On the political force of MMT

From a non-sovereign perspective

By Andris Šuvajevs
A couple of days ago, the British economics commentator, Grace Blakeley, called people who advocate Modern Monetary Theory “naïve.” This was following a public radio appearance earlier that same day, in which she described tax breaks for the wealthy as taking money directly from those who claim public benefits. An MMT perspective objects to this line of argumentation since the actual or technical monetary process does not at all operate the way Blakeley describes it. Since what MMT calls a monetary sovereign, such as the UK, can issue currency without borrowing (or taxing the rich more), MMT proposes a policy that simply says ‘let’s provide more income to the poor’. The outcome is the same as in Blakeley’s approach, but the journey is different – MMT proposes to get rid of the conditionality that inheres in a policy position which rests on ‘let’s tax the rich in order to fund the poor.’ Importantly, MMT advocates tend to be wholeheartedly in favor of taxing immoral and abnormal levels of wealth – they just treat it as a separate policy issue.

It strikes me as surprising that people on the left become so heated and genuinely insulting toward each other in discussions regarding fiscal policy. There is often bad faith on both sides. Blakeley calling MMTers naïve is patronizing and quite simply arrogant, discarding the scholarship of many truly admirable thinkers. However, I often find that some MMTers are equally hostile when trying to make the point that taxes do not fund the government. Blakeley is obviously making a rhetorical rather than an academic point. She might (perhaps) agree with the technical analysis of the British monetary system that MMT provides, but her interest lies in formulating effective political arguments that resonate in British society. Thus, much of the online bickering between the British (Corbynist) Left and the global MMT crowd is often pointless as both sides speak on different conceptual levels.

Nevertheless, there is a conceptual disagreement between people who generally believe that public spending is in some way dependent on private savings and people who see it exactly the other way around. This disagreement concerns the issue of power. There is a reason why Blakeley disparages MMTers as naïve – her perspective is that MMT has no idea how the political world operates and that MMT is nothing more than a technical description of the monetary system. It is precisely on this point, however, that Blakeley—and the part of the British Left that she represents—demonstrates their worst short-sightedness and bad faith.

Namely, it cannot imagine a world where the metaphysics of trade-offs is not the basic principle of politics. I am all in favor of making effective political arguments that are not necessarily based on MMT, but arguments such as the one Blakeley is making are indicative of a fundamental world-view based on scarcity and zero-sum relations that unwittingly reinforce the very logics it supposedly tries to overcome.

In a way, MMT has a more advanced theory of power than contemporary British Marxists in breaking with the normative vision of societies that are discursively structured in classes and other forms of hierarchy. The British Left immediately (and in bad faith) accuses MMT of denying that classes or hierarchies exist. MMT, on the other hand, sees such blanket disavowals of monetary authority as entrenching structures of inequality. The worldview of the British Left is structured as a struggle. The MMT worldview tries to re-define the meaning of the struggle itself.

I suspect that one reason the British Left is explicitly antagonizing in its rhetoric has to do with it being continuously sidelined from power for the last, I don’t even know how many decades. The British ruling classes have been so overwhelming in their political victories that the British Left probably thinks it cannot afford to spend time on redesigning its conceptual toolkit. Admittedly, it is not easy to make public policy based on rather abstract ideas of power such as the one MMT professes.  However, it has been my own professional experience that political arguments based on MMT can be incredibly empowering. I live in Latvia and this is a country that has adopted the euro and thus has no “monetary sovereignty” as it is commonly defined. Latvia has no formal influence over the interest rate, bond-buying programs and whatever else the ECB is doing. It is a country for whom “MMT does not apply” as critics often suggest. In reality, MMT is the only way forward if Latvia is to achieve any meaningful socio-economic development.

Let me give you some examples of the political utility of MMT. To begin with, the neoliberal doctrine of the financially impotent state whose capability is dependent on the entrepreneurship of the private sector has been a central feature of the post-soviet macroeconomic consensus. It is useful to remember that MMT itself emerges in conditions where political arguments on both sides of the debate assume that the state is a secondary institution in the force-field of capitalism and the fundamental scarcity of money is a fact of life. It is precisely this assumption which enables financialization and privatization of social life and public goods – MMT emerges to challenge that, providing nuanced analyses of the monetary system which then form the basis for the political arguments against the privatization of the state. It is quite remarkable that the British Left fails to acknowledge this making one wonder who actually is naïve here.

In Latvia, as in other Eastern European, post-socialist countries this consensus has imposed heavy social costs. Since the restoration of independence in 1991, the country has lost nearly a quarter of its population and the decreasing population rate is projected to continue well into the next decades. The only public policy response has been nationalist-conservative exhortations about women needing to give more births and moral panics regarding same-sex partnerships. The lack of public policy is rooted in fear that surrounds any economic projects undertaken or supported by the state. The yearly reduction of debt-to-GDP ratio is de facto state policy even in conditions where Latvia enjoys a relatively small debt-to-GDP ratio. Even if Latvia can ‘afford’ to spend more, it will not do so if it increases debt by a few percentage points in the subsequent fiscal year. Meaningful public investment in social infrastructure that includes the wages, salaries or stipends of teachers, students, social workers, etc. is effectively unthinkable. The median wage in society at large after tax is 749 EUR. Latvia’s integration into the global market immediately turned it into a peripheral country that supplies low-to-medium value goods and services, and regularly posts a trade deficit. The austerity of the last decade has decimated its long-term prospects as the absence of social and industrial policy has meant the gradual evaporation of doctors and teachers alongside a discombobulated private sector that is left to its own devices without support or strategic guidance.

It is within this sorry mix of affairs that MMT provides a powerful political alternative. MMT helps articulate the view that public debt is a form of investment and thus does not have to be feared at all. MMTers often criticize the Eurozone for its harsh and nonsensical fiscal framework which countries like Latvia currently fully embrace. Yet, almost paradoxically, Latvia could enjoy more freedom of action if there was the political will to use the financial security afforded by the eurozone to small open economies. Latvia could invest in its social infrastructure without having to rely on its export earnings and without having to impose a heavier tax on its (very small) well-earning segment of the population. Latvia could create financial institutions like a state development bank with the mandate to provide credit to specific industries that carry out the objectives of the green transition if there was a will to do that.

Without an understanding of MMT, these policies are politically impossible. If public investment (in which I include salaries, stipends, and pensions) is made conditional upon tax hikes on the well-off, you may as well just fold and retire. Furthermore, MMT helps to advance the public discussion by suggesting a focus on available resources rather than ‘available money’ – if the gap between necessary and available teachers is recognised as a problem, policy has to be focused on bridging this gap rather than reducing public debt despite everything else collapsing.

At this point, the conventional arguments pop up – ‘Well, what about the interest rate?’, ‘What happens when the debt grows and the servicing costs increase? Won’t we have to sell our national assets to pay it off?’ These are legitimate concerns in a country whose politicians willingly sold its soul to the IMF in 2008. It is precisely because Latvia does not politicize its own monetary agency and reliance on financial markets that these arguments carry the weight that they do. Nevertheless, without MMT one cannot properly address them. It is MMT that points out that the interest rate set by the central banks (the ECB in this case) is a policy, not a market rate. It is this fact which lets one argue that increased debt will not be a burden on future generations because the interest rate set by the financial markets depends on the ECB – and if ECB increases rates in a recessionary environment, well that’s just stupid policy, isn’t it? Whereas if rates increase in a pro growth environment – well, then there’s no problems servicing the debt, is there? Even in the Eurozone there’s room for political decisions and pressures around the ‘super-independent’ ECB as the debates surrounding current inflation demonstrate.

So it can be seen why MMT is politically helpful in such an economic environment. If one can demonstrate to the public that spending can be carried out without extra taxation, and it will likely increase the overall productive capacity of society, they can begin to imagine a new economic model that is otherwise inaccessible. MMT provides the theoretical tools to infuse the public sector with a positive meaning emphasizing the ways it complements rather than contradicts the private sector.

However, an Eastern European setting comes with its own challenges. The society simply does not believe that public debt can be harnessed for good and it sees public money as dangerous and not particularly democratic. The experience of the 1990s and the corruption and theft of state resources has made many of us intuitively suspicious of large (or any) state projects. If direct public spending is proposed, the first thought for many will be that some well-connected individuals are about to be generously enriched.

This is probably where many on the mainstream British Left will triumphantly exclaim “I told you so,” reminding us that it is insufficient to simply ‘learn economics.’ In that sense they are right, and MMTers certainly should be cautious about appearing too arrogant themselves by reducing politics to their academic truths. Public debt and spending is inevitably going to be realized through and alongside the existing structures and hierarchies of society even as it, hopefully, tries to change them. Repeating the mantra that ‘the state cannot go bankrupt,’ even practically in the eurozone, will not get you very far. People have legitimate historical concerns and thus there is still work to do in developing MMT’s insights into an effective political rhetoric.

To briefly conclude, my hope in writing this is centered on the possibility that there will be less quarreling among people who are in broad agreement about their political goals. If more MMTers and non-MMT Marxists inject some good faith in their positions and arguments, that’s a chance for both to practice what they preach. Just because struggle is constitutive of politics does not mean that everything has to be seen as a refraction of one struggle. And just because one is technically correct about something does not mean they are correct in their political rhetoric, dependent as it is on their respective societies. 

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