Reflecting on recent protests outside of Brett Kavanaugh’s home as well as a recent news story where police invaded the home of a 16 year old trans Twitch streamer, Will Beaman (@agoingaccount) notes ways in which conservative narratives around household and parental identity are unstable and contested.
In this special episode of Superstructure, Cohost Natalie Tabb Smith (@orangeasm) is joined by Erica Robles-Anderson (@fstflofscholars) and Scott Ferguson (@videotroph) to discuss common interests between the Money on the Left Editorial Collective and the Oikos working group on kinship/economy. Naty, Erica and Scott reflect on households, financial forms, and reproductive politics in our contemporary political economy through the prism of Melinda Cooper’s 2017 text, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism.
Continuing their consideration of pleasure for a world of leftist struggle, co-hosts Charlotte Tavan (@moltopopulare) and Natalie Tabb Smith (@orangeasm) turn to a recently published Superstructure article co-authored by Erica Robles-Anderson and Scott Ferguson. Titled “The Visual Cliff: Eleanor Gibson and the Origins of Affordance,” the essay critically locates the hidden history of contemporary user-experience design in a well-known psychological experiment. Conducted by Dr. Eleanor Gibson, the experiment placed babies alone atop a visual precipice in order to test their depth perception. Following the essay, Charlotte and Naty question the notion that we must remain frozen forever between false binaries, like babies staring over an impossible visual cliff. Doing so, their discussion weaves through thinkers as diverse as Lynne Segal, Adrienne Maree Brown, Lisa Duggan, Gayle Rubin, and more.
In this first episode of Projections, Will Beaman (@agoingaccount) reflects on some recent comments from US Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) suggesting Democrats should prioritize inflation over Roe v. Wade in their campaign messaging in the midterms.
Music: “Lilac” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
Co-hosts Charlotte Tavan (@moltopopulare) and Natalie Tabb Smith (@orangeasm) discuss conceptualizations of pleasure on the left, looking at a recent article arguing against the radicalism of polyamory in Novara for part 1 of this installment of Medium Femme.
Money on the Left speaks with Dr. Sonia Ivancic about the importance of regionally sensitive and affirmative storytelling in provisioning processes. Assistant Professor in organizational communication at University of South Florida, Dr. Ivancic is a community-engaged researcher, whose work on “place-based narrative labor” offers essential new tools for displacing prevailing scarcity logics and rhetorics of austerity with more capacious ways of thinking, arguing, and narrating.
Through embedded fieldwork with non-profit, rural Appalachian food distributors, Professor Ivancic has developed astute critiques of the narrative frames used by some grant-making non-profits as they paradoxically seek to address privation and hunger in Appalachia by perpetually framing privation and hunger in Appalachia as the region’s most salient and seemingly default characteristics. In place of this “deficit-driven” characterization–which, owing to the ways that such projects depend on the grant cycle, is nearly always the dominant kind of characterization–Dr. Ivancic identifies and promotes an “asset-driven”mode of place-based narrative labor. With this asset-based approach, the provisioning process affirmatively calls attention to and works to expand the capacities and potentials of a given community, honoring the dignity of particular communities, while opening political imaginaries to include new metrics for collective flourishing and renewal.
In our conversation, we extend Ivancic’s theorization of asset-driven place-based narrative labor to rethink the challenges and potentials of a Federal Job Guarantee under a future Green New Deal. We also draw rich parallels between her account of narrativity in local provisioning and conceptions of macro political economy in Modern Monetary Theory and other heterodox traditions in political economy.
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Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com
The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Scott Ferguson: Sonia Ivancic, welcome to Money on the Left!
Sonia Ivancic: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Scott Ferguson: We’re excited to have you. To begin, could you tell our audience a bit about your personal and professional background? How did you come to pursue your present research and pedagogical work in Communication Studies and in organizational communication in particular?
Sonia Ivancic: I’ve been thinking a lot about that question and just in the context of what we’re talking about today, and how many different ways you can story, your experience or my experience or my way of coming to this. So that’s just a side note that that’s been something I’ve been thinking about. But for me, personally, I grew up in Seattle, my parents are actually from Hamilton, Ohio. So it’s not Southeast Ohio, but not too far from where I did a lot of this research. My mom was raised by a single mother and was a first generation college student, she grew up pretty poor. She worked in early childhood education, she ran a child care center, at one point, taught special education, helped support high risk mothers. And then my dad is an architect. And so this is one of those jobs that is very affected by the economy.
The reason we moved to Seattle was because all the architects in Albuquerque were getting laid off. And so we had to find a region that was having a boom, and was doing a lot of building. And I was four when we did that. And then he also was laid off for a relatively long time, during our most recent recession. So this is all to say that, because of this, I think conversations about work, and child care and poverty, were kind of routinely talked about in my house growing up. And then a lot of my research is around food, I would say food is a major love language for my mom. But so with all of this in mind, I went into my undergraduate degree at the University of Puget Sound, which is in Tacoma, Washington, and thinking I would get an MBA eventually. I was very entrepreneurial child and I really enjoyed finding various ways of selling things as a kid like ice cream, or like garage sales, or coffee cake.
And so it was kind of this creative outlet for me. So I was like, oh, yeah, I’m gonna get an MBA, because I have this sort of history or thing I like to do. But I sort of accidentally happened into a class in organizational communication. I took a class called “Work Discourse” by a professor who later became my advisor, her name’s Dr. Renee Houston. And that really kind of changed things for me. I found I was really interested in wading into conversations about how a communication perspective can help us think about organizational issues like voice, power, control, dignity, and so forth. So I found I was less interested in finding ways to effectively manage employees and maybe more interested in why people talk and act in certain ways in organizations, and what does this do to people and to communities? And then how can we do it better? How can we create a world that’s more just?
How can we create work, or an understanding of work that is more edifying for people? So broadly, my research is guided by a question: how do the ways we talk or the stories we tell perpetuate inequities, or open up spaces to promote equity and center marginalized voices? So I do both organizational and health communication research, I would say maybe the central themes running through my work are food and community organizing, as one, two would be discourses about the body or about work. And then three would be equitable and inequitable workplace practices.
William Saas: In answering the first question, you’ve signaled or anticipated where we’re going to go for the second, which is to your theory of “Place-Based Narrative Labor.” You started by talking about being from Seattle and family from Ohio. I’d be interested to hear other versions of that story, or the way that you negotiated that narrative, finally, for yourself with regard to the places that that you’ve been based. But before we get to that, could you tell us a little bit about what you mean by “place-based narrative labor” and why it’s so important to you?
Sonia Ivancic: Yeah, so I’m gonna think I’m gonna start by talking about the context for the term, and then I’ll kind of get into what it means. But I think first one of the things communication scholars talk about is how nonprofit organizations specifically have to do, rhetorical work to achieve legitimacy. They have to make arguments about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, how successful it is, what the impact is. And they have to some, to some extent, tell and sell the story to people who will fund them. So this storytelling involves often telling stories to others, or telling stories about others. Like those they intend to help, oftentimes without input or decision from the people that are being depicted in the stories or images, right. So think of those commercials you often see of childhood hunger, that really depict others, and ways that we might be all familiar with, you know?
So I’m building off of someone named Sarah Dempsey and her term “Communicative Labor”, where she talks about how nonprofits can often marginalize or misrepresent their typically vulnerable stakeholders, because they’re trying to cater their stories to the people who funded them. And this is usually an audience of privilege donors. And so the premise of a nonprofit is always that they’re making some positive contribution. But a critical Organizational Communication scholar might remind us or ask us to think about how they’re also always political actors as well. And so we might ask questions, like what stories are promoted by these organizations and whose interests are served through their work and through their storytelling? So it is sort of through both this context of the literature, but also through my ethnographic fieldwork, that I came up with this term of “Place- Based Narrative Labor.”
So after kind of deep involvement and engagement with this organization in Southeast Ohio, called… or that I will call “Collaborative Food Strategies”– that’s a pseudonym– But this concept really evolved from seeing how the people there, talk and tell stories at the organization, how do they tell stories about the people and the place that, that they exist, and that they, they serve people in? And so it’s kind of my attempt to name something that I saw them doing and explain it’s significance, really. So what is “Place-Based Narrative Labor”? So I call what they do “Place-Based Narrative Labor”, which is the work of creating, maintaining and propagating narratives, or in this case, often counter narratives of place. And I call them counter narratives, because there’s sort of a typical dominant narrative of Appalachia, that is negative, deficit based about the problems in the region, and they sort of want to flip that and talk about what’s possible, beautiful, prosperous about the region. So they use these narratives about place to positively impact the region and the people there.
And then when I say positively impact, I mean, both materially and symbolically so how can they change how people think of the place and the people there? And, also, how can they literally change that place, people’s food access, the type of food that people eat, the food knowledge and food skills that people have? So it kind of creates this space for the community to imagine what kind of future they want to create together. But it doesn’t mean downplaying or ignoring struggles or hardships and I think that’s sort of an important component. It means actively engaging and confronting these hardships and struggles and kind of dwelling in them, but never losing sight of what’s beautiful or possible or powerful about the place that they… that they are. So they draw on things like communal responsibility and collective strength.
They reframe wealth, away from money to think about the natural resources that are there. The knowledge that people have the fact that people have been saving seeds there for hundreds of years, and things like that. So it’s it’s sort of this embodied emotional-lived interactional activity. It’s, it’s not just branding, or how they market themselves on their website, I think the value of ethnographic research is that you can be there to witness to see to hear the kind of in person interactions that go on at the organization. And so I saw them really, in their workshops at the farmers market, at the produce auction, sort of living this and taking this on as a daily practice.
So one of the important questions that brings up is what is placed mean? Who gets to decide? And I think engaging these questions is an important ongoing tension for the organization. Right? And that it may matters for all these reasons, right? So it matters in this specific case, because it’s trying to flip the way that they talk about Southeast Ohio is one of my participants specifically said, they’re trying to change other people’s ideas. But also, in general, and nonprofit organizations, whether they’re aware of it or not, are constantly telling stories that frame places in certain ways. Nonprofit organizations are already doing this work. I think the question is, how aware or mindful, are they about how they’re doing it? And that these stories impact how people see themselves, they impact how places understand what is possible, right? In that space.
So they’re not just a reflection of what is, their constitutive and generative and their chosen, right? So it’s important to be mindful and consider: what are these stories doing? How are they acting to some degree? And then the other thing I think this brings attention to is that this storytelling is work, it’s labor. People were asking questions about how to tell these stories and wondering what the impacts of doing it in different ways was, they were taking it on as part of their jobs. And so I think a lot of times, the communicative work that we do in our jobs is incredibly important. We all do it to different degrees and in different ways. But we don’t necessarily name it or talk about it or value it, you know, kind of in the way when we talk about emotional labor, that you’re not necessarily paid for that. It’s just something you’re expected to do. And I think communicative work is a lot like that at times.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah. And the term that sometimes gets thrown around: “immaterial labor”– somehow doesn’t, doesn’t cut it. What you’re up to is much richer, and it affords us a lot more understanding about what’s going on.
Sonia Ivancic: I appreciate that. Yeah, it doesn’t feel like it quite cuts it right? I think calling it immaterial, almost takes away some of the force of it or something, right? So I think creating food systems that are more just and equitable and cooperative and environmentally responsible requires creatively telling new stories and thinking critically about the role that these narratives play in accomplishing some sort of social change.
Maxximilian Seijo: And so then, as you already alluded to right, along alongside right, thinking about these sorts of narratives, right? You you have a particular concentration, geographically, and a lot of your research focuses on the Appalachian southeast region of Southeast Ohio. For our listeners, how would you characterize this region socially, historically, environmentally? And what drew you towards studying this region beyond what you’ve already mentioned with regards to your background?
Sonia Ivancic: Yeah, so I’ll talk about where I was with Southeast Ohio, which sits at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. People often talk about Appalachia or Appalachia… it can be pronounced different ways. Which is actually a very large, diverse region of I think over 13 states. So I’ll talk specifically about Southeast Ohio, which is this very lush, vibrant, beautiful place with hills and caves. Unlike other parts of Ohio, it has a relatively large number of farms that grow diverse crops. So oftentimes, like my visits to Ohio, when I was a child, visiting my extended family, we’d see a lot of these flat landscape and mono crop cornfield farms. And that’s not what you find in Southeast Ohio, I guess, actually, because the soil is not as rich. So interestingly, the less rich soil kind of creates this opportunity for farmers to grow these diverse farms with lots of diverse crops.
And Southeast Ohio land that’s a lot cheaper than many other places. So I think because of all these things, it has this very vibrant regional food scene of local food growers and local food producers. And then a rich practice of home gardening, home canning, individuals who have saved seeds, like I said, in their community for hundreds of years and in their family for hundreds of years. And then kind of in contrast to that, or in conjunction with that, it also has what people call a history of extraction. And so it has this history of companies coming into the region– So coal mining, and brickmaking are really good examples– And then they come into the region and they create what is maybe the backbone of the economy. And they create these towns that maybe were once these thriving places. But when the resources ran out, or became no longer profitable for the companies, or whatever various different reasons, they left, kind of leaving this large environmental damage and their weak, leaving people who had once had good jobs with no opportunities for other jobs.
Because they, you know, it was one of those sort of singular economies where it’s not, it wasn’t diverse in terms of what kinds of careers you could have. So and then, because of all of that, and Southeast Ohio also has a rich history of labor organizing and resistance against these corporations. So it’s kind of, you know, multifaceted, it’s many things. There’s currently a big anti-fracking movement that’s being organized in Southeast Ohio that I was really surprised to find out about when I moved there. So and then in the midst of this vibrant food system, and because of these lack of jobs that don’t earn people living wage, and due to how rural the region is, you have very high rates of poverty and food insecurity.
The county that I was in routinely had the highest poverty rates in the state. And that can fluctuate year to year. So I don’t know if it’s necessarily currently true, but was something that often happened in the region. So I happen to live there while earning my PhD at Ohio University. And so partially, what drew me to the research was I, you know, I was there and around the place, and I got to sort of witness and see what was going on. But I think more than that, what I saw was this community, and this organization, responding in creative ways to some of these large societal problems that we have, like hunger, or a food system that damages our environment, and places a lot of the control of our food resources in these very few corporate actors.
So I saw them sort of responding to these things differently. There’s a lot of critiques that can be made of our current food system, and also how we organize food assistance, in ways that tend to mark people or isolate them rather than create connection or community or inclusion. So food pantries are a good example. And a lot of our programs like food pantries, kind of presume that food insecurity is this natural inherent state of being. And so we build infrastructure for programs around emergency food assistance, kind of presuming this is normal, natural, and we’ll always have it, right. So we build this huge infrastructure of charity and emergency food, because we kind of presume that hunger is just a natural state of being.
But there’s a lot of research that says we actually have plenty of food. So the problem is not necessarily whether we have enough, it’s about things like allocation, access, profit margins, right? So I was kind of interested… there’s a lot of critiques that can be made. And those are really important to do. And that’s important work. But I was like, Can I find an organization that’s taking a different approach, you know, planning for long term solutions based on maybe the possibility of equity and justice rather than presuming that we’ll always have a community where people are hungry. Plus, I have this commitment to community engaged research and so both contributing to but also learning from the work that people are already doing in our communities is something that’s important to me as a scholar.
So doing this project, where I lived also allowed me to have a really deep commitment, and involvement to that work. So with this stuff in mind, I was kind of just witnessing and noticing what was going on. I did some research with a fundraising event, you know, that ended up leading more to critique because I saw them labeling. The event is very communal and inclusive, and everyone’s doing it all together. But the ticket prices were very high, right? It was really exclusive and really hard to get a ticket. It was a very public event that happened in the public town square, like one long community table yet, you know, a lot of people weren’t included or invited.
And then the whole thing was raising money for food insecurity, yet that was forgotten, I think, in the process of the event. So in doing all of this, I was kind of like, well, what else can I find and what else can I see? And that’s what led me to this collaborative food strategies.
William Saas: So continuing with discussion of Collaborative Food Strategies or CFS, much of your focus on them and other regional nonprofits is on their unconventional, quote unquote, “asset-based narrative approach” to community engagement and funding. And this is in contrast to what you identify as the dominant deficit narratives. And you mentioned before of course, we are interested in deficit narratives here at money on the left. And these deficit narratives are interesting or important in your work, especially as they’re promulgated by most of the contemporary nonprofits that you look at. So can you walk us through both the asset-based and deficit based narratives? The strategies, how they differ and why these differences matter?
Sonia Ivancic: Yeah, absolutely. So, um, let’s maybe start with the dominant deficit narrative. And I’m saying dominant because I think our story in our story about Appalachia, that’s what we tend to think of that what that’s what becomes dominant, right? So this narrative is circulated in media. It’s used by nonprofit organizations to earn grants. And it’s what most people outside the region think of when they hear the word Appalachia, so things like poor or lacking resources. People are described as hillbillies or lazy are that sort of a thing. And then there’s all the data to back it up. So I mentioned the poverty and food insecurity data in the state, which is often the case that nonprofits used in order to garner funding, right?
Like, look how poor we are, look how high of food insecurity we have, we need this funding, right? So deficit narratives can, for nonprofits, produce funding, legitimacy, proof of need. So they can be very fruitful in that sense, people are moved by stories about how poor or desperate or in need a place or group of people are. And then there was this talk that I noticed when I was doing my ethnographic work of competing for most food insecurity, or poorest or, you know, they talked about this almost as a discussion of a race to the bottom, because that was a path to resources, grant money, and so forth. So one of the board members explained this as pride in the race for last place. And that showing you could do a lot with very little are showing that you had the biggest struggles kind of bolstered the case for nonprofits as they apply for funding or legitimacy.
So one of the issues that can happen is that when the grants you’re applying for and the funding sources become attached to this negative depiction of the region, right, in order to get money, you have to then be the poorest. So how do you ever see your way out of that? This money becomes attached or dependent on this lack on the deficit. And that makes it really difficult for a community to become something otherwise. So that leads me to this asset-based perspective, which stems from questions about potential. They redefine wealth to include a myriad of assets outside of financial assets, which they don’t have a lot of, right. So they talk about strength, resilience, abundance, the wealth of the region, that is the, you know, the trees that allow them to tap for maple syrup, the mushrooms that they can forage for, the people who have, you know, long histories of knowledge about farming and gardening and canning food and things like that. So it’s different in what aspects of place it draws attention to.
It’s not, as the executive director said, it’s not delusional. It’s a story rooted and lived experiences, it is real. But instead, it says it looks different than maybe what you’re expecting. And they leverage these communal resources, like bringing people together to highlight what the wealth is. So I think one of the interesting things about place-based narrative labor is that it takes this asset-based approach, continuing to circulate these deficit narratives to garner short term funding, which might be good in the short term because you get a grant, but it ultimately undermines the organization’s goals, things like building community resilience, or creating a strong local equitable food system. So in order to create community resilience you need to understand what makes or can make the region abundant, durable, adaptable, right? And that means letting go or reimagining those deficits to some degree. So CFS recognized, I think, the temporality of this–you can’t depend on the deficit.
And part of what they’re getting at is: Why would you want to, when you’re rooting your reason of being and your image of the future’s place to always having a region where people are really struggling to access food? Long term? Where does this take you? Right?
So I think one of the things I emphasize is that we’re all telling stories all the time. And that, to some degree, these stories are chosen ways of viewing the world. So neither one is necessarily right or wrong. They’re both accurate to some degree, but they do different things in the world. The deficit mirror narrative is very much over simplified. And it also struggles to create a story of where to go in the future, right? Whereas the asset-based narrative allows you to create a theory of social change. An image of who you want to be and where you want to go. It helps you see possible ways of getting there, right, because it calls for possibility and potential instead of lack deficit, what we don’t have, how poor we are, how hungry people are. So I think those are kind of the differences. And also the reasons why they choose that asset-based approach.
Scott Ferguson: Seems like there’s a connection to between, you know, your critique of the infrastructures around food scarcity, that sort of presume, a kind of endless, natural state of hunger and poverty, and this asset versus deficit approach, right? So not only does the deficit approach, kind of reify, lack and a lack of not just wealth, but dignity and validity. But then also, it seems like in the same breath, it’s in our imagination, putting these regions and these communities into this kind of state of nature that, you know, we can try to as long as there are some rich, you know, wealthy donors who might put, you know, help you out for a few months, you’re going to be okay, but then you’re going to just sink back down to this natural state that we all assume.
Sonia Ivancic: And you never want to use those resources to take yourself to a place where you’re no longer poor, because then how do you get future resources, you kind of get stuck in that. And yeah, I think that’s absolutely the case. And with a lot of these charity models, we kind of build an infrastructure around the charity, and this idea of a charity model, and it creates this very short sighted vision in which we can’t see our way out of that, you know, I think most people, if you ask them– and this has a lot to do with the ways that we talk about poverty and poor people– but if you ask most people, they don’t want aid or assistance, you know, that makes them feel ashamed. It makes them feel embarrassed. Again, like I said, it has a lot to do with the ways that we talk about aid and assistance. But so I think we we commit to these models, where we then are not envisioning a way out of them, or something more just and equitable, and something that a lot of people I think, would prefer.
Maxximilian Seijo: I think this is a nice moment to shift into perhaps more of a longer question that that I’m going to read, and that I think is trying to then make some connections between what we do on this podcast and our intersectional MMT framework and your work specifically. And so one of the reasons why we invited you two on Money on the Left to speak with us is that your theorization here of the asset and place-based narratives, right, as opposed to this deficit as in a sort of deficit of people, right? Or in the sense of people having food scarcity or a scarcity narrative for this particular region that you’re discussing is that these ways of looking at places complements and also complicates some of thinking in the MMT movement about public spending.
So particularly with regards to urgent projects we support like the Federal Job Guarantee, and the Green New Deal. So MMT economist Pavlina Tcherneva, for example, advocates for a job guarantee that routes federal funds through nonprofits, which already have local knowledge about the needs and values of particular communities. In your writing, however, you newly sensitize us to the very different ways in which this process can be mediated. So we at Money on the Left share your conception of language and narrativity as generative rather than as neutral or descriptive. We regularly extend this assumption to the words, images, and sounds that give shape to money, understood, not as private zero sum exchange, but as constitutive and contestable public spending. Before discovering your work, we have not yet adequately considered how deficit storytelling within particular organizations and communities could undermine what are otherwise robust public spending projects.
So granting that your case study involves organizations or communities largely abandoned by federal and state legislators, right, which is where this deficit narrative that you’re discussing, right, comes into being.This sense of scarcity and abandonment. We’d love to hear, though, alongside how your research might contribute to this then progressive fiscal program that thinks of deficits in a different way, right? public deficit spending, so an MMT, right? The public deficit is the private surplus. And so there’s, there’s this sort of balancing of deficits or where the deficit narrative exists, and we’re wondering if maybe you could just, you know, weigh in and and see what, how your research might contribute to this vision?
Sonia Ivancic: Yeah. So I think, a couple of things, one of the things I just thought of, as you were talking was this idea that, you know, we, we presume, or name or categorize something as deficit, when we could be asking maybe other different questions like, what is there? What do we have and what can we create? And then the other thing my research talks about is because of deficit storytelling we undervalue the things connected to that. So we undervalue for example, in my case, the people in places attached to Appalachia or Southeast Ohio, we undervalue urban neighborhoods that we labeled blighted, right? So in some ways, I think, we should reconsider that and think about how these places are actually full of potential, and have a lot to teach us. People love their communities.
Oftentimes, I think I had a participant say something to the great degree of, people don’t look at your neighbor and say, “what a pathetic life you have,” you know? But the experience of living and being in a place as much different oftentimes then an outsider’s perspective of what that is or what it’s like. And so if we’re not from those places, we need to be careful coming in and telling people what to do or how to fix things, or presuming that fixing is even what needs to happen. So an asset approach might focus on harnessing highlighting, creating, or illuminating, instead, maybe.
So I would say that these community members and nonprofit organizations and in Appalachia, and I’m sure in other places as well have a lot to teach, you know, everyone about how we navigate different symbolic and material resources. People love the region, they want to stay, but people tend to really struggle to find work that is engaging, or allows them to feel a sense of dignity or purpose or pays them a living wage. And so that was kind of a routine conversation that happened when I was there, you know, I had, and this was both for people at the organization, but also the people that they serve. So I had a participant tell me we’re not creating the right kinds of jobs. And so she talked about how you know, you could easily get a job at Dollar General or fast food, but that doesn’t pay you enough to live on. And a lot of these jobs are part time, so then you’re also don’t have really enough to live on and you don’t have benefits, right?
So I guess ultimately, I think investing money, and jobs and resources into these different areas to kind of lift up what they’re already doing and allow them to do more, could not only benefit the people inside the region, but also the people outside of it, right, because they’re doing a lot of creative, engaging things that we have a lot to learn from. But one caveat, is just that these resources have to be permanent and reliable. And when creating these programs, I think a lot of work would have to be done to gain trust. And this has a lot to do with the context of extraction in the region that a lot of people have experienced.
So booms and bust, promises without follow through, the government is storing fracking wastewater in a national forest there. So things like that create this distrust of like, you don’t know if you can trust people to say what they’re actually doing, or that they have good intentions, or that something will remain or be consistent there. So I’ve heard of people in a town saying no to a grant, because they weren’t sure that the source of the grant was going to give them local control over the decision making. So I think it’d be interesting to think about. You can take an asset-based approach and creating these programs and doing this, but really do it in ways that create trust and give local people voice and control over the resources.
William Saas: The tendency toward the deficit narrative is, you know, usually in service of making a compelling argument for additional resources. And I’m trying to–as we’re having these conversations, or we’re talking through these different elements of your work–I’m wondering how much of it maps on to macro, national, federal-level policy discourses. I’m thinking right now about the inverse of what we’re talking about–where a program is working well, and the deficit narrative sort of disappears, but also there’s no sort of alternate asset narrative that appears and affirms a situation. If there’s not a problem, if there’s not a deficit, if there’s not a lack, then there’s a tendency to forget about and then take for granted that that is now the equilibrium state of a community.
And that seems to be why that perpetual deficit narrative is maybe assumed by these organizations, nonprofits and things. And I’m thinking about it in terms of national policy related to, for example, public health responses, where as long as there’s a deficit of care, we will intervene. But as soon as we feel like we’ve addressed that we will disintervene or disengage and then only intervene again, when the deficit becomes unavoidable in our daily lives and consciousnesses. So the question is, do you feel like what you’re observing on the community level is abstractable, or applicable, or if there’s an analogy with the broader national federal policies and programs?
Sonia Ivancic: Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. And I think you’re, you’re right, right, that the deficit narrative almost shines a spotlight on what we need to focus on what we need to look at or fix. And then, you know, we allocate resources and then kind of turn away and ignore, right? I think, you know, I mean, there’s a lot of ways I guess you could think about this question, but it makes me think about how a lot of our funding and our projects are very temporary, you know? You might get a grant for three years to start a local seed saving company. And then after those three years, you know, does the company go under? Do you frantically try to write more grants to see if you can sustain that? What do you do? So, it just makes me think about how, to some degree, these things need to be categorized as permanent.
Food. Is food something that you profit off of? Or is it something people have a right to, right? Is food a public good that we should all have access to? And so I don’t really have a solution to your question, but it makes me think about how we write grants and how we write policy and the things like the time limits and conditions and those sorts of things on them, instead of maybe looking at looking at something as permanently important, and really investing it in it in that sense. Because what we have is a lot of these nonprofit companies or organizations constantly putting so much work and effort into just like getting money. That’s important work. And that is a skill that people honed over many years. But to some degree, is that the best use of their time?
You know, could they be doing a lot more if they didn’t have to worry about that as much? I think proving that what you’re doing is valuable, and that it is actually benefiting people is important. So accountability is important and good. But just think about how much time they’re putting into just maintaining this very low base of funding, and how much more people could do if they didn’t have to be concerned with that as much.
William Saas: Could it be that we have better ways of measuring and demonstrating scarcity, and lack, and deficiency, and deficits, than we do have for accounting for and affirming abundance and plenty?
Sonia Ivancic: Yeah, like, how do you measure possibility? You don’t have a measurement of possibility and imagination. So I think that’s a really good point. We’re very good at measuring lack. Do we have low or very low or marginal food insecurity? What are people’s incomes? And a lot of these numerical categories drive a lot of our policymaking. And I think if you were to go on the ground, and interview people and talk to them about their experiences and what they want, and what is possible, I think we could create something much more fruitful.
Scott Ferguson: So I think what I’m hearing is that there’s a temporal dimension to this deficit narrative mode that’s naturalizing, right? So we presume lack over the long term. And then try to do something about it by writing grants. But we could actually start with different narratives, not only, you know, in the communities themselves, but right in our macro political economic talk, right? We could talk about rights, we could talk about food rights. One kind of wonky term, but I think I think it works here is what we on this show, and in Heterodox Economics, we’ll talk about automatic stabilizers, right? So we have automatic stabilizers, we just don’t have enough.
We have unemployment benefits go up when there are less jobs and that happens automatically. Congress doesn’t have to have a big battle about it, unless there’s a pandemic or something like that. And it just happens, right? So we could have all kinds of ways of allocating credit that mobilizes resources to employ people or to invite people to participate in the ways they want to in their own food abundance and security. What’s neat here is you’re teaching us and opening up connections between a lot of what we think about at the level of macroeconomic talk and yeah, these local levels.
I want to circle back to a question that we actually just skipped, but I actually like how this is unfolded. Anyway, I want to come back to this organization that you’ve given this pseudo name to: Collaborative Food Strategies. Can you talk a bit more about this organization? Who are the people who are involved? Beyond just this asset approach, what’s their background? What are their values? And then also, as you’ve mentioned, you did over a year’s worth of participant observer engaged community research as a scholar, and you know, as a PhD student, so you’re sort of of the community but also studying it.
Sonia Ivancic: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about it. So CFS is a really small organization. And they’ve been around for over 30 years. They currently try to create community food security and resilience by investing in the food resources that people grow and produce there and by making fresh, high quality food available to people who lack access. So we can talk a little bit about the history if you’re interested in that, but they started doing different things and this is kind of where they’ve ended ended up and what they do now. So they try to foster communities where everyone has equitable access to healthy local food. I would describe their work as connecting people to food resources and networks, and to individuals with food skills to increase food knowledge and food access.
They do all kinds of stuff, so I’ll just list some of it. They host seed giveaways, where they give seeds away for free. And you don’t have to meet some sort of metric, you just sign your name down and put your email down. And you can get free seeds, free potato seeds. They host seed swaps, where local seed savers can trade or sell their own seeds. They run a workshop series, where they ask people in the community and sometimes the executive director, or one of the people who works there, or a board member, but a lot of times it’s you know, just someone in the community will run a workshop on how to inoculate mushrooms. Or how to tap trees for sap. Or how do you plant a pollinator garden or canned food or various different kinds of things like that. They run community school gardens.
One of their main programs is called donation station. And they have a tent at the farmers market. And then there’s a produce auction that is run by a different nonprofit in collaboration with farmers, and a lot of them are Amish farmers in the area where they auction off produce. So they set up a tent at the farmers market and the produce auction and they collect money. You can donate money, you can donate food that you’ve bought at the farmers market or auction. You can donate food or produce from your garden. So people will come and have a bunch of extra, you know, zucchinis was a thing people often have excess of have a ton of extra zucchinis. “Do you want them?”
Then they use that money to buy food from the farmers at the market or at the auction. So how can we help people who need access, get access to fresh foods, but also how can we do that in a way that invests in the farmers and food growers and producers that are here? So then they hold a distribution once or twice a week, depending on the time of year. And we would haul out all the food. And people from local organizations, whether that be pantries, schools, people would take food back to the library sometimes. Would take it back into the county we’re in and also four or five surrounding counties. So it gets at this idea of when you’re doing food access stuff in a rural area, you really have to think about how are you bringing the food to the people who need it, rather than expecting them to travel to you. So yeah, they also ran a small seed company when I was there, which I think that project is on pause now.
But they’re investing in the regional food system. They’re uplifting it and highlighting it and expanding on it through education and these shared resources. So their vision is to create a resilient region in which everyone in our community has access to an equitable, inclusive, and thriving food system.
So then you asked who was involved. It’s a very small organization, there’s maybe five to eight employees depending on time of year and type of grants they have. Many of these workers are AmeriCorps volunteers, probably about half. And so AmeriCorps volunteers are federally funded and receive a very meager stipend. And I don’t know how much the executive director makes, but it’s not a lot of money. And so the woman who ran it when I did my research there, said, when she first got her offer, she was trying to negotiate her salary, and learned through the process of that negotiation that the organization barely had enough money to survive and was in dire financial circumstances. So from what I understand, she got them to a better place. But the point is that the people who are there are people who care a lot about about environmental justice, food justice, growing food and food production, community resilience. They have a lot of skills and passion, but they’re not paid very well and so they don’t tend to stay very long. Maybe a year or so after this data was collected or less, the entire organization turned over. And so I no longer personally know anyone who works there and that seems to be relatively common. And I think it’s because, you know, they’re not able to pay people to stay very long. The AmeriCorps workers are there for a year or so and then move on. The Executive Directors may be there for a few years and puts their heart and soul and all of their time into the organization, and then usually needs to move on to other things. I remember the executive director talking to me in our interview about how long she could stay viably, you know. And I think that’s a pretty kind of common and routine thing.
So that’s who the people at the organization are what they do. You’ll have some people in the region who do these AmeriCorps jobs kind of over and over again, and maybe at different nonprofits, a lot of the people are either people who live in the region and are from there, or are students who recently graduated. So that tends to make up who works there. And then I can talk about my experience doing research, which I would say was a really amazing and special experience. I have a lot of gratitude to the individuals for welcoming me into their organization and community and just for the work that they do.
I got into the field or into the site through a friend of mine, who knew the executive director, and we scheduled a meeting. And we kind of co-created what the relationship might look like in terms of my involvement with the organization. And I was very intent on not conducting what they call “helicopter research” where you, you know, land down and collect your data and sort of use people and then move on and don’t contribute anything back. And this is really common in the region, because there’s a university there. And then it mirrors what people have experienced with the industries and extraction. And so that’s something to be really mindful of when conducting research there.
There was a different project I wanted to do where I wanted to interview women Appalachian artists, and once I mentioned IRB and research, the woman was not interested anymore and wouldn’t connects me to the participants. And so I think this idea of the people are vulnerable to being researched a lot, and maybe not always in respectful ways–this was something I really wanted to be thoughtful about. So we talked, I talked to the executive director, and I volunteered a lot–over 200 hours. I went to every event that I could attend, and I wrote blog posts for them about their workshops, and, you know, took photographs to go with the blog post.
And so I ended up being able to really develop relationships with the participants. And by the time I interviewed them, one on one, I knew most of them really well. And that was hugely beneficial just for their comfort, their willingness to talk to me, you know, or willingness to share things with me or be honest, you know? And then I gave a final presentation with a few of my findings at the very end. So, you know, in the work involved, all kinds of things that we don’t typically think of as academic work, like packaging dirty potatoes and like rotten vegetables that smell really bad and beautiful vegetables like huge cabbages and going to produce auctions and farmers markets every week, giving seeds away watering gardens and things like that. So yeah, it was a fantastic experience. And I’m kind of in awe with with what they do there.
Maxximilian Seijo: I’m reflecting on where this conversation has led to, and I think there’s some interesting themes that come out for me. Particularly in the way you describe how, you know, the the employees and and who runs this nonprofit, how that structure is working. And in a temporal sense to bring it back to that. Because right, the AmeriCorps volunteers, of course, there’s your federal policy that’s been actively mediating these types of investment and this labor that’s going into addressing, even in the model, the deficit narrative, and its own terms. But shifting to the more asset-based approach, as you have said and, you know, Scott mentioned automatic stabilizers. It reminds me of this macro discourse around the business cycle, which is this idea that, there’s boom and bust, as you said, and the economy’s going well, and then it’s not. And then that’s when people need to come in and address things. And that’s when intervention needs to happen. And we keep circling back to that, but it’s interesting to think about in ways that are really austere still, but, you know, potentially, that these AmeriCorps volunteers are, you know, there’s the kernel of a model there potentially, to think about what a type of permanent investment in the assets of a community might look like. And I think this is where we highlight the Job Guarantee and the Green New Deal as policies that do install a rights based approach. That, you know, eschew the model of business cycles in favor of a sort of permanent infrastructure approach. Which I think is aligned with this asset-based approach.
So framing where we’ve gone in this temporal sense, that feels like a really important, both, you know, critique, but also positive articulation of what could be done through what is already being done.
Sonia Ivancic: I think that makes perfect sense as you said it, thank you.
Scott Ferguson: In your writing you mentioned it’s not all hunky dory, right? There’s the asset-based narrative approach, and then the organization that variously employs it, and tensions come up. And I’m wondering if you could tell us about some of those tensions.
Sonia Ivancic: Yeah, so I named two of these tensions, named them “food dissonance” and “concurrently contending with hardships.” So this idea of community based organizing tends to be really romanticized and glorified. And that’s really common, I think, especially with community garden type initiatives that, you know, we kind of glorify that it’s automatically good without thinking about some of the complications of it. So communication scholars talk about how organizing, especially nonprofit organizing is inherently filled with tension. Because you have to simultaneously achieve some sort of goal where you’re fulfilling a good or need, while at the same time writing for funding and arguing for funding and that sort of thing. And that one is profitable or gets you funding isn’t necessarily always in the name of achieving your mission.
So, with the food dissonance, I talked about how there’s moments of dissonance between what food the organization provided or emphasized, and the food that was kind of discursively connected to the region or of the region. So, for example, the region has a very long history of hunting and things like that. The organization used to have a mobile chicken butchery unit, which I learned about through one of my interviews. But a lot of people got the impression that the organization was encouraging vegetarianism. And basically, they were like, we feel like you’re coming in from the outside, and telling us how to eat, you know? And this happened for a number of reasons, there was a different nonprofit that didn’t do that, that sometimes people would confuse them with.
But then other cooking demonstrations were all produce. And most of what they provide is produce, and they don’t provide meat to people. They do do eggs and things like that, but but it just sort of raised these questions about “what does place mean, and who gets to decide?” So this concept of place itself is riddled with dilemma. Because there’s no singular meaning of place, there’s no one authentic meaning of place. On one hand, you had people saying, you know, “‘no, meat’ is in another region. And we need to, you know, that needs to be a part of our programming, because that’s something that people in this area care about.” And if we want to have a better sustainable food system, we need to think about hunting and things like that, because that’s a more sustainable way of accessing meat. And vegetarianism isn’t of the place.
On the other hand, you had people who worked there who are from another region, and were vegetarians and vegans. And so it’s this sort of complicated thing about like, who gets to decide and who gets to make these choices about what place is, and then that’s sort of an ongoing conversation. It’s not a static finite thing, and not everyone is necessarily going to agree, but you need to grapple with those tensions.
Another food dissonance tension was about what foods CFI or CFS offered. Because they made the choices when they were donating food about what people had access to. So questions about choice and, you know, did people feel familiar with that food or recognize it or know how to cook it and that sort of thing. They didn’t just respond to what people wanted. But the organization itself was actively participating in cultivating certain habits, or making certain things available and not others.
And sometimes this had to do with funding sources. So it sounded really good on their grant applications, if they could say, for every $1 you donate, we buy a pound of food. And so when we were making our purchasing at the market, or the auction, thinking about weight was something we did you know, and so can we buy things that were heavier? And then can we do that to offset buying some of the other things that people really like or want to eat, that maybe aren’t as heavy or more expensive? Strawberries or peaches are expensive and not as heavy. Whereas potatoes or watermelon, or something like that was very helpful for that ratio. So there are these tensions of the organizations grappling with. And I think there is also something to be said for being able to provide more food, right, rather than if you buy all strawberries, you’re not going to be giving away very much food, nor can you subsist on strawberries. So that was one of the tensions.
And then the other one, I called “concurrently contending with hardships.” And this just talks about that tension of you’re taking an asset-based approach while you’re simultaneously working to address local challenges. So as you notice, just in my story of the organization and of the place, there are deficits there, like that turnover. Maybe it brings in creativity but ultimately isn’t serving the organization all that much. They would be better served if the executive director and all the employees had a living wage and, and felt they could stay if they wanted to. So they have to work toward this vision of a better world while accounting for what is there, and the injustice is that are there. And so hearing stories about food insecurity, or the struggle of accessing food, or getting a job was very routine part of the work.
It’s not that those stories weren’t there, or were silenced. But one of the things I talk about is place-based narrative labor means a willingness to dwell in these dilemmas, and to sit with them, and look for the resources to transform the circumstances. So can you celebrate while grappling. People talk talk a lot about toxic positivity right now, you know? Or tyrannies of cheerfulness, where in this case, positive place-based talk is the only thing acceptable and that basically, I just want to say that’s not what was happening.
But they’re trying to expand what’s possible and complicate that deficit narrative. They’re trying not to define the people in the region by the bad things. So they have to be contextualized in the history of the region and how people are actually already they’re organizing to solve the problems. They’re not just sitting around going, “there’s not enough food, and there’s no jobs.” And so I guess that’s sort of the main main challenges I saw or tensions that I saw within doing this work.
William Saas: In some of your other work, you think critically about the Org Comm issues surrounding sexual harassment. Maybe by way of rounding out our interview, could you sketch out some of of these claims and that work? And then maybe tell us whether you see in your own work connections between the sort of place-based narrative labor and organizational communication and sexual harassment issues?
Sonia Ivancic: Yeah, absolutely. So I think I said at the beginning that a question that kind of guides my research is how do our actions and ways of communicating, hinder or open up possibilities for positive social change? So the sexual harassment project I conducted with a colleague was asking sort of what happens when someone talks about their sexual harassment? So they tell a co-worker, they report it formally. You know, what happens to their personal experience at work? And how do people respond to that? And so one of the things we found is that voicing your harassment to the organization tends to have a negative impact on the people who who were harassed.
So a lot of times, you know, you need to just tell someone or report. Report it is a thing you often hear all the time. But reporting your harassment actually tended to make people feel less resilient at work, or able to be less resilient at work. And so their resilience decreases when they formally report their harassment. And this is more likely, as we might expect to occur in organizations that are perceived by them as tolerant of sexual harassment. So that’s some of the work that we’ve done around these questions of resilience, and, you know, does is the organizational culture tolerant or hostile to harassment occurring? And then we have a paper that’s currently under review. So it’s unpublished, and I won’t talk too much about it, but it’s about how organizations support or harm targets or witnesses of sexual harassment. So we focus on how discourses tend to form around the target that are negative and harmful for them. About who they are as a person.
And that support for them, is very unreliable, and paradoxical. But that some people do get a little bit of support, and a few people are able to create these collective networks of support as resistance to the organization. So kind of what we’re arguing is that organizations tend to create the conditions for harassment to occur or thrive. And then perpetuate this with low accountability, low transparency, wanting to avoid the issue or brush it under the rug. I would say that targets of harassment tend to get the impression that the perpetrator is somehow impervious, or outside of accountability. For various reasons, you know? They’re well liked, they are the CEO, they’re their manager. And then the organization often kind of response to the situation in that way. That it’s impossible to hold the person accountable.
So I guess collectively, these articles sort of advanced recommendations for how we can better support people who are harassed with the hope of creating cultures that are less tolerant to harassment occurring. They complicate narratives that speaking up or reporting your harassment will automatically lead to justice, because often that’s not what happens. The process tends to be pretty unpleasant for people. So speaking up is not necessarily or reporting… it’s not necessarily what’s best for people who are harassed. So I think I mentioned, this is a project I’ve been doing with my colleague, Dr. Jessica Ford, and we’re starting a second sort of project on this that kind of asks the question of, well, now what? Now, what do we want to do about this? Are there any examples where people have felt this has been done well or you know, and how do we sort of think about it in that way? So I guess this project sort of connects back to my central research program, about how organizational strategies perpetuate inequity, or disrupt it. And it centers the experience of people who have been targets of harassment or we also talk about witnesses, because that’s something that’s not discussed a lot.
So when you’re asked about themes connecting themes between this and my other work. You know, I think how we talk matters, how we label a place or an action, or a person impacts how we respond to them. And whether it impacts whether we can create spaces that are safe, just, equitable, or whether we sort of continue to perpetuate current issues. And also how we mobilize material resources like food and money, harassment policies, that those matter. They have real impacts on people. These material objects and places are also always communicative and symbolic. So what messages are we sending, you know, not just with words, but through objects as well. So policies are a good example. I brought up the example at the very beginning about the long table, communicating community and inclusion when the event kind of did the opposite. So if you’re giving away free food, what’s the quality of the food and what does that communicate to people? So guess those are sort of some overarching connections.
Scott Ferguson: That’s great. Well, Sonia, thanks so much for joining us on Money on the Left. It’s been so wonderful to speak with you about your work. Thanks so much for coming.
Sonia Ivancic: Thanks for having me. I really enjoyed talking to you.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Mercedes Ohlen (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)
Cohosts Will Beaman (@agoingaccount), Natalie Tabb Smith (@orangeasm) and Maxximilian Seijo (@maxseijo) are back to reflect on some of the many things that have happened since their last episode. Mentioning Elon Musk’s tentative Twitter purchase, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s feud with Disney, and escalating political attacks against LGBT educators and children, the cohosts reflect on how the US Left should account for its capacity in this new moment. Critiquing a recent NYMag article by Sam Adler-Bell from the Know Your Enemy podcast for its uncritical deference to right wing premises, the Superstructure cohosts suggests that the Left’s capacity is hiding in plain sight, on the front lines of the very infrastructures that the far right is contesting. To write off social media, the entertainment industry and critical pedagogy as non-political and nonstrategic is to abandon some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
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Music: “Yum” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
In this installment of the Modern Movie Theory series, Scott Ferguson explores how a complex aesthetics of omniscience raises important questions about dependence, care, and responsibility in the Netflix show Old Enough!. Recently repackaged by Netflix for streaming audiences across 190 countries, Old Enough! is, in fact, a long-running Japanese reality show titled, “My First Errand,” which began airing on television in Japan during the 1990’s. Each 10 – 15 -minute episode of the series follows the triumphs and tribulations of a small child (and occasionally two), as they venture out for the first time to complete a series of routine tasks without parental chaperones. A flurry of commentary about the show in Western media has worried about televisual claims to realism; the ethics of sending toddlers out into the world; the politics of cultural differences lost in translation; and the dangers of inadequate urban and suburban infrastructure. Shifting our attention to the abstract moving image forms that shape Old Enough!, Scott by contrast teases out how the series routes the collective pleasures, anxieties and responsibilities involved in creating mobile personhood through a subtle aesthetics of omnipresence, which dominant blockbusters and video games repress, and film and media theorists tend to jettison. Irreducible to all-controlling surveillance or to individual embodied action, this omniscient televisuality harbors important lessons about money, mediation, and coordination that we cannot afford to overlook.
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From a non-sovereign perspective
By Andris Šuvajevs
A couple of days ago, the British economics commentator, Grace Blakeley, called people who advocate Modern Monetary Theory “naïve.” This was following a public radio appearance earlier that same day, in which she described tax breaks for the wealthy as taking money directly from those who claim public benefits. An MMT perspective objects to this line of argumentation since the actual or technical monetary process does not at all operate the way Blakeley describes it. Since what MMT calls a monetary sovereign, such as the UK, can issue currency without borrowing (or taxing the rich more), MMT proposes a policy that simply says ‘let’s provide more income to the poor’. The outcome is the same as in Blakeley’s approach, but the journey is different – MMT proposes to get rid of the conditionality that inheres in a policy position which rests on ‘let’s tax the rich in order to fund the poor.’ Importantly, MMT advocates tend to be wholeheartedly in favor of taxing immoral and abnormal levels of wealth – they just treat it as a separate policy issue.
It strikes me as surprising that people on the left become so heated and genuinely insulting toward each other in discussions regarding fiscal policy. There is often bad faith on both sides. Blakeley calling MMTers naïve is patronizing and quite simply arrogant, discarding the scholarship of many truly admirable thinkers. However, I often find that some MMTers are equally hostile when trying to make the point that taxes do not fund the government. Blakeley is obviously making a rhetorical rather than an academic point. She might (perhaps) agree with the technical analysis of the British monetary system that MMT provides, but her interest lies in formulating effective political arguments that resonate in British society. Thus, much of the online bickering between the British (Corbynist) Left and the global MMT crowd is often pointless as both sides speak on different conceptual levels.
Nevertheless, there is a conceptual disagreement between people who generally believe that public spending is in some way dependent on private savings and people who see it exactly the other way around. This disagreement concerns the issue of power. There is a reason why Blakeley disparages MMTers as naïve – her perspective is that MMT has no idea how the political world operates and that MMT is nothing more than a technical description of the monetary system. It is precisely on this point, however, that Blakeley—and the part of the British Left that she represents—demonstrates their worst short-sightedness and bad faith.
Namely, it cannot imagine a world where the metaphysics of trade-offs is not the basic principle of politics. I am all in favor of making effective political arguments that are not necessarily based on MMT, but arguments such as the one Blakeley is making are indicative of a fundamental world-view based on scarcity and zero-sum relations that unwittingly reinforce the very logics it supposedly tries to overcome.
In a way, MMT has a more advanced theory of power than contemporary British Marxists in breaking with the normative vision of societies that are discursively structured in classes and other forms of hierarchy. The British Left immediately (and in bad faith) accuses MMT of denying that classes or hierarchies exist. MMT, on the other hand, sees such blanket disavowals of monetary authority as entrenching structures of inequality. The worldview of the British Left is structured as a struggle. The MMT worldview tries to re-define the meaning of the struggle itself.
I suspect that one reason the British Left is explicitly antagonizing in its rhetoric has to do with it being continuously sidelined from power for the last, I don’t even know how many decades. The British ruling classes have been so overwhelming in their political victories that the British Left probably thinks it cannot afford to spend time on redesigning its conceptual toolkit. Admittedly, it is not easy to make public policy based on rather abstract ideas of power such as the one MMT professes. However, it has been my own professional experience that political arguments based on MMT can be incredibly empowering. I live in Latvia and this is a country that has adopted the euro and thus has no “monetary sovereignty” as it is commonly defined. Latvia has no formal influence over the interest rate, bond-buying programs and whatever else the ECB is doing. It is a country for whom “MMT does not apply” as critics often suggest. In reality, MMT is the only way forward if Latvia is to achieve any meaningful socio-economic development.
Let me give you some examples of the political utility of MMT. To begin with, the neoliberal doctrine of the financially impotent state whose capability is dependent on the entrepreneurship of the private sector has been a central feature of the post-soviet macroeconomic consensus. It is useful to remember that MMT itself emerges in conditions where political arguments on both sides of the debate assume that the state is a secondary institution in the force-field of capitalism and the fundamental scarcity of money is a fact of life. It is precisely this assumption which enables financialization and privatization of social life and public goods – MMT emerges to challenge that, providing nuanced analyses of the monetary system which then form the basis for the political arguments against the privatization of the state. It is quite remarkable that the British Left fails to acknowledge this making one wonder who actually is naïve here.
In Latvia, as in other Eastern European, post-socialist countries this consensus has imposed heavy social costs. Since the restoration of independence in 1991, the country has lost nearly a quarter of its population and the decreasing population rate is projected to continue well into the next decades. The only public policy response has been nationalist-conservative exhortations about women needing to give more births and moral panics regarding same-sex partnerships. The lack of public policy is rooted in fear that surrounds any economic projects undertaken or supported by the state. The yearly reduction of debt-to-GDP ratio is de facto state policy even in conditions where Latvia enjoys a relatively small debt-to-GDP ratio. Even if Latvia can ‘afford’ to spend more, it will not do so if it increases debt by a few percentage points in the subsequent fiscal year. Meaningful public investment in social infrastructure that includes the wages, salaries or stipends of teachers, students, social workers, etc. is effectively unthinkable. The median wage in society at large after tax is 749 EUR. Latvia’s integration into the global market immediately turned it into a peripheral country that supplies low-to-medium value goods and services, and regularly posts a trade deficit. The austerity of the last decade has decimated its long-term prospects as the absence of social and industrial policy has meant the gradual evaporation of doctors and teachers alongside a discombobulated private sector that is left to its own devices without support or strategic guidance.
It is within this sorry mix of affairs that MMT provides a powerful political alternative. MMT helps articulate the view that public debt is a form of investment and thus does not have to be feared at all. MMTers often criticize the Eurozone for its harsh and nonsensical fiscal framework which countries like Latvia currently fully embrace. Yet, almost paradoxically, Latvia could enjoy more freedom of action if there was the political will to use the financial security afforded by the eurozone to small open economies. Latvia could invest in its social infrastructure without having to rely on its export earnings and without having to impose a heavier tax on its (very small) well-earning segment of the population. Latvia could create financial institutions like a state development bank with the mandate to provide credit to specific industries that carry out the objectives of the green transition if there was a will to do that.
Without an understanding of MMT, these policies are politically impossible. If public investment (in which I include salaries, stipends, and pensions) is made conditional upon tax hikes on the well-off, you may as well just fold and retire. Furthermore, MMT helps to advance the public discussion by suggesting a focus on available resources rather than ‘available money’ – if the gap between necessary and available teachers is recognised as a problem, policy has to be focused on bridging this gap rather than reducing public debt despite everything else collapsing.
At this point, the conventional arguments pop up – ‘Well, what about the interest rate?’, ‘What happens when the debt grows and the servicing costs increase? Won’t we have to sell our national assets to pay it off?’ These are legitimate concerns in a country whose politicians willingly sold its soul to the IMF in 2008. It is precisely because Latvia does not politicize its own monetary agency and reliance on financial markets that these arguments carry the weight that they do. Nevertheless, without MMT one cannot properly address them. It is MMT that points out that the interest rate set by the central banks (the ECB in this case) is a policy, not a market rate. It is this fact which lets one argue that increased debt will not be a burden on future generations because the interest rate set by the financial markets depends on the ECB – and if ECB increases rates in a recessionary environment, well that’s just stupid policy, isn’t it? Whereas if rates increase in a pro growth environment – well, then there’s no problems servicing the debt, is there? Even in the Eurozone there’s room for political decisions and pressures around the ‘super-independent’ ECB as the debates surrounding current inflation demonstrate.
So it can be seen why MMT is politically helpful in such an economic environment. If one can demonstrate to the public that spending can be carried out without extra taxation, and it will likely increase the overall productive capacity of society, they can begin to imagine a new economic model that is otherwise inaccessible. MMT provides the theoretical tools to infuse the public sector with a positive meaning emphasizing the ways it complements rather than contradicts the private sector.
However, an Eastern European setting comes with its own challenges. The society simply does not believe that public debt can be harnessed for good and it sees public money as dangerous and not particularly democratic. The experience of the 1990s and the corruption and theft of state resources has made many of us intuitively suspicious of large (or any) state projects. If direct public spending is proposed, the first thought for many will be that some well-connected individuals are about to be generously enriched.
This is probably where many on the mainstream British Left will triumphantly exclaim “I told you so,” reminding us that it is insufficient to simply ‘learn economics.’ In that sense they are right, and MMTers certainly should be cautious about appearing too arrogant themselves by reducing politics to their academic truths. Public debt and spending is inevitably going to be realized through and alongside the existing structures and hierarchies of society even as it, hopefully, tries to change them. Repeating the mantra that ‘the state cannot go bankrupt,’ even practically in the eurozone, will not get you very far. People have legitimate historical concerns and thus there is still work to do in developing MMT’s insights into an effective political rhetoric.
To briefly conclude, my hope in writing this is centered on the possibility that there will be less quarreling among people who are in broad agreement about their political goals. If more MMTers and non-MMT Marxists inject some good faith in their positions and arguments, that’s a chance for both to practice what they preach. Just because struggle is constitutive of politics does not mean that everything has to be seen as a refraction of one struggle. And just because one is technically correct about something does not mean they are correct in their political rhetoric, dependent as it is on their respective societies.
By Erica Robles Anderson & Scott Ferguson
Originally presented at Hidden Histories: Gender in Design, Design History Society Seminar, April 14, 2022.
Part I: TED Talks and Teapots
In a 2003 TED Talk titled “Three Ways Design Makes You Happy,” Donald Norman announced that “The new me is beauty.” Norman – a professor, design firm principal, and the first Vice President of User Experience at Apple – ranks among the most influential figures in the field of user experience design. Yet above all, he is associated with the concept of “affordance,” an invented term now widely employed to refer to the forms and features of any useful thing.
Norman brokered the term from psychology to design in his 1988 book The Psychology of Everyday Things. Citing J.J. Gibson’s 1979 book The Ecological Theory of Perception as his source, he offered this definition: “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes.” In the 1980s and 1990s, the medium of computing was taking form as a mass “personal” technology. Norman was part of a movement to constrain the material and semantic scope of personal computing through psychological principles of use.
A decade later, at the turn of a new millennium, in the aftershock of the Tech Bubble burst, Norman was now thinking about what feelings afford. He dramatized his thought process on stage:
“I really have the feeling that pleasant things work better, and that never made any sense to me until I finally figured out — look … I’m going to put a plank on the ground. So, imagine I have a plank about two feet wide and thirty feet long and I’m going to walk on it, and you see I can walk on it without looking, I can go back and forth and I can jump up and down. No problem. Now I’m going to put the plank three hundred feet in the air — and I’m not going to go near it, thank you. Intense fear paralyzes you. It actually affects the way the brain works. …
That’s what fear and anxiety does; it causes you to be — what’s called depth-first processing — to focus, not be distracted. And I couldn’t force myself across that. Now some people can — circus workers, steelworkers. But it really changes the way you think.”
The pleasure of well-designed things has something to do with anxiety. In 2003, unease would have been a salient emotion. The United States was waging a so-called “War on Terror” and the national economy was just pulling out of a recession. A plank across an abyss affording safe passage to the skillful and the daring could be an allegory for neoliberal precarity. But Norman’s demonstration also surfaced a different moment and a history underlying affordance that seems, at first glance, to have very little to do with computing or design: Dr. Eleanor Gibson’s visual cliff.
To the best of our knowledge, there are no citations of Eleanor Gibson’s work in design literature. We correct that omission. Eleanor played a foundational role in developing a paradigm that came to shape how we perceive aesthetic, technological, and political-economic possibilities.
We are currently writing a media history of affordance. The first sustained cultural analysis of the concept, we account for the term’s diffusion through networks of social scientists, designers, and technologists during a period marked by discourses about market growth and government constraint. We fundamentally reject zero-sum metaphysics. Our engagement with this history is an effort to revisit late-twentieth-century aesthetics in order to enlarge their critical possibilities toward more capacious ends.
Our analysis of Eleanor Gibson rejects additive models of gender history, with their fatal deferrals to “someday”, or “also”, or “her or they too.” These logics reproduce inclusion as perpetual supplementarity and thus configure the project of history as an asymptotic climb toward completeness. Gibson’s visual cliff was always already a story of affordance. Our task is to critically interpret its world-shifting Gestalt.
Part II: Baby on the Brink
In April 1960 Eleanor Gibson and Richard Walk astonished Scientific American readers with photographs featuring a baby boy crawling atop a sheet of glass laid across a checkerboard platform. On one side there appeared to be a drop-off of a few inches. The other seemed to give way to a small chasm several feet below. Although perfectly safe, the juxtaposition of opacity and transparency created the impression of a precipice, as vividly portrayed in filmed recordings of the experiments. The visual cliff staged the problem of affordance, although it was not yet named as such. Images of mothers beckoning infants to traverse the makeshift gorge entered popular culture through New York Times and Life features. They have been canonized in psychology textbooks for more than half a century. We are bringing babies back in order to think about what affordance affords.
Eleanor and J.J. met at women-only Smith College during the Great Depression. She was a student, he was an Assistant Professor. She completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology, before finishing a Ph.D. at Yale in 1938. The Gibsons spent decades at Cornell University where J.J. was a professor, but nepotism rules prohibited Eleanor from eligibility as a faculty hire. She worked as a contingent scholar, with no lab of her own nor license to apply for grants as a Principal Investigator. When J.J. retired, Eleanor became the first developmental psychologist in the Department of Psychology as well as Cornell University’s first female endowed chair. She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977 and she received a National Medal of Science in 1992, which is the highest scientific honor in the United States.
If mid-century psychologists were preoccupied with social attachments, stimulus responses, and mental associations, the Gibsons, together, developed a paradigm they called perceptual ecology and the visual cliff was a crucial experimental foundation. By isolating the child from its mother, they established an ontogenetic basis for “independent locomotion” and “discrimination of depth” untethered from the psychosexual dramas and ambivalent interiorities that riddled midcentury white middle-class prosperity. As unnerving as they are exciting, photographs of babies on the brink raise the question: What does the infant see? In the experiment, almost every toddler refused to venture over the cliff. For Gibson and Walk, this not only proved the babies’ perceptual fitness, but also established that mobile depth perception is a direct ecological “endowment,” not a matter of habits, associations, or institutions.
PART III: ALL ABOUT THE GIVENS
Cybernetics has long been narrated as the paradigm that shaped human-computer interactions. Perceptual ecology reveals another path, equally foundational but ontologically distinct. Perceptual ecology is not concerned with signals, feedback loops, or uncertainty. It theorizes a sensory-rich, ever-changing world inhabited by animate perceivers. The terrain is a substance. The ground is a surface primordially differentiated from the sky at the horizon. The atmosphere is an immersive, boundless medium. Animate perceivers do not receive bits of information through discrete channels. Instead, they register the constant flux of light on surface as an “ambient optical array.” Persistent sensory information is called “invariance” and it corresponds to the “solid angles” in a shifting world.
Perceptual ecology, like other paradigms that shaped human-computer interaction, addressed the predicament of the soldier moving through the world in machines. During World War II, Eleanor took leave from teaching and research to raise children and J.J. led a U.S. Army Air Forces Aviation Psychology Program called the Psychological Test Film Unit. The Unit jettisoned the instrumentation of cockpits and radar screens to make motion pictures. The animated mobile point-of-view shots we associate with first-person shooter games and virtual reality experiences were developed to train pilots and to build a psychological theory of being-in-the-world that is perceptual and ecological at once. In 1947, J.J. wrote that “All spaces in which we can live include at least one surface, the ground or terrain. If there were no surface, there would be no visual world, strictly speaking.”
The visual cliff brought surfaces and animate perceivers into the lab in order to prove that discrimination is a psychological, rather than merely a physiological, problem. Babies of all kinds – human, kitten, goat, rat, lamb, puppy – were placed on the apparatus to the same effect. Surfaces are meaningful in terms of an organisms’ proprioceptive sensory capacities within an ecological niche. Their perceptual thresholds act as optical footholds or levers for immediate responsive action: edge detection. Affordance names the frame-of-reference as organism-environment relationality.
Donald Norman’s version of “affordance” channeled perceptual ecology into design. Norman explains, “Affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning…when affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction is required” (Norman, 1988, 9). “Good design,” he argued, “leads to immediate understanding” (Norman, 1988, 23).
Good, here, means ease, not True or Beautiful. Norman’s “natural design” breaks with Beaux-Arts, Bauhaus, and Arts and Crafts traditions. The aesthetic of “immediate understanding” took hold through the language of “user experience.” In the moment when graphical conventions were being developed, affordances constrained interface functions and forms. Affordance diffused through training programs, professional organizations, and publications. It circulated through engineering, social science, business and marketing, the arts, and the humanities. In the process, terrestrial surfaces became digital media ecologies and affordance became a term for technology, writ large.
At first glance, affordance seems to be a popularized social science term. It is capaciously relational, perhaps almost to the point of banality. Upon critical reflection, however, one begins to perceive how affordance-thinking contracts the view. When ‘what you see is what you get’, social difference, intermediaries, and ethical disturbances disappear from the schema of the given.
If these politics often evade notice, perhaps it has something to do with how elegantly affordance nominalizes the verb to afford. By focusing on “the complementarity of the animal and the environment” it omits political economy, by design. To afford is to provision, to bear the expense of accomplishing something. The Gibsonian neologism replaces the political-economic provocation ‘What is to be done?,” with the perceptual ecological question, ‘What is immediately given?’
Direct experience is a rather narrow and ambivalent mode of ease. It relies upon mediations and hidden labors that must go unseen. A gender history that adds specific figures to the canon can never go far enough. There is trouble with a model that takes what is seen as the limit of what can be given. If we are to reckon with affordance we need to promote the concept to the status of a metaphysical reckoning with being-in-the-world. Like I-Thou relations, a phenomenology for Dasein, a biosemiotic Umwelt, Kantianism, or Cartesianism, there is a big move underway on the visual cliff. But there is also a sensational melodrama of eyeballs on the brink, which Norman’s turn to emotional design brings to the surface.
By queering and expanding the term we could embrace perceptual ecology as political economy as design. We can openly declare that society is not condemned to forever teeter on the cliff, whether narrative, fiscal, or metaphysical. There are many worlds that we can, in fact, afford.
About the Authors
Erica Robles Anderson is a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. She is a cultural historian of network society interested in architecture, technology, and religion, as forms of collective life. She is a founding member of the OIKOS working group on kinship and economy, and the Editor of Public Culture.
Scott Ferguson is a professor of film and media in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida, editor for the Money on the Left Editorial Collective, and research scholar at the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity. His research focuses on money, media and aesthetics in Western modernity.