Introduction to Theory: Karl Marx’s Value, Price and Profit

In this third installment of our Introduction to Theory series, Maxximilian Seijo deepens Money on the Left’s analysis of Karl Marx’s critique of political economy. Specifically, Maxx investigates Marx’s 1865 speech and posthumously published book Value, Price and Profit

This episode, drawn from Maxx’s pedagogy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, interrogates the relationship between Marx’s labour theory of value and the capitalist mode of production. Through close attention to Marx’s theory of price, Maxx teases out Marx’s classical formulations and critically distinguishes them from the Money on the Left Editorial Collective’s heterodox economic foundations.

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Response to People’s Policy Project on Alaska’s Oil Fund (Parody)

[This is a Guest Post from the Neoclassical Marxism Think Tank]

I apologize for the lateness of this post. I would have finished it sooner, but since taking my kids out of school to learn directly from market experiences, I’ve had to figure out ways to get them to leave me alone. This is a response to the People’s Policy Project on Alaska’s bold cuts to their public university system.

There was a time, probably hundreds of years ago, when public education was important. Before income became automated with the invention of passive income, humans had to be augmented with different kinds of knowledge in order to earn money and become truly free. Today, the average worker is far less productive than the average index fund in real terms. And by real terms, I mean dollars. In our technologically advanced society, the income of an “educated citizen” is equal to the income of an adult who receives the same amount in the form of an oil dividend.

From a material point of view, “public schools” are little more than unemployment insurance with a homework requirement.

So it’s a breath of fresh air to see that the brave government of Alaska, following Marx, cut the state’s public university budget by 40% to pay for their oil-powered Sovereign Wealth Fund. Alaskans have been liberated from workfare at a rate of $3,000/year. But the real benefits can’t be so easily measured. Beyond just $3,000/year, Alaska’s former students have gained something truly invaluable. Approximately $2,400 per year of extra consumption, by my intern’s calculations.

But as usual, some Leftists care more about gate-keeping their cushy think tank positions and virtue-signalling to tenured professors than actually winning. In a disgusting attempt to prop up the Workfare Industrial Complex, some “comrades” at the People’s Policy Project are saying that Alaska can close the university-sized hole in its budget with a move as simple as eliminating the $1.2 billion in deductible tax credits that will be lost to oil companies this year.

This is of course a ridiculous lie. Every oil fund thinker I know says dividend amounts will go down if they don’t get their tax credits. The idea that we can separate public spending from oil revenue when they’re sourced from the same place is a dangerous political fantasy.

And the truth is, Matt Bruenig knows better. I expect he’ll tell me as much when we meet this September to record podcasts in my wife’s spare room while our kids homeschool themselves. Matt knows that the yield for public education is low compared to other investment strategies the state could pursue with those tax revenues. He knows he is misleading citizen-shareholders across Alaska, but he doesn’t care. It’s worth it for him to keep Neoclassical Marxism from eating into his market share.

This is a plea for solidarity from leftists who share my dream of turning all public services into passive income streams. These flirtations with workfare are pure opportunism, and the average think tank reader is disgusted by them. Instead, we should be speaking the language of universalism. It doesn’t matter if a child is smart or dumb, productive or an objective waste of space. They shouldn’t be forced into a “school” to “learn things”. They should be at home, shopping online. Universalism means recognizing that all social problems can be solved with cash.

That’s what separates Socialists from other think tanks.

Medium: Femme – 2 – Radical Craft

Co-hosts Charlotte Tavan and Natalie Smith marinate in the complexity of the concept of femme:

inheritance politics,  fascist food, 
slaveholders, bell hooks, MMT & the household, oikos,
labor discipline, gender play, analogical fun
Real Housewives, dinner party politics
women in Stem, radical craft, reply guys

Introduction to Theory: Sigmund Freud

In this second installment of our Introduction to Theory series, Scott Ferguson presents an introduction to psychoanalytic theory by exploring key theoretical writings by Sigmund Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams (1899); Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905);& Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Drawn from a semester-long university course titled “Theory for Film & Media Studies,” the recorded lecture takes up three distinct texts in order explore continuities and divergences in Freud’s complex contributions to modern thought and society. Framed as an advanced introduction that is hardly exhaustive, Ferguson’s lecture strives to orient students to Freud’s contested historical significance and to model forms of situated close reading that resist reductionism.

Included for your convenience below is Freud’s diagram of the psychical apparatus that Ferguson references at various times throughout the lecture.

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Vulnerability Theory with Martha Fineman

Money on the Left discusses “vulnerability theory” with Martha Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University. Going beyond the politics of non-discrimination and formal equality that animate liberal politics and policies, Fineman underscores the human being’s embodied vulnerability throughout the life cycle in order to politicize, rather than pathologize prevailing structures of social dependence. Working primarily in the context of constitutional jurisprudence in The United States, Fineman argues for forms of government, economic institutions, and social organizations that variously take responsibility for the vulnerable subject’s ongoing resilience in a contingent world. In doing so, she controversially re-conceives universality through, rather than against difference, expanding the language of feminist and intersectional politics in capacious ways. In our conversation with Fineman, we plumb the depths of vulnerability theory and ponder its significance for left politics oriented toward public money and provisioning.

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Music by Nahneen Kula:


The following was transcribed by Aditya Sudhakaran and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Martha Fineman, welcome to Money on the Left, it’s such a pleasure to have you speaking with us today.

Martha Fineman: Well, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Scott Ferguson: So maybe to kick things off, you can tell our audience a little bit about yourself, maybe if you feel comfortable, some of your personal background, but certainly your professional and academic background.

Martha Fineman:  Well, I think my personal background really profoundly affects my professional status, in my professional position. For example, I am the first person in my family to graduate from high school, not college, but high school. I had my first child when I was 18. My second one, when I was 20, my first divorce at 21. I didn’t go to school until after that with two children, two small children. As a single mom, I continued my education largely through the help of government programs. 

I started an underground newspaper when I was a college student, which helped to support me through college, daycare center to help with taking care of my children and other people’s children. When I went to law school, I had not only my two original children, but my twins were five months old. So I had four children. This is not the typical background that you would have for a professor(!) A law professor, professor of anything, actually. And I really think it profoundly shaped the way that I view the world, and the way that I understand our dependence as individuals, on social institutions and supports. 

I didn’t take anything for granted and I think that that’s really reflected in the work that I do, which is very focused on institutional structures, and institutional relationships. I did my legal education at the University of Chicago on a full scholarship. They were wonderful, and began my teaching career at the University of Wisconsin. I was there for about 12 years, and then got a chaired position at Columbia University, went from there to Cornell, where I held the first chair in the country in feminist jurisprudence. And then from Cornell to Emory, where I’m Woodard professor, which is a kind of university professorship, focusing on legal theory.

William Saas: I wonder if you might say a little bit more about that, that biographical journey. At what point it became clear that you wanted to get into this sort of institutional jurisprudence. I mean, was law school the goal and then along the way, it formulated more clearly that institutional jurisprudence was with the direction you wanted it to go?

Martha Fineman: Well, I always had ambitions to change the world, right!? Which wasn’t very hospitable to the way that I was, into which I was born. I tried various things. As I mentioned, I started an underground newspaper called The Populace, interestingly enough. I started Baker Center, and was involved in all sorts of political things (this was) in Philadelphia. I went to Temple University as an undergraduate and I took a little stint working with skid row alcoholics as kind of a counselor. Did a variety of different things and I really, naively thought that lawyers had a whole lot of power. So I thought the way that lawyers operated like the social workers would come in, but it was the lawyers who actually could control the system, control the courts, and so forth. So that was one of the reasons I went to law school. 

When I went to law school, I always had in mind that I was more interested in the academic side of law than I was in the actual practice. Or at least, that became apparent the further I got into law and the more I saw that it really explained the structures of society and power in society in a way that I hadn’t envisioned outside of the legal context. So I always wanted to teach and I was really very fortunate that I had that opportunity. I clerked for a federal judge, but I really didn’t ever practice law. Instead, I went right into teaching. 

Scott Ferguson: We invited you to speak with us today about your legal theory, which addresses vulnerability as a key foundation of the human condition and the social manifestation of such vulnerability as dependents, which you primarily think through in the context of the United States. But before we move into some of your positive claims, I think It could be helpful to work through some of your critiques, your pretty profound critiques of mainstream, dominant, liberal, legal jurisprudence and discourse, to get a sense of the world into which you’re intervening.

Martha Fineman: Right, one of the things about the legal subject, what I call, “the legal subject,” but I want to point out that it is not only the legal subject, it is the theoretical subject. It’s the way that we imagine the everyday, ordinary being or person who’s at the center of our theory, be it legal theory, political theory, economic theory, anthropological theory, historiography. Whatever it is, we imagine a certain kind of human being at the center of our endeavors, our theoretical endeavors. So in thinking about this, for me, the typical way that we think about it is in terms of ‘autonomous,’ and here we’re talking about people having agency, autonomous, independent, self-sufficient individuals. Liberty seeking individuals, they want their freedom and their liberty. We see this very much today in the context of what’s going on with COVID, and people, you know, “this is my right!” 

So all these people or this subject is taken out of context. It stands outside of society, it stands outside of the institutions that inform our day to day lives. It is a radically individualized subject. And in addition to being radically individualized, what this means, ultimately, is that the state in which that individual is placed in the theory, is of necessity restrained. Is prohibited from interfering with the independence, interfering with the liberty of this idealized, (and I might add) totally incomprehensible and inappropriate legal subject to this autonomous, independent legal subject. So it’s that tradition, the theoretical tradition, not only in law, but particularly in disciplines – it’s the “rational man” of economics. 

Even in the context of critical theory, it’s the oppressed or victimized subject of, you know, it individualizes. It focuses on the individual and not on the social structures surrounding the individual. So that’s what vulnerability theory challenges, again, it’s this radical, individualized notion of the theoretical subject, and was to place that subject in the context that actually defines who that subject is and what that subject becomes. 

William Saas:  So before we leap into your claims about vulnerability and dependence, would you mind briefly sketching out how you came to these claims over the course of your career?

Martha Fineman: Well, I started out, and I still consider myself to be a feminist theorist. I was very concerned with gender, and with the exclusion of women from a lot of significant public and political areas of life. And I do want to say, it’s extremely important that we developed a discrimination model that argued against discrimination and exclusion and for inclusion. That was an essential, and necessary step in the evolution of a just society. So you can’t have people assigned to different kinds of areas and excluded from the main important political areas. 

What happened during the 20th century was, of course, that those formal exclusions, not only gender, but race, religion, all sorts of them were battered down, and the notion became anti discrimination and inclusion. So that if you look at law today, what we have actually is a formally equal system. I mean, everyone is supposed to be included, improper discrimination along these identity categories is impermissible. So that’s where I was, initially. And that was an important part of the early work that we all did. 

But it occurred to me in realizing this, and this happened in the context of the family, that the problems that we saw in the family were quite often not problems associated with gender or sex or women, but rather problems of the way that we looked at the family in the context of the larger social system. So the problem was not that caretakers or women as caretakers, were discriminated against (although that was one way to look at it.) But the larger problem was that caretaking itself was devalued by the governing system. It didn’t matter who did the caretaking. It was the practice, the notion of caretaking that was devalued. It wasn’t accommodated, there wasn’t a room made for it. We defined caretaking as a task of the family alone, the workplace was not asked to adjust to accommodate caretaking.

Rather than having institutional arrangements across the board to accommodate this vital and important social task, raising the next generation, what we did was confine it within the private institution of the family. And it seemed to me that it was saying, “Okay, well, hey, boys, you got to share the load equally and do the caretaking too.” Was not and did not solve the problem. The problem was not the individual relationship between husband and wife, mother and father. The problem was the relationship between the family as a social institution and other social institutions, particularly the state and the workplace.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah and it seems like that extends outward, right? From the family. So such that, for example, we can talk about a privatized health care industry. That model of privatized care is equally culpable of not addressing vulnerability in a systemic way.

Martha Fineman: It’s not only healthcare and it’s not only care, and this was another evolution in my thinking, moving from what I initially did was to articulate a theory of dependence or dependency that really focused on family and caretaking. And of course, there were a number of feminist theorists who looked at care work and care as the way to organize that. But the family is embliotic of larger social arrangements. 

In other words, the dependence that we see, not naturally recognized in the family, but for caretaking. We are all dependent on social institutions and relationships, and we move from this family into other areas of dependence, like the educational system, the employment system, the finance system, the healthcare system; We’re all dependent on the social arrangements and social organizations that define these systems for us. So this dependence is something that travels, what varies is the particular set of institutional arrangements. We are less dependent on the family as an institution as we age, but we are nonetheless dependent, equally dependent on other social institutions as they come into play. 

I just wanted to mention that one of the big realizations for me, also in terms of why I find discrimination analysis, not only inadequate, but in fact, problematic is the question of what do we gain if with a discrimination model? Where essentially the complaint is you’re excluding me, the remedy is to include me. So what do we gain from inclusion in an existing system that is unjust or corrupt? I mean, what has actually been gained from that? What we really need is not a personnel change or a personnel expansion, but rather a fundamental restructuring of the values and the purposes of the social institutions. That’s really what’s necessary. 

Also, one of the more recent realizations with vulnerability theory is that focusing on equality as the paramount consideration can also be very problematic. And again, back to the institution of the family. There are social relationships that are inherently and desirably, unequal relationships, the parent child relationship is one. So a discrimination model and equality based model doesn’t help us think about how we can justly organize these relationships of fundamental inequality. I also now think about other relationships that way, employers and employees in the context of work, we don’t ask and we don’t want employers and employees to perform the same functions. They are not equals, although we pretend they are, because we construct this fiction of the employment contract. Also, you have bargaining between equals which is all nonsense, most of the time. But rather, this isn’t again, it’s a reciprocal relationship of inequality and there should be unequal notions of responsibility. Doctor/patient is another one. Teacher/student, there’s all sorts of inherent inequality and unequal relationships that are just totally passed over in the dominant ways that we think about social justice currently. 

William Saas: The latter is especially relevant now as it’s the end of the semester and grades are coming to their relative equality or inequality of student and teacher comes into stark relief. I wanted to say that one of the things that I think we appreciate about your work, particularly is that emphasis on sort of, not stopping really at a step in critique. Continuing to move forward past the discriminatory discrimination model. To a more robust and encompassing critique of the system, and thinking through, developing, cultivating values that are more ethical and better, right, but that project is sort of ongoing. What we know I think, from our perspective, as humanities scholars who are interested in political economic theories and heterodox economics, and specifically modern monetary theory is that that’s a tremendous amount of work. That it doesn’t stop. 

On your reading, is it a matter of well– is it defensible to say that pragmatically, we have the discrimination model in place right now and we’re working with it, right? And we’re improving it incrementally. We don’t have time or resources to sort of pause and have this sort of conversation and the mass pedagogical moment that you’re calling for. Another way to rephrase it would be: How do we get to those questions? And then I think that one of the things I appreciate about watching your lectures and reading your work is that you are not afraid to teach and to pause and say, “This is how we’re thinking now, this is how we need to think.” So a lot of thoughts there. But how do we do it?, I guess, is the takeaway.

Martha Fineman: There’s a lot of things I want to put your question in the context of a lot of other things. So for example, I recently read and it struck me as absolutely true. If you change the way people think about things then you will also change their actions, although it’s hard to change actions if you don’t change how people think. And I think that this is a lesson that feminists should have learned and necessarily did not learn. When they took an idea, again, an abstract concept like equality, and sought to impose it on empirical circumstances where equality was not the model, in fact, the imposition of equality resulted in greater inequalities

And I think that with a discrimination approach where we are now, again, since we have won many of the battles, at least in a formal sense, discrimination is illegal. Discrimination is condemned, those are significant battles. We should recognize that that’s the case and welcome that. But where do we go from there? Again, what good is inclusion, if the institutions that we’re including ourselves in are in fact unjust, operate on jostling? So we have to think about how it is, I think the continuation of the discrimination model actually fractures the theoretical subject, the subject of concern in radical politics, progressive politics, whatever you want to call it. 

It fractures that subject in ways that allow those who are interested in maintaining the status quo, to turn us against each other, or to view the fragmented theoretical subject. Address their concerns, but not the concerns of all of the people, “the others.” “The others” who share that set of concerns but are excluded by the particular identity category. Whether it’s race, gender, religion, whatever, sexuality. Again, we fracture the possibilities, the solidarity that is possible; The bringing together as a collective, talking about social justice, justice for everyone, even though there’s a disparate impact. People are differently affected. We are all affected, in one way or another. I think that it’s maintaining that, what the discrimination model, in fact minimizes the past ability of real state action. The state becomes a standby to ensure, kind of an umpire making sure that all these disparate groups get to play fairly rather than taking an active role in ensuring a more just society for everyone

William Saas: Sort of like the neoliberal nightwatchman of equality!

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, yeah. Listening to you speak, I just keep coming back to Hillary Clinton’s last campaign for the presidency. One of her tropes that I hated so much, and I shouldn’t even pick on her because it’s just a standard trope. It’s not Hillary’s trope, but she was the candidate. She kept saying, “Everyone should have a chance to succeed. Right? I kept thinking, “No!! Everyone should be taken care of!” That’s different. That is such a different premise. We don’t want to give everyone a chance to succeed, but maybe they won’t. And, you know, we did what we could.We need institutions that do active ongoing caretaking and mediating along the way. 

I think we’ve teed up the background and the stakes pretty well. What I’d like to give you a chance to do is to get us into some of the weeds of how you’re thinking about vulnerability as constitutive of the subject. How this is related to what you call “dependency?” You also differentiate dependency in important and complex ways in your work and I just want to give you a chance to do some theorizing with us along these lines with these terms.

Martha Fineman: Well, first, vulnerability is a term that’s in common use. Usually, when people think about vulnerability, or the vulnerable, they’re thinking about people or individuals or groups who have been subjected to discrimination and exclusion or disadvantage, in some ways. So it has this negative kind of connotation. When I use the term vulnerability, I’m using it as a term of art. And I chose vulnerability carefully, because to me, there is no position.

I think we know this both empirically and intuitively, there is no position of invulnerability. None of us are totally invulnerable from outside forces or internal forces, that will change our position. 

So vulnerability, to me, is the susceptibility to change. 

Now, a vulnerability analysis is based on or it begins, and I talked about it this way, reasoning from the body. So that where we begin in our theoretical inquiry is not with some abstract concept, like autonomy, or equality, or dignity, on these abstract concepts, but rather with the reality, the empirical reality of our physical material body. And what does that mean? That is, in fact, the human condition, that body is vulnerable to change. By change, I mean, both positive and negative change, our bodies develop As infants we are totally helpless. But we develop, these are positive developments. There are also negative developments, developments that are caused by accidents and injury and environment, and so forth and so on. Negative changes within our bodies, illness etc. But both positive and negative changes. 

One of the things that we have to realize, and again, that factors into the concept of vulnerability, is that many of those changes, many of those forces that change are totally beyond both individual and collective control. That we, in fact, cannot control everything and that’s a really hard lesson for someone in the 21st century in an advanced democratic society to actually accept. But it’s true. Many of these are beyond – many of them can be anticipated and planned for, we can have, again, social policies. People age and guess what, we should have social policies that plan for that! People get sick, things like that we can actually do but we don’t. Because we tend to think of ourselves as invulnerable and the vulnerable individual is that “other,” who’s not us. Who we shouldn’t worry about because somehow they’re inferior or whatever. 

Vulnerability analysis begins by reasoning from the body, the realities of the body, it is an empirically based theory initially. Now there is a normative side to a vulnerability theory and this is extremely important. We have the physical, empirical realities of the body. The normative part is what does our realization about the body mean for the way that we should think about constituting a just society? How should we design our institutions? How should we proceed, given that we are vulnerable individuals? And again, here’s where the concept of dependence comes in. Because of the limitations of our body and the susceptibility to change. We are throughout our lives, always, constantly dependent on social institutions and relationships, the family, the workplace, the financial system, the healthcare system, the social welfare, you just go on and on. We are dependent on those institutions throughout our lives. How should those institutions, in fact, ‘designed’ given our vulnerability; How should they be structured so that they are in fact, just?

William Saas: What role do ecologies play before or alongside these institutions?

Martha Fineman: Yeah, I’ve had a couple of graduate students doing their Ph.D. dissertations on vulnerability theory and the environment or, vulnerability theory and animals. Again, one of the significant things about vulnerability theory, in contrast to both liberal theory and much of critical theory, is that the individual is really put in a social context, which includes the environment. It’s not only man made, excuse the term! A man made environment, but it’s also the natural environment. We are part, we are dependent upon all of these things. So we need the animals, the air, the ocean, everything. Angela Harris actually wrote an interesting piece using vulnerability theory, talking about the environment within and how these bacteria in our guts that totally our health is reliant on. So that, it displaces the individual, as the primary focus of our concern in our policy to look at the individual, again, within these contexts, and the context certainly would include the environment.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, and I keep hearing you grammatically, it’s interesting, you shift when you’re talking about liberal theory, you’re talking about the self of the subject, but then you often shift to our. That’s something that I think is worth noting and tracking as we’re trying to rethink our own use of language and grammar. 

So one of the aspects of your work, which you’ve already hinted at, but I want to highlight in a more focused way, is that you’re making a pretty radical claim to universality. Which I don’t know if we’re in the age of, postmodernism or anything like that anymore. But I would say that, throughout my lifetime, and my intellectual academic development, that was naughty, you know? One doesn’t appeal to universality, because that’s discriminatory, right? That’sa highly problematic move. Butyou take this on in a very different way. And you’ve had some critics of this move and I want to just give you an opportunity to spell it out and, how you’re responding to critics and, why this rethinking of universality so important?

Martha Fineman: Well, again, the universality is the body. And we all have physical bodies. Now there are differences, and in fact, those differences– Well, there’s two kinds of differences that we can think about. So the body is the fundamental reality, the body is the human condition, we are all born into bodies. And when we escape them, we die. Right?! There’s two kinds of differences that people are thinking about here and I think that a lot of the postmodern critique is concerned with the demographic differences, the differences that are at the center of a discrimination analysis Differences like age and sex and race and so forth, ability. 

Those are the demographic if you take a slice of society at any one time, you can look and categorize people according to all these demographic differences. Again, a vulnerability analysis says, “Fine, there is nothing wrong with attacking discrimination when it exists.” That’s a positive thing to do. It is not sufficient however, if we’re concerned about defining the appropriate relationship between the governing system and the individual. Then we have to look at the differences that arise in the body over time. So one of the strengths of a vulnerability analysis is that it takes a life course perspective, looking at the developmental, not the demographic, but the developmental differences that occur within every human body. (Actually, they occur in animals, but skip that one for now!) 

But the developmental differences, and again, the way that we move through social institutions and relationships, because of our developmental phases, and increased abilities, capabilities, or decreased abilities and capabilities over time. So that places it outside of the characteristics of the individual, to the functioning and structures of society. it’s a different kind of “different,” it’s a different kind of difference. I think that when the postmodernists would talk about ‘deconstruction’ and ‘non essentialism,’ what they were talking about was those demographic differences, but I don’t believe even they could deny the realities of the physical material developmental body.

Scott Ferguson: Do you appeal to specific theories of ontgenices, or developmental models? Are you working with more of an intuitive level with that analysis?

Martha Fineman: One of the things I love is when sociobiologists and people like that get a hold of me! Evolutionary anthropologie. I’m working through all these concepts trying to build this theory, and it’s always of interest to me when people of other disciplines and other areas come to me and say that it relates to the work that they are doing. I mean, I actually just did this piece criticizing human rights because vulnerability analysis is an alternative to both human rights and a social contract paradigm, both thinking about state responsibility. In thinking of human rights, there is a way in which rights, which are a highly individual concept, are argued as necessary for reproduction of society, which is a socio-biological…You have to have an altruistic approach or else society will die out if you don’t care about the collective. I listen to that and I find that of interest but what I want to do is to have a comprehensive integral theory that actually takes into account the factors that I think are important. I’m not interested in justfying murder, or rape. 

Wiliam Saas: I wonder if, does it seem like there might be something at play broadly in terms of this block to a discussion of universality or an acceptance of universality and indeed, an acceptance of vulnerability theory and all of its implications? Well we don’t like our bodies and we don’t like to think about them and we don’t want to contemplate the fact that we’re going to die. And I wonder what level you might have thought about that kind of discomfort with embodiment informing and shaping the difficulties you have encountered? 

Martha Fineman: That’s really true and you know, I’m not a psychologist but I do think there’s a lot to that. The notion of control also, that we like to feel that we’re in control. “I did everything I could.” “I did everything right.” “I don’t deserve this.” What happens to us in fact, is random, largely.  You can call it luck, whatever.  I do think that that’s very difficult for many people to think about. Which worries me actually, when I first started vulnerability theory I thought about 9/11 and Katrina. The things that expose to the average everyday person are inherent vulnerability. Things are external, that they can’t control. Not only they can’t control but their government can’t control, or doesn’t control, doesn’t respond appropriately. You can see how easily the failure to understand vulnerability and its universality, to be manipulated for nefarious political reasons. This same thing is true with dependence. I mean dependence, what is the right wing’s cry for any welfare proposals? “This dependency. This generation of dependency.” As though that is some sort of evil admiration when if in fact it’s totally normal and we all experience it. Again, I don’t think theory and academics do anyone any service by pretending that those things don’t exist and by not confronting them and trying to educate people! You know Education starts with one person at a time, one group at a time. And again, unless you change how people think about things, you’re not really going to change their actions or responses. 

Scott Ferguson: One podcast at a time!

Martha Fineman: I agree!

Scott Ferguson: So I want to shift our conversation a little bit. We’ve been talking about the state and the responsibility of the state, but I’d like to shine a sharper light on that. You make some quite radical claims about not just the state, what it is? What it isn’t? What it’s responsibilities are. But also about the constitution and the question of constitutional jurisprudence. Could you take us to a little tour of what is the State according to Martha Fineman? And how should we rethink, or maybe be rewriting, the Constitution.     

Martha Fineman: Well, the state is one mechanism of governance. What we call the State is a mechanism of governance. I think one of the other things that distinguishes vulnerability theory is that it recognizes not only the inevitability of governance systems, but the desirability of governance systems and to go further and say, the desirability of the State. We all live in, again back to society, and are living in a society, and are living in institutions and relationships. We all live with sets of rules that define our day to day existence. They define who’s in a family, who’s not. What the consequences of a family are. They define our employment relationship, what the relationship is between employer and employee. They define our banking system, our healthcare system, our insurance, whatever it is, there are sets of rules.  That defines our interaction, our day to day interaction with each other. So that’s one set of rules. 

There’s another set of rules that define the governing systems relationship to those who are governed. So that’s another kind of hierarchical relationship. So sets of relationships. Vulnerability theory deals with both of those sets of governing relationships, although it’s more concerned with the day to day relationships than the governing system, although it does address that. But it’s more concerned with the day to day relationships. So I think, for me I that there is more positive, radical, transformative potential in a governing system that we call the state, which is the democratic state, susceptible to challenge, susceptible to democratic process, which puts Incidentally, the responsibility on us as citizens, than there is for other governing systems. Because if it’s not the state, the Democratic state that’s acting, to define those rules, to define those relationships, to tell us what our day to day existence is going to constitute, it’s going to be something else. Multinational corporations, insurance companies, religion, there’s one. Or the proud boys, and they’re ak 57, or whatever the guns are. 

Someone is going to tell us the rules or someone who’s going to impose that. Society cannot function without those rules. Whether that’s a radical or a realistic way of actually thinking about governing systems, I’m not sure. I mean, it seems to me that, you know, again, it’s hard to think of the human being, an individual living outside of society, and society is constituted by sets of rules.

Scott Ferguson: That answers some of it. But I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit more about your understandings of let’s say, the responsibilities of the state, and maybe something about your thinking around this concept of resilience?

Martha Fineman: I say the resilience comes from the institutions in relationships. Resilience is nothing more than the resources that we get and by this I do not mean only economic or material resources. I also mean things like security, comfort, love, or the resilience of the resources that we have as human beings, to confront and ameliorate our vulnerability. To survive and thrive in the face of these unending changes. Some expected, others not, some within control, others not. It’s the resilience that gives us the ability to withstand and thrive in those contexts.

 Now, no one is born resilient. Resilience rather, is gained through our experiences within social institutions and relationships, so that our family instills in us a certain set or not, security ability, love, material resources, health care. These institutions provided, relying on other institutions like the family needs the healthcare system. The family needs the state. The family needs that employment system, so forth, and so on. So we have the symbiotically arranged set of social institutions, where resilience is built through these individual interactions in social institutions and relationships. 

So vulnerability theory and thinking about inequality really looks at the inequality in resilience, rather than the inequality in other forms of inequality. It’s really how can we transform our institutions, so as to provide greater resilience. I mean, resilience should be the end and the responsibility of and since those institutions again, institutions and relationships are controlled by the governing system by the state. It’s their responsibility, then to see that they in fact, operate in a just manner. Vulnerability theory would say that, in fact, our vulnerability is the reason that we constitute the state. It is the reason we constitute social relationships and institutions. This family arises because of our vulnerability. The community, the state, the international community arise because of our vulnerability and that is the justification for those institutions. We should always judge those institutions by how well they then respond to the vulnerability. That’s the basic fundamental reason for their existence. So how are they in fact responding to it?  

And the state, of course, as we know, refers responsibility to other institutions. This is what privatization is all about. But again, we should judge those institutions, by what function, what public function they’re supposed to be serving. So how well does the corporation in fact, generate a vital economy, prepare workers for the you know, for the future?  How well do these institutions function? Not for the purpose of their shareholders, for example, but for their social purpose in allowing them the privilege of all of these legal advantages that the corporate form has given their social role in reproducing society, in generating and distributing wealth in society, and resources in society. And we don’t judge them that way, we judge them by a totally different set of – and this would be a big vulnerability project. It’s again, dismantling these institutions in terms of the function they’re supposed to serve in reproducing society, and the functions that they’re actually serving? And how should law be reformed to reflect the former rather than the latter?

William Saas: This is a point of overlap that I think excites me, Scott and others in our community. Which is our sort of shared interest in perhaps not dismantling, but reconstructing, deconstructing, recovering institutions, and remaking them and channelizing their energies and sort of possibilities in specific ways that serve the public good, and the public purpose. So for us, and this is a long, might be a little bit of a long winded way to set up the question, we want to get your take on modern monetary theory. So for you, it seems like in a sense, the state can go 100 different ways. The best one is probably to be organized and through democracy and democratically and in a way that democracy is kind of an institutionalization of a vulnerability to change. Right? An immutability and a shiftability. Money, I think, for us, and what MMT is sort of made clear for us and coming at this from the humanities, critical theories perspective, seems to be remarkably similar. And is, I think, an institution that is frequently associated with the state, but also for us associated with political agency. 

Could you talk a little bit about how you do or do not see the kind of central observations of MMT, which are that money is not a scarce private resource, and that we can afford most of the nice social programs that we can imagine, right? It’s a matter of resources, not of scarce money, with the kind of claims and things that you’d be interested in accomplishing through your ideal state or a governance system that operates in accordance with vulnerability theory?

Martha Fineman:  Well, just a couple of things. One is that I don’t need to  state it out here as something that’s different and distinct.

Scott Ferguson:  Neither do we.

Martha Fineman: The state may have made the decision to privatize, or refer certain kinds of state functions to other organizations, like the financial system or whatever. But there’s no standing outside the state. The state is, in fact, inevitable. 

As far as money, I think it’s important to think of vulnerability theory, again, focusing on reasoning from the body. The body is pre-political, it’s pre-economic. The body is the body. The body is the body with its limitations, is a dependent, vulnerable independent entity. And it is the reason and the justification and the rationale and the occasion for the construction of all of these other social institutions including monetary policy. But nothing is inevitable in that regard. Money or financial arrangements are in a vulnerability analysis, only a small part of what constitutes resilience. Again, money is part of an institutional cluster of things. It’s one measure or mechanism for fulfilling state responsibility, but it can’t be considered alone. 

I think this is the problem that I have with things like political economy is that they focus on politics, and they focus on the economy, and they forget the rest of the world. And in fact, they forget the world that for most people on a day to day basis, are really relevant to their lives. Security, right? Valuation, accommodation, you know, the structural arrangements that they want, I suppose you could put a monetary value on them. But I think that it would lessen their significance actually, just like you can’t reduce everything, you can’t quantify everything.

And well, I know there are people that would disagree with that, but there are things that you can’t quantify that are qualitatively measurable things that we have to deal with. So money is a mechanism. And I think you’re absolutely right, that, you know, it’s a construct. All right, and it’s all you can play around with in all sorts of ways. But I would urge you not to focus only on the monetary aspects. But on rather, I mean, if you have universal daycare, and universal health care your monetary needs are lessened. I mean, there are things that are provided structurally, that actually have an impact on the way that you might think about the allocation of financial resources. I don’t know if that makes sense. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about because I’m doing a piece for law and political economy. And I’ve been thinking again, about the way that political economy narrows the focus on state responsibility. I mean now, to an important aspect of state responsibility, but it is only an aspect, it’s not the totality.

Scott Ferguson: This makes a lot of sense to us and actually as critical humanities scholars and podcasters and many other things, we are emphatic about theorizing, making sense of money from a nonreductivist point of view. So for us, money is always imbricated as an institution, in multiple institutions. And just as you’ve said, and I guess, for us, we have a similar critique, we share a critique, I think of a political economy and political economies predication of analysis on the individual. And for us, one of the ways that we articulate this through MMT, through modern monetary theory, is a critique of the so-called, “barter story,” that is supposed to originate money. 

The barter story as most of us know, starts with individuals, really an individual, which in a Lockean model has mix their labor with nature, so much that they have a surplus and in order for it to not to spoil, they decide to have some social relations from an autonomous point of view. And then though, it creates barter relationships, and from those barter relationships, there are various kinds of opportunity costs and problems that come along. Then we get a more formalized money system. Then, you know, years later a state comes along, puts its stamp on the coin and vows to protect private property, etc, etc. We all know that story. 

But what that story does is it makes money a question of individuality, right? And in such a reductive way, that pushes institutions, society and government to the outside. Even if they recognize that those institutions and government have a role to play, it’s always a kind of intervention. Right? And so for us, what we would say is, we want to theorize, thematize and critically explore and fight for a much more capacious understanding of money. One that is necessary for universal, free daycare. So if money is not being quantified and tallied up at the individual, private level for daycare, that’s great. But that also for us means that money is being spent, it’s being spent at the federal level. Right? So money’s gonna be somewhere. But the question is where in the vast, heterogeneous array of interdependent institutions, is it playing its role? So I don’t know if that makes some sense as a response to your comments. 

Martha Fineman: Yeah, it does. And I mean, I think it’s reflected in the current discussion now about the budget for the Defense Department, the defense budget versus “Build Back Better.” I mean it’s an allocation question, isn’t it? I mean, but investment in institutions, which is made with money, is more important, I think, in many ways than just tallying up the bank accounts of individuals at the end, which is how we tend to value individuals. I mean, it really is, it’s very perverse.

You might be interested in one of the projects we have, which is actually rethinking professional ethical relationships in the context of vulnerability theory. And I have this project, which is looking at law, business and medicine. And of course, law and medicine have become nothing more than businesses. Just thinking about how you could take away from a transactional analysis, the way that we think about ethics now is on a transactional basis, you know, what happens when “x does y?” And you know, all that, to actually thinking about an ethical responsibility in terms of the professions responsibility to the just reproduction of society to making sure that social justice is done with these transactions, realizing these transactions are not individual transactions, but transactions that actually express fundamental values that society has. So anyway, it sounds like we have a lot of things to work together on. And I’d love to see, I’d love it. If you send me some things you’ve written, that would be great.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, that’d be wonderful. Billy, do you have any closing thoughts?

William Saas:  I just wanted to say that it’s, of course, really great to talk with you and think through these things, and would love to move forward talking more, as Scott was recounting the, the Lockean story of the origins of money into an Aristotelian story to it goes on, always back, right? That it’s not the traders, or the producers that are vulnerable in that situation. It’s the commodities and things that they’re making that are vulnerable to decay and rot. It’s out of a reaction to the vulnerability of the commodities rather than themselves that they find it necessary to make coins, which are more permanent, right, and can withstand circulation and things like that. And so just vulnerabilities just completely.

Scott Ferguson: “Other.”

William Saas:  “Other,” yes. And where does it go?

Martha Fineman: There’s a great article that actually uses vulnerability theory to look at the vulnerability of corporate attorneys. Not a group that we normally think of, but they are! They’re totally vulnerable to, and again, this is related to the professionalism project. The demands of their clients, you know, the demand. I mean,they’re in a position where their options and their ethics are structured by these external forces. Anyway, yeah. So, it sounds like a lot of really exciting possibilities.

Scott Ferguson: Absolutely. Well, I think that’s a pretty great place to stop. Martha Fineman, thank you so much for coming on Money on the Left.

Martha Fineman:  Well, thank you for having me. I enjoyed this interview immensely. Thank you.

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

Don’t Look Up MMT (Essay)

By Michael Brennan

Adam McKay and David Sirota’s new film Don’t Look Up is an exercise in what Mark Fisher has called “capitalist realism,” literalizing the provocation that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In the film, McKay and Sirota imagine the discovery of an approaching large comet that will destroy all life on Earth in six months and the futile attempts to convince the public to act to avert extinction. Leonardo DiCaprio describes the film as “an analogy of modern day culture and our inability to hear and listen to scientific truth,” particularly regarding climate change and COVID. Here, the media are positioned as the primary obstacle to an effective public response, the title Don’t Look Up referring to the tendency cultivated by neoliberal media to deny scientific truth (e.g. climate or COVID deniers). The film’s call to action is for the audience to reject this death drive by “just looking up:” to face the scientific truth of our crises directly in order to take action. 

The trouble with the film’s central critique is that it reinforces a problematic liberal theory of media as a private “marketplace of ideas” led by influencers. This prevents viewers from critically analyzing media as contestable public infrastructure. Sirota, an investigative journalist who worked as Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign speechwriter and surrogate, considers the film a “success” for dominating Twitter and Netflix trends and spreading awareness about the need for public action on climate change. But this alleged success is in tension with the liberal “Just Look Up” approach that the film shows to be ineffective. Proponents are assumed to be using media to drive people toward “climate action” whereas critics are reduced to symptoms of the media problem diagnosed in the film. This logic ends in a doom spiral. Having ourselves “looked up” at truth by watching the film, we are driven toward despair at our own lack of agency in the face of neoliberal media. We are led to accept capitalist realism’s fatalistic view of the impending end of the world. Media is wholly captured and alternatives are unimaginable.

This essay explores a way out of this trap by flipping McKay and Sirota’s critique on its head. The film’s disavowal of mediation, I suggest, is the imaginative barrier to saving the world from capitalism.

Doomsday Media

Don’t Look Up’s initial pacing is frenetic. Astronomy grad student Kate Dibiasky and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy discover the comet and straightaway send the data upstream to U.S. President Janie Orlean. This setup induces an immediate suspicion of media in the audience since the bureaucracy is reflexively against scientific facts that would disrupt neoliberalism’s automatic churning. The plot unfolds from this negative institutional premise, flattening media to the propaganda model proposed in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (1988). On this model, the dominant mass media system consists of financialized corporate conglomerates driven by advertising revenue and stock value appreciation. With austere budgets and management, journalists and analysts are structurally reliant on elite access and get institutional flak if they dissent. Similarly in the film, President Orlean and her Chief of Staff son Jason Orlean cover up the comet ahead of the midterms until they realize they can boost their polling by projecting nationalist strength. The talking heads of the primetime cable news show “The Daily Rip” disregard the doomsday message, preferring pop stars Riley Bina and DJ Chello’s relationship drama for its trending value in the information economy. When the corporate media does eventually become concerned with the comet, it is as an accessory in a profitable culture war between the “Just Look Up” liberals and “Don’t Look Up” comet deniers. 

Bash Cellular founder/CEO Peter Isherwell, an Elon Musk/Jeffrey Epstein-derived billionaire and President-whisperer, is the political system’s puppet master and the film’s personification of Capital. He is introduced at a Silicon Valley presentation of his new Artificial Intelligence (AI), BashLiif. This AI is designed to be “fully integrated into your every feeling and desire without needing to say one single word” in order to generate exact micro-targeted content. As part of the film’s anxious world-building, Isherwell is immediately associated with our own impending “metaverse,” the web3/cryptocurrency promise to “disintermediate” the Internet as a totally immersive digital space. His emphasis on direct feelings and the technology literally “touching” the user (personified in his implied pedophilia) is symptomatic of what Scott Ferguson identifies as an unconscious tendency of neoliberal aesthetics: to make the world “real” to the audience by compulsively reinforcing sensory immersion. While McKay and Sirota rightly draw out this frightening tendency, their approach—for the audience to “look up” at scientific truth to take action on climate change—still plays into such fantasies of immediacy and immersion. Overcoming this reduction of truth to sensuous immediacy requires deeper reflection about our philosophical priors than the film allows. In particular, we need to attend to the liberal understandings of media and politics that underlie the film.

Doomsday First, Media Second

Liberal political philosophy relies on the idea of a “state of nature,” where humans first encounter the world and each other at a sensuous and immediate level, before agreeing to enter into relations of social interdependence. Absolute freedom is inherent to this private human condition, with public governance emerging as a secondary phenomenon. This is analogous to the “barter myth” underpinning the liberal theory of money, where the direct exchange of commodities precedes money as a second-order medium. For a liberal theory of media, speech is also considered first as a pre-political practice of private individuals, before it is regulated by law as individuals become citizens. Media is thus naturalized as a “marketplace of ideas”—a private sphere of free individuals communicating with government intervention occurring after the fact. In the liberal frame, the individual or collective subject knows empirical truth through the immediacy of the senses; any social meaning or interpretation is considered superfluous “spin” to base reality. 

Each of these liberal premises rest on the same ahistorical flaw: sequencing individuals to be metaphysically prior to the public. Contrary to the liberal story, it is in truth impossible to give a full account of who we are and what we do without reference to the symbolic media that organize our circumstances in the first place. As Maxximilian Seijo argues, Christine Desan’s constitutional theory of money provides the basis for an alternative theory of media. Desan describes money as a “governance project” and a “mode for mobilizing resources,” an inescapable problem of social accounting that persists throughout history (for better and worse). Just as with money, communications are an inescapable governance project that shapes and names all that is caught in it. Understanding the nature of mediation—as the boundless site of public coordination—is key to opening the imaginative space for capacious public action. 

With this frame in mind, Don’t Look Up’s reductive decision framework comes into critical focus. Because media is presented as totally enclosed by capital, the theory of change is narrowed to a binary choice: to lean in or drop out. Dr. Mindy leans in to play the role of sexy scientist spokesman for the White House, a figure reminiscent of Carl Sagan teaching about the cosmos or Dr. Fauci soothing the public by personifying the aesthetics of a confident bureaucratic state. Despite disagreeing with the profit-seeking turn of the mission, his justification for taking up this role is to secure his inclusion in the decision-making room with the President. Dibiasky, meanwhile, at first leans in as the public critic. She gives voice to the film audience’s own frustration with the media, reinforcing our view of her as a protagonist. Once Isherwell’s plot to mine the comet is revealed, however, Dibiasky drops out and is disciplined by the police-state for stirring up dissent. When Dibiasky tells the crowd at the bar that “they are going to let it hit the planet to make a bunch of rich people even more disgustingly rich”—one of the film’s few moments that gestures towards sites of politics beyond the main characters—we cut to a spontaneous mob destroying private property. Emblematizing the film’s broader rejection of media, McKay and Sirota depict the trope of riots as violent outbursts by masses of individuals, located outside of a coherent theory of change, rather than as mediated collective tactics. Later, when Dr. Mindy tries to lobby Isherwell on the flaws of his plan to mine the comet for its resources, Isherwell shuts him down, articulating his view of himself as not a businessman but a God overseeing the techno-evolution of humankind. With no alternative, Dr. Mindy melts down on TV and drops out, leaving no one and nowhere left to make change.

Money as Media

Two seemingly incidental instances in which the film overtly thematizes money lay bare the impasses of its approach to media. The first comes at the beginning as Dibiasky and Dr. Mindy wait outside the Oval Office with Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe and General Themes to brief President Orlean about the comet. Themes asks the other three for cash to pay for the White House-provisioned snacks, only for them to discover later that the snacks were free. Dibiasky is continually perplexed by this absurd petty theft, eventually concluding the military official did it because “he gets off on the power.” At one level, this instance laments the supposedly selfish part of our nature that wants power for its own sake. Yet this scene also registers an intuitive disbelief that money could be reduced to such a petty end in-itself when sitting in the heart of American power, implying a yearning for a more convincing account.

The second instance occurs at the White House Cabinet meeting after the first attempt to nuke the comet is mysteriously aborted. Isherwell presents Bash Cellular’s internal research that the comet “contains almost $140 trillion worth of assets,” including a supposed $32 trillion of critical rare-Earth materials for Bash’s technologies. (This critique ironically ends up undermining itself by naturalizing an accelerationist resource war with China as an inherent impulse of personified capital.) Isherwell and President Orlean’s new proposal is to break the comet into small enough pieces to not be an existential threat but to allow it to still impact the Earth so the materials can be recovered for profit. According to Isherwell, this money will supposedly be used to end “poverty as we know it, social injustice, loss of biodiversity.” The plan gets its popular support for the supposed “job creation” it will provide in the perennially scarce US economy. Yet the public-private partnership ultimately ends in apocalyptic failure, with Bash’s explosive robots malfunctioning mid-mission, not sufficiently breaking apart the comet, and the world ending. “What do these trillions of dollars even matter if we are all going to die from the impact of this comet?” asks a flustered Dr. Mindy.

The protagonists’ perplexity at the micro and macro greed of Themes and Isherwell, respectively, indicates that Just Look Up desires an alternative to a cataclysmic profit motive that the film itself cannot envision. This is precisely what a Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) reading of the film provides. The film’s claim that the comet’s resources are worth $140 trillion implies economic value is intrinsic to an inert external source, which logically trickles down into the justification of “job creation.” But this is absurd on its face since money is not the second-order medium for a commodity’s inherent value. It is a public utility that names what is valuable in the first place.

President Orlean has the legal authority to direct the Treasury to create $140 trillion at any moment. Simply marking up the government’s bank account at the Federal Reserve, the disbursement would only go into the economy to finance spending that has been authorized by Congress. (Indeed, this is the point of recurring proposals to mint $1 trillion coins). The true political question is: What ought to be named as valuable in a public budget, which public money then accounts for and coordinates? Such operations are proven tacitly earlier in the film, when President Orlean mobilizes the seemingly unlimited capacity of the military to nuke the comet. Thus the film actually resolves the money question from the outset, despite stumbling back upon it for the tragic remainder of the film. In this way, Don’t Look Up proceeds like its protagonist Dr. Mindy, knowing intuitively to contest Isherwell’s claim that the comet is worth $140 trillion but lacking the language to destabilize the liberal premise of private money. 

Looking Up’s Contradiction

Strangely, the strategy that follows from the film’s contradictory liberal theory of media is explicitly shown to be ineffective late in the film. The comet approaches and becomes directly visible, rendering the threat no longer “abstract,” but rather an empirical fact. This leads to the viral “Just Look Up” trend, a last ditch effort to overcome comet denialism and mobilize the public to act. People had been initially reliant on media to communicate to them the relevant scientific information. The comet becoming visible, however, occasions an event of “disintermediation,” where people can instead rely on their senses to directly know reality. At President Orlean’s “Don’t Look Up” rally, this seemingly proves successful when the MAGA crowd turns on Orleans after looking up to see they were tricked.

In the end, however, temporary success gives way to disaster. True disintermediation is not possible. When one uses their senses to interpret the external world’s representations, including when viewing a comet with the naked eye, those inputs are still mediated as knowledge via language, culture, ecology, etc. They do not constitute a higher form of “direct” relationship to reality. This is the liberal theory’s contradiction. We see this again in “Just Look Up’s” plea for other countries to defy the US and launch their own comet interception mission. Such appeals still depend on the attention economy trending power of Riley Bina’s immersive pop music experience at “The For Real Last Concert To Save The World.” She calls on the audience to “listen to the goddamn qualified scientists” but offers no further strategy other than to continue passively participating in media. 

McKay and Sirota seem to acknowledge the Just Look Up strategy’s contradiction, since it ultimately ends in apocalypse. But the film intentionally makes the very same move, encouraging the audience to have a direct relationship with the scientific facts of climate change while itself still participating in media. Sirota consistently highlights the “success” of the film based on its trending power, while simultaneously calling outshitlibs” for lacking a coherent theory of change. Just as Dr. Mindy failed to destabilize Isherwell’s premise of private money, McKay and Sirota do not destabilize a liberal theory of media. Instead, they reinforce the assumed binary option to either lean in or drop out of the corrupt marketplace of ideas. This implicates everyone in the sin of participating in media, including the filmmakers as well as their critics. But whereas they participate knowingly and for the right cause, critics are interfering with the activist message to “look up” at the truth and take action, which functions as an effective bludgeon against supposedly “superfluous” and “distracting” posting detached from the “real world.” Thus Riley Bina’s concert functions as a synecdoche for the film as a whole: an absurd and ineffective spectacle that treats the audience as passive consumers of external media.

Affirming Public Media

What would a genuinely public media strategy look like? Media, properly understood, plays constitutive roles in organizing popular support for public action. The film gestures toward this with Dr. Mindy’s role as public intellectual. He is practicing a Carl Sagan-esque mode of media participation (implied directly in the first scene with his bobblehead on Dibiasky’s desk). He promotes a hotline (set up as a public-private partnership between FEMA and Bash Cellular) for people experiencing anxiety to discuss the comet with scientists “for peace of mind.” Yet the depth of Sagan’s style of popular engagement with schools, member organizations, research and academic institutions, etc., is not explored here. While promising, such solutions are insufficient for the task of shaping the world.

To begin to answer this question, a public media strategy can borrow frames from previous public actions. This is the basic approach of the Green New Deal (GND), which uses the familiar New Deal framing to open imaginative space for a similar policy regime today. The demand for a Third Reconstruction from Rev. William Barber II and the Poor People’s Campaign (itself drawing on the familiar narrative of Dr. King’s later organizing) returns to the public task of the incomplete Black Reconstruction following the Civil War to create new space to imagine its completion. 

But to be a fully public media strategy, we must go a step further by holistically designing the media of the programs themselves. Seijo gestures in this direction by drawing from the experience of the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Here, Seijo critically assesses how the New Deal’s economic programs are shaped by and possess their own media texture:

“From its inception, the CCC was more than simply an employment or conservation programme. Rather, like much of the New Deal, the CCC was both a political and a communications project. From the political creation of the money needed to fund the programme, to the strategic placement of the laborers’ camps, to its architects’ rhetorical emphasis on the ‘wilderness’ or ‘frontier’ over the perceived artificiality of urban environments, to the robust media apparatus that bolstered the popularity of the programme – the CCC reveals the propagandistic nature of public policy development in the New Deal. It is for this reason that its intertextual web of informational activism was of such profound importance to its achievements.”

On Seijo’s analysis, the CCC was a holistic media project, an explicitly normative attempt to shape the material and aesthetic world, the success of which lives on today. GND advocates are currently pursuing a modern CCC as part of Congress’ pending Build Back Better Act, demonstrating the staying power of designing public jobs programs as media. Seijo goes on to outline the media lessons from the past for a GND today:

“With such a history in mind, the GND could foster broader support among the public at large, through both the material and aesthetic experience of its effects. For example, the GND must consider its public relations effort not simply as a campaign that aims to influence individuals in a so-called marketplace of ideas. Rather, the GND needs to incorporate its public media governance within the material manifestations of such projects – in signs, artwork, screen media content, localized and scaled public addresses, etc.” 

In contrast to Seijo, McKay and Sirota deny this imaginative space by relegating media to so-called “culture wars” and reducing said culture wars to superfluous media distractions. They fail to represent actually-existing contested public media spaces—workplaces, neighborhoods, universities, community meetings, protests, mutual aid, etc.—thus obscuring those strategic media terrains. What is more, crises such as climate change, the pandemic, nuclear war have more uneven time horizons than the binary “doomsdate” of the comet, allowing a pluralism of media strategies to develop and flourish. It is, of course, urgent that we act quickly since we also don’t have long.

There are ample opportunities for shaping public media in the response to the type of disasters allegorized by Don’t Look Up comet. These do not necessarily need to be government-run programs to be “public media” in the broader sense intended. But they should be nested within political struggles for re-orienting public money for public purposes, including full employment. For media to address such crises, however, we must first open up our ability to imagine new possibilities.

29 – Tucker Carlson

Cohosts Natalie Smith and Will Beaman venture into Tucker Carlson’s reactionary mediascape, connecting the neo-fascist rhetoric of his nightly Fox News show with the past iterations of American conservatism that preceded it. Natalie and Will trace the various rhetorical logics of the far right and offer a critique of left wing attacks on Tucker’s populist bona fides that deny the possibility of reactionary populism.

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

by Geoff Coventry

[Note for readers: This article contains spoilers]

Shawn Levy’s Free Guy is the latest cinematic attempt to manage social problems through self-conscious artificial intelligence (AI). In doing so, it tumbles right back into fanciful utopian imagery while wishing away the complexities of human care. As this virtual redemption story reaches its climax, the AI-created world resembles a moneyless and bodiless bliss where only the nice get to stay, and no one needs to be responsible for social provisioning. In the parallel reality of planet earth, humanity cheers the downfall of a greedy capitalist while simultaneously looking to a new generation of Silicon Valley heroes and the market-economy to produce a better future within the exact same institutional structures that gave rise to the story’s existential crisis. Rather than imagining the boundless ways AI could support human and planetary care while challenging the zero-sum economics that fuel greed and violence, Free Guy tries to charm its way to hope within the logics and institutions of zero-sum austerity.

Free Guy casts the endearing Ryan Reynolds as a non-player character (NPC) in a video game whose two genius creators (Jodie Comer as Millie and Joe Keery as Keys) originally set out to design a virtual world called Life Itself, where characters would “naturally evolve” in a “real life” environment. The title Life Itself grants an immanence to the game platform that obscures the wider mediation of the virtual world by a whole team of employed staff within a corporation, positing their creation of virtual “life” as a self-standing, self-contained environment, where good things can blossom if only left to itself.

Tragically for the duo, their core artificial intelligence source code was stolen by Antwan (New Zealand actor Taika Waititi), the CEO of game developer Soonami, who uses it to power a violent massively multiplayer online game in the genre of Grand Theft Auto. Soonami portends an unstoppable wave of capitalistic destruction. In doing so, the filmmakers ignore the legal and public mediation that created and continues to support the system being critiqued, refusing any alternative that could restructure markets and the public sphere into a mutually regenerating force. Although deterministically coded as a zero-sum game, the “platform itself” is actually subject to powerful non zero-sum influences, both positive and negative: Millie entering the game to find the lost code and helping Guy “come alive”; Keys coding game enhancements; Antwan rebooting the game and destroying its servers. In reality, both the virtual and non-virtual worlds are locked in a co-dependency and co-determination that is never fully acknowledged, let alone explored for its possibilities. 

As the young AI creators battle to prove the theft of their source code, NPC Guy begins to “come alive,” gaining self-awareness and deviating from his routine as the friendliest bank teller you’ll never meet. Initially programmed to be the handsome nice guy in town who can’t find true love, Guy begins to look for more meaning in life and to participate in the game as the good hero who stops violent criminals and saves his NPC friends. Discovering that their code may have just created the world’s first real artificial intelligence, Millie and Keys must now save Guy and the other NPCs from destruction at the hands of a ruthless capitalist who would rather see everything destroyed than face financial loss and diminution of his ego. Hollywood remains entrenched in the formula of larger-than-life heroic individuals responding to, but never truly reforming, societal and existential threats, providing the conditions for rinse-and-repeat series. This may make entertaining and profitable cinema, but when seeking to take flight as an aspirational future for human potential, it can’t break free from the gravitational pull of its predetermined economic and relational limits.

As the movie reaches its climax, Guy, with the help of Millie and Keys, reaches the original Edenic island world of Life Itself, a garden-city paradise explicitly defined by the absence of banks, jobs and guns, where he is eventually reunited with all his friends. In this new world, and now evolved from their programmed roleplay of menial work and innocent victims of violence, the NPCs are free to “do whatever they want”. No “bad” characters enter this world from outside. Only the nice remain; however, neither do they need to do any work of caring for the world they inhabit or the people they share it with. Life Itself closely resembles a common Christian conception of “heaven” more than anything that might shed light on the real world inhabited by humans: its selectively-limited inhabitants magically “perfected” while the masses of less-than-perfect humanity are kept away. This perfected AI platform codes its idealized life  much like racialized urban planners coded white suburbs: by defining-away most of humanity and ignoring environmental interdependencies.

And herein lies the problem. The hope for a better world as modeled by an innocent artificial intelligence leading us back to Eden fails before it starts. Such a binary worldview filled with coded outcomes has no bearing on reality and ergo provides no guidance for humanity’s struggles and no inspiration for its potential.

Similar to how nostalgia is a killer of truth, niceness is a killer of care. Niceness is an individualistic construct that renders unnecessary the challenging choices needed to reorganize society in ways that provide mutual care. Niceness inverts care’s others-focused accounting structure into transactions of feel-good self interest; each smile, wave or act of kindness recorded to the social credit of the “good” person. Nowhere is this more encapsulated than during a Christmas holiday, where, for a few days, those with means placate the subconscious trauma of participation in a zero-sum game by mutual gift giving and token charity, only to return Monday morning to the brutalization demanded by winning the game. Care in the real world rejects scarcity and exclusion, wrapping all into interdependent, unending, difficult, and imperfect relationships of service. The logic of care is universally inclusive since all are simultaneously providers and recipients. No one is altogether nice or irredeemably bad. Relational, not transactional, care’s accounting seeks to explore the unknown and unmet needs within and beyond every community. The society-wide capacity to care remains unbounded by exclusionary categorizations of people (or other life forms), refusing to accept arbitrary limits of affordability and existing resource availability. When seen in this light, Hollywood’s Guy is the dreamy nice dude who saves the day only because this AI Guy is really not at all like a human nor lives in a human-like world.

Free Guy wants us to believe the world can be changed by nice artificial intelligence produced by nice human intelligence, even as it wishes away the need for any deliberate collective work to bring about structural changes to social, political and economic systems. Niceness is self-centered, privileged, and ultimately protected by violence in order to pretend the “nice” can avoid problematic intrusions into their perception of bliss. Violence in the service of niceness is still violence against other people. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. 

In contrast, care is a conscious social engagement that seeks out and serves the needs and wants of all within an inclusive community, while recognizing and rewarding the provisioning of care in dignifying ways. Care doesn’t preclude unpleasantries, injustices, and human vices, but dives into the complex and unending work of listening, problem-wrestling, healing and building. Such an inclusive logic of care sees the 22 year old gamer Keith, still living with his mother and venting his anger over frustrated desires, societal rejection, and economic exclusion, as a person deserving of meaningful social and economic participation in the community. The exclusionary logic of Hollywood can only mock the gamer, defining him as a villain to be vanquished from the promised land along with all the other “bad guys”, and relegating him to perpetual torment at home. 

Free Guy seeks to contrast greed and care, yet retains a field of limited agency within a dualistic and simplistic vision of humanity and socio-economic possibilities. The fallen-world dystopia of greedy capitalism foments wanton violence on the city streets where innocent victims are killed and workers are trapped in soul-destroying jobs. Redemption of the virgin innocence of this lost paradise comes when the nice people resist their oppressors. This comes in the form of an organized and unanimous strike from their jobs that lasts just long enough to buy time for the caring geniuses, Millie and Keys, to heroically expose the capitalist greed, remove their control, and finally prevent any more “bad guys” from entering paradise. The NPCs’ only agency is to stick it to the boss and walk off the job, and the only qualification to participate in this society is to be one of the “nice people”. The co-dependence of these interconnected worlds is largely ignored, along with the real work being performed by an army of hidden figures who literally build their houses and streets and keep their lights on.

What is so obviously missing from the bliss-filled ending is that the world Guy and his NPCs inhabit was entirely constructed by the code of the earnest protagonists, whose new creation for innocent NPCs remains dependent upon real people who need to work, eat, live, earn wages, and own companies. In Guy’s new Eden, there is no concept of the need to develop and share their world’s resources in ways that will create a cohesive social order to care for the city and land they inhabit. Nor is there any recognition of their existential predicament: how to maintain the energy, money and labor needed to keep their world online. Their entire existence relies on the continued aspiration and organizational skills of its young “gods” from another dimension and remains as precarious as a power outage or corporate bankruptcy, and yet we are expected to view this heavenly virtual locale and the lack of banks and jobs as a picture of human freedom.

Fast forwarding to the future, we see that Millie and Keys have stepped right back into the same Silicon Valley startup world they were just fighting, running a company, relying on banks, investors, and keeping a hopeful watchful eye on their customer and revenue growth in order to keep the dream alive. The NPC Eden now exists, not as an independent and self-sufficient alien planet, but as a Twitch channel dependent upon entertaining its viewers. The only apparent change from the old regime is in the values of the company leadership. Along with the heavenly bliss of nice AI, Silicon Valley wants to sell us on an evangelical worldview for humankind’s master coders. Government regulators and legislators should leave the smart techies alone to invent the future in their image, just so long as they try to have nice people in charge. Of course, Google’s “Don’t be evil” code of conduct falls far short of preventing ongoing systemic concerns. It is telling that the film has no vision for changes to the status quo. There is no hint of public funds being available to help protect and fund this new AI “life form,” no changes to corporate ownership structure or employment relations, and no public engagement in how best to care for either newborn AI or real world human life to ensure extinction is no longer an imminent risk. 

The neoliberal blockbuster has yet to imagine its way out of the corner of zero sum economics and the resulting combination of violent and exclusionary solutions to the imagined inevitability of greed and exploitation. Dualistic metaphysics still dominate: good and evil; Eden and Dystopia; heaven and hell; Life Itself and Soonami.

Major Hollywood studios and Silicon Valley often struggle in portraying human-like artificial intelligence in part because of their flat and cartoonish portrayals of humankind, societal structures, and economic possibilities. Heroic battles and utopian endings do nothing to suggest a path forward for a sustainable world and care-filled creative societal order. In a real way we humans are the AI we wish to create. If we still haven’t found the imagination to care for humankind (all humankind) and the complex life systems we exist within, we should be skeptical of those claiming to have imagined human-like AI and a path to a heavenly future. Until we develop the right framework for human flourishing, our dreams of an Edenic AI future will only serve to immerse our imaginations in an entertainment-induced trance that prevents us from fully seeing and caring for all.

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