The Neoliberal Blockbuster: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Preview)

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

For access to the full video lecture, subscribe to our Patreon here:  If you are interested in premium offerings but presently unable to afford a subscription, please send a direct message to @moneyontheleft or @Superstruc on Twitter & we will happily provide you with membership access.  

Course Description

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


2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999)

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

A Graceful Kind of Non-Absence

John Ashbery might be the only poet capable of, on the one hand, naming a poem “The National Debt” and, on the other, making it sing. The commonplace diktats of Ashbery criticism—that the poems tinker with temporality (“Day is almost reluctant to decline / And slowing down opens out new avenues” [“Scheherazade”]); that they convert time to space (“further seasons coagulate / into years, like spilled, dried paint” [“Alcove”]); that Ashbery places into the commons of the poem a polyphonic collage of registers, speakers, and unbounded pronouns—all these are on display in “The National Debt”’s opening stanza:

We bought the pudding close to the ground
for the mewling sound its creases make. 
But there was another coming up, the goddess fixture
from whom no reckoning was assuaged. Ah,
the mathematics of earlier tea times.
And when he had sung into it, why,
it was useless to assert valid countervalences.
Yes, that was only for a few nobles
in the golden chamber. Starshine and a few good
fallen breezes, to remind us where else we were at.

As always, there’s pleasant treachery in taking Ashbery’s referents too literally; better, often, to be a netless lepidopterist and recognize the floating language without the bad alchemy of capture. (As Ashbery says later in this poem, “The content gets to be / infected, or slips out of focus.”) Still, “pudding” “bought … close to the ground,” the “mathematics of earlier tea times,” “nobles / in the golden chamber”—one could be forgiven for imagining an English setting, perhaps in the Thatcherite era. Ashbery has placed into the commons of the poem the sounds of folded bills (“creases”) and a set of unforgiving fiscal belt-tighteners: “the goddess fixture / from whom no reckoning was assuaged” (Thatcher, more or less) and “the nobles / in the golden chamber” (more or less, the House of Lords) on most of whom “assert[ing] valid countervalences” is lost. Countering austerity, so long as it bakes in elite reverence or nostalgic worship of bad deficit “mathematics,” is a snipe hunt, only ever liable to peel off one or two technocratic Lords. On to the (more populist) House of Commons, maybe, while the deficit hawks stay indoors, taking tea, and democracy flits outside: “Starshine and a few good / fallen breezes, to remind us where else we were at.”

Meanwhile, “time is money,” the harried entrepreneur reminds us, tapping his watch, and the critics remind us Ashbery is the poet of time become space. If money is not always his topical focus,1 by tracking the physics of space-time in Ashbery (how space and time interact, more than the mere fact of their interaction), I argue we can elicit an understanding of money, together with time, as a limitless social medium. This is a definition of money advanced by the neo-chartalist school of macroeconomics known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT); “Liberal” conceptions of money, on the other hand—traces of which pollute waters as disparate as trickle-down Thatcherite austerity and Marxist exchange theory—either misunderstand the power of money as social mediation, or else treat it as private and alienable, a physical and thus redistributable chit rather than an abstract creature of public law. Googling “Time is money” returns, as the top hit, a post on (!) in which a blogger/financial planner explains “time is money” “doesn’t mean what you think it means”; actually, “time is a limited resource even more than money.” If time is money, the specific physics of space-time in Ashbery ought to line up with a specific figuration of money; while the aesthetics of neoliberalism and private money are what Scott Ferguson calls, in Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care, “gravitropic” (bought to the ground, say; contracted, contiguous), the aesthetics of public money thematize “the boundless public center” out of which, like the disjunctive commons of an Ashbery poem, social conjunction is coordinated at a distance. Where, in time and money, the financial planner sees limited resources, MMT—and I argue Ashbery—sees a social medium of limitlessness; where the blogger has only his alternative in mind in saying “time is money” “doesn’t mean what you think it means,” any Ashbery poem testifies that though the poem doesn’t mean what you think it means, neither will it be b(r)ought down to a univocal meaning (“You have it but you don’t have it. / You miss it, it misses you. / You miss each other.” [“Paradoxes and Oxymorons”]); where austerity is, of course, often aesthetically austere, monetary abundance and sensuous abundance go hand in sparkling hand (“Meanwhile,” begins the stanza in “The National Debt” following the excerpt above, “I was pleasured.”). 

The physics in Ashbery’s poems assert their “valid countervalences” against a neoliberal atomism; Ashbery’s electrons are jumpy, abstract, orbital-hopping. A defining feature of movement in Ashbery is often unequal but usually opposite countermovement, in defiance of gravitropism. This too is on display in “The National Debt”: “the pudding close to the ground” countered by “another coming up” two lines down; “the weight of my hair shimmers” though shimmering has a veil-thin lightness to it; seemingly horizontal isobars of wind countervailed with verticality and falling: the “fallen breezes” whose antigravity nevertheless “remind[s] us where else we were at.” 

As if in poetical rejoinder to another trope of embodiment—the analogy of money to movements of water—menisci in Ashbery are always wavering, unstable; water may rise and fall, but that national debt can do the same need not drain our attention. “The National Debt” continues:

Meanwhile I was pleasured.
Alternate forms of transport
brought surf to the eyelids,
will be provided those unlucky enough
to find themselves in such a position
that time tomorrow. 

Spurning the default gravity of debt levels, surf can be brought to eye level and countenanced without resort to what MMT economist Stephanie Kelton calls the deficit myth. Alternate forms of transport here might mean literal means of conveyance—perhaps a modernization of the fraying London Tube system—but might also convey publicly-funded sensuousness—aesthetic transport; a trip to the Tate, famously defunded under Thatcher—“creasing” the abstract bills of public money in service of, as Ferguson writes, “not only an economic floor for collective production but also a sensory floor for worldly experience.”

Ashbery’s poems, then, are everywhere flicking the antigravity switch for those unlucky enough to truck in gravitropic figures of money. Consider these lines from “Clepsydra” (Rivers and Mountains, 1966):

… likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment: but
The sky has pleaded already and this is about
As graceful a kind of non-absence as either
Has a right to expect: whether it’s the form of
Some creator who has momentarily turned away,
Marrying detachment with respect, so that the pieces
Are seen as parts of a spectrum, independent
Yet symbolic of their staggered times of arrival …

“Clepsydra” is itself taken to be a staggering arrival of a developed Ashberyian grammar. Ben Lerner, in analyzing more or less this segment of the unbroken, 260+ line poem, notes the titular metaphor of a Greek water clock, not only an apt image for the flow of Ashbery’s language—more form than content, more money-as-time than money-as-space—but also for the discombobulation wrought by the bad mathematics of the debt clock. Ashbery’s “bounding from air to air,” an antigravitropic truth, never grounds us in the zany, too-embodied chaos of federal debt mechanics, keeping us aloft in the boundless public center, where money is generated out of thin air (via public law; via Ashbery’s slippery authorship) and circulated “from air to air” (via remote social mediation).

In “Clepsydra,” Lerner also sees three of Ashbery’s signature formal tics: (1) near-boundless sentence length, whose subjects tend toward abstraction by the time the tidal syntactic waves come to ebb; (2) hypotaxis, the lexicon of logic (if, yet, so, whether), a threat to dam the lines with rationality that never materializes because the logic within the poem is unresolvable; and (3) deixis—or I would say a kind of counterdeixis—in which the many instances of it, tomorrow, this, and so on invite the reader, as Lerner writes, “to defer identifying antecedents and to await a clarification of context that rarely arrives.” The combination of these produces, then, the precise affect of the modern money relation, in which what I am calling counterdeixis emanates from the boundless public center, nominates an unfixed set of pronominal abstractions (the shifting you, I, and we of the commons), initiates a shared aesthetic and ethic of care (if the poem’s referents don’t cohere outside the poem—if the clock’s droplet only drips and never touches down—there is a kind of social coherence and mutualism inside the poem), and proceeds with boundlessness, its long lines daring the graceless charge of inflation, its teasing hypotaxis lampooning the technocrats’ bad debt mathematics. 

All of this amounts to a poetics of care, mediated at a distance—a graceful kind of non-absence. Lerner focuses on how thwarted reference in Ashbery cultivates a sort of Buddhistic attention, because content is never reified, always remains “beyond the plain level” (“Paradoxes and Oxymorons”): “when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately.” What Lerner calls Ashbery’s lyric mediacy or, as above, immediate mediacy is itself a countervalence to what Scott Ferguson calls mediated immediacy, using the latter term to critique discourses that insist money is social mediation but mediation bent on immanence, ready to fall for Ashbery’s faux-hypotaxis and be b(r)ought, crashing, to the ground. Poetry, though written alone, need not contract to the solidity of a singular “I”; money, whatever its grounding stench of private exchange—itself a product of incomplete or willfully distorted histories of money—is better understood as an organizing public utility, a limitless medium through which future social provisioning can be collectively molded. Just as Ashbery’s poems are prototypes for raising the “sensory floor” while the debt clock and its peddlers exhaust themselves (“Meanwhile I was pleasured”), the poems sometimes name the symptomatology of collective interdependence beset by gravitropic privation. Again from “Clepsydra”:

I see myself in this totality, and meanwhile
I am only a transparent diagram, of manners and
Private words with the certainty of being about to fall.

But the poems don’t fall for it. As MMT demonstrates, there is limitless money to pay for not just production, linguistic or otherwise (“Workmen install the fish vulgate” [“The National Debt”]), but for social reproduction, a focus on care and social—not national—debt to those not immediately before us, but whose presence is nevertheless in the poem; a graceful kind of non-absence. Each Ashbery poem is thus a miniature record of interdependence, debt less grave and gravitropic, but no less beautiful: as Ashbery writes in the very next line of “Clepsydra,” “this crumb of life I also owe to you.” 


1 Though later Ashbery—particularly after the Great Recession of 2008—frequently talks about money, politics, and the politics of money. [See “Rest Stop,” in Quick Question; “The Ritz Brothers” in Breezeway.]

Ministry for the Future with Kim Stanley Robinson

Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson joins Money on the Left to discuss his Modern Monetary Theory-inspired “cli-fi” novel, The Ministry for the Future (2020).

Throughout his distinguished Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke award-decorated career, Robinson has repeatedly offered visions of the future that are grounded in, and speak directly to, urgent present problems. These stories, including and especially his widest-known work in the Mars Trilogy, simultaneously condemn dominant logics and chart paths for the possible redemption of humanity as a terraforming (and terra-destroying) species.

In Ministry for the Future, Robinson explores a more proximate future on Earth, one characterized by massive climate catastrophes, widespread political violence, and economic super depressions. Most critically, the novel tests out a messy, but nevertheless workable way toward collective climate restoration, fashioned by an improbable assemblage of intergovernmental agencies shadowed by clandestine black wings; ecological activists armed with untraceable drone technologies; heroic scientists; environmental preservation groups; and Central Bankers.

Money, too, plays a central role in advancing Ministry’s fraught utopian story of climate restoration and is crucially anchored in an MMT-driven framework for equitable and sustainable political economy. In our conversation, we hear from Robinson about the influence of MMT on his thinking in and beyond his work in Ministry, as well as about how this thinking aligns with and deviates from previous political and literary engagements with utopian literary form.

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.

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

Scott Ferguson: Well, Kim Stanley Robinson, welcome to Money on the Left.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Thank you, Scott, good to be with you. Hi, Billy, hi, Maxx.

Scott Ferguson: It’s so exciting for us to have you here with us. We obviously want to talk about your new novel, The Ministry for the Future. But maybe to get going, you can gloss what the book is about, what the story is more or less trying to wrestle with, and maybe also put it into dialog with some of your previous work? Is this revisiting old problems, whether conceptual or aesthetic? Are you taking on new things in new ways? How would you characterize it? 

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, Ministry is the end of a six novel sequence for Orbit Books, where I’ve been working with editor, Tim Holman. I think of them as a unit of sorts, although they keep circling around similar questions. As to your topic for Money on the Left, in terms of finance, every time I learn enough to make it through a novel and have a discussion of finance, the very following months I learn new things that revamp everything I had previously thought. New York 2140 was very important for me. It was written maybe in 2015 or 2016. I can’t remember exactly, but it was in a zone where I was learning a lot and I decided it would be fun to try to do the financialization of sea level rise. At that time, I knew some New York day traders. I had met a crowd of people who could give me actual advice or technical help in finance. So for the first time, I felt like I had more of a handle on it and had done a lot of reading. With New York 2140, the whole push is to create, artificially, a crash by way of imitating 2008, but by everybody not paying their bills at once and crashing the private banks, who would go into a liquidity freeze. I was basically replaying 2008 with the idea that the federal government, with a sympathetic head of the Federal Reserve, would nationalize the banks in the way that we nationalized General Motors after 2008 to keep them going. But also they became owners, so that this would be the nationalization that would stick. It would be like, and this is an analogy I only learned later, the way that the British Treasury took over the Bank of England for purposes of fighting World War II and financing it.

Now, the moment I finished New York 2140, I began to learn that that was nearly a meaningless gesture, that nationalizing the private banks is already a done deal if you consider the central banks to be nationalized, or it to be a private-public consortium. I hadn’t fully understood. So, I began to read intensively on central banks. By the time I got to Ministry for the Future, it seemed to me that the key to having a good 21st century and to dodging a massive extinction event and mitigating the worst effects of climate change basically came through this concept of carbon quantitative easing. There would be quantitative easing, but it’s not just money created and given to the banks. It would be targeted in its first iteration into the world as being for good climate work. It is sometimes called a “carbon coin.” We can talk about that. I’m not sure of the necessity of any special designation for the money that gets created if that first spending is [for] decarbonization. I don’t know if it matters what you call it. But that’s how Ministry came about. 

In the larger picture beyond finance, I wanted to try to do everything to describe the next 30 years in a kind of best-case scenario history in which one could still believe. I had a limited case in that [the story] needed to be disorganized looking and chaotic and painful. That’s part of the believability because it seems to me it’s going to be that way. So, that’s how it came about. I got an awful lot of help from other people because I am an English major. I was an English major, but I still am an English major. That’s really my focus and my skill set. I love being an English major, but it means, in other realms, I like doing the thing that you do when you’re writing sentences about topics you don’t fully understand. I just spoke to some science journalists and I realized that that’s a very similar skill set to mine in that you have to be able to craft sentences that are coherent even to people who know their subject well better than you. It’s kind of a tricky skill to have if one can ever have it. 

Scott Ferguson: I like that you put conceptualizing and apprehending ideas in terms of being able to craft sentences about it because I think it’s defamiliarizing. I think if you are a writer, like all of us on this call are, it makes perfect sense because you realize that writing is thinking. But, maybe, if you’re not a writer, that’s a little unsettling to hear, or a strange way of putting it. Now, I was wondering, just to follow up, if you can talk a little bit about some of the formal experimentation in the book? You’re playing with time and space and perspective. At one moment, the voice of the book is a photon. At another moment, it’s a kind of anonymous third person. And at [still] another moment, it’s in the first person. 

Kim Stanley Robinson: Thanks for that. [This] puts me back in a zone where I actually know what I’m talking about: construct[ing] a novel. That actually is not something that is very easy to articulate, but I know I can do it by the fact that I see the book is there. Sometimes, I don’t come to the right form for the content and that is painful, but sometimes I do. In this case, I feel I did. To try to give a global picture and yet still be a novel: that’s a stressor of a double bind in effect. I saw that before in the Mars novels, The Years of Rice and Salt, and 2312, which uses a Dos Passos format from The USA Trilogy. I’ve found forms to be able to tell global stories where you’ve got individual characters. You’ve got the society, and you’ve got the planet all in mutual interactions. This time, I had two main characters only, Frank and Mary, for a pretty long novel in a dynamic between the two of them–a really peculiar friendship based on Stockholm Syndrome and Lima Syndrome. I found that to be transgressive and spooky, even a little scary, but interesting. They made me tell that story.

I had a skeleton that was ordinary characters in dramatized scenes in the way you think of novels being written. Because, most novels are dramatized scenes, include a little bit of the narrator’s summary, especially in the 19th century, then another dramatized scene, and then summarization. So, there is dramatization-summarization as a kind of binary, one or the other. One of the innovations in modernism was to get rid of the narrator and the summarized section and drop into a subjective consciousness that you are in real time. Stream of consciousness is nothing but dramatized scenes. That got kind of reified by English departments in the postwar period to the point where it began to look like so-called “literary fiction,” and definitely put the scare quotes around that one, because this is a very stupid term and designates a false consciousness. Literary fiction is stuck in these dramatized scenes, one after another, until the end of the book. Well, I hate that in multiple ways.

In this book, I did have the normal dramatized scenes. I also had the eyewitness account. I had multiple forms, as you mentioned. But the eyewitness account was the great discovery for me because eyewitness accounts are a genre of their own. I had not quite understood that until I read a whole bunch of collections of them. What they are is a retrospective looking back, usually with an interviewer. Someone is being asked to recall something that they saw that has been retroactively designated to be important enough to get eyewitnesses to tell what they saw. Herodotus does this. In fact, speaking of rhetoric, which we were before, the Anabasis by Xenophon! Oh my God, what a master of rhetoric. He presents the debates as to what they should do in their desperate straits as they cross Turkey with enemy forces, and he wins every debate. He presents all sides. But at the end, they decide that Xenophon is right. They’re going to do what he suggests.

All these eyewitness accounts became the beating heart of this novel as a formal structure. Then, there are riddles. They come from Anglo-Saxon literature. “It” narratives, like [from the perspective of] the carbon atom, come from the 18th century. There was the “it” narrative in England, a very nearly useless genre, that’s why it died. But I resuscitated it. All these things together, I guess, in a jumble, are to give some pleasure to the reader, because this is a book about climate change, heat death, and finance. The pleasure is obvious. So, there’s the game of forms. And with the game of forms, I realized that the eyewitness accounts were maybe as important as the Mary-Frank story. They’re what lifted it for me, personally. The book has had a really wonderful response. I think that the eyewitness accounts from refugees, revolutionaries, common citizens in Hong Kong, all over the world, and then coming back to Zurich for the main story, that’s one of the keys to its success. At least for me, that’s definitely the case. 

William Saas: To wind our way back to finance, we’d like to invite you to revisit with us, comment on, and perhaps expand upon something that you write just about at the midway point through the book. If you’ll permit [me], I’m going to read a snippet here: “What a science. They worked all over the world, including in the Ministry for the Future’s offices, trying to calculate the gains and losses of this event in some way that could be entered into a single balance sheet and defended. But it couldn’t be done, except in ways so filled with assumptions that each estimate was revealed to be an ideological statement of the viewer’s priorities and values. A speculative fiction.” I’m just going to keep it simple, could you say a little bit more about what you mean by this comparison? 

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, earlier in my career, I used to routinely bash economics as a kind of power play, fake science like astrology. The court astrologer tells the king that “it’s meant to be,” that “the king is the king.” Economics tells the governing party that it’s meant to be because the economic numbers add up when they’ve all been faked. I was extremely critical. Then, a couple of readers got back to me and said, “You know, you’re a little harsh on economics and it’s too bad you don’t know more about it. It’s not good to be dismissive of something you don’t know enough about to have it properly judged.” I naturally bristled, like “Oh, wait, of course I know!” But I didn’t. I’m a slow thinker, but I have a lot of time to think because I’m just here in my house or in my yard writing. I’m thinking, “Oh my God. You know what? This person is right. These people are right. I don’t know enough to be saying what I’m saying.” So, I embarked on an education. And everybody’s an autodidact, so I’m not embarrassed about that.

I got some help from really good teachers of economics. I began to destrand it all and understand that it is a social science with a quantitative aspect. We need measurement in modern society with the differentiation of labor. With eight billion people, quantification is not a bad thing, measurement is not a bad thing. So, where’s the problem with capitalist economics? It goes right to the root. You need radical, root-like solutions to get down to the root. What I now call axioms, like in Euclid’s geometry, you take as fundamental and then build off of them. We’ve got tons of theories, or let’s say axioms, and then hypotheses, theories, and proofs. They even have proofs. There’s a lot of math involved in Euclidean geometry. But this is the great thing about non-Euclidean geometry. You can say, “Well, parallel lines meet at the horizon of infinity. So, do the math assuming that the parallel lines are going to meet somewhere.” Well, it sounded crazy until relativity came along and suddenly non-Euclidean geometry is describing spacetime better than Euclidean geometry. 

By analogy, not being a mathematician or an economist, I began to realize that it was the axioms that were the problem and that economics is generally capitalist analysis. An economics department at a university is doing a quantitative analysis of capital and the capitalist system without challenging it, without doing the speculation of, or say a projective geometry, where you direct from one plane down to another and things are distorted but the same. That’s projective geometry. There’s no such thing as projective economics. So, then you have to track back historically to political economy. Political economy is not economics per say. All of your universities have departments of economics, but none of them have a department of political economy because that’s a dead letter. That was a 19th century problem that was solved by the ascendancy of capitalism.

With all this, as it became clearer and clearer to me, I began to think the problem is not with economics as a social science and system of measurement and quantification. That’s not where the problem is. It’s a low level of political economy. It’s the assumptions that we make. Should there even be inequality? What if you factored in that the equation has to end in human equality as an axiom? Well, then a political economy would naturally have to change. This was hugely helpful to me. And to tell you the truth, I’m really describing about maybe twenty five years of reading and thinking and writing novels that are only gradually approaching a better sense of the whole problem. But a novel doesn’t necessarily have to be economically astute to succeed as a novel, thank God. 

Maxximilian Seijo: I especially appreciated some of the sections of the novel that talk specifically about what you call these axioms–as someone who did an undergrad in neoclassical economics and was forced to sit through environmental economics classes that specifically thematized these axioms. Like with the discount rate, there was this sense of a diminishing marginal rate of return on the future tense. I appreciate the way you’re thinking about speculation as a literary matter on these terms, too. Just to ask you to spell out thinking quantitative in line with the sort of qualitative ways in which you think about the future in this book, I see such deep resonances in the way that you’re sort of playing in between these spaces a little bit at some level. I was wondering if perhaps you could elaborate on this, perhaps using the discount rate example as a key axiom?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, thank you for that, Max, because that is a good way to get into it. The discount rate is simply picked out of a hat, but it has enormous consequences. Even your standard economists will admit the higher the discount rate, the less you value the people of the future, the lower the discount rate, which could go right to zero, the more the future generations are treated equally to us in economic calculation. The reason that economics doesn’t have a zero discount rate is that there’s going to be many billions of future humans. So, if their rights to our behavior are the equal to our own, then we should be doing everything for them and nothing for ourselves. So a discount rate gets applied. Famously, Nordhaus won the pseudo Nobel Prize for suggesting a four percent discount rate, which is really way too high if you want to treat the future generations as worthy of our consideration and action in the real world now.

I don’t know how he defended it but I suspect it gets technical in ways that I couldn’t follow. There are many economists that would say a discount rate of zero is perfectly appropriate. There’s also the case that it doesn’t have to be linear forever. I’ve heard it both ways. This is a very interesting economic debate that I can’t enter into. Should the discount rate be zero for the seven generations to come and then rise and get sharper so that you reduce the infinity effect? Or, should the discount rate be kind of high now and bell curve off into zero after seven generations? The seven generations is just a term out of Indian philosophy and ethics, saying that the way to treat the intergenerational issues is to consider the seven generations before and after you as being like sacred ancestors and descendants who have to be treated as if they were your immediate family. That runs it off a couple of hundred years in each direction.

All of these considerations were comprehensible to me, in both the math, which is as simple as can be, and the implications for political behavior and for what sometimes gets called ethics or values, etc. One thing I would do as a device, and this is very much a science fictional writing device, is one character knows. That would be Dick, the economist. One character doesn’t know but needs to know. That would be Mary, the head of an agency who is a bureaucrat but not an economist. So then she’s naively asking questions that would be similar to my own. Then, the character Dick, and I have a friend Dick who did this for me, would answer the questions. Sometimes I would do like you guys and be on Skype sessions taking notes and writing furiously to capture his insights, but also his wit so that I could have a funny exchange. That was another formal innovation. Let’s not dramatize that scene. Let’s turn it into a dialog with just the essence so that in two or three pages you can do it without telling what they had for lunch and where they were sitting and whether it was a sunny or cloudy day and other novelistic things you would do to make it a scene. No, let’s just scooch it to its information. 

Scott Ferguson: That’s great. I have a question that I think follows nicely on what we’ve been talking about. One of the takeaways from the last few minutes of our discussion is that when you are doing economics in the orthodox way and just tracking and buttressing capital, you’re working with axioms that you’ve reified and naturalized. Other kinds of speculative, heterodox approaches to political economy [by contrast] precisely open up those axioms and make them into political variables and dramatic struggles and potentials for imaginative transformation. I’m a visual studies scholar, so I read literature but I’m not an expert in literature. But it seems to me that in the history of modern utopian thinking, or modern utopian literature, one of the key tropes is something that you’re a former teacher Fred Jameson talks about, which is the elimination of money, the escape from money, or creating an enclave or commune away from money. I know that in some of your other books, you’ve experimented with that mode. But you’re not doing so here. I’m wondering how much of a challenge this was? What do you need to push back against in order to construct a novel that has a kind of realist utopian impulse at its heart, but is really pushing against the kind of standard utopian anti-money gesture in so much literature? 

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m thinking about utopia as typically written as a literary genre, and as well as maybe a strand of political thought. But really when you say utopia, you’re talking about some narratives. Famously, there is the great trench. What that means is, in Moore’s Utopia, they cut a trench on the peninsula so that their utopia became an island. Essentially, what I call it in my own discussions of it is you get a fresh start. It’s also kind of what I’ve called a pocket utopia, a relatively small society where everybody agrees on the rules. This exists as a modeling exercise more than a political project, so that you write a utopian order to say, “Well, if everything were right, then this is how it would work.” But the trench is missing history. How do you get from here to there?

Indeed, the bad sense of utopia, the common connotation of the word being impossible, idealistic, perhaps overrigid, and, in any case, not going to happen, is what utopia kind of means in common language. Well, if you still want to do it, I’ve been interested ever since I finished Specific Age around 1990, and it didn’t have a history of how we got to this better world except for some very weak gestures. My friend, Terry Bissonette, who has written utopian novels of his own, said “Stan, how did they get there?” I said, “Well, I don’t know. Lawyers did it. They made the laws.” He said, “Stan, there’s guns under the table and you need to take that into account.” That was kind of the springboard for the Mars trilogy. So two thousand pages later, I had the story of the bridge from the current economic capitalist disaster to a better society over 200 years of invented historical time. Fine, but it happened on Mars.

In Ministry, I thought, “Well, let’s start now.” And I mean literally now. I wrote it in 2019. I fuzzed the moment of the heat wave and put it in the mid 2020s, because I fuzzed all the dates to give it some imaginative leeway. But effectively, it is starting right now. We’re in neoliberal, late capitalism. We got money and we got eight billion people. I understand this non-money thing. I actually have lived for two months of my life in the same way that Orwell claimed to have lived in an anarchic state for a couple of months in Barcelona. I’ve lived for two and a half months of my life in Antarctica as part of the National Science Foundation and money wasn’t an issue. When you were there, you would go into the cafeteria and there would be food on offer. You would take it and you would eat it. They gave you the clothes, they transported you around, and you were also in housing that was provided. It did feel different. It was quite beautiful. It does give you ideas that the people who talk about, “Couldn’t we just get rid of money,” it’s not as crazy as it first sounds. Because, if you live it, you realize that maybe in some post-scarcity situation where everybody was on the same page it could work. Everybody in Antarctica is very energized and high on life. There’s a high esprit de corps. They know that they’re lucky to be there and they’re happy to be there. Well, that’s not a common state in normal life. So, I don’t want to dismiss the lack of money problem at all or the proposition as such. But it’s not where we’re starting. 

Another economic axiom that is taken for granted in capitalism is “efficiency is good.” In fact, efficiency is seen as synonymous with good. “Oh, that’s very efficient” is like saying, “Oh, that’s very good.” I’ve been proscribed from using this comparison, so you’ll have to censor me if you want to. The Nazi gas chambers were very efficient, but they weren’t good. Again, it’s axiomatic. What is the efficiency aimed at? If you’re optimizing resources to get a certain effect and that’s defined as efficiencies, then there’s good efficiencies and bad efficiencies. Say you could get food, water, shelter, clothing, electricity, and health care for free as something that society provides, like you’re in McMurdo Station, Antarctica. All that would be true. Probably, it’s not efficient because you’re not stressed by money worries. People tend to only eat as much as they need to get to satiety and then they quit eating. It’s not obvious that the restraints of money are what keep people from overindulging. So the efficiency question is messy and an axiomatic verb rather than a noun that needs to be questioned. To get to a true, proper economics, you would have to say efficiency is not necessarily good and then you’d have to interrogate that very closely. 

But in the meantime, to get back to the substance of your question, I needed money because it’s here and I needed it aimed in the right direction. That’s where you get to MMT and carbon quantitative easing and the whole complex of ideas about money. Let me add one last thought, because it’s kind of a new thought that’s just occurred in the last week or so. It’s not in the books. I call myself an American leftist and my books get claimed by people all across the left spectrum, and even in parts of the right that don’t understand who they are. People will say the Mars books are libertarian or they’re liberal or they’re radical or they’re anarchist or their anarcho-syndicalist. I mean, really, everything has been claimed. Communist: I’m often described as communist and, of course, an ecosocialist. What I’m now thinking is these are time horizons. People on the left are always stabbing each other in the back for not being correct in a doctrinaire sense. The notorious infighting on the left covers details of policy, belief, and theory. There are more knives in our back from fellow leftists than from right wingers who just don’t even care about us and don’t engage in that argument and just think that we’re all ludicrous.

So in the famous infighting on the left, which can lead right up to the Spanish Civil War, where the two leftist parties killed each other and then the right trumped them, I’m thinking now what I want to say is that today I’m a member of the Democratic Party trying to get this stimulus bill passed through a recalcitrant Senate. That’s my politics today. Five years from now, I want to be a social Democrat in a system very much like the Scandinavian countries. Ten years from now, I’d like to be in democratic socialism, and it would take huge elements from China of all places, but be democratic and totally cool. Two hundred years from now, I’d like to be an anarchist where power is completely leveled off and horizontalized. Power and wealth would be zero. But it’s a timeline, right? That’s why my novels can be taken as being in agreement with almost any left political view, because I’ve set my novels out at different timelines and I have different characters with different beliefs. In the case of Ministry, it is a novel about the next 30 years. So, money is a big player. 

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I guess I’m going to risk complicating, maybe pushing you a little bit on your NSF example. Money is still there. There’s still federal financing that’s providing publicly all the shelter, food, goods, and services. I guess, for us, we’re interested in making money not seem like some kind of neutral or natural or innocent technology yet nevertheless trying to take some of the stigma and stench off of it that we would argue comes from capitalism and orthodox economics, in order to mobilize it and open up our imaginations. I don’t know if you have a response to that. 

Kim Stanley Robinson: No, I see your point. And indeed, Antarctica is a pocket utopia. It’s a bubble in the larger world of capitalism. It’s interesting: you could even imagine that all of NSF, a nonprofit that is funded by the public by way of taxation and allocation of Congress, is a bubble of its own where they are not trying to make a profit but indeed are spending a surplus. Then, there’s also the US armed services. I’ve just been thinking about that recently, talking to people in the armed services about their project of trying to protect America. They too are a gigantic nonprofit and in a bubble of their own that’s outside of capitalist realism. I would agree with you that in a modern technological society where there’s a division of labor and eight billion people, you probably need a medium of exchange and you probably need a storage of value. These are two classical purposes of money. It’s not a huge list, but that’s two of them. And you probably also need something to mark those things. So, my leftist utopian project does not include the elimination of money. I don’t find the whole “money is the root of all evil” argument to be at all meaningful.

I’m interested in this argument that to say there was barter before there was money might be false. Never could you go into a market and say, “I’ll give you my donkey for four onions.” This never worked. This is an argument made famous, I think, by David Graeber. Money actually came about as a way to tax or as a marker. Even writing was just markers on a tablet to show how much you owed so that once you get a differential in society with people doing different things, you need a medium of exchange to mark that you’ve done certain things and then other people have done other things. Then, you get some of what they did and they get some of what you did. And it’s never commensurate. There’s never any physical commensurability between the two. So you have to make up a speculative fiction, which is money itself. “Well, that’s worth ten dollars.” This is, of course, where people instantly jump in and say that’s what the market is for, which gets you into a different part of the argument. I don’t even want to go there because I’ll get confused. 

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I think we’re on the same page. I will say, just to go on the record, the profit motive is an axiom, right? It is not ontologically wedded to money, to keeping tabs, to measuring, and to planning. On this podcast, we would be all for the radical reduction, if not elimination of the profit motive. 

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, me too. And this is economics that I found extremely useful. Profit is an index, which is to say, a multiplicity of incommensurate factors that have been crunched by a somewhat ad hoc pseudo mathematical process into a single number by which you can judge it. That’s what an index is in finance. And indeed, like the heat index is the combination of heat and humidity, profit is how much can you claim to have at the end of the cost of making something versus the sale of it to someone else. So, profit is an index. I would claim that (a) it’s a bad goal in itself because it forces you to try to get more out of the system than you’ve really put in. So, it’s a kind of a perpetual Ponzi scheme. But also, (b) it’s never accurate in the first place. The numbers have to be fudged to make any profit work.

Here, I’m just going straight to Marxism in that profit comes out of exploitation of other people and of the environment. That’s what it’s an index of. Now, when in a capitalist economy, you say “Oh, we made a profit of 20 billion dollars last year,” that’s like an index of damage done to people and planet. So bragging about it, “Oh, we made a profit of X last year,” once you flip the valence of how you think about profit into an index of damage done, it becomes quite horrific. Then, you’ve got a gross world product that is seventy five trillion dollars a year approximately. And that’s disregarding the dark pools and the fictional money of financialization. But even in the real economy, is that seventy five trillion dollars of damage taken out or is that just monetary activity? Are they saying they’re seventy five trillion in profit or are they saying they’re seventy five trillion of payments back and forth amongst people with profit as a froth off of that? I don’t even know because, again, GWP is an index as well. 

William Saas: Coming in a slightly different direction and returning to the book, we were talking about rhetoric before so I feel like the inflection of this question might change just a little bit. But a core tension in Ministry for the Future that we’ve detected, and I think we’ve heard you talk about in other contexts, is that between language and rhetoric and violence and coercion. If you don’t mind, I would once again like to read a selection from later in the book that I think gets nicely at this point. Then, I’ll follow up and ask a more direct question after that.

Here it goes: “Were they fools to have tried so hard for words in a world careening toward catastrophe? Were they fools to keep on trying? Words are gossamer in the world of granite. There weren’t even any mechanisms of enforcement of these so carefully worded injunctions. They were notional only. The international order of governance being a matter of nations volunteering to do things. And then when they didn’t do them, ignoring the existence of their own promises, there was no judge, no sheriff, no jail, no sanctions at all. But what else did they have? The world runs by laws and treaties, or so it sometimes seems. Someone can hope. The granite of the careening world held in gossamer nets. And if one were to argue that the world actually runs by way of guns in your face, as Mao so trenchantly pointed out, still, the guns often get aimed by way of laws and treaties. If you give up on sentences, you end up in a world of gangsters and thieves and naked force, hauled into the street at night to be clubbed or shot or jailed. So the people who fought for sentences, for the precise wording to be included in treaties, were doing the best they could think of to avoid that world of bear force and murder in the night. They were doing the best with what they had.”

Just real quickly, I like the strong whiff of using the available means of persuasion in any given situation–Aristotle there. But shortly after these paragraphs we learn that these people are fighting for sentences. The people develop a metaphor that becomes critical to the remainder of the story, the metaphor of a developing nation of future unborn generations across species. Being a developing nation that deserves protections and that that metaphor is an important component of the case for funding the Ministry for the Future. Then, of course, the Ministry for the Future, led by Mary Murphy, plays a critical role in this sort of more optimal outcome that the book ends up describing at the end. That’s a bit of wind up to ask maybe a cheeky question. But would you say, in terms of your own perspective, that you’re more Mary Murphy than Mao when it comes to these questions? And if so, today, can you point to any examples or give us any kind of indication of where you find hope and inspiration in terms of your faith in rhetoric? 

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I think both Mary and Mao are right in their different perspectives on that issue. So it’s both, and not an either or situation. That description of people came from me talking to the people who wrote the Paris Agreement that got signed by all the nations in 2015. It’s very specific to that project. They fought like crazy over every comma in that document. One cadre of thinkers and writers of the Paris Agreement, because it’s a group document like the American Constitution or any other group treaty document, believed it was crucial to include climate equity. So, they got that included to the point where it’s fundamental to the Paris Agreement that everybody has shared but differentiated responsibilities in the nation-state system. They even made a Schedule A and Schedule B. It’s easy to read the Paris Agreement. It’s only about 18 pages long. I recommend it to everybody. It’s extremely impressive and thought-provoking. The developed nations signed on knowing that they were signing on for more financial responsibilities than the developing nations. Again, there is even a list of Schedule A and Schedule B, or which kind of nation you are. 

It’s so interesting that people fought for that and all of the nations signed on to it. I still think that the Paris Agreement was almost miraculous, almost like something out of my novels I wouldn’t have dared to have written because it would look too utopian and facile as a solution. And yet, it’s real. I love it dearly as validation that the world is onto this problem and it’s not any one group’s obsession. It has become the world’s problem and acknowledged by all. So, you gotta love it. Every word in common matters and got fought over. I was told stories of people on subway rides going to and from these meetings to write the Paris Agreement. They’re talking about their ulcers and their headaches and their divorces and their bankruptcies. They really went out there to get the document that they thought would work best.

Against that, you have guns in your face. But most of the time, you have a state monopoly on violence. You have rule of law. Of course, many people would immediately bristle a state monopoly on violence. That’s why the state is so evil, et cetera. But it’s like Winston Churchill’s comment about democracy. If you don’t have a state monopoly on violence and you have a general unleashing of violence on the world, you’re definitely screwed. In the nation state system, a state monopoly on violence and rule of law, these are the kind of weak reeds that we’re holding against murder in the night and gangsters taking over. My poor genre, science fiction, and it’s dystopian fantasies, that if only we had a breakdown and got back to gangsterism, then everything would be better. Well, this is just ludicrous to me. With all of these things combined, we are in hegemony. The Gramscian notion of hegemony is crucial here. We don’t have to have people pointing guns at us to wear our masks. But we’re in a hegemonic system where everybody agrees to do it because they think that rule of law is justifiable enough to hold to it. And the guns are notional, or they’re in reserve. They could be brought out. The National Guard could beat on you if you protested or if you broke into the Capitol, presumably. But in the meantime, it’s like money itself. It holds together in a kind of shared social fantasy that we all agreed to abide by.

In that very fragile, hallucinatory state, societies in rule of law and in the Paris Agreement say, “Well, we’re going to decarbonize faster than capitalism would usually allow in the turn of technologies and always going towards more efficiency, which is seen as more profitable. We’d decarbonize in time to avoid torching the planet. Therefore, we’re all going to agree to avoid torching the planet by making this infrastructure change faster than usual.” Lots of parts are left out. How do we pay for it? What happens if you don’t comply? We’re going to find these things out. But meanwhile, what a mighty effort by a bunch of international diplomat class people–technocrats, bureaucrats, and diplomats. The group of people who put this thing together were intellectuals working for their nation states but they were doing so as if they were cosmopolitan internationalists, as if they were inventing an H.G. Wells style one world government thing that would sort of save the day by everybody agreeing. I find it quite marvelous and inspiring. 

Maxximilian Seijo: It’s interesting, I think your book is operating within this commitment to international law in this way that you’ve described with the Paris Agreement that it could be worse, like naming how perhaps it pushes against some more orthodox or established assumptions on this question. In the way at least we came to reading your book, it seemed that this commitment to law as a constitutive domain of social imagination and then, as I think we were just discussing, a discursive struggle, is paramount to the story of speculation that you’re trying to tell. On our reading, it seems to push back against, I think as you have evoked, conservative obsessions with the rule of law as well as liberal fantasies of legal formalism that perhaps could be said to naturalize markets. Then, I think crucially, too, certain tendencies even on the left, in some spaces, dismiss the law as a mere superstructure. I know you mentioned Gramsci, so I think that sort of covers certain aspects of that. Taking this global sense of law and the way that the global internationalized dependence, or the shared fate of the book and how it’s situated around the climate crisis, could you perhaps reflect on the way that these tensions play themselves out in the book and then in your thinking? 

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, sure. There’s a critique of the Paris Agreement that says, “Well, it just doesn’t go far enough.” The carbon reductions that everybody agreed to in 2015 are inadequate to save us. Indeed, it’s been calculated that they only go about half as far as what is truly needed. And I would argue that that’s true. It doesn’t matter that that was the best deal they could get at that time. Then, as people see the need, the promises will ratchet up and that process has already begun. Of course, there are counterexamples. There’s the Trump US, [which allegedly pulled out of the Paris Agreement]. There is, [however], no mechanism to leave the Paris Agreement. That was just his usual bullshit. It’s good that we’ve claimed that we’re back; but indeed, we never left. So, there’s all sorts of possibilities for backsliding. But what I’m saying is it’s a built platform to have this discussion. Before that, this was seen as a zero-sum game. If my nation wins, your nation loses, or, especially, if my nation loses, then your nation wins. And there’s a strange sense in which the nation- states, especially the big petro states like Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Iran, and Indonesia, are all like terrorists with an explosive vest around their waist. They’re all in the same room and they’ve all got buttons with which they can blow up the room and everybody else in it. Well, it’s kind of mutual assured destruction. They got two different kinds of destruction. 

One, you could blow up the world’s atmosphere by burning those fossil fuels in a race to destruction, trying to get the last trillion dollars out of it. I calculate the value of the fossil fuels that we need to leave in the ground as 1,600 trillion dollars. This is entirely notional. I just took the price of oil as being halfway between the price of coal and natural gas at the time I did this calculation. I got my wife to check the figures because she’s a mathematician and I’m not. It blew my mind how big the number was. But, on the other hand, if you’ve got an economy of one hundred trillion dollars per year, then sixteen hundred is only sixteen years of economic activity. It’s not that mind boggling in the world scale. So, I became comforted that that’s the real price that has to be left in the ground. But nation-states have already claimed this. Private companies have it on the books. Nation states have it as resources that are financial resources. The companies especially have already lent money [based on] it. They’ve used it as collateral. The whole thing is a house of cards in the usual financialization way. They’ve used this fossil fuel valuation as collateral for further loans and speculations. The whole thing is sitting on money that will never be made in the first place–not by burning fossil carbon, not if we want to stay alive.

So the bizarreness of the situation has been brought home to me that money comes into play here as a social fiction, or let’s just call it a real thing. But these nation states need to know that they’re going to get paid, which is only to say that the money still stays valid without, like Venezuela has got one million percent inflation right now, blowing up society’s sense of money. That this money is going to be produced even with the fossil fuels staying in the ground. In a situation like that, I guess I would say the usual left wing knee jerk reaction is like, “Oh, well, rule of law, big deal.” “Law always comes last,” someone told me. First, you have praxis. You have the guns in your face. Then, you pass some laws to justify the power system that exists. Well, I’m not sure I agree with that. I actually think rule of law is a powerful thing that everyone buys into because they see that the alternative would be much worse, that you get to a war of all against all. 

Maxximilian Seijo: It’s so interesting, when you were answering that question, it sort of popped into my head this sense of the division of labor that you discussed before. Dare I speculate with an analog, it seems like the way you were discussing this necessity of a medium of exchange and payment maps interestingly onto this necessity for an international legal medium of dialog and creation when it comes to these treaties and other things, given the fractal nature of the division of interest and labor needed to go into decarbonization. I’m not sure that’s much of a question as perhaps more building onto this matrix of analogies and metaphors and that you’re spelling out in the book. 

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, one thing that might lead us to your comment is MMT’s notion of the job guarantee. The government, and therefore the money maker, functions as the employer of last resort, such that you have full employment. It kills wage pressure. Whatever the government decides to be the minimum income that they give to the entry worker will become immediately the floor. If that were a living wage, then, well, you would be strangely close to what one might think a communist economy might run like. In other words, it would not be the market establishing the wage levels, but in fact, the social compact of government itself saying this is how much people get paid as a minimum and no lower. It would need to be adequate. At that point, my notion in terms of wage parity is, to keep it simple, one to ten.

Recall that it was one to three in the beginning days of Chinese communism and then it quickly changed to one to nine. In the US Navy, it’s one to eight. So we’re talking the poorest to the richest in an income system. One to ten is easy to keep in mind. If one is adequacy, as I say in my novel, then ten times adequacy is luxury beyond need. But it’s an easy number to keep in mind and it keeps ambitious people from going nuts. Just very roughly, for the sake of the numbers, you might as well say one hundred thousand dollars a year is the floor, as it’s so simple. Indeed, a lot of us are living on one hundred thousand dollars, or a little bit less or a little bit more. It’s kind of a middle class. It’s actually kind of high. But say it’s what you need if you are going to really have security. Call that adequacy. Then, you’ve got a million. You can’t make more than a million a year. And why would you need or want to?

The one to ten ratio sets a kind of boundary and I explore these ideas all the way back to Pacific Edge, which I wrote in 1990. There, I think it was ten thousand dollars to one hundred thousand dollars, so it’s like a ten times inflation rate in 30 years. That’s probably pretty accurate. In any case, you see where I’m going with this, the idea that the division of labor is such that many of our essential workers, and we found out they were essential in the pandemic, are getting paid shit–not enough to live on. It’s what Graeber called “bullshit jobs.” Well, this is disgraceful and it’s an immediate sign that the society is malformed and has a touch of evil. What I like about MMT is it doesn’t just insist that we can make more money and then the printer goes brrr and you solve all our problems. The job guarantee is a double pillar in MMT as I understand it. It is just as important as the other parts. That’s what makes it, to me, a game changer, or something to back with enthusiasm. It’s no longer monetary theory; it’s political economy. And the fact that it was capitalized in the textbook that I read, the initials you use so commonly, it was always just JG, JG. What’s this JG, job guarantee? Well, it’s great to see it. 

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, and we sometimes will call it, certainly political economy, but also a monetary theory of production. Production is constitutive as much as talking about debt and credit and the structure of what we classically think of as monetary relations. No, it’s how are we producing our world together? That’s what matters. The question is how is money orchestrating that production, that participation, that distribution, etc.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, and also what the job guarantee does is put paid to the idea that there’s not going to be enough jobs. This is a bad science fiction story that automation is going to get rid of jobs. I don’t know what people think automation is, but they maybe have never gardened or something. The things that automation can’t do, and I proposed this once in a conversation with Danny Kahneman, the great behavioral psychologist from Israel, and he was clueless. He thought that automation is going to solve our problems. He says, “Oh, there’s not enough plumbing jobs to keep people occupied in work that couldn’t be automated.” This is totally wrong. I don’t know what he’s thinking. The pseudo Nobel that they give themselves for economics. This is not a real Nobel Prize. Why [do] they keep giving these awards to themselves when they’re actually ignorant of the world outside of economics, of real work and real machinery? It’s kind of astonishing how siloed they are and even bunkered into a world of abstractions where they are not getting it. 

In fact, landscape restoration, saving the biosphere, decarbonizing fast enough, and even growing our food, these are not automatable. The jobs you can automate are precisely the jobs that human beings ought not to be doing in the first place because they’re too repetitive and boring. Of course, you want an automated car manufacturer and then there will be lots of humans working on the machines, the robots, that do the automation. There’s more work to be done than there are humans on the planet. It’s an easy case to make. At that point, the corollary to that is every person on the planet is necessary to civilization working and should be living at adequacy and should not be in fear. This is the leftist program. To see it spelled out as you have been describing as MMT, as an economic system rather than just a moral position, is a beautiful thing. I probably scrambled around hunting for such a thing and getting really mad at economics as a discipline for maybe 20 years before MMT kind of popped up.

Scott Ferguson: Us too.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Good! Well, I’m not surprised, because, where was it? Actually, when I say “where was it,” it’s important to point out and to be fair, the co-op movement within capitalism, cooperatives and the co-op principles which you can find on Wikipedia, if they were enacted, were an early gesture towards an economics of justice. And [they are] not to be pooh-poohed at all because it’s just that they haven’t gotten much traction in the larger political economy of capitalism. 

William Saas: MMT seems like it’s had a profound effect on your thinking, and it certainly plays a profound, critical role among several kinds of phenomena or practices or new ideas in Ministry for the Future. We’ve been talking about it a bit. I would like to hear a little bit more about your sort of first encounters with MMT. After looking for 20 years, you find it. Where did you find it? How did you receive it initially? And where are you at with it today? 

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, I can’t remember when I first ran into it. It was recent. I would say that New York 2140 is unaware of it, and I was writing that in 2015 or so. So that just means that I’m flubbing around trying to cobble together these novels and not an organized thinker or researcher. I have no help in that regard and I don’t want any help in that regard. So, when it came in, when I first found out about it, it must’ve been in 2018 or 2019. Even when I was writing Red Moon, which was very much an attempt to understand Chinese political economy, I don’t think I was becoming aware of it, but it was irrelevant to the attempt to describe China, which I would say is an impossible attempt for outsiders and insiders. That is very much of an improvisation, the Chinese political economy. I’m super interested, but I no longer feel I can comprehend it very well. I gave it a try and it was fun, interesting, but ultimately, I had to crawl away from that. So, it has to be maybe 2018 or 2019 where I really became aware enough to start reading and start researching.

At first, I thought it was simply Keynesianism. It was just rebranded Keynesianism, which, there’s a lot of truth in that, but it’s not the whole story. MMT is like Keynes. They say, “Look, you can make money. The government can make it and aim it.” But it goes beyond Keynesianism in that Keynes would insist that when times were flush, when the economy was going well, then you needed to restock government by way of taxes and make sure that you had enough of a surplus so that the next time you needed money you would have it. It’s like you were talking about at the beginning: X amount of dollars that you need to bank up when you can. People have taught me that, in fact, Keynesianism was never really applied. That even in the flush times, they weren’t bothering to restock the coffers of the government and it didn’t crash the money. One of the reasons why MMT probably will work is because Keynesianism worked without the opposite side of the output-input depression flush times scenario.

But then the other thing I think that MMT has added is precisely this job guarantee that we’re talking about. And to give Keynes credit, he was imagining that, of course, you would employ people. Government would spend that money by employing people. It just wasn’t spelled out as a guarantee. He wanted capitalism to work. He realized it, I think, from being really realistic and being good at praxis, in that his thoughts became government policies. How did he do that? He tried to craft them to fit within preconceived notions of what’s possible. And people were desperate enough to say, “Well, we don’t have any ideas, let’s try Keynes’ idea.” So, he was a truly great economist. But MMT is an advance into trying to deal with our modern era and it took me a while to gather that. 

William Saas: Really quickly on that, one of Keynes’ less successful proposals or policies, was the Bancor, or a supranational currency. I wonder if you’ve thought of that as you were devising the carbon coin or Carboni in Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I sure did. First, I read a paper by Delton Chen that’s online. It was about carbon quantitative easing and the creation of, for one ton of carbon saved, you get one coin. Then, it is backed by the central banks and long term bonds and tradable on the market with ordinary currencies. You just let it float and make sure it doesn’t get speculated out of existence and defend it. That was also stimulative. Then, I began to read more. Eventually, by trying to understand Keynes better and just reading more about his history as an economist and as a political actor, I ran into the Bancor and it made me laugh. This was a Bretton Woods proposal that failed because the Americans didn’t want it. And it was really more about trade surpluses. It was an attempt to help the war-shattered countries and an attempt to keep America from eating up the rest of the world, while it had this temporary advantage of being the only non-destroyed superpower. It was the American representatives that said “absolutely no” to that. So, it got tossed aside.

And indeed, you have to go through G.A.T.T. [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] and then the International Monetary Fund to get to the idea of an international bank that would help the poor countries out. But this was always an imperial project for the American dollar. Enormous amounts of harm had been done in the world by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the service of American dominated capitalism. It’s not been a good thing. Now, the way Keynes had conceived of the bank, or if you were poor and you had a trade deficit, you would get some money out of this international bank to float you a little. It was sort of like his stimulative spending within nation states. But he [held] the opposite, too: if you were making too much money in a trade surplus, you would pay a surcharge and even have it taken away and given to the international bank. This is where the American Secretary of Treasury just freaked out and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Why would an empire give away its money to its poor little subjects? I mean, this is ridiculous.” So, they shot that down.

Now, the Carboni is different because we’re all in the same boat. As I said, we’re all in a room with explosive vests around our waists. Although, the American financial empire is still thriving, as I understand it, such that even the so-called Chinese challenge is in true financial/monetary/capital terms, rather small. But they have a lot of people. And they have the productive capacity that they’ve become the working class for the world on purpose. This is differential currency rates. You can pay them 10 cents an hour where you’d have to pay an American ten dollars an hour. So, they’ve grabbed that on purpose and are very canny financial actors in the world. But the US dollar and US capital still are a gigantic, dominant force. That means that if the US were to get smart, do smart things with MMT–with Bernie Sanders, with the Paris Agreement–taking our role and leading the way–this is like a big “if”–if America were to be smart, the world would be in better shape. 

William Saas: I should say that, when we were talking, I remember the Bancor was actually covered in Ministry for the Future, so thank you for not pointing that out. But yeah, it’s definitely there. 

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I felt that, in Ministry for the Future, one of the games I could play was just to do the expository dump that I’ve become famous for and that I had already become notorious for killing people with exposition and with, what in science fiction gets called, “info dumps,” because there is a crowd of people my age who like to think that they were smart and cynical about knowing how fiction worked. They were naive and ignorant and their ugly names have stuck. I’m the great info dumper.  I decided in Ministry I was going to dump right on their carpet, so they could not clean their carpet. 

Maxximilian Seijo: We’re going to start probably wrapping up here, so we figured we’d note, since writing your book, we’ve experienced a number of climate and social and health disasters. From COVID-19, to the California wildfires that have become a sort of yearly habit, to even just recently with the Texas weather-related power and water crises, we were wondering how these events have impacted your thinking around the larger climate crisis? Then, relatedly, given any of these problems, or renewed foregrounding of these sorts of crises, have you been taking them on in your current or future works? 

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I think that climate change is now generally regarded by a large percentage of the public worldwide as real and a problem. And the human propensity for saying, “it can’t happen to me,” is a great cognitive bias so that you can go on with some courage even when people are falling around you left and right. It’s an old cognitive bias. It doesn’t work anymore for climate change in a way that it used to because millions of people have been hammered one way or another. Fires, floods, gigantic storms, and now the big freeze, those things are going to keep happening. Everybody’s aware of it. Everybody’s thinking, “Alright, I as an individual, I’m going to not have electricity. I’m going to freeze. I’m going to starve. I can’t solve this individually.” This is, I would bet, the rational response of a big swath of people. Then it’s like, “Oh my God, does that mean I have to trust the society? Does that mean I have to trust politicians? Does that mean that my family and my children are going to have to rely on the social compact working this out? Dammit.” The truth of that is not a happy truth. Maybe, not for any of us, but especially for people who thought that they had individual agency as a creature on this planet. That was always wrong. But now, it’s become so wrong. What I think, though, is that that and the pandemic, where everybody was scared at once that they might just die in the next month for no good reason and in a way that medicine couldn’t stop, that was a little electric shock. 

It’s like everybody has stuck their finger in the wall socket and gotten a shock. And some people just get more rigid and hunched down and go, “I don’t care. I’m going to live like it’s 1995 until I die. Hopefully I’ll die soon.” This is the subconscious thinking of resistance. But a lot of people are saying, “Dammit, we actually have to have a functioning government. We have to have the social compact work and solve this problem because it’s bigger than me.” Well, it’s a moment of opportunity. I read something from Milton Friedman. He said, “You know, politicians don’t have any ideas. And so, when they come to a crisis, they’re going to look around for ideas. So, we just lay the ideas on the floor underneath them”. The moment that stagflation came, which is a minor problem but it freaked everybody out. Keynesianism isn’t working. And so, in the Reagan-Thatcher moment, they’re looking around for ideas. “OK, we’ll use this free market idea. The market solves everything. It’s like God. What a good idea. It solves everything.” And politicians are like “OK, great. I believe it. It validates my own sense of individual liberty, blah, blah, blah.” It’s got an ideological construct behind it. It’s got a set of laws that can be enacted that institute it. And we’ve had a 40 year experience of it, like an experiment in social engineering run on the whole world. And it’s a mess and it doesn’t work. 

Now what I’m thinking is, for groups like yours, like everybody working on this and MMT, to put those ideas out and around for when a moment comes. We’ve got a new administration. They’re looking around for ideas. Boy, we’ve got a crisis–a climate crisis, a jobs crisis. People are angry. There’s a precariat. We claim to represent the people as the Democratic Party. We’ve been doing a crap job. We better do better or else we’re going to have another maniac come in. So, where are our ideas? That’s where these new ideas can be picked up. Let’s try it. And it doesn’t have to be reified into a Green New Deal. You can say, “Oh, Green New Deal, bridge too far.” Then, everything that’s in the Green New Deal, you could just pass as individual legislation. It wouldn’t be that different from the original New Deal. I’m seeing a moment of opportunity, a kind of tipping point into some kind of new political economy that actually copes. Obviously, that’ll be a wicked struggle. But it’s good to talk it out. It’s good to have the tools in hand and have canny people. Canny, young intellectuals like Margaret Mead are the people who change the world. Nobody else changes the world. I’m not sure that’s true, but you might as well act as if it were true. 

Scott Ferguson: Well, that was beautifully put. I think with that, we’re going to thank you, Kim Stanley Robinson, for joining us on Money on the Left. This has been an incredible conversation. 

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, thank you, guys. I love it that you’re working on this stuff. I’m just coming to an awareness that podcasts are a real thing and that they’re pretty great. This is all new to me. But I’m happy to be part of it. So thanks for having me on. Thanks, Billy and Scott and Max. Yeah, let’s gather in a few years and see how things have gone.

William Saas: Sounds great. 

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

Superstructure Cancels the Pope

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

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Money Beyond Sovereignty (Essay)

In her recent interview with the Money on the Left podcast, Lua Yuille offers a helpful critique of how Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is often characterized by proponents as a value-neutral lens that describes the capabilities of a “monetary sovereign.” As a heterodox legal scholar and economist who focuses on race and property in the United States, Yuille immediately noted the urgency for MMT to acknowledge how its rhetoric about public power speaks differently to audiences whose qualitative experiences of public institutions like property are stratified by race and identity.

As Yuille puts it, “When you talk about, as MMT does, a set of reflections grounded in monetary sovereignty, you start with, ‘If you have power, then you can do what you want with it.’” Putting a finer point on it, she relates MMT’s under-theorization of public power’s differentiated meanings to racial politics. “If you go into places where there’s a lot of Black people, power has never been our friend. Power has never worked for us. So when you tell us all about the possibility of power, I’m not necessarily sure that’s making me excited.” 

Yuille’s objections cut to the problematic core of modern political sovereignty, within MMT and beyond. Since at least the European Renaissance, Western thinkers have relied on a particular version of the metaphor of a political head and body to describe politics as a relationship between a ruler and ruled. In perhaps the most cynical formulation of this head-body relation, Machiavelli argued that the head of state should care for his collective political body for reasons of pure self interest. Over time, Early Modern thinkers experimented with ways to adapt the head-body metaphor to less authoritarian ends, placing emphasis more on the body than the head. Thomas Hobbes famously described sovereignty as a contractual agreement between the will of a Sovereign and the discordant wills of a political body that wishes to act through a collective voice in order to avoid a violent state of nature. 

The more familiar story from here is that Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau sought to replace sovereign monarchies with sovereign institutions of self-governance, so that the nascent nation-state could be understood as a self-governing body. It’s still the head-body metaphor, but the head has been lopped off rhetorically and replaced with an autonomous collective body. 

While the idea of a self-determined body without a head may seem attractive for its democratic impulses, the premise of a sovereign will requires that its orchestra of legal boundaries and dictates structure the entire scope of how its body engages with the world. Dependencies beyond the bounds of the independent sovereign’s planning are systematically foreclosed. Whether it’s the underemployment of a type of worker whose skills were once acquired to participate elsewhere in the global economy, or it’s the snuffing out of a diasporic group’s shared cultural meanings and traditions, the subsumption of differences into a sovereign voice requires some mix of exclusion and assimilation to square the circle. 

It is precisely this problematic lineage of a sovereign democratic “body” that some of the less thoughtful presentations of MMT draw upon when they ground money exclusively in the “monetary sovereignty” of nation states. When one first researches MMT, they often encounter the phrase, “money is a creature of the state,” which is credited to the mid-century economist Abba Lerner. At the time, Lerner was pushing back against contemporary liberal theories of money that externalized its origins and exiled its potentials to the domain of private commerce. The US Dollar is a creature of the state because dollars are issued by the federal government ex nihilo. Such language should be empowering for the average person because we live in a democracy, so the logic went.

Except, of course, public institutions are not equally answerable to everyone. The figure of the “average person” that the more liberal proponents of MMT imagine will be empowered with supposedly value-neutral knowledge of how public spending works is in fact a particular group of people. It’s a group whose experience of civic participation is predicated on their relationship to white patriarchy, whose present articulation was largely constructed in the 20th century, through decades of large-scale fiscal planning directed towards white suburban uplift. Whatever else one could say about the post-war United States government that deficit-spent its way to segregated suburbs after World War II, it was aware of the possibilities of public power.

To the extent that the nation-state is associated with a positive ideological project in most people’s minds, it’s nationalism. And indeed, there are proponents of MMT who turn the language of “monetary sovereignty” towards explicitly conservative ends. In the U.K., MMT is largely associated with the economists Bill Mitchell and Thomas Fazi, who leveraged MMT’s institutional critiques of the European Union to argue in favor of Brexit and against an encroaching “cosmopolitanism.”

In a 2017 American Affairs article titled “Make the Left Great Again”, Mitchell and Fazi rehearsed a version of Angela Nagle’s argument in Kill All Normies, in which she blamed the excesses of the “Tumblr Left” for the increasing popularity of far right politics. “In a vicious feedback loop,” they write, “The more the working classes turn to right-wing populism and nationalism, the more the intellectual-cultural Left doubles down on its liberal-cosmopolitan fantasies [emphasis mine], further radicalizing the ethnonationalism of the proletariat.”

From an MMT point of view, this makes no sense. MMT is associated with the Job Guarantee because jobs can always be created with public money, so externalizing any group of people as competitors for a fixed pool of jobs is incoherent. And of course, this false opposition between “liberal-cosmopolitan fantasies” and an ethnonationalist proletariat has nothing to say about Black Lives Matter or the Black-led movements to defund and abolish prisons. To the extent that people of color are mentioned at all in the piece, they are the “competition” facing domestic workers. 

But the shape of the incoherence is nevertheless important, because we’ve seen it before. The giant public deficits after WWII were framed as investments in America’s Cold War national identity—a distinct suburban lifestyle whose traditions and norms set it apart from the Soviet Union. For the sake of national identity, the potentially infinite horizon of social provisioning through public money was anchored to a limited project of national conformity, which required criminalizing and pathologizing the very exclusions on which it was premised.

In the first episode of the Superstructure podcast, we read from a blockbuster twitter thread written by Thomas Fazi titled, “What the left doesn’t get about ‘social conservatism.’” Reflecting on Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 defeat, Fazi accused “woke leftists” of denying the necessity of national identity for democratic politics. He writes, “Democracy, as the term implies, presupposes the existence of an underlying demos. The nation, in turn, constitutes the basis for the modern democratic state: still the best model of government ever created.” Fazi is referring to the “democratic” version of the head-body metaphor for governance. But the self-governing body here—what Fazi calls the “underlying demos”— might as well be the white nuclear families of the postwar American suburbs. Like the midcentury American planners who held the keys to American fiscal policy, Fazi is unable to imagine using the infinite organizing power of public money to cultivate anything other than a light ethnostate, where the only jobs that exist are culturally coded as British. 

For MMT to become widely accepted on the Left, the rhetoric of monetary sovereignty needs to be seriously complicated. As I’ve suggested, the historical tendency for public money to be realized only on the terms of exclusion is intimately related to how we conceive of the nation-state itself. Whether it’s a head of state controlling a political body or a political body controlling itself through heads of state, modern Western thought has conceived of law and money as emanations of a collective legal will. 

Within the MMT community, the “sovereignty” framing has been challenged before by Scott Ferguson, who suggests using the word agency in its place for many of the reasons I’ve laid out. Ferguson recognizes that inclusive political impulses and collective projects are often routed through this language, in spite of its limitations. The MMT economist Fadhel Kaboub, for instance, has worked for years within a monetary sovereignty framework to advance an internationalist vision of economic solidarity and cooperation. International campaigns for food and resource sovereignty have projected similar visions. Frequently, these projects wield the term “sovereignty” against its historical associations with ethno-nationalism and autarky. Still, because the language of sovereignty externalizes international responsibility from a more fundamental commitment to self-determination, it is vulnerable to cynical cooptation by those like Thomas Fazi, who want to subsume anti-colonial struggles into a right-left “national liberation movement” alongside Brexit. For this reason, the language of sovereignty ought to be replaced with a consciously social language of agency, participation, and actualization. 

To develop this critique further, I would like to do something a bit unusual and turn to feminist film theory. Film theorists spend a great deal of time thinking about the cultural meanings of films in ways that will be useful for us. Namely: they do not take what films say about themselves fully at their word. A documentary might claim to be presenting an unmediated view of reality, but it cannot erase its participation from the world that it’s filming. A horror movie might claim to be presenting ordinary people, but when the token Black character dies first, the social world behind the film is very recognizable. The most interesting films to me are the ones which are aware that they don’t have a full handle on their social meaning and choose instead to thematize their position in the world by implicating themselves in their social commentary or subverting popular tropes. One could think of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), or even Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019).

I want to turn to the scholarly debate that surrounded a 1975 essay titled, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey articulated a critique of the “male gaze” as a patriarchal structure in cinema. In that essay, Mulvey argues that patriarchy is tenuously organized around an imagined opposition between an acting male subject and a passive female object. Premised entirely on an inactive female figure, the male gaze shores up its anxiety over actually-existing women by variously fetishizing and punishing them on screen. Mulvey reads classical Hollywood film form through this existential anxiety, noting the ways in which narrativity and even the camera itself work to reinforce a male spectatorial position, which has full mastery over women characters. Spectatorial pleasure is created through a fetishizing gaze that reduces women to sexual objects, while Classic Hollywood tropes like the “femme fatale” are given agency only to be punished when it is revealed by the end that their autonomy was a ruse to trick male characters and spectators alike. 

In the decades since writing “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey’s argument has been variously challenged and elaborated by queer and Black feminist theorists. Most notably, bell hooks took Mulvey to task for her inattention to the implicit whiteness of Classical Hollywood Cinema, and of her own subject position as a white woman. For hooks, the fact that Mulvey ends her essay by gesturing towards a spectatorial awareness of the male gaze as the “possibility of resistance” gives away her unreflected position as a white woman. Nested in systems of white supremacy, patriarchy has a unique investment guarding white womanhood. And while there are some complicated and often unacknowledged benefits for white women in the “protection” of an objectifying system, for the Black female subject there is little pleasure to be had. For this reason, hooks assumes a consciously oppositional Black female gaze as her starting point, and goes on to positively theorize the counter-gazes that the male gaze necessarily excludes. 

My reason for going into this level of detail here is not to adjudicate a 30 year old intellectual dispute, nor to paper over it. Instead, I want to reflect on the common theoretical structure that hooks and Mulvey both rely on to make their arguments in order to situate my own reading of sovereignty. While the subtext of hooks’s engagement with Mulvey certainly makes a crucial intervention into a white feminist discourse, it is not a totalizing rejection of the shape of Mulvey’s argument. It’s the persistent failure of the male gaze to master its object in Mulvey’s schema that bell hooks repurposes to critique whiteness as a structure and even Mulvey herself. The shape of this structure can, in fact, be traced back earlier than Mulvey and complicated historically in all kinds of ways, but that is beyond the (already too big) scope of my argument here. 

Drawing on this structural analogy between hooks’s and Mulvey’s arguments, we can read the nation-state’s carceral governing logics and exclusionary fiscal policies in a similar way. Like the terrified male (white) subject who shores up his existential anxiety over the social contributions of others through violence and discipline, the nation-state directs the generative potentials of public money largely towards shoring up its feeling of absolute freedom to do whatever it wants. For a nation-state that sees itself as politically sovereign, accountability to the rest of the world can only be read as an external obligation placed upon an otherwise autonomous political body. Read through the lens of sovereignty, the prospect of internal accountability to those purposefully excluded from the nation-state’s planning is seen as an existential threat, and the symptomatic policy response to the consequences of exclusionary economic planning is carceral. This is true whether it is Black Americans who have been marshalled into slums and unemployment, or trans people who spend their time negotiating with healthcare providers to have their most basic needs met because the system as a whole isn’t planning for them.

But money is not solely an emanation of the nation-state, and the institutional levers of fiscal policy don’t have to be dealt with as if that were the case. The essence of money is not the infinite gaze of a sovereign will—it is the infinite horizon of possibility to abstractly cultivate and organize collective world-making. The nation-state participates in the abstract ordering of social life across many physical distances and many layers of social meaning, but “participates” is the key word here.

What is needed for a fully inclusive and left wing articulation of MMT to succeed is an approach to politics that does not take the nation-state at its word for how it relates to the world or where its levers are. While it is important to say that we do not need to wait for capitalism to “go into crisis” to make effective demands for fiscal agency, the covid crisis has forced the government to respond improvisationally in ways that can be taken advantage of in exactly this way.

More capacious foundations for monetary answerability are immediately visible, if you know how to look for them. As Nathan Tankus has written about at length, the Federal Reserve is experimenting with what it calls “municipal liquidity facilities (MLFs),” which allow for some municipal bonds to be exchanged for dollars. If expanded and made permanent, such a policy would effectively short-circuit the federal government’s “monopoly” on currency issuance.

Of course, local governments aren’t the only large fiscal authorities that stand to benefit from access to dollar creation. In the spirit of thinking beyond the conventional boundaries of the nation-state—and in the wake of covid forcing the creation of MLFs—one can imagine an organized Left pressuring the US government to open similar facilities for postcolonial governments who, like US municipalities, are forced to enforce underemployment and austerity through dollar denominated debt. In another provocative post, Nathan Tankus suggests that the International Monetary Fund is best positioned to facilitate this through swap lines between domestic currencies and its own credits, which are called “Special Drawing Rights.” 

A similar line of thinking animates my Money on the Left colleagues’ “Uni” proposal, which is a direct action proposal for universities and consortiums of universities to finance themselves with credits, avoiding layoffs and even allowing economic activity to expand. Referencing the shorthand “Munis” for municipal bonds, Unis would be issued first as “University Payment Anticipation Notes” whose value as circulating money is locally backed by the university’s willingness to accept them as payment for rents, tuition and fees. The fact that universities oversee such large regional infrastructures of economic provisioning means that their willingness to accept Unis as payment for their ongoing transactions is enough for the Uni to circulate locally as a complementary currency.

Importantly, the Uni also opens the door to new ways of interfacing with monetary institutions like the Federal Reserve’s municipal liquidity facilities. To the extent that these facilities allowed municipal bonds to be exchanged for dollars, these facilities effectively allowed local governments to traverse the vulgar MMT binary between “currency users” and “currency issuers.” Crucial for this approach to monetary experimentation is that it does not follow a logic of zero-sum fiscal prioritization between competing institutions. Recognizing universities as essential infrastructure with the right to provision itself into the future leads to similar revelations about every other part of our interdependent economy. If universities should keep operating because they employ lots of people, why not houses? Or state governments? Or even foreign governments whose dollar-denominated debts are wielded against them by international institutions to enforce austerity?

The Uni is one example, but we can read similar impulses in the experimental demands of subnational governments such as the Philadelphia City Council, which on March 11 unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Federal Reserve to provide no-interest, long term loans to the city for education funding. We can affirm the impulse to reclaim fiscal agency, and go even further to suggest that these not be loans at all, but something more like grants conditioned only on their intended use.

The democratic answerability of money and its potential to make and remake the world is a political horizon of possibility that belongs to all of us. The modern obsession with national sovereignty and independence obscures the underlying structures of interdependence in which such claims are grounded, but interdependence and vulnerability is not weakness. On the contrary, it’s the source of our power.

Money, Literature & Trust with Rob Hawkes (Guest Lecture)

The Money on the Left Editorial Collective is proud to present a recent talk by English literature scholar Rob Hawkes titled, “‘The Power of Money is so Hard to Realize’: Literature, Money and Trust in George Gissing’s 1891 Novel New Grub Street.” In it, Hawkes draws out urgent, though regularly overlooked linkages between modern money and modern literature. In particular, he explores British novelist George Gissing’s reflexive and genre-bending book to pose the problem of social trust from a neochartalist or MMT-informed perspective. 

Dr. Rob Hawkes is Senior Lecturer in English Studies at Teesside University in the United Kingdom; a Fellow of the English Association; and a member of the Executive Steering Committee of the British Association for Modernist Studies. He is the author of Ford Madox Ford and the Misfit Moderns: Edwardian Fiction and the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and co-editor several related books on Ford Madox Ford. Recently, he contributed ‘Openness, Otherness, and Expertise: Uncertainty and Trust in Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’ to the collection, Comedy and the Politics of Representation: Mocking the Weak, edited by Helen Davies and Sarah Ilott (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). And he is now working on a monograph on literature, money, and trust from the 1890s to the 1980s. 

To contact Dr. Hawkes, email him at Or, you can find him on Twitter @robbhawkes. 
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Thank you to the English and Creative Writing Research Seminar at Teesside for hosting and giving us permission to sharing Dr. Hawkes’ lecture. 

Money, Media & Modernity (Preview)

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

For access to the full video lecture, subscribe to our Patreon here:  If you are interested in premium offerings but presently unable to afford a subscription, please send a direct message to @moneyontheleft or @Superstruc on Twitter & we will happily provide you with membership access.  

Course Description

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


2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999)

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

Heterodox Properties with Lua Kamal Yuille

Money on the Left is joined by Dr. Lua Kamal Yuille to discuss heterodox economics, property law & the politics of vulnerability.  Dr. Yuille is professor of law and affiliated professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Kansas. Her work, which spans property theory, heterodox economics, business law, critical pedagogy, and group identity–truly puts the “inter” in interdisciplinary. We chat with Yuille about her path from law to heterodox economics, and, more specifically, about how Modern Monetary Theory has variously shaped and affirmed her critical perspective toward property law. We also to talk about her provocative work on “gangs as para-corporate entities.” These collectives, on her reading, perform necessary provisioning labor in reaction to racist and classist government policies that exclude significant swathes of the population from basic rights and protections. Other topics discussed are Yuille’s engagements with Martha Fineman’s “vulnerability theory,” as well as Yuille’s role as faculty senate president at the University of Kansas at a time when tenure and academic freedom are under serious threat in that state.

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

William Saas: Lua Yuille, welcome to Money on the Left.

Lua Yuille: Thanks for having me.

William Saas: We’re stoked to finally have you on the show. To get us started, can you tell our listeners a little bit about your personal and professional background?

Lua Yuille: Oh my goodness, that’s a big one. Hopefully not because I’m super old. I wear a lot of hats. I am a law professor at one part of the day, and an economics student at another part of the day. I like to consider myself a praxivist all day long by working out in the community. It all, I guess, began in a classroom. I spent time as a school teacher. Then, I was a big corporate lawyer. Or I was a big firm corporate lawyer. I don’t know if I was big. I did socioeconomic development work. Somewhere in there, I have a personal life as a hopefully interesting person. Those are a few of the things that I tried to do.

Scott Ferguson: In your work, you focus on, obviously, a few things, but what seems central to us is your focus on property and property law. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to property as a central question?

Lua Yuille: Most people think of property as stuff, right? They’re like, property is your house, property is your car, property is your clothes–property is stuff. I had an epiphany because, even though I went to law school and they taught me that it wasn’t stuff, I still walked through the world thinking that, as far as it mattered for me, property was stuff. I didn’t need to know much more about it. And in late 2007–it’s weird to talk about 2007 and that world crumbling around us, because that crumble was very different from the current crumble. The figurative world has lots of layers, because it can just crumble indefinitely. But as the world was crumbling around me, I realized that property as stuff wasn’t useful. That is not what mattered. Actually, property was power. Property is how we assign power over resources that are valued, whether that be stuff like land, and land is obviously historically the big one, or money, which is the big one today. We use these rules known as property to assign power. The moment that I realized property is not stuff, property is power, it became infinitely more important. I realized that is the conversation that I want to be having.

Maxximilian Seijo: In this vein, then, much of your work on property revolves around the way that law, this form of power, mediates racism and perpetuates racial injustice. Could you characterize this work for those unfamiliar with it as it relates to your various projects?

Lua Yuille: So if I take the perspective that property assigns power, and that has to do with sort of every facet of society. This is what gave me my epiphany in 2007. I was actually watching this huge bank fail. Banks are the place that people understand as being the repository of all this money and that means the repository of all this power. I saw all these folks in that space. The bank was failing because it was 2007. And I saw them be shaken to the ground, in terms of “who am I,” even though this was a bunch of rich old white guys who have failed up. I haven’t done the project of actually finding where they failed up. But I could probably list, if I did that, way better jobs that they have today than they had then. Nonetheless, they were shaken to the core because their source of making money, and the way they had gone about making money, was disappearing and going away.

I sat there as the only black person in the space, as one of the few women in the space, and I was like, this property stuff is about power. And power does a lot of work. One of the things that it does is situate you in society. Property then becomes this really easy way to create hierarchies. One of the most salient hierarchies, though, that no one wants to talk about in any meaningful, productive, and revolutionary way, is, of course, race. And so, from the history of not even being able to be a part of a conversation about power, when black people were the objects of property and not the subjects of that legal regime, to today, when the very nature of you owning the same stuff as somebody else doesn’t give you the same access and power as a white person owning that stuff, because, again, property is not about that. That’s really the conversation that I try to have in all of my work, whether that work is directly having a conversation about the racialized and identity implications of property, or if I’m talking about how corporations work. Because corporations have access to this institution of property in a way that looks a lot different than an individual. They get a set of preferences and that’s all about, again, ranking and creating hierarchies of power. It’s not an accident that, if we were to race and gender the corporation, the corporation’s experience of property looks a lot more like the white man’s experience of property than it does any other group.

William Saas: You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that you spend part of your day as a law professor and part of your day as an economics student. You decided a while back to pursue a PhD in heterodox economics at University of Missouri, Kansas City, long the beating heart of Modern Monetary Theory, or MMT. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got there and how MMT’s insights have informed your legal work?

Lua Yuille: I didn’t go to UMKC knowing anything about MMT. I didn’t go to have an MMT conversation. I went for three reasons. Number one: I was talking about property as power. Interestingly, or maybe surprisingly enough in a legal space, the people who talk about property have long abandoned economics. And they’ve abandoned economics because our area has been wholly colonized by neoclassical and neoliberal approaches. But I felt the power conversation was in economics. So I started putting myself in these economic spaces. And nobody was talking about the stuff that I felt needed to be talked about. Everything they said sounded like fiction, and I am all about fiction, but I was not actually trying to be engaged in fiction. I was interested in actual reality. So I would sit there really frustrated.

One year, a law and economics conference came to Lawrence, Kansas. It was the same old story until a gentleman by the name of Bill Black showed up. This is a very traditional economics conference so people are in their best business casual attire, and there are even some pretentious folks in suits. Bill Black comes and he’s wearing like dodgy old jeans and an old shirt that says UMKC. He gets up to speak and is his normal firebrand self. Whatever he’s talking about, I’m like, “I like this rabble-rouser.” What’s this rabble-rouser talking about and telling all of these people that their classical economics fidelity is short sighted and narrow minded? I’m like, “Ooh, I really like him.” Then, there was a woman. She came up and talked about black banks and bankruptcy. And everyone is like, you don’t know what you’re talking about, get off the stage. They didn’t actually say that, but you can see their eyes glazing over. Her name is Pamela Foohey. The people who came and were like, “Actually, that sounds really compelling,” are me and Bill Black. Then, we were like a little team of three people.

Bill Black reveals that UMKC, which he has emblazoned on his shirt, actually has a heterodox economics department and that he teaches there. It really was a catalyst for me to revisit the work of somebody else. So MMT is still not there yet. It was the work of Fred Lee. In always being frustrated by what I was hearing in economics, and I had been doing really bad and not academically sanctioned searches on the Internet of like, “who and where can I talk about actual reality,” I found Fred Lee’s work? He was at UMKC. Bill Black is at this conference. I was like, “Wait, there’s like a law connection?” And so, those two people, one in their work, one in their absolute, resolute, “I’m gonna walk into this space and claim it,” gave me the sort of impetus to say it doesn’t matter that I am a pre-tenure faculty at my institution, which told me I should probably not go back to school while I was not yet tenured and at all, because they gave me a job.

I already had a terminal degree in my field. I very quietly started, and was like, “I want to be able to do what Bill Black does,” which is, walk in the room and occupy it, not just by my personality, but with the credentials. Paolo Freire is not a critical race theorist, but a critical pedagogue, and a lot of critical race theorists always talked about needing to not just be a master of the critique and methodology that they were promoting, but also to be a master of what you were critiquing and be able to wield that fully. And so, I said, “Okay, I want to get this credential.” And what better way to get the credential than actually be carefully trained in what I want to think about. Then, I showed up at UMKC and they were like, “Also, did you hear this story about money? I was like, “You had me at money. Let’s chat. What do you have to say?” And then they’re like, “Did you know…?” And I was like, “I didn’t but now I do and I like this.” And it has been like walking the path together, I guess, ever since.

Maxximilian Seijo: It’s interesting pivoting off from that point. Obviously, we’re sort of an MMT informed podcast. But I think it’s also important to offer the opportunity to extend and perhaps complicate some of what MMT has to say. And so, we wanted to ask, if you were perhaps speaking to an audience of MMT ears, what would you challenge and complicate about the framework, in addition, of course, to what you already suggested you’re affirming?

Lua Yuille: I don’t know if this is good or bad, but in my first semester while I was getting exposed to MMT, I had a set of questions and critiques. They remain, but I don’t know if it’s good or bad because I think I’ve seen movement. And it could be good or bad because it’s maybe not moving as fast as I would like to see it. I come at things from a question about and an engagement with the function of power, and this seems like a tool of the powerful, right? When you talk about, as MMT does, a set of reflections grounded on monetary sovereignty, you start with, “If you have power, then you can do what you want with it.” People hate when I use this word problematize, because it sounds so hoity toity, but it doesn’t engage power as a problem, it doesn’t engage absolute power as a problem, as a danger historically. It only looks at the potential of power. That becomes really important when my interest has always been on subaltern spaces and outside populations, and not the Americas and European Unions of the world.

When I started having these conversations, there was precious little view of how we should have these MMT conversations, and what does Modern Monetary Theory mean for the developing world? Or what are you supposed to do with these great insights if your country isn’t a monetary sovereign? That is even more frustrating and problematic when the voices that are telling you these things are overwhelmingly white, and notwithstanding the very huge female luminaries in the MMT space, they’re really male. I just said you’re supposed to be a master of what you critique. The women in the space really mastered the dominant way of engaging. And so, it becomes a space that feels immediately exclusionary. People walk in and you say, “Oh, this is like dude-bro-central.” I’m not about that life. That has been an ongoing question that I have. How do we make these insights, which are insights that actually should be more interesting to people from historically marginalized groups than they should be to white guys who fail up, but I don’t think that has translated. I think that is a real challenge, both in presentation and a challenge of sometimes the utopian flavor of how we talk about things. Because, again, if you go into places where there’s a lot of black people, power has never been our friend. Power has never worked for us. So when you tell us all about the possibility of power, I’m not necessarily sure that’s making me excited. I think that those are the challenges that I had at that time. I was in a class, I’ll tell you, with Stephanie Kelton and Scott Fullwiler, and what they said was, “You should write that.” I have not written that yet. “What about Latin America?” “You should write that.” I would like someone else to write that and I would like to read that.

Scott Ferguson: While I do think that there’s so much more work to be done, there has been, as you’ve suggested, movement. And various folks in the movement have been doing more of this work in talking about post-colonial political economy and talking about Native American political economy. We could go on and on. But the point is well taken. I think that needs to be said, and it needs to keep being said. I was wondering if we could pivot to some of your theoretical work and insights. I’m particularly taken by what I see as a kind of convergence between some of my own impulses and yours. And this is revolving around questions of dependence. It seems from your work you’ve drawn a lot from the critical feminist legal scholar, Martha Fineman, and her vulnerability theory. I was wondering if you could tell our audience a little bit about Fineman, what you’re drawing from her, how dependency and vulnerability are so important for your work and for conceiving of law, and perhaps for racial politics and how you conceive of power?

Lua Yuille: Yeah, it’s a really similar story coming to heterodox economics, MMT, and vulnerability theory. It’s a similar story of nobody in the space that I was in, both as I’m reading but also as I’m going to places, seemed to be talking about actual reality. Nobody seemed to get and be engaging with the actual world. And so, in 2009-ish, Martha Feinman, who had a really long career and was a leading legal feminist, wrote a little essay. And the essay said, “Hey, what if we stopped treating vulnerability as a pathological condition? What if we instead recognize that every human being everywhere at every second is vulnerable? What if we said, ‘Oh wait, we’re human.’” I always say this in Spanish: we’re carne y hueso. We’re meat and bones. We are vulnerable to getting hurt. We are vulnerable to the environment. We are vulnerable to disease and illness. As we are born, unlike other creatures, we don’t pop out like “got it,” give me a couple seconds, and I’ve taken my steps. As the mother of two children, there is no end of frustration that it wasn’t like, “Give me 20 minutes, I’ll be ready to go, and we can go on the hunt.” No. We have to care for babies. And in our old age, once again, we become infirm in a very particular way. But throughout our entire lives, just by virtue of being embodied, we are vulnerable.

Then, we wind up living in human institutions, like the family, like society. And those, being made up of humans, are also vulnerable. You don’t make a family and then it sticks together all the time. There is strife. It is subject to harm. Why do we treat that as pathological? Let me just be honest. I was the mom who was like, “Come on, get it together.” But everyone agrees that when my baby was like, “Hey, I haven’t got this whole spoon thing down. I’m gonna need you to spoon this food into my mouth,” that was legitimate. We didn’t call my kid pathological. We didn’t say, “Hey, six month old, you need to learn how to be independent. Do it for yourself.” We gave the appropriate care. Now my kid is six. And, yes, every day I’m like, “Why can’t you just run yourself?” At the same time, she’s still really little, maybe it’s not appropriate for her to drive. We don’t treat most of childhood development, and the dependence that comes with childhood, as pathological. Why do we suddenly at some age flip a switch and decide that you’re supposed to be able to do everything? You can’t do everything by yourself. And we’ve got all these institutions designed to help you meet those needs.

It wasn’t like she was the first person to recognize this, but Martha Fineman said, “Instead of this mythological, economically modeled homo economicus, who is rational and an autonomous agent, what if we just use the vulnerable subject?” A person who, if you punch them in the eye, then they get a black eye, get mad, and punch you back. How about we deal with that person and see what law should look like if that’s what people are dealing with and if that’s the reality of the world? I read that and was like, “That’s what I am talking about–actual reality.” I think the really exciting thing for my own work, for legal thinking generally, but also for understanding the potential for law, is it actually provides a wonderful grounding for exactly what I said the critique of MMT is, which is that it’s not paying enough attention and that we haven’t moved far enough to really find the language of speaking to the disempowered that it has the potential to really to engage with. This is the other sort of issue with MMT. It is descriptive in nature. You can accept everything that MMT says but that doesn’t mean that you have to accept all of the prescriptions. Because you could say, “Okay, yeah, we have a lot more flexibility. We can make choices over our policy. We choose to let some people be poor because there isn’t a natural rate of unemployment. The NAIRU is not a thing. But you know what’s awesome? Having some segment of the population be desperate because then I get cheap stuff. And cheap stuff is amazeballs.” There are frankly people who know this and believe that.

Vulnerability theory steps in and also makes this descriptive observation, but gives a firmer grounding that says, “Okay, but the whole reason the state exists, the whole reason we formalized this power, is to create mechanisms so that people can respond to their vulnerability.” And in vulnerability theory, we call that resilience. Everyone is equally vulnerable. I am equally vulnerable to the richest man on the planet. If I go outside and it’s raining, I’m going to get wet. If he goes outside and it’s raining, he’s going to get wet. Whatever comes along with getting wet outside is going to be equally a reality for both of us. What is different is the likelihood that he’s going to have an umbrella or that he has to go outside. Notwithstanding my current profession as a university professor because I can afford an umbrella. I probably shouldn’t have used myself as an example. Do not worry, I have an umbrella. I can afford one. But the point stands. What separates me from a rich person is not how vulnerable I am. It’s how resilient I am. And what makes me resilient is my ability to use resources to protect myself or to bounce back. A better example for 2021 is that rich guy and I both getting COVID-19. That rich guy’s body is not intrinsically any more resilient and able to resist COVID-19 than mine, right?

Scott Feruson: Especially if it is Donald Trump’s body.

Lua Yuille: Right, right! He is not necessarily better able to resist it. But what can he do? He can do what Boris Johnson did in the UK and get diagnosed today. Tomorrow, he’s in a medically induced coma on oxygen, so that whatever his body does, it’s got the number one backup. The backup, at that time, is being put on a ventilator as soon as possible and then coming out relatively fine. As it turns out, if you have all the money in the world, COVID-19 is not particularly scary–if you can get all of the drugs available. But that’s not about your vulnerability. That’s not about your independence. You’re equally dependent. You just have more resources. You are more resilient to the fact of your embodiment. This turns around, and suddenly for me says, “Oh, wait, so the difference between us is power.” It is about the power to command, power to demand resources and consideration that other folks don’t have. That’s not a part of your inherent condition. This is why I think vulnerability theory is exciting and why I think it marries well with MMT.

It provides us with the demand to say, “State, you don’t get to say some of us are going to be poor, because you only exist to create mechanisms of resilience for everybody.” I get to demand that you spend money. That you are a free and an unlimited monetary sovereign in creating so that the needs of humanity are met. It also has its own detractors, because that perspective says that it’s not about black people and it’s not about women. It’s not about all these people who have historically been excluded from sites of resilience. It’s resilience for everybody. And so, it’s capable of being critiqued even if you buy all of its normative and descriptive conclusions. I think it actually is great, because it doesn’t require us to ignore the fact that LGBTQAI+ people didn’t get to be in the conversation. But it tells us that bringing people in isn’t the end of the road. Critique of black capitalism was a good example. There are people who are like, “Capitalism is great. I just don’t like that I am systematically excluded from capitalism. I want somebody to be homeless, I just don’t want the homeless people to have to be black. Like can we have diversity in homelessness? As long as there’s rich diversity in homelessness…” When you say that you want access to capitalism, that’s what that means. You just want a better mix of the destitute. And vulnerability theory tells you, “Okay, so that’s dumb.” It says, “Yeah…to the extent that there’s homelessness, we do want it to be richly diverse. But what if we had no homelessness? How about that? How would that play?”

Scott Ferguson: One of the things I really like about your approach to vulnerability and dependence in law is that it not only politicizes the vulnerable subject, as you’ve been saying, and critiques this kind of Lockean white man, homo economicus, but it also provides a different lens on law itself. You actually read law as, while we may say or insist that law is all organized around the independent, economic Man, in fact, if you look at it through your lens, you see that it’s actually entirely organized around this vulnerable subject. We just can’t see it. But it’s actually everywhere when you open your eyes to it.

Lua Yuille: Yes. I think that’s absolutely right. I will say that there are people in the vulnerability space who get annoyed with me because the demand of vulnerability theory is the responsive state. And I’m like, “We have that.” The problem is that we aren’t responsive to everybody. And we continue to categorically exclude people from who the state cares about, but we absolutely respond to folks’ vulnerability. We don’t respond to the vulnerability of women. Just because everyone is vulnerable, and I’ve shown examples of people being equally insanely vulnerable, doesn’t mean that we’re not all in the same exact moment in our life. Your vulnerability is manifest and experienced by you uniquely. I’m not saying race doesn’t exist. It is a construct, but it also is real just like your house is a construct. Someone built it. And now you live in that reality. It’s there. And so, people are categorically excluded.

But the law says we respond to the vulnerability of income. We say, if you invest properly, say in a house, we are giving you certain forms of resilience. We’re not actually going to make you lose your house except in very specific circumstances. If you are bankrupt, that’s a form of resilience. We give you tax breaks and incentives around your housing. That is a form of resilience. We say, “Hey, people with ‘good jobs,’ you get to have double ‘insurance.’” When I was employed by a private law firm in New York, I had like amazing insurance. It was like so wonderful. I had like the airlift insurance. I was in Honduras during a huge hurricane and all my friends were like, “Oh, my gosh, we’re so worried.” And I was like, “I hate to be that person but if it goes down to it, I am being helicoptered out of here.” They’re like, “How do you do that?” I was like, “I have evacuation insurance.” “How did you get that?” “I am associated with a huge law firm in New York.” Now, I work for a public university and I have the “maybe you can get an aspirin” insurance. But still, even with those huge disparities in what coverage looks like, depending on the kind of job you have, we have provided that resilience primarily to folks who meet some norms of society, which is that you have the kind of job that is stable enough. It means you are able to demand that you have firm enough working conditions and benefits to be insured.

The precariat are adjunct faculty who don’t qualify for those benefits in the same way that the guy who works at Burger King doesn’t qualify for those benefits. All of that, though, is resilient. All of that is providing through a state organized mechanism of resilience. The state passes a law that determines who must be covered by insurance, by their employer, and who doesn’t. Then, you have the Affordable Care Act, which we know has been under attack since its passage. You hear people who are really angry about other people getting access to resilience. There was a woman who was like, “No, I have to wait an hour to see the doctor because all these people got their Obamacare.” And I’m like, “Hold up, let’s just be clear. You would rather people have no insurance, then wait for an hour?” And the person was like, “Absolutely. I don’t care about you. I did what I was supposed to do.” We hide the way the state is responsive, we deny that the state is being responsive, but they’re responsive to this imagined ideal person who engages the world in this imagined ideal way. And they’re not responsive to the needs of the rest of us, which is why this is being made crystal clear. And frankly, I think it’s being made crystal clear to people who haven’t had this thrown in their face every day during COVID. People who have been systematically excluded from the resilience mechanisms of the government are like, “Ugh, what’s new?” But lots of middle class white folks are like, “Wait, the government was doing that for me? This was like a law thing that made this happen?” Yes, it was. Yes, it was. And now, it’s a law thing that’s not making it happen.

Maxximilian Seijo: It’s interesting then thinking about that wonderful explanation of a sort of systemic overview of the way political economy and law are functioning with one another to mediate human vulnerability and dependence. Relatedly, among your more provocative areas of research, is your work on gangs as para-corporate entities. You describe them as maintaining dignified identities in provisioning structures that are not legally recognized by a racist and classist legal regime. And I think this relates to this sense of resilience that you were just explicating. I think it’d be really interesting if you could flesh out this argument for us, as well as the politics of it, and how they relate to the life and death stakes you were just articulating.

Lua Yuille: First of all, those were not my words. They’re so much better, I’m stealing them. There’s a law professor by the name of Brian L. Frye who believes in plagiarism. I’m going to adopt his plagiarism perspective–just kidding. Everything that I do is grounded and begins in a story. Longer ago than I would like to admit, I was in my parent’s home. I had been living there and I was actually moving to Oregon to begin work as a law professor at the University of Oregon. It was the middle of the night. I was super young. And as super young people do, they make choices like, “There’s a party that I need to go to.” I couldn’t actually embark on this drive from Los Angeles, California to Eugene, Oregon until the middle of the night. I am packing up my car to move out of my parents home to Oregon and I get a phone call from my brother. He tells me, “Get in the house. They’re shooting black people.” I was like, “They’re shooting black people? I am from California.” And I said I was in Los Angeles, but I was not. I was in a suburb of a suburb of Los Angeles. Not only do they not shoot black people here, they don’t shoot anybody here. What is happening? He was like, “Get inside for real. They’re shooting black people.” So of course, I go inside.

It turned out a long standing back and forth spate of violence between gangs that were raced black and gangs that were raced Latinx had hit my hometown. That was my entree into the world of gangs. Because immediately after this happened, the town that I am from created a gang injunction. And a gang injunction is basically a tool that municipalities use. They’re like, “Look, we’re gonna call you a gang member.” It was very popular in Oakland, California for a while. Los Angeles used the first one, but they were being used across the country. Anyways, the municipality decides that you’re a member of a particular gang and then prohibits you by law from doing all sorts of stuff. You can’t hang out with other gang members, obviously, but you can’t wear blue if you’re a crip or red if you’re a blood. And also, because gangs do graffiti, you can’t have writing utensils, which means this is a pretty big imposition on children. It’s poorly named. It’s called gangology–a really poorly named field of study. The gangologists have long recognized that gang members are disproportionately children, so they can’t go to school.

I got called back into this because I was advising folks from my hometown who were trying to resist this gang injunction. Through that interaction, I started observing what they were doing and what they were talking about. What I saw, and what wound up being really consistent with what other people who had studied gangs saw, was that they were really not these radical outsiders at all. They were replicating, quite meticulously, the norms of capitalist entrepreneurship. And what is the corporation supposed to do? It’s a space where you invest your capital so that you can get a return on that investment while minimizing your risk. And by virtue of being involved in that organization, that corporation, you get all sorts of status out in the world. My favorite example is always Enron, though it’s getting really, really old. But we know what a McMansion is today because of the folks at Enron. They became associated with this corporation. And now I have a terrible mansion in Texas that’s ugly and awful, but it creates my access to a community.

Okay, well, I don’t have Enron money and I don’t have the social and educational capital of an Enron executive. What I do have is a durag, a pair of K-Swiss shoes, and a blue t shirt, but I can invest those things into this space and get a real return on that. If you gave me a more lucrative corporation to invest in, I would abandon it. As soon as I saw that, I said, “We need to have a conversation.” Because once again, what do we have here? We have people who are driven directly to respond to their vulnerability by creating resilience. You block them off in one way, and you block them off primarily because they’re young black and brown kids. Turns out in the history of gang injunctions–I’m from Southern California, there’s Asian gangs–no Asian gangs were enjoined. Now, today given stuff like the Sons of Anarchy, people aren’t surprised by this. It’s like a very dangerous surfer gang. And then, obviously, you’ve got all sorts of prison gangs. And the most dangerous prison gangs are raced white. But who gets enjoined? Who gets all of their bridges to the dominant economy closed off? People who are black and brown, because they invested in these spaces where they stand on the corner.

And of course, historically, in the late 1970s when the California gang revolution began, these corporations are actually doing way better than sanctioned corporations are doing for the communities that they’re in, because they’re providing security and policing, and they’re ensuring that the varying economic pathways in Watts or Compton in South Central, Los Angeles keep moving. I always get people who are like, “But you started off saying gangs are revolutionary.” No, they’re not. They’re not. I wish they were revolutionary. They’re not revolutionary. They’re totally neo-classical, neoliberal institutions that are trying to replicate humanity in one way and we won’t let them because they’re black and brown. And it’s been exciting, because, meanwhile, I worked for big corporations who were functioning precisely the same. Their identity was tied up in the corporation. When they burned down the community, the whole country is taken with it, and nonetheless, we give them golden parachutes–both the proverbial kind and the business kind of the literal golden parachutes.

Scott Ferguson: In your writing, what do you recommend in place of these injunctions? 

Lua Yuille: I think there are two approaches. In the work that I have, I’m like, “If you are seeing people engage in traditional capitalist endeavors, why don’t we just pay them? Why don’t we just pay them? They’re willing to leave. Give them money. Pay them to do what you want them to do.” That is actually my quite conservative recommendation, because it doesn’t have any inner critique of the system. It doesn’t have any inner critique of why we allow corporatized entities to have the kind of power and influence that they have. It doesn’t break down the idea that we are finding and being fundamentally connected to our identity through the way that we get property. And again, that goes back to me saying through the way we get power. We should critique that.

So what do I say? I tell people to pay gang members to stop being gang members. You can pay them with actual cash or you can pay them with jobs elsewhere, and they will take them because it’s not like they’re making a lot of money in the gangs. But my radical critique is, “Hey, let’s step back and why don’t we destabilize the system so that I don’t get my identity from my work, so that I don’t need a corporation to situate me in society, whether it’s a para-corporation or an actually registered corporation? Why don’t we have work and labor be for your intrinsic value and for necessary reproductive activities in society? I’m not on the “who cares about work” train. “Let’s get rid of work. Let’s mechanize it all.” That’s not my get down. We need people to do work. There are lots of jobs that need to be done. But how about it doesn’t turn out that my position in society is connected with that? And how about we start actually allowing socially reproductive activities to be properly compensated? And what is proper compensation? Of course, that means a dignified wage.

Scott Ferguson: Do you have thoughts about the Bloods and Crips truce manifesto? It seems like that document was pointing in this direction.

Lua Yuille: Well, there have been several examples in history. Before Tookie Williams was executed by the state of California–sorry, I had to go there. It’s a fact that happened. Tookie, by the way, claimed to be one of the founders of what would become the Crips, which is one of the major gangs that began in Los Angeles and moved across the nation and across the world. But what he really worked on doing, was trying to say, “Okay, yes, I got this reputation as a murderer because I committed murders. But I didn’t commit murders willy nilly. I was operating in this space that was not sanctioned by the government. And though some people in this space will disagree, the way law gets a lot of its power is by the threat of force. And so, if you don’t have that formal threat of force, you need actual use of force.” He really explained his violence, and then in so doing, also reminded folks that, what the project had been, was to advance the neighborhood. And it wasn’t about purely personal advancement. It was at least partially communitarian in nature. Now, I think these people are totally mainstream. So maybe we would call them like the benefit corporations of today. “Do good while doing well.” But he really did a lot of that work. And what he was doing was saying, “Hey, look guys. Now, we have lost the “do good” part. Let’s come together. Let’s actually problem solve. And let’s take a moment.”

It’s happened more than once where the conversations are like, “Wait, why do we do this? Why do we gangbang?” In the interviews that I did with folks, and I can’t say that they are gang members, there are people who were subject to gang injunctions. Not many of my respondents would say that they were gang members. But what they really talked about was, particularly older people, this was my entree into this space and if you had given me an alternative, I would have taken it. They’re very aware and willing to talk about how this is, yes, as an important part of my identity, but it’s not an ideal. I wasn’t born for this. And nobody should be born for this. But this is how I staked my way in the world. And if there were other paths for me, I would have happily taken those other paths. This is not any of my research, but just happened to be a recent interaction with someone who was a part of my research and was really talking about his own daughter who is 18. One of the things that he did was, as he became an adult, invest in a way that he was like, “Oh, no, you can’t even associate with those people. The only gang members you know are old ones like me because that’s your family. But it’s not the way we move forward. We move forward very traditionally–through education. You’re going to college.”

The actual reason that the person came to my attention was to help this kid, whose dad is a gang member and uncles are gang members, apply to college. We’re gonna need some help because we want to create a picture that looks more standard. So people don’t disagree. Of course, you also have folks like MS-13 who have very great critiques of mainstream capitalism and the road into violent, economically driven gang participation. I think it’s very different because you have an overlay of immigration law. And while the black and Latinx gang members that I talked to were predominantly US citizens, so the idea of the bridge was there, in the research with MS-13, the idea of a bridge was not there. What you see then sort of it goes off the rails. Instead of a traditional corporation, you get something a lot closer to Murder Inc.

William Saas: This is extremely compelling. I would like to hear a little bit about the reception of these ideas. You talk about these two different registers that the work operates on. There’s the kind of straightforward carrying out the logic of capitalism to its most absurd end and underscoring how violent and exclusionary the system already is. And then there’s the critique of like, “Or we could just do a job guarantee and health care for all, right?” So how has it been received? And how often do you feel like you get to that second order conclusion for audiences?

Lua Yuille: I guess it depends on the audience. I will say that with my conservative recommendations, there’s been experimentation along that way long before I even started studying this. Homeboy Industries was a private version of what I suggest. Richmond, California, which is right outside of Oakland, started as well. In my work, I have anticipated political backlash. I actually don’t say to pay them with cash. I say pay them in kind with the bridge to the traditional economy. That’s what Homeboy Industries does on a private level. But I openly talk about how you could pay them with cash as well, though people think there’s free rider problems and all sorts of neoclassical economic concerns. That’s why I don’t pursue talking about paying them with cash. But Richmond, California, right outside of Oakland, initiated a project several years ago that was paying gang members with cash. And it was relatively well received in the sense that people thought it was crazy. But if you’ve got the money to do it, why not try because this is a real problem that we’re having.

Another private organization, an English one, did something very similar to Homeboy Industries for gang members in Honduras. People have been trying the conservative version. When I look at populations of actual gang members, they are all for getting a job. “Gonna give me a good job? Sure, I’ll take it. All I have to do is refrain from X, Y, and Z. I don’t want to commit crimes. Like, don’t worry, I’m there.” In the world of action, there is some level of receptivity. In academia, it’s not well received, and politically, it’s pretty hard. And I’m still on the conservative version because people think you’re rewarding them for engaging in bad behavior. They’re like, “If you give gang members jobs, then people are gonna want to join gangs. It’s a perverse incentive.” Not one person that I talked to, and not one place did I read, did anyone ever say, “This was just such a good opportunity. I’m gonna get jumped in, and if I get stabbed, sometimes you gotta put it on the line so that you can get a job at Sprint.” I guess it’s T Mobile now. For me, it really reflects the dehumanization of gang members. Because they’re not stupid. The black kids and the Latinx kids who people think are going to be in these gangs, they’re not stupid.

Why would they go through what you wind up inevitably going through to join a gang in order to get what is in any event not going to be the corporate CEO of the next big company? It’s just going to be a safe job with job security. It’s not worth it. But that’s really what you hear all the time. You don’t want to reward them for holding their communities hostage. Politically, you get the same backlash, though in Oakland street level activism came together to get rid of the gang injunctions because they’re like, “You’ve put our community under constant distress, we don’t want them. We don’t care what you say, our boys will not be banished from our community. And if you want our community to be safer, provide us with radical solutions.” So once the communities get their voice heard, it’s the radical solutions. Though interestingly, when I talk to people who are subject to gang injunctions, they’re not asking for that. I don’t even think it’s fair to say that they are particularly impressed by the idea of much more systemic and broad options. But I think that that’s because they’re fully bought into the system and they’re on the outside.

And rather than saying, I am perfectly happy to never be inside that system, it’s sort of like, “But let me give it a go.” Because from the outside looking in, that one looks pretty good. And the kind of ideal world you’re talking about of job guarantees, universal health care, and universal access to education, doesn’t have any Elon Musk’s in it. Maybe Elon Musk is not a good example. But the uber-rich gilded mansion is a dream, just like it is for a proud boy, just like it is for someone in rural America, so too is it for a kid in South Central LA, for a kid in a tiny apartment in the Bronx. All of them believe that that’s on the table and they are really tied to a world in which it’s on the table. And the job guarantee and universal health care world takes that off the table. We don’t have good discourse around why we should do that anyway.

William Saas: We’ve been talking a lot about resiliency in different contexts and we’re going to shift to a very different one. It’s one that’s familiar to each of us and maybe especially familiar for you. You were interviewed in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently about the response of the Kansas Board of Regents to what appears to be a financial crisis. I don’t know how they’re classifying it. But they’re chipping away at or maybe have already moved on taking away tenure, or making it more possible to fire tenured professors in the Kansas system. And of course, tenure is a source of built resiliency into the profession of being an academic. It serves certain purposes, such as academic freedom, and all that sort of stuff has its own issues. But they’re chipping away at it under the aegis of austerity and financial responsibility on the system. You were interviewed and said that, basically, they’re barking up the wrong tree here, that firing people is not the way to relieve the financial pressure. You’ve suggested that the writer of that article did not account for what else you might have said? I wanted to invite you to say, if that’s not the answer, then what is the answer to the current financial situation in higher education and under COVID?

Lua Yuille: The answer to our current crisis of education, which is exacerbated but not caused by COVID, is to tear down the entire system. And just to be clear, I am a private, higher education person, in the sense that my undergrad and graduate degrees are from private schools. And so, I say this, in some ways, well aware of the danger that comes with it, but I think we need to tear it down. And I think we need to tear down the system, both for public education and for private education, because we can’t just tear down public education and leave standing the Columbia’s and Johns Hopkins’s, which I shout out because those are my schools. Though, obviously, it’s the Harvard’s that win the day in endowments. That being said, what do I mean by tearing it down? I mean that we need to understand and recreate how we fund what in the education space. And that funding, as problematic as it is, needs to look more clearly to what we see in a European model, where the origin of funding for higher education is the state. It’s not secret private dollars. Like I went to Johns Hopkins and Johns Hopkins has the most federal funding because they basically fund crazy bomb research that no one knows about. That’s not what I mean.

I mean there needs to be a full appreciation, that it’s not private industry that should be driving education. It is the social reproduction of society, and the creation and building of knowledge and new perspectives on how to solve age old problems. And that means owning that power that comes with being a monetary sovereign, and investing heavily in all kinds of education, not just what we do now. We care about STEM. And like right now all the universities are trying to hire black people because of George Floyd and black people get hired everywhere. But of course you’ve systematically excluded us from the space. There’s like five people who are getting called by all the universities in the nation to take these jobs. What do we need to do? We need to empower every single individual student. And I don’t want to make this sound like vouchers. But every individual student should come along with an allotment. It’s not based on where you’re from. It’s not based on anything other than we need funding.

This is what it would take to properly fund a university. Then, we stop competing over things like dorms. Then, we stop exploiting basketball players in hopes that winning basketball teams get donations. What is the small way to do that kind of action before you get the revolution that burns it all down and rebuild it in a way that makes sense? It is for folks like the Kansas Board of Regents, folks like any state public authority for institutions, to be doggedly communicating with the legislature so that the legislature, one, doesn’t cut, but so that the states come together and turn to the federal government, because as we all know, the state of Kansas doesn’t have any money. Right? The state of Montana doesn’t have any money. Iowa is talking about these 10 year suspensions. They don’t have any money. They’re not monetary sovereigns. They do have a pot that ends. But the federal government doesn’t. But until all of the states, and not just the proverbially blue ones who actually don’t do this either, are like, “Hey, federal government, would you like to give us some money for our schools,” you’re not going to get appropriations in that way.

I also think that it’s going to be really important–this is practical for what happens today–for those state regulators of higher education to actually value higher education. And to value it as a part of, again, the reproduction of society, which is totally economic but it’s not fiscal. It’s totally economic but it’s not always financial. It’s not about getting people to buy widgets in Kansas. It’s about having an educated populace in Kansas. Unfortunately, having an educated populace is not what any part of the government really cares about today. And this is not a red or blue, not a left or right, thing. I think that the world of politics is so fully captured that there’s no desire for people to actually know anything. And that is going to be the big problem. What is the tiny thing that should happen because none of this awesome stuff that I’m talking about is gonna happen? Unionization. And I have a really crazy, complicated relationship with unions. I shouldn’t call it a relationship. It’s an intellectual relationship, because I’ve never been in a union. But I came up intellectually in Europe, where unions are really strong. But I’m also a black person in America. And unions played a really nefarious role in the labor marginalization of black people. Because when unions were really powerful, they kept their power by ensuring that black people didn’t get in the cushy union jobs. That being said, my experiences in Europe around solidarity for labor are so strong that I’m like, “If the government doesn’t fight for you, you gotta fight for yourself. And what does that mean for faculty? Unionization.

Maxximilian Seijo: Well, Lua, this has been a fantastic conversation. And really, thank you so much for coming on Money on the Left.

Lua Yuille: This was fun. Thank you guys.

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

22 – Franciscan Fun Pack

Cohosts Will Beaman, Natalie Smith, & Maxximilian Seijo are joined by Ian from Twitter (@tweet_boxian) to visit America’s favorite socialist family, the Bruenigs. They begin with reflections on a New York Times piece by Elizabeth Bruenig on the need to forgive the recently canonized Franciscan friar Junipero Serra, who oversaw the torture, enslavement and murder of indigenous Americans in California during the 18th century. Next, they consider Matt Bruenig’s “Family Fun Pack” policy paper. They critique the paper’s exclusionary economic premises and natalist aesthetics, and suggest an alternative political economy based on public creation rather than zero sum redistribution.

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