Comforted & Chastened : A Liz Bruenig Special

In this special episode, hosts Natalie Smith and @moltopopulare take on the austere sexual politics promulgated by cultural critic and commentator Elizabeth or “Liz” Bruenig. Mirroring the tacit zero-sum logics built into her spouse Matt Bruenig’s analyses of political economy, Liz regularly weaponizes social conservatism and conformity in cruel efforts to shore up a problematic vision of a proper social democratic populace. Natalie and Charlotte lay bare the sadistic violation of sexual freedom and identity that forms the core of Liz’s project by examining a wide range of articles on topics such as queer celibacy, the politics of pornography, and 50 Shades of Gray.

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

27 – Sunrise or DSA?

Co-hosts Will Beaman, Natalie Smith, and Maxximilian Seijo discuss recent critiques of the Sunrise Movement by influential members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) on social media and in the pages of Jacobin Magazine. Problematizing the DSAers destructive zero-sum rhetoric regarding the allegedly correct “theory of change,” the gang suggests an alternative mode for organizational provisioning, rooted in neither the sovereignty of a dues-paying membership structure nor the sovereignty of “outside” donors. It is impossible to take part in an interdependent social organization that knows no externality because everyone is responsible to everyone else, whether inside or outside a particular organization. Misunderstanding inter-organizational dependence, the Superstructure co-hosts argue, has led these writers to accuse Sunrise of “social disembeddedness,” a reactionary charge with little basis in reality. In contrast, the Superstructure team proffers a self-consciously generative and analogical model of social coordination that opens organizational activity to diversity and difference.

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 Philosophy of Money with Graham Hubbs

Graham Hubbs speaks with Scott Ferguson and Andrés Bernal about the relationship between Modern Monetary Theory and philosophy. Associate Professor & Chair of the Department of Politics & Philosophy at the University of Idaho, Hubbs convened a conference panel on Modern Monetary Theory at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association in January 2021. He invited Editorial Collective members Bernal and Ferguson to join him on the panel, where they shared and discussed his original paper, titled “The Promises & Challenges of Modern Monetary Theory.” In this episode, we present the full audio of Professor Hubbs’ presentation, as well as Scott Ferguson’s response and reflections. A very engaged question and answer period follows, rounding out this special episode. 

Thank you to the American Philosophical Association for sharing this audio with us, and to the Philosophy, Politics, & Economics Society for creating space for this important panel at the meeting.

Theme music is “Swirl Song” by Nahneen Kula: https://www.nahneenkula.com

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.

Andrés Bernal: I’m an adjunct professor at CUNY, Queens College in the Department of Urban Studies, and a PhD student at the New School in Public Policy. I have been a policy and political advisor for the last two years with several campaigns, which brings us to the topic of today’s panel. I had no idea when I started to join policy campaigns that one tricky little question was going to have such a huge impact on the political debates, the possibilities, and the limits, and that question has been: how are you going to pay for it? In the winter of 2017, I was working on an outsider campaign for a young woman from the Bronx named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and she asked me to find innovative and interesting perspectives on how to advance her progressive policy agenda. That was when I came across the world of Modern Monetary Theory. Today, it seems like MMT is everywhere in the discourse. Some say that it’s a paradigm changing lens. Some say it’s alchemy. And that’s what we’re going to discuss today. What we do know is that policies such as the Green New Deal, the Federal Job Guarantee, a Housing For All plan, a Green New Deal for Housing, and so many other ambitious policies are now being debated within the lens of Modern Monetary Theory. And increasingly, the group of elected officials known as “The Squad” are turning to this lens and perspective.

So we have a very, very interesting and fantastic panel today. We have Professor Graham Hubbs, who’s an associate professor and the chair of the Department of Politics and Philosophy at the University of Idaho. Professor Hubbs uses ontological methods to study topics that lie at the intersection of philosophy, politics, and economics. He’s given a number of presentations on the social ontology of money, and works on a neo-Aristotelian framework, both to analyze money’s ontology and to systematize the various positions and debates about money’s ontologies over centuries. In addition, we also have Professor Scott Ferguson, who is an associate professor of Film and Media Studies in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida. He is co-director of the Humanities Division of the Modern Money Network. His research includes the history of aesthetics, digital animation, and visual effects in action-adventure blockbusters and video games, as well as bringing the political economic insights of Modern Monetary Theory into generative dialogues with humanities scholarship, continental philosophy, and media theory. So without further ado, we can begin with Professor Hubbs.

Graham Hubbs: Thank you, Andrés. I appreciate you being here to lead this. Scott, I’m glad that you’re joining us on this panel. A special thanks to the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Society for allowing us to have this session, and to Geoff Sayre-McCord for his leadership in the society creating an open space for dialogues on all manners of PPE topics, including MMT. So I’m going to share my screen. I have a PowerPoint presentation to run. Is everybody seeing that? Can I get a nod from Andrés or Scott? Great, okay. I call my presentation, “The Promises and Challenges of Modern Monetary Theory.” I’m going to provide an overview sketch of what I take to be the basics of MMT, and in particular, its ontological underpinnings, because that seems like the kind of topic that’s appropriate for an APA meeting. In particular, the ontology of money will be our focus here. And then I’m going to raise some challenges at the end of the presentation, which I’ll then hand off to Scott to address. So let’s get into it by saying what is Modern Monetary Theory?

For anyone who is unfamiliar with it, the book that I think will be the go-to for the years to come is Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth, which came out last summer. It presents, in readable form for the unfamiliar person, the basics of Modern Monetary Theory. Modern Monetary Theorists present their work as a descriptive project, which is to explain how money is created in modern states and what the creation of money entails for macroeconomics. Randy Wray jokingly says that “modern” means the way that money has been created for the last 4000 years, and that what is being discovered at the ontological level about money creation is true for as long as humans have been making money to organize the activities of distributing the goods that they produce. But the real focus on “modern,” here, is in a more familiar sense, which is focusing on states that issue sovereign currencies. So a sovereign currency is, roughly, a currency that is not pegged either to the currency of another state, or to a precious metal commodity. So when states went off of the gold standard over the course of the 20th century, several of them became sovereign with respect to their currencies by producing fiat currencies whose value floated on the open market. The United States and the dollar is the example that will concern us here when we’re talking about a state with a sovereign currency.

How does Modern Monetary Theory relate to progressive proposals like the Green New Deal that Andrés spoke about at the beginning? Well, a Green New Deal would involve a massive federal jobs program. And if MMT is right, funding it is not a problem. We can just “print the money.” Of course, this doesn’t actually involve printers churning out dollar bills. But the metaphor suffices for getting the idea that the state can just create it seemingly ex nihilo. And if MMT is right, the effects of this on the deficit are not necessarily a worry. That’s hence the title of Kelton’s book, The Deficit Myth. How have people reacted to MMT? Well, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is chaired by Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue and who used to be the Governor of Indiana, has not reacted, let’s say, approvingly of the introduction of MMT into public discourse in the last couple years.

The quote here: “A fringe economic philosophy known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has recently gained traction and is being used to justify massive new borrowing. While MMT is a complicated theory and is in many ways a moving target, at its core, MMT argues that there is little or no cost to running a large budget deficit unless the economy is experiencing high inflation. Many iterations of that theory also suggest a new paradigm whereby the federal government essentially prints money to fund its borrowing, and politicians–rather than the Federal Reserve–are charged with preventing runaway inflation. Fortunately, mainstream economists on both the left and the right have pushed back against this misguided theory.” And the committee recommends these as the top five readings to get clear on what’s wrong with MMT. You’ll see names there on the right, including Michael Strain and James Pethokoukis. These are folks at the AEI. Then, there is Larry Summers, Kenneth Rogoff, and of course, Paul Krugman. Summers and Krugman definitely further to the left.

But wait, there’s more. And reading some of these titles will give you the sense of how people have reacted to MMT. It’s a threat, it’s upside down, it’s not new, and it’s not helpful. The emperor has no clothes. So you get this sense that MMT is simultaneously very spooky, very mystical, very magical and very, very dangerous. Now, I return to the original quote here from the committee’s report. And I want to highlight this bit, because this will be the focus of our talk: “Many iterations of the theory suggest a new paradigm whereby the federal government essentially prints new money to fund its borrowing.” They’re talking about this guy here. Modern Monetary Theory argues that this is not new, but rather simply a description of how money is created, and that what we want to do is properly understand money’s creation, and then harness that power in an effort to do things like improve the conditions of society by ending unemployment, and saving the planet through something like a Green New Deal. Opponents argue that this is, again, simultaneously crazy and dangerous. Behind all of these are philosophical assumptions and views on the ontology of money.

So for the next 10-15 minutes, I’m going to go into that aspect of the ontological underpinnings of MMT to focus our discussion. So the basic ontological question that one confronts when thinking about money is: what is money? That’s arguably the basic ontological question that one confronts when thinking about any kind of thing–what is it? This is a $100 bill. Well, it’s a picture of a $100 bill. And if we were to probe the physical features of this $100 bill in an attempt to find its moneyness, we would come up short. There’s nothing about its color, its shape, the images printed on it, anything like that, that makes this a bit of money. And in fact, as we move further and further away from using cash, we arrive at a point where money has almost no tangible existence. It can’t be completely gone. There have to be electrons in computers somewhere keeping track of the debits and credits in your bank account. But in practical terms, money becomes invisible and intangible to us as we use our phones and credit cards to scan and pay for things. So if there’s nothing in the materiality of money that confers its moneyness, on to that thing, where does it get it?

I think that the right way to think through this, and as Andrés said, I approach this in a neo-Aristotelian way, is to ask about the kinds of things that Aristotle describes as the four causes of artifacts. So we might ask about its telos, or its final cause. What is the purpose or function of money? If we can answer that question, then we will get some clarity on what its ontology is. What properties does money have that allow for it to perform these functions? And how does money get these properties? The second question, I argue, can be likened to the kind of thing that Aristotle is interested in and talking about: formal causality. And the third question, straightforwardly, is a matter of efficient causality. So if we can answer those kinds of questions, we can get some clarity overall on the ontology of money. So we might start by giving a functionalist account of money. I think that this is a nice place to start because the two predominant views on money’s nature. Schumpeter said, “The only two views worthy of the name, ‘a theory of money,’ are in rough agreement about what money’s functions are.”

So the first of these functions is as a means of payment. And let me pause before I go any further and say, I’m presenting this as three textbook functions. If you read 19th century economics textbooks, you’ll see these listed as four functions. I’m going to combine, in line with what many textbooks today do, two of the functions under one heading. And the two functions that I’m going to combine under one heading will be the means of payment function and the medium of exchange function, both of which involve using money to pay for stuff or to settle debts. So the means of payment function makes it easier, or perhaps even possible, to pay for things, or again, we can add to settle debts. An example of this idea is the use of coins and banknotes as a medium of market exchange. The second textbook function of money is as a unit of account or a measure of value. This is the use to which we put money when we specify the payment for the amounts of goods or obligations, for example, prices, fees, fines, or taxes. 

Now, it’s worth noting here, and I don’t think that this is often presented as cautiously as it should be, this function is provided by the concept of money and not concrete instances of money. If you’re trying to sell your house to me and want to sell it for half a million dollars, and I want to determine whether or not it’s worth a half a million dollars, we don’t get out a giant value scale and stick your house on one side of it and then dump a half a million dollars of notes or coins or something on the other side and see if that value balances out. We assess the value simply using the concept of money, attach a price to it, and negotiate it without having any money in hand. When we settle on the amount that it’s worth, all these things take place, we might say, at a conceptual level and not at a concrete level. So the pricing function of money does not depend on, in any given instance, the use of any material instance of money. Rather, it’s the concept of money that allows us to set prices.

Finally, the third function of money that we’ll put on the list is as a store of value. The function is there in the name. It’s to store value. Some theorists would leave this off of the list of functions. The economist John Smithin says that money is a notoriously bad store of value, and so it ought not be included on the list of functions. But I think that it’s a useful function to include and to maintain in our investigation because it allows us to ask the question: what is this primary sort of value that money stores? Simply saying that money stores value begs the question, if we’re trying to understand its ontology, we need to know what monetary value is in the first place if we’re going to make any sense of what it is that it stores. And that gives us an entry into the two different theories of money, that again, Schumpeter says are the only two deserving of the name.

So the first, the orthodox account, says that the value of money is the value that it has in market exchange. So here’s a market. There’s people presumably using money. It looks like they’re buying cheese and sausages and so forth. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek called theories of market exchange, “catallactic.” So following them, I use the word catallactic as the descriptor for this theory of money and call it the catallactic approach, or the catallactic theory of money. You’ll commonly see it labeled the commodity theory of money. But I think that that’s misleading, because the theory is not committed to the idea that money itself is a commodity. Rather, it’s committed to the idea that its value comes out in the pricing of commodities, and then the use to purchase and sell commodities. So as to flag that money itself need not be a commodity, I call this the catallactic theory, or the catallactic approach. So here are the basics. In barter, goods have a value that differs from what they are used for. Call the former the exchange value and the latter use value. For anyone who’s ever read Adam Smith or Karl Marx, these terms will be eminently familiar and so will the following story.

If I go to the market with something that no one wants, no matter what the use value of the thing I have is, it will have no exchange value within that market, and I won’t be able to use that thing for trade. If only I had something that always had exchange value, because people always wanted it, I would never face this problem of not being able to buy the stuff that I want in the market. And if everyone had this magic stuff, then everyone would be able to buy the things in the market that they want. Marx gives us a really nice phrase for what happens at this point. In the creation of the money kind, he says that in gold–it needn’t be gold–but historically, he thinks “gold crystallizes out of the process of exchange.” And when gold is used to price all other commodities, it has then taken on the money form. Let’s take this account, the catallactic account of money and run it back against the three questions that I introduced as the sub-questions for studying the ontology of money. So what according to the catallactic account is the purpose or function of money? It is to ameliorate the inconveniences of market exchange. It’s a pain in the butt to buy stuff when you don’t have money in a market. If money doesn’t exist in the market, once you’ve got a market with money, it’s a lot easier to buy things.

What properties does money have that allow it to perform this function? Well, the basic property is the general willingness of market participants to accept it for payment. So the ontology here is social more than it is material. People need to be generally willing to accept gold if gold is the thing that is being used as our money stuff in the market in order to buy things. However, on most of these accounts, you’ll see an enumeration of some of the physical properties that precious metal has that made it especially good in the good old days of coin to serve the various functions of money that we outlined at the beginning. Schumpeter derisively finds these listed in Aristotle and says that they’re repeated in some of the tritest passages of 19th century economics textbooks. We won’t concern ourselves with this aspect of thinking about money’s materiality here. The important part for how money gets its use, according to the catallactic theory, is that people are willing to accept it for payment. And how does money get these properties? Well, the key parts of the story for the catallactic theory is that it emerges out of market activity. First, there are markets. It’s a pain in the butt to trade without money. Money crystallizes out, using Marx’s language.

The alternative view, the heterodox account of the ontology of money, the second of Schumpeter’s two accounts deserving of the name, claims the following: the value of money is its value to claim or to discharge debt. In the state theory of money, Georg Friedrich Knapp labeled this view, chartalism, or cartalism, after the Latin root, charta or carta, meaning token or ticket. Now, chartalism does not require that the tokens or tickets or debts that are emitted and need to be repaid be determined, set out, and set by the state. But as you can tell from the title of Knapp’s book, The State Theory of Money, he’s most interested in debts that get determined, announced, and then collected by the state. Those are the kinds of debts, and so the kind of chartalism, that’s going to be most interesting to Modern Monetary Theory. It will be the chartalist theory that will concern us here. Here are the basics of this theory. When large-scale civilization came into existence, namely Mesopotamia, there were many modes of collective provisioning. Bartering was not particularly significant. Other forms of collective provisioning included lending, neighborly gifting, and central management at the temple. As far as the latter is concerned, this required complex accounting and bookkeeping. But that’s not the only thing that the temple bureaucrats and temple priests did. They also needed to develop a system for assessing fines and punishments.

So for example, if I accidentally kill your cow, and I don’t have a cow to give you in return, and we’re going to keep peace in our state, I need to give you something in return for the cow that I have killed. How do we make the incommensurable commensurable? We need to come up with something that I can give you for repayment of your cow. This is a legal matter. This is a matter of justice, and retributive justice in a sense, repaying you for the wrong that I have done you. How do we determine how that’s going to go? That’s something that the central authorities are going to have to decide as well. The claim then is that these pressures lead to the need for a universal unit of account making all things incommensurable commensurable. And that once this universal unit of account was defined, the unit could then be used for private, that is, market transactions. Sorry, the last bullet point is important here. According to the state theory version of chartalism, both the state and money are prior to the existence of markets with prices. Money does not emerge out of market activity, but rather enables market activity in the first place.

So on the heterodox account, what is the purpose or function of money? Primarily, it is to denominate debts with the concept of money and then represent specific obligations with physical manifestations of the money. The concept is prior to the physical manifestations on this account. So this is one way in which the chartalist theory inverts the story that one finds in the orthodox account. And the state theory says specifically that the kinds of debts that we’re interested in here are state denominated debts. So that money exists in order to aid the state in managing economic and legal activity. What properties does money have that allow it to perform this function?

According to the state theory, it’s the power of the state to demand taxes, fees, and fine payments in its own currency. It’s this legal authority that is the source from which monetary value arises. And how does money get these properties? Well, by however the state obtains and enforces the power of the law, specifically, the power to tax, charge fees, and to fine. So according to this theory, the ontological account that we want to give of money is actually something that follows from our more general account that we give of the power and authority of the state to coercively get its members to do anything, or maybe non-coercively get its members to do anything. But the power that money has is ultimately an expression of the power of the state. So we do our political philosophy first and understand the nature of government and its power, and that will tell us where the power of money comes from, and not the other way around. So let’s compare these two accounts on one specific phenomenon that is particularly relevant to MMT, and that is on the nature of taxes.

So the orthodox view of taxes proceeds as follows. First, when we’re thinking about taxes, we think about what money is for in the first place. And money, in the first place, is used to pay for stuff in markets. The government has to pay for stuff just like the rest of us, so the government has to get money just like the rest of us. Now, one of the basic ways that the government goes about getting the money it needs to pay for stuff, just like the rest of us, is taxes. So the function of taxes is to collect the money that the government needs in order to finance the activities that it wants to perform. I’ll go ahead and flag here that this story, I think, is the story that you find in Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government.” If you watch the way that he proceeds in explaining the creation of property through his labor theory at the beginning of chapter five, money comes out at the end of chapter five for the reasons that Smith and Marx flag. It makes commerce easier than it would be without it. The creation of property and the creation of money come before the creation of government. Locke famously argues that the whole point of government is for us to protect our property rights better than we can in the state of nature. So if property and money are prior to the existence of government, then governments are going to need to get money in order to get the property that they need to do the stuff that they want to do just like the rest of us. So the kind of account that I’ve given right here, I think, is one that comes naturally out of a pretty straightforward reading of Locke’s second treatise.

MMT tells a different story. As a matter of ontology, no government has to get money like the rest of us as a matter of law. So let me backup for a second there. It is a choice according to MMT that a government makes as to whether or not it will provision itself in ways similar to the way that we provision ourselves when we go out and work for money or steal for money or do whatever we end up doing in order to get our money. The government can choose to hamstring itself this way through the laws that it creates, but it’s up to itself to rewrite those laws, and if it wants give itself a sovereign currency. So as a matter of law, a government that does give itself a sovereign currency, that government does not in fact have to go out and get money like the rest of us. A government with a sovereign currency does not use taxes for financial purposes in order to provision itself to perform the tasks that it wants to perform. It uses taxes to destroy money in the private sector, rather than to collect it for use. When this sets in, and I think that this is the part that in my experience in talking with people about post-Keynesian theories in general, of which Modern Monetary Theory is a species, or Modern Monetary Theory specifically, where people really kind of step back and say, “Whoa.” Because this is, I believe, a “Copernican Turn.”

For states with a sovereign currency, the function of taxes is not, and moreover, cannot be, as an ontological matter, to finance its activities. Whatever taxes are for, it’s something else. This new paradigm on taxes is in fact not new at all. Beardsley Ruml, the chair of the New York Fed in the middle of the 1950s, as the world was beginning to go off the gold standard, realized this and said that, “Final freedom from the domestic money market exists for every sovereign national state where there exists an institution which functions in the manner of a modern central bank, and whose currency is not convertible into gold or for some other commodity.” Ruml then goes on to talk about the sorts of things that you use taxes for, but none of those functions are the function that the orthodox theory would have us believe, which is to finance government activities. And it turns out that this was recognized back in colonial America as well. Farley Grubb has written extensively on the ways in which Virginia’s paper money in the middle of the 18th century was burned when it was collected for taxes. Many other colonies had this policy and it wasn’t always followed. But nevertheless, they realized that their paper money, after it had served its function of getting the kind of economic activity that the state governors wanted, or prior to states, that the colonial governors wanted done, it might as well be burned, it doesn’t have any sort of intrinsic value. I think the argumentative upshot of these examples is that what chartalism says is true as a matter of theory is in fact borne out by history itself.

Okay, so that is what I want to say to orient us on the chartalist theory of money that underpins MMT, or the social ontological account of money that rests at the bottom of Modern Monetary Theory. Now, I want to go through some complaints against MMT, which will set the stage for Scott’s presentation. So can we do it? Here’s the first complaint. Why think that history is relevant? You’ll note that the account of money that I gave on behalf of the chartalists, and in fact, the account of money that I gave on behalf of the orthodox catallactic theory, was presented as a history. First, there was this problem under certain social settings. Then, this technology money arose to solve this problem, and forevermore we were better because we had created this technology. Thomas Palley, a persistent critic of MMT, has said that the appeal to the history of money that MMT makes, and one could level discharge against other versions of post-Keynesianism that rest on chartalism, say that the history of money is a red herring and is essentially rhetorical. All of this fussing about money’s history and what money really is, is of no relevance to the kinds of contemporary policy debates that Andrés was talking about at the beginning.

So one complaint is that MMTers, and again, I think post-Keynesians more generally, make a big deal about the history of money, but it simply doesn’t matter one way or the other. Second complaint, and if this is the first time you’ve heard about Modern Monetary Theory, I imagine this has crept into your mind at some point along the way when you saw the poor guy just cranking out the money machines, veins popping out of his head, is that won’t this cause runaway inflation? A simplistic version of this worry is simply: won’t creating all this new currency cause runaway inflation? I call this simplistic because the historical record shows that under some conditions there’s a correlation between an uptick of currency creation and inflation. And in other conditions, there’s not. On the orthodox theory itself, the creation of a whole bunch of new currency, money is supposed to be an invisible veil to the real economy. So prices should eventually settle out and match the amount of money in the economy. Thinking that simply creating a whole bunch more money is going to lead to runaway inflation presupposes that the value of money is determined by its scarcity. And that simply begs the question against the chartalist view.

So there’s a lot of things that one can say immediately pointing at economic history and thinking just a little bit about the ontological presuppositions about money to ward off this charge. But there are real concerns that one ought to have about the possibility of inflation under MMT specific policies. And these complaints come even from within post-Keynesian circles. So there’s an internecine debate. Smithin argues, for example, that raising the overall tax rate is going to be necessarily inflationary. So if part of the MMT solution for controlling inflation through the creation of quite a bit of currency is to use taxes to vacuum money back out of the economy if it’s getting too hot, Smithin argues it can be easily demonstrated that that’s going to lead to inflationary pressures on themselves. I bring this up to note that there are complaints about the inflationary consequences of MMT, both inside and outside of post-Keynesianism. A third complaint against MMT is that it’s too socialist. So when you hear about something like a jobs guarantee, that the government is going to guarantee a job to every person who wants one in a given state, if you don’t like the sound of governments employing people for any number of reasons, this is clearly going to strike you as too socialist of a proposal.

That complaint is straightforward. I’m not going to go into it in any detail. It has struck people on the left that MMT, on the other hand, is too capitalist. Modern Monetary Theory, it’s complained, works only for the most powerful, developed capitalist states. It’s hard to see, some people complain, how MMT could work for developing nations, and so it favors the rich. MMT also does leave an awful lot of economic activity up to the markets. And in fact, it sets up the job guarantee in such a way to encourage entrepreneurs to find more innovative ways to use the labor force that exists in a given state. So if that all sounds too capitalistic for your taste, then you might have a problem with MMT. And finally, the last complaint that I want to raise, and this is the one that I would invite us to be most concerned about here, since this is a philosophy conference as opposed, to say, an economics conference, is that the central priority claim of MMT is simply false. The central priority claim that I have in mind is the idea that governments, government activity, and governmental authority is prior to markets.

So the Lockean view that I presented earlier, of markets and property as being prior to governments and that the function of government is to protect property rights, the complaint that I’m imagining here takes a Lockean or a neo-Lockean position and simply says that’s wrong. That’s just backwards. Look, there’s international trade out there and international trade isn’t governed by any external authority. It takes place using money. So if international trade is possible, and not only possible, but makes use of money, why think that governments need to exist in order for money to exist. You might point to the historical record and say that precious metal itself, before the advent of coin, was used in interstate trade. Merchants got by with precious metal prior to the existence of coins in order to trade between states. That too makes it look like one could point at the historical record and say that market activities have been outside of, and so were, analytically, logically, or definitionally, depending on how you want to characterize it, prior to the activity and authority of states.

There are black markets. They go on, they make use of money outside of the authority of the state. Doesn’t that count as a counterexample to the idea that states are necessary and the creation of state money is necessary for market activity to take place? What about markets involving private cryptocurrencies? The markets that use Bitcoin that have specifically been designed to avoid the, from their point of view, intrusive reach of the state. Those markets go on. Bitcoin is used as a unit of account to price goods and to pay for things. Doesn’t that demonstrate that money can exist outside of the authority of the state and be used in accordance with all the functions that were listed earlier. What about prison camp markets in World War Two? The famous 1945 paper by R.A. Radford shows how cigarettes were used as a unit of account, as a medium of exchange, and that emerged out of a non-governmental setting. Doesn’t that show that markets can come up, and a money-like commodity can come into existence that doesn’t presuppose the authority of government? When we take all these examples into consideration, and the ways that they seem to provide for markets using money or something money like outside of the authority of a central government, why should we believe in MMT? Scott, I’ll hand it to you.

Scott Ferguson: Great, thanks so much. That was a really helpful presentation. Andrés, thank you for chairing this panel, and Graham, for putting this together and inviting us. And thanks to everybody for showing up on this last day of the conference. So I think what I’d like to do is offer a few quick responses to those critical claims that Graham concluded with, that are much more, I would say, in the wheelhouse of kind of your basic MMT 101 discourse, and then pivot from the last, “This is false, markets are first,” question to take on some broader conceptual problems that are coming out of my own work.

So first of all, the charge that history is irrelevant I find shocking. History, I would argue, is always a contested ground that’s always caught up in contemporary epistemological, ontological, and political economic debates. And the way that we approach history, the way we imagine history, and the assumptions we bring to history, can never be wished away. You look at the major canonical contributors to political economy and economics and many of them have written histories. I mean, Milton and Rose Friedman wrote a gigantic monetary history, and it is a way of shoring up their own politics, their own ontology, and their own epistemology. So I would say that it feels nonsensical, to me, this claim that somehow history isn’t relevant. Everyone uses history to make sense of the present and future politics and policy. The second claim about hyperinflation, first of all, an MMT economist will tell you that the mainstream, or the neoclassical interpretation of inflation, and specifically hyperinflation, has the causality precisely backwards. Hyperinflation is a function of political catastrophe and the collapse of a productive infrastructure. A government can create all kinds of credit and try to circulate it in an economy. But if it does so in the face of, say, decades and decades and decades of colonial rule and exploitation and export led production, or after a major world war in which your country happens to be paying massive reparations payments and the majority of your productive infrastructure has been destroyed or confiscated by your opponents, you’re likely going to see hyperinflation. 

So the MMT point of view rejects the so-called quantity theory of money, which imagines this kind of equilibrium that commodities, or goods and services, come first in a marketplace. And that money is this kind of neutral, passive reflection, or veil, that needs to be somehow in tune with those ontologically primary goods and services. MMT would argue that, no, credit actually comes first–money as credit–and you need money as credit to generate these goods and services in the first place. And for that, you need massive macro- and mesoscale governance projects, infrastructures, and institutions. Also, there’s a kind of mythos around the MMT community about how we argue inflation should be controlled. This simplistic version is, well, we’ll just use taxes, and congress will be in charge of, essentially, extinguishing debts, or pulling money out of the economy, in order to check runaway inflation. This is a gross simplification of what the MMT community has worked on and has argued. We argue for thoroughgoing macroprudential regulation, which includes the private sector, and runaway inflation in the financial sector, on Wall Street and in all kinds of capitalist enterprises that are producing far more speculative bubbles than any measly congressional appropriation might be doing.

So our argument is to have certain kinds of automatic stabilizers and certain legal and institutional structures that are keeping inflation in check. Basically, what that means is making sure that public and private investment is going toward productive, socially and ecologically valuable enterprises, rather than speculative leveraging, essentially. To the charge that MMT is too socialist, I would say that some MMTers are socialist, and I would include myself in there, but I think that the MMT project really does, as Graham says, bill itself as a description. We say in the MMT community, there’s no such thing as “doing MMT.” It’s a way of understanding the way that money works, the way that political economy works, and the way the world works. It’s not “doing socialism” or “not doing socialism.” If we’re going to talk about doing MMT, we would just simply say, “Well, everyone does MMT all the time. It’s just they don’t think that they’re doing that.”

The charge that MMT is too capitalist, especially from the left, to me MMT is not capitalist. And certainly, as a tool, as a framework, as a foundation, as a set of assumptions for understanding the world, sure, you can mobilize this framework in so-called capitalistic ways, for private enterprise, for private profit, in exclusionary ways that exclude women and brown people from major centers of participation and power. You can do that. But you can do that according to the status quo as well–the neoclassical understanding of money as well. Then, there’s this notion from some in the progressive and leftist critiques of MMT, that geopolitically, MMT is too capitalistic in the sense that it is too America-first and neo-imperialist, and that it requires the United States to be the world reserve currency. To this, we would say, no, this is not the case at all. We would say that it reframes postcolonial political economy and geopolitics according to another framework that is more capacious and more insightful. We don’t say MMT solves colonialism, postcolonialism, or neocolonialism. We don’t say that MMT solves everything. We don’t say that domestically and we don’t say that internationally. We say it opens up the problems–and sometimes they’re really hard and very, very intractable problems–but it opens up the problems in new ways that allow for different ways of engaging, different ways of politicizing, different ways of proposing policy solutions, and different ways of mobilizing political movements.

Now, the last claim that it’s simply false, that markets must be ontologically prior because they exist outside of nation-states, maybe I’ll say a little bit about this before I then come back to some work that is more particular to me. What I would say is, just like there’s a kind of deliberate and even somewhat cheeky looseness about the way Modern Monetary Theory defines “modern,” which is actually a quote from Keynes in his A Treatise on Money, where he says that modern money, for the last 4000 years, has worked in this chartalist way. I think we would say the same thing about states. And not all MMT economists are as concerned with clarifying this, but I think there’s a number of them, and then the fellow travelers, like myself, Andrés, and Graham, we would say that we shouldn’t narrowly understand this as the modern nation-state. Instead, we should be understanding this claim, the chartalist claim, that money is a systemic form of social obligation of settling debts, that it is a public project, and that it is a governance project that requires macro- and meso-level institutions rather than a micro-project that bubbles up from barter, that bubbles up from exchange. So you can have all kinds of macro- and meso-governance projects that don’t look like a modern nation-state.

Graham, I think, mentioned a Mesopotamian temple provisioning structure. One could talk about the high medieval Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. Both of them were centers of tax receivability, and actually didn’t even issue their own credits, their own money, but they were central governance projects with massive reach. That local meso-level, and even micro-level activity, were embedded within. So that would be my first response to this charge that, well, there’s micro-markets out there or in prison camps or black markets or Bitcoin. The narrow definition of the state seems to make the argument crumble. Instead, I would want to focus on a nested, interdependent understanding of the way that these governance projects work together in these very complicated hierarchies. I’ll just say, in passing, that I don’t think it’s any accident that Bitcoin gets priced, usually, in dollars. It demonstrates the way that Bitcoin is embedded in a much broader, you could say, American payment system, with its vast infrastructure, its legal infrastructure, and its banking system, etc–for all of its fantasies about wanting to be outside. 

Now, I want to turn to some of my work, in particular. I’m a media studies scholar. I think a lot about media as shaping and organizing our world. And one of the key arguments we make in media studies is that media is never a neutral veil, media is never a transparent window, to use a famous metaphor from the Florentine Renaissance talking about Renaissance perspective. It is always generative. It is always constitutive. It is always actively organizing the world. When I came to MMT around, let’s say 2012 or so, as a media theorist, I immediately thought to myself, “Oh, wow, this is a major contribution to media theory.” Because I had been working, even though I’m so keen on seeing the constitutive nature of mediation, in, especially, motion pictures, because that’s my expertise, and in visual culture, I kind of just took for granted that, well, money is just an expression or reflection or neutral veil, and that what’s really going on is this content, this exchange, this private, micro-exchange. And money isn’t constitutive in that way. Money is sort of a problem. So that, from my own training and my own project, has really shifted things for me. And I felt like it opened up all kinds of new questions.

Now, full disclosure, I come out of the the tradition of critical theory, continental philosophy, from the German Idealists to the Frankfurt School, Marxism, poststructuralism, and beyond. And what I found is, this understanding of money as a constitutive, generative organizer of political economy, of social production, of participation, and of distribution, it radically opened up a lot of the questions that are asked by the traditions that I had become something of an expert in, in new ways, and in ways that, to be honest, I don’t feel like I’m a card carrying member of those traditions anymore. They’re in my bones, so to speak, but I really found myself not applying MMT to them, but taking MMTs provocations, which, as Graham is pointing out here, are actually ontological. I mean, they’re pretty radically unmooring provocations, and opening up what I would call problem spaces based on teasing out the threads that these questions are opening up.

So one of them is media and mediation. Coming out of critical theory, I have an acute sense of the way that political economy and money as a medium acts as a kind of meta-medium for all other media. And one cannot have, let’s say, motion pictures in the 20th and 21st centuries without the medium of money. It’s somehow always there, but we treat it in a very particular way in critical theory as an exchange instrument that is necessarily alienating, or at least ambivalent, and highly problematic. And it frames the way we take on the history of any given media with a set of given presuppositions that I’ve begun to challenge. Now, there is the question here, which Graham has been really good on, about the ontology of money, and I’m saying that it’s also a media question, a question of the ontology of medium, of media as such, as constitutive, but also the money medium.

But in my own work, I’ve gone back in the history of modern Western philosophy, and I feel like I’ve been pushed there by these problems. I’m a modernist. I studied the 20th and 21st centuries. But I felt like, as I was following these threads, I was pushed back further and further and further, at first, to the kind of classical Liberalism of John Locke, Ricardo, and these sorts of authors. But then even further back, because what I think MMT does, but doesn’t actually have the philosophical equipment to fully flesh out–and to no fault of their own, they’re economists. They’re lovely, they’re my colleagues, but they’re economists. They can do things I can’t do and I can do things they can’t do. They don’t have the philosophical equipment to think through the underlying ontological suppositions of the claims that they are making. And I don’t just mean about the ontology of money. I mean about ontology as such. I mean at least about social ontology.

So I’ve gone back to the late scholastic debates between the Thomist tradition and the Franciscan tradition. And these are notoriously fraught and messy debates, but just to very quickly gloss, they were debates about ontology, the structure of being, the nature of being, and the nature of knowing being. And to simplify, I think that the Thomistic vision of being is that being is a holistic, interdependent, and hierarchical system in which there is no outside to it. And being is irreducible to individuated being. So what this means is that relationality, or mediation, the organizing of relations, can never, from a Thomist point of view, be just simply a micro-ontological question. It’s never a question of fundamentally, ontologically dissociated beings–creatures, God, angels–somehow meeting up in micro-ways, in micro-contingent encounters or contracts or agreement, and then going on their merry way. So this is very much a rebuke of avant la lettre, of social contract theory–even the most sophisticated social contract theory.

Whereas, the Franciscan understanding of being is that being must be individuated. It must be externally individuated such that there can only, essentially, be beings, and God must be understood univocally as one being among beings, such that the encounter with God can be a contingent one, and a contingent one of two or more wills meeting or going on their merry ways. And this, I would argue, as many have, but not thinking about money at all, created the conditions for the private exchange approach to money that we see arising through Franciscan political economy, through the Florentine Renaissance, and the internationalization, or you could call it a globalization, of Renaissance thinking, and Renaissance political and economic practices, and then eventually to the physiocrats in classical political economy. So I locate the origins of this von Mises-Hayek approach to money as really having origins in this much older debate about social ontology. I’m not a Catholic. I have no stakes in shoring up the church. I approached this as a critical theorist, as a philosopher, and as a leftist. And I’ve been pulled toward these questions in new ways.

So what I would say in response to these questions about markets existing outside of states so markets must be first, I would say, well, a philosophically informed MMT point of view would respond that macro comes before micro. Now, it’s not a zero-sum situation. Micro is embedded in macro and participates in macro, but it can’t ever be outside of it, and it certainly can’t be prior to it. So that would be my ontological argument in a very breezy form. The last thing I want to say, just to give a little taste of my work, here’s a little plug, this is a book I published a couple years ago, Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care. One of the claims I make in this book is about the modern philosophical and then cultural and artistic project of what comes to be called the aesthetic. As most of us probably know here, the term aesthesis was used to mean sensation by the ancient Greeks. What we call aesthetics today was understood according to different categories, like poetics and other terms. With the rise of certain British philosophies, empiricisms, and sentimentalisms, but then, of course, specifically German Idealism, Kant, Schiller, Hegel, and beyond, the study of the aesthetic and the problem of the aesthetic comes into being and is constituted as an historically new domain, and an historically new set of possibilities and limits and problems.

And the way that the story often gets narrated, especially from a critical theory point of view, is that it arose as a bourgeois project in continental Europe, and the UK to a certain extent, and it was implicitly and explicitly variously pitted against, essentially, the domain of political economy. These were antinomies. And the aesthetic project was meant to be a kind of antidote to, or a refuge from, the ambivalences, alienations, and violations of private commerce understood through this kind of contracted, micro, and private monetary imagination. And this starts to orient art practice and cultural practice, especially once we get into the 19th century. It also gets radicalized by various socialists and artists and modernists and avant-gardists. And that strain of aesthetics starts making the argument that we should not have the aesthetic project, which promises social and sensual fullness and communion as opposed to the alienation of the marketplace. We should not just treat this as a refuge. Instead, we should get rid of it, we should we should sublate it, or whatever term we want to use, we should move beyond the private money economy and money as such, and we should have an abundant, communal, sensuous, socialist or communist society.

And then, the way that this plays out is essentially a kind of tragedy, or a fall story, where the forces of capital through commercial culture and the society of the spectacle, or simulacra and simulation, pick your critical author, basically, subsumes the aesthetic project and enlists it on the side of capitalist alienation, exploitation, and domination. And what we have by the postmodern, or late 20th century period, is this collapse of what is often imagined as a dialectic. And my claim in my book is that, well, first of all, most of my colleagues know that there’s something too simplistic and actually false about this whole story. But what they don’t have is a way of refiguring the story, or getting out of it. Most of my colleagues suffer from the symptoms of the structure of this story, even if they’re able to say of course that’s not the case, or, of course, money and art, or money and aesthetics, were not antithetical to one another. That’s absurd.

But my claim in the book is to say, if we start from an MMT, chartalist, public money, governance, macro- and meso-project framework, then we can see that, actually, this whole antinomy was false to begin with. That, in fact, the aesthetic project is a symptom of the reduction and contraction of money from a public utility into a seemingly private, micro, for-profit extractive enterprise. And that, instead of a bourgeois philosopher feeling ambivalent about money, or as a radical philosopher wanting to transcend money in order to install some kind of sensuous abundance on the model of the aesthetic project, these things should have never been opposed in the first place. And that, actually, money is what I call a proto-aesthetic instrument. It’s required for any kind of social and sensuous cultivation and communion, or any kind of project, and that we have to reckon with money as not a necessary evil that I’m ambivalent about, or the root of all evil, but as a public utility that is political and that can always be organized in another way. So with that, I think I’ll stop and we can maybe open it up for questions, comments, and thoughts.

Andrés Bernal: Great, thank you, Scott. And thank you, Graham. Excellent presentations. Let’s take some questions.

Graham Hubbs: Andrés, it looks like people are putting their names in the chat. So maybe you’ll call people out of the chat to ask questions.

Andrés Bernal: Yes, sounds perfect. Justin.

Justin Holt: Thank you. This is very interesting. Thank you for the presentations. Really fascinating. I come at MMT from reading it for many years and looking at it from more of an Anglo-American, Rawlsian perspective. That’s what my work has been mainly on in relation to MMT. But I have a question about thinking about the place of ontology. It’s very productive, but this is really addressing the question of thinking about Locke. And we could think about, perhaps, the labor theory of property coming out of Locke. But one thing that’s always troubled me about this is, the Lockean project, even in Locke’s second treatise, it falls apart in the sense that Locke wants to say, “Okay, we’re going to establish states in order to preserve property.” But then, Locke goes on, and this is the great thing about Zoom, because you can be at home with your books, and in paragraph 140, he says, “Still, it must be with his own consent, the consent of the majority, basically, to levy a tax.” See, everybody’s at home with their Locke, right? So this is great. So in paragraph 140, he basically says, “Okay, we can levy taxes if the majority wants to levy taxes.” Now, Locke doesn’t push all the way and doesn’t realize you can set the tax rate at anything then. So you can basically set confiscation rates if the majority says so. And, of course, the notion is, in the previous paragraph, he says, “You can’t take people’s property away unless they say so.” He doesn’t say majority there. But then he goes on to say that the majority can tax.

So the Lockean project seems to fall into the institutional theory of property, that property is instituted and regulated and created by the state. And that’s what we need the state for in the first place. Property doesn’t exist without the state. It’s the only way to arbitrate claims and to say who owns which side of the river. You can’t do that on your own, you may have forgotten your agreements. So the consideration here is that the state creates rights and fabricates claims. It creates property claims. So when it comes down to money and thinking about this, and thinking about many of the examples that Graham gave, yes, market interactions exist between people, or interactions exist all the time. And some of these are rather unformalized, like “Well, I’m going to help my friend fix his car, and then he’s going to do something nice for me, like baking me a cake.” All these things exist. Now, when it comes to MMT and thinking about this, they have the interesting example of saying, “Okay, colonial governments were able to basically get natives to do work by putting a tax on them.” This is the example that they utilize. Of course, these indigenous populations had their own networks, their own economies, and their own interactions, but a tax was imposed. Thus, the state was able to get something built like a road. So there’s this notion that states are able to create and fabricate property. So I feel that property ultimately gets subsumed into some type of state apparatus.

I’m going to add just one last thing. I can’t remember who says this. I think it’s Randy Wray. Randy Wray would say anybody can make money, but the key is getting it accepted. With this notion, I think there’s a chimera here. There’s a falsity about a natural theory of property. There’s a falsity that markets occur first before all of this, but seemingly, the state subsumes and encompasses and creates and regulates all forms of property. Yes, we can make anything that we want, but can we turn a Bitcoin into $1, because, ultimately, we have to turn it into $1 to actually make anything work for us in a lot of different ways. And ultimately, of course, to pay our taxes. So this is more of an example, but I’m really skeptical of Locke’s chapter five version of property, because I think Locke kind of undoes it all when he talks about taxation and majorities in states. I’m sorry, I wish it was a more clear cut question. But it’s more about saying, perhaps, that the labor theory of property is just false. It falls apart, and the institutional version structures it. Thank you very much.

Andrés Bernal: Great. Let’s take one question before we start answering. And I believe the comment by Wray is from his former professor, Hyman Minsky, about anyone can create money, the problem is getting it accepted. Mitchell.

Mitchell Silver: Hi, first of all, I want to thank both presenters. I thought they were interesting and clear. My question will probably be quite naive. I’m new to this discussion. But I’m wondering, the market approach versus the state understanding of money, while they’re clearly alternative accounts, they both struck me as compelling and it was not obvious to me that there wasn’t a reconciliation possible. So the first part of my question is have there been attempts to reconcile them, or is there a story that can be told that incorporates both of them? Because they were not in obvious conflict, or what seems to make them in conflict was claiming that there was an ontological truth here, that there was a correct ontology. And that you had to get the ontology correct to understand money correctly. But it’s also not clear to me that there is an ontology that’s independent of pragmatic considerations, in general, let alone in this particular case. So might we approach this by trying to think of it pragmatically, such as, what are our goals here? What problems are we trying to solve in thinking about money? And to what extent does one theory or another theory allow us to successfully approach those goals so that ontology then becomes just a practical consideration or inquiry in terms of what do we need to quantify over to make the kind of statements that we want to make? With the kinds of statements we want to make, ultimately, their truth really depends on where they get us in relation to where we want to go.

Andrés Bernal: Great, thank you. So let’s pick it up from there. Responses?

Graham Hubbs: I have quite a bit to say in response to Mitchell’s question. Scott, do you want to say anything in response to Justin’s first?

Scott Ferguson: Okay, I’ll speak to Justin’s. I strongly agree. The Lockean account of property is, I would agree, false. To put it one way, it deconstructs itself. I will say that this is all predicated on the state of nature story, which gets retold in many, many different ways during the Enlightenment, and it imagines an immediate encounter between a laboring, industrious individual and the natural world without the mediation of governance or law. I think what Justin was pointing out is that, it might not be a modern nation-state, it might be something more messy and complicated that we’re not used to thinking with that doesn’t conform to so-called “Westphalian” political theory. Property is never prior to law, it is constituted in law. Sure, a state can constitute that property. Sure, property can come about informally, at first in informal interactions, but I would always argue that those informal interactions and coordinations are always embedded in and dependent upon larger systems. They are not flatly determined by those systems, but they are participating in them and embedded in them and in a dependent way.

I’ll use this to pivot to my own very brief response to Mitchell’s question, or at least part of it. I don’t read the two versions of the story, the market based story and the state based story, as actually arguing according to the same assumptions. It’s the exchange story that wants to exclude the state as ontologically coeval. The state story wants to say, “No, the state is constitutively and actively involved. And yes, of course, there’s private markets. Of course, there are all kinds of hierarchical degrees of money’s moneyness, or acceptability and enforceability. And that’s always caught up in contestation and crises and forces outside of people’s control. Sure. But I would say that MMT reconciles the two. It doesn’t say the market doesn’t matter or that it doesn’t count. It just says that, “Well, actually, where the private marketplace gets the credit in order to produce goods and services and sell at a profit comes from a legally licensed banking system that has been endowed with federal and state power to create credit on behalf of the public.” So that’s how I would respond to that.

Graham Hubbs: Well, my answer dovetails with Scott’s and picks up from there. The idea that for many people, the orthodox account, the catallactic account, has a political purpose, is true. It may not be true of everybody, but certainly when Menger writes his theory of money, it has the purpose of establishing what we described earlier as the Lockean order of things, where first there’s property and markets and then government comes along later, and is meant to be constrained somehow by natural property rights. So there’s a political purpose to the account. It may not be true of all market theorists, but it is at least true for some of the catallactic theorists. To your question, are there accounts out there that seek to resolve both of them? Since we can do show and tell here, there’s a debate between Geoffrey Ingham and Tony Lawson in the 2018 Cambridge Journal of Economics on precisely that question. I’ve learned more from Ingham about this stuff about money than anybody else. And as a bit of intellectual history, Stephanie Kelton, who is one of the foremost economists in MMT, studied at Cambridge with both Ingham and Lawson. Part of where MMT has historically gotten its understanding about the ontology of money was Kelton’s time at Cambridge, studying with Lawson and Ingham, and then bringing it back to the States.

Ingham is a neo-chartalist. Lawson believes he’s got a way to reconcile the two and has a middle path through chartalism and market theory. In that 2018 exchange in the Cambridge Journal of Economics, Ingham says that Lawson, in spite of his best efforts, ends up being what I call a catallactic theorist, or what other folks would call a commodity theorist. I think Ingham’s got it right. But to your broader point, Mitchell, of why do we even need to see these theories as competing in the first place, one reason is the fact that each gives its explanation of money’s ontology as a history. Each is keen to tell an origin story. And something that I’ve been working on is asking the question: why is that necessary anyway to understanding the ontological order of the various functions of money? Can we dispense of the historical account itself as a history, and re-understand it as giving an order of priority for the functions of money? I think that that’s the best way to do it. And there, you actually do get two accounts that can be brought into opposition with one another. But I think the real conclusion that we should derive from this is pragmatist in a way.

I don’t know if Quine would be my hero as much as Sellars, but we all got brought up in 20th century American philosophy here. I think that what we should do away with is the idea that money would have an essence in the first place. Asking what money is presupposes that we’re trying to uncover an essence. Well, do away with that assumption. Instead, look at the various accounts of money and locate money-ish features, characteristic features of money, or something like that. Then, we can say, is Bitcoin money? Well, that’s a stupid question that presupposes that there would be an essence to money to determine whether it is or isn’t one. Bitcoin has some money-ish features. It’s used as a unit of account. It doesn’t work very well, because its value fluctuates wildly against the basis of the dollar. It’s used as a medium of exchange. Those are money-ish features. Is it money? Legal theorists, courts, and the government need to decide that for regulatory purposes. So there needs to be some legal definition of money that then decides whether we treat Bitcoin as a commodity or something else. So somebody has to get an answer to the question, but thinking that behind that there is a ontological essence that answers the question, that’s a mistake. But that doesn’t mean that we should just dispense of theorizing altogether. Digging into the theories lets us think more clearly about these issues.

Scott Ferguson: Can I just quickly follow up? I both kind of agree and would want to complicate what you’re saying. I’m sitting here saying we need to ask ontological questions, and that those are social ontology questions, not just money ontology questions, and so I feel implicated in this critique. But so, what I would say is, going back to the Thomist and Franciscan debates, I would reject, in line with what I think you’re saying here, a univocal essence that can be positively articulated. I would say ontological questions are important if approached in what Thomas would call an analogical way. Which is, you still have to theorize, you still have to use the evidence, figure out what’s going on, and have pragmatic considerations of what you want to get done. And you can analogically approach a way of getting a handle on the ontology without creating some kind of rigid, and thus brittle, ontology that you’re then going to put out in the world and have everybody show you all the examples of the ways your univocal ontology falls apart. So I would say, I think we agree, but we use different terms, and I’m willing to use that word ontology in an analogical way.

Graham Hubbs: You’re hanging out at an analytical philosophy conference, Scott, you’ve got to talk about ontology.

Andrés Bernal: Great, Martha.

Martha Beck: Okay, so I’m actually trained in ancient philosophy, so now everybody’s gonna have to switch. I just want to throw out a whole lot of stuff back to the four causes. I mean, obviously, money is the material cause, but that’s not the main cause for Aristotle. It’s the formal and final cause. So it sounds like these big disagreements are more about what Aristotle would call the efficient cause, which came first. But that’s not the main cause. The main cause is human nature, which is flourishing. So he goes on this switch from the family, mere survival, to the village, which is economic exchange. Then, he says, there was this sudden shift in consciousness, where we realize we live for the sake of a high quality of life. So I would say that everyone in the world functions at some theoretical level, at that higher level. People want a middle class. People understand the need for things like education and healthcare. It’s not just a village. Does that make sense to people?

Because, honest to God, Charles Koch and these guys want to make the world into a village. They really want to believe that capitalism will solve every problem. And I’ve been reading about Koch. I mean, he has an ideology that he brainwashes his employees with–market-based management–he really believes in that. That’s the power of ideas. First of all, philosophy matters. Second of all, they’ve got the wrong idea. Because, the individual profit maximization, that is not the way people live. If you want to understand why there is all this animosity, so many parents are willing to give up so much so their children can have a better life. And if you can’t convince people that one monetary policy rather than another is going to give their kids a better life…the monetary is the tale. It’s not what’s driving human behavior. But I did want to go back to the two main issues that I was aware of 55 years ago, environmentalism, and the need for culture to integrate with nature. And that goes back to Scott’s thing.

Actually, what made St. Thomas Aquinas different was Aristotle. All that holistic stuff, that came from the Aristotelian side, because Augustine was another one that emphasizes just free will. There’s God and I, and I just achieve salvation in relation to the world. Then, Locke took that into economic calculation. So Locke’s view of reasoning is what the Greeks would call calculation, which, greed, if someone who desires money or power only has that kind of reasoning, you’re in big trouble. So the big mistakes in enlightenment were that we could look at nature as an endless source of wealth, basically, money. And we just use our reason to exploit it ad infinitum. And that was wrong. So that has to do with your money issue also, because knowledge is power and power is wealth. The other thing was that human psychology was a blank slate. If only we could just manipulate it enough, but we can’t. So now all we have is a huge chunk of our economy dedicated to stoking pleasure and fear, fantasies and phobias, at the basic, instinctual level. So does that make sense to you that all of this stuff has to come in within the context of these two monetary policies? Because what people really are underneath…anyway, just take whatever you want to. But I think all that stuff has to be taken into account.

Andrés Bernal: If I could also add a bit to Martha’s comments, a big part of what we do in policy debates through the MMT lens is engaging in matters over perceived ontological scarcity. While the way we’ve designed the system and monetary economy keeps exploiting and accumulating, the people that participate in it are operating under this village lens that, at any moment now, they’re not going to have enough. So if we invest into the immigrant community, if we provide healthcare for everybody, for those that fall outside of the conventional, patriarchal, white, middle class model, then they’re going to lose what they have. So it’s a zero-sum game of, how do I make sure my little village is accounted for and not the people that I see outside of that? Scott and Graham, I don’t know if you all want to touch a little bit on that as well?

Scott Ferguson: Graham, do you have thoughts?

Graham Hubbs: I was gonna say some things about Aristotle, in particular. They might be a little bit tangential. So Scott, if you want to pick up the thread, go for it.

Scott Ferguson: I thoroughly agree with the thrust of Martha’s comments. I would say I have quibbles with certain things I heard. But in the service of the overall sentiment, one is that, we in the MMT community, would insist that money is not equal to wealth. Those are not synonyms. Money is a governance project. And it’s also a care project that we could argue, right now, is careless and not working well. But it is a cultivation and generative care project, and it has to be politicized as such. So if we want to take care of our ecosystem, if we want to take care of the oceans, if we want to take care of our climate change catastrophe, then we need money. We need a lot of money. And we need to tap into our public capacities to not just create money, but to mobilize our imaginations and our skills and our capacities to change what’s going on. So I really want to get past the idea that money is just simply power–private power and private wealth–and to really shift the frame to say that, actually, it starts with the public, and it’s been privatized. So to not naturalize those things. The other thing I will say…

Martha Beck: It’s the material cause. The modern world emphasizes the efficient and the material, whereas the ancient world emphasizes the final and the formal. So to say it’s the material cause is to say it’s secondary, that’s all. Does that make sense?

Scott Ferguson: I guess, I would say that money, as a public utility, is irreducible to material and efficient cause.

Martha Beck: Okay, but it’s driven by values, or ontology.

Scott Ferguson: Of course.

Martha Beck: Yeah, that’s all I mean.

Scott Ferguson: Oh, no, no, same page. Absolutely. I think I’ll just stop there. I’ll let Graham respond.

Graham Hubbs: Yeah, invoking Aristotle on these issues, specifically, there’s a nice paper by Stefan Eich that points out two famous passages where Aristotle talks about money. It gets into the weeds of Aristotle on money. That’s what we’re talking about, and I think it’s interesting. In Politics Book I, Aristotle gives an account that sounds an awful lot like what I’ve called the catallactic theory, what’s commonly called a commodity theory. Oh, there’s trading and it’s inconvenient. Wouldn’t it be handy if there was some precious metal that everybody could use to trade properly. And what Stefan points out in that paper is that, in those passages, Aristotle’s using the term chrēmata to talk about money. But there’s another term for money in the Aristotelian corpus, which is nomisma. That’s the term that he uses in Nicomachean Ethics Book V, which is dead center of the discussion of justice. And there, money isn’t the same as, but it looks a lot more like, what the chartalists think money is. So in Aristotle himself, if we’re reading him carefully and are attuned to these differences in the Greek, and the first time I read Aristotle until I read Stefan’s paper, I was blind to that, because translators over the centuries in English washed it out just by calling both of those terms indistinguishably money, which really makes Nicomachean Ethics kind of mind bending to read on its own terms. The richness of some of these distinctions and debates is already present within the Aristotelian corpus itself.

Scott Ferguson: And if you understand Aristotle as having what I like to call a “nested ontology,” where any kind of micro-situation is embedded in a larger polis, I think these two are reconcilable in a chartalist way.

Martha Beck: The goal is for your mind to be a microcosm of the macrocosm. So the way in which you run your household and your economy is you meet necessary needs, not excess needs.

Andrés Bernal: Let’s move to Vasfi.

Vasfi O. Özen: Can you hear me now? Okay, great. I have a couple of questions for the presenters, and anyone should feel free to jump in. First of all, I find these presentations quite interesting. I have a question about the problem of inflation. So monetarists believe that just simply printing money would always, or most of the time, generate inflation. And I’m interested in, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, the MMT perspective. They suggest that the government can increase taxes anytime they think it’s appropriate to remove money. This brought to my mind, perhaps you’re familiar with the works of Silvio Gesell. Silvio Gesell was an economist and social activist. He wrote a book called The Natural Economic Order. I’ll introduce his ideas, and if you’re not familiar with him, I think you may find him interesting, because Scott told us that he is incorporating continental approaches. I just thought that he might be interesting and contribute to your project. So Gesell has the idea of a negative interest rate policy. He has this idea of free money reforms or free land reforms. And the free money reform of Gesell is to make it impossible for people to hoard money, because the face value of money is depreciated regularly. So money is losing value if you don’t spend it. So I’m just curious whether that kind of approach can be incorporated within the MMT perspective? That’s one question I have.

The second question is about COVID. So during the COVID period, I’m just curious what kind of implications the MMT perspective can have? Because we’re talking about stimulus checks. So I’m just curious about both Graham’s perspective on that and Scott’s perspective on that. I’m just curious what MMT implies during the COVID era. And the third question is about how Scott introduced the curious idea of money as a proto-aesthetic instrument. Without being too critical, because he told us that he wrote a book and I haven’t read that book, but this idea tends to be overly optimistic and loses sight of potential risks to me. I understand that money has all these creative potentials, but at the end of the day, it depends on how you are using the money, right? So I have a hard time understanding the idea of money as a proto-aesthetic instrument. Maybe you can elaborate on that a little bit? And for my last question, both presenters talk about the criticism that MMT is too socialist or too capitalist. It seems to me that MMT is a neutral perspective. So, and correct me if I’m mistaken about this, it seems to me that the money generated by adopting MMT policy can be used to spend on hospitals and infrastructure, as well as nuclear weapons, right? I mean, I might be absolutely wrong about that. I just wanted to have some clarification on it. But once again, this was really quite interesting. Thank you.

Graham Hubbs: Thanks, Vasfi. Can you put the name of that text in the chat? The Natural Economic Order? The author’s name, I didn’t know how to spell, so if you would type that in that would be great. I just have a few quick things to say. And then I’ll hand it off to Scott. I think one thing when looking at the COVID stimulus is an MMTer might say, “See, yeah, we told you.” This has always been possible, and put under conditions of the duress, we realize the potential to harness the power of money creation to try to help people survive. So that would be a quick straightforward thing to say about that. Something I’m going to echo that Scott said earlier is that MMT, at its base, is a descriptive project and not a normative project with the question of is it too capitalist, is it too socialist, etc. I think that MMTers would do themselves a bit of service to be a bit more careful about when they’ve got their descriptive hats on and when they’ve got their normative hats on, because many MMT folks are not merely interested in describing money creation and how macroeconomics works, but more in getting involved in the sort of stuff that Andrés does. So the fact that it all gets lumped together under one heading creates understandable confusion. But yeah, I don’t know if it’s Kelton who says it, but the US has MMT for the military. There’s always enough money to buy more bombs. I think that addresses that point.

On the point of interest rates, this is another one of those spots where you get internecine battles between post-Keynesians. So MMTers call for a 0% nominal rate of interest. John Smithin, who I mentioned earlier, who’s another one of these post-Keynesians, and who doesn’t go all the way with some of the MMT proposals, thinks that that’s necessarily going to create speculation, that we should be guided by the principles of Islamic banking that are anti-usurious, and that do not create conditions under which financial speculation is possible. But then, to achieve that, you need a real rate at 0% interest, and not a nominal rate. And the real rate is simply the nominal rate minus the rate of interest. Don’t let “real” and “natural” confuse you. Nobody believes that there’s a natural rate out there. But the real rate does take into consideration inflation. And if you set the real rate at 0%, then you achieve what MMT wants to achieve in blocking the speculative possibilities, whereas if you drop the nominal rate to 0%, we should all just be taking out as much money as possible and buying houses and stuff like that. So those are the debates within post-Keynesianism about those kinds of things.

Scott Ferguson: Thank you for the kind words and the thoughtful provocations. Yeah, I feel as though I have many things to say in response. Maybe just starting with a COVID response, there are actually active projects and proposals out there that my colleagues and I have been working on. Probably the most visible is Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s ABC, Automatic BOOST for Communities Act, which calls upon the Treasury to mint $2 trillion coins, and to do so as needed in order to provide all Americans, that means non-citizens as well, with $2,000. And then, I think it’s something like $1,000 a month until a year after the crisis. It also sneaks in a public banking function that would distribute cards and apps, and would suddenly bank every single person that could get their hands on this. And essentially, it would create the infrastructure for a massive federal public banking system. And then, along with that, in the Act, they’re calling upon various teams employed to go out in the community and make sure people are doing okay, and making sure they’re healthy and getting access to this financial infrastructure and the payments themselves, rather than routing them through other private situations. And employing people in a moment of under- or even mass unemployment. So a colleague of mine is behind that ABC Act. 

I am more directly involved in a proposal that hasn’t been put out by a politician, Congressperson, or anything like that, which would enable public universities in the United States to issue credit on behalf of the Fed. And our argument is that we have a financial system that is actually inefficient, unequal, and destructive given that it is through the private banking and financial sector. It is atrocious. As imperfect as the neoliberal University is, I would much rather empower those public systems to create credit, to finance themselves and community projects and research led investment in their communities in ways that are plugged into the needs of communities, rather than to keep giving legal licenses to private banks. So we’re working on that project as a kind of emergency measure to shore up the funding of public universities, which is going into the pooper right now. Although, things are changing because of the election.

Another thing I’ll say about it is, from the MMT world point of view, we would say that there’s this whole nonsense choice between opening up the economy and shutting down and experiencing recession or depression, which I call the Jaws meme. It’s the mayor from Jaws who has to decide whether he wants capitalism to keep going or he wants to protect the safety and health of the people visiting the beach. This is total nonsense. As they have in the UK and elsewhere, you can pay people and it’s their job to stay home. That’s one thing you can do and that’s still part of the economy. In the United States, we don’t have enough people who are trained to deliver vaccinations. Back in spring, we should have taken all the service workers who suddenly didn’t have jobs at Starbucks or wherever, and trained them to be part of this massive health and caretaking project. So the whole idea that you have to choose between employing people or economic production versus health and safety is absolutely nonsense.

I just want to say something about inflation. It’s important to note that inflation, as my very brilliant colleague, Nathan Tankus, would point out, is not a natural phenomenon that we just go out and look at with our eyes. It is a function of the way that we elect to record various processes and phenomena in our economic activity. So inflation is based on price indices, and these price indices have changed over time. And those choices of what goes in the price indices are political, and they matter. And they skew things. So we could talk about hyperinflation on Wall Street right now or for the last 40 years, but nobody talks about that. Nobody says there’s Weimar Germany on Wall Street, because our indicators are not set up to reveal that sort of thing. You could talk about hyperinflation in health care, in education, in almost everything but media, technology, and media consumption. Everything is hyperinflated over the last 40 years, at least in the United States, but nobody talks about it in that way.

So I would just say that, and also that printing money or creating money is not an exception, it’s the rule. It is not in excess of a natural system that is finding equilibrium in its own natural way. We are constantly printing money. This is what banks do. Every day, they issue credit to somebody. They don’t recycle money from one place to another. They have a license to create money. So I would say, Wall Street is printing way too much money. It’s Weimar hyperinflation. Let’s put away the wheelbarrows filled with digital money that are skewing all of our values, and start printing money toward productive communal and ecological purposes. I will say, I am happy to look at the Gesell argument. I’ve had vague encounters with that discourse. But I’d like to look at it more and I appreciate the nudge.

And lastly, with the proto-aesthetic, so here’s the thing, I’m coming from the left. The left throughout at least the modern Western world, as far as I can see, the dominant tendency has been to radicalize bourgeois ambivalence about money, which I think is already ill founded, and to turn it into Satan, to turn it into the worst technology ever and and to suggest that we cannot have justice, we cannot have collective caretaking as long as this medium mediates our political economy. So my move is not to say money is happy and rosy and always the best! Neat-o! Let’s treat it as a purely good, wonderful, rosy thing. No, no, no. I’m pushing hard in the other direction to remind us that it has these capacities to push back against all this Liberal, radical, Marxist, and anarchist ambivalence and rejection of money in order to open up money as a problem of collective cultivation, as a difficult problem. It is not all rosy.

What I would suggest is, if we want aesthetic production, we have to recognize the way that aesthetic production is financed in the first place, and radically change the way aesthetic production is financed. And also recognize that, I’m sitting here in my house in Tampa, Florida, and I’m having a sensory experience that involves this room, the fan whizzing around me. I’m talking to you all, mediated through this technology, and this is all a sensuous experience that has been variously conditioned by money. So it’s not rosy, but it is the ground that I would argue we need to start from.

Andrés Bernal: Thank you. So we’ve hit our time boundary. We’ve even gone a couple minutes over. So I want to thank everybody for participating with us here today. It was an absolute pleasure. Graham and Scott, thank you so much. If anybody else has any other comments or questions, please reach out to us. We’re on Twitter, or email us, anything like that. And the last thing I will say is, I have a special appreciation for philosophy as a discipline and philosophers as a philosophy undergrad. One of the major reasons I even gravitated to MMT was because of these questions that I was trained in during my philosophy education, which absolutely changed my life. So thank you all. We need to appreciate our philosophers more in this country and society. So with that said, thank you for coming here and keep it up.

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

26 – Mutual Aid By Any Other Name (NEW TRANSCRIPT!)

Cohosts Natalie Smith and Will Beaman discuss mutual aid, highlighting the potentials of its often neglected monetary and linguistic dimensions. 

Reading against Dean Spade’s interpretation of mutual aid as fully internal or external to money and the state, Natalie and Will recast mutual aid practices as active and vital forms of contestation over the “monetary naming” of other fiscal authorities that naturalize austerity and unemployment. Viewing mutual aid this way, they argue, opens up possibilities for its expansion through monetary creation.

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

Transcript: Mike Lewis

Superstructure – Mutual Aid By Any Other Name

Naty Smith  00:15

Welcome to Superstructure! What show are we on?

Will Beaman  00:17

Hey everybody this is Superstructure with Natalie Smith and Will Beaman this week. I got super jealous that Maxx and Naty did their episode last week and so I wanted to follow it up.

Naty Smith  00:31

I just want to say really quick that we were like “Naty, you want to do the introduction this time?” and I was like sure I’m gonna do it just as long as until I immediately get tired of it. And it took about like three seconds.

Will Beaman  00:43

I maybe accelerated that a little bit, I don’t know.

Naty Smith  00:49

No, I liked it. I was like no it’s better, it’s better. So this is a Will and Naty episode. We’re doing some more dialectical series. We also have the Monologue series. We have Maxx doing Processions. We have Scott doing his monologues and lectures. We have Dasha monologuing. We don’t know when the Will monologuing series will come.

Will Beaman  01:12

Rumors have it that there may be something in the works that’s a solo Will thing, but I don’t know. We’ll see. Yeah.

Naty Smith  01:19

I love our one-on-one dynamic so far. It’s like an ADD extravaganza. So what are we talking about today, Will? I just got to do a Naty-Maxx episode solo for the first time. And today we’re getting to do a Naty-Will-Maxx in which we mutually aid each other, is that right?

Will Beaman  01:38

Yeah, that’s right. So mutual aid is the topic of the day. Yeah, I mean, I think I’ve been wanting to do, or I’ve just been thinking about mutual aid for a while, and I really wasn’t sure how we would approach it on an episode as a topic because what we definitely don’t want to do is be like, we have the comprehensive like single, Superstructure take on mutual aid, like, is it good or bad or something? Because I think that that’s…

Naty Smith  02:10

Such a big topic.

Will Beaman  02:11

It’s a huge topic. And so, you know, I want to proceed with some humility. We have some things that we want to say that I think are readings of mutual aid that yeah, there’s some things that I think I want to affirm about mutual aid that maybe don’t actually always get affirmed by people who are it’s biggest proponents. And, on the other hand, though, like, I also want to preface this by saying: we on this podcast have spent a lot of time talking about class reductionism and talking about you know, I mean, the podcast is called Superstructure, because, you know, we’re kind of tongue in cheek…

Naty Smith  02:57

We are anti-reduction in class sizes at schools.

Will Beaman  03:02

Yeah, right.

Naty Smith  03:02

We provide just inflationary classes where suddenly you have only language classes of 80 people and above just to save the state money. Because you have to starve the state from the left.

Will Beaman  03:15

You have to starve the state from the left, which is…

Naty Smith  03:19

Which is incoherent.

Will Beaman  03:21

A preview of a reading a little bit later…

Naty Smith  03:25

I think we want to affirm a variety of ways of naming mutual aid and sort of embrace this heterogeneity. But also, I think there’s a heterogeneity of namings of what mutual aid is as well as like different tones to affirm it in, and we’re not going to come in and some just like cynical Catherine Liu tone, like just to be a bitch like, “actually, Jeff Bezos is doing mutual aid.”

Will Beaman  03:49

Yeah, right, right. Like, there’s a certain way in which mutual aid is dismissed by class reductionists as being…

Naty Smith  03:57

Yeah.

Will Beaman  03:57

You know, because it is not workers at the point of production that it’s like, at best, a distraction or at worst, like, you know, like I literally years ago, there was some story with like, you know, mutual aid  anarchists in either Seattle or Portland or something who were like fixing potholes. And they were being like, basically chastised by class reductionists, saying that the act of them fixing potholes is actually basically working to undermine public sector unions, whose power is based on their ability to withhold pothole-fixing labor.

Naty Smith  04:37

It’s such a particular class reductionism, too, right? It’s like a very specific narrative. How would you define that? Because there’s some mutual aid discourse which does talk about class in this like, reified location manner. That instead of like approximate locations, you can definitely get some like “in the real place” or “authentic source”. I do feel like there’s like a craving for an authentic absolute source in a class way that has, you know, things I would affirm and respect but others that I think kind of have weird slippages is in the mutual aid discourse. But the point is that you’re kind of referencing a very specific milieu, but it’s a big milieu.

Will Beaman  05:20

Yeah, absolutely. This class reduction thing, you know, like, that’s, it’s one… I mean, the common impulse, and why we focus so much on base-superstructure is that there are class reductionists who criticize mutual aid for undermining public sector unions, or whatever. They’re doing so by saying that, you know, the real base, or the real locus of political activity, has to be at this institutional point of unions. And anything outside of that is going to be kind of siphoning energy.

Naty Smith  05:56

It’s coming from this scarcity.

Will Beaman  05:57

Yeah, absolutely. But I think that we want to also save that there’s a lot of different readings of mutual aid. And one of the things that I think we want to push back on with this episode is a very particular way of reading mutual aid that, I think, neglects its engagement with abstract contestations over what kinds of work is being authorized socially, you know, to do certain things, right? Like, one of the things that stands out to me the most about mutual aid is something that I really, really want to affirm is it always happens wherever there is austerity and people need things to be done. You know, and I don’t want to just dismiss it as like a patchwork solution until we get the state in there or something, you know?

Naty Smith  06:58

Or, like, final, yeah, or the final stage of whatever it is we’re getting to.

Will Beaman  07:05

Right. Right. Yeah, it’s, you know, it’s not necessarily that it’s like, transitional, but what it does, that I find so inspiring, and that I really want to affirm is, you know, mutual aid looks at what is currently being authorized as important and worth paying people money to do. Like, what kinds of care work is available that you can get a job doing. And mutual aid goes ahead and does the things that are not being provisioned for, right? But in doing so, there’s an element of naming and identifying and authorizing as a collective against the authorization of the state to like, you do these things, you spend money to do these things. And against that…

Naty Smith  07:58

Right…

Will Beaman  07:58

Mutual aid holds open the possibility to do other things that are not necessarily being done by the state. And, you know, I mean, to put our cards on the table, like, I want to argue that that aspect of mutual aid is actually like a proto-monetary aspect. Because what money does, what MMT says, right, is like, when the government spends money into the economy, you know, hires people to be teachers. Part of what that’s doing is it’s identifying, you know, these skills, and this chalk, and this paper, this classroom, right? It’s like, there’s an element of naming all of these things as resources relative to production that needs to be done.

Naty Smith  08:46

And then you have the Beaman-Lee input-outputs…

Will Beaman  08:53

Yeah, absolutely.

Naty Smith  08:55

I’m interrupting your flow. But what’s interesting to me in kind of where I — putting our cards on the table, I’m not good at cards, but — kind of taking another point of view that I kind of see on both sides will frame their reading of this naming, within monetary production, they both will repress abstraction. So you’ll kind of have this DSA read that’s like saying, well, we you know, we’re busy. We don’t have enough people at our meetings already. And like we have 27,000 phone calls to make and doors to knock and, you know, people power. And so they’re doing all these abstract things they don’t think of as abstract. And they don’t have enough dues. And there’s this sense of work and obligation and organization and monetary thing, right? And so they’re saying, well, mutual aid is like taking away from this other structure that’s the one we need to build. And then also you’ll see on the other side, like some mutual aid discourse that will say no, because we want to show the autonomy of our naming, there’s this sense of like we have to repress like you said this monetary abstraction that is kind of built into this collective work and that the only way possible ever would be to like, always repress the monetary abstraction. Does that make sense?

Will Beaman  10:10

Yeah, absolutely. Leading up to this episode we’ve been talking about all the things that we like and want to affirm about mutual aid, and I think you had a couple of examples that you wanted to talk about…

Naty Smith  10:26

That will lead into the affirmation instead of just me like reading two sides of the lack. Well a lot of you here mentioned disaster relief, right? Like when you have Occupy Sandy when they came in and were distributing clothes and blankets, food, you know, and FEMA says they did it better than them or after Katrina obviously you have people come in and do all types of disaster relief. You get obviously community fringes you know in Latin America all throughout the region they have olla común, the common pot. You know, food pantries, you got autonomous tenant unions, right? Where people are fighting to end evictions in their area. Childcare collectives, bookcases, rapid response networks to stop deportations. I mean, COVID there’s been like a huge explosion of different kinds of mutual aid obviously, just, you know, again, we’re like, scarcity is like imposed, right? Where the state does not necessarily like spending like it should and so you have like, food relief, mass relief. I know in DSA, there’s always discourse about pullover prevention or brake lights…

Will Beaman  11:43

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Naty Smith  11:44

Like parts of them who like, are we doing mere mutual aid? But also I think probably most DSA-ers, who we don’t want to like misrepresent them, but there’s a lot of like more lib commie or whatever-type friendly people to that, I think, who obviously don’t give a fuck. Bail funds, writing letters to people in jail, you know, self defense classes. You have anti-fash networks, medics at protests…

Will Beaman  12:10

Yeah. I mean, and all of this is to say, right, like, it’s a huge category. And one thing also that I wanted to bring up is, another thing that comes to mind when you talk about mutual aid is like GoFundMes, right?

Naty Smith  12:25

Right

Will Beaman  12:26

And fundraising and transferring money…

Naty Smith  12:28

Which some would dispute. This is another thing that we’re like, coming into this, we’re like, oh, man, this is a huge discourse. And there’s whole realms of it I feel like within like anarchism Kool Aid specialty world that like, have very nuanced opinions on like, is a GoFundMe donation between people?

Will Beaman  12:44

Right. Is that mutual aid or is that charity? Yeah, all of those things.

Naty Smith  12:48

Yeah. There’s a lot of naming debates in this discourse.

Will Beaman  12:53

Yeah, and, you know, like, I think that even our anxiety about naming mutual aid is one thing speaks to…

Naty Smith  13:00

Yeah…

Will Beaman  13:01

All of the different registers in which mutual aid is operating beyond the immediate, right? There’s a real concern as to what the discourse about mutual aid is.

Naty Smith  13:13

Because it’s a huge anchoring category, right? Like helping each other. And within where monetary scarcity has been imposed and then still work that hasn’t been named, or given space that needs to happen, that’s like huge realms, right? Like…

Will Beaman  13:34

Absolutely.

Naty Smith  13:35

You got migrant stuff. You got the squats in Greece, like in Exarchia where you have like, buildings full of refugees who have like their little, you know, I mean, all these things, you’ve got history of free breakfast…I mean, two, if you just look on Wikipedia, then they’re also like, medieval guilds, and I’m like, I don’t know…

Will Beaman  13:57

Yeah. The point ultimately is I don’t think we even want to litigate like what is and is not mutual aid.

Naty Smith  14:06

No.

Will Beaman  14:06

I feel like there’s an element of all of the things that you named, where the mutual aid is taking place, both with one foot inside the system, that it’s trying to kind of, you know, not buttress the system, but buttress the people who are neglected by that system, right? But also one foot outside of it, you know, sort of in this autonomous or at the very least, not being fully subjugated mindset, you know, by this sort of univocal categorization of what’s necessary and what’s worth producing. Right? Like there’s a rebellious spirit to mutual aid, but there’s also I think… So I wanted to relate this to the episode that you and Maxx just did about naming, right? And about…

Naty Smith  14:58

What’s your name? Mine is Natalie.

Will Beaman  15:01

Mine is ENFP.

Naty Smith  15:02

Oh, What are your other names?

Will Beaman  15:05

Six wing Seven. Aquarius. Flake is one from our reading.

Naty Smith  15:12

Are you flaky?

Will Beaman  15:12

Well, more so than the other one which is an over-worker?

Naty Smith  15:17

Oh, I don’t know this. I don’t know this scheme.

Will Beaman  15:18

Yeah, well, this is another personality test. But this one is grounded in the science of mutual aid.

Naty Smith  15:25

Did you do the dishes or not?

Will Beaman  15:30

Yeah, like, I guess one comparison that I wanted to kind of draw out is that what mutual aid does in the absence of provisioning in one monetary regime is it introduces an element of play with naming that goes beyond what has already been named as essential, right? Like, you know, whatever is thought of as the system…

Naty Smith  15:55

Daddy

Will Beaman  15:56

Whatever that has named as being essential and categorized as care work, and everything else is free time. You know, I read in mutual aid as a kind of a defiant naming of those things as work and as valid and as very important, and this is that kind of proto monetary dimension that I want to get at. But I think that there’s an element of play and of making naming our own.

Naty Smith  16:27

But we want to get in where it’s not absolutely our own, right? It’s like this… Like, I mean, the example we’ve used a lot is with the Unis right, where Jesús Reséndiz is writing like a three part series and Milenio now, too, and has been on Money On The Left. This idea of like, kind of fiscal federalism where like a university is within a fiscal structure, why couldn’t they also be an emitter of credit and not just a user? Yeah, usually these models often do have this other end where you’re like dialoguing with so called sovereignty, right? Or some power, right? And then there’s all these debates about are you going to be subsumed by the state? Will they destroy your program? And we can go through those lists of naming, too. Like, will the state name you and corrupt you? Or can the naming of the state, like work from both directions?

Will Beaman  17:25

Right? Absolutely. Yeah. And with naming I mean, there’s that whole thing is like, we use language that we’re “given”, but like, we don’t use it the exact way that we’re given it, right? That’s not possible. There’s always an element of human creativity with how that language is being used that makes the language and that meaning non-identical to, you know, whatever we heard in the first place when we learned it.

Naty Smith  17:55

Nor absolutely non-identical.

Will Beaman  17:56

Yeah, and that’s, I mean, when we talk about the Uni as one way of looking at money, linguistically. We’re talking about this monetary authorization to do something social, that spending affords. Literally affords. And in a sense, you know, queering that and queering that binary between the user of authorized goods, right? And the person who authorizes them.

Naty Smith  18:22

Daddy…not Daddy. hahaha The things that make me laugh.

Will Beaman  18:31

Well I feel like there’s an interpretation of the kind of move that we’re trying to make that I think I want to distance ourselves from which is, we’re not just talking about like a petite daddy.

Naty Smith  18:41

Yeah, we’re not just saying the state isn’t oppressive and enforcing scarcity and violent. Like, that’s why we’re abolitionists like the state, right? But we’re not denying that there is a set of institutions, or whatever you want to call it, that have historic scarcities that have been legislated into them and maintained for a variety of reasons, right?

Will Beaman  19:04

Yeah, absolutely

Naty Smith  19:05

I lost my train of thought, please…

Will Beaman  19:07

It could be good to spell out maybe for new listeners or people who need a refresher on what we’re drawing on the MMT side of this, right? Because we’ve been talking a lot about naming and a lot about language, but my entry point into all of these things which was, you know, my head exploded when I heard this last episode that Maxx and Naty did that was all about naming things…Where I come at these questions from in like a political economy senses is you know, there’s this phrase in heterodox political economy that is, “resources are not, resources become.” And what that phrase basically means is whether something is a resource is predicated on what it’s being used to do, right? So there’s an element of naming. I think that maybe we would push back against the word nature, right? Implying a kind of like…

Naty Smith  20:07

Right…

Will Beaman  20:07

You know…

Naty Smith  20:09

Labor-nature binary.

Will Beaman  20:10

Yeah, and a naming-nature binary, right? That things are nature.

Naty Smith  20:14

Well, that’s part of labor.

Will Beaman  20:16

Exactly, yeah. Right, that labor is inscribing something that has never been part of something bigger before. It’s like inscribing it with a new essence or something. And that’s, you know, that’s definitely not what we’re…

Naty Smith  20:33

The first machete.

Will Beaman  20:35

Yeah, and that’s not what we’re trying to say. But taking this back to language, right, that language is not also a story about power so often.

Naty Smith  20:45

Of course. Of course.

Will Beaman  20:46

You know, language, obviously, is and like, you know, it’s been something that is a huge theme in post-colonial studies about language being a way to control people’s means of articulation and expression and just being and, you know, create a universalizing common denominator, you know, a square that none of the circles can quite fit into, and then that creates an institutional reason to subjugate people, right? But on the other hand, we can’t opt out of language, right? We can’t opt out of speaking and of positing things, but you know, the most that we can do is be…

Naty Smith  21:30

We also don’t want to, like get too, like, obsessed with like, an idiolect. You know?

Will Beaman  21:37

Right.

Naty Smith  21:37

Like, idiolect as in like, I am speaking the way only I speak because, like, that’s also always true. Like, that’s right. But there’s, that’s like, where analogy comes in that yeah, like within language, there’s always like, each speech act is like, a creation and, or writing or reading or whatever. I mean, these are all creations that also come from what comes before I mean, there’s always that kind of tension, but…

Will Beaman  22:07

Whatever we say, is not identical to whatever language we’re using. Right? So like, there is an element of us and whatever we’re saying, but on the other hand, we’re not speaking solely from some unmediated essence, that’s us, right?

Naty Smith  22:24

No. Yeah, right, right exactly.

Will Beaman  22:26

That’s totally different for being inscribed with language. It’s like, no, this is a problem that we’re thrown into. And I use problem here not even necessarily in a negative sense, right? But just in like, you know, it’s a problem of creation and of naming that we all that we all participate in.

Naty Smith  22:51

And we want to affirm that in mutual aid, right? Because we’re saying, like, we affirm this impulse that says, okay, I’m just gonna do this for the people in my neighborhood, and like, we’re getting fucked over by our landlords here and we need to…like, some new real estate coming in, right, and we want to protect where we’re living or not get evicted, you know, and we’re gonna do work as a collective on that. And you know, maybe one day you form an entity or you don’t, or maybe you start getting donations, or maybe you’re never an entity, right? But there’s all these tensions always about what work you’re choosing, yeah, I honor the ways in which there’s always decisions about work to be done that’s so called inside-outside the job market, right? And some people try and put that in this absolute binary, right, where it’s like your work, and then you have like reproductive labor, and then, you know, like what’s… And there’s always overlapping things that are monetized or not monetized or unfairly monetized, right? And so we’re speaking to naming new kinds of works, and even sometimes, right, going above and beyond the labor most would put into that. That’s beautiful, if that’s something you want to do for people and create ongoing resistances and countings and obligations within communities that deserve something better than what they have and have been, you know, thrown into, or whatever to use that term. But that’s not outside. I think there’s an impulse to that. We’ve talked a lot on the show about this, like, craving for immanence, for this reality of political action. And I think sometimes there can be this sense that we’re almost saying no, like, nobody needs to do anything like who gives a shit just chill. We just want to say no, we’re like, actually affirming of the beauty of the fact that people want to do work, and they want to make new things and create ongoing possibilities that will endure in time, but that’s also occurring in a situation of like this sort of imposed monetary scarcity or the injustice of the naming of those structures in ways in which it’s very tempting to say, well, the solution is just to be immediate to tasks. And like, as we’ve said, to repress the abstraction of that naming. And there’s different names too. It’s like, if you’re anxious that there’s so much that could be done, there’s so much that’s wrong, right? And there’s so little that we’ve been afforded. And so it’s the sense of, so we’re not saying just because you can’t heroically alone will yourself and all of us to Nirvana that you should do nothing: it’s neither of those, right? It’s about that we are in this problematic, and we are all naming and trying and we have limits, and some people will do more and less and it’s beautiful to want to do more and create things, but do this also with compassions. And comfort with ambiguity within these…for heaven’s sake, please.

Will Beaman  26:26

Yeah. Another way of saying this, right, is that there will always be a need for mutual aid as naming that is participatory beyond any one center of naming. Right? Which you could say a monetary sovereign, for instance, right?

Naty Smith  26:48

That’s not Daddy, that’s Mommy. Just to switch things up.

Will Beaman  26:57

Yeah. So just just to bring it back to the Lee thing and finish sketching that out, right. So like, resource resources are not resources become, right. That’s not just an MMT thing. That’s something that Post-Keynesians and just, you know, people who are in ecological economics, they’re they’re already hip to that, right. But I think what MMT adds to that realization is that resources are not, resources become — that becoming being predicated on naming means that spending as a first act is an act of naming. Right? And that’s what I want to almost universalize at, you know, not universalize in like a flat, concrete way, but say that spending is an analog of naming as participation, right? The spending that causes something to be a resource and not not a resource, right? That act of naming is, as one analog, realizing this problematic that we’re all in naming and authorizing ourselves socially to do things. And what I think mutual aid does that’s so powerful is it shows that however much a monetary sovereign, to use the MMT 1.0 kind of language, would claim that no, all jobs have to come from the currency issuer, or if not the currency issuer from a capitalist, right? At one legal register that may certainly be true. But as the Money on the Left Collective has shown with, like, you know, our Uni proposal, it’s a proposal for universities to you know…

Naty Smith  29:03

Gentrify.

Will Beaman  29:05

Oh my God, Jesus Christ. Not to gentrify. It’s a proposal for universities to continue to provision themselves beyond what they’ve been authorized to by monetary sovereigns, vis a vis state budgets or you know, tuition revenues or whatever that are all denominated in dollars, right. But to use that slippage of being in this kind of middle position of you know, universities pass along a lot of dollars and they provision a lot of people and they’re very much caught up not just as currency users in this like very, very narrow way but actually, you know, they have such expected revenues, you know, pouring in all the time, that they can issue IOUs, and those IOUs can have the ability to be accepted by other people, you know, not by virtue of like the university is declaring its independence from society, or something like that, right? Like, that’s not the point.

Naty Smith  30:15

Right.

Will Beaman  30:15

The point is that the university is actually drawing on its interdependence with society in order to issue its own currency in order to issue its own naming of things that should be named as being socially useful. Right? So like, what does austerity do? Austerity says that all these people who are unemployed, we’re naming them as not skilled, as not employable, right? And that’s an act of monetary naming. And what the Uni proposal does is it names them differently, and it names them differently while drawing upon accounting, which is, you know, common to language in general, right? Like, I can’t talk about even something that we’re totally imagining as, you know, univocally different and absolute alterity, you know, my autonomous mutual aid network. Even just in articulating that, I’ve already implicated accounting because I’ve said that there’s one of it, right?

Naty Smith  31:26

Right. And that there’s only one other and it’s like, there’s just like this pure dialectic, right? Like, we’re in our squat, and then we go to work and we have the outside money.

Will Beaman  31:35

Mhm.

Naty Smith  31:36

And then we have the inside house money, right? And then there’s an absolute binary. And so then there’s also this fear of contaminations, right? And that is an interesting question to address, right? Because somebody will say well, if you’re gonna do this Uni, like, why interact with sovereignty or the state system at all? Why don’t you just keep it. We’re not repressing monetary accounting, we’re just repressing, working with the dominant monetary accounting, like, we want to, like build up an alternate version. What would be our pushback on that?

Will Beaman  32:15

Yeah. So like, I mean, I think that that sort of vision of like, you know, we’re starting from within the system, but eventually we’re gonna, like cut the umbilical cord and become totally autonomous or something like that. For one thing, it’s the interdependence in the first place that austerity can’t erase that gives universities the power to do this to begin with, right? And so there’s an entanglement that cannot just be willed away, or wished away. But also, right, like the whole point of this is not to make universities sovereign governments that can do whatever they want because the whole point is that that vision of a sovereign government whose money goes on forever because their sovereign will goes on forever.

Naty Smith  33:09

Yeah, so a lot of people get anxious when we talk about infinity because they just think you’re saying whatever the fuck like spend on whatever! spend! this is liberalism! Everybody can be a billionaire like that’s not what infinity is. That’s a liberal imagination of infinity.

Will Beaman  33:27

Yeah, absolutely. It’s infinity starting from a will, right?

Naty Smith  33:33

Yeah.

Will Beaman  33:34

And anytime that infinity is constrained by a legal will, or like, by one entity’s naming system, right then I mean, naming and that sense does work by excluding, right? It draws a boundary and says we can have an infinite amount of these things, right? But it doesn’t say infinite everything, right?

Naty Smith  33:58

Yeah, and we’re aware that there’s limits of power right? We’re aware that like different currencies give you a different quality of infinity and limits on the quality of your infinities, right? Due to hierarchies…Due to the way things have happened so far, right?

Will Beaman  34:20

Hmm. Yep…

Naty Smith  34:22

I don’t know if that’s how you would put it, but like…does that make sense?

Will Beaman  34:25

The point I guess is that the possibility of creation is an infinite horizon but, you know, but it’s infinite precisely because no one person’s participation in creation is more than an analog of it, right? And so it’s not just a flat thing of like a bunch of infinite wills you know, that are all staring up into the sky projecting as far as they can, right?

Naty Smith  34:54

Right, right. Mansions everywhere.

Will Beaman  34:57

But yeah, I mean, you know, I guess one way to answer your question, right? Like we could turn it back to personality systems…

Naty Smith  35:08

McKenzie Wark tweeted that she wished that the queer youth treated enneagram as real, even though she didn’t like classificatory systems and not as a star sign, and I was like, does McKenzie Wark listen to our podcast?

Will Beaman  35:26

So interesting. She might, honestly…

Naty Smith  35:28

She very well may not also, but then I was just like, I mean, I like star signs, but enneagram is, you know, anyway, just like already that’s like…I have a lot to say.

Will Beaman  35:37

Go ahead, say it. It’s more scientific. Is that what you want to say?

Naty Smith  35:42

No, I don’t know if that’s the…

Will Beaman  35:44

Definitely not. But I mean, there is…

Naty Smith  35:46

I don’t even know.

Will Beaman  35:48

I’m more interested in enneagram than I am in astrology. I’ll say that.

Naty Smith  35:52

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That we just use the power of naming. No, but please go on your interconnection.

Will Beaman  36:00

Yeah.

Naty Smith  36:00

I rudely interrupted.

Will Beaman  36:03

No, it was great.

Naty Smith  36:05

Mommy sovereign.

Will Beaman  36:06

What we could call a Ritornello.

Naty Smith  36:09

Yeah, yes.

Will Beaman  36:10

A little, what do you call it, the little whirlpools on the side of a stream where you just get lost in a little…

Naty Smith  36:16

It’s like an eddy of death.

Will Beaman  36:18

An eddy! That was it. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Of life, thank you very much.

Naty Smith  36:23

Oh right. Yes.

Will Beaman  36:25

Some Bataille there.

Naty Smith  36:26

There’s a spiral in the water really, really reassures me. The never ending spiral.

Will Beaman  36:32

I don’t know. It’s not a perfect spiral if that makes you feel better.

Naty Smith  36:36

Sure, get me on a raft, it’ll be great fun.

Will Beaman  36:41

I think one of the things that I wanted to really get across is that the act of naming in like a really mundane way that’s like, not very interesting on its own implicates counting

Naty Smith  36:52

One, Natalie, two Natasha, three Natita, four…

Will Beaman  36:58

One collective, right.

Naty Smith  37:00

Yeah.

Will Beaman  37:00

My collective, my autonomous, right? Like the idea of autonomy, right? What precedes that is drawing a boundary around yourself as one entity, right?

Naty Smith  37:11

There is some fetish of the idiolect there for sure.

Will Beaman  37:14

Yeah. Um, but I guess so like, in this kind of mundane way, naming always implicates accounting. What makes it monetary, for me, is that I mean, this is…another way to say this, right, it’s like, this is what money does, when we spend money, we name something as a resource, and we choose to do that. And I think that that’s what happens at the level of a mutual aid group deciding to do something. What do we have around that’s a resource that we can use, right? Because mutual aid is all about, you know, you use what you have at hand as a collective, or you cultivated over time, right? But the point is that you use whatever’s within grasp, in a democratic way.

Naty Smith  38:01

And as far as people power, too, right? Like you’re trying to build power, and so you’re trying to build class power and build capacity for the future disasters and like to have collectives already built up, right? Like, there’s this sense of becoming people too, and like a lot of the mutual aid discourse, right?

Will Beaman  38:20

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, and I guess, I also want to spell out like, what the stakes are for us in reading mutual aid as naming, right? Because I want to say that…

Naty Smith  38:37

As the enneagram, we’re gonna put our cards on the table that this is going to transition to — we may never talk about MMT again.

Will Beaman  38:43

This is the enneagram podcast now, which we knew as soon as Natalie joined as a co-host, that it was only a matter of time.

Naty Smith  38:54

That’s very rude. Stop naming me Dasha. She’s furrowing through. It’s not the same. It’s not the same.

Will Beaman  39:04

One thing that we’ve been hinting at with mutual aid so far, you know, we see it as naming, and we think that naming is not all bad, right? That’s a key takeaway, I think, from the last episode that you did with Maxx. Because naming things is incomplete, inherently, when we name things, and we don’t acknowledge that that’s incomplete, and that that’s just participating in the game, right? In rulemaking and in playing at the same time.

Naty Smith  39:42

Oh.

Will Beaman  39:42

When we don’t acknowledge that that can be oppressive, right? Because then you’re saying: you’re this thing…

Naty Smith  39:50

Of course.

Will Beaman  39:51

And you have to be this thing, and if you don’t fit the thing that I just named you then you’re defective.

Naty Smith  39:58

It’s super dangerous to repress the fact that you’re abstracting with language. To repress that you’re making rules that you’re… And to be fair, a lot of mutual aid, or whatever, or whether we’re including the NGO sector or not, or whatever, a lot of people are, and anarchists are, very aware of the need for collective obligation and rulemaking and process. A lot of them are, in fact, obsessed with that, right?

Will Beaman  40:27

Yeah. Yes, it’s the stereotype about anarchists is that it’s an endless cycle of committee meetings and stuff.

Naty Smith  40:34

Yeah.

Will Beaman  40:34

Because the anxiety about the potential evils of naming things, of positing things, of inscribing the world in all of these ways that will then limit other people’s autonomy to inscribe the world in ways…you know? And do these things. And so there’s a fantasy of like, how can I have the smallest footprint possible, so that I’m not taking up space in this group? And you know…

Naty Smith  41:00

Yeah…while also being the biggest in terms of like, getting good work done, which again, we want to affirm the beauty of people’s desire to get good work done, right?

Will Beaman  41:09

Right.

Naty Smith  41:10

But that doesn’t mean there’s a…You can’t just say this is the line and that we know it’ll go this way.

Will Beaman  41:16

Yeah!

Naty Smith  41:17

Like the beauty of your desire doesn’t mean your one plan is right.

Will Beaman  41:22

Absolutely. And I think that mutual aid itself…

Naty Smith  41:27

Or the only one…

Will Beaman  41:28

Yeah, and mutual aid itself, I think, you know, like when I say I think that mutual aid is always going to be necessary as a practice, right, like naming things outside of other people’s systems of naming things, you know, participating in naming in an ongoing way, In other words, rather than being like oh, that’s the namer forever now

Naty Smith  41:51

Yeah…No, you are affirming the rebellion of participating that you can’t get outside of but affirming that yeah, you can rebel within the participation, which isn’t a fetish of leaving participation.

Will Beaman  42:03

Absolutely. Yeah. It’s instead saying that contesting the inside is inalienably part of the inside, right? Which I want to not say…

Naty Smith  42:19

The six mind dialectic.

Will Beaman  42:21

That’s, well, now you’ve sent it so I think you need to explain the gram. This is an enneagram reference. And I’m putting Naty on the spot now because I don’t want to edit it out.

Naty Smith  42:32

Oh, well, six is kind of coming out of this like the center of this so-called thinking kind of doubting movement, right? And then you can have where you’re going in different directions like when you have a security point you’re experimenting with, right? Like so for six that would be like three in the system. And like a stress point, or no, wait, no, the reverse sorry, the stress point is the three for the six anyway. And the security point is the nine which is kind of like this kind of summing up of the others, and it’s the sort of more reconciling movement right, this sort of narcoticizing, and they both have… Yeah, like the sort of six is kind of dealing with this sort of underdog rebellion also with this other side of like, loyalty to the collective, right? And then nine is kind of dealing in these themes of participation you know, very, very Amy Goodman…

Will Beaman  43:25

Keeping the peace, right?

Naty Smith  43:26

Like six is like it’s like if you had Dick if you want to see Six Nine, you should look up Amy Goodman interviewing Dick Gregory or something. Is this gonna mean anything to people?

Will Beaman  43:39

I’m gonna put the link to that on YouTube in the description of this episode. And I’m a six, so that was Naty diagnosing my six to nine movement just now…

Naty Smith  43:55

It happens when you have OCD. I like our shape. But we were talking about naming and how it’s like, you can rebel within systems.

Will Beaman  44:04

Yeah, we’re on a roll now. Oh right, right, right.

Naty Smith  44:07

Because part of participating in language, right, for me coming from the four place, the two is language, education right? from this, but there is like this sort of not immanence of language creation, but there is this sense of like, you’re in that and there’s this like, outwardness, too that is with that. But our point is that there’s a desire sometimes in what might look like no, they’re embracing abstraction, they’re embracing governments and rules. They’re just saying you can’t do it inside, right? That outside, over here, is where we can really do good abstraction. We’re saying no, sometimes there is an extent to which they’re overcompensating. They’ve repressed the abstraction and so they’re like, over-leaning into abstraction, but they still haven’t reckoned with that problematic that is always at issue, right? The riddle of care or whatever you want to fucking call it.

Will Beaman  45:07

Yeah, which can only work at multiple different registers of participation and creating new systems and playing within them and changing them and all of these things. It can only work through naming, through positing things, but the point though is to posit them in a way that does not cut off other people’s participation and that naming process in wherever they are.

Naty Smith  45:39

And that is not particularly useful. Because you know what you actually see when you look at mutual aid is like a beautiful diversity of practices, and it does make me think of good lord like there are so many things wrong and it also is beautiful the quantity of projects that do exist and that do have institutional histories, formal or informal, in all different ways and that you can name so many things as part of mutual aid. But in a way it makes me sad that at the same time there’s so much energy put into — not because there’s some zero sum amount of energy — but it’s just a shoring up like well what is mutual aid? Is it just donations or like, is that just charity? Or well no, we’re not just charity because oh, well, you know, we’re not just like maintaining class… And these are interesting analyses, right? I think it’s important to state the difference from philanthropists who do want to just put on band aids and make things look like they’re putting change so that power doesn’t change. We also don’t want to say that their taxes pay for society, right? But it’s not like we should just tax them for it. We can just tax them because it’s not democratic for them to have that much money. But I guess it makes me sad when people are like, if you have a campus you have an autonomous organizer and then maybe this can transition and then they get siphoned into the NGO industrial complex and believe me I don’t know that much about that world, but I’m sure there’s like a ton of problems. There is the scarcity built in, right, of donors that there can be professional channels where like, this is something we’d want to rebel against within participation, right? The austerity and punishment and discipline that doesn’t contribute to good things happening that’s just disciplinary, right? That isn’t about actual good work getting done. Or say oh, and now they’re lost to the professional jobs where they’re getting paid. And I understand that there’s this critique of like, this sort of Libby in some readings — a sense of like people who say “pay me for doing the mutual aid of listening to you talk about your feelings for 30 minutes.” Like very over the top case, which I don’t know if that’s like a thing that’s never happened to me but I’m sure there’s people who do that. And I understand both sides of that. Like I understand the kind of like affirming that people want to get paid.

Will Beaman  48:07

Yeah.

Naty Smith  48:08

And also the same like oh, well I can see where there’s cynicism in this.

Will Beaman  48:12

Right, well because on the one hand paying people to do things is how society, whatever regime we’re talking about, is that denomination of currency, right? Like that’s how people are being validated… And they’re socially authorized to be the way that they are because we’ve paid them and they can handle their expenses, right? And so it’s a desire to be recognized as valid, but then it of course is going to become cynical if you take money at the liberal definition word for what it is as zero sum and as only fundraising from people in a zero sum way.

Naty Smith  49:04

Everyone ever was a user of currency. Yeah…That the state, too, is using its own currency.

Will Beaman  49:10

Yeah.

Naty Smith  49:10

Not to just say it in that way, but the currency was used always only.

Will Beaman  49:16

 Right.

Naty Smith  49:18

And we were only ever at the end point of monetary naming. Does that make sense?

Will Beaman  49:24

Yeah. No absolutely, yeah, I mean, there’s a sense in which we’re irreversibly currency users or something.

Naty Smith  49:32

Yeah.

Will Beaman  49:32

Maybe now would be a good time to turn to one of our readings, which is: we wanted to read from a work by Dean Spade, which I don’t know if you want to introduce who Dean Spade is…

Naty Smith  49:49

So I’ve learned about Dean Spade recently from Will because Will was the one who got us into mutual aid discourse. That was a horrible introduction. You see, I have to just delete that.

Will Beaman  50:04

He’s an Associate Professor of Seattle University of Law. He has a new, best selling book out, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). Ladies and gentlemen, Dean spade.

Naty Smith  50:16

Do mutual aid books best sell? That’s cool.

Will Beaman  50:19

Yeah, and trust me, he’s anxious about it. But yeah, no. I mean, he’s an associate professor at Seattle University School of Law. He has a book that I wanted to read from called Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next).

Naty Smith  50:38

I love how your tone just got sadder.

Will Beaman  50:40

Well, you know, and the next, like, I mean that’s just…

Naty Smith  50:44

This crisis. That crisis. This crisis. That crisis…

Will Beaman  50:49

Yeah well, but this is what’s so kind of interesting and telling is like, even in the book title, right, like there’s a sense that we’re always going to be in a crisis.

Naty Smith  51:00

Or it’s always one, it’s not that there’s interlocking crises.

Will Beaman  51:03

Right, right.

Naty Smith  51:04

It’s each time you’re in the “one” crisis.

Will Beaman  51:06

Uhuh, yeah which is, you know, whatever crisis of capitalism we’re in right now, basically, is I think what that means.

Naty Smith  51:15

Katrina, which was, anyways, the after effects, right, where, you know, racial capitalism was, all those effects were very clear, right?

Will Beaman  51:28

I feel like there’s a sense also, like, in this title, and in this framing, that our biggest opportunity for mutual aid is whenever capitalism goes into a crisis, right? Which I think belies a kind of a reliance or an internality to capital, even though folks like Dean Spade wanna see themselves as “No, we’re just taking advantage of when capital is weak in order to like to get outside of it somehow,” but it’s like, no, you’re still predicating your ability to participate in provisioning work and being an authority of shaping caretaking on whether or not capitalism has gone into a crisis or not. But I think to spell out some of these stakes for the different ways to read mutual aid. I think it’s worth spelling out, you know, I mean, we’ve started to already but…

Naty Smith  52:29

We’re afraid of austerity.

Will Beaman  52:31

Yeah. Spelling out…

Naty Smith  52:33

MMT won’t become understood. You can’t have abolitionary MMT if your understanding of mutual aid is just starve the state.

Will Beaman  52:41

Yeah and that’s something that, i mean, I didn’t listen to this interview, but I think you did where we’re Spade uses the phrase, right, like “we need to starve the state”

Naty Smith  52:53

On a show we like.

Will Beaman  52:54

On a show me like, yeah, shout out to Death Panel.

Naty Smith  52:56

Yeah.

Will Beaman  52:57

Dean Spade, I think, we chose as kind of a paradigmatic example of somebody who sees mutual aid as fundamentally outside of the system. And money is a telltale sign that you’re in the system for Spade because as soon as money is involved, then that means that somebody has ownership over the work, rather than the people having ownership over the work. Right? So there’s a whole section that’s actually called “handling money”.

Naty Smith  53:30

And we can nod to some historical examples, right? We can nod to some that are negative histories, right? Where domestic abuse entities become interiorized to the carceral complex, right? Or when…Well, that’s my main example.

Will Beaman  53:46

Well, I mean, but another historical example. And maybe this is a little bit snarky, but like, another historical example is the Franciscans.

Naty Smith  53:54

Well, I was saying of a bad example…

Will Beaman  53:56

No totally, this is snarky.

Naty Smith  53:58

Yeah.

Will Beaman  53:58

But um, but yeah, like, for the Franciscans, there was also a big…there was an anxiety about handling money. The Franciscan Order, which happens in like 14th century – 13th century like, you know, beginning of Western modernity. They see themselves as basically connecting contiguously one to one you know, I don’t want to go into all the Franciscan stuff but like you know, basically we’re going to go out and live in nature and we’re going to just help each other through just pure mutual aid.

Naty Smith  54:39

Touching, touching grass.

Will Beaman  54:40

Yeah, we’re going to touch grass. We’re going to go visit the poor and help them and then maybe sometime later they’ll visit us, but we don’t know for sure that they’ll visit us, but that’s okay because…

Naty Smith  54:51

They’ll visit us. We visit each other, okay? Two lepers meet on the road.

Will Beaman  54:57

It’s a selfless act every time that we do it. But like the Franciscans famously had people who carried their purses for them and handled money on their behalf. Right? And there’s a section in Spade’s text on mutual aid where he talks about handling money and the challenges of handling money and you know, you can have paid staff, but as soon as you have paid staff, then it’s going to create inherent power imbalances where, you know, their work is going to be valued more than the work of volunteers, and whoever’s paying them also, because of course, money can’t come from inside right? Money always comes from outside.

Naty Smith  55:40

Yeah, because as if everyone were volunteers, there wouldn’t be people who just like were getting… I mean, of course, collective democracy, that would be something you would want to work against. But yeah, there’s these injustices would occur, right? Like these are things you’re always dealing with: the people who are getting valued more or less, and things that are unfair, and then that would be something you’re immediately dealing with just the way that that occurs society-wide, right? Yeah. But that’s an interesting way of putting it that was like by saying, I mean, people will critique this a lot, right? Like with horizontal models that are absolutely horizontal, that there’s like a repression of dynamics that are occurring.

Will Beaman  56:17

Yeah.

Naty Smith  56:18

Like, there are leaders. There are valuations being made, right? And then just denying money doesn’t get rid of…

Will Beaman  56:27

Yeah, and even horizontalism is an act of naming, right?

Naty Smith  56:31

Of course.

Will Beaman  56:31

And so this is, in some sense, right? We come full circle to the like, you know, Hobbesian social contract, right? That’s, you know, we’re all choosing to be for the collective instead of for ourselves because it’s the right thing to do, right? And that’s the difference. Whereas for Hobbes, it’s like, this is a Cost Benefit Analysis. But mutual aid here is: no, we’ve been conditioned into thinking in terms of costs and benefits, but actually, it’s ethical to sacrifice whenever necessary for mutual aid and that, you know… But we want to get out of this register of self-sacrifice in the first place.

Naty Smith  57:12

Because I think people who get effective work done even… I think, even if you are outside, like so called, like monetary naming, I think when people get work done, it’s not usually as effective if they’re talking about self sacrifice all the time. Not because they shouldn’t talk about their pain, but because that doesn’t engender the ability to function well, if you just keep talking about self-sacrifice all the time. I don’t know.

Will Beaman  57:45

Absolutely.

Naty Smith  57:46

I think you should talk about what is hurting you and what…

Will Beaman  57:51

Yeah and…

Naty Smith  57:51

And try to figure out ways to work with that as opposed to just like, I don’t know does that make sense?

Will Beaman  57:57

Yeah, and you know, but then there’s a way also that I really want to focus in on in which all of this is conditioned by a very austere idea of what mutual aid is in the first place, right?

Naty Smith  58:10

Of course.

Will Beaman  58:10

Where there’s this idea that we’re going to get outside of money. We’re going to get outside of naming things with money, right? We’re still gonna name things in the center.

Naty Smith  58:19

Or create a perfect flat currency that’s just like this chips that yeah…all subjugation has been permanently banished.

Will Beaman  58:29

Right.

Naty Smith  58:30

Not that that doesn’t sound noble, it’s just I think there’s like an absolute horizontality that doesn’t sound like anything that ever exists? I don’t know. An absolute

Will Beaman  58:41

Yeah. And the absolute horizontality or horizontalism, I guess. The absolute horizontalism, it implies boundaries, right? You have to decide well, we’re all horizontal, and these other people aren’t in the collective because they’re not horizontal. Right? So from the outset, you’ve already created a logic of inside and outside which, yeah, it’s gonna be…

Naty Smith  59:10

Which is part of naming.

Will Beaman  59:11

Mm hmm.

Naty Smith  59:12

But it’s the shape of that naming that we’re talking about where it’s like, I think it’s okay to ascribe value and to say, like, types of horizontality have value. But I think you’re talking about an exclusionary naming where you are, your boundary drawing is like too early, right? And it’s not well drawn, and sometimes drawn in ways that don’t help elucidate what we think is really the goal?

Will Beaman  59:42

But what I do want to say is that I think that this title represents a tendency that we’ve commented on a lot on this podcast in the past, which is to subordinate care to power and say basically that care and caring for each other is kind of what we do in the shadow of violent power. Right? So you have these acts of violence by people who have the ability to commit violence. And then care is kind of what we do if we’re sort of trying to regain ourselves and you know, like, stay alive while this awful fallen regime is in power.

Naty Smith  1:00:27

Well, it’s the ongoing problem, right? And so that’s beautiful, because there’s so many infinite shortfalls that we really it’s honorable, this work to try to fill in this care for each other in our ongoing production and reproduction, outside of like, as we’ve talked about what’s been officially named, because precisely that’s been done in such an unjust way when it doesn’t have to be that way. Right? And so there’s such trauma, you know, even though we have a welfare state, it’s all means testing and lots of administrative bullshit, you know, so many places in our society where there should be aid, there isn’t aid, right? And so, we all see in different ways these shortfalls and can recognize it. And so I think we are all in different ways, that’s what we would want to aim towards, right, is like, how do we repair or do types of repairs, right? And so that’s kind of a question everybody’s invested in, you know, not everybody, but…

Will Beaman  1:01:40

No and in their own ways, people can’t help but care good and bad, right? A lot of “care”, broadly defined, is maintaining a carceral system, right?

Naty Smith  1:01:55

Mhm.

Will Beaman  1:01:55

You know, but these things are care the capacious sense of there being no outside of this shared horizon, of maintaining this world for good and for bad.

Naty Smith  1:02:07

All that care that’s carceral, right, the whole point is to make other kinds of decisions about how we employ ourselves.

Will Beaman  1:02:18

Yeah. And I think, you know, we’ve already sort of hinted at this already, but I think what we want to say, is so significant about mutual aid that we don’t want to get lost in what some would maybe consider the minutiae or the you know, the real kind of day to day significance of delivering food to people or, caring for caring for children, and, community members, and all of that kind of thing, is the fact that mutual aid, both being of this world that is simultaneously provisioning a carceral state and is affording, you know, indirectly but is indirectly affording mutual aid. Right?

Naty Smith  1:03:08

Right. Right.

Will Beaman  1:03:09

What it’s contesting is a misuse of fiscal power, right? Towards a kind of abandonment, right? Because if you were to take the current kind of fiscal authorities’ word for it as to who deserves work, who deserves to be cared for, I mean, unemployment is your answer, right? Like there are people who “the system” is neglecting and I think that mutual aid holds open that contestation, which is a fundamentally monetary contestation. I want to honor the fact that people are rightly traumatized by institutions, right? And by institutions that on the one hand, tell them they exist to protect them and then do the exact opposite, right? But I think that there is…

Naty Smith  1:04:03

However…

Will Beaman  1:04:05

But I want to honor that trauma while nevertheless insisting that mutual aid is actively contesting it, right?

Naty Smith  1:04:17

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:04:18

That mutual aid is not fully on the outside of these systems, nor is it fully on the inside. And I think that this dichotomy of whether you’re on the inside or outside of systems…

Naty Smith  1:04:30

It’s actually a rhizome, I think. It’s just like a big ginger root that we all live inside.

Will Beaman  1:04:39

We’re going to have Deleuzians just nodding along being like “I knew it, they’re Deleuzians.”

Naty Smith  1:04:48

What did you say the other day? “Deleuzians of grandeur,” I wrote it down.

Will Beaman  1:04:54

Deleuzians of grandeur, yeah, keep your ears open for that upcoming episode when we figure out what on earth we want to say about Deleuze that would warrant that kind of a title. But could be anything really?

Naty Smith  1:05:08

Yeah, that as well.

Will Beaman  1:05:10

Yeah. You know, this desire to be outside of institutions ends up bleeding over into a desire to be outside of money and outside of fiscal policy, and outside of abstraction, in general. Which is, for us what money, whether it’s the dollar or local currencies, some are good in some ways. Some are bad in some ways…

Naty Smith  1:05:36

But it’s always an issue.

Will Beaman  1:05:38

Yeah, they’re analogs of this problem of naming and socially authorizing what is to be done that’s unavoidable.

Naty Smith  1:05:45

Okay, that wasn’t the most Lenin you’ve ever gotten on this…

Will Beaman  1:05:50

Wait till we get to part three, which I’m tentatively calling “What is to be done.” And when I say it’s a contestation that’s unavoidable, I don’t mean it’s a conflict that’s unavoidable in the sense of there being some kind of a zero-sum thing. But rather, the world will never not be ordered in all kinds of complicated ways.

Naty Smith  1:06:17

Well and repressing it is repressing the politics and aesthetics or proto-aesthetic, as Scott would say, of fiscal policy is precisely can be the problem, right? There is a historical thing where fiscal policy became de-politicized, and part of that is like a purposeful obfuscation within the model itself, right? But I think part of our gambit is like participating in the politicization of the fiscal without this sort of gloss of professional moneyness perfection, right? Do you know what I mean? But like, kind of this re-politicization of the vulgarness of contesting money. And so we affirm that mutual aid is kind of like playing with the vulgar assertion of what do we want to name? What do we really want to be doing? What is actual aid to each other? But we would maybe want to push back on repressing the fiscal and wanting to somehow starve the state, which is anyway a tax base model, but also is like repressing this engagement that, you know, a lot of people who have been in the Money on the Left universe have talked about, you know, Jakob Feinig or different people, David Freund… The politicization of money is this sort of whole lost horizon, right? At the turn of the 20th century, all these things, that’s always … but that always is still going on all the time. But there’s a repression of the ability for that politicization to be more popular, right, to be more popular, in a way. And we want to do that all-at-once-ness, and not repress that.

Will Beaman  1:07:57

If you repress the idea of there being an outside — we’ve talked about this a lot with all of the different metaphors about, you know, Western civilization loves ship metaphors, right? It’s like you don’t rock the boat, you know, or any port in the storm, right? All of these terms that suggests basically a precarious position where we’re all we have in this enclosed space and because of that, we go into social situations without leverage to stand up for ourselves and to say no to abuse and that kind of thing. And, you know, we’ve talked about this in the context of the Bruenig’s obsession with nuclear families, too, right?

Naty Smith  1:08:44

We need to have more talking shit about the Bruenigs…I don’t know just more of that. Just more I mean, I know it’s like repetitive, but it’s like it’s a good…

Will Beaman  1:08:53

It’s a good bad infinity.

Naty Smith  1:08:55

Yeah. Because they also seem to insist on repetition and people don’t seem to catch on to their game. So Liz, homophobic and transphobic on the timeline. What? We forgot. Amnesia! They just want social democracy! They just want a welfare state! Okay?

Will Beaman  1:09:13

Yeah, they just want to secure a future for the children of social democracy. Anyway. So right. So this section “Signs of Overwork and Burnout”, this takes place over the backdrop, this idea that you have to make this organization work, or else all of the work that you’re doing goes away, right? So you have to make the dynamics in the organization work, and that basically here is I think, you know, what could be called maybe an emotional economy you know. An economy of boundaries and limits and people trying to calibrate how much capacity do I have versus this person so that everybody is kind of suffering the same.

Naty Smith  1:10:02

Because there’s a reckoning with like, where there’s an always incompleteness, right? And there’s a mourning that goes with that. But sometimes the way that people try and share up that mourning is just to like, double down more on being strict and making sure the thing works. And, you know, like, everything kind of like has its newness, and its deteriorations. And these are not in pareto balance and preordained, but there’s always things that are breaking and then starting. And I think sometimes that creates anxiety about projects where they want to make sure they’re not wasting their time and make sure we’re doing something good. And I think that’s honorable, to want things to actually be better and workout for people. But you also have to, if you don’t honor the slippages that are there always, that you can discipline away the slippage. Do you know what I mean? In a way that isn’t going to work except to burn everybody out even more with your seminar on burnout.

Will Beaman  1:11:04

Yeah, right. Extremely well put. And I think that the words will fly off the page from there. “Signs of Overwork and Burnout” So “High stress when thinking about tasks being performed by someone else who might do it differently, or the group coming to a different decision than we would make.”

Naty Smith  1:11:26

If you feel like going off the handle about minutes. You might be burning out.

Will Beaman  1:11:33

Although I do think that it’s interesting that this is framed as a sacrifice, right? The group comes to a different decision than we would make, and we have to be mature enough to know to just let it happen, right? So there’s like a selfishness thing. They’re not being self-sacrificing enough. Or “desire to endlessly be given credit for our work” Again, right? That’s literally there’s a scarcity of credit.

Naty Smith  1:12:04

You’re burnt out if nobody is like giving you any recognition. It’s like, well yeah! But that comes from a deeper scarcity that’s been designed. And it’s true that one person can’t change that, but to not honor some of the impulses emotionally… Maybe just people affirming them isn’t gonna fix everything, but you can be on your way towards a practice. You know?

Will Beaman  1:12:31

Yeah, absolutely. And “over promising and under delivering”, I’m jumping around a lot, just kind of picking out highlights.

Naty Smith  1:12:37

Please, please.

Will Beaman  1:12:39

“Over promising and under delivering, which can lead to feeling fraudulent and afraid of being caught so far behind.”

Naty Smith  1:12:46

Regular neoliberal panic, but for the left.

Will Beaman  1:12:49

For the left, yeah. You feel anxious that the left might catch you over promising. Right? You don’t want that, you know, unless you can deliver.

Naty Smith  1:12:59

No pressure?

Will Beaman  1:13:00

Yeah, right. I mean, there’s a way in which this is like made the fault of the person for over promising and under delivering, and so maybe it sounds nitpicky, but what I’m trying to kind of get at here is that there’s a sort of a “damned if you do damned if you don’t” thing that I think is an artifact of “well, we’re working under conditions of scarcity,” right? And so we’re all going to have to make sacrifices.

Naty Smith  1:13:25

Yeah, you have to be mad at yourself that you haven’t taken care of yourself enough so that you can take care of the collective who hasn’t taken care of you. It’s like … And you just keep moving where you are on the chessboard, but it doesn’t, I don’t know, it’s just circular in a way. We understand the emotional impulse to be like, hey, like, look, if you are feeling like nobody notices you, or gives a fuck about you, you might need to, like, bathe more, you know, but also, maybe the problem is that you wanted it at all in the first place. Have you thought about that? Do you know what I mean? I mean, I don’t know if I’m making sense.

Will Beaman  1:14:00

Yeah.

Naty Smith  1:14:00

Intuitively, to me, it makes sense. But I don’t quite know how to articulate it.

Will Beaman  1:14:03

Yeah, I mean, you know, for me, it’s triggering of how I felt in certain jobs before. Ironically, in non-profit jobs, which similarly operate in a kind of an austere emotional economy, right?

Naty Smith  1:14:21

Yeah, yeah.

Will Beaman  1:14:23

Everybody’s sort of burnt out.

Naty Smith  1:14:26

Right.

Will Beaman  1:14:27

And so everybody needs to discipline themselves to self care enough so that they don’t make their burnout the problem of the group.

Naty Smith  1:14:36

And we understand, too, where people want to repress this like pure so-called neoliberal self help where it’s like if I’m just extra nice and loving, I can cure the group into not being burnt out. I don’t know, but it’s just like the infinite turtles at some point, you know. It’s always partial.

Will Beaman  1:14:55

Yeah.

Naty Smith  1:14:55

You can do some, and there’s other things you can’t do but it’s an honorable problem to have. It’s not as if you’re a fraud by having the problem, nor is there necessarily a simple fix, but the question itself is important.

Will Beaman  1:15:12

Yeah, and I feel like actually zeroing in on the kind of neoliberal self help thing. That’s another thing that returns repressed here as a symptom of this underlying kind of scarcity framework, right? Is that scarcity is kicked down into, well, it’s a mindset thing. I mean, we would say it’s adjacent to a mindset thing, in the sense, it’s a framing thing. And it’s an understanding thing of how the institutions that you’re operating in, like, what their potentials are, and what you can literally do in them. But here, you know, one of these bullets is “having feelings of scarcity drive decision making”. “There’s never enough money/time/attention.”

Naty Smith  1:15:57

No shit.

Will Beaman  1:15:58

Yeah, right. Like, I mean, this entire section is testament to the fact that feelings of scarcity are there as a premise. Right?

Naty Smith  1:16:10

Right. Totally.

Will Beaman  1:16:11

I think that leaning into this naming this proto-fiscal, proto-monetary overlapping with the nation state in the sense that, you know, nobody in a mutual aid network doesn’t use money in some other part of their life, right? You know, so, money and supply chains, and all these things are they’re in the background conditioning. Even if we’re imagining our mutual aid work as like we’re closing the door on the economy, and we’re getting down to non-quantitative social relations. Which, you know, I mean, I love rich qualitative, like diversity. And I think that we want to say that naming things and counting things does not necessarily imply flattening those experiences, or replacing those experiences with numbers, right? Or homogenizing them into some kind of a common unit of account, or maybe a common language, you know, or something like that. Those dimensions of power and control and all of these things, they’re always implicated, but, you know, it would be a mistake, I think, to reduce the history of language to powerful people writing dictionaries.

Naty Smith  1:17:30

And we have to name the bastard dictionary writers. We’re gonna be like Webster, you’re a bitch. And then that’s part of the rebellion.

Will Beaman  1:17:40

Right? Or, but, you know, by contrast, right, like this approach, and this is the last bullet that I’ll read.

Naty Smith  1:17:44

Sure, please.

Will Beaman  1:17:46

Another sign of burnout is “dismissal of the significance of group process.” Right, which, you know, again, is you’re dismissing the significance of sacrificing yourself for the group, right? Or the process.

Naty Smith  1:17:59

Yeah, I’m confused on what Spade’s read on this. Yeah, it’s hard for me to tell what is his perspective? Like, is he saying you’re burned? Because when I’m burnt out, I just don’t want to do shit.

Will Beaman  1:18:11

Well right…

Naty Smith  1:18:12

But is he saying that this is bad you feel this way? Because you’re doing something wrong to feel that way? Or it’s like, I’m confused on that, or it’s symptomatic, or it’s kind of that ambiguity? Like, is this a judgmental?

Will Beaman  1:18:28

There’s tension and anxiety about this because Dean does not want it to be judgmental.

Naty Smith  1:18:34

Right. Right.

Will Beaman  1:18:35

And goes at pains at every step of the way to double back and say, there’s this kind of unwinnable situation here emotionally, but it’s important to not take that personally.

Naty Smith  1:18:48

Right.

Will Beaman  1:18:49

Or not internalize that as something that you did wrong.

Naty Smith  1:18:52

Right. Right.

Will Beaman  1:18:53

So there’s a way of like, you know, “well, the world is fucked, so it’s not my fault that I need to…” You know. But nevertheless, right, you’re still being disciplined into sacrificing yourself. And then the rest of that quote, is “dismissal of the significance of group process and overvaluation of how the group is perceived by outsiders, such as funders, elites, and others.” Right?

Naty Smith  1:19:23

I don’t know if that’s a sign of burnout as much as just a sign of you have…

Will Beaman  1:19:28

Of being in a cult.

Naty Smith  1:19:30

Or being really really short on money and not knowing what your next step is. You’re misbehaving by wanting the money you so desperately… I mean, I understand that there are a lot of ways in which groups are, again, as we’ve mentioned, get scared…the discipline becomes internalized, right, to the group. This “we want to make sure we get the grant” or “make sure yada yada.” We don’t want to step out of line or be too informal and then how that internalizes. But this is misdiagnosing where the root cause is. It’s diagnosing it as like, as opposed to yeah, like you’re stressed about funds, but it’s not because you’re like, proud and just like, come on, give me funds. And that that is like this need for recognition is your problem. It’s like no, stop wanting the funds. No, I just feel like it’s putting its diagnosis in the wrong place.

Will Beaman  1:20:25

Yeah. And that’s something that he’ll hedge sort of against, against both sides of that.

Naty Smith  1:20:31

Right.

Will Beaman  1:20:32

And I mean, basically, his position is: well, there are pros and cons to either using money or not using money. Right? Whereas obviously, for us, we want to say that there’s no outside of using money. You’re either just admitting it and being reflexive about it, and then maybe you can use it democratically, or you’re repressing it and it shows up in all these weird symptoms that you then call burnout. Right?

Naty Smith  1:20:56

Right, right, right.

Will Beaman  1:20:57

Another thing that I want to point out, I mean, “how the group is perceived by outsiders, such as funders, elites and others,” right? “Outsiders” are being aligned with money, right?

Naty Smith  1:21:05

Right, right.

Will Beaman  1:21:10

Money is coming from the outside. It’s coming from power. That’s external.

Naty Smith  1:21:15

As opposed to at times democratically not… yeah… democratically.

Will Beaman  1:21:20

Yeah…

Naty Smith  1:21:21

Misaligned as opposed to, yeah… From any elite outside. Yeah, we’re concerned about the picture.

Will Beaman  1:21:29

And this should remind us of the barter story, right?

Naty Smith  1:21:33

Right.

Will Beaman  1:21:33

The story of money coming from outside of self-subsisting communities. But then, like, to your point, this totally belies that money is inside in the first place. Because listen again, “an overvaluation of how the group is perceived by outsiders, funders and elites,” right? Like valuation is not something that comes from the outside.

Naty Smith  1:21:56

Or neither inside nor outside. Right? It’s this intra-territorial, I don’t know, it’s hard. All these location questions are really abstract, but also, but also fraught, you know?

Will Beaman  1:22:07

Yeah, absolutely. And we can only speak in terms of analogs and what you’re doing as monetary participation. Where you are, and you know, in which ways, because there’s not just one thing that you can be doing, which is why it’s so confusing. But yeah, I mean, the use of the word overvaluation here, right, like a symptom that you might be burnt out is if you are mis-valuing what the opinions of outsiders are worth, you know, I mean, it’s just the word valuation, right? Like overvaluation, like this is monetary naming.

Naty Smith  1:22:41

Yeah, and again, I don’t know if that’s always the problem. I don’t know if that’s always the problem. I don’t know if the reason people, again, care about donors is because they’re mis-valuing who’s important. Like, that’s not what happens to me, again, when I’m burnt out. Just it makes me annoyed that I have to deal with it. And then I’m like, Oh, I got to deal with this. This is what we got to do. You know, it’s not I don’t know, doesn’t make me go like, I hope these people like me. I don’t know.

Will Beaman  1:23:08

Yeah, no. And in fairness to Spade, I picked out this section from an entire book where he talks about burnout here, he talks about, there’s so many ways up this sort of kind of paradoxical structure of like, you’re gonna get toxic social relations if you set them up as you’re not allowed to leave, or else the whole house comes down.

Naty Smith  1:23:32

Well, because it’s about that you can still be loyal to certain groups or different changing formations, but it’s not about one or the other. Like, you can still be loyal to certain principles and certain relationships and certain belongings. And that’s always changing form. And you’re trying to have different organizations or institutions, and sometimes you’re preserving them and sometimes you’re not. And these births and deaths and maintenances are always at issue. And yeah, it’s hard. Sometimes you’re moving into a new group. Sometimes something dies and is born and yeah, it’s just trying to embrace the changing-ness that’s always at stake in these attempts.

Will Beaman  1:24:13

Wooo. So that was a lot.

Naty Smith  1:24:16

Thanks. That was fun. I feel like we mutually aided each other.

The Neoliberal Blockbuster: Toy Story Part 1 (Full Episode)

This Money on the Left/Superstructure episode is the tenth premium release from Scott Ferguson’s “Neoliberal Blockbuster” course. Typically reserved for Patreon subscribers, this special two-part episode about Toy Story is available to the general public in full. Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon to your favorite podcast streaming service.

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

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

Course Description

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

Blockbusters:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999)

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

The Neoliberal Blockbuster: Robocop (Preview)

This Money on the Left/Superstructure teaser previews both our eight and ninth premium releases 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

Left Conversion Therapy w/ Ian from Twitter

Ian (@ian_as_portrait) joins Natalie Smith to discuss the hyper-normative left rhetoric of philosophy instructor and frequent Jacobin contributor Ben Burgis. Emblematic of a certain deadpan logical sobriety seen in certain left circles, Burgis’s debate style downplays heterogeneity, pleasure, and generativity in an effort to convert libertarians and right-wingers to an incrementalist tax-to-spend vision of democratic socialism. Calling out the austerian and deeply fatalist assumptions of Burgis’s reactionary approach, Ian and Naty instead affirm the potentials of an inclusive, heterogenous, and emotionally wide-ranging left discourse.

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

Building Digital Commons with Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow joins Money on the Left to discuss what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) means for building digital commons. Award-winning science fiction writer, prolific blogger, and long-time digital activist, Doctorow explains how MMT has shaped his ongoing work in the realms of digital rights management and anti-monopoly politics. He walks us through his important critical genealogy of Intellectual Property law as well as his contribution to the urgent anti-monopoly accord called the “Access to Knowledge Treaty.” Next, we get a quick preview of two new science fiction books he is completing, both of which engage MMT as a central component of their plots. Finally, Doctorow indulges our curiosity about his aesthetic practice of posting sundry pop and other ephemeral imagery to social media.

Theme music by Nahneen Kula (https://www.nahneenkula.com)

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.

Scott Ferguson: Cory Doctorow, thanks for joining us on Money on the Left.

Cory Doctorow: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Scott Ferguson: So you are a person of many talents that wears multiple hats. You’re a novelist, you’re an essayist, intellectual property critic, publisher, a treaty designer, and many more things. Maybe to begin, we can have you tell us about how all of these pieces of yourself fit together?

Cory Doctorow: Yeah, it’s kind of a circuitous journey. I’ve always been involved with computers. I tell people who ask me how to get involved in the industry that, if you don’t have the self discipline and foresight to be born in 1971, I can’t help you. We had a computer in the mid-70s that was a Teletype terminal connected to a mainframe. My dad was a computer scientist. Then, we had early PCs, like the Apple II Plus. They were all very legible. To make them do things, you would buy a magazine that had a program printed in it and you would type it in. And while the user experience leaves a lot to be designed, the German word is fingerspitzengefühl, the fingertip feeling you get for what the machine does, it just comes naturally, you get it for free. And so, we got modems, we got BBSs, we got early Internet, and all of that stuff kind of exposed me to the culture.

I grew up in a very political family. My dad was and is a Trotskyist organizer. It’s a very promethean kind of leftism. It’s not about back-to-the-land-ism or degrowth. It’s not about condemning every lord to live like a peasant. It’s about elevating every peasant to live like a lord. So those two things really intertwined. I also grew up in a great moment to be a “would-be” science fiction writer. Judith Merril, who was a leftist organizer herself, as well as a writer, critic, and editor, and who went into voluntary exile from the United States after the Chicago police riots in 1968, brought her and Frederick Pohl’s kids to Toronto, and was a colleague of my father’s. So I was first exposed to her as the host of Doctor Who on public television, where she would talk through the origins of these stories that underpinned the Doctor Who episodes. I would see her at demonstrations. She founded the largest public science fiction reference collection in the world, which was then called the Spaced Out Library. Later on, she let them name it after her. It’s now called the Merril Collection. She was a writer in residence, and in the early 80s when I was about nine or 10 years old, we took a school trip, and there she was. And she said, “Look, kids, if any of you write a manuscript, bring it to me, and I’ll give you feedback on it,” which is a remarkable thing to be a 10 year old who can solicit editorial feedback from like a legend. So there was that.

She was really quite a nexus. She convinced a guy to start what became the oldest science fiction bookstore in the world where writers worked and who mentored me when I was a kid. Then, when one of them, Tanya Huff, quit full time, I got her job and I worked there. We had a science fiction TV show that was part of her legacy, introducing Doctor Who on public television, that I consulted for. We had science fiction social gatherings, moveable feasts, that were descended from the Futurians, which was like a polyamorous writers commune in New York in the 40s. The Futurians were barred from attending the first Hugo Award banquets for being too leftist. They had this monthly spaghetti dinner that Judy imported to Toronto. So we had that and I got to know everyone. It was really as close to a formal apprenticeship as a writer as you could hope. 

As my writing career was taking off, so too was the dot-com bubble or, I guess, the early multimedia bubble, which became the dot-com bubble. So I was able to just kind of walk into jobs. I became a programmer for the Voyager Company. I then started an early gopher site development business, then a web development business, and then founded a company with some of the people I’d worked with and moved to Silicon Valley. Through that, I got involved with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is a human rights organization that works on digital issues. As the 2000 collapse was hitting, we got a buyout offer from Microsoft. Our venture capitalists, who had been pummeled by the crash, saw an opportunity to kind of make good. So they used some fancy accounting to basically steal all of the founder shares in the company, thinking that we would stay with it through the acquisition to get good jobs at Microsoft. I quit, instead. The acquisition fell through. I went to work for Electronic Frontier Foundation. I became their European director just as my first novel was coming out and spent the next several years on the road for them, quit for a bit to write full time, found that I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch both the peril and promise of technology be so badly neglected, and went back to work for them about six or seven years ago.

So over that time, when I’ve been with EFF, I’ve published twenty-some books and also lived in many countries and done a lot of work on treaties, standards, and other policy issues. Currently, my title is Special Advisor with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I contract with them. And my work right now is primarily about interoperability, and specifically, a narrow but important and nearly forgotten interoperability we call “adversarial interoperability,” or “competitive compatibility,” which is when you make new things that are compatible with old things, even though the people who made the old things don’t want you to. That includes things like a third party ink for your printer, but it has lots of applications, like Apple making programs that can read and write Microsoft Office files. Or, early in Facebook’s history, they made programs that would fetch your waiting messages from Myspace and let you read them on Facebook so that you didn’t have to choose between the superior experience on Facebook and all of your friends still on Myspace. They’d radically lower those switching costs. And this is a big moment for it, because we’ve got five bills before Congress to curb big tech.

Part of the anti-monopoly work that’s emerging from that is the ACCESS Act, which imposes an interoperability burden on the largest firms. The European Union is contemplating something similar with the Digital Markets Act. There are proposals for this in the Competition and Markets Authority Reports in the United Kingdom. Australia has a comparable proposal. We are at this tipping point now where the kind of interoperability that was once absolutely commonplace and has been rendered extinct through monopolization might come back. And I hope it will be the wedge for a broader anti-monopoly movement, because it’s not just tech that’s monopolized. Every sector from beer to professional wrestling to eyeglasses to accountancy have been monopolized. So if we can fire up a kind of radical imagination of what pluralism and our economic affairs could look like, and really recover that ability to believe that Thatcher’s decree, “There is no alternative,” was wrong, and that there are, in fact, myriad ways to arrange human affairs, then we can build a coalition of people who love wrestling, beer or eyeglasses, or, who want an internet that isn’t just five giant websites filled with screenshots of text from the other four, and really actually mobilize a force comparable to the kind of political force that sat behind the New Deal, or other radical breaks with the economic orthodoxy, and the very stable equilibria that were so unfair that the New Deal actually collapsed.

Maxximilian Seijo: So you’ve just touched on it there in some terms. In recent years, you’ve become a defender and promoter of Modern Monetary Theory. We’re wondering if you could narrate how you stumbled upon MMT and how you would say MMT has come to inform your work more generally?

Cory Doctorow: Yeah, one of the things I didn’t talk about when I talked about my history is that I’m a blogger. I’ve been a blogger for a long time, longer than most people have been, more than 20 years now. I am one of the owners, and have been for 19 years, one of the editors of Boing Boing, which is one of the most successful blogs in the world. Blogging was part of my method for making sense of the world and its complex narratives. So as these things came over my transom articles, newsletter posts, books, and what have you, I would try to explain what made them seem interesting to me for an audience of notional strangers, as opposed to keeping a private commonplace book, which writers have done for hundreds of years. When you make your commonplace book public, you have to approach it with a rigor that you can get away with when you’re working just for yourself, which is why all the notes I make to myself are incomprehensible. Whereas, the notes that I make that other people have to be able to read, are really complete. And that’s like a powerfully mnemonic exercise as well. It kind of turns your subconscious into this like supersaturated solutions of fragments that periodically will kind of glom together and crystallize a real, new synthetic idea that becomes a long form piece.

In service to that, one of the sites that I read for many years was and is Naked Capitalism. Yves Smith, who composes their link dumps, was highlighting some of the work. I don’t know who it was, maybe it was Mosler or something, or maybe it was like The New Yorker who did a long form piece. But early on, as in the current wave of MMT, someone brought it up and talked about chartalism. Maybe it came about through “Mint the Coin.” It was somewhere in that era, the first kind of “Mint the Coin” era. It was one of those things where I was like, “Okay, here is a long form word piece,” it was in a 10-15,000 word range, “if I’m going to devote the hour to reading it, I’m going to devote the half hour to taking good notes.” And the process of doing that really made me start to rethink some of my own bedrock assumptions about tax justice and resource allocation.

I had been an inflation freter. I wouldn’t call myself an inflation hawk, but an inflation freter, after the GFC and quantitative easing. I was living in the United Kingdom and we had seen asset bubbles for a long time that had really just tormented people and distorted their ability to understand the world. It’s hard to overstate the extent to which British people are insane about housing. There is a complete lack of any sense of proportion or reality, not least because every British person who had the incredible brainstorm to buy a place to live in 1970 now thinks they’re Warren Buffett because it’s worth 2 million pounds. So all British policy is so badly distorted by asset bubbles. And you could see that QE was going to fuel the asset bubble. So I was like, “Okay, well, the asset bubble will continue to destroy people’s lives. And the asset bubble is, to a first approximation, indistinguishable from inflation, therefore, money creation leads to inflation and destroys people’s lives.” I just didn’t really have a better framework for understanding it. And with the intrinsic contradiction of a decade later there not being inflation and there still being an asset bubble, really, MMT was like that missing piece of the puzzle. It was the way to understand when spending is and isn’t inflationary.

One of the things that had always brought me to economics was talking to and listening to games economists. Yanis Varoufakis was working for Yves. Julian Dibbell and other people were writing these books about gold farming and its relationship to economics. You had these toy economies. And it was also part of a long trend that economists have always led, which is social scientists putting on big boy pants by adding numbers to what is an otherwise qualitative discipline, and then claiming to be physicists of human interaction and making up fake Nobel Prizes for themselves and so on. There was this intense vogue. I wrote a novel about game economics and trade unions called For the Win, a kid’s novel about economics and people forming unions using video games as a vanguard for physical world unions in China and making common cause around the world in something called The Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web. So all of this stuff had been really in my consciousness, but I had not really understood where money creation fit in. I just didn’t understand it.

And, in some ways, video games are the key to it, because video games do, in fact, spend money into existence and tax it out of existence. That is exactly what happens. And attempts to create equilibria in video games were catastrophic. It was EverQuest that had a thing where they tried to create a resource equilibrium, where every time you crafted a shirt out of wool, a sheep would disappear. Then, if you use the shirt long enough, it would disintegrate and a new sheep would appear somewhere in the world. And they never bargained on the possibility that there would be people whose self soothing behavior would be making, but never wearing, shirts. And that there was just a person who liked to unwind and would craft shirts and all the sheep disappeared from the world.

It’s an interesting story, because those shirts were not inflationary. Those shirts had been sequestered; they were not in the stream of commerce. They could have done sheep creation without regard to shirt creation and never had an inflationary moment. In fact, they have the telemetry to monitor productive and non-productive shirt production, and to do sheep creation in a way that is very managed that would be hard to imagine on a macro scale in our economy, and they couldn’t figure it out. So it really tells you, if you do try to run a balanced budget, if you try to run a balance sheet shirt budget, you just end up with some weirdo shack full of shirts and a global sheep shortage, which is a real parable.

William Saas: Talking about gaming is actually an interesting segue to our next question. In addition to writing and thinking about Modern Monetary Theory, you’ve also been a very vocal critic of intellectual property and not just a critique of IP as IP, but of the idea of intellectual property itself. Can you give us a sense of your read on the history of IP and why it’s so problematic?

Cory Doctorow: Well, the term IP is itself like a little microcosm of where it all started and where it all went. The origin of this stuff, depending on where you start, is in things like royal patents, where the king would give favored courtiers a sinecure by allowing them to control production of some physical good or process. So you have the silver ribbon patent. Anyone who makes silver ribbon has to give you some money. And you can tell them whether or not they’re allowed to make it. You have the right to exclude, the right to authorize, and you can extract or rent. You have copyright and its origins in a trade war between the English and Scottish publishers. You had the publishers who were called, “stationers,” creating a system of exclusive rights, not for authors, but for investors. So once you secured a manuscript from an author and published it, you could exclude other publishers. Again, it was a part of a national industrial warfare between England and Scotland. The framers of the US Constitution were very much alive to the problems of this kind of exclusive right and what it could do in terms of both encouraging and discouraging different forms of creativity, innovation and productivity gains. They tried to craft a system that would, in the words of the Constitution, encourage the useful arts and sciences by allowing Congress, if it decided to, to create monopolies of limited duration over inventions and literary works.

It’s interesting, because I think it’s the only thing in the constitution that’s optional. Everything else is a shall and this is a may. Like if you identify a problem, if you have a shortfall in production, you can create a monopoly to do it, but you don’t have to. So the implication is you shouldn’t unless there’s a reason. It’s specifically not a moral right, because the framers, again, only twice in the constitution ever tell you why they created a policy. The Second Amendment says you’re allowed to carry a gun to make a well-regulated militia. It’s not just because guns are cool or because you want to hunt or whatever. You can have a gun for this purpose and this purpose alone. The only guaranteed right to have a gun is to be part of a well-regulated militia. And copyright and patents exist to promote the useful arts and sciences, not because everyone deserves to be paid for their work, not because, if we didn’t do it, people wouldn’t make stuff. It’s only when you can show that the policy framework will promote the useful arts and sciences that you’ll get it.

So historically, we call these rights, “monopolies.” We said there are author’s monopolies, industrial monopolies, or government monopolies. And monopolies are an uncomfortable thing to lay claim to. If you’re an industrial entity and you want a policy change, going to Congress and saying, “I find my monopoly is not expansive enough, can you expand it for me,” makes you look like an asshole. So the term that was first proposed in the 1930s, but slumbered for 40 years to replace monopoly, was intellectual property. Given that private property is the state religion of the United States, that just describing something as property gives it a halo of sacredness, it removes the rationale for its creation. It becomes a truth that is self-evident. Safeguarding property is a thing that we do because it is a truth that is self-evident.

My friend Steven Brust, who’s a Trotskyist fantasy writer, says that the way that you can tell if someone’s on the right or the left is you ask them what’s more important, human rights or property rights. And if they say property rights are a human right, they are on the right. That’s the line on which the right and the left cleave. It is the difference between a leftist and liberal. If property rights are there to accomplish some policy goal, but can be modified or eliminated in realms where they don’t accomplish that goal, then you’re a leftist. If property rights are there, because they are sacred and intrinsic, or if you’re a Lockean and you think that somewhere out there was a terra nullius, that some distant ancestor of yours mixed with their sweat and turned into a thing that they could own through the transitive property of owning their bodies, and thus their labor, then you are not on the left.

So the term intellectual property came into widespread use by an international lobbying organization in the 1970s, called the World Intellectual Property Organization. It was a consortium of different industries that lobbied world governments for more expansive copyrights and patents. They became a UN specialized agency. They really started to deliberately blend the differing kinds of rights that we had called monopolies into a single kind of incoherent category called IP. So they asserted an intrinsic equivalence between trademark, copyright, patent, trade secrecy, and sui generis rights, like database rights. They said they’re all just like species of the same thing, which is a really sharp rhetorical move, because the underlying framework for all of these is actually really, really different. Like trademark, for example, is nothing like copyright and patent. The whole basis for trademark, both in common law and in statute, is to protect consumers.

So the idea is that if you buy a can of Pepsi, and it turns out to be full of Coke, you have been wronged, but you as the consumer lack the resources to punish the person who mislabeled their product. So trademark allows Pepsi to act on your behalf to stop confusion in the marketplace. Trademark, historically, has only applied to commercial activity, and only when you can show that there was real or unavoidable confusion in the marketplace on the part of a consumer. It wouldn’t matter if a trademark abuse bankrupted the company that had the trademark. That was irrelevant to trademark. If no one was ever confused, if your can said, “Better than Pepsi,” and people read it, and we’re like, “I’ve always wanted something better than Pepsi,” and they bought it and they were like, “Goddamn, this is better than Pepsi,” and they never bought another Pepsi again, then trademark has nothing to say about it. This is completely unlike copyright and completely unlike patent. Patent was about trading disclosure for exclusive rights. So tell people how your machine works and we will stop them from cloning it. But you have to accept a penalty that now they know how the machine works and they can be inspired by it to make an equivalent machine, a compatible machine, or an add-on to your machine. So you trade transparency for an exclusive right that the state will enforce on your behalf.

Again, that’s nothing like trademark, which is, again, nothing like copyright, which is the ability to assert an exclusive right over expressions, but not ideas. So it’s the opposite of patent. Patents are our ideas, copyrights are expressions. So you can have Captain Marvel and Captain Wonder. You can have Edgar Allen Poe inventing the mystery story with Murders in the Rue Morgue, and the idea of the mystery story being in no way exclusive to him, such that we can now have an entire genre of mystery stories that owe nothing to Poe or his estate, and never have to seek his permission. Again, it is nothing like patent. Fair use and other limitations and exceptions apply to copyright. They don’t apply to patent. Trademarks and nominative exceptions, where you can refer to something by name and where it only matters if it’s in the stream of commerce, those things are not features of copyright. So they’re all very different.

The free software movement was born at the moment in which all of this stuff was being applied for the first time to software, where you had the first assertions of copyright over software and the first assertions of patent over software. The free software movement and its progeny, like the free-culture movement, the Creative Commons, and so on, historically, they’ve been very hostile to the term IP, and they’ve treated it as a rhetorical trick. It’s like calling being anti-abortion pro-life. If you concede the term that it is property, that it’s a coherent category, you’ve already lost the battle. Something that I came to last summer, I had a kind of lightbulb moment, where I realized that they’re wrong. There is a very precise industrial meaning of intellectual property. It carries over across all uses of it in commerce. IP is any rule that allows an industrial actor to control the conduct of their competitors, critics and customers, like if you can stop a competitor from making an interoperable product, or if you can stop a security researcher from auditing your product and describing its failings. 

Goldman Sachs made a free font called Goldman Sans. It’s free, they don’t need a copyright to stop you from using it. They don’t want to stop you from using it. But the copyright allows them to attach a license condition and the license condition includes a non-disparagement clause. So you can’t use Goldman Sans to make fun of Goldman Sachs. You can control your critics, you can control your competitors, and then you can reach into your customers home and control your customer. So you can use copyright law to stop someone from refilling their ink cartridge or from adding third party software to their iPhone without paying Apple a share of the revenues. That example is a really interesting one about how the industrial meaning of IP is much closer than the formal reading of copyright law, because if copyright law is there to promote the useful arts and sciences, it’s hard to understand how, if I write some software, and I’m the copyright proprietor, I’m the owner of it to use property talk, and you own an iPhone–again, this is not metaphorical ownership, it’s your distraction rectangle that belongs to you–and then I want to sell you my software and you want to pay me money for my software, which is my copyrighted property that I want to sell to you, and we can’t do it without Apple blessing the transaction, then that is the opposite of what copyright is supposed to do. Because, it is allowing an intermediary to rent-seek, condition, and structure a market for creative work without being a party to the creative work.

They didn’t make the creative work. They didn’t make my software. And you own your phone. Their title to it has been exhausted through the transfer. It’s what’s called the exhaustion doctrine, or when you transfer a copyrighted work to a third party. If I sell you a book, then I don’t get to tell you you’re not allowed to read the last chapter first and find out who did it. That’s your book, it belongs to you. You can do the voices when you read it as a bedtime story to your kids, or not. It’s yours, you can prop up a table leg with it, you can stick it in your little free library, you can start a fire with it. So with that exhaustion doctrine, by overlapping patents, copyrights, neighboring rights, trademarks, and so on, Apple is able to wrap the iPhone in layers of IP that allow them to control their customers, their critics, and their competitors such that the notion of property becomes the exclusive purview of like transhuman, artificial colony organisms called limited liability companies. And natural persons can no longer ever assert the kind of property right that people who claim to support intellectual property say intellectual property is a kind of. The intellectual property therefore extinguishes property as we understand it, and creates this thicket of property rights that are almost exclusively corporate, that trump all other property rights.

Scott Ferguson: Maybe to bring this to the present and to kind of circle back to some themes we were talking about earlier, the present moment feels pivotal in many, many ways, and there’s been a lot of debate across the spectrum, but especially on the left, about to what extent the neoliberal paradigm is in crisis, or is no longer tacitly, fully accepted by the discourse and the powers that be. And we could talk about this all day, but how this overlaps with IP politics is the recent and rather surprising announcement by the Biden administration that they were going to support a waiver for IP protections for COVID vaccines, essentially, pushing back on what I think a lot of us on the left worldwide are concerned about, which is vaccine apartheid. And you’ve thought a lot about this as it’s unfolding. Can you kind of unpack this and tell us a little bit about what’s going on?

Cory Doctorow: Yeah, I mean, it is seismic. I have friends and colleagues who have not been involved in the kind of WTO, WIPO land, who have looked at the Biden administration’s statement, which is admittedly hedged. It’s not a strong statement. It’s like we won’t oppose it, we’ll engage in productive dialogue, and blah, blah, blah. It’s not like vaccines for everybody. But I would have bet that the US trade representative would be a judge on Rue Paul’s drag race before the USTR would make a statement like this. I cannot express just how extraordinary, in the formal sense, and unprecedented this is in the USTR’s history. I worked on this treaty called the Access to Knowledge Treaty with James Love from Knowledge Ecology International. Jamie is the architect of the Access to Medicines Treaty, which was the treaty that tried to expand the WTO pharmaceutical waivers, specifically around AIDS drugs, but other drugs as well. And Access to Knowledge was a very broad treaty that narrowed into something called the Marrakesh VIP Treaty, which is a treaty to harmonize exceptions to copyright to protect people with disabilities.

So most countries have some form of copyright exception to allow the preparation of assistive versions of copyrighted work, like Braille books without a publisher being involved, or without paying a royalty or seeking permission. It’s very expensive. If you think about producing audio editions of books, you’ve got to get volunteer readers to read long books and it’s very expensive. The engineering is intensive and so on. And there’s no cross border reciprocity, so Canada can’t produce a read aloud version of a book with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and then share it with people who are visually impaired in the United States. More importantly, France can’t do this and share it with Rwanda. Cote d’Ivoire can’t do it and share it with Martinique. In places where they’re really resource constrained, where having a disability is already a huge burden, and where there’s very little infrastructure, this is just a no brainer. Because, this is the thing that everyone already has the right to do. It benefits people who are already disadvantaged. There’s no conceivable basis for saying fuck blind people without sounding like a complete asshole and yet that was the US trade representative’s position on the Treaty of Marrakesh.

The Association of American Publishers, all of the big rights holder organizations, all this stuff you heard them saying about the vaccine waivers, they said about the Marrakesh Treaty. Why should people with no arms be allowed to get an audio edition of a book? They could hold a pointer between their teeth and turn the pages. These are just absolutely indefensible statements that were totally par for the course when that came up. So it is remarkable for the Biden administration to have a USTR whose response to anything in the universe of a vaccine waiver is not like, “Kill it with fire, nuke it from orbit,” and is instead saying, “Oh, that sounds reasonable, let’s talk.” There is a reason that pharma freaked the fuck out when that statement came out. It’s like being the favorite kid whose ugly stepsister always has to clean up the fireplace great. And one day, the ugly stepsister says, “I don’t want to clean the fireplace great.” And your mother says, “Hmm, maybe we should have a chore rota.” It’s not that the chore rota will ever make you clean the fireplace great, but just the idea that there would be a chore rota is so shocking and outside of the norm.

So I have some hope for it. It’s also, as a humanitarian matter, indefensible that we would stop these countries from making their own vaccines. I think there is a form of really toxic racism embedded in the idea that brown people are too primitive to make their own vaccines, especially given that the world’s largest vaccine factories are in the global south. And the only even remotely credible argument about why we shouldn’t allow vaccine production to be parallelized into the global south, is that the inputs for vaccine production are limited. Not limited in total scope, but we can only dig them up out of the ground so quickly, or refine them so quickly. And if that’s true, then what we’re really saying is that brown people should have to wait until all the non-brown people have been vaccinated before they can get the inputs. We’re not saying that they can’t do it. We’re not saying that they shouldn’t do it. We’re not saying that it’s a good idea. We’re just saying that we will have fewer vaccine inputs to stick in our arms if we let brown people make vaccines. So as a humanitarian matter, as an ethical matter, it’s indefensible.

As an epidemiological matter, it’s indefensible. Because, when you have a virus, you reproduce the virus. It gets reproduced millions and billions of times, and each one of those reproductive acts has a small chance of a transcoding error–we call that a mutation. Most of those mutations are irrelevant, in that some of them make it more benign, while some of them make it more harmful. Some of the ones that make it more harmful also make it able to bypass vaccines. So given long enough, the chance that we will get a variant that is vaccine resistant and more dangerous, goes up and up. And there’s this weird story that apologists for vaccine apartheid tell, which is that pathogens are gentled over time, that a pathogen that kills its host quickly, or that limits its hosts ability to move around and infect other hosts, will not spread as fast as a variant that it is more symbiotic with–it’s gentler. And that is true over long timescales for most viruses. But the mechanism by which more virulent viruses are extinguished in favor of gentler cousins of theirs, is that everybody who gets the more virulent version dies. That is not a good pathway. 

I’ve spoken to some molecular geneticists on Twitter who seem to know what they’re talking about, who say, “Well, we can actually look at the problem space of all the possible mutations of this kind of Coronavirus and say that many of the mutations are likely to make a gentler and not more harsh, but not all of them.” We can just say that, probabilistically over time, we know that Coronavirus’s generally get less virulent. But that doesn’t happen every time. It’s not deterministic, it’s stochastic. And in the meantime, there are viruses like rabies that have been with us since time immemorial that have never become gentler. They have only become more virulent and more dangerous, and for which we have very few effective treatments. So it’s such a crazy bet for us to say, “Well, we’ll just let 2.5 billion people in the 125 poorest countries get vaccinated in 2024,” which is the current timeline. And we’ll just hope that we don’t roll like three snake eyes in a row, that we don’t end up with a variant that just burns through the rest of the world and that is more toxic.

And leaving aside if those nations collapse as a result of ongoing pathogenic spread. Another thing that also happens when you have out of control pathogenic spread is that states collapse. Then, those countries become everyone else’s problem anyway. We get refugee crises, civil war, proxy war, and we get outbreaks of other kinds of diseases, like cholera. There are all kinds of problems, and again, this is leaving aside that humanitarian tragedy of like dooming 2.5 billion people. Even if you’re like, “Well screw those people, they should have emerged from a different orifice if they didn’t want to be doomed to vaccine apartheid. Be born in America if you want to be at the front of the line, dum-dum,” even if you think that, it’s still bad for America. So to see the Biden Administration step up and not embrace this nonsense that has been the orthodoxy for decades, is friggin’ wild. It really does give me a lot of hope.

Maxximilian Seijo: I really appreciate the moral indignation of your response and all the passion. As we move to the latter parts of this interview, we wanted to ask, since you are a science fiction writer, a little birdie told us that you’ve written two forthcoming novels that integrate MMT into their narratives. And so, without spoiling anything, of course, can you preview what you’re up to in those books, how you’ve constructed them, and perhaps also how MMT has changed your writing process, style, and perhaps raised new challenges for you as a writer of literary fiction?

Cory Doctorow: Yeah, so I’ve written a fair whack of post-capitalist fiction with the idea that it’s harder to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the human race in mind. I think that’s wildly oversold. It’s actually pretty easy to imagine a post-capitalist society, it’s just hard to imagine the transition. That’s the tough part. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future really takes a hard crack at it. But as I wrote in my review, Stan flinches away from the violent part of the rupture. It is there. He talks about things like every commercial aircraft being felled by terrorist drones in one fell swoop. Although it is this very impressionistic novel that jumps around point of view characters all the time like a documentary, none of the point of view characters are people on the airplanes or someone who’s the surviving family member who lost a loved one on those airplanes. I know Stan, and he is a wonderful, gentle, compassionate, and brilliant person. I think it pains him to think that the transition will involve that kind of suffering and he didn’t want to glorify it. I don’t think that he put it in there to glorify it or to justify it, but rather to say that this is the kind of thing that desperate people might do.

I wrote a post-capitalist novel that is inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson, and that’s an MMT novel. So it’s a book called The Lost Cause. And it’s set in Burbank where I live now. It’s about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias after a Green New Deal that reorients humanity’s productive capacity to creating resilience for climate change. So it’s an optimistic novel, or a hopeful novel, not in the sense that it hand waves away climate change, or assumes that we can do things like somehow neutralize all of the thermal energy we’ve sunk into the Earth’s oceans. The second law of thermodynamics isn’t going to go away. An optimistic novel about climate change is a novel, at this point, about confronting sea level rises, not about halting them. I think that’s just where we’re at. Maybe heroic efforts will retain some of our caps, but if you heat up the ocean, then the caps will melt. And you can’t cool down the ocean. It’s very hard to cool down the deep ocean. It’s just a thermodynamic process that runs its course as it does. The physics of the dispersal of heat through water is well understood.

So in that world, where they have finally said we are going to confront this and do something about it, like relocate every coastal city 20 kilometers inland, they are able to mobilize their productive resources through MMT. For example, one of the things they realize they have to do is use a lot of prefabricated construction material that’s low carbon. They are able to build factories in the desert that only switch on when there’s more solar in the grid than the grid can absorb. The factories use solar centering to make low clinker, zero carbon prefab concrete slabs that can be used to build a variety of structures that are thermally efficient, seismically sound, and so on. And they are able to coordinate their productive labor around surges and falls in free energy when the wind is blowing, when the sun is shining, and so on. So it’s like a cooperative, nontoxic gig economy, where everyone gets surged into productive work when there’s more energy than we can absorb. But then, everyone gets time off when it’s not happening.

I wrote a short story called “Making Hay” that’s set in this world that just came out in an MIT tech review anthology called Make Shift. It’s the idea that you make hay when the sun shines, that we have a long history as a species of orienting our production seasonally and moment to moment around what’s available. It was the efficiencies that arose out of coordinated production that eliminated our ability to suit our production to local environmental factors. If you’re an artisan making a door and the weather is nice, you can work outside painting. And if it rains, you can go inside and sand. But if you’re on an assembly line and you’re not feeling it, and you wander off to count butterflies, the line grinds to a halt. Now, assembly lines allowed us to increase productivity by a huge amount. They brought material comfort to us. And digital technology allows us to marry the two to create a kind of individualized, self-determining work style that is, nevertheless, productive in the way that those highly coordinated systems are. The Soviets tried to rotate weekends around where everyone got a different weekend. It was a problem, not because people didn’t want to have different days off depending on production schedules, but because you wanted to have time off at the same time as the people you loved so that you could all do stuff together. It’s that coordination that networks are really good at.

We went to Disneyland yesterday and ran into friends who saw us because we posted photos to social media, and they got in touch with us and we were able to get together for dinner. That’s the kind of thing that you couldn’t have done a couple of decades ago, where you would have had to have a much more regimented approach to having this type of social engagement. When I was a teenager, if I wanted to go to a movie on a Friday night and I was downtown, I would get change for a dollar, put a quarter in a payphone, call my friend’s mother, say, “If he calls, please tell him that Cory is downtown and thinking about going to a movie and leave a message if he wants to go.” Then, I would call back in an hour and I would find out whether he called and then maybe we would meet up at the movie theater. We are now able to have a fluid and improvisational style that allows for much more self-determination. And yet, so much of what we do uses digital technology to regiment us instead of to allow us to kind of be loose and fluid.

The best of it are things like Wikipedia, where no one has to direct the labor, but we can all collaborate. I can come in at one in the morning and edit your article and you can come back three months later and challenge my edits. And someone in between who’s never met either of us can correct some punctuation in the middle. That loose coordination allows for really high productivity work without surrendering your personal determination. So that first novel is all about how you can have things like a job guarantee that allow for that kind of improvisation and unstructured, self-determining work that, nevertheless, does the urgent productive labor of saving our planet and our species, and allows us to have leisure when leisure is demanded. Turning on the factory to build the climate changing, or climate remediating, technologies when you’re competing for energy with the air conditioning that keeps people from dying, because it’s a 34 degrees centigrade and 80% humidity wet bulb temperature where you will die if you’re outdoors, that doesn’t save the planet. Doing nothing saves the planet if you do it at the moments when nothing can be done without taking energy at the margin from more important things. So it’s about that. It’s about digital networks, self-determination, and those automatic stabilizers that are embedded in MMT.

The other novel is a real old fashioned noir detective novel called, Red Team Blues, about a forensic accountant and it’s his last adventure. So I’ve never written on these other adventures, but it is his last adventure after decades in Silicon Valley. His origin story is that he was part of an early cohort of spreadsheet users and they bifurcated into people who figured out how to use spreadsheets to hide money and people who figured out how to use spreadsheets to find it. And he’s always been on the red team. He’s always been the attacker trying to find the money that other people were squirreling away illegally. And it’s a Bitcoin caper. It’s about him finding some cryptographic keys that are in contention between two different criminal gangs. One is an ex-Soviet gang from Azerbaijan, and the other one is the Los Zetas cartel from Mexico, who have stolen some cryptographic keys that allow them to manipulate cryptographically secured ledgers, or blockchains, to do money laundering.

His best friend, an economist, is a woman who teaches at UMKC, and whom he met at a forensic accounting conference. The whole thing is sort of shot through with MMT and with the idea that starving the economy of government money just produces income generating bank money for rich people, that every great fortune hides a great crime, and that accounting, and not economics, is how you understand where money comes from and where it’s going. And economics is just a way of training a generation of court sorcerers who can assure you that the king’s plan has divine backing and is provident.

William Saas: Those sound tremendous and we can’t wait to get our hands on them. We want to close out in a really fun way by asking you to talk about mood boards. So some of us have noticed that on your social media feeds you post old ephemera sometimes, and somebody asked you, what is this about? And you said that it was for your mood board. Can you talk to us about what these are and how you assemble them and what they do?

Cory Doctorow: So I think a lot of us subscribe to a social media feed or two that are just images, whether it’s Instagram, Tumblr or whatever. You look at it and it gives you a little jolt of pleasure to see something aesthetically pleasing. But understanding it, or building up a coherent picture of it, or, particularly, if we’re talking about images that have cultural specificity, either to a certain moment or a certain school or aesthetic way of representing the world, I think requires that you do more than look at them. And for me, I find all of these on Tumblr. For me, the act of copying it from Tumblr and pasting it into a Twitter tweet composition window, then copying the title and the URL, and just handling it, it’s like picking up a thing and putting it back down on the shelf. And the moment in which you hold it, it fixes it mnemonically in your mind. And so, it’s just a high touch way of getting that aesthetic experience.

Scott Ferguson: That’s great. Well, we enjoy them, so keep it up.

Cory Doctorow: Thank you, I enjoy them, too. It’s a lovely way to experience the world. And it’s part of this probabilistic way of reading the web, which is a recurring motif in the history of digital communities. When I was first on bulletin board systems, you could read every message that every other member posted to a public forum. Eventually, they grew, they got multiple phone lines, and you had to pick a forum. Then, maybe you would skim the forum, because you would know that the interesting stuff would turn into an argument or a discussion and you could go back and read the thread. Then, Usenet came along and it was the same thing. I could read every Usenet feed that was on my local feed. So you could effectively read the whole internet every day. It went through the same probabilistic process. Then, when the web came along, you had Jerry Yang’s yet another hierarchical obstreperous Oracle, or Yahoo!, where he would post every new website that was created every day, and you could look at every new website on the web.

Then, eventually, you had to rely on signal boosting. The way that you would find the stuff that was interesting is that someone else would repost it in some way. It wasn’t retweeting, but it was like embedding a link to it, writing about it, thinking about it, or quoting it. All of that stuff gave you another bite at the apple, and it made it less important for you to deterministically handle everything, to find all the useful things, and instead created a distributed, implicit collaboration, where we would all big-up the stuff that gave us some intense feeling. And the process of that bigging-up would ensure that it was more likely that the stuff that you needed to see would cross your transom.

Scott Ferguson: Well, Cory Doctorow, this has been a really rich and informative conversation. Thanks so much for joining us on Money on the Left.

Cory Doctorow: Well, thank you very much. I really enjoyed it as well. Leftists don’t talk about money enough.

William Saas: We agree.

Cory Doctorow: Read leftist fantasy novels. Read Stephen Brust. You can always tell when a Trotskyist is writing fantasy, because the ratio of lords to vassals is right. Brust has novels where a character will just walk through fields filled with 1000s of laboring peasants for a whole chapter, just like one after another after another after another just to reach the Lord’s castle. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, this is what it is.”

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

Modern Monetary Theory and The Trans Agenda (Essay)

By Nia Cola

To be trans today is to be treated as a political agent at all times, but afforded no  substantive political agency. Everything you do is scrutinized, as your right to exist remains under constant review. In response, trans liberation means actualizing authentic ways of being, without waiting for the sovereign judgment of cis society. The question of how to achieve this will always be open-ended and multi-faceted. Whatever our focus, however, trans liberation requires a gender framework that expands the present bounds of possibility, in excess of the limited forms of life that have been previously afforded space. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) gives us just that framework. 

MMT allows space for limitless social rearticulation through public spending and employment. In positing money as an infinite public resource, MMT provides a viable counter-narrative to dominant theories of “commodity money,” which account for human differences as economic costs and potential liabilities when it comes to building a mass political base. And while the prevailing economics casts money as an unproductive and symbolic veil over finite resources, MMT’s insistence on money’s active role in directing production allows us to see the affordance of difference as a policy variable. MMT also serves as a powerful analogue for the trans struggle against what could be called “sound gender” ideology—the assertion of a strictly material gender reality that the introduction of new pronouns can only debase. 

Grounded in such materialist reductionism, the stigmatization of trans people is implicit in the hegemonic gender binary system, which is part and parcel of colonial systems of knowledge and control. The patriarchal family, as an “independent” driver of social reproduction, stands in for the Western nation-state’s self image as necessarily profit-seeking and extractive. And Western anxieties about queer and trans forms of life allegedly “replacing” traditional lifestyles are in some ways a projection of the West’s own justification for settler-colonialism, whereby the existence of colonizers required the genocidal “replacement” of indigenous populations.

The sweeping social identities that Western thought derives from the ideology of biological dimorphism, however, are by no means universal. Despite sexual dimorphism, not all cultures have held to a strictly binary view of gender. There are, in fact, many ways for sexual reproduction to be folded into social reproduction, and so the supposedly “practical” and “material” bases of gender identity are in fact socially constructed and essentially contestable. What is more, because the archetypal reproductive household is socially constructed, the very fact of trans existence holds open space for rearticulation and reconfiguration. Trans existence, in other words, belies the falseness of cis society’s claims about itself. If trans existence is so destabilizing, what we’re dealing with are the symptoms of repressed truths about gender—namely, that there are no fixed truths. 

A rigid gender binary restricts individuals from acting outside of a narrow scope of social norms and becomes the basis for social and economic exclusions predicated on one’s performance of gender. While there is nothing evil about trying on binary gender roles, the politics of performance must be self-consciously nested in a contingent and playful non-binary spectrum. This essential space to play and experiment with gender cannot be conceived merely as escaping coercion. It demands ongoing cultivation and maintenance by way of an MMT-based political economic “agenda” that aims to secure trans agency in myriad urgent ways.

The Trans Agenda

As a function of a repressive cis gender binary regime, trans people must daily confront tremendous hardships and challenges. They face extraordinarily high rates of unemployment, for example, often recorded at around three to four times the rate for cis people. Trans persons also suffer from meager wages, lower levels of college attainment on average, and extremely high rates of poverty. Due to social and institutional discrimination, a large proportion of trans people are involved in the Sex Work (SW) industry. The criminalization and stigmatization of this precarious line of work exposes trans people to high degrees of financial and bodily risk, contributing greatly to the high rates of violence perpetrated against the trans community. 

For this reason, decriminalizing SW is an essential part of any trans liberation agenda. It is undeniable, however, that a significant portion of trans participation in SW is tied to discrimination elsewhere, and so justice for trans sex workers cannot be taken in isolation. If trans people are going to achieve liberation, it will mean provisioning lives we want to lead—including those of us who happily participate in SW. 

The issue of discrimination at the point of access to social goods can be viewed as a matter of equal protection under the law, and for this the solution is simple: pass statutes that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity. While this is of course a long Civil Rights fight, a good start would be passing the Equality Act, which would immediately alleviate explicit discrimination as a concern by making it illegal at the federal level. The Equality Act was passed by the House for the second time on February 25, 2021 and is awaiting a vote in the Senate. 

Still, the trans agenda must go further. A comprehensive policy platform could fill a tome, of course, and it would be good to develop such an agenda in the future. Here, however, I would like to focus on two key policies–a Federal Job Guarantee (FJG) and, below, Medicare for All–which are only realizable if we embrace the radical implications of MMT. 

The MMT lens implores us to look at the world in an expansive and generative way, rejecting binary and zero-sum thinking at the level of fiscal provisioning. The fundamental insight of MMT is that money is not a private commodity that must be taken from the market via taxation in order to fund the public sector. To the contrary, governments create money to finance their operations, and taxation is simply one tool among many to manage the shape and distribution of monetary demand (as well as ensure a common denomination. Money’s role in mediating access to and participation in social provisioning is a limitless public resource, which can be used however we want and across any time horizon. 

For this reason, the monetary agency of the Federal government to name and finance public priorities can be mobilized at any time to create a public option for employment. If designed and fought for as a fully inclusive and trans affirming program, a FJG would not only establish a wage-and-benefits floor for the entire economy and begin to challenge and change the social meaning of work. It would also create an inalienable foundation to both support and further facilitate trans liberation, while buttressing trans resilience against hostile employment authorities. 

Building a trans positive FJG, meanwhile, would build union power by diversifying and expanding the traditional white cis culture of union membership. As a unionized public works system, the FJG will no doubt irreversibly alter the balance of power between unions and employers throughout the economy. Yet while unions have in the past proven to be crucial countervailing forces against employers, traditional unions are far from perfect and insufficient on their own. Indeed, even in their heyday, large unions predominantly shaped and supported a repressive and exclusionary mid-center social order. 

A diversified FJG union, by contrast, will not merely boster trans life. It would also strengthen the bargaining power of public and private unions alike by preventing them from holding minority groups hostage to exclusionary majorities, or even corrupt alliances with management. A FJG union, moreover, would allow workers to refuse to work in striking sectors, providing an expansive foundation for industrial solidarity that transcends the false opposition between living for one’s self and living for one’s class. 

Too Many Pronouns Chasing Too Few Genders?

As with any expansion of government spending, the standard objection leveled against the FJG is that it will cause runaway inflation. Behind this explicit argument looms an implicit and quite violent social implication: If paying everyone to work increases the rate of inflation, as might be alleged by mainstream economists, the implication is that some of those people are being paid above what they’re worth. Or to paraphrase the economists, it is too many dollars chasing too few socially legitimate goods. Setting aside other critiques of mainstream economics, this is a startling statement about the value of the work of women, queer people, and people of color. It’s a declaration that we are not capable of producing work valuable enough to justify a living wage.

If one outright rejects the possibility that marginalized people can make social contributions that justify a living wage, then it follows that they either should live off the goodwill of “the productive” through redistributive policies, or that they don’t deserve to live at all. While few people will state the latter openly, the former view is highly patronizing and built to fail under pressure. Buttressed by such toxic logics, the work of marginalized communities has therefore long been under-valued, and the expectation that their employment will result in inflation reflects this legacy. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the inflation bogeyman is also wielded against trans people through opposition to trans healthcare. Medical interventions allow trans people to assimilate into cis society to the extent that they desire, or equally to challenge the gendered expectations that are hurting them in the first place. We can hear echoes of the inflation panic about illegitimate jobs in objections to trans inclusion in universal healthcare policies such as Medicare for All. According to this reactionary logic, gender affirming care is superfluous and cosmetic rather than “material” in some fundamental sense. The suggestion that there is a tradeoff between trans and universal healthcare implies that provisioning healthcare services for trans people is beyond the capacity of our economy to manage. But this is a demonstrably false statement. The expansion of trans healthcare would likely be a one-off event in terms of increased capacity needs. 

It is reasonable to expect the amount of trans people who would need to be served would increase as stigma falls, more people decide to transition, and healthcare provisions become more available; however, there is scarce evidence that provisioning such a future is somehow beyond our economy’s ability to adapt to these increased needs. It can be hard to shake the feeling that many of these detractors are opposed to trans healthcare not because they genuinely believe in a resource constraint, but simply because they do not wish to see trans people exist in public life. 

Queering Money

To guarantee adequate jobs and healthcare to trans people—and build coalitions around such struggles—we need a fundamental shift in thinking when it comes to government budgeting. When money is imagined as fundamentally scarce, social change is routed through the problematic language of redistribution and replacement rather than creation. This in turn creates an “any port in the storm” mentality when it comes to building coalitions, as the variegated experiences of trans people are reduced to a representative “average” trans person who can be more simplistically advocated for. And as we see, the impulse to reduce and assimilate what is particular into what is imagined as universal for the sake of “widening the coalition” is observable in class reductionist calls to not discuss trans healthcare at all, in favor of supposedly “universal” healthcare services.

MMT, by contrast, provides a different foundation that allows us to articulate a comprehensive trans agenda on generative rather than zero sum terms. In the MMT story, when public money is motivated toward some end, fiscal authorities create it. Because money is created rather than found, spending precedes rather than follows taxation. Creation does not need to be “paid for” by destruction, and the trans agenda does not need to be routed through such zero sum logics. Money creation authorizes public job creation at the same time that it authorizes private purchasing power.

In the dominant economic view, money creation is inflationary because it is imagined as abstract bids on fundamentally scarce goods. In contradistinction to this view, MMT sees public spending, not as subtracting from a fixed pool of public resources, but instead directing its expansion. This is because, as any heterodox economist will tell you, resources are as socially constructed as gender. The flow of inputs at every point of production is linked to the flow of outputs at another. Capacity is therefore created rather than given, and when the government invests properly it can create new capacity over time.

The policies discussed above are possible only with an MMT framework that speaks in the register of rights and guarantees, rather than goals and aspirations. A FJG will require large variations in spending, and any method of ‘paying for’ the program would have to be just as flexible. And while Medicare for All would likely entail more stable spending patterns, it’s too great a budget item to tie to taxation, dollar for dollar. The last thing we need is policy that analogizes gender affirming healthcare services to zero sum redistribution. A proper budget in an MMT framework would deliberately target resource bottlenecks and invest in expanding production where necessary. 

If properly wielded and understood, public money harbors radical potential to reshape society for the better. These two policies would vastly improve life for trans people, but there is no final word in what makes the trans agenda, any more than there is a final word in what makes a trans person. It is imperative, however, to go big. Putting a Federal Job Guarantee and Medicare for All into action for this trans agenda would be a great start.

* “Money” by free pictures of money is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

Modern Movie Theory (MMT): Loki

Maxximilian Seijo, Andrés Bernal and Scott Ferguson plunge into the latest Disney Plus streaming series, Loki (2021), as part of their ongoing examination of Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For all its deliciously queer aesthetic & political potentials, they argue, Loki represents another MCU tragedy about the promise & perpetual failure of social contract theory, and fascism’s seductive exploitation of that failure. In doing so, they critique how the show’s neoliberal and tacitly Deleuzean conception of time as “univocal difference” problematically pits care against heterogeneity in a zero-sum trade-off between fascism and democracy. At the same time, they suggest that Loki’s polyvalent and often-campy aesthetics nevertheless express new longings for alternative modes of questioning and organizing the world.

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