Money on the Left is joined by Dr. Lua Kamal Yuille to discuss heterodox economics, property law & the politics of vulnerability. Dr. Yuille is professor of law and affiliated professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Kansas. Her work, which spans property theory, heterodox economics, business law, critical pedagogy, and group identity–truly puts the “inter” in interdisciplinary. We chat with Yuille about her path from law to heterodox economics, and, more specifically, about how Modern Monetary Theory has variously shaped and affirmed her critical perspective toward property law. We also to talk about her provocative work on “gangs as para-corporate entities.” These collectives, on her reading, perform necessary provisioning labor in reaction to racist and classist government policies that exclude significant swathes of the population from basic rights and protections. Other topics discussed are Yuille’s engagements with Martha Fineman’s “vulnerability theory,” as well as Yuille’s role as faculty senate president at the University of Kansas at a time when tenure and academic freedom are under serious threat in that state.
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The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity
William Saas: Lua Yuille, welcome to Money on the Left.
Lua Yuille: Thanks for having me.
William Saas: We’re stoked to finally have you on the show. To get us started, can you tell our listeners a little bit about your personal and professional background?
Lua Yuille: Oh my goodness, that’s a big one. Hopefully not because I’m super old. I wear a lot of hats. I am a law professor at one part of the day, and an economics student at another part of the day. I like to consider myself a praxivist all day long by working out in the community. It all, I guess, began in a classroom. I spent time as a school teacher. Then, I was a big corporate lawyer. Or I was a big firm corporate lawyer. I don’t know if I was big. I did socioeconomic development work. Somewhere in there, I have a personal life as a hopefully interesting person. Those are a few of the things that I tried to do.
Scott Ferguson: In your work, you focus on, obviously, a few things, but what seems central to us is your focus on property and property law. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to property as a central question?
Lua Yuille: Most people think of property as stuff, right? They’re like, property is your house, property is your car, property is your clothes–property is stuff. I had an epiphany because, even though I went to law school and they taught me that it wasn’t stuff, I still walked through the world thinking that, as far as it mattered for me, property was stuff. I didn’t need to know much more about it. And in late 2007–it’s weird to talk about 2007 and that world crumbling around us, because that crumble was very different from the current crumble. The figurative world has lots of layers, because it can just crumble indefinitely. But as the world was crumbling around me, I realized that property as stuff wasn’t useful. That is not what mattered. Actually, property was power. Property is how we assign power over resources that are valued, whether that be stuff like land, and land is obviously historically the big one, or money, which is the big one today. We use these rules known as property to assign power. The moment that I realized property is not stuff, property is power, it became infinitely more important. I realized that is the conversation that I want to be having.
Maxximilian Seijo: In this vein, then, much of your work on property revolves around the way that law, this form of power, mediates racism and perpetuates racial injustice. Could you characterize this work for those unfamiliar with it as it relates to your various projects?
Lua Yuille: So if I take the perspective that property assigns power, and that has to do with sort of every facet of society. This is what gave me my epiphany in 2007. I was actually watching this huge bank fail. Banks are the place that people understand as being the repository of all this money and that means the repository of all this power. I saw all these folks in that space. The bank was failing because it was 2007. And I saw them be shaken to the ground, in terms of “who am I,” even though this was a bunch of rich old white guys who have failed up. I haven’t done the project of actually finding where they failed up. But I could probably list, if I did that, way better jobs that they have today than they had then. Nonetheless, they were shaken to the core because their source of making money, and the way they had gone about making money, was disappearing and going away.
I sat there as the only black person in the space, as one of the few women in the space, and I was like, this property stuff is about power. And power does a lot of work. One of the things that it does is situate you in society. Property then becomes this really easy way to create hierarchies. One of the most salient hierarchies, though, that no one wants to talk about in any meaningful, productive, and revolutionary way, is, of course, race. And so, from the history of not even being able to be a part of a conversation about power, when black people were the objects of property and not the subjects of that legal regime, to today, when the very nature of you owning the same stuff as somebody else doesn’t give you the same access and power as a white person owning that stuff, because, again, property is not about that. That’s really the conversation that I try to have in all of my work, whether that work is directly having a conversation about the racialized and identity implications of property, or if I’m talking about how corporations work. Because corporations have access to this institution of property in a way that looks a lot different than an individual. They get a set of preferences and that’s all about, again, ranking and creating hierarchies of power. It’s not an accident that, if we were to race and gender the corporation, the corporation’s experience of property looks a lot more like the white man’s experience of property than it does any other group.
William Saas: You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that you spend part of your day as a law professor and part of your day as an economics student. You decided a while back to pursue a PhD in heterodox economics at University of Missouri, Kansas City, long the beating heart of Modern Monetary Theory, or MMT. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got there and how MMT’s insights have informed your legal work?
Lua Yuille: I didn’t go to UMKC knowing anything about MMT. I didn’t go to have an MMT conversation. I went for three reasons. Number one: I was talking about property as power. Interestingly, or maybe surprisingly enough in a legal space, the people who talk about property have long abandoned economics. And they’ve abandoned economics because our area has been wholly colonized by neoclassical and neoliberal approaches. But I felt the power conversation was in economics. So I started putting myself in these economic spaces. And nobody was talking about the stuff that I felt needed to be talked about. Everything they said sounded like fiction, and I am all about fiction, but I was not actually trying to be engaged in fiction. I was interested in actual reality. So I would sit there really frustrated.
One year, a law and economics conference came to Lawrence, Kansas. It was the same old story until a gentleman by the name of Bill Black showed up. This is a very traditional economics conference so people are in their best business casual attire, and there are even some pretentious folks in suits. Bill Black comes and he’s wearing like dodgy old jeans and an old shirt that says UMKC. He gets up to speak and is his normal firebrand self. Whatever he’s talking about, I’m like, “I like this rabble-rouser.” What’s this rabble-rouser talking about and telling all of these people that their classical economics fidelity is short sighted and narrow minded? I’m like, “Ooh, I really like him.” Then, there was a woman. She came up and talked about black banks and bankruptcy. And everyone is like, you don’t know what you’re talking about, get off the stage. They didn’t actually say that, but you can see their eyes glazing over. Her name is Pamela Foohey. The people who came and were like, “Actually, that sounds really compelling,” are me and Bill Black. Then, we were like a little team of three people.
Bill Black reveals that UMKC, which he has emblazoned on his shirt, actually has a heterodox economics department and that he teaches there. It really was a catalyst for me to revisit the work of somebody else. So MMT is still not there yet. It was the work of Fred Lee. In always being frustrated by what I was hearing in economics, and I had been doing really bad and not academically sanctioned searches on the Internet of like, “who and where can I talk about actual reality,” I found Fred Lee’s work? He was at UMKC. Bill Black is at this conference. I was like, “Wait, there’s like a law connection?” And so, those two people, one in their work, one in their absolute, resolute, “I’m gonna walk into this space and claim it,” gave me the sort of impetus to say it doesn’t matter that I am a pre-tenure faculty at my institution, which told me I should probably not go back to school while I was not yet tenured and at all, because they gave me a job.
I already had a terminal degree in my field. I very quietly started, and was like, “I want to be able to do what Bill Black does,” which is, walk in the room and occupy it, not just by my personality, but with the credentials. Paolo Freire is not a critical race theorist, but a critical pedagogue, and a lot of critical race theorists always talked about needing to not just be a master of the critique and methodology that they were promoting, but also to be a master of what you were critiquing and be able to wield that fully. And so, I said, “Okay, I want to get this credential.” And what better way to get the credential than actually be carefully trained in what I want to think about. Then, I showed up at UMKC and they were like, “Also, did you hear this story about money? I was like, “You had me at money. Let’s chat. What do you have to say?” And then they’re like, “Did you know…?” And I was like, “I didn’t but now I do and I like this.” And it has been like walking the path together, I guess, ever since.
Maxximilian Seijo: It’s interesting pivoting off from that point. Obviously, we’re sort of an MMT informed podcast. But I think it’s also important to offer the opportunity to extend and perhaps complicate some of what MMT has to say. And so, we wanted to ask, if you were perhaps speaking to an audience of MMT ears, what would you challenge and complicate about the framework, in addition, of course, to what you already suggested you’re affirming?
Lua Yuille: I don’t know if this is good or bad, but in my first semester while I was getting exposed to MMT, I had a set of questions and critiques. They remain, but I don’t know if it’s good or bad because I think I’ve seen movement. And it could be good or bad because it’s maybe not moving as fast as I would like to see it. I come at things from a question about and an engagement with the function of power, and this seems like a tool of the powerful, right? When you talk about, as MMT does, a set of reflections grounded on monetary sovereignty, you start with, “If you have power, then you can do what you want with it.” People hate when I use this word problematize, because it sounds so hoity toity, but it doesn’t engage power as a problem, it doesn’t engage absolute power as a problem, as a danger historically. It only looks at the potential of power. That becomes really important when my interest has always been on subaltern spaces and outside populations, and not the Americas and European Unions of the world.
When I started having these conversations, there was precious little view of how we should have these MMT conversations, and what does Modern Monetary Theory mean for the developing world? Or what are you supposed to do with these great insights if your country isn’t a monetary sovereign? That is even more frustrating and problematic when the voices that are telling you these things are overwhelmingly white, and notwithstanding the very huge female luminaries in the MMT space, they’re really male. I just said you’re supposed to be a master of what you critique. The women in the space really mastered the dominant way of engaging. And so, it becomes a space that feels immediately exclusionary. People walk in and you say, “Oh, this is like dude-bro-central.” I’m not about that life. That has been an ongoing question that I have. How do we make these insights, which are insights that actually should be more interesting to people from historically marginalized groups than they should be to white guys who fail up, but I don’t think that has translated. I think that is a real challenge, both in presentation and a challenge of sometimes the utopian flavor of how we talk about things. Because, again, if you go into places where there’s a lot of black people, power has never been our friend. Power has never worked for us. So when you tell us all about the possibility of power, I’m not necessarily sure that’s making me excited. I think that those are the challenges that I had at that time. I was in a class, I’ll tell you, with Stephanie Kelton and Scott Fullwiler, and what they said was, “You should write that.” I have not written that yet. “What about Latin America?” “You should write that.” I would like someone else to write that and I would like to read that.
Scott Ferguson: While I do think that there’s so much more work to be done, there has been, as you’ve suggested, movement. And various folks in the movement have been doing more of this work in talking about post-colonial political economy and talking about Native American political economy. We could go on and on. But the point is well taken. I think that needs to be said, and it needs to keep being said. I was wondering if we could pivot to some of your theoretical work and insights. I’m particularly taken by what I see as a kind of convergence between some of my own impulses and yours. And this is revolving around questions of dependence. It seems from your work you’ve drawn a lot from the critical feminist legal scholar, Martha Fineman, and her vulnerability theory. I was wondering if you could tell our audience a little bit about Fineman, what you’re drawing from her, how dependency and vulnerability are so important for your work and for conceiving of law, and perhaps for racial politics and how you conceive of power?
Lua Yuille: Yeah, it’s a really similar story coming to heterodox economics, MMT, and vulnerability theory. It’s a similar story of nobody in the space that I was in, both as I’m reading but also as I’m going to places, seemed to be talking about actual reality. Nobody seemed to get and be engaging with the actual world. And so, in 2009-ish, Martha Feinman, who had a really long career and was a leading legal feminist, wrote a little essay. And the essay said, “Hey, what if we stopped treating vulnerability as a pathological condition? What if we instead recognize that every human being everywhere at every second is vulnerable? What if we said, ‘Oh wait, we’re human.’” I always say this in Spanish: we’re carne y hueso. We’re meat and bones. We are vulnerable to getting hurt. We are vulnerable to the environment. We are vulnerable to disease and illness. As we are born, unlike other creatures, we don’t pop out like “got it,” give me a couple seconds, and I’ve taken my steps. As the mother of two children, there is no end of frustration that it wasn’t like, “Give me 20 minutes, I’ll be ready to go, and we can go on the hunt.” No. We have to care for babies. And in our old age, once again, we become infirm in a very particular way. But throughout our entire lives, just by virtue of being embodied, we are vulnerable.
Then, we wind up living in human institutions, like the family, like society. And those, being made up of humans, are also vulnerable. You don’t make a family and then it sticks together all the time. There is strife. It is subject to harm. Why do we treat that as pathological? Let me just be honest. I was the mom who was like, “Come on, get it together.” But everyone agrees that when my baby was like, “Hey, I haven’t got this whole spoon thing down. I’m gonna need you to spoon this food into my mouth,” that was legitimate. We didn’t call my kid pathological. We didn’t say, “Hey, six month old, you need to learn how to be independent. Do it for yourself.” We gave the appropriate care. Now my kid is six. And, yes, every day I’m like, “Why can’t you just run yourself?” At the same time, she’s still really little, maybe it’s not appropriate for her to drive. We don’t treat most of childhood development, and the dependence that comes with childhood, as pathological. Why do we suddenly at some age flip a switch and decide that you’re supposed to be able to do everything? You can’t do everything by yourself. And we’ve got all these institutions designed to help you meet those needs.
It wasn’t like she was the first person to recognize this, but Martha Fineman said, “Instead of this mythological, economically modeled homo economicus, who is rational and an autonomous agent, what if we just use the vulnerable subject?” A person who, if you punch them in the eye, then they get a black eye, get mad, and punch you back. How about we deal with that person and see what law should look like if that’s what people are dealing with and if that’s the reality of the world? I read that and was like, “That’s what I am talking about–actual reality.” I think the really exciting thing for my own work, for legal thinking generally, but also for understanding the potential for law, is it actually provides a wonderful grounding for exactly what I said the critique of MMT is, which is that it’s not paying enough attention and that we haven’t moved far enough to really find the language of speaking to the disempowered that it has the potential to really to engage with. This is the other sort of issue with MMT. It is descriptive in nature. You can accept everything that MMT says but that doesn’t mean that you have to accept all of the prescriptions. Because you could say, “Okay, yeah, we have a lot more flexibility. We can make choices over our policy. We choose to let some people be poor because there isn’t a natural rate of unemployment. The NAIRU is not a thing. But you know what’s awesome? Having some segment of the population be desperate because then I get cheap stuff. And cheap stuff is amazeballs.” There are frankly people who know this and believe that.
Vulnerability theory steps in and also makes this descriptive observation, but gives a firmer grounding that says, “Okay, but the whole reason the state exists, the whole reason we formalized this power, is to create mechanisms so that people can respond to their vulnerability.” And in vulnerability theory, we call that resilience. Everyone is equally vulnerable. I am equally vulnerable to the richest man on the planet. If I go outside and it’s raining, I’m going to get wet. If he goes outside and it’s raining, he’s going to get wet. Whatever comes along with getting wet outside is going to be equally a reality for both of us. What is different is the likelihood that he’s going to have an umbrella or that he has to go outside. Notwithstanding my current profession as a university professor because I can afford an umbrella. I probably shouldn’t have used myself as an example. Do not worry, I have an umbrella. I can afford one. But the point stands. What separates me from a rich person is not how vulnerable I am. It’s how resilient I am. And what makes me resilient is my ability to use resources to protect myself or to bounce back. A better example for 2021 is that rich guy and I both getting COVID-19. That rich guy’s body is not intrinsically any more resilient and able to resist COVID-19 than mine, right?
Scott Feruson: Especially if it is Donald Trump’s body.
Lua Yuille: Right, right! He is not necessarily better able to resist it. But what can he do? He can do what Boris Johnson did in the UK and get diagnosed today. Tomorrow, he’s in a medically induced coma on oxygen, so that whatever his body does, it’s got the number one backup. The backup, at that time, is being put on a ventilator as soon as possible and then coming out relatively fine. As it turns out, if you have all the money in the world, COVID-19 is not particularly scary–if you can get all of the drugs available. But that’s not about your vulnerability. That’s not about your independence. You’re equally dependent. You just have more resources. You are more resilient to the fact of your embodiment. This turns around, and suddenly for me says, “Oh, wait, so the difference between us is power.” It is about the power to command, power to demand resources and consideration that other folks don’t have. That’s not a part of your inherent condition. This is why I think vulnerability theory is exciting and why I think it marries well with MMT.
It provides us with the demand to say, “State, you don’t get to say some of us are going to be poor, because you only exist to create mechanisms of resilience for everybody.” I get to demand that you spend money. That you are a free and an unlimited monetary sovereign in creating so that the needs of humanity are met. It also has its own detractors, because that perspective says that it’s not about black people and it’s not about women. It’s not about all these people who have historically been excluded from sites of resilience. It’s resilience for everybody. And so, it’s capable of being critiqued even if you buy all of its normative and descriptive conclusions. I think it actually is great, because it doesn’t require us to ignore the fact that LGBTQAI+ people didn’t get to be in the conversation. But it tells us that bringing people in isn’t the end of the road. Critique of black capitalism was a good example. There are people who are like, “Capitalism is great. I just don’t like that I am systematically excluded from capitalism. I want somebody to be homeless, I just don’t want the homeless people to have to be black. Like can we have diversity in homelessness? As long as there’s rich diversity in homelessness…” When you say that you want access to capitalism, that’s what that means. You just want a better mix of the destitute. And vulnerability theory tells you, “Okay, so that’s dumb.” It says, “Yeah…to the extent that there’s homelessness, we do want it to be richly diverse. But what if we had no homelessness? How about that? How would that play?”
Scott Ferguson: One of the things I really like about your approach to vulnerability and dependence in law is that it not only politicizes the vulnerable subject, as you’ve been saying, and critiques this kind of Lockean white man, homo economicus, but it also provides a different lens on law itself. You actually read law as, while we may say or insist that law is all organized around the independent, economic Man, in fact, if you look at it through your lens, you see that it’s actually entirely organized around this vulnerable subject. We just can’t see it. But it’s actually everywhere when you open your eyes to it.
Lua Yuille: Yes. I think that’s absolutely right. I will say that there are people in the vulnerability space who get annoyed with me because the demand of vulnerability theory is the responsive state. And I’m like, “We have that.” The problem is that we aren’t responsive to everybody. And we continue to categorically exclude people from who the state cares about, but we absolutely respond to folks’ vulnerability. We don’t respond to the vulnerability of women. Just because everyone is vulnerable, and I’ve shown examples of people being equally insanely vulnerable, doesn’t mean that we’re not all in the same exact moment in our life. Your vulnerability is manifest and experienced by you uniquely. I’m not saying race doesn’t exist. It is a construct, but it also is real just like your house is a construct. Someone built it. And now you live in that reality. It’s there. And so, people are categorically excluded.
But the law says we respond to the vulnerability of income. We say, if you invest properly, say in a house, we are giving you certain forms of resilience. We’re not actually going to make you lose your house except in very specific circumstances. If you are bankrupt, that’s a form of resilience. We give you tax breaks and incentives around your housing. That is a form of resilience. We say, “Hey, people with ‘good jobs,’ you get to have double ‘insurance.’” When I was employed by a private law firm in New York, I had like amazing insurance. It was like so wonderful. I had like the airlift insurance. I was in Honduras during a huge hurricane and all my friends were like, “Oh, my gosh, we’re so worried.” And I was like, “I hate to be that person but if it goes down to it, I am being helicoptered out of here.” They’re like, “How do you do that?” I was like, “I have evacuation insurance.” “How did you get that?” “I am associated with a huge law firm in New York.” Now, I work for a public university and I have the “maybe you can get an aspirin” insurance. But still, even with those huge disparities in what coverage looks like, depending on the kind of job you have, we have provided that resilience primarily to folks who meet some norms of society, which is that you have the kind of job that is stable enough. It means you are able to demand that you have firm enough working conditions and benefits to be insured.
The precariat are adjunct faculty who don’t qualify for those benefits in the same way that the guy who works at Burger King doesn’t qualify for those benefits. All of that, though, is resilient. All of that is providing through a state organized mechanism of resilience. The state passes a law that determines who must be covered by insurance, by their employer, and who doesn’t. Then, you have the Affordable Care Act, which we know has been under attack since its passage. You hear people who are really angry about other people getting access to resilience. There was a woman who was like, “No, I have to wait an hour to see the doctor because all these people got their Obamacare.” And I’m like, “Hold up, let’s just be clear. You would rather people have no insurance, then wait for an hour?” And the person was like, “Absolutely. I don’t care about you. I did what I was supposed to do.” We hide the way the state is responsive, we deny that the state is being responsive, but they’re responsive to this imagined ideal person who engages the world in this imagined ideal way. And they’re not responsive to the needs of the rest of us, which is why this is being made crystal clear. And frankly, I think it’s being made crystal clear to people who haven’t had this thrown in their face every day during COVID. People who have been systematically excluded from the resilience mechanisms of the government are like, “Ugh, what’s new?” But lots of middle class white folks are like, “Wait, the government was doing that for me? This was like a law thing that made this happen?” Yes, it was. Yes, it was. And now, it’s a law thing that’s not making it happen.
Maxximilian Seijo: It’s interesting then thinking about that wonderful explanation of a sort of systemic overview of the way political economy and law are functioning with one another to mediate human vulnerability and dependence. Relatedly, among your more provocative areas of research, is your work on gangs as para-corporate entities. You describe them as maintaining dignified identities in provisioning structures that are not legally recognized by a racist and classist legal regime. And I think this relates to this sense of resilience that you were just explicating. I think it’d be really interesting if you could flesh out this argument for us, as well as the politics of it, and how they relate to the life and death stakes you were just articulating.
Lua Yuille: First of all, those were not my words. They’re so much better, I’m stealing them. There’s a law professor by the name of Brian L. Frye who believes in plagiarism. I’m going to adopt his plagiarism perspective–just kidding. Everything that I do is grounded and begins in a story. Longer ago than I would like to admit, I was in my parent’s home. I had been living there and I was actually moving to Oregon to begin work as a law professor at the University of Oregon. It was the middle of the night. I was super young. And as super young people do, they make choices like, “There’s a party that I need to go to.” I couldn’t actually embark on this drive from Los Angeles, California to Eugene, Oregon until the middle of the night. I am packing up my car to move out of my parents home to Oregon and I get a phone call from my brother. He tells me, “Get in the house. They’re shooting black people.” I was like, “They’re shooting black people? I am from California.” And I said I was in Los Angeles, but I was not. I was in a suburb of a suburb of Los Angeles. Not only do they not shoot black people here, they don’t shoot anybody here. What is happening? He was like, “Get inside for real. They’re shooting black people.” So of course, I go inside.
It turned out a long standing back and forth spate of violence between gangs that were raced black and gangs that were raced Latinx had hit my hometown. That was my entree into the world of gangs. Because immediately after this happened, the town that I am from created a gang injunction. And a gang injunction is basically a tool that municipalities use. They’re like, “Look, we’re gonna call you a gang member.” It was very popular in Oakland, California for a while. Los Angeles used the first one, but they were being used across the country. Anyways, the municipality decides that you’re a member of a particular gang and then prohibits you by law from doing all sorts of stuff. You can’t hang out with other gang members, obviously, but you can’t wear blue if you’re a crip or red if you’re a blood. And also, because gangs do graffiti, you can’t have writing utensils, which means this is a pretty big imposition on children. It’s poorly named. It’s called gangology–a really poorly named field of study. The gangologists have long recognized that gang members are disproportionately children, so they can’t go to school.
I got called back into this because I was advising folks from my hometown who were trying to resist this gang injunction. Through that interaction, I started observing what they were doing and what they were talking about. What I saw, and what wound up being really consistent with what other people who had studied gangs saw, was that they were really not these radical outsiders at all. They were replicating, quite meticulously, the norms of capitalist entrepreneurship. And what is the corporation supposed to do? It’s a space where you invest your capital so that you can get a return on that investment while minimizing your risk. And by virtue of being involved in that organization, that corporation, you get all sorts of status out in the world. My favorite example is always Enron, though it’s getting really, really old. But we know what a McMansion is today because of the folks at Enron. They became associated with this corporation. And now I have a terrible mansion in Texas that’s ugly and awful, but it creates my access to a community.
Okay, well, I don’t have Enron money and I don’t have the social and educational capital of an Enron executive. What I do have is a durag, a pair of K-Swiss shoes, and a blue t shirt, but I can invest those things into this space and get a real return on that. If you gave me a more lucrative corporation to invest in, I would abandon it. As soon as I saw that, I said, “We need to have a conversation.” Because once again, what do we have here? We have people who are driven directly to respond to their vulnerability by creating resilience. You block them off in one way, and you block them off primarily because they’re young black and brown kids. Turns out in the history of gang injunctions–I’m from Southern California, there’s Asian gangs–no Asian gangs were enjoined. Now, today given stuff like the Sons of Anarchy, people aren’t surprised by this. It’s like a very dangerous surfer gang. And then, obviously, you’ve got all sorts of prison gangs. And the most dangerous prison gangs are raced white. But who gets enjoined? Who gets all of their bridges to the dominant economy closed off? People who are black and brown, because they invested in these spaces where they stand on the corner.
And of course, historically, in the late 1970s when the California gang revolution began, these corporations are actually doing way better than sanctioned corporations are doing for the communities that they’re in, because they’re providing security and policing, and they’re ensuring that the varying economic pathways in Watts or Compton in South Central, Los Angeles keep moving. I always get people who are like, “But you started off saying gangs are revolutionary.” No, they’re not. They’re not. I wish they were revolutionary. They’re not revolutionary. They’re totally neo-classical, neoliberal institutions that are trying to replicate humanity in one way and we won’t let them because they’re black and brown. And it’s been exciting, because, meanwhile, I worked for big corporations who were functioning precisely the same. Their identity was tied up in the corporation. When they burned down the community, the whole country is taken with it, and nonetheless, we give them golden parachutes–both the proverbial kind and the business kind of the literal golden parachutes.
Scott Ferguson: In your writing, what do you recommend in place of these injunctions?
Lua Yuille: I think there are two approaches. In the work that I have, I’m like, “If you are seeing people engage in traditional capitalist endeavors, why don’t we just pay them? Why don’t we just pay them? They’re willing to leave. Give them money. Pay them to do what you want them to do.” That is actually my quite conservative recommendation, because it doesn’t have any inner critique of the system. It doesn’t have any inner critique of why we allow corporatized entities to have the kind of power and influence that they have. It doesn’t break down the idea that we are finding and being fundamentally connected to our identity through the way that we get property. And again, that goes back to me saying through the way we get power. We should critique that.
So what do I say? I tell people to pay gang members to stop being gang members. You can pay them with actual cash or you can pay them with jobs elsewhere, and they will take them because it’s not like they’re making a lot of money in the gangs. But my radical critique is, “Hey, let’s step back and why don’t we destabilize the system so that I don’t get my identity from my work, so that I don’t need a corporation to situate me in society, whether it’s a para-corporation or an actually registered corporation? Why don’t we have work and labor be for your intrinsic value and for necessary reproductive activities in society? I’m not on the “who cares about work” train. “Let’s get rid of work. Let’s mechanize it all.” That’s not my get down. We need people to do work. There are lots of jobs that need to be done. But how about it doesn’t turn out that my position in society is connected with that? And how about we start actually allowing socially reproductive activities to be properly compensated? And what is proper compensation? Of course, that means a dignified wage.
Scott Ferguson: Do you have thoughts about the Bloods and Crips truce manifesto? It seems like that document was pointing in this direction.
Lua Yuille: Well, there have been several examples in history. Before Tookie Williams was executed by the state of California–sorry, I had to go there. It’s a fact that happened. Tookie, by the way, claimed to be one of the founders of what would become the Crips, which is one of the major gangs that began in Los Angeles and moved across the nation and across the world. But what he really worked on doing, was trying to say, “Okay, yes, I got this reputation as a murderer because I committed murders. But I didn’t commit murders willy nilly. I was operating in this space that was not sanctioned by the government. And though some people in this space will disagree, the way law gets a lot of its power is by the threat of force. And so, if you don’t have that formal threat of force, you need actual use of force.” He really explained his violence, and then in so doing, also reminded folks that, what the project had been, was to advance the neighborhood. And it wasn’t about purely personal advancement. It was at least partially communitarian in nature. Now, I think these people are totally mainstream. So maybe we would call them like the benefit corporations of today. “Do good while doing well.” But he really did a lot of that work. And what he was doing was saying, “Hey, look guys. Now, we have lost the “do good” part. Let’s come together. Let’s actually problem solve. And let’s take a moment.”
It’s happened more than once where the conversations are like, “Wait, why do we do this? Why do we gangbang?” In the interviews that I did with folks, and I can’t say that they are gang members, there are people who were subject to gang injunctions. Not many of my respondents would say that they were gang members. But what they really talked about was, particularly older people, this was my entree into this space and if you had given me an alternative, I would have taken it. They’re very aware and willing to talk about how this is, yes, as an important part of my identity, but it’s not an ideal. I wasn’t born for this. And nobody should be born for this. But this is how I staked my way in the world. And if there were other paths for me, I would have happily taken those other paths. This is not any of my research, but just happened to be a recent interaction with someone who was a part of my research and was really talking about his own daughter who is 18. One of the things that he did was, as he became an adult, invest in a way that he was like, “Oh, no, you can’t even associate with those people. The only gang members you know are old ones like me because that’s your family. But it’s not the way we move forward. We move forward very traditionally–through education. You’re going to college.”
The actual reason that the person came to my attention was to help this kid, whose dad is a gang member and uncles are gang members, apply to college. We’re gonna need some help because we want to create a picture that looks more standard. So people don’t disagree. Of course, you also have folks like MS-13 who have very great critiques of mainstream capitalism and the road into violent, economically driven gang participation. I think it’s very different because you have an overlay of immigration law. And while the black and Latinx gang members that I talked to were predominantly US citizens, so the idea of the bridge was there, in the research with MS-13, the idea of a bridge was not there. What you see then sort of it goes off the rails. Instead of a traditional corporation, you get something a lot closer to Murder Inc.
William Saas: This is extremely compelling. I would like to hear a little bit about the reception of these ideas. You talk about these two different registers that the work operates on. There’s the kind of straightforward carrying out the logic of capitalism to its most absurd end and underscoring how violent and exclusionary the system already is. And then there’s the critique of like, “Or we could just do a job guarantee and health care for all, right?” So how has it been received? And how often do you feel like you get to that second order conclusion for audiences?
Lua Yuille: I guess it depends on the audience. I will say that with my conservative recommendations, there’s been experimentation along that way long before I even started studying this. Homeboy Industries was a private version of what I suggest. Richmond, California, which is right outside of Oakland, started as well. In my work, I have anticipated political backlash. I actually don’t say to pay them with cash. I say pay them in kind with the bridge to the traditional economy. That’s what Homeboy Industries does on a private level. But I openly talk about how you could pay them with cash as well, though people think there’s free rider problems and all sorts of neoclassical economic concerns. That’s why I don’t pursue talking about paying them with cash. But Richmond, California, right outside of Oakland, initiated a project several years ago that was paying gang members with cash. And it was relatively well received in the sense that people thought it was crazy. But if you’ve got the money to do it, why not try because this is a real problem that we’re having.
Another private organization, an English one, did something very similar to Homeboy Industries for gang members in Honduras. People have been trying the conservative version. When I look at populations of actual gang members, they are all for getting a job. “Gonna give me a good job? Sure, I’ll take it. All I have to do is refrain from X, Y, and Z. I don’t want to commit crimes. Like, don’t worry, I’m there.” In the world of action, there is some level of receptivity. In academia, it’s not well received, and politically, it’s pretty hard. And I’m still on the conservative version because people think you’re rewarding them for engaging in bad behavior. They’re like, “If you give gang members jobs, then people are gonna want to join gangs. It’s a perverse incentive.” Not one person that I talked to, and not one place did I read, did anyone ever say, “This was just such a good opportunity. I’m gonna get jumped in, and if I get stabbed, sometimes you gotta put it on the line so that you can get a job at Sprint.” I guess it’s T Mobile now. For me, it really reflects the dehumanization of gang members. Because they’re not stupid. The black kids and the Latinx kids who people think are going to be in these gangs, they’re not stupid.
Why would they go through what you wind up inevitably going through to join a gang in order to get what is in any event not going to be the corporate CEO of the next big company? It’s just going to be a safe job with job security. It’s not worth it. But that’s really what you hear all the time. You don’t want to reward them for holding their communities hostage. Politically, you get the same backlash, though in Oakland street level activism came together to get rid of the gang injunctions because they’re like, “You’ve put our community under constant distress, we don’t want them. We don’t care what you say, our boys will not be banished from our community. And if you want our community to be safer, provide us with radical solutions.” So once the communities get their voice heard, it’s the radical solutions. Though interestingly, when I talk to people who are subject to gang injunctions, they’re not asking for that. I don’t even think it’s fair to say that they are particularly impressed by the idea of much more systemic and broad options. But I think that that’s because they’re fully bought into the system and they’re on the outside.
And rather than saying, I am perfectly happy to never be inside that system, it’s sort of like, “But let me give it a go.” Because from the outside looking in, that one looks pretty good. And the kind of ideal world you’re talking about of job guarantees, universal health care, and universal access to education, doesn’t have any Elon Musk’s in it. Maybe Elon Musk is not a good example. But the uber-rich gilded mansion is a dream, just like it is for a proud boy, just like it is for someone in rural America, so too is it for a kid in South Central LA, for a kid in a tiny apartment in the Bronx. All of them believe that that’s on the table and they are really tied to a world in which it’s on the table. And the job guarantee and universal health care world takes that off the table. We don’t have good discourse around why we should do that anyway.
William Saas: We’ve been talking a lot about resiliency in different contexts and we’re going to shift to a very different one. It’s one that’s familiar to each of us and maybe especially familiar for you. You were interviewed in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently about the response of the Kansas Board of Regents to what appears to be a financial crisis. I don’t know how they’re classifying it. But they’re chipping away at or maybe have already moved on taking away tenure, or making it more possible to fire tenured professors in the Kansas system. And of course, tenure is a source of built resiliency into the profession of being an academic. It serves certain purposes, such as academic freedom, and all that sort of stuff has its own issues. But they’re chipping away at it under the aegis of austerity and financial responsibility on the system. You were interviewed and said that, basically, they’re barking up the wrong tree here, that firing people is not the way to relieve the financial pressure. You’ve suggested that the writer of that article did not account for what else you might have said? I wanted to invite you to say, if that’s not the answer, then what is the answer to the current financial situation in higher education and under COVID?
Lua Yuille: The answer to our current crisis of education, which is exacerbated but not caused by COVID, is to tear down the entire system. And just to be clear, I am a private, higher education person, in the sense that my undergrad and graduate degrees are from private schools. And so, I say this, in some ways, well aware of the danger that comes with it, but I think we need to tear it down. And I think we need to tear down the system, both for public education and for private education, because we can’t just tear down public education and leave standing the Columbia’s and Johns Hopkins’s, which I shout out because those are my schools. Though, obviously, it’s the Harvard’s that win the day in endowments. That being said, what do I mean by tearing it down? I mean that we need to understand and recreate how we fund what in the education space. And that funding, as problematic as it is, needs to look more clearly to what we see in a European model, where the origin of funding for higher education is the state. It’s not secret private dollars. Like I went to Johns Hopkins and Johns Hopkins has the most federal funding because they basically fund crazy bomb research that no one knows about. That’s not what I mean.
I mean there needs to be a full appreciation, that it’s not private industry that should be driving education. It is the social reproduction of society, and the creation and building of knowledge and new perspectives on how to solve age old problems. And that means owning that power that comes with being a monetary sovereign, and investing heavily in all kinds of education, not just what we do now. We care about STEM. And like right now all the universities are trying to hire black people because of George Floyd and black people get hired everywhere. But of course you’ve systematically excluded us from the space. There’s like five people who are getting called by all the universities in the nation to take these jobs. What do we need to do? We need to empower every single individual student. And I don’t want to make this sound like vouchers. But every individual student should come along with an allotment. It’s not based on where you’re from. It’s not based on anything other than we need funding.
This is what it would take to properly fund a university. Then, we stop competing over things like dorms. Then, we stop exploiting basketball players in hopes that winning basketball teams get donations. What is the small way to do that kind of action before you get the revolution that burns it all down and rebuild it in a way that makes sense? It is for folks like the Kansas Board of Regents, folks like any state public authority for institutions, to be doggedly communicating with the legislature so that the legislature, one, doesn’t cut, but so that the states come together and turn to the federal government, because as we all know, the state of Kansas doesn’t have any money. Right? The state of Montana doesn’t have any money. Iowa is talking about these 10 year suspensions. They don’t have any money. They’re not monetary sovereigns. They do have a pot that ends. But the federal government doesn’t. But until all of the states, and not just the proverbially blue ones who actually don’t do this either, are like, “Hey, federal government, would you like to give us some money for our schools,” you’re not going to get appropriations in that way.
I also think that it’s going to be really important–this is practical for what happens today–for those state regulators of higher education to actually value higher education. And to value it as a part of, again, the reproduction of society, which is totally economic but it’s not fiscal. It’s totally economic but it’s not always financial. It’s not about getting people to buy widgets in Kansas. It’s about having an educated populace in Kansas. Unfortunately, having an educated populace is not what any part of the government really cares about today. And this is not a red or blue, not a left or right, thing. I think that the world of politics is so fully captured that there’s no desire for people to actually know anything. And that is going to be the big problem. What is the tiny thing that should happen because none of this awesome stuff that I’m talking about is gonna happen? Unionization. And I have a really crazy, complicated relationship with unions. I shouldn’t call it a relationship. It’s an intellectual relationship, because I’ve never been in a union. But I came up intellectually in Europe, where unions are really strong. But I’m also a black person in America. And unions played a really nefarious role in the labor marginalization of black people. Because when unions were really powerful, they kept their power by ensuring that black people didn’t get in the cushy union jobs. That being said, my experiences in Europe around solidarity for labor are so strong that I’m like, “If the government doesn’t fight for you, you gotta fight for yourself. And what does that mean for faculty? Unionization.
Maxximilian Seijo: Well, Lua, this has been a fantastic conversation. And really, thank you so much for coming on Money on the Left.
Lua Yuille: This was fun. Thank you guys.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: Maxximilian Seijo (audio editor), Richard Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art)