Public Media, Public Money With Victor Pickard

Victor Pickard joins Money on the Left to discuss the public bases and potentials of money and media in The United States. Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Pickard is a prolific researcher and author of over one hundred articles and six books on the history of media institutions, media activism, and the avowedly political and public foundations of journalism and media policy. Our conversation with Pickard is far ranging. We survey his early work on the postwar settlement for American media, when the fundaments of the current media landscape such as its tendency toward private and consolidated ownership were first put in place. We explore the critical role and shortcomings of political liberalism in shaping that midcentury settlement and all that’s come after. And we identify means for creating resilient and diverse public media infrastructures that are better equipped to help leftists resolve the most pressing political, economic, and ecological crises of our moment. Along the way, we also uncover complementary impulses between Pickard’s vision for the future of public media and the Modern Money movement’s project to democratize public money.

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.


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

Maxximilian Seijo: Victor Pickard, welcome to Money on the Left.

Victor Pickard: Thank you for having me.

Maxximilian Seijo: So you’re the author and editor of numerous books on journalism, media policy, and media history. We asked you to come on our show because we think your affirmation of the public foundations of American media culture resonates with our emphasis on the public foundations of money. We would perhaps even go as far to say that the two are reciprocally bound up with one another. However, before we dig into the details of your arguments and reflections, would you mind telling our listeners a little bit about your personal and professional background? For example, how did you come to work on media history, theory, and policy?

Victor Pickard: Excellent question. Sometimes I pause to ask myself that same question. I certainly didn’t originally enter graduate school with the assumption that I would focus on media history. I sort of evolved into or perhaps backed into that interest area. But I started out as an activist when I first started graduate school. I was coming out of the global justice movement. I had been traveling for a number of years and arrived at the conclusion that whatever issue I was interested in and whatever social problem I wanted to focus on–and there were many–media would be central to this political struggle. And so, early on, I became involved with the Independent Media Center movement, which focuses on indie media. I actually wrote my master’s thesis on the indie media model, which was very much based on this radical anarchic model of consensus based decision making. This is pre-blogosphere, so it’s quite radical that you could create your own media. But at the same time, I was also very interested in changing what we used to call mainstream media.

Gradually, it became clear to me that to try to change the system, you needed to engage with it at a structural level. In order to do that, you need to engage with policy debates and the politics behind those policy debates. And finally, in order to do that, you need to know the history of this media system. As I got more interested in political economic questions about the origins of the American media system, it became very clear to me that I needed to hit the archives. I needed to start really getting into understanding the origins and genealogies of this system in order to make systemic change. That’s how I eventually became a history geek and that’s where much of my interest has been focused. But I’ve never lost touch with those activist roots. Everything I do is based on the assumption that as scholars, to paraphrase a great social critic, it’s not enough to simply describe the things that we’re studying. The point is to try to change them to make them better. That’s what I dedicate my work to.

Scott Ferguson: That’s great, thanks. Perhaps we can talk about some of the historical work in your first book, America’s Battle for Media Democracy: The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reform. In that book, you sketch a political history of the American media system to analyses of debates in media governance. Specifically, if we’re parsing this right, you argue that these turbulent mid-century debates precipitated in what you call the “post-war settlement for American media.” Can you talk about this settlement, maybe touching upon some of the key controversies surrounding it, such as the progressive turn at the FCC, the battle over the Blue Book, the origins of the Fairness Doctrine, maybe some of the problems with the Fairness Doctrine, or the possibilities and limits of the Fairness Doctrine, and the debates of the Hutchins commission? I know that’s a lot but take on whatever you want to take on.

Victor Pickard: I would gladly talk about all these things. As I mentioned earlier, I am a history geek. So I can talk about these historical policy battles for hours on end, but I’ll try to keep it a little bit shorter than that. That project, which came out of my dissertation research, really began with one very basic question: how did we in the United States come to inherit a particular kind of media system? The media system we have in the United States is quite exceptional in a number of ways. And I use that term exceptional not to suggest that it’s a positive thing necessarily, but rather that it’s an outlier compared to other media systems around the world. The system we have in the United States is almost entirely commercial. It’s only lightly regulated in terms of public interest protections. And it’s dominated by a handful of massive corporations.

Taken together, this creates a particular kind of media system and I had a hunch that we did not arrive at this system necessarily in a democratic fashion. And so, as I dug into the archival materials, it quickly became clear to me that to understand how this system developed in the US, we really needed to go back to the 1940s. It seemed to me that many of these policy trajectories led back to a set of core policy battles in the 1940s. And this wasn’t necessarily intuitive. Previous historians had focused on the 1930s and the 1960s. There were these political hotspots that tended to attract historians’ attention. The 1940s and 1950s were almost seen as flyover territory, aside from little things like World War II, obviously. So in terms of looking at how our media system developed, we’ve tended not to focus as much on the 40s. But I feel like that’s changed since I first started working on this 15 or so years ago.

When I started looking at what was happening, you could see pretty quickly that what some historians might refer to as a critical juncture was occurring for the US media system. There were a number of political crises, technological changes, a crisis of confidence, you might say, in our media system and how the press behaved and operated during the war. For example, there were concerns about propaganda, there were rising concerns about concentration of ownership, and there were even concerns about the loss of community newspapers. Many of the same concerns that we hear about today were very much in the air in the 1940s. What you also had was this very rare window, I’m not sure it’s ever happened since, when there was a progressive block at the Federal Communications Commission. At that time, instead of the five commissioners that you have today, there were actually seven. And out of those seven, four of them were New Deal Democrats–or at least one of them was a progressive Republican. But you had this progressive block, which created a window through which a number of surprisingly radical reforms were at least attempted.

What was also interesting about this historical moment is that, where the New Deal was in retreat throughout much of the US government at this time, it arrived later and stayed longer at the Federal Communications Commission than it did elsewhere. So it created these conditions for a number of progressive initiatives. And those are the case studies that I focused on in that book. For example, the FCC Blue Book was an initiative that would have set up this kind of social contract where for broadcasters to hold on to their monopolistic use of the public airwaves, they would have to do things like allocate a certain amount of their programming towards covering public affairs, educational broadcasting, and local culture. None of this really sounds too radical, but at the time, it was treated as an existential threat to the commercial broadcasters. They fought this tooth and nail.

Of course, these initiatives started right before this anti-communist hysteria took over. We’re talking about roughly 1946. There was still this brief moment where, at least within media policy, they were pushing through some pretty progressive plans and initiatives. And almost immediately, the political train shifted on them. The FCC was accused of doing things like BBC-izing American radio–God forbid. The Blue Book was called the “Pink Book.” They were being red-baited. Then, there was this exodus. The last New Dealers were chased out of DC in 1947 and 1948, especially after Truman’s loyalty program. Many of them fled to where radicals often flee to. They fled to the academy and took refuge in various places in the academy. That’s actually how the political economy of media tradition took hold. This tradition that I hail from, it took hold at my alma mater at the University of Illinois with Dallas Smythe, who had been the FCC’s first chief economist and one of the architects of some of these progressive policy plans.

That’s another discussion we could get into in terms of the intellectual history of the political economy tradition of media research. But going back to some of these initiatives, you mentioned the Fairness Doctrine, which today is often held up as the high watermark for enlightened media policy in the US. What’s interesting that I found in my research was that reformers saw the Fairness Doctrine as a kind of consolation prize for more structural reforms that they were trying to push through. And so, what later became known as the Fairness Doctrine was established in 1949. It was kind of the final bookend to this window in the mid to late 40s, where you saw this flurry of progressive interventions. Yet even that was overturned several decades later by the Reagan administration.

One thing about the Fairness Doctrine that people often misunderstand is that they often conflate it with the equal time rule, but it’s not about just making sure that two sides have equal time. That’s a different rule. The Fairness Doctrine was about the idea that broadcasters had an affirmative duty to cover controversial issues that were important to local communities and to do so in a balanced manner to make sure that they had contrasting views. So it was never assumed that it was just like two sides to the story. It was the idea that you had to have a kind of pluralism in terms of the range of debate. You had to have different contrasting views on any important subject. That’s very key. That’s such a much more progressive measure than simply saying, we need a Republican and a Democrat to speak on this issue, for example.

Anyway, there’s much more to be said. I will say probably the most radical thing that the FCC did during that window was to essentially trust bust a radio monopoly. It basically forced NBC to divest itself of one of its two major networks, which is actually how we got ABC. So we went from two big players to three big players. Now, of course, this is unimaginable and beyond comprehension that the FCC could do something like that today. This was at the height of an anti-monopoly push at the FCC. In fact, Dallas Smythe was probably the main person behind this endeavor. You also could imagine that going from two big players to three didn’t really transform the media landscape. I think that’s also an interesting lesson about the limitations to some of the anti-monopoly activism that many of us on the left would love to see. I would love to see it, but we have to be clear that that doesn’t necessarily solve all of our problems.

The other thing you mentioned, the Hutchins Commission, that actually dealt with all types of media, but the one it’s most known for is focusing on the role of print media, the role of newspapers, in a democratic society. It really established some of the normative benchmarks for what journalism is supposed to do in a democratic society, what journalists themselves are supposed to do, and establish what later became known as the social responsibility model for the press. We purportedly moved from an earlier libertarian model to a social responsibility model. That’s why at the end of my book, you mentioned the post-war settlement, I look at all these case studies and core debates and see how they were resolved by the end of the 40s. I see a kind of formation and refer to this post-war settlement for media as what really can be defined by three criteria, which is that the media will adhere to an industry defined social responsibility. So they were now meant to feel comforted by the fact that they have discovered social responsibility and are going to adhere to it. The second one is that they will be largely self regulated, or at least only lightly regulated.

Scott Ferguson: This is the same story for cinema but earlier, right?

Victor Pickard: Yeah, in fact, initially I wrote about the Paramount Decree and a similar battle took place in the film industry. With my advisor, we came to the wise conclusion that my dissertation was already too long as it was. So it was tragic that we had to cut that one out. That never developed into a full chapter.

Scott Ferguson: Just one more thing, did you read that the Paramount Decree was now struck down? It’s officially done.

Victor Pickard: I did read that. I haven’t looked at it closely though. I mean, we’re seeing the culmination of decades long activism on the right to undo what reforms were achieved during the New Deal. And I think this is another example of where that has happened. Anyways, to speak on the third piece, and then I’ll stop going on about all of this historical stuff, or at least we can move on to another historical piece. But the third piece that I think is very key, especially for debates today, is that these media organizations would be protected by a negatively interpreted First Amendment. They essentially would capture the First Amendment to further protect them from future regulatory interventions. Now, they wouldn’t always be successful in doing that. And you do see another high watermark of regulatory activism in the 1960s, where I feel like the first amendment was taken back for a little while. In fact, that’s when the Fairness Doctrine reached its pinnacle. It was being protected by First Amendment protections.

Essentially, that’s where you see media companies in particular say, “We’re corporations, we have individual rights, and that includes being protected by the First Amendment. Any regulatory infringement is a violation of our First Amendment rights.” That discourse had been around for a while, but it really crystallized in the late 1940s. And again, it was really given a boost by red-baiting, which allowed industry to basically paint even the mildest regulatory initiative as some socialistic cabal. It really drove out and stamped all of our core systems, whether we’re talking about our media system or our healthcare system. All these core systems have this lasting imprint from the 1940s when everything left of center, any sort of regulatory project, was rendered inherently illegitimate. That left us with what I refer to, especially when we’re looking at our immediate system, as a corporate libertarian paradigm. And I think that corporate libertarian paradigm is still very much intact today; although, I think we’re seeing it fall apart a little bit. I have some cautious optimism about that. However, what replaces it remains to be seen. So we could go in any number of directions from that meandering monologue but I’ll stop for now.

Maxximilian Seijo: I very much appreciate that. And I think what we find so compelling about this particular history from your first book is that it represents another way along the path of a theme on this show that has been pervasive throughout the past two years or so that we’ve been doing this, which is the American history of corporate predation, and often specifically banking predation. Whether in our last episode with Rebecca Marchiel, or others, we’ve tried to demonstrate the structure of banks as publicly constructed entities and legal entities at that, as well as the lending contracts in which they create and the resulting credit that gets allocated. We wanted to suggest that all of this is a policy question. And so, what your history provides is another path to this policy question through media, specifically a corporate media history. You chart how public structures, institutions, and regulatory agencies have produced the outcomes that we are living with and amongst.

Ultimately, I think one of the lessons of MMT is that we have to theoretically account for that within any transformational thinking about how we can move forward to altering and rearticulating these legal structures, whether they are media structures or monetary structures, which of course the rub is that money is also a form of media. So from this context, I want to dig into your theoretical apparatus. Because in the book, you do sketch some of the influences of liberal political theory on not only the general trajectory of what you call this settlement into the corporate libertarian model, but also some of the particular actors who are involved in setting up and writing these policies, and ultimately, constructing the media system that we have today. If you could perhaps take some time to reflect on some of these theoretical impulses that these actors held dear, I think we would appreciate that.

Victor Pickard: Yeah, gladly. You jarred a few thoughts as you were speaking that I’d like to start out with that I didn’t quite finalize in my previous monologue, which is that I think this critical historical approach shows that what we have inherited, and this could be true for our media system, which is obviously what I focus on, but also any of our core systems, was not inevitable and was not natural. It was not the result necessarily of democracy prevailing or best practices prevailing, but rather, more often than not, it is the end result of particular political interests prevailing over others. And so, this critical historical project goes back and recovers those conflicts, recovers that contingency, and it’s such a critical endeavor. Any activist, any project on the left, needs to some extent engage with that kind of project because that’s where we can see quite clearly that these are socially constructed systems that are the result of policy choices and policy battles.

And so, what I’m trying to do in my work is to delegitimize the system that we have inherited, to defamiliarize it, and denaturalize it. I think in order to do that, by focusing on these earlier battles, I’m also trying to flesh out what was a social democratic formation. Our political vocabulary is so impoverished in our political imagination. The United States is so constricted that we often don’t think in those ideological terms. But there have been moments where a more social democratic formation has emerged. As much as we’re dealing with these libertarian paradigms today, I’m always very clear that I don’t think of that as inherently American. It’s a very lazy narrative that libertarianism is just like in the air that we breathe or the water that we drink and that it’s just part of being an American. If you know your history, that’s patently false.

If we want to look at our postal system, for example, that’s essentially a very socialistic system that the founders of the Republic, not to romanticize them, seemed pretty commonsensical to them. So I want to go back to these moments and uncover these social democratic or socialist impulses and to also show that it took political struggle for hegemony to crystallize. It took tremendous struggle from the top down to change our commonsensical notions. And so, looking at what was going on in the 40s, the libertarianism that ended up triumphant was very much on the ropes throughout the 30s and 40s. To try to show how this trust in the market came, how this market fundamentalism crystallized, you see this ideological struggle. One site is to focus on these debates around media policy, especially since it deals with what we think of as First Amendment issues–freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of the press–it really gets at some core liberal concepts.

One of the ways you can make sense of it is to look at it in terms of negative and positive liberties. I think this was very much up for grabs in the 1940s, whether the First Amendment would be seen as something that protected more positive freedoms, such as our right to things, or collective freedoms, like the fact that society writ large should have the right to a diverse and rich media system, instead of looking at it narrowly as an individualistic right and something that we should only fear government infringing upon. Not corporations, but this idea that these freedoms must protect us from government is a core libertarian assumption. Another is emphasizing property rights, protecting property rights, and treating media as a commodity and property that’s owned by this group of wealthy white men. So these are the kinds of libertarian and liberal concepts that really crystallized. And it’s not just about accommodating the market, which is so clearly what emerged from from these debates in so many different ways.

But also a real blind spot with liberalism is to acknowledge pre-existing structural inequities. Liberalism is good with coming in and making sure, at least formally, that individuals should all have certain rights of opportunity, but it doesn’t take into consideration that we’re already living in a highly inegalitarian society and that protecting individual rights is not enough to rebalance or redistribute power throughout society. This is what requires more of a radical approach. And this is oftentimes the difference between leftists and liberals, which again, in our current US political imagination, those two are often collapsed. Liberal can mean anything from someone who’s barely left of center to a radical leftist for many Americans. I think it’s useful to try to tease apart these ideological positions and look at some of the underlying assumptions that are associated with these different positions. I don’t know if I totally got to your question, but hopefully I sketched it out a little bit. I haven’t looked at that book for a while so I might have forgotten what I said in it.

William Saas: Maybe this is a good point to transition to talking about your more recent 2019 book, Democracy Without Journalism. And before we make that transition fully, I think that another thing that your project and the MMT project share in common is spending a lot of time critiquing and meditating on those ideological assumptions and presuppositions that drive economic and fiscal policy. So you mentioned that a lot of the concepts kind of crystallized in the 1940s. I wonder if you can bring us to the present and your 2019 book by helping us get a sense for how those concepts have crystallized and evolved and maybe shifted over time to provide the foundation for the really non-ideal landscape of American media policy and practices. How did we get here? Why did we inherit and why do we have today such an anti-democratic and dysfunctional media?

Scott Ferguson: I want to tack something on here as well, which is we’ve been accustomed, as scholars and organizers, to periodize the last 40 or so years as representing a certain kind of break that for a while we were calling the postmodern period, and then we switched and started calling it neoliberalism. And people will periodize it and describe it in different ways, but the story that you tell seems to be backing that you see a libertarian marketization happening much earlier. And I guess I’m curious if you could tell us, through your research and your arguments, how you narrate the neoliberal turn? Or is there even a turn?

Victor Pickard: Yeah, those are all excellent questions. To try to seamlessly continue the narrative, what I try to account for in the earlier book was this rise and fall of a social democratic media reform movement, or at least a project in the 1940s. The intellectual tools that I take out of that book and bring with me into the next book is understanding how this commercialism became so naturalized. And I agree with you, Scott, that this predates the neoliberal turn. At one point I thought a major argument I’m going to make with that first book is that neoliberalism is a much older project than it’s often given credit for. I was ready to get into this kind of periodization fight. Then, I realized that’s really not that important or interesting. I don’t want to just quibble with a handful of historians about this. Instead, I want to look at some of these broader forces, focusing on how commercialization becomes naturalized, especially within policy discourses.

If you want to say anything about how the neoliberal turn emboldened that discourse, in media policy you really see it come to fluorescence during the Reagan administration when this deregulation move–and of course, deregulation actually started during the Carter administration–but it really took off during Reagan and then continued on. Clinton in some ways did as much damage to the immediate system in terms of stripping it of any public interest regulatory constraints. But what I’m trying to show first off is that, to try to chip away at this paradigm, this idea that we need to keep government out of our media system, that there’s no legitimate role for government within our media, it is a libertarian, also liberal, fantasy. Government is always deeply involved in our media system. The question is: how should it be involved? Should it be involved in maintaining public interest protections? Or should it be there to help capital accumulate more wealth?

Of course, it’s typically doing the latter. It has been thoroughly captured. Much of what the government has done, especially around media policy, but around any number of policies, is a textbook case of regulatory captures, where the regulators themselves have internalized the values and logics of the very industries they are meant to oversee. And the revolving door is both a symptom and a driver of this process. I think this is important to understand. So I tried to bring some of that political economic analysis to our media system to again denaturalize it to show how this happened historically. What were the policy discourses that were deployed to naturalize it? And then I try to undo that damage.

My latest book is really focused on the long history of commercialism. This of course goes back, vis-a-vis our media system, to the 1800s. I look at what happened when the press initially commercialized and how that changed the relationship between the press and the public, or the polity. They began seeing people as passive consumers instead of as engaged citizens. And again, liberalism was very much part of this story. It’s very much what gave this kind of gloss to the freedom of the press as the epitome of American core freedoms. But that free press was defined in a way that basically sanctified this commercial order. And so, what we’re seeing today, whether we’re talking about what Facebook is doing, the collapse of journalism, or the ever growing power of media monopolies, all of these things trace back to this core commercial logic. That’s what I try to trace. Neoliberalism gave that logic a boost, but I don’t think you can reduce all this back to that neoliberal turn. It has a much longer history than just simply beginning in the 1970s.

One other concept that might be useful here is the idea of market censorship. If you allow a media system to be governed entirely, or almost entirely, by these market forces, you have predictable patterns of coverage, predictable erasures, predictable exclusions, what might be called “news redlining,” whether we’re talking about the digital divide, or we’re talking about how access to our news and information has never really been made available to communities of color. Or when they are covered in the media, there’s always been great violence done to them. So I feel like you need to understand that core commercial logic to understand all these surface level pathologies, or these symptoms that we’re often grappling with–and especially for left media criticism. Leftists love indulging in media criticism, but too much of it is articulated in a way where it sounds as if we’re saying there are these bad apples–bad journalists, bad media outlets, or corporate owned media–but we’re not getting to the root of the problem. We’re not getting to commercialism. Indeed, we’re not getting to capitalism. This is really what capitalism does to a media system. That in a nutshell is what I’m trying to draw attention to. In this latest book, I’m focusing on the journalism crisis, especially this utter devastation to commercial journalism in particular in the United States. In my mind, it’s all connected.

Scott Ferguson: Can you take us through a little tour of how this journalism crisis has played out? What are some of the main beats? What are the some of the main transitions? Just add a little bit more depth on that particular problem.

Victor Pickard: Absolutely. We’ve been talking in more broad historical and theoretical strokes, but here we can get into more of the nuts and bolts of it. I feel like the key is always to connect those specifics to these broader trends and forces. To just throw out a few examples, American newsrooms have been reduced by over half since the early 2000s. When we’re talking about the depth of the journalism crisis, that’s one key indicator. The number of journalists have been wiped out. And how that has played out, well, we’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of news outlets go under in the last couple decades. And it plays out specifically in how particular beats are no longer covered.

This is especially true for local journalism. Now, there are very few. In some states, there are essentially no journalists covering state legislatures, for example. Increasingly, there are no journalists covering the local school board or what’s happening at city hall. There’s still national coverage. On the surface, there still appears to be, if anything, an information glut. We go on social media and there’s this torrent of information. But if you go beyond the surface, you see that even in their beleaguered state, the base of the newspaper industry still serves as the feeder for our entire media system for original information. You go to Facebook, you go to Twitter, if you see what original information is there, and oftentimes there’s not a lot, what is there traces back to this suffering newspaper industry. And increasingly, we’re talking in terms of news deserts where entire regions and communities no longer have access to any local news media whatsoever. And of course, this disproportionately impacts lower-socioeconomic communities, communities of color, and rural areas.

Other kinds of journalism that are disappearing are international journalism, investigative journalism, policy reporting–the kinds of things that are very expensive to produce and oftentimes aren’t necessarily the sexiest stories. A story I sometimes use as an example is like the health of your local bridge. That’s not clickbait, that’s not going to sell. A lot of advertising people aren’t going to be really excited about that story. Yet that’s the kind of story that we need to know about. We need to know about the health of our infrastructures. That kind of day in day out beat reporting is exactly what’s disappearing. It’s exactly what democracy requires. The market never supported an adequate level of journalism and I’m always clear about that. It’s not as if there was some golden era that we need to return to. It was always a very shaky relationship. But now it’s a full blown crisis. We could still say that now it’s worse than it’s ever been before.

The other thing, too, that I want to be clear about when I’m talking about the nature of the journalism crisis, is there’s a kind of lazy narrative that the internet killed journalism. But this, again, is why it’s so important to historicize. The journalism crisis didn’t just happen in the last 10 years. I argue that commercial journalism has always been prone to crises. And this is especially true because of its over reliance on advertising. Historically, the American press, which has been hyper-commercialized to begin with compared to newspaper industries around the world, has been almost entirely reliant on advertising revenue. About 80% of its revenues came from advertising and 20% came from reader support. And so, what happened in the early 2000s, especially by 2008-2009 as readers and advertisers migrated to the web, where digital advertising pays pennies to the dollar of traditional print advertising, that business model was just blown to bits. It fell apart. That was clear in 2008-2009. But we basically wasted a decade thinking that there’s some way to repair that or to find another business model or technological fix. And basically, that’s not coming back. There is no commercial option. There’s no commercial future for the kind of local journalism that democracy requires.

So these are some of the ideas I’m really trying to bring to light in my book. It’s why I ultimately argue so strongly for a public media system, which I’m sure we’ll bring into discussion. But I really try to trace the history of this marriage of convenience. Advertisers never really cared about paying for local journalism. They were trying to reach audiences. And the press owners, the publishers, and the press barons–as they used to be called–were delivering audiences to those advertisers for a very pretty price. Many of those newspapers had local monopolies in their given markets. So if anyone wanted to advertise anything, they had to go to that local newspaper. This arrangement obscured the public good nature of journalism. It naturalized this commercial relationship. But once that was no longer convenient for advertisers, they jumped ship. It’s much easier and much cheaper for them to advertise online, especially when you get Google and Facebook in the game, who happened to be gobbling up what little digital advertising there is. Advertisers don’t really need newspapers very much anymore. And so, that has really brought this artifice into clear view. It also presents us an opportunity for creating something entirely different.

Maxximilian Seijo: Part of this that resonates really interestingly is the way you discuss what almost seems like commercialization as a project of abandoning the public purpose for this libertarian or liberal fantasy of a market that is or different from the public. Whereas we would suggest that, as you said, the government is always constructing the media system, and ultimately, also the banking system and so on. As we move specifically into the potential for rearticulating some of these systems through the cracks that we see everywhere now in media, can we talk about some of the specific proposals. One of the main MMT proposals in this vein is the federal job guarantee, which acts to guarantee a right to employment to anyone seeking employment at a federally mandated living wage. There certainly seems to me to be some compatibility with the problem of not enough journalists, and the potential for a solution that guarantees employment for the public purpose. And if the commercialization or advertising model was a marriage of convenience, this seems to be a marriage that could really be one for democracy. Thinking with that, and perhaps the analog hovering, what do you think about some of these specifics of public funding for media? And specifically, how these relate to the way you draw them out in your work?

Victor Pickard: Yes, well, I obviously think it’s a good idea and I think we should do it. What you are referring to there is spot on. We need to think of news and information not as commodities but as public goods and as essential public services. Journalism is an essential public service. And this is where it’s really about broadening the political imagination and changing the way we understand these core systems. And I see some leverage points even within this broader libertarian landscape. Americans like libraries. Most Americans think the idea of public education is a good thing, too. And most Americans think public parks are pretty cool as well and worth protecting. And the post office, I’ve been loving how many Americans have rallied to the cause of the United States postal system. It shows you that protecting these public goods–things like media subsidies–are as American as apple pie.

And so, rhetorically, as you all would appreciate, it’s important that we get people thinking about how these are absolute prerequisites for having any semblance of a democratic society. We all learn in school that democracy requires a free, and by implication, functional press system. But we rarely reflect on what are the necessary policies, protections, infrastructures, and even discourses that we need to maintain those systems. And I do think any crisis is also an opportunity. As we see the commercial model for the press collapse in such a spectacular way, I do think there’s growing recognition that the market is driving journalism into the ground. It creates fertile conditions to try to think about creating a new public media system, whether we’re building on some of the structures that are already there, including the Public Broadcast System. I advocate actually building on the postal system itself as a core anchor infrastructure.

So I think there are many ways that we can do this but it starts out discursively by thinking in those terms that you were just laying out. It’s this idea that we need to think about journalism, money, and jobs as things that shouldn’t be dictated by the market. They should be taken out of the market so they’re not driven by this commercial logic. Sometimes I use this analogy, and we’re all academics here so this hits a little too close to home, but imagine if this same logic were applied to academic labor. If our peer reviewed journal articles didn’t get enough clicks, likes, or shares, then we’d have to just stop doing that, do something different, or maybe worse, lose our jobs. Of course, that is happening, too. So yeah, I don’t want to speak in terms of that being merely theoretical. But for many academics, we still think that there’s some inherent worth to what we’re doing that doesn’t reduce itself to how much money it’s making. Maybe a better example is like, what if students just didn’t want to take math class? They aren’t paying for their math class so then we’ll just have to discontinue that. Or what if there’s a fire? Your house is on fire and the firefighters show up and say, “Well, you’ve got to pay up before we put out this fire.” 

There’s just so many examples of where we would never leave it up to market determination. And it’s that kind of logic that we need to not only recover but expand on. I try to start discursively with those ideas by thinking in terms of public goods. Systemic market failure is one I play around with a little bit as well. I think of this as systemic market failure. We need to claw back some of these core systems and infrastructures and put them under public ownership, which I think is where the conversation is heading and I’m all for that.

Scott Ferguson: I think I have a little bit of a dearth of imagination about what we can do about, let’s say, newspapers. What do we need to do? Do we need to fund them with federal grants? Do we need to staff them? And if we do, how do we allocate the money? How do we make sure that that staffing is equitable? I’m sure these are things you think about all the time. Can you maybe walk us through, at least in news journalism, what some of the specific recommendations you have?

Victor Pickard: Sure. I’ll start out with the ideal, which I think it’s clear in my book, but as I’m speaking on the book, and this often happens, some of your ideas really don’t actually come together until after the book is well and done and out there in the world. But I think the ideal would be to have publicly funded news cooperatives in every community across the country. That would be the ideal. And to add some flesh on those bones, these new newsrooms of the future would be locally owned and controlled by communities as well as by the journalists themselves. Some of these details need to be worked out. I also don’t think it’s my role to present a formula for everyone. I think local communities should decide for themselves. But the key part is to make sure that the institutional, and especially financial, resources are there for these newsrooms to be functional. That’s why I say publicly funded.

Now, whenever I’m talking about this new public media system, I mean public not in name only, but actually publicly owned and controlled and democratically governed. So there should be a federal guarantee. The federal government has an affirmative duty to ensure that those resources are there for local communities but the federal government also should have no control beyond providing for those resources. It should not dictate in any way how those news operations happen. That’s where we need to devolve power to the local grassroots level as much as possible. We can think in terms of news bureaus that are democratically elected. We need to make sure they’re representative of the community. We’ve got to make sure labor unions are represented and diverse communities are represented. One of the things I often say is that these new newsrooms should look like the communities that they serve as well. So we must make sure that they’re diverse in all ways.

Those are just some ideas, but it goes back to the idea that they have to be funded. They need those resources. And that should be non-negotiable. It’s not a “nice to have,” it’s a “must have.” And so, this is where I have to get into all the fights and arguments about how we are going to pay for it, which I know you guys are very much engaged in those kinds of debates. But I think we need to fund them. And there are things that we can salvage from the current system–to rescue good assets from bad owners. I’m all about doing that but I’m very clear that the first step is to decommercialize and decommodify our media system. The second step is to radically democratize it. And those things have to be done together.

In order to reach anything close to what I’m advocating for, and again, I get into this in the conclusion of my book, but I’m really influenced by the late, great Erik Olin Wright’s work on how to build this kind of socialist future from the ashes of capitalism. Actually, ashes wouldn’t even be the right term; it’s these little pockets. Again, he’s a huge fan of libraries. There are these little pockets that we can build on, these counter-hegemonic forces, and these anti-capitalist spaces within the broader capitalist system that we can try to see those potential building blocks for this new kind of system.

William Saas: In terms of the federal jobs guarantee, we talk a lot about shovel ready projects. To bring up a job guarantee, one of the critiques or the worries about that is it’ll be make-work. It’s just paying people to do jobs nobody needs to do. And of course, you look around your own community and there are thousands of things that need to be done and could provide well paying jobs. It seems like there’s an analog with the public media system that you’re talking about where there are–you talk about the ideal system, but in my community and I’m sure in y’all’s communities, too–there are plenty of great projects already ongoing that are constantly asking for money. Like we’ve got a beautiful local radio station that’s constantly fundraising. I don’t know where NPR falls in this, but local NPR stations are constantly fundraising. And I’d be remiss to not talk about podcasting, too. The meeting that we’re on right now, some of my favorite things to listen to are run by Patreon, which is not not-commercialized. But there seems to be a lot of production ready media projects and news co-ops that are just waiting to be activated that could be under the system that you’re describing.

Victor Pickard: I couldn’t agree more and I’m really glad that you mentioned podcasting. Because it’s one of those things where, in my mind, it’s clear as day. But I realized I need to articulate this, which is, when I’m talking about these future newsrooms, this future public media system, I’m imagining public media centers in every community. And those media centers are multimedia. So it’s not about producing the dead tree version of the news. It’s about all kinds of media being produced by local journalists. And so, there’s no reason why we couldn’t be funding that. If you look at it historically, then you see moments. I’m always inspired by that brief moment when you had these WPA projects get funding for everything from planting trees to subsidizing writers, theatre groups, and historians. We could do that. There’s no reason why we couldn’t do that on a permanent basis.

So I absolutely agree with you. Another example is just building out our broadband system. I mean, people are painfully aware of how awful our broadband system is. When we hear this phrase “digital divide,” it sounds like something from the 1990s. Yet it’s a glaring problem today. That’s building out infrastructure; that’s jobs. There’s so many good reasons to do a project like that. People are literally in some cases dying due to the lack of it. I couldn’t agree with you more that there’s a need. And it’s something that we could do. But it’s a political decision that we’re not doing it. And so, we need the politics in place to make sure that we do do it well into the future.

Scott Ferguson: Something I’d like us to talk about before we wrap things up is, part of your work is that you’re a keen diagnostician of the pathologies of our American media system, and especially the contemporary system. I think a lot of people have a lot of arguments about the privatization of news and information, and mediation and disinformation, so I wanted to give you the opportunity to talk about that. And I guess I’m also interested in how you see the contemporary problems around this information in relation to the longer history of yellow journalism and media moguls like William Randolph Hearst?

Victor Pickard: Yes, I think I can connect those dots. One critique in my mind connects a lot of these pathologies that you just mentioned, whether we’re talking about mis- or disinformation, or these other commercial excesses, such as what was then called yellow journalism might today be called clickbait. You can’t really say fake news anymore. That’s been so captured and obfuscated, but I feel like without harping on it too much, the core root of many of these surface level pathologies is this commercialism at the heart of it all. You could say capitalism is at the heart of it all. The fact that misinformation is proliferating through our social media, that’s not accidental. And it’s not because people are stupid. It’s actually the business model that’s driving it. It’s everything from trying to optimize engagement and collect data about it.

This phrase, “surveillance capitalism,” is now very much part of our vocabulary, although the emphasis is often more on the surveillance part and less on the capitalism part. But I think it does get at this idea that it is baked into the system. And this is what I try to argue in my book as well, that many of these problems we’re dealing with today trace back to the very DNA of our commercial media system. This is where it leads us. Not to sound too overdetermined, but if you know the long history, you see this flare up again and again. You see these excesses flare up, you see public reactions, and you see industry do just enough to make sure they’re not regulated. We didn’t mention before, this whole idea of deregulation is such a misnomer. There’s no such thing as deregulation. It’s always regulated. Again, it’s a question of how, as a society, we’re going to regulate it. That also gets to the point earlier, where I think it draws a distinction between liberalism and leftism, where the liberal solution for many of these problems is about an individual fix. Like individuals need to pay more for their local NPR station. Individuals need to be more media literate. Individuals need to deactivate their Facebook account. It’s always about what we as individuals can do. It’s not seeing this as our problem collectively. This is a social problem. It’s a collective action problem. These are the terms we should be speaking in.

So I do think that one of the discursive enablers to so many of these problems has been to naturalize the market, not see the market and commercialism as a root cause to these problems, and also misdiagnosing the potential solution, which is often this kind of individualistic, liberal approach that accommodates the market. We need to pay more for our news. It’s our fault for not paying for the news. No, society should be guaranteed access to a certain level of news and information both in terms of quantity and quality. It’s a long way of saying that we have a lot of work to do ahead of us to fix these problems.

What I also try to end on is that, as you noted, Scott, I’m very keen to point out the pathologies and I think media criticism and all forms of political critique are absolutely essential, but I don’t want to just stay on the doom and gloom. Despite all these problems, I’m weirdly optimistic about the future, at least in terms of the potential of creating entirely new structures. Especially among young people today, they’re not enthralled by market fundamentalism. There are all kinds of political openings ahead of us. Of course, we could still veer towards fascism. The future is very much open ended. But I do have some hope that there is a kind of socialist alternative, a democratic alternative, that is within reach. It’s just gonna be a long, hard slog to get there.

William Saas: Yeah, and we could still have tote bags in that future, right?

Victor Pickard: That’s right. That’s great. You still get your tote bag, absolutely.

Scott Ferguson: Tote bags for all. Well, this has been really fantastic. Thanks so much for coming on. I think all of our intuitions about the deep resonances between your project and our project have all been played out and confirmed. When I sit and hear you talk about the public foundations of media and how they’ve been privatized and commodified, and the way that, essentially, we’ve created these contingently constructed media deserts, which suggests a kind of artificial scarcity, not only do I hear money as a medium and it’s suffering from all those pathologies, but as Max brought up when we began this conversation, we think that these two things are absolutely implicated in one another. And if we want to have a democratic, socialized, and community-oriented public media system, we’re going to have to overcome the privatization and false scarcity around money. And the notion that even we, as individual taxpayers, have to cough up more from our bleeding hearts, to pay more taxes in order to have good public media, our response would be, no, this is about public provisioning. You can’t run out of spreadsheets just like you can’t run out of data. And so, the question is not if we’re going to regulate it, or if we’re going to do something, it’s how are we doing it? And what’s the best way forward? Anyway, I just wanted to close on some of those summary remarks. I don’t know if you have some final thoughts?

Victor Pickard: Yeah, no, I agree. Everything that you’re saying makes good sense to me. Also, I like that you put your finger on this artificial scarcity problem, because that’s often the problem in so many of these policy debates. I think that is something that we need to get beyond in order to push forward to a more progressive future. So let’s keep working at it. Let’s continue these conversations. But thank you so much for having me on your show. Thank you so much for talking to me about this stuff. I’ve really enjoyed it. I think there’s a lot of hard work ahead of us, but this is also fun. So please keep up the good work.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, thanks for coming on.

Victor Pickard: My pleasure.

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

15 – Tragedy of the Commons

Cohosts Will Beaman, Natalie Smith and Maxximilian Seijo discuss Maxx’s recent article in the Journal of Environmental Media, titled “Governing media information through a Green New Deal: History, theory, practice.”

Featuring a special report by Australian Twitter Correspondent @moltopopulare from inside the Superstructure, and a surprise call-in from friend of the show, Liz Bruenig.

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

Link to Maxx’s paper:…_theory_practice.

Money After Redlining With Rebecca Marchiel

In this episode, Money on the Left hosts speak with Rebecca Marchiel, Assistant Professor of History at University of Mississippi, about her important new book, After Redlining: The Urban Reinvestment Movement in the Era of Financial Deregulation (University of Chicago Press, 2020). After Redlining tells the story of the anti-racist urban reinvestment movement in early post-New Deal era Chicago. Transforming from a focused politics of housing into a broader politics of money, the movement began in the neighborhood of Austin and grew into a nationwide effort between the 1960s and the 1980s. We talk with Rebecca in depth about the central figures and pivotal moments of this story and also about her disciplinarily unique focus in After Redlining on the central role of credit in the urban reinvestment movement. Together, we reflect on the implications of her findings for the field of U.S. political history and the lessons the contemporary left can learn from the movement’s insights and blindspots.

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.


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

William Saas: Rebecca Marchiel, welcome to Money on the Left.

Rebecca Marchiel: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

William Saas: So we’ve asked you to join us today to discuss your important, recently published book, After Redlining: The Urban Reinvestment Movement in the Era of Financial Deregulation, which is just out from University of Chicago Press. Perhaps we can begin by asking you to tell our listeners a little bit about your personal and professional background and how it is that you came to this project?

Rebecca Marchiel: Sure. So I grew up in Frazier, Michigan, which at the time, was an all white suburb outside of Detroit. My parents grew up in Detroit and moved to the suburbs in the 1970s. They have a lot of nostalgia for Detroit–a lot of stories about the old neighborhood. Growing up, already the importance of urban neighborhoods and the relationship between the city and the suburbs was something that was very much on my radar. But even more important for the project, I worked in fundraising and media for a nonprofit law center in Chicago right after I graduated from college in 2005. While I was working there, I learned about this 1977 legislation that was called the Community Reinvestment Act. Now and then, in my job as a fundraiser, we would sometimes ask banks to fund our programs in financial literacy or children’s savings accounts. And every once in a while, if we had a program that meshed with their priorities, we might raise some money. So I learned about the CRA from that experience.

But to jump forward about two years to when I was back in graduate school and trying to decide on a dissertation topic, it was the summer turning into fall of 2008 and I was out for a jog listening to a podcast. And I heard financial lobbyists talking about the role of the Community Reinvestment Act in causing this emerging global financial meltdown. I actually stopped running to make sure I was hearing this correctly. I knew enough about the CRA from my time in nonprofits to know that it did not have the power to produce what was turning into a global economic crisis. And so, when I got back home, I literally sat down at my computer in my jogging clothes and started searching around to see if anyone had written about the CRA’s origins. And there are some really great works by sociologists, urban scholars, and legal scholars. I was really grateful to learn about the work of Dan Immergluck, but none of them told exactly the story that I was looking for that really put the CRA in a longer and broader historical context. I was really interested in questions like, how does the CRA fit into the story of the rise of neoliberalism? How was it shaped by the Black freedom struggle and other social movements for inclusion? What did it mean in the context of attacks on the labor movement that were also happening in the 1970s? What did it tell us about white flight and the political power of the postwar suburbs?

So I started digging around with those questions in mind and was just so excited to find out that there was a social movement behind this story. And even more excitingly as an historian that they also have a treasure trove of documents in the basement of this organization. It was called National People’s Action. Now, they just go by People’s Action. They’ve dropped the national in recognition that their solidarity is extended beyond national borders. But they granted me unlimited access to the documents in their basement. I could just dig around and see what I found in there. That’s sort of how I found the project.

Scott Ferguson: Wow, that’s amazing. It’s also kind of amazing that your dissertation and your book came out of this profound experience jogging to a podcast–it somehow feels appropriate to talk about that on a podcast. So your book tells the untold story of the anti-racist reinvestment movement in the neighborhood Austin in Chicago that grew into a national and, as you say now, international movement from roughly the 60s to the 80s. Before we dive into that story, maybe you could briefly flesh out the kind of origin story, prehistory, or backdrop out of which your particular story emerges? You do that in the book really, really nicely by laying out the discriminatory politics of investment in the post-New Deal era, out of which this whole thing kind of emerges.

Rebecca Marchiel: Sure. So the story ends up being about a social movement that wanted broadly defined reinvestment. One of their demands was for an end to redlining. Redlining means the practice when banks would refuse to make loans in certain sections of a city because those places were integrating, majority-minority, or sometimes because the housing stock was old and the assumption was that the value would just continue to decline. The activists that I wrote about came of age really during the heyday of the New Deal financial regime. When they were upset about redlining, they were upset about the behavior of very specific kinds of banks–banks that were created by New Deal laws and regulations. These are historically specific financial institutions. Here, “thrifts” were the most important for this story.

Thrift savings and loans banks were really locally oriented savings and loans institutions. And as activists saw, the relationship between these thrifts and a local community was supposed to be a two way street, in that the thrift survived by collecting community savings as they saw it. And then, the thrift’s job was to act as a kind of steward of local wealth or to give people a safe place to put their money–just as safe as under the mattress but with some interest since there was deposit insurance–but also to give people access to mortgages that would help them buy their own homes. There was a particular image of thrifts as community institutions, much like the image of George Bailey’s bank from It’s a Wonderful Life. And a lot of that idea that’s forged in this post-Depression, New Deal period, comes from thrift’s own self fashioning. They named themselves after local neighborhoods, local streets, or Catholic parishes nearby. They’d open their parking lot so people could park there during community events. They’d create savings programs for children and sponsor programming at schools, like art contests. And a lot of white people seem to feel a real connection to this local thrift, this local institution.

They’d go in there to cash their paychecks or to take out spending money. This is the era before ATMs so a lot of thrift transactions are taking place face to face. And I think a lot of folks of that generation, of the activists I write about, or those of us who have parents in that generation, might understand the relationship I’m describing. It’s kind of a joke in my family that my dad is the only customer who still goes into the Comerica Bank in my town. But I think it’s more than an anecdote. I think it’s reflective of a larger historical trend of how people used to interact with these local financial institutions–face to face relationships that often felt personal and meaningful to the customers. Like they always gave me a Dum Dum sucker when I had to go in there with my dad. But it was more than thrift’s own self fashioning that created this image of thrifts being a part of the community’s social fabric. It was also the state that shaped these ideas about thrifts.

The laws and regulations that were forged during the Depression and during the New Deal really created a financial policy infrastructure that made thrifts the type of financial institution where white people of modest means would encounter most and go for their banking needs. For example, it was New Deal legislation that made sure that thrifts would lend primarily in mortgages. By regulation, they were supposed to have 80% of their assets be in residential mortgages. Thrift legislation also encouraged ordinary people of modest means to open their banking accounts at the thrift. They would get a slightly higher rate of interest than a commercial bank was allowed to offer on its accounts. New Deal regulations also standardized the long term, often 30 year fixed-rate self-amortizing mortgage, which was a huge improvement over previous generations, or previous eras of mortgage lending, wherein you’d have shorter loan terms, which meant bigger payments and interest rates that could change year to year and make it really hard to predict how much one was going to pay for their housing.

Sometimes borrowers would owe the entire principal at the end of the loan. If you think about what that meant, then you needed a rich relative, a rich friend, or maybe a second loan to afford homeownership before these New Deal regulations. For white people in the post-Depression era, this was a huge improvement in home financing. It put homeownership in reach for a lot more people of modest means. But, and this won’t surprise your listeners, access to thrifts, their savings accounts, and their mortgage products hinged on whiteness, like many other New Deal benefits. The assumption by the real estate industry and by thrifts who relied on appraisers to decide how much a home was worth was that Black residents drove down property values. Thrifts would refuse to loan in neighborhoods that were understood to be Black. They would refuse to lend to the first Black family that might move into an all white neighborhood.

To speak of the discriminatory policies in relation to being without access to thrifts and these sort of regulated mortgages that were more affordable, Black homebuyers were often left to buy on contract–the system was called “buying on contract.” And this was essentially a form of home buying that was kind of like “rent to own.” Black homebuyers would sign a contract to purchase a home and it often stipulated that they did not actually have claim to the home until the entire cost was paid off. A lot of times, if they missed even one payment, it would mean the loss of the home. They didn’t build equity through contract sales so they’d make payments over and over and never build equity. They had no wealth to take out of the house to buy a new one or to borrow and pay for something else, like the cost of school or something like that. That’s kind of the story of how thrifts function during this period.

When neighborhoods like Austin started to integrate, white Austinites found that savings and loans started to treat their neighborhood like they had long treated the neighborhoods that were understood to be Black. These activists started to hear anecdotally of a neighbor’s kid who couldn’t get a mortgage, or Black members of the community organizations started to report that there suddenly seemed to be more contract selling happening in Austin where previously it might have been happening in a nearby neighborhood but not in Austin yet. So there was this sense that these thrifts that were supposed to be a part of the social fabric of the community had really reneged on their social obligation to the communities in which they were located. As activists saw it, they really thought that their neighborhood built the thrift–that there would be no thrifts without these customers as they understood it.

This changing relationship between the neighborhood and the thrift really politicized a lot of folks and got them asking questions about home financing that white activists had previously just taken for granted. Around the same time, there was the passage of the Fair Housing Act, which was in 1968. This was civil rights legislation that was supposed to make race-based discrimination in housing illegal. It still happened, of course, but the expectation was that discrimination in housing would now be illegal. At the same time, you start to see Black activists in Austin and other communities who have an expectation that they’ll finally be able to access the benefits of the New Deal financial regime, and then they’re frustrated by the reality that they’re still not given access. So that’s a sort of origin story on the role of these discriminatory politics of investment.

Maxximilian Seijo: Transitioning then, could you introduce us to some of the key figures in this urban reinvestment movement that you sort of began to talk about and perhaps walk us through some of its key phases? Coming out of that civil rights context, what spurred the beginning of the activism?

Rebecca Marchiel: I would love to talk more about some of the central players, because there are some really interesting characters who emerge from the archive. To tell the story of this social movement, I focus more narrowly on the national network of community organizations that’s called, National People’s Action, which I mentioned is still around today under the name, People’s Action. There’s a larger movement of folks working on these issues, but National People’s Action, or NPA, is sort of recognized by contemporaries as really leading the grassroots arm–the community organizing arm–of this broader effort. And so, the story of where NPA comes from really starts on the west side of Chicago at this moment when the neighborhood was on the brink of racial integration. It was an all white neighborhood, but integration in Chicago and many other cities took place in a kind of block by block pattern. There’s a great book by the historian Amanda Seligman that explains this phenomenon really beautifully, and it’s also set on the west side of Chicago.

In Austin, a group of white residents already living there and Black residents moving in, decided to work together under a Saul Alinski-style community organization. Their goal was to try to keep the neighborhood a decent place to live, with decent and safe housing, and with viable schools that weren’t overcrowded. But most importantly, they wanted the neighborhood to stay integrated at the moment of integration rather than see it resegregate as had been the case for a lot of other nearby neighborhoods. A lot of those neighborhoods became majority or all Black neighborhoods, rather than staying racially integrated. In that effort, they developed this critique and argument that it was real estate agents and abusers who were causing problems in integrating neighborhoods. They made it a point not to blame folks along the lines of race. Instead, they argued that there were these exploitative real estate practices called “panic peddling,” also called “blockbusting,” that were hurting white sellers who would panic and sell their homes for really cheap. This would also harm Black buyers who would pay more for housing because segregated housing markets mean more expensive homes–they have fewer options and higher prices. And so, they said it was really these real estate agents that were causing harm and not their neighbors.

One of the most important figures who emerges early on is a woman named Gale Cincotta. She was a white stay at home mother and became an activist when her youngest son’s kindergarten class became overcrowded. She was really worried that if no one did anything about it, his education would suffer. So that was the thing that first sort of politicized her and got her involved in local organizing. But according to a close friend, she had already had a history of thinking about politics from a leftist angle. The rumor was that her family owned a restaurant and sometimes she listened to them talk about socialist politics around the tables of the restaurant. But Cincotta also had a really strong preference for urban living, specifically. She was not a person who loved the idea of being in the suburbs where everybody needs to be in their car–t sounded just terrible. She liked to go to bingo nights in the city and she didn’t want to have to get in her car to do it.

Also importantly, she and her husband owned a two-flat in Chicago, which is a kind of structure where you have two separate units on top of each other. They had six kids. They lived in the upper unit, and then Gale Cincotta’s aging parents lived downstairs so she helped to take care of her parents in her home. That kind of setup is also much harder to swing in a single family home in the suburbs. She really was committed to staying in the city and there were a lot of things that she liked about city living that she didn’t want to give up. But I think she was also very angry about injustice. She did not like the idea that people were trying to extract wealth from Austin. She didn’t want other people to tell her that her neighborhood was a bad neighborhood. And that sense of righteousness drove her to organize as well. She emerges as one of the key figures in Austin and then will be one of the co-founders of this national organization as they progressed through the 60s and 70s.

The second key leader who co-founded National People’s Action alongside Sincotta was a man named Shel Trapp. He was a professional community organizer, he was also white, he was known for his chain smoking, and apparently he was very good at swearing. But interestingly, he was also a former Methodist minister–who’s very good at swearing. He described his own commitment to racial justice as being really inspired by the Black freedom struggle, and specifically its iterations in the south. He thought that community organizing would be a career that would give him a good shot to achieve the social change that he wanted during his finite amount of time on the planet. So these two ended up working with several other activists and organizers and neighbors to build an interracial group in Austin starting in 1966.

You also asked to move through some of the key moments. They started this local organization. All of the demands and concerns are very much at the level of what’s going on in Austin. But when they start to organize against this real estate abuse and this panic peddling, the Chicago organizers conduct more research and they learn that there are actually new federal housing policies that are providing a financial infrastructure that really helps panic peddling. These are the programs from the Federal Housing Administration that come out of the HUD Act of 1966 that Keeanga Taylor just wrote her brilliant award winning book, Race For Profit, exploring these programs in greater detail. But the long and short of it is that activists learned that these new programs created by the FHA, that were supposed to support low income homeownership, are actually quite exploitative, and make it such that a house missing plumbing, needing roof repairs, or infested with rats can actually be an insurable home, according to the FHA’s new standards.

The activists realized that this new FHA system, these new FHA programs, have supplanted an older system of home buying and selling that whites in the neighborhoods we’re used to under the New Deal financial regime and working through thrifts. These Chicago organizers, who had been trained to organize at the local level, realize that it’s a federal agency that’s helping create some of these problems. And so, on that logic, if it’s a federal agency and they’re federal programs, they imagine that there must be other neighborhoods like theirs in cities around the country, because this federal legislation must be having similar impacts in other parts of the country. The story from NPA’s lore is that a group of organizers and volunteers actually went up to O’Hare Airport, because they thought that was the nearest place where they could get their hands on a lot of different phone books for metropolitan areas around the country.

These volunteers went up to O’Hare to flip through pages and find organizations with words like housing or community in their titles, and then sometimes just cold-called to say, “Have you seen this pattern of home flipping in your neighborhood, too?” They sort of compiled this list of organizations from there. And they also built on organizer relationships. Some of these community organizers are linked up with each other through clearing houses, training programs, and those kinds of things. That’s sort of how they move national. They recognize that it’s these FHA programs that are causing problems all over the place. As they work to stop the abuse in these FHA programs, they begin calling more broadly for reinvestment. They want these savings and loans to return to their neighborhoods, because from where they’re standing, it seemed like those regulated banks have really disappeared at the moment of racial integration. This does not seem coincidental to them.

I show in the book that even as the organizers were thinking about the role of thrifts, they were always very aware of the idea that more bank loans would not be enough to solve the problems that older urban neighborhoods were suffering from by the 1970s. These problems included: losses of good jobs, buildings in need of serious repairs, rising energy costs, and so on. It was also really interesting that in a lot of these neighborhoods a lot of elderly folks, especially elderly white people, were living in these communities as well. You also start to see the needs of urban seniors living on fixed incomes as one of the things they’re concerned about. They called for federal programs that would help themselves too, with things like reduced costs for senior prescriptions. I can’t recall now if that part is actually in the book, but there’s this awareness that there are a lot of urban seniors who need a lot of help too. When they’re talking about reinvestment, there’s always this more robust vision of public and private cooperation to revitalize the neighborhoods that had suffered the consequences of redlining.

Then, the mid 1970s is really when the movement hits its peak and accomplishes its most important, independent victory, I would say, because in the next part in 1977, they get a lot more legislative help. But with the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) of 1975, also known as “hum-uh,” which is very fun to say, at this moment, the members of this organization in working with allies and Congress, they’ve convinced enough members of Congress to vote for this legislation that said that depository banks–thrifts and commercial banks that held deposits–those institutions had to disclose the geographic location of where they made their loans. Before this moment, activists had been researching deeds of local government buildings and trying to gather evidence to show that there were discriminatory lending patterns. But it was almost impossible. There was a lot of legwork to try to actually document these patterns. So this new information could help them show what before they could only describe anecdotally. This disclosure law in 1975, I’d say, is really when the movement hits its peak.

Two years after that, an ally, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin introduced the Community Reinvestment Act–that legislation that made me almost trip when I was jogging in 2008–and this really codifies the notion that depository banks had an obligation to lend in low and moderate income communities outside their offices. The rationale here is that Proxmire really built on that 1975 “hum-duh” law. The idea was that, if you had all these activists who knew where banks were making loans, then they could hold these commercial banks and these thrifts accountable as kind of grassroots financial regulators. Then, the CRA would give these community groups some kind of standing to do something with the information that they finally had. The way it worked was that, if a bank was going to merge with or acquire another bank, then community groups could file what was called a CRA challenge. They could stall that business deal if one of the banks in question had not been responsive to the local lending needs of low and moderate income communities. This is very important for them. It creates a mechanism for community groups to really act like financial regulators. It extends the power of the state to regulate financial institutions. It also gives community groups a new tool to create partnerships with local thrifts or local banks and to try to achieve some of those reinvestment goals that they’ve had in mind for redlined communities. Things like affordable housing developments, home improvement loans, and fair lending trends on older homes–all of these things become possible to ask for with the CRA challenge.

And so, I think the turning point in the book is, after activists have “hum-duh” in the CRA, they lose their ability to shape the national legislative conversations around community reinvestment and bank regulations more broadly. Toward the end of the story moving into the 1980s, the activists moved into using the CRA as a tool for goading banks into helping them acquire more mortgage money–and sometimes small business loans too, but more often than not it’s mortgage money. The CRA is kind of an imperfect tool. It relies very heavily on community bank partnerships to repair the harm that was caused by redlining. But even with those types of restraints, it still creates some opportunities for community groups to win some impressive victories and get new mortgage money into communities where there had been no access to regulated bank loans. And then, I end the story in the late 1980s and leave it at that.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, that’s great. Can you tell us about maybe one of the, I mean, do you call them in the book sting operations? I don’t know if that’s fair. But they did some pretty crafty stuff, right?

Rebecca Marchiel: Sure. So the activists often used rather confrontational tactics to try to accomplish their goals of increasing mortgage lending and stopping panic peddling. There was an interesting story early in the Austin part of the story when the group is still working at the local level, where Cincotta and her colleagues would sometimes do what they called, “setting up a panic peddler.” What they would do in a case like this is one of the members of the organization might call a real estate dealer, a panic peddler, to say that they wanted to sell their house, to come on over, check it out, and then they’d make an appointment for the agent to come over. When that real estate agent arrived, he would sometimes find 20 to 30 people waiting for him. In one instance, he went down into the basement and found that that’s where they’ve been hiding. Then, they would sort of badger him and tell him to stop working in Austin. And in this one case, in the basement, they surrounded this real estate dealer, so he couldn’t get to the stairs until he agreed that he would not work in the neighborhood anymore.

It was interesting, in interviewing one of the activists a few years ago about his reflections–it was a man named, Joe Mariano–I was asking him to reflect on organizing in the 60s and 70s compared to today, and that was one of the things that he thought was making it harder for activists today. He felt activists have less ability to confront people who have power face to face given the increased concerns about security and those kinds of things. So it’s an interesting tactic, but it turned out to be pretty effective in a lot of cases.

William Saas: As we move into the Volcker era, at the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned that one of your driving research questions was what’s the relationship between this CRA and the dawn of neoliberalism? I’ll just invite you to share what you found there as we move forward into the glorious 1980s.

Rebecca Marchiel: That’s an excellent question. I’d love to talk more about that. At first, I thought I was going to interpret the CRA as kind of bucking the larger trend of neoliberalism, and this seemed at first to be a way in which the state was reaffirming some social commitment to its citizens or the social good by saying that banks had to do something for low and moderate income people. But the more I thought about it, the more the CRA seems to fit more tidily into the story of the rise of neoliberalism, especially when you think about this legislation in the larger context of what activists were really asking for. There was a call for a more robust set of federal programs that would specifically target communities and people who had been struggling in American cities–a call for better access to decent jobs, affordable energy, and so on. It was a very robust platform. But what the activists are really left with is just this tiny little piece of the platform, which is a bank regulation. Read in the moment of the 1970s, the CRA for policymakers in the 1970s, it gave them an out to seem like they were doing something to support low to moderate income people and urbanites without having to address questions of federal resources or federal spending.

One of the reasons that the CRA had so much traction while these other versions of reinvestment didn’t is because, as policymakers saw, this wasn’t going to add any new items to the federal budget. Asking banks to do their part didn’t mean the federal government had to distribute resources at all. I end up seeing it more in line with the shift towards neoliberalism and privatism, then bucking the trend as I originally thought it might.

William Saas: They’re deputizing these community organizations as financial regulators, as you say, and they’re not empowered to do that much, right?

Rebecca Marchiel: Yeah, and I mean, ultimately, it’s a tool that can work. But it’s still a solution to repair the past harms of redlining that’s focused on increasing the debt of the people who it’s being served to. There’s a question about that strategy as a way to move forward to say, here’s new debt for you to manage without awareness about whether or not people are in a position to handle more debt. Maybe they need loans and to repair the past harms?

Maximilian Seijo: Yeah, I think speaking in this vein, one of the things we most appreciated about your book is the way it puts these questions of credit and debt, which is to say, money, at the heart of political history. And very often one imagines overt monetary politics occurring in a bygone past of populist movements of the pre-New Deal era. But you show how similar political impulses motivated this urban reinvestment movement during the mid to late 20th century, as we’ve been discussing. At the same time though, you’re careful to at once recover this movement’s impulses and recognize their limits. Could you spell out perhaps some of the ways you thread this needle?

Rebecca Marchiel: Thank you for reading the book that way because I did try it to be careful about that. I wanted to recover activist worldviews and their beliefs about how banks ought to behave, and to really use activist terms to describe the problems as they understood them. But I also wanted to be able to kind of zoom out, historicize their ideas, and see the ways that historically specific thought processes, ideologies, and institutions really shaped their understanding of what they were seeing. And so, one of the places where I tried to thread this needle, to use your term, was in thinking about banks as intermediaries.

In the book, I use the term the “intermediary myth.” Activists made this claim that they had the right to exercise some influence over thrifts, and eventually they’d say this about commercial banks too, because thrifts were lending their money. That’s the language that they used. That’s our money. And they argued that, as depositors who held savings accounts or passbook accounts at those banks, the money that banks were lending out was literally their dollars and cents being transferred from their savings account into someone else’s mortgage. That’s kind of like that famous moment from It’s a Wonderful Life, where your money is in Joe’s house and yours is in Mrs. Smith’s house, or whoever their names are in that bankruptcy. I was actually reading David Freund’s recent work on monetary orthodoxy and Mehrsa Baradaran, who helped me to think about whether or not this claim of “it’s our money” actually reflected how things work.

I’ll be honest, that’s how I always thought about things, too. I hadn’t really thought much about the relationship between deposits and loans before I started working on this project. I hadn’t thought about banks at all. I was kind of like, “Oh, my goodness, I have to learn all of these things in order to contextualize this social movement. What am I getting myself into?” So I learned from those works, and also following along conversations in Modern Monetary Theory groups, there are folks who’ve been really generous in answering my questions. I learned about the ways that banks create money. It wasn’t that this is our deposits going into Joe’s house–banks create money. The intermediary myth, the way that activists understood banks, it really ignored the reality that financial institutions create money when they make a loan. Actually, embarrassingly, I use the word debit in the book when I should have used the word credit. So I apologize to any MMT listeners who might read the book and know this is banking 101 but there’s always room to learn and grow.

But this intermediary myth really matters because banks are doing the work of the state when they create money. A loan brings into existence new spendable money that’s backed only by a smaller dollar amount in reserve and activists seemed to overlook this idea that banks were creators of state backed money–that thrifts, and banks more generally, were doing the work of the state. At the same time, banks and thrifts had the luxury of acting independently of making their own lending choices without much of a mandate from the state even though they were doing a state function. And so, the decisions that they made really had enormous consequences for resource distribution in the United States. And those choices also had enormous consequences for people living in neighborhoods like Austin.

If St. Paul Federal of Austin decided they wouldn’t make mortgages in one corner of the community, it meant property values could go down there and also meant there might be more vacant or abandoned buildings. If Tolman Federal said they weren’t going to make home improvement loans in that neighborhood, it could mean that a house otherwise in decent shape but needed a new roof might be really hard to purchase if you’re a person with modest means. So even though thrifts and other banks were doing the work of the state in creating money, all these thrifts got to make atomized and independent choices, and in doing so, they really shaped the obstacles and opportunities for people living in neighborhoods like Austin, where people wanted Austin and other neighborhoods to remain good places to live with decent and safe housing. Thus, when an activist said “that’s our money” about a thrift, they weren’t exactly right. A new loan doesn’t literally come from their deposits. But those claims are nonetheless persuasive because they were rooted in what I call the “financial common sense” of this New Deal financial regime.

By that I mean a lot of Americans, including many members of Congress who needed persuading, thought this way too–that it is our money that’s being lent out and goes into Joe’s house. I tried to take seriously the reality that this myth about banks as intermediaries obscured some important truths about banks as creators of money. But it also really mattered because the myth was a powerful one that had really consequential results to help persuade members of Congress to support new legislation. Because those policymakers also believed in the idea that thrifts moved the community’s money around. And so, of course, Gale Cincotta and her neighbors should have some knowledge about where their money was going or not going.

Scott Ferguson: Maybe now we could walk through how neoliberalization really changes the politics and economics of this history? I guess I’m thinking of at least two vectors, one being deregulation. What happens to the thrifts through deregulation processes? And then, at the same time, what happens with the Volcker shock, the rise of monetarism, and the decision of the Fed to try to control interest rates and really jack them up and supposedly try to combat inflation or stagflation?

Rebecca Marchiel: Yeah, so in the instance of deregulation, what I found was an interesting story in which, as activists are making these demands for reinvestment and trying to double down on this New Deal, George Bailey-vision of local financial institutions that are rooted in specific communities, they unknowingly enter this larger debate about the future of thrifts. And it’s a debate that’s being shaped by instability in global financial markets. It’s a debate that is being shaped by concerns about inflation and questions about what interest rates should do to try to address inflation. But as I tried to chart it in the book, you have one group of free market enthusiasts and their allies in congress who think that the way that savings and loans have to weather this unpredictable 1970s moment and its high interest rates is that savings and loans need to become more competitive. They need to act more like commercial banks, they need to have more powers to lend, and they need to not be tied so closely to mortgage lending, in part because if they make a lot of loans or issue a lot of mortgages at a moment of high interest rates, and then 10 years down the line interest rates are much higher, savings and loans are locked into those mortgages at lower rates, and it becomes difficult for them to keep up.

And so, with this group of free market enthusiasts operating from some principles laid down in a 1971 document called “The Hunt Report,” they’re calling for deregulation and saying that thrifts will be able to survive if they are given more freedom to lend in new ways. At the same time, there’s another group of folks in Congress who are calling for a very different vision of how the financial system should respond to this instability in the 1970s. And those folks are calling for more state mandated lending that will look like credit allocation. It’s the idea that Congress needs to become more involved in the way credit is being distributed through the banking system to ensure that hospitals and affordable housing and farmers are getting the loans that they need in order to survive. And so, early in the 1970s, these free market enthusiasts don’t have quite the audience or the votes that they need in Congress to see their vision come to fruition.

Activists, really unknowingly, start to sound like the folks who are calling for credit allocation. They don’t realize that those conversations have been going on before they get to come to Congress in 1975 and ask for “hum-duh.” But by the end of the 1970s, there is an opening because the economic downturn of the era had lasted for so long. There are more members of Congress who are starting to say, “Maybe we need to experiment with something new.” And you also see the emergence of a new regulator of the thrifts through the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. McKinney, who sees it as his goal to help the thrifts survive this period, he imagines a way to do so that is speaking the language of reinvestment by saying that the thrifts will provide services to low and moderate income people, while at the same time asking Congress to grant increasingly liberal lending opportunities to the thrifts who had for so long been tied tightly to the mortgage market. And so, by the end of the 1970s, there is this push to follow the Hunt commission’s 1971 recommendations and let thrifts try to compete as the way to reform the industry.

I don’t remember how much I go into this in the book but there is a real separation between the big thrifts and the small thrifts about whether or not those executives are excited about this possibility, because a lot of the smaller institutions recognize that they’re not going to survive. They’ll be merged or they’ll go out of business as the brave new world unfolds in front of them. For activists, they gain the Community Reinvestment Act in these tools, but they do it at a moment when thrifts are behaving less and less like community institutions. And they increasingly have to rely on commercial banks to partner with them for community mortgage programs. And those commercial banks did not have the same kind of institutional culture that focused on service or community the way that the thrifts had. And so, it’s really an uphill battle, such that in 1979, the activists staged a protest at the American Bankers Association’s annual convention to try to demand more responsiveness for the CRA. A lot of the bankers in attendance didn’t even know what the CRA was even though it had been a law for two years. So there’s this moment of recognizing that getting what they need from commercial things in this era of deregulation is going to be quite difficult. 

There’s another interesting moment during the Volcker shock wherein activists are trying to make the most of the CRA by that point. And what they realize is that in an era of high interest rates, it doesn’t matter if a community bank partnership has been forged and banks are willing to make loans. If interest rates are 15%, then the interest rates are essentially pricing neighborhood folks out of being able to get the loans that a bank might have promised. At that moment, the NPA and some of its allies really start to target the Federal Reserve. They see Paul Volcker and the Fed as having the power to bring down interest rates to ease up on the monetarist experiment. And they say that the Federal Reserve is already controlling credit by allowing interest rates to be so high. So they raised the question: credit control in whose interest? There is already credit control and we need it to work for us instead of for more elite and wealthier people.

At one point, the activists in April of 1980 organized a protest outside the Federal Reserve building in Washington DC to confront Paul Volcker in person. This is an instance where there’s no corroboration in the records about how many people were there; activists say there were 2000, local police say it was maybe 350. But they carried signs that said they were at Volcker’s loan shark headquarters, accusing him of exploiting people because of these high interest rates. Also, one of the protesters involved was this guy named Richie Gallagher who had a friend who worked for Saturday Night Live. They borrowed the land shark costume that was famous from that era and brought it to the protest to have someone drive home the point that Volcker was a loan shark.

Out of this moment, you can imagine activists don’t have very much success trying to target the Federal Reserve to bring down interest rates. They do get a few hearings and a few meetings. But throughout this conversation, Volcker’s Fed repeatedly made the claim that they were not a political decision making institution–that those kinds of political questions about resource allocation were best left to Congress. And so, as the wonderful historian David Stein has shown, in making these claims, the Fed was really ignoring its historic mandate that it was supposed to combat unemployment as well as inflation, in which fighting inflation was the priority at this time. In the end, the NPA does not win this particular fight with Paul Volcker. But what they do walk away with is the sense that a democratic president, Jimmy Carter, appointed this person to the head of the Federal Reserve who is not going to look out for the best interest of working class people. For them, this was a lesson in the bipartisan nature of the shift towards neoliberalism.

William Saas: Awesome. So like several of our guests, you and your work is particularly geographically specific. How would you say that you treat regional history, and why is it important to your overall project?

Rebecca Marchiel: Well, when I first started working on the project, I thought I was seeing activists respond to changes that were specific to the Rust Belt. A lot of older industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest had these neighborhood groups and these patterns of racial integration and resegregation that looked similar in Buffalo, Cleveland, or Detroit. And in large part that was because the policy framework that structured profit making opportunities to flip houses from white to Black owners was a national policy framework. But then I realized there were other neighborhood groups in my sources from places like Richmond and Atlanta, San Antonio and Birmingham, and some in California like in Oakland and Los Angeles. So I started seeing some of these big and medium sized cities in the Sun Belt where activists were also talking about similar patterns. That raised questions for me about how to characterize what I was seeing in the sources. It seemed it wasn’t just a Rust Belt story.

Then, looking at the language used by these activists, I started to pay more attention to this term, “transitional neighborhood” that many of the activists used to describe their own communities. People would use this term to suggest a neighborhood that occupied both a spatial and imagined middle ground between the suburbs and the “inner city.” These were often largely residential neighborhoods within the city, or sometimes they would be inner ring suburbs, like Oak Park, Illinois, which is the first suburb outside the city’s limits on the west side of Chicago. It was in these transitional neighborhoods that redlining was really a common occurrence. Here, it was really the metropolis–when I was thinking about the importance of the region, it’s really the metropolis, the city and the suburbs together, that mattered more than the Rust Belt, per se. I thought what was really significant to my reading about transitional neighborhoods was that there seemed to be emerging from the sources a shared political worldview that was rooted in the shared experience of living in a transitional urban neighborhood. For folks looking at urban renewal or highway construction, those phenomena and those federal decisions look different in a transitional neighborhood than they might in a suburb or in other neighborhoods of the city.

I was really thinking about a lot that I learned in the existing historical scholarship about the way that the experience of living in the suburbs for white people shaped their aversion to government intervention. A lot of whites in the suburbs associated federal programs with handouts for the undeserving and couldn’t really see the ways that they themselves had benefited from state programs. But in transitional neighborhoods, these processes look very different. Folks living in transitional urban neighborhoods were very aware of the ways that federal policy bolstered residential segregation, or that federal programs, like the FHA programs that I talked about earlier, some of those actually made it harder to live where they live. They actually reduced their quality of life. And so, while many white suburbanites didn’t really see the hand of the federal government, or the role of structural racism structuring their lives out in the suburbs, folks in transitional neighborhoods are very attuned to the role of the federal government and the role of racism stacking the deck against them. I think that transitional neighborhoods were the instance where attention to place was really important to me, more so than a geographic region of the US.

Maximilian Seijo: Moving forward from there, we’re wondering how you see your book contributing to the field of history itself, including the subfields in which you work? In your eyes, what have historians overlooked? And what does your particular case study make newly thinkable for writing history specifically in the future?

Rebecca Marchiel: Well, for urban history, I tried to show a concurrent storyline that was happening alongside the story of white flight, because a lot of the stories of white flight chart the influx of African Americans from the south and an exodus of working and middle class whites who moved to the suburbs and brought their tax dollars with them. Sometimes the assumption built into this narrative is that Black people left in cities were left behind using cities as laboratories for innovative politics, but seemingly because they had no choice but to make do with what they were left with–underfunded governments, shrinking job pools, and growing crime. And so, with that narrative I feel the spotlight is often on the power of suburban white people and all the material and political benefits of suburban living, and that can sometimes make it difficult to imagine that anyone might have chosen to live in postwar American cities if they had the option to. I think that bringing in the story of the way that financial deregulation and attempts to win free investment helps us make sense of the obstacles and uneven access to resources that shaped some city people’s efforts to preserve the places where they lived. So I’d say that’s the contribution in urban history.

In political history, my research reveals other developments that occurred alongside the conservative ascendancy. And those are the histories that often seek to explain the rise of conservatism in electoral politics, and often most visibly in Reagan’s election in 1980. That scholarship sometimes seeks to explain the fraying of American liberalism during the late 20th century. And sometimes working and middle class whites, like the folks who joined the reinvestment movement, will be seen playing a starring role in which some historians think of them as by the late 1960s changing the Democratic Party much the same way they were changing cities by leaving. In my work, I try to suggest that place was really important to this moment of political transformation, given the focus on suburban voters, national elections, and the conservative ascendancy story. Sometimes the playspace politics of the reinvestment activism and other kindred spirits is absent from some of our stories. But what I try to show is that these activists from transitional urban neighborhoods who are thinking about life in the cities, they embrace a populist politics that was opposed to power brokers, whether they be politicians or thrift executives. But all of those people they thought had power used that power to write off their neighborhoods as risky places with no future.

I call this their “strand of social democratic populism” in the book. They demanded that social priorities trump profit motives. As I see it, they came to understand that there was no home for their vision, for their politics, and for national political parties by the end of the 1970s, as I mentioned with their take away from that Volcker moment and the fact that Carter was the person who had appointed him. But their local organizing for urban reinvestment shows the persistence of this social democratic worldview even late into the 20th century and early 21st century in cities. So even as conservative politics gain traction in the suburbs and in Washington, you still see this social democratic worldview among some urban organizers and city dwellers. Seeing the rise of folks like AOC or Rashida Tlaib in Congress, it’s no surprise that they represent urban communities. We almost don’t stop and think about that reality. But they share a lot of the ideas that many urban activists and city dwellers held throughout the late 20th century, and there’s been this kind of continuity of social democratic populism in some of these spaces, even as national electoral politics has rejected these ideas from national political platforms.

Scott Ferguson: Getting back to the potentials and limits or blind spots question, I think about the work of Jakob Feinig, our friend who we interviewed several podcasts ago. He’s trying to tell a story about democratic monetary politics and populism in the United States before the founding. And he sees the New Deal as a compromise–and of course it is in many ways–on the money question where the the Roosevelt administration and that Congress were ready and willing to think and make big legislation and reshape the world anew, but basically foreclosed the big questions about how money is organized, who has control of it, who doesn’t have control of it, and so on. And this is a messy history, but I wonder to what extent the social reinvestment movement you’re talking about doesn’t have a national rhetorical purchase as we move into the 80s. Because that money question, in a deeper way in terms of its endogenous creation, had been foreclosed for so long.

Rebecca Marchiel: I think that’s very persuasive. No, really. I’ve read Jakob’s work. And I’m a big fan of his piece on the moral economy of money. I think that bears out what I found in these sources too. In terms of some of the limits they have when they get to that Volcker moment about what demands they might make on the Federal Reserve, they’re asking for things like a secondary discount window. And they’re asking for things like lower interest rates that the Fed would give to commercial banks that would agree to lend to them. But at no point do they say, money is a social relation or money is something we all need. Foreclosed is exactly the right word to describe what you see in the 70s and 80s. I think it’s consistent with Jakob’s work too because the effect of having some of these regulations and this financial infrastructure put in place starting in the New Deal for a lot of people seemed to be working pretty well through the postwar period, especially for a lot of white people. And so, they came to see the way that it worked as the way it was supposed to work. This was the new common sense. Those older questions about what is money and who ought to control it did not seem to be on their radar.

Maximilian Seijo: One of the lessons that I really take from your work, Rebecca, is that social movements around money and around banking and finance ought to be historicized very particularly and thoroughly. Coming then through the looking glass of neoliberalism, you mentioned Rashida Tlaib and Illhan Omar, it’s interesting thinking about today and the paradigm crisis around banking and finance that we seem to be going through in the COVID-19 crisis and depression as perhaps a new moment for learning from the social movements that you have just told us about–that his reinvestment push is perhaps being able to transform some of their limits, but also really honor the approach that all of these activists take. And so, I suppose that’s not much of a question but more of a compliment and framing for the work that you do in the present.

William Saas: How do we get Powell in a basement…just kidding.

Rebecca Marchiel: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for saying that. I agree, it’s sometimes hard to take one for one lessons from the past. But the lesson that everything needs to be deeply historicized is one that I definitely agree with.

William Saas: Are there any specific lessons you think folks might draw on in left social movements today from this social reinvestment movement?

Rebecca Marchiel: Well, I guess one thing that comes to mind is the way National People’s Action was a reading, writing, and thinking organization. Folks have said about the 20th century populace that a lot of their organizing had to do with educating members about how redlining worked, how the FHA worked, which Federal Bank regulator was responsible for overseeing which kind of banks, and what does the Federal Reserve do? This was all information that the Chicago organizers, Gale Cincotta, Shel Trapp, and their colleagues–the folks at the helm of NPA–they compiled this information and disseminated it to their members. A lot of those member organizations worked on local issues most of the time. And so, folks who might have joined a local community group because they were mad about dog poop all over the sidewalk of their Denver neighborhood would also learn about redlining or the Federal Reserve and how they might spot redlining and what strategies they might use to combat it.

And so, in the current moment, the first thing that comes to mind is the folks who are connecting local community needs like problems of unemployment, especially in the midst of the pandemic, school funding, health care, and linking those local problems to the federal government’s ability to issue currency. I think that those folks are probably on the right track if you follow the model of a reading, writing, and thinking organization. I also think we’re just so lucky that Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth just came out when it did since it’s such an accessible primer for folks who want to understand how it is that the United States can be such a rich nation with so many resources, but still have so much suffering. Kelton really takes down these myths about federal spending and the impact of the federal deficit, and then gives readers or organizers a different and an evidence based way to explain how the federal budget works. And it’s a description of the federal budget that can provide resources to accomplish what people need to live in dignity and security.

So I guess that’s what comes to mind making those connections. I will say there are some amazing organizations and organizers doing that kind of work right now, like Fed Up, today’s People’s Action, and the work of folks promoting that Uni proposal, as y’all have been doing, asking universities to see the shared interest they have in appealing to the Federal Reserve to survive COVID-19 rather than asking students to come back to campus so they don’t lose revenue from student housing and fees. So some of this work is being done, but there is a long way to go. But I still think that there are some reasons to be optimistic even in these grim times.

Scott Ferguson: Well, Rebecca, thanks so much for this incredible conversation. Congratulations on your new amazing book. Everybody should buy this and gobble it up as soon as you can. Thanks for joining us!

Rebecca Marchiel: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed this conversation.

William Saas: One thing before we go, what was the podcast? If any of our listeners are like me, they’re gonna need to know what you were listening to in 2008. 

Rebecca Marchiel: Oh, you know, you know…

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

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Resisting Predatory Finance with Raúl Carrillo

Organizer for economic justice and scholar of law, race, and money, Raúl Carrillo, joins Money on the Left to explore the promise of the public money framework for advancing antiracist, anti-imperialist, and democratic politics across the world. We discuss how the public money or MMT perspective shapes his work as an attorney fighting against predatory finance and for an international, rights-based approach to full employment. A significant portion of the conversation is also devoted to Raúl’s ongoing critique of the “taxpayer money” trope in U.S. political culture. In both his recent article for the UCLA Criminal Law Review and a 2017 piece (coauthored with Jesse Meyerson) for Splinter, Raúl persuasively shows that the myth of “taxpayer money” is not only incorrect in operational terms, but also a significant threat to marginalized communities and a major rhetorical obstacle for progressive politics. 

Raúl Carrillo is an attorney, chair of the board of the Modern Money Network, Research Fellow with the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, and member of the advisory board at Our Money. You can read his article for the UCLA Criminal Law Review here: See his article on “The Dangerous Myth of Taxpayer Money” here:

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.


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

William Saas: Raúl Carrillo, welcome to Money on the Left.

Raúl Carrillo: Thanks, Billy. I’m really happy to be here–long time hype man, first time participant.

William Saas: Thank you so much. It’s a long time coming. And we’re really thrilled to have you here. As we normally do, we’d like to ask you to start by telling us a little bit about your personal, political, and professional background as they relate to your appearance on the show today.

Raúl Carrillo: Sure thing, Billy. I’m on this podcast in my capacity, as you all know, as the co-chair of the Modern Money Network, the power vacuum behind the throne so to speak. But I’m happy to walk through my journey and how I got to MMT, which is rich and a little bit unique, just like everybody else’s. That’s sort of how it happens. You don’t come into heterodox economics, much less heterodox interdisciplinary studies, without a wild ride. So I’m happy to take it from the top. I grew up in the US Mexico borderlands, southern New Mexico, west Texas, which is where my folks have been for a very long time on both sides. It is a financial as well as biophysical desert. I grew up in a lot more relative material comforts compared to my community, my family, and my friends, but that allowed me to start to gain an appreciation of the wide gaps between the level of wealth, income, and resources in our area versus others. And so, I’ve always had this economic justice bent given my own family’s history, which has always been focused on racial justice.

I grew up on the stories of the Chicano civil rights movement, the Poor People’s Campaign, alliances with Black activists in the south, as well as stories about indigenous rights. I started to study economics when I got to college in order to better understand the extraction and massive inequality that I had seen back home in the United States and during my time in Mexico and other places. For me, it’s always been about intertwined injustices. When I was studying economics in college, the bottom fell out in a way like it does with everybody else. I was an undergrad learning about why all the things I believed in weren’t technically feasible. For me, this was instruction from a lot of the folks who have written textbooks; a lot of people who had made a career out of capturing political energy, filtering it through neoclassical or orthodox economics, and constraining it. That is essentially what happened to me as an undergrad–upwardly mobile dreams of people of color are cast in a certain way and the economics that attends that is a neoliberal set of economic ideas. So when everything fell apart, I couldn’t explain to anybody back home why things happen the way they happen despite all my time with these economists. This became increasingly frustrating. And so, I turned more broadly into the social sciences and law in particular.

The first MMT thinker I ever read wasn’t Dr. Kelton or Dr. Tcherneva, even though I’m very close to both of their work at this point. It was the work of William Black, who is a law professor and white collar criminologist that wrote a book called, The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One, after the crisis. He also has an interesting life. He was an assassination target of some financers back during the savings and loans crisis. He has traveled across multiple continents. But what he did that was special to me–and he wasn’t the only one who did this but he was the first one I was introduced to–was to connect some grand theses about austerity and public finance to predation. And I’d say that this is the site of my work today. Again, after the crisis, I abandoned economics in general and then went into law. I spent some time working in California on the multi-state mortgage fraud settlement. Then, I went to law school with a financial reform and racial justice lens. I didn’t really understand money or the deeper roots of the financial system, although I very much wanted to. I was lucky enough to meet Rohan Grey in law school. He was a year ahead of me and had already formed the corpus of the Modern Money Network. Over time, we turned that into what it is today with the help of y’all and many, many other great folks.

Maxximlian Seijo: As you’re alluding to already, you clearly work across myriad areas of law and political economy, and when we were preparing for this conversation, we tried to pour through your work once again and articulate a more or less single thread that links to various projects, which you’ve done just now in one framing and fashion. In our reading, it seems that your work insists that really we can only fully detect, resist, and overcome racism across the globe in a powerful and systemic way if we adopt the public money lens, or the Modern Monetary Theory perspective, which we all variously share. Would you consider that to be a fair assessment? And perhaps could you say more about how you came to this particular conviction?

Raúl Carrillo: Absolutely. Thanks, Maxx. I think that’s a fair encapsulation of the aim of my work as a scholar, organizer, activist, and someone who’s in this space with y’all. For me, certainly my focus has been race. Again, that’s the background and the lens through which I came to this, but it’s more about predation and depression in general, and the monetary architecture that creates those dynamics and lends itself to the exploitation of people of color but also any folks who are marginalized or oppressed in myriad ways. A lot of people have done some really great work about austerity, financial regulation, and social reproduction theory, for example, Zdravka Todorova, Donatella Alessandrini, and others who have been involved in the MMT community. I came to start focusing on race again because of my background, but also because it struck me that knowledge of the monetary and financial system has been used as a cudgel against movements for racial justice, social justice movements for emancipation, and other more egalitarian aims.

We discuss all the time how the “pay for” question is used as a trump card, but it’s really used as a trump card in specific contexts. Usually, it’s to tell people of color or other people demanding rights to shut up. That’s not the case when we think about, for example, the broader security state, the military, the surveillance state, war, incarceration, deportation, etc. The right wingers demand blank checks for the security of a small group of people that they imagine are deserving of care. I know you all touch on these things in MMN-HD especially, but that is also a guiding premise of my work. Having studied how Wall Street and Silicon Valley prey on people, working in a field on how public money finances rights, social justice, socialism, or to paraphrase Dr. King, you can call it whatever you want but it’s a system within which all of God’s creatures are entitled to a certain amount of resources, you really have to confront the monetary architecture. To stop the predation, you have to have a vision of abundance that cuts at the very roots of why the predation happens in the first place. For me, MMT crystallizes that in a way that most other bodies of work and thoughts across the social sciences withhold from doing.

The way that I frame it is that it is extremely difficult to have your eyes on all the balls that are in the air right now. We can’t afford to be in silos as far as movements go. We need to be talking about the holy trinity–race, gender, and class–but also immigration, nationalism, surveillance, climate change and ecology more broadly all the time. And so, the way I try to approach talking to fellow activists, fellow organizers–especially those working towards racial justice–is to try to meet folks where they’re at and also come with an open mind as to what I might learn. I think there’s a tendency, especially among the white Left, to zoom in on the organizers or just everyday people trying to make their communities better, and think that they’re not demanding a certain thing because they don’t get it conceptually. However, I don’t think that has been the case in my experience.

I was a financial regulator after law school. Then, I was a direct services attorney for three years. I worked in an organization in New York where we had a financial justice hotline where folks who were experiencing problems with debt collectors, landlords, or credit bureaus, problems of financial nature, could pick up the phone and call and ask for help in English, Spanish, and sometimes Mandarin. What I remember is that people on the ground have an extremely sophisticated view of money. I remember that from my community, my family, and from other folks. Because that was brainwashed out of me by neoliberal economics, which forces MMT into a position where it’s explaining things that strike people as really jargony and aren’t always articulated in an inclusive register despite the great work that a lot of us have done here and despite the great work that Stephanie Kelton has done, etc.

And so, I think that poor folks across the board, they’re used to making money to pay off loans. They understand where every penny has gone. In my experience, when you talk to people about the public nature of money, even not necessarily MMT, but whether it be public banking, complementary currencies, or another kind of economic development initiative, people actually get it. It’s no more counterintuitive than the premises of Orthodox economics, which are like, assume there is an apple and two white guys on an island and they’re redistributing the apple back and forth, and there’s no society. This is not a good model for analysis in the social sciences, as we can go on and on about.

What I try to do when I engage with folks on the ground, which is maybe a little bit different from when I engage with critical race theorists who have a different jargon problem, is that I tell folks I think you know that money is a public thing, that money is a government thing, and look at how the system is jacked in all these different ways. And people get that. Academics sometimes have a little bit more trouble, partially because they’re locked into the tropes of their own interlocutors, for which I don’t blame academics of color at all. Nor am I here to say that I have all the answers. But I do think that when you massage, interrogate, or just get in conversation with a lot of things that critical race theorists say, for instance, the assumptions are there, and they just need to be teased out.

For instance, there are tons of critical tax scholars who have talked about the ways in which white taxpayers do not necessarily see taxpayers of colors as part of the same social class. And yet when it comes to the macroeconomics or political economy, we still find the tropes of taxpayer money, of the deserving benefit recipients, as Angela Harris at UC Davis says–and that’s to credit Professor Harris on bringing in MMT and interrogating it in a very constructive way compared to some other theorists. So, I think the seeds of thinking about money, more critically, are already in a lot of critical race theory. From my understanding of feminist legal theory, they’re also there as well. What needs to happen is an evolution in the bridging more so than necessarily a course correction, if that makes sense.

Scott Ferguson: I really appreciate that. I’ll say in my own experience just talking to folks in my own community, they tend to have an easier time than a lot of academics I know who I try to talk to about it. Because they can begin with like, “Oh, yeah. Money comes from the government. I guess that makes sense.”

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah, I mean property comes from the government. Whether a contract is a contract is something that comes from the government. All of these basic things that construct our society that economists want to say are brought from the market or whatever it may be, once those people take a minute, they get it. So why would money be so much different than all these other things that leftists and social movements interrogate every day?

Scott Ferguson: Absolutely.

William Saas: Let’s stick with taxpayer money for just a little bit. This is an area that you’ve consistently set your critical sights on, talking about the political and legal construction of the taxpayer as a racialized and racist identity. Recently you published about this in the UCLA Criminal Justice Law Review. Before you published something in Splinter Magazine with Jesse Myerson, called “The Dangerous Myth of Taxpayer Money,” which, by the way, I’ve found to be a very useful article to use in the classroom, so thank you for that. Could you walk us through your argument here and while we’re also on the subject of reception, maybe reflect a bit about how people intuitively understand the publicity of money? Is it the same case with the taxpayer money versus public money argument?

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah, excellent bundle of questions that I really think is particularly important and I’m happy to talk about this right now because of the moment that we’re all experiencing with the uprising and all the very courageous movements shaking what’s going on around the country. This figure, the legal and cultural figure of the taxpayer, is very central to the creation of mass incarceration, the policing system, and the general security apparatus that protects private property. This is obviously not just my insight. My friend, David Stein, the very first guest of Money on the Left, will tell you that. Virginia Eubanks, a scholar of surveillance, will tell you that as well. And many, many, many other people will. It’s no secret that in the United States taxpayer forces have often been reactionary.

I think the best encapsulation of this vision that I’ve come across thus far is the book Racial Taxation by the legal historian, Camille Walsh at the University of Washington. Dr. Walsh has done us all a great service by actually going back into court doctrine, digging into archives and letters between supreme court justices, and finding out the extent to which the figure of the taxpayer, taxpayer money, or taxpayer rights in terms of taxpayer citizenship, is central to the story of the failure of the liberal vision of integration in this country. One reason for that is in order to prevent schools from being segregated, a lot of reactionary forces just reverted to the cultural primacy in the United States of the idea of the taxpayer, of protecting taxpayer funds, and having local fiscal control over that which we consider to be critical to society or to social reproduction.

Just to give a little bit of background on Walsh’s book because my work wouldn’t exist at all without it, Jesse and I wrote this Splinter Magazine piece a year before Dr. Walsh’s book came out, but her book absolutely fundamentally changed the game. Dr. Walsh tells the story of racial liberalism of the Warren court just as much as she tells a story about taxpayer money. For Dr. Walsh, the attempt by the judiciary during the 50s and 60s to not integrate analysis of identity with analysis of economics, as you all discuss frequently, resulted in the material failure to integrate schooling and eventually led to a loss in the journey of Chicano civil rights activists, children, families, and educators in South Texas to achieve equal funding at schools. Essentially, our team in this lawsuit, which was called San Antonio vs. Rodriguez and heard in 1976, had folks who were Mexican-American in Chicano schools alleging that their fundamental constitutional right to education was being violated by local property financing, or a predatory property tax financing scheme.

To an MMTer, of course, that makes intuitive sense. Like if something is supposed to be a right, or something is supposed to be of critical importance, then why is it not supported by the power of the public purse? Essentially, they were saying, we do not have equal schooling because we do not have equal funding, and thus our rights are being violated. What happened in that case, as Dr. Walsh outlines, is extremely interesting and important. Justice Powell, who was formally the superintendent of a local school board back home, turns out is extremely interested in this case and is having back and forths with representatives, taxpayer associations, and other reactionary folks. His ruling eventually stands on the idea of taxpayer money, saying it may be true that under some state constitutions, or perhaps even under the federal constitution, there is a right to education, but that doesn’t trump taxpayer rights.

That’s not exactly the whole thing but that’s what’s important for this conversation. It’s no lie to say that the federal fundamental right to education died at the feet of the taxpayer money trope. And in our fight for new rights now, that is extremely, extremely important. I hope we can discuss that in a little bit but I would like to circle back to this UCLA article and the abolitionist moment in general. So right now, we are seeing calls to defund the police, which while it can be perceived as an abolitionist demand, is not necessarily as I understand it from folks like the organizer, Mariame Kaba. Of course, the question is, after you defund police, what do you fund? What do you invest in and at what level? And other folks are doing great, great work in this area.

My friend and fellow MMT traveler, the sociologist Tamara Nopper, wrote an interesting article in Jacobin a couple of weeks ago, talking about how the defund demand is an evolution in and of itself that should be lauded, and I absolutely agree. Back after the Rodney King beatings and what went down in LA afterwards, a lot of folks bought the idea of minority owned business development and corporate investment and it’s taken a long time to get to the defund movement. Now, the question is: what sort of funding for the nurturing world, for the actually safe world, do we want? I think that fundamentally has to be federal, as any MMTer will tell you for technical reasons. But it also has to be federal for political reasons. And in no small part, it’s to avoid this mess of the myth of taxpayer money.

So the myth of taxpayer money essentially says, whether folks want to admit it or not, the more that you pay in taxes, the more of a damn voice you have in society. There’s this liberal idea that we are all a monolithic taxpayer class and because I pay sales taxes on things, I have a lot in common with someone who pays a lot of capital gains taxes. And I just fundamentally don’t think that’s true. Dr. Walsh’s work makes it abundantly clear that that’s not true. When we think about taxpayers to be extended to social class at all, it’s extremely stratified, it’s racialized, it’s gendered, it’s sliced up, and it’s diced up. People don’t look necessarily horizontally at each other as peer taxpayers. In fact, taxpayer money–this idea that you’re entitled to more because you are a taxpayer rather than a citizen or a human or any other kind of subject–is replete within right wing movements.

It’s obviously essential to the Tea Party, but it’s also essential to the Charlottesville torch bearers and every other white supremacist force in this country. And it’s not just the United States to be clear, even though that’s where we’re situating this conversation. There’s a fiscal sociologist at the University of Alberta named Kyle Willmot, whose work I have been recently diving into, who is a scholar of indigenous taxpayer identity, but is also just investigating the global role of taxpayer associations generally. He finds that taxpayer associations serve a particular role within neoliberalism and within crafting subjectivity, in encouraging people to bound their government and see it as a resource extractor rather than a resource generator, which I think is something that’s very familiar to all of us. I should take here to note that Dr. Wilmont, like Dr. Walsh, takes care to note that taxpayer identity doesn’t necessarily have to be reactionary. It’s in some ways a mercenary concept as they say, but it has been wielded, I think, irredeemably by the right in this country. Although, I know folks have done other work about that, and I’m happy to discuss the ways in which perhaps you all see where it’s recoverable.

But that’s pretty much where I’m at at this point. The UCLA article, which is really more of a short reflection piece, complicates the taxpayer identity within the movement to end monetary sanctions. What I’d be welcoming or open to doing here is having a more integrated and more detailed conversation about the role of taxpayer identity and whether it’s recoverable or not. Maxx, I know you have thoughts on that and I’m sure that other people have thoughts on that, but I don’t want to push it too hard.

Maxximilian Seijo: No, that’s cool. I think Billy has also done some thinking about this. So I can defer to Billy first if he’d like.

William Saas: I think this is more about your work but I really appreciate you opening up space for it. Maybe one of the things I was trying to get to in a roundabout way was talking about reception. I think that’s one of my ways of thinking about whether or not it’s recoverable. It strikes me that even though it is, and I agree with you, probably irredeemable, the taxpayer identity that looms large in all the ways that you’ve identified is also super firmly ingrained and even mobilized by people with good intentions frequently. I know currently we’re talking about cutting university budgets and things like that and the taxpayer trope is showing up. I wonder if you might offer some advice for somebody who is concerned about that long insidious history that you’ve outlined for us, and that Dr. Walsh outlines well in her book, how to, with compassion and respect, offer an alternative? I guess maybe the answer is in the question there, but how do you present this to people humbly and how is it received?

Raúl Carrillo: Sure. This is a great set of questions, Billy. I do spend a good deal of time sort of just shouting to stop saying taxpayer money and say public money instead.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, so do we.

Raúl Carrillo: Haha, as many of us do. But I think that there’s not a monolithic answer. It is different strokes for different folks. The first question you have to ask is: what are folks using the trope to try to achieve? To give a basic example of one end of the spectrum, if folks are arguing for racial or gender equity literally as taxpayers, like as they’re filing their tax returns, for instance, then that’s not necessarily a frame within which to inject this whole argument. It’s not gonna be as successful. But of course if we’re talking at the federal level, then it’s a lot easier. I think folks are starting to understand that all the money that the Fed is lending out is not taxpayer money. How could it be taxpayer money? We’re all broke right now so how does that make sense? Also, and this weaves into the pertinent questions regarding the UCLA article and the protest, what happens when people feel a sense of injustice as taxpayers, especially at the local level? Lots of folks have argued against incarceration, against utility gouging, against all sorts of things as taxpayers, and they are clearly not right wingers. I have some thoughts as to why this is strategically still unhelpful for us, but I want to pause here because I think that you’ve identified an essential question for this project and for all of us. Given that we pretty strongly think what we think and believe what we believe–and other folks do as well–how do we form a bridge here for people who are very interested in economic justice and social justice?

Maxximilian Seijo: I really like this conversation because it’s an open one that still necessarily insists on some hard values. We’re explicitly thinking critically about the historical and contextual framings that are within this concept of the taxpayer identity that you so well draw together out of some important scholarship. I’ve thought about this in the past and what strikes me is as interesting about the question of public money versus taxpayer money, is that it seems to be about framing, ultimately, because if you’re thinking with public money, there are, of course, operations of taxation inside of the public money framework, inside the fiscal-tax circuit, and many different ways of thinking about that. But it also seems what’s crucially important for synthesizing what has been said already is how one rhetorically frames one’s claim to being accounted for by governance, or another version of some democratic claim on fiscal authority? The taxpayer identity is a problem because it refracts an exclusive vision rather than an inclusive one, which is what the public money vision conversely offers. And so, it’s not that taxpayers aren’t inside a public money framework. It’s precisely that in foregrounding what taxation actually is, what it actually does, the taxpayer is resituated within an inclusive structure of claims on democratic governance and accountability. It seems like that’s what’s at stake in these questions, and I’d be curious to hear your reflection on it.

Raúl Carrillo: Damn homie, I agree with all of that. The problem is that, right now, taxpayer money is the encompassing frame. It’s the bounding frame. And there are claims for equity and justice or revolution that could be made by taxpayers within a public money frame. For me, the more immediate question is, what do we do given how not only exclusive the concept has become in the United States, but how stratified it is? It’s not just that taxpayers, and people who primarily identify as taxpayers, don’t see black and brown taxpayers as taxpayers in the same way that they are. It’s also because of what a progressive taxation structure is, because people pay different amounts of taxes and are in different tax brackets which also quantifies the concept. I would also say it corporatizes the concept. In other words, you become more like a shareholder and less like a rights holder, if that makes sense? Your claim isn’t as a political subject; your claim is as a fiscal contributor. And it’s not an economic contributor in general, to go back to your previous point, much less a social contributor or just a general contributor to the public. It’s about how much dough did you cough up for the taxman when it came around, because that’s the only kind of public finance we understand.

It’s so twisted in the United States that we call all sorts of monetary sanctions that aren’t taxes, but should be thought of as taxes, as not taxes. Fines and fees, court restitution, student loan debt, and all of these sorts of sanctions that are levied on various people throughout the economy aren’t even encompassed within the taxpayer money framework. And that becomes especially problematic when we’re talking about somewhere like Ferguson, Missouri, which is an open air debtors prison, because the local taxpayers association has destroyed the municipalities ability to raise property taxes. In fact, now they run on fine and fee money. The concept is exclusive, as you were saying in the contemporary American context, but it’s also stratified. It sets people at each other’s throats in a way that it doesn’t have to. Even if you just want to highlight everyone as a member of the economy as well as a society, there are many other categories that we can use to describe people. Public money, I think, is one of the broader ones.

William Saas: A critical difference between public money and taxpayer money that I’ve thought about is that the taxpayer identity is something that individuals can latch on to and identify as and then identify themselves as part of a collective and join a taxpayer association, for example, whereas public money is a bit more abstract, and like you say, there are a lot of different categories that we can identify. But there also doesn’t seem to be something that has such a strong rhetorical cachet as “taxpayer” that’s readily available. And maybe that’s an important part of that bridge work you were gesturing towards before.

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah, I think that’s another excellent point. Perhaps we still are on a quest for embeddedness and we’ll find other terms that create individual connection as well as making the points that we make–that money is public at the end of the day in terms of its origin, in terms of its generation, in terms of the source of the enforcement and patrolling of its use that occurs throughout the society, the legal system, and that scaffold. I like public money because for the same reasons, I like public schools still, for instance. But it does not accomplish that yet, or perhaps isn’t capable of accomplishing that connection yet. No term is perfect.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I think one other great term other than public money is the framing that Delman Coates is running with, which is “Our Money.” Another way of putting it is this is collective money. This relationship already belongs to us. But yeah, we need to be turning it in other kinds of directions

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah, “Our Money” establishes a social claim while avoiding the abstract term public. And I just said public schools, I like public schools, but a lot of people don’t like their public schools. A lot of people don’t like their public assistance, a lot of people don’t like public public X, public Y, or public Z. So yeah, I’m very here for “Our Money” as a board member and frequent collaborator with Dr. Coates.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks, maybe we can shift gears here. One of the things that you’ve influenced me a lot on is the important but also tricky question about a “politics of rights.” And so, I was wondering if you could lay out why a “politics of rights” really matters? How do you conceive of rights? What’s a bad way to conceive of rights? And what’s the necessary way to fight for certain rights?

Raúl Carrillo: Thank you, Scott. So this is the conversation that is going to make everyone hate me. I swear my whole vibe is synthesizing different intellectual traditions and trying to get them to talk to each other, but this is one area in which I think building a bridge, for instance, between the legal Left and Left economists requires a lot of folks to give up their premises. I know that’s a bold claim but I’m here to back it up and have some scholarship coming out about this in the fall.

So if you were to ask the most lefty lawyers right now whether we should be fighting for rights, I think that a great deal of them would say: “Screw rights, what have rights ever gotten us, rights are abstract and indeterminant.”

Maximilian Seijo: They’re Superstructure.

Raúl Carrillo: Haha, they’re slippery; too slippery to fight for. They’re liberal proceduralist stuff. They’re utterly epiphenomenal. I heard about that on another podcast; everyone listen to Superstructure with Maxx and Will Beaman. Anyways, so a lot of the legal left, and about 60% of those people live in Brooklyn, will tell you that. And I don’t mean that in a good way. It’s not a care-based Marxist approach to the law. It’s one that is predominantly held by white folks. The back and forth within the left legal academy about rights is often really split along racialized lines, as well as gendered lines, to say nothing of comparative constitutional law debates, etc. I’m trying not to be too crass about it, but I see this dynamic reproduced amongst lawyers my age. Just to give some brief background, in the 80s, professor Mark Tushnet, whose work I love, wrote an essay called “The Critique of Rights,” which pretty much outlines what I just said–rights are too slippery, too shallow, and too vague to actually achieve. And it was pretty compelling. I have felt persuaded by that argument at times. This argument was replicated in terms of its ethos with respect to property and contracts throughout this school of thought.

And then what happened is a legal scholar by the name of Patricia Williams, who is a critical race theorist as well as someone who engages in a wide variety of spheres, wrote a book called The Alchemy of Race and Rights. To paraphrase another critical feminist legal scholar, Robin West, I believe she characterized it as unwittingly eviscerating Tushnet’s essay. What Professor Williams said is, yes, rights can be all of those things, but rights are the only thing that has ever achieved a damn thing for marginalized and oppressed people in this country. And that wasn’t to say that there isn’t a generative force or power within, for instance, striking or any other sort of real political activity, but that the rights were also a necessary component of achieving any modicum of justice, much less equality for especially folks of color. That is the perspective that I have pretty much adopted. I think that there are good points made within this debate over the last few decades, on all sides that are really, really important and outstanding, but one thing that this whole sphere of discourse suffers from is an utter reliance on the premises of orthodox economics and also the trope of taxpayer money.

Scott Ferguson: So can you talk about some of your work on specific rights, like rights around our collective work on the job guarantee or a right to a job?

Raúl Carrillo: Absolutely. Most of my work on this has been presentations and other things, but this fall some of this stuff is going to start to see the light of day. For instance, there’s an essay coming out in a book called, Tipping Points in International Law, about the state of international labor law and labor generally. What I try to accomplish in this essay, drawing on the work of some of the people that I’ve just discussed as well as various other legal scholars and economists in the broader MMT and critical money world, is to say that, one, the job guarantee should be pushed through international law, which is messy, difficult and aspirational. But also international labor law, and specifically human rights law, is totally underpinned by a vision of austerity. One sort of expects that is this point now given that the Bretton Woods institutions are thoroughly neoliberalized, but a lot of the covenants in the international human rights law, for instance, are basically trying NAIRU or even something akin to NAWRU, the non-accelerating wage rate of unemployment, which they use in Europe because they don’t like to hide the ball.

There’s this sort of problem that MMT comes at about the public nature of money, which you’d think a lot of otherwise extremely incisive legal scholars would be aware of or dig a little, it plagues the very idea that there is a human right to work, which is something that is promoted by, of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as CEDAW, the new treaty on international women’s rights, and all these sorts of other canonical documents from international law. And this myth is, of course, replicated in various national constitutions and labor laws across the globe, but it’s presence in international law is truly staggering. And of course, there’s no global body to coordinate fiscal policy or anything like that. In placing membership mandates on the members of these covenants, it’s utterly, utterly orthodox, and in a way that it’s damaging to any future for these places.

Maxximilian Seijo: This totally connects up to the recent Democratic primary and some of the questions around candidates’ different plans for an internationalist vision not only for climate change mitigation with the Green New Deal, but as a new way to think about how we address things like trade or other global questions of political economy. The vision that you seem to be offering here is one that takes all of the planet into account and doesn’t then seek to fracture, like perhaps Elizabeth Warren’s plan for a Green New Deal with an American first base approach to what one could call “rights,” into a more nationalist approach to addressing these international questions. And that’s a sort of mosaic, but perhaps you could reflect upon what your vision of a more internationalist framework for rights in relationship to employment means for the Green New Deal?

Raúl Carrillo: Sure thing. Perhaps this should have been the preface before talking about this book chapter. I’m not under any illusion that liberal internationalism is going to save us. That being said, I do believe that there is a more social democratic form of international human rights that is available. That’s a bit of a contentious thing to say in the legal discourse at this point, but that’s because I’m an MMTer. I think that a lot of the reasons that rights are abstract and indeterminant, vague and slippery, are fiscal and administrative. The person I owe extreme debt to here is Phil Harvey at Rutgers University. Phil has been a scholar of, as he says, the law and economics of the right to work–I would say the law and political economy of the right to work–for about 30 years. And Phil began his journey by investigating human rights law, but also investigating the transmission of some New Deal insights into international law via the United Nations Foundation and the creation of these various covenants. Phil mapped how FDR’s “Four Freedoms” were eventually transported to Geneva and became the basis of a lot of second generation of rights that actually is enshrined in international law but that we do not have in any real way in the United States.

Phil pointed out that, amongst other problems, the issue here is that the bills, the actual legislation for direct job creation, caps things at inappropriate levels. It creates no clear maps for courts to follow when they’re trying to determine if the government should try to redress a violation of a right to work and all these sorts of other operational and administrative problems. Now, Phil’s not an MMTer. And in fact, professor Harvey and I disagree on how the job guarantee should ultimately be financed, for instance. But he did make this point that this connection between public finance and rights has to be totally revisited. My contention is that if they’re fundamental rights, then they demand blank checks in the same way that the Pentagon does with their atrocious demands without anybody batting an eye. I mean, we bat an eye over here on the left, and the liberals do too, but it never really changes. Speaker Pelosi shepherds in Trump’s military bill. And the reason for this is not just that I am an MMTer. It is that the resiliency and stability of rights enforcement depends upon full funding and service.

Dr. Harvey said the distinction between a job guarantee and direct job creation is that enforceability is the individual right. And there’s an allergy to judicial enforceability of rights on the Left, because we don’t trust the courts, and that’s understandable, but Dr. Harvey empirically showed that if you have clear tests for what’s supposed to happen, for instance, when someone can no longer work in a particular job or there’s an ecological problem within that job site, what’s supposed to happen in terms of redress, is the courts are more willing to follow these sort of rubrics. Yet, the missing piece is, again, the funding. The funding has to be open ended if it’s to be a fundamental right. And that doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to flood the job guarantee all of a sudden, because you still have to want to do that type of work with that wage level and benefits. But if people can’t gain redress if they’re kicked out of the job guarantee program or not allowed in because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever it may be, then the rights aren’t real. You need something like an MMT vision to ballast anything like a social democratic or Green New Deal vision of rights.

If you bound them to a pot of money, a trust fund, or tether it to attacks, and God forbid attacks on your enemies, then you’re gonna run out of money. Not in the grand sense, but you’re going to run out of money in the administrative sense and the program is going to fail. People are gonna hate it. If the job guarantee can’t consistently hire people to produce things in the public eye so that people are perceived as successful, then it’s not going to take off as a political enterprise. And the Green New Deal doesn’t just include the job guarantee; it also includes a housing guarantee, an education guarantee, and a healthcare guarantee. So we’ve got four rights we need to fund. I think we need to be just as voracious and as fucking loud as the right wingers when it comes to providing the resources and the structure that we need to create and reproduce anything like a just society.

Scott Ferguson: Beautifully put. And this actually recalls a slogan that I came up with last year that I actually haven’t thought about in a while which is: “Inalienable rights require inalienable money.”

Raúl Carrillo: Exactly, Scott. I think yours is better, haha.

Scott Ferguson: Yours is the explanation, mine’s just the sign you hang out front.

William Saas: We’ve talked a bit about your work across various important fields. I wanted to wind us down by letting you talk a little bit about the advocacy that you’ve been up to recently on the hill, and to include things like your critique and commentary on the Libra Facebook currency and anything else you might like to talk to talk about.

Raúl Carrillo: Thanks, Billy. For about 10 months now, I have been working with a consortium of labor groups, consumer advocates, financial reform advocates, antisurveillance advocates, digital rights advocates, antitrust advocates, and various other folks on a progressive left response to what’s going on in financial technology. I know y’all have had Rohan and various other techie people on here before. My role is not really as an engineer, but as an architect. I get to break shit. I get to say when things shouldn’t be allowed to exist as they’re proposed based on various bodies of financial regulation, law, privacy, etc. That’s what I’ve been up to for roughly the last year and we’ll be continuing to do for the foreseeable future. To connect it to our discussion, I’ll tell you that in my work around the hill with all these advocates, the MMT perspective has actually been essential. Because what’s happening right now in the financial technology or #FinTech sector, is what we can loosely call the automation of finance, to quote Brett Scott.

But it’s also much bigger than that. What we’re seeing is Silicon Valley starting to exercise monetary power and vie for monetary agency in a way that mostly banks have done previously. And because they’re not banks legally, they get away with a lot of shit. This is predation in the same way as Wall Street targeting certain people to bring into a shadow financial system is. But I would argue, in terms of magnitude, it is more scary because of surveillance. Because the way that the internet works is that it takes our data, or on some occasions, it creates data about us in ways that are punitive. And so, all these big tech companies are starting to move into the financial services space, and particularly into the payment space. And the reason for that is that it’s the next data frontier. Right now, Facebook knows what you like and it has the content of your communications with people who are near and dear to you in your life. It doesn’t necessarily know what you want or what you would spend money on beyond what you like and the ads you click on, etc. Despite the existence of various thin legal firewalls and a few technological firewalls, they want the payments data and your social media data and also they know more about you so they can sell you another goddamn ad, but also so that they can increase their general economic and political power.

And the worst example of this is something called the Facebook Libra project, which as I argue in something called “The Libra Black Paper” that was created with the Americans for Financial Reform in Education Fund and the Demand Progress for Education Fund, is they’re creating a combination shadow banking system and local financial surveillance tracking. The money is going to serve as the basis for broader financial infrastructure, as every MMTer knows. That’s the goal. If you want to create power, mimic the ways of the sovereign. But also the goal is to watch how you move the money. Now, banks already do this to a far greater extent than most people are aware of. But their business model is not selling that data or sharing it as Facebook will do. And so, what we’re seeing is a giant collision between Silicon Valley and Wall Street. It also includes all these ticky tacky startups, which can be predatory and dangerously exploitative in their own way. But we’re seeing Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple, not to mention a bunch of larger companies in China, who are entering the monetary realm. And in the United States it’s particularly troubling because we don’t have any fucking privacy law.

This is another instance in which folks think they have rights, but they’re like consenting in a boilerplate contract to having your face analyzed. And otherwise, you don’t get to use the service and sometimes it’s “opt out.” No one gets punished to the extent that they should. I might be exaggerating a little bit, but not too much. We’re seeing, as of now, an utterly unregulated, wild west, unnecessarily imperialist Silicon Valley start to do some of the things Wall Street did with the added layer of surveillance, which also connects to state surveillance because the NSA and other organizations, as Edward Snowden showed us, have a backdoor into Facebook’s facial recognition database of protesters, for instance, where people who aren’t following the rules about pandemic guidelines are targeted. So sorry to ruin your day but that’s what I’ve been working on.

Another thing I haven’t really touched on is the color of surveillance and fitting that within the racialized predation framework I talked about earlier. Again, the Facebook Libra project is basically a combo of financial extraction and data extraction. But it’s hard to really overstate the ambition here. When this project started, it was sort of just a middle finger to regulators and policy makers generally. And my sort of personal thesis is that Facebook was doing this because that’s just how it roles. The old slogan is “move fast, break things” regardless of whether they’re laws, apparently. 

And so, the idea is to create these coins which are called stable coins. As opposed to unstable coins like Bitcoin, they’re supposed to maintain value as a medium of payment across various jurisdictions and economies across the globe. And for now, it’s just these coins. And then Facebook gets to create a digital wallet that people use for transactions which collects its own data, etc. The whole thing is actually not technically a Facebook enterprise because they’ve taken great pains to shield themselves from liability by creating an association in Geneva, Switzerland, which is of course famous for its very strong banking laws. And it has this nonprofit techie altruistic clause, which is fundamentally neoliberal. It says we’re going to create a payment method, and eventually a whole financial infrastructure, including lending, credit scoring, and all kinds of things. It is going to bank the unbanked, not just in the United States and Europe, but across the world and perhaps especially in the global south. That was the message that came out. 

In fact, in September of 2019, the CEO Facebook’s Libra enterprise, a guy named David Marcus, boasted that “Libra is going to allow the free world of Western nations to preserve the influence that, in my opinion, is necessary to maintain a good balance in the world.” It’s not difficult to just call this an imperial grab, right? And the way they’re going about this is equivalent to monetary primitive accumulation, as Mat Forstater in the MMT world describes it. They are defining what the method of payment is. The idea is that maybe it’s not accepted as taxes right away, but it’s needed for various other services if you’re interested in quick payments or if you’re interested in digital payments at all. There’s a socio-legal necessity that’s there given a weak infrastructure in the financial sectors of some economies around the world. And so, the data grab doesn’t work unless you get the currency grab. It’s currency substitution. The idea is instead of dollar-izing these economies, you Libra-ize them, and then you can Hoover up data as well. And maybe folks don’t have IDs in a certain country. In that case, what they’ll do is allow them to use their Facebook profile and a facial, retinal, or fingerprint scan, and all kinds of other things to get into the banking system. And they have all these sort of nasty techtopian plans.

Of course, the casting is altruistic because if you’ve ever been in the unfortunate spot of being next to a finance bro at a bar, you know that they know they’re jerks. But Silicon Valley people think they’re good still. They see this really as a civilizing force throughout the world. And so, it’s fundamentally an imperialist enterprise in many ways. Why in the world would anyone who cares about any sort of justice at all allow this to happen? No one asked Facebook to do this. What is it going to mean if folks like Dr. Sylla, who is fighting against the CFA Franc in Senegal, have to contend with the internet trying to beam in and take away its monetary sovereignty even after they’re successful against Macron? How is that supposed to be good for anybody for any of the things that we believe in? But yeah, Iza Kaminska at the Financial Times has called this “imperialism by stealth.” It’s just as naked when you look at the facts, but it’s coated in this California ideology gloss.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, it also reminds me, to bring this back to the Fed, that recently Jerome Powell is on record weighing the idea of public Fed banking and banking all the unbanked, which is what this California ideology in Silicon Valley is purportedly wanting to do. What is his answer? Oh, no, no, that’s a terrible idea. The private sector will hate it.

Raúl Carrillo: I’m glad you brought this up because the war on cash isn’t just the war on cash, or the gentrification of payments, as Brett Scott calls it. As our colleague Rohan Grey says, it’s a fight for the soul of the future of digital money. It’s becoming pretty clear that the monetary system is going to become increasingly digitized. Obviously, most money is digitized. Most of the layperson MMT metaphors get it that money is increasingly keyboard strokes, digital electrons, etc. But really what we mean by this is the decreasing presence of cash as a form of money and therefore of privacy in many ways. The innovative work that’s being done around money as private cash in the digital world is mostly being done by people I have a lot of respect for, but they are not interested in a public money framework. These folks are interested in private-private money; they’re not interested in private-public money. That really is what’s going on here. There’s this conversation about creating essentially digital bank currency systems, some people call it the digital dollar, that really involves the core of this debate. And I just want to make clear that I absolutely support bank accounts for all, basic financial services for all. I don’t think that’s a neoliberal idea. I think that’s necessary.

The issue, of course, is when private credit or lending becomes the purported vehicle for curing poverty. That gets predatory real, real quick. It gets extra predatory with FinTech because, again, we’re not just talking about potentially outrageous interest rates. We’re talking about the data. We’re talking about increasingly building a scored society, as Dr. Nopper and also law Professor Frank Pasquale have both written about. These apps, as Dr. Nopper says, analyze one’s digital character. They create an image of you which has been shared, probably not just within the financial world, but within a whole sphere of industries that now rely on data collection. And finance becomes another gateway by which corporate tycoons gain more and more information about people. But it’s not just the ads and the antitrust violations. It’s the insane surveillance that crosses over to state surveillance.

Because again, the government is usually just one subpoena away from getting this information. It requires these big tech companies, in something called the Upstream Program for the NSA, to release certain kinds of data that includes the contents of communications, including your texts, for instance. And this becomes especially dangerous when you consider the color of surveillance. A lot of these FinTech products are marketed specifically to communities of color and other marginalized folks because they are folks who are more likely to not have a traditional bank account or to be excluded from the “mainstream system.” And I would argue that this is predatory. And it’s not just predatory because of the financial extraction, which is bad enough, but it’s predatory because you are jeopardizing the health and safety of people of color in a white supremacist state that is running absolutely bonkers right now.

We know that these companies have to fork over data to federal law enforcement and some of them willingly fork over data to local law enforcement. That’s what Amazon Ring is–in order to protect the white suburbs, protect their property and their goddamn taxpayer money from super predators in the embryonic criminal class, as Khiara Bridges would say. You have to create more surveillance. Workers must be watched, delivery people must be watched, people who borrow money must be watched. Amazon has this camera that says what’s up to anybody who comes up, and then that goes to the cops. And so, what happens if a delivery worker is also a protester? What happens then? And even outside of the protest context, surveillance is the norm for black folks in the context of public assistance and predatory debt. And it’s the case for many, many other people, including Muslims, for instance, and anyone who’s considered to be a threat to the Trump administration. So this whole FinTech enterprise needs to be chilled. Everybody needs to cool it. I understand that lots of folks are into financial innovation, and I would welcome their skills at blockchain or whatever it may be within the public sector. Because if the goal really is to include people, MMTers know what the right organ is for that. I think in order to push back against predation, we have to empower public money for public power in myriad ways, and not just as it is a monetary enterprise narrowly, but as it is a social one broadly.

Maxximilian Seijo: That’s sort of exciting and depressing in its own way as you suggested. But I think with that, I just wanted to say what a pleasure it’s been Raúl to have you on Money on the Left finally after all of these episodes. I think this is episode 28 now. Yeah, it’s really been such a pleasure. We are really happy to keep having these conversations and keep making this show in ways that highlight the certain things that we’re all doing as well as bringing others into the fold. And this very much fits into the former of those two things. It’s been great. Thanks so much.

Raúl Carrillo: Thanks, Maxx. It was a real pleasure to finally jump on here. Hope to return fairly soon and I will be listening to every episode. Y’all keep on truckin’.

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

13 – Gramsci Overboard

Joined once again by Natalie Smith (officially a cohost of Superstructure!), Will Beaman and Maxximilian Seijo discuss the work and legacy of Antonio Gramsci. Opening with a close reading of Amber A’Lee Frost’s 2018 essay titled “Daddy Issues,” Will, Naty and Maxx critique the exclusionary assumptions at the core of Gramsci’s conceptual understanding of working class struggle as well as his understanding of the connection between education and populist politics.

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

12 – Robinson Crusoe Didn’t Kill Himself

Re-evaluating the left’s symptomatic preoccupations with the Epstein scandal, hosts Will Beaman & Maxximilian Seijo critique the atomizing and othering “Islands Discourse” that animates such responses. Will and Maxx begin with the island obsessions behind the TrueAnon podcast and Jacobin Magazine. They then historicize such desires through critical close readings of Gilles Deleuze’s Desert Islands and Karl Marx’s analysis of Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe.

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

11 – Fully-Costed is Dead (with William Sorenson)

In this episode of Superstructure, hosts Will Beaman & Maxximilian Seijo reflect on the shape of the post-Covid19 Left across the English speaking world with fellow MMTer and UK Labour activist William Sorenson.

Reaching topics from the UK’s Job Retention Scheme (JRS), to the US’ Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF), to Scottish independence, as well as the broader horizon of possibility for a renewed and abundant left fiscal imagination, William S. sketches an analytical framework for a locally sensitive Left-MMT politics.

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