28 – We Have Never Been Neoliberal, What Now?

In this episode, co-hosts Natalie Smith and Maxximilian Seijo argue that the pandemic not only killed neoliberalism as a tacit ideological formation; it also revealed how neoliberal truisms have never captured the actual causal mechanisms and potentials that defined the past 50 years. Fleshing out these claims, Naty and Maxx journey through the work of rockstar economic historian Adam Tooze, focusing in particular on his widely-hailed recent book, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy (2021). Naty and Maxx affirm Tooze’s characteristically thorough demonstration of the myriad ways that the world-wide response to the pandemic, however inadequate, dismantled the pillars of neoliberal governance. Yet they also critique the elitist complicity of Tooze’s methodological commitment to historical immanence and inevitability, tracing such impulses to back to John Maynard Keynes’ fatal dismissal of Abba Lerner’s proposal to do away with balanced budgets and revenue-constraints. For the Superstructure crew, by contrast, proceeding “in medias res,” as Tooze puts it, requires an abolitionist attunement to genuine conditions of injustice and possibility, from #Defund and ongoing labor strikes to contests over #MintTheCoin and the Green New Deal. During the conversation, wisecracks and burns abound, per usual. This one, too, is packed with citations, including loving shoutouts to David Stein, Jakob Feinig, Mariame Kaba, Dan Berger, Emily Hobson, Alex Yablon, Nathan Tankus, and Rohan Grey.

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

Mint After Reading: Philip Diehl Talks with Rohan Grey

In this bonus episode, Rohan Grey speaks with Philip Diehl about #MintTheCoin in the wake of this season’s debt limit showdown. Director of the United States Mint under President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 2000, Diehl is best known today as the person most responsible for 31 U.S. Code 5112(k). The law permits the Treasury Secretary to “mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.” This clause charts a completely constitutional path to avert recurrent debt crises and furnishes a ready framework for a new kind of radical financial literacy. No wonder why much ink has been spilled and many hands have been wrung trying to explain away or dismiss its radical implications. Grey’s conversation with Diehl explores the history of the platinum coin, offering a fascinating and unprecedented behind-the-scenes glimpse of life in the U.S. Mint.

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Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Rohan Grey and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Transcript of #MintTheCoin! – Interview with Former Mint Director Philip N. Diehl by Rohan Grey[1]

[1] Assistant Professor of Law, Willamette University & Director, Public Money Action.

Grey: Well thank you so much for joining me. My name is Rohan Grey, and I’m an Assistant Professor of Law at Willamette University in Oregon. I’m also a Director of Public Money Action, a 501(c)(4) that promotes public education and tries to improve our public policymaking process around money and financial issues.

And I’m joined today for this very special one-on-one interview with Philip Diehl, the former Director of the United States Mint, appointed by President Clinton, and currently President of U.S. Money Reserve, to talk about this idea that’s been taking the world by storm, and getting into the press, about how we could potentially resolve the ongoing and recurring debt ceiling crises that we’ve been experiencing through a provision of the Coinage Act, that authorizes the minting and issuing of platinum proof and bullion coins of whatever denomination the Treasury Secretary determines to be appropriate.

So we’re going to go into some detail about the history of that law, and some of the sort-of edges and boundaries of it. But before I get into that, I’d like to let everybody get to know you a bit more, because you’re the sort-of architect behind this in many respects, and have had a pretty incredible and unusual career. So would you mind telling us a little about what got you to be the Director of the U.S. Mint, where you were beforehand, and what that journey was like?

Diehl: Well, I went to Washington D.C. when I was thirty-nine years old, so I had a long career before that in government, some in politics, but mostly in government and the private sector. I went to Washington to be Legislative Director to Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas. And I served in that role for almost two years, until he appointed me to be Majority Staff Director of the Senate Finance Committee. And I was probably the shortest-lived Director of Senate Finance, because within three months Bill Clinton was elected, and a few weeks later Bentsen was chosen as Secretary of the Treasury, and then I went in as his Chief of Staff at the Treasury Department on the first day of the Clinton Administration.

I was in that job – a thankless job, my kids never saw me, I had young kids at home – and after about six to nine months, I felt like I had helped the Senator, and now Secretary, transition into the job. And so I decided that I was ready to go home back to Austin, Texas. And he said, well, why don’t you go look at the United States Mint, that’s a turnaround situation, I know you want to run a company.

And I was never a collector. I knew hardly anything about the U.S. Mint. But you don’t tell the Secretary of the Treasury, “No.” So I went over there, and I was very fortunate because a fellow by the name of David Rider was Director at the time, and he was a Bush Administration – H.W. Bush Administration – holdover. And he and I really made a connection. He gave me a great orientation to the U.S. Mint.

So I went back to the Secretary after three weeks and told him, “Yeah, I am interested. This looks like a real good opportunity.” And that’s a very unusual move for someone who came to Washington because of his policy interests. And this really isn’t a policy foundation, it’s a manufacturing and marketing operation. But I saw it as a diamond in the rough, and I thought, “I could do something with it.” And one of the things that really animated me, and animated the team around me at the U.S. Mint, is we had, and have, a very strong commitment to demonstrating what government – well-led government agencies – can do for the American people. That there’s a real role for an active government.

And I really liked this particular audience that I was playing to – the U.S. Mint customers on the bullion and numismatic side of the business – who are, I used to say, white, male, and over fifty, conservative, Republican. And I said the white male over fifty thing was something I aspired to – now I’m well into that demographic – and I think we really had an impact on them, surprising them in what we were able to accomplish in a whole lot of areas.

Grey: Yeah, it’s incredible, you would think that sometimes people come up through the ranks of the Mint, or they come in thinking that their job is just to keep the lights on, and not make waves. But as you said, you came in thinking of it as almost a turnaround, and you had had experience both on the hill, and in the heart of the Treasury, and seen a sort-of bird’s eye view, and saw what this agency could do and what it could become. And not only a vision for active government, but a vision for how to take an agency and to make it bigger than what it might have been. And history is full of people who’ve really kind of had a vision for making something bigger than what it was when they came into government, and to be creative about that.

So do you mind going into a bit more detail about what your sort of vision was for the Mint, what your agenda was? I know you were there for quite a while, but sort of looking back, what would you say your kind of priorities were, or how do you feel your legacy of what you left the Mint, what shape you left it in versus where it started?

Diehl: I started well, what I thought was small, and ended up being pretty big, and with three priorities that I, in my confirmation hearing, I called those out. And one of them was the financial situation at the Mint – both performance and in terms of the whole financial structure – was a terrible mess. And we were one of the first agencies – because we had private sector-like functions – we were one of the first agencies subject to a new federal law that subject government agencies to outside audits. And eventually that spread to every agency. And our first audit, the U.S. Mint failed. And for any number of reasons. So I said we need to fix that.

The second thing was we had a real problem with customer service to our numismatic customers.

Really all three of our customers: bullion, numismatic, and then circulating coins, where the Federal Reserve is the U.S. Mint’s customer. And I said we needed to fix that, that was a big problem with just performance, morale at the agency, the tremendous criticism from outside the organization because of that failure of performance.

And then the third thing was there was – there is – this commemorative coin program, in which the U.S. Mint produces, upon a mandate of Congress, a series of commemorative coins. And Congress mandates every one of those programs. And this is a way of raising funds for organizations that have access to very powerful members of Congress, and it’s a way of circumventing the appropriations process. So there grew to be a feeding frenzy for these programs, and as a result, by the time I became Director, the market for these coins had collapsed because of abuse, really, by Congress. And so getting that program under control was my third priority. And I could only do that with the help of Members of Congress, especially a couple of committee chairs, to reign in that program.

So that’s really where I started. But as we built our capabilities and our confidence in our capabilities, and there’s a psychological element to that, there’s a personnel element to it, there’s a structural element to it, there’s a financial element to it—

Grey: There’s a precedential element, yeah.

Diehl: Yes, yeah. So we grew in confidence and capability in what we could do. Which ultimately led to a series of highly innovative, entrepreneurial programs, that we had Congress enact, and that we built on to build our credibility and our capabilities. And the first one of those programs was the Platinum Eagle program. And I wanted to—first of all, I’d begun to build a relationship with the new Republican Chairman of our Banking Committee, Financial Services Committee, Oversight SubCommittee, Michael Castle from Delaware. And so I went to him and said we have this idea for a brand new platinum coin, that allows us to – will allow us, if we structure it correctly – to compete in international markets. And we had never competed in international bullion markets before.

And so I asked for a blank slate. Completely unprecedented in U.S. Mint and U.S. coinage – two hundred years of U.S. coinage – history. Where in the past, Congress mandated every little detail, and the Mint could not deviate from those details, had no discretion. And I asked for virtually total discretion to design a coin, based on market research and building a relationship with the person, the company, and the patriarch of the company in Japan – which along with North America are the two big international platinum bullion markets. And so that included everything from design to denomination.

And that’s what we were granted. I drafted that bill, he got behind it and carried it to fruition. It got embedded in a much larger Coinage Act that was designed to fulfill one of my promises, and that was to get the commemorative coin program under control. To limit it. So that’s relevant to the issue of the platinum coin, because it has been described as our intent, and Congress’s intent, to create another collectible. And that was not the intent. The intent was to authorize a bullion coin. And as I sidelight of that, it also allowed us to produce a proof coin, which is a collectible coin. It was never intended to be a commemorative coin of any kind.

So that’s sort of how we got started. And that program was immensely successful. Within six months of launching the bullion version of this coin, we had taken sixty, sixty-five percent of the Japanese market away from another competitor. And we’d also, of course, taken the American market away. And that success laid the groundwork for Congress to pass the Fifty State Quarters Program. We demonstrated our ability to perform on an entrepreneurial project.

Grey: So I want to just take a step back – I want to get into the platinum coin provision in particular, but two things that you mentioned were interesting to me. One is you were talking about the idea that Congress had previously micromanaged all of these different coin programs, and you wanted more discretion. One of the things that I traced out in my research on this issue was that if you look at the debt ceiling – before the debt ceiling existed, Congress would micro-manage the issuance of Treasury debt. You have to issue this amount of this kind of duration for this spending program, and this amount for this program, et cetera.

And in the earlier twentieth century that became increasingly unwieldy as the government got bigger. And one of the goals of the original debt ceiling, if not the primary goal, was to give more discretion to the Treasury to choose how to finance, right? You tell us how much to spend, and we will work out how to do it. In fact, I think it was Secretary Mellon in the thirties that said we [the Treasury] should have complete discretion – using similar words to you – in what kinds of securities we issue, in what denominations, to meet our needs. Get Congress out of it entirely.

And it seems like there’s that trend in general, as the government gets bigger and more complicated, to put more discretion on the executive branch. Not to make the important political decisions, but to execute on the sort-of priorities and commitments. And it seems to me that’s kind of consistent with – that there’s a sort of parallel there – with you getting more of that discretion within the Mint’s sort of authority, the way that the Bureau of Debt Management, or Office of Debt Management would have done with Treasury securities.

Diehl: Yes. Yeah, that’s exactly right. And there’s another element to this, and that is that Congress has delegated more authority to the executive branch as it has become more politicized over decades. And a great example of that is the Base Closure Commissions, in which – because it is so politicized, in terms of who are the winners and losers – that Congress in the past was paralyzed in its ability to make the Defense Department more efficient by closing down bases that had outlived their usefulness. And so what did it do? It turned over to the executive branch a process by which it presented a package of bases to be closed and consolidated, and then that package went to Congress, and they could vote it up or down. They could not amend that package whatsoever. So basically what Congress did was said “put these handcuffs on us, and then, you know, just give us a simple option.”

That’s also what they did with that whole Commemorative Coin Program. I basically put together a Base Closure Commission for these coins, so that there was a committee that was formed that would make recommendations to Congress. And Congressmen would make recommendations to us, but they didn’t have to say no. They could say, “Oh, the executive branch committee over here, they said no.


Grey: Mhm. And you can see a clear parallel with the debt ceiling today, where everybody knows it needs to be increased or abolished, but nobody wants to take political responsibility.

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: And so, for the executive branch to step into the breach and say: look, we’re going to do what everybody knows needs to be done–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …but may be politically unpalatable, and that might be to use authority that you’ve clearly given us, you know–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …in ways that maybe you want to be able to say, hey, you didn’t want this–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …and that’s useful political theater, because you can distance yourself a little bit, but it allows us to keep doing what needs to be done.

Diehl: And that is part of the magic of the trillion dollar coin, is it takes – it depoliticizes the whole issue. After you bite the bullet – or bite the coin – and do it, it takes that issue out of the hands of Congress. Everybody is off the hook, except the Secretary of Treasury and the President. And actually, I think what happens – right now what’s happening – is the trillion dollar coin, and also the Fourteenth Amendment, serve as a failsafe–

Grey: Yes.

Diehl: …on the coin. So everybody can play games with the politics of this, knowing that in the end that there are outs to this. And to sort of settle markets down as they pretend to approach this disaster of the economic collapse of default. And I, you know, I think that’s part of what’s happened this week, when all of a sudden, you know, Senator McConnell decides that, well, let’s put this off. Because there were escape hatches.

There were other things that were going on too, like, you know, the Department of Defense intervened, and said–

Grey: We need to keep the lights on, this is a national security issue.

Diehl: Yeah, we need to pay our people. And so there were other things at play too. But the timing of the article that was written by Felix Salmon, that said, you know, that quoted me, saying, Oh, the Treasury Department could–

Grey: could be done in hours.

Diehl: Yeah, can produce this coin overnight, virtually, if they set up a couple of ducks in order. And that’s the first time, I don’t think that had ever been said.

Grey: No, it hadn’t.

Diehl: And so – and it got tremendous play. As you know, Drudge put it at the top of their page, and then gave a spin to the title that suggested it was already–

Grey: They’re going to do it, yeah.

Diehl: …They’re doing it right now. So–

Grey:  The hyperbole helped bring it further into reality.

Diehl: Yes, yeah, yeah. It certainly blew up the whole story.

Grey: Yeah, and I want to just go and take a step back also. Because you were just talking about taking this out of – about depoliticizing this. But of course, this isn’t about depoliticizing the budget itself.

This isn’t about depoliticizing spending itself.

Diehl: Exactly, yeah.

Grey: That’s still an incredibly political process. In fact, maybe the most central political process for Congress. This is just about honoring that spending once it’s already been committed, and not saying we’re going to ignore Congress, or go back on our debts and things. And I just to sort of connect that, because one of the things that you haven’t mentioned about your legacy – and correct me if I’m wrong about when this, the timing of this – but my understanding is that you were also the Mint Director when the Mint really sort of separated its own budget from the rest of Treasury, and became a nonappropriated fund instrumentality, which means essentially that it funds itself through its own operations. You know, the CFPB [Consumer Finance Protection Bureau] does this with fines, other agencies do this with fines, the Fed does it with its own money creation powers.

But you essentially sort of elevated the Mint back up to an equal status with the Fed in terms of being, kind of, off balance sheet from the rest of the government. Which, when you combine that with the Mint’s sort of, internal powers, makes it a very very, you know, powerful institution. As you said, the Mint has been around for two hundred years, it’s the oldest monetary institution in the U.S. government. But that seems to have been a pretty key moment in making the modern Mint what it is today. Do you have any thoughts?

Diehl: Yes, it absolutely was. And when I proposed this to Treasury I got laughed at. They said, how are you going to get Congress to let go of the purse strings on your agency. And I said, I’m going to do it through the Appropriations Committee. Which made them laugh harder, because of course the Appropriations Committee is where that power is exercised. But I already know at the time that the Chairman of my Appropriations Sub-Committee was going to back it, because he and I had talked about it, and he really–

Grey: You worked on the hill, you know how this works.

Diehl: Well, yes, exactly. But also I was very fortunate, because the new Republican Chairman of the Committee – this was in ‘95, so right after the Gingrich revolution – the new Republican Chairman of the Appropriations Sub-Committee was a conservative – very conservative – Republican. But he and I hit it off on a personal level. And he really liked the idea of what I was doing at the United States Mint, of turning it into an entrepreneurial, you know, business-like agency.

Grey: Believing the government can do something, ironically.

Diehl: Yes, yes. This was before there was this commitment in the party – his party – that the best way of showing the government could not perform was to sabotage it. And so he was not like this at all, a guy by the name of Jim Lightfoot from Iowa. And so he said yes, you know, and I explained that all these things that we need to do, I need to have this flexibility. And so I need to operate off my own profits. The U.S. Mint is a profit-making enterprise for the U.S. government. Our profits go directly into the general fund of the Treasury. And I told him, you give me this flexibility, and I’m going to send a lot more money into the General Fund.

Grey: Which means less government debt, right? Less borrowing.

Diehl: Exactly. I mean, that’s exactly right. The money from the United States Mint, part of it, is exactly the same as tax revenue. And the other part of it, which gets to the trillion dollar coin, is very much like the issuance of interest-free loans, uh, bonds. So the combination of that, you know, really was compelling to him. He carried the legislation. Not only did we get completely off the appropriations process, but we also got the FAR, the federal procurement regulations, were lifted from us. So we took a document that was like *this* thick, and turned it into a pamphlet, to describe to outsiders what our acquisition process was.

Grey: So once again, it’s the story of more flexibility, more discretion.

Diehl: Yes. And I will say this: later on, we went to OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and asked for flexibility around the personnel rules. And I had such a good relationship with our unions that I actually had the endorsement of our unions to lift the personnel rules from us. And when my Deputy Director and I went in, we explained what we wanted to do, and pointed to our success on the procurement and on funding. He said, “you don’t understand. It’s not failure we fear, it’s success.” So we realized, okay, we’re at that point of hitting the Catch-22.

And the concern was, and he said – we said, what’s that mean? – and he said well, if you achieve this kind of flexibility, every other government agency is going to want it. And we said, our response was, “well, if they earned it, why wouldn’t you give it to them?”, knowing that is a very high bar to reach, and not very many government agencies are going to do that. One of the reasons they wont do it is because the professional risk – and therefore the financial risk – that leadership in Washington D.C. takes if it wants to make a significant change in how things work in Washington, and in the performance of an agency.

So there were a lot of things that, sort of came – and we got really lucky. We had friendly Republicans in key positions. But it is, yeah, it is hard to get that kind of flexibility.

Grey: It’s just incredible to hear this story in detail like this, I mean I feel like it needs to be a book or a movie, or something. I’ve spent a fair bit of time studying the origins of the Federal Reserve, and it’s incredible to hear this story – that you sort of almost did single-handedly – when you think about the Federal Reserve’s origins as this sort of confluence of massive banking interests in the heart of a crisis. And you’re just behind the scenes, sort of quietly doing something that ends up creating a level of budgetary and legal autonomy that’s sort of comparable within its own space.

But a couple of things were sticking out to me. One is the Federal Reserve also has budgetary independence, but doesn’t have the same kind of independence with its employees, for maybe a similar reason. So there are court cases and things where they say, look, in one sense the Federal Reserve System is clearly a government agency, but it’s got its own separate budget process, but in certain circumstances employees will be considered government employees.

But your point about the seigniorage revenue being a source of income similar to interest-free loans: at the Fed, of course, they create Federal Reserve Notes; they create reserves, which banks use as money. And the profits that the Fed returns from the assets that it buys by creating those dollars, when it returns it to the Fed, at least very recently, it was booked in accounting terms as Interest on Federal Reserve Notes. So the whole thing was, we can create this one kind of currency, and anything we do within our agency will be sent back as the sort of seigniorage profit, or the charge that we pay on what we earn on creating these instruments.

And so it’s sort of interesting to me that we have this moment where, you know, when the Federal Reserve returns eighty billion dollars a year in this revenue, we say this is great, you know, this reduces the need to borrow, thank you so much. This isn’t against Federal Reserve independence, this is good for, you know, statutory agency independence. But nobody kind of notices that the Mint’s also been doing that, often because the numbers are maybe an order of magnitude smaller. But as you noted, in your tenure they went up. And they could have kept going up. And there’s never been a limit historically on the upper limit. It’s only been, sort of, how visionary the Mint Director has been, it seems like.

Diehl: Yes, yeah, those are good points. And it gets to one of the points I like to make, [which] is: the trillion dollar coin is nothing novel. I mean, it has been made out to be this gimmick. And as you say, you know, it’s [an] everyday occurrence at the Fed, and at the United States Mint. Creating seigniorage – seigniorage being the difference between the face value of a coin, in this case, and the cost of production. And that represents sort of a profit, but really it represents more of a loan in this case, because the U.S. Mint sends a coin – a quarter, let’s say – to the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve purchases it for the face value – twenty-five cents. Let’s say the Mint produces it at a cost of eight cents. So that’s seventeen cents, margin, that the Mint makes on that coin. Well, you add up all of that in the course of the year, and that acts as – the U.S. Mint moves it over to the Treasury Department – and that seigniorage acts as a means of funding the government, just like a bond does.

And so the only difference a trillion dollar coin represents, is it has more zeroes on the end of it. And, yeah, that’s a huge thing. But it’s not a different process. It’s not a different concept. In fact, this is a concept – seigniorage goes back, you know, I don’t know–

Grey: Yeah, Founding Fathers.

Diehl: …two hundred years.

Grey: Pointy hats–

Diehl: Yeah.

Grey: …and tin whistles, and, you know, the HBO mini-series.

Diehl: Yeah.

Grey: It’s as American as apple pie.

Diehl: [Chuckling] Yes. Yeah, yeah. And it’s because governments have used seigniorage to fund their operations – the King’s operations – for hundreds and hundreds of years. And Mint Directors in the past, if they shaved too much – if they shorted the amount of metal that was in a coin beyond what the Crown had authorized – they were hung, you know. 

Grey: It was a big deal.

Diehl: It was a really big deal, yeah.

Grey: Isaac Newton was the Mint Director in the U.K, took his job very seriously. Yeah, I mean, two things on that. One is, you know, you say it’s sort of like issuing government debt. But it’s important, and this is where, again, being very clear about statutory language – as a law professor I love this whole moment because it’s forcing people to learn how statutes work – but the public debt limit is quite narrow. It’s for things that have interest and principle, and it includes only a certain group of instruments. So for example, Federal Reserve Notes and coins have never been counted in the national debt. If they did, then we’d have probably accidentally violated the debt ceiling a number of times already.

Diehl: Yes.

Grey:  But not only that, there’s actually been instruments that the Federal Reserve issues – interestearning term deposits, which they started issuing in 2009 – that pay interest, are a legal obligation of the government, but are not included in the debt ceiling. And so there’s a lot of instruments out there – including the Greenbacks that Lincoln authorized, that are still legal on the books at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing – that are not included in the debt ceiling. We could call them debt, we could call them a means of financing, but they are no “Debt Subject to Limit” in the same way. And this coin would be very clearly in that category, not in the category of debt subject to the debt ceiling, because that’s a very narrow category. And that’s sort of one of the other confusions. People say, “oh well this is basically violating the spirit of the debt ceiling law.” Well, no more than issuing a quarter is, right?

Diehl: Yes, that’s exactly right.

Grey: And you mentioned, you know, that this was a sort of bullion coin program initially. And I think this is one other confusion – we were just talking about this earlier – people often think, well, bullion coins have to represent the underlying metal value and nothing more. And the reality – correct me if I’m wrong – is that a lot of bullion coins are sold, you know, over their face value because the metal is more expensive.

But there’s nothing that says the face value couldn’t be more than the metal, and we certainly aren’t on a gold standard, or a metal standard in general. And it’s the face value of the coin that matters. In fact, I pulled up a couple of statutes – 31 U.S.C. § 5112(q)(4), which concerns the sale of $50 denominated gold bullion coins, says that the bullion coins shall be sold for an amount the Secretary determines to be appropriate, but not less than the sum of the market value of the bullion, and the cost of designing the coins, including labor, materials, machinery, et cetera.

So even with regular bullion coins – and there’s another one for § 5112(o)(4)(A), which governs the sale of $10 denominated commemorative gold coins, that says that bullion coins shall be sold at a price that is equal to or greater than the sum of the face value and the cost of designing the coins. So even when we think of bullion coins, we’re not thinking of something that can only ever be the value of the metal. That might be a floor, but it’s not necessarily a ceiling. Does that sound correct to you?

Diehl: Yes, that’s exactly right. And it’s only by practice, and sort of practicality, that the U.S. Mint sells bullion coins at a small premium over the spot price of gold, that represents those costs of production, of marketing, sales, and all that. And that’s because the purpose of the coin is to compete in marketplace with other bullion coins. And so those sorts of price constraints apply because of the intent, and the intent of the product, and the circumstances in which the product enters the marketplace. None of that applies to a trillion dollar coin. Its purpose is very different. And so it wouldn’t make sense for it to follow that model, because it is so different.

The other thing that’s important is there is no language in that provision of law that authorizes the platinum coin that says anything about pricing.

Grey: That’s right – other than that the Treasury Secretary has absolute discretion, right?

Diehl: Yes, yes. So the restraints that are in the statute, that apply to gold and silver bullion coins, aren’t there for platinum.

Grey: And I believe it was Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe that talked about this. He said, you know, if you look at all the other statutes, and they have constraints. And then you look at one that doesn’t. And it was intentionally written to not have the same constraints as the others. Then you have to take that seriously as a matter of statutory interpretation. You can’t say, “oh, they meant it to have similar constraints, they just forgot.” You wrote it! You didn’t forget. You made it.

Diehl: [Chuckling] Yeah, no, it’s a feature not a bug.

Grey: That’s right, that’s right. That’s exactly right. And you mentioned also, you know, there was also this other language for “proof” coins in the statute as well. And there’s been some sort of debate around this. People say well, proof coins means they have to only be entered into as collectibles. And obviously, most proof coins are collectibles. But my understanding – correct me if I’m wrong – is that the word “proof” there refers to the method of production. Can you describe that for people that aren’t that very familiar with the minting process, what proofing is?

Diehl: Yeah, so proof coins are produced in a very different way from circulating coins and bullion coins. And they are produced to much higher standard. Also, they look different. They have a frosted image, typically, and a marred background. They are sort of a fine art of coin production. And so those coins are typically sold to collectors. But there’s no restriction. They could be sold as bullion coins. They could be produced and put into the Fed as circulating coins.

Grey: You wouldn’t do it because it would be a waste of money and high production grade, but you could if you wanted to, right?

Diehl: Exactly. I mean, you could do it – and we actually talked about doing something like this – to put a very small portion of, like, a State Quarter,into circulation through these huge ballistic bags that we send to the Federal Reserve, and they put into rolls and they ship to banks. And we decided that there was enough interest in the 50 State Quarters when we launched it without doing something like that, there was–

Grey: Sort of like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the golden tickets.

Diehl: [Chuckling] Yes, yeah exactly, yes. And so, yes, we completely had the authority to do it. The economics of it does not work if you’re doing all the coins like that. If you took a very small, you know, percentage and did it like that, then the accelerant would easily pay for itself, because all these other coins would be collected hoping to get those. And you get all the seigniorage profit on that.

Grey: In fact, I believe it was Andrew Jackson who issued a Gobrecht Dollar that was a proof circulating coin. And you might know the history better than me, but my understanding was that it was the sort of reintroduction of a dollar coin. And so it was a sort of, as you say, an attempt to drum up interest, and to make a big show of it. And so the reason that you used this higher production grade quality was precisely to get the marketing and the attention, more than you might for a regular coin. And that was a proof coin that happened to circulate. So there’s no kind of inconsistency there.

Diehl: Yes. There’s a similar situation that as far as I know was an accident. I was not aware it was happening, I don’t at all know it was intentional. But when the Sacagawea coin was launched, there were some of them that were produced on a more highly refined blank, and those coins became especially valuable collector items once they were discovered, and–

Grey: Semi-proof, huh? Quasi-proof?

Diehl: Yeah, but it had a better strike to it. And as a result we had a similar kind of effect that you’re describing.

Grey: And the idea of, kind of, having a high – you know, you call it the [high] art of of coins – seems to be pretty appropriate for a trillion dollar coin. You know, I’ve always said, people say “what happens if it gets stolen?” or something, and its sort of a funny joke. And yeah, we all get to laugh about it. Of course, if you steal a trillion dollar coin and then try to use it, there’s going to be a pretty strong legal presumption you didn’t get it legally, right? But I’ve always thought it would be great to have some ritual and symbolism around this, especially if it was to save the government from itself and this insanity of the debt ceiling.

When you think about the Federal Reserve and its announcements – you know, the ritual of these Federal Reserve pronouncements – when you think of courts and them wearing robes, when you think of military service and the, you know, the music they play, and the folding of the flag, ritual is very important to our government. And if we were to going to mint a trillion dollar coin, having it to be beautiful quality, and then, you know, having a child walk it from the Mint to the Fed–

Diehl: Yep.

Grey: …and say, you know, here we are, I’d like to hand this over, and then “I accept this on behalf of the American people,” you know.

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: And then maybe on the other side it ends up at the Smithsonian, and everyone can tour it in schools as part of their, you know, American history education. It seems like proof coin, there, is sort of the appropriate one. Even if the law had said “bullion, proof, or circulating coins,” if you were going to create a trillion dollar coin, you’d probably want it to be proof.

Diehl: Yes, yes. Well, not only would you stand out if you carried a trillion dollar coin and tried to use it in commerce, but hard to make change for it to. But yes, sitting at the Smithsonian, obviously you’d have to have it well guarded, but the–

Grey: Alongside the Declaration of Independence, or something.

Diehl: Exactly, yes. But the key to this – and to address another knock that we hear that is fallacious on the coin – the key is that the coin does not, and of course, can not go into circulation. It has no impact on the money supply. And that is the wrap, is that all of a sudden, it’s going to be like Venezuela. All of a sudden, you’re increasing the money supply by a trillion dollars, and you’re going to have all of these disasters and consequences. You know, it never goes into commerce. It’s not like other coins, or currency, or QE [Quantitative Easing] for that matter, in which money is being inserted into the economy. This coin is produced at the United States Mint, goes to the Federal Reserve, stays in a vault. There will be, when sanity prevails and the debt limit is increased, that trillion dollar coin can come back to the U.S. Mint, just like any other coin. That seigniorage is taken off the books, and the coin is destroyed.

Grey: Right. The only spending that would happen is the spending that Congress has already said needs to happen, that should be happening anyway, and in fact is constitutionally required under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Diehl: That’s exactly right.

Grey: The money going out of the Treasury’s account into people’s pockets should have kept going anyway, but for the insanity in Congress, and these misunderstandings that the debt ceiling is supposed to stop us from being able to continue honoring those obligations.

Diehl: Yes, yeah, exactly.

Grey: So, one question – you mentioned there, you said the coin doesn’t need to go into circulation. Usually, my understanding – and correct me if I’m wrong – is that coins are sold to the Fed, and that the Fed sells them on to banks, who then, you know, get it out into the public. But the Fed isn’t the only actor that has bought coins directly from the Mint, apart from collectors and bullion investors, right? There are other ways that coins do get into circulation. Do you want to tell us a little bit about some of that history?

Diehl: [Chuckling] Okay, yes. It’s sort of notorious. So we were given a mandate by Congress to produce a new dollar coin to replace the Susan B. Anthony, which was an utter failure for a number of reasons. And this is something that Congressman Castle and I worked together on as well. And we were given discretion in this case too, but only over the design of the coin. And it was through a design competition that the United States Mint executed, that the image of Sacagawea and her infant Jean Baptiste on her back, during the Lewis and Clark expedition, was chosen for that coin.

And so we did a lot of market research – part of the entrepreneurial basis. The United States Mint hadn’t done that before to any significant degree; certainly hadn’t with the Susan B. Anthony. And part of the market research was to go the banks and the Fed, and say, you know, to make a pitch: you should get this coin, it’s going to be much more popular than the Susan B. Anthony, and they won’t be in the vaults forever. Here’s the market research of consumers that shows there will be this demand. And the response from the banks and the Federal Reserve was, “well, you have to demonstrate to us – actually demonstrate to us – that there will be demand for this cause.”

Well [it was] the ultimate Catch-22, because if we can’t get through the Federal Reserve into the banks, how do you demonstrate the public is going to want it.

Grey: It’s almost like they just didn’t want it.

Diehl: They didn’t want it, yeah. The coins and the Federal Reserve – I mean, the banks and the Federal Reserve, they don’t like coins. And for–

Grey: It’s an unpleasant reminder that there’s other monetary traditions other than theirs, right?

Diehl: Yes. And coins are more expensive for the Federal Reserve: they’re heavier, they’re–

Grey: They have to pay face value, not the paper cost if they buy paper notes.

Diehl: Exactly, yes. And a dollar coin that was highly popular, the banks in particular didn’t like. Because what happens if you have a really popular coin? Customers come into the bank, they ask for it, they come to the drive-through. That imposes a cost on the banks they don’t want to incur. So no way, they weren’t going to do it, we couldn’t persuade them. It wasn’t a big enough issue for the Secretary of the Treasury or certainly the Chairman of the Fed to get involved in–

Grey: Small change for them.

Diehl: Yeah, exactly. Doesn’t matter. Penny-ante. And, so–

Grey: In fact, I believe I’ve read some Government Accountability Office reports saying, you know, it would be much better for costs and things to have less dollar paper notes and more dollar coins, but it’s very hard to get people to use it, and it would certainly be hard if the banks are not actually on board with helping people use it, and actively resist.

Diehl: Yes, yes. So, being entrepreneurial, we decided we’d go around the Fed and the banks. And I had a lunch with the brand new lobbyist for Walmart, who’d never done any lobbying before. He didn’t know this kind of entrepreneurial stuff wasn’t smart in Washington, D.C. So I said, what I want to do is I want to launch this coin on the same date in three thousand locations, Walmart locations across the country. And we will direct ship, you know – and it was, my recollection was it was two hundred million coins over the period of those two months – to all those locations. A huge number. They wanted as much as we could produce, well we couldn’t produce more than that. And so none of the banks ordered it, Walmart ordered it, and we did a marketing campaign, and at the end of January 2000, that coin was launched.

People lined up. People think the Sacagawea coin was a failure. And it ended up being a failure for a couple of reasons – one is hostility in the banks and the Federal Reserve. But when we launched it, people lined up at the stores. They were out of the coins by the end of the first day. They wanted to order more, we were on a production schedule. But when people couldn’t get the coin that they wanted at Walmart, they went to their banks, and the banks didn’t have them. And so they were embarrassed.

And so what did they do? They don’t say, “oh, you know, we made a mistake.” They call their contact at the Federal Reserve. And the complaints all come in to Greenspan, Greenspan calls the Secretary of the Treasury, I get a telephone call, and I explained why we had done it this way, and it faded the heat. But what we ended up doing was, we went back to Walmart and said, “we’re not going to be able to provide the second one hundred million coins.” It’s a government contract, and also they had achieved their objective.

So we took that hundred million coins, and direct shipped them to the banks based on orders they made online.

Grey: On the day.

Diehl: Huh?

Grey: On the day.

Diehl: Yes, yeah. And we direct shipped it because the process of getting coins from the Mint through the Federal Reserve to the banks was so slow that we, you know, it frustrated the demand. So we bit the bullet and direct shipped it to them, and so it kind of ended the controversy.

Grey: It’s an interesting story on two levels, because on one level it’s showing that – you know, people often say well the Fed wouldn’t accept the coin – well, maybe there are other people that would accept, maybe not a trillion, you know, not everyone’s looking for a trillion in cash, but there are certain investors and things that are looking for, you know, a billion dollars in liquid cash and things. And if you could say, “hey, you know, we can’t sell any more T-Bills this month, but we can sell some coins that you can store, and they’re legal tender, and they will satisfy your fiduciary responsibilities to invest in safe assets, you know, I think there could be people that’d be interested.

But the other part of that story is that, you know, we often think that, “oh the Fed said it can’t be done, so it can’t be done.” But the reality is that’s just one opinion of one agency within the government, and there’s other agencies with other opinions, and who ends up winning that battle when there’s a difference is often about who’s more creative in putting pressure in the right way. And the story you just told is about precisely putting the pressure. And you mentioned a similar story in the past about the 50 State Quarters, where the antagonist was the Treasury in that situation, if you want to share a little about that story.

Diehl: Well, opinions are a dime a dozen. And so of course, you have to look behind the opinions at the facts. And on all of these monetary issues, they’re very complex. So it’s hard to sort through, and usually you have to rely on somebody whose judgment and independence you trust. But the other thing is it’s crucial to look at what is the motive behind – the economic motive, the emotional motive, whatever–

Grey: The partisan, the political motive.

Diehl: …the power motive behind an opinion. And also, what is the strategic situation. For example, we are hearing from the Treasury Department and the White House that “no, no, we won’t do the dollar coin, I mean the trillion dollar coin. It’s a gimmick.” Well, okay, that may be a sincere expression of their intent, or their adamant commitment not to do it. But also it’s very clear that the White House and the Treasury Department wanted a particular outcome, which they got by standing firm. And to say, “yeah, you know, the trillion dollar coin is an option” releases the pressure, the negotiating pressure, to get the outcome they really wanted. And–

Grey: It was Margaret Thatcher that famously popularized “There Is No Alternative” as a justification–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …for doing anything. And often there was. But–

Diehl: Yup.

Grey: …it was a useful line. In fact, I remember speaking to some senior Treasury officials back – about the situation in 2011, and they said that. They said, “we didn’t want there to be another option,” because–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …we wanted to force the Republicans to come to the table.

Diehl: Yep.

Grey: And so anything that showed that this could be resolved on our side–

Diehl: Yeah.

Grey: …was inconvenient for us.

Diehl: And it’s easy to frame that in partisan terms. That, okay, the Democrats were smarter, tougher, stood hard this time, as opposed to last time; they prevailed. But it’s crucial to rise above that partisan – you know, it’s really a partisan dismissal of what’s really at stake.

Grey: That’s right.

Diehl: What’s at stake here is using the debt limit as a cudgel by threatening the country with default. And now it’s happened three times. The first two times, the Democrats compromised. They were the responsible party. And what did that do?

Grey: Yep.

Diehl: That just laid the foundation for the next time that–

Grey: Yep.

Diehl: …you know, that their opponents would push them to the wall. And this time, they took a stand and the prevailed.

Grey: And, you know, Mitch McConnell managed to get, what? Ten Senators, or something, on board with this, or to vote to change the rules to extend it for another two months? But–

Diehl: Very difficult.

Grey: …all you need–

Diehl: Very hard.

Grey: …all you need is a slightly more radical, you know, opposition party, or maybe not three branches, where there’s enough, you know, members on one side or the other. And yeah, I’ve described it as putting a gun to the head of the American economy–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …and saying, “we’ll pull the trigger if they don’t come to the table.” And, you know, even if they’re being unreasonable by not coming to the table, the fact that you’re putting a gun to the head of the American economy is its own form of, kind of, degradation of the process, and what the public understands, because you’re telling them something that isn’t true–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …to achieve an outcome–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …and in doing so eroding that trust in government, and in the fact that you can, that your politicians are actually telling you what is going on. And they’re doing so in a way that is playing with fire. And if it gets burned will affect everybody. And–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …we’ll go, “I can’t believe this happened,” you know?

Diehl: Yes, yeah. And in – I think in the past, when it came up in 2011, 2013, this became increasingly difficult to believe. But, there are some who believed – and some very smart people, savvy people, who believed – that this was only traditional politics: using leverage to – in a negotiating situation – to get an advantage over your opponents. I think we’ve increasingly come to realize – not just because of previous debt limit fights, but from other political situations – that there are people in the country who believe that they benefit, in terms of power and–

Grey: Disruption.

Diehl: …political organization by damaging the economy of the country when the opposing party will be held accountable for it. And it’s a form of economic sabotage. And there is still a group of people who would benefit from that. Or who could sustain their position for a period of time in those circumstances. But the vast majority of us would be losers.

Grey: And we saw that, almost, with some of the – some of the people motivated behind Brexit, for example.

Diehl: That’s right.

Grey: Now they might have been quite aware of how damaging it could be to their economy, but they didn’t care.

Diehl: Yeah.

Grey: So I don’t know if you don’t want to talk about the 50 State Quarter Program and the Treasury experience there, if you – we can move on on that one. But the other thing was, you know, people have been saying, “well, the Fed could just refuse to accept the coin, and it wouldn’t be booked as legal tender until it was sold. And so it’d have to be sold to someone first, and if the Fed refused to accept it then that would be that.” And you were telling me earlier about, sort of, the difference in the legal rules around when something gets counted as, you know, legal tender – when it leaves the Mint, versus when it gets to the Fed.

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: And it reminded me a little bit of when I teach in Contracts. You know, people talk about the Mailbox Rule, you know, when you accept a contract. You send it in the mail versus when the other person receives it; it’s a question of, kind of, when was it accepted. But can you tell us a little bit about that rule, and how it’s changed, and, sort of, what you think about it?

Diehl: You bet. First of all, I think this is a highly unlikely–

Grey: Right.

Diehl: …  theoretical scenario, where–

Grey: …the Federal Reserve would have to be refusing to go along with the Treasury, and saying, “we prefer default in this eleventh-hour moment”–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …we will be the ones putting our hand up, saying–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …‘we’re willing to cause this default–

Diehl: [Chuckling] yes.

Grey: …in the name of Federal Reserve independence, which, by the way, we hope will still be around tomorrow–

Diehl: That’s right.

Grey: …if we do this.”

Diehl: [Chuckling] Yes, yes. That’s one half of the equation that makes it virtually impossible to happen. The other half of it is just politically, the President, and the Secretary of Treasury, and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve are going to have to agree on doing this beforehand. It’s just, it’s inconceivable that the White House would try to jam this into the Fed. But, I mean, there are scenarios you can conjure up where something like that may happen. So–

Grey: I had a colleague remind me that it’s still on the books that the Treasury Secretary can remove the Fed Chairman for cause, and–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …maybe this would be moment–

Diehl: Yes, yes.

Grey: …that unthinkable moment where you might actually be able to remove the Fed Chairman for cause, because they’re standing in the way of preventing unconstitutional default.

Diehl: [Laughing] Yes. I definitely think that would be cause.

Grey: As far as stakes go, you would hope–

Diehl: Yeah, that would be cause.

Grey: …that would be high enough. If the President said, “it’s my sincere belief that–

Diehl: Yeah.

Grey: …this Fed Chair is standing in the way of us, you know, preventing default, I can’t imagine the Supreme Court getting in the way and reversing it. So, you know [shrugs].

Diehl: Yes, yes. And I can think of at least three members of the Senate who you could move into the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve [clicks fingers] that would accept a trillion dollar coin that fast.

Grey: I won’t ask you to name their names right now.

Diehl: Yes, I’m not gonna name them. But they – and not just because it avoids default, but because there are a whole set of other policy issues that come together in the trillion dollar coin that people don’t talk about because they’re complex. Very complex. And they are downstream from what we are talking about here today.

So this caveat here, to answer your question – this is my recollection of what happened twenty-plus years ago at the United States Mint, and why it happened. And I do not know whether it has changed since then or not. I’d be very surprised if it changed because of the reason why it changed.

So during my term and before my term – during most of my term – seigniorage was booked when coins left the Mint loading dock, on its way to the Fed. So in the case of the trillion dollar coin, we, you know – the U.S. Mint strikes it, they send it to the loading dock, a truck takes it over to a helicopter, which flies it over to the Federal Reserve in New York City in an hour. So under that scenario, boom. The seigniorage would be booked immediately.

There was a point late in my term, when it was the OMB (the Office of Management and Budget), I believe – it could have been Treasury, but I think it was OMB – that changed that booking procedure. And changed it so that the seigniorage wasn’t booked until the Fed had accepted the coin. And – a quarter, whatever coin. And the reason – and it might have happened during the Fifty State Quarters Program (that would make sense) which was launched in 1999 – [was] because we were shipping so many coins to the Federal Reserve, that OMB looked at that and said, “oh, we need to change the incentives for the shipment of coins to the Federal Reserve.”

Grey: You’re too successful. You’re getting to many out the door.

Diehl: Well, it was just the concern that some time in the future the U.S. Mint would produce a whole bunch of coins, send them over to the Federal Reserve – or the Administration would order it to happen – and then inappropriately book – “inappropriately” [inverted fingers] book – all the seigniorage.

So – and this is ironic, because – when I got to the [Mint], there was this boom and bust cycle of the production of coins. And as you can imagine, the demand for coinage depends on the economic activity in the economy. More coins are needed when there’s more economic activity.

Grey: We had a coin shortage last year. I think it’s still enduring, because–

Diehl: Exactly.

Grey: …of the pandemic.

Diehl: Yes. And so – and this was magnified by the Fed’s terrible model for projecting coin demand. And so I had a very smart young economist, who I brought in and said, “uh, we gotta fix this.” Because what happens is we fall way behind in production when all of the sudden all of this demand comes in. And then so we’re so slow in cutting off production, the Federal Reserve vaults fill up with coins. Then those back up into – we had them not in vaults, but in hallways back in those days.

And then when demand comes back up, all that flows out; we have to crank up production. And so the irony of this is that we [the Mint] were responsible for changing the model that the Fed used in cutting down this shipment of excess coins and seigniorage and everything.

But – so, that change occurred. And that would obviously affect the trillion dollar coin, because if the Fed refused to accept it, then the seigniorage wouldn’t be booked. But as we were saying, that’s a highly unlikely situation for all kinds of reasons. It, you know, it would only be done as a failsafe measure. And –

Grey: And the rule that the OMB set could just be changed, right?

Diehl: Well that’s the other thing. Yeah.

Grey: It’s not legislative, it’s not statutory. It wasn’t Congressional intent. This is all within the executive branch, this is all internal baseball between different agencies and internal politics, right?

Diehl: [Nodding] It wasn’t even a regulatory rule change–

Grey: Right, so it wouldn’t need to go through the–

Diehl: …that required public notice and all that stuff. It was just [snaps fingers] you know, they’re just done.

Grey: So if Biden needed to change that rule five minutes before that coin got struck, he could, potentially.

Diehl: Yeah. Absolutely, yeah.

Grey: So I know we’ve been going – we’re [at] the end of time, but I’ve got one last question, sort of. You mentioned all of these downstream, second-order implications of the coin. One of the things that I was writing – and found this, you know, whole issue so fascinating – is because, you know, I was an elementary school teacher. I like social myths and public narratives – about how our government works, that provide the basis for us to understand the world we live in – that are accessible to people.

A colleague of mine – a sociologist named Jakob Feinig – talks about this term “monetary silencing:” where average people are taught to, you know, “you don’t need to know about this stuff. It’s very complicated. There’s people in the room – you know, who wear suits, who have finance backgrounds – they understand all of this stuff. You shouldn’t try to understand it at all, you know?

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: We need economic literacy and monetary/financial literacy in schools, but what we really mean is you,you know, you should balance your checkbook. You shouldn’t learn how the government actually works, and how this sort of ‘veil of money’ works.

And even, you know, very respected scholars who I otherwise respect, you know – there was an op-ed in the New York Times by Peter Coy, just recently, about this – they would say, “look, yes, it’s a Noble Lie that we can’t make money out of thin air, and things like that. But, you know, even if Noble Lies aren’t great in some situations, we shouldn’t probably be drawing attention to this too much right now.” And at least to me, if you look at the alternative, it’s this catastrophic debt ceiling that we keep coming back at. It’s politicians saying we can’t afford to deal with climate change, we can’t afford to deal with poverty, because we don’t have enough money.

And as you said before, it’s a useful political kind of rhetoric, to say, “oh, there’s no alternative to austerity. There’s no alternative.” But if there is an alternative, then these myths are not just things that keep the lights on – they are things that actively harm us. And maybe we could be looking to a new set of myths. Something that meets our new moment and our new needs.

And if we’re in a world now where – you know, bitcoin, and dog[e]coin, and all these things – people have embraced the idea that you can coin an asset out of thin air. It could literally be made of zeros and ones on a computer.

Diehl: [Chuckles] Yes.

Grey: And the value is: how people accept it, how people use it, what’s backing it, has it got the force of law behind it, et cetera. That, if we think about coins, there’s actually maybe a time for a renaissance of coins as a sort of symbol of the money power–

Diehl: [Nodding] Yeah.

Grey: …and going back to that two hundred year history. And one last little point on that before I get your thoughts is: I know that we’re in now this world of government digital currencies – we’ve been talking about, you know, they say a “central bank” digital currency.

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: And I’ve testified to Congress, saying “why don’t we talk about coinage? Why don’t we talk about digital coinage?” Because if you think about a bank account, there’s a third party in the middle. There’s not as much privacy. In fact, there’s a whole third-party legal doctrine that says you don’t have privacy if you put your money with the bank. But even paper currency has a barcode. Coins are the original, anonymous money. If it’s in your pocket, it’s yours.

And one of the earliest forms of digital currency that was tested by a government was Canada, and it was the Royal Mint. They created the “Mint Chip” program–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …and it was an attempt to create a digital coin. So maybe, you know, I’d be curious to your thoughts – as we’re entering a digital world, as we’re discussing how to create a whole new form of currency, that maybe the Mint should be in the room. Maybe we should be thinking about this beyond just the Federal Reserve. Beyond just a better bank account. And what lessons we can learn from the history of coinage – and from the design of coinage – even if it will be, you know, a digital equivalent.

Diehl: Well Mike Castle – Representative Mike Castle – back in, probably, ‘96, ‘97, had a Congressional hearing on the future of money. And I testified at that. And all these issues sort of came up in a primitive form.

Grey: You were talking about stored value cards at the time, if I remember that correctly.

Diehl: Yes, yeah, that’s exactly right. Stored value coins. And this is one of the things that I was – you raised one of the issues I was really intent on at the time – was that coinage is the ultimate private exchange. Cannot be traced.

And that – in those days, people weren’t concerned about privacy. I mean, it was amazing to me how nonchalant people were about privacy. And then we saw all that take off with social media. Where people told their life stories, and said things online that inevitably would come back to haunt them. And people just sort of didn’t care about it.

Well now, especially after 9/11 and the surveillance act–

Grey: The Patriot Act.

Diehl: Yeah, Patriot Act. People woke up to what that meant. And so, you know, it’s begun to sink into the culture. And I think you’re absolutely right.

You know, coinage is the physical embodiment of that set of privacy values, which are being expressed in what I believe is a highly-dangerous-to-individuals-form in crypt[o]currency. And also, you know, has the potential of destabilizing the larger economic system. So–

Grey: If the only kind of privacy we get is these volatile crypto private-currencies–

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …then it will be a very bad day for privacy, because–

Diehl: Well, if we–

Grey: …it doesn’t have the full faith and credit of the United States. It doesn’t have that whole infrastructure. You can’t use it at a store, necessarily. All those kinds of things. 

Diehl: Well we’ve lived through that before too. Leading into the Civil War, when before there was the American Greenback.

Grey: Greenback, yeah.  

Diehl: And so you had all these banks issuing their own currency. And yeah, you know, if you were using it locally you knew something about the stability and reputation of that bank. But the further you got away from that bank, that note would still be used, and people didn’t know, you know, what was the providence behind this note. And–

Grey: I remember someone saying it used to be better to get a counterfeit note on a good bank–

Diehl: [Chuckling] Yes.

Grey: …than a good note on a bad bank.

Diehl: Exactly right, yes. And the U.S. could put up with that, economically. And there wasn’t the political will to do anything about it until the Civil War. And then the U.S. federal government – number one – had the ability to do it because half the nation who opposed doing anything about that left Congress. And the other was: we need to finance, you know, the war.

So necessity bred a change. And unfortunately that’s how the government works; our government works. It reacts. So there will have to be some disaster that occurs around cryptocurrency that will drive Congress, the Federal Reserve, the regulators, to do something about it. Hopefully that occurs somewhere else, not in the U.S., and we learn the lesson from somebody else.

But let me address the assumption that underlies this question. And that is that people don’t really understand fiat currency. I think that may have been true in the past. Probably was true in the past. But people have driven into their minds, over and over again – certainly since 2009, with the QE, and the, you know, and the opening, basically, of the flood of the money supply into the economy to save the economy (not just the U.S. economy, but the world economy) – people came to understand that what fiat currency means.

And they don’t necessarily understand what it means: the “full faith and credit of the United States Government.” What that means. But – especially when you’re threatening to default on your, you know–

Grey: Especially when it doesn’t mean as much as it used to, maybe.

Diehl: Yes, yes. So I think people are getting that. The other thing, why people are being educated on that, is that a conservative mantra has been against fiat currency [and] for the gold standard. And, you know, that’s been the case since, you know, ‘33? Since FDR got us off the gold standard. And – well, informally–

Grey: They’ve been predicting the–

Diehl: …and then Nixon took us off. But – so I think the predicate has been laid for the trillion dollar coin. People just don’t – it looks like a gimmick. And when you think about it, this is a branding problem.

Grey: Yep.

Diehl: Because “QE” (Quantitative Easing), it hides what it does. Those words, it sounds really complex. Beyond our comprehension. Whereas a trillion dollar coin sounds ludicrous, you know? Grey: Yep. What we’re doing is we’re easing, quantitatively–

Diehl: Yeah.

Grey: …with a trillion dollar coin. Let’s just, Mint Quantitative Easing. Yeah. And you’re absolutely right. You know, there were newspaper headlines: “oh trillions of dollars have been created.” If that was going to cause a panic in the streets, where was it? Where was it the last ten years? When the last debt ceiling crisis happened, even Standard & Poors downgraded the U.S. credit rating. And what happened? People flooded into Treasuries, not out of them.

And I remember Neel Kashkari, last year – the President of the Minneapolis Fed – said, “we have an infinite amount of dollars that we can use to save us from this crisis.” I’d never heard a Federal Reserve person use the word –

Diehl: [Chuckling] No, that is pretty good.

Grey: …“infinite” in public before. Maybe in private, but not in public. And the New York Times had an op-ed headline saying, “the Coronavirus money is being pulled out of thin air.” And if that’s not going to cause a crisis, you know, I think you’re right. The idea that the public can’t handle this truth that it’s too big, it’s too scary – even if that had some credibility in 2006, it doesn’t have the same credibility in 2021.

But maybe you’re right. Maybe it does take necessity to breed government action. And maybe we do need to get even closer to that debt ceiling cliff, you know, before we will entertain the unthinkable.

Diehl: If I could–

Grey: Sorry.

Diehl: If I could make one other point, that has really been impressing on me under these current circumstances. There will come a day when it’s inevitable: what comes down must also go up. And I’m talking about the inflation rate. And all know this in the back of our minds, that once the inflation rate goes up, and the federal government is no longer paying what is essentially zero-interest on an inflation-adjusted basis for, you know, on its bonds. When inflation goes up and we have to pay more, and we have thirty trillion dollars in debt, then we are going to see interest payments – the financing of that debt – devouring larger and larger sections of the federal budget.

Grey: Yeah.

Diehl: And coinage – and seigniorage – is one of the ways to think conceptually about how to deal with that. And this is particularly relevant in terms of the whole starve the beast strategy, [which] is that we will build all these deficits, at some point the government will have to face reality, and will have to start cutting social security, and killing all the old New Deal and Great Society programs. And Obamacare, now. All that will have to die, and there won’t be any choice.

Well, there are choices. And we just need to be aware that that day is gonna come.

Grey: And we need to be preparing pre-emptively to do that marketing work, and do that public education, and building the institutions. And I know I speak to people, and they say well, you know, even if the Treasury issued zero-interest financing, the Fed would pay interest on reserves if it wanted to raise the interest rate. So it doesn’t matter, which way.

And I say to them, “but you know it’s very different in the public mindset if this is the cost of ‘borrowing’ or the cost of government spending on one hand, or if it’s the Federal Reserve choosing to pay money – for free – to people because it wants a higher interest rate. If the Fed wants to do that – if it wants to take responsibility for paying, you know, hundreds of billions of dollars of interest as part of its monetary policy – it can take responsibility for doing that, and see whether or not that’s the best way to actually limit inflation.

There were debates in the ‘70’s, in the ‘50’s, about using other forms of qualitative and quantitative credit regulation, and other ways to limit, you know, investment in the economy – to cool the economy down – that didn’t require raising interest rates through the roof like Paul Volcker did. And my guess is when it’s easy to blame the Treasury for those interest payments, then it’s a lot easier for the Fed to raise rates. If the Fed had to own the politics of raising rates like that – and giving free money to interest-earning, you know, people who hold interest-earning reserves, or other assets issued by the Fed – and had to take responsibility for that on their balance sheet, my guess is they would be a little more creative about finding other ways to manage inflation.

Diehl: Yes, yeah. Yes.

Grey: Well thank you so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure, Director Diehl. I honestly feel like this is the kind of conversation that will hopefully go into the history books. Because I’ve never heard these kinds of stories from within the government before. So thank you so much for taking the time with me, and for your voice and for your courage in speaking out. And I hope I don’t have to see you again because we don’t have this problem recurring, but–

Diehl: [Chuckles] Yes.

Grey: …maybe we will, and I look forward to connecting again in the future. Thank you very much.

Diehl: My pleasure. Thank you.

End of Transcript

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Rohan Grey (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)


We are thrilled to present the very first Superstructure episode rereleased with a brand new transcript, brought to you by the generous effort of friend-of-the-show, Mike Lewis.

Framed by a cold open from Chapo Trap House’s recent Bernie retrospective, hosts Will Beaman and Maxximilian Seijo inaugurate the Superstructure podcast with a discussion of the failures of a reified left wing imagination. To chart a path forward for an MMT-informed leftist praxis, they critique reductive castigations of spectacle, damaging affirmations of scarcity and zero-sum politics as well as a burgeoning ‘anti-woke’ left-right coalition.

Transcript: Mike Lewis

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

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

Superstructure: Critique After Bernie Transcript

Amber A’Lee Frost  00:00

You’re trying to convince people that the media is just a bunch of fucking spectacle and to ignore and not let them psych you out.

Will Menaker  00:08

Well, I mean, but that didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen here either.

Amber A’Lee Frost  00:10

No it didn’t happen. But it didn’t happen here either. But you know what, that’s going to have to be the thing that we do. Like, sorry it didn’t happen last time. Sorry it didn’t happen this time. But that’s the thing. Yes, it didn’t work that time. It didn’t work this other time. But that is the challenge. It’s going to be hard. And we’re not going to succeed at it most of the time. But, you keep doing it.

Will Menaker  00:27

Oh, the question I just have is, who are we talking to? Are we talking to like—and let’s talk about America specifically—clearly, an absolute majority of Democratic primary voters, the people who vote in democratic primaries, if they didn’t believe what the mainstream media was saying about Bernie, they took the message from it that he was unelectable. In either way, he was not an option for them no matter what he said. And then there’s the other group of people who we were hoping to get; the people who are not taking their cues from the media, either by believing what they say or taking their attitude toward Sanders as, like an indication of his viability. And not enough of them were reached to be mobilized to vote for him. So where? Because your rhetorical attitude is going to be different depending on which group of people you’re talking to.

Amber A’Lee Frost  01:23

Yeah, obviously. But…

Will Menaker  01:26

So I guess the question is which one, which group of people is the one that maybe in retrospect, should have been addressed more explicitly with a specific message? Or in the future should be?

Amber A’Lee Frost  01:38

I think the latter, just because, and I’m not saying this is a moral position, just because I think they’re the bigger group of people.

Will Menaker  01:45

Right, but we’ve seen that even though they’re a bigger group, they are harder to reach.

Amber A’Lee Frost  01:48

Well, we’re trying for a harder task.

Will Menaker  01:51


Amber A’Lee Frost  01:51

We’re doing something hard.

Will Menaker  01:53


Amber A’Lee Frost  01:53

No one wants to hear that. Like, you’re going to fail like nine times out of ten. Because this is very hard.

Will Menaker  01:57

People do want to have…they need some sort of I mean…Yeah, they might know they’re gonna fail, but they need to know that they could win.

Amber A’Lee Frost  02:03

Well, I’m telling you: we can win.

Will Menaker  02:07

Alright, but I guess … how do you get to the people who have decided that politics is not real for a good reason? Who saw the Sanders campaign and were completely unmoved by any part of it.

Amber A’Lee Frost  02:21

I don’t have like that kind of alchemy.

Maxx Seijo  02:27

Will, what did we just listen to?

Will Beaman  02:31

So that was Chapo Trap House reflecting on Bernie dropping out of the race.

Maxx Seijo  02:37

“Reflecting” might not be the right word.

Will Beaman  02:39

Basically, reiterating everything that they believed before the race is probably a little bit more accurate. This stood out to me as a kind of paradigmatic example of what a lot of the reactions from Marxist left that I’ve been seeing have been. It’s just they disagree, but there is consensus on a kind of a hopelessness, and Amber just kind of takes a different, you know, attitude towards that, which is basically that leftists need to just toughen up and keep going.

Maxx Seijo  02:57

It’s interesting, because I think what you said just there sort of crystallizes, you know, pun intended, perhaps crystallizes the why we’re talking to each other right now, which is that it seems like the guiding response to Bernie’s loss, you know, if we can call it that, has been hopelessness and a real inability to articulate a theoretical and political path forward for the left in the US that isn’t a sort of retrenchment or reduction of its scale and aspirations.

Will Beaman  03:54


Maxx Seijo  03:54

And on Superstructure, you know, which, I suppose we could take a bit to explain the title as well. We reject that vision, and we think that it’s one which, because politics never stops, it’s one which will actually condition and produce a set of outcomes that are radical but quite destructive.

Will Beaman  04:22

Right. The name Superstructure: it’s something that for Marxists, I think, probably immediately sounds like a huge self-own, but that’s kind of why we’re doing it because I feel like what’s guiding this response is the idea that ideas are the problem, or they’re a distraction. And the media is basically it’s a distraction that you need to ignore. Yeah, right. And everything that isn’t a grind basically is a spectacle. And this is actually something that goes pretty deep into the core of Marxism, which really is this skepticism of ideas, of thought, of communication, of everything that is not this sort of class struggle by sheer numbers and force that there’s no way around it except, you know, having exponentially increasing our, you know, number of people that we have phone banking and things like that. And, you know, none of those things are wrong or bad to do necessarily, but it does create this reaction to what I think should be looked at as an ideological loss, as well as a literal loss. It creates a reaction to it that’s sort of like, well, that was our one chance after these 30 year cycles where the left gets a chance to win, basically, by doing the same thing. And if there are lessons that they want to take away from it, they’re are going to be you know, kind of slight adjustments. No new theory creation is on the table. And Maxx, you and I come from, you know, different backgrounds a little bit, but we’re in the same milieu which is, you know, Modern Monetary Theory. And basically the idea that this is a new paradigm that actually opens up a lot of new, a lot of new political opportunities that we wouldn’t see before.

Maxx Seijo  06:28

The spectacle. Another way of putting it is it opens the left to alchemy, right? It opens the left to a sort of magical thinking, but I don’t use that in its reductive, like negative terms. I think it opens the left to the possibility of creating things out of thin air, which is what money, right, is and it’s a political creation throughout. And so yeah, it’s interesting to hear and to have so clearly encapsulated in the discussions around Bernie’s loss, this sort of, “well, you know, we’re gonna lose, and we’re gonna lose most of the time. But we need to ignore the spectacle, and we need to keep…”

Will Beaman  07:17


Maxx Seijo  07:17

I mean, it’s essentially, I mean, it deconstructs itself, right? The reason why we lose is because we ignore the spectacle. We’re trying to reject alchemy, and if we think of it along those terms, and if we think about, you know, the ability to actually exert political power over the spectacle, and to actually reject the very concept of the spectacle in the first place, which is what I mean, we could easily call this podcast The Spectacle as well as, you know, rather than Superstructure, which is to say…

Will Beaman  08:00

Maybe we should, we haven’t released this yet. Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  08:03

Which is to say, ultimately, that the new paradigm has to be, we have to be immanent, right? And I’m normally someone who in my work, in my thinking, rejects philosophical immanence. But, the left lacks a real immanence to the spectacle, and to the “superstructure” is that it assumes the solutions, this sort of utopian aspirations, or even just pragmatic aspirations of a left political project, is about getting outside of money, getting outside of the social relations that we all share and participate in on a daily level. We have to just ignore the media. We have to, you know, we have to ignore all that stuff and go to the place where power rises from, right? And this is, like, on the other end, a sort of critique of this sort of philosophical category of immanence, which would posit that they’re reducing it down, the source of being as such is not just the material, but it sort of reduces down to this sort of fundamental level with which power rises up, right?

Will Beaman  09:30


Maxx Seijo  09:30

Ground up. And everything else on top is pure domination. It’s bile politics. It’s all these things, and we can talk more about that at length, but I think it’s important to frame what we see this podcast being as an intervention into the realm of praxis and what a left political praxis means for the aesthetic level, at the economic level, at the level of struggle to say that we ignore our leverage, and the capacity to build just, inclusive structures, social structures at our own peril, because we can’t ultimately get outside of them. Right? I mean, that’s the sort of the lamenting history of critical theory is, we can’t get outside them, so we have to work through them. And it’s one thing to pay homage to, well, we can try to work through them, or to set up these like binaries of electoralism versus immediate class struggle, but ultimately, electoralism, or a media class struggle. It’s all political. And it’s all inside the structures of society as such, and so strategically, we have to work with ideas, and we have to work with material struggle. They have to be linked and strategically leveraged. And so what Chapo and the sort of ChapoJacobin-left lens has done is set up this imagination that Bernie was it because Bernie leveraged our only theoretical apparatus to its nth degree, and it failed.

Will Beaman  11:39


Maxx Seijo  11:39

What is there to do now?

Will Beaman  11:40

Yeah, and the failure, basically, it takes the form of, you know, like a sand castle getting knocked over or something, you know? Like it, it really is, like, we have to start all over, you know, with this kind of building this like Katamari ball of working class power, that the reason that, you know, they use visuals, like, you know, “Rising” and, you know, “bottom up” and these things is because there are appeals to, you know, to physics and things that don’t involve ideas.

Maxx Seijo  12:12


Will Beaman  12:13

You know, ideas, the reason that they think ideas are spectacle is because they believe that power, essentially, is totally immanent, and the ideas are secondary, you know, like, whoever’s the biggest guy on the block is gonna get to decide what all the ideas are, and then we’re all going to be kind of consuming them or something. But until we kind of, you know, take over through this mindless and demoralizing thing that we try again every three decades when there’s an opening.

Maxx Seijo  12:36

Yeah yeah. Yeah, yeah. And I think it’s also important to say, like, we’re not Hegelians. We’re not trying to retrench and say, well, ya know, we reject materialism and blah, blah, blah…I think another way to put this, which is to say that, if Marx wanted to keep the dialectic, and essentially keep the idea of universal particularity, what we’re trying to do is to take what materialism is, and sync with how the material and the idea, constitute and mutually constitute one another. Which is sort of in the spirit of Marx, right? It’s in the spirit of Marx, but it’s important to say that, fundamentally speaking, there’s a anti teleological core to this project that we share, and obviously, we’re not in any way the sort of origins of this. But there’s some…

Will Beaman  13:58

Yeah, and by anti teleological, you mean that we’re against the idea of a predestined path that we’re on a gravitational drift toward.

Maxx Seijo  14:10

That’s right, right?

Will Beaman  14:11

And a way that erases the kind of conscious world-making that we do through, you know, not literally just through coming up with ideas, anybody can come up with an idea, but it is nevertheless ideas that tell people what, ideas that condition what people believe is materially possible.

Maxx Seijo  14:32


Will Beaman  14:32

And so the ideas are organizing the material world. Ideas in a certain sense, you know, once they’re established and become going concerns that are, you know, reproduced along with the rest of society, you have something where, what Marxists believe is the superstructure: this kind of passive reflection of our material circumstances. You know, some of those things should constitute the base, as well. The superstructure is the base. I guess is another way of putting it.

Maxx Seijo  15:08

The superstructure is the base and you know, unless we realize that and invert that structure. I mean, and again, we’re being perhaps a bit cheekily immanent here. We might even reject binary as such, but until we leverage political agency through an ideological formation as a process of political creation on all fronts, right? On all fronts. We won’t have a cohesive and universal project. Right? I mean, that’s been the left’s fracturing problem since the beginning. But I think we’ve opined on this enough, and, you know, it could be useful then to go into a few examples of how this sort of idea is manifesting that this one that we’re critiquing that is sort of encapsulated in that Chapo clip throughout other facets of the sort of dominant left media structure.

Will Beaman  16:18

Yeah. So part of what I wanted to do is survey the landscape a little bit, just because it seems like we’re at a breaking point now where they feel like “okay, the left have lost, we need to look around ourselves materially and see, you know, who’s there that we can build a coalition with.” You know, being real politic and pragmatic, and all of that kind of thing. And what you end up with basically is well, it’s all the Trump people, right? Like, it’s, you know, and maybe not literally diehard MAGA people, but there is an idea that to the extent that it’s successful to rail against identity politics and “wokeness”, then that’s something that the left should do if it wants to be relevant, because that’s just kind of how everybody is thinking already. And I don’t think that there’s really a better example of that right now. The most advanced case of this sickness I guess, I would say is Rising, the show on Youtube from The Hill TV; seems to have tapped into a lot of like The Young Turks audience, some Bernie people, some conservatives, but mostly it’s like a Crossfire-esque show that has a “left wing populist” and “right wing populist” debating for a mostly pro-Bernie audience that is basically being warmed up to the idea that the real, necessary discourse in order for the left to have any power is going to be debating in good faith with “right wing populism.”

Maxx Seijo  18:02

Who hosts that show again?

Will Beaman  18:04

So Krystal Ball is a former MSNBC person. She is the left populist, the right populist is Saagar Enjeti who is a former Daily Caller person. The Daily Caller is the media outlet that Tucker Carlson founded. They’ve had a couple of official crossovers with Tucker Carlson now where Krystal will go on Tucker’s show and kind of do like, you know, “I’m just at my wit’s end with the bad parts of the left.” And then they’ll you know, kind of commiserate on, you know, the anti identity politics or hating corporate democrats or something like that. And, yeah, I mean, it’s just, you know, you can hear the basic structure of what Saagar says, a lot representing right wing populism, you know, is this sort of idea of economics being about trade-offs, and that mapping onto something like immigration where you can’t let migrants into the country because they’ll drive down wages and harm the working class. And then of course, there’s a long history of leftist kind of flirtations with this sort of idea.

Maxx Seijo  19:28

It’s important to say that Bernie is not outside of this, right? Bernie is also culpable on these terms, too.

Will Beaman  19:33

Yeah right, completely. Yeah, he said open borders was a Koch brothers proposal, you know, blah, blah, blah. And to the extent that Bernie is better on it, it’s because he stakes the entire claim that it’s possible to have open or almost open borders during times when it is possible, because we’re just doing so well economically that it’s not going to be like, you know, a big loss for us. So Jacobin had a review of their show, which I think just kind of encapsulates what I’m concerned the kind of institutional left’s reaction is going to be to these kind of flirtations with with Red-Brownism. So he, the reviewer talks first about Krystal, you know, then about Saagar. He had nothing but good things to say about Krystal. And then Saagar, he says: “Repeatedly [Saagar] warns us that the ‘electoral failure of the American left will be economic progressives kowtowing to woke identitarians.’ I agree with him — but what’s maybe more important is that I agree because (like Saagar, I suspect) I want the Left to win. Is Enjeti a secret Bernie-bro receiving late-night directives from Jeff Weaver in undisclosed DC parking garages?” You know, and then goes, “I think not” but you can’t figure out why this guy who keeps you know, sprinkling in that he’s a Republican who used to work for Tucker Carlson is sounding a lot like a Marxist to him. And it’s, it’s bad. And then later in the review, he says, talking about Krystal Ball again, and the consensus between them: “Ball’s arms-length relationship with “socialism” might have something to do with one area where she and Saagar agree most — not on markets nor the role of government, but on the invidiousness of identity politics. Unlike many millennial left wingers…” Notice the word ‘millennial’ is always used as a modifier…

Maxx Seijo  20:41


Will Beaman  20:52

… to go by that, you know, these are university students. Yeah, their children, basically, they’re superstructure. “Ball is completely uninterested in identitarian pandering. She loathes it. And part of Rising’s successful formula is that the hosts reject the “woke” culture-war approach to politics that so many on the…” oh god…”is that so many on the young, hip Brooklyn-by-Oakland left mistake for politics.”

Maxx Seijo  22:06

Brooklyn-by-Oakland is one of the most heinous…Ughhhh

Will Beaman  22:09

Yeah, I mean, it’s brutal. It’s also just really funny whenever Jacobin, you know, kind of does. It’s just you can just feel the self-loathing.

Maxx Seijo  22:19

Yeah the Cosmopolitan. We are the Cosmopolitan elites. Like, that’s the ooo…yikes.

Will Beaman  22:24

Yeah, we have to check ourselves that we’re not, that our globalist roots aren’t gonna betray the working class.

Maxx Seijo  22:32

It’s so funny, because this actually reminds me and it’s something that the left spent so long making fun of is this, like, this really reminds me of the sort of JD Vance kind of Hillbilly Elegy in reverse, right? So after 2016, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party really thought, “Oh, well, we haven’t been listening to these, you know, these white working class voters in Pennsylvania and in Michigan, and in Ohio, and we have to go on the ground. And we have to give them a voice.” Right? “We have to look at them with nuance, and really take into consideration why they hate Black and brown people so much.” And, you know, obviously like this is all not to say that we shouldn’t take everyone into consideration, and that symptoms and racism isn’t filtered through an entire social structure of scarcity and ideology that can be addressed at its roots. Right? Which is not–that’s not what that is. It’s about naturalizing and reifying the ideological and economic “realities” that a left political movement has to address.

Will Beaman  23:18


Maxx Seijo  23:53

And to say that “Oh, okay, the Brooklyn and Oakland, left woke identity…”

Will Beaman  24:02


Maxx Seijo  24:03

Brooklyn-by-Oakland – excuse me for not paying homage to the literary sophistication. The Brooklyn-by-Oakland elite, the Brooklyn-by-Oakland sort of woke identitarian left needs to take a backseat like I don’t know, I mean, it’s one of those things that as you’re suggesting, if The Daily Caller and Jacobin are agreeing, and if you really can’t see why that’s a problem, I really, that’s a bad sign. And it comes down to this question of the spectacle and ignoring the superstructure and ignoring identity politics, and the alchemy associated with a non-class base, reductively class-based vision, what dependence and what inclusion and what a sort of unified or universalist lens brings. Because the moment we start reducing to class, we start excluding.

Will Beaman  25:19

Right, and they have a way that they talk about identity itself, even though they believe that identity is bullshit, they also seem to believe that it is scarce and that you need to protect the identities of everybody that you need in order to win. And therefore, you know, you shouldn’t alienate them with woke identity politics, and, you know, blah, blah, blah. And, of course, it all comes back to, you know, denying the ability to just like, they deny that you can create money and give it to people to you know, build something new, they, they similarly deny that you can paint a new picture of the world that includes everybody, you know, and there’s a connection, you know, between the fact that they think that, that the world and everything in our lives is a scarce thing that we’re fighting over. And that therefore we all need to make make sacrifices for each other’s interests, which are opposed to each other. But ideally, you know, there’s like some kind of a happy medium that we could find. And the idea that politics itself is just kind of redistribution through either, you know, the dispersion between wages and salaries at the point of production, or through taxation, basically. There’s just no discussion on the left about building a new world, it’s just fighting over the world that has already been created solely on the terms of people who had no intention of including everyone.

Maxx Seijo  27:02

Yeah, it’s such a great lens to think through it. I mean, one gets this sense that, like, the majority of the last sort of five years of US politics has been a debate over whether we should be taxing whiteness, to pay for, you know, a space for Blackness, or taxing Blackness to pay for a space for whiteness. And, obviously, we need to shatter that entire structure. And I think, you know, something that probably is going to come up on this show, as we move on more is gender and the question of, really the malleability of identity forms, and how that actually can be mapped back on to economic formulations, in a non-zero sum way. And I don’t want to get too far ahead, but that’s just a sort of signpost for listeners to think about what we can expect on this show. And I think now would perhaps be a good time to move to another example of this sort of thinking.

Will Beaman  28:07

Yeah, so it’s not even just the Marxist left. I mean, don’t get me wrong, like it is the Marxist left. You know, you have other podcasts like Red Scare, you know, that just had Steve Bannon on. You know, things like that, but even among people who are, you know, interested in fiscal policy as something that’s constructive, and not just redistributive, it’s, you still get this refrain that is basically this kind of the same sound finance logic, you know, that they’re applying to just culture and identity instead. So I wanted to read something from a really big Twitter thread that Thomas Fazi had a couple of months ago now. I think this was right after the big labor wipe out when, you know, kind of similar to what’s happening in the US, you know, what was happening there is you have basically a bunch of Marxists who had kind of dug their heels in on defending zero sum terms. And actually, before I even get into Thomas Fazi, I guess I should set it up with an article that James Medway wrote. James is a policy adviser to John McDonnell.

Maxx Seijo  29:29

Former policy adviser John McDonnell.

Will Beaman  29:31

Former policy adviser

Maxx Seijo  29:32

Shadow Chancellor for Corbyn’s opposition.

Will Beaman  29:36

Right. Yeah, and so I won’t read the whole thing, but there is a section that starts literally with “the economy is a zero sum game.” “The economy is a zero sum game. This is the starting point. Understanding this was critical to the success of the 2017 Manifesto. Failing to understand it was critical to the failure of 2019. The economy has grown weekly since 2008. Real wages have not, and public services have disintegrated. An economy that behaves like this in which some people get richer, but most very visibly not, is one in which the broad promise of growth is broken down. Many people perceive the economy to be, broadly speaking, a racket in which a minority at the top are doing well at the expense of others. And they are broadly speaking, correct.” So we have growth in this finite world, but for some reason, we’re getting all this economic growth, and we’re still, you know, just producing this shit world. So what he then gets to is where we would just be like, okay, well, maybe we should talk about growth differently in a way that’s, you know, inclusive, he says, “To see the economy like this is to see it as a zero-sum game whose brutal logic is this: I can only do better if somebody else does worse. If I want to be better off, someone else must be worse off. The political logic that follows from this is equally simple: to talk about winners, you first have to talk about losers. You will get a license to describe the new world you want to build if you first describe, to be blunt, how it will be paid for.” Which is basically like, you know, you only get to talk about the new world that you want to see if you put as a disclaimer that we’re really just moving things around in the old world and not building anything new.

Maxx Seijo  31:30

And it’s so just mind bogglingly, like, upsetting about this is the fact that this is how Nancy Pelosi views the world.

Will Beaman  31:39


Maxx Seijo  31:40

This is the Nancy Pelosi vision of the world. That’s why you need PAYGO. Right? I mean, it’s so interesting to think about it in these terms. Because how do you then go to an electorate and say: we want to, for example, build houses for the homeless, and just do that, and give people who are “rough sleepers”, as it’s called in the UK, a place, a space to live.

Will Beaman  32:24

Yeah, in order to talk about that, you have to first say whose space you’re taking away.

Maxx Seijo  32:29

Exactly, right?

Will Beaman  32:29

So you have to tie the existence of homeless people to parasitism.

Maxx Seijo  32:36


Will Beaman  32:37

The non-existence of someone else.

Maxx Seijo  32:39

And we have the space!

Will Beaman  32:40


Maxx Seijo  32:41

We have the space! I mean, isn’t that obvious? And so, it’s one of those, you know, I mean, I think there’s gonna be a sort of theme, which is just: I am angry. I am angry about the world and about these naturalizations of scarcity, and that’s gonna come out because you know, what? The left, you know, sure, the right, they’re reactionary, they’re racist, they’d much rather kill half the earth than cede any ground and have to be defeated. But the left is reifying that worldview. And that is deeply, deeply upsetting for anyone who believes any sense of universal justice and universal inclusion.

Will Beaman  33:30


Maxx Seijo  33:31

And it’s one of those things that played out in the Labour election, and, you know, there’s a way in which, to be nuanced about it, it’s sort of understandable, you know. You tell a precarious polity that someone has to lose. Someone has to lose. Of course, they’re going to think that it’s them. Right? And these are people like, and that’s not to say that the polity as such, are this sort of middle class, white cosmopolitans, right? I think we even saw this playing out in Biden’s popularity in the South, and I’d be interested to bring on more perspectives on this, but there’s a lot to lose. Even for people who are marginalized, people have a lot to lose, and to tell them that we can’t do anything better, unless we lose.   

Will Beaman  34:29

Right. Or that you’re not really going to lose because there’s this global financial elite that actually has all of the money. It’s very easy then for that to, you know, obviously it begs the question of why aren’t we retrenching into nationalism, and national identity?

Maxx Seijo  34:47


Will Beaman  34:48

If the core of all people can more or less be okay, which is what the left is basically arguing, then, we’re supposed to still be giving things up to external actors? Like the whole thing is, yeah, and it just paves the way for people to critique the Meadway position on the ground, basically correctly pointing out that it’s weak.

Maxx Seijo  35:20


Will Beaman  35:21

But in a way that affirms some sense of expansion, but only on the terms of the Nation. And one big example of this that we saw is this guy, Thomas Fazi, who is, you know, a prominent MMT-adjacent person. I think he would definitely identify himself as MMT, but we want to be clear that there’s a distinction that we’re drawing here which is basically: if you accept that money is boundless and abstractly mediated creation of society is boundless, then you can’t keep talking about everybody’s place in the world, as if it’s not also, you know, like that also turns on whether or not we’re choosing to use our boundless potential to give everybody space in the world. And Fazi is a really good example of somebody who, you know, kind of mobilizes the rhetoric of, you know, the government could just deficit spend, but we’ve had that ability taken from us by the EU, which is, of course, true, in a sense. But the narrative that comes out of it, basically, is that we’ve been alienated from our own sovereignty by the global elite, and what we need to do is unlock the power of the nation-state, but realize, then—and this was kind of his sleight of hand—realize then that the nation-state is dependent on a culturally-fixed subject, if that makes sense.

Maxx Seijo  37:16

And territorialized, as well.

Will Beaman  37:17

Right. Yeah. So in this Twitter thread, he says, “The woke left likes to vilify the nation-state, but all the major social, economic and political advancements of the past centuries were achieved through the institutions of the democratic nation-state, not through international, multilateral or supranational institutions.” Which, you know, I mean, there’s, I’m pretty sure I can think of some examples of internationalist movements and internationally-coordinated.

Maxx Seijo  37:48

No, no, no: we’re just gonna, we’ll pass right through that one.

Will Beaman  37:52

Yeah, actually, let’s just skip over that counterfactual. “Furthermore, modern concepts of “natural identity” of national identity…” You see a little Freudian slip, there.

Maxx Seijo  38:04


Will Beaman  38:05

“…are incredibly ‘progressive,’ based as they are on transcending individual particularities – sex, race, biology, religion, etc. – to create cultural-political identities based on participation, equality, citizenship, representation.” I just I love how kind of paradoxical this little line is, you know, that we’re transcending individual particularities in order to create a universalism that’s exclusive.

Maxx Seijo  38:35

Yeah, well, it’s just yeah, it’s an individual identity-particular social relation. That’s what the nation is. You critique a internationalist vision that seeks to sort of take these given forms, which are ambivalent these nation-states, and sort of create some sort of universalist project in order to transcend them in order to just round down that same logic as a mode of justifying the exclusion which you ultimately want to conduct. And it’s so funny to me, and this also comes back down to the sort of Meadway, like, essentially he’s teeing up fascism here.

Will Beaman  39:22


Maxx Seijo  39:23

Which is to say that you’re not going to out-exclude the right. You’re not going to out-scarcity the right. I’m sorry.

Will Beaman  39:34

Right. Because they’re the ones who believe in Manifest Destiny and believe that you should take maximally in a zero sum situation. So of course they’re going to be the ones who are making a more compelling vision than your fully-costed.

Maxx Seijo  39:48

Yeah. Fully-costed, fully-automated luxury communism. I mean, I’m sure there’s many ways to metaphorically like render this just complete absurdity of this vision. I mean, essentially what the left has been trying to do is walk on to the field, right? And Meadway talks about, you know, the economy as a zero sum game, and it’s to accept that this thing called the economy is this sort of thing, right? Not a social relation that we have agency at varying levels of the process over. And to then say, “Okay, well, we’re gonna play your game on your your field. We’re gonna play your scarcity struggle game, and on your terms, and we’re going to try and beat you where you have the advantage and the upper hand. Because, yeah, sure we have these morals that they hamper us. They make us strategically less effective. They make us worse at the game.”

Will Beaman  40:59

Right. Which is such a repeating trope that you hear in all the postmortems about Bernie.

Maxx Seijo  41:05

Yep. We’re worse. We’re not as we’re not as ruthless, right?

Will Beaman  41:09


Maxx Seijo  41:10

Chapo has gone on about this about Hillary Clinton, just how ruthless she is. “We’re not as ruthless. We can’t win this game. We lose most of the time because we don’t have the alchemy that the right does.” But you know what that alchemy that the right has is? It’s the full embodiment of the commitment to scarcity that the left is just is dabbling with and hoping that it can, you know, have a little exclusion as a treat. Instead of rejecting the logic of exclusion in the first place, and really taking on a non-zero sum vision that calls into question—it really calls into question. This is unsettling. And I understand how unsettling this is. The fact that all of these forms—what constitutes the economy, what constitutes growth, what constitutes identity—these are malleable; these are up for debate; these are not biological forms.

Will Beaman  42:06

Yeah. Well, I would stop you there and continue reading from Fazi because he actually has a theory of national biology that I want to get into.

Maxx Seijo  42:18


Will Beaman  42:19

Yeah, he says, “While national identity is, of course, constantly evolving, the pace of the change is everything.When the national community perceives the pace of change to be too fast (for example a too-rapid inflow of immigrants with very different cultural and social norms), it naturally, instinctively…” like white blood cell, no I’m just kidding. “…instinctively reacts against the breakdown of social cohesion. To equate this with racism is absurd.” Yeah, and in case any of us were thinking about racism, for some reason, while he said that.

Maxx Seijo  42:55

Yeah, yeah, yeah, no. Famously “borders,” they’re good for the left! They’re good for, you know, communities of color. You know, it’s funny that there’s one thing like, we’ve been shit-talking a lot of the sort of established left, but there is a segment of the American left that has a sort of nuanced understanding. And, you know, and most importantly, a historical understanding of…

Will Beaman  43:08

Right, yeah.

Maxx Seijo  43:30

…the forces that have been at play here. And I’m thinking as well of the likes of, you know, some like Daniel Denvir, who hosts The Dig podcast. In his book about how the American border and the struggle for not only immigrant rights, but also indigenous rights as a sort of function of, of borders, and territorialization has been the crux of the left’s fight for justice. And it’s been the crux of the right’s project. And you mentioned Manifest Destiny, and I also think Greg Grandin despite a lot of problems that I have.

Will Beaman  44:09

Future friend of the show, Greg Grandin. Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  44:11

Future friend of the show, Greg Grandin. A lot of the problems I have with his framing, also, like historically captures this is that, you know, Fazi is not your friend. Blue Labour is not your friend. Amber A’Lee Frost. Red Scare. They’re not your friend. Right? These are people who represent a segment of “the left” that will capitulate to The Daily Caller. They will. They will sacrifice. They will make pragmatic sacrifices.

Will Beaman  44:48


Maxx Seijo  44:48

In order to “attain power”. And you know, historically speaking, you know, if you look to the Weimar example, if you look to other examples, this is a sort of mode that has not turned out to be one that forwards the inclusive vision of what the left needs to represent and what we will posit⁠—this sort of non-zero sum MMT-inflected ideological project⁠—needs to represent.

Will Beaman  45:21

Yeah, I mean, it’s just put simply, it’s a lot easier to defend your humanity if it’s not on zero sum terms, you know? If it’s not on the terms of I have a right to exist even though that’s going to bring down wages a little bit. You know, which is, it’s the position that really good people on the left, and you know, the reason why I strongly identify with the left even with people who I don’t think are MMTers yet is because I think that we do, nevertheless share values. And I just think that MMT is, you know, you need that non-zero sum vision in order to realize them, and in order to not just be plunged into a huge kind of pessimism, you know? And you saw that kind of like, when we opened with the with the Chapo clip, you know, I mean, Matt Chrisman was just extremely, extremely pessimistic. You know, Amber was in the acceptance stage of grieving already and was ready to move on to newer and better anti-woke alliances.

Maxx Seijo  46:31


Will Beaman  46:31

Yeah, coalitions. Right. Yeah, just another good member of my coalition that I need to win.

Maxx Seijo  46:36

Yeah, and it’s funny, because this is a sort of nice way to actually think about what came of Bernie’s campaign that was actually quite, quite inspiring, which was. And I think, the impulses are there too, even within Chapo Like, there’s a lot of things that they talked about, and did that was, that was really moving. And important. But the Brooklyn rally with AOC, when Bernie said to, you know, look around to your left and right, and really see the shared humanity of everyone, it really foregrounds the fact that, you know, I’m sure people look to their left, and they look to their right, and there were people in the top 5% of the tax bracket.

Will Beaman  47:23


Maxx Seijo  47:24

I mean, which is not to say that people in the top 5% of the tax bracket aren’t privileged in some sense, or don’t have more power or don’t have far too much power over the political process. That’s not the point. The point is, is that you don’t need their money. We don’t need their money.

Will Beaman  47:41

Yeah. We shouldn’t be hearing from that “Are you willing to pay higher taxes for somebody that is different from you,” you know, or something.

Maxx Seijo  47:49

Right! And that’s not what Bernie was saying either.

Will Beaman  47:52


Maxx Seijo  47:52

Right, then that’s important. And that’s one of the things that, you know, which is why Bernie is so important for the left. But it’s one thing to say “Bernie is all we have and ever have. And his ideas are all we have are all we’ll ever have.” And it’s another thing altogether to say, “There are kernels of a path here. We need to hone in them. We need to develop them. We need to build a cohesive vision out of them and leverage every site of power we have over the political process along the way.”

Will Beaman  48:35

Yeah, I mean, it’s profoundly pessimistic to look at this situation where because Bernie lost, even though we are now completely throwing paying for Coronavirus relief out the window, the first time we’ve done that for anything, like ever in decades, you know.

Maxx Seijo  48:59

Except for wars.

Will Beaman  49:00

Right. Yeah, except on the terms of, you know, righteous exclusion that we’re gonna need to do.

Maxx Seijo  49:06

Wall Street, wars, righteous exclusion.

Will Beaman  49:06

Yeah. But no, like, this really is the first time in a while that, like, there is an ideological paradigm shift. And, you know, I mean, there’s Ross Douthat was just on on The Daily, you know, the other day. Ross Douthat, The New York Times columnist…

Maxx Seijo  49:20

Yeah. You have to listen to that? I’m sorry, Will.

Will Beaman  49:27

Yeah, well, you know, living at home during the summer has its perks. And then it’s not so perks. But yeah, I mean, even he was saying he thinks that, you know, now social democracy is on the table, more or less. So he’s more optimistic than the left is.

Maxx Seijo  49:46

Ugggh. I mean, we could critique even what his conception of social democracy is, but I think…

Will Beaman  49:53

Yeah, to the extent that he wasn’t lamenting it, it’s probably because it was just like some kind of a Herrenvolk like. You know, Scandinavia, for white people.

Maxx Seijo  50:04

We can have a little bit of Scandinavian racism as a treat.

Will Beaman  50:08

Yeah. So like, I just want to cap off the reading from from Fazi with, you know what, what, what it all leads up to for him. “This is not an argument against the evolution of national identity. It is an argument for respecting a national community’s right to have a say in the pace and form that such evolution takes. To ignore the latter is, quite simply, political suicide.” I just I love the use of the word suicide here because it just…

Maxx Seijo  50:39

Oh yeah.

Will Beaman  50:42

It just completely gets across that creation is not an option: if things change, it’s because we’re dead.

Maxx Seijo  50:48

That’s right.

Will Beaman  50:49


Maxx Seijo  50:49

It’s only a death drive.

Will Beaman  50:50


Maxx Seijo  50:51

That’s all there is.

Will Beaman  50:51

So he says “We are now in a position to offer a different explanation of “social conservatism”: this is simply society’s self-defence against those factors – internal or external – that are perceived as threatening its members’ need for community, belonging, rootedness and identity.”

Maxx Seijo  51:09

Signed Carl Schmitt.

Will Beaman  51:10

Yeah, I mean, that is just like, holy shit, the math is off.

Maxx Seijo  51:14


Will Beaman  51:15

Yeah, I don’t know how you have internal, setting aside the problematic external thing, but like the fact that they’re internal, you know, that there are people who are internal to our society who really are external to it, because they’re not part of the program. You know, it’s the nationalist conception of the Marxist idea of what the economy is, you know, which is, you know, this is the material world the way that it is, you know, this is the material political body the way that it is.

Maxx Seijo  51:47


Will Beaman  51:47

And all we can do really is…

Maxx Seijo  51:51


Will Beaman  51:52

Yeah! Very, very slowly improve things, but not too quickly. And it’s really interesting also, that this is basically how Krystal Ball will talk about anti-racism or transgender issues or anything like that, you know, where she will kind of say, you know, “of course, I’m on your side, you know, on this one leftists, but you have to understand that these things are going to take time.” She talks about, you know, managed progressivism in the same way that that people like Fazi are talking about managed migration, as well as manage progressivism.

Maxx Seijo  52:28

Yeah. And I mean, we’ve been going for a little while here, but I do think as we’re sort of starting to wrap up this first episode and think about the way we move forward, it’s important to say that at some level, right, we here are wholehearted proponents of a non-zero sum material vision for the left. But at the level of ideas, this is not a view that should be tolerated.

Will Beaman  53:04

Yeah, we’re not interested in a debate with Krystal Ball.

Maxx Seijo  53:07

No, we’re not. We’re not interested in debate. She represents a reactionary anti-left trend. And that’s a trend that has to be stamped out. And we have to win that debate. And so it’s important to say, like, non-zero sum is not a sort of participation trophy for all the competing intellectual approaches to left wing progress. No, no, no, no, don’t confuse the fact that we allow a space for all people, for all life to flourish, and we demand that space, as allowing a space for ideas that…

Will Beaman  53:55

That are predicated on the opposite of that.

Maxx Seijo  53:57

That are predicated on the opposite of that.

Will Beaman  53:59


Maxx Seijo  54:00

And that is the central gambit, I think, of this podcast. And ultimately, I think that the rise of the MMT project, and the MMT movement or things like the Modern Money Network, has been through the insistence on that non-zero sum vision as a matter, not just of a sort of intellectual fancy or we would like it to be this way, but as a matter of the technical facts. A matter of the technical operations themselves. And that’s the vision.

Will Beaman  54:01


Maxx Seijo  54:01

I think this is a pretty good place to leave it, as well.

Abstractions also Liberate with Anna Kornbluh

Anna Kornbluh joins Money on the Left to discuss the politics of form and literary realism as theorized in her provocative book, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (University of Chicago Press, 2019). In The Order of Forms, Kornbluh lays bare the problematic “anarcho-vitalist” underpinnings of neoliberal discourse which, she argues, also inform much  critical theory and left critique. In contrast, she upholds the necessity, malleability, and contestability of social form. Focusing, in particular, on English novels from Wuthering Heights to Alice in Wonderland, Kornbluh reads myriad nineteenth-century literary realisms as at once speculative and generative abstractions, capable of newly mapping and scaffolding social space. At the same time as forms might oppress, she concludes, abstractions also liberate. Wrapping up the conversation, Kornbluh considers how the politics of form reorient our approaches to contemporary academic labor, pedagogy, and learning. 

Kornbluh is Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Her research and teaching center on the novel, film, and theory, especially formalism, marxism, and psychoanalysis. Kornbluh is the author of Marxist Film Theory and Fight Club (Bloomsbury 2019), and Realizing Capital (Fordham 2014), and has just completed a manuscript “Immediacy, Or, The Style of Too Late Capitalism.” She is a founding facilitator for The V21 Collective (Victorian studies for the 21st Century) and InterCcECT (The Inter Chicago Circle for Experimental Critical Theory).

Find Anna Kornbluh on Twitter @V21collective

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


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

Scott Ferguso: Anna Kornbluh, welcome to Money on the Left.

Anna Kornbluh: Thanks for having me. It’s so fun to be here.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, it’s so great to have you here, and especially since you are a dear, old friend of mine who I have learned so much from throughout the years. It’s great to finally have you on our podcast.

Anna Kornbluh: It’s really exciting to listen to you guys and see the conversations you’ve been creating.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks. So maybe to begin, I know you, but our audience doesn’t necessarily know you. Maybe you can say a little bit about your scholarly background and maybe your personal background if you feel like that’s relevant?

Anna Kornbluh: Sure. I live in Chicago–the best city–where I teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I’m in the English department and teach a lot of literature, especially focused on the novel and the history of the novel, as well as film, and then a fair amount of literary and critical theory when I’m lucky to do that. I earned a PhD in English with a focus in theory at UC Irvine. I met Scott when I lived in Los Angeles and when I was getting a Master’s in Film at UCLA. Before that, I had an undergrad degree in political theory. I love the Midwest. I’m stupidly lucky that I am a person who got a job in 2008, and a job with job security and research money. I just couldn’t be more fortunate and wish nothing but these conditions for my fellows.

Scott Ferguson: Perhaps more so than some of our regular guests, your work is deeply critical and theoretical. I think you have a grammar and a style that is very precise, and it does a lot of rich important work. And so, we can improvise it a little bit and that’s cool, but we decided we were going to put together some more formal questions in order to kind of honor the complexity of your thoughts. So perhaps unlike some of our other episodes, we’re going to unabashedly read these questions, just because we wanted to make sure we were getting it right. And with that, I’m gonna hand it off to Billy to take the first one.

William Saas: We’ve invited you here to speak with us specifically about your brilliant scholarly monograph The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space, which was published in 2019 with the University of Chicago Press. In that book, you articulate a scathing critique of what you deem the “anarcho-vitalist tenor of much contemporary critical theory.” Inversely, you develop a comparatively capacious political formalism which you uncover in the modern novel. We would love it if you could flesh out some of these reciprocal moves for us. How do they intervene in debates in critical theory past and present, and what do they tell us about the construction of what you term social space?

Anna Kornbluh: Thanks for the question. Yeah, so it is a book that’s integrating a lot of different things, right. Chiefly, it is trying to integrate aesthetics and politics, and trying to think about the ways that the traditions of critical theory, and of humanistic interpretation, especially for people who work in the aesthetic humanities–literature, film, art and so on–how they have tended to think about what is that relationship between aesthetics and politics. What does art have to teach us about politics? What is artistic about political arrangement and political dispensation? Maybe I’ll try to put my finger on some of the kinds of biases or habits that have emerged in some of those traditions.

So specifically, I tried to track a position that would associate freedom with formlessness and would privilege a lot of artistic forms of dissolution, disintegration, fragmentation, hybridity, irony, instability, and so on. It has this whole aesthetic vocabulary about those things, because one imagines that those are actually political virtues or values, or that they’re emancipatory. So what gets built into that reinforcing framework then, are some judgments about what kind of art is good. What kind of art is politically educational? What kind is politically not conservative and innovative? Then, there are also some mistakes, maybe, about politics, and chiefly some biases against institutions, such as a kind of reflexive anti-statism we see across aesthetic humanist positions and a horizon in which what we understand to be the nature of a political act is to disrupt something, to break something, to suspend something, rather than to hold it in place or build it up.

Scott Ferguson: I wonder if you could follow up specifically about your critique of Giorgio Agamben’s idea of “destituent power,” is that correct?

Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, so I sort of take him as exemplary of some of these habits of mind in the opening of the book, because he’s such a tremendously influential theorist in the 21st century. I think Homo Sacer is Stanford University Press’ best selling book of all time. In his consummating of Foucault’s biopolitics, in his really trans-historicizing of these tendencies of the state, and of institutions to control life, he has this consummation of an idea that all of Western political power could be schematized according to its constituent tendencies, to make things, to contain things, and to bring things under the purview of control and under the purview of power. And the alternative for him is destitute power, or taking it apart. This is the realm of play, the realm of freedom, and the realm of dissolve for him. If constituent power is violent–like he thinks any active kind of making, forming, putting into place, and instituting is always going to be violent–then, if you want to be on the side of the good, you have to be on the side of the unmaking. So I take him as just kind of emblematic of, or a crystallization of, these habits. Again, I find humanist method and interpretation that have built in these aesthetic and political suppositions insufficient, really.

William Saas: So you’ve named Giorgio Agamben. Are there any other sort of leading lights of this position that you are, in fact, taking a position against?

Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, this is such an interesting problem, right? It’s like when you’re trying to put your finger on a structure of, not feeling, but of ratiocination, or a kind of prevalent form of argumentation. And in one that crosses disciplines and schools, then who are its leading lights? Does it have leading lights? Is an episteme identifiable with a person? And what’s the frame of argument in which you would say there are figureheads of this movement, and then their bodies of thought are consistent with it entirely and so on. Because, obviously, I have friends who deeply love Agamben and who are unhappy about this characterization. But I think some of the other positions that I might name in the book, or certainly in schematising the field, would be queer antinomianism, certain kinds of queer of color critique and feminist critique of institutions, a kind of immediatising, anarchic tendency in certain strains of Marxist theory, in the tradition of thinking aesthetics and politics, the almost messianic or ceaselessly negative kinds of positions of certain texts in the corpus of, and then certain interpretations of, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. I also identify the most recent real innovations in the theory of aesthetics and politics from Jacques Rancière and Caroline Levine as also continuing to privilege disruption, dissolution, unmaking, hybridity, collision, aleatory, and unpredictable as the kind of value pole, or the good side. We don’t like what stands in place. We don’t like what is sustainable. We don’t like what is form.

Maxximilian Seijo: So then contra this anarcho-vitalist unmaking, your political formalism emphasizes building, making, and structuration as not just a possibility, but as this sort of constitutive engine or motor of politics. Could you perhaps talk more and spell out then what your, dare I say, positive articulation of that critique forms and what it means for thinking the aesthetics of politics or the politics of aesthetics?

Anna Kornbluh: For sure. So the little word vitalism is doing a lot of work for the imaginary that life just springs forth, right? And that there is a kind of Eden of effulgent plenitude that we could be liberated to if only we stopped having the state, or if only we stopped having law, or we stopped having the symbolic. The alternative, the formalistic position that I try to propose and substantiate, and indeed, try to argue that the history of ideas provides plenty of fodder for and eloquence about, is one in which we think forms are not opposed to life, forms are actually infrastructure for life, and forms are essential to life. Human beings have no given format for their existence. It takes a village, should we be in small states, or how should we be organized? But we’re interdependent animals and that’s something that actually differentiates us from other animals. We have this prolonged infantile need of one another in order to survive, not just to live well, but to live at all.

So what shape should that take? There have to be arrangements, patterns, and orders for the making of life. So there’s a kind of ontological claim that form is essential for our well being and for our existence, and that we can recognize and admit that necessity and that essence without having to naturalize particular forms or without having to give up on, forget, or repress the contingency of particular forms. So historical materialism is something like a procedure of accounting for the contingency that human social experience takes. And the content of the formalist doctrine, as it were, also is necessity and contingency at the same time. Human beings need form, but there are no given forms.

But also thinking that every form has been made, every form has been contrived, instituted, and can be remade, and that we can have a horizon of political activity which is about reformation, not in any anti-revolutionary sense, but in the sense of like actually contriving and designing the structures that will enable human wellbeing and that will facilitate flourishing. What’s the best shape? What should be our voting system? What should be our governance? We’re confronting this question now on ecocide, and your previous guest, Kim Stanley Robinson, is very good at thinking about this problem. Is there something about ecocide that requires a super state formation, or an international confederation and what should that look like? That’s a speculative problem for us. And you can’t solve that speculative problem if a priori, or out of the gate, you think forms are bad, forms are oppressive, and we just need to burn it all down. We just need to get out of the purview of power or something.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, absolutely. I think before we dive into your specific, sustained literary focus in your book, I just wanted to draw attention to something that I think is implicit here, but we can tease out, which is the convergence and unintended complicity between anarcho-vitalist, destituent modalities that are anti-formal, or are about pushing to the limits, or accelerating past extant forms, with neoliberal logics, if not broader modern capitalist logics of disruption. Marx has a dialectical gambit in mind when he says, “All that is solid melts into air.” He thinks that history is going to generate something out of it, but I think you’re holding us back from that precipice and saying, “Well, wait a minute. This is actually the dominant regime. It has a hegemonic logic of dissolution. Maybe that’s not what we should be doing.”

Anna Kornbluh: Exactly. And I think one wants to articulate not in an idealist sense. We don’t want to say, “Oh, theorists are causing these conditions in the world.” We want to do it in a materialist sense, and say, “The structure of theory is determined by the structure of the world.” The ideas in every society are the ideas of the ruling class, and the vocation of theory is to make a cut from that determination. The vocation of theory is to know from which it speaks, and understand its conjunctures, and then figure out what some other logics might be. So if we are supplied, since 1973, with the abundant logic of the dismantling of social institutions, and the highly minimalist vectoring of state power towards the purpose of accumulation and away from the purpose of flourishing–and of course, people will argue that’s never been the purpose of the state, as Marxian anthropology would suggest–but if we cannot see this affinity of our thought with the kind of empirical practices of power, that is an aporia in our reasoning and an insufficient self scrutiny.

The whole gesture of critique, as Kant, Hegel, and certainly Marx produce it, is to look back on the conditions in which your thought is possible. So I do want to articulate that affinity is true. And I do want to point out the underside of that. I think the political theorist, Jodi Dean, is really eloquent about this. We have actually lived through a revolution in the United States in the last 40 years. It’s been a revolution of incredibly disciplined exercise of collective sovereignty by the collective that is against us. It has been incredibly disciplined from the level of school boards and local elections on up to the presidency and the Supreme Court, and the interpreting and mobilizing of institutions for the sake of oligarchic and plutocratic wealth transfer, and anti-democratic consolidations. It’s not the truth of those institutions, necessarily, but they’re mobilizing for that. This has been a highly disciplined and effective practice. That has to be a lesson to us, that our suspicion of the vehiculations of collective agency haven’t gotten us anywhere.

Maxximlian Seijo: So moving from one revolutionary context to perhaps one of a different kind, in your book, you focus, as Scott sort of already mentioned, on literary realism in general, and then on the Victorian realist novel in particular, which the latter you suggest is a rich historical vehicle for thinking through the stakes of what you just diagrammed as political formalism. So against certain currents in Marxist literary theory, as you’ve already mentioned, you argue that literary realism is irreducible to a certain metaphysics of representation, where, in the novel, its various signs, affects, and grammars are judged according to whether they succeed or fail to correspond or refer to an extant historical reality. So then, in this context, what exactly is literary realism on your analysis and how does this particular mode of political formalism work?

Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I’m extremely interested in thinking about literary realism as an experiment, as speculative, and as a wild kind of thought that isn’t available to us in ordinary life. Who gets to think in the third person? Who gets to produce an omniscient perspective? Who gets to survey broad swaths of psychic interiority, social expanses, social depths, different social classes, and long historical arcs and stuff? Only these made up, realist narrators. And this experimental quality is taking into account or giving itself certain constraints. Realism could be defined as against, say, an irrealism of infinity. We take time and space constraints seriously in realism. Nobody lives forever. There’s a lot of death and birth and sex in the realist novel. We’re not on other planets. We’re just stuck on Earth. Like this is what we have. But within these constraints, the great moment of ferment of literary realism in the 19th century is one of tremendous social transformation with the Industrial Revolution, imperial expanse, and then imperial contraction and contestation, democratizing movements, great explosions of literacy, and the urbanization of mass population for the first time in world history.

So there’s all this social churn going on, and realism is this experimental form for trying to figure out like, what should society be shaped like? What should we be doing all day long? Given the constraints that human beings are mortal, and that they’re vulnerable, what should our societies look like? So I like to think about realism as a kind of theory of institutions, a theory of limits, and a theory of human sociability that maybe has some different precepts than the reification that might be attributed to it, or the kind of boringness or un-imaginativeness that might be attributed to it, but also has some different precepts from say, the anarcho-vitalist imaginary. The realist novel is super into schools, banks, governmental agencies, churches, and the places where banal existence is produced and the offices where it happens. And somebody has to think about those banalities. There’s a lot of power there and a lot of possibilities there.

William Saas: So is it possible that the mode of literary realism is conflated with the limited imagination, or the constrained perspective, of the author when it’s sort of at the expense of the mode itself? Would that be fair to say?

Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, I think that’s right. We end up with these kinds of approaches to realism and literary study where we want to correlate it to the context of the author, or correlate it to the biography of the author. We want to sort of say, “Well, the realist novel is only a voice box of the values of its time,” instead of, “No, there’s an immanently critical operation that’s possible in any kind of literary production, and these people are involved in an extremely voracious and demanding kind of imagining of what the world should be like.” I like to say, I know I say it in the book, that all of the major Victorian realist novelists were all journalists, and they were all successful journalists. They all gave that up, because they wanted to do something else. Trollope a little bit less so, he was a bureaucrat his whole life, or a postman. But Thackeray, Eliot, and Dickens, they had jobs writing how things were, they wanted to say something else, they wanted to know something else, and they started writing how things could be.

Scott Ferguson: Okay, so I have the big doozy of a question. I’m just gonna start reading. And hopefully I can get it off the page. With the caveat that we don’t wish to simply conflate your project with the work we do within the Money on the Left editorial collective, we nevertheless find many areas of sympathy and convergence between us. Perhaps above all, we find that your emphatically anti-lapsarian insistence on the speculative and political generativity of abstraction resonates greatly with our conception of money as an abstract and constitutive political form. While you don’t overtly thematize this in your book per se, you come closest to doing so in a passage on page 46, which if you don’t mind, I’m going to read for our audience. Differentiating your theory of literary realism from other influential Marxist interlocutors, you write:

“Prominent recent efforts to advance Marxist aesthetic theory of the contemporary have once again taken up realism, and here too Alberto Toscano, Annie McLanahan, Leigh Claire La Berge, Alison Shonkwiler, and Joshua Clover generally prize reference above all else. For Marxists, realism thus paradoxically occupies two poles simultaneously: the paragon of ideology–the imaginary resolution of real contradictions, the false suture of a partiality as a totality–and the paragon of artistic truth-telling, the gold standard representing  actualities behind the veil.”

This is supercharged language for us. So what’s striking for us in this passage is how it links a problematic metaphysics, a literary reference, to what is, in our view, an equally problematic metaphysics of money qua passive representation. Money is regularly imagined to be a veil over real extant relations and private resources, and the gold standard as a system of signification in which truth telling is somehow guaranteed. Against this monetary representationalism, we would contend that money is constitutive. It’s transformable and it’s public. And it is, above all, an abstraction that is contestable. As such, it enables radical forms of political activation, including urgent contemporary struggles for abolition, reparations, universal healthcare, and an expressly anti-imperialist global Green New Deal. So what we’re wondering is, would you be willing to reflect a bit on this language and some of these resonances that we’re picking up on?

Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, I think that’s a really great question. That may be the best question of all the ones that you guys prepared for me because it speaks to how generative and creative you guys are that you can think about the capacity of abstractions across disciplines, and that you can think about the affinities of different kinds of arguments. I’m just a lowly literary form person. I did write a book about the history of finance, but that’s not this book. But I think that you’re fundamentally right. My most favorite sentence in this whole book, it’s only three words, maybe you guys liked it too: “Abstractions also liberate.” We’re very familiar, as aesthetic humanists, with the position that generalizations are bad, that abstractions are bad, that institutions are bad, and that big ideas exclude the particulars. We think that we can only have this job of championing the particular, the content, the substance, the real, and the body.

So the work that I’m trying to do in terms of pointing out that viewpoint and mindset, and how pervasive it is in the aesthetic humanities, I think, is a parallel logical move and parallel critical move to the work you guys are trying to do you in suggesting that the way that we regard the institution of money is really impoverished, that given the social circumstances of the late capitalist state, and given the tools available to us of the Fed, for instance, that there is a possibility to activate the political determination of what money represents, or how money functions, and that that possibility should be seized by people. And it should be articulated and named by our leaders. So I think that there’s a lot of affinity, or a lot of parallelism, between the approach to institutions, the approach to the state, the approach to representation, the symbolic, and so on, that I’m interested in and you’re interested in.

If one was to try to articulate a possible point of disjuncture, it is how we acknowledge the outside of that position. So I say the existing forms that are available to human beings can be repurposed, re-constellated, they’re malleable, they can be mobilized for different ends, that politics is the work of collectively deliberating what kind of shape for our lives we should have, and that we don’t have to have a kind of revolutionary iconography of the endless horizon of messianic new forms or non-forms. We can work with some of our available forms. How do we articulate that dialectical capacity, that existing possibility, that political prospect, while also acknowledging that this is a delimited horizon of action. Of course, people who want to abolish the value-form are always going to be unsatisfied with your work and with Stephanie Kelton’s work. Of course, our radical, anarcho bro colleagues are always going to think that Stephanie Kelton is insufficient, that Bernie is not enough, and so on.

So what is the kind of gesture intellectually, but then also rhetorically, that gets us to avow money as an instrument in this concrete situation which we find ourselves, that the available determinants of the situation permit to be used and deployed quite differently? That’s a different question from: should we have a society with no money or should we have a society with no abstraction? So what I really find exciting is the insistence by your working group, and by some of its great, accomplished scholars and leaders, that we could do different things with these tools. I got super excited when Janet Yellen gave her induction speech. That might be something you have to delete, I might get fired, haha. I mean, the things that she said about what state power actually has available to it to produce values that benefit the greater good, the greater masses of the people and so on, those were really exciting formations. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of affinity between our projects.

Maxximilian Seijo: I think to that last point on Yellen, at least in the context of the COVID response and the seeming ongoing crackup of the orthodox monetary policy mold that has been dominant for the last 40 to 50 years, this, as you say, sense of the potential for malleability, it’s interesting to see in context with your work that opening and potential thinking. We had KSR on the show a while ago about the way that opening in a formal sense, in the political economic sphere, is also producing all different types of openings in literary spheres. I think that it’s a really interesting way in which there’s almost like a dialogic phenomenon between the different disciplines or areas in which we’re thinking along these similar terms.

Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. Different aesthetic formations are possible and different aesthetic practices are possible when you have a different relationship to mediation. So if you can understand money as a collective sovereign driven determination of value, that doesn’t have a substance behind it in large part, but that can be deployed, you have a kind of orientation towards what forms are able to do that isn’t predicated upon their transparency of representation or their presencing function.

Scott Ferguson: What you just pointed out there, I just want to, not really pushed back, but just kind of clarify something. I know when you say that we think money as not being backed by a substance in the standard understanding of gold or silver, or whatever it is, but I think our relationship would be to say that it is not non-substantial in the same way that I think a lot of us would probably treat language. Language is not without substance. Language really organizes the world. But it doesn’t have to be a chit or a finite thing. We don’t have to presume a chit or a finite substance somehow behind language. The language of the world is participating in the whole of the world in heterogeneous ways. So again, I just think breaking with the metaphysics of representationalism is something that you do quite well. And I think other humanities scholars can do, but not when it comes to money. Money is this kind of blinding social form in that way.

Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, I think so. One way that I like to think about that is that there is a material efficacy to money. There is a performative power, there is an agency of the symbolic that isn’t reducible to a fixed substance behind it, as you say, or that isn’t conflatable to the presences. It does produce things. It does act. And we can have more or less collective exertion of power around those acts given that it’s the vehicle of valorization in our society–within these constraints of what this society is. So yeah, what’s our vocabulary for thinking about that performative efficacy, thinking about forms that produce things, activations of materiality, or what Lacan refers to as the letter has a material substrate? That’s not a substance, that’s not a solidity, and that’s not a concrete thing. It’s an abstraction too, but it is one that takes hold of us.

William Saas: I want to get to our next question, but I want to get there by way of some editorializing and maybe recontextualizing some of the conversation so far. So returning to Jodi Dean’s comments on the revolution of the last 40 to 50 years, we might call that neoliberalism. It strikes me that it might be reasonable to call the folks who are at the head and have orchestrated and been instrumental in that revolution as being really good at political formalism. So I think the sympathy between our projects boils down to this fundamental question that cannot be probably articulated as beautifully as, “Abstractions also liberate,” but, “How’s that worked for you?” might be another way to pose it. So another similarity or affinity between our projects, I think, is, in the face of frustration and ultimately calling for violent revolution or exodus or refutation, we’re up to recovery, re-examination, and re-discovery. And one of the ways that your book demonstrates this is through case study. We’d love for you to walk us through your second chapter in which you reread Marx and Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party through the lens of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which I think is a very strange pairing, but wonderfully done. But what theoretical or meta-methodological moves are you making here? And how do they serve an alternate history of political form, which can be, as you put it, necessary, malleable and constructible?

Anna Kornbluh: Okay, that’s great. So I think the issue is almost like what is the middle distance? What is the mid-level that we can think about that isn’t total abolition of the value-form or the complete hypothesis of a realm without abstraction or of unstructured life, of anarchic, primordial chaos? And then, on the other side, just only adhering too closely to the smallnesses is where nobody ever wants to think about what power is actually available to us. So I think that mid-level is tactical thinking. I think that it is strategic thinking. It is about what are the tools available in a situation and how do you use them. And the thing that I’m really interested in as a problem between the Manifesto of the Communist Party, which is a document that Marx and Engels produced in late 1847, that comes out in the winter right before 1848, and then has, arguably, an exhortative relationship to the springtime of peoples across Europe in 1848, that document, which comes out at the same time as Wuthering Heights, is exactly this problem of what is the distance or what is the middle? How are we thinking about the constraints of a situation? How are we thinking about the absolute quality or the openings in the political horizon?

So, to make that more clear, in the manifesto, there is an assertion that all of human society is a history of class struggle. And there is also a kind of concluding gesture that the communist revolution will bring with it an end to all antagonism. So what is, I think, a problem of the rhetorical strategy there, of the exhortative anti-capitalist strategy there, is a reduction of the expanse, or this total set as it were, of social contradiction and social antagonism, to the specifically capitalist version of it. Because it simply isn’t true that if we did away with capitalist antagonism, we would have a non-antagonistic society. And it simply isn’t true that we would have a motivated or immanent or natural logic of how to be organized, to go back to our earlier discussions about how there isn’t a given form of human life. And if Marxism implies this, which I don’t think Marx at all consistently does, but I think he deleteriously does at points, then it’s failing the bar of historical materialism, of understanding what is contingent about the capitalist articulation of social antagonism and what is contingent about its managing of social antagonism through the class system.

It’s a problem of how, yes, we can organize a phase theory of history according to the kind of basic class relations, and, yes, we can particularly tell the progressive kind of development of capitalism according to this simplification, he calls it, of class relations, but this isn’t all of human history. And if we represent history in these bombastic ways that he does, as all of this, then we lose the underside or the underlap of history with capitalism. We lose the other part of the set of human antagonisms. And what I think is so amazing about Wuthering Heights is that it has this repertoire of vocabulary of images and tropes that let it think about antagonism as a kind of transhistorical problem for human beings. The basic problem of the hearth, where so much of its action is set, of architecture, of construction, of house holding, of familial shape, all of these are just inexhaustible dilemmas in that book.

And at the same time, there’s this just exuberant, hyper-stylized, incredibly beautiful, and uncanny kind of production of symmetry, of forms, of doubles, and the kind of problematic of formalization itself that just helps us to think about how you can have infinity of social contradictions, and the ability to inscribe and formulate the fact of that infinity of contradictions, such that your proposed political solutions don’t imagine or fantasize that you would ever be away or be done with contradiction.

Maxximlian Seijo: Thank you for that. I think that is a really cogent way of saying that. I wanted to dig in a little bit into some of what you mentioned about the spatialization in Wuthering Heights in an architectural sense. You also motivate this through a photographic analysis, as well, in the way photography as a forming medium does this too. In Wuthering Heights, as you said, we think about the construction of homes, rooms, window frames, this doubling that you mentioned, which these forms seem to shelter, maintain, and then also open social space in ways that even outstrip domination and antagonism at times. Can you give us a little bit more detail or taste of this specifically architectural analysis? And why, in the context of this ontological argument about antagonism, and this ontological argument, essentially, about historical materialism that outstrips these very specific immanent capitalist class antagonisms, why you see these architectural mediums and modes as so important for thinking that transhistorical problematic?

Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, so architecture is kind of a master trope throughout the book. There is, as you are getting this in an hour in a kind of a Frankenstein sense, a lot in the book, but architecture is one of the spines of it. And that is partly because it is a trope of construction, and I’m interested in constructive criticism. It’s a trope of building and I’m interested in putting things together. It is art that straddles the line between necessity and contingency. It’s Hegel’s first art for that reason. Human beings need shelter. But how are you gonna make it? What shape is it going to have? These are questions that are on that threshold of materially and necessarily essential, but also kind of open to variability, to different formations, and to the different processes of creativity. So, for me, architecture just holds so much of this problematic up, of how we need shape to live, and how we need shelter to live. Should you have a triangle roof or A-frame? How should you be living? 

And in Wuthering Heights, it’s just part of the absolute, extreme–I can’t even find adjectives for it–sublime force of that book. It keeps constantly trying to juxtapose highly textured, extremely attentive figurations of the made environment, of the built environment, of fence posts, window frames, lintels, doors, hearths, walls, and house structures overall. It just cannot stop lavishing attention onto those things. And that is a whole vocabulary of ideas and images. What is that doing in the same book with stuff about the arrival of the bourgeoisie, stuff about the insufficiency of the family form, and stuff about immoderate desires? So there’s all this stuff in the plot that is excessive and wild and unsolvable, and then there’s all this stuff in the form that is detailed, material, instantiated, and installed. And then, you can trace the contour of it and you can study it.

So this is how I think novels work. They kind of produce these weird combinations where you’re like, “Okay, so, what do those things have to do with each other?” That is the thought the novel is trying to have. So, what is Wuthering Heights doing with this incredible lavishness of form and this just incredible immoderacy and un-containability of passion and of antipathy and of fighting and of economic transformation and of the slave trade? It is trying to tell us that form is a technique for managing antagonism and a necessary one and a useful one and not a dispelling of antagonism, not one that means that you have to lose track of its extent or its scope.

Scott Ferguson: So one of the things I really appreciate that’s coming out here is, to kind of come back to the critique of anarcho-vitalism, what you’re showing throughout the book, but in this chapter that we’re talking about in particular, is that vitality is with form. It’s shot through form. You’re not arguing against vitality. You’re saying, it seems to me, that form is a question of vitality. It’s not the expunging of vitality.

Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, not the containing of it. That opposition that form constrains, form contains, that institutions police us…

Scott Ferguson: Which they do.

Anna Kornbluh: Which they do, but it’s not the limit of what they do, or containment is not the only thing we can say about what they offer us. That the whole value that emerges, the negative Rubin’s vase illusion of that, formlessness, lack of containment, and lack of constraint is what freedom is. As opposed to, freedom is the meaningful deployment of forms for human flourishing or capacitating our management of necessity so that we don’t denigrate necessity.

Scott Ferguson: So speaking of books that hold very different things together, on the opposite end, maybe, from Wuthering Heights, we have your chapter on Alice in Wonderland. Which you, very provocatively, in a super cool way, you’re trying to convince us that it’s a realist novel. Which, I’m not sure that anyone’s ever made that case before. But you’re not just being shocking for the sake of being shocking. You’re drawing something out about the abstractness of the realist novel that we tend to repress or not avow by calling Alice in Wonderland a realist novel. That’s my initial gloss, but maybe you can unpack what you’re doing here and why it’s so important?

Anna Kornbluh: Sure. Yeah, that’s totally the chapter where I’m talking nonsense, except that the point of the nonsense is to produce something by this dramatic inversion. And it’s less saying Alice in Wonderland is realist as a text, but that its own internal properties of form function as a kind of distillation or crystallization of realist form, that it is something like the symbolic logic, the reduction to the minima, of what realism tries to do. Because Alice is such an experimental investigation into what words are and who fixes the meaning of words. What is social order? And who puts it in place? What is sovereignty? And to whom does it belong? How do we undo it? And what do these things have to do with each other? Why is the question of beheading, and “off-with-their-head-ness,” and the sovereign decision on life, also a question of punning and of the containment of, or the proliferation of, semantic quality? So it’s a kind of prismatic intensification or hardening of the tendencies of experimental inquiry into how society should be that I think realism performs. So that’s the kind of force of it. And then, it’s also kind of playing with some of the historical events of its author having been a mathematician and a revolutionary advent of symbolic logic in relation to other kinds of mathematics in the 19th century. So what does it mean to think about distillation as a representative strategy? And what does it make possible even as it is boiling things down? It’s, yeah, a little bit bananas. But hopefully it’s a breather in the middle of the book, too.

Maxximilian Seijo: I just really appreciate how you boil down to something like Alice in Wonderland is asking ontological questions. By necessity, your political formalism then can kind of feed into that nonsense with a certain logical structure. I just really appreciated the way you took on that so paradoxically. Moving from that context, I wanted to talk about your final chapter, which reads states of psychoanalysis, formalization, and the space of the political. Within it, you plumb deep impulses within psychoanalysis, which in case listeners haven’t sort of picked up on yet, is another one of these combinatory substrate themes in this book. So you plumb these impulses to theorize what might be called the inescapable psycho-political problem of the polis. On your account, why is psychoanalysis such a meaningful tradition through which to confront this indelible, political problematic?

Anna Kornbluh: Sure. Psychoanalysis is like another one of the bolts in Frankenstein’s neck. So I think the first thing to say is psychoanalysis is a discourse of the objective. However much we would want to assimilate it to an egoistic, self help, personalizing kind of pathological formation–bourgeois, insidious, etc–it is an account of the structure of social relations. It is an account of language as the medium of social relations, of ungrounded non-theocratic reason, and of the problem of secular modernity as the structure of the kind of scaffold against which the human subject emerges, or the void that the human subject answers. So it’s an extremely descriptive kind of project in this course of trying to understand the contradictions of modernity that also attend capitalism. It has a kind of different register and a different idiom for investigating those contradictions. So in the biggest sense, it makes sense of social relations. And it puts the arbitrariness of social relations first and foremost, front and center. Why do human beings suffer? Why is there discontent in culture? Why is there discontent in civilization? Because there is not an immanence to it. Because there’s not a groundedness of it. Because we can’t make the words coincide with the things. So it has affinities with the formalist project I’m articulating, as well as affinities with what I think a historical materialist project is. So that’s why it’s so important.

But then, more specifically in that chapter, I’m working with some of the Lacan and Freud’s own thinking about institutions and their own thinking about the relational space of psychoanalysis. You can’t do psychoanalysis on yourself. It’s not self help. It is a dyadic relation that has to take place within very specific formal conditions, the conditions of the clinic, the couch, the two people, the variable session, and usually with the authorization of the institution that will enable the analyst to have been trained, and the patient to transmit what it is that they have done in their processes that they are working on. So there is a lot in the history of psychoanalysis of meditation on what an institution is and why you need it for this practice of health and human beings suffering less. So that makes it an intrinsically political theory. And then, of course, Freud wrote a whole number of political and theoretical texts, as did Lacan. So that’s why I look at psychoanalysis in a way. Then, there are also slightly more historical reasons. Like Freud was one of the great appraisers of the realist novel. He said that Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and Thackeray had invented psychoanalysis before he had. So there’s a kind of according and an esteem for the realist novel in psychoanalysis that is also really enabling for me.

William Saas: Thank you. To get us to the end of the interview, we want to step out of The Order of Forms, or get a little bit adjacent to it as you have in other articles. You’ve written about everything from the so-called method wars in literary studies to reflections on what you have named the climate realism of contemporary novelist, Kim Stanley Robinson, who was a recent guest on our show. So throughout these articles and publications, you place front and center the question of theory, or better, of theorizing as a social formation. And through this writing, it appears that for you, theorizing is not simply a specialized mode of academic labor within the Academy. But it is rather at once a critical and generative activity that takes place through fiction as much as through nonfiction. We like this commitment, and partly, because it links the labor of the humanities to constitutive world building, while pushing back against certain self-loathing impulses in the neoliberal Academy. See before: “how’s that working for you?” Is this a fair characterization of your work? Or are we way off base? If it is fair, could you say more about why it is that you prize this kind of unconventional, even promiscuous approach to theorizing?

Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, I think that’s very fair. And I appreciate it very much. I’m so glad that you guys could read that. I just think that creative, speculative, wild utopian inventiveness is a deep, deep faculty of the human. I really do, I am a humanist in that way. I think humans enjoy play and abstraction. I think it’s a staggering truth that human beings made abstract cave paintings before they knew how to make houses 70,000 years ago, before they knew how to bury bodies. Abstraction is a faculty of our creative power and our creative capacity to make things. So I love that I have labor conditions that afford me the security and the time and the venue to try to take my mind wild places. This is equipment for living. Our ideas clearly haven’t sufficed till now. We live in a society of mass immiseration with more and less brutal instantiations of it and spectacles of it, more or less viciousness, and mass inequity. And we are rapidly losing the ability to live. And that’s not a generic problem of human beings, that is a problem of our oligarchs, but it is going to be true and unevenly distributed that people won’t be alive. This is a fact that in 20 years billions of people will live on land that will be uninhabitable or hot or underwater or both. This is a recipe for mass death, a recipe for forced extinction, and a recipe for mass violence as well.

So shit is not working. People are miserable and the earth is burning up. So we need new ideas. And we need ideas that aren’t just messaging and telegraphing and DMing what’s already here. There’s a kind of real collapse of both the theoretical and the aesthetic imaginary right now into this just endless, sadistic documenting of how bad shit is. And that’s not really galvanizing as art, that’s immobilizing as art. So I would kind of just defend ontologically, politically, tactically, and libidinally what theory has to offer us, what big ideas, what speculation, what thinking abstractly, what defamiliarization, and getting outside the normal frames of reference have to offer us.

William Saas: I just wanted to acknowledge and show some appreciation for your own acknowledgement of the conditions of the labor that you’re doing. And I’ll maybe invite you to say a little bit more about theorizing and the space-time labor value that is required into this essential labor of theorizing our way out of this climate mess and out of all other associated messes. What do we need to do that?

Anna Kornbluh: Right, so we obviously need lots of collaborative time, I think, because none of the available idioms are working. And that includes that the engineers don’t know how to convey the crisis of value that we’re living in even if they know how to decarbonize. They don’t know how to motivate the political action. But the storytellers haven’t quite figured out how to galvanize a mass insistence on decarbonisation or on other ameliorative measures, because maybe they don’t have enough riveting facts or they don’t have a good enough sense of what the functional storytelling is. But we need a lot more collaborative, imaginative, and technically inventive work together across disciplines. I do think that’s true. And I think that individuals need time to spend reading, to spend marinating, and to spend producing collaborative knowledge in the space of the classroom. I don’t at all oppose research and teaching. I think that is just totally not what I mean when I say like we need time for thinking.

But people need time for teaching. And that means that they need small class sizes, they need workable loads, and they need the ability to have preparation that involves reading new things and changing their course syllabi all the time and like genuinely encountering and making ideas happen in the classroom. There’s this line in Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s book, The Teaching Archive, about how like in the humanities you deal with students saying like, “I couldn’t make it to class, what did I miss?” And they say, “You missed everything and you missed it forever.” Because we make the knowledge happen in that haptic, collaborative, and dynamic moment of mutual determination of meaning. That is what you missed. So I think we need time for research driven teaching and research generative teaching. And what we also know is that it is just emphatically and empirically good for students, about small class sizes, about a lot of individual attention, about a lot of dynamic kind of evolution of what’s on the syllabus, and a lot of in-person collective work.

The other thing I might say about that, because I really, really care about this, is we need people who think about our conditions of labor and who are willing to do the work to make the place where we work, work. Service in the institution, being the associate head of my department of a hundred people, working in my academic union, these are things that have taught me so, so much about big ideas, about communication, about pattern, about organizing, about power and politics. It is a formal problem, how should you organize a class, make a budget, or at what level should departments cooperate, and so on. And I wrote two books in the last five years while I was doing really heavy administrative work, and I think that every faculty member must do it, and also must do it in their union. Because self governance has to mean something and because making our institutions functional and habitable is also content.

William Saas: Just wondering, returning to the self-loathing academic and the neoliberal Academy, part of that being potentially linked to perpetuation, and throwing one’s hands up at the structure as it is and saying, “I can’t do anything about it. I can’t create that space that I know is necessary in the classroom. Let’s just burn it all down.” Right?

Anna Kornbluh: No, I think that’s absolutely pervasive. And some of it is a response to feeling themselves burnt out. Burnout is a generational and cultural structure of feeling and so on for lots and lots of reasons. We, again, have a society that is immiserating people on a mass scale. The amount of overwork that is extracted from people no matter what their level of compensation is, or the level of job security is, is just intolerable. And I think it’s really, really vivid in the pandemic that academics are like essential workers in how much they’ve been asked to over function, how much they’ve been asked to overproduce. Many people, not all, were insulated from the dangers that say healthcare workers or grocery store workers had in the last 20 months, but not from the extremizing intensification of the demands on our work, and certainly not from the emotional toll of what it has taken to try to be there for students and invent new modalities and respond to our employers contempt for our survival and so on. So you can understand what the burnout is, you can understand what the dissolution is, but your fellow people have some power to join with you and transform a lot of those conditions.

A lot of these power structures are actually open and available. It’s not that hard to be a department head, it really isn’t. And people can do that work together. And that’s what faculty governance, another beautiful promise of it, is. It is really, really, really rewarding to make a faculty union. And it is really rewarding to do that in relationship to student unions and in relationship to graduate employees unions and in relationship to staff and janitorial unions and in relationship to your public school teachers union. And to think about 4 million people work in higher education. That’s more than in the airline industry, or the restaurant industry, these giant sectors that got COVID bailouts, that we did not in the same way or that we didn’t have value for. We serve 20 million people nationwide. Like our work is incredibly valuable. There’s a lot of power in that value that we can collectively seize up together. I know everybody’s tired and everything is terrible. But I really think that affirming the good stuff that we have and the agency that we have is the only way out.

Scott Ferguson: Anna Kornbluh, this was an incredible conversation. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Anna Kornbluh: Oh my god, I’m so honored that you guys read my work and I’m such an admirer of the efforts you guys are making to just think differently.

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

Chekhov’s Coin with Rohan Grey (New Transcript!)

In this special episode, Rohan Grey joins Billy Saas to discuss the latest episode in the #MinttheCoin saga. Rohan Grey is Assistant Professor of Law in the College of Law at Willamette University.

Read his article on the trillion-dollar coin in the Kentucky Law Journal titled “Administering Money: Coinage, Debt Crises, and the Future of Fiscal Policy” here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3536440

John Stewart on the trillion-dollar coin in 2013: https://www.cc.com/video/t24pv8/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-the-trillion-dollar-coin

James Buchanan and Paul Samuelson in John Maynard Keynes: Life, Ideas, Legacy documentary: https://youtu.be/JpIJvAt3dTc?t=3105 

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


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

William Saas: Rohan Grey, thank you for joining me for this special episode of Money on the Left.

Rohan Grey: Thanks for having me.

William Saas: So, first question: #MinttheCoin, have many people been saying this?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, a lot of people have been saying it, and louder and louder. The reality of it is this is not even the first time, not even the second time, but probably more like the third or fourth time that this issue has come back around. It’s really run the gamut from tragedy to farce, to impatience, and I think now to maybe inevitability at some point. The underlying problem just continues to get more ridiculous. And in doing so, I think a lot of people who thought of the idea of using a kind of crazy accounting gimmick or something that would look silly in the eyes of the public, or the rest of the world, the risks associated with that have gone down relative to the risks of just continuing with this absolutely ridiculous charade indefinitely. We are a decade into these kinds of debt ceiling games and there’s no ending in sight. And the Biden administration’s approach seems to be pretty much exactly the same as the Obama administration’s approach was a decade ago. So if this is the best that we’ve come up with after ten years, then why not start being more creative?

William Saas: Yeah, can you give us your sort of elevator pitch for #MinttheCoin?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, so the idea is that we continue to run up against a legislative and operational log jam, where Congress tells the executive, the Treasury secretary, to spend a certain amount in accordance with the congressional budget directives, to tax a certain amount, and then to make up the difference with some sort of financing. Typically, the way that would happen is the Treasury secretary would spend a certain amount, and then, to make sure that there’s enough funds in its account at the Fed that it spends all the money out from, it will sell Treasury securities, Treasury bonds, Treasury bills, Treasury notes, or what we collectively call the national debt. Then, the funds that come into its account when it sells those to private dealers become the funds that then go to people for Social Security checks or government employee checks. But in an instant where the debt ceiling limit prevents issuing more Treasury securities, the risk is that the general account will run out of funds. And if it does so, there is another law on the books prohibiting the Federal Reserve from allowing the Treasury to run an overdraft on that account. So, effectively, the Treasury secretary is in this sort of awkward position where they have to keep spending because Congress has told them to spend, their job is to execute Congress’s directives, but they also can’t change the accounting and spending operations in a way necessary to ensure that happens.

Interestingly enough, there’s a part of the Coinage Act that was passed in 1996 as part of a commemorative coin bill that gives the Treasury secretary clear, plain language, no caveats, no asterisks, the power to mint and issue platinum proof coins–proof, here, meaning highly polished coins–of whatever denomination they wish, of whatever amount that they wish. So a lawyer named Carlos Mucha, when he was going under the internet moniker “Beowulf” on a MMT blog picked up on this idea from earlier writers, like Ellen Brown, and there was also a politician who kind of proposed it in the 1990s named Bo Gritz, to use this statutory authority to mint a series of very high value coins, trillion dollar coins, or multi-trillion dollar coins, have the mint deposit them at the Fed, the Fed then credits the Treasury for the face value of those coins, because once they’re accepted they’re legal tender, and then those funds would be available to ensure that the checks go out and the spending happens just like selling treasury bonds. And the important note there is that coinage, including all the coins that we use today, including the coins that we’ve minted and issued for hundreds of years, are not subject to the debt ceiling. So this would be using a parallel source of financing that is legal on the books to make sure that we honor our spending commitments without some catastrophic default or government shutdown.

William Saas: Do you think parallel is the best kind of metaphor or explanation for it? Or what do you think of things like end run, circumvention, or roundabout? I don’t know, what do you think?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, I think using the trillion dollar coin to avoid a debt crisis–a debt ceiling crisis, I should say, because it’s not a debt crisis. It’s the ceiling itself, which by the way, virtually no other country has in the world, and certainly not in the way that the United States has it. And if you look at the debt ceiling history, it was actually originally designed to give more flexibility to the Treasury. So up until the early 20th century, whenever Congress wanted to spend on, you know, new bridges, a war, the postal service, or whatever else, it would direct the spending to happen, and say, “Hey, executive branch, spend X amount,” and it would have specific authority. It would say we authorize you to issue a certain amount of bonds, or collect taxes or customs, or mint coins, or whatever it is. And each spending directive would have a specific financing authority. But then World War I comes around, and it becomes very difficult to manage all of the different spending commitments in a very large scale way with basically a thousand different spending authorities. So Congress says, “We’re gonna make it easier for you at the Treasury, we’re gonna roll all that up into one big spending authority.” It’s sort of like having 20 different credit cards, or 20 different bank accounts, and then rolling them all up into one. Then, you can move around the funds. And if you’ve got excess from one spending commitment to another, you can move it all around without having to come back to us each time.

So the original debt ceiling was actually designed to make it easier for the executive branch to discretionarily adjust its financing operations as needed. In that sense, the debt ceiling was always not intended to become this political football, but once it was created, like so many other things, its purpose got twisted. But the coin, I think, is definitely a workaround to the twisting of the debt ceiling. I would perhaps argue it’s more faithful to the spirit of the original debt ceiling and the longer term trajectory of the Treasury, which is to get more and more discretion on how to finance spending. One of the things I argue in this paper I wrote that we’re going to talk about later is that, even as Congress was giving the executive branch greater discretion in its financing, it was exercising strict control over how much was spent and on what. So it’s not a matter of letting the president, or the Treasury secretary, go crazy and do whatever they want. It is more about how, when we tell you to spend a certain amount and tax a certain amount, you have to do that. But in terms of how you do that, we’re going to leave that to you because the world is complicated, the administrative state is complicated, and we’re not going to micromanage the day to day financing activities. So as long as you spend what we tell you to spend, we’re going to give you latitude in working out how to do that the best way. In that sense, the coin is a workaround to the perversion of the debt ceiling.

But to the broader point, the mint’s authority to create coins and to generate financing capacity through the power of seigniorage is a parallel power to the issuance of Treasury bonds and the reliance on the Federal Reserve and the bond market to be a part of that process. The mint is the oldest monetary institution of the United States government. It was created years after the country was created. The Federal Reserve only was established in the early 20th century. So the mint has always been there. And nowadays, when people say, the government can create money, they usually think that it has been basically exclusively delegated to the Federal Reserve. So the Treasury is sort of reduced to, like you and I, someone that has to ask permission to access this power that the Federal Reserve has, or can only indirectly access it through the Fed, and that the Fed’s job is to protect the boundary very closely and guard this power from abuse by elected officials. This is the idea of central bank independence.

My argument is, whatever may be true or not about central banks, it’s never affected the mint. The mint has been part of the Treasury for a very long time. And that power to issue coins has never been taken away from the Treasury. It has never left the Treasury. It’s never been something that the Federal Reserve has taken over. So this is not so much the power grab away from the Fed, as it is a resurrecting a somewhat dormant power and using it for creative purposes in a moment of crisis. Of course, the mint has been issuing coins the whole time, and has been returning hundreds of millions of dollars in seigniorage to the Treasury into the same account that the funds from selling the bonds go into. But we’re talking about going from hundreds of millions of dollars to trillions of dollars, and that is obviously an order of magnitude difference. But it’s a quantitative difference. It’s not a fundamentally different kind of operation or a different kind of power. So in that sense, I would say, yes, that the coinage power and the central banking power have existed in parallel for a long time.

William Saas: Right, so the trillion dollar coin resurrects this authority, or reanimates it, in interesting ways. To carry through that metaphor, it seemed like in February of 2021, Mike Lee wanted to kill it dead again by striking that obscure 1996 provision that granted the mint authority to create coins in any denomination. I’d like to get an update from you on the status of Mike Lee’s attempt to do away with that provision.

Rohan Grey: I haven’t heard any progress on it. There was a Republican congressman, seven or eight years ago, that did something similar, and that went nowhere as well. In part, this is posturing for them. It’s part of their kind of fiscal conservatism. It’s the same kind of reason that half of these Republicans put out gold standard bills every now and again. They don’t actually want that to happen, but it’s good posturing. I think they’d be fine if the coin statute was eliminated, but the point of that was really to give them a platform and to express outrage that this could even be considered. I think this goes to the sort of larger underlying ideological difference of trying to pretend that there is no such thing as public money, there’s only taxpayer’s money, and that you can only either tax or borrow. Those are the only two ways to get spending capacity. You have to be clear about how you will rob Peter if you’re going to pay Paul, and all of this austerity, scarce-money framework that their entire political ideology is based on. Even if we don’t use the coin today, even if we don’t ever use the coin, the existence of the coin, the fact that it’s there on the table, the fact that it gets talked about, is of great discomfort to them, because it keeps open the space for different kinds of politics, different kinds of discourse, where we don’t have to be thinking in purely zero-sum terms, and that things like the debt ceiling are not actually a limit on borrowing from our grandkids and government spending run amok as they like to pretend.

They are, in fact, as I mentioned earlier, just an operational part of a financing process that could be done a whole range of different ways. And whatever craziness the idea of minting a coin worth a lot of money might have sounded a decade ago, we’re deep into the world of crypto and digital currencies nowadays. Everybody is creating their own coins and these kinds of things. I think the larger imaginative and metaphorical threat that the coin presents is part of what needs to be attacked by these people’s perspective, because we’re right in the middle of a discussion about creating a government digital currency, a US digital dollar. So should this digital dollar look more like a bank account or should it look more like a coin? A coin is anonymous. It’s even more anonymous than a paper currency which has a barcode on it. They tracked the Lindbergh baby through the barcodes of the money, right? You can’t do that with coins. It was historically seen as something that you put in your pocket and you can carry it wherever you want. So the metaphor of a coin, of a public coin, the idea that the mint might have more to teach us in this moment of digitizing currency than complicated central banking operations, I think, is deeply threatening beyond just the immediacy of the debt crisis itself.

William Saas: We’ve referenced it before, and we’ve talked to you twice in previous podcasts, but I don’t think we’ve had an opportunity to talk to you since the publication of your Kentucky Law Journal article, which is called “Administering Money: Coinage, Debt Crises, and the Future of Fiscal Policy.” So I wanted to discuss that just a bit. Getting into the notion of the trilemma, as you outline it here, as others have outlined it, and how you position and frame your argument in this Kentucky Law Journal article as a supplement to that, can you walk us through the idea of what a trilemma is, or the trilemma is, when it comes to a president’s available options when faced with something like what President Biden is faced with today?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, sure. First of all, big shout out to Carlos Mucha, who was the guy who coined the idea so to speak, and to people like Joe Firestone who have been really pushing this for a long time. A lot of this paper is collecting and organizing existing arguments, and then adding my own around the edges and trying to put a spin on the whole thing. But a lot of the paper is really in dialogue with another paper by a law professor, Michael Dorf, and an economist, Neil Buchanan, called “How to Choose the Least Unconstitutional Option.” It was a Columbia Law Review article from about 2012, and it was one of the ones that was discussed in the White House when they were dealing with these crises. Their argument is that, when Congress directs the executive branch–the president and the Treasury secretary, specifically–to spend a certain amount, to tax a certain amount, and then not to borrow more than a certain amount, that that can create, essentially, a paradox. That is, you have to spend 100, you can only tax 50, so there’s 50 left, but you can only borrow 30. So what do you do with the rest? This is an ongoing process. What do you do every month for the 20 that’s not being accounted for? Or, eventually, you can borrow no more, and so, what do you do for everything after that?

Their argument is that, in a moment like this, something has to give. And of those three different options–spending, taxing, and borrowing–their argument is that the spending and taxing powers are core congressional powers. They are the core of the power of the purse. This goes back to your political science 101 classes with the power of the purse and the power of the sword. And that the debt ceiling is, relatively speaking, a kind of administrative, procedural, technical, and operational thing that has evolved over the years, has been basically dead letter for a number of years, because nowadays the way that we actually lift the debt ceiling periodically, which we used to do as a pro forma issue, is to suspend it, and then retroactively raise it when we increase it again. It’s sort of like saying, you have a credit card that has no limit. But next month, we’re going to retroactively impose a limit that’s exactly the amount that you happened to spend last month. And then, we’re going to do that for 30 minutes, and then we’re going to suspend that for another month. And then, next month, we’re going to impose it again for 30 minutes, and it’s going to be exactly what it was this last month, and then we’re going to suspend it again. It just makes a mockery of the whole thing. It allows politicians to grandstand every few years, but it’s not actually designed to put a limit on anything on a daily basis.

So their argument is, when you’ve got these three options, and you have to violate one of them as the president. Because the alternative would be to ignore the will of Congress, to ignore your clear legal obligations, to execute the laws unfaithfully under Article II of the Constitution, and that would provoke a separation of powers crisis and would be the president engaging in a unilateral kind of power grab and doing whatever they want. So if you have these three choices, you should choose the least unconstitutional, which is to violate the debt ceiling. Keep the spending, keep the taxing, just blow through the debt ceiling, and keep issuing treasury bonds tomorrow like you were yesterday. I agree with that argument on its face. That is to say, I think if you have to blow through one of the three, then the debt ceiling is the obvious one to blow through. There is a very good argument that taxing and spending is a higher sort of constitutional power to be separated and that the debt ceiling is already kind of a joke at best, operationally speaking.

But my argument is that we have to be careful that we’ve exhausted all the alternative legal options first. And if the coin is, in fact, the legal option, then that allows us to avoid this paradox whatsoever. It allows us to avoid the idea that we have to violate the constitution in some way, or that all we need to try to do is choose the least bad. In fact, we could do something that is legal. Buchanan and Dorf engage to quite a degree with the coin. They say they think it isn’t legal, it would probably count under the debt ceiling, and that even if it was legal, it would cause the population to question the value of the currency, and in doing so, could basically promote a catastrophic economic outcome. So the president should consider that and say, “What’s the cost of a catastrophic outcome versus just a little bit of unconstitutional behavior?” Relative to that, we should do the low grade unconstitutional thing rather than the technically legal but functionally catastrophic thing. I spent a fair bit of the paper pushing back against that and unpacking some of the assumptions in that claim. Is it true that minting a coin would cause the markets to kind of freak out? Is it true that it would cause runaway inflation? Is it true that it would actually have these effects? Or is that just a bunch of speculation by people who have a very strong commitment to a very liberal and scarce theory of money? And that what they’re actually saying is, we should be discounting any action that could reveal to the public how money really works?

We all know that money works like this. Look at the central bank of Japan. It’s been buying up stocks and government bonds hand over fist. You look at the Federal Reserve with quantitative easing and things. We’ve been “printing money,” we’ve been monetizing government debt and the world hasn’t collapsed. But the public maybe hasn’t fully grasped it all and fully caught on. So should we be avoiding any legal action that might tell the truth here in the name of the noble lie, that the public can’t handle the truth? My argument, and I think this is the strongest argument, the most unique contribution that I try to give in this paper, is that this is really dangerous. This is really dangerous to democratic governance and to an informed electorate. Because now you’re having a situation where the executive branch is openly and explicitly violating the Constitution, and violating their directives to do what Congress tells them, on the basis that they’ve got no other option. And this is in knowing full well they have another option, but believe that they are not required to entertain that option seriously because the public can’t handle it. To me, that is in the same category as the secret Pfizer courts that have warrantless surveillance, that nobody can hear because it all needs to be redacted. Chief Justice Roberts gets to sign this thing, nobody else gets to read it, and it’s in the name of democracy. But it’s in the name of democracy that we couldn’t possibly let you see.

It’s in this realm of “there are weapons of mass destruction.” Trust us. We can’t show you the materials, but we just have to do it because the alternative would be so catastrophic. Just trust us. I think it’s a very dangerous precedent when there are monetary theories that the public supposedly can and cannot handle–not economic theories. Remember, we’re not saying that this would be inflationary. We’re saying that the public would think it’s inflationary, therefore, we should be afraid of doing it. Because rather than educate them, rather than work through the truth, we should indulge their delusion and reinforce their delusion. And that is sound governance, even if it allows us to violate the constitution whenever we want to and use this as an excuse. My argument is that is the moment where we have to be really careful and where we need to be saying that the executive branch actually doesn’t have this discretion. They are not empowered to choose whether or not to tell the truth to the public, and if they decide they don’t want to, to then go and violate the constitution.

The thing that the coin is actually protecting us from is an imperial presidency that can basically threaten a government shutdown rather than admit that this is all a stupid game and that they’ve always got an escape clause. And the Democrats, I think, to their credit, they don’t want the government shutdown. They want the Republicans to cave. They want the Republicans to break, to cry uncle, and to stop playing these stupid games. But again, how many years in now are we to watching the Republicans play nihilistic, willing to blow everything up games? And how reasonable is it to hope that they’re going to come to the table and be a working partner in governance? It’s that kind of “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” thing, but now we’re at like fool me 55 times. And Biden’s big solution is to say, like, “Come on, man. This is unreasonable. We want you to be adults.” You’re talking to Mitch McConnell, who’s saying to your face things like, “I want you to implode and fail as a president.” And if that means blowing up half the American economy along the way, so be it. This isn’t sound governance, this isn’t adult strategy, and this isn’t some genius, 11th dimensional political chess by the Democrats. This is just them wanting to play the only playbook they know how to play even if it means marching us into catastrophe.

William Saas: And it’s pervasive and entrenched. When I got to this point in “Administering Money,” where Buchanan’s talking about how maybe it’s better to preserve the myth than to let it out, that the government does have this money creating authority, there’s that documentary with Paul Samuelson that we’re all aware of on John Maynard Keynes, where we have Paul Samuelson, author of the most circulated or widely used economics textbook, talking about the need to preserve the myth of the balanced budget in order to reinforce discipline with the fisc. But immediately before that clip, James Buchanan is talking–was this James Buchanan, or is this the other Buchanan? Anyhow, I think this is a really good point of transition. You’ve sort of summarized this already, but you put it very nicely in the article. You say, “Taking the trillion dollar coin proposal seriously–if not necessarily literally–allows for consideration of the deeper constitutional implications of replacing the ‘trilemma’ with a four-dimensional conceptual framework that includes money creation alongside spending, taxing and borrowing.” Alongside that quote, and your narration of the “Lucy with the football” history of the Democrats and Republicans in recent decades, I want to play a clip for you from Pod Save America, January 2017, an episode rather ominously titled, “Obama’s Last Interview,” which, as far as I know, is not correct. But by this they mean his last interview as president on his way out of the White House.

Pod Save America: When were you most scared in the White House? What was the scariest moment?

Barack Obama: Well, I think it was that moment when John Boehner didn’t seem to be able to generate the votes to make sure that the US didn’t default. We had to start drafting the speech. And we were having these conversations with Jack Lew and others about what options, in fact, were available. Because it had never happened before. And there were all kinds of wacky ideas about how potentially you could have this massive coin. I mean, it was like something primitive, like out of the stone age or something, and I pictured rolling in some coin. For those who are listening, it gets pretty technical but there was this theory that I had the authority through the mint to just issue this massive, trillion dollar commemorative coin. And then, on that basis, we could try to pay off US Treasuries. And it was a very realistic possibility that we couldn’t get the votes for that and we couldn’t get those debts rolled over. And we would be in a situation where, technically, we’re in default. And at that point, you were in uncharted territory. What was also true was that, in addition to talking to Jack Lew, treasury secretary, and my speech writers about a speech, there were also questions about whether any actions that I took might be violations of the law. So we had to be talking to lawyers about potential challenges and legal actions and lawsuits from bondholders around the world.

Pod Save America: Not fun.

Barack Obama: It wasn’t my favorite night, yeah.

Pod Save America: What was your favorite night?

William Saas: Okay, so a lot to talk about there. Do you have any initial impressions or things that you’d like to reflect on from that clip?

Rohan Grey: I mean, yeah, there are two things. One is, and Obama did a great job of this during his entire presidency, and of course, he’s talking to his kind of people in this interview, but just the idea that anything that’s outside of his worldview is crazy and that anything within his worldview is eminently sensible. Talking to lawyers about what happens if we default and then we get sued by millions of bondholders, that’s serious. Minting a coin, that is wacky. Boehner not having the votes is a grave, serious problem. Him not playing hardball with the powers that he actually has, that’s wacky. That kind of rationality being the limits of his own worldview is something that is just an enduring theme of the Obama administration to me, and I think it really manifests here. The other thing that’s interesting here is just this idea of Jack Lew telling me what we could do, the lawyer is telling me what we could do, I’m always constrained, and I don’t have any power. But the reality, of course, is that, whether or not we pursue these things and try, is his choice. I think that kind of powerlessness is an enduring theme of his presidency.

Well, what do you expect me to do? I’ve tried nothing, and I’m already out of ideas. It’s that kind of mentality of the reason nothing ever gets done when I’m in charge is because everybody else is stymying me rather than because I am not taking responsibility for actions. It’s just very interesting when we’re talking about something that he has a constitutional requirement, a mandate, to do. He signed on, he put his hand on that Bible, and whatever. But when the time comes, when the rubber hits the road, it’s someone else’s problem. The limits are someone else’s, and all he can do is turn and face different parts of the prison that he’s caged in, while, of course, laughing at anybody trying to help him out of it, while, of course, having nothing but smug derision for any possible option that could have gotten him out of that. And I think it’s notable that he calls this the scariest moment in his presidency. The global financial crash, that’s not that scary. Presiding over the decline into warrantless surveillance and drone striking, that’s not that scary. The failure of the Paris Agreements, or whatever, that’s not that scary. It’s just very interesting that of all the things that really reached the limit of his ability to keep a cool head, it was the bloody debt ceiling.

William Saas: It’s stark, too, when you consider the other ways that executive power expanded and continued to expand throughout his presidency. There’s this disavowal of executive authority when it comes to domestic financial and fiscal problems, and then just unstoppable expansion when it comes to military adventures abroad.

Rohan Grey: Yeah, you accidentally drone strike an American child. Oh, well, whoopsie, mistakes happen. But God forbid that we do something that doesn’t sound very serious when it comes to preventing a catastrophe. And he’s talking about Boehner there, and of course, Boehner blissfully peaced out of the political scene when Trump came on the scene. And McConnell’s still around and was a big part of the story then. But I think it’s important that, at that point, the Republicans did blink. When the Democrats played hardball, their gamble paid off. They put a gun to the head of the American economy and said, “We’ll pull the trigger. We’ll do it if you don’t tell us to step down.” The Republicans said, “Fine, step down. The polling is hurting us.” This time around, I don’t think McConnell will do that. But I think the other thing that’s important is that, since then, we’ve made some strides now that this is on the table in crisis preparation. And at that point, there were these debates about, well, how are we going to prioritize different kinds of payments? Can we actually ensure that people who hold government debt will continue to get paid even if we have to sequester the government, employees, Social Security payments, and things.

Well, make sure the finance guys get paid even if everything else gets cut. That was a very hard operational challenge at that point. I don’t think it’s as hard now. And I think that certainly McConnell does not want the bondholders to not get paid. But I think he would be fine if this time around a government shutdown completely stopped Social Security checks, government employee paychecks, and things. If they could show that next time there’s a debt ceiling crisis, or next time there’s one of these crises, the only people that will actually potentially suffer, are the welfare state, the kinds of things that they love nothing more than starving, that will be a big win for them. Because in that moment, putting a log into the spokes of the wheel of the budget machine is just one more tool to starve the beast that they’ve been trying to starve forever. So I think that’s something to be very weary about. In transposing the fight that happened in 2011 and 2013 to the present is the stakes are higher, that the republicans are willing to draw more blood, and the people that are likely to be most harmed, if we do go across that Rubicon moment, will not be the international bondholders first, it will most likely to be the people who receive benefits from the government or employee salaries.

William Saas: Yeah, another one of the differences between 2011 and 2013 is we didn’t find out that the trillion dollar coin proposal was considered by the President, by the executive branch, and the President specifically, until after the fact until everything was resolved. Whereas, last week, we had Michael Gwin, a White House spokesman, telling Politico that, “There is only one viable option to deal with the debt limit: Congress needs to increase or suspend it as it has done approximately 80 times, including three times during the last administration.” So upfront, he is saying it’s on the table but it’s not on the table.

Rohan Grey: Yeah, we’re taking it off the table. It could have been on the table, but for us. I think you’re even noticing that in the journalist treatment, as well. The first time around, people like Joe Weisenthal, who were really at the forefront of this, they were kind of out there on a limb talking about this, but with eight or ten years of just watching how insane everything else has gone, watching the kind of sea change in macroeconomics, and watching not only the response to 2008 but the response to COVID with the New York Times printing articles saying, “Printing money’s on the table again,” and this kind of stuff, it urns out, when we need it, there is “infinity dollars,” as Neel Kashkari at the Fed says. It makes it harder to sustain that underlying scarce money myth. And the coin suddenly becomes, while still in the realm of wacky fantasy, a little bit closer to reality than it was the first time around and people have been somewhat desensitized to it and that kind of thing. Nowadays, Politico and others are reporting on this, as well as Bloomberg. And the reporting says the White House is choosing not to consider the coin. That’s the framing this time. And I don’t think that was the framing last time. The framing was, is this even something they can consider?

William Saas: Jon Stewart’s coming back too late.

Rohan Grey: That’s right. He’s not here to bring his brand of common sense. I don’t have much love for Paul Krugman, but there was just an absolutely insane moment where Jon Stewart ends up having this multi day spat with Paul Krugman about the coin, and Krugmn said, “Yeah, it’s economically fine. We should do this. The Republicans are playing hardball.” It’s one of those rare moments where I agree with Paul Krugman’s political strategy. And Jon Stewart is just playing the comedian, right? “Well, I’m just a dumb clown, what do I know?” But this seems silly to me. You’re not being a dumb clown in that moment. You’re trying to shut down ideas by appeals to common sense, but not informed common sense, rather this gut instinct, populist kind of what you think sounds like common sense. “You’re telling me that injecting a bit of a virus in you is supposed to make you less likely to catch a virus? That sounds crazy!” And it’s like, that’s just what a vaccine is.

There’s an appeal to common sense that was a lot more bipartisan a decade ago than it is today. “I’m a social liberal, but a fiscal conservative” was a smart sounding thing to say in 2010. And nowadays, it’s a cruel joke. Yeah, Jon Stewart’s rally to restore sanity looks hilarious at this point when you know that Trump’s five or six years are coming down the pipeline. “I disagree with you, but I don’t think you are Hitler.” Well, turns out that some of them are literally white nationalists with pitchforks and ramming cars into people. So do you still think they’re not Hitler? Do you still want to have a reasonable debate there while you’re simultaneously calling Paul Krugman an idiot on economics? And again, I’m in a very weird position to be defending Paul Krugman on economics, but relative to Jon Stewart’s pop-libertarian, you know, “Ron Paul has some good ideas,” kind of bullshit, he is certainly more of an adult there.

William Saas: Yeah, well, he’s coming back just in time, it seems like, for relevancy.

Rohan Grey: I think one other point on this is just that Biden was in the room for all of this as well. He was the VP for this. And while people might have thought about the coin being stupid, saying, “Well, this is stupid, we should just get rid of the debt ceiling,” of course, we should get rid of the fucking debt ceiling. But when has that been on the table? When has any democrat been interested in fighting that fight? We’re eight to ten years after these crises moments and the first round of debt ceiling debates and the democrats have not upgraded their strategy. They haven’t done anything. This is rolling exactly the same way as it did last time. And if that’s their solution, to shut down anything that would actually fix the problem, but offer nothing for a whole decade. Their solution is just to say, “No, this time around, just like last time, we’re just going to expect eventually to find that last 1% of humanity in Mitch McConnell, or those last vapors of a commitment to institutional norms, and that that will save us.” It’s like, whatever you thought about institutional and social norms in 2010, if you still think that we’re in the same place in 2021, you’ve been asleep, you’re completely delusional. A lot of people who might have been willing to give the genius President Obama, the Harvard law professor, the benefit of the doubt, that he’s playing some 11th dimensional chess that they can’t possibly understand, I think people are less willing to believe that average Joe has got some genius plan in there, especially when everything looks exactly the same as last time.

William Saas: McConnell will fold or a trillion dollar coin–one of these is whimsical.

Rohan Grey: That’s right. One of these is the kind of thing you should be laughing about on a podcast about politics and the other is a proposal to mint the coin.

William Saas: I do want to pause for just a moment on the question of common sense and what common sense was 10 years ago versus common sense today. Because common sense to Jon Stewart in 2011 or 2012, I don’t know that it’s going to look that much different in terms of understanding the fiscal situation. I’d be interested in your perspective on this, especially, because the reception of the coin, like you say, the idea, is a little bit more staid this time around. Whereas before, it was like, “Isn’t this interesting?” And, “That seems like a meme, right? Let’s talk about it and laugh.” Although, at the same time, it’s very serious, and there’s a spectacular quality to it. Whereas now, having, as you said, appeared, reappeared, and disappeared so many times over the past several years, I feel like the reception is not as strong today. And I think that this question of reception of the idea is maybe central to the whole project of things like Modern Monetary Theory. Is it chipping away over time until it becomes so banal that it just gets taken up without reflection? Or is it something else?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, I mean, I don’t have any faith that it’s going to be adopted this time around. When I say I think it’s closer, I don’t think it’s closer to being enacted. But I think that it’s less shocking to people that have been so shocked. People sort of say, “Oh, if you take a lot of MDMA, then your serotonin receptors have been blown out. There’s nothing left for them to fill up with.” Well, we’ve kind of just been shocked about the spectacle. There’s just nothing left now to raise us to eleven after seeing just a complete shit show over the last few years and seeing the climate crisis and everything else. But I think the difference is that, this time around, the focus is less on the coin and more on the decision of why not to use the coin. And it’s not that that’ll necessarily be enough pressure to cause Biden to change. But I think it feeds now into this larger narrative of when are we finally going to play hardball to save the planet, save ourselves, and to fight back against this kind of Republican and reactionary nihilism. And when Biden got into power, I don’t know if everybody voted for him for this reason, but a big part of his shtick was I can work with people across the aisle and nothing is going to fundamentally change, right? I’m a bridge builder, let’s get America back to being harmonious, and let’s heal our divisions. I think this is just making a mockery of that. This is showing that, once again, this wasn’t an adult, serious political vision. This was just some naive bullshit that was going to give the Republicans power to continue to set the agenda and continue to threaten to blow things up.

And if it’s not the debt ceiling, if it’s not minting the coin, it’s going to be something else. And if it’s not Biden, it will be someone else, if there even are other elections in the future, before Trump 2.0 stops them from happening or whatever. I think if we’re gonna get out of this descending spiral, something radical needs to change in how we are willing to use power, to take power, and to fight strength with strength. I think the coin is going to continue to stand here as an example. If rustling the feathers of nervous nellies, as Neil Buchanan says, is a bridge too far, then everything else is a bridge too far too, right? Then, Greta Thunberg is a bridge too far. Then, canceling student debt is a bridge too far. Then, reparations is a bridge too far. And if it’s not the coin, then when are we going to finally start saying, “No, those are the kinds of politics we have to be willing to play or we’re just going to keep losing, we’re just going to keep ceding ground, and eventually, we won’t be able to cede ground again.” Yeah, eventually, the next group that they come for, the next issue they come for, you’ll look around for allies and there won’t be enough left. So I think that’s the big thing for me. Yes, it’s not that eventually it’s gonna become so banal that we can slip it in without people noticing or something. It’s that eventually these contradictions are going to get so unavoidable that something will have to give. And the coin will continue to be here as proof that this issue, like so many others, is not as intractable as it seems.

William Saas: I think that’s a great place to leave it. Rohan Greywrong, thank you again for joining us again on Money on the Left.
Rohan Grey: Thanks for having me. It’s great to see you. Take it easy.

The Neoliberal Blockbuster: Toy Story Part 2 (Full Episode)

This Money on the Left/Superstructure episode is the eleventh premium release from Scott Ferguson’s “Neoliberal Blockbuster” course for Patreon subscribers.  Typically reserved for Patreon subscribers, this special two-part episode about Toy Story is available to the general public in full. 

For access to the rest of the course, 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.


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)

Superstructure Cancels the Pope (New Transcript!)

We are thrilled to present our very first Superstructure transcript, brought to you by the generous effort of friend-of-the-show, Mike Lewis.

“Superstructure Cancels the Pope” represents a pivotal episode from the Superstructure archive. 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.

Transcript: Mike Lewis

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

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


Will Beaman  00:15

So, hey everybody. This is another episode of Superstructure. This is Will Beaman and I have my co-hosts Natalie Smith.

Naty Smith  00:24

Hello! What’s going on?

Will Beaman  00:25

That is Natalie Smith, and I also have Maxximilian Seijo.

Maxx Seijo  00:29

Ciao bello. Oh wait, wrong site.

Will Beaman  00:33

I wasn’t ready for the language bit. Okay, so this is an episode that I have really really been looking forward to for like a while. Mostly because we’ve been teasing the shit out of it forever, but ever since I started kind of going down the historical rabbit hole of Franciscanism, which is the theme that we covered between Superstructure and Money on the Left in several of our latest content over the last couple of weeks.

Naty Smith  01:05


Will Beaman  01:06

We’ve been wanting to go over review I guess this is a media review of the Papal Encyclical from last year.

Naty Smith  01:16

Zero stars. The reason we’ve been teasing it so long is that it was Natalie’s job to read the Encyclical, and it was pretty boring. So it took me some time until I just like was like alright, I got to read this motherfucker. Not literally, but yeah. I think.

Will Beaman  01:32

If you were transcribing people performing the rosary for an hour, it would have been less repetitive than the Encyclical. Yeah. Not a great writer. But um, yeah. So Naty, do you want to tell us a little bit about the Encyclical? Like, what is the Encyclical?

Naty Smith  01:52

The Encyclical is an exciting bedtime story about how we have to love our neighbors. No.

Will Beaman  02:00

I mean, yes.

Naty Smith  02:04

I think it’s interesting because a lot of people sort of have been excited about Pope Francis, sort of some of his nods to economic populism, or immigration reform, or the UN, or poor people’s movements ish. But it’s interesting that Encyclical is his third Encyclical. He released it in October 2020 at a memorial ceremony for St. Francis of Assisi in Assisi, Italy. It was the first trip outside Rome since COVID had started. The title Fratelli tutti is like “we’re all brothers” and comes from some quote of Francis. And it’s interesting, like, did you want me to get into his bio a little bit?

Will Beaman  02:51

Yeah, well, um, one thing that I want to say kind of adding on to this before you go into some biographical details. So as we’re recording this, the big COVID relief bill finally passed. So hopefully should be seeing that $1400 pretty soon, although I haven’t yet. I digress. This is a very, like future-facing document that is very much like grounded in politics. And there are a lot of I think that a lot of these ideas will end up inflecting a response to Trumpism or, you know, any of these people.

Naty Smith  03:29

Well, and Biden is interested in Catholic liberalism, I mean…

Will Beaman  03:35

Yeah, he’s very Catholic.

Naty Smith  03:35

Yeah. And also, I mean, this is drenched in the past too, and a lot of the history of Argentine complications of political economy and all different things that have kind of gone between statist and corporatist and Peronist and neoliberalism and dictatorship and then the Pink Wave and just a lot of currents go through it.

Will Beaman  03:57

Absolutely, yeah. So as we talk about this, I guess the question that I want to have in our mind, and like, you know, a criteria for like, how are we evaluating the actual content of this text is, you know, it lays out a global political vision. Is this a global political vision that we can see adequately responding to this moment? Because it’s not like the Pope is nobody, you know. This is already an extremely influential document.

Naty Smith  04:27

And I also think we want to kind of push the left in that we understand where there’s good things you can see and “oh, this is good, like, international institutions are like caring about people who are in poverty”, but like pushing to be like, okay, but like, let’s look deeper. Let’s look at the details. Let’s look at what is he really saying like at a deeper level, and what are the real implications and backwards and forwards in history of like this way of looking at it. Like instead of just seeing the “Oh, he said a few things that sound good”, you know?

Maxx Seijo  05:04

Also, I think, to an earlier point, things are shifting right now. And I think that’s also what the Biden administration represents. Even, you know, in probably the most ambivalent terms that you could imagine and in ways that we still don’t quite understand, but…

Naty Smith  05:23

I love him. He’s cute.

Maxx Seijo  05:28

But when things shift, you know, it’s important to look at what powerful thinkers and and authorities are offering as a vision to not just respond but shape the way the political ground and the way we envision a political future is changing. And so, unpacking not just the historical lineage of the Pope himself, but the way that these ideas tap into a history that we’ve tapped into various times on this podcast: the history of a Franciscan rejection of money. I think it’s important to put it in those terms.

Naty Smith  06:12

You liberal!

Will Beaman  06:14

Well, you know, ever since I saw Pope Francis go on the Joe Rogan Experience, I knew that he was going to become a really influential thought leader.

Naty Smith  06:24

What was your favorite joke he made?

Will Beaman  06:27

Well, I thought it was really cool when they smoked a blunt together because it was just so unique for the podcast.

Naty Smith  06:35

Then he sucked Joe Rogan’s toes…To wash them! to wash them!

Will Beaman  06:42

Anyway. So perhaps, perhaps now, we can get into some of the biographical details about Pope Francis and set up the political context that he came from. I know Naty did a lot of research on this.

Naty Smith  06:57

I did a lot of research.

Maxx Seijo  06:59

She taught herself how to read for this podcast.

Naty Smith  07:03

I read an entire article. It was pretty long. Yeah, it’s interesting, because he doesn’t come out of some leftist Catholic tradition by any means. You know, he wasn’t a liberation theologist. I mean, within the Jesuits, he was known as a conservative disciplinarian, and not just to the lefty Jesuits. And, you know, there’s a lot of crazy politics going on in Argentina in the 70s. And I mean, you have sort of after the major Peronist split in 73, you have kind of a left and right Peronism. You have lefty Jesuit terrorists, the Montoneros, but then you also have people like on the right of Peronism that are Jesuits. The Pope was associated with Bergoglio at the time. The Iron Guard, right. And he was pretty much silent during the dictatorship, you know, he was sort of just doing his Jesuit thing and being a right wing Jesuit. But there’s certainly some shady implications. I mean, one of the biggest ones involved like some more lefty Jesuit priests, who he kind of helps probably get arrested, but maybe not, you know. And then I don’t know, do you want me to go through his whole career?

Maxx Seijo  08:23

I heard he was pretty hot.

Naty Smith  08:25

No, no, he wasn’t. But in the 90s, he actually got disciplined with the Jesuits for being too difficult. In the 90s, he starts kind of becoming a rising star. He like hitches his wagon to this guy, who was at the time like the Archbishop in Buenos Aires, or something, Quarracino who was just like a raging homophobe. He said on TV that gay people should be locked in ghettos, and was living in opulent luxury. This is sort of when in the late 90s, the Pope starts to make more gestures of reconciliation, like “the Church should not have said nothing during the dictatorship”

Maxx Seijo  09:11

If I had a nickel every time I heard that.

Naty Smith  09:14

Yeah, right. No, totally. And then he was also associated with this neoliberal Peronist in the 90s, Carlos Menem. It’s interesting, though, that some of these contradictions because like, at a party with the or like an event in the late 90s, is one of the first times he spoke out against (for Menem) he spoke out against economic injustice, you know, and the oligarchs who preside over the few. This is sort of one of these fascinating Peronist contradictions where this right wing Bishop and this right wing Neolib are like “yeah, talk about some economic populism and make some apologies”. And this is when he starts washing more people’s feet and poor people and people with AIDS and you know, starts bringing photographers to the washing up the feet and so forth. All the while that this Quarracino is the one basically making his career as far as getting him to the Vatican and so forth.

Will Beaman  10:13

The washing of the feet is really interesting. On the one hand, that’s just biblical, right? Like that’s what Jesus does. But in the Franciscan tradition, there’s a preoccupation with touching and with experiencing firsthand, whether it’s experiencing poverty firsthand or experiencing, you know, nature or suffering. There’s a way in which the touching of the feet very much fits into this kind of visiting of the poor that I think we wanted to dig into.

Naty Smith  10:54

It’s worth noting, again, the two priests that there’s the most questions around—him and his associations with them getting in prison—I mean, he like withdrew their right to give mass because they were lefty Jesuits who were living in the slums with poor people in non-hierarchical living situations. You know, he’s not like some friend of the poor. I mean, the first time he speaks about the poor is the late 90s with a neoliberal guy like next to him, and he’s like, “let’s bring some photographers to wash feet. Also this guy who’s the bishop, who’s gonna make my career is living in luxury, but I take the bus.”

Maxx Seijo  11:31

But I think even if..

Naty Smith  11:33

I know, but it’s worth noting the hypocricy. I get it, but it’s worth saying that’s not actually who he is, anyway, because that’s true of the Franciscans in many ways as well. Right?

Maxx Seijo  11:45

Yeah, yeah. So that’s what I wanted to sort of break into a little bit. The contradiction is baked into the Franciscan project, right? It’s both the need to be like casting people off for being too radical, but also sort of doubling in through the mediation of like, you know, thinking of our Money on the Left episode, like, they would have helpers carry their purses filled with money, right?

Will Beaman  12:14

Because they weren’t supposed to touch money.

Maxx Seijo  12:16

Right. So the contradictions are baked in. Right? So it’s not like he’s some impure, necessarily, Franciscan. Right? And he’s just like, you know, pretending to be a Franciscan necessarily. I think that’s important to say as well.

Will Beaman  12:32

Yeah. And also it’s, it’s worth noting, Francis himself, while he certainly I don’t think can be accused of cynicism. I mean, he was kind of nuts. And he was really like, he was really serious about it when he went to visit the lepers and you know, go live in nature and he got sick and almost died from that like several times. There is something really interesting that Francis and his followers come from like a really affluent background as well.

Naty Smith  13:05

Like my hero, the Buddah.

Will Beaman  13:09

Oh my gosh, I thought that Dasha blocked all of us on Twitter, but…

Naty Smith  13:14

I don’t believe in blocking. That prevents encounter.

Will Beaman  13:19

She’s more into ghosting is what I’ve heard.

Naty Smith  13:22

Ghosts have a lot to teach us.

Maxx Seijo  13:24

So yeah, I think having like, you know, started there’s so much to talk about with this. But I think we can really focus on this point about touching, right? About this need to touch right, and this sort of sense of material and embodied relationship that is not mediated.

Naty Smith  13:46

He’s trying to torture me because I’m currently in isolation because my partner has COVID. But yes, touching. I hate it.

Maxx Seijo  13:56

Well, you’re not valid, then.

Will Beaman  14:00

Naty has retreated to something even more basic and unmediated than touch.

Maxx Seijo  14:07

More radical, yeah.

Will Beaman  14:09

Pure isolation. She’s visiting herself right now, which is extremely radical and Franciscan.

Naty Smith  14:16

Super radical.

Maxx Seijo  14:17

So I kind of wanted to get into that and touching like, problematic in the context of, you know, where historically this encyclical is situated. Right? Very interesting that it came out during COVID, which I think is not something that we necessarily have the full range to discuss. We’ll leave that for Agamben to discuss.

Naty Smith  14:44

I think you just did.

Will Beaman  14:48

He’ll knock it out of the park.

Maxx Seijo  14:49

I guess he will. But I think it’s interesting the way we can think about neoliberalism as this further accelerating a sort of ongoing liberal precarity at the political economic level, and the way we all relate to the production process, and the way that caretaking goes on and these sorts of things. Which is not to say, of course, that prior to neoliberalism, things were perfect in any way. Like, that’s not what’s being articulated here, but there’s an acceleration associated with it that also speaks to I think, a sort of broader horizon of political economic relations specifically when we’re thinking about touch and when we’re thinking about political, economic dare one say metaphysics, and how these things are all interlocking,

Naty Smith  15:49

I want to touch the soil and my neighbor, and I will hug my neighbor and wash their feet, and that will be the economic exchange, and then we kiss the ground together, and that will be a good system.

Will Beaman  16:02

The whole point of when Maxx says this problematic of touching, right, the impulse behind all of these touches, and these encounters, and, you know, hugging the poor, and all of these things, that impulse is an impulse to care, which is why these stories are so powerful, right? Because under neoliberalism, there’s this contraction in the fiscal sphere. Nothing is being organized to take care of people at any kind of big or abstract scale.

Naty Smith  16:39

You know why? Don’t put this in, but it’s because women’s pussies are too tight. So nobody’s getting laid. That’s the contraction.

Maxx Seijo  16:46

No, we’re putting that in, we’re putting that in.

Naty Smith  16:49


Will Beaman  16:49

I have to edit these fucking things Naty, so yes, anything that you say is fair game to put in.

Maxx Seijo  16:54

That’s its own Dasha file. We’re just gonna release 10 seconds of that.

Will Beaman  17:01

Just to set up, the reading that Maxx is about to do. The impulse to touch is an expression of an impulse to care, right, and to take care of people, but it’s very historically specific that aesthetic representations of care focus so much on this imagery of touching and encountering and visiting and all of these things that are you making contact with the other in a kind of a charitable way. And, of course, you know, this should also make you think about, you know, the not-so-charitable forms of, you know, the touch or the encounter, right? It’s like economics is all built on the exchange, right? The barter, or you have vulgar political theorists who will reduce everything to this immediate proximate act of violence. But in this particular case, I think that we want to talk about the touch as grasping toward possibilities for taking care, but taking care of oneself and taking care of the other who’s importantly an other.

Naty Smith  18:15

Right, and what the left sort of identifies with, I think, is that impulse, and what we want to draw out is the way in which these gestures at that care are a fundamentally impoverished vision, and not in a good way.

Will Beaman  18:31

Right. And on that note, I think, Maxx has a reading that hopefully we’ve set up like two thirds of the way.

Maxx Seijo  18:39

Yeah, so I’m going to start by framing this discussion of the encyclical through reading Mommy, and by that I mean, Scott Ferguson, who you might know as

Naty Smith  18:51

Scotia, let’s make it feminine.

Maxx Seijo  18:53

Yes. Right. Scotia. Scotia or of the famed you know, Money on the Left podcast. I think he’s been on Superstructure before.

Naty Smith  19:02

World famous.

Will Beaman  19:03

Yeah, I met him once.

Maxx Seijo  19:04

Yeah. In his book Dec…

Will Beaman  19:06

He was fine.

Naty Smith  19:06

Is he a slut?

Maxx Seijo  19:08

Yes. In his book Declarations…

Will Beaman  19:11

Strong handshake, though. A lot of care.

Maxx Seijo  19:16

He does not have a strong handshake. Anyway.

Naty Smith  19:18

We love you, Mommy.

Will Beaman  19:23

Strong hugs. Strong hugs.

Maxx Seijo  19:24

Strong hugs. So in his book, Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics and the Politics of Care, he does, you know, obviously a lot of work in the MMT Humanities space, one might say founds MMT Humanities. Definitively I would say that.

Will Beaman  19:42

He’s the Steve Jobs of Left MMT. I think is how he likes to be described.

Maxx Seijo  19:48

That is right.

Naty Smith  19:49

Or even the Mother Teresa.

Will Beaman  19:55

Who are we kidding? He’s the Francis of MMT.

Maxx Seijo  20:00

So, in the book, he obviously does the work thinking about the aesthetic experience of not just neoliberalism, but modernity, sort of writ large. And I’m going to read a little bit so we can start to get into in relationship to this idea of touching the poor and touching the impoverished that Pope Francis offer. Some of the underlying assumptions that create the necessity for that aesthetic experience. So in discussing a bunch of aesthetic forms, though, he talks about this aesthetic experience as “an intimate indexicality and all encompassing gravity.”

Will Beaman  20:44

Scott Ferguson is a film and media studies professor, but for those who aren’t in the know about indexicality…Yeah, Maxx’s pantomiming two things touching. In film, in media theory, people use it to kind of describe the sort of unmediated imprint of light on to celluloid in a camera. And the idea is that an indexical, like identical one to one impression of at least a surface of the world. And, and this is not to say that people who use indexicality think that the photo is like, all of reality, but the point is that it captures something that really is part of reality, that is an imprint. Anyway, which again, ties in with touching.

Maxx Seijo  21:33

Yeah, yeah, full story. It’s touching. In talking about this sort of aesthetic experience that we’re, we’re discussing with this Franciscan of touching the poor, Scott is referring to it as a sort of intimate indexicality, which ends up becoming an “all encompassing gravity.” And this touching is meant to “transmute sensations of loss, falling and disintegration into assuring affections and rhythms.”

Will Beaman  22:09

So, you know, I’m tapping my finger on the table right now because I’m just perennially anxious. That is me finding and assuring an affectionate rhythm to the touch.

Maxx Seijo  22:23

Right? A sort of ground, dare one say a base that you can rely on because we’ve been evacuated, and we’re precarious, right? And so this, as Scott says, what it does is “miming a convulsive and dangerously misallocated fiscal apparatus. These affections and rhythms repeatedly register the feeling that there’s no there there under neoliberalism” but at the same time, “an ardent there there answers monies evacuation from neoliberal existence.” So it’s this act of trying to find ground, because you’re falling, and the registering of that ground is the act that both reinforces the fact that there is a ground but also that we were evacuated of a sort of collective existence that could ground us in safety.

Will Beaman  23:24

And we talked about this in talking about the kind of fetish of a difficult and almost unwinnable class struggle, right? That is kind of perversely comforting and self soothing because at least you know how difficult it is. So it becomes a familiar surface that you have mastery over rather than the precarity and uncertainty of just kind of falling and not even knowing where to grab.

Naty Smith  23:54

Right. It’s trying to accept precarity by making precarity like inevitable as opposed to politics is hard, and it is precarious and precisely it’s precarious emotionally to try to transform something, but that sense of there not being a there there is not a call to nihilism, it’s a call to embracing the openness of contingency.

Will Beaman  24:18

Yeah, and the last thing before Maxx continues reading this quote it’s, as Dan Berger noted on a previous episode, we have a tendency to make not finishing the readings into like a bit that we all perform. But the last comment before

Naty Smith  24:34

Mostly my fault.

Will Beaman  24:36

I mean, I’m doing it right now, but the idea but there there, this is a double entendre, right? This is also like, imagine comforting a child, right? Like “there there.” Like we’re all looking for our there there.

Naty Smith  24:53

That’s a good point. I never thought of that before with that.

Maxx Seijo  24:55

And so Scott making these arguments on the terms of like sensory experience is suggesting that this touching, this grounding, “it furnishes a nervous sensoria with disastrously insufficient forms of collective care,” right? So lacking collective care, “the contingent immediate ground and touch and rhythm and in this sort of assuring affect of the repeated touch, of the repeated knock is what one might call a symptom of carelessness, right? This need to ground and reduce. We could think about looking for the base looking for the base, where’s the real where’s the real? Where am I grounded? Right? And so, he says “in the care symptoms, sensations of loss incoherence and disintegration index environmental precarity at the threshold of worldly disclosure.” So I want to take a second to elaborate on what this means.

Naty Smith  25:57

Scott is a master of a high end language.

Maxx Seijo  26:00

He absolutely is. It’s total superstructure.

Will Beaman  26:04

These aren’t even real words.

Naty Smith  26:07

A disintegration index? Like I thought I was stuck on intimate indexicality and like the various wink wink implications, and now of my index is disintegrating.

Maxx Seijo  26:17

All indexes disintegrate. That’s the point.

Naty Smith  26:19

Oh, so frustrating.

Will Beaman  26:21

This really ruffles my index.

Maxx Seijo  26:25

I think we can think about this, and you know, the environmental precarity at the threshold of worldly disclosure. Environmental precarity is precarity amidst a neoliberal hellscape of evacuated care, right? That’s pretty clear. And so then at the threshold of worldly disclosure, can mean multiple things. And I think in one instance, it’s the touche is the threshold of your disclosure of yourself, right? And so the touch grounds the self in a world where the money cradle has been evacuated, right? It’s not present. But also we could think about thresholds here, when we’re thinking at the register of touch, we can’t have distance, right? Touch is predicated on the reduction of distance, and so we now have thresholds as as a sort of sensory matter. And so we can start to think about the borders of existence. And the way touching at the borders is implicated in the care symptom of this sense of loss. And so we’re gonna play more with that later when we think about borders and nations

Naty Smith  27:38

And immigration, and…

Maxx Seijo  27:39

And immigration. Exactly. And so what Scott says is symptoms of this sort of function as attempts at self care, and as opaque messages to the other. And so, this touching is the opaque message to the other which then grounds the self.

Naty Smith  28:02

The real encounter. The handshake. The Trump, I can smell your sweat as we shake hands, right?

Maxx Seijo  28:08

I pick up the thing. I dig the commodity out of the ground, right? There’s this encounter, there’s this touching there’s this…

Naty Smith  28:15

Then I get it from a Argentine. I’m having some Malbec right now, and living in Chile, it’s like, oh, this is from Argentina. Like,

Maxx Seijo  28:24

That’s self care, because you’re touching the other.

Naty Smith  28:26

That’s true. It’s a cute accent, the Buenos Aires accent. Not you bitch.

Maxx Seijo  28:38

And so, you know, in this sort of singular encounter relation of touching is then positive for Scott against relations of macro interdependence and the political economic process that we talked about on this show constantly, right? This relationship of structural provisioning that enables our existence as nodes that aren’t the totality of the production process.

Naty Smith  29:06

And interestingly, sorry, just to jump in, but the Pope, I think, if you don’t look deeply you would think well, yeah, he totally looks at the macro, global scale. He talks about the UN constantly, and that is one of his, like, decent things. But like, he’s very stuck in this dialectical movement of global to local, particular to universal. And he very much does kind of have the sense of the UN or even of regional blocs of oppressed countries that what you see more often coming from him is an obsession with the particular identity of the national and he makes gestures to encounter into the global and the macro, but it never escapes from this sense of that need for the touching, original, particular.

Maxx Seijo  29:54

Right. And so specifically to this point, I’m going to jump to another moment in Scott where he’s actually talking about Franciscans. But he’s talking about Franciscans on precisely these terms that we’ve just discussed with the touching. So he says “this thinning of experience”, and he means thinning, as in, contracting to the touch, not thinking with macro structure.

Naty Smith  30:14

Not about the hair.

Maxx Seijo  30:16

Right, not about the hair.

Will Beaman  30:17

This is the threshold of what the world can disclose to you is what you can touch. That’s what I know is real.

Maxx Seijo  30:23

Exactly. So this “thinning of experience promises a stronger and more abundant ground for being that lies beyond the excesses of papal mediation and the anxieties of political economy.” Right? And so this is where we’re starting…

Naty Smith  30:40

Papal mediation…

Will Beaman  30:41

Papal Mediation is like the globalist, you know…

Maxx Seijo  30:47

Transnational capital, right? I mean.

Will Beaman  30:50

Right, yeah, transnational, woke capital conspiracy cabal. You know.

Maxx Seijo  30:55


Will Beaman  30:55

It’s like, in the early modern period, there’s this sense that, you know, the pope is off over there. And he’s, you know, controlling everything, and we’ve lost our local sovereignty, because, you know, because of the Pope. And then the Reformation happens kind of as a sort of a right wing populist reaction to what is something more like, and dare I say, neoliberal, Holy Roman Empire, that is lost all credibility.

Naty Smith  31:21

And to be super clear, we’re not some sort of papal revisionists or defenders. I mean, it’s interesting you can really see in this encyclical some of the particular history that you can see through some of the book with the Crusades and with like, East-West encounters. He’s constantly like, talking about this Imam that he knows, and they’ve like worked together to like synthesize the scientific West and the spiritual east, you know? But there is like, I lost my train of thought a little bit, but my point is that it can be true that there’s a conspiracy and that also we’re not defending something.

Maxx Seijo  32:00

Yeah, we kind of hate all Popes, I would say.

Naty Smith  32:02

Yeah, Yeah.

Will Beaman  32:02

We hate them in different ways, right? Like we can criticize Trump and Joe Biden, right?

Maxx Seijo  32:08

I don’t know about that. That’s a step too far.

Naty Smith  32:10

Joe is pretty cute. I mean, you’re pushing me.

Maxx Seijo  32:17

But, but right, so the idea of that the abundant ground like in this sense of touching and grasping and contracting to the touch, as a sort of epistemology of knowledge, right of what I can touch is meant to lie beyond the excesses of this papal mediation, ie globalism, and then the anxieties of political economy which are associated with that. So then I’m going to continue right. So Scott says, “But in truth, the incessant phenomenological diminishment not only hardens the sensorium against disintegrating effects, but also deepens the poisonous contraction of metaphysics that arises from” you know, thinking of the early modern period “from the era’s impoverishment of worldly existence.” And there, we can start to see poverty being posited here, as well as, again, this sense of disintegration. So, if the care problem, right, if the care symptom, reckons with being abandoned, through needing to touch the other, then what Scott is arguing is that the touching only reinforces the disintegrating effects of a sort of metaphysical structure that can’t allow for a sort of action that’s macro, right? A sort of political, economic, macro provisioning coordination or, you know, a cradling, a caring that is collective. And so this gets hardened. And I mean, that’s for Scott, what the sort of modern, again, not to dilute any sense of the difference that’s associated, but that this carelessness in this modern problem of touching and force and how we can reconcile the dialectics of the particular and the universal. This is what plays out, and Pope Francis, importantly, is participating in this problem. And so I think we’ve pretty much set up finally, where we can really read from Pope Francis, in a way that really takes on precisely what this problematic, lays bare, and then we’ll can get into all of our critiques of him. Pope Francis writes, “At a time when everything seems to disintegrate and lose consistency. It is good for us to appeal to the solidarity born of the consciousness that we are responsible for the fragility of others, as we strive to build a common future. Solidarity finds concrete expression in service which can take a variety of forms in an effort to care for others. And service, in great part means caring for vulnerability. For the vulnerable members of our families, our society, and our people.” Note the order there. “In offering such service, individuals learn to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power before the concrete gaze of those who are most vulnerable.”

Naty Smith  35:27

I don’t like when the concrete…yeah.

Will Beaman  35:29

Yeah, I hate when they look at me.

Maxx Seijo  35:33

So and this is, you know, we get into some of the real juicy touching bits, right? “Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness, and even in some cases, suffers that closeness, and tries to help them. Service is never ideological.”

Naty Smith  35:53


Maxx Seijo  35:54

“For we do not serve ideas. We serve people.”

Will Beaman  35:58

Yeah, which is also a rejected McDonald’s slogan.

Maxx Seijo  36:07

So we might say that this is on the nose, and like we’ve we’ve chopped off the nose and like touched it and juggled it.

Will Beaman  36:15

We’re passing it. Yeah, I’m gonna pass the nose to Naty.

Naty Smith  36:19

Well, it’s interesting because I’ve been exploring a bit of the some of the ideas of Martha Fineman legal theory talks about vulnerability and an attempt and Martha McCluskey tries to actually frame this in an MMT light, sort of. Instead of seeing things from this sort of place of individual Lockean wills that are all equal, it’s trying to say, okay, well, how is actually vulnerability at a macro scale systematically baked in. But it’s interesting the ways in which he really sort of highlights the ways this is sometimes one critique could be sometimes still thought, especially in Francis, in a kind of individuality. I mean, Maxx pointed out how the order with which says “vulnerable members of our families, society, people”, and it’s like, there’s always the sense again, like we brought up of encounter before that you have a unified family that’s one thing. That you have a unified people, that’s one thing, and that all these one things have their essence, which is their fucking essence, and they come into cod

Maxx Seijo  37:26

You can touch it.

Naty Smith  37:26

Yeah. And they come into contact, and they touch. And that that can’t be coordinated beyond the level of encounter. It can’t be that like, there’s a, I don’t know if we like the word web, but there’s like this complicated form that entails in different ways bringing things in. No, it’s like each thing, you have to go, you have to suffer with them, you have to wash their feet on the bus, you know, and that that’s, it’s not surprising that that might have a sort of self serving element, you know, where the Pope’s having photographers come, because like, everybody knows that washing people’s feet on buses is not the global solution. And he’s like washing feet on buses, but also the UN like to cover his bases, you know, but there’s still a sense of…

Will Beaman  38:13

Micro and macro.  And that it’s a sacrifice. That you’re losing something.

Naty Smith  38:14

Yeah. And it’s just, it’s like this sense of this meeting this concrete gaze in the sense that also the sense that service is apolitical. That’s like a super liberal point of view, like, “oh, charities and NGOs just arise in nature, and like, we just all try to donate our money for the common good. That’s not ideological at all or…”  Yeah. Right.

Maxx Seijo  38:42

You have to tax yourself to touch. Right?

Will Beaman  38:45

Yeah. And so there’s, there’s the sense of, you know, like, it’s the unpleasant thing that, you know, sometimes you have to just deal with the concrete gaze of the poor, while you, you know, wash their feet once a week.

Maxx Seijo  38:57

And then the reason why for him it’s apolitical is because it’s literally objective. It’s an object, right? There’s nothing for him that’s political about that. Because for Pope Francis and his metaphysical tradition that he’s drawing on, touching is the only way you actually know something right? It’s the only epistemological ground you can have for existence.

Naty Smith  39:18

That must explain why he claimed that he didn’t know about all the disappearances during the dirty war until…First he said till 20 years later, and then he revised that to “No, I only found out at the 1985 trials.”

Maxx Seijo  39:35

That’s because he didn’t touch the bodies.

Naty Smith  39:39

The same way he dismissed in Chile, and this is like in the last five years where he’s dismissed victims of like, right wing, Pinochet, Pinochetista, like priests of sexual abuse, and he says, “Well, I need evidence.” Because somebody’s testimony is not evidence. He had to be there.

Will Beaman  39:56

Yeah, my fingerprints aren’t on those people. So…

Maxx Seijo  40:00

Right. And just to reiterate too, because I think it’s important as we move forward, right? For us in our vision, how we correct for this reductive base, touching and grasping in this sort of assuring rhythmatic-like grounding is, of course, through the money as a sort of what Scott calls a boundless public utility, right? Because it’s boundless, because it’s abstract, because abstraction is the locus of caretaking at a macro level of our political economic ongoing…

Will Beaman  40:32

It’s conditioning all of the touching.

Maxx Seijo  40:34

Exactly. It precedes, right? It’s an a priori in the fancy speak.

Naty Smith  40:40

That means before.

Maxx Seijo  40:45

So there’s this sense of mediation, right? The mediation of our world and of the way we are continuing to reproduce it and transform it at various nodes of political and economic agency, as well as administrative agency and legal agency and all of these, all of these points, right? We could push you back to all of our Fred Lee talk from other episodes. But the reason why we say this is because it’s the causal locus of existence is not touch, right? That’s not the causal locus. Because if it was just immediate, contracted encounters, we could not coordinate, it would not be possible.

Naty Smith  41:24

And that’s where you can reclaim. I mean, that’s where the vulnerability…that’s why it’s so crucial McCluskey’s use of Fineman, because that’s precisely the point with MMT is that you’re not falsely saying that, like some part of society has to, not that taxes are bad, but because of democracy, but that in order to provision, you can provision publicly beyond like taking from somebody else to provision for the vulnerable.

Maxx Seijo  41:50

And touching is importantly, zero sum, right? You have to go, you know, whether it’s relationally, you know, in that sense, or you have to go literally grab the money scramble across town, right, or scramble from New York down to Washington, and then deposit it at the Treasury. And then you can then send out a bunch of checks, right, and they hit people’s accounts. We can even think of the ways our metaphors are operating here, too. But importantly, right, what MMT shows and then the Left MMT, Left Humanities project shows is not just that taxes don’t fund spending, but zero-sum relations of contiguity

Will Beaman  42:30

Of touching.

Maxx Seijo  42:31

Of touching…aren’t the causal mechanism by which reproduction is afforded. And so now, it might be useful to get into the way he thinks about the nation-state.

Naty Smith  42:43

He loves it. Loves it.

Will Beaman  42:45

Really quickly. First, I think that there’s something really interesting here, and this will tie into the nation-state because as we see, the way that he thinks about the nation-state is sort of a rounded-up version of how the ideal human should behave. The ideal collective should behave that way too. And this sort of selfish in order to then be selfless, right? And

Maxx Seijo  43:05

Like a taxpayer!

Will Beaman  43:06

Yeah, right. There is something like rhythmic and self assuring, like in the Franciscan tradition, I think about visiting the poor, right? Because in a certain sense, what you’re visiting, right, you’re having encounters with what it would be like, if you gave up money, right? If you gave up your entanglements with forms of abstraction, and just kind of, you know, we’re just roughing it with the indigenous and with the poor. And you can think about missionary work, right? Which ties in directly to the early modern nation-state.

Naty Smith  43:43

And what is this is maybe something we don’t always lay out, but what is the use of money? Why, outside of like, in negative relief of the Franciscans? What is it that people don’t understand that money when organized a certain way can do?

Will Beaman  43:57

Well, so what I would say is that, like, fundamentally, if you think that touch and immediacy is always prior to abstraction, then money cannot be a properly abstract potential for everybody to be cared for. Because in order for money to exist, there has to be a cabal of people controlling it, right? Like it had to have come from somewhere. It has to come from a nation state or a capitalist class or any of these things. And then also, you know, you have this ontology of everything as bounded and limited and finite, because abstraction has just been kind of banished, and it’s unthinkable. So they also can’t imagine that money could be anything other than privational. Other than something that you’re going to run out of it and then you’re going to be sorry that you were so focused on it. We can’t think about money from any perspective other than this kind of pre-abstract self fumbling for reassurance from the rest of the world and for, you know, when you’re just this kind of disembodied subject, right? Or you’re a household, right? An individual, right? Who then gets thrown into a social contract. You’re thinking from the perspective of an individual, and if you’re an individual, right, this is the MMT 101 stuff, right? A currency user, it’s finite for you. A currency issuer, it’s not finite. But I think the twist that we want to add onto that is that currency issuance is actually much more of an ongoing negotiation across many overlapping institutions that, you know, we have the unique proposal that people can look into with universities issuing their own forms of credit and forcing from the “outside” of the monetary issuing, like fiscal institutions. Forcing some recognition of monetary answerability, for all of us, and all of our different swap lines.

Maxx Seijo  46:05

“You get a swap line, you get a swap line.” But yeah, and also, I think, importantly, just as a simple like, from a simple analytical perspective, if an encounter with a thing and the touching of it precedes money, then the horizon of possible futures, if you’re trying to get rid of money, will always come back to that encounter. Because it’s the Eden that then leads to heaven. Right. And so it’s that movement. And so what we want to do is submerge in a sort of ongoing problem, as Will said. That takes the circle and doesn’t see primal unity on one side and then fallenness, and then primal unity at the end, right? But the whole premise here being that of touching as the ground of like, I can’t touch stimulus packages into being, right? It requires an infrastructure that is mediated abstractly. And so, you know, we’re living the ongoing not touching, and that’s the relation.

Naty Smith  47:19

Is that like the internet?

Maxx Seijo  47:21

Yeah, it’s like you right now in your isolation.

Naty Smith  47:26

Ugghhh because right now I feel like, I’m recording with you guys on the internet, but it feels like…

Maxx Seijo  47:32

I’m not touching the flesh of your face.

Naty Smith  47:35

No, like, what do I smell? Like? You don’t know.

Maxx Seijo  47:37

I don’t know. That’s right.

Naty Smith  47:39

So what do you know, do you know?

Maxx Seijo  47:41


Will Beaman  47:42

I know, but I’m not gonna say.

Maxx Seijo  47:46

So I think it’s now important to get into what, you know, I think I put down in my notes on Naty’s notes, because now we’re getting meta. The contradiction between the global and the national that Pope Francis articulates. And he wants to make sure that like when he’s talking about this sort of being open to the stranger or being open to the other, or like being open to a migrant coming, and like asking and you going and touching them, and seeing how you feel about it.

Will Beaman  48:18

As you do. Yeah.

Naty Smith  48:21

You can learn from their local flavor.

Will Beaman  48:24

Uh huh. What’s so funny is what he’s really describing is just like customs at the airport.

Maxx Seijo  48:29

Yep. Not really, what he’s describing is pat downs. But priests at the airport.

Will Beaman  48:35


Maxx Seijo  48:35

Which gets us into some fuzzy territory.

Naty Smith  48:40

It’s not fuzzy which side he’s on.

Maxx Seijo  48:42


Naty Smith  48:43

He’s on the side of the molesters.

Maxx Seijo  48:46

We can say it we can be that provocative.

Naty Smith  48:47

Yeah. The Pinochetista molesters? He’s like “I need some more evidence.”

Maxx Seijo  48:53

I haven’t touched those particular instances.

Naty Smith  48:57

Not sure. 12 out of 50 Chilean bishops came to this ceremony of a Pinochetista molester priest that I am promoting, but I need more evidence.

Will Beaman  49:09

Well, I’ve never touched that boy. Ergo, he has never touched that boy.

Naty Smith  49:13

Yeah, exactly. How could we know anything? I haven’t even touched him.

Will Beaman  49:19

Any way. So contradiction between the global and national, what reading do you want to kick em off with?

Maxx Seijo  49:24

Yes. So in 139, he wants to make sure that when he’s talking about like his openness to migrants that it’s not on the terms of like a utilitarian approach. Like he’s not Matt Yglesias who is like, “immigrations is great for the economy. We need a billion Americans.” So the pope wants to make sure that everyone knows he doesn’t have a substack. Though, you know, maybe one day.

Naty Smith  49:52

Well, that sounds like that’s in the pipes.

Maxx Seijo  49:56

Yeah. If he ever gets canceled…

Will Beaman  49:58

Yeah. The only options are fluffy papal mediation and grounding yourself in a substack.

Maxx Seijo  50:06

So he wants to make sure everyone knows there’s always a sense of like it’s a gift that    he’s bestowing by patting down migrants. And so he writes, “there is always the factor of gratuitousness; the ability to do something simply because they are good in themselves. Without concern for personal gain, or Recompense. Gratuitousness makes it possible for us to welcome the stranger, even though this brings us no immediate tangible benefit. And so, so I can’t like…

Naty Smith  50:37

Sounds like a great guy.

Will Beaman  50:38

Yeah, you’re really making me feel welcome, Francis, thank you. Yeah.

Naty Smith  50:42

You have nothing.

Will Beaman  50:44

You don’t even mind that I’m a parasite. That’s so nice of you.

Naty Smith  50:47

You have nothing to offer, which is why I’m being so kind to let you come on in.

Maxx Seijo  50:52

And so we can continue from the next paragraph, “Life without fraternal gratuitousness becomes a form of frenetic commerce, in which we are constantly weighing up what we give and what we get back in return. God, on the other hand, gives a freely to the point of helping even those who are unfaithful. He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.”

Naty Smith  51:16

This is like when Liz Bruenig let’s Matt Bruenig have an extra hour on the computer.

Maxx Seijo  51:24

So importantly here…

Will Beaman  51:26

Even though it has never helped her to do that.

Naty Smith  51:30


Maxx Seijo  51:31

And she knows that she knows that. So the migrants are evil, they’re unfaithful. But God gives us freely. And so while we have to sacrifice here and now and touch these people who are coming over our borders, because God is giving us and so we sacrifice for God. That’s why we’re taxpayers.

Naty Smith  51:58

And he’s very into this idea of like, you know, there’s this constant dialectics within but you know, I mentioned before, but yeah, he has good policies about giving migrants full citizenship, but even says at one point, like, it is not ideal, like, the best would be for us to not have to migrate, like for you to be able to kiss the blood and soil of your lands.

Will Beaman  52:21


Naty Smith  52:22

When your original identity, that is a real thing.

Maxx Seijo  52:26

Look, I mean, but we got to blame the Medicis for that. Going back, you know, so what he writes is, “all of us are able to give without expecting anything in return. To do good to others without demanding they treat us well in return.” And so Mexican migrants might debase our blood and soil, but we can’t expect them to treat us well. But we have to treat them well in return. It reminds me exactly of the Liz Breunig reading we did in the last episode, right? Look, I forgive you Black Lives Matter. Because I forgive everyone.

Naty Smith  53:04

Yeah, well, and he does say like, you know, the indigenous people do have their own culture and different ideas of progress. But like, also, mixing has been good in many ways.

Maxx Seijo  53:14

Thanks, Pope!

Will Beaman  53:15

I mean, I think that, you know, to kind of put a finer point on this, I think we’re starting to tease out how built into the premises is like, it’s not in your self interest to be kind to the other, right? But you should do it anyway. And I think a really good example of where that led to in the past is with the original Francis of Assisi, right? Who certainly throughout his lifetime did nothing but you know, like, yeah, maybe was sort of fetishizing the poor a little bit in kind of a weird way, and kind of flattened them into being like, I’m going to visit the animals today, then I’m going to visit the poor on Wednesday, you know. 

Maxx Seijo  53:59

To be fair, he thought he himself was a horse. He saw himself as a horse a little bit eating grain.

Will Beaman  54:04

Yeah. A horse on Wednesday, a worm on Thursday. Yeah. And that’s Francis and the first generation of his followers, right? But then Franciscan metaphysics are then the basis of what a lot of the early modern, late medieval, early modern European jurists are drawing on when they are first coming up with what will become the social contract in the nation-state. Right? And all of these things that are from a surface level reading are like, Oh, this is the exact opposite of Franciscan-ism. But that’s kind of the point, right? Is that he set it up to say, gravity will lead you towards acting in your own self interest, but you have a moral obligation to resist and be selfless. Eventually, people are going to come along and say, well, that’s stupid. We should just act in our self interest because I have family and I have a country and I have all these people who are counting on me, and I don’t even know a stranger.

Maxx Seijo  55:05

Yeah, it’s built to dialectically fail.

Will Beaman  55:08


Naty Smith  55:08

It’s like how Ian said last episode that Matt Bruenig, just like kind of like, has all these implications to eugenics, and then like one paragraph is supposed to suffice that’s basically like, “but don’t do that.”

Maxx Seijo  55:19


Will Beaman  55:19

Right. So it’s this kind of weird, historic irony where like, he’s saying, “No, I’m saying don’t be selfish. I’m saying that you should selflessly help the other.” But in doing so, right? He’s saying that you’re actually like losing something tangible, by visiting the poor, but this is why you should do it.

Naty Smith  55:35

You’re giving freely. There’s no blackmail in the Catholic Church giving freely.

Maxx Seijo  55:51

And so, if this wasn’t clear enough, I’m just going to keep reading from the next paragraph. In the encyclical where he writes, “Just as there can be no dialogue with others without a sense of our own identity, so there can be no openness between peoples except on the basis of love for one’s own land, one’s own people, one’s own cultural roots.”

Naty Smith  56:13

Bam, love that. So good.

Will Beaman  56:15

One’s own blood, one’s own soil.

Naty Smith  56:19

Some of the fascist countries work together. You know, you had Germany with Italy with Japan, you know.

Will Beaman  56:27

Yeah. Remember, when Hitler visited Mussolini?

Maxx Seijo  56:30

Like a multi headed snake? “I cannot truly encounter another unless I stand on firm foundations. For it is on the basis of these that I can accept the gift the other brings and in turn offer an authentic gift of my own. I can welcome others who are different and value the unique contribution they have to make.” Just a quick note for the Deleuze fans, notice the univocal difference right there in that sentence. “I can welcome others who are different and value that a unique contribution they have to make.”

Naty Smith  57:04

That’s like Regina George, just a line. I didn’t just feel her in Mean Girls being like, “that’s a really unique contribution you have to make.”

Will Beaman  57:14

Yeah, there’s a sense, right? Like they can visit, but they shouldn’t really stay. Or maybe they should stay right now. But we should be aiming towards the system where we’re all with our own kind visiting each other.

Maxx Seijo  57:27

Also with univocal difference, they are univocally different than I.

Will Beaman  57:30


Maxx Seijo  57:30

Right, we have no commonalities. There’s no analogies between us. Right?

Naty Smith  57:35

That’s how you make really nicely seasoned food.

Maxx Seijo  57:37

Yeah, that’s right. And so “only if I am firmly rooted in my own people and culture can that welcoming occur” And so I’m just going to keep going. “Everyone loves and cares for his or her native land and village just as they love and care for their home and are personally responsible for its upkeep.” Heimat. You know, famous.

Will Beaman  57:59

Yeah, I’m personally responsible.

Maxx Seijo  58:01

That’s right.

Will Beaman  58:01

No one’s gonna help you.

Maxx Seijo  58:03

That’s right.

Naty Smith  58:03

Paging Jordan Peterson.

Will Beaman  58:06

Yeah, I mean, you know, maybe if you help with the Pope’s book sales, then someone will visit you and help you a few years from now but uh, you know, don’t count on it.

Maxx Seijo  58:15

And, you know, what this reminds me of is I’m gonna keep right reading, and it’s reminds me, weirdly, of Judith Butler’s work on Hegel and ethics, but we’ll get there more, but…

Naty Smith  58:24

So many things are constantly reminding me of that.

Maxx Seijo  58:30

Pope Francis writes, “the common good likewise requires that we protect and love our native land. Otherwise, the consequences of a disaster in one country will end up affecting the entire planet. All this brings out the positive meaning of the right to property. I care for and cultivate something that I possess in such a way that I can contribute to the good of all.” So, here we have, you know, the Franciscan invention of private property, right? The sense of possession of a thing as the ground of private property which sits before relations of legal endowment, and legal naming of that which you have property over. And this is again, this is antithetical to a sort of legal history that thinks about the way property becomes and is relational rather than proximate about touching a thing.

Naty Smith  59:25

Interdependence comes first.

Maxx Seijo  59:27

Right and so, but what we have here is like quite clearly an articulation of: unless I know who I am absolutely different from you. Know my roots, know my land, have my home that I am personally self-subsistent for as a Lockean homo economicus.

Naty Smith  59:46

Who cleans my room.

Maxx Seijo  59:48

I cannot be open to someone that is absolutely other to me. But what he’s saying is as Will suggested, it’s like, “okay, yes. The world is kind of fascist. But what you should do is just say no to fascism.”

Will Beaman  1:00:05

Yeah, just resist it for as long as you can.

Maxx Seijo  1:00:07

Just say no to fascism, just like saying no to sucking those dicks. Men, you know, women too. And just say no to drugs as well, because, you know, we all heard that as a kid. But the idea is like, you set up the world in which fascism makes sense to then just say, “not for me.” And then you’re surprised when, on the other hand, it’s like as we just said, with the early Franciscans, it’s dialectically meant to fail, right? Its contradiction is then: I have my native land, but I don’t want to accept the other. But the built in premise that there’s an other and then there’s me.

Naty Smith  1:00:15

And the Pope is pretty Argentine nationalist.

Maxx Seijo  1:00:35

Well, of course. Exactly.

Naty Smith  1:00:44

I mean, he likes to kiss the fatherland and, you know, I know that we’re anti-Thatcher, but the Malvinas or Falklands War was like the last gasp of the dictatorship. I mean, and he’s all about that shit.

Maxx Seijo  1:01:17

Yeah, I mean, well, right. That’s the point.

Naty Smith  1:01:18

Yeah, yeah.

Maxx Seijo  1:01:19

He’s both calling for openness to the other while participating in the ongoing historical, you know, pseudo-fascism, post-fascisms that were around in his oeuvre, during his career.

Naty Smith  1:01:35


Will Beaman  1:01:36

Yeah. And the point also is, like, where, because that’s not possible, right? Because we’re ontologically entangled with each other, it will always be possible to say, “Well, I haven’t yet secured myself, so I’m not ready to accept the other.” Right? And we’re not even talking about somebody actively choosing to do the wrong thing. The point is that the proof of when it’s okay to accept the other is impossible to reach because it is this complete nation that is absolutely, like sure of its own identity and sure of its own self, but really that’s just gonna keep contracting. Right? Like that’s a death drive.

Naty Smith  1:02:21


Will Beaman  1:02:21

That’s what fascism is.

Naty Smith  1:02:22

You’ve set the search for the there, there as prior.

Maxx Seijo  1:02:25


Naty Smith  1:02:26

So that’s going to repeat itself.

Maxx Seijo  1:02:28

Exactly. I mean, what did Scott call it, right? It’s compulsive. It has this compulsive element to it. And so once you’ve designated the other, then you have to first achieve self subsistence. Which means now we first have to kill all of the others who are here and send them out.

Naty Smith  1:02:35

So you can charitably give gifts.

Maxx Seijo  1:02:48


Naty Smith  1:02:49

Once you’re self-subsistent, you can gift the other.

Maxx Seijo  1:02:50

Exactly. So first, we kick out all the Jews, and then we can have relations with Israel, right? That’s the the logic.

Will Beaman  1:03:02

Yeah. And while he does say he does say elsewhere, “oh, we should accept migrants with open arms until we can get to a point where unnecessary migration doesn’t happen.” Right? And he actually uses the phrase “unnecessary migration”, which, you know, I’m not really sure who decides that. Except Pope Francis.

Maxx Seijo  1:03:22

Socially unnecessary migration time. And so he keep goes on. And as Naty said at the beginning, it’s so repetitive. And, “the experience of being raised in a particular place and sharing in a particular culture gives us insight into aspects of reality that others cannot so easily perceive.” And he, you know, critiques a sort of sense of the universal that is uniform, standardized, bland.

Naty Smith  1:03:51

Right. This is like when he makes like a precept before he goes into encounter talking about the indigenous versus the colonial, you know, the East versus the West. He’s like, I don’t want to say that I’m, like, gonna use a universal that’s like some dominations. Like, sure. Whatever.

Will Beaman  1:04:09

I remember what he was going to say also, it was basically like, “in the meantime, until we can get to that point where unnecessary migration is limited. We should accept them and allow them to assimilate.” Right? So there’s this sense that, well, you know, the compromises…they’re going to be subsumed by our national identity, and their kids are going to be Argentinian.

Naty Smith  1:04:33

But not too much. Because you need a rich palate. You need some seasoning on that food. You need a little flavor.

Maxx Seijo  1:04:38

I was just about to read that phrase, right? And so what he’s saying is, you know, a universal that’s bland and standardized, right, we could think about a perhaps borderlessness in his sense, right, will ultimately lead to a loss of a rich palette of shades and colors and result in utter monotony.

Naty Smith  1:04:53

Borders maintain flavor.

Maxx Seijo  1:05:06

Literally, right? So there’s this sense of color, too. I mean, the reification of race and all of these social constructions is at play here. And it’s because we have this material touch, and touch, and touch and this emphasis on the material otherness by which one’s identity comes into being, which, you know, I’m just going to say is, is Hegel’s phenomenology. That’s just, that’s the whole thing, right?

Naty Smith  1:05:37

Little bitch Hegel.

Maxx Seijo  1:05:40

So he’s saying, “there can be no false openness, born of the shallowness of those lacking insight into the genius of their native land, or harboring unresolved resentment towards their own people.” This is just kind of disgusting and blatant on its face, right?

Will Beaman  1:06:00

Don’t be a self-hating blank.

Maxx Seijo  1:06:02

Exactly. Right?

Naty Smith  1:06:04

Very Zizekian.

Maxx Seijo  1:06:05

Yeah, right. Yeah. And so this sort of openness has to be quoting here, “done without evasion or uprooting, we need to sink, root our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God. We can only work on a small scale in our own neighborhood, but with a large perspective.” And there you have precisely the political economic problematic at stake in cultivating the sense of a localized encounter with material that you touch, right?

Will Beaman  1:06:38


Maxx Seijo  1:06:38

A kinetic world of causality.

Will Beaman  1:06:41

And we importantly, right, like, just to say this: we don’t believe that we can only work at a small scale.

Maxx Seijo  1:06:48


Will Beaman  1:06:48

Right? Like the point of money and abstraction being prior is, one, everything is already interdependent, right? And what we’re doing right now is related to other things. And like far off distances and like this kind of transcendent way.

Naty Smith  1:07:08

I hate the internet. Ugh.

Will Beaman  1:07:10

The answerability of monetary coordination, it’s at an infinitely large scale, potentially.

Naty Smith  1:07:17

What, just like infinite spending?

Maxx Seijo  1:07:20

Well, I mean, we could think about COVID, right? And this leads right back to the whole second episode of this podcast, and Agamben being like “COVID is not real, because that means that we need social relations.” Right?

Naty Smith  1:07:34


Maxx Seijo  1:07:36

The virus is a classic example where touch is not the locus of causality that can actually deal with this problem. We can’t just work at the level of our neighborhood or our native land, right?

Naty Smith  1:07:50

Although I wish my mother-in-law had touched less of everything.

Maxx Seijo  1:07:55

Well, exactly. Right? We need to coordinate non-touched provisioning. I mean, that’s the whole thing, right? That’s the whole COVID process.

Will Beaman  1:08:04

A kind of a small analog of this from today, right? Is this fetishization of—I hope that we do have a lot of listeners who are members of DSA—there’s a certain kind of Twitter DSA person who says that the answer to every single complaint or issue or anything, is to simply keep your head down and go to your local DSA chapter and be a rank and file person. We can affirm that, but to contract politics around this sort of fetishized local organization without acknowledging also, DSA dues paid with dollars, right? It’s nested within public infrastructures. It’s not truly local, because being truly local is not possible.

Maxx Seijo  1:08:53

And knocking on doors, right? We could think of the rhythmic assurance of knocking on a door.

Will Beaman  1:08:59

I was wondering why you’re pantomiming knocking while I was talking.

Maxx Seijo  1:09:02

Yeah, it’s a classic example of like, you know, there are people who say, “go knock on doors, go canvass, go do these things,” right?

Will Beaman  1:09:09

Go visit the voter.

Maxx Seijo  1:09:11

Right! Well, let’s go encounter voters, go encounter people, go encounter workers where it’s like, we need to talk to people. Of course, right? We’re not negating that. But to contract causality only down to doing the activism work on the ground, right?

Naty Smith  1:09:28

Love the ground. The ground is so good.

Maxx Seijo  1:09:28

On the ground. That’s the same metaphysical contraction, right? We need all of it, right? We can’t be reductionist, and that’s a part of this podcast: superstructure, base. We want to obliterate that entire reductionism like an eliminationist method that seeks to bracket things and say “that’s not real. That’s not the real causal locus,” right? “We need to look on the factory floor where the worker hits this commodity over and over and over again. And he hits it, and it’s rhythmic, and we watch it. And then it’s all of a sudden it’s an Eisenstein film, and we’re watching the rhythm in the circle and Oh, sorry. Anyway.

Naty Smith  1:10:04

All right, you just made an Eisenstein reference. Officially jumped the shark. I’m just kidding.

Maxx Seijo  1:10:16

That’s a metaphor. It’s disgusting. And so we can only produce on the ground in our local neighborhood. We can only knock on the doors of our self-subsisting Heimat. So what does that mean? What is his political economic program? Well, everyone, if you had any doubt, he writes later on in paragraph 172, “The 21st century is witnessing a weakening of the power of nation-states.” Is that Thomas Fazi? Oh, sorry.

Naty Smith  1:10:47

We have a problem. Houston, we have a problem.

Maxx Seijo  1:10:49

Sorry. I didn’t know I was reading from another Italian, Thomas Fazi, but we can keep going. “Chiefly because the economic and financial sectors being transnational capital,” right, “tend to prevail over the political” meaning the legal, right? So Matt Karp just wrote an awful take about this in Jacobin, but there’s this sense that capital can’t be beholden by the nation state. It exists out there in the global world of circulation, and of transnational circulation. It’s an other, right, but it’s not a good other. It’s a bad other.

Will Beaman  1:11:28

No, we don’t want it to visit us.

Maxx Seijo  1:11:30

We don’t want it to visit. Stay away!

Naty Smith  1:11:32

To be clear, the idea is not that we have tax breaks to have foreign capital visit our developing country. The point is that it’s a wrong framing.

Maxx Seijo  1:11:45

Capital is not a thing.

Will Beaman  1:11:47

Yeah, that’s not what’s happening.

Naty Smith  1:11:49


Will Beaman  1:11:50

What’s happening is that public functions are being carried out through public institutions that…

Maxx Seijo  1:11:59

Through the political.

Will Beaman  1:12:00

Right. Through the political which are designed with the aesthetics of private capital.

Maxx Seijo  1:12:05


Will Beaman  1:12:05

Right. But you know, there’s no institution that’s not publicly chartered somewhere. And, not even just to reify, you know, like, the nation-state charters its own institutions or something, because politics transcends that as well. What were you going to say Maxx?

Maxx Seijo  1:12:20

So I was just gonna say, absolutely. And so where he goes with this is we have all of these atomized nation-states, which are sovereign, essentially, he hopes. We probably have to deport a bunch of people to make them other first before then we can open up our borders to them…

Naty Smith  1:12:21

Just like not write off our sovereign debt, but pay it more slowly.

Maxx Seijo  1:12:43

Pay it more slowly. Exactly. He’s Argentinian after all.

Naty Smith  1:12:47


Maxx Seijo  1:12:49

As a joke, I think we should have asked Felix Salmon to record something for this podcast about the Argentinian debt crisis.

Naty Smith  1:12:56

I don’t know who that is.

Maxx Seijo  1:12:57

That’s like a early Obama-era Bloomberg joke that no one’s gonna get, but…

Will Beaman  1:13:03

Leaving it in. Continue.

Maxx Seijo  1:13:04

Yeah. So “given this situation,” he says, “is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions.” Seems good, right?

Naty Smith  1:13:13

Right. This is supposed macro, right?

Maxx Seijo  1:13:15

Right. “With functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments and empowered to impose sanctions.”

Will Beaman  1:13:22

If you clean your room, then after school, you can do Model UN.

Maxx Seijo  1:13:26

Literally, right?

Naty Smith  1:13:27

And it’s interesting, because there are like historians, or scholars who’ve kind of looked at more lefty inflections of the history of the UN, like Adom Getachew and her book about African post-colonial movements. But I mean, it’s very clear in his writing some of the limits.

Maxx Seijo  1:13:47

Yes, and it’s importantly phrased too that this is a sacrifice. We have to sacrifice to enter into this global relation of the sovereign head that then get to argue it out in the marketplace of national ideas.

Will Beaman  1:14:00

It’s a social contract for nation-states.

Maxx Seijo  1:14:03

Yes, exactly. Right.

Will Beaman  1:14:04

Like nation states are giving up their sovereignty in order to become part of an even bigger sovereign.

Maxx Seijo  1:14:09

And it’s almost like this touching, as Scott would say, is this mimetic compulsion to reground. And we keep re-grounding. And we have to build a sort of pyramid, because gravity has to hold it up of an international institution.

Naty Smith  1:14:25

A pyramid scheme.

Maxx Seijo  1:14:26

That represents the collective will of each national, hardened, solid snake.

Will Beaman  1:14:34


Maxx Seijo  1:14:34

People. Yeah, ground, right? And all of these things. And so this leads to, I think the sort of culmination of his political economic vision, which is moving to paragraph 190: “Political charity is also expressed in a spirit of openness to everyone. Government leaders should be the first to make the sacrifices that foster encounter and see converge on at least some issues. They should be ready to listen to other points of view and make room for everyone. Through sacrifice and patience, they can help to create a beautiful polyhedral reality in which everyone has a place. Here economic negotiations do not work, something else is required. An exchange of gifts for the common good. It may seem naive and utopian, yet we cannot renounce this lofty aim.”

Naty Smith  1:15:24

I want to jump in quickly, which is like as the reader of Encyclical. This is embedded in the context of him going into forgiveness, and this is very clearly about, in many ways, his own silence, and the churches own silence, and his continued silence during the dirty war and his continuing silence regarding Catholic abuse, the massive feminist movement for abortion in Argentina, which was successful. I think that’s interesting to think in terms of political metaphors, because he’s like, “Well all the leaders…it’s a gift of all the leaders if they can sort of swallow their pride and come together and see all sides and everybody has their place.” And you know, he says, “I can’t oblige you to forgive but it would be good” you know. I don’t know if it’s like this context of convergence and sort of “if I can be sacrificial and patient. I can see that the right wing Pinochetista molester priests also have a point of view, and I don’t have to forgive them. But I could” and I think you guys can kind of articulate how that connects to political economy.

Will Beaman  1:16:38

Yeah. And connects to Liz Bruenig’s thing that we read in a previous episode.

Naty Smith  1:16:43

Yeah, but the sense of the gift and the sense of economic negot- It’s fascinating because he says economic negotiations don’t work. But it’s fascinating because he’s precisely talking about, “Well, we need to have like regional blocs. We need to have the UN.” And you know, he precisely opposed these kind of left wing Peronists during the aughts, the Kirchner’s in Argentina who were engaging in this Pink Wave project for regional associations like this left wing trade bloc, the Mercosur. And he was the head of the opposition to the Kirchner’s because he was a supporter of right wing Peronists, not left wing Peronists. But this and this is also tied up in the sense of Franciscanism, right? The sense of charity, the sense of the gift, the sense that I want to reject the economic in order to find the true economic, which is like the self-sacrificing love of a handshake.

Will Beaman  1:17:37

Foreign aid instead of loans.

Maxx Seijo  1:17:39

And I want to be a little cheeky here and do a nice analog. And because I think what this reminded me of, believe it or not, was Marx. And so I wanted to read from this because this idea of a polyhedral reality in which we don’t do economics across borders anymore. We exchange gifts. We barter, right? Is precisely how Marx describes world money in Capital Volume One. Because the the reconciliation people try and make with Marx and MMT is like: Marx describes credit money in the domestic sphere. And so that’s true. Marx does do that. Right? And that’s perfectly true. But once we leave the domestic…right? Now, we’re reifying this. What does that mean, right? Once we leave that home soil, that proximate ground that we can touch, then we go back into the world of commodity money, right? And so here we have the very beginning of Marx’s section on world money. And this is on page 240 of my Penguin version of Capital.

Naty Smith  1:17:40

Yeah. Let me open up my version.

Maxx Seijo  1:18:38

Yeah. “When money leaves the domestic sphere of circulation, it loses the local functions it has acquired there as a standard of prices, coin and small change and as a symbol of value, and falls back into its original form as precious metal in the shape of Boolean. In world trade, commodities develop their value universally. Their independent value form, thus confronts them hereto as world money.” And so there’s this sense here that barter holds, because the moment we leave the domestic sphere, which, you know, we have all this trust. We can do all sorts of credit because we’re the same. You and I, we’re the same, we look the same, we have the same, we’re already on

Will Beaman  1:19:43

Yeah, we’re already commensurable as opposed to being forced to be commensurable by global capital.

Maxx Seijo  1:19:48

Right. We’re already a people. Right.

Naty Smith  1:19:50

Alright, Angela, is that you Angela Nagle. Global capital made me believe in gay rights.

Maxx Seijo  1:19:58

And so the thickness of this people this ethnoi, as I’ve heard some call it, but on an international scale it falls apart because I am univocally different from you, right? You migrant. You trader. And so what do we have to rely on? Right? Okay, because we need a material ground. What is that ground for Marx? It’s the commodity again. We go back to the commodity theory of money. The melted silver, right? The value form as evoked in the universally commensurable commodity that is money, gold, silver, right? And so this is why we argue that MMT and Marx, perhaps on one side, could be imagined if you believe ardently in monetary sovereignty as a sort of commensurable, to be funny…

Naty Smith  1:20:28

The melted silver. Because also most people when…In my opinion, is that when most people like say Marxist and get defensive Marxists they just mean like economic justice.

Maxx Seijo  1:21:04

Well, right. And we affirm, and there are components of the Marxist tradition that we affirm. Absolutely.

Naty Smith  1:21:09

But I’m just saying that’s why I think people get so defensive.

Maxx Seijo  1:21:12

Yes, I agree.

Naty Smith  1:21:12

They don’t necessarily mean all these details.

Maxx Seijo  1:21:16

Marx is their thing.

Naty Smith  1:21:17

Oh, yeah. It’s like their way of saying economic justice against economic injustice. You know?

Maxx Seijo  1:21:23

Yeah, it’s a reassuring mechanism that we have on the left.

Will Beaman  1:21:28

There’s a there, there. Right?

Maxx Seijo  1:21:29

There’s a there, there.

Naty Smith  1:21:29

Yeah, and so if you go against it, you’re going against justice.

Maxx Seijo  1:21:35

Right. But here we see the analog by which Marx and Pope Francis have a similar view of the domestic as it’s coming into the relationship with the global world, right? Of transnational capital. And this is a huge problem, because it reifies what the domestic is: a sense of trust in relation as a people as proximate. Right? And this is why we say Marx relies on a barter, because he does at the global scale, right? It’s not just his phenomenology.

Naty Smith  1:22:09

He’s an Hegalian theorist of encounter.

Maxx Seijo  1:22:11


Will Beaman  1:22:12

I think that there’s something really interesting here in the way that going back to our “the virus is the virus” episode where we kind of dug into the “nature is healing” meme. This idea of nature, healing, right? That happens through people on the outskirt of society. Instead of bartering with the other, selflessly giving gifts to the other. Right? But it’s still this figure of an encounter, right? And of standing in what is this kind of void, where you can either establish economic relations, or you can give to charity.

Naty Smith  1:22:56

Charity is just the ethical version of establishing economic relations.

Will Beaman  1:23:02

Right! If you’re a good person, instead of exchanging where you get something in return, you just give. But the exchange where you get something in return, for Marx, ends up on the outskirts of civilization and on the outskirts of your immediate homogenous unit where you all trust each other. On the outskirts of that, you barter, and then that ends up…

Maxx Seijo  1:23:30

That starts capitalism.

Will Beaman  1:23:31

Yep, fast forward, the dialectic.

Maxx Seijo  1:23:33

It’s an encounter.

Will Beaman  1:23:34

Right? And capitalism. It spreads, right? Geographically, through touching, right.

Maxx Seijo  1:23:39


Will Beaman  1:23:40

Through exchanges, in the same way that this healing is supposed to spread.

Maxx Seijo  1:23:45

And I want to also, because I think it’s so honestly kind of haunting the way that this Encyclical comes out during COVID. Right? And famously like, some of the important and crucial historical periods that just precede the early modern one, which we can then locate as the sort of rise of this. This Franciscan tradition is preceded by the Black Death. And so there’s this violent sense of…

Naty Smith  1:24:14

But Maxx, Maxx, the Black Death was good for labor unions.

Maxx Seijo  1:24:19

It raised a raise the cost of labor, actually.

Will Beaman  1:24:22

A huge opportunity for ending capitalism.

Maxx Seijo  1:24:25

They squandered. Yeah, but there’s this sense of this violent…

Naty Smith  1:24:28

But we can learn from…

Maxx Seijo  1:24:30

Right. There’s this shock of interdependence, right? That confronts us. And, we have to say, it’s not necessarily something we love. Like we all feel the stress and anxiety associated when we all have our mechanism.

Naty Smith  1:24:44

You’ve heard me with Dasha…Like, I don’t love my neighbor, except one of them.

Maxx Seijo  1:24:50

But it’s hard. Dependence is hard. Solving the problem of COVID at macro scale is hard and complicated. It is really hard. But you can’t avoid the macro provisioning pressure.

Naty Smith  1:25:04

It’s not as hard as Agamben made it, though.

Maxx Seijo  1:25:07

Well, no, of course not. It’s not hard in the sense of…

Will Beaman  1:25:12

In the sense of a sacrifice, right?

Maxx Seijo  1:25:14

Exactly. It’s not a sacrifice.

Naty Smith  1:25:16

Yeah. As if those deaths were a gift.

Maxx Seijo  1:25:20


Naty Smith  1:25:20

A charity gift? Because you can’t macro provision.

Maxx Seijo  1:25:24

It’s hard because existence is hard. Right? There’s pain and suffering and joy and beauty. And we all share in these different problems. And we don’t have to have suffering, right? And we don’t have to have all these things like there are problems we can solve in certain ways. Right? There are ways to deal with things like COVID.

Naty Smith  1:25:45

As you can see in the countries that like actually dealt with it.

Maxx Seijo  1:25:48

Right, and that have done a better job than the United States and Chile and others.

Naty Smith  1:25:53

Probably because of their sort of natural identity with the soil.

Maxx Seijo  1:25:58

Yeah, certainly with New Zealand.

Naty Smith  1:26:00

It’s typical of the Chinese you know, because that’s very typical of them to sort of make a virus that they handle because they planned ahead for their own…

Maxx Seijo  1:26:10

Are you Matt Bruenig? You’re Matt Bruenig.

Naty Smith  1:26:12

Or Matt Stoller.

Maxx Seijo  1:26:13

Matt Stoller, too. You’re both of them, okay.

Naty Smith  1:26:15

Yeah, but they sent it on everyone else, because they had already planned ahead. Little communist bitches. Yeah, well, they are actually pretty right wing communists.

Will Beaman  1:26:25

Unified Matt theory.

Maxx Seijo  1:26:29

So we can think about these moments… I don’t necessarily want to take on the sort of quest for historical meaning necessarily, but there is something, I listened to a Bloomberg podcast about the Black Death. Like, there’s something hovering here in the way we have interdependence crises in a way that are ongoing, and they’re always ongoing. It’s unemployment, it’s suffering in countries in the global south. It’s suffering all over. I mean, we can look to all sorts of different types of suffering. And the response that we get by Pope Francis is we need polyhedral nationalism. But the reason why we come so hard at people like Marx is because built in to his schema of capitalism, and…

Naty Smith  1:27:20

Because he’s too daddy for us.

Maxx Seijo  1:27:22

That’s right, we just can’t handle how much of a daddy he is. Is this domestic fetish, right? This domestic reification, this reification of the thickness of the proximate. And that’s his reassuring sort of rhythmic care symptom.

Naty Smith  1:27:40

Oh, and, and it’s interesting because Marx, I’m, like, honestly, not a Marx expert, but I’m sure that like, at some point, in his writing, he said shit against the national and whatever, whatever. But, like, it’s not nothing that Lenin is, like, his most famous sort of progenitor, but also like, change some things. But I mean, Lenin is like the ultimate nationalist in many ways. I mean, the sense of like,

Will Beaman  1:28:04

Yeah, completely.

Naty Smith  1:28:05

Imperialism and anti imperialism and his sense of the nation. You know, there is like a convergence between these rivals of Woodrow Wilson and Lenin, right?

Will Beaman  1:28:17

Yeah, you start with taking over the univocal will of the nation-state.

Naty Smith  1:28:22


Will Beaman  1:28:23

And univocal meaning, right, when we talk about my will…My will, my name is Will. When we talk about my will as a person and we talk about a country’s will, the word will means the same thing, right? And that’s univocal is being speaking through one voice. So words mean the same exact thing regardless of how they’re being used, and in this case, right? Everything comes down to univocal will, and univocal difference, right? Everything is different in the same…there are two sides of the same coin. Yeah.

Naty Smith  1:29:04


Maxx Seijo  1:29:05

That produces the encounter.

Naty Smith  1:29:07

 And the ability to create the UN! Sorry.

Will Beaman  1:29:10

It’s an encounter between two wills, and the two wills can encounter because their wills in the same way.

Naty Smith  1:29:17

No, totally.

Maxx Seijo  1:29:18

I think we’ve done a pretty good job of doing most of the meat, you know, the fleshy, touchy meat of this Encyclical.

Naty Smith  1:29:27

The bony part of the episode.

Maxx Seijo  1:29:29

We would be remiss if we didn’t talk about his cancel culture critiques, because this just feels

Naty Smith  1:29:34

Oh, god.

Maxx Seijo  1:29:35

This feels so connected to our podcast in a way that I think it just makes me laugh.

Will Beaman  1:29:40


Maxx Seijo  1:29:40

Pope Francis hates cancel culture.

Naty Smith  1:29:44

He’s like, you gotta listen like you got some, you know, like, there’s different sides. The internet is like chaos, you know? You can’t smell people’s sweat.

Maxx Seijo  1:29:54

He signed the Harper’s letter with Samuel Moyn, I think.

Naty Smith  1:29:58

Oh my god. 100%. Like if he knew enough about the internet to know that existed, he would have 100% like scientists, he would have like, written his name over everybody else’s name and meant like not in a dominant way!

Maxx Seijo  1:30:10

No, no, just an enthusiastic way. Barry Weiss would’ve even got to sign her name. But it’s important, I think, actually, we could like think about media theory for a second.

Naty Smith  1:30:23

I think it’s interesting to think through. Yeah. Like how this does connect to his theories.

Maxx Seijo  1:30:28

It totally does. And it connects to like our conversation with Matt Chrisman about media and spectacle and all of these things. So we take then the globalized world of capitalism, of spectacle of all of these exchanges that ping pong touching each other until they created

Naty Smith  1:30:43

A global Jewish internet.

Maxx Seijo  1:30:46

I mean, you’re not that wrong, basically, with what he’s saying. But he says…

Will Beaman  1:30:50

You heard it here first, folks.

Maxx Seijo  1:30:53

I can’t wait for someone to quote that only and then put it on Twitter.

Naty Smith  1:30:58

Yeah, that’s like, as I said the words. Exactly the thought process I had.

Maxx Seijo  1:31:01

Yeah, exactly. So right, he talks about “in today’s globalized world…”

Naty Smith  1:31:08


Maxx Seijo  1:31:09

Right. So we start from that premise. “The media can help us feel closer to one another, creating a sense of unity of the human family, which in turn can inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all.”

Naty Smith  1:31:22

This is what we call the opening caveat before saying the radical opposite.

Will Beaman  1:31:29

We can touch people who are far away now.

Maxx Seijo  1:31:32

Right. “We need constantly to ensure that present day forms of communication are in fact guiding us to generous encounter with others, to honest pursuit of the whole truth, to service, to closeness, to the underprivileged, and to the promotion of the common good.” Right?

Naty Smith  1:31:47

So like, the internet introduced me to Liz Bruenig.

Maxx Seijo  1:31:52

Right. “So we cannot accept the digital world designed to exploit our weaknesses and bring out the worst in people.” Right. So it’s like love thy neighbor on the internet. This is the whole introduction to that, right? But then elsewhere… Elsewhere, he critiques “digital campaigns of hatred and destruction,” and says that they are not as some would us believe, “a positive form of mutual support. But simply…”

Naty Smith  1:32:18

Sorry, I want to go back to the the digital world designed for our weakness, because this is an interesting thing, because I think some people see us as just these sort of like, “we love the internet, we’re not aware of algorithms.” And there’s a very strong strain of left critique, whether it’s with Richard Seymour, or Jody Dean or all different. I mean, honestly, like throughout left internet, there’s a very strong sense of self. And there’s truth to that, right? Like the way profit is designed, the way algorithms are designed, the way it’s designed to be addictive that it does try to like capitalize on certain things. But people’s critique of this very much gets into this sort of Franciscan rejection of money, like touching the internet itself, is like kind of debasing myself, devaluing currency of true encounter and affection of knocking on doors, right. And I think it’s hurtful to most people, even though it’s like, very common, like, self exculpating thing, I think, especially during COVID. I think it hurts most people’s feelings a little bit, and that’s why they participate in it when you talk about being “too online,” and yada, yada. Because most of us are in this modern time, like, obviously, extremely online, because that type of abstraction is how you care for each other. Like, everyone I know does not live in my apartment.

Maxx Seijo  1:33:45

Right. Which is not to negate the work of people like Cathy O’Neil. And you know, there are others too, who talk about algorithmic bias.

Naty Smith  1:33:56

Like Frank Pasquale.

Maxx Seijo  1:33:57

Yes. Exactly, exactly. Frank Pasquale. I just finished TA’ing for a digital theory course, where we basically talked about this for 10 weeks in a row, right. And so it’s important to differentiate critiques of form as relates to the form of abstraction, and how that is being constructed and designed from critiques from, of abstraction as such, right? It’s critiquing the internet as such, versus the way it’s designed.

Naty Smith  1:34:24

And that collapsibility happens really fast. Just as you guys point out, like in “the virus is the virus”. Like “capitalism is the virus” collapses really quickly into “people are the virus.”

Maxx Seijo  1:34:36

Exactly, exactly.

Naty Smith  1:34:39

Not to say we’re not anti-capitalist again, you know what I mean?

Maxx Seijo  1:34:41

Right. Well, exactly. And we’re not anti-exploitation, like we obviously are, right?

Naty Smith  1:34:45


Maxx Seijo  1:34:45

It’s the entire framing of the structure.

Naty Smith  1:34:49


Maxx Seijo  1:34:49

And so we set up this sort of thing where it’s like, “we live in a globalized world we can reach out and touch someone,” right? This is like actually quite neoliberal when it comes to media theory.

Naty Smith  1:34:58

“Reach out and touch…” This is like part of the slippage of Peronism right? Like the slippage Peronism from this sort of like workers Red-Brown movement into like, inevitably, neoliberalism…

Maxx Seijo  1:35:16

It’s like this is a 1980s AT&T ad that’s like, “Reach out and touch someone.”

Naty Smith  1:35:20


Maxx Seijo  1:35:22

By the way, I stole that from Scott Ferguson’s class. So, anyway, but…

Naty Smith  1:35:27

This is typical of the problematic of having to have a mommy.

Maxx Seijo  1:35:30

Right I know, interdependent.

Naty Smith  1:35:33

I, though, am totally different from my mother.

Will Beaman  1:35:37

I always check the breast for new jokes.

Naty Smith  1:35:43

I wish I could express to the listeners like the facial expressions I made with some of Will’s jokes. Just this face of like dread and joy, just like, ooo, that was a brutal one. Love it. Ooo.

Will Beaman  1:36:00

Yeah. Well, it’s the same face Francis makes when he’s visiting the poor.

Naty Smith  1:36:06

Oooo, I love you.

Maxx Seijo  1:36:08

So, at the same time, when Pope Francis says we need to reject transnational capital and blah, blah, blah. He also says that “these digital campaigns of hatred and destruction,” i.e. cancel culture, “are not a positive form of mutual support, but simply an association of individuals united against a perceived common enemy.”

Naty Smith  1:36:31

It’s hard to know was that me was that Will? Was that you? Like, who were the Marxists mad at?  Who were the Marx- Right, exactly. I think it was all of the above.

Will Beaman  1:36:42

And the way that I find that a lot of Marx-inflected, or Marxist critiques of nationalism, sort of fall apart is they’re like, “Well, they’re just looking for a common enemy, when they should be looking…” And then they describe looking for a common enemy, but it’s global capital.

Naty Smith  1:37:01

Right. Right.

Will Beaman  1:37:02

And they exculpate with, “well, this is just an objective materialist analysis.”

Naty Smith  1:37:06

Which is isn’t. Like the…

Will Beaman  1:37:09


Naty Smith  1:37:10

The how do we name him Alex Williams Substack, who was talking about post-Keynesianism recently and discussed how, you know, like, economically speaking, if you look at post-Keynesian theory, like there is not a unified logic to capitalism, like profit seeking does not end up reducing to one single logic. That’s just like, not empirically the case.

Maxx Seijo  1:37:32

What? It’s not determinist? No.

Naty Smith  1:37:34

He was like, shocked. He was like, nobody, like got mad at my post with a line that there’s no unified logic under capital…

Will Beaman  1:37:41

Well, it was because he sounded really depressed, so the Marxists were like, Oh, okay he’s one of us.

Naty Smith  1:37:47

Or they just didn’t read that far.

Maxx Seijo  1:37:49

Okay, so I’m gonna continue now.

Naty Smith  1:37:51


Maxx Seijo  1:37:52

So the Pope writes, you know, so basically, what we’ve just articulated, too, is this Schmittian, and like reading Schmitt from the left, right? Common enemy, right? It’s…

Naty Smith  1:38:02


Maxx Seijo  1:38:03

Pope is like, “Wait, no, no common enemy.” But then he has his own Schmittian enemy. And we could think about our interview with Daniel Bessner and his insistence on being Schmittian. And…

Naty Smith  1:38:15

While also at the same time accusing us of being Schmittian.

Maxx Seijo  1:38:18

Well, this is the exact cancel culture, right?

Naty Smith  1:38:21


Maxx Seijo  1:38:21

They just want to cancel capital? And that’s the whole thing.

Naty Smith  1:38:23


Maxx Seijo  1:38:24

So we want to cancel fascists, they want to cancel capital. So I think this gets into the connection between that sort of double movement of this bad faith critique of cancel culture, because the Pope writes…

Naty Smith  1:38:38

Pretty personal. Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  1:38:40

“Digital media can also expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation, and a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality.” And there we have the touching and alienation.

Naty Smith  1:38:50

Concrete. That was the only thing I liked about Trump was his story of association with the concrete mafia.

Maxx Seijo  1:38:57

And this one’s really gonna hurt you, Naty. So this gradual loss of contact with concrete reality ends up “blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships.” So these so called non-authentic interpersonal relationships, which is hilarious, because now I’m thinking of like Heideggerian inauthenticity, and like how he brackets media theory.

Naty Smith  1:39:23

Oh, so I know, Marxists who are sleeping around on apps, but also like, my friend will be making a new app…My friend who grew up lower middle class, and they’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to add another new app to my phone.”

Maxx Seijo  1:39:40

That’s ironic.

Naty Smith  1:39:42

“Isn’t the real life always…isn’t meatspace always better than real encounters?” Like, Oh, is that how you meet girls in meatspace? Like really? Nobody? Not nobody. Like I’m not typically a huge online dater, but the idea that like there’s some space of meatspace in real encounters is just like fucking queer-phobic horseshit.

Maxx Seijo  1:40:04

Naty, I’ve never touched you, though.

Naty Smith  1:40:07

But like, honestly, I want to underline that

Maxx Seijo  1:40:09

Yeah, it’s so fucked up.

Naty Smith  1:40:10

Like queer-phobic horseshit.

Maxx Seijo  1:40:12


Naty Smith  1:40:13

Like oh, you’re not like in an alleyway in the Castro in 1978, so go fuck yourself. Are you serious? Like oh, and literally that in the 90s Quarracino said, the bishop who made the Pope’s career, that gays should be locked in ghettos, and that’s what some of this materialism is saying is like, don’t we miss when there was like a gayborhood that was like where you had to go to have like a physical encounter before the internet?

Maxx Seijo  1:40:39

And even further to the point, he goes on to list the things that these physical encounters lack, right? These these online encounters, sorry.

Naty Smith  1:40:47

This is my favorite part. I’m not gonna lie. This is pretty funny.

Maxx Seijo  1:40:49

“They lack the physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language, and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes and perspiration that speak to us and are part of human connection.”

Will Beaman  1:41:03

And that kind of make him cringe when it’s a poor person.

Naty Smith  1:41:06

This is just so fucking rude during COVID. So many people can’t like, apart from dating, like so many people can’t see their family for like, several years.

Maxx Seijo  1:41:14

They can’t hug their family.

Naty Smith  1:41:16

Yeah, and I live abroad and it’s like what, my family just like means nothing to me now because I can’t smell their fucking sweat?

Maxx Seijo  1:41:23

And that’s exactly what Agamben was saying when he said that Pope Francis should be out there hugging and touching the the poor, because that is what St. Francis of Assisi did. And that COVID wasn’t real, because the existence of COVID denies the validity of this metaphysical tradition. Because it foregrounds interdependence as a problem that is ongoing that we must wrestle with. It’s not a problem of one that’s created by money, right? It’s not money creates interdependence what then money has to solve. This is an ongoing problem of existence. And we don’t even have to look to political economy…

Naty Smith  1:42:01

The riddle of care.

Maxx Seijo  1:42:02

The riddle of care, it’s also biological.

Will Beaman  1:42:04

What’s really funny about this, too, is like, of all the people to be complaining about “fake relationships” because they’re not like in person. For it to be the Pope, who like people have pictures of him in their house and like, I want to see like, a bitchy Red Scare style Pope podcast where he’s like really shitty to all of his fans, because like their relationship with him is parasocial.

Maxx Seijo  1:42:34

r/Catholic That’s the subreddit for the Pope.

Naty Smith  1:42:38

That’s the next Dasha.

Maxx Seijo  1:42:40

Yeah, and right. But that’s built into the contradiction of the metaphysics because you can’t premise it on this sort of touching relation of reassurance and proximity, while also having a social order, and that’s what happened to the Franciscans.

Naty Smith  1:42:55

I did post on Twitter and someone commented something like that, like Will once said that he was like, everything’s become a kind of spectacle. And I posted, “is this the Pope or every hack, Marxist theorist?” My friends like, yeah, the Pope is a really good person to be like, criticizing spectacle, wearing a giant hat and like walking around with the staff as he broadcasts himself to a worldwide Catholic Church, Catholic, meaning universal.

Maxx Seijo  1:43:19

If I can’t smell the Pope, this shit is invalid.

Naty Smith  1:43:24

Smelling shit. One of my oldest couple evidence gathering techniques.

Maxx Seijo  1:43:29

And like what this leads is the reason why we’re so harsh on Hegel on the show is because…

Naty Smith  1:43:34

By we, we mean Maxx

Maxx Seijo  1:43:36

The Hegelian sense of contradiction is premised on a metaphysics that can’t be explained by that proximate relation, right.? That’s why you need world spirit.

Naty Smith  1:43:46

The Holy Spirit.

Maxx Seijo  1:43:47

Right. To account for all of this order, all of this existence, all of this interdependence and build this phenomenological Rube Goldberg machine that gets you to the state, which then gets you to the UN as world spirit. I mean, we we’re all there in this, and the problem is the premise. Right? The problem is the premise.

Naty Smith  1:44:06

And this premise of encounter, as this quote continues here in 43…his media theory really reveals the liberal nationalism baked into his idea of encounter because he kind of encapsulates this idea of illusion and fake news and that you’re in this like self-selected echo chamber. Which is like totally, all the shit all these supposed leftists were like dissing about centrist liberals whose entire reading of the media sphere was like, “there’s two sides. There’s the side that knows the truth. There’s the side that believes what Trump says. And like if you’re just in an echo chamber only listening to your own people, coastal liberals, and not with like the real workers in the real workers who are racist cunts in Montana, then you can’t…”

Will Beaman  1:44:54

In your local, grounded echo chamber.

Naty Smith  1:44:58

Yeah, totally.

Will Beaman  1:44:59

The problem is that we’ve all lost our based echo chamber, and now we’re in virtual echo chambers.

Maxx Seijo  1:45:08

As Richard Wolff said, “I think the assault on the Capitol really reflected the alienation of the working class.”

Comforted & Chastened : A Liz Bruenig Special

In this special episode, hosts Natalie Smith and @moltopopulare take on the austere sexual politics promulgated by cultural critic and commentator Elizabeth or “Liz” Bruenig. Mirroring the tacit zero-sum logics built into her spouse Matt Bruenig’s analyses of political economy, Liz regularly weaponizes social conservatism and conformity in cruel efforts to shore up a problematic vision of a proper social democratic populace. Natalie and Charlotte lay bare the sadistic violation of sexual freedom and identity that forms the core of Liz’s project by examining a wide range of articles on topics such as queer celibacy, the politics of pornography, and 50 Shades of Gray.

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.
Twitter: @actualflirting

27 – Sunrise or DSA?

Co-hosts Will Beaman, Natalie Smith, and Maxximilian Seijo discuss recent critiques of the Sunrise Movement by influential members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) on social media and in the pages of Jacobin Magazine. Problematizing the DSAers destructive zero-sum rhetoric regarding the allegedly correct “theory of change,” the gang suggests an alternative mode for organizational provisioning, rooted in neither the sovereignty of a dues-paying membership structure nor the sovereignty of “outside” donors. It is impossible to take part in an interdependent social organization that knows no externality because everyone is responsible to everyone else, whether inside or outside a particular organization. Misunderstanding inter-organizational dependence, the Superstructure co-hosts argue, has led these writers to accuse Sunrise of “social disembeddedness,” a reactionary charge with little basis in reality. In contrast, the Superstructure team proffers a self-consciously generative and analogical model of social coordination that opens organizational activity to diversity and difference.

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

The Philosophy of Money with Graham Hubbs

Graham Hubbs speaks with Scott Ferguson and Andrés Bernal about the relationship between Modern Monetary Theory and philosophy. Associate Professor & Chair of the Department of Politics & Philosophy at the University of Idaho, Hubbs convened a conference panel on Modern Monetary Theory at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association in January 2021. He invited Editorial Collective members Bernal and Ferguson to join him on the panel, where they shared and discussed his original paper, titled “The Promises & Challenges of Modern Monetary Theory.” In this episode, we present the full audio of Professor Hubbs’ presentation, as well as Scott Ferguson’s response and reflections. A very engaged question and answer period follows, rounding out this special episode. 

Thank you to the American Philosophical Association for sharing this audio with us, and to the Philosophy, Politics, & Economics Society for creating space for this important panel at the meeting.

Theme music is “Swirl Song” by Nahneen Kula: https://www.nahneenkula.com

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

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


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

Andrés Bernal: I’m an adjunct professor at CUNY, Queens College in the Department of Urban Studies, and a PhD student at the New School in Public Policy. I have been a policy and political advisor for the last two years with several campaigns, which brings us to the topic of today’s panel. I had no idea when I started to join policy campaigns that one tricky little question was going to have such a huge impact on the political debates, the possibilities, and the limits, and that question has been: how are you going to pay for it? In the winter of 2017, I was working on an outsider campaign for a young woman from the Bronx named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and she asked me to find innovative and interesting perspectives on how to advance her progressive policy agenda. That was when I came across the world of Modern Monetary Theory. Today, it seems like MMT is everywhere in the discourse. Some say that it’s a paradigm changing lens. Some say it’s alchemy. And that’s what we’re going to discuss today. What we do know is that policies such as the Green New Deal, the Federal Job Guarantee, a Housing For All plan, a Green New Deal for Housing, and so many other ambitious policies are now being debated within the lens of Modern Monetary Theory. And increasingly, the group of elected officials known as “The Squad” are turning to this lens and perspective.

So we have a very, very interesting and fantastic panel today. We have Professor Graham Hubbs, who’s an associate professor and the chair of the Department of Politics and Philosophy at the University of Idaho. Professor Hubbs uses ontological methods to study topics that lie at the intersection of philosophy, politics, and economics. He’s given a number of presentations on the social ontology of money, and works on a neo-Aristotelian framework, both to analyze money’s ontology and to systematize the various positions and debates about money’s ontologies over centuries. In addition, we also have Professor Scott Ferguson, who is an associate professor of Film and Media Studies in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida. He is co-director of the Humanities Division of the Modern Money Network. His research includes the history of aesthetics, digital animation, and visual effects in action-adventure blockbusters and video games, as well as bringing the political economic insights of Modern Monetary Theory into generative dialogues with humanities scholarship, continental philosophy, and media theory. So without further ado, we can begin with Professor Hubbs.

Graham Hubbs: Thank you, Andrés. I appreciate you being here to lead this. Scott, I’m glad that you’re joining us on this panel. A special thanks to the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Society for allowing us to have this session, and to Geoff Sayre-McCord for his leadership in the society creating an open space for dialogues on all manners of PPE topics, including MMT. So I’m going to share my screen. I have a PowerPoint presentation to run. Is everybody seeing that? Can I get a nod from Andrés or Scott? Great, okay. I call my presentation, “The Promises and Challenges of Modern Monetary Theory.” I’m going to provide an overview sketch of what I take to be the basics of MMT, and in particular, its ontological underpinnings, because that seems like the kind of topic that’s appropriate for an APA meeting. In particular, the ontology of money will be our focus here. And then I’m going to raise some challenges at the end of the presentation, which I’ll then hand off to Scott to address. So let’s get into it by saying what is Modern Monetary Theory?

For anyone who is unfamiliar with it, the book that I think will be the go-to for the years to come is Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth, which came out last summer. It presents, in readable form for the unfamiliar person, the basics of Modern Monetary Theory. Modern Monetary Theorists present their work as a descriptive project, which is to explain how money is created in modern states and what the creation of money entails for macroeconomics. Randy Wray jokingly says that “modern” means the way that money has been created for the last 4000 years, and that what is being discovered at the ontological level about money creation is true for as long as humans have been making money to organize the activities of distributing the goods that they produce. But the real focus on “modern,” here, is in a more familiar sense, which is focusing on states that issue sovereign currencies. So a sovereign currency is, roughly, a currency that is not pegged either to the currency of another state, or to a precious metal commodity. So when states went off of the gold standard over the course of the 20th century, several of them became sovereign with respect to their currencies by producing fiat currencies whose value floated on the open market. The United States and the dollar is the example that will concern us here when we’re talking about a state with a sovereign currency.

How does Modern Monetary Theory relate to progressive proposals like the Green New Deal that Andrés spoke about at the beginning? Well, a Green New Deal would involve a massive federal jobs program. And if MMT is right, funding it is not a problem. We can just “print the money.” Of course, this doesn’t actually involve printers churning out dollar bills. But the metaphor suffices for getting the idea that the state can just create it seemingly ex nihilo. And if MMT is right, the effects of this on the deficit are not necessarily a worry. That’s hence the title of Kelton’s book, The Deficit Myth. How have people reacted to MMT? Well, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is chaired by Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue and who used to be the Governor of Indiana, has not reacted, let’s say, approvingly of the introduction of MMT into public discourse in the last couple years.

The quote here: “A fringe economic philosophy known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has recently gained traction and is being used to justify massive new borrowing. While MMT is a complicated theory and is in many ways a moving target, at its core, MMT argues that there is little or no cost to running a large budget deficit unless the economy is experiencing high inflation. Many iterations of that theory also suggest a new paradigm whereby the federal government essentially prints money to fund its borrowing, and politicians–rather than the Federal Reserve–are charged with preventing runaway inflation. Fortunately, mainstream economists on both the left and the right have pushed back against this misguided theory.” And the committee recommends these as the top five readings to get clear on what’s wrong with MMT. You’ll see names there on the right, including Michael Strain and James Pethokoukis. These are folks at the AEI. Then, there is Larry Summers, Kenneth Rogoff, and of course, Paul Krugman. Summers and Krugman definitely further to the left.

But wait, there’s more. And reading some of these titles will give you the sense of how people have reacted to MMT. It’s a threat, it’s upside down, it’s not new, and it’s not helpful. The emperor has no clothes. So you get this sense that MMT is simultaneously very spooky, very mystical, very magical and very, very dangerous. Now, I return to the original quote here from the committee’s report. And I want to highlight this bit, because this will be the focus of our talk: “Many iterations of the theory suggest a new paradigm whereby the federal government essentially prints new money to fund its borrowing.” They’re talking about this guy here. Modern Monetary Theory argues that this is not new, but rather simply a description of how money is created, and that what we want to do is properly understand money’s creation, and then harness that power in an effort to do things like improve the conditions of society by ending unemployment, and saving the planet through something like a Green New Deal. Opponents argue that this is, again, simultaneously crazy and dangerous. Behind all of these are philosophical assumptions and views on the ontology of money.

So for the next 10-15 minutes, I’m going to go into that aspect of the ontological underpinnings of MMT to focus our discussion. So the basic ontological question that one confronts when thinking about money is: what is money? That’s arguably the basic ontological question that one confronts when thinking about any kind of thing–what is it? This is a $100 bill. Well, it’s a picture of a $100 bill. And if we were to probe the physical features of this $100 bill in an attempt to find its moneyness, we would come up short. There’s nothing about its color, its shape, the images printed on it, anything like that, that makes this a bit of money. And in fact, as we move further and further away from using cash, we arrive at a point where money has almost no tangible existence. It can’t be completely gone. There have to be electrons in computers somewhere keeping track of the debits and credits in your bank account. But in practical terms, money becomes invisible and intangible to us as we use our phones and credit cards to scan and pay for things. So if there’s nothing in the materiality of money that confers its moneyness, on to that thing, where does it get it?

I think that the right way to think through this, and as Andrés said, I approach this in a neo-Aristotelian way, is to ask about the kinds of things that Aristotle describes as the four causes of artifacts. So we might ask about its telos, or its final cause. What is the purpose or function of money? If we can answer that question, then we will get some clarity on what its ontology is. What properties does money have that allow for it to perform these functions? And how does money get these properties? The second question, I argue, can be likened to the kind of thing that Aristotle is interested in and talking about: formal causality. And the third question, straightforwardly, is a matter of efficient causality. So if we can answer those kinds of questions, we can get some clarity overall on the ontology of money. So we might start by giving a functionalist account of money. I think that this is a nice place to start because the two predominant views on money’s nature. Schumpeter said, “The only two views worthy of the name, ‘a theory of money,’ are in rough agreement about what money’s functions are.”

So the first of these functions is as a means of payment. And let me pause before I go any further and say, I’m presenting this as three textbook functions. If you read 19th century economics textbooks, you’ll see these listed as four functions. I’m going to combine, in line with what many textbooks today do, two of the functions under one heading. And the two functions that I’m going to combine under one heading will be the means of payment function and the medium of exchange function, both of which involve using money to pay for stuff or to settle debts. So the means of payment function makes it easier, or perhaps even possible, to pay for things, or again, we can add to settle debts. An example of this idea is the use of coins and banknotes as a medium of market exchange. The second textbook function of money is as a unit of account or a measure of value. This is the use to which we put money when we specify the payment for the amounts of goods or obligations, for example, prices, fees, fines, or taxes. 

Now, it’s worth noting here, and I don’t think that this is often presented as cautiously as it should be, this function is provided by the concept of money and not concrete instances of money. If you’re trying to sell your house to me and want to sell it for half a million dollars, and I want to determine whether or not it’s worth a half a million dollars, we don’t get out a giant value scale and stick your house on one side of it and then dump a half a million dollars of notes or coins or something on the other side and see if that value balances out. We assess the value simply using the concept of money, attach a price to it, and negotiate it without having any money in hand. When we settle on the amount that it’s worth, all these things take place, we might say, at a conceptual level and not at a concrete level. So the pricing function of money does not depend on, in any given instance, the use of any material instance of money. Rather, it’s the concept of money that allows us to set prices.

Finally, the third function of money that we’ll put on the list is as a store of value. The function is there in the name. It’s to store value. Some theorists would leave this off of the list of functions. The economist John Smithin says that money is a notoriously bad store of value, and so it ought not be included on the list of functions. But I think that it’s a useful function to include and to maintain in our investigation because it allows us to ask the question: what is this primary sort of value that money stores? Simply saying that money stores value begs the question, if we’re trying to understand its ontology, we need to know what monetary value is in the first place if we’re going to make any sense of what it is that it stores. And that gives us an entry into the two different theories of money, that again, Schumpeter says are the only two deserving of the name.

So the first, the orthodox account, says that the value of money is the value that it has in market exchange. So here’s a market. There’s people presumably using money. It looks like they’re buying cheese and sausages and so forth. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek called theories of market exchange, “catallactic.” So following them, I use the word catallactic as the descriptor for this theory of money and call it the catallactic approach, or the catallactic theory of money. You’ll commonly see it labeled the commodity theory of money. But I think that that’s misleading, because the theory is not committed to the idea that money itself is a commodity. Rather, it’s committed to the idea that its value comes out in the pricing of commodities, and then the use to purchase and sell commodities. So as to flag that money itself need not be a commodity, I call this the catallactic theory, or the catallactic approach. So here are the basics. In barter, goods have a value that differs from what they are used for. Call the former the exchange value and the latter use value. For anyone who’s ever read Adam Smith or Karl Marx, these terms will be eminently familiar and so will the following story.

If I go to the market with something that no one wants, no matter what the use value of the thing I have is, it will have no exchange value within that market, and I won’t be able to use that thing for trade. If only I had something that always had exchange value, because people always wanted it, I would never face this problem of not being able to buy the stuff that I want in the market. And if everyone had this magic stuff, then everyone would be able to buy the things in the market that they want. Marx gives us a really nice phrase for what happens at this point. In the creation of the money kind, he says that in gold–it needn’t be gold–but historically, he thinks “gold crystallizes out of the process of exchange.” And when gold is used to price all other commodities, it has then taken on the money form. Let’s take this account, the catallactic account of money and run it back against the three questions that I introduced as the sub-questions for studying the ontology of money. So what according to the catallactic account is the purpose or function of money? It is to ameliorate the inconveniences of market exchange. It’s a pain in the butt to buy stuff when you don’t have money in a market. If money doesn’t exist in the market, once you’ve got a market with money, it’s a lot easier to buy things.

What properties does money have that allow it to perform this function? Well, the basic property is the general willingness of market participants to accept it for payment. So the ontology here is social more than it is material. People need to be generally willing to accept gold if gold is the thing that is being used as our money stuff in the market in order to buy things. However, on most of these accounts, you’ll see an enumeration of some of the physical properties that precious metal has that made it especially good in the good old days of coin to serve the various functions of money that we outlined at the beginning. Schumpeter derisively finds these listed in Aristotle and says that they’re repeated in some of the tritest passages of 19th century economics textbooks. We won’t concern ourselves with this aspect of thinking about money’s materiality here. The important part for how money gets its use, according to the catallactic theory, is that people are willing to accept it for payment. And how does money get these properties? Well, the key parts of the story for the catallactic theory is that it emerges out of market activity. First, there are markets. It’s a pain in the butt to trade without money. Money crystallizes out, using Marx’s language.

The alternative view, the heterodox account of the ontology of money, the second of Schumpeter’s two accounts deserving of the name, claims the following: the value of money is its value to claim or to discharge debt. In the state theory of money, Georg Friedrich Knapp labeled this view, chartalism, or cartalism, after the Latin root, charta or carta, meaning token or ticket. Now, chartalism does not require that the tokens or tickets or debts that are emitted and need to be repaid be determined, set out, and set by the state. But as you can tell from the title of Knapp’s book, The State Theory of Money, he’s most interested in debts that get determined, announced, and then collected by the state. Those are the kinds of debts, and so the kind of chartalism, that’s going to be most interesting to Modern Monetary Theory. It will be the chartalist theory that will concern us here. Here are the basics of this theory. When large-scale civilization came into existence, namely Mesopotamia, there were many modes of collective provisioning. Bartering was not particularly significant. Other forms of collective provisioning included lending, neighborly gifting, and central management at the temple. As far as the latter is concerned, this required complex accounting and bookkeeping. But that’s not the only thing that the temple bureaucrats and temple priests did. They also needed to develop a system for assessing fines and punishments.

So for example, if I accidentally kill your cow, and I don’t have a cow to give you in return, and we’re going to keep peace in our state, I need to give you something in return for the cow that I have killed. How do we make the incommensurable commensurable? We need to come up with something that I can give you for repayment of your cow. This is a legal matter. This is a matter of justice, and retributive justice in a sense, repaying you for the wrong that I have done you. How do we determine how that’s going to go? That’s something that the central authorities are going to have to decide as well. The claim then is that these pressures lead to the need for a universal unit of account making all things incommensurable commensurable. And that once this universal unit of account was defined, the unit could then be used for private, that is, market transactions. Sorry, the last bullet point is important here. According to the state theory version of chartalism, both the state and money are prior to the existence of markets with prices. Money does not emerge out of market activity, but rather enables market activity in the first place.

So on the heterodox account, what is the purpose or function of money? Primarily, it is to denominate debts with the concept of money and then represent specific obligations with physical manifestations of the money. The concept is prior to the physical manifestations on this account. So this is one way in which the chartalist theory inverts the story that one finds in the orthodox account. And the state theory says specifically that the kinds of debts that we’re interested in here are state denominated debts. So that money exists in order to aid the state in managing economic and legal activity. What properties does money have that allow it to perform this function?

According to the state theory, it’s the power of the state to demand taxes, fees, and fine payments in its own currency. It’s this legal authority that is the source from which monetary value arises. And how does money get these properties? Well, by however the state obtains and enforces the power of the law, specifically, the power to tax, charge fees, and to fine. So according to this theory, the ontological account that we want to give of money is actually something that follows from our more general account that we give of the power and authority of the state to coercively get its members to do anything, or maybe non-coercively get its members to do anything. But the power that money has is ultimately an expression of the power of the state. So we do our political philosophy first and understand the nature of government and its power, and that will tell us where the power of money comes from, and not the other way around. So let’s compare these two accounts on one specific phenomenon that is particularly relevant to MMT, and that is on the nature of taxes.

So the orthodox view of taxes proceeds as follows. First, when we’re thinking about taxes, we think about what money is for in the first place. And money, in the first place, is used to pay for stuff in markets. The government has to pay for stuff just like the rest of us, so the government has to get money just like the rest of us. Now, one of the basic ways that the government goes about getting the money it needs to pay for stuff, just like the rest of us, is taxes. So the function of taxes is to collect the money that the government needs in order to finance the activities that it wants to perform. I’ll go ahead and flag here that this story, I think, is the story that you find in Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government.” If you watch the way that he proceeds in explaining the creation of property through his labor theory at the beginning of chapter five, money comes out at the end of chapter five for the reasons that Smith and Marx flag. It makes commerce easier than it would be without it. The creation of property and the creation of money come before the creation of government. Locke famously argues that the whole point of government is for us to protect our property rights better than we can in the state of nature. So if property and money are prior to the existence of government, then governments are going to need to get money in order to get the property that they need to do the stuff that they want to do just like the rest of us. So the kind of account that I’ve given right here, I think, is one that comes naturally out of a pretty straightforward reading of Locke’s second treatise.

MMT tells a different story. As a matter of ontology, no government has to get money like the rest of us as a matter of law. So let me backup for a second there. It is a choice according to MMT that a government makes as to whether or not it will provision itself in ways similar to the way that we provision ourselves when we go out and work for money or steal for money or do whatever we end up doing in order to get our money. The government can choose to hamstring itself this way through the laws that it creates, but it’s up to itself to rewrite those laws, and if it wants give itself a sovereign currency. So as a matter of law, a government that does give itself a sovereign currency, that government does not in fact have to go out and get money like the rest of us. A government with a sovereign currency does not use taxes for financial purposes in order to provision itself to perform the tasks that it wants to perform. It uses taxes to destroy money in the private sector, rather than to collect it for use. When this sets in, and I think that this is the part that in my experience in talking with people about post-Keynesian theories in general, of which Modern Monetary Theory is a species, or Modern Monetary Theory specifically, where people really kind of step back and say, “Whoa.” Because this is, I believe, a “Copernican Turn.”

For states with a sovereign currency, the function of taxes is not, and moreover, cannot be, as an ontological matter, to finance its activities. Whatever taxes are for, it’s something else. This new paradigm on taxes is in fact not new at all. Beardsley Ruml, the chair of the New York Fed in the middle of the 1950s, as the world was beginning to go off the gold standard, realized this and said that, “Final freedom from the domestic money market exists for every sovereign national state where there exists an institution which functions in the manner of a modern central bank, and whose currency is not convertible into gold or for some other commodity.” Ruml then goes on to talk about the sorts of things that you use taxes for, but none of those functions are the function that the orthodox theory would have us believe, which is to finance government activities. And it turns out that this was recognized back in colonial America as well. Farley Grubb has written extensively on the ways in which Virginia’s paper money in the middle of the 18th century was burned when it was collected for taxes. Many other colonies had this policy and it wasn’t always followed. But nevertheless, they realized that their paper money, after it had served its function of getting the kind of economic activity that the state governors wanted, or prior to states, that the colonial governors wanted done, it might as well be burned, it doesn’t have any sort of intrinsic value. I think the argumentative upshot of these examples is that what chartalism says is true as a matter of theory is in fact borne out by history itself.

Okay, so that is what I want to say to orient us on the chartalist theory of money that underpins MMT, or the social ontological account of money that rests at the bottom of Modern Monetary Theory. Now, I want to go through some complaints against MMT, which will set the stage for Scott’s presentation. So can we do it? Here’s the first complaint. Why think that history is relevant? You’ll note that the account of money that I gave on behalf of the chartalists, and in fact, the account of money that I gave on behalf of the orthodox catallactic theory, was presented as a history. First, there was this problem under certain social settings. Then, this technology money arose to solve this problem, and forevermore we were better because we had created this technology. Thomas Palley, a persistent critic of MMT, has said that the appeal to the history of money that MMT makes, and one could level discharge against other versions of post-Keynesianism that rest on chartalism, say that the history of money is a red herring and is essentially rhetorical. All of this fussing about money’s history and what money really is, is of no relevance to the kinds of contemporary policy debates that Andrés was talking about at the beginning.

So one complaint is that MMTers, and again, I think post-Keynesians more generally, make a big deal about the history of money, but it simply doesn’t matter one way or the other. Second complaint, and if this is the first time you’ve heard about Modern Monetary Theory, I imagine this has crept into your mind at some point along the way when you saw the poor guy just cranking out the money machines, veins popping out of his head, is that won’t this cause runaway inflation? A simplistic version of this worry is simply: won’t creating all this new currency cause runaway inflation? I call this simplistic because the historical record shows that under some conditions there’s a correlation between an uptick of currency creation and inflation. And in other conditions, there’s not. On the orthodox theory itself, the creation of a whole bunch of new currency, money is supposed to be an invisible veil to the real economy. So prices should eventually settle out and match the amount of money in the economy. Thinking that simply creating a whole bunch more money is going to lead to runaway inflation presupposes that the value of money is determined by its scarcity. And that simply begs the question against the chartalist view.

So there’s a lot of things that one can say immediately pointing at economic history and thinking just a little bit about the ontological presuppositions about money to ward off this charge. But there are real concerns that one ought to have about the possibility of inflation under MMT specific policies. And these complaints come even from within post-Keynesian circles. So there’s an internecine debate. Smithin argues, for example, that raising the overall tax rate is going to be necessarily inflationary. So if part of the MMT solution for controlling inflation through the creation of quite a bit of currency is to use taxes to vacuum money back out of the economy if it’s getting too hot, Smithin argues it can be easily demonstrated that that’s going to lead to inflationary pressures on themselves. I bring this up to note that there are complaints about the inflationary consequences of MMT, both inside and outside of post-Keynesianism. A third complaint against MMT is that it’s too socialist. So when you hear about something like a jobs guarantee, that the government is going to guarantee a job to every person who wants one in a given state, if you don’t like the sound of governments employing people for any number of reasons, this is clearly going to strike you as too socialist of a proposal.

That complaint is straightforward. I’m not going to go into it in any detail. It has struck people on the left that MMT, on the other hand, is too capitalist. Modern Monetary Theory, it’s complained, works only for the most powerful, developed capitalist states. It’s hard to see, some people complain, how MMT could work for developing nations, and so it favors the rich. MMT also does leave an awful lot of economic activity up to the markets. And in fact, it sets up the job guarantee in such a way to encourage entrepreneurs to find more innovative ways to use the labor force that exists in a given state. So if that all sounds too capitalistic for your taste, then you might have a problem with MMT. And finally, the last complaint that I want to raise, and this is the one that I would invite us to be most concerned about here, since this is a philosophy conference as opposed, to say, an economics conference, is that the central priority claim of MMT is simply false. The central priority claim that I have in mind is the idea that governments, government activity, and governmental authority is prior to markets.

So the Lockean view that I presented earlier, of markets and property as being prior to governments and that the function of government is to protect property rights, the complaint that I’m imagining here takes a Lockean or a neo-Lockean position and simply says that’s wrong. That’s just backwards. Look, there’s international trade out there and international trade isn’t governed by any external authority. It takes place using money. So if international trade is possible, and not only possible, but makes use of money, why think that governments need to exist in order for money to exist. You might point to the historical record and say that precious metal itself, before the advent of coin, was used in interstate trade. Merchants got by with precious metal prior to the existence of coins in order to trade between states. That too makes it look like one could point at the historical record and say that market activities have been outside of, and so were, analytically, logically, or definitionally, depending on how you want to characterize it, prior to the activity and authority of states.

There are black markets. They go on, they make use of money outside of the authority of the state. Doesn’t that count as a counterexample to the idea that states are necessary and the creation of state money is necessary for market activity to take place? What about markets involving private cryptocurrencies? The markets that use Bitcoin that have specifically been designed to avoid the, from their point of view, intrusive reach of the state. Those markets go on. Bitcoin is used as a unit of account to price goods and to pay for things. Doesn’t that demonstrate that money can exist outside of the authority of the state and be used in accordance with all the functions that were listed earlier. What about prison camp markets in World War Two? The famous 1945 paper by R.A. Radford shows how cigarettes were used as a unit of account, as a medium of exchange, and that emerged out of a non-governmental setting. Doesn’t that show that markets can come up, and a money-like commodity can come into existence that doesn’t presuppose the authority of government? When we take all these examples into consideration, and the ways that they seem to provide for markets using money or something money like outside of the authority of a central government, why should we believe in MMT? Scott, I’ll hand it to you.

Scott Ferguson: Great, thanks so much. That was a really helpful presentation. Andrés, thank you for chairing this panel, and Graham, for putting this together and inviting us. And thanks to everybody for showing up on this last day of the conference. So I think what I’d like to do is offer a few quick responses to those critical claims that Graham concluded with, that are much more, I would say, in the wheelhouse of kind of your basic MMT 101 discourse, and then pivot from the last, “This is false, markets are first,” question to take on some broader conceptual problems that are coming out of my own work.

So first of all, the charge that history is irrelevant I find shocking. History, I would argue, is always a contested ground that’s always caught up in contemporary epistemological, ontological, and political economic debates. And the way that we approach history, the way we imagine history, and the assumptions we bring to history, can never be wished away. You look at the major canonical contributors to political economy and economics and many of them have written histories. I mean, Milton and Rose Friedman wrote a gigantic monetary history, and it is a way of shoring up their own politics, their own ontology, and their own epistemology. So I would say that it feels nonsensical, to me, this claim that somehow history isn’t relevant. Everyone uses history to make sense of the present and future politics and policy. The second claim about hyperinflation, first of all, an MMT economist will tell you that the mainstream, or the neoclassical interpretation of inflation, and specifically hyperinflation, has the causality precisely backwards. Hyperinflation is a function of political catastrophe and the collapse of a productive infrastructure. A government can create all kinds of credit and try to circulate it in an economy. But if it does so in the face of, say, decades and decades and decades of colonial rule and exploitation and export led production, or after a major world war in which your country happens to be paying massive reparations payments and the majority of your productive infrastructure has been destroyed or confiscated by your opponents, you’re likely going to see hyperinflation. 

So the MMT point of view rejects the so-called quantity theory of money, which imagines this kind of equilibrium that commodities, or goods and services, come first in a marketplace. And that money is this kind of neutral, passive reflection, or veil, that needs to be somehow in tune with those ontologically primary goods and services. MMT would argue that, no, credit actually comes first–money as credit–and you need money as credit to generate these goods and services in the first place. And for that, you need massive macro- and mesoscale governance projects, infrastructures, and institutions. Also, there’s a kind of mythos around the MMT community about how we argue inflation should be controlled. This simplistic version is, well, we’ll just use taxes, and congress will be in charge of, essentially, extinguishing debts, or pulling money out of the economy, in order to check runaway inflation. This is a gross simplification of what the MMT community has worked on and has argued. We argue for thoroughgoing macroprudential regulation, which includes the private sector, and runaway inflation in the financial sector, on Wall Street and in all kinds of capitalist enterprises that are producing far more speculative bubbles than any measly congressional appropriation might be doing.

So our argument is to have certain kinds of automatic stabilizers and certain legal and institutional structures that are keeping inflation in check. Basically, what that means is making sure that public and private investment is going toward productive, socially and ecologically valuable enterprises, rather than speculative leveraging, essentially. To the charge that MMT is too socialist, I would say that some MMTers are socialist, and I would include myself in there, but I think that the MMT project really does, as Graham says, bill itself as a description. We say in the MMT community, there’s no such thing as “doing MMT.” It’s a way of understanding the way that money works, the way that political economy works, and the way the world works. It’s not “doing socialism” or “not doing socialism.” If we’re going to talk about doing MMT, we would just simply say, “Well, everyone does MMT all the time. It’s just they don’t think that they’re doing that.”

The charge that MMT is too capitalist, especially from the left, to me MMT is not capitalist. And certainly, as a tool, as a framework, as a foundation, as a set of assumptions for understanding the world, sure, you can mobilize this framework in so-called capitalistic ways, for private enterprise, for private profit, in exclusionary ways that exclude women and brown people from major centers of participation and power. You can do that. But you can do that according to the status quo as well–the neoclassical understanding of money as well. Then, there’s this notion from some in the progressive and leftist critiques of MMT, that geopolitically, MMT is too capitalistic in the sense that it is too America-first and neo-imperialist, and that it requires the United States to be the world reserve currency. To this, we would say, no, this is not the case at all. We would say that it reframes postcolonial political economy and geopolitics according to another framework that is more capacious and more insightful. We don’t say MMT solves colonialism, postcolonialism, or neocolonialism. We don’t say that MMT solves everything. We don’t say that domestically and we don’t say that internationally. We say it opens up the problems–and sometimes they’re really hard and very, very intractable problems–but it opens up the problems in new ways that allow for different ways of engaging, different ways of politicizing, different ways of proposing policy solutions, and different ways of mobilizing political movements.

Now, the last claim that it’s simply false, that markets must be ontologically prior because they exist outside of nation-states, maybe I’ll say a little bit about this before I then come back to some work that is more particular to me. What I would say is, just like there’s a kind of deliberate and even somewhat cheeky looseness about the way Modern Monetary Theory defines “modern,” which is actually a quote from Keynes in his A Treatise on Money, where he says that modern money, for the last 4000 years, has worked in this chartalist way. I think we would say the same thing about states. And not all MMT economists are as concerned with clarifying this, but I think there’s a number of them, and then the fellow travelers, like myself, Andrés, and Graham, we would say that we shouldn’t narrowly understand this as the modern nation-state. Instead, we should be understanding this claim, the chartalist claim, that money is a systemic form of social obligation of settling debts, that it is a public project, and that it is a governance project that requires macro- and meso-level institutions rather than a micro-project that bubbles up from barter, that bubbles up from exchange. So you can have all kinds of macro- and meso-governance projects that don’t look like a modern nation-state.

Graham, I think, mentioned a Mesopotamian temple provisioning structure. One could talk about the high medieval Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. Both of them were centers of tax receivability, and actually didn’t even issue their own credits, their own money, but they were central governance projects with massive reach. That local meso-level, and even micro-level activity, were embedded within. So that would be my first response to this charge that, well, there’s micro-markets out there or in prison camps or black markets or Bitcoin. The narrow definition of the state seems to make the argument crumble. Instead, I would want to focus on a nested, interdependent understanding of the way that these governance projects work together in these very complicated hierarchies. I’ll just say, in passing, that I don’t think it’s any accident that Bitcoin gets priced, usually, in dollars. It demonstrates the way that Bitcoin is embedded in a much broader, you could say, American payment system, with its vast infrastructure, its legal infrastructure, and its banking system, etc–for all of its fantasies about wanting to be outside. 

Now, I want to turn to some of my work, in particular. I’m a media studies scholar. I think a lot about media as shaping and organizing our world. And one of the key arguments we make in media studies is that media is never a neutral veil, media is never a transparent window, to use a famous metaphor from the Florentine Renaissance talking about Renaissance perspective. It is always generative. It is always constitutive. It is always actively organizing the world. When I came to MMT around, let’s say 2012 or so, as a media theorist, I immediately thought to myself, “Oh, wow, this is a major contribution to media theory.” Because I had been working, even though I’m so keen on seeing the constitutive nature of mediation, in, especially, motion pictures, because that’s my expertise, and in visual culture, I kind of just took for granted that, well, money is just an expression or reflection or neutral veil, and that what’s really going on is this content, this exchange, this private, micro-exchange. And money isn’t constitutive in that way. Money is sort of a problem. So that, from my own training and my own project, has really shifted things for me. And I felt like it opened up all kinds of new questions.

Now, full disclosure, I come out of the the tradition of critical theory, continental philosophy, from the German Idealists to the Frankfurt School, Marxism, poststructuralism, and beyond. And what I found is, this understanding of money as a constitutive, generative organizer of political economy, of social production, of participation, and of distribution, it radically opened up a lot of the questions that are asked by the traditions that I had become something of an expert in, in new ways, and in ways that, to be honest, I don’t feel like I’m a card carrying member of those traditions anymore. They’re in my bones, so to speak, but I really found myself not applying MMT to them, but taking MMTs provocations, which, as Graham is pointing out here, are actually ontological. I mean, they’re pretty radically unmooring provocations, and opening up what I would call problem spaces based on teasing out the threads that these questions are opening up.

So one of them is media and mediation. Coming out of critical theory, I have an acute sense of the way that political economy and money as a medium acts as a kind of meta-medium for all other media. And one cannot have, let’s say, motion pictures in the 20th and 21st centuries without the medium of money. It’s somehow always there, but we treat it in a very particular way in critical theory as an exchange instrument that is necessarily alienating, or at least ambivalent, and highly problematic. And it frames the way we take on the history of any given media with a set of given presuppositions that I’ve begun to challenge. Now, there is the question here, which Graham has been really good on, about the ontology of money, and I’m saying that it’s also a media question, a question of the ontology of medium, of media as such, as constitutive, but also the money medium.

But in my own work, I’ve gone back in the history of modern Western philosophy, and I feel like I’ve been pushed there by these problems. I’m a modernist. I studied the 20th and 21st centuries. But I felt like, as I was following these threads, I was pushed back further and further and further, at first, to the kind of classical Liberalism of John Locke, Ricardo, and these sorts of authors. But then even further back, because what I think MMT does, but doesn’t actually have the philosophical equipment to fully flesh out–and to no fault of their own, they’re economists. They’re lovely, they’re my colleagues, but they’re economists. They can do things I can’t do and I can do things they can’t do. They don’t have the philosophical equipment to think through the underlying ontological suppositions of the claims that they are making. And I don’t just mean about the ontology of money. I mean about ontology as such. I mean at least about social ontology.

So I’ve gone back to the late scholastic debates between the Thomist tradition and the Franciscan tradition. And these are notoriously fraught and messy debates, but just to very quickly gloss, they were debates about ontology, the structure of being, the nature of being, and the nature of knowing being. And to simplify, I think that the Thomistic vision of being is that being is a holistic, interdependent, and hierarchical system in which there is no outside to it. And being is irreducible to individuated being. So what this means is that relationality, or mediation, the organizing of relations, can never, from a Thomist point of view, be just simply a micro-ontological question. It’s never a question of fundamentally, ontologically dissociated beings–creatures, God, angels–somehow meeting up in micro-ways, in micro-contingent encounters or contracts or agreement, and then going on their merry way. So this is very much a rebuke of avant la lettre, of social contract theory–even the most sophisticated social contract theory.

Whereas, the Franciscan understanding of being is that being must be individuated. It must be externally individuated such that there can only, essentially, be beings, and God must be understood univocally as one being among beings, such that the encounter with God can be a contingent one, and a contingent one of two or more wills meeting or going on their merry ways. And this, I would argue, as many have, but not thinking about money at all, created the conditions for the private exchange approach to money that we see arising through Franciscan political economy, through the Florentine Renaissance, and the internationalization, or you could call it a globalization, of Renaissance thinking, and Renaissance political and economic practices, and then eventually to the physiocrats in classical political economy. So I locate the origins of this von Mises-Hayek approach to money as really having origins in this much older debate about social ontology. I’m not a Catholic. I have no stakes in shoring up the church. I approached this as a critical theorist, as a philosopher, and as a leftist. And I’ve been pulled toward these questions in new ways.

So what I would say in response to these questions about markets existing outside of states so markets must be first, I would say, well, a philosophically informed MMT point of view would respond that macro comes before micro. Now, it’s not a zero-sum situation. Micro is embedded in macro and participates in macro, but it can’t ever be outside of it, and it certainly can’t be prior to it. So that would be my ontological argument in a very breezy form. The last thing I want to say, just to give a little taste of my work, here’s a little plug, this is a book I published a couple years ago, Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care. One of the claims I make in this book is about the modern philosophical and then cultural and artistic project of what comes to be called the aesthetic. As most of us probably know here, the term aesthesis was used to mean sensation by the ancient Greeks. What we call aesthetics today was understood according to different categories, like poetics and other terms. With the rise of certain British philosophies, empiricisms, and sentimentalisms, but then, of course, specifically German Idealism, Kant, Schiller, Hegel, and beyond, the study of the aesthetic and the problem of the aesthetic comes into being and is constituted as an historically new domain, and an historically new set of possibilities and limits and problems.

And the way that the story often gets narrated, especially from a critical theory point of view, is that it arose as a bourgeois project in continental Europe, and the UK to a certain extent, and it was implicitly and explicitly variously pitted against, essentially, the domain of political economy. These were antinomies. And the aesthetic project was meant to be a kind of antidote to, or a refuge from, the ambivalences, alienations, and violations of private commerce understood through this kind of contracted, micro, and private monetary imagination. And this starts to orient art practice and cultural practice, especially once we get into the 19th century. It also gets radicalized by various socialists and artists and modernists and avant-gardists. And that strain of aesthetics starts making the argument that we should not have the aesthetic project, which promises social and sensual fullness and communion as opposed to the alienation of the marketplace. We should not just treat this as a refuge. Instead, we should get rid of it, we should we should sublate it, or whatever term we want to use, we should move beyond the private money economy and money as such, and we should have an abundant, communal, sensuous, socialist or communist society.

And then, the way that this plays out is essentially a kind of tragedy, or a fall story, where the forces of capital through commercial culture and the society of the spectacle, or simulacra and simulation, pick your critical author, basically, subsumes the aesthetic project and enlists it on the side of capitalist alienation, exploitation, and domination. And what we have by the postmodern, or late 20th century period, is this collapse of what is often imagined as a dialectic. And my claim in my book is that, well, first of all, most of my colleagues know that there’s something too simplistic and actually false about this whole story. But what they don’t have is a way of refiguring the story, or getting out of it. Most of my colleagues suffer from the symptoms of the structure of this story, even if they’re able to say of course that’s not the case, or, of course, money and art, or money and aesthetics, were not antithetical to one another. That’s absurd.

But my claim in the book is to say, if we start from an MMT, chartalist, public money, governance, macro- and meso-project framework, then we can see that, actually, this whole antinomy was false to begin with. That, in fact, the aesthetic project is a symptom of the reduction and contraction of money from a public utility into a seemingly private, micro, for-profit extractive enterprise. And that, instead of a bourgeois philosopher feeling ambivalent about money, or as a radical philosopher wanting to transcend money in order to install some kind of sensuous abundance on the model of the aesthetic project, these things should have never been opposed in the first place. And that, actually, money is what I call a proto-aesthetic instrument. It’s required for any kind of social and sensuous cultivation and communion, or any kind of project, and that we have to reckon with money as not a necessary evil that I’m ambivalent about, or the root of all evil, but as a public utility that is political and that can always be organized in another way. So with that, I think I’ll stop and we can maybe open it up for questions, comments, and thoughts.

Andrés Bernal: Great, thank you, Scott. And thank you, Graham. Excellent presentations. Let’s take some questions.

Graham Hubbs: Andrés, it looks like people are putting their names in the chat. So maybe you’ll call people out of the chat to ask questions.

Andrés Bernal: Yes, sounds perfect. Justin.

Justin Holt: Thank you. This is very interesting. Thank you for the presentations. Really fascinating. I come at MMT from reading it for many years and looking at it from more of an Anglo-American, Rawlsian perspective. That’s what my work has been mainly on in relation to MMT. But I have a question about thinking about the place of ontology. It’s very productive, but this is really addressing the question of thinking about Locke. And we could think about, perhaps, the labor theory of property coming out of Locke. But one thing that’s always troubled me about this is, the Lockean project, even in Locke’s second treatise, it falls apart in the sense that Locke wants to say, “Okay, we’re going to establish states in order to preserve property.” But then, Locke goes on, and this is the great thing about Zoom, because you can be at home with your books, and in paragraph 140, he says, “Still, it must be with his own consent, the consent of the majority, basically, to levy a tax.” See, everybody’s at home with their Locke, right? So this is great. So in paragraph 140, he basically says, “Okay, we can levy taxes if the majority wants to levy taxes.” Now, Locke doesn’t push all the way and doesn’t realize you can set the tax rate at anything then. So you can basically set confiscation rates if the majority says so. And, of course, the notion is, in the previous paragraph, he says, “You can’t take people’s property away unless they say so.” He doesn’t say majority there. But then he goes on to say that the majority can tax.

So the Lockean project seems to fall into the institutional theory of property, that property is instituted and regulated and created by the state. And that’s what we need the state for in the first place. Property doesn’t exist without the state. It’s the only way to arbitrate claims and to say who owns which side of the river. You can’t do that on your own, you may have forgotten your agreements. So the consideration here is that the state creates rights and fabricates claims. It creates property claims. So when it comes down to money and thinking about this, and thinking about many of the examples that Graham gave, yes, market interactions exist between people, or interactions exist all the time. And some of these are rather unformalized, like “Well, I’m going to help my friend fix his car, and then he’s going to do something nice for me, like baking me a cake.” All these things exist. Now, when it comes to MMT and thinking about this, they have the interesting example of saying, “Okay, colonial governments were able to basically get natives to do work by putting a tax on them.” This is the example that they utilize. Of course, these indigenous populations had their own networks, their own economies, and their own interactions, but a tax was imposed. Thus, the state was able to get something built like a road. So there’s this notion that states are able to create and fabricate property. So I feel that property ultimately gets subsumed into some type of state apparatus.

I’m going to add just one last thing. I can’t remember who says this. I think it’s Randy Wray. Randy Wray would say anybody can make money, but the key is getting it accepted. With this notion, I think there’s a chimera here. There’s a falsity about a natural theory of property. There’s a falsity that markets occur first before all of this, but seemingly, the state subsumes and encompasses and creates and regulates all forms of property. Yes, we can make anything that we want, but can we turn a Bitcoin into $1, because, ultimately, we have to turn it into $1 to actually make anything work for us in a lot of different ways. And ultimately, of course, to pay our taxes. So this is more of an example, but I’m really skeptical of Locke’s chapter five version of property, because I think Locke kind of undoes it all when he talks about taxation and majorities in states. I’m sorry, I wish it was a more clear cut question. But it’s more about saying, perhaps, that the labor theory of property is just false. It falls apart, and the institutional version structures it. Thank you very much.

Andrés Bernal: Great. Let’s take one question before we start answering. And I believe the comment by Wray is from his former professor, Hyman Minsky, about anyone can create money, the problem is getting it accepted. Mitchell.

Mitchell Silver: Hi, first of all, I want to thank both presenters. I thought they were interesting and clear. My question will probably be quite naive. I’m new to this discussion. But I’m wondering, the market approach versus the state understanding of money, while they’re clearly alternative accounts, they both struck me as compelling and it was not obvious to me that there wasn’t a reconciliation possible. So the first part of my question is have there been attempts to reconcile them, or is there a story that can be told that incorporates both of them? Because they were not in obvious conflict, or what seems to make them in conflict was claiming that there was an ontological truth here, that there was a correct ontology. And that you had to get the ontology correct to understand money correctly. But it’s also not clear to me that there is an ontology that’s independent of pragmatic considerations, in general, let alone in this particular case. So might we approach this by trying to think of it pragmatically, such as, what are our goals here? What problems are we trying to solve in thinking about money? And to what extent does one theory or another theory allow us to successfully approach those goals so that ontology then becomes just a practical consideration or inquiry in terms of what do we need to quantify over to make the kind of statements that we want to make? With the kinds of statements we want to make, ultimately, their truth really depends on where they get us in relation to where we want to go.

Andrés Bernal: Great, thank you. So let’s pick it up from there. Responses?

Graham Hubbs: I have quite a bit to say in response to Mitchell’s question. Scott, do you want to say anything in response to Justin’s first?

Scott Ferguson: Okay, I’ll speak to Justin’s. I strongly agree. The Lockean account of property is, I would agree, false. To put it one way, it deconstructs itself. I will say that this is all predicated on the state of nature story, which gets retold in many, many different ways during the Enlightenment, and it imagines an immediate encounter between a laboring, industrious individual and the natural world without the mediation of governance or law. I think what Justin was pointing out is that, it might not be a modern nation-state, it might be something more messy and complicated that we’re not used to thinking with that doesn’t conform to so-called “Westphalian” political theory. Property is never prior to law, it is constituted in law. Sure, a state can constitute that property. Sure, property can come about informally, at first in informal interactions, but I would always argue that those informal interactions and coordinations are always embedded in and dependent upon larger systems. They are not flatly determined by those systems, but they are participating in them and embedded in them and in a dependent way.

I’ll use this to pivot to my own very brief response to Mitchell’s question, or at least part of it. I don’t read the two versions of the story, the market based story and the state based story, as actually arguing according to the same assumptions. It’s the exchange story that wants to exclude the state as ontologically coeval. The state story wants to say, “No, the state is constitutively and actively involved. And yes, of course, there’s private markets. Of course, there are all kinds of hierarchical degrees of money’s moneyness, or acceptability and enforceability. And that’s always caught up in contestation and crises and forces outside of people’s control. Sure. But I would say that MMT reconciles the two. It doesn’t say the market doesn’t matter or that it doesn’t count. It just says that, “Well, actually, where the private marketplace gets the credit in order to produce goods and services and sell at a profit comes from a legally licensed banking system that has been endowed with federal and state power to create credit on behalf of the public.” So that’s how I would respond to that.

Graham Hubbs: Well, my answer dovetails with Scott’s and picks up from there. The idea that for many people, the orthodox account, the catallactic account, has a political purpose, is true. It may not be true of everybody, but certainly when Menger writes his theory of money, it has the purpose of establishing what we described earlier as the Lockean order of things, where first there’s property and markets and then government comes along later, and is meant to be constrained somehow by natural property rights. So there’s a political purpose to the account. It may not be true of all market theorists, but it is at least true for some of the catallactic theorists. To your question, are there accounts out there that seek to resolve both of them? Since we can do show and tell here, there’s a debate between Geoffrey Ingham and Tony Lawson in the 2018 Cambridge Journal of Economics on precisely that question. I’ve learned more from Ingham about this stuff about money than anybody else. And as a bit of intellectual history, Stephanie Kelton, who is one of the foremost economists in MMT, studied at Cambridge with both Ingham and Lawson. Part of where MMT has historically gotten its understanding about the ontology of money was Kelton’s time at Cambridge, studying with Lawson and Ingham, and then bringing it back to the States.

Ingham is a neo-chartalist. Lawson believes he’s got a way to reconcile the two and has a middle path through chartalism and market theory. In that 2018 exchange in the Cambridge Journal of Economics, Ingham says that Lawson, in spite of his best efforts, ends up being what I call a catallactic theorist, or what other folks would call a commodity theorist. I think Ingham’s got it right. But to your broader point, Mitchell, of why do we even need to see these theories as competing in the first place, one reason is the fact that each gives its explanation of money’s ontology as a history. Each is keen to tell an origin story. And something that I’ve been working on is asking the question: why is that necessary anyway to understanding the ontological order of the various functions of money? Can we dispense of the historical account itself as a history, and re-understand it as giving an order of priority for the functions of money? I think that that’s the best way to do it. And there, you actually do get two accounts that can be brought into opposition with one another. But I think the real conclusion that we should derive from this is pragmatist in a way.

I don’t know if Quine would be my hero as much as Sellars, but we all got brought up in 20th century American philosophy here. I think that what we should do away with is the idea that money would have an essence in the first place. Asking what money is presupposes that we’re trying to uncover an essence. Well, do away with that assumption. Instead, look at the various accounts of money and locate money-ish features, characteristic features of money, or something like that. Then, we can say, is Bitcoin money? Well, that’s a stupid question that presupposes that there would be an essence to money to determine whether it is or isn’t one. Bitcoin has some money-ish features. It’s used as a unit of account. It doesn’t work very well, because its value fluctuates wildly against the basis of the dollar. It’s used as a medium of exchange. Those are money-ish features. Is it money? Legal theorists, courts, and the government need to decide that for regulatory purposes. So there needs to be some legal definition of money that then decides whether we treat Bitcoin as a commodity or something else. So somebody has to get an answer to the question, but thinking that behind that there is a ontological essence that answers the question, that’s a mistake. But that doesn’t mean that we should just dispense of theorizing altogether. Digging into the theories lets us think more clearly about these issues.

Scott Ferguson: Can I just quickly follow up? I both kind of agree and would want to complicate what you’re saying. I’m sitting here saying we need to ask ontological questions, and that those are social ontology questions, not just money ontology questions, and so I feel implicated in this critique. But so, what I would say is, going back to the Thomist and Franciscan debates, I would reject, in line with what I think you’re saying here, a univocal essence that can be positively articulated. I would say ontological questions are important if approached in what Thomas would call an analogical way. Which is, you still have to theorize, you still have to use the evidence, figure out what’s going on, and have pragmatic considerations of what you want to get done. And you can analogically approach a way of getting a handle on the ontology without creating some kind of rigid, and thus brittle, ontology that you’re then going to put out in the world and have everybody show you all the examples of the ways your univocal ontology falls apart. So I would say, I think we agree, but we use different terms, and I’m willing to use that word ontology in an analogical way.

Graham Hubbs: You’re hanging out at an analytical philosophy conference, Scott, you’ve got to talk about ontology.

Andrés Bernal: Great, Martha.

Martha Beck: Okay, so I’m actually trained in ancient philosophy, so now everybody’s gonna have to switch. I just want to throw out a whole lot of stuff back to the four causes. I mean, obviously, money is the material cause, but that’s not the main cause for Aristotle. It’s the formal and final cause. So it sounds like these big disagreements are more about what Aristotle would call the efficient cause, which came first. But that’s not the main cause. The main cause is human nature, which is flourishing. So he goes on this switch from the family, mere survival, to the village, which is economic exchange. Then, he says, there was this sudden shift in consciousness, where we realize we live for the sake of a high quality of life. So I would say that everyone in the world functions at some theoretical level, at that higher level. People want a middle class. People understand the need for things like education and healthcare. It’s not just a village. Does that make sense to people?

Because, honest to God, Charles Koch and these guys want to make the world into a village. They really want to believe that capitalism will solve every problem. And I’ve been reading about Koch. I mean, he has an ideology that he brainwashes his employees with–market-based management–he really believes in that. That’s the power of ideas. First of all, philosophy matters. Second of all, they’ve got the wrong idea. Because, the individual profit maximization, that is not the way people live. If you want to understand why there is all this animosity, so many parents are willing to give up so much so their children can have a better life. And if you can’t convince people that one monetary policy rather than another is going to give their kids a better life…the monetary is the tale. It’s not what’s driving human behavior. But I did want to go back to the two main issues that I was aware of 55 years ago, environmentalism, and the need for culture to integrate with nature. And that goes back to Scott’s thing.

Actually, what made St. Thomas Aquinas different was Aristotle. All that holistic stuff, that came from the Aristotelian side, because Augustine was another one that emphasizes just free will. There’s God and I, and I just achieve salvation in relation to the world. Then, Locke took that into economic calculation. So Locke’s view of reasoning is what the Greeks would call calculation, which, greed, if someone who desires money or power only has that kind of reasoning, you’re in big trouble. So the big mistakes in enlightenment were that we could look at nature as an endless source of wealth, basically, money. And we just use our reason to exploit it ad infinitum. And that was wrong. So that has to do with your money issue also, because knowledge is power and power is wealth. The other thing was that human psychology was a blank slate. If only we could just manipulate it enough, but we can’t. So now all we have is a huge chunk of our economy dedicated to stoking pleasure and fear, fantasies and phobias, at the basic, instinctual level. So does that make sense to you that all of this stuff has to come in within the context of these two monetary policies? Because what people really are underneath…anyway, just take whatever you want to. But I think all that stuff has to be taken into account.

Andrés Bernal: If I could also add a bit to Martha’s comments, a big part of what we do in policy debates through the MMT lens is engaging in matters over perceived ontological scarcity. While the way we’ve designed the system and monetary economy keeps exploiting and accumulating, the people that participate in it are operating under this village lens that, at any moment now, they’re not going to have enough. So if we invest into the immigrant community, if we provide healthcare for everybody, for those that fall outside of the conventional, patriarchal, white, middle class model, then they’re going to lose what they have. So it’s a zero-sum game of, how do I make sure my little village is accounted for and not the people that I see outside of that? Scott and Graham, I don’t know if you all want to touch a little bit on that as well?

Scott Ferguson: Graham, do you have thoughts?

Graham Hubbs: I was gonna say some things about Aristotle, in particular. They might be a little bit tangential. So Scott, if you want to pick up the thread, go for it.

Scott Ferguson: I thoroughly agree with the thrust of Martha’s comments. I would say I have quibbles with certain things I heard. But in the service of the overall sentiment, one is that, we in the MMT community, would insist that money is not equal to wealth. Those are not synonyms. Money is a governance project. And it’s also a care project that we could argue, right now, is careless and not working well. But it is a cultivation and generative care project, and it has to be politicized as such. So if we want to take care of our ecosystem, if we want to take care of the oceans, if we want to take care of our climate change catastrophe, then we need money. We need a lot of money. And we need to tap into our public capacities to not just create money, but to mobilize our imaginations and our skills and our capacities to change what’s going on. So I really want to get past the idea that money is just simply power–private power and private wealth–and to really shift the frame to say that, actually, it starts with the public, and it’s been privatized. So to not naturalize those things. The other thing I will say…

Martha Beck: It’s the material cause. The modern world emphasizes the efficient and the material, whereas the ancient world emphasizes the final and the formal. So to say it’s the material cause is to say it’s secondary, that’s all. Does that make sense?

Scott Ferguson: I guess, I would say that money, as a public utility, is irreducible to material and efficient cause.

Martha Beck: Okay, but it’s driven by values, or ontology.

Scott Ferguson: Of course.

Martha Beck: Yeah, that’s all I mean.

Scott Ferguson: Oh, no, no, same page. Absolutely. I think I’ll just stop there. I’ll let Graham respond.

Graham Hubbs: Yeah, invoking Aristotle on these issues, specifically, there’s a nice paper by Stefan Eich that points out two famous passages where Aristotle talks about money. It gets into the weeds of Aristotle on money. That’s what we’re talking about, and I think it’s interesting. In Politics Book I, Aristotle gives an account that sounds an awful lot like what I’ve called the catallactic theory, what’s commonly called a commodity theory. Oh, there’s trading and it’s inconvenient. Wouldn’t it be handy if there was some precious metal that everybody could use to trade properly. And what Stefan points out in that paper is that, in those passages, Aristotle’s using the term chrēmata to talk about money. But there’s another term for money in the Aristotelian corpus, which is nomisma. That’s the term that he uses in Nicomachean Ethics Book V, which is dead center of the discussion of justice. And there, money isn’t the same as, but it looks a lot more like, what the chartalists think money is. So in Aristotle himself, if we’re reading him carefully and are attuned to these differences in the Greek, and the first time I read Aristotle until I read Stefan’s paper, I was blind to that, because translators over the centuries in English washed it out just by calling both of those terms indistinguishably money, which really makes Nicomachean Ethics kind of mind bending to read on its own terms. The richness of some of these distinctions and debates is already present within the Aristotelian corpus itself.

Scott Ferguson: And if you understand Aristotle as having what I like to call a “nested ontology,” where any kind of micro-situation is embedded in a larger polis, I think these two are reconcilable in a chartalist way.

Martha Beck: The goal is for your mind to be a microcosm of the macrocosm. So the way in which you run your household and your economy is you meet necessary needs, not excess needs.

Andrés Bernal: Let’s move to Vasfi.

Vasfi O. Özen: Can you hear me now? Okay, great. I have a couple of questions for the presenters, and anyone should feel free to jump in. First of all, I find these presentations quite interesting. I have a question about the problem of inflation. So monetarists believe that just simply printing money would always, or most of the time, generate inflation. And I’m interested in, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, the MMT perspective. They suggest that the government can increase taxes anytime they think it’s appropriate to remove money. This brought to my mind, perhaps you’re familiar with the works of Silvio Gesell. Silvio Gesell was an economist and social activist. He wrote a book called The Natural Economic Order. I’ll introduce his ideas, and if you’re not familiar with him, I think you may find him interesting, because Scott told us that he is incorporating continental approaches. I just thought that he might be interesting and contribute to your project. So Gesell has the idea of a negative interest rate policy. He has this idea of free money reforms or free land reforms. And the free money reform of Gesell is to make it impossible for people to hoard money, because the face value of money is depreciated regularly. So money is losing value if you don’t spend it. So I’m just curious whether that kind of approach can be incorporated within the MMT perspective? That’s one question I have.

The second question is about COVID. So during the COVID period, I’m just curious what kind of implications the MMT perspective can have? Because we’re talking about stimulus checks. So I’m just curious about both Graham’s perspective on that and Scott’s perspective on that. I’m just curious what MMT implies during the COVID era. And the third question is about how Scott introduced the curious idea of money as a proto-aesthetic instrument. Without being too critical, because he told us that he wrote a book and I haven’t read that book, but this idea tends to be overly optimistic and loses sight of potential risks to me. I understand that money has all these creative potentials, but at the end of the day, it depends on how you are using the money, right? So I have a hard time understanding the idea of money as a proto-aesthetic instrument. Maybe you can elaborate on that a little bit? And for my last question, both presenters talk about the criticism that MMT is too socialist or too capitalist. It seems to me that MMT is a neutral perspective. So, and correct me if I’m mistaken about this, it seems to me that the money generated by adopting MMT policy can be used to spend on hospitals and infrastructure, as well as nuclear weapons, right? I mean, I might be absolutely wrong about that. I just wanted to have some clarification on it. But once again, this was really quite interesting. Thank you.

Graham Hubbs: Thanks, Vasfi. Can you put the name of that text in the chat? The Natural Economic Order? The author’s name, I didn’t know how to spell, so if you would type that in that would be great. I just have a few quick things to say. And then I’ll hand it off to Scott. I think one thing when looking at the COVID stimulus is an MMTer might say, “See, yeah, we told you.” This has always been possible, and put under conditions of the duress, we realize the potential to harness the power of money creation to try to help people survive. So that would be a quick straightforward thing to say about that. Something I’m going to echo that Scott said earlier is that MMT, at its base, is a descriptive project and not a normative project with the question of is it too capitalist, is it too socialist, etc. I think that MMTers would do themselves a bit of service to be a bit more careful about when they’ve got their descriptive hats on and when they’ve got their normative hats on, because many MMT folks are not merely interested in describing money creation and how macroeconomics works, but more in getting involved in the sort of stuff that Andrés does. So the fact that it all gets lumped together under one heading creates understandable confusion. But yeah, I don’t know if it’s Kelton who says it, but the US has MMT for the military. There’s always enough money to buy more bombs. I think that addresses that point.

On the point of interest rates, this is another one of those spots where you get internecine battles between post-Keynesians. So MMTers call for a 0% nominal rate of interest. John Smithin, who I mentioned earlier, who’s another one of these post-Keynesians, and who doesn’t go all the way with some of the MMT proposals, thinks that that’s necessarily going to create speculation, that we should be guided by the principles of Islamic banking that are anti-usurious, and that do not create conditions under which financial speculation is possible. But then, to achieve that, you need a real rate at 0% interest, and not a nominal rate. And the real rate is simply the nominal rate minus the rate of interest. Don’t let “real” and “natural” confuse you. Nobody believes that there’s a natural rate out there. But the real rate does take into consideration inflation. And if you set the real rate at 0%, then you achieve what MMT wants to achieve in blocking the speculative possibilities, whereas if you drop the nominal rate to 0%, we should all just be taking out as much money as possible and buying houses and stuff like that. So those are the debates within post-Keynesianism about those kinds of things.

Scott Ferguson: Thank you for the kind words and the thoughtful provocations. Yeah, I feel as though I have many things to say in response. Maybe just starting with a COVID response, there are actually active projects and proposals out there that my colleagues and I have been working on. Probably the most visible is Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s ABC, Automatic BOOST for Communities Act, which calls upon the Treasury to mint $2 trillion coins, and to do so as needed in order to provide all Americans, that means non-citizens as well, with $2,000. And then, I think it’s something like $1,000 a month until a year after the crisis. It also sneaks in a public banking function that would distribute cards and apps, and would suddenly bank every single person that could get their hands on this. And essentially, it would create the infrastructure for a massive federal public banking system. And then, along with that, in the Act, they’re calling upon various teams employed to go out in the community and make sure people are doing okay, and making sure they’re healthy and getting access to this financial infrastructure and the payments themselves, rather than routing them through other private situations. And employing people in a moment of under- or even mass unemployment. So a colleague of mine is behind that ABC Act. 

I am more directly involved in a proposal that hasn’t been put out by a politician, Congressperson, or anything like that, which would enable public universities in the United States to issue credit on behalf of the Fed. And our argument is that we have a financial system that is actually inefficient, unequal, and destructive given that it is through the private banking and financial sector. It is atrocious. As imperfect as the neoliberal University is, I would much rather empower those public systems to create credit, to finance themselves and community projects and research led investment in their communities in ways that are plugged into the needs of communities, rather than to keep giving legal licenses to private banks. So we’re working on that project as a kind of emergency measure to shore up the funding of public universities, which is going into the pooper right now. Although, things are changing because of the election.

Another thing I’ll say about it is, from the MMT world point of view, we would say that there’s this whole nonsense choice between opening up the economy and shutting down and experiencing recession or depression, which I call the Jaws meme. It’s the mayor from Jaws who has to decide whether he wants capitalism to keep going or he wants to protect the safety and health of the people visiting the beach. This is total nonsense. As they have in the UK and elsewhere, you can pay people and it’s their job to stay home. That’s one thing you can do and that’s still part of the economy. In the United States, we don’t have enough people who are trained to deliver vaccinations. Back in spring, we should have taken all the service workers who suddenly didn’t have jobs at Starbucks or wherever, and trained them to be part of this massive health and caretaking project. So the whole idea that you have to choose between employing people or economic production versus health and safety is absolutely nonsense.

I just want to say something about inflation. It’s important to note that inflation, as my very brilliant colleague, Nathan Tankus, would point out, is not a natural phenomenon that we just go out and look at with our eyes. It is a function of the way that we elect to record various processes and phenomena in our economic activity. So inflation is based on price indices, and these price indices have changed over time. And those choices of what goes in the price indices are political, and they matter. And they skew things. So we could talk about hyperinflation on Wall Street right now or for the last 40 years, but nobody talks about that. Nobody says there’s Weimar Germany on Wall Street, because our indicators are not set up to reveal that sort of thing. You could talk about hyperinflation in health care, in education, in almost everything but media, technology, and media consumption. Everything is hyperinflated over the last 40 years, at least in the United States, but nobody talks about it in that way.

So I would just say that, and also that printing money or creating money is not an exception, it’s the rule. It is not in excess of a natural system that is finding equilibrium in its own natural way. We are constantly printing money. This is what banks do. Every day, they issue credit to somebody. They don’t recycle money from one place to another. They have a license to create money. So I would say, Wall Street is printing way too much money. It’s Weimar hyperinflation. Let’s put away the wheelbarrows filled with digital money that are skewing all of our values, and start printing money toward productive communal and ecological purposes. I will say, I am happy to look at the Gesell argument. I’ve had vague encounters with that discourse. But I’d like to look at it more and I appreciate the nudge.

And lastly, with the proto-aesthetic, so here’s the thing, I’m coming from the left. The left throughout at least the modern Western world, as far as I can see, the dominant tendency has been to radicalize bourgeois ambivalence about money, which I think is already ill founded, and to turn it into Satan, to turn it into the worst technology ever and and to suggest that we cannot have justice, we cannot have collective caretaking as long as this medium mediates our political economy. So my move is not to say money is happy and rosy and always the best! Neat-o! Let’s treat it as a purely good, wonderful, rosy thing. No, no, no. I’m pushing hard in the other direction to remind us that it has these capacities to push back against all this Liberal, radical, Marxist, and anarchist ambivalence and rejection of money in order to open up money as a problem of collective cultivation, as a difficult problem. It is not all rosy.

What I would suggest is, if we want aesthetic production, we have to recognize the way that aesthetic production is financed in the first place, and radically change the way aesthetic production is financed. And also recognize that, I’m sitting here in my house in Tampa, Florida, and I’m having a sensory experience that involves this room, the fan whizzing around me. I’m talking to you all, mediated through this technology, and this is all a sensuous experience that has been variously conditioned by money. So it’s not rosy, but it is the ground that I would argue we need to start from.

Andrés Bernal: Thank you. So we’ve hit our time boundary. We’ve even gone a couple minutes over. So I want to thank everybody for participating with us here today. It was an absolute pleasure. Graham and Scott, thank you so much. If anybody else has any other comments or questions, please reach out to us. We’re on Twitter, or email us, anything like that. And the last thing I will say is, I have a special appreciation for philosophy as a discipline and philosophers as a philosophy undergrad. One of the major reasons I even gravitated to MMT was because of these questions that I was trained in during my philosophy education, which absolutely changed my life. So thank you all. We need to appreciate our philosophers more in this country and society. So with that said, thank you for coming here and keep it up.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: Thomas Chaplin (audio editor), Richard Farrell (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)