Introduction to Theory: Karl Marx

In this podcast, Scott Ferguson presents an introduction to key theoretical writings by Karl Marx: Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844Manifesto of the Communist Party; and Capital, Volume 1. Drawn from a semester-long university course titled “Theory for Film & Media Studies,” the recorded lecture takes up three distinct texts in order explore continuities and divergences in Marx’s complex contributions to modern thought and politics. Framed as an advanced introduction that is hardly exhaustive, Ferguson’s lecture strives to orient students to Marx’s contested historical significance and to model forms of situated close reading that resist reductionism.

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Radical Heterodoxies & Parallel Institutions w/ Mat Forstater

Mat Forstater joins Money on the Left to discuss the origins of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), the vicissitudes of heterodox economics, and the challenges of building alternative institutions in and beyond the academy. As one of the principal architects of MMT, as well as teacher and advisor to many of the more recognized MMT scholars and advocates today, Forstater is perhaps the best equipped heterodox economist to give us the details on the innovative assumptions and arguments that created the firmament for what we now know as Modern Monetary Theory. More importantly, how Forstater came to shape the project greatly defamiliarizes popular assumptions about MMT, which tend to reduce what is in truth a rich intellectual and political movement to a narrow and technocratic set of truisms and just-so stories. From experimental poetry and Black political economy to the problems of futurity and invention, Forstater’s circuitous path reveals MMT’s origins to be far more interdisciplinary and heterogeneous than it is often understood to be by opponents and advocates alike.

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Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

William Saas: Matt Forstater, welcome to Money on the Left.

Mathew Forstater: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

William Saas: It’s so wonderful to have you finally with us. To get us started, we’d like to ask a bit about your professional and personal backgrounds and how they kind of end up leading our guests to what they became. Can you do that for us and tell us how you came to be involved with heterodox economics, maybe what brought you down that path, and what maybe influenced you the most along the way?

Mathew Forstater: So I guess, at some distance, I can say that I was something of an unusual kid. I was a big reader growing up, and I was very interested in Black history in elementary schools, finding books about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, whatever you could find, and all that kind of thing. Actually, all the way up until I went to college, people thought that I would go into the humanities. I won an English award in junior high school. I wrote, I was not a math and science person. I certainly wasn’t taking any personal finance courses or anything like that. A big moment in my development was when I had gone to public school from kindergarten to the end of 10th grade, and I had been not doing well in school in 10th grade–I always did well in school. So anyway, long story short, I went to an alternative high school for my last two years. And I’m sort of the generation that was alive during the 1960s, but not old enough to participate in it, but old enough to be aware of what was going on. I have older brothers and I watched the Watergate hearings with them.

So I went to an alternative school. It was run by very progressive minded people, you call the teachers by their first names, and there’s no rules practically or whatever. I looked at the classes that I was going to pick from my first semester, and there was communism, eastern religions, and transpersonal psychology. I was just in heaven. This was just like the greatest thing. A course that I ended up taking for two semesters that maybe had the biggest influence on me was conceptual art. It just opened up a whole world for me of art, theater, poetry, the borders between fantasy and reality, audience and performer, and all these kinds of different issues. I was always motivated by social justice issues. I was very concerned about the world, especially after Reagan was elected and was talking about the Soviet Union as an evil empire. It seemed very scary. It really was for me. So I decided, instead of going to college, I moved to a farm. It was actually like a Homestead School.

So there was a group of us on this property. We were growing organic food and learning about solar energy. Our goal was to try to be as self-sufficient as possible. Then, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred. It was just 11 miles away from the farm. It was a big deal, because the radiation doesn’t stop at the gate of the utopian commune. The message that I realized was that you can’t separate yourself, or at least I didn’t feel that you can just go and find some place to make your imaginary utopia. There are still these problems in the world, and you’re not going to be able to fix them here. So after that, I left the farm. Then, I lived on the west coast for a couple years and pursued poetry. Finally, I made my way back to the east coast and registered for my first college course. It was “Introduction to the Black Aesthetic,” taught by Sonia Sanchez, who was a well known poet, certainly in the Philadelphia area. She’s like an institution, but she’s someone who was not as well known as Nikki Giovanni or some other young poets that were part of the Black Arts Movement. But now she’s pretty recognized. In any case, it was just fantastic.

I was able to develop a nice relationship with the professor and we all did some type of performance at the end. This course, at that time, was being offered in the department of Pan African Studies. The department at that time was a very interesting department because one of my professors was Vietnamese. There was a very global, third-worldist view and a lot of emphasis on the connections between Africans in the diaspora and on the continent. So I just started taking different courses in Pan African Studies. In the meantime, I was taking introduction to this, that, and the other thing because I really didn’t know what I wanted to major in or what I wanted to do. Finally, I settled on Pan African Studies. The name changed in the middle of my time there to African American Studies, and some of the faculty changed. Temple University became a center for Afro-centric thinking and an African-centered worldview, laying out the methodology and philosophical foundations, and, of course, the critique of Eurocentrism was a big part of the curriculum and what my focus really became. I started to look at issues both in the US and the anti-apartheid movement, which was also going on at that time. 

So the relationship of race and class is what I was grappling with. How much of what we see is due to class and how much is due to racism, and what’s the relationship between capitalism and racism? Then, I also tried to bring gender into the analysis and the picture as well. So I was introduced to political economy by an anthropologist, actually. I only had two economics classes as an undergrad. There were one or two heterodox professors at Temple, but not anymore, one left. I only saw a little bit of mainstream economics in my introductory class. The teaching assistant had to take me aside, I think, after the second day and say, “You’re right about everything you’re saying, but I have to get through this material. Here’s a bunch of professors, you might like their classes.” I’ll tell you, I took a lot of his recommendations and they were all just fantastic. I was very fortunate to have some fantastic professors even just in these introductory courses. They have a required course for all undergrads called “Intellectual Heritage” at Temple, and it’s taught by dozens and dozens of different people. But somehow, just picking a section because of my schedule, I ended up having some wonderful teachers as an undergrad. I was getting into studying, the library, and researching things just on my own.

So I felt like I wanted to systematically study political economy. Somehow I heard about The New School and saw their course descriptions and said, “Okay, I can go there. I can try to catch up on the technical stuff that I don’t have a background in–the stats, maps, and all that. But I can also take these courses in economic history, the history of ideas, and political economy.” In those days, you had three courses that were all Marxian economics, two introductory, one advanced, and then there was another advanced one that was not required. But we really delved deeply into it. This was the time when the mode of production controversies were going on. I got really interested in that because I was interested in economic development, and I was interested in Africa, but sometimes things affect the trajectory of your career where it can seem somewhat arbitrary. At The New School, the faculty is very small. There’s only really one faculty member for each field area. So there’s one person in international trade, one person in labor economics, and maybe one person in money and banking. If we were lucky, we had all these covered, but if a faculty member would leave–which is what happened, the development economists left–then it took them two years till we had a replacement. And by that time, you had to keep moving on.

I was very fortunate because even though development wasn’t available, race and class was being taught by Rhonda M. Williams. And it turns out that she was only at The New School for two years. I used to say I’m the last person who did a field in race and class with Rhonda Williams. It might have been the first and last. There were maybe three people who actually were able to do it. But in any case, she was doing a lot of really exciting work. One of the things about heterodox economics is that there’s different ways of being heterodox and there’s different ways of being orthodox. So we had some heterodox economists who methodologically were extremely conventional, like almost the crudest type of positivism in terms of just their view of science. It wasn’t really any different from mainstream economists saying economics is a science. People who are heterodox in content, but not method, maybe we could say have a very similar idea of–and we see this in some brands of Marxism–the idea of science and so on.

So there was Rhonda Williams, and also another newer professor, Will Milberg, who is now the dean of graduate faculty, but he was a new faculty member then. Both of them were very early explorers of kind of postmodernism in economics. This was the aftermath of Deirdre McCloskey’s book, The Rhetoric of Economics, which raised a lot of methodological issues and kind of reinvigorated a reflection on methodological issues. So that resulted in all of these different cottage industries opening up in different aspects of methodology. That was very important for me. And the professors, despite the remarks I’m making about methodology and so on, were brilliant. I learned a ton. Before, when I heard things from out of economics, I had a gut feeling that something was wrong with these arguments, but because I didn’t know the language, the models, the terminology, and all these things, I really couldn’t engage with it in a very strong way. So this is what I was doing there. I was learning the language.

At the same time, African American Studies is, by its very nature, interdisciplinary. It is very historical in its approach. The critique of Eurocentrism, I would say, is another part. So anything that would come up, if I would see reference to sociological economics or economic anthropology or whatever it was, and then out of this sort of postmodern turn, finally, reaching economics, that also opened up. With Marx and political economy, there were a lot of ways to engage in cross disciplinary thinking, collaboration, and so on. In the end, I had taken a job for one thing, without even having my dissertation topic approved yet. I was at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, and there was a fellow from Malawi, Derrick Gandwe, who was in that department. He had got his PhD at Manitoba which still does kind of have a heterodox PhD program way up north in Canada. So he kind of became like a mentor of mine. But you’re working full time and you’re trying to finish your dissertation. So a lot of my motivation for starting the institutes was to provide students with PhD funding so that they didn’t have to work and do the dissertation at the same time if possible, because it’s important for students to have  at least one year to devote to their dissertation.

What I’ve always wanted for students was for them to have the same opportunity that they do in the mainstream departments. I would say it’s pretty unheard of for people to pay their own way through a PhD program. Most of the time, if you’re getting to that point, there’s a good chance you’re going to be offered some type of support. So heterodox economics has never really had that, except on a very, very tiny basis. I really began to see how it was going to be necessary to talk about institution building in heterodoxy. This was also a time when there was a debate about “big tent” heterodoxy versus all these different subfields or paradigms. You have Marxists over here of one type, and Marxists there of another type, and post-Keynesians of one type here, and post-Keynesians of another type there. And some really felt strongly that you couldn’t mix schools of thought. Heaven forbid, we should do something like that. I mean, it really was kind of incredible thinking about it now, because how else do we move forward unless we are grappling with, improving, and modifying? That means learning from other insights and so on.

William Saas: What years are we talking about right now?

Mathew Forstater: In the 80s. I was at The New School physically from 87 to 92. The word heterodox, you never even heard that in the beginning part of that time period. Maybe just toward the end of that time you started to hear it because Fred Lee was over in England, and he was starting the Association for Heterodox Economics and other things. Before that, post-Keynesianism kind of served a similar purpose in that it was, with some exceptions, less dogmatic and more open. People have made these arguments, and there was a big period where critical realism was all the rage in post-Keynesian economics. It’s this idea of open ontology. In any case, it was more open, and therefore, of a certain humility, because I never saw any one of these schools as having all of the answers. Feminist economics and ecological economics started to emerge. You already had Black political economy back from the 60s and so on. You had these different heterodox professional associations, like social economics, evolutionary economics, and the others.

Post-Keynesians never had a professional organization, which did have some repercussions, because, for example, at the big meetings, in order to sponsor sessions, you had to have an organization. So the social economists, the evolutionary economists, the feminist economists, and historians had their sessions, but post-Keynesians, because they didn’t have a professional organization, they would have their own conference. Those became very important for MMT, because UMKC started sponsoring these conferences. And they were very international and very well attended. Very early on, before the term MMT even came out, a lot of these ideas were being debated at these summer schools. There weren’t just conferences. We would have graduate students and young professors, or people early in their careers, who would come, and do three to five days of hearing from all different speakers. Then, at the end, there would be a full two or three day conference. So these are great experiences, and the Institutionalists started doing one as well, which we also sponsored, and some of these were explicitly interdisciplinary.

William Saas: How did you get from Gettysburg to UMKC?

Mathew Forstater: Yeah, so I wrote my dissertation with Robert Heilbroner. Then, I had my third year review. These days, forget it. If you’re getting one year to finish, that is it. I haven’t heard of people getting more than that these days. So for me to go three years, I mean, really… Anyway, I got done in time for my third year review, but I spent all my research time writing my dissertation. So I felt like I needed to focus on some research and publications, and I applied for a research scholarship or whatever with the Levy Institute. It turns out now, Pavlina Tcherneva, who had been an undergraduate student at Gettysburg, obtained a prestigious fellowship with the Jerome Levy Forecasting Center, which is no longer associated with the Levy Institute, but in those days it still was. So she came to Levy and then Randy Ray had a long time association with the Levy Institute, because Minsky had been his teacher and Minsky was the chief kind of face of the early years of the Levy Institute. His former student, Stephanie Kelton, then Stephanie Bell, had been doing an MPhil at Cambridge, and the Levy Institute and Cambridge had an exchange program. So she came as a Cambridge scholar to Levy. So we all converged on the Levy Institute.

Wynne Godley was there as well. His name isn’t brought up so much these days, but sectoral balances was really kind of elaborated by Wynne Godley, and he was a big supporter of ours in terms of all the stuff on money and everything. He was not as enthusiastic about the job guarantee, but he was on the money and budgeting side. So Randy was on leave from the University of Denver, I was on leave from Gettysburg College, one year turned into two years, and all during this time, we were organizing sessions at conferences and had visitors. Bill Mitchell came from Australia and some others. Basically, we were talking to everybody we could possibly talk with. We were submitting papers to the heterodox journals, of which there are many. And we were going to various meetings. We were sponsoring our own workshops and conferences. We used to call them workshops, but if you look at the lineups of our conferences, it’s unbelievable what we brought together. What we had was funding. So we could say we will bring you here, we can fly you from Europe or Australia, we can put you up, and all that kind of thing, and even for US-based people.

Each conference would have a different theme. We had one on Social Security. Several of the people from the National Jobs for All Coalition we invited participated in that–Trudy Goldberg, Helen Ginsburg, and Sumner Rosen. I hate to say it, but unfortunately, and now I can say for myself as well, heterodox people are not getting big invites all around the world to present their work, share their ideas, and so on. I soon figured out that heterodoxy has created a kind of parallel institutional structure. You won’t let us into your journals? We’ll have our own journals. At one time, there was concern that people’s careers could be affected, because if you only published in these heterodox journals, they weren’t ranked as high. Well, I’ll tell you this, it’s not like I’ve been at Ivy League schools or whatever, but I have never seen a non-economist, Dean, provost or anybody question the journals. They’re refereed journals. A lot of them have been in existence for decades. They have editorial boards, people with prestigious records, and so on. But that’s not a completely satisfactory solution. 

Scott Ferguson: It’s a strategy. So you’re talking a lot about this institutional coalescing around the Levy Institute and everyone sort of on leave, and it’s an extended summer camp, maybe. Then, you’re talking about the way you start inviting people and staging these events, and it’s all very exciting. Is this all “big tent” heterodox? Where is so-called MMT emerging? How is that coalescing? Are there certain topics, problems, and shared social values that are coalescing here as well? Or is it just, “Well, we’re all in the same place and we’ve all got different ideas?” What was that kind of primordial soup like?

Mathew Forstater: So that’s a great question. In some ways, there was a certain kind of iterative process to it. But I used to jokingly say, in the early years, I should be writing a book or an article on the socialization of professions, or the sociology of knowledge, like introducing a new paradigm, what that entails, all the different things that happen, and what are the tipping points or whatever. So we did not all just go to the Levy Institute and say, “Oh, we’re all kind of post-Keynesian,” and then next thing you know, MMT happens. It was an organized thing that we would all converge on the Levy Institute. Pavlina had done an internship with Warren Mosler between her junior and senior year. And as a result of that, she did a crash course in post-Keynesian monetary theory. Her assignment was to write a critical review of Mosler’s “Soft Currency Economics.” She did that, and then she also worked on another paper, which was like a math model type paper.

She was able to participate in the 50th anniversary of the Bretton Woods Conference. There were only three economists at that conference, Randy Ray, Charles Goodhart, and Basil Moore. Everybody else was from the world of finance, hedge funds, or something, but Goodhart was working on the paper that became the two concepts of money. He introduced chartalism and metallism and that whole thing. He was working on that paper, and he even incorporated some of the African Studies references about the colonial tax and that stuff into at least some versions of that paper. Then, Randy had started to work on the book that became Understanding Modern Money. That was published at the very end of 1998, I believe. He and I both had working papers starting in 1997. He had one on the government as the employer of last resort, one “Money and Taxes: The Chartalist Approach,” and then one on functional finance.

I forget what it was called, but basically, he covered what at that time we saw as the three main areas: the history of money and the nature of money, different contending theories of money, the government budget, deficits, national debt, and all of that, and then full employment and the job guarantee, which then was referred to as the employer of last resort, or public service employment, you’ll see that as well. So some of these things had different names for a while. With chartalism, some people really didn’t like that name. I never really saw what the big deal was, but in any case, the bottom line is, we were introduced to “Soft Currency Economics” in the summer of 1996. Then, when Pavlina came back from her internship when she was a senior, she took my seminar in macro and monetary theory, and she did an honors undergrad thesis on these ideas.

There was this post-Keynesian email listserv. Instead of blogs or podcasts or whatever, in those days, it was listservs. And a lot went on on those listservs. There were incredible discussions and debates and dramas. Warren Mosler found his way there. That’s where I first saw his name. That’s where he saw my note that I had a student who was looking for an internship. Randy, and then Bill Mitchell, that’s where I first saw his name as well. These ideas, like tax driven money, that the deficit is just accounting information, and these basic sort of cornerstones or whatever of modern money, I mean, each one had to be completely unpacked and thoroughly examined. And what we started to find out is that these were not completely unique ideas. There was a long tradition in each of these areas. Now, maybe finding them all together in quite that way was new.

But one of the things that I did was look for evidence in the history of economics, and beyond economics, to find evidence of people who had recognized that money could be tax driven, because at the beginning, one of the things that people always assumed is that we were arguing that all money that there ever has been, or ever could be, was tax driven. Or our critics would exaggerate our claims. Instead of saying that in a certain institutional context, then, the monetary system or the budgetary system can be managed in this way. But not saying that under any possible imaginable institutional arrangements this is how it is. That gets into a lot of things about what is money and there were plenty of discussions about this.

Maxximilian Seijo: I was thinking, before we perhaps open up that rabbit hole, I wanted to hover on what you briefly mentioned there, which are your contributions. Because, I think, if listeners haven’t already heard, your background in Black studies and poetry and then coming to economics later offers perhaps a bit of a unique intellectual background that led you to this point on these listservs, and then, importantly, as you mentioned in the institutional context of post-Keynesianism and heterodoxy more broadly. So with reference, perhaps, to this sort of lingering background, what do you feel like your primary contributions to this moment and to this coming to be of MMT were, and how did your background inform the shape that they took?

Mathew Forstater: Right, that is great. So I came to the Levy Institute. My stated proposal was to conduct a historical and interdisciplinary analysis of employment and budgetary policy. In fact, I’m still a research scholar on the website of the Levy Institute. And if you click on me, it still says that that’s what I’m doing, which is fine. My colleagues were taking a super macro look at the economy, and you could state all of the main things about money and so on in these kinds of sectoral balances levels. There are three sectors: domestic, government, and the International sector. But I came out of a tradition within post-Keynesian economics that is sometimes called structural post-Keynesianism, institutionalist post-Keynesianism or post-Keynesian institutionalist. Basically, instead of only looking at things in the super aggregated way, the economy is looked at as a set of linkages among industries. Let’s take labor. Movements of workers between different firms and industries, and the different amounts of activity in different industries and so on, was part of both unemployment, and also that understanding, or that level of analysis, had to be part of full employment policy.

So I did a paper on how full employment policies must consider both effective demand and structural and technological change. And this was actually a little bit controversial among my colleagues, but where one of the interesting parts of this comes in is that what was behind me going into this work was the constant bringing up of the Kalecki article about full employment and why full employment could never be in capitalism. I thought that what was kind of missing in a way from the post-Keynesian tradition, or Keynesian tradition, that you had with Kalecki and Marx was recognizing the functionality of unemployment and excess capacity. So this is the ironic thing, the job guarantee actually addresses those issues, whereas, if you just try to have generic government spending, deficit spending, to pump the private sector up to something close to full employment, if you could even get there, then it would create all kinds of problems because of the loss of the functionality of unemployment and excess capacity. So I did publish a couple papers in this area, but my main interest has always been what we could do with this.

And for myself, like you were saying in your question Max, what are the implications for the goal of environmental sustainability? What are the implications of this knowledge that we have now, of how money works, how the budget can work, how a job guarantee program, looking at all the different programs, what their obstacles are? What if all these jobs were helping the environment? What I came to was the first point is that public sector activities should not be judged on the same criteria as private sector efficiency criteria. People, politicians, or the media are always saying how inefficient the public sector is, and that we should have the private sector do it because it’d be better. Private companies seek to maximize profits and minimize their internal costs, but sometimes, we have other goals that are broader social and macro goals. So the public sector activities are not for profit, and therefore, minimizing internal costs is not the goal. The goal is to perhaps find a cost effective way of achieving independently given goals, or goals that are the outcome of a political process.

That means that we don’t do a cost benefit analysis and say, “Oh, well, guess what, slavery is really efficient,” or these kinds of things. Sometimes something is done because it is the right thing to do. And that is independent of cost in just purely dollars and cents. Open things up. Public sector activities should be geared towards other things. That led to green jobs stuff, functional finance, ecological tax reform, and the idea that people have all these different definitions of green jobs. A green job is a job that is not harming the environment. It doesn’t have to be explicitly performing an environmental service. Of course, some jobs will perform an explicit environmental service, but some like caregiving and the library or whatever it is, practically pure services that use very little natural resources and don’t pollute, they’re not producing carbon. So there’s that piece.

Then, with race and class, on the one hand, I got into the colonial tax and colonial money topic using the example of Africa under colonialism and the way that the colonial monetary system, and how the government used the monetary system to promote the growth of market activity to the wage labor, and all those kinds of things. And on the other hand, I did some stuff on African American issues, rediscovering Martin Luther King’s writings on the job guarantee, Bayard Rustin, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the freedom budget, and so on. I was like, wow, this is great. In the last few years, one would think that MMT was all about social justice and the environment. But it really wasn’t always that way. So I feel like I was able to, first of all, show how we could be thinking about the use of these policies and this knowledge, and opening up some different lines of research.

The one other part was going back and finding all of these statements that are clearly about tax-driven money in writings by like Adam Smith and all the neoclassicals. It’s unbelievable. And, of course, in Marx I found that stuff in there as well. The thing that became clear was that they all were emphasizing how it’s in a specific institutional setting rather than how a government money can be managed. That part started to come through. Of course, there’s a million more discoveries. All the time, people were sending me things like, “Tolstoy was a chartalist!” But the crazy thing is that there’s a lot more awareness, both within and outside of economics, of tax-driven money than previously thought. And there was a lot more support for a job guarantee type program in history than we knew about. The interesting thing about working with a small group of people on something that seems like new is that you’re talking all the time, discussing and debating, somebody says something and somebody else picks up on it or whatever. It’s really difficult to exactly pinpoint the origin of a certain notion. People like Randy often say at the beginning of their books that this is the result of a group, the research of many people, and the work of many people. It really is true.

So our first real target was to thoroughly introduce these ideas, present them, get them discussed and debated among all the different heterodox groups, and to publish our work, for it to go through the standard refereeing process and all that. Then, the opportunity at UMKC opened up toward the end of our second year at the Levy Institute. And basically, we all went to UMKC. They had a PhD program–an interdisciplinary PhD program. It was very successful. We had to show that our students were going to be able to get jobs. So many wonderful colleagues that we have had came out of UMKC’s program. I’ve said this quite a bit, but when I was younger, I always thought education was one of the greatest sources for peaceful social change, but it takes so long. But now that I’m older, I realize that you can have a tremendous impact over a 20-30-40 year career of supervising students. We’ve got dozens of students around the country who are teaching, publishing, organizing, and leading. We’ve got Pavlina, Fadhel, and Stephanie. They’ve gone beyond, but they started out as our students.

William Saas: So the capsule version of your contribution early on was the question: “what can you do with this?” Underscore under the “do.” That’s something that, I think, a lot of us in the editorial collective have connected with MMT over the years. What are the possibilities that are presented by it? I love hearing every time you talk about the history of MMT and tell this story. But I think that I’ve also encountered other versions or angles on it, thinking specifically about Fred Lee’s History of Heterodox Economics posthumously published in 2009 with Routledge. That “what can we do with this?” as a question is interesting, then you run into “how do we do it?” as a supplement or a second order question, and that’s where you seem to run up against institutions and the limits of one’s own capacities at that moment. Returning to Lee’s book, one of the things that I’ve found interesting and also a bit confounding, is where he ends up–and of course, this is 2009, published posthumously–which is we need to basically win out in the academy and that will be our most direct path to potentially affecting policy in a way we heterodox economists have not been able to get to at this point. And we do that by making sure that our journals count equally with mainstream journal publications and things like that. And we build PhD departments.

And really, a lot of it is institution building within the confines of conventional institution building. So it’s almost as if the theory is that we need to match and overcome what orthodoxy has accomplished, but through the very sort of means that they have accomplished what they’ve accomplished. The part of what continues to be compelling about MMT, and you’ve alluded to this by referring to the students, the second generation, is that it seems to me that transcending, operating, or building institutions outside of conventional institutions has become maybe a bit more part of the story, and especially in the recent decade and a half. I don’t know if you could say a little bit about how you understand after we’ve got the heterodox conferences, we’ve got the heterodox journals, we’ve got Levy, and we now have a PhD department, and then, in the last 15 years, how do you sort of see the institutions of MMT having taken shape and evolved, and maybe in a way that people wouldn’t have expected back in 2000?

Mathew Forstater: Right, I think one thing that has to be brought into it is that, as we were focusing on getting the ideas out there and publishing and establishing the department and those things, the real economy continued to make people’s lives miserable. So the global financial crisis and Occupy Wallstreet, I mean, that was huge for MMT. That’s how this patchwork of chartalism, the job guarantee, functional finance, and sectoral balances became MMT. It is really because of the global financial crisis, the most recent pandemic crisis, and so on. And especially, think about the impetus to MMT just as a result of people seeing the amounts of money that were spent during the bailout in 2008, and then with the pandemic, and the impact that even giving people a couple thousand bucks has on their lives and all the other issues. It connected the academic work with the activism. I really feel like social media was important.

We had the proliferation, at the same time, of Facebook and Twitter groups emerging in this way. I would say the Modern Money Network was a total surprise. We’ve got some law students who are interested and started to hold some events at Columbia. Because the thing about the law schools is that Harvard and Cornell have heterodox people in their law schools. So they have a platform. They’ve got the prestige behind their messages. That was a very important piece as well. Then, you had the activism. You had Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement with “Green Jobs for All” shirts on in front of Pelosi’s office. It’s crazy, I couldn’t believe it. And Stephanie was working with Bernie Sanders and all that brings–lots of media coverage. Things start to have a life and a momentum of their own that propels things. Of course, you get in all different directions and things as well. I feel like it’s great. I have the opposite feeling of anyone who wants to keep…

William Saas: Keep their cards close to their chest?

Mathew Forstater: Yeah, keep a secret to myself or something. If I insist that I’m going to converse with people who agree with me 100% of the time, I would be sitting alone in a room. Are we going to try to find places where we can build alliances and bridges? There were always some people who had sympathy with part of our project, but not necessarily all of it. And I never viewed this as a problem. That’s just the way things are. We’ll continue to have conversations and so on. You should want to have a pretty broad MMT tent. That is what is healthiest for moving things forward. With the doctoral dissertations, I feel it’s great when students do something different with the material. Zdravka Todorova took feminist approaches on household debt with sectoral balances, chartalism, and post-Keynesian and came up with a very great piece of work. There are dozens of examples like this, such as applications to certain time periods. The amount of work that remains to be done is just so much. We just scratched the surface. And you see now you have got to get to work. That’s why it takes resources. This is where funding students is so important. Of course, we’re not like a department of MMT. We do a variety of things, but they’re mutually supportive of one another.

Scott Ferguson: One of the many reasons why we wanted to bring you on the show is this idea you’re very much playing out, which is, in the name of getting certain MMT lessons out there, there’s been an effort to streamline them and to make them into idioms or easily repeatable sayings. And that’s fine, that work needs to be done. Then, there’s the inevitable misconstruing of all of them and things like this. When I see certain resistances to MMT on the left, and in a certain kind of intellectual left that is in some ways in and out of the academy, or working in like literary magazines or whatever, is they don’t have any sense of this kind of rich interdisciplinary history, which includes the present. There are PhD students, Sunrise organizers, and all these people taking up what I often like to call a shared problem space in different ways, going to work on it, and being like, “Yeah, but we haven’t thought about this deeply important feminist problem of the organization of domestic labor under patriarchy.” I really appreciate the way you’re bringing that sense of richness and heterogeneity that often gets lost in certain more dominant discursive spaces to the table.

Now, I have a question to maybe help wrap us up. So you gave a talk that we invited you to give, a keynote, at our first Money on the Left conference. This was a few years ago back at the University of South Florida where I teach, and you did a lot in that talk. It was kind of performative. It was multimedia. You played a lot of hip hop music clips and you yourself engaged in some poetic practice. I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I’m curious if you could revive some of the ideas and impulses of that talk. Ultimately, at least conceptually, could you talk about what you were doing with what I would call futurity, or a kind of practice, research, a method, a modality, a social dynamic that is oriented toward the future in a particular way?

Mathew Forstater: Yeah, first of all, I appreciated coming down to your university and meeting your students and colleagues. It was a fantastic conference. Your colleagues’ presentations and students’ presentations were incredible. You’ve got a fantastic program going on down there. I’m a big fan and supporter of everything that you’re doing with the podcast and the movement. So the methodology for public policy that I worked on in my doctoral dissertation, and that I’ve published some stuff about, approaches policymaking from this idea that we have to begin with a vision of the sustainable and just society that we want to create. And that, analytically, we work backwards from the vision of where we want to go to find a path that connects that future with where we are now. So the idea is that this kind of working backwards invites the imagination to discover policies that would move us in the direction that we seek. That has always been an important part of how I view things. Adolph Lowe, who was Heilbroner’s teacher, and whose work I was examining in my dissertation, he promoted this idea he called instrumentalism, instrumental inference, this working backwards idea. One of its most appropriate applications is when it comes to the environment, because if we know that the assimilative capacity of the environment has the ability to deal with, say, X tonnes of a certain emission per year, then that gives us the strain, in a sense, that we cannot go beyond. Our goal, then, is given to us by that scientifically informed political process. If we would have just worked forward, then there’s no telling if the amount of emissions would be consistent with the sustainability,

Scott Ferguson: We might work through cost benefit analysis instead of this, right?

Mathew Forstater: Yeah, cost benefit gives the goals. That’s how the goals are determined–if there are even any goals determined and we’re not just wandering aimlessly or whatever. That opens up the whole envisioning aspect of things. And because I draw from outside of economics there’s so much rich material that we can engage with. It turned out that Abba Lerner, because he was also at The New School and a colleague of Adolf Lowe, he participated in this conference that was evaluating Lowe’s argument. Basically, Lerner stated that functional finance was perfectly consistent with Lowe’s idea. It also works very well with what I was talking about earlier with a slightly disaggregated analysis from the super macro level stuff. So part of what the methodology work that I did and that I’ve used, it examines things like following a hunch or guessing things that don’t appear in scientific papers. They sit uncomfortably somehow in a scientific paper, but if you go to scientist’s diaries, letters, autobiographies, and journals, then they’re talking all about this kind of stuff.

So the role of the imagination–C. Wright Mills’ sociological imagination–that fits very well with this kind of thing. The economic imagination, the ecological imagination, however you want to describe it. That took me to all these literatures which are about discovery. And even in the presentation down at University of South Florida, I brought up a Sherlock Holmes quote or whatever, because he’s talking about working backwards. Then, I discovered a few other little interesting things. In the appendix to The Sociological Imagination, C Wright Mills talks about the researchers file. It’s not just a file cabinet full of articles, or now files on the computer, but it’s snippets of conversation that you heard, something you read in the newspaper, a dream you had, etc. All of these things can be part of the discovery process. So the whole process of discovery, of diagnosis, of detection, the main kind of issue that came out of it is that a lot of times we feel things are presented as though it’s just by chance.

Like the eureka moment comes because you poured the wrong liquid into the thing. Those things can and do happen, and we can look out for those happy coincidences or whatever, but the part that I was focusing on was there are things that we can do to enhance our powers of discovery. I got really interested in that and sought to apply it, because, in a lot of ways, there is more than a certain content of heterodox economics, or even interdisciplinary heterodox economics. More than a certain content, for me, it was how do I go about investigating a problem or identifying a problem worth solving, to be able to consciously and intentionally make everything a potential source of reflection or consideration? With all these literatures about entrepreneurs and their powers of discovery in finding profit opportunities or whatever, I see no reason why policymakers shouldn’t be able to use the same powers of discovery to come up with innovative ways of dealing with the most vexing problems that we’re facing. It’s hard to get up every day, it’s so overwhelming. It is part of my lifelong grappling with certain core questions, the relationship between materialism and idealism, and some type of rapprochement or whatever in terms of recognizing material and ideological aspects of society, or what the Germans called the problem of freedom and order.

We can have a sustainable world. We can have eco-fascist people on every corner making sure you recycle or whatever. Well, that’s not satisfactory. And now, with the word freedom, people think it is a violation of their freedom to be told to wear a mask during the pandemic or something like that. But inspiration is so important to me. I find the arts and the humanities very inspiring, especially music and performance. So I’ve had some fun over the years. We kind of had a tradition where I would do poems at the end of the summer school. When you get tenure and promotion, then you can go up to the lectern with your guitar or whatever.

Maxximilian Seijo: I’m sure the expansive grappling will continue. But I can’t think of a better place to sort of conclude this conversation. Matt Forstater, thank you so much for coming on Money on the Left.

Mathew Forstater: Thanks so much for having me.

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

28 – We Have Never Been Neoliberal, What Now?

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

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

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

Mint After Reading: Philip Diehl Talks with Rohan Grey

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

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

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey: There’s a precedential element, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry.”

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

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

Grey: Yes.

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

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

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

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

Grey: could be done in hours.

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

Grey: No, it hadn’t.

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

Grey: They’re going to do it, yeah.

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

Grey:  The hyperbole helped bring it further into reality.

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

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

This isn’t about depoliticizing spending itself.

Diehl: Exactly, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Grey: Believing the government can do something, ironically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey: Yeah, Founding Fathers.

Diehl: …two hundred years.

Grey: Pointy hats–

Diehl: Yeah.

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

Diehl: Yeah.

Grey: It’s as American as apple pie.

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

Grey: It was a big deal.

Diehl: It was a really big deal, yeah.

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

Diehl: Yes, that’s exactly right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diehl: Yep.

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

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

Grey: Alongside the Declaration of Independence, or something.

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

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

Diehl: That’s exactly right.

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

Diehl: Yes, yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey: Small change for them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey: On the day.

Diehl: Huh?

Grey: On the day.

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

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

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

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

Grey: The partisan, the political motive.

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

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

Diehl: Yup.

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

Diehl: Yep.

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

Diehl: Yeah.

Grey: …was inconvenient for us.

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

Grey: That’s right.

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

Grey: Yep.

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

Grey: Yep.

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

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

Diehl: Very difficult.

Grey: …all you need–

Diehl: Very hard.

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …to achieve an outcome–

Diehl: Yes.

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

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

Grey: Disruption.

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

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

Diehl: That’s right.

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

Diehl: Yeah.

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

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

Grey: Right.

Diehl: …  theoretical scenario, where–

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

Diehl: [Chuckling] yes.

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

Diehl: That’s right.

Grey: …if we do this.”

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

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

Diehl: Yes.

Grey: …maybe this would be moment–

Diehl: Yes, yes.

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

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

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

Diehl: Yeah, that would be cause.

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

Diehl: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diehl: Exactly.

Grey: …of the pandemic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diehl: Yeah. Absolutely, yeah.

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

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

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

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

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

Diehl: [Chuckles] Yes.

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

Diehl: [Nodding] Yeah.

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey: The Patriot Act.

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

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

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

Diehl: Yes.

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

Diehl: Well, if we–

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

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

Grey: Greenback, yeah.  

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

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

Diehl: [Chuckling] Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey: They’ve been predicting the–

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

Grey: Yep.

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

Diehl: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Diehl: If I could–

Grey: Sorry.

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

Grey: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Diehl: Yes, yeah. Yes.

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

Diehl: [Chuckles] Yes.

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

Diehl: My pleasure. Thank you.

End of Transcript

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

CRITIQUE AFTER BERNIE (NEW TRANSCRIPT!)

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

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

Transcript: Mike Lewis

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

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

Superstructure: Critique After Bernie Transcript

Amber A’Lee Frost  00:00

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

Will Menaker  00:08

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

Amber A’Lee Frost  00:10

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

Will Menaker  00:27

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

Amber A’Lee Frost  01:23

Yeah, obviously. But…

Will Menaker  01:26

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

Amber A’Lee Frost  01:38

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

Will Menaker  01:45

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

Amber A’Lee Frost  01:48

Well, we’re trying for a harder task.

Will Menaker  01:51

Right.

Amber A’Lee Frost  01:51

We’re doing something hard.

Will Menaker  01:53

Yeah.

Amber A’Lee Frost  01:53

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

Will Menaker  01:57

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

Amber A’Lee Frost  02:03

Well, I’m telling you: we can win.

Will Menaker  02:07

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

Amber A’Lee Frost  02:21

I don’t have like that kind of alchemy.

Maxx Seijo  02:27

Will, what did we just listen to?

Will Beaman  02:31

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

Maxx Seijo  02:37

“Reflecting” might not be the right word.

Will Beaman  02:39

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

Maxx Seijo  02:57

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

Will Beaman  03:54

Mhm

Maxx Seijo  03:54

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

Will Beaman  04:22

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

Maxx Seijo  06:28

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

Will Beaman  07:17

Right.

Maxx Seijo  07:17

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

Will Beaman  08:00

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

Maxx Seijo  08:03

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

Will Beaman  09:30

Right.

Maxx Seijo  09:30

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

Will Beaman  11:39

Right.

Maxx Seijo  11:39

What is there to do now?

Will Beaman  11:40

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

Maxx Seijo  12:12

Yeah.

Will Beaman  12:13

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

Maxx Seijo  12:36

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

Will Beaman  13:58

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

Maxx Seijo  14:10

That’s right, right?

Will Beaman  14:11

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

Maxx Seijo  14:32

Yeah.

Will Beaman  14:32

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

Maxx Seijo  15:08

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

Will Beaman  16:18

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

Maxx Seijo  18:02

Who hosts that show again?

Will Beaman  18:04

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

Maxx Seijo  19:28

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

Will Beaman  19:33

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

Maxx Seijo  20:41

Children.

Will Beaman  20:52

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

Maxx Seijo  22:06

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

Will Beaman  22:09

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

Maxx Seijo  22:19

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

Will Beaman  22:24

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

Maxx Seijo  22:32

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

Will Beaman  23:18

Right.

Maxx Seijo  23:53

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

Will Beaman  24:02

Brooklyn-by-Oakland.

Maxx Seijo  24:03

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

Will Beaman  25:19

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

Maxx Seijo  27:02

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

Will Beaman  28:07

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

Maxx Seijo  29:29

Former policy adviser John McDonnell.

Will Beaman  29:31

Former policy adviser

Maxx Seijo  29:32

Shadow Chancellor for Corbyn’s opposition.

Will Beaman  29:36

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

Maxx Seijo  31:30

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

Will Beaman  31:39

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  31:40

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

Will Beaman  32:24

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

Maxx Seijo  32:29

Exactly, right?

Will Beaman  32:29

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

Maxx Seijo  32:36

Yeah!

Will Beaman  32:37

The non-existence of someone else.

Maxx Seijo  32:39

And we have the space!

Will Beaman  32:40

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  32:41

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

Will Beaman  33:30

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  33:31

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

Will Beaman  34:29

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

Maxx Seijo  34:47

Yeah.

Will Beaman  34:48

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

Maxx Seijo  35:20

Yeah.

Will Beaman  35:21

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

Maxx Seijo  37:16

And territorialized, as well.

Will Beaman  37:17

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

Maxx Seijo  37:48

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

Will Beaman  37:52

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

Maxx Seijo  38:04

Yeah.

Will Beaman  38:05

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

Maxx Seijo  38:35

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

Will Beaman  39:22

Right.

Maxx Seijo  39:23

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

Will Beaman  39:34

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

Maxx Seijo  39:48

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

Will Beaman  40:59

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

Maxx Seijo  41:05

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

Will Beaman  41:09

Right.

Maxx Seijo  41:10

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

Will Beaman  42:06

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

Maxx Seijo  42:18

Ooo

Will Beaman  42:19

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

Maxx Seijo  42:55

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

Will Beaman  43:08

Right, yeah.

Maxx Seijo  43:30

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

Will Beaman  44:09

Future friend of the show, Greg Grandin. Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  44:11

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

Will Beaman  44:48

Mhm.

Maxx Seijo  44:48

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

Will Beaman  45:21

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

Maxx Seijo  46:31

Coalitions.

Will Beaman  46:31

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

Maxx Seijo  46:36

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

Will Beaman  47:23

Right.

Maxx Seijo  47:24

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

Will Beaman  47:41

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

Maxx Seijo  47:49

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

Will Beaman  47:52

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  47:52

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

Will Beaman  48:35

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

Maxx Seijo  48:59

Except for wars.

Will Beaman  49:00

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

Maxx Seijo  49:06

Wall Street, wars, righteous exclusion.

Will Beaman  49:06

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

Maxx Seijo  49:20

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

Will Beaman  49:27

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

Maxx Seijo  49:46

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

Will Beaman  49:53

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

Maxx Seijo  50:04

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

Will Beaman  50:08

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

Maxx Seijo  50:39

Oh yeah.

Will Beaman  50:42

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

Maxx Seijo  50:48

That’s right.

Will Beaman  50:49

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  50:49

It’s only a death drive.

Will Beaman  50:50

Right.

Maxx Seijo  50:51

That’s all there is.

Will Beaman  50:51

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

Maxx Seijo  51:09

Signed Carl Schmitt.

Will Beaman  51:10

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

Maxx Seijo  51:14

Yeah.

Will Beaman  51:15

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

Maxx Seijo  51:47

Yeah.

Will Beaman  51:47

And all we can do really is…

Maxx Seijo  51:51

Safeguard.

Will Beaman  51:52

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

Maxx Seijo  52:28

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

Will Beaman  53:04

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

Maxx Seijo  53:07

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

Will Beaman  53:55

That are predicated on the opposite of that.

Maxx Seijo  53:57

That are predicated on the opposite of that.

Will Beaman  53:59

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  54:00

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

Will Beaman  54:01

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  54:01

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

Abstractions also Liberate with Anna Kornbluh

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

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

Find Anna Kornbluh on Twitter @V21collective

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

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Ferguson: Which they do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Transcript

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

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

Rohan Grey: Thanks for having me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pod Save America: Not fun.

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

Pod Save America: What was your favorite night?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For access to the rest of the course, subscribe to our Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure.  

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

Course Description

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

Blockbusters:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999)

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

Superstructure Cancels the Pope (New Transcript!)

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

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

Transcript: Mike Lewis

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

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

00:00

Will Beaman  00:15

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

Naty Smith  00:24

Hello! What’s going on?

Will Beaman  00:25

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

Maxx Seijo  00:29

Ciao bello. Oh wait, wrong site.

Will Beaman  00:33

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

Naty Smith  01:05

“Content”

Will Beaman  01:06

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

Naty Smith  01:16

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

Will Beaman  01:32

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

Naty Smith  01:52

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

Will Beaman  02:00

I mean, yes.

Naty Smith  02:04

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

Will Beaman  02:51

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

Naty Smith  03:29

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

Will Beaman  03:35

Yeah, he’s very Catholic.

Naty Smith  03:35

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

Will Beaman  03:57

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

Naty Smith  04:27

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

Maxx Seijo  05:04

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

Naty Smith  05:23

I love him. He’s cute.

Maxx Seijo  05:28

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

Naty Smith  06:12

You liberal!

Will Beaman  06:14

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

Naty Smith  06:24

What was your favorite joke he made?

Will Beaman  06:27

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

Naty Smith  06:35

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

Will Beaman  06:42

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

Naty Smith  06:57

I did a lot of research.

Maxx Seijo  06:59

She taught herself how to read for this podcast.

Naty Smith  07:03

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

Maxx Seijo  08:23

I heard he was pretty hot.

Naty Smith  08:25

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

Maxx Seijo  09:11

If I had a nickel every time I heard that.

Naty Smith  09:14

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

Will Beaman  10:13

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

Naty Smith  10:54

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

Maxx Seijo  11:31

But I think even if..

Naty Smith  11:33

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

Maxx Seijo  11:45

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

Will Beaman  12:14

Because they weren’t supposed to touch money.

Maxx Seijo  12:16

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

Will Beaman  12:32

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

Naty Smith  13:05

Like my hero, the Buddah.

Will Beaman  13:09

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

Naty Smith  13:14

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

Will Beaman  13:19

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

Naty Smith  13:22

Ghosts have a lot to teach us.

Maxx Seijo  13:24

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

Naty Smith  13:46

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

Maxx Seijo  13:56

Well, you’re not valid, then.

Will Beaman  14:00

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

Maxx Seijo  14:07

More radical, yeah.

Will Beaman  14:09

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

Naty Smith  14:16

Super radical.

Maxx Seijo  14:17

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

Naty Smith  14:44

I think you just did.

Will Beaman  14:48

He’ll knock it out of the park.

Maxx Seijo  14:49

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

Naty Smith  15:49

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

Will Beaman  16:02

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

Naty Smith  16:39

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

Maxx Seijo  16:46

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

Naty Smith  16:49

Dammit!

Will Beaman  16:49

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

Maxx Seijo  16:54

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

Will Beaman  17:01

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

Naty Smith  18:15

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

Will Beaman  18:31

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

Maxx Seijo  18:39

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

Naty Smith  18:51

Scotia, let’s make it feminine.

Maxx Seijo  18:53

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

Naty Smith  19:02

World famous.

Will Beaman  19:03

Yeah, I met him once.

Maxx Seijo  19:04

Yeah. In his book Dec…

Will Beaman  19:06

He was fine.

Naty Smith  19:06

Is he a slut?

Maxx Seijo  19:08

Yes. In his book Declarations…

Will Beaman  19:11

Strong handshake, though. A lot of care.

Maxx Seijo  19:16

He does not have a strong handshake. Anyway.

Naty Smith  19:18

We love you, Mommy.

Will Beaman  19:23

Strong hugs. Strong hugs.

Maxx Seijo  19:24

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

Will Beaman  19:42

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

Maxx Seijo  19:48

That is right.

Naty Smith  19:49

Or even the Mother Teresa.

Will Beaman  19:55

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

Maxx Seijo  20:00

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

Will Beaman  20:44

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

Maxx Seijo  21:33

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

Will Beaman  22:09

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

Maxx Seijo  22:23

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

Will Beaman  23:24

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

Naty Smith  23:54

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

Will Beaman  24:18

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

Naty Smith  24:34

Mostly my fault.

Will Beaman  24:36

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

Naty Smith  24:53

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

Maxx Seijo  24:55

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

Naty Smith  25:57

Scott is a master of a high end language.

Maxx Seijo  26:00

He absolutely is. It’s total superstructure.

Will Beaman  26:04

These aren’t even real words.

Naty Smith  26:07

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

Maxx Seijo  26:17

All indexes disintegrate. That’s the point.

Naty Smith  26:19

Oh, so frustrating.

Will Beaman  26:21

This really ruffles my index.

Maxx Seijo  26:25

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

Naty Smith  27:38

And immigration, and…

Maxx Seijo  27:39

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

Naty Smith  28:02

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

Maxx Seijo  28:08

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

Naty Smith  28:15

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

Maxx Seijo  28:24

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

Naty Smith  28:26

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

Maxx Seijo  28:38

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

Naty Smith  29:06

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

Maxx Seijo  29:54

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

Naty Smith  30:14

Not about the hair.

Maxx Seijo  30:16

Right, not about the hair.

Will Beaman  30:17

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

Maxx Seijo  30:23

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

Naty Smith  30:40

Papal mediation…

Will Beaman  30:41

Papal Mediation is like the globalist, you know…

Maxx Seijo  30:47

Transnational capital, right? I mean.

Will Beaman  30:50

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

Maxx Seijo  30:55

Right.

Will Beaman  30:55

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

Naty Smith  31:21

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

Maxx Seijo  32:00

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

Naty Smith  32:02

Yeah, Yeah.

Will Beaman  32:02

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

Maxx Seijo  32:08

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

Naty Smith  32:10

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

Maxx Seijo  32:17

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

Naty Smith  35:27

I don’t like when the concrete…yeah.

Will Beaman  35:29

Yeah, I hate when they look at me.

Maxx Seijo  35:33

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

Naty Smith  35:53

Never.

Maxx Seijo  35:54

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

Will Beaman  35:58

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

Maxx Seijo  36:07

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

Will Beaman  36:15

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

Naty Smith  36:19

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

Maxx Seijo  37:26

You can touch it.

Naty Smith  37:26

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

Will Beaman  38:13

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

Naty Smith  38:14

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

Maxx Seijo  38:42

You have to tax yourself to touch. Right?

Will Beaman  38:45

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

Maxx Seijo  38:57

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

Naty Smith  39:18

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

Maxx Seijo  39:35

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

Naty Smith  39:39

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

Will Beaman  39:56

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

Maxx Seijo  40:00

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

Will Beaman  40:32

It’s conditioning all of the touching.

Maxx Seijo  40:34

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

Naty Smith  40:40

That means before.

Maxx Seijo  40:45

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

Naty Smith  41:24

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

Maxx Seijo  41:50

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

Will Beaman  42:30

Of touching.

Maxx Seijo  42:31

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

Naty Smith  42:43

He loves it. Loves it.

Will Beaman  42:45

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

Maxx Seijo  43:05

Like a taxpayer!

Will Beaman  43:06

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

Naty Smith  43:43

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

Will Beaman  43:57

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

Maxx Seijo  46:05

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

Naty Smith  47:19

Is that like the internet?

Maxx Seijo  47:21

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

Naty Smith  47:26

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

Maxx Seijo  47:32

I’m not touching the flesh of your face.

Naty Smith  47:35

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

Maxx Seijo  47:37

I don’t know. That’s right.

Naty Smith  47:39

So what do you know, do you know?

Maxx Seijo  47:41

Nothing.

Will Beaman  47:42

I know, but I’m not gonna say.

Maxx Seijo  47:46

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

Will Beaman  48:18

As you do. Yeah.

Naty Smith  48:21

You can learn from their local flavor.

Will Beaman  48:24

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

Maxx Seijo  48:29

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

Will Beaman  48:35

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  48:35

Which gets us into some fuzzy territory.

Naty Smith  48:40

It’s not fuzzy which side he’s on.

Maxx Seijo  48:42

Right.

Naty Smith  48:43

He’s on the side of the molesters.

Maxx Seijo  48:46

We can say it we can be that provocative.

Naty Smith  48:47

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

Maxx Seijo  48:53

I haven’t touched those particular instances.

Naty Smith  48:57

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

Will Beaman  49:09

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

Naty Smith  49:13

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

Will Beaman  49:19

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

Maxx Seijo  49:24

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

Naty Smith  49:52

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

Maxx Seijo  49:56

Yeah. If he ever gets canceled…

Will Beaman  49:58

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

Maxx Seijo  50:06

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

Naty Smith  50:37

Sounds like a great guy.

Will Beaman  50:38

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

Naty Smith  50:42

You have nothing.

Will Beaman  50:44

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

Naty Smith  50:47

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

Maxx Seijo  50:52

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

Naty Smith  51:16

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

Maxx Seijo  51:24

So importantly here…

Will Beaman  51:26

Even though it has never helped her to do that.

Naty Smith  51:30

No.

Maxx Seijo  51:31

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

Naty Smith  51:58

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

Will Beaman  52:21

Yeah.

Naty Smith  52:22

When your original identity, that is a real thing.

Maxx Seijo  52:26

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

Naty Smith  53:04

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

Maxx Seijo  53:14

Thanks, Pope!

Will Beaman  53:15

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

Maxx Seijo  53:59

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

Will Beaman  54:04

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

Maxx Seijo  55:05

Yeah, it’s built to dialectically fail.

Will Beaman  55:08

Right.

Naty Smith  55:08

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

Maxx Seijo  55:19

Right.

Will Beaman  55:19

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

Naty Smith  55:35

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

Maxx Seijo  55:51

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

Naty Smith  56:13

Bam, love that. So good.

Will Beaman  56:15

One’s own blood, one’s own soil.

Naty Smith  56:19

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

Will Beaman  56:27

Yeah. Remember, when Hitler visited Mussolini?

Maxx Seijo  56:30

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

Naty Smith  57:04

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

Will Beaman  57:14

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

Maxx Seijo  57:27

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

Will Beaman  57:30

Right.

Maxx Seijo  57:30

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

Naty Smith  57:35

That’s how you make really nicely seasoned food.

Maxx Seijo  57:37

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

Will Beaman  57:59

Yeah, I’m personally responsible.

Maxx Seijo  58:01

That’s right.

Will Beaman  58:01

No one’s gonna help you.

Maxx Seijo  58:03

That’s right.

Naty Smith  58:03

Paging Jordan Peterson.

Will Beaman  58:06

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

Maxx Seijo  58:15

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

Naty Smith  58:24

So many things are constantly reminding me of that.

Maxx Seijo  58:30

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

Naty Smith  59:25

Interdependence comes first.

Maxx Seijo  59:27

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

Naty Smith  59:46

Who cleans my room.

Maxx Seijo  59:48

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

Will Beaman  1:00:05

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

Maxx Seijo  1:00:07

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

Naty Smith  1:00:15

And the Pope is pretty Argentine nationalist.

Maxx Seijo  1:00:35

Well, of course. Exactly.

Naty Smith  1:00:44

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

Maxx Seijo  1:01:17

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

Naty Smith  1:01:18

Yeah, yeah.

Maxx Seijo  1:01:19

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

Naty Smith  1:01:35

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:01:36

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

Naty Smith  1:02:21

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:02:21

That’s what fascism is.

Naty Smith  1:02:22

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

Maxx Seijo  1:02:25

Yeah.

Naty Smith  1:02:26

So that’s going to repeat itself.

Maxx Seijo  1:02:28

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

Naty Smith  1:02:35

So you can charitably give gifts.

Maxx Seijo  1:02:48

Right.

Naty Smith  1:02:49

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

Maxx Seijo  1:02:50

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

Will Beaman  1:03:02

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

Maxx Seijo  1:03:22

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

Naty Smith  1:03:51

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

Will Beaman  1:04:09

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

Naty Smith  1:04:33

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

Maxx Seijo  1:04:38

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

Naty Smith  1:04:53

Borders maintain flavor.

Maxx Seijo  1:05:06

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

Naty Smith  1:05:37

Little bitch Hegel.

Maxx Seijo  1:05:40

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

Will Beaman  1:06:00

Don’t be a self-hating blank.

Maxx Seijo  1:06:02

Exactly. Right?

Naty Smith  1:06:04

Very Zizekian.

Maxx Seijo  1:06:05

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

Will Beaman  1:06:38

Yep.

Maxx Seijo  1:06:38

A kinetic world of causality.

Will Beaman  1:06:41

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

Maxx Seijo  1:06:48

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:06:48

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

Naty Smith  1:07:08

I hate the internet. Ugh.

Will Beaman  1:07:10

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

Naty Smith  1:07:17

What, just like infinite spending?

Maxx Seijo  1:07:20

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

Naty Smith  1:07:34

Ughh.

Maxx Seijo  1:07:36

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

Naty Smith  1:07:50

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

Maxx Seijo  1:07:55

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

Will Beaman  1:08:04

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

Maxx Seijo  1:08:53

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

Will Beaman  1:08:59

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

Maxx Seijo  1:09:02

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

Will Beaman  1:09:09

Go visit the voter.

Maxx Seijo  1:09:11

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

Naty Smith  1:09:28

Love the ground. The ground is so good.

Maxx Seijo  1:09:28

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

Naty Smith  1:10:04

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

Maxx Seijo  1:10:16

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

Naty Smith  1:10:47

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

Maxx Seijo  1:10:49

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

Will Beaman  1:11:28

No, we don’t want it to visit us.

Maxx Seijo  1:11:30

We don’t want it to visit. Stay away!

Naty Smith  1:11:32

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

Maxx Seijo  1:11:45

Capital is not a thing.

Will Beaman  1:11:47

Yeah, that’s not what’s happening.

Naty Smith  1:11:49

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:11:50

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

Maxx Seijo  1:11:59

Through the political.

Will Beaman  1:12:00

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

Maxx Seijo  1:12:05

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:12:05

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

Maxx Seijo  1:12:20

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

Naty Smith  1:12:21

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

Maxx Seijo  1:12:43

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

Naty Smith  1:12:47

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  1:12:49

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

Naty Smith  1:12:56

I don’t know who that is.

Maxx Seijo  1:12:57

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

Will Beaman  1:13:03

Leaving it in. Continue.

Maxx Seijo  1:13:04

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

Naty Smith  1:13:13

Right. This is supposed macro, right?

Maxx Seijo  1:13:15

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

Will Beaman  1:13:22

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

Maxx Seijo  1:13:26

Literally, right?

Naty Smith  1:13:27

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

Maxx Seijo  1:13:47

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

Will Beaman  1:14:00

It’s a social contract for nation-states.

Maxx Seijo  1:14:03

Yes, exactly. Right.

Will Beaman  1:14:04

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

Maxx Seijo  1:14:09

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

Naty Smith  1:14:25

A pyramid scheme.

Maxx Seijo  1:14:26

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

Will Beaman  1:14:34

People.

Maxx Seijo  1:14:34

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

Naty Smith  1:15:24

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

Will Beaman  1:16:38

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

Naty Smith  1:16:43

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

Will Beaman  1:17:37

Foreign aid instead of loans.

Maxx Seijo  1:17:39

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

Naty Smith  1:17:40

Yeah. Let me open up my version.

Maxx Seijo  1:18:38

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

Will Beaman  1:19:43

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

Maxx Seijo  1:19:48

Right. We’re already a people. Right.

Naty Smith  1:19:50

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

Maxx Seijo  1:19:58

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

Naty Smith  1:20:28

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

Maxx Seijo  1:21:04

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

Naty Smith  1:21:09

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

Maxx Seijo  1:21:12

Yes, I agree.

Naty Smith  1:21:12

They don’t necessarily mean all these details.

Maxx Seijo  1:21:16

Marx is their thing.

Naty Smith  1:21:17

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

Maxx Seijo  1:21:23

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

Will Beaman  1:21:28

There’s a there, there. Right?

Maxx Seijo  1:21:29

There’s a there, there.

Naty Smith  1:21:29

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

Maxx Seijo  1:21:35

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

Naty Smith  1:22:09

He’s an Hegalian theorist of encounter.

Maxx Seijo  1:22:11

Exactly.

Will Beaman  1:22:12

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

Naty Smith  1:22:56

Charity is just the ethical version of establishing economic relations.

Will Beaman  1:23:02

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

Maxx Seijo  1:23:30

That starts capitalism.

Will Beaman  1:23:31

Yep, fast forward, the dialectic.

Maxx Seijo  1:23:33

It’s an encounter.

Will Beaman  1:23:34

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

Maxx Seijo  1:23:39

Right.

Will Beaman  1:23:40

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

Maxx Seijo  1:23:45

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

Naty Smith  1:24:14

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

Maxx Seijo  1:24:19

It raised a raise the cost of labor, actually.

Will Beaman  1:24:22

A huge opportunity for ending capitalism.

Maxx Seijo  1:24:25

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

Naty Smith  1:24:28

But we can learn from…

Maxx Seijo  1:24:30

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

Naty Smith  1:24:44

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

Maxx Seijo  1:24:50

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

Naty Smith  1:25:04

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

Maxx Seijo  1:25:07

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

Will Beaman  1:25:12

In the sense of a sacrifice, right?

Maxx Seijo  1:25:14

Exactly. It’s not a sacrifice.

Naty Smith  1:25:16

Yeah. As if those deaths were a gift.

Maxx Seijo  1:25:20

Right.

Naty Smith  1:25:20

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

Maxx Seijo  1:25:24

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

Naty Smith  1:25:45

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

Maxx Seijo  1:25:48

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

Naty Smith  1:25:53

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

Maxx Seijo  1:25:58

Yeah, certainly with New Zealand.

Naty Smith  1:26:00

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

Maxx Seijo  1:26:10

Are you Matt Bruenig? You’re Matt Bruenig.

Naty Smith  1:26:12

Or Matt Stoller.

Maxx Seijo  1:26:13

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

Naty Smith  1:26:15

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

Will Beaman  1:26:25

Unified Matt theory.

Maxx Seijo  1:26:29

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

Naty Smith  1:27:20

Because he’s too daddy for us.

Maxx Seijo  1:27:22

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

Naty Smith  1:27:40

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

Will Beaman  1:28:04

Yeah, completely.

Naty Smith  1:28:05

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

Will Beaman  1:28:17

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

Naty Smith  1:28:22

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:28:23

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

Naty Smith  1:29:04

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  1:29:05

That produces the encounter.

Naty Smith  1:29:07

 And the ability to create the UN! Sorry.

Will Beaman  1:29:10

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

Naty Smith  1:29:17

No, totally.

Maxx Seijo  1:29:18

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

Naty Smith  1:29:27

The bony part of the episode.

Maxx Seijo  1:29:29

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

Naty Smith  1:29:34

Oh, god.

Maxx Seijo  1:29:35

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

Will Beaman  1:29:40

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  1:29:40

Pope Francis hates cancel culture.

Naty Smith  1:29:44

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

Maxx Seijo  1:29:54

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

Naty Smith  1:29:58

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

Maxx Seijo  1:30:10

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

Naty Smith  1:30:23

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

Maxx Seijo  1:30:28

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

Naty Smith  1:30:43

A global Jewish internet.

Maxx Seijo  1:30:46

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

Will Beaman  1:30:50

You heard it here first, folks.

Maxx Seijo  1:30:53

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

Naty Smith  1:30:58

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

Maxx Seijo  1:31:01

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

Naty Smith  1:31:08

Eww.

Maxx Seijo  1:31:09

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

Naty Smith  1:31:22

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

Will Beaman  1:31:29

We can touch people who are far away now.

Maxx Seijo  1:31:32

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

Naty Smith  1:31:47

So like, the internet introduced me to Liz Bruenig.

Maxx Seijo  1:31:52

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

Naty Smith  1:32:18

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

Maxx Seijo  1:33:45

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

Naty Smith  1:33:56

Like Frank Pasquale.

Maxx Seijo  1:33:57

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

Naty Smith  1:34:24

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

Maxx Seijo  1:34:36

Exactly, exactly.

Naty Smith  1:34:39

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

Maxx Seijo  1:34:41

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

Naty Smith  1:34:45

Right.

Maxx Seijo  1:34:45

It’s the entire framing of the structure.

Naty Smith  1:34:49

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  1:34:49

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

Naty Smith  1:34:58

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

Maxx Seijo  1:35:16

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

Naty Smith  1:35:20

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  1:35:22

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

Naty Smith  1:35:27

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

Maxx Seijo  1:35:30

Right I know, interdependent.

Naty Smith  1:35:33

I, though, am totally different from my mother.

Will Beaman  1:35:37

I always check the breast for new jokes.

Naty Smith  1:35:43

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

Will Beaman  1:36:00

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

Naty Smith  1:36:06

Oooo, I love you.

Maxx Seijo  1:36:08

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

Naty Smith  1:36:31

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

Will Beaman  1:36:42

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

Naty Smith  1:37:01

Right. Right.

Will Beaman  1:37:02

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

Naty Smith  1:37:06

Which is isn’t. Like the…

Will Beaman  1:37:09

Yeah.

Naty Smith  1:37:10

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

Maxx Seijo  1:37:32

What? It’s not determinist? No.

Naty Smith  1:37:34

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

Will Beaman  1:37:41

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

Naty Smith  1:37:47

Or they just didn’t read that far.

Maxx Seijo  1:37:49

Okay, so I’m gonna continue now.

Naty Smith  1:37:51

Sorry.

Maxx Seijo  1:37:52

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

Naty Smith  1:38:02

Daddy?

Maxx Seijo  1:38:03

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

Naty Smith  1:38:15

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

Maxx Seijo  1:38:18

Well, this is the exact cancel culture, right?

Naty Smith  1:38:21

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  1:38:21

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

Naty Smith  1:38:23

Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  1:38:24

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

Naty Smith  1:38:38

Pretty personal. Yeah.

Maxx Seijo  1:38:40

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

Naty Smith  1:38:50

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

Maxx Seijo  1:38:57

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

Naty Smith  1:39:23

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

Maxx Seijo  1:39:40

That’s ironic.

Naty Smith  1:39:42

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

Maxx Seijo  1:40:04

Naty, I’ve never touched you, though.

Naty Smith  1:40:07

But like, honestly, I want to underline that

Maxx Seijo  1:40:09

Yeah, it’s so fucked up.

Naty Smith  1:40:10

Like queer-phobic horseshit.

Maxx Seijo  1:40:12

Yep.

Naty Smith  1:40:13

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

Maxx Seijo  1:40:39

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

Naty Smith  1:40:47

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

Maxx Seijo  1:40:49

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

Will Beaman  1:41:03

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

Naty Smith  1:41:06

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

Maxx Seijo  1:41:14

They can’t hug their family.

Naty Smith  1:41:16

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

Maxx Seijo  1:41:23

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

Naty Smith  1:42:01

The riddle of care.

Maxx Seijo  1:42:02

The riddle of care, it’s also biological.

Will Beaman  1:42:04

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

Maxx Seijo  1:42:34

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

Naty Smith  1:42:38

That’s the next Dasha.

Maxx Seijo  1:42:40

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

Naty Smith  1:42:55

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

Maxx Seijo  1:43:19

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

Naty Smith  1:43:24

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

Maxx Seijo  1:43:29

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

Naty Smith  1:43:34

By we, we mean Maxx

Maxx Seijo  1:43:36

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

Naty Smith  1:43:46

The Holy Spirit.

Maxx Seijo  1:43:47

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

Naty Smith  1:44:06

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

Will Beaman  1:44:54

In your local, grounded echo chamber.

Naty Smith  1:44:58

Yeah, totally.

Will Beaman  1:44:59

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

Maxx Seijo  1:45:08

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