviates from previous political and literary engagements with utopian literary form.
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The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity
Scott Ferguson: Well, Kim Stanley Robinson, welcome to Money on the Left.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Thank you, Scott, good to be with you. Hi, Billy, hi, Maxx.
Scott Ferguson: It’s so exciting for us to have you here with us. We obviously want to talk about your new novel, The Ministry for the Future. But maybe to get going, you can gloss what the book is about, what the story is more or less trying to wrestle with, and maybe also put it into dialog with some of your previous work? Is this revisiting old problems, whether conceptual or aesthetic? Are you taking on new things in new ways? How would you characterize it?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, Ministry is the end of a six novel sequence for Orbit Books, where I’ve been working with editor, Tim Holman. I think of them as a unit of sorts, although they keep circling around similar questions. As to your topic for Money on the Left, in terms of finance, every time I learn enough to make it through a novel and have a discussion of finance, the very following months I learn new things that revamp everything I had previously thought. New York 2140 was very important for me. It was written maybe in 2015 or 2016. I can’t remember exactly, but it was in a zone where I was learning a lot and I decided it would be fun to try to do the financialization of sea level rise. At that time, I knew some New York day traders. I had met a crowd of people who could give me actual advice or technical help in finance. So for the first time, I felt like I had more of a handle on it and had done a lot of reading. With New York 2140, the whole push is to create, artificially, a crash by way of imitating 2008, but by everybody not paying their bills at once and crashing the private banks, who would go into a liquidity freeze. I was basically replaying 2008 with the idea that the federal government, with a sympathetic head of the Federal Reserve, would nationalize the banks in the way that we nationalized General Motors after 2008 to keep them going. But also they became owners, so that this would be the nationalization that would stick. It would be like, and this is an analogy I only learned later, the way that the British Treasury took over the Bank of England for purposes of fighting World War II and financing it.
Now, the moment I finished New York 2140, I began to learn that that was nearly a meaningless gesture, that nationalizing the private banks is already a done deal if you consider the central banks to be nationalized, or it to be a private-public consortium. I hadn’t fully understood. So, I began to read intensively on central banks. By the time I got to Ministry for the Future, it seemed to me that the key to having a good 21st century and to dodging a massive extinction event and mitigating the worst effects of climate change basically came through this concept of carbon quantitative easing. There would be quantitative easing, but it’s not just money created and given to the banks. It would be targeted in its first iteration into the world as being for good climate work. It is sometimes called a “carbon coin.” We can talk about that. I’m not sure of the necessity of any special designation for the money that gets created if that first spending is [for] decarbonization. I don’t know if it matters what you call it. But that’s how Ministry came about.
In the larger picture beyond finance, I wanted to try to do everything to describe the next 30 years in a kind of best-case scenario history in which one could still believe. I had a limited case in that [the story] needed to be disorganized looking and chaotic and painful. That’s part of the believability because it seems to me it’s going to be that way. So, that’s how it came about. I got an awful lot of help from other people because I am an English major. I was an English major, but I still am an English major. That’s really my focus and my skill set. I love being an English major, but it means, in other realms, I like doing the thing that you do when you’re writing sentences about topics you don’t fully understand. I just spoke to some science journalists and I realized that that’s a very similar skill set to mine in that you have to be able to craft sentences that are coherent even to people who know their subject well better than you. It’s kind of a tricky skill to have if one can ever have it.
Scott Ferguson: I like that you put conceptualizing and apprehending ideas in terms of being able to craft sentences about it because I think it’s defamiliarizing. I think if you are a writer, like all of us on this call are, it makes perfect sense because you realize that writing is thinking. But, maybe, if you’re not a writer, that’s a little unsettling to hear, or a strange way of putting it. Now, I was wondering, just to follow up, if you can talk a little bit about some of the formal experimentation in the book? You’re playing with time and space and perspective. At one moment, the voice of the book is a photon. At another moment, it’s a kind of anonymous third person. And at [still] another moment, it’s in the first person.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Thanks for that. [This] puts me back in a zone where I actually know what I’m talking about: construct[ing] a novel. That actually is not something that is very easy to articulate, but I know I can do it by the fact that I see the book is there. Sometimes, I don’t come to the right form for the content and that is painful, but sometimes I do. In this case, I feel I did. To try to give a global picture and yet still be a novel: that’s a stressor of a double bind in effect. I saw that before in the Mars novels, The Years of Rice and Salt, and 2312, which uses a Dos Passos format from The USA Trilogy. I’ve found forms to be able to tell global stories where you’ve got individual characters. You’ve got the society, and you’ve got the planet all in mutual interactions. This time, I had two main characters only, Frank and Mary, for a pretty long novel in a dynamic between the two of them–a really peculiar friendship based on Stockholm Syndrome and Lima Syndrome. I found that to be transgressive and spooky, even a little scary, but interesting. They made me tell that story.
I had a skeleton that was ordinary characters in dramatized scenes in the way you think of novels being written. Because, most novels are dramatized scenes, include a little bit of the narrator’s summary, especially in the 19th century, then another dramatized scene, and then summarization. So, there is dramatization-summarization as a kind of binary, one or the other. One of the innovations in modernism was to get rid of the narrator and the summarized section and drop into a subjective consciousness that you are in real time. Stream of consciousness is nothing but dramatized scenes. That got kind of reified by English departments in the postwar period to the point where it began to look like so-called “literary fiction,” and definitely put the scare quotes around that one, because this is a very stupid term and designates a false consciousness. Literary fiction is stuck in these dramatized scenes, one after another, until the end of the book. Well, I hate that in multiple ways.
In this book, I did have the normal dramatized scenes. I also had the eyewitness account. I had multiple forms, as you mentioned. But the eyewitness account was the great discovery for me because eyewitness accounts are a genre of their own. I had not quite understood that until I read a whole bunch of collections of them. What they are is a retrospective looking back, usually with an interviewer. Someone is being asked to recall something that they saw that has been retroactively designated to be important enough to get eyewitnesses to tell what they saw. Herodotus does this. In fact, speaking of rhetoric, which we were before, the Anabasis by Xenophon! Oh my God, what a master of rhetoric. He presents the debates as to what they should do in their desperate straits as they cross Turkey with enemy forces, and he wins every debate. He presents all sides. But at the end, they decide that Xenophon is right. They’re going to do what he suggests.
All these eyewitness accounts became the beating heart of this novel as a formal structure. Then, there are riddles. They come from Anglo-Saxon literature. “It” narratives, like [from the perspective of] the carbon atom, come from the 18th century. There was the “it” narrative in England, a very nearly useless genre, that’s why it died. But I resuscitated it. All these things together, I guess, in a jumble, are to give some pleasure to the reader, because this is a book about climate change, heat death, and finance. The pleasure is obvious. So, there’s the game of forms. And with the game of forms, I realized that the eyewitness accounts were maybe as important as the Mary-Frank story. They’re what lifted it for me, personally. The book has had a really wonderful response. I think that the eyewitness accounts from refugees, revolutionaries, common citizens in Hong Kong, all over the world, and then coming back to Zurich for the main story, that’s one of the keys to its success. At least for me, that’s definitely the case.
William Saas: To wind our way back to finance, we’d like to invite you to revisit with us, comment on, and perhaps expand upon something that you write just about at the midway point through the book. If you’ll permit [me], I’m going to read a snippet here: “What a science. They worked all over the world, including in the Ministry for the Future’s offices, trying to calculate the gains and losses of this event in some way that could be entered into a single balance sheet and defended. But it couldn’t be done, except in ways so filled with assumptions that each estimate was revealed to be an ideological statement of the viewer’s priorities and values. A speculative fiction.” I’m just going to keep it simple, could you say a little bit more about what you mean by this comparison?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, earlier in my career, I used to routinely bash economics as a kind of power play, fake science like astrology. The court astrologer tells the king that “it’s meant to be,” that “the king is the king.” Economics tells the governing party that it’s meant to be because the economic numbers add up when they’ve all been faked. I was extremely critical. Then, a couple of readers got back to me and said, “You know, you’re a little harsh on economics and it’s too bad you don’t know more about it. It’s not good to be dismissive of something you don’t know enough about to have it properly judged.” I naturally bristled, like “Oh, wait, of course I know!” But I didn’t. I’m a slow thinker, but I have a lot of time to think because I’m just here in my house or in my yard writing. I’m thinking, “Oh my God. You know what? This person is right. These people are right. I don’t know enough to be saying what I’m saying.” So, I embarked on an education. And everybody’s an autodidact, so I’m not embarrassed about that.
I got some help from really good teachers of economics. I began to destrand it all and understand that it is a social science with a quantitative aspect. We need measurement in modern society with the differentiation of labor. With eight billion people, quantification is not a bad thing, measurement is not a bad thing. So, where’s the problem with capitalist economics? It goes right to the root. You need radical, root-like solutions to get down to the root. What I now call axioms, like in Euclid’s geometry, you take as fundamental and then build off of them. We’ve got tons of theories, or let’s say axioms, and then hypotheses, theories, and proofs. They even have proofs. There’s a lot of math involved in Euclidean geometry. But this is the great thing about non-Euclidean geometry. You can say, “Well, parallel lines meet at the horizon of infinity. So, do the math assuming that the parallel lines are going to meet somewhere.” Well, it sounded crazy until relativity came along and suddenly non-Euclidean geometry is describing spacetime better than Euclidean geometry.
By analogy, not being a mathematician or an economist, I began to realize that it was the axioms that were the problem and that economics is generally capitalist analysis. An economics department at a university is doing a quantitative analysis of capital and the capitalist system without challenging it, without doing the speculation of, or say a projective geometry, where you direct from one plane down to another and things are distorted but the same. That’s projective geometry. There’s no such thing as projective economics. So, then you have to track back historically to political economy. Political economy is not economics per say. All of your universities have departments of economics, but none of them have a department of political economy because that’s a dead letter. That was a 19th century problem that was solved by the ascendancy of capitalism.
With all this, as it became clearer and clearer to me, I began to think the problem is not with economics as a social science and system of measurement and quantification. That’s not where the problem is. It’s a low level of political economy. It’s the assumptions that we make. Should there even be inequality? What if you factored in that the equation has to end in human equality as an axiom? Well, then a political economy would naturally have to change. This was hugely helpful to me. And to tell you the truth, I’m really describing about maybe twenty five years of reading and thinking and writing novels that are only gradually approaching a better sense of the whole problem. But a novel doesn’t necessarily have to be economically astute to succeed as a novel, thank God.
Maxximilian Seijo: I especially appreciated some of the sections of the novel that talk specifically about what you call these axioms–as someone who did an undergrad in neoclassical economics and was forced to sit through environmental economics classes that specifically thematized these axioms. Like with the discount rate, there was this sense of a diminishing marginal rate of return on the future tense. I appreciate the way you’re thinking about speculation as a literary matter on these terms, too. Just to ask you to spell out thinking quantitative in line with the sort of qualitative ways in which you think about the future in this book, I see such deep resonances in the way that you’re sort of playing in between these spaces a little bit at some level. I was wondering if perhaps you could elaborate on this, perhaps using the discount rate example as a key axiom?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, thank you for that, Max, because that is a good way to get into it. The discount rate is simply picked out of a hat, but it has enormous consequences. Even your standard economists will admit the higher the discount rate, the less you value the people of the future, the lower the discount rate, which could go right to zero, the more the future generations are treated equally to us in economic calculation. The reason that economics doesn’t have a zero discount rate is that there’s going to be many billions of future humans. So, if their rights to our behavior are the equal to our own, then we should be doing everything for them and nothing for ourselves. So a discount rate gets applied. Famously, Nordhaus won the pseudo Nobel Prize for suggesting a four percent discount rate, which is really way too high if you want to treat the future generations as worthy of our consideration and action in the real world now.
I don’t know how he defended it but I suspect it gets technical in ways that I couldn’t follow. There are many economists that would say a discount rate of zero is perfectly appropriate. There’s also the case that it doesn’t have to be linear forever. I’ve heard it both ways. This is a very interesting economic debate that I can’t enter into. Should the discount rate be zero for the seven generations to come and then rise and get sharper so that you reduce the infinity effect? Or, should the discount rate be kind of high now and bell curve off into zero after seven generations? The seven generations is just a term out of Indian philosophy and ethics, saying that the way to treat the intergenerational issues is to consider the seven generations before and after you as being like sacred ancestors and descendants who have to be treated as if they were your immediate family. That runs it off a couple of hundred years in each direction.
All of these considerations were comprehensible to me, in both the math, which is as simple as can be, and the implications for political behavior and for what sometimes gets called ethics or values, etc. One thing I would do as a device, and this is very much a science fictional writing device, is one character knows. That would be Dick, the economist. One character doesn’t know but needs to know. That would be Mary, the head of an agency who is a bureaucrat but not an economist. So then she’s naively asking questions that would be similar to my own. Then, the character Dick, and I have a friend Dick who did this for me, would answer the questions. Sometimes I would do like you guys and be on Skype sessions taking notes and writing furiously to capture his insights, but also his wit so that I could have a funny exchange. That was another formal innovation. Let’s not dramatize that scene. Let’s turn it into a dialog with just the essence so that in two or three pages you can do it without telling what they had for lunch and where they were sitting and whether it was a sunny or cloudy day and other novelistic things you would do to make it a scene. No, let’s just scooch it to its information.
Scott Ferguson: That’s great. I have a question that I think follows nicely on what we’ve been talking about. One of the takeaways from the last few minutes of our discussion is that when you are doing economics in the orthodox way and just tracking and buttressing capital, you’re working with axioms that you’ve reified and naturalized. Other kinds of speculative, heterodox approaches to political economy [by contrast] precisely open up those axioms and make them into political variables and dramatic struggles and potentials for imaginative transformation. I’m a visual studies scholar, so I read literature but I’m not an expert in literature. But it seems to me that in the history of modern utopian thinking, or modern utopian literature, one of the key tropes is something that you’re a former teacher Fred Jameson talks about, which is the elimination of money, the escape from money, or creating an enclave or commune away from money. I know that in some of your other books, you’ve experimented with that mode. But you’re not doing so here. I’m wondering how much of a challenge this was? What do you need to push back against in order to construct a novel that has a kind of realist utopian impulse at its heart, but is really pushing against the kind of standard utopian anti-money gesture in so much literature?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m thinking about utopia as typically written as a literary genre, and as well as maybe a strand of political thought. But really when you say utopia, you’re talking about some narratives. Famously, there is the great trench. What that means is, in Moore’s Utopia, they cut a trench on the peninsula so that their utopia became an island. Essentially, what I call it in my own discussions of it is you get a fresh start. It’s also kind of what I’ve called a pocket utopia, a relatively small society where everybody agrees on the rules. This exists as a modeling exercise more than a political project, so that you write a utopian order to say, “Well, if everything were right, then this is how it would work.” But the trench is missing history. How do you get from here to there?
Indeed, the bad sense of utopia, the common connotation of the word being impossible, idealistic, perhaps overrigid, and, in any case, not going to happen, is what utopia kind of means in common language. Well, if you still want to do it, I’ve been interested ever since I finished Specific Age around 1990, and it didn’t have a history of how we got to this better world except for some very weak gestures. My friend, Terry Bissonette, who has written utopian novels of his own, said “Stan, how did they get there?” I said, “Well, I don’t know. Lawyers did it. They made the laws.” He said, “Stan, there’s guns under the table and you need to take that into account.” That was kind of the springboard for the Mars trilogy. So two thousand pages later, I had the story of the bridge from the current economic capitalist disaster to a better society over 200 years of invented historical time. Fine, but it happened on Mars.
In Ministry, I thought, “Well, let’s start now.” And I mean literally now. I wrote it in 2019. I fuzzed the moment of the heat wave and put it in the mid 2020s, because I fuzzed all the dates to give it some imaginative leeway. But effectively, it is starting right now. We’re in neoliberal, late capitalism. We got money and we got eight billion people. I understand this non-money thing. I actually have lived for two months of my life in the same way that Orwell claimed to have lived in an anarchic state for a couple of months in Barcelona. I’ve lived for two and a half months of my life in Antarctica as part of the National Science Foundation and money wasn’t an issue. When you were there, you would go into the cafeteria and there would be food on offer. You would take it and you would eat it. They gave you the clothes, they transported you around, and you were also in housing that was provided. It did feel different. It was quite beautiful. It does give you ideas that the people who talk about, “Couldn’t we just get rid of money,” it’s not as crazy as it first sounds. Because, if you live it, you realize that maybe in some post-scarcity situation where everybody was on the same page it could work. Everybody in Antarctica is very energized and high on life. There’s a high esprit de corps. They know that they’re lucky to be there and they’re happy to be there. Well, that’s not a common state in normal life. So, I don’t want to dismiss the lack of money problem at all or the proposition as such. But it’s not where we’re starting.
Another economic axiom that is taken for granted in capitalism is “efficiency is good.” In fact, efficiency is seen as synonymous with good. “Oh, that’s very efficient” is like saying, “Oh, that’s very good.” I’ve been proscribed from using this comparison, so you’ll have to censor me if you want to. The Nazi gas chambers were very efficient, but they weren’t good. Again, it’s axiomatic. What is the efficiency aimed at? If you’re optimizing resources to get a certain effect and that’s defined as efficiencies, then there’s good efficiencies and bad efficiencies. Say you could get food, water, shelter, clothing, electricity, and health care for free as something that society provides, like you’re in McMurdo Station, Antarctica. All that would be true. Probably, it’s not efficient because you’re not stressed by money worries. People tend to only eat as much as they need to get to satiety and then they quit eating. It’s not obvious that the restraints of money are what keep people from overindulging. So the efficiency question is messy and an axiomatic verb rather than a noun that needs to be questioned. To get to a true, proper economics, you would have to say efficiency is not necessarily good and then you’d have to interrogate that very closely.
But in the meantime, to get back to the substance of your question, I needed money because it’s here and I needed it aimed in the right direction. That’s where you get to MMT and carbon quantitative easing and the whole complex of ideas about money. Let me add one last thought, because it’s kind of a new thought that’s just occurred in the last week or so. It’s not in the books. I call myself an American leftist and my books get claimed by people all across the left spectrum, and even in parts of the right that don’t understand who they are. People will say the Mars books are libertarian or they’re liberal or they’re radical or they’re anarchist or their anarcho-syndicalist. I mean, really, everything has been claimed. Communist: I’m often described as communist and, of course, an ecosocialist. What I’m now thinking is these are time horizons. People on the left are always stabbing each other in the back for not being correct in a doctrinaire sense. The notorious infighting on the left covers details of policy, belief, and theory. There are more knives in our back from fellow leftists than from right wingers who just don’t even care about us and don’t engage in that argument and just think that we’re all ludicrous.
So in the famous infighting on the left, which can lead right up to the Spanish Civil War, where the two leftist parties killed each other and then the right trumped them, I’m thinking now what I want to say is that today I’m a member of the Democratic Party trying to get this stimulus bill passed through a recalcitrant Senate. That’s my politics today. Five years from now, I want to be a social Democrat in a system very much like the Scandinavian countries. Ten years from now, I’d like to be in democratic socialism, and it would take huge elements from China of all places, but be democratic and totally cool. Two hundred years from now, I’d like to be an anarchist where power is completely leveled off and horizontalized. Power and wealth would be zero. But it’s a timeline, right? That’s why my novels can be taken as being in agreement with almost any left political view, because I’ve set my novels out at different timelines and I have different characters with different beliefs. In the case of Ministry, it is a novel about the next 30 years. So, money is a big player.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I guess I’m going to risk complicating, maybe pushing you a little bit on your NSF example. Money is still there. There’s still federal financing that’s providing publicly all the shelter, food, goods, and services. I guess, for us, we’re interested in making money not seem like some kind of neutral or natural or innocent technology yet nevertheless trying to take some of the stigma and stench off of it that we would argue comes from capitalism and orthodox economics, in order to mobilize it and open up our imaginations. I don’t know if you have a response to that.
Kim Stanley Robinson: No, I see your point. And indeed, Antarctica is a pocket utopia. It’s a bubble in the larger world of capitalism. It’s interesting: you could even imagine that all of NSF, a nonprofit that is funded by the public by way of taxation and allocation of Congress, is a bubble of its own where they are not trying to make a profit but indeed are spending a surplus. Then, there’s also the US armed services. I’ve just been thinking about that recently, talking to people in the armed services about their project of trying to protect America. They too are a gigantic nonprofit and in a bubble of their own that’s outside of capitalist realism. I would agree with you that in a modern technological society where there’s a division of labor and eight billion people, you probably need a medium of exchange and you probably need a storage of value. These are two classical purposes of money. It’s not a huge list, but that’s two of them. And you probably also need something to mark those things. So, my leftist utopian project does not include the elimination of money. I don’t find the whole “money is the root of all evil” argument to be at all meaningful.
I’m interested in this argument that to say there was barter before there was money might be false. Never could you go into a market and say, “I’ll give you my donkey for four onions.” This never worked. This is an argument made famous, I think, by David Graeber. Money actually came about as a way to tax or as a marker. Even writing was just markers on a tablet to show how much you owed so that once you get a differential in society with people doing different things, you need a medium of exchange to mark that you’ve done certain things and then other people have done other things. Then, you get some of what they did and they get some of what you did. And it’s never commensurate. There’s never any physical commensurability between the two. So you have to make up a speculative fiction, which is money itself. “Well, that’s worth ten dollars.” This is, of course, where people instantly jump in and say that’s what the market is for, which gets you into a different part of the argument. I don’t even want to go there because I’ll get confused.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I think we’re on the same page. I will say, just to go on the record, the profit motive is an axiom, right? It is not ontologically wedded to money, to keeping tabs, to measuring, and to planning. On this podcast, we would be all for the radical reduction, if not elimination of the profit motive.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, me too. And this is economics that I found extremely useful. Profit is an index, which is to say, a multiplicity of incommensurate factors that have been crunched by a somewhat ad hoc pseudo mathematical process into a single number by which you can judge it. That’s what an index is in finance. And indeed, like the heat index is the combination of heat and humidity, profit is how much can you claim to have at the end of the cost of making something versus the sale of it to someone else. So, profit is an index. I would claim that (a) it’s a bad goal in itself because it forces you to try to get more out of the system than you’ve really put in. So, it’s a kind of a perpetual Ponzi scheme. But also, (b) it’s never accurate in the first place. The numbers have to be fudged to make any profit work.
Here, I’m just going straight to Marxism in that profit comes out of exploitation of other people and of the environment. That’s what it’s an index of. Now, when in a capitalist economy, you say “Oh, we made a profit of 20 billion dollars last year,” that’s like an index of damage done to people and planet. So bragging about it, “Oh, we made a profit of X last year,” once you flip the valence of how you think about profit into an index of damage done, it becomes quite horrific. Then, you’ve got a gross world product that is seventy five trillion dollars a year approximately. And that’s disregarding the dark pools and the fictional money of financialization. But even in the real economy, is that seventy five trillion dollars of damage taken out or is that just monetary activity? Are they saying they’re seventy five trillion in profit or are they saying they’re seventy five trillion of payments back and forth amongst people with profit as a froth off of that? I don’t even know because, again, GWP is an index as well.
William Saas: Coming in a slightly different direction and returning to the book, we were talking about rhetoric before so I feel like the inflection of this question might change just a little bit. But a core tension in Ministry for the Future that we’ve detected, and I think we’ve heard you talk about in other contexts, is that between language and rhetoric and violence and coercion. If you don’t mind, I would once again like to read a selection from later in the book that I think gets nicely at this point. Then, I’ll follow up and ask a more direct question after that.
Here it goes: “Were they fools to have tried so hard for words in a world careening toward catastrophe? Were they fools to keep on trying? Words are gossamer in the world of granite. There weren’t even any mechanisms of enforcement of these so carefully worded injunctions. They were notional only. The international order of governance being a matter of nations volunteering to do things. And then when they didn’t do them, ignoring the existence of their own promises, there was no judge, no sheriff, no jail, no sanctions at all. But what else did they have? The world runs by laws and treaties, or so it sometimes seems. Someone can hope. The granite of the careening world held in gossamer nets. And if one were to argue that the world actually runs by way of guns in your face, as Mao so trenchantly pointed out, still, the guns often get aimed by way of laws and treaties. If you give up on sentences, you end up in a world of gangsters and thieves and naked force, hauled into the street at night to be clubbed or shot or jailed. So the people who fought for sentences, for the precise wording to be included in treaties, were doing the best they could think of to avoid that world of bear force and murder in the night. They were doing the best with what they had.”
Just real quickly, I like the strong whiff of using the available means of persuasion in any given situation–Aristotle there. But shortly after these paragraphs we learn that these people are fighting for sentences. The people develop a metaphor that becomes critical to the remainder of the story, the metaphor of a developing nation of future unborn generations across species. Being a developing nation that deserves protections and that that metaphor is an important component of the case for funding the Ministry for the Future. Then, of course, the Ministry for the Future, led by Mary Murphy, plays a critical role in this sort of more optimal outcome that the book ends up describing at the end. That’s a bit of wind up to ask maybe a cheeky question. But would you say, in terms of your own perspective, that you’re more Mary Murphy than Mao when it comes to these questions? And if so, today, can you point to any examples or give us any kind of indication of where you find hope and inspiration in terms of your faith in rhetoric?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I think both Mary and Mao are right in their different perspectives on that issue. So it’s both, and not an either or situation. That description of people came from me talking to the people who wrote the Paris Agreement that got signed by all the nations in 2015. It’s very specific to that project. They fought like crazy over every comma in that document. One cadre of thinkers and writers of the Paris Agreement, because it’s a group document like the American Constitution or any other group treaty document, believed it was crucial to include climate equity. So, they got that included to the point where it’s fundamental to the Paris Agreement that everybody has shared but differentiated responsibilities in the nation-state system. They even made a Schedule A and Schedule B. It’s easy to read the Paris Agreement. It’s only about 18 pages long. I recommend it to everybody. It’s extremely impressive and thought-provoking. The developed nations signed on knowing that they were signing on for more financial responsibilities than the developing nations. Again, there is even a list of Schedule A and Schedule B, or which kind of nation you are.
It’s so interesting that people fought for that and all of the nations signed on to it. I still think that the Paris Agreement was almost miraculous, almost like something out of my novels I wouldn’t have dared to have written because it would look too utopian and facile as a solution. And yet, it’s real. I love it dearly as validation that the world is onto this problem and it’s not any one group’s obsession. It has become the world’s problem and acknowledged by all. So, you gotta love it. Every word in common matters and got fought over. I was told stories of people on subway rides going to and from these meetings to write the Paris Agreement. They’re talking about their ulcers and their headaches and their divorces and their bankruptcies. They really went out there to get the document that they thought would work best.
Against that, you have guns in your face. But most of the time, you have a state monopoly on violence. You have rule of law. Of course, many people would immediately bristle a state monopoly on violence. That’s why the state is so evil, et cetera. But it’s like Winston Churchill’s comment about democracy. If you don’t have a state monopoly on violence and you have a general unleashing of violence on the world, you’re definitely screwed. In the nation state system, a state monopoly on violence and rule of law, these are the kind of weak reeds that we’re holding against murder in the night and gangsters taking over. My poor genre, science fiction, and it’s dystopian fantasies, that if only we had a breakdown and got back to gangsterism, then everything would be better. Well, this is just ludicrous to me. With all of these things combined, we are in hegemony. The Gramscian notion of hegemony is crucial here. We don’t have to have people pointing guns at us to wear our masks. But we’re in a hegemonic system where everybody agrees to do it because they think that rule of law is justifiable enough to hold to it. And the guns are notional, or they’re in reserve. They could be brought out. The National Guard could beat on you if you protested or if you broke into the Capitol, presumably. But in the meantime, it’s like money itself. It holds together in a kind of shared social fantasy that we all agreed to abide by.
In that very fragile, hallucinatory state, societies in rule of law and in the Paris Agreement say, “Well, we’re going to decarbonize faster than capitalism would usually allow in the turn of technologies and always going towards more efficiency, which is seen as more profitable. We’d decarbonize in time to avoid torching the planet. Therefore, we’re all going to agree to avoid torching the planet by making this infrastructure change faster than usual.” Lots of parts are left out. How do we pay for it? What happens if you don’t comply? We’re going to find these things out. But meanwhile, what a mighty effort by a bunch of international diplomat class people–technocrats, bureaucrats, and diplomats. The group of people who put this thing together were intellectuals working for their nation states but they were doing so as if they were cosmopolitan internationalists, as if they were inventing an H.G. Wells style one world government thing that would sort of save the day by everybody agreeing. I find it quite marvelous and inspiring.
Maxximilian Seijo: It’s interesting, I think your book is operating within this commitment to international law in this way that you’ve described with the Paris Agreement that it could be worse, like naming how perhaps it pushes against some more orthodox or established assumptions on this question. In the way at least we came to reading your book, it seemed that this commitment to law as a constitutive domain of social imagination and then, as I think we were just discussing, a discursive struggle, is paramount to the story of speculation that you’re trying to tell. On our reading, it seems to push back against, I think as you have evoked, conservative obsessions with the rule of law as well as liberal fantasies of legal formalism that perhaps could be said to naturalize markets. Then, I think crucially, too, certain tendencies even on the left, in some spaces, dismiss the law as a mere superstructure. I know you mentioned Gramsci, so I think that sort of covers certain aspects of that. Taking this global sense of law and the way that the global internationalized dependence, or the shared fate of the book and how it’s situated around the climate crisis, could you perhaps reflect on the way that these tensions play themselves out in the book and then in your thinking?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, sure. There’s a critique of the Paris Agreement that says, “Well, it just doesn’t go far enough.” The carbon reductions that everybody agreed to in 2015 are inadequate to save us. Indeed, it’s been calculated that they only go about half as far as what is truly needed. And I would argue that that’s true. It doesn’t matter that that was the best deal they could get at that time. Then, as people see the need, the promises will ratchet up and that process has already begun. Of course, there are counterexamples. There’s the Trump US, [which allegedly pulled out of the Paris Agreement]. There is, [however], no mechanism to leave the Paris Agreement. That was just his usual bullshit. It’s good that we’ve claimed that we’re back; but indeed, we never left. So, there’s all sorts of possibilities for backsliding. But what I’m saying is it’s a built platform to have this discussion. Before that, this was seen as a zero-sum game. If my nation wins, your nation loses, or, especially, if my nation loses, then your nation wins. And there’s a strange sense in which the nation- states, especially the big petro states like Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Iran, and Indonesia, are all like terrorists with an explosive vest around their waist. They’re all in the same room and they’ve all got buttons with which they can blow up the room and everybody else in it. Well, it’s kind of mutual assured destruction. They got two different kinds of destruction.
One, you could blow up the world’s atmosphere by burning those fossil fuels in a race to destruction, trying to get the last trillion dollars out of it. I calculate the value of the fossil fuels that we need to leave in the ground as 1,600 trillion dollars. This is entirely notional. I just took the price of oil as being halfway between the price of coal and natural gas at the time I did this calculation. I got my wife to check the figures because she’s a mathematician and I’m not. It blew my mind how big the number was. But, on the other hand, if you’ve got an economy of one hundred trillion dollars per year, then sixteen hundred is only sixteen years of economic activity. It’s not that mind boggling in the world scale. So, I became comforted that that’s the real price that has to be left in the ground. But nation-states have already claimed this. Private companies have it on the books. Nation states have it as resources that are financial resources. The companies especially have already lent money [based on] it. They’ve used it as collateral. The whole thing is a house of cards in the usual financialization way. They’ve used this fossil fuel valuation as collateral for further loans and speculations. The whole thing is sitting on money that will never be made in the first place–not by burning fossil carbon, not if we want to stay alive.
So the bizarreness of the situation has been brought home to me that money comes into play here as a social fiction, or let’s just call it a real thing. But these nation states need to know that they’re going to get paid, which is only to say that the money still stays valid without, like Venezuela has got one million percent inflation right now, blowing up society’s sense of money. That this money is going to be produced even with the fossil fuels staying in the ground. In a situation like that, I guess I would say the usual left wing knee jerk reaction is like, “Oh, well, rule of law, big deal.” “Law always comes last,” someone told me. First, you have praxis. You have the guns in your face. Then, you pass some laws to justify the power system that exists. Well, I’m not sure I agree with that. I actually think rule of law is a powerful thing that everyone buys into because they see that the alternative would be much worse, that you get to a war of all against all.
Maxximilian Seijo: It’s so interesting, when you were answering that question, it sort of popped into my head this sense of the division of labor that you discussed before. Dare I speculate with an analog, it seems like the way you were discussing this necessity of a medium of exchange and payment maps interestingly onto this necessity for an international legal medium of dialog and creation when it comes to these treaties and other things, given the fractal nature of the division of interest and labor needed to go into decarbonization. I’m not sure that’s much of a question as perhaps more building onto this matrix of analogies and metaphors and that you’re spelling out in the book.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, one thing that might lead us to your comment is MMT’s notion of the job guarantee. The government, and therefore the money maker, functions as the employer of last resort, such that you have full employment. It kills wage pressure. Whatever the government decides to be the minimum income that they give to the entry worker will become immediately the floor. If that were a living wage, then, well, you would be strangely close to what one might think a communist economy might run like. In other words, it would not be the market establishing the wage levels, but in fact, the social compact of government itself saying this is how much people get paid as a minimum and no lower. It would need to be adequate. At that point, my notion in terms of wage parity is, to keep it simple, one to ten.
Recall that it was one to three in the beginning days of Chinese communism and then it quickly changed to one to nine. In the US Navy, it’s one to eight. So we’re talking the poorest to the richest in an income system. One to ten is easy to keep in mind. If one is adequacy, as I say in my novel, then ten times adequacy is luxury beyond need. But it’s an easy number to keep in mind and it keeps ambitious people from going nuts. Just very roughly, for the sake of the numbers, you might as well say one hundred thousand dollars a year is the floor, as it’s so simple. Indeed, a lot of us are living on one hundred thousand dollars, or a little bit less or a little bit more. It’s kind of a middle class. It’s actually kind of high. But say it’s what you need if you are going to really have security. Call that adequacy. Then, you’ve got a million. You can’t make more than a million a year. And why would you need or want to?
The one to ten ratio sets a kind of boundary and I explore these ideas all the way back to Pacific Edge, which I wrote in 1990. There, I think it was ten thousand dollars to one hundred thousand dollars, so it’s like a ten times inflation rate in 30 years. That’s probably pretty accurate. In any case, you see where I’m going with this, the idea that the division of labor is such that many of our essential workers, and we found out they were essential in the pandemic, are getting paid shit–not enough to live on. It’s what Graeber called “bullshit jobs.” Well, this is disgraceful and it’s an immediate sign that the society is malformed and has a touch of evil. What I like about MMT is it doesn’t just insist that we can make more money and then the printer goes brrr and you solve all our problems. The job guarantee is a double pillar in MMT as I understand it. It is just as important as the other parts. That’s what makes it, to me, a game changer, or something to back with enthusiasm. It’s no longer monetary theory; it’s political economy. And the fact that it was capitalized in the textbook that I read, the initials you use so commonly, it was always just JG, JG. What’s this JG, job guarantee? Well, it’s great to see it.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, and we sometimes will call it, certainly political economy, but also a monetary theory of production. Production is constitutive as much as talking about debt and credit and the structure of what we classically think of as monetary relations. No, it’s how are we producing our world together? That’s what matters. The question is how is money orchestrating that production, that participation, that distribution, etc.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, and also what the job guarantee does is put paid to the idea that there’s not going to be enough jobs. This is a bad science fiction story that automation is going to get rid of jobs. I don’t know what people think automation is, but they maybe have never gardened or something. The things that automation can’t do, and I proposed this once in a conversation with Danny Kahneman, the great behavioral psychologist from Israel, and he was clueless. He thought that automation is going to solve our problems. He says, “Oh, there’s not enough plumbing jobs to keep people occupied in work that couldn’t be automated.” This is totally wrong. I don’t know what he’s thinking. The pseudo Nobel that they give themselves for economics. This is not a real Nobel Prize. Why [do] they keep giving these awards to themselves when they’re actually ignorant of the world outside of economics, of real work and real machinery? It’s kind of astonishing how siloed they are and even bunkered into a world of abstractions where they are not getting it.
In fact, landscape restoration, saving the biosphere, decarbonizing fast enough, and even growing our food, these are not automatable. The jobs you can automate are precisely the jobs that human beings ought not to be doing in the first place because they’re too repetitive and boring. Of course, you want an automated car manufacturer and then there will be lots of humans working on the machines, the robots, that do the automation. There’s more work to be done than there are humans on the planet. It’s an easy case to make. At that point, the corollary to that is every person on the planet is necessary to civilization working and should be living at adequacy and should not be in fear. This is the leftist program. To see it spelled out as you have been describing as MMT, as an economic system rather than just a moral position, is a beautiful thing. I probably scrambled around hunting for such a thing and getting really mad at economics as a discipline for maybe 20 years before MMT kind of popped up.
Scott Ferguson: Us too.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Good! Well, I’m not surprised, because, where was it? Actually, when I say “where was it,” it’s important to point out and to be fair, the co-op movement within capitalism, cooperatives and the co-op principles which you can find on Wikipedia, if they were enacted, were an early gesture towards an economics of justice. And [they are] not to be pooh-poohed at all because it’s just that they haven’t gotten much traction in the larger political economy of capitalism.
William Saas: MMT seems like it’s had a profound effect on your thinking, and it certainly plays a profound, critical role among several kinds of phenomena or practices or new ideas in Ministry for the Future. We’ve been talking about it a bit. I would like to hear a little bit more about your sort of first encounters with MMT. After looking for 20 years, you find it. Where did you find it? How did you receive it initially? And where are you at with it today?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, I can’t remember when I first ran into it. It was recent. I would say that New York 2140 is unaware of it, and I was writing that in 2015 or so. So that just means that I’m flubbing around trying to cobble together these novels and not an organized thinker or researcher. I have no help in that regard and I don’t want any help in that regard. So, when it came in, when I first found out about it, it must’ve been in 2018 or 2019. Even when I was writing Red Moon, which was very much an attempt to understand Chinese political economy, I don’t think I was becoming aware of it, but it was irrelevant to the attempt to describe China, which I would say is an impossible attempt for outsiders and insiders. That is very much of an improvisation, the Chinese political economy. I’m super interested, but I no longer feel I can comprehend it very well. I gave it a try and it was fun, interesting, but ultimately, I had to crawl away from that. So, it has to be maybe 2018 or 2019 where I really became aware enough to start reading and start researching.
At first, I thought it was simply Keynesianism. It was just rebranded Keynesianism, which, there’s a lot of truth in that, but it’s not the whole story. MMT is like Keynes. They say, “Look, you can make money. The government can make it and aim it.” But it goes beyond Keynesianism in that Keynes would insist that when times were flush, when the economy was going well, then you needed to restock government by way of taxes and make sure that you had enough of a surplus so that the next time you needed money you would have it. It’s like you were talking about at the beginning: X amount of dollars that you need to bank up when you can. People have taught me that, in fact, Keynesianism was never really applied. That even in the flush times, they weren’t bothering to restock the coffers of the government and it didn’t crash the money. One of the reasons why MMT probably will work is because Keynesianism worked without the opposite side of the output-input depression flush times scenario.
But then the other thing I think that MMT has added is precisely this job guarantee that we’re talking about. And to give Keynes credit, he was imagining that, of course, you would employ people. Government would spend that money by employing people. It just wasn’t spelled out as a guarantee. He wanted capitalism to work. He realized it, I think, from being really realistic and being good at praxis, in that his thoughts became government policies. How did he do that? He tried to craft them to fit within preconceived notions of what’s possible. And people were desperate enough to say, “Well, we don’t have any ideas, let’s try Keynes’ idea.” So, he was a truly great economist. But MMT is an advance into trying to deal with our modern era and it took me a while to gather that.
William Saas: Really quickly on that, one of Keynes’ less successful proposals or policies, was the Bancor, or a supranational currency. I wonder if you’ve thought of that as you were devising the carbon coin or Carboni in Ministry for the Future?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I sure did. First, I read a paper by Delton Chen that’s online. It was about carbon quantitative easing and the creation of, for one ton of carbon saved, you get one coin. Then, it is backed by the central banks and long term bonds and tradable on the market with ordinary currencies. You just let it float and make sure it doesn’t get speculated out of existence and defend it. That was also stimulative. Then, I began to read more. Eventually, by trying to understand Keynes better and just reading more about his history as an economist and as a political actor, I ran into the Bancor and it made me laugh. This was a Bretton Woods proposal that failed because the Americans didn’t want it. And it was really more about trade surpluses. It was an attempt to help the war-shattered countries and an attempt to keep America from eating up the rest of the world, while it had this temporary advantage of being the only non-destroyed superpower. It was the American representatives that said “absolutely no” to that. So, it got tossed aside.
And indeed, you have to go through G.A.T.T. [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] and then the International Monetary Fund to get to the idea of an international bank that would help the poor countries out. But this was always an imperial project for the American dollar. Enormous amounts of harm had been done in the world by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the service of American dominated capitalism. It’s not been a good thing. Now, the way Keynes had conceived of the bank, or if you were poor and you had a trade deficit, you would get some money out of this international bank to float you a little. It was sort of like his stimulative spending within nation states. But he [held] the opposite, too: if you were making too much money in a trade surplus, you would pay a surcharge and even have it taken away and given to the international bank. This is where the American Secretary of Treasury just freaked out and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Why would an empire give away its money to its poor little subjects? I mean, this is ridiculous.” So, they shot that down.
Now, the Carboni is different because we’re all in the same boat. As I said, we’re all in a room with explosive vests around our waists. Although, the American financial empire is still thriving, as I understand it, such that even the so-called Chinese challenge is in true financial/monetary/capital terms, rather small. But they have a lot of people. And they have the productive capacity that they’ve become the working class for the world on purpose. This is differential currency rates. You can pay them 10 cents an hour where you’d have to pay an American ten dollars an hour. So, they’ve grabbed that on purpose and are very canny financial actors in the world. But the US dollar and US capital still are a gigantic, dominant force. That means that if the US were to get smart, do smart things with MMT–with Bernie Sanders, with the Paris Agreement–taking our role and leading the way–this is like a big “if”–if America were to be smart, the world would be in better shape.
William Saas: I should say that, when we were talking, I remember the Bancor was actually covered in Ministry for the Future, so thank you for not pointing that out. But yeah, it’s definitely there.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I felt that, in Ministry for the Future, one of the games I could play was just to do the expository dump that I’ve become famous for and that I had already become notorious for killing people with exposition and with, what in science fiction gets called, “info dumps,” because there is a crowd of people my age who like to think that they were smart and cynical about knowing how fiction worked. They were naive and ignorant and their ugly names have stuck. I’m the great info dumper. I decided in Ministry I was going to dump right on their carpet, so they could not clean their carpet.
Maxximilian Seijo: We’re going to start probably wrapping up here, so we figured we’d note, since writing your book, we’ve experienced a number of climate and social and health disasters. From COVID-19, to the California wildfires that have become a sort of yearly habit, to even just recently with the Texas weather-related power and water crises, we were wondering how these events have impacted your thinking around the larger climate crisis? Then, relatedly, given any of these problems, or renewed foregrounding of these sorts of crises, have you been taking them on in your current or future works?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I think that climate change is now generally regarded by a large percentage of the public worldwide as real and a problem. And the human propensity for saying, “it can’t happen to me,” is a great cognitive bias so that you can go on with some courage even when people are falling around you left and right. It’s an old cognitive bias. It doesn’t work anymore for climate change in a way that it used to because millions of people have been hammered one way or another. Fires, floods, gigantic storms, and now the big freeze, those things are going to keep happening. Everybody’s aware of it. Everybody’s thinking, “Alright, I as an individual, I’m going to not have electricity. I’m going to freeze. I’m going to starve. I can’t solve this individually.” This is, I would bet, the rational response of a big swath of people. Then it’s like, “Oh my God, does that mean I have to trust the society? Does that mean I have to trust politicians? Does that mean that my family and my children are going to have to rely on the social compact working this out? Dammit.” The truth of that is not a happy truth. Maybe, not for any of us, but especially for people who thought that they had individual agency as a creature on this planet. That was always wrong. But now, it’s become so wrong. What I think, though, is that that and the pandemic, where everybody was scared at once that they might just die in the next month for no good reason and in a way that medicine couldn’t stop, that was a little electric shock.
It’s like everybody has stuck their finger in the wall socket and gotten a shock. And some people just get more rigid and hunched down and go, “I don’t care. I’m going to live like it’s 1995 until I die. Hopefully I’ll die soon.” This is the subconscious thinking of resistance. But a lot of people are saying, “Dammit, we actually have to have a functioning government. We have to have the social compact work and solve this problem because it’s bigger than me.” Well, it’s a moment of opportunity. I read something from Milton Friedman. He said, “You know, politicians don’t have any ideas. And so, when they come to a crisis, they’re going to look around for ideas. So, we just lay the ideas on the floor underneath them”. The moment that stagflation came, which is a minor problem but it freaked everybody out. Keynesianism isn’t working. And so, in the Reagan-Thatcher moment, they’re looking around for ideas. “OK, we’ll use this free market idea. The market solves everything. It’s like God. What a good idea. It solves everything.” And politicians are like “OK, great. I believe it. It validates my own sense of individual liberty, blah, blah, blah.” It’s got an ideological construct behind it. It’s got a set of laws that can be enacted that institute it. And we’ve had a 40 year experience of it, like an experiment in social engineering run on the whole world. And it’s a mess and it doesn’t work.
Now what I’m thinking is, for groups like yours, like everybody working on this and MMT, to put those ideas out and around for when a moment comes. We’ve got a new administration. They’re looking around for ideas. Boy, we’ve got a crisis–a climate crisis, a jobs crisis. People are angry. There’s a precariat. We claim to represent the people as the Democratic Party. We’ve been doing a crap job. We better do better or else we’re going to have another maniac come in. So, where are our ideas? That’s where these new ideas can be picked up. Let’s try it. And it doesn’t have to be reified into a Green New Deal. You can say, “Oh, Green New Deal, bridge too far.” Then, everything that’s in the Green New Deal, you could just pass as individual legislation. It wouldn’t be that different from the original New Deal. I’m seeing a moment of opportunity, a kind of tipping point into some kind of new political economy that actually copes. Obviously, that’ll be a wicked struggle. But it’s good to talk it out. It’s good to have the tools in hand and have canny people. Canny, young intellectuals like Margaret Mead are the people who change the world. Nobody else changes the world. I’m not sure that’s true, but you might as well act as if it were true.
Scott Ferguson: Well, that was beautifully put. I think with that, we’re going to thank you, Kim Stanley Robinson, for joining us on Money on the Left. This has been an incredible conversation.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, thank you, guys. I love it that you’re working on this stuff. I’m just coming to an awareness that podcasts are a real thing and that they’re pretty great. This is all new to me. But I’m happy to be part of it. So thanks for having me on. Thanks, Billy and Scott and Max. Yeah, let’s gather in a few years and see how things have gone.
William Saas: Sounds great.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: Maxximilian Seijo (audio editor), Richard Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art)