Heterodox Properties with Lua Kamal Yuille

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

22 – Franciscan Fun Pack

Cohosts Will Beaman, Natalie Smith, & Maxximilian Seijo are joined by Ian from Twitter (@tweet_boxian) to visit America’s favorite socialist family, the Bruenigs. They begin with reflections on a New York Times piece by Elizabeth Bruenig on the need to forgive the recently canonized Franciscan friar Junipero Serra, who oversaw the torture, enslavement and murder of indigenous Americans in California during the 18th century. Next, they consider Matt Bruenig’s “Family Fun Pack” policy paper. They critique the paper’s exclusionary economic premises and natalist aesthetics, and suggest an alternative political economy based on public creation rather than zero sum redistribution.

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

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

Marx Was Right

Scott Ferguson joins Maxximilian Seijo to discuss method and the dangers of overly positive or negative orientations to the historical world. First, they critique Liam Kofi Bright’s problematic revival of logical positivism, which submits left praxis to reductive and exclusionary market models. Next, they affirm the negative approaches to aesthetic criticism found in the works of Siegfried Kracauer, the Frankfurt School, and Fredric Jameson. Finally, they celebrate the often-overlooked “double movement” of positive & negative impulses that animate Karl Marx’s writings, only on analogical rather than dialectical terms.

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

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

Modern Movie Theory: Sharing Parts in Kiarostami’s Close-Up (Preview)

This Money on the Left/Superstructure teaser previews our third premium release, a one-off lecture from Scott Ferguson on Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up (1990) for Patreon subscribers.

The full video lecture can be found here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/modern-movie-in-46862120

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If you are interested in premium offerings but presently unable to afford a subscription, please send a direct message to @moneyontheleft or @Superstruc on Twitter & we will happily provide you with membership access.

Course Description: 

In this lecture, professor Scott Ferguson explores a reparative cinematic approach to social alienation and unemployment in the film Close Up (1990) by the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.

The Franciscan Invention of the New World with Julia McClure

Money on the Left is joined by Julia McClure, lecturer in Late Medieval & Early Modern Global History at the University of Glasgow. McClure’s 2017 book, The Franciscan Invention of the World, draws compelling and confounding conclusions about the role of the late Medieval Franciscans in shaping the modern capitalist and colonialist world. We talk with McClure about how these surprising but profound connections relate to the problematic construction of money in Western modernity as a kind of scarce and finite technology of alienation and privation.

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.

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

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


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

Scott Ferguson: Julia McClure, welcome to Money on the Left.

Julia McClure: Thank you very much. It’s great to chat with you guys.

Scott Ferguson: So maybe to start, we can kind of take a step back. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your personal and professional background, and how you came to study the things that you do?

Julia McClure: Well, many thanks for having me on. It’s great that you were interested in the themes and ideas in my book, The Franciscan Invention of the New World. So I started out with a degree in history. I became interested in the Middle Ages as a kind of cache of concepts, perspectives, and value regimes that were distinct from those that were embedded in Eurocentric capitalist modernity. I was particularly interested in the way in which the meaning and boundaries of concepts that have normative definitions today, such as property, were actually debated and fought over during the Middle Ages. Theologians and scholars were actively debating questions like what constitutes a just society. They were consulted by rulers on questions, such as just war, and other very diverse questions. And now, while governments do consult academics today, and academics use their research to make policy recommendations, you can’t quite imagine a foreign secretary asking university academics to determine whether certain wars or trade deals are morally justifiable. So it seemed like an interesting time period to study. 

Now, I’ve had a wide range of scholarly interests from the medieval history of the Franciscan Order. Today, I’m more interested in indigenous agroecology movements, and the history of the Spanish Empire. But overall, my diverse interests have been, in some way, linked to the histories of poverty as a political project, as well as the historic pathways to inequality. Throughout all of this, I’ve been interested in global history, but I’ve maintained an interest in the indigenous history of Latin America. I’ve been interested in the way in which the intellectual history of political concepts, and so called cosmovisions, or different ways of seeing the world, have varied and been constructed in different ways at different times. This includes the ways in which the world should be ordered and the fact that there’s been different visions of this emanating from different societies.

As you know, I started in medieval history. This was mainly because I got interested in the socio-religious movement known as the Franciscan Order, which we’re going to talk about in just a moment. This wasn’t because I had a passionate desire to study medieval religious history, but rather because I got interested in the particular radical concept of poverty that they were experimenting with in the Middle Ages. In studying this, I came to find out that the Franciscans were also the first global religious order to emerge from Europe. This also led me to my interest that I follow today in global history. The Franciscans had a particular way of seeing the world. I did the PhD and the first book on the history of the Franciscan Order, but not long after finishing the PhD, I followed the Franciscans across the Atlantic myself and worked on that transatlantic history at the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History at Harvard, where I became more interested in the global history of capitalism. This was work that I managed to develop further at the European Institute in Florence, then at the Global History Center at Warwick. Now, I’m at the University of Glasgow. So I’ve worked on a number of different projects during these different positions, all linked in various ways to the global history of poverty.

I’ve just published a co-edited monograph on The Routledge Handbook of Poverty in the early modern world. I’m working on a second monograph at the moment, Empire of Poverty: the Moral Economy of the Spanish Empire. These different projects in a way have been inspired by the work that I did on Franciscan poverty, but have very much broadened out from there. The other thing I wanted to say about my biography is that I also got interested in the political implications of histories of poverty in today’s society, and I have established a poverty research network. I’ve got a grant in order to go and look at the different histories and politics and aesthetical representations of poverty in different places around the world in a project called “The Local Visions of Global Poverty,” holding workshops in the UK, Senegal, and other places–most recently, in Chiapas, Mexico, where I’ve been working with academics on various agro-ecological projects and also thinking about the Zapatista movement. So I have quite a diverse range of works, but in the end, they are all linked to this idea of the global history of poverty.

William Saas: So to transition into your research on Franciscan poverty, I think we should begin with some basic questions for our audience and for us. Who was St. Francis and who exactly are the Franciscans? When did they emerge? What did they believe and what drew you to study Franciscanism? And why in your review are the Franciscans so important for us in this contemporary moment as we rethink the emergence of the modern West?

Julia McClure: The Franciscans were a socio-religious movement that emerged, I would argue, in reaction to the emergence of money and markets in the 13th century. They were rhetorically rejecting money and markets, and in this way, could be thought of as the first anti-capitalists. Franciscan scholars, over the course of Franciscan history, have also contributed in many ways to the legitimation of capitalist economics within the framework of Christian ethics and other principles of finance. It’s a very complex history. That’s important because, since its origins in the 13th century, Franciscan history has been a very heterodox movement. There are different branches of the Franciscan Order. There have been spiritual branches, there have been more rigorous branches, and there have been more observant branches. Basically, across these different traditions, there are different kinds of iterations of the Franciscan movement. It’s very difficult to universalize what Franciscanism has stood for because many things have been debated throughout the course of Franciscan history, and subsequently, in the historiography.

The other point about the heterodoxies and contradictions of the order is that these tensions within the Franciscan Order began really with the origins of the order. It was established by Giovanni Bernardone, who was the guy that later became St. Francis. He was the son of a wealthy class merchant family in the Umbrian market town of Assisi. He was from a reasonably wealthy family and what’s significant is that he renounces his possessions and takes up a voluntary life of poverty. Now, again, the discussions about how this happens or what it meant are part of this Franciscan question and the hagiography of St. Francis. What’s important is that this act of renunciation is the renunciation not only of individual property but also of common property, which marks the Franciscans out as distinct against other mendicant orders. Mendicant orders are those that devote themselves to a life of voluntary poverty and are meant to be existing by begging, such as the Dominicans, yet the Dominicans have a form of common property. But the Franciscans were meant to also be abdicating from that notion of common property as well as individual property. Again, we’ll talk about that in just a moment.

But the point here is to note that St. Francis, the guy who’s founding this Franciscan Order, was from a wealthy family and became voluntarily poor. This is a distinction between religious poverty and real poverty. I think that this tension is significant in terms of understanding the ideology of poverty that’s at stake within the Franciscan Order, because it’s a play at poverty in many ways. They were intellectualizing experimentation with the legal implications of poverty that’s distinct from the economic condition of real poverty to a certain extent. So there were a number of radical implications when this Franciscan Order emerged. Something else that’s interesting to say about the early years of the emergence of the Franciscan Order in the 13th century is that they weren’t the first people to renounce possessions and to play at poverty as a way of critiquing the wealth of the church.

In fact, for example, the Valencian Order had wanted to live a life of voluntary poverty and been condemned as heretics by the church. What made the Franciscan Order unique in its history was that it tried to find a place for this socio-religious movement with an ideology of poverty within the framework of the Catholic Church by getting recognition as an order. This process of institutionalization meant that many of the radical implications of the early years of Franciscan poverty were attenuated through that process of institutionalization. A lot of the first debates were about the approval of the Franciscan rule, for example, and there’s lots of contentions about what that early rule was, but it had more radical claims about the meaning of poverty than that could be approved by the church. These compromises in the history of institutionalization and acceptance and avoidance of the charge of heresy are kind of what make the history of the Franciscan Order. As I said, these different debates lead to different branches and made the heterodoxy of the movement. Whenever you say, “Franciscanism represents this,” straight away, it gets ten people disagreeing with you, because it could represent a lot of different things. So that’s kind of how the Franciscan Order emerged.

Why I got interested in them is because of this claim that they had that the renunciation of all property was a form of radical freedom. At the time, that seemed like quite a radical claim. And there are different Franciscans that tried to articulate it in quite extreme ways. They wanted to be free from the trappings of property. It is interesting how they tried to normalize this, and it had implications for the lives of the real poor. The Franciscans, because they seemed very ascetic, closer to God, and had this real value within the spiritual society of late medieval Europe, attracted a lot of attention and support from the laity and quickly started to acquire wealth. This was at odds with the doctrine of poverty that was at the core of the institution of the Franciscan Order, but they had an arrangement in the early years that they could have a certain aspect of property, of things around them, because they didn’t actually own those things. So they kind of theorized a theory of use that was distinct from property. The minister general of the Franciscan Order, Bonaventure, set out a fourfold category of relationships to temporal goods that included ownership, possession, usufruct, and simple use, which was simplex usus

In 1279, this principle of simplex usus got taken up in the Exiit qui seminat and said that the papacy would own the things Franciscans used in a category of simple use of fact–simplex usus facti. And so, the Franciscan Order did become quite rich, but they could also say, “Well, we don’t actually own these things, the papacy owns them on our behalf.” Then, a whole kind of moral questioning about use comes in. Peter Olivi, for example, in the late 13th century, says, “Okay, this is a fine arrangement, but let’s remember that we also need to have poor use, that we need to use things in a minimalist way.” This is kind of a response to the arrangement of simplex usus facti in that, yes, they’re not owners, but they also need to remember to be poor users of things. I know that has significance in the context of the debates that you want to talk about, so we’ll probably come back to that.

What happens in the 14th century is that this arrangement is revoked. This affects the ways that the Franciscans claimed they were living in the world outside of the constraints of property, rights, and living according to a simple use of fact, which is a form of fas as well. The metaphor that they often used was to cross through somebody’s field to use something without having any stake of ownership in it–this is fas. This gets denied by the papacy, who say that people need to be the owners of the things that they use, especially if those things are destroyed through the use of them, and only an owner can have the right to destroy certain property that can’t be granted to another by virtue of a license. These are the debates that take place in the 14th century phase of the Franciscan poverty disputes, which characterize the history of the order. Now, just to bring this all together, I was interested in this because of the implications for theories of property. 

What I would argue is, coming out of this, property gets established as a paradigmatic right, in that there were these other ways of existing in the world that didn’t rely on property, but in the end, after the papacy revoked this particular arrangement of simple usus facti, it was important that you were the owner of things that you use, thereby establishing property. In fact, it also becomes heretical to claim that Christ owned nothing. Spiritual poverty based on an idea of how Christ was in the world becomes a form of heresy. The debates are particularly focused on whether Christ carried a purse. This bothered people for years, going back and forth asking whether Christ carried a purse. The Franciscans were particularly against money, but at the same time, the papacy says it becomes heretical to say that Christ didn’t carry a purse. So in my work, I wanted to think about the implications of all of this for the early history of colonialism. That resulted in the book, The Franciscan Invention of the New World.

Maxximilian Seijo: This movement of heresy and then synthesis back into the church relationships, as you’re suggesting, really is pivoting on the fulcrum of money. And so, perhaps we could dig into the relationships of poverty to money, as you mentioned, with this purse and within the specific disputes that the Catholic Church and the Franciscans had with one another? And maybe we can discuss some of the details of how these debates were resolved or weren’t, as well as some of the shapes of these crucial problems? Can you do that with just a little bit more attention to the monetary aspect?

Julia McClure: Sure. When the Franciscans emerge, they’re particularly opposed to money. They see it as a form of evil. In the sources that you have around the life of St. Francis, they’re always critiquing money in particular. He says that, if his brothers, the Franciscans, were to come across money, even accidentally, they should treat it as dust that is trampled underfoot, that anyone that holds money should be considered a deceptive brother, an apostate, a thief, and a robber. There’s a citation from the Assisi compilation, a collection of Franciscan sources, that regards any friar who touches money needs to be rebuked, reprimanded, and should be ordered to pick up the money with his mouth and put it in a pile of donkey’s manure. This association of money with all that’s bad with the world is in the early Franciscan texts. They do have this particular anxiety about money. In fact, in what I mentioned earlier about the distinction between the different rules of St. Francis, there was the Regula non bullata, which was the rule that wasn’t approved by the papal’s seal. In this, it said, “The devil wants to deceive those who value money or deem it more valuable than stones. Let us who’ve abandoned everything beware of losing the kingdom of heaven through something so low.”

That passage doesn’t make it to the Regula bullata, which is the rule with the papal seal. Although, the Franciscans are still told that they can’t touch money. This defines the history of the order in the early years alone, I would say, to a certain extent. In the article I mentioned earlier, “The Globalization of Franciscan Poverty” from the Journal of World History, I talk about some of the ways that anxiety travels with the Franciscans. There’s quite an interesting example of how they need money, but struggle to separate from it. At one point, they had the idea of spiritual friends, amicos spirituales, who would carry the money on the Franciscan’s behalf like an agent. There’s a story of William of Rubruck crossing Eurasia at the end of the 13th century–this is before Marco Polo–and traveling to China. He’s got spiritual friends carrying the money for him. In the text, it says, this spiritual friend needs to stay behind. They’re trying to explain to the people that they’re meeting that the spiritual friend can stay behind because they’ve got to carry the money since the Franciscans can’t carry it. This is a theatrical performance in a way.

You can follow these kinds of stories in the Franciscan texts, but of course, this also gets critiqued. A lot of the things that we can read about the Franciscan Order comes from the negative stereotyping you get within confessional discourses from the likes of the proto-Protestant thinker, John Wycliffe. He charged the Franciscans with hypocrisy, arguing that they are not allowed to touch money, but they get around this by wearing gloves or touching it with a stick. So the Franciscan Order became a wealthy order and they had these tensions at the start. Then, they tried to think about the separation in different ways. Now, the 14th century Franciscan poverty disputes are a critical moment for the Franciscan Order, where many of their claims to radical poverty are effectively renounced and denied by the papacy at the time. They revoked earlier arrangements and also made it heresy to say certain things about the Garden of Eden. The pope that is overseeing this Franciscan poverty dispute is Pope John XXII. He argues that Christ carried a purse and that the apostles had money. In one of the papal bulls, he says that, to have some things in poverty, with respect to ownership, doesn’t detract from the highest poverty. This is part of the Franciscan poverty dispute.

Now, to a certain extent, we can trace all of this. How much is it about money? For the Franciscans, it is about money. In terms of the implications, it’s really about property. There are many scholarly takes on whether Christ carried a purse. Inside that purse, yes, there are coins, but in a way, this is shorthand for ecclesiastic possessions. So it’s a broader theory of property and the legitimacy of church property. It’s not only about money. In fact, a lot of the attention has been focused on the implications for the history of property and rights. I would say the implications of the history of money has probably received less scholarly attention, which is something of interest. In relation to what people are thinking of as money, property, and wealth, the framework in the early modern period is more open in a way, because it’s harder to monetize on certain things that have value in other ways. This is the problem of taxation before monetization, you could say, as well.

This idea that the Franciscans had a disdain for money, but were also actors in the world that had relationships with money, continues into the Americas. Some of the documents I came across from looking at the early Franciscan missions whilst doing research in Mexico City in the Franciscan archive there is that they talk about how money, tribute, and other things as well, was given to them by the indigenous populations, not as a form of taxation for the missions, but as a form of charity as alms. The word that they use to describe this income stream that they’re using to fund their missions based on the wealth generated by the indigenous population is Limosnas, alms. It’s quite interesting to think about what they’re calling money, what they’re calling alms, and what other things have value. How much of this is about money and how much was other forms of value?

The other important thing to say, and this is one of the points that in the book I talk about as one of the paradoxes of Franciscan history, is that they also contribute to theories of money, capital, and finance. Peter Olivi, who was the Franciscan I mentioned previously and who was talking about the importance of use value, or the need to have a very poor use of things, also constructed ideas about a theory of just price. He’s thought of as one of the earliest theorists of the notion of capital. He uses the idea of a seed that increases in value. In Latin, this is rationes seminales. He makes a distinction between money that’s just simple money and capital, which he thinks of as fertile money. He’s thinking about what kinds of ways of making a profit from money could be legitimate. In this way, it’s thought that he could be one of the early theorists of capitalism. Although, one of the things that he says in his text is money might be permissible in trade where you might not necessarily know that you’re going to make a profit from the transaction. So it’s not usurous in the same way that usury was condemned in the Middle Ages.

He also says that when this happens, you should think about it in terms of consequences for a common good. It’s a complex text, but also of interest. On the one hand, yes, you can cherry pick these citations of the Franciscans being radically opposed to money, especially in the early spiritual texts. On the other hand, you’ve got Franciscan theorists who are really thinking about value and meaning in very deep ways throughout the Middle Ages. So it’s a complex picture. One final thing to say about in terms of what could be a Franciscan theory of money after the years of early radicalism that was radically opposed to it is that they do have a notion that wealth should circulate. That if there’s a profit coming back, it should be for a common good.

So in the early years, yes, they shouldn’t touch money and this is satirized in a number of ways by their critics. They do become a wealthy institution. Then, they are also very committed, as they develop their financial institutions, to charity. This wealth should circulate. The other thing that they do that’s quite interesting is effectively set up the first micro lending institutes. They’re called the Monte di Pietà. These emerge in Bologna at the end of the Middle Ages and they are basically lending to the poor. This is also not just an act of benevolent charity, but about undercutting Jewish lending practices, due to the anti-semitism within the Franciscan Order. But it’s interesting that they go from being very critical of money to then perhaps thinking about how money can be used in other ways as the order develops. But fundamentally, there’s this idea that wealth should be redistributed that doesn’t fully go away.

Scott Ferguson: Except not to Jews, right?

Julia McClure: Exactly. Again, in that article I keep mentioning, I talk about how they’re constructing a universal but unequal notion of a world unified by this unequal notion of poverty. And it’s particularly focused around this Christian society. And so, they want to convert people to Christianity and to be a model of salvation. On the one hand, they’re involved in the missionaries in Latin America and elsewhere, and on the other, they’re also engaged in anti-semitism in Europe in the Middle Ages. This is a schema for exclusion as well. It was not an inclusive charity–if charity is ever really inclusive in any way.

Maxximilian Seijo: So perhaps moving on from here to how this leads to questions of colonialism and how the Franciscan’s colonial project became a part of the roots, as you described them in your book, maybe you could walk us through some of this or describe how Christopher Columbus’s journeys were conditioned by Franciscanism?

Julia McClure: What happens is Christopher Columbus famously visits the Franciscan monastery of La Rábita on the Spanish-Atlantic coast. There’s this legend that Columbus visited this monastery and there he learned about the Americas from the Franciscans, who were these unique custodians of global knowledge because they were the first religious order to establish a global network. They were in China before Marco Polo. They had missionaries that had gone to the Indian Ocean, Russia, and all over. This knowledge of the global connections of the Franciscan Order form the basis of this legend that Columbus learned about the Americas from the Franciscans. It’s obviously nonsense. In fact, it turns out this legend itself might have its origins in Francoist ideology, because a lot of these books that were written about this had dedications to Franco at the start. I think this was about getting the Genoese out of the picture and getting the proper Spanish origins to this story into the picture.

Nonetheless, they accepted this legend. Columbus did go to this monastery. He wanted to leave his son there. And there’s different kinds of rumors about the different intellectual exchanges, what the Franciscans knew and so on, that are happening there. Columbus famously gets buried in a Franciscan habit. You could argue, if Columbus did play at the Franciscan identity, then this was part of a laundering of his reputation as a colonialist and the things he was getting up to in Hispaniola and so on. Because the Franciscans were penitential. That means that they were cleansing from sin. To behave like a Franciscan is to be able to cleanse yourself from sin. That’s the trade off of value for Columbus.

The Franciscans did become the first religious order to be established in the Americas. This is coming on the back of their legacy as the order that has the first global network. In the Americas, they tried to make their world vision a reality. They saw the discovery of the new world in a providential way. They fitted it within their particular eschatology, this idea of the end of the world and the apocalypse. They believed before this there was going to be an age of holy poverty, and that everyone needed to be converted and share in the holy poverty of the Franciscans in which they were unique leaders. And they wanted to have missionary spaces that they were in control of. And so, they established these missions and became the best linguists of colonialism, in that they were learning indigenous languages. They were catechizing, or teaching the religion in indigenous languages, like Nahuatl in Mesoamerica, but also other indigenous languages. In fact, scholars today studying indigenous languages still use these texts and grammars that the Franciscans created.

They also taught in Latin as well, which many of the conquistadores would not have known. The argument for this is they didn’t want the missions, which they used to construct this new world of holy poverty, to be corrupted by the greed of the conquistadores. That’s what their rhetoric was. It’s a real battle for control. You see this idea popping up across the Americas as people are trying to realize dreams and visions of different ways of organizing society through these projects of colonialism. That’s what I was talking about in the book in terms of the origins of why it was the Franciscans who were interested in going to the Americas and what they were doing when they got there. Their early role in colonialism, which I say throughout the book, is ambivalent, in that these missions could be sites of oppression.

There was this thing called the “Franciscan Terror,” where the violence of the conquistadores was so extreme that when the inquisition arrived in the Americas years later, the Amerindians were exempt. One of the arguments for this was, because the “Franciscan Terror” had been so extreme, they then had to exempt the Amerindians from further violence. On the other hand, they had projects working with the Amerindians at schools that they established. There is a famous one in Texcoco, which is just outside of Mexico City now. It wasn’t even originally part of Mexico City now that Mexico City’s expanded so much. In these workshops, they were working with indigenous scribes and creating these documents for the Florentine Codex, which was a monument for the preservation of Amerindian culture. It is an ambivalent history of colonialism.

William Saas: So part of what makes this story of the Franciscan Order over time that you’re telling so interesting to me–and I’ve been hung up on this image of the spiritual friend just holding bags of coin–is this emergence of paradox and contradiction, and then reconciliation and evolution over time. We’re talking now about their role in colonialism, but you’re talking about ambivalence and maybe you could say something about how they resolved their dedication to and service to your vision of themselves as defenders of the oppressed and poor with their participation in exploitation, violence, and destruction? I’d also like to talk a little bit about the spiritual friends maybe after we talk about reconciling this paradox.

Julia McClure: Yeah, I’ll just say two more things on this idea of the role of the Franciscan’s in conquest. Mendieta, who was the first Bishop of Mexico and one of the earliest Franciscans in the Americas, writes about the Conquistador, Hernán Cortéz, who after his conquest of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, welcomes the Franciscans. There were twelve of them in a kind of apostolic, eschatological symbol, and he welcomes them after the conquest and bows before them. This is meant to show the Amerindians the value of Franciscan poverty at the moment of their conquest by the Spanish. A moment of conquest by the Spanish is a moment of conversion to the Franciscan value of poverty. There’s lots of ambivalence in terms of the Franciscan meaning and understanding of poverty in the Americas. I mentioned this issue before about how they were meant to subsist by begging or how an urban landscape would facilitate their ability to subsist by begging, which of course, was challenged in the Americas. They would need to appropriate the means for subsistence like a Conquistador as a colonial act, but then they might justify it as the sharing of charity amongst spiritual friends with this shared notion of poverty.

Of course, this notion of poverty was the product of a particular intellectual history of late medieval Europe and was not shared by the Amerindians they were conquering. This is a culture clash typical of colonialism. The other thing that was significant in terms of this confrontation is that the Franciscans–I’ve described them elsewhere as the first hipsters–were performing poverty. They were often walking around, for example, barefoot even though they were from wealthy families and could afford shoes. This barefoot act in particular was a symbol of their poverty. I’ve written about other things associated with this aesthetics of poverty. When they arrived in the Americas, they met the Amerindians–people who were scarcely clad, often without shoes, having as they saw it, minimalist diets. They got out povertied. There’s a tension in the writings about the Amerindians. This fuels their eschatological vision that they need to share this holy poverty and convert the real poverty of the Amerindians to their holy poverty. Then, for them, this will be the pathway to the final age before the coming of Christ. It is a very messianic vision of the world, as you’d expect.

There’s also descriptions of them sometimes mimicking acts of the Amerindians that they see as closer to a more poor way of life. Going back to those ideas about use that was the preoccupation of Peter Olivi in the late 13th century, yes, you can have this, but you should not use it, you should only use what you need. So there’s a lot of mimicking the Amerindians in certain places of the mission. This meaning of poverty and how it’s represented is debated and played with in these early missions. I can’t remember the rest of the question that you asked me, unfortunately. 

William Saas: Oh no, I think you answered the original question. I’m really glad that you offer the analogy with hipsters, because I’ve been, regarding the spiritual friends, trying to put together my own historical analogy between the spiritual friends who are charged with holding the money and keeping the Franciscans clean and free from corruption, and the modern austerity theater, or performance of poverty, that happens institutionally in a country like the United States that is sovereign in its own currency. We identify social needs, but rather than answer those immediately with public provisioning of money, we go to our own spiritual friends at the Congressional Budget Office and say, “Is this okay? What moral and political consequences will this have for us if we do this?” I am wondering, in terms of the spiritual friends, and this is a bit of a detour but we’re circling back in a way, what was their social status or standing? Did they have any kind of accounting role? Were they overseers of the coin that they held? Is this historical analogy that I’m trying to draw completely reckless?

Julia McClure: Not to avoid the question completely, but this idea of the laundering of ethical issues of late stage capitalism, I don’t think would make the analogy with the Franciscan spiritual friends. But I had a project last week with the Tax Justice Network and we were looking at the role that philanthropy, charitable institutions, and tax breaks have done in the name of anti-poverty legislation. Wealth accumulates in charitable institutions. This idea of the spiritual friend is a particular historical moment in the 13th century, and then it falls away. When they’re in the Americans, you don’t have this kind of continued performance of a spiritual friend. But there’s still a separation of the money that they own and what it’s for, but that’s because it’s invested in charitable institutions. These charitable institutions, I argue, in the monograph that I’m writing now, Empire of Poverty: the Moral Economy of the Spanish Empire, constitute the institutional landscape of the empire. These institutions are where that money’s being held. This point about how comparable Franciscanism is in relation to today’s austerity, I have an answer to that question, but it comes later. With regards to the spiritual friends, it is a performative and experimental thing that doesn’t really outlive the 13th century as far as I’m aware. A lot of these things fall away when certain aspects of Franciscan claims get revoked, if that makes sense. If they no longer can say that they own those things, then that becomes less of a theoretical burden.

Scott Ferguson: I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit about the kinds of theological, political, and juridical justifications that the early modern Franciscans used to make sense of and essentially hasten and excuse colonialism and colonial subjugation in relationship to these matters of poverty and charity. And then, something you don’t talk about in your book, but we’ve discussed between the two of us, can you discuss any related explanations that are also mobilized to give justification to chattel slavery?

Julia McClure: I know I’ve started every sentence here with, “Well, it’s ambivalent,” and there’s different roles and interpretations of the Franciscans, but with regards to the justification of colonialism, members of the Franciscan orders definitely had two different impacts, let’s say. One would be in conjunction with other mendicants, especially Dominicans like Francisco de Vitoria, or perhaps more like Montesinos, in denouncing the colonialism of the conquistadores. Throughout the history of colonization, the post-colonial period, and the crimes of neoliberalism in Latin America, you get mendicant orders who are denouncing abuses of power, violence, and making claims about the rights of indigenous peoples. That’s a strong part of the role that the Franciscans have played historically from the 16th century and continued, one might argue, into the theology liberation movement in the 20th century.

I’ve got a chapter called, “The Darker Side of Rights: the Ambivalent Case of Franciscan Poverty,” in a book called, Rights at the Margins, that has just come out. And this is similar to arguments that have been made by others, in that when you make certain claims about rights and legitimacy and justify colonial conquest, you’re effectively whitewashing empire and providing a framework for legitimizing that empire via the discourse of rights and law, which are not necessarily protecting people from abuses. So that’s one thing. They’re defenders, but then that’s also not necessarily having the desired effects if their desired effect is to protect the proper rights of indigenous peoples.

The second thing, which I think is the thing that you’re more interested in, is that, coming from the Franciscan tradition, there is an idea that suffering is a pathway to salvation. This is one of the things we’re going to come back to discussing with regards to whether or not this an origin for austerity economics. I have an answer, I think, on this question. But this idea of suffering for salvation is interesting, because they’re rhetorically rejecting the violence of the conquistadores. They have these missions, which have their own form of colonization, of course, because they are engaging with the europeanisation through christianization of indigenous people. This is epistemicide, which is the destruction of ideas and cultures of indigenous peoples, as well as the manipulation and oppression of indigenous bodies and appropriation of labor and other forms of resources. All this happens within the space of missions. But I think there’s something else that’s interesting that goes on, which is about this discussion of poverty and what it means to be poor. Within the Franciscan tradition, there’s always been this idea that to abdicate from possessions is a better position to be in. You can be closer to God, effectively. If you’re already materially poor, that doesn’t mean that you’re spiritually poor, but you might get there faster than somebody that has got to give up their possessions first.

When they see the Amerindians, there’s an ascetic branch of the order that sees the subjugation of the body as a source of freedom. Before I make the quotation from him, Angelo of Clareno gets called a heretic for being too radical during the medieval periods. But he argues, “He, who frees himself from earthly desires from the bottom up, who wants to be free from the body, and wants by means and punishments and torture to cross over to Christ, who bore the suffering and the death of the cross for us when we were the enemies of God and servants of sin mostly meriting eternal death.” And so, this Christian paradox that suffering is the pathway to salvation is particularly strong in the Franciscan tradition. Within the Franciscan’s ideology of poverty was a particular idea about obedience and humility. It’s the idea that not only should you get rid of your things, but also that you should get rid of your will to want things, and that actually, you should get rid of your will to power for complete powerlessness. Nobody should want to be a leader because that’s a will to power. To be a true Franciscan, you wouldn’t want that to be a spiritual condition. You can see where this is going. Some of the more radical asceticism gets condemned as heresy with the burning of four spiritual Franciscans at the start of the 14th century, but you have, nonetheless, ascetic branches of the order that remained.

But also the ideas about humility and obedience remain as important values. I think that the idea that suffering is virtuous, that to be without is virtuous, and that obedience is virtuous, are all there in terms of a framework for justifying colonial subjectivity. On the one hand, there is a denunciation in the Franciscan’s intellectual contribution to the history of law and rights, but also in looking at the religious history of the Franciscans about this suffering and salvation, which is not unique to the Franciscans, but part of the Christian paradox and ideas about humility and powerlessness. Coming back to this idea about money, they also saw labor as virtuous. And so, to labor without monetary reward, was also virtuous. Again, in terms of what their contribution could be to coloniality and colonial subjectivity, yes, they are vocal critics of the enslavement of the Amerindians, but in terms of other forms of oppression, such as to labor without pay and be obedient, that’s also seen to be something virtuous.

Within the sources of our Franciscan history, they are also playing creatively with the language of slavery. They denounced the conquistadores as slaves because they’re slaves to the sin of corruption and greed, whereas they see the Amerindians as more free because of their poverty. So there are ways in which they’re denouncing slavery, but also perhaps finding ways in which subjugation is virtuous because it’s a form of complete humility. There’s a biography of St. Benedict who was born to the parents of people who had been enslaved in Africa. He was born in Sicily in the 16th century. The hagiographical story of St. Benedict goes that he was so pious that he gained his emancipation. Then, after emancipation, he voluntarily chose to re-enslave himself by joining the Franciscan Order, which is a voluntary renunciation of possessions and a voluntary selection of a pathway of humility and obedience and abdication of possessions. He has a quite crazy hagiography. He dies and is buried near a Franciscan monastery. They exhume the body, later for reasons that are unclear, and it looks like the body’s uncorrupted. This is one of the classic miracle stories. The relics get taken on parade to Madrid.

Lope de Vega writes a play about this black saint who had been a Franciscan, who actually was sainted later. He wrote, “To be black, to be humble, and to be a saint, were closely connected.” Then, what happened in the 16th and 17th centuries, is that the Franciscans were also supporting the emergence of daughter institutions, let’s call them, that were confraternities amongst all people across the Americas. And those that were founded by predominantly black communities, with people who were enslaved and free, often had this saint as their patron saint of the confraternity. That’s where there’s a whole history of slavery, and what role they played in justifying it, ties up, because they’re thinking about voluntary acceptance of a form of enslavement, denial of will and possessions, as a righteous way of being. I think that there’s something important to this in terms of what’s given value within a broader framework of colonialism. So in addition to colonial subjectivity, there is something to say about slavery.

Maxximilian Seijo: To this composite theological vision you’re playing out and describing, without taking too clean of a knife to compose a narrative, there is something to, and ultimately why I think we’re really taken by this history, this construal of money as the source of all evil, as this material thing that you can’t touch, and this affirmation of enslavement as a relationality to the structure of thinking about austerity as, ultimately, you need to take austerity on the chin, because it will be good for a moralized argument–and not wanting to spend too much by risk of moral hazard. I think we see links, at least analogously, not to imply this as a direct causality, to the structures of thinking that are at work in this tradition of thought.

Julia McClure: I have a comment on whether Franciscanism is connected to the origins of austerity. Should I answer it now?

William Saas: We’re ready.

Julia McClure: I’ve written about this in different parts to a certain extent. The idea that one needs to suffer to be saved and that there’s a pathway to salvation is part of the legitimation of the narrative of the program of austerity. I think we see this not only in the state programs of austerity, but also especially in programs of international development and the role that institutions like the IMF play. Joseph Stiglitz writes about this in his critique of all these processes of globalization and its discontents and the way in which poorer countries are, via austerity, made to suffer in order to be saved. On the one hand, you can say, well, this has a genealogy in the Western tradition via Franciscanism. And in the history of suffering as a pathway to salvation, one could say that it’s in the background to the history of austerity.

But I think that it’s important to remember that there have been different ideologies of poverty, and not only the Franciscan one. Poverty has always been a political and cultural construct, as well as an economic condition, and one that changes over time. And the origins of ideologies of poverty, such as with austerity and its role in the history of capitalism, have continuously been part of historic debates. I was thinking about how these have been particularly confessionalized in the past Catholic versus Protestant debates. This, to a certain extent, can be traced to Max Weber, who famously identified Protestant parsimony as the spirit of capitalism rather than the Franciscan disdain for mammonism, although work has been done more recently by Giacomo Todeschini on the Catholic origins of capitalism. So there is a confessional debate about the origins of austerity within capitalism.

But I think that it’s important to note that there are different historical genealogies of poverty as a political project. The poverty politics of austerity is against the lives of people with the aim of economic growth, again, coming back to this idea of what’s value for, how do you justify it, and what’s action for. In the case of austerity, the ultimate endgame is economic growth. If this kills a few people along the way, and people do die as a result of austerity politics and the poverty it causes, then that does not seem to be so problematic to the protagonists of neoliberal austerity. And this is not an apology of Franciscanism. I’m going to flesh it out a little bit more in a moment. But one could argue that Franciscan poverty was orientated towards sufficiency, the idea of reduced consumption, and the purpose of the common good and ecological survival

You could see Franciscan poverty as more of a precursor for post-growth and degrowth economics than the politics of austerity, which is more against life in favor of economic growth. I think that austerity is a big problem and that it’s been a tool of late stage capitalism to both impoverish and oppress the poor. And poverty under austerity has a particular aesthetics. It’s constructed as a form of alterity, which is a stigmatized identity. The way to avoid that aesthetics of poverty is by the increased consumption of commodities. That’s why I think that the genealogy is slightly different to that of Franciscan poverty politics. This idea that you need to suffer to be saved, which is part of the austerity program of governments and international development, has resonance with the Franciscan doctrine of poverty, including its asceticism, its aesthetics, and it’s theories of eschatology of what’s necessary to do now and to change the future, but nonetheless, historically, they have two distinct genealogies.

Actually, I was thinking about this in relation to my current book project, which is on the 16th century and poverty politics in the creation of the imperial state of the Iberian world. This is important because, in looking at these different distinct genealogies, it points towards the need to look at more granular conceptions of politics and their particular protagonists in different contexts. I think the concept of austerity is the product of a liberal state formation. Karl Polyani traced the emergence of poverty as a subject of political economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since then, poverty has been central to the political projects of liberalism, and later neoliberalism. In my work that I’ve done since the Franciscans, I’ve been tracing this birth of poverty as a political subject distinct from the Franciscan tradition to the 16th century. What’s interesting there is that you have the emergence of states that are thinking about poverty and making distinctions about the deserving and undeserving poor, the rationing of resources of what should be distributed in ways that benefit state formation, and that are also criminalizing poverty, which again, is part of austerity. You have this means testing of the poor, the creation of poverty, and then also the criminalization of poverty.

There’s also been interesting work done on the way in which that gets racialized as well. In the 16th century, the mendicant orders were actually questioning the new poverty politics emerging within the new iterations of states. With the poor laws that came out of the Iberian world and into the Elizabethan laws–although the Franciscans, of course, would not have been critics in Elizabethan England because they were Catholics and wouldn’t have been allowed in–but in the Iberian world and the Catholic world, these mendicants were opposing the poor laws that emerged in the Habsburg Empire, and the ways in which they oppressed the freedoms of the poor, especially their freedoms of movement. So I’d argue that as modern states developed, they didn’t coopt the poverty politics of the Franciscan Order. Often, the mendicants were in opposition to the ways in which states treated the poor. We can see this in the history of the emergence of the liberation of theology movement in the 20th century. We started with this point that the need to suffer to be saved resonates with austerity, but then perhaps, there’s these two different genealogies.

Scott Ferguson: Thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Julia McClure: Great, thanks for having me on.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamAlex Williams (audio engineering), Richard Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art).

21 – Film Theory of the State

In this episode, cohosts Natalie Smith, Will Beaman & Maxximilian Seijo reflect on some ill-fated responses to the right-wing insurrection at the Capitol, utilize feminist psychoanalysis to articulate a film theory of the state, and meditate on the mental health side of an MMT-informed left-wing praxis.

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

Historicizing the Neoliberal Blockbuster (Preview)

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

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Course Description:

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


2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999)

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

Money as a Constitutional Project with Christine Desan

The Money on the Left Editorial Collective presents a classic episode from our archives along with a previously unavailable transcript & graphic art. In this episode, we are joined by Christine Desan, Leo Goettlieb professor of law at Harvard Law School to discuss her excellent book, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism. Desan argues that money is a constitutional project, countering the dubious “commodity” theory common to contemporary economic and legal orthodoxies. Desan develops her constitutional theory of money through rigorous historical examinations of money’s evolution, from medieval Anglo-Saxon communities to early-modern England to the American Revolution and beyond.

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.

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

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Scott Ferguson: Christine Desan, welcome to Money on the Left.

Christine Desan: Thank you.

Scott Ferguson: It’s great to have you here. Can you tell us about your scholarly training and intellectual influences? Do you situate your work within a particular school or tradition within legal studies?

Christine Desan: I think I do situate my work within a particular school. I’m probably most closely affiliated with critical legal studies (CLS). For me, that affiliation began when I was in law school. I took a course called “Death of the Law,” which was taught by Owen Fiss and Tony Kronman at Yale Law School. It explored the difference between liberal approaches to law and the critiques of liberalism that were developing in the late 1980s. The seminar was formative for me because, on the one hand, Fiss and Kronman were deeply invested in the liberal project that was a rights based defense of progressive social change–and I was sympathetic to that project. At the same time, the critiques that they wanted to understand were more persuasive to me. Those critiques were mainly based in critical legal studies, and to a lesser extent, in some allied approaches, such as the normative work of Robert Cover.

The CLS critiques really evoked for me an older influence, which was social theory and cultural anthropology. I had studied that work as an undergraduate when I majored in religion and sociology of religion. I would say, going way back to that moment when everyone was taking the cultural turn in the earlier 1980s, I was thinking through that work, which was itself critical. This is work that taught us the complexity of reason and knowledge–the kind of layered nature of those conclusions and practices, or the way they depend on different strata of learning, contexts, assumptions, and experiences. Later in law school, when I stumbled into this course, it seemed to me that critical legal approaches were in some ways developing those earlier insights and applying them in the legal field. So that set of approaches was very influential for me.

Later, I started doing historical work. When I did historical work, I found the early institutional historians of the 20th century really fascinating. I thought their work was very important. This was a set of historians whose work in many ways had been set aside in the late 20th century as people were more interested in, and following themselves, the cultural turn–they we’re doing cultural and social history. I was finding that with earlier progressives, people like Beard and later people like Jackson Turner Main and Jack Green, who were fascinated by the importance of institutions and the way practices within institutions changed, their work illuminated power structures in a way that I wanted to understand. The institutional histories of the 20th century became a place for me to learn and explore power structures. People in the 80s and 90s were also doing a lot of interesting work about ideological history. And so, for me, the practice of authority within governance structures became a focal point. I wanted to be able to use both institutional and ideological histories to understand this practice of authority.

William Saas: Thank you. I wanted to ask, given the narrative of your intellectual history and the fact that you sort of arrive at an interest in authority structures and the role of institutions, it’s not so surprising that you end up at money. But it probably is a little bit surprising, I’m guessing. Was it a straight line from that interest in institutions to money, or what brought you to the question of money?

Christine Desan: It was not at all a straight line. I think I spent a lot of my life avoiding money. That is to say, I spent a lot of my life–and I think I’m not alone in this, I’m in very good company–avoiding the economy. I was someone who really thought that the economy and commercial matters were not as important as other human drivers of experience and existence. I was more interested in other aspects and was kind of emphatically avoiding economic and monetary matters. In some ways, I think, this is a disciplinary instinct. Many of us went to law school or went to history graduate school in order to avoid going into economics, or going into some other field that was focused on commerce, trade, or finance. In the early work that I did, I remember skipping the references to money. I was doing historical work on early colonial legislatures. There, I kept tripping over these references to money. And like many historians and legal scholars, I kept skipping them because it seemed like a technical detour, and one that I didn’t really understand. I also didn’t completely appreciate that they were spending so much time arguing over this technical detour, so I kept skipping it.

Belatedly, I came to the recognition that legislators, commentators, and lay people who are arguing over power and authority and making claims–all of the things I talked about when we try to understand how law works–they were always talking about money. Money was all over the records that I was looking at. I realized I had to confront and face it and that, in fact, it would be the way into the market for me. When I spoke about property and how critical scholars want to understand property not as a kind of one off concept that you either have control of or you don’t, but as some kind of complicated, negotiated phenomenon, I wanted to do the same thing with the market as a whole. Instead of assuming that it was just a natural entity or something that was somehow clear, universal, and rational, I wanted to understand it. After having avoided money for several years, I realized that money was actually the way into the market. If I could understand the way money worked, then I would basically be understanding the medium for the market. It seemed to me that maybe money was the institution that would allow me to understand the market as a legal project and to take a critical approach to the market itself.

William Saas: Was there one moment, text, or set of ideas you encountered that really made it most clear to you, or was it more of a gradual realization?

Christine Desan: Yeah, there was an arresting moment. I did all this work about early America while avoiding money but immersing myself in the discourse and the way people were speaking about governance. Then, about a year later, I started looking at the famous late 18th century debates between Hamilton and Madison. Here, I realized that the whole discourse of governance had changed, or was changing, and was dramatically different from the way that people had been talking 100 years later. The grounds of their debate and the change was monetary. The way that people were talking about the market was dramatically different. That was the moment where it struck me that I had to understand what money was as an institution. I really desperately wanted to understand what had changed and why the debate was so different between the early and late 18th century. And just to get to the punch line, it turned out that they were basically debating, in my view, the transition to capitalism. Hamilton and Madison were right on the cusp of a new approach to money and the monetary as a mode of governing. By contrast, their peers in the early part of the century had been talking about money in a completely different way. They’d been working towards a different form of governance around money–that is, money as this medium was creating for them a different kind of governance experience than it would be for Madison and Hamilton. So it was very arresting seeing the difference in the character of their discussions about money.

William Saas: While it was arresting, how did it feel, given the common experience of a lot of people having studiously avoided money for so long, coming to the realization that, “Oh, no, this might be the key to what I want to do?” How did that feel and what was the next step that got you doing what you wanted to be doing?

Christine Desan: It’s such a great question. It felt like falling into a black hole. It felt really scary. It was frightening because I really did not understand their debate. And I understood that I didn’t understand their debate. It has been a series of black holes ever since. I spent probably four or five years trying to understand the early American transformation. After that time, I thought, I really can’t understand what money is. And so, it was another cliff that I fell off and I went even further back to try to understand what money was in the English experience. I really felt like I couldn’t understand what the colonists were actually doing. I wanted to understand where they got their ideas from. I had figured out some things about money and had more reference points. I had a compass by then, which was a little bit of a comfort, but the compass was taking me further back. So yeah, there were a series of cliffs that I fell off. But, on the other hand, I was so fascinated and became more and more convinced that these were extremely important debates and that people like me had been ignoring them for years. At the same time, other people who I wanted to understand, like Madison, Hamilton, and their predecessors, had not been avoiding them. They’d actually been focusing on monetary matters.

Just to leap forward, I think that’s also part of a historical transition. I think we’ve learned to ignore money and that that’s an important part of our current modernity. We’ve learned to ignore how it actually operates. We worry about it, we obsess over it as a thing, but we don’t try to get inside of it and understand it. Whereas, in earlier generations, people did actually try to manage, understand, recreate, and reimagine money more than we do. So all those people who had been immersing themselves in money and money creation, they were kind of an invitation to me. In trying to understand money, they were at least an inspiration that I should try to retrace their steps and figure out what they were arguing about.

Maximilian Seijo: So let’s dig into it. In your book, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism, you do just that. You argue that the 17th century sees a revolution in money’s design that obscures its underlying social structures, or institutional and constitutional power. I am wondering if you could sketch that history for our listeners and explain why it’s so important to discern?

Christine Desan: Yeah, so the book really does try to tell the story of this great transformation. It argues, basically, that money can be designed in different ways, that communities have designed it in different ways, and that politics and social life change with those changes in design. In a nutshell, at the end of the 17th century, and in the 18th century, the British improvised a series of changes in the way their money worked that put private investors in charge of money design and that change had huge ramifications. On the one hand, it broke through old constraints on the amount of money in circulation. At the same time, it elevated the rights of creditors in new ways. And that really restructured governance and the economy.

Just to dive in and clarify why we could understand this as lawyers and historians, money, it turns out, really is a contract. It’s a kind of credit contract. And contracts for credit, for things owed, can be made in different ways. The reason money can be designed in different ways is that you can make an agreement to pay in different ways and with different conditions and characteristics. And changing that kind of monetary contract is what communities do when they’re redesigning money. To get really specific, what the book does is take a trip back in time to understand early kinds of money as a contract and then compare them to the new modern design. The early design, the design that’s kind of iconic and that we all think we understand, is commodity money, or the silver penny. I thought I really needed to understand what the silver penny is because, according to economists, it’s just a thing. It’s a slug of metal that has value because it’s silver. Intuitively, that seems so appealing, but we’ve not asked whether that’s really what a coin is. In fact, when I dove into it, it turns out that is not the way coin works. The fact that it contains silver was only one of its characteristics and not the one that made it operate particularly as money. Maybe I should just tell a story about how silver pennies got going. This story, I hope, will make it clear about how money operates, and then we can play with the story and make it modern.

The old story goes something like this: there are communities in which everyone’s contributing. That’s how they survive as communities. We have labor that everyone contributes to the center and, let’s say, everyone gives a day of labor every month. At a certain point, the community faces some kind of emergency where they can’t just rely on the routine contributions of the ten or so people who happen to be on call that day. Instead, they have to enlist more people to work that day to repair a dam that breaks or repel enemy invaders. And so, they enlist all those people. When the enemy’s repulsed or the emergency is over, the stakeholders for the community give those people who worked early before their time of contribution, who contributed their labor before it was actually due, a token or an IOU. This token or IOU says that we recognize the next time we come around asking for your contribution, you’ve actually contributed early and you can just give back this token. It will represent your contribution and we will accept it as such. That kind of IOU is now a unit that holds value that everyone recognizes, which is the value of the tax contribution given early. One more twist makes it money, which is if the stakeholder will accept that token back from anyone, then the people who contributed their labor early can use it and trade with each other. It represents a certain amount of value, which is the tax contribution. Everyone is willing to take it because they can use it themselves to pay off their taxes.

This story, which I’ve told before, and for people who’ve read the book, they’ll recognize it as the stakeholder story, explains money as an IOU given from the center to people who have contributed their own labor early. And they’ll also see that, if you have these kinds of tokens and you allow them to travel between individuals, then people can use the token as a medium of exchange. In the medieval world, pennies functioned in that way. The question then becomes, why would you make this token or IOU out of silver? It turns out there were many reasons. In a primitive and sort of rough world where there’s not a lot of administrative capacity, to make money out of silver was durable. You don’t have to worry about it falling apart while people are holding it, which is something that would make the people who had contributed early very unhappy if you gave them a token that then fell apart, such as one made out of wood. It was also hard to counterfeit. For people who had the silver, it wasn’t easy to refine or to mint, and only the authorities at the center who could control the mints might have that capacity in order to control the number of tokens out there. And finally, you actually had created a token that contained collateral. People had something with value that they could trust more than they might if you just gave them a written promise.

When we actually think about how money came about, or the incentives for a public to make money and for people to hold and pass around money, we sort of flip the story of the penny. Instead of the penny existing because it is silver, we have silver acting as collateral for a money that actually comes about first for a kind of credit agreement with people. If you think about that kind of money design, it makes sense of many things, like the control of medieval sovereigns of the mint and their claim over money. It also makes sense of conditions of the market. The market was a difficult and not very liquid place in which money was hard to come by because silver was hard to come by. We can also understand other things. For example, and this book tells this story at more length, the mints had this very interesting capacity in which they’d actually charge people for money. The king of the sovereigns could set up a system in which they are actually taking silver for people and creating coin for them. You could, in other words, buy money at the mint for all the kinds of exchange you wanted. You could buy coin for private purposes as well as buy the kind of coin you needed to pay your tax obligation, because increasingly kings were going to tax in coin and not in kind or in labor.

We could talk more if you’re interested about this old world kind of money, but the point is that it was a very carefully structured system of political obligation in which sovereigns had converted in kind political obligation into tokens that were made in a material that was durable and hard to counterfeit and provided people with collateral, and even allowed them to buy more money at the mint for their own private use. It was a very interesting, sophisticated system. I’ll add one other thing: sovereigns also supported this system by enforcing deals made in money insofar as they agreed with those deals. Common law, or the law of contract, property, and torts, were forms of public enforcement made in money. The early English common law only enforced contracts that were monetary. The early Roman law enforced contracts that were monetary. So you could pay off a debt only in coin–not in silver. An interesting part of this is that sovereigns are actually writing their own systems for law and order into their agreement to enforce obligations for people. I could go on about that, but it’s worth noting that the law we think of as kind of existing on its own terms is actually written in the enforcement of money. So as money penetrates society, that is the channel that sovereigns are using to determine which things they’re going to enforce and therefore write their own system of order into the social world.

Maxximilian Seijo: This is such an interesting story because in your book, you then tell the story of how the public institutional construction of money gets reinvented in a way that eschews its public origins towards private commerce origins. I am wondering if you could talk about the specific moment in which that reinvention happens and how it skews production in favor of the profit motive as opposed to broader public social processes?

Christine Desan: This is the critical moment, in fact, and now that we have an example of the way money works as a contract, we can see that it could be made of anything. We’ve talked about why societies in early worlds might make it out of silver, but really there’s no reason that money would have to be made out of silver. Many different communities have made money out of many different materials, as you know, such as with shells, paper, wooden sticks, and all sorts of things. What the English do, as one of these series of experiments, is decide to make money out of the promises of investors. The catalyst for this new monetary adventure is war. In the 1690s, the British were fighting against the French, as they often were in those days, and the government was very short on funds. The silver currency was going through one of its usual periods of disarray. Often, silver coin, which seems so stable to us, is actually a really hard medium to keep in circulation because it wears down and people begin to hoard or export it. And so, the British were experiencing all these problems in their silver money supply at the end of the 17th century for various reasons.

Then, the British government decides to experiment. It agrees with a set of wealthy investors to take their promises. It invites them to lend to the government 1.5 million pounds and it will pay it back over a long period of time. The kicker or innovation is that the government agrees to take the 1.5 million pounds from the investors in written promises to pay–in banknotes. And those banknotes promised the bearer silver. So instead of the government needing to have silver, the wealthy investors would have the silver. They make the contract, the bankers hand over the 1.5 million pounds, mostly in banknotes, the government spends the banknotes, and then at some point in the next years, it starts taking back the banknotes in taxes. If you think about it, the government really has to take back the banknotes because it spent them. It has to stand behind them and recognize them as valuable just as it paid people. It will accept the written promises of the bank back in taxes, but once the government does that, it has set up the same kind of credit issue and credit redemption that it set up with the very first tokens, and in turn, with coin. It has set up a loop of credit in which it’s issuing a unit de facto and taking back a unit. In other words, it’s created money without using silver or gold.

The striking thing here is it’s not clear the British understood exactly what they were doing. People had theorized different bits and pieces of it. But what’s not clear is if they realized that if they set up such a system, then nobody really needed to cash the banknotes, because the banknotes held as much value as the government would give for them as long as the government was taxing, was a serious, viable government, and people had to pay their taxes in something. They might as well pay it in paper as in silver. There was no need to go to the bank to cash the money. So this is an amazing moment where we see this innovation, which is de facto the government creating credit money out of paper through the intermediary of a group of investors in a way that will liberate the government to spend much more paper into circulation than the amount of silver coin that is in existence. The other thing that’s striking about this moment is that there’s no reason you actually need the investors in the middle of the relationship between the government, its taxpayers, and its citizens. In fact, at the same time that the government is borrowing from the Bank of England, it’s also experimenting with just direct issue bills, where it spends English money into circulation and taxes it back. With both of these things, whether you spend the government’s promises into circulation and tax them back, or you spend the bank’s promises into circulation and tax them back, the government’s basically supporting and creating money that depends on its own credit loop.

Yet, the system that takes off, for many different reasons, is the bank structured system, perhaps in part because the government finds it useful to assimilate and channel the legitimacy of the investors who nevertheless are holding a silver reserve, and perhaps also because the investors are a politically powerful group who find this to be a really lucrative profit making opportunity. And so, over the 18th century, the English basically started developing this relationship with this group of investors who are the Bank of England. The Bank of England is the first really robust national bank that issues what becomes the everyday currency, although it takes a long time. At first, there are only large denomination bills, but over time, the Bank of England will be issuing the money that becomes the English paper sterling. And there are many governance changes we could talk about that are wrapped up in this innovation. For example, the government is for the first time delegating its public power, or its sovereign monopoly over money creation, to investors who will make decisions about when to issue money. Those investors will also have the incentive to police taxation, so they’ll be pressing the government to tax in a disciplined way in order to get repaid. It’s the bank investors who will now profit from this funding technique that allows them to issue many paper promises on a much smaller silver reserve. Anyway, what we’ve done is see that the government, working with wealthy investors, have created an intermediary, a set of creditors, who will now intermediate the relationship between the government and taxpayers.

Scott Ferguson: In your book, you triangulate this revolution in money’s design, this story of political economy, between, on the one hand, an emerging liberal philosophy by the likes of John Locke, probably Newton, and others, and on the other hand, with a specifically legal story centered around this case of mixed money. I am wondering if you could talk about those two poles of this story?

Christine Desan: John Locke’s intervention into this moment of experimentation exposes in a really valuable way the changing philosophical bases of money, the market, and the economy. That is to say, he shows us how the old way of making money and the new way of making money are based on and perpetuate very different ways of thinking about the market and the economy. To leap to John Locke in particular, what he articulates and captures about the new method is that it’s based on the notion that individuals determining their own profit will be, in his view, the best agents for the economy and are the way to understand the economy. That is, we should understand the economy as an aggregation of individuals acting for their own profit. The reason that he comes to encapsulate this view is that he understands money–when you go back and look at his work–as something that people all converge upon for their own interests. Let me just connect that to the new monetary form and then we could talk more about Locke and the specifics about the way he tells the story.

Now, if you think about the new institutions, the device that is supposed to run, this new money making machine, is based on an individual incentive to profit. In particular, the investors have the incentive to lend to the government for their own profit. By calculating the amount that they’ll benefit, they’ll determine how much to lend to the government. So instead of thinking about money as something that is a public medium which the sovereign is controlling, we’re now thinking about money as a medium in which the device that’s calibrating the supply will be the incentive of investors to create money when it’s beneficial to them. This is a very unusual way of thinking about money, or thinking about individual profit, because, as you know, in the medieval world, usury, or making money for profit and making profit on money, was considered a vice and a sin. Greed was a sin. It was the office of the church that tried to suppress human motivation for greed and self serving profit. 

By contrast, and what seems to me so important in terms of understanding the governance aspects of this, what the British are doing is they’re institutionalizing the motive for profit and individual self interest at the heart of a public project, which is money making, and they’re understanding that incentive as therefore beneficent. Instead of identifying self interest and the drive to self interest as a sin or as a problem, they’re identifying it as a benefit. You can also see this in the era more generally. Another kind of monetary move that they make that’s very closely related to this is they’re creating circulating public debt. They’re convincing people to lend to the government for their own profit. And so, they begin to issue public bonds. And the way public bonds work is that anyone who lends to the government will be creating a public good, because they’re lending to the government, but they’ll also be doing that for their own profit, because they’ll get interest on the public bond. Now, that’s before sovereigns had borrowed from big financiers, but they hadn’t tried to popularize the incentive to act for your own interest. And they hadn’t identified that as something that would actually be beneficial to the public. So they’re kind of identifying public good and self interest.

This is all to get back to Locke, which is to say, he understands self interest and the drive to individual profit as something that can be beneficent and can act as a driver in the aggregate of good things. That’s how he understands money in the economy. It’s a way of thinking about the market as private decision making that, when practiced collectively, will lead to good outcomes. And part of what’s fascinating to me is that this new theory about the way the market works really emanates from these institutional experiments as well as other influences that allowed us to get to the institutional experiments in the first place. But the institutions, if you see what I’m saying, are actually creating practices that invite theories that really change the way we think about profit or change the way that early modern thinkers considered profit and greed. It rehabilitates them, if you will, or habilitates them for the first time. By contrast, in the earlier world where we had commodity money circulating, there’s no group of private individuals who have a controlling interest and whose interests are themselves driving the system. Instead, we have the sovereign and public officials tasked with making determinations that are for the good of the whole.

I don’t want to idealize or romanticize the medieval world. It is not a democratic, populist order by any means. But the way people are understanding the sovereign’s role is that the sovereign should act, maybe for religious reasons in terms of divine right, for the good of his realm and the people in it. That produces a different way of thinking about money and the market. You asked about the case of mixed money, that’s a case in which the decision makers in the court faced and articulated this different kind of theory. In particular, what happens in worlds with coin is that sometimes you have to expand the money supply either because money has worn out and it needs to be re-minted or because there’s some kind of, in this case, military demand and sovereign’s want to greatly expand the money supply. My point is that the way you recalibrated a money supply that was metal was by changing the amount of metal in the coin. Usually, that meant debasing it, or diminishing the amount of silver in the coin, either to get all coins to be backed with a certain amount of silver in them, or because you wanted to create more coin to pay for military expenses. And while we might not think military expenses are in the public interest, and certainly many of them aren’t, in the medieval world, the question that often arose was: could a sovereign expand the money supply or change the amount of money and coin for what they consider the public good, such as the defense of the kingdom?

Well, Queen Elizabeth had done that. She debased the money supply to put down a rebellion in Ireland. This is part of the oppression of the Irish by the English. And so, the question that came up to the British court was: was that exercise by the sovereign, that refiguring of the money supply, something within the power of the sovereign? Despite the harmful ends of military action, the court confronts the issue of public power over the money supply and confirms it by emphasizing the need for the sovereign to protect the realm, to protect the money supply, and to be able to manage the money supply and create additional money when it was necessary to defend the people. What the court does in the case of mixed money is elaborate a theory of money that understands money as a contract between the people and sovereign for the public good that has to be managed in the public’s interest. And you might disagree with the ends here of the use of money, but there’s nothing in the decision about individual profit and that understands the market as an aggregate of people acting in their own self interest. Instead, it’s a decision that understands the market, the economy, and the use of money as completely for public ends and within the control of the public–in this case, the sovereign–not in the control of private individuals or creditors. So the contrast between that way of thinking about money and 100 years later, or Locke’s way of thinking about money, is really dramatic.

William Saas: Now, a critical listener might hear this story about money’s revolution in terms of these experiments, this improvisation, and then Locke’s intervention, and hear the words profit and self interest and sort of come to understand them as baked into the cake of the modern money form. And then, they may conclude that, yes, modern money is critical to capitalism, it’s somehow not redeemable, and we can’t go back to that moment where it’s serving the public. To what extent do you think that self interest remains sort of at the center of the story? And do you think that there are other encouraging ways to think about what modern money is and how it works, not just based on self interest?

Christine Desan: I think that self interest remains baked into the cake in important ways and that is not the same thing as saying we need to leave the cake that way, to play with that metaphor. Let me give one example of the way it’s baked into the cake and then maybe we’ll figure out if we would want to redo or rethink the recipe. One thing we haven’t talked about that seems important to add here is that every community I’ve looked at that makes money, they’re all different. Each time that I see money, what I see are communities creating different ways to issue credit and take it back in–sometimes through these investors and sometimes in other ways. In each case the community does that, the people who are engaging in everyday exchange want more money than the government makes for its own purposes. One thing to take away from understanding the stakeholder story is that the public is doing this for its own reasons, such as to mobilize an army in the case of Elizabeth, to build a road in a more beneficent world, or to create a welfare system in another world. The government’s working to create a medium for reasons that are publically oriented. In each of these worlds, people want to exchange with each other, but there’s not always a correlation between the amount of money that should be in circulation from the government and the amount that people want for their own uses. And so, in each of these communities, people are looking for and are working with public authorities to amplify the money supply.

In the old world, we already talked about the way they amplified the money supply, which is the mint would sell people more coin than was needed to pay your taxes, would sell people coin for silver, and people would go buy it at the mint in order to be able to make exchanges with pennies. The reason I mention this is to get to the baked into the cake point. In the new world, and that is to say once we had the Bank of England creating a money supply at the center for the government, there were a whole set of other modern banks. There were banks in the medieval world that were run by and in response to merchants that facilitated merchant trade and cleared accounts between merchants. Modern banks, however, don’t act that way. Modern banks came along sometime after the Bank of England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Joint stock banks and country banks set up shop using a model that was very much like the Bank of England’s model. In some ways, they’re echoing the logic of the Bank of England. And they would, and still do today, just as the Bank of England took promises from the government and issued promises, take long term promises from individuals and then issue notes against them, atomizing the agreement by individuals to pay back eventually. If that is a long term promise by a person, then these commercial banks would issue little notes to the people who were borrowers allowing them to use those banknotes to go off, do their projects, and pay back the bank eventually.

What I’m saying is that these commercial banks are amplifying the high powered money of the Bank of England. And the Bank of England began to support these little banks in various ways by helping them clear their accounts against each other. We won’t go into the technicalities. The point is that this kind of supplemental money that goes into circulation has become enormously important today. Probably 90% of the everyday money supply is money issued by commercial banks now in the form of deposits, not in the form of banknotes, but deposits and banknotes are the same thing. And if we think about that form of money, then it’s also built on the self interest of commercial bankers. We’ve institutionalized self interest into the retail money supply in a way that penetrates everyday life. And governments, both the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve, support that structure. We could think of the banks as delegates. Some scholars call the commercial banks franchisees of the government because they’re basically producing private money authorized by the government. They represent the dollar. This is all to say your question really goes to the core of a capitalist world in which the money supply is made through both central banks and then through a network of commercial banks supported by the central bank. 

Now, having said all that, are we stuck with this recipe? I don’t see any reason that we’re stuck with this recipe. There are advantages to the recipe. Again, I don’t want to romanticize the medieval world. But let me just point out that, what central banks and commercial banks do, is make liquidity available. They make the ability to exchange with one another through money available in new ways that have facilitated all sorts of productive enterprises. In the medieval world, you had to have silver before you could get money. In other words, you had to have capital before you could go out and do a project. In the new world, you come with a promise that you’re going to be productive and you get banknotes or you get bank deposits. And so, this new monetary system facilitates exchange and projects that are supposed to be productive in ways that have broken through old strictures and ceilings on production. I think we need to recognize and respect that and understand that there are great advantages that come with understanding that money is credit, and move beyond a world in which it was restricted by some arbitrary ceiling, like the amount of silver that people had.

Even as I try to abstract the logic, thinking about this credit money that is independent of the requirement of silver collateral attached in the old world, we can see that it doesn’t need to be attached to commercial bank calculations of profit. There are many ways to create credit and to circulate promises. We don’t need to have a world in which the only recipe for money production are the lending decisions of commercial banks. Right now, the only way that we engage money creation in the modern world is through commercial bank lending to individuals. That’s the engine of money production in the modern world. And that engine is attached to commercial bank calculations of profitability. In fact, we know that many projects that will not be profitable to a commercial bank lender would be profitable for us as a society. So I think what we need to do is think about how we want to innovate and improvise new modes of creating credit and extending credit to people outside of the strictures of commercial bank lending.

Maxximilian Seijo: Before we get to the end of this podcast, I actually wanted to touch on something that seems to be a bit of a recurring theme on this show, which is the relationship between war and money. I was particularly taken while rereading the introduction to your book last night of this quote where you have a 12th century account from Exchequer. You quote this account by writing, “Money is necessary, not only in time of war, but also in the time of peace. For in the former case, revenue is expanded on the fortification of towns, the payment of wages to soldiers, and in many other ways. And when the end of the hostilities arrived, “weapons of war are laid aside, churches are built by devout princes, Christ is fed and clothed in the persons of the poor, and the Mammon of this world is distributed in other acts of charity.” And so, what I think you’ve been alluding to, especially with the question of the cake, is that the way money is structured is both different now than it was back in the 12th century, where it was used not just for war, but for the public good in many ways–housing, feeding, infrastructure, employing, etc. But now, those aspects of money remain, the potential is there, and it remains for the cake to do those things again. This is not much of a question, I guess. I just wanted to make clear that I think what you’re saying about the cake now is so vitally important to the question of modern public governance, and your book does a really good job of teasing out the origins of those stakes. 

Christine Desan: Thank you for the question. I want to just talk about early America for a moment in response to it, because it seems to me we are still early America in many ways. When I first got sucked into studying money, when I fell into the black hole, it was in a world in which people had no money because the coin they had kept going back to England. The things they bought from England cost more than the things they sold to England, so they never had money stay on the shores of America. And so, they invented these forms of money that were not commercial banks, where they basically just created IOUs, first to pay soldiers. War is often the existential moment. If you can’t defend yourself, then you need money for that, because you won’t be around to then philosophize about other uses of money. But once they realized that they could pay the soldiers with IOUs and tax them back, which is how it started–they paid the soldiers with it, taxed it back, and therefore made a local currency–they realized they could make local currencies for their own economic development. They could really push out the boundaries of what was possible by inviting farmers to borrow from the legislature to mortgage their land and pay them back. They created these little pockets in which they’re circulating credit. 

Then, farmers could borrow in order to improve their land, make more exchange with each other, and start their own manufacturers and industry for that matter. They started understanding that, as communities, they could plot their economic development. Even in things like how much they lent to each person, they were making distributive decisions. They put a ceiling in each province on the amount they would lend to each farmer, which was 200 pounds. They thought to spread this money widely and understood that they were making distributive decisions when they taxed. They understood that they were basically engineering the way they wanted their local political economy to function and look, and that they were really building a world as they did so. And we know the end of the story. In many ways, that experience led them to understand their provinces, and eventually their entire coast, as a different world from the British world.

So in many ways, this experience of creating local money, and then trying to chart their own courses and create communities of political economic development, split them from the British Empire. It convinced them that they were a different world and different communities. And it just strikes me that it goes to the point you were making about both war and peace, because they actually innovated and stumbled into these monetary experiments because of war. But they understood quickly that they could and should use them in times of peace. Peace, economic development, and political development, were their own kind of exigency and public need. Peacetime was the period in which they could flourish and concentrate on human development. And so, it’s really an inspiring story of the possibility of creating communal flourishing, strength, growth, and productivity, and thinking outside the box, but monetarily.

This was a monetary adventure, but it was one in which people were acting in concert and collective ways with each other to try to build, for the first time, a prosperous world. They made a lot of mistakes. We know about their flaws, but we also could learn from the way they were trying to engineer their own development, and to do so in ways that went beyond the kind of commercial calculation that we have today. We have actually used money in many productive ways to build a state that is stronger, that actually understands how we need to prioritize education, infrastructure, and healthcare needs, and that there’s no reason why we can’t create money towards those ends. Understanding monetary theory and the way money works helps us enormously. Once we understand that money is basically this kind of credit loop and a public medium, and that is fraught with all kinds of distributive decisions, we can use it towards all those ends and be creative about the devices. There’s no reason that we should be stuck with one channel or one device for money delivery once we understand the way money works.

William Saas: So your constitutional approach to money, looking at it as a governance project, shares some key assumptions with a chartalist approach that’s been developed by Modern Monetary Theory, which is a theory and movement that a lot of our listeners will be familiar with. How would you say your work converges with and diverges from MMT?

Christine Desan: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about that. I think, in many ways, we’re fellow travelers. For centuries, some groups of people have understood money as an issue of credit. In that sense, for centuries, there have been what you called chartalists. Both my work and MMT are within that tradition. To me, it’s the most persuasive way of understanding money and it makes a break with the orthodoxy. Both my work and MMT approaches make a break with the orthodoxy in recognizing the critical role of the public, recognizing money as debt, and recognizing money as a public medium, ideally used for public welfare. Some areas of divergence, I think, are areas of emphasis. I am really interested in how money has been redesigned. It’s been redesigned, it’s been improvised, and it’s been engineered in many different ways in many different communities. I’m fascinated by the diversity in design. I think that monetary design profoundly affects both governance and knowledge in society. That is, it affects both the way we structure and allocate power and the way we think about what the market is. For me, there is a pre-capitalism, whether we’re talking about medieval coin or we’re talking about early American paper money. Also for me, there are many different kinds of capitalism. There are changing assumptions about human nature and about governance that seem to be intimately connected with the kinds of monetary structure and governance that’s going on. I think that is less of a focus for MMT scholars.

To give a very concrete example, there’s a lot of great MMT scholarship about the role of public debt in absorbing or expanding the money supply. That is to say, the management of public debt and open market operations are an important lever of policy in the modern world. For me, the advent of circulating public debt is a critical moment in which we change the governance structure of a community and begin to prioritize creditors, use investors as an intermediary, and basically delegate great political power to that group. Along the way, the innovation of public debt underscores and reinforces different ways of thinking about individual self interest and the way the individual connects with the government. Just as an example, I’m interested in things that are more about the kinds of governance decisions that are wrapped up in monetary design. I would say, at a technical level, MMT scholars have unparalleled expertise in current institutions of modern money. They are focusing on the prescriptive use of monetary theory. Also at a technical level, my own expertise has been trying to understand this historical change that has led us to a certain repertoire of money design. I also focus more on the legal attributes of money and why they matter. The character of money as a kind of political obligation, the aspects of monetary value that are embedded in the details of what we enforce, are what I call the cash premium. And so, I’m focusing, in some ways, on the elements of the repertoire. I think MMT scholarship is, in some ways, focusing on how to use the repertoire that currently exists and prevails.

William Saas: That makes sense.

Christine Desan: Yeah, I think it’s been a really productive dialogue, actually, between the constitutional approach to money and MMT. The last thing I’d emphasize is that these approaches to money as a kind of credit that’s circulating are ancient as well as modern. There have always been these approaches to money. People have been theorizing money for centuries. And so, we’re not the only two kids on the block. There’s a lot of really interesting work out there from ancient, medieval, and early modern thinkers who also saw money as a public medium and understood its potential. So this is, I guess, an invitation to people to think broadly along whatever lines that makes sense to them to try to understand and grapple with this public medium, because it is so incredibly important. It’s something that penetrates our daily life and basically creates material governance in our world.

Scott Ferguson: Well, this has been hugely illuminating. Can we close by asking you to talk about what research projects you’re working on at the moment?

Christine Desan: Yeah, so I have three that I’ll mention. One is an attempt really to take apart and to understand the change that occurs in a society when it goes to money. That is, it considers that first transformative moment, the moment from going to political contribution that’s made in kind to a world in which a community decides that they’re going to convert the in kind contribution into tokens and then use those tokens as a medium–going from an income world to a market based world. I’m working on one essay that really tries to understand how it changes political capacity and personal orientation to move from an income world in which everyone’s contributing equally to a world in which there’s actually money circulating, and to consider what the advantages and disadvantages are of that moment. That essay also thinks about how the law works here, how the government is actually projecting its power when it’s enforcing monetary decisions, and how it’s curating the market when it’s deciding which property, contract, tort, and damages to recognize monetarily–how it’s actually building the market. So that’s one project. 

The second project I’m thinking through is an essay that looks at the stubbornness of our myths about money being private. One thing we haven’t talked about is that we have strong intuitions that money is private. People will often mention that money comes from barter and that private exchange produces money, or they’ll mention old stories about POW’s using cigarettes as money. A recent occurrence of this kind of idea that money could be private is Bitcoin, or that maybe money can exist outside the government. I’m interested in trying to understand why we intuit money as private. I think this is because of our experience with private institutions, such as commercial banks, and the dominance they have in our society. But I’m interested in trying to interrogate that and understand what the form of our intuition is, and why we keep thinking of money as private and therefore the market as private.

In the last thing that I’m working on, I’d really like to resurrect this old work about early America. I started this whole project about early America. I mentioned that I kept falling over cliffs and ended up doing the book about the medieval and early British world. But I’d really like to go back to that early American world and finish it. There are great stories about the adventures the settlers were having in the way they tried to work out money–the conflicts they had among themselves, the things they did right, the things they did wrong, the Revolution, the Constitution, and the dramatic kinds of debates that Americans had over what money was and how they should make it. That’ll be my next project.

Scott Ferguson: Christine Desan, thank you so much for joining us. This has been incredible.

Christine Desan: Great, thank you so much for having me.