Neoliberalism’s Colonial Origins (Essay)

By Ndongo Samba Sylla

For those who have studied the history of colonial Africa through its fiscal and monetary dimensions, the similarities between colonial macroeconomics and neoliberal macroeconomics are striking. One might be tempted to see the neoliberal era as an avatar of colonialism. Actually, the main principles underlying the fiscal and monetary paradigm of the neoliberal era (1980 – 2021)—sound finance, regressive taxation systems, central bank independence, and the direction of the credit system by oligopolistic banks—were already applied in the European colonies, particularly in Africa.

In the neoliberal era, sound finance, as a principle of macroeconomic management, is based on the idea that governments should avoid fiscal deficits and should even aspire to fiscal surpluses. As Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) shows, this view is based on the misleading analogy between a household and a governing currency-issuer. Indeed, while it may be desirable for households to build up net savings, a government that issues its own currency may not always have an interest in running a balanced budget or even budget surpluses. For its fiscal deficit has as its exact counterpart the financial surplus of the non-government sector. If the government sector wishes to have a balanced budget, this means that the domestic private sector (households and businesses) will only be able to achieve a financial surplus if the rest of the world is in a deficit position vis-à-vis the domestic economy.

During colonial times, sound finance had much more basic and transparent justifications than it does today. As an imperial doctrine by essence, it amounted to saying that the metropolis did not intend to participate financially in the colonial enterprise, which was supposed to be self-financing. The “colonial self-sufficiency policy,” as historians call it, implied that the colonized territories had to pay for the costs of military conquest, the current expenditures of the colonial administrations as well as their investment expenditures, which were often oriented towards infrastructure projects that favored the profitability of private metropolitan capital. The metropolis was just supposed to intervene sporadically, by granting subsidies or loans, when the financial situation of the colonies required it.

In spite of the metropolitan rhetoric on the expensive or unprofitable character of the colonial enterprise, the fact is that the latter had been financed essentially by the colonies, through taxes and forced labor. Public transfers from the metropolis had been relatively minor, both for France and England, the two former and most important metropolitan powers on the African continent.

Since metropolitan governments ruled the monetary operations of their colonies, they managed through the colonial administrations to gradually impose a unit of account in which taxes would be collected. This meant, as MMT teaches, that they had no intrinsic financial constraint. In principle they did not depend on taxes to finance their local expenditures. The possibility to expand their fiscal space was not used, however, owing to the extractive orientation of colonial economic policy.

The choice to run balanced budgets implied that the colonial government did not usually create net financial wealth for the private sector (and in particular for the indigenous private sector). The accumulation of financial wealth by the private sector—and thus growth of domestic income and tax revenues—was made dependent on the external financial balance.

This extractive orientation was accentuated by colonial monetary arrangements and by the behavior of the banking sector, dominated from the outset by oligopolistic banks.  In parallel with fiscal austerity, the fixed parity between the colonial and metropolitan currencies in a context of free capital mobility between the colonies and the metropolis and the obligation to cover the money supply entirely with foreign exchange reserves (as with the currency boards in the British Empire) gave a highly restrictive character to monetary policy. The idea that private banks should organize the credit system with some freedom—the freedom not to finance productive activities as opposed to extractive activities—while colonial governments should maintain balanced budgets was part of the imperial credo.

In the major British colonies in West Africa, the Bank of British West Africa and Barclays DCO ruled almost unchallenged for the first six decades of the 20th century. The role of metropolitan banks had generally been to protect the interests of metropolitan businesses at the expense of local entrepreneurs through discrimination in access to credit. It had also consisted in facilitating the short-term financing of the exports of primary products as well as the transfer of local economic surpluses (financial savings) to the metropolis.

As captive markets and cheap sources of supply of raw materials, colonial empires also played the role of financial valve for the metropolises. In the case of England, the over-accumulation of foreign exchange reserves by its most resource-rich colonies had contributed significantly to its financial stability and to the alleviation of recurrent liquidity crises on the London money market.

During the last decades of the 19th century, England had lost its industrial and commercial edge over Germany and the United States. In this context, England was able to maintain both the international gold standard and its financial leadership only thanks to its control over India’s external surpluses.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, Nigeria and Ghana played a similar role in the sterling area. Capital exports from England to these two territories were lower than the sterling balances they had accumulated in London. These external surpluses were built up through a drastic reduction in their imports, a reality described by the concept of unrequited exports.

Nowadays, under neoliberalism, for many countries of the Global South, the priority given to balanced budgets and exports, the over-accumulation of foreign exchange reserves in a context where their local resources are under-utilized, the dominant role of foreign banks and financial institutions, the under-financing of the “real” economy, etc., all represent elements of continuity with the colonial period.

Neoliberal economics, it could be argued, is an iteration of the logic of colonial economics in a context where trade and financial flows are less and less hampered by the barriers once created by the coexistence of formal colonial empires. With neoliberalism, the latter are replaced with the networks and agencies of globalized capital. In the Global North, this pursuit of colonial economic logic entails an undermining of the previous socioeconomic and political achievements of working classes and hence a widening of within-country inequalities. In most of the Global South, next to the weakening of working classes power, neoliberalism has consisted in suppressing nations and peoples right to self-determination through the imposition of deflationary policies, forced “free trade,” privatization and financial liberalization.

To break with such an orientation, MMT is valuable in at least two aspects. On the one hand, it provides the elements for a critique of the constitutive principles of colonial macroeconomics (rigid separation between fiscal authority and monetary authority, sound finance, priority to exports, over-accumulation of external reserves, dependence on foreign finance, etc.). On the other hand, MMT allows us to reorient economic policy around the mobilization of domestic resources by emphasizing that, even in an unfavorable external environment, the countries of the Global South can create a fiscal space that is larger than usually admitted.

Achieving shared and sustainable prosperity will necessitate a strong epistemic challenge to neoliberalism’s colonial economics. It will also require concerted efforts on several other fronts: addressing global structures of domination that reproduce the economic logic of colonialism; submitting to popular control the orientation of public policies as well as the management of economic resources and instruments.  

The Neoliberal Blockbuster: Star Wars: A New Hope Part 1 (Preview)

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

For access to the full lecture, 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)

Kenya in the Digital Finance Revolution with Sibel Kusimba

Money on the Left speaks with Sibel Kusimba, Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of South Florida, about her work on mobile money and digital finance in Kenya. In her recently published book with Stanford University Press titled Reimagining Money: Kenya in the Digital Finance Revolution, Kusimba both theorizes and critiques Kenya’s thriving M-Pesa mobile phone-based payment system as a constitutive component of Kenyan social life. In doing so, Kusimba explicitly eschews the postcolonial drive to develop more effective approaches to microloans or means for so-called “financial inclusion.” Instead, she offers a sophisticated culturally embedded analysis of mobile money, informed by her twenty-plus years of ethnographic study and archaeological fieldwork in Kenya. Understanding money as “wealth-in-people,” she traces mobile money’s role in shaping complexly gendered social networks and agencies, while simultaneously underscoring the political injustices of public austerity and privatized payment systems.

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.

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

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

Transcript

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

William Saas: Sibel Kusimba, welcome to Money on the Left.

Sibel Kusimba: Thank you, I’m happy to be here.

William Saas: We’re happy to have you. We’d like to start, as we normally do, by asking you to share a little bit about your personal and professional background.

Sibel Kusimba: Sure, I’m an anthropologist. I have been working in East Africa, specifically in Kenya, for at least a couple of decades now. I am interested in culture and cultural change, and technology and technological change in East Africa over time. My work has spanned from the stone age to the present. So I have worked in archaeological projects and methods. I’m also a cultural anthropologist and have conducted ethnographic research, so both qualitative and quantitative kinds of studies. I have a long term interest in technology, in evolution, in why cultures change, and in why technological trajectories take the pathways that they do. So I came into the study of money from a very historical perspective on technological change. That’s kind of my background.

Scott Ferguson: Great, so we asked you to join us today to talk about your still pretty new book with Stanford University Press, which is titled Reimagining Money: Kenya in the Digital Finance Revolution. So this is pretty squarely in the present–it is not archaeological. At the most basic level, your book takes on, tries to make sense of, and historicizes the fairly rapid rise of mobile phone payment systems in Kenya. Maybe you can just kind of ease us into this discussion by telling us a little bit about how you got into the project? What are some of the major historical changes that are involved? What is this all about?

Sibel Kusimba: Sure. I guess, in the short term, the whole project begins around the year 2000 or so, with the beginning of the really rapid spread of mobile phone technology, or personal mobile communication devices in East Africa. The spread of the mobile phone in East Africa is considered to be one of the most rapid examples of technological diffusion that has ever happened in the human experience. When mobile technology was developed, and first deployed in Africa, one of the developments that really enabled large numbers of people to buy mobile phones and to begin to use mobile phones, was a pay as you go scratch card. So if you bought one of these cards, there would be a kind of silver adhesive over it. I don’t know what those are called, but I think we all know what those are. So if you scratch those off, you would get a code. And you could use those to buy a small amount of airtime credits. That’s a really common way of purchasing airtime still today in a lot of parts of the world. And because that airtime could be purchased in relatively small amounts, it was what really enabled large numbers of people to use mobile phones really quickly.

I had been working in East Africa for about a decade before that. I had also gotten married to another archaeologist and my partner is from Kenya. I had spent a lot of time there as an academic, an archaeological researcher, and also just as an inlaw to his family–just a general kind of observer of social life there. That kind of positioned me to sort of think about what I saw happening with the way people were using mobile phones from a personal experience of needing to connect to people, as well as thinking about it from an academic point of view, and from the point of view of an historian of technology. What happens when new technologies become available, what happens when people have a new medium, or a new way of doing the things that they already did before for long periods of time? That was kind of how I got positioned into studying all of this.

When people began using airtime to access mobile phones, oftentimes, especially in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, and in rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, people began to use what was often called the community phone. So one person in a marketplace would have a phone that was available for rent or temporary usage. People could get access to that phone by renting it out temporarily, purchasing their airtime, and then making those calls. A lot of people in Sub-Saharan Africa live in very flexible and extended family kinds of social setups. Oftentimes, parts of the family live in one city or community, and other parts of the family live in other parts of the country. This has to do with colonial histories of work, migration, and urbanization. So what happened was that people began to use the airtime as a kind of money. And what I mean by that is that, if they wanted to send money to a friend or relative who lived in another city, they could actually use that airtime code as a de facto currency that could be transferred between phones.

For example, if you had a code, you could text message that code to someone else. Then, they could input that code into their phone and either gain access or purchase airtime that way. You could also exchange it with a dealer and use it to rent out a phone. Or you could even barter that airtime code for goods and services if there was a merchant in a rural village somewhere who was willing to accept your airtime code as a form of currency. And this also has to do with the fact that oftentimes there’s not enough money, or enough liquidity, in many communities where airtime came to be used as one of the first digital currencies. So when mobile phone companies, engineers, and other specialists became interested in this phenomenon, they realized that by formalizing this kind of informal use of currency, that air time sending, and even text messaging, could eventually become a way of transferring money from one mobile phone user to another. Maybe I should stop here and see if that makes sense.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. What you’re talking about, we in the MMT world call different degrees of moneyness. We might call them nested regimes of liquidity or receivability. So those airtime credits are mostly redeemable through this service, but then it takes so many people using the service that it gains a kind of wider receivability. Whereas, what you’re suggesting is that then there’s a moment when engineers are getting involved, and presumably private investors and other actors, where they’re starting to think about a Kenyan currency, or a currency of greater receivability that is linked with the government, presumably, and perhaps even in international regimes? Is that the transition you’re talking about here?

Sibel Kusimba: Sure. I think that would be one of them. It would be connecting this kind of informal, special currency into the bigger circulations of what we in anthropology call the general currency, which is the most widely available. It has the most functions and the most acceptability across different parts of the social universe. So that would be part of it. It would be about connecting it to a state issued currency. It would also be, I think, somehow guaranteeing that that process, that airtime code that you send, would be accepted on the other end. That it would have a value that would be standardized and accepted. Also, if you went to a particular place and tried to send money, you could somehow guarantee that the person on the other end would receive the money within a particular time. So those are all aspects of what it would involve to formalize the use of an informal currency like that.

Scott Ferguson: So can you talk a little bit more about, if I’m remembering correctly from your book, there’s a sort of new technology, right? There’s a technological shift in airtime. Can you talk about that part?

Sibel Kusimba: In order to really make this money transfer system workable, and to guarantee the value that would be sent from one person to another, the other important part of this is to create a way of transferring the form of that value from airtime into something else. In this case, that something else was the cash money, the sovereign currency of Kenya, which is the Kenyan shilling. The means through which that transfer is going to happen is the agent, the mobile money agent, who is really a human being who provides the service of accepting the airtime and being able to take that digital currency and then transform it into actual cash money. So that’s called the cash in, cash out. In other words, what happens today is that, if you have cash money, you take the cash money to an agent, and they give you a digital representation of that cash. Technically speaking, that’s what they do. They hold your money for it. They’re not a bank. So they hold the money for it and they give you a digital representation of that cash. Then, when you have a digital representation of that cash on your phone, you can use text messaging to send it to somebody else.

You could also pay for things. You could send it to a merchant. You can repay a loan these days. You can have interconnectivity with a bank. So there’s several new services kind of built on to it now. But the key thing was really to provide that translation between cash money and the so-called digital representation of cash. I think that’s a really important point. And M-Pesa is the name of the service. It is provided by the mobile phone operator, Safaricom. It is not like a cryptocurrency or any other kind of digital money. It is a digital representation of the sovereign money of Kenya. So it’s not a cryptocurrency. Sometimes people get confused about that. I guess you could say it’s a stable coin. But even then I’m not exactly sure if it would be a stable coin, because it’s technically speaking a digital representation of Kenyan shilling cash.

Scott Ferguson: And a lot of these terms, like stable coin, didn’t they emerge much later? I think they just developed.

Sibel Kusimba: Yeah, right. We’re sort of trying to retrofit this.

Maxximilian Seijo: As we’re traversing these nodes of receivability in this historical trajectory, I was wondering if you could spend just a bit more time talking about the transition between what you describe as the informal to the formal. Because obviously, as you’ve been describing, there’s all of this private mediation of this transference and of these exchanges, which then become, in a more direct sense, public, right? This money becomes, in a more immediate, formalized sense, public money, even though we would, of course, insist that it was always a form of public money just in a more privatized way. We’re wondering if you could talk a little bit about more about how that process happened in the movement from the informal to the formal?

Sibel Kusimba: So then you have to consider the really important role of the Kenyan government in all of this. The Kenyan government had resisted a lot of the neoliberal reforms and privatization reforms that have been ongoing in Africa during the 1990s. Kenya’s telephone services, post offices, and other important infrastructures were all government parastatals until 1999, because they were under a lot of pressure from international donors. In 1999, they broke up the parastatal that included the post office and telecommunications. It split those into two. It agreed to privatize the mobile phone service. So in actuality, what happened is that the largest, nominally private mobile phone operator in Kenya, is called Safaricom. It was a product of that privatization of a former parastatal. In reality, this Safaricom entity is 35% owned by the Kenyan government, 35% owned by Vodafone, which is a European mobile phone company. It also has a South African subsidiary called Vodacom. But anyway, that’s another 30%, which is a private corporation. Then, another third of it is shareholders who can be anybody.

So nominally speaking, it’s a corporation. It’s a publicly traded corporation that has shareholders and the whole nine yards. But if you scratch the surface, a large part is owned by the Kenyan government. There are also some very prominent, well known Kenyan families who are shareholders in Safaricom. They are also sometimes politically well connected families. So it’s a really interesting kind of situation because the whole story of M-PESA in Kenya is oftentimes heralded as an example of private sector development. It’s the idea that when a private corporation took over this infrastructure, what really happened was that this very hapless and inefficient parastatal had to whip itself into shape and become this incredibly profitable and super efficient corporation. In reality, it’s an entanglement of government interests, private interests, and international development organizations. It’s really a kind of tangled web of different interests, both private and public.

I think that’s important because the whole narrative about how innovation and development should happen and how money systems should be organized and who should oversee them and who should back them, is a really important question. I know that all of you probably know more about that than I do. So I’m excited to learn more. But I think if you look at this example that I talked about in my book as a case study, I think it’s a much more confusing picture than to just say this is an example of a free market success or something like that. One of the things I also talked about in my book is the important role that the Kenyan government, regulators, and central bank officials and so on, had in kind of taking an approach to regulation that would still allow some of these informal practices to be captured, and that would still allow for the rapid diffusion of the system. So in reality, it’s a kind of an accommodation of all these different models that really came together.

Scott Ferguson: So it’s not as clear a story as maybe the neoliberal take would have it. I think one of the things I really like about your work, too, is that you take a different route than those who would be interested in these systems, in terms of like financial inclusion, which from my perspective, and maybe you can correct me on this, seems to be almost a predatory term, when it could mean other things. There’s a sociality to money that you’re really interested in investigating. And I think that this stems from your anthropological training and approach, and perhaps your work with and through the anthropology literature on money. So could you kind of just walk us through what work is maybe most useful to you as you’re navigating these questions and doing this research in anthropology, and maybe even adjacent to it?

Sibel Kusimba: I found initiating this whole project, thinking deeply about money, and about what I was seeing and how to make sense of it, to be like the most challenging intellectual effort I’ve ever had by far. I find the study of money to be extremely difficult and very, very challenging. Everybody uses money, or at least almost everybody. People use it for all kinds of things because that’s the whole point of money. It should be something you can use for everything. It seems to have a whole range of meanings, and it’s not just meanings, but also things that people do. It’s practices as well as ways of thinking. So it’s really difficult to figure out just in the abstract, let alone to consider one historical place and time, which, again, makes it even more complicated.

But you’re right, the dominant perspective that I found, as I began to think about what I could contribute as an anthropologist, was this financial inclusion perspective, which is an approach that primarily uses development economics to think about why people do what they do, how can we alleviate poverty, how can we put more money into the hands of more people, and how can we sort of lift people up out of poverty. A lot of the approach in financial inclusion comes out of this perspective of expanding the banking industry as it exists now and trying to give more people access, especially billions of people who are considered unbanked or underbanked. They are not integrated enough into our financial system, either the national financial system or the global financial system, depending on how people want to think about this. The idea is about bringing these unbanked people into banking, or all the benefits of participating in our financial system should be expanded to more and more people. 

So almost everyone looks at an example like the story of M-Pesa, which is detailed in my book, as an example of a successful approach to financial inclusion. The critique of financial inclusion is that by bringing people into the financial system, we simply reproduce poverty and bring large profits to the financial services industry in one way or another. That’s the financialization of poverty approach, which I think is a very, very important set of critiques. There is a book by Sohini Kar called Financializing Poverty that is all about microfinance in India and the way that poor families are maintained in relationships of debt, essentially like debt servitude. One of the issues with microfinance is the fact that the hundreds of millions of people who rely on it aren’t really starting businesses or moving ahead. They are simply using loans to kind of maintain a life of poverty that they already have. So that’s a really, really important critique.

On the other hand, I wanted to sidestep that a little bit. I wanted to write about this differently, not that I don’t think that that has an important lesson for the story of Kenya, but because I didn’t want to take away this money from the people. It seemed to me very much to be a money that had been created by the people who are using it, and that still bears the stamp of this informal set of meanings. It’s been enfolded into very long standing financial systems and ideas about value. And rather than supplanting those, I feel that it has folded itself into those and in some ways enhanced ideas about value and ways of continuing traditions about value that make it more than just a kind of predatory system. Although, I think that aspect is also part of what’s going on. So I didn’t want to take this away from the people who had used it and invented it.

In fact, there’s a series of urban legends all about where M-Pesa came from. It’s interesting that the kind of Silicon Valley myth about M-Pesa is one thing, but Kenyan people have their own ideas about where M-Pesa came from. There’s a really widespread story that is told about a university student who invented this system, and then had his patents stolen by the phone company, or by the British subsidiary–some powerful entities stole this from them. This kind of storytelling lives on. I use that as a kind of example of the way in which people still claim this as their own money. And it has a whole set of local meetings that tie into very long held ideas about value and about family life and about the life cycle and other things that are very important in the anthropology of this part of the world. So I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t portrayed as a kind of imposition in its entirety.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, that’s great. That’s one of the things I most appreciate about your book, which seems very fitting from an anthropological perspective, but to come at money from a critical perspective and a critical perspective in the humanities, maybe outside of anthropology, very typically the impulse is to see money as evil, as bad, even if you’re dressing it up in fancy terms. And part of that evilness and that badness implies a kind of evacuation of meaning, an  evacuation of being concerted, and an evacuation of ties and obligations that are rich, complex,and entangled.

Sibel Kusimba: Sure. So I guess you could start out with the forms of money that have always been important in this setting. An example of early work that I really liked is the work of the anthropologist, Harold Schneider, who worked in pastoralist societies in the 1950s and the 1960s. Pastoralists are, in this case, cow herding societies, but also goats and sheep. Most anthropologists consider pastoralism to be like an environmental adaptation. Like if you live in a grassland and it’s too dry to farm, then you will become a pastoralist. You will keep cattle, sheep, and goats and, for a lot of these societies, milk. Not just the meat of the animals, but the milk of the animals is a really important part of their diet and so on. But what Schneider did was to see pastoralism not really as an environmental adaptation, but as a political economy based on their cattle as their main monetary system.

So for him, it was about having a form of money that was like a naturally expanding money supply, because their money just had babies all the time. They almost had a problem with too much money, because the ability of one person to care for, tend, feed, water, and herd animals was limited. There are only so many people in a household and so many hours in a day. So as people’s money expanded, and their cattle had babies, they came up with ways to circulate the money. And they created financial ties that allowed them to kind of lend out the cattle to various factions of the society. So the society became kind of knitted together by all these exchanges of cattle, because, basically, they had too much money, which I think is kind of cool. I thought that might have something to do with MMT. I don’t know a lot about MMT. But it kinda reminded me of MMT in the sense that you just have all this money that is like bountiful. Because we have all these beliefs about how the value of money comes from it being very scarce and not having enough.

So this was a society where there was too much money. So what people did was, by creating all these financial ties, they had a political economy where they accumulated financial ties rather than accumulating money. So the people with the greatest wealth in the community were the people who had the most financial ties. They did this through bridewealth and through all kinds of institutionalized relationships around the rights that they shared to each other through these exchanges of cattle. Those are still really important. And bridewealth cattle are still exchanged at all kinds of rituals. Normally, at different parts of the life cycle, you mark your transition from childhood to adulthood, or into elderhood. And there are exchanges of cattle and new kinds of relationships that get invoked at each of those times.

What I learned in 2014 and 2016, was that these mobile money remittances were enabling and sustaining some of these traditions. If people in urban areas who had access to work could send money through the mobile phone, it would only be used by people in the rural areas to fulfill some of the expectations of these rituals, purchase cattle to be offered to the ancestors, and kind of build a tie between the present and the future and so on. So I think that would be a really good example of how money is not this depersonalizing imposition onto people, but that it gets wrapped into the forms of money that they already have. And especially in East Africa, people have been historically very interested in wrapping new forms of money into the hierarchies of money that they already have. 

And that idea that you mentioned, Scott, that money is very depersonalizing, it is also reflected in a lot of early anthropology. It’s the idea that if people have to pay for things, they won’t have the same value that they had before. I think that’s certainly not true. Now that people purchase the animals that they’re offering to the ancestors for sacrifice, in a way, it makes them even more valuable to people, because people who don’t have a lot of access to cash money have to coordinate the circulation of all of these digital money remittances in order to cobble together enough contributions to purchase the animals. And when they’re able to do that, it kind of provides that family with a sense that they have accomplished the expectations of the ancestors, their traditions, and so on. So I wanted to make sure that that was a part of the story of all of this. Gender is another area that ended up being really, really important to me in this book.

Scott Ferguson: I know you spent a lot of time thinking about the way women are using this currency in Kenya. What are some of the lives, the rituals, the relationships–how is mobile money coming to them and mediating them? Could you maybe just provide an example or two?

Sibel Kusimba: Gender is another big part of financial inclusion. If you look at what was known previously to my research about gender in this area, women have been a huge focus of the financial inclusion effort. In other words, if the unbanked people all over the world need money, then the unbanked women of the world need this money even more. Women are sort of the representation of a vulnerable, third-world type of person who is believed to be the target beneficiary of these new forms of money. I also tried to turn that idea on its head just a little bit. I tried to show that women are really important in this story because of the kinds of relationships they have with money and the kinds of relationships they have with each other. There’s a certain theory of trust that a lot of women seemed to articulate to me and a theory of relationships that seemed to fit into this idea of financial ties as being really important to people.

Part of the reason why money was so challenging for me to study is that, methodologically, it’s very challenging and it’s very difficult for anthropologists to study. In this part of the world, people don’t necessarily have an idea about the individual as being a bounded, detachable, and separate entity. People tend to see individuals as very interconnected. I think it goes back, possibly, if you believe Harold Schneider, to this interconnectedness that comes from the fact that they just have so much money they don’t know what to do with it. They have to kind of bind themselves up with other people. So when you talk to people about money in this setting, because they don’t necessarily believe in a detachable individual as much as some other people might, people here tend to really personalize money. They view it as an extension of themselves. And whatever they do with money, they really view it as a representation of who they are, what they want to accomplish, and what they want to be to other people.

So when you send money to someone else–and again, the whole money system is based on these remittances that go back and forth over mobile phones–you’re showing them what kind of person you are. You’re showing them that you care. You’re showing them that you want to be present in their lives, even if you can’t physically be there. You can kind of be there through these remittances. You’re really expressing a lot of important cultural ideas about belonging, about obligation, and about filial piety. And really, you can’t be a person anymore in Kenya unless you are able to use this money system. It’s become that important to people. It’s become like a new imperative, or like a new basic expectation of personhood. And because of that, in a way, it’s hard to study the downsides. Because if you ask people, “Who do you send money to and who sends money to you?” people will answer relatively enthusiastically. It’d be like asking, “Do you have a lot of Facebook friends?” or, “Do you have a lot of Twitter followers?” You’d be like, “Yes, I have a lot and that’s my wealth in people. Those are my people.” They are the relationships that I’ve been able to create by sending and receiving money.

But the downside of all of this is that there is so much disappointment and so much failure that can happen when you don’t have enough money, or when you’re unable to help someone or fulfill the responsibilities of a firstborn son, for example, who’s expected to sustain and support others. Because it is so weighted with obligation and social meaning. It is so personal to people. It’s very hard to talk to people about what it means when they cannot send money. And in reality, that happens all the time. To be in Kenya today means to be constantly negotiating requests from people in your social networks. It’s still a society where people don’t have enough money. You can be as digitally connected as you can try to be, but if the social networks don’t have any money in them, then they can’t circulate value that they don’t have. So there’s a great deal of negotiation that goes on to try to mediate some of the jealousies, the hurt feelings, and the downsides of this money, because it is so weighted and loaded with meanings for people. 

Another thing that women oftentimes have to manage is the emotional labor of all of these remittances that circulate in families. One of the methods that I commonly use is to create maps that show how money circulates in families. These maps really show a social infrastructure, so to speak, of how the money moves around. Women are really important in a lot of these networks. They sit at the center of remittances. They are oftentimes considered the most trustworthy and the most fair brokers of remittances. So they are often the ones who have to figure out who needs money and try to get money to people who need it the most. It can be a relationship that gives women a lot of social importance. It can give women a role of importance in their communities, but at the same time, it also gives them a kind of a burden in a way by having to deal with managing the emotional weight of all of these decisions. So really, the position of women is kind of a double edged sword, because while they’re often very central to these networks, they’re often people who have to manage and mediate all of the difficulties that people have in accessing money and moving it around.

Maxximilian Seijo: So what I really like about all the rich detail that you offered in that answer, and there’s so much to pick through and to think with and about, is it perhaps resonates in the way that you saw it mapping onto MMT and a little bit of the work we’ve been doing with Money on the Left. I’ve been doing some of my own reading of anthropologies of money in different places around the world. I think what it speaks to is a relational view of money in a way that, as Scott mentioned, rejects the top-down imposition story. All that texture, all the tensions and the complicated relationships between people, the ways they are navigating the obligations to others, and these ties that you’ve described, offers a really interesting story of what maybe I’ve started to call the condition of possibility for money.

This is the way in which people with various forms of agency and background can make money, and not in some individualist way, or what we would traditionally call a bottom-up way, but in an overlapping way, and how those forms of money making are political. They can reach all the way up to the officially formalized currency systems that ultimately allow for a universal receivability, but then also a structure of production within that. So there are these layers of money and layers of production that all ultimately map into a wider form, or in this sense, the state form of the Kenyan shilling, and all of the production that falls under the purview of that and all of its dependent ways. And I offer that because it seems to be the way in which, especially lately, I’ve been trying to think with money as an anthropological form and a legal form in all of these overlapping ways. I just wanted to note it because it resonated so potently with this story that you’ve told. Moving from that comment to perhaps a further discussion of the work, aside from reflecting on that long monologue, we’re wondering if you could then start to move into some of the questions of visual culture that play an important part of your book?

Sibel Kusimba: No, thank you for these insights. It’s really fun to talk to people who actually know so much about this, so thank you so much for this and for these really great questions. To kind of start that out, I was really influenced in writing this book by the sociologist, Viviana Zeliter, who has written several books, one called The Social Meaning of Money, and then another, which she wrote in 2005, that is called The Purchase of Intimacy. It is about the relationship between money and intimate relationships. I found both of these books to be really, really stimulating, especially The Purchase of Intimacy. In that book, she really does articulate this relational view that you mentioned. What she says is that we have to stop dichotomizing the social and the economic. We have to stop assuming that these are always separate spheres. And this is a very long debate in anthropology.

There is this very long standing tendency to think about economic behavior–and by that, I mean rational behavior or efficiency type behavior–as somehow antithetical to emotional relationships, or to socially positive relationships. In her view, the social and the economic are always constituting each other. And money is a mediator that creates a certain kind of relationship. Rather than trying to think rationally about money and shift all of our emotional and personal commitments to the side so that we can be rational and efficiency seeking, she argues that there is a kind of social and emotional content to all the relationships that we produce, and that there is some medium that creates those relationships with some kind of value. It could be money, it could be another kind of value that creates that relationship. So then the economic and the social are always together.

I think that is a really powerful idea because in anthropology there have been all these debates about whether rationality is universal. Or does the economy have a social and cultural embeddedness? Can we see economic behavior as a universal thing that occurs whenever we get all the emotions out of our heads and just try to be rational? This is just not a productive dichotomy. She really sees how money is a mediator that creates a certain relationship, so that it is both social and financial at the same time. And as I was doing these maps and drawing the money moving around, I wanted to go back again to this idea of technology, to get back to where we started talking. Digital money that’s on a mobile phone is a new form of money that has a particular material basis to it and that is a medium of a relationship. I wanted to see it as fitting into other media of exchange, or other media of relationships.

So again, this is not the financial inclusion perspective where this new form of money just moves in, displaces everything, and replaces everything. This is an additive process where new relationships are perhaps formed by and with a new mediating technology, which in this case, would be digital money. Again, I was struggling with how to talk about money with people. It’s deeply personal. Sometimes really negative emotions, like shame or failure, are very close to the surface when you ask anybody about money. So by using the drawings, I was able to communicate a little bit non-verbally with people about what money means to them. And by having them draw the character of money, I got a sense of how different mediations can occur. This kind of happened accidentally, because I was trying to talk with one of the women who was helping us with this. I was trying to talk with her about digital loans. I have to explain some of this a little bit to start out with.

Now that they’ve got this money sending system–and again, the idea is you go to an agent, especially in the rural areas. You don’t need a smartphone and you don’t need the internet. You go to an agent who creates this transformation from cash to a digital representation of cash, or back again. You can go from cash to digital money, or go back again. That’s how you can send and receive money and that’s the inclusion aspect of all of this. But on top of that, all kinds of financial services are being built onto this structure. East Africa, and Nairobi in particular, is a real center for “feel good, do good” innovation, or solving social problems and improving the infrastructure of developing countries by using all kinds of digital technologies and innovations that bring development. So now that you’ve got a payment channel that uses digital payment, you can do things like have people pay for solar panels, or have people pay for water, or have people pay to watch cable television, and things like that.

You could also perhaps provide them with information about health or medical services. So really, the digital payment is supposed to be the rails on top of which all kinds of commerce and service delivery are going to reach into especially rural people who maybe off the the grid of the kinds of infrastructures that countries like Kenya inherited from the colonial experience. One of the biggest services that’s had really rapid uptake throughout Sub-Saharan Africa are these digital loans that are available over the mobile phones. They have names like, Baraka, which means right away, and other kinds of things. You can get a loan over the phone for as little as $10. And if you repay that loan within this timeframe that you’ve been given, and it varies depending on the provider, then the next time you seek out a loan over your phone, you can get a slightly larger amount. The idea is to build a credit history and access to credit using these mobile phone loaning systems. Sometimes they’re called nano loans or digital micro loans. They have been hugely popular. In Kenya, which is a country of say 40 million people, at least 3 million loans are taken out every month.

And that’s just from the main bank that is partnering with the mobile phone company, but there are more than 20 other providers that have come into this space. Some of them use a smartphone. They are more looking for the urbanites, or people that have access to internet and a little bit more money so that they have access to things like smartphones. It has been an example of how financial inclusion can so easily go awry, especially when unregulated products like this are offered to people who may not have much of a credit history, may not have much of an ability to pay back loans, and oftentimes live in very precarious circumstances such that they need money right away. A lot of people have had real problems repaying their loans. Large numbers of people have been blacklisted because they’ve been unable to repay. A lot of the companies that came in with the idea of providing credit to people, some of them have had to fold, such as the company called Tala, which had this dramatic uptake of many people taking out loans. Then, the Tala company recently folded and is no longer offering loans. I think it is into Bitcoin or some other thing right now.

So one of the really big stories, in terms of African FinTech, has been these digital micro loans. And they’re kind of shrouded in shame and secrecy. A lot of people can’t really repay their loans. They need to go back to their social networks and put together all the social relationships that they have in order to try to repay the loans. A lot of people get mired into debt. And once they find their way out of it, they don’t use the services anymore. They go back to what they were already doing before. So I was trying to get more information about these loans. This lady who I was talking with said, “Well, there’s a cat over here looking for scraps. These loans are like this cat over here.” Or even worse, these loans are like a rat that hunts for money. What she was sort of alluding to was the very private nature of these loans and the dangerous moral qualities that a lot of people find with this private access to credit. The thing is that, because people’s social relationships are so important to them, it gives people an incentive to try to take out these loans.

Oftentimes, their friends, their neighbors, or their family members are facing medical crises, or their children are sent home from school because they don’t have money for fees, or they just don’t have food. To be the person who can save the day and provide money when it’s needed in your network, it’s very important to people to have that kind of relational strength. But what it does is make people very vulnerable to debt and it mires people into debt. And what is happening is that, after a very rapid period of expansion, a lot of these digital credit providers are folding, or they are no longer as popular as they used to be. What people are going back to is, when you say conditions of possibility, what we would call the kind of informal sphere and the relationships that people have kind of developed around money outside of the banks, or outside of any other formal system. There’s a huge expansion in that area right now. Part of it has to do with the way people are bringing the digital payment system, bringing the remittance capability of the phones, into a variety of group methods that they have been developing over the years, which involve all kinds of ways of circulating funds in small groups, such as merry-go-rounds and table banking.

It’s really common to access credit from your neighbors, or from women’s groups in your neighborhood. They pull money together and often offer small loans to themselves, or even to other people that they know in their neighborhoods. There are all kinds of group models, like welfare associations, that are just really growing enormously right now as a result of the digital channel–making those payments easier for people to mediate time and space and maintain connection to those groups without having to be physically present. So it’s really interesting. The real growth has been in the informal sphere, precisely because people have that relational view of their money. They really see themselves as interconnected with other people. They see this as a fundamentally group process, not as an individuated way of dealing with money. And this is the real mistake that a lot of the providers are getting into. It’s much easier for them to deal with an individual client or individualized customer. Then, they know who’s responsible for their loan or whatever payment. Then, they know who they’re dealing with. They can do things like double check your identity and make sure they conform with banking regulations about KYC and so on.

But what they’re really doing is ceding a variety of groups and collectivities that basically circulate money amongst themselves. That’s actually the real basis of this money. So the formal sector is really trying to test the limits of people’s ability to repay loans. In a way, they’re trying to extract value from people who earn very little money through these tiny nano loans of $10 or $20. In my book, I talk about people who have access to between $10 and $40 every month, and they’re running around trying to find friends, agents, and others who can help them repay their loans on time. They’re repaying amounts of money that to many of us would seem to be ridiculously small. Some of them are being blacklisted, because they can’t repay loans that are as small as $20. So it’s a real failure to appreciate a different way of looking at finance. It’s an insistence on individuating the customer, on slotting them into a kind of repayment gradient. And it’s a real failure to appreciate that when people come together, save money together, and create money together, they can actually create large amounts of money when they circulate money in these groups.

And I give some examples in the book. When people want to get married and they need bridewealth, or when there is a real medical emergency in their networks, they can sound the alarm and come together with huge amounts of money, hundreds of dollars. People in rural areas can really come up with hundreds of dollars when they want to for the things that they think are important. And all of that is actually taking place outside of their formal offerings. In reality, I guess it’s a little bit of a meld. It’s a meld of these formal systems and the kind of informal logics that people wrap those capabilities into. Another thing I argue in the book is that, if people could expand their idea of what a credit worthy person is, if people could see themselves as ceding networks and groups and becoming a member—could a bank or a financial services provider see themselves as a member of a group rather than always trying to kind of individuate people and measure people according to outside standards–then I think they’d really see all the untapped potential that these groups actually have.

Maxximilian Seijo: I really appreciate that answer. One of the main takeaways of MMT that flashes in my mind when you were talking is the terms of loans in general as a matter of the public nature of money and the abundant status of money. You don’t run out of money. You may run out of resources, people, or other sorts of things, but money, and importantly, repayment–the variables around repayment and what needs to be “paid back” in any form of lending, or in any form of money issuance–is a political decision. So the austerities, violences, and predatory extraction that you’re describing, with the relational view of money in hand, they are not the natural order of the way money issuance, lending, credit, and debt have to operate. There’s a politicization of their austere premises, which I think is in part what your work is doing and what the associative monies that you’re talking about, that are more of a meld of the system, are also attempting to do. It’s about the terms of labor relations and credit relations that don’t necessarily fit into a reductive sense of what one might call the larger system, even though they necessarily are participating in that larger system in a mediated way, as you’re describing. And what’s so interesting about this is another way of viewing how the austere political decisions around lending also aren’t totalizing, and how public agency on behalf of people in groups and associations can challenge them in different ways. And then, of course, importantly, they also challenge their premises. Because they don’t have to be that way, according to MMT. That seems to be one of the takeaways from that answer and from your work. I really just find it so fascinating to work through and navigate all of these questions of how individualization and individual indebtedness itself is a political decision on its own terms.

Scott Ferguson: Maybe we can move to close out our discussion by getting you to tell us a little bit about how you see the future of these mobile payment systems evolving? Are there any kinds of formalized challenges? Are there groups who want to abolish the system or change the system? Do they have ideas about reform?

Sibel Kusimba: Thanks, this is a really great question. I think the systems, especially the formal money transfer system that we’re describing, M-Pesa and related systems, are almost 15 years old now, because the first kind of deployment, at least in Kenya, started in 2007. After a year, there were three or four million people who had already signed up. So it was wildly successful. And everybody thought that there would be this massive growth in new kinds of financial services, all aimed at low income customers that would really help them empower themselves and move out of poverty, or just create better lives for themselves. After 15 years, I think it’s fair to say that that massive growth has not really materialized, even though many people still use the money transfer service. Indeed, most people use the money transfer service. Participating in money transfer networks has really become imperative and necessary for social belonging and for economic life in general.

Having said that, the development of all kinds of new platforms, apps, and this “a thousand flowers blooming” of all kinds of digital tools and platforms that would be beneficial to people hasn’t really happened. In the existing system, there are a lot of ongoing problems. One is they are still not very affordable for a lot of people. There are very large fees for the transfer. In fact, when you upload your cash and create that digital representation, you have to pay money. Then, when you download your cash and go from digital representation to cash, on the other end of the transfer, there’s a fee associated with each one of those services. So for a lot of people, the services aren’t affordable. What I talk about in the book is the ways in which people use their social relationships to try to gain access. They borrow phones, or they know they have friends who are agents, or they work around the very high cost of the services. They’re still too expensive for the low income people. There are issues with trust because there has just been an epidemic of fraud, of identity theft, and all kinds of problems with trust in the system. And that oftentimes prevents people from using it. It prevents people from really trusting the system. 

Then, there’s the ongoing problem of just the lack of relevance that a lot of people see to a lot of the products that are given. The attempt to build on top of the digital payment, to offer things like health insurance, would be a good example. In my book, I give so many examples of people who are dealing with medical crises–one medical crisis after another. One man was a carpenter and his four year old son swallowed a nail and needed to go to the hospital right away. Again, they did a massive fundraiser and people responded right away. Because almost all medical care is kind of out of pocket in Kenya. Even relatively wealthy people don’t really have access to enough insurance. So medical care is a big problem. People don’t have access to schooling. People don’t have adequate food and the ability to sustain consumption. So all the products that have been developed to try to meet a lot of their needs, people just don’t feel are relevant.

To go back to the issue of insurance, numerous companies have tried to scale like a digital insurance product. If you pay a small amount of money, then when there’s a medical need, you’ll be covered. People don’t trust the service. They think that that coverage won’t really be there when they need it, or they just don’t have the money for something that they’re betting won’t really happen. Also, because they know that when they do have an emergency, they have their informal networks of people that they really do trust and know will be there. So it’s the trust, the affordability, and just the lack of desire to partake in the so called benefits of finance. The scaling up and so on hasn’t really happened. Instead, what is happening is the growth of all these informal groups and models.

One thing that’s really interesting in Kenya is that the co-operative movement is very strong. There’s even a university called the Co-operative University of Kenya, where they actually teach people how to create co-operatives amongst themselves, such as co-operatives for farming or different kinds of agricultural production, but also financial co-operatives. People who work together, who are teachers together, form cooperatives. There’s a range of formality of these groups. Some of them might resemble a credit union here in the United States and others are less formalized, but the government recognizes a whole range of different kinds of co-operatives. So it’s a huge area of growth. That’s the place where you would find alternative financial forms and the place where you would look for new kinds of finance that are truly going to be relevant for the people who are using them. In terms of more digital financial offerings, especially things like predatory loans and so on, I predict that those are just going to create new forms of exclusion, rather than really benefiting people. So in a lot of ways, that’s what the future looks like right now.

William Saas: Historically, it seems possible for someone coming from doing anthropological work in an area around financial inclusion that it would be cause for concern. That’s not what you’re doing. It seems like you’re more on the side of illumination, optimism, building, and that your work is certainly not contributing to, but maybe helping to anticipate and route the exploitation you’re talking about. Thank you so much, Sibel Kusimba, for joining us on Money on the Left. It’s been a pleasure.

Sibel Kusimba: It’s been an enormous pleasure. Thank you so much for your interest in this work. How exciting to meet people who have similar interests, and it’s been a huge pleasure for me to be here today.

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

On the PMC Question

@moltopopulare joins co-hosts Natalie Smith, Will Beaman & Maxximilian Seijo to problematize unquestioned leftist critiques of the “Professional Managerial Class,” or “PMC,” past and present. As exemplified by a recent episode of The Dig podcast, leftists frequently invoke the epithet “PMC”–as well as its cousin, “ultra leftist,” or simply “ultra”–in order to shore up class solidarity against capitalist cooptation and ward off allegedly unfeasible political aims. Yet in reality, the Superstructure gang argues, the left PMC trope conceals deeply zero-sum and exclusionary logics that undercut universal emancipation and caretaking. Often stemming from a place of self-loathing or a desire for self-exculpation, such logics not only police leftist discourse according to a univocal workerist ethos, but also violently divide supposedly legitimate from illegitimate horizons of contestation in a manner that reduces universalism to exceptionalism. Tracing the PMC figure’s theoretical and historical roots, the episode culminates with a sustained reading from Karl Marx’s controversial essay, “On the Jewish Question.”

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

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

http://flirtingfullstop.bandcamp.com Twitter: @actualflirting

Superestructura: Versión Sureña

¡Llegó el primer episodio de Superstructure en Español!  

Andrés Bernal (@andresintheory) y Natalie Smith (@orangeasm)  conversan sobre la relevancia de la Teoría Monetaria Moderna para Latinoamérica con dos expertos económicos de la región, Jesus Resendiz (@Tlacuachito) y Daniel Rojas (@DanielRMed).

 Analizamos las protestas recientes en Colombia, con sus formaciones reaccionarias y las posibilidades para la izquierda, incluyendo la candidatura de Gustavo Petro, una carta abierta de economistas Colombianos heterodoxos criticando una tendencia común a la izquierda de entender los impuestos como la fuente del gasto público, y una propuesta para una ley de garantía de trabajo. Después, vamos a México para conversar sobre los supuestos ortodoxos de austeridad asumidos sin crítica por el gobierno de la izquierda de AMLO. 

**

It’s the first Superstructure episode in Spanish! Andres Bernal and Natalie Smith discuss the relevance of MMT for Latin America with two Latin American economic experts, Jesus Resendiz and Daniel Rojas. We discuss the recent protests in Colombia, reactionary formations there and prospects for the left, including  the candidacy of Gustavo Petro, a recent open letter from Colombian heterodox economists criticizing left tilt towards understanding taxes as funding the government, and a job guarantee proposal. Then we move to Mexico and discuss the orthodox austerity assumptions uncritically taken on by the purportedly left government of AMLO. 

Look out for the English and Spanish transcripts in the coming weeks!


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

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

Modern Movie Theory (MMT): The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Andrés Bernal joins Scott Ferguson and Maxximilian Seijo to discuss the historical and political implications of the latest Marvel streaming series, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. Together, they tease out unstable contradictions between the show’s desires for racial and geopolitical reparation and justice, on one hand, and its punishingly zero-sum Malthusian drama, on the other. The result is a fascinating and, at moments, surprising Marvel offering, which struggles to keep up with the contemporary crises of American imperialism and white patriarchy. 

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

The Neoliberal Blockbuster: Jaws (Preview)

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

For access to the full lecture, 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)

Finding the Money w/ Maren Poitras

Documentary filmmaker Maren Poitras joins the podcast to discuss and share a teaser from Finding the Money, the first feature-length documentary on the past, present, and future of Modern Monetary Theory. The film is currently under consideration for audience and jury awards in the DocLands film festival. Head to the festival website to watch a longer clip and to vote for Finding the Money by May 10thhttps://www.doclands.com/docpitch-finding-the-money/.

Watch the video version of this episode of Money on the Left on YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMdoWvOm2P0

More info at: www.findingmoneyfilm.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/findingmoneydoc
Facebook. www.facebook.com/findingmoneydoc

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.

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

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

Remaking Radicalism with Dan Berger & Emily K. Hobson

Money on the Left is joined by Emily K. Hobson and Dan Berger, coeditors and curators of the recently published collection Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States, 1973-2001

https://ugapress.org/book/9780820357256/remaking-radicalism/

Hobson is associate professor of history and gender, race, & identity at the university of Nevada, reno, and author of Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left. Berger is associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington, Bothell, and author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era

Together, Hobson and Berger have compiled and thematically arranged a tremendous selection of key documents authored by radical organizers during a period commonly associated with the fall or disappearance of the left. Against this inaccurate and self-defeating lapsarian story, Remaking Radicalism shows the period of 1973 to 2001 to be replete with radical thought, revolutionary action, and what Hobson and Berger call, after Stuart Hall, “usable pasts.” In most cases these pasts are inseparable from our present. In all cases there is much to learn from and build upon. We talk with Berger and Hobson about the history of this project and the ways that it alters common understandings of the political and cultural present. We chat, too, about money and its place in the radical rhetorics recovered in the book.

Cover Art: “A Boogie/Un Baile: Benefit for July 4th Coalition” (1976). Original silkscreen by Ronald Weil. Published by Gonna Rise Again Graphics. Courtesy of Lincoln Cushing/Docs Populi.

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Transcript

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

William Saas: Emily Hobson and Dan Berger, welcome to Money on the Left.

Emily Hobson: Thank you for having us.

Dan Berger: Thanks so much.

William Saas: To get us going, could you tell us a little bit about your personal and professional backgrounds?

Emily Hobson: Sure, I can go ahead. I’ll go first in part because I’m older than Dan, although less published. I grew up in a kind of left-liberal family so I had left impulses early on. But I was really radicalized in college in the mid-90s, especially around issues of welfare reform and the ways that those dovetailed with cuts to education and also the growth of right wing attacks on the ballot box in California. At the time, I was also really getting excited about histories of varying models of community organizing. I first pursued work with Center For Third World Organizing, which kind of comes out of an Alinsky tradition, but it attempted to really bring a race and gender analysis into that work. So I moved into that network and was also very much part of and influenced by youth mobilizations around the country, but again, especially in California and those tied to fighting the racist right. Specifically, in the ways that it was showing up both in kind of grassroots and vigilante ways and in more tolerated politics.

That was my work for a number of years, but I was increasingly disappointed with the limits of the nonprofit model, or the growing nonprofitization of organizing work. A distinction made within a lot of non-community organizing nonprofits–between a good use of nonprofits and a bad use of nonprofits–that seemed to me to be less of a clear distinction than we might have liked it to be. I also thought that there was a mistaking of collectivity in local organizing projects with movement building. And I was struggling with what might be my place in all of that because I think I was also very much trained in a tradition to be, as a white person, kind of a resource who would sit back and take the lead, which, of course, also converged with a certain amount of gender socialization. It was in some ways the disappointments with some of that work that made me think like, “Well, I’ve always really loved doing movement history and it’s in many ways been my passion since college. So maybe this is the time to go to graduate school.” Once I made that commitment, I was pretty much all in as like this is the place I can make a more clear set of contributions that I can feel kind of integrity around.

So I did my PhD at USC in the American Studies and Ethnicity program, which I really loved, and I think really built on some of my experiences in organizing, West Coast roots, and investment in learning from majority people of color spaces. I think that was one of the real benefits personally for me in the program. I finished the PhD in 2009. I taught briefly at UC Santa Barbara, and then in 2012, got a job at University of Nevada, Reno, which is where I’ve been since. My first book is called Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left. It’s about queer engagement with antiimperialist, antiwar, and racial justice politics, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s and 80s. The current research that I’m doing looks at HIV and AIDS activism by, for, and with people in prisons in the 1980s and 1990s across the US, but with a special strength in a few big cities and along the coasts.

Dan Berger: Can I just say ditto? Just kidding. So my entry into politics was also in the mid 90s, although I was in high school, not college, in upstate New York and it was initially through animal rights and environmentalism. It was a strong, as well as broader, oppositional youth culture. There was a strong emphasis on direct action, protests, and mobilization, which also meant there were a lot of interactions with the police. One of the early things I did as a young activist was to go to a trial of some people who had been arrested for engaging in civil disobedience. Not long after I got involved in politics, my family moved to Florida. Friends in New York, like one of my good friends that I was in high school with, had her arm broken by the cops. Other friends had their door busted down by cops. There was a lot of consciousness and politicization around the state. There was a slogan, I would learn later on, from Students for a Democratic Society in the 60s that said, “The issue is not the issue.” I felt like that was my politicization. My family was middle of the road Democrats. Other than the Holocaust and certain aspects in Jewish history, there wasn’t a lot of discussion of politics writ large. I just knew growing up that bad people kept winning elections.

Surrounding the Clinton administration in the 90s, my parents seemed content, but I was living in Florida and everything seemed miserable. I was trying to think through that disjuncture. The 60s always loomed large as this other moment of a lot going on. It was often referenced and acknowledged, and yet everyone I knew who had been alive in the 60s were my teachers, my parents, or people who seem to be not engaged or interested in that kind of politics. I was really struck by that while living in this pretty mythical suburb in South Florida. This was the early days of the Internet so I was writing to lots of different organizations, getting on mailing lists, getting newspapers and zines and anything else that I could find. Through that, I ended up starting a correspondence with several longtime political prisoners who were people coming out of the revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s. Many of them had been incarcerated since the 70s or, in some cases, the early 80s. For me, those connections were not because I understood anything about incarceration. But really, because it was the only place I knew to find people who were movement veterans and were interested in talking with younger generation people about what happened, what worked, why and why not, and so on. So those connections were really important mentors and eye opening experiences for me. And many of those relationships continued.

I went to college at the University of Florida. I started in 1999, which I say only to position it within what was happening at that time period. The protests against the World Trade Organization happened when I was a freshman. That was very inspiring. Large groups of us mobilized to go up to Washington, DC for the protests against the World Bank and IMF meeting in April of 2000. Following that, a friend of mine and I started this anarchist newspaper that was trying to bring attention to and in recognition of the anarchist currents of the global justice movement. But also, it was significant to us that we were in Florida, in that we were trying to think about alternate geographies of movement politics and directions. When I graduated college, I moved to Philadelphia and was there for about a year working first for a bookstore and later for this media justice organization. And then, I went to grad school at University of Pennsylvania, which is gruesomely in the news this week for having held on to the bones of two children who were murdered in the 1985 bombing of the move house. Among many other disgusting things that that university has done, this seems to top the cake.

I went to grad school because I was mentored in a way to find something that you’re good at and figure out ways of using it in the service of movement building. I feel like that was a mantra that I came into politics with, or developed at some point early on as an activist. Then, in the process of writing my senior thesis, which later became my first book on the Weather Underground, I had a really wonderful advisor who was like, “Do you like what you’re doing and do you know what you’re going to be doing after this?” They planted the idea of grad school as a possible future. So I did that. I felt I stumbled into it in some ways. Then, I graduated, I wrote my dissertation about Black and Puerto Rican prison organizing in the 1970s. In about 2010 or 2011, I was at the USC library in Los Angeles doing some research and speaking about a book I had edited on radical movements in the 1970s and Emily was, I think, one of two or three people who showed up to that event. We were chatting about various things related to movement history, and then Emily brought up this idea of doing a primary source anthology. And now–I was gonna say the rest is history–but one piece I didn’t mention is that I’m an associate professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, Bothell and live in Seattle.

Scott Ferguson: Thank you so much. So I guess to get into the central topic of our conversation, we’re here to talk about your newish anthology, Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States 1973-2001. In the introduction to that reader, you describe it as an effort to “locate or curate a usable past amid chaotic times.” Maybe just to get us going, can you talk a little bit more about how you came to this project, why it’s meaningful to you, and maybe unpack some of that language about usable pasts?

Emily Hobson: Yeah, so as Dan said, in 2011 or so, we first began chatting about the idea of an anthology. I also had an idea of putting together an anthology of documents very specific to what became my first book, so mainly on the queer left, broadly. I chatted with a couple people, Claire Potter and Renee Romano, about that, who at that time, were the series editors for the “Since 1970” series at University of Georgia Press. They both said, “Make it bigger, but don’t be the only editor because that’s too much.” And I also knew that I would want to engage with a co-editor. Then, in talking to Dan, we had a lot of exciting conversations about different kinds of ways to conceive of it. It became a 10 year project, which I think is far longer than either of us really expected for developing it.

Scott Ferguson: And in a really different political climate, right?

Emily Hobson: And in a very different political climate, yeah. I actually think the length of developing it was in large part because, at a very practical level, we were both finishing other books. We were starting out in tenure track jobs. We were dealing with our own lives and engaging in the movements of those 10 years. And everything that has happened in the past 10 years has been a really rich context in which to think through what might be a usable past for the 1973 to 2001 period. Broadly, the idea of the usable past is a way to think about turning to history as a way to make meaning of the present and to understand how to find legacies, how to find and analyze, in particular, past radical movements, or past modes of politics. One of the ways that I think about the idea of a usable past in this book is with the hope that it will be used in a variety of different contexts. Definitely in traditional classroom settings, but I also envision it for political education projects, study groups, mutual aid projects, and so on. Ideally, people can turn to it to look for work similar to what they are pursuing, or with similar kinds of questions–or very different kinds of efforts–that might help them think about issues that are new to them. It’s also perhaps useful for considering different kinds of tactics and communities that they’re not connected to. That is definitely one of the goals of the book.

It is to not only be a kind of historical accounting that can be the source of research and be responded to by scholars, including independent scholars outside the Academy and movement historians, but that also it can be a recent toolbox to turn to. We conceptualize the period 1973 to 2001 in large part because there was no other similar anthology of that breadth of time and issues that we try to cover. There were a number of anthologies that broadly reflect the long 1960s but even those that had a long 60s kind of framing and went into the early to mid 70s stopped. So we were left with this impression that there are no real resources to turn to, that there are no significant movements to attend to, and that movements across the 70s-80s-90s period were all disconnected from each other, which certainly didn’t reflect either of our own personal experiences from having looked into archives and talked with people.

Dan Berger: Yeah, I would just say, every social movement that reaches a certain kind of mass consciousness is then greeted with a “Where did this come from?” comment. And oftentimes, in the popular sense, the answer is, “Nowhere!” It’s assumed some local thing started the movement. There’s no sense of a longer history. Obviously, both of us having done these other projects that work on recent history, where we’ve had the opportunity to dialogue with people who have shaped longer histories in different ways, challenges that. Moving into 2001, into our own period where we helped in small ways to be a part of, it was just so clear that that kind of crescendo or abeyance model just doesn’t make sense. And it’s not to say we’ve always had a peak high period, but just that this disappearance and then emergence narrative really doesn’t serve any of us well. I think there’s a kind of arrogance in that for some people. But there’s also a kind of earnestness. People want to know where this all came from. Hopefully, like Emily was saying, the book can be a resource and gift for people who are really trying to have a sense of the traditions that they themselves come from, even without necessarily being steeped in all of the twists and turns of that tradition.

Maxximilian Seijo: In a way, I think that we’re already getting into this question with both of your lovely answers. But it seems to us that part of the stakes of your co-edited book are intervening in a world where many on the left understand neoliberalism in what we might call somewhat monolithic terms. That is, as the New Deal died, the onset of the Reagan and Thatcher era intervened with and wiped out some of the ambivalent and unequal gains of the New Deal. Some might say the left lost and retrenched into academia to wait for history to catch up once again. In your book, you acknowledge the scarcity and violence of this era. But it also seems that you’re actively destabilizing this rather simplistic fall narrative. We were wondering if you could say a bit more about this history you’re recovering, maybe why this prevailing fall of the left story has proven so durable, and why it’s wrong?

Emily Hobson: Yeah, I’ll start with the fall of the left question. This is snarky, but I do think one of the reasons that academic histories have often repeated this idea of the fall of the left after the 1960s is a form of projection by those historians who have written some of those narratives and then left activism, or left very significant involvement in movement work. So they didn’t see other things that were going on because they were not involved, or they felt disconnected from them because they were no longer at the center. This dovetails with the notion that, with the rise and proliferation of multiple kinds of feminist, queer, Chicano, indigenous, Black, and Latinx forms of activism, the proliferation of multiple tendencies that are also shaped by demographic changes in the US after 1965, white guys are no longer at this center of history. Therefore, that kind of universalistic conception of mass politics appears to no longer be present or coherent. That’s what I mean about a snarky response, but still one I believe in.

One of the things that we’re looking at in this book is the importance, utility, and vibrancy of a multi-tendency way of thinking about movement building, the left, and radicalism, or not necessarily conflating the left and radicalism but certainly seeing them as interconnected. Even that itself–not necessarily equating the left and radicalism–reflects an effort at understanding a multi-tendency politics. It’s the richness of looking at social movements through disagreement and understanding. That is, disagreement and conflict among activists is generative. It can also lead to organizations or networks falling apart, or even mistrust. It can be fomented by agents of the state. This is fundamental to my thinking that I learned early on. I credit this to having had the great privilege of working with and learning from Robin Kelley and Ruthie Gilmore.

Another key mentor not at USC I count among historians is Laura Briggs. They all kind of talked about how looking at disagreement shows relationships. People don’t disagree with each other unless they’re in some kind of relationship with each other, even if it’s a relationship of distant cousins within a set of movement networks. So I think the idea of the fall of the left is predicated on the idea that there has to be one winning model and everybody has to battle over what the winning model is, rather than the idea that there are multiple kinds of movements and tendencies. They influence each other. They’re in conversation with each other. Sometimes that’s in conflict. But it is also very generative. And it provides opportunities for transformative change and for a different kind of mass politics.

Dan Berger: Yeah, I think that’s so excellent and well said. I think the fall of the left narrative allows not only the erasure of movements that are resurfaced in Remaking Radicalism, but also allows a rosier view of the left in the time period when people are saying it existed. It’s like, “So we had the great thing and then it disappeared because it won. Then, all of its winnings were erased. And then the left reemerged.” This is such a static view of every phase of that. One of the things we were really motivated by is recasting the narrative. I think the movements of the time period show the messiness–the wonderful, complicated, strategic, and tactical messiness–of movements at every step. But because of the things that Emily was just speaking about, it’s not that those dynamics of race, gender, or sexuality didn’t exist in the golden days of the left that this narrative projects, but that you can’t deny them in the same way in the time period that we’re looking at here. Because the leadership and reconfiguration of movement organizations is so pronounced. I know we’ll talk about this in a second, but the Combahee River Collective, as a formation in and of itself, but also in relationship with other black feminist organizations and other women of color feminist organizations, you can’t say that that’s not a thing. I think that really helps reorient our whole understanding of the time period.

The other piece around scarcity and violence that we talk about in the intro of the book is to really think about what the conditions are that give rise to movements looking the way that they do in the time periods that they operate in. And those questions of scarcity, which are being enforced in all kinds of violent ways, are really significant to how these movements take shape. Again, I think historians, activists or others who imbibe this fall of the left narrative reproduce those same logics of scarcity by trying to either override or just ignore the work that was happening during this time period. So we were interested in recuperating that and then trying to give some material evidence to how people engage violent regimes of scarcity. There’s a lot of insight here that movements have to offer.

Scott Ferguson: Before we move on to the Combahee statement, I was wondering if I could follow up and get you to talk a little bit about what I take to be rather false oppositions between an economic or class-based politics and a situated identitarian one. I was snooping around your endnotes in preparation for today and was chasing one early note in the introduction, where you’re giving us citations of various historians or other scholars who have tried to historicize the very period that you’re taking on. You name some of those who are offering what you call a Universalist story, which is a fall story usually about the white working man no longer being king. And of course, on this podcast, we would say that’s actually not universal. That’s actually radically contracted. One book that you reference, Lisa Duggan’s The Twilight of Equality? I was exploring it a little bit today. In reading her introduction, it seemed to me she was arguing that there has been a split in the movements between economically oriented movements and the identitarian and multicultural movements. And that, at the juncture she was writing in, the late 90s and early turn of the 21st century, these need to be brought back together. I guess what I wonder is, it seems like there’s a gap between what you are saying and what she’s saying. How do you position your work with respect to that? Was there no gap? Was there one in certain spaces and not others? I just would be curious to hear you talk about that.

Dan Berger: That’s really interesting. And while you’ve looked at The Twilight of Equality? far more recently than I have, I feel I want to go back to it.

Scott Ferguson: And I may be misreading.

Dan Berger: Well, no, I do think there are these different spaces, obviously. One thing that we really struggled with in the book, in a generative way, was trying to represent a geographic rift. We didn’t just want to reproduce what was happening in LA, San Francisco, and New York with a smattering of Chicago. We also have to contend with the fact that those are all major population centers that sustained left culture and left organization easier than then some other places. So to your point of whether there was a gap in some places but not others, I think the shape of movements does look really differently depending not only on when we’re talking about but also where we’re talking about. People and projects exist in these different kinds of temporalities that might allow some things to flourish. Again, I don’t want to speak for Duggan, but I think there’s something in that book about what kinds of politics reach a certain kind of mainstream? Or what kinds of politics get a certain kind of attention. I certainly think we could identify some gaps in terms of what achieves an amount of prominence, or what gets funding and the ways in which there are these different kinds of funding structures that reward those gaps–materially or socially reward those gaps. Maybe I’ll leave it there and let Emily jump in.

Emily Hobson: Yeah, I think one of Duggan’s goals in that book is to articulate a critique of the ways that constructions of identity get used to serve and advance neoliberalism. She critiques multiculturalist models that work towards representation at a superficial level, or that work towards an inclusion model without any kind of structural, economic, and anti-capitalist aspect of change. She’s also very critical of homonormativity within queer politics, and the ways that that, even when predicated on pushing forward minoritized and discriminated against identity and subject positions, gives up more radical, broad-based, and again, anti–capitalist alliances. Her discussion sort of operates in two registers. One is, as Dan said, looking at those forms of politics that hit the mainstream or popular media consciousness, and to criticize how more transformative and radical kinds of grassroots projects get thinned out on that way up to the popular. She’s also setting up some critiques that have really developed since her book of formations, like on carceral feminism and other kinds of things that nobody knows in a given year what’s exactly coming 10 years later. You have moments when certain kinds of feminist formations appear to be radical, but also are set up relationships that move in a different kind of direction, or in a direction that one would critique, especially looking back.

So I think that you’re right that there’s a disjuncture, but I also think that we’re in alignment to her argument because of the ways that she is operating on these two different registers. And there are documents in Remaking Radicalism that very clearly express the kind of intersectional analysis that we frame the book through. And others, of course, don’t. Others have something else to contribute that is interesting. Or they show tensions going on and show formations happening that maybe didn’t flourish later but that were significant at the time, and that have something else to offer.

William Saas: I just want to clarify something before we move on to discussing some of the documents out of the reader, and then I also want to underscore, reinforce, and endorse the snark. I find that really compelling because one of the things that really excites me about this book is it seems like there are multiple stages of it. I was like, “Oh, my God, I’ve been waiting for this.” This is the history that we always gloss over–that I’ve glossed over and that has been glossed over in books I have read. So this is amazing, it’ll be helpful as a teaching and organizing tool for sure. But what you’re not saying is that neoliberalism was not on the ascendancy. You’re not saying neoliberalism is not a thing, but that the stories of neoliberalism and its ascendancy too often negate, deny, and suppress these oppositional movements and histories. It’s super compelling how y’all just sweep the leg of so much of that left scholarship on neoliberalism. So again, thank you. Going back to one of those founding documents and where you situate the beginning of this reader in 1973, the Combahee River Collective Black feminist statement is from 1977, but it’s the first in your collection. And we won’t have time to talk about all of them, of course. But what we can do is ask you to say a little bit more about your intention and purpose for starting off with the Combahee River Collective’s Black feminist statement and the place of that document in the broader history that you’ve curated.

Emily Hobson: I think we always knew, or knew very early on, that the Combahee statement would be in the book. We were trying to advance, among other things, a history of intersectional analysis from multiple sources. Because when I teach my students about the real meat of intersectional analysis and its history, I say, “Okay, the term is from Kimberlé Crenshaw. It’s from this article on this particular analysis of law. But she herself points to earlier references. She’s always talked about that. And we can trace that. Ideas also come from movements. Nobody is this suis generis thinker.”

So we knew it would be central. We knew we wanted to foreground the multiple movement sources of this mode of thinking and critique. Then, as we were talking about it, we realized we didn’t have to start the book exactly chronologically. I’ll also say that the framework of the book is 1973 to 2001, but we have a couple of documents that precede 1973 that we think kind of suggest some of the shifts that really start to gel and become amplified after 1973. There are also a couple documents right after 2001 that reflect dimensions of antiwar activism in that era. Once we had decided that we didn’t have to be super by the book about a chronology, it made a lot of sense to begin the book with Combahee because it so beautifully crystallizes the project, and in and of itself, is an important document. It is also one that really reflects our approach to a usable past. It’s gained importance and attention in the last several years. It really helps to ground people’s way of understanding the ways that an intersectional analysis doesn’t leave out class. Because the Combahee statement is explicitly socialist. It’s also because the statement is complicated and tricky in the ways that it uses the idea of identity. It coins the notion of identity politics, but it defines it in a very different way than we usually think about–in a non-identitarian way. It does so in a way that the contemporary language includes things like centering the most marginalized. That kind of approach would be one of the ways I think about a contemporary translation.

Also one of the reasons that it’s powerful to start with Combahee is that it’s such a beautifully written statement. It was a little painful in that we wound up excerpting it for purposes of length. It felt painful to do that. But I also felt relieved that the popularization and increased attention to Combahee meant that it would be pretty easy for people to find the full statement, so we could highlight particular passages that are especially powerful to read alongside some of the others in the document. The last thing I’ll say is just that, when I look at the back of the table of contents, the document that follows immediately after the Combahee statement is an essay from Iris Morales called “Sterilized Puerto Ricans.” This really kind of reflects some of the influences that show up in Combahee. Members of Combahee had been working on issues of sterilization of women of color and came out of similar traditions or influences. Iris Morales is writing from the perspective of work from the Young Lords Party. So Combahee reflects that trajectory.

Dan Berger: Yeah, I would just add quickly, one of the things I’m most grateful for about this project is, when Emily and I first began talking about it, we decided very early on that we didn’t want to organize it chronologically. The book is organized in a series of thematic sections. I think that was really important for my own understanding and reflection on the period in that so many of the issues are resonant. They echo across these different campaigns and movements. We can see similar kinds of strategies or concerns show up in, for instance, campaigns against the far right, campaigns for indigenous sovereignty, anti-policing struggles, and so on. So if we think about this thematically, rather than chronologically, we can actually engage the conversations that were happening and continue to happen across movements much better than if we were like, “What’s everything that was published in 1982? What’s published in 1993? and so on. So it’s allowing us that freedom to think against a linear approach in keeping with the spirit of the movements.

And starting with Combahee, even though the book is not necessarily one that people will read in order, cover to cover, I think was symbolically, politically, and thematically important, because it really does frame the book. We were talking a few minutes ago about this approach to a golden age of left history that assumes a very narrow subjectivity of white industrial male workers as a universal totality. For us, one of the things we were thinking a lot about in the book, and why the Combahee statement is so important, is that a lot of movements, individual people, and organizations are trying to think about the totality. How do we understand social formations in this time period and the time period that we’re living in? What are the kinds of analytic formations as well as organizational formations or infrastructures that can best speak to the totality? There’s a way in which that’s a kind of age old question of the left. And yet, Combahee is such a breakthrough for the period in actually thinking the totality. In all of its complexity, and thinking about unity across difference, and all of the things that we’ve come to understand under this category of intersectionality, that’s part of what makes the document so important. And I don’t want to say what’s the best document in the book or something. That feels foolhardy. But I think it’s the clearest articulation of a movement generated document that tries to explain the totality. And in doing so, it gives a tremendous analytic advance, both in its context, and as Emily was saying, that is ongoing still to this day.

Scott Ferguson: I’ll tell you, that really resonates with me the way you framed that as an intervention into thinking the totality, because I’m really trying to rethink this time period too, but from the point of view of popular culture, blockbuster movies, and things like that. The kinds of theoretical texts that I’ve relied on and have certainly complicated over the years are these tremendous volumes by people like Frederic Jameson. There’s maybe a little bit of snark here, but I’ve been returning to that text. I just read it over again, cover to cover. It’s pretty shocking, for all of the merits of that work, the way he insists that he, and the carrying on of the Marxist critical theory tradition, is thinking the totality in its historicity and complexity. Yet what he refers to, just constantly, as the new social movements are all just particularist. They’re all part of this kind of chaotic nominalism of the postmodern, neoliberal order. However, what your project is showing, as you’ve just said, is that that is not true. There was an erasure going on there, and that there’s another history to tell. You’re telling that history from the point of view of the movements. What does popular culture look like when you recognize what’s being repressed and refracted in popular culture, and when it’s not just simply a fall story? There’s all kinds of interesting back pressure.

Dan Berger: Yeah, that point is so well taken. The whole new social movements framework, in some ways, was an advance against the erasure and snarky dismissal. But in and of itself, it was such a profound and disrespectful erasure of what those movements were with their own temporalities and politics.

Emily Hobson: I will say that it’s a framework that comes out of sociology, which I have learned to respect much more over time, but I am supposed to sneer at it as a historian. The critique I have of the new social movements frame as it comes out of sociology is based on the ways it is constantly trying to find a type. Like here is the women’s movement and it is about the constitution of the category of women in this way that actively seeks to strip out race, class, and even sexuality in a way. Although, it kind of keeps sexuality as central to the category of citizenship, or any other facet of the ways in which womanhood as a category is differentially structured. So when we start to recast things and understand that identity categories are never monolithic, but rather inherently historically constructed through difference, then things start to look different. That’s where I think the new social movements, at least the traditional conception of new social movement theory, has to absorb that understanding or it just can’t work anymore.

Maxximilian Seijo: What I’m liking about this interview is the way we are also meta-reflecting on how important this book is for us in our work as we’re processing and moving through it. It makes me think, in your articulation of this new intersectional totality, which I want to dig into another particular moment of, there is a sense of a gathering in the way this book functions as a practice of historicizing, but also as what we might even call a performance of the social movements that you’re working with, thinking through, and parsing out in this history. In light of that practice, I wanted to zoom back in on one of the particular nodes of this gathering so that we might think about today a little differently. Here, I am thinking of the activism of ACT UP and related organizations fighting for all sorts of rights and against all sorts of scarcities and violences during the AIDS epidemic. Using their 1987 AIDS Action Pledge, which you excerpt and republish in your book, I’m actually going to read some of the demands which I’ve abridged a little bit. There’s a lot we could go through, but this may help our listeners get a sense of what ACT UP is calling for. They write: “We joined together to demand (1) a massive funding to end the AIDS epidemic made available from local, state, and federal governments for research, care, education, anonymous testing programs, and any and all treatments; (2) a federally funded education program; (3) centrally coordinated research; (4) a free nationalized health care system; (5) public accountability; (6) a worldwide culturally sensitive funding program,” and so on. Even just these demands shatter any notion that this is a purely identitarian movement, or focused solely on some reductive sense of identity that is not dealing with political economy. So in setting up this question, I was wondering if we could ask what ACT UP is perhaps for our listeners who don’t know where it came from, what it accomplished, and on your reading, what we might learn from ACT UP’s struggle for health justice, especially in light of our ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

Emily Hobson: Yeah, I’m so excited to talk about the AIDS Action Pledge statement and also about ACT UP. One thing I’ll say is this is not actually a statement written by ACT UP. It’s written by the AIDS Action Pledge, which is a separate organization that preceded ACT UP. The reason it’s useful to note that is because, while ACT UP was absolutely far and away the strongest, most vibrant model of AIDS direct action organizing, there were a few antecedents that indicate the necessity of experimentation with multiple kinds of responses. There are these antecedents we need to kind of think through them, and we need to credit them. But also, sometimes one just really nails it.

For me, what’s really important about the AIDS Action Pledge statement is both the structural analysis that it presents, which then became very central for ACT UP. The “AIDS Action Pledge” was written by an organization called AIDS Action Pledge, and then shaped other kinds of demands that ACT UP made. But as an organization, the AIDS Action Pledge began in 1986 in San Francisco, and it was modeled on the Pledge of Resistance, which was a Central American solidarity network that formed to get people to commit direct action, including civil disobedience to protest US military and other forms of intervention in Central America. It was queer folks who had been in Central American solidarity work, who were starting to try to look for pathways towards a stronger, more protest-based AIDS movement, and who formulated this model of how the Pledge of Resistance has been successful, gets people to make a commitment, and gives them a way to think about showing up.

So let’s start a pledge related to AIDS direct action and start to organize some direct actions that we ask people to show up to. Similar kinds of histories shaped the formation of ACT UP in New York about six months later in March 1987. There was this kind of rumbling happening and multiple kinds of experimentation. Similarly, the Silence=Death image and logo was not created by ACT UP but by a small collective of artists, among them being Avram Finkelstein, who’s written about this really beautifully in a memoir called, After Silence. They meditated over what’s going to be a powerful image, then created the poster, and finally hired an advertising company to wheat paste it all over New York City to give off this impression of action that actually hasn’t really happened yet. That kind of gives people a visual language to think about the necessity of action. So those are some little caveats to thinking about the relationship between this pledge and Act Up.

What I would say about some of the power of ACT UP is that it forms in March 1987. The acronym is the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. Its first action is on Wall Street to protest the price of AZT, which is the first approved drug to treat people with AIDS. And ultimately, AZT makes its way into the antiretroviral cocktail that after 1996 is really effective at treating HIV disease. But initially, AZT is the only thing. It actually ended up being toxic for many people, but people were seeking access to any form of treatment. So ACT UP immediately proves to be successful in getting the company that has produced AZT, Burroughs-Wellcome, to drop its price through direct action on Wall Street. By the end of 1987, and certainly by 1988, other groups around the country that had begun to work towards protest and direct action responses around the AIDS crisis began to call themselves ACT UP. The AIDS Action Pledge in San Francisco became San Francisco ACT UP by 1988. Some similar dynamics happen in some other cities. 

The other thing that is in the pledge is they say at the beginning, “We believe the AIDS crisis calls for a broad movement actively engaged in ending the epidemic. We recognize that AIDS has had a devastating impact on the lesbian and gay community. We further recognize that the AIDS crisis disproportionately affects men and women of color. And these strategies to fight this crisis must incorporate these understandings.” For me, that’s also very central to the structural analysis they’re posing in that the bulk of AIDS activism initially comes out of the lesbian and gay community. And the power that it has is to understand a virus doesn’t care what you say you are, how you organize, or what you call yourself.

Also, pandemics both amplify and reflect existing inequalities. Health is the outcome of the circumstances in which we live. Both in making demands like a national health care system, and in recasting what it means to think about health and what it means to think about who gets to do health activism–kind of recasting the patient or the ill person as an expert–a lot of ACT UP’s power lies in its analysis, as well as the visuals, tactics, individual actions, and the chance. There’s so much that people have talked about in terms of the visual and media impacts of ACT UP that I think are really important, but that also reflect the same kind of analysis that we’ve been talking about throughout the interview and that are critical right now under COVID-19. To understand that COVID-19, again, both amplifies and reflects structural inequality in who gets sick, why they do, who’s vulnerable, who gets access to a vaccine or treatment, and so on–both in the US and globally.

Dan Berger: Yeah, the history of ACT UP specifically and the AIDS movement generally offer so many lessons for the present in the way that Emily was laying out, including that health is an organizing principle. It’s a kind of foundation of organizing. Viruses both affect everybody and index inequality at the same time. We can see all manner of capitalist privation’s power to decide who lives and who dies based on access to medicine. And here are two things about that history that are really important. The internationalism of the AIDS movement is super critical. That internationalism is about making medicine available for everyone. So it’s not just a national public health infrastructure, but a global public health infrastructure that includes incarcerated and detained people. The other thing I’ll say just because I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia and feel very loyal to that city is that ACT UP Philly continues to exist. The history of ACT UP is often narrated through New York and San Francisco. With movements generally, there are lots of other examples and geographies where struggle continues. The AIDS movement is a really good example of that.

Emily Hobson: I would just also add, one of the things I really credit ACT UP Philly with is that it remains really central in work to confront the connections between HIV and the carceral state. Both ACT UP Philly, and a number of other groups that have developed in and around Philadelphia connected to HIV and AIDS movements, work among people in jails and prisons, and people who were formerly incarcerated. You can see a little bit of that in some of the AIDS Action Pledge. There’s an opposition to quarantine, mandatory testing, and other kinds of coercion and discrimination. That is definitely within ACT UP as well. Prison projects and opposition to HIV criminalization became really important strands. They developed beyond the height of most ACT UP groups, but really kind of survive and are well expressed in ACT UP Philly.

William Saas: Another striking way that this project helps us correct, put the lie to, or offer a different account of the fragmentation and age of fracture kind of stuff is the thematic unity approach. But there’s also like a continuity in the sorts of demands that we see listed in the documents. We wanted to jump about 10 years ahead of where we just were and talk a little bit about the Black freedom agenda for the 21st century, which was put out in 1998 by the Black Radical Congress. You both write that that agenda self consciously blended the Black Panther’s 10-point program, the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress, and the feminist vision of the Combahee River Collective statement. So we’re gonna go through some of the headings from the Black Radical Congress’s agenda, and then we’d like to have you help us contextualize this organization and its demands for us.

To paraphrase: (1) We want an end to the exploitation of corporate capitalism; (2) We want freedom, self determination, and fully human rights; (3) We want a social policy agenda which invests in human beings; (4) We want a comprehensive national economics policy which places the interests of people above profits; (5) We want a society which allows for the healthy and positive development of our children; (6) We want justice in the legal system; (7) We want an end to police brutality and state terrorism in our communities; (8) We want a clean and healthy environment for our people; (9) We want full employment and a guaranteed income for all those unable to work; (10) We want civil rights, affirmative action, and compensation for centuries of institutional racism; (11) We want liberation for all oppressed people throughout the world; and (12) We want a real democracy in the United States.

This is an incredible set of very intersectional demands here. Could you help us talk through them? Or can you tell us a little bit about the Black Radical Congress’s agenda and it’s place within your project?

Dan Berger: Yeah, thanks for that and for highlighting some of what is so profound about the document. There’s a lot there. I think it speaks to a certain kind of common sense among Black radical organizing in the 1990s that is often elided, given that we’ve been speaking about how we moved from a kind of 60s high point to Black Lives Matter. In 2014-2015, there were all of these comparisons about how Black Lives Matter is not your granddaddy’s civil rights movement–to take one slogan that was circulating around. Everything just becomes these kind of generationally polarized formations with a vast liquid in between. So the BRC really helps fill in the gaps of that, and also shows some of the political logics and mentorship that created the foundations for Black Lives Matter.

But I’m also struck by, even in our attempt in that little headnote to contextualize a document, how partial that contextualization is. Our head note references include the Black Panther Party statement, Combahee statement, and the ANC Freedom Charter–which is certainly something that the BRC was very consciously drawing on since South Africa was newly independent of apartheid by that time. But there are other connections as well. Some of the same people that helped shape the Black Radical Congress were also involved in drafting the African American Women in Defense of Ourselves statement, which is also excerpted earlier in the book. This was a group of Black women coming together in support of Anita Hill and in opposition to the Clarence Thomas appointment to the Supreme Court. Something that I didn’t fully appreciate while we were putting together the book but have come to learn more as a result of some current research that I’m working on, is how a lot of the BRC’s framing in that platform was, while more developed and evolved, pretty similar to an effort in the early 1980s of something called the National Black Independent Political Party, which came out of the National Black Political Convention movements of the 1970s as attempts to provide a kind of national infrastructure for different formations of Black power.

And that connection is not simply symbolic. It’s some of the same people who were organizing in 1980 and were still around in 1998. Someone like Manning Marable comes to mind as well as Zoharah Simmons, who was a SNCC worker that I’m writing about currently that was very involved in NBIPP and was also part of the Black Radical Congress. We see this together with the younger generation through people like Barbara Ransby, who was involved in African American Women in Defense of Ourselves, but not NBIPP because she was too young. But then, she plays a leading role in Black Radical Congress. So I think that statement is so revelatory both for its rejection of the 1990s doxa of neoliberalism and for the ways that it brings together a real in depth and common sense understanding of a Black radical tradition. And we can see that tradition having more success in 1998. The Black Radical Congress gets a lot more attention than the National Black Independent Political Party, but these are ideas that have been pursued, workshopped, and developed over generations at that point.

Emily Hobson: Yeah, there are two things that I really recall about the creation of the BRC, its statement, and the impact of it as it rolled out. One was definitely the ways that its creation taught me about the range of mentors and movement veterans to look to. The ways I was aware of people coming together in one room and the many different political trajectories and generational moments they represented, just sort of seeing that, taught me a lot and busted what Dan references as this simple binary of the civil rights generation and BLM generation. It taught me a lot about everything in between and beyond.

Another thing is one of the real kind of interventions of the Black Radical Congress was it’s simultaneous engagement with policy and electoral politics, and also a very firm rejection of, as it notes in its last point about a real democracy, a two party system, and an effort to think about electoral politics beyond the Democratic Party. It says “We favor the abolition of the electoral system, proportional representation, and an end to the two party system. We support a new mass political party.” There’s kind of an implication of maybe multiple political parties. So I think that there’s this interesting kind of balance. There were juxtapositions of statements between some fairly traditionally legal and policy questions that all sorts of liberals have paid attention to, such as affirmative action, but from a left perspective. And it does so while simultaneously thinking beyond that as the only horizon of politics and how some of those questions are also linked to fights over reparations. So those are a few things that I would add.

Dan Berger: I think it’s also important now when considering some on the left saying, “Oh, Defund the Police is not polling well,” or “It was polling really well during the rebellions, but now it’s not polling well so what’s going on?” It’s like the people have elected a wrong leader so we must replace the people. I think that the BRC statement shows how you engage in mass politics by fighting for what you believe in and you build the constituencies for that. Like Emily was saying, that combination of emphasis on independent politics, that it’s not about Democratic Party entryism, it’s about wanting to recast the political fields. We want to make the political field responsive to us. And there are some pragmatics to that. But those pragmatics don’t come at the expense of the kind of political vision or political project. So it’s not like we’re going to sacrifice reparations in order to get a nod from the Democratic Party platform. It’s like, “Here is our political vision.” I think the breadth of that is really significant.

Scott Ferguson: We’ve been drawing numerous connections already between the past and present, but I want to give you an opportunity to take that question in a more direct way. What kinds of lessons does this volume offer a contemporary left? And I’ll add to that: coming back to something we started with, given how much it at least seems to me that politics and what is contestable or legible has just radically shifted since you started this project, how have these texts spoken to you when you maybe first came to them in 2011, 2012, or 2013, as opposed to when this went to press and at this very moment?

Dan Berger: Yeah, that’s a great question. In some ways it’s like four different political moments right now than when we began. I think we’ve both been on that kind of roller coaster a bit, but still using our own partial limited reflections on our understanding of the present in order to curate the volume. So there were some things that we knew were always going to be in there. We began to say this a little bit in the intro, but we also were inspired by the movements of the time period to really help us rethink the shape of the volume and documents that absolutely need to be in there. The book that exists is about a third longer than what it was supposed to be. The draft that we started to turn in to the publisher was a third longer than what was published, so it’s a very partial volume. I think there’s something to how conscious we are of how partial it is that is inspiring. This is a drop in the bucket of the kinds of things that are out there. We tried to curate it in a way that people could see this sort of ongoing conversation.

One thing that is just continually inspiring to me is the Black Hills International Survival Gathering, and the kinds of connections that were demonstrated with the international gathering anchored in indigenous sovereignty claims, and brought together by various indigenous peoples throughout the Americas alongside sort of settler, anti-nuclear, anarchists, and environmentalist activists in South Dakota–thousands of people in South Dakota in 1980. Some of the documents that we have in the book, like an excerpt of John Trudell’s speech, “We Are Power,” is something that I was always really inspired by. Reading through that statement in the context of the height of Trumpism and seeing Trudell’s rejection of settler colonial logic and a real understanding that we ourselves our power, was so profound as a “keeping the faith” sort of document. Rereading it in the context of protests at Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter protests was such a vindication of the fact that we are power. I came back to that a lot.

I came back to Mab Segrest’s “A Bridge, Not a Wedge,” where she’s offering this notion of queer socialism in the context of fighting the right, but also in the context of resisting race-blind and lesbian and gay NGO forms of activism, and in a way that really nicely bookends the Combahee Statement. It’s 20 years later. It’s a different historical context, but it offers a real profound sense of how to understand the moment. I also think of someone like James Yaki Sayles’ essay, “War for the Cities.” That is a really astute diagnosis of what we would now call gentrification and the role that hyper-policing, or just policing in general, play in enforcing gentrification. In his analysis of urban struggle, he was thinking through that and writing that from Stateville prison in Southern Illinois, and that essay originally appeared in a prison publication that he was making. 

Again, thinking through these different scales of geography of how and where political knowledge circulates was a source of inspiration in crafting the book and also something that I hope people reading it can look at now. We can get beyond our bubble, whether that’s a geographic bubble of a particular organization that we work with, or it’s a social media silo. We can actually recognize the breadth of rebellion that we are living within. As a point for non-sectarianism, I would say, as we were curating this, we really resisted very theoretical documents and various sectarian documents in order to anchor things that were more action-oriented. It pains me to see the reproduction of certain sectarian logics, and I hope that this book can be an antidote towards that.

Emily Hobson: Yeah, I would add how we haven’t really said anything about the structure of the sections of the book and the parts of the book. I think that it’s useful here to note those sections as reflecting insights that we can really draw on, including some kind of attention to the international that has been missing too much in the last 10 years. So here’s the structure of the book: there’s a section called “Bodies and Lives” that has the bulk of the very explicitly feminist and queer material, but also includes a lot on labor, fighting the right, issues of welfare, and cuts to social services and responses against that. Then there’s “Walls and Gates,” which has the bulk of the police and prison abolition, housing, anti-gentrification, and rural struggles. Then, there’s the section called “Borders and Maps,” which has the bulk of the anti-militarist, anti-war, anti-imperialist material, but it’s organized by these three areas around which a lot of mobilization was concentrated, so it’s relatively chronologically organized in some contrast to some of the other sections. Most of the material in that first section of “Borders and Maps” is around Central American and other Latin American solidarity movements, but there are a few other sites. It’s kind of the post-Vietnam section.

Then, there’s a section on anti-imperialism into global justice that begins primarily with African and anti-apartheid solidarity and moves towards the global justice movement. Then, “Not in Our Name” is a lot about opposition to the War on Terror and Palestinian solidarity. And then the final section is “Utopias and Dystopias,” which has the bulk of the decolonial, environmental, anti-nuclear, and broad-left visions material. So for me, the utility of those sections is that, in addition to pushing back against any rigid conception of identity and looking at the interplay between movements, they get us to think about location–where are we located, what are we looking to, and what’s the scale of our politics. They draw, in some ways, on the concept of situated knowledges and the ways that scales of struggle are nested within each other.

Thinking about labor in that domestic sense is interconnected with thinking about it globally, and thinking about work against sexual violence is a way to think about colonialism and genocide and is an important pathway for thikning of those connections, and so on. I see a lot of places for inspiration around virtually everything going on right now, like abolition, climate justice, demand for Medicare for All, or the Green New Deal, and mutual aid–certainly a lot on fighting the right and fighting fascism. I think that the attention to the geographic and the centrality of internationalism is something that the book offers that I really hope we see more of in coming years. Not monolithically through a “here’s the privileged US, and it’s all about solidarity with and inspiration from a romanticization of distant sites” lens, but really through a recognition of the interconnection and centrality of immigrant rights work within the United States as interconnected with anti-imperialism globally, and so on.

Maxximilian Seijo: Before we wrap up this really thought provoking conversation, seeing as this podcast is called Money on the Left after all, we thought we would give you both some time to teach us about public money on the left. Seeing as you both have wide ranging backgrounds and expertise in the history of grassroots movements, we wanted to ask, how on your analysis has money shaped left-politics during the neoliberal era, and perhaps what can we glean from these previous politicizations of money and where might we also push beyond them?

Emily Hobson: Before the interview, Dan and I were joking that we were glad that you were really only asking us one question about money on the left since I’m not an expert on monetary theory. But I do think this is a really terrific question and I’m excited to be able to think so broadly about some of the topics of the podcast through the book. The broadest connection that I see is that, starting in the middle of the early two thousands, there’s an increasingly coherent and strong critique, as I gestured to in my own self-introduction, of nonprofits–like of nonprofitization and the nonprofit form. Increasingly, a contrast is sometimes set up in very binary terms between either the nonprofit model or the mutual aid model. One of the things that the broad scope of the book gives me some insight into is the ways that this contrast needs to be understood further, as both modes of it are really conditioned by the growth of what Ruthie Gilmore talks about as the anti-state state. They are both responses to austerity and scarcity. Therefore, we can’t look towards a pure model, or a politics of purity, about the ways we think about money, public or not. So that’s my sort of broad thought.

In terms of documents in the book that really helped us think through some of the ways money has been politicized, first of all, early in the book, there’s Coretta Scott King’s statement to Congress on behalf of the Humphrey Hawkins bill and full employment. That’s a really clear model. Also, I think the ACORN People’s Platform is pretty useful in thinking about a set of demands. This document in many ways represents a fairly shared consensus about a call for publicly owned utilities, publicly owned services, and a belief in a welfare state, but rearticulated through the anti-poverty movement.

I would also say James Boggs’ statement on rebuilding Detroit is an interesting statement to think about. Then broadly, in connection to some of the internationalist stuff that I was talking about, many different documents have broadly called for “____, not War,” or a redirection of defense funds. I think it’s useful to think through both the power of that demand, and why it seems to have fallen out of favor, but also some of the limits of the money for “blank” not war framing. In some ways, the money for “blank” not war is really just about redirecting money. Like money shouldn’t be over here, it should be over here. But it’s still imagining money as a finite thing. It doesn’t necessarily differentiate super well between public money and a divestment strategy from corporations. So I think there’s definitely some models that are really interesting and some places where we could look at some of the consequences of perhaps not having Modern Monetary Theory right there at the center, if you want to read the book that way.

Dan Berger: Yeah, I think there’s that kind of incipient consciousness around money that has some tremendous breakthroughs and some checkered unevenness. But particularly in the anti-imperialist work and in the abolitionist work, there is a recognition that the U.S. has an infinite capacity and seemingly infinite desire to fund bombs, weapons of war, prisons, and police. So I think even though some of those movements respond with a finite capacity thinking of “transfer X to Y,” with a one-to-one capacity. I think that the critique was really valuable. Using all this scarcity talk when it comes to public education or public assistance, or other kinds of public benefits, goes out the window when it comes to the security state and the military state.

So I think that consciousness around money, while hopefully not overstepping my bounds, is to say it’s maybe helpful in the genealogy of Modern Monetary Theory itself because my understanding of MMT is that it’s a descriptive project first of all. It says, “how does money work?” It’s recognizing that it’s not this sort of pie that if you take a slice of pie over here, you can’t have a slice of pie over there. Clearly the history of incarceration and war making shows that it’s not a pie, and that there are infinite non-zero-sum capacities at work. The other piece, just to add on to what Emily was saying, is, across a series of documents, including several that we’ve talked about already, we see the adamant insistence of a budget being a moral document. The demands for full employment or the demands that no expense be saved when it comes to our priorities, are examples. I don’t think people necessarily, then or now, have that fully figured out as a sort of economic program. I know I don’t. But in a way, that really helps us rethink what money is and how money both does work and should work. I think we see a lot of incipient brilliance here, even in its messiness.

William Saas: Maybe, especially for its messiness, right? Emily, you mentioned Coretta Scott King and that got me thinking, this episode, our conversation, has a great companion in our first episode, which is in an interview with the historian David Stein on the history of the job guarantee and fights for the job guarantee. Your project and this book, Remaking Radicalism, also reminds me of that conversation in that when we and David wrapped up, it was about what are the takeaways from studying advocacy for the job guarantee, and through specifically Coretta Scott King and the Humphrey Hawkins Act in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. One of his takeaways was about how it’s a lot of work, it’s a huge project, and they had a lot of people. If we have any hope of achieving what they were trying to achieve, then that’s a lot. In one sense, it’s empowering to study that history, and in the other sense, it’s very sobering. I think that’s one effect I have from this project too, which is that it recovers all of these fights and histories of these amazing activists and organizers, but there’s still neoliberalism. So I guess, as a closing impossible question to answer, is it possible to land in both places? Do you feel like you skew on the empowerment or more to the sobering side in the takeaway from your work on this book?

Emily Hobson: I think one worthy critique to engage around the anthology, or perhaps just how we talk about it, might be the “sunny” read of the anthology. Look at all this stuff that was happening. It was all happening at the same time, and so that shows this breadth of mobilization. We’ve brought all these documents together but it’s not necessarily true that everybody reflected in all of those documents was aware of everything else going on. So, from an experiential level, I certainly experienced a sense of frequent moments of isolation of this little battle over here being perceived as totally disconnected from these battles over here. There have been moments of coming together where there was a sense of a common movement, “capital M,” and not just a political economic articulation between issues, but people making rhetorical and network organization articulation between struggles. It wasn’t always necessarily apparent in every moment.

I suppose that’s the possibly sobering answer. It’s very possible for lots of things to be going on at the same time and a huge amount of activity and amazing work being done, and yet, it’s still not something that gains power and makes fundamental changes. But I do think that sunny side is there. There is a lot to be said for the strategies that attempt to build at least coalition, if not absolute unity. I’m not sure I necessarily think unity is always such a good thing. In fact, I’m pretty confident that I don’t think it’s always such a good thing. But, at least a willingness to work together and solidarity and a respect for multi-tendency approaches because that can make a lot out of many things that seem disconnected.

Dan Berger: Yeah, that’s a good question. I feel like I can really answer on the sunny side, and I can really answer on the bleak side, and having the expert synthesis of them is complicated. I’m working now on a biography of two long-time, but little known Black radicals. Part of the point of the book is to say when we pay attention to the grassroots and the people who are not very well known, things are more interesting because people outlast the heyday of a particular point in time and continue to experiment and try new thing. The point of experimentation is that sometimes things don’t work, and I think there’s lots of things in Remaking Radicalism to that.

I think we really leaned into the experimentation, or what movements were doing. I think there were some things in there that didn’t necessarily work, but I hope that people still draw some sustenance from the experimentation and effort at experimentation. There’s a lot of value there. I just think the early eighties were a really hard time. I think a lot of the projects that existed, that people tried to bring up, didn’t make it. A lot of the people, particularly people who had some experiences before that time, got burnt out or depressed or needed a break or whatever. All sorts of things kind of happen. But I think there’s a spirit of experimentation and a mobilization that then could be engaged and activated, things like the AIDS movement, that came from somewhere.

Maxximilian Seijo: Well, Emily and Dan, this conversation has been such a pleasure. Thank you both so much for coming on Money on the Left.

Dan Berger: Thank you so much. It’s really a lot of fun.

Emily Hobson: Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure, and a very exciting conversation.

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

Modern Movie Theory (MMT): WandaVision

In this episode, Scott Ferguson and Maxximilian Seijo discuss the politics and aesthetics of Marvel’s WandaVision (2021), which was released via the Disney Plus streaming service earlier this year. Picking up questions about blockbuster form and apophatic analysis they’ve pondered in previous episodes, Scott and Maxx affirm the show’s exceptional foray into past sitcom aesthetics and other similarly abstract forms in light of the present neoliberal paradigm crisis. They tease out WandaVision’s critical engagement with the white heteronormative patriarchy that sitcoms have complicatedly mediated. And they critique the program’s ultimate capitulation to conventional blockbuster aesthetics, which substitute a finite and fatalistic physics for what is in truth a capacious and transformable process of monetary mediation.