The Neoliberal Blockbuster: Jaws (Preview)

This Money on the Left/Superstructure teaser previews our fifth premium release from Scott Ferguson’s “Neoliberal Blockbuster” course for Patreon subscribers.

For access to the full lecture, subscribe to our Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure.  If you are interested in premium offerings but presently unable to afford a subscription, please send a direct message to @moneyontheleft or @Superstruc on Twitter & we will happily provide you with membership access.  

Course Description

This course examines the neoliberal Blockbuster from the 1970s to the present. It focuses, in particular, on the social significance of the blockbuster’s constitutive technologies: both those made visible in narratives and the off-screen tools that drive production and reception. Linking aesthetic shifts in American moving images to broader transformations in political economy, the course traces the historical transformation of screen action from the ethereal “dream factory” of pre-1960s cinema to the impact-driven “thrill ride” of the post-1970s blockbuster. In doing so, we attend to the blockbuster’s technological forms and study how they have variously contributed to social, economic, and political transformations over the past 40 years. We critically engage blockbusters as “reflexive allegories” of their own technosocial processes and pleasures. Above all, we think through the blockbuster’s shifting relationship to monetary abstraction and the myriad additional abstractions monetary mediation entails.

Blockbusters:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999)

Avengers: Infinity War (Joe & Anthony Russo, 2018)

Finding the Money w/ Maren Poitras

Documentary filmmaker Maren Poitras joins the podcast to discuss and share a teaser from Finding the Money, the first feature-length documentary on the past, present, and future of Modern Monetary Theory. The film is currently under consideration for audience and jury awards in the DocLands film festival. Head to the festival website to watch a longer clip and to vote for Finding the Money by May 10thhttps://www.doclands.com/docpitch-finding-the-money/.

Watch the video version of this episode of Money on the Left on YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMdoWvOm2P0

More info at: www.findingmoneyfilm.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/findingmoneydoc
Facebook. www.facebook.com/findingmoneydoc

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.

Link to our Patreon: www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Link to our GoFundMe: https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/money-on-the-left-superstructure 

Remaking Radicalism with Dan Berger & Emily K. Hobson

Money on the Left is joined by Emily K. Hobson and Dan Berger, coeditors and curators of the recently published collection Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States, 1973-2001

https://ugapress.org/book/9780820357256/remaking-radicalism/

Hobson is associate professor of history and gender, race, & identity at the university of Nevada, reno, and author of Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left. Berger is associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington, Bothell, and author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era

Together, Hobson and Berger have compiled and thematically arranged a tremendous selection of key documents authored by radical organizers during a period commonly associated with the fall or disappearance of the left. Against this inaccurate and self-defeating lapsarian story, Remaking Radicalism shows the period of 1973 to 2001 to be replete with radical thought, revolutionary action, and what Hobson and Berger call, after Stuart Hall, “usable pasts.” In most cases these pasts are inseparable from our present. In all cases there is much to learn from and build upon. We talk with Berger and Hobson about the history of this project and the ways that it alters common understandings of the political and cultural present. We chat, too, about money and its place in the radical rhetorics recovered in the book.

Cover Art: “A Boogie/Un Baile: Benefit for July 4th Coalition” (1976). Original silkscreen by Ronald Weil. Published by Gonna Rise Again Graphics. Courtesy of Lincoln Cushing/Docs Populi.

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.

Link to our Patreon: www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Link to our GoFundMe: https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/money-on-the-left-superstructure 

Transcript

The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and Libby Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity

William Saas: Emily Hobson and Dan Berger, welcome to Money on the Left.

Emily Hobson: Thank you for having us.

Dan Berger: Thanks so much.

William Saas: To get us going, could you tell us a little bit about your personal and professional backgrounds?

Emily Hobson: Sure, I can go ahead. I’ll go first in part because I’m older than Dan, although less published. I grew up in a kind of left-liberal family so I had left impulses early on. But I was really radicalized in college in the mid-90s, especially around issues of welfare reform and the ways that those dovetailed with cuts to education and also the growth of right wing attacks on the ballot box in California. At the time, I was also really getting excited about histories of varying models of community organizing. I first pursued work with Center For Third World Organizing, which kind of comes out of an Alinsky tradition, but it attempted to really bring a race and gender analysis into that work. So I moved into that network and was also very much part of and influenced by youth mobilizations around the country, but again, especially in California and those tied to fighting the racist right. Specifically, in the ways that it was showing up both in kind of grassroots and vigilante ways and in more tolerated politics.

That was my work for a number of years, but I was increasingly disappointed with the limits of the nonprofit model, or the growing nonprofitization of organizing work. A distinction made within a lot of non-community organizing nonprofits–between a good use of nonprofits and a bad use of nonprofits–that seemed to me to be less of a clear distinction than we might have liked it to be. I also thought that there was a mistaking of collectivity in local organizing projects with movement building. And I was struggling with what might be my place in all of that because I think I was also very much trained in a tradition to be, as a white person, kind of a resource who would sit back and take the lead, which, of course, also converged with a certain amount of gender socialization. It was in some ways the disappointments with some of that work that made me think like, “Well, I’ve always really loved doing movement history and it’s in many ways been my passion since college. So maybe this is the time to go to graduate school.” Once I made that commitment, I was pretty much all in as like this is the place I can make a more clear set of contributions that I can feel kind of integrity around.

So I did my PhD at USC in the American Studies and Ethnicity program, which I really loved, and I think really built on some of my experiences in organizing, West Coast roots, and investment in learning from majority people of color spaces. I think that was one of the real benefits personally for me in the program. I finished the PhD in 2009. I taught briefly at UC Santa Barbara, and then in 2012, got a job at University of Nevada, Reno, which is where I’ve been since. My first book is called Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left. It’s about queer engagement with antiimperialist, antiwar, and racial justice politics, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s and 80s. The current research that I’m doing looks at HIV and AIDS activism by, for, and with people in prisons in the 1980s and 1990s across the US, but with a special strength in a few big cities and along the coasts.

Dan Berger: Can I just say ditto? Just kidding. So my entry into politics was also in the mid 90s, although I was in high school, not college, in upstate New York and it was initially through animal rights and environmentalism. It was a strong, as well as broader, oppositional youth culture. There was a strong emphasis on direct action, protests, and mobilization, which also meant there were a lot of interactions with the police. One of the early things I did as a young activist was to go to a trial of some people who had been arrested for engaging in civil disobedience. Not long after I got involved in politics, my family moved to Florida. Friends in New York, like one of my good friends that I was in high school with, had her arm broken by the cops. Other friends had their door busted down by cops. There was a lot of consciousness and politicization around the state. There was a slogan, I would learn later on, from Students for a Democratic Society in the 60s that said, “The issue is not the issue.” I felt like that was my politicization. My family was middle of the road Democrats. Other than the Holocaust and certain aspects in Jewish history, there wasn’t a lot of discussion of politics writ large. I just knew growing up that bad people kept winning elections.

Surrounding the Clinton administration in the 90s, my parents seemed content, but I was living in Florida and everything seemed miserable. I was trying to think through that disjuncture. The 60s always loomed large as this other moment of a lot going on. It was often referenced and acknowledged, and yet everyone I knew who had been alive in the 60s were my teachers, my parents, or people who seem to be not engaged or interested in that kind of politics. I was really struck by that while living in this pretty mythical suburb in South Florida. This was the early days of the Internet so I was writing to lots of different organizations, getting on mailing lists, getting newspapers and zines and anything else that I could find. Through that, I ended up starting a correspondence with several longtime political prisoners who were people coming out of the revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s. Many of them had been incarcerated since the 70s or, in some cases, the early 80s. For me, those connections were not because I understood anything about incarceration. But really, because it was the only place I knew to find people who were movement veterans and were interested in talking with younger generation people about what happened, what worked, why and why not, and so on. So those connections were really important mentors and eye opening experiences for me. And many of those relationships continued.

I went to college at the University of Florida. I started in 1999, which I say only to position it within what was happening at that time period. The protests against the World Trade Organization happened when I was a freshman. That was very inspiring. Large groups of us mobilized to go up to Washington, DC for the protests against the World Bank and IMF meeting in April of 2000. Following that, a friend of mine and I started this anarchist newspaper that was trying to bring attention to and in recognition of the anarchist currents of the global justice movement. But also, it was significant to us that we were in Florida, in that we were trying to think about alternate geographies of movement politics and directions. When I graduated college, I moved to Philadelphia and was there for about a year working first for a bookstore and later for this media justice organization. And then, I went to grad school at University of Pennsylvania, which is gruesomely in the news this week for having held on to the bones of two children who were murdered in the 1985 bombing of the move house. Among many other disgusting things that that university has done, this seems to top the cake.

I went to grad school because I was mentored in a way to find something that you’re good at and figure out ways of using it in the service of movement building. I feel like that was a mantra that I came into politics with, or developed at some point early on as an activist. Then, in the process of writing my senior thesis, which later became my first book on the Weather Underground, I had a really wonderful advisor who was like, “Do you like what you’re doing and do you know what you’re going to be doing after this?” They planted the idea of grad school as a possible future. So I did that. I felt I stumbled into it in some ways. Then, I graduated, I wrote my dissertation about Black and Puerto Rican prison organizing in the 1970s. In about 2010 or 2011, I was at the USC library in Los Angeles doing some research and speaking about a book I had edited on radical movements in the 1970s and Emily was, I think, one of two or three people who showed up to that event. We were chatting about various things related to movement history, and then Emily brought up this idea of doing a primary source anthology. And now–I was gonna say the rest is history–but one piece I didn’t mention is that I’m an associate professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, Bothell and live in Seattle.

Scott Ferguson: Thank you so much. So I guess to get into the central topic of our conversation, we’re here to talk about your newish anthology, Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States 1973-2001. In the introduction to that reader, you describe it as an effort to “locate or curate a usable past amid chaotic times.” Maybe just to get us going, can you talk a little bit more about how you came to this project, why it’s meaningful to you, and maybe unpack some of that language about usable pasts?

Emily Hobson: Yeah, so as Dan said, in 2011 or so, we first began chatting about the idea of an anthology. I also had an idea of putting together an anthology of documents very specific to what became my first book, so mainly on the queer left, broadly. I chatted with a couple people, Claire Potter and Renee Romano, about that, who at that time, were the series editors for the “Since 1970” series at University of Georgia Press. They both said, “Make it bigger, but don’t be the only editor because that’s too much.” And I also knew that I would want to engage with a co-editor. Then, in talking to Dan, we had a lot of exciting conversations about different kinds of ways to conceive of it. It became a 10 year project, which I think is far longer than either of us really expected for developing it.

Scott Ferguson: And in a really different political climate, right?

Emily Hobson: And in a very different political climate, yeah. I actually think the length of developing it was in large part because, at a very practical level, we were both finishing other books. We were starting out in tenure track jobs. We were dealing with our own lives and engaging in the movements of those 10 years. And everything that has happened in the past 10 years has been a really rich context in which to think through what might be a usable past for the 1973 to 2001 period. Broadly, the idea of the usable past is a way to think about turning to history as a way to make meaning of the present and to understand how to find legacies, how to find and analyze, in particular, past radical movements, or past modes of politics. One of the ways that I think about the idea of a usable past in this book is with the hope that it will be used in a variety of different contexts. Definitely in traditional classroom settings, but I also envision it for political education projects, study groups, mutual aid projects, and so on. Ideally, people can turn to it to look for work similar to what they are pursuing, or with similar kinds of questions–or very different kinds of efforts–that might help them think about issues that are new to them. It’s also perhaps useful for considering different kinds of tactics and communities that they’re not connected to. That is definitely one of the goals of the book.

It is to not only be a kind of historical accounting that can be the source of research and be responded to by scholars, including independent scholars outside the Academy and movement historians, but that also it can be a recent toolbox to turn to. We conceptualize the period 1973 to 2001 in large part because there was no other similar anthology of that breadth of time and issues that we try to cover. There were a number of anthologies that broadly reflect the long 1960s but even those that had a long 60s kind of framing and went into the early to mid 70s stopped. So we were left with this impression that there are no real resources to turn to, that there are no significant movements to attend to, and that movements across the 70s-80s-90s period were all disconnected from each other, which certainly didn’t reflect either of our own personal experiences from having looked into archives and talked with people.

Dan Berger: Yeah, I would just say, every social movement that reaches a certain kind of mass consciousness is then greeted with a “Where did this come from?” comment. And oftentimes, in the popular sense, the answer is, “Nowhere!” It’s assumed some local thing started the movement. There’s no sense of a longer history. Obviously, both of us having done these other projects that work on recent history, where we’ve had the opportunity to dialogue with people who have shaped longer histories in different ways, challenges that. Moving into 2001, into our own period where we helped in small ways to be a part of, it was just so clear that that kind of crescendo or abeyance model just doesn’t make sense. And it’s not to say we’ve always had a peak high period, but just that this disappearance and then emergence narrative really doesn’t serve any of us well. I think there’s a kind of arrogance in that for some people. But there’s also a kind of earnestness. People want to know where this all came from. Hopefully, like Emily was saying, the book can be a resource and gift for people who are really trying to have a sense of the traditions that they themselves come from, even without necessarily being steeped in all of the twists and turns of that tradition.

Maxximilian Seijo: In a way, I think that we’re already getting into this question with both of your lovely answers. But it seems to us that part of the stakes of your co-edited book are intervening in a world where many on the left understand neoliberalism in what we might call somewhat monolithic terms. That is, as the New Deal died, the onset of the Reagan and Thatcher era intervened with and wiped out some of the ambivalent and unequal gains of the New Deal. Some might say the left lost and retrenched into academia to wait for history to catch up once again. In your book, you acknowledge the scarcity and violence of this era. But it also seems that you’re actively destabilizing this rather simplistic fall narrative. We were wondering if you could say a bit more about this history you’re recovering, maybe why this prevailing fall of the left story has proven so durable, and why it’s wrong?

Emily Hobson: Yeah, I’ll start with the fall of the left question. This is snarky, but I do think one of the reasons that academic histories have often repeated this idea of the fall of the left after the 1960s is a form of projection by those historians who have written some of those narratives and then left activism, or left very significant involvement in movement work. So they didn’t see other things that were going on because they were not involved, or they felt disconnected from them because they were no longer at the center. This dovetails with the notion that, with the rise and proliferation of multiple kinds of feminist, queer, Chicano, indigenous, Black, and Latinx forms of activism, the proliferation of multiple tendencies that are also shaped by demographic changes in the US after 1965, white guys are no longer at this center of history. Therefore, that kind of universalistic conception of mass politics appears to no longer be present or coherent. That’s what I mean about a snarky response, but still one I believe in.

One of the things that we’re looking at in this book is the importance, utility, and vibrancy of a multi-tendency way of thinking about movement building, the left, and radicalism, or not necessarily conflating the left and radicalism but certainly seeing them as interconnected. Even that itself–not necessarily equating the left and radicalism–reflects an effort at understanding a multi-tendency politics. It’s the richness of looking at social movements through disagreement and understanding. That is, disagreement and conflict among activists is generative. It can also lead to organizations or networks falling apart, or even mistrust. It can be fomented by agents of the state. This is fundamental to my thinking that I learned early on. I credit this to having had the great privilege of working with and learning from Robin Kelley and Ruthie Gilmore.

Another key mentor not at USC I count among historians is Laura Briggs. They all kind of talked about how looking at disagreement shows relationships. People don’t disagree with each other unless they’re in some kind of relationship with each other, even if it’s a relationship of distant cousins within a set of movement networks. So I think the idea of the fall of the left is predicated on the idea that there has to be one winning model and everybody has to battle over what the winning model is, rather than the idea that there are multiple kinds of movements and tendencies. They influence each other. They’re in conversation with each other. Sometimes that’s in conflict. But it is also very generative. And it provides opportunities for transformative change and for a different kind of mass politics.

Dan Berger: Yeah, I think that’s so excellent and well said. I think the fall of the left narrative allows not only the erasure of movements that are resurfaced in Remaking Radicalism, but also allows a rosier view of the left in the time period when people are saying it existed. It’s like, “So we had the great thing and then it disappeared because it won. Then, all of its winnings were erased. And then the left reemerged.” This is such a static view of every phase of that. One of the things we were really motivated by is recasting the narrative. I think the movements of the time period show the messiness–the wonderful, complicated, strategic, and tactical messiness–of movements at every step. But because of the things that Emily was just speaking about, it’s not that those dynamics of race, gender, or sexuality didn’t exist in the golden days of the left that this narrative projects, but that you can’t deny them in the same way in the time period that we’re looking at here. Because the leadership and reconfiguration of movement organizations is so pronounced. I know we’ll talk about this in a second, but the Combahee River Collective, as a formation in and of itself, but also in relationship with other black feminist organizations and other women of color feminist organizations, you can’t say that that’s not a thing. I think that really helps reorient our whole understanding of the time period.

The other piece around scarcity and violence that we talk about in the intro of the book is to really think about what the conditions are that give rise to movements looking the way that they do in the time periods that they operate in. And those questions of scarcity, which are being enforced in all kinds of violent ways, are really significant to how these movements take shape. Again, I think historians, activists or others who imbibe this fall of the left narrative reproduce those same logics of scarcity by trying to either override or just ignore the work that was happening during this time period. So we were interested in recuperating that and then trying to give some material evidence to how people engage violent regimes of scarcity. There’s a lot of insight here that movements have to offer.

Scott Ferguson: Before we move on to the Combahee statement, I was wondering if I could follow up and get you to talk a little bit about what I take to be rather false oppositions between an economic or class-based politics and a situated identitarian one. I was snooping around your endnotes in preparation for today and was chasing one early note in the introduction, where you’re giving us citations of various historians or other scholars who have tried to historicize the very period that you’re taking on. You name some of those who are offering what you call a Universalist story, which is a fall story usually about the white working man no longer being king. And of course, on this podcast, we would say that’s actually not universal. That’s actually radically contracted. One book that you reference, Lisa Duggan’s The Twilight of Equality? I was exploring it a little bit today. In reading her introduction, it seemed to me she was arguing that there has been a split in the movements between economically oriented movements and the identitarian and multicultural movements. And that, at the juncture she was writing in, the late 90s and early turn of the 21st century, these need to be brought back together. I guess what I wonder is, it seems like there’s a gap between what you are saying and what she’s saying. How do you position your work with respect to that? Was there no gap? Was there one in certain spaces and not others? I just would be curious to hear you talk about that.

Dan Berger: That’s really interesting. And while you’ve looked at The Twilight of Equality? far more recently than I have, I feel I want to go back to it.

Scott Ferguson: And I may be misreading.

Dan Berger: Well, no, I do think there are these different spaces, obviously. One thing that we really struggled with in the book, in a generative way, was trying to represent a geographic rift. We didn’t just want to reproduce what was happening in LA, San Francisco, and New York with a smattering of Chicago. We also have to contend with the fact that those are all major population centers that sustained left culture and left organization easier than then some other places. So to your point of whether there was a gap in some places but not others, I think the shape of movements does look really differently depending not only on when we’re talking about but also where we’re talking about. People and projects exist in these different kinds of temporalities that might allow some things to flourish. Again, I don’t want to speak for Duggan, but I think there’s something in that book about what kinds of politics reach a certain kind of mainstream? Or what kinds of politics get a certain kind of attention. I certainly think we could identify some gaps in terms of what achieves an amount of prominence, or what gets funding and the ways in which there are these different kinds of funding structures that reward those gaps–materially or socially reward those gaps. Maybe I’ll leave it there and let Emily jump in.

Emily Hobson: Yeah, I think one of Duggan’s goals in that book is to articulate a critique of the ways that constructions of identity get used to serve and advance neoliberalism. She critiques multiculturalist models that work towards representation at a superficial level, or that work towards an inclusion model without any kind of structural, economic, and anti-capitalist aspect of change. She’s also very critical of homonormativity within queer politics, and the ways that that, even when predicated on pushing forward minoritized and discriminated against identity and subject positions, gives up more radical, broad-based, and again, anti–capitalist alliances. Her discussion sort of operates in two registers. One is, as Dan said, looking at those forms of politics that hit the mainstream or popular media consciousness, and to criticize how more transformative and radical kinds of grassroots projects get thinned out on that way up to the popular. She’s also setting up some critiques that have really developed since her book of formations, like on carceral feminism and other kinds of things that nobody knows in a given year what’s exactly coming 10 years later. You have moments when certain kinds of feminist formations appear to be radical, but also are set up relationships that move in a different kind of direction, or in a direction that one would critique, especially looking back.

So I think that you’re right that there’s a disjuncture, but I also think that we’re in alignment to her argument because of the ways that she is operating on these two different registers. And there are documents in Remaking Radicalism that very clearly express the kind of intersectional analysis that we frame the book through. And others, of course, don’t. Others have something else to contribute that is interesting. Or they show tensions going on and show formations happening that maybe didn’t flourish later but that were significant at the time, and that have something else to offer.

William Saas: I just want to clarify something before we move on to discussing some of the documents out of the reader, and then I also want to underscore, reinforce, and endorse the snark. I find that really compelling because one of the things that really excites me about this book is it seems like there are multiple stages of it. I was like, “Oh, my God, I’ve been waiting for this.” This is the history that we always gloss over–that I’ve glossed over and that has been glossed over in books I have read. So this is amazing, it’ll be helpful as a teaching and organizing tool for sure. But what you’re not saying is that neoliberalism was not on the ascendancy. You’re not saying neoliberalism is not a thing, but that the stories of neoliberalism and its ascendancy too often negate, deny, and suppress these oppositional movements and histories. It’s super compelling how y’all just sweep the leg of so much of that left scholarship on neoliberalism. So again, thank you. Going back to one of those founding documents and where you situate the beginning of this reader in 1973, the Combahee River Collective Black feminist statement is from 1977, but it’s the first in your collection. And we won’t have time to talk about all of them, of course. But what we can do is ask you to say a little bit more about your intention and purpose for starting off with the Combahee River Collective’s Black feminist statement and the place of that document in the broader history that you’ve curated.

Emily Hobson: I think we always knew, or knew very early on, that the Combahee statement would be in the book. We were trying to advance, among other things, a history of intersectional analysis from multiple sources. Because when I teach my students about the real meat of intersectional analysis and its history, I say, “Okay, the term is from Kimberlé Crenshaw. It’s from this article on this particular analysis of law. But she herself points to earlier references. She’s always talked about that. And we can trace that. Ideas also come from movements. Nobody is this suis generis thinker.”

So we knew it would be central. We knew we wanted to foreground the multiple movement sources of this mode of thinking and critique. Then, as we were talking about it, we realized we didn’t have to start the book exactly chronologically. I’ll also say that the framework of the book is 1973 to 2001, but we have a couple of documents that precede 1973 that we think kind of suggest some of the shifts that really start to gel and become amplified after 1973. There are also a couple documents right after 2001 that reflect dimensions of antiwar activism in that era. Once we had decided that we didn’t have to be super by the book about a chronology, it made a lot of sense to begin the book with Combahee because it so beautifully crystallizes the project, and in and of itself, is an important document. It is also one that really reflects our approach to a usable past. It’s gained importance and attention in the last several years. It really helps to ground people’s way of understanding the ways that an intersectional analysis doesn’t leave out class. Because the Combahee statement is explicitly socialist. It’s also because the statement is complicated and tricky in the ways that it uses the idea of identity. It coins the notion of identity politics, but it defines it in a very different way than we usually think about–in a non-identitarian way. It does so in a way that the contemporary language includes things like centering the most marginalized. That kind of approach would be one of the ways I think about a contemporary translation.

Also one of the reasons that it’s powerful to start with Combahee is that it’s such a beautifully written statement. It was a little painful in that we wound up excerpting it for purposes of length. It felt painful to do that. But I also felt relieved that the popularization and increased attention to Combahee meant that it would be pretty easy for people to find the full statement, so we could highlight particular passages that are especially powerful to read alongside some of the others in the document. The last thing I’ll say is just that, when I look at the back of the table of contents, the document that follows immediately after the Combahee statement is an essay from Iris Morales called “Sterilized Puerto Ricans.” This really kind of reflects some of the influences that show up in Combahee. Members of Combahee had been working on issues of sterilization of women of color and came out of similar traditions or influences. Iris Morales is writing from the perspective of work from the Young Lords Party. So Combahee reflects that trajectory.

Dan Berger: Yeah, I would just add quickly, one of the things I’m most grateful for about this project is, when Emily and I first began talking about it, we decided very early on that we didn’t want to organize it chronologically. The book is organized in a series of thematic sections. I think that was really important for my own understanding and reflection on the period in that so many of the issues are resonant. They echo across these different campaigns and movements. We can see similar kinds of strategies or concerns show up in, for instance, campaigns against the far right, campaigns for indigenous sovereignty, anti-policing struggles, and so on. So if we think about this thematically, rather than chronologically, we can actually engage the conversations that were happening and continue to happen across movements much better than if we were like, “What’s everything that was published in 1982? What’s published in 1993? and so on. So it’s allowing us that freedom to think against a linear approach in keeping with the spirit of the movements.

And starting with Combahee, even though the book is not necessarily one that people will read in order, cover to cover, I think was symbolically, politically, and thematically important, because it really does frame the book. We were talking a few minutes ago about this approach to a golden age of left history that assumes a very narrow subjectivity of white industrial male workers as a universal totality. For us, one of the things we were thinking a lot about in the book, and why the Combahee statement is so important, is that a lot of movements, individual people, and organizations are trying to think about the totality. How do we understand social formations in this time period and the time period that we’re living in? What are the kinds of analytic formations as well as organizational formations or infrastructures that can best speak to the totality? There’s a way in which that’s a kind of age old question of the left. And yet, Combahee is such a breakthrough for the period in actually thinking the totality. In all of its complexity, and thinking about unity across difference, and all of the things that we’ve come to understand under this category of intersectionality, that’s part of what makes the document so important. And I don’t want to say what’s the best document in the book or something. That feels foolhardy. But I think it’s the clearest articulation of a movement generated document that tries to explain the totality. And in doing so, it gives a tremendous analytic advance, both in its context, and as Emily was saying, that is ongoing still to this day.

Scott Ferguson: I’ll tell you, that really resonates with me the way you framed that as an intervention into thinking the totality, because I’m really trying to rethink this time period too, but from the point of view of popular culture, blockbuster movies, and things like that. The kinds of theoretical texts that I’ve relied on and have certainly complicated over the years are these tremendous volumes by people like Frederic Jameson. There’s maybe a little bit of snark here, but I’ve been returning to that text. I just read it over again, cover to cover. It’s pretty shocking, for all of the merits of that work, the way he insists that he, and the carrying on of the Marxist critical theory tradition, is thinking the totality in its historicity and complexity. Yet what he refers to, just constantly, as the new social movements are all just particularist. They’re all part of this kind of chaotic nominalism of the postmodern, neoliberal order. However, what your project is showing, as you’ve just said, is that that is not true. There was an erasure going on there, and that there’s another history to tell. You’re telling that history from the point of view of the movements. What does popular culture look like when you recognize what’s being repressed and refracted in popular culture, and when it’s not just simply a fall story? There’s all kinds of interesting back pressure.

Dan Berger: Yeah, that point is so well taken. The whole new social movements framework, in some ways, was an advance against the erasure and snarky dismissal. But in and of itself, it was such a profound and disrespectful erasure of what those movements were with their own temporalities and politics.

Emily Hobson: I will say that it’s a framework that comes out of sociology, which I have learned to respect much more over time, but I am supposed to sneer at it as a historian. The critique I have of the new social movements frame as it comes out of sociology is based on the ways it is constantly trying to find a type. Like here is the women’s movement and it is about the constitution of the category of women in this way that actively seeks to strip out race, class, and even sexuality in a way. Although, it kind of keeps sexuality as central to the category of citizenship, or any other facet of the ways in which womanhood as a category is differentially structured. So when we start to recast things and understand that identity categories are never monolithic, but rather inherently historically constructed through difference, then things start to look different. That’s where I think the new social movements, at least the traditional conception of new social movement theory, has to absorb that understanding or it just can’t work anymore.

Maxximilian Seijo: What I’m liking about this interview is the way we are also meta-reflecting on how important this book is for us in our work as we’re processing and moving through it. It makes me think, in your articulation of this new intersectional totality, which I want to dig into another particular moment of, there is a sense of a gathering in the way this book functions as a practice of historicizing, but also as what we might even call a performance of the social movements that you’re working with, thinking through, and parsing out in this history. In light of that practice, I wanted to zoom back in on one of the particular nodes of this gathering so that we might think about today a little differently. Here, I am thinking of the activism of ACT UP and related organizations fighting for all sorts of rights and against all sorts of scarcities and violences during the AIDS epidemic. Using their 1987 AIDS Action Pledge, which you excerpt and republish in your book, I’m actually going to read some of the demands which I’ve abridged a little bit. There’s a lot we could go through, but this may help our listeners get a sense of what ACT UP is calling for. They write: “We joined together to demand (1) a massive funding to end the AIDS epidemic made available from local, state, and federal governments for research, care, education, anonymous testing programs, and any and all treatments; (2) a federally funded education program; (3) centrally coordinated research; (4) a free nationalized health care system; (5) public accountability; (6) a worldwide culturally sensitive funding program,” and so on. Even just these demands shatter any notion that this is a purely identitarian movement, or focused solely on some reductive sense of identity that is not dealing with political economy. So in setting up this question, I was wondering if we could ask what ACT UP is perhaps for our listeners who don’t know where it came from, what it accomplished, and on your reading, what we might learn from ACT UP’s struggle for health justice, especially in light of our ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

Emily Hobson: Yeah, I’m so excited to talk about the AIDS Action Pledge statement and also about ACT UP. One thing I’ll say is this is not actually a statement written by ACT UP. It’s written by the AIDS Action Pledge, which is a separate organization that preceded ACT UP. The reason it’s useful to note that is because, while ACT UP was absolutely far and away the strongest, most vibrant model of AIDS direct action organizing, there were a few antecedents that indicate the necessity of experimentation with multiple kinds of responses. There are these antecedents we need to kind of think through them, and we need to credit them. But also, sometimes one just really nails it.

For me, what’s really important about the AIDS Action Pledge statement is both the structural analysis that it presents, which then became very central for ACT UP. The “AIDS Action Pledge” was written by an organization called AIDS Action Pledge, and then shaped other kinds of demands that ACT UP made. But as an organization, the AIDS Action Pledge began in 1986 in San Francisco, and it was modeled on the Pledge of Resistance, which was a Central American solidarity network that formed to get people to commit direct action, including civil disobedience to protest US military and other forms of intervention in Central America. It was queer folks who had been in Central American solidarity work, who were starting to try to look for pathways towards a stronger, more protest-based AIDS movement, and who formulated this model of how the Pledge of Resistance has been successful, gets people to make a commitment, and gives them a way to think about showing up.

So let’s start a pledge related to AIDS direct action and start to organize some direct actions that we ask people to show up to. Similar kinds of histories shaped the formation of ACT UP in New York about six months later in March 1987. There was this kind of rumbling happening and multiple kinds of experimentation. Similarly, the Silence=Death image and logo was not created by ACT UP but by a small collective of artists, among them being Avram Finkelstein, who’s written about this really beautifully in a memoir called, After Silence. They meditated over what’s going to be a powerful image, then created the poster, and finally hired an advertising company to wheat paste it all over New York City to give off this impression of action that actually hasn’t really happened yet. That kind of gives people a visual language to think about the necessity of action. So those are some little caveats to thinking about the relationship between this pledge and Act Up.

What I would say about some of the power of ACT UP is that it forms in March 1987. The acronym is the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. Its first action is on Wall Street to protest the price of AZT, which is the first approved drug to treat people with AIDS. And ultimately, AZT makes its way into the antiretroviral cocktail that after 1996 is really effective at treating HIV disease. But initially, AZT is the only thing. It actually ended up being toxic for many people, but people were seeking access to any form of treatment. So ACT UP immediately proves to be successful in getting the company that has produced AZT, Burroughs-Wellcome, to drop its price through direct action on Wall Street. By the end of 1987, and certainly by 1988, other groups around the country that had begun to work towards protest and direct action responses around the AIDS crisis began to call themselves ACT UP. The AIDS Action Pledge in San Francisco became San Francisco ACT UP by 1988. Some similar dynamics happen in some other cities. 

The other thing that is in the pledge is they say at the beginning, “We believe the AIDS crisis calls for a broad movement actively engaged in ending the epidemic. We recognize that AIDS has had a devastating impact on the lesbian and gay community. We further recognize that the AIDS crisis disproportionately affects men and women of color. And these strategies to fight this crisis must incorporate these understandings.” For me, that’s also very central to the structural analysis they’re posing in that the bulk of AIDS activism initially comes out of the lesbian and gay community. And the power that it has is to understand a virus doesn’t care what you say you are, how you organize, or what you call yourself.

Also, pandemics both amplify and reflect existing inequalities. Health is the outcome of the circumstances in which we live. Both in making demands like a national health care system, and in recasting what it means to think about health and what it means to think about who gets to do health activism–kind of recasting the patient or the ill person as an expert–a lot of ACT UP’s power lies in its analysis, as well as the visuals, tactics, individual actions, and the chance. There’s so much that people have talked about in terms of the visual and media impacts of ACT UP that I think are really important, but that also reflect the same kind of analysis that we’ve been talking about throughout the interview and that are critical right now under COVID-19. To understand that COVID-19, again, both amplifies and reflects structural inequality in who gets sick, why they do, who’s vulnerable, who gets access to a vaccine or treatment, and so on–both in the US and globally.

Dan Berger: Yeah, the history of ACT UP specifically and the AIDS movement generally offer so many lessons for the present in the way that Emily was laying out, including that health is an organizing principle. It’s a kind of foundation of organizing. Viruses both affect everybody and index inequality at the same time. We can see all manner of capitalist privation’s power to decide who lives and who dies based on access to medicine. And here are two things about that history that are really important. The internationalism of the AIDS movement is super critical. That internationalism is about making medicine available for everyone. So it’s not just a national public health infrastructure, but a global public health infrastructure that includes incarcerated and detained people. The other thing I’ll say just because I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia and feel very loyal to that city is that ACT UP Philly continues to exist. The history of ACT UP is often narrated through New York and San Francisco. With movements generally, there are lots of other examples and geographies where struggle continues. The AIDS movement is a really good example of that.

Emily Hobson: I would just also add, one of the things I really credit ACT UP Philly with is that it remains really central in work to confront the connections between HIV and the carceral state. Both ACT UP Philly, and a number of other groups that have developed in and around Philadelphia connected to HIV and AIDS movements, work among people in jails and prisons, and people who were formerly incarcerated. You can see a little bit of that in some of the AIDS Action Pledge. There’s an opposition to quarantine, mandatory testing, and other kinds of coercion and discrimination. That is definitely within ACT UP as well. Prison projects and opposition to HIV criminalization became really important strands. They developed beyond the height of most ACT UP groups, but really kind of survive and are well expressed in ACT UP Philly.

William Saas: Another striking way that this project helps us correct, put the lie to, or offer a different account of the fragmentation and age of fracture kind of stuff is the thematic unity approach. But there’s also like a continuity in the sorts of demands that we see listed in the documents. We wanted to jump about 10 years ahead of where we just were and talk a little bit about the Black freedom agenda for the 21st century, which was put out in 1998 by the Black Radical Congress. You both write that that agenda self consciously blended the Black Panther’s 10-point program, the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress, and the feminist vision of the Combahee River Collective statement. So we’re gonna go through some of the headings from the Black Radical Congress’s agenda, and then we’d like to have you help us contextualize this organization and its demands for us.

To paraphrase: (1) We want an end to the exploitation of corporate capitalism; (2) We want freedom, self determination, and fully human rights; (3) We want a social policy agenda which invests in human beings; (4) We want a comprehensive national economics policy which places the interests of people above profits; (5) We want a society which allows for the healthy and positive development of our children; (6) We want justice in the legal system; (7) We want an end to police brutality and state terrorism in our communities; (8) We want a clean and healthy environment for our people; (9) We want full employment and a guaranteed income for all those unable to work; (10) We want civil rights, affirmative action, and compensation for centuries of institutional racism; (11) We want liberation for all oppressed people throughout the world; and (12) We want a real democracy in the United States.

This is an incredible set of very intersectional demands here. Could you help us talk through them? Or can you tell us a little bit about the Black Radical Congress’s agenda and it’s place within your project?

Dan Berger: Yeah, thanks for that and for highlighting some of what is so profound about the document. There’s a lot there. I think it speaks to a certain kind of common sense among Black radical organizing in the 1990s that is often elided, given that we’ve been speaking about how we moved from a kind of 60s high point to Black Lives Matter. In 2014-2015, there were all of these comparisons about how Black Lives Matter is not your granddaddy’s civil rights movement–to take one slogan that was circulating around. Everything just becomes these kind of generationally polarized formations with a vast liquid in between. So the BRC really helps fill in the gaps of that, and also shows some of the political logics and mentorship that created the foundations for Black Lives Matter.

But I’m also struck by, even in our attempt in that little headnote to contextualize a document, how partial that contextualization is. Our head note references include the Black Panther Party statement, Combahee statement, and the ANC Freedom Charter–which is certainly something that the BRC was very consciously drawing on since South Africa was newly independent of apartheid by that time. But there are other connections as well. Some of the same people that helped shape the Black Radical Congress were also involved in drafting the African American Women in Defense of Ourselves statement, which is also excerpted earlier in the book. This was a group of Black women coming together in support of Anita Hill and in opposition to the Clarence Thomas appointment to the Supreme Court. Something that I didn’t fully appreciate while we were putting together the book but have come to learn more as a result of some current research that I’m working on, is how a lot of the BRC’s framing in that platform was, while more developed and evolved, pretty similar to an effort in the early 1980s of something called the National Black Independent Political Party, which came out of the National Black Political Convention movements of the 1970s as attempts to provide a kind of national infrastructure for different formations of Black power.

And that connection is not simply symbolic. It’s some of the same people who were organizing in 1980 and were still around in 1998. Someone like Manning Marable comes to mind as well as Zoharah Simmons, who was a SNCC worker that I’m writing about currently that was very involved in NBIPP and was also part of the Black Radical Congress. We see this together with the younger generation through people like Barbara Ransby, who was involved in African American Women in Defense of Ourselves, but not NBIPP because she was too young. But then, she plays a leading role in Black Radical Congress. So I think that statement is so revelatory both for its rejection of the 1990s doxa of neoliberalism and for the ways that it brings together a real in depth and common sense understanding of a Black radical tradition. And we can see that tradition having more success in 1998. The Black Radical Congress gets a lot more attention than the National Black Independent Political Party, but these are ideas that have been pursued, workshopped, and developed over generations at that point.

Emily Hobson: Yeah, there are two things that I really recall about the creation of the BRC, its statement, and the impact of it as it rolled out. One was definitely the ways that its creation taught me about the range of mentors and movement veterans to look to. The ways I was aware of people coming together in one room and the many different political trajectories and generational moments they represented, just sort of seeing that, taught me a lot and busted what Dan references as this simple binary of the civil rights generation and BLM generation. It taught me a lot about everything in between and beyond.

Another thing is one of the real kind of interventions of the Black Radical Congress was it’s simultaneous engagement with policy and electoral politics, and also a very firm rejection of, as it notes in its last point about a real democracy, a two party system, and an effort to think about electoral politics beyond the Democratic Party. It says “We favor the abolition of the electoral system, proportional representation, and an end to the two party system. We support a new mass political party.” There’s kind of an implication of maybe multiple political parties. So I think that there’s this interesting kind of balance. There were juxtapositions of statements between some fairly traditionally legal and policy questions that all sorts of liberals have paid attention to, such as affirmative action, but from a left perspective. And it does so while simultaneously thinking beyond that as the only horizon of politics and how some of those questions are also linked to fights over reparations. So those are a few things that I would add.

Dan Berger: I think it’s also important now when considering some on the left saying, “Oh, Defund the Police is not polling well,” or “It was polling really well during the rebellions, but now it’s not polling well so what’s going on?” It’s like the people have elected a wrong leader so we must replace the people. I think that the BRC statement shows how you engage in mass politics by fighting for what you believe in and you build the constituencies for that. Like Emily was saying, that combination of emphasis on independent politics, that it’s not about Democratic Party entryism, it’s about wanting to recast the political fields. We want to make the political field responsive to us. And there are some pragmatics to that. But those pragmatics don’t come at the expense of the kind of political vision or political project. So it’s not like we’re going to sacrifice reparations in order to get a nod from the Democratic Party platform. It’s like, “Here is our political vision.” I think the breadth of that is really significant.

Scott Ferguson: We’ve been drawing numerous connections already between the past and present, but I want to give you an opportunity to take that question in a more direct way. What kinds of lessons does this volume offer a contemporary left? And I’ll add to that: coming back to something we started with, given how much it at least seems to me that politics and what is contestable or legible has just radically shifted since you started this project, how have these texts spoken to you when you maybe first came to them in 2011, 2012, or 2013, as opposed to when this went to press and at this very moment?

Dan Berger: Yeah, that’s a great question. In some ways it’s like four different political moments right now than when we began. I think we’ve both been on that kind of roller coaster a bit, but still using our own partial limited reflections on our understanding of the present in order to curate the volume. So there were some things that we knew were always going to be in there. We began to say this a little bit in the intro, but we also were inspired by the movements of the time period to really help us rethink the shape of the volume and documents that absolutely need to be in there. The book that exists is about a third longer than what it was supposed to be. The draft that we started to turn in to the publisher was a third longer than what was published, so it’s a very partial volume. I think there’s something to how conscious we are of how partial it is that is inspiring. This is a drop in the bucket of the kinds of things that are out there. We tried to curate it in a way that people could see this sort of ongoing conversation.

One thing that is just continually inspiring to me is the Black Hills International Survival Gathering, and the kinds of connections that were demonstrated with the international gathering anchored in indigenous sovereignty claims, and brought together by various indigenous peoples throughout the Americas alongside sort of settler, anti-nuclear, anarchists, and environmentalist activists in South Dakota–thousands of people in South Dakota in 1980. Some of the documents that we have in the book, like an excerpt of John Trudell’s speech, “We Are Power,” is something that I was always really inspired by. Reading through that statement in the context of the height of Trumpism and seeing Trudell’s rejection of settler colonial logic and a real understanding that we ourselves our power, was so profound as a “keeping the faith” sort of document. Rereading it in the context of protests at Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter protests was such a vindication of the fact that we are power. I came back to that a lot.

I came back to Mab Segrest’s “A Bridge, Not a Wedge,” where she’s offering this notion of queer socialism in the context of fighting the right, but also in the context of resisting race-blind and lesbian and gay NGO forms of activism, and in a way that really nicely bookends the Combahee Statement. It’s 20 years later. It’s a different historical context, but it offers a real profound sense of how to understand the moment. I also think of someone like James Yaki Sayles’ essay, “War for the Cities.” That is a really astute diagnosis of what we would now call gentrification and the role that hyper-policing, or just policing in general, play in enforcing gentrification. In his analysis of urban struggle, he was thinking through that and writing that from Stateville prison in Southern Illinois, and that essay originally appeared in a prison publication that he was making. 

Again, thinking through these different scales of geography of how and where political knowledge circulates was a source of inspiration in crafting the book and also something that I hope people reading it can look at now. We can get beyond our bubble, whether that’s a geographic bubble of a particular organization that we work with, or it’s a social media silo. We can actually recognize the breadth of rebellion that we are living within. As a point for non-sectarianism, I would say, as we were curating this, we really resisted very theoretical documents and various sectarian documents in order to anchor things that were more action-oriented. It pains me to see the reproduction of certain sectarian logics, and I hope that this book can be an antidote towards that.

Emily Hobson: Yeah, I would add how we haven’t really said anything about the structure of the sections of the book and the parts of the book. I think that it’s useful here to note those sections as reflecting insights that we can really draw on, including some kind of attention to the international that has been missing too much in the last 10 years. So here’s the structure of the book: there’s a section called “Bodies and Lives” that has the bulk of the very explicitly feminist and queer material, but also includes a lot on labor, fighting the right, issues of welfare, and cuts to social services and responses against that. Then there’s “Walls and Gates,” which has the bulk of the police and prison abolition, housing, anti-gentrification, and rural struggles. Then, there’s the section called “Borders and Maps,” which has the bulk of the anti-militarist, anti-war, anti-imperialist material, but it’s organized by these three areas around which a lot of mobilization was concentrated, so it’s relatively chronologically organized in some contrast to some of the other sections. Most of the material in that first section of “Borders and Maps” is around Central American and other Latin American solidarity movements, but there are a few other sites. It’s kind of the post-Vietnam section.

Then, there’s a section on anti-imperialism into global justice that begins primarily with African and anti-apartheid solidarity and moves towards the global justice movement. Then, “Not in Our Name” is a lot about opposition to the War on Terror and Palestinian solidarity. And then the final section is “Utopias and Dystopias,” which has the bulk of the decolonial, environmental, anti-nuclear, and broad-left visions material. So for me, the utility of those sections is that, in addition to pushing back against any rigid conception of identity and looking at the interplay between movements, they get us to think about location–where are we located, what are we looking to, and what’s the scale of our politics. They draw, in some ways, on the concept of situated knowledges and the ways that scales of struggle are nested within each other.

Thinking about labor in that domestic sense is interconnected with thinking about it globally, and thinking about work against sexual violence is a way to think about colonialism and genocide and is an important pathway for thikning of those connections, and so on. I see a lot of places for inspiration around virtually everything going on right now, like abolition, climate justice, demand for Medicare for All, or the Green New Deal, and mutual aid–certainly a lot on fighting the right and fighting fascism. I think that the attention to the geographic and the centrality of internationalism is something that the book offers that I really hope we see more of in coming years. Not monolithically through a “here’s the privileged US, and it’s all about solidarity with and inspiration from a romanticization of distant sites” lens, but really through a recognition of the interconnection and centrality of immigrant rights work within the United States as interconnected with anti-imperialism globally, and so on.

Maxximilian Seijo: Before we wrap up this really thought provoking conversation, seeing as this podcast is called Money on the Left after all, we thought we would give you both some time to teach us about public money on the left. Seeing as you both have wide ranging backgrounds and expertise in the history of grassroots movements, we wanted to ask, how on your analysis has money shaped left-politics during the neoliberal era, and perhaps what can we glean from these previous politicizations of money and where might we also push beyond them?

Emily Hobson: Before the interview, Dan and I were joking that we were glad that you were really only asking us one question about money on the left since I’m not an expert on monetary theory. But I do think this is a really terrific question and I’m excited to be able to think so broadly about some of the topics of the podcast through the book. The broadest connection that I see is that, starting in the middle of the early two thousands, there’s an increasingly coherent and strong critique, as I gestured to in my own self-introduction, of nonprofits–like of nonprofitization and the nonprofit form. Increasingly, a contrast is sometimes set up in very binary terms between either the nonprofit model or the mutual aid model. One of the things that the broad scope of the book gives me some insight into is the ways that this contrast needs to be understood further, as both modes of it are really conditioned by the growth of what Ruthie Gilmore talks about as the anti-state state. They are both responses to austerity and scarcity. Therefore, we can’t look towards a pure model, or a politics of purity, about the ways we think about money, public or not. So that’s my sort of broad thought.

In terms of documents in the book that really helped us think through some of the ways money has been politicized, first of all, early in the book, there’s Coretta Scott King’s statement to Congress on behalf of the Humphrey Hawkins bill and full employment. That’s a really clear model. Also, I think the ACORN People’s Platform is pretty useful in thinking about a set of demands. This document in many ways represents a fairly shared consensus about a call for publicly owned utilities, publicly owned services, and a belief in a welfare state, but rearticulated through the anti-poverty movement.

I would also say James Boggs’ statement on rebuilding Detroit is an interesting statement to think about. Then broadly, in connection to some of the internationalist stuff that I was talking about, many different documents have broadly called for “____, not War,” or a redirection of defense funds. I think it’s useful to think through both the power of that demand, and why it seems to have fallen out of favor, but also some of the limits of the money for “blank” not war framing. In some ways, the money for “blank” not war is really just about redirecting money. Like money shouldn’t be over here, it should be over here. But it’s still imagining money as a finite thing. It doesn’t necessarily differentiate super well between public money and a divestment strategy from corporations. So I think there’s definitely some models that are really interesting and some places where we could look at some of the consequences of perhaps not having Modern Monetary Theory right there at the center, if you want to read the book that way.

Dan Berger: Yeah, I think there’s that kind of incipient consciousness around money that has some tremendous breakthroughs and some checkered unevenness. But particularly in the anti-imperialist work and in the abolitionist work, there is a recognition that the U.S. has an infinite capacity and seemingly infinite desire to fund bombs, weapons of war, prisons, and police. So I think even though some of those movements respond with a finite capacity thinking of “transfer X to Y,” with a one-to-one capacity. I think that the critique was really valuable. Using all this scarcity talk when it comes to public education or public assistance, or other kinds of public benefits, goes out the window when it comes to the security state and the military state.

So I think that consciousness around money, while hopefully not overstepping my bounds, is to say it’s maybe helpful in the genealogy of Modern Monetary Theory itself because my understanding of MMT is that it’s a descriptive project first of all. It says, “how does money work?” It’s recognizing that it’s not this sort of pie that if you take a slice of pie over here, you can’t have a slice of pie over there. Clearly the history of incarceration and war making shows that it’s not a pie, and that there are infinite non-zero-sum capacities at work. The other piece, just to add on to what Emily was saying, is, across a series of documents, including several that we’ve talked about already, we see the adamant insistence of a budget being a moral document. The demands for full employment or the demands that no expense be saved when it comes to our priorities, are examples. I don’t think people necessarily, then or now, have that fully figured out as a sort of economic program. I know I don’t. But in a way, that really helps us rethink what money is and how money both does work and should work. I think we see a lot of incipient brilliance here, even in its messiness.

William Saas: Maybe, especially for its messiness, right? Emily, you mentioned Coretta Scott King and that got me thinking, this episode, our conversation, has a great companion in our first episode, which is in an interview with the historian David Stein on the history of the job guarantee and fights for the job guarantee. Your project and this book, Remaking Radicalism, also reminds me of that conversation in that when we and David wrapped up, it was about what are the takeaways from studying advocacy for the job guarantee, and through specifically Coretta Scott King and the Humphrey Hawkins Act in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. One of his takeaways was about how it’s a lot of work, it’s a huge project, and they had a lot of people. If we have any hope of achieving what they were trying to achieve, then that’s a lot. In one sense, it’s empowering to study that history, and in the other sense, it’s very sobering. I think that’s one effect I have from this project too, which is that it recovers all of these fights and histories of these amazing activists and organizers, but there’s still neoliberalism. So I guess, as a closing impossible question to answer, is it possible to land in both places? Do you feel like you skew on the empowerment or more to the sobering side in the takeaway from your work on this book?

Emily Hobson: I think one worthy critique to engage around the anthology, or perhaps just how we talk about it, might be the “sunny” read of the anthology. Look at all this stuff that was happening. It was all happening at the same time, and so that shows this breadth of mobilization. We’ve brought all these documents together but it’s not necessarily true that everybody reflected in all of those documents was aware of everything else going on. So, from an experiential level, I certainly experienced a sense of frequent moments of isolation of this little battle over here being perceived as totally disconnected from these battles over here. There have been moments of coming together where there was a sense of a common movement, “capital M,” and not just a political economic articulation between issues, but people making rhetorical and network organization articulation between struggles. It wasn’t always necessarily apparent in every moment.

I suppose that’s the possibly sobering answer. It’s very possible for lots of things to be going on at the same time and a huge amount of activity and amazing work being done, and yet, it’s still not something that gains power and makes fundamental changes. But I do think that sunny side is there. There is a lot to be said for the strategies that attempt to build at least coalition, if not absolute unity. I’m not sure I necessarily think unity is always such a good thing. In fact, I’m pretty confident that I don’t think it’s always such a good thing. But, at least a willingness to work together and solidarity and a respect for multi-tendency approaches because that can make a lot out of many things that seem disconnected.

Dan Berger: Yeah, that’s a good question. I feel like I can really answer on the sunny side, and I can really answer on the bleak side, and having the expert synthesis of them is complicated. I’m working now on a biography of two long-time, but little known Black radicals. Part of the point of the book is to say when we pay attention to the grassroots and the people who are not very well known, things are more interesting because people outlast the heyday of a particular point in time and continue to experiment and try new thing. The point of experimentation is that sometimes things don’t work, and I think there’s lots of things in Remaking Radicalism to that.

I think we really leaned into the experimentation, or what movements were doing. I think there were some things in there that didn’t necessarily work, but I hope that people still draw some sustenance from the experimentation and effort at experimentation. There’s a lot of value there. I just think the early eighties were a really hard time. I think a lot of the projects that existed, that people tried to bring up, didn’t make it. A lot of the people, particularly people who had some experiences before that time, got burnt out or depressed or needed a break or whatever. All sorts of things kind of happen. But I think there’s a spirit of experimentation and a mobilization that then could be engaged and activated, things like the AIDS movement, that came from somewhere.

Maxximilian Seijo: Well, Emily and Dan, this conversation has been such a pleasure. Thank you both so much for coming on Money on the Left.

Dan Berger: Thank you so much. It’s really a lot of fun.

Emily Hobson: Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure, and a very exciting conversation.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamMaxximilian Seijo (audio editor), Richard Farrell (transcription), Libby Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art)

Modern Movie Theory (MMT): WandaVision

In this episode, Scott Ferguson and Maxximilian Seijo discuss the politics and aesthetics of Marvel’s WandaVision (2021), which was released via the Disney Plus streaming service earlier this year. Picking up questions about blockbuster form and apophatic analysis they’ve pondered in previous episodes, Scott and Maxx affirm the show’s exceptional foray into past sitcom aesthetics and other similarly abstract forms in light of the present neoliberal paradigm crisis. They tease out WandaVision’s critical engagement with the white heteronormative patriarchy that sitcoms have complicatedly mediated. And they critique the program’s ultimate capitulation to conventional blockbuster aesthetics, which substitute a finite and fatalistic physics for what is in truth a capacious and transformable process of monetary mediation.

The Neoliberal Blockbuster: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Preview)

This Money on the Left/Superstructure teaser previews our fourth premium release from Scott Ferguson’s “Neoliberal Blockbuster” course for Patreon subscribers.

For access to the full video lecture, subscribe to our Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure.  If you are interested in premium offerings but presently unable to afford a subscription, please send a direct message to @moneyontheleft or @Superstruc on Twitter & we will happily provide you with membership access.  

Course Description

This course examines the neoliberal Blockbuster from the 1970s to the present. It focuses, in particular, on the social significance of the blockbuster’s constitutive technologies: both those made visible in narratives and the off-screen tools that drive production and reception. Linking aesthetic shifts in American moving images to broader transformations in political economy, the course traces the historical transformation of screen action from the ethereal “dream factory” of pre-1960s cinema to the impact-driven “thrill ride” of the post-1970s blockbuster. In doing so, we attend to the blockbuster’s technological forms and study how they have variously contributed to social, economic, and political transformations over the past 40 years. We critically engage blockbusters as “reflexive allegories” of their own technosocial processes and pleasures. Above all, we think through the blockbuster’s shifting relationship to monetary abstraction and the myriad additional abstractions monetary mediation entails.

Blockbusters:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999)

Avengers: Infinity War (Joe & Anthony Russo, 2018)

Ministry for the Future with Kim Stanley Robinson

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.

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.

Link to our Patreon: www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Link to our GoFundMe: https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/money-on-the-left-superstructure 

Transcript

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 teamMaxximilian Seijo (audio editor), Richard Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art)

Superstructure Cancels the Pope

Contra leftist praise for today’s seemingly anti-capitalist papacy, co-hosts Naty Smith, Maxx Seijo, & Will Beaman offer a critical close reading of “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis’ third and most recent encyclical. Unearthing the austere logics that inhere in Bergoglio’s ideas of encounter, charity, and reconciliation, Naty, Maxx, and Will take on the pope’s not-so-lefty Jesuit career and Peronist history, as well as the Franciscan ideology and history that inspired his Covid-era message to the world. Framed by readings of Scott Ferguson’s work on the symptomatic search for solidity in the modern and neoliberal moments, the gang exposes the deeply toxic nationalistic impulses behind the Pope’s metaphysical, theological, and political exhortations. Superstructure, in other words, cancels the pope.

Link to our Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music: “Yum” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
http://flirtingfullstop.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @actualflirting

Money, Literature & Trust with Rob Hawkes (Guest Lecture)

The Money on the Left Editorial Collective is proud to present a recent talk by English literature scholar Rob Hawkes titled, “‘The Power of Money is so Hard to Realize’: Literature, Money and Trust in George Gissing’s 1891 Novel New Grub Street.” In it, Hawkes draws out urgent, though regularly overlooked linkages between modern money and modern literature. In particular, he explores British novelist George Gissing’s reflexive and genre-bending book to pose the problem of social trust from a neochartalist or MMT-informed perspective. 

Dr. Rob Hawkes is Senior Lecturer in English Studies at Teesside University in the United Kingdom; a Fellow of the English Association; and a member of the Executive Steering Committee of the British Association for Modernist Studies. He is the author of Ford Madox Ford and the Misfit Moderns: Edwardian Fiction and the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and co-editor several related books on Ford Madox Ford. Recently, he contributed ‘Openness, Otherness, and Expertise: Uncertainty and Trust in Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’ to the collection, Comedy and the Politics of Representation: Mocking the Weak, edited by Helen Davies and Sarah Ilott (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). And he is now working on a monograph on literature, money, and trust from the 1890s to the 1980s. 

To contact Dr. Hawkes, email him at r.hawkes@tees.ac.uk. Or, you can find him on Twitter @robbhawkes. 
 
Link to our Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music: “Yum” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
http://flirtingfullstop.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @actualflirting

Thank you to the English and Creative Writing Research Seminar at Teesside for hosting and giving us permission to sharing Dr. Hawkes’ lecture. 

Money, Media & Modernity (Preview)

This Money on the Left/Superstructure teaser previews our third premium release from Scott Ferguson’s “Neoliberal Blockbuster” course for Patreon subscribers.

For access to the full video lecture, subscribe to our Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure.  If you are interested in premium offerings but presently unable to afford a subscription, please send a direct message to @moneyontheleft or @Superstruc on Twitter & we will happily provide you with membership access.  

Course Description

This course examines the neoliberal Blockbuster from the 1970s to the present. It focuses, in particular, on the social significance of the blockbuster’s constitutive technologies: both those made visible in narratives and the off-screen tools that drive production and reception. Linking aesthetic shifts in American moving images to broader transformations in political economy, the course traces the historical transformation of screen action from the ethereal “dream factory” of pre-1960s cinema to the impact-driven “thrill ride” of the post-1970s blockbuster. In doing so, we attend to the blockbuster’s technological forms and study how they have variously contributed to social, economic, and political transformations over the past 40 years. We critically engage blockbusters as “reflexive allegories” of their own technosocial processes and pleasures. Above all, we think through the blockbuster’s shifting relationship to monetary abstraction and the myriad additional abstractions monetary mediation entails.

Blockbusters:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999)

Avengers: Infinity War (Joe & Anthony Russo, 2018)