Building Digital Commons with Cory Doctorow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Saas: We agree.

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

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

Digital Money Beyond Blockchain with Rohan Grey

The Money on the Left Editorial Collective presents a classic episode from our archives along with a previously unavailable transcript & graphic art. In this episode, we’re joined by Rohan Grey (@rohangrey), President of the Modern Money Network, Director of the National Jobs for All Coalition, Research Fellow at the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, and JSD student at Cornell Law school.

Our conversation is dedicated to Rohan’s current work on the political, economic, and cultural implications of money’s digital future.

Rohan’s report on digital fiat money: “The Case for Digital Legal Tender: The Macroeconomic Policy Implications of Digital Fiat Currency.”

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.

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

Maxximilian Seijo: Alright, so Rohan, you’ve always got multiple irons in the fire, but today we’ve invited you to speak with us about digital money, and specifically why it matters for the left. To get the ball rolling, can you sketch a picture of the current state of digital money for our listeners? What types of technologies are out there? Who are the major players in this world? What kinds of arguments are they making about the future? And what is politically, economically or even culturally at stake? In other words, why should the future of digital money be a central concern for leftist praxis?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, sure. The first thing to note is that there have been proposals for digital private money going back decades. I think David Chaum in the early 1980s was arguably one of the first to put together a technical proposal. There was a burst of energy around the idea in the early 1990s when the internet was first becoming big in a mainstream sense. It fizzled out for various reasons, some technical, some political, and some just based on decisions people made. It was revitalized after the 2008 crisis, in part, because of the crisis, and in part, because of a white paper by a pseudonymous author named Satoshi Nakamoto, who wrote a paper about this blockchain technology that was supposed to solve a technical issue in cryptography, called the “Byzantine Generals Problem” about how to maintain a consensus between non-trusting entities around a common ledger, or a common set of data. That paper led to Bitcoin and a surge of interest from technologists, investors, bankers, anarchists, and members of the public and media. 

So you had this software revolution. At the same time, you had this hardware revolution in the global south, in places like Kenya, because of the rise of cell phones, where suddenly you didn’t need a single bank or banking system to process all the transactions in the community. You could have every person essentially communicate with each other over the cellphone network and their phones would do the job of managing ledgers and processing. So if you had distributed mobile phone technology in the 1700s, perhaps you wouldn’t have seen the rise of private banks at all to do that kind of centralized or intermediary transaction processing. But because a lot of those countries in the global south didn’t have a particularly developed banking system, these mobile money technologies were able to fill the gap to an extent. So you had a hardware and software revolution going on in different places. And people started to take seriously the idea that digital money’s time has come.

A lot of people, of course, were just driven by profit motives and dollar signs in their eyes. Unfortunately, the capitalist movers are often the quickest off the bat when it comes to new technology. But if you think of the existing monetary and financial banking landscape as being shaped, in part, by the material structure and limits of the money technology itself–coins in one era, paper money in another era, and different forms of legal accounting, like double entry accounting and things–these technologies of money and finance shape the economic structure of the economy. And if you think about the way that digital technology worked, or communications technology, before we had the internet–we had phones, fax machines, paper pages, Morse code, cell phones, desktops, etc–now, you have this one general purpose computer in your pocket connected to a general purpose data network. All of these various functions are being done through this single, common general infrastructure. You can think of this moment in history as a moment where powers and different seemingly distinct monetary and financial processes are collapsing into mere variations of a single digital thing. That’s a pretty transformational moment in terms of technology of money.

Unfortunately, a lot of people working in this space have a poor understanding of money as a social, political, and legal phenomenon beyond the technical aspects of transactions and payments. They studied orthodox economics, Austrian economics, or are libertarians. As a result, a lot of their energy and attention has been misplaced. It’s that saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” So they thought that the theory of money was easy and it was just the theory of technology that was hard. Whereas, in reality, both are hard and you need to understand both. So you had technologists and cryptologists, who’d think of it as a technical problem, you had anarchists, who saw the importance of digital money as a way of preventing the surveillance and totalitarian control that the internet has a potential for. So if you think about governments shutting down banks or other things in Egypt, or Iran, or cutting off donations to WikiLeaks and things, eventually, governments and regulators stepped in. First of all, it was just about how you regulate this private activity, or how you allow private innovation, blah, blah, blah, how you set up regulatory sandboxes so people can experiment. But over time, and particularly in the last couple of years, there’s been a rise of a growing appreciation amongst policymakers and central bankers that public digital currency is as necessary as merely private ones.

It went from “This is a nice idea that’ll never happen,” going back to James Tobin and things decades ago, to, “Well, this might happen in the future but it’s a long way off,” to, “This is happening right now, what are we going to do about it?” The reason why it is relevant for leftists, to a big degree, is that, at the moment, this conversation is dominated by technocrats, by capitalists, by technologists who don’t necessarily have the best leftist politics, even if they consider themselves progressive. At the central banking level, these are people with degrees in macroeconomics or modeling statistics and math who are making pronouncements about the future of economic privacy and civil liberties. They’re not consulting the ACLU and they’re not consulting the public. They’re just making these decisions as a footnote in a paper that’s otherwise full of mathematical models. And so, you have debates over private currencies, private databases, private transactional platforms–that’s your Bitcoin blockchain world. You have debates over anonymous, censorship resistant, or central node resistant technology–that’s your crypto community. And then, you have people looking at things like central bank digital cash, central bank cryptocurrency, and things like that. That’s where my interest is mostly.

Because, I think that’s where you really need to be thinking about the politics of this in terms of global public policy implications. A lot of that conversation is over giving people the equivalent of a public bank account–an account at the central bank, a postal bank, or something like that of a public bank. I’m more interested in trying to create the digital equivalent of cash, because I think it’s important to be able to have transactions that can go ahead even without the pre-approval of some central regulator. Once the cash is in existence, like notes in your pocket, you and I can transact with those notes and the paper notes themselves are not going to call the police. The police can monitor your activity if they have a search warrant or something, or even if they don’t, but it’s not like the money itself is spying on you and reporting you to the cops. I think it’s important to have that kind of technology. I was actually at a conference at the St. Louis Fed a few weeks ago on cryptocurrencies and blockchain. I talked to a well respected economist there who wrote a paper on privacy, anonymity, and money, and he was talking about it in the context of avoiding scam marketers who follow you around after a purchase if they could see you making that purchase.

I said to him, “Surely, the whole totalitarian, fascist threat is a bigger issue.” And he said, “Well, yes, but that’s too big an issue for economists, because someone can always just make a big argument on the other side. So you have to find something small that people can grasp and start from there.” I found this to be both illuminating and depressing. So to go to the question about the stakes of the debate, or the contour lines of the debate, I think there’s a question of how much of this new technology or infrastructure is going to be perceived as a public good, or as a private market good. And within the private space, how much is going to be perceived as the domain of banking and finance–banking technology versus a financial extension of IT. So it’s about whether this is going to be Goldman Sachs and Citibank or it’s going to be Apple and Google. And then, within the public side, there’s a debate about whether this is exclusively just a technical upgrade to existing central banking operations, or whether it’s part of a broader digitalization of government finances in the vein of Estonia’s e-governance model. In terms of the technical, as I mentioned a second ago, there’s a debate over having accounts with an intermediary versus having what’s legally called a bearer instrument, where you own a digital wallet and any of the files in that wallet belong to you as a bearer.

And then, of course, from a leftist point of view, there’s the global, geopolitical and imperial considerations of these technologies. So you’re seeing Russia developing a CryptoRuble, Venezuela developing Petro that’s tied to the oil reserves in the country, the European Union talking about the need for a new global payment settlement system independent of the US dominated SWIFT system, because the US is using that control over the payment system to strong arm other countries into supporting its sanctions on Iran. In terms of why leftists should care, in addition to just the political stakes here, I think, firstly, we should never let a crisis go to waste. Digital technology is uprooting existing ways of doing things, which is creating new forms of instability. It’s changing power relations between different actors, empowering new kinds of workers, and new models of organizing. Things that were solid are melting into air, things that are fixed and frozen aren’t so much anymore. At the same time, there are new fracture lines emerging within private capital. Different actors are scrambling for dominance or beating each other to see who’s going to be at the top of the new mode of monetary technological production. And we can exploit those fracture lines, I think, to an extent.

Of course, all this is happening against the backdrop of the collapse and reorganization of global finance in the wake of 2008. If you think about the political moment in 1945, or the political moment in 1971, and the way that those decisions about the shape of international finance shaped global political economic dynamics for decades after, I think we’re in a moment like that. The last point on this is a more abstract idea, but I think of this as like the digitalization of certain kinds of analog politics. And what I mean about that is, if you think about the way that sound production works, there’s a difference between analog and digital sound recordings. Analog recordings record a smooth curve of different frequencies, whereas digital recordings have a series of slices of zeros and ones. Now, if you have it at a small enough scale, or a big enough scale, those digital sounds can sound very good and you can make extremely complicated shapes out of them. But, at the core of that technology, you’re moving from a smooth gradient to a zero or one binary. I think of that in terms of certain political questions today. It’s the kind of classic historical tension between freedom and privacy, on one hand, and some security and control, on the other.

For a lot of history, when it comes to money, there’s been an unsteady compromise where physical cash can be used to facilitate crime, tax avoidance, child pornography, rings, terrorism, etc. But on the other hand, it allows people to engage in transactions without needing the approval of their local banker or government, etc. And that’s been politically valuable. The way that we’ve maintained law and order in those situations is we put legal restrictions on top of the mining technology so it had search warrants, we put tracking devices on wads of cash, we try to monitor serial numbers when they come back to banks and put limits on undeclared interstate transportation of cash. At the same time, there were physical limits on cash itself. There’s only so many briefcases that you can carry, there’s only so many slabs of newly printed notes you can put in a plane hangar. There’s only certain things you can buy with cash versus other forms of money today. But now you can fast forward to a world where your digital wallet can hold a trillion dollars just as easily as it can hold ten dollars, and where all transactions don’t distinguish between cash, debit card, wire transfer, etc.

At the same time, it’s a world where any security compromise, any backdoor into that wallet of yours, means a total security compromise. The minute the NSA and all get to see everything, suddenly, all of those tensions, all of those 50% compromises, don’t really work so well. And you’re forced into a sharper dichotomy. Do we let private transactions exist and risk the permanent shift in favor of privacy against security and control? Or do we eliminate that entirely and have a world where all transactions are under the eye of the panopticon? Do we think the NSA and the Chinese Communist Party surveillance is a bigger risk than kiddie porn networks and the Taliban? To me, this is a socialism or barbarism moment, technologically speaking. And it’s an important moment that shouldn’t be decided without some leftist intervention.

Scott Ferguson: Thinking broadly, systemically, and politically, how would you say that your specifically legal MMT intervention really challenges the arguments and paradigms that are out there? What are you doing that’s challenging the field of digital money as it is? And more importantly, what kinds of collective transformations do you think this makes imaginable?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, so let me just give a little bit of background as to what I’m actually doing. I started off writing a research paper on mobile money that then put me in touch with some people at the USAID’s mobile money team. They put me in touch with a group of people who are working on a form of central bank digital cash technology, who are also quite involved with the United Nations telecom regulator agency called the ITU, the International Telecommunications Union. They read my white paper and when we met, they said, “Look, we’ve got the technology that we think works to do what you’re talking about,” which is, essentially, digital government cash. And once you have cash, you can create accounts on top. If you imagine a bank with a safety deposit box, you can put cash in the safety deposit box. And as long as that bank can be given permission to take cash out of your safety deposit box and put it into someone else’s, then even though the technology is cash, you can create the equivalent of accounts. So the cash technology is the fundamental layer as far as I see it. The bearer instrument technology, I should say.

So they said to me, ‘We’ve got the technology. We’ve done successful trials, but when we go to speak to central bankers, ironically, they get the technology but they’re concerned about the economic implications.” So they asked me to write a white paper for them on the economic implications, or macroeconomic implications, of digital fiat currency. From there, I got involved with the International Telecommunications Union. Now, I’m helping draft their regulatory standards for central bank digital currency, or government digital currency, around the world. The way law is important here is, first of all, I see a lot of MMT analysis as essentially, or implicitly, legally informed, which is one of the reasons why I was so drawn to it. Understanding money as a creature of public authority, and as something that manifests in legal design, as people like Christine Desan who you’ve had on this podcast earlier talked about, is important. So thinking about things legally is a good way of getting to the relevant technical layer of the system. Second of all, it allows you to cut through a lot of the theoretical bullshit that you’ve seen in economics.

Point to me the statute, point to me the accounting provisions, point to me the banking charter and the legal rules that limit what that bank can do, etc. It’s about being able to frame things in a language that isn’t just a subjective, economic language, but a language of law that still has ideological content to it and still has the potential for political disagreement. It’s a different kind of fight than if these conversations are taking place purely in the language of economics. You’ve got heterodox schools of thought and the orthodox schools. They can barely speak to each other. Whereas, when you go to law school, even if you have people who are extremely different politically, they can still walk into the same courtroom and engage in the same legal processes. And that kind of common language that’s tied directly to the empirical reality of how these institutions are working is valuable.

The other part of it is that legal structures can be designed in different ways to achieve similar outcomes. There’s a great historian of the common law–I forget his name–but he sort of said that the history of common law is that, if one idea doesn’t give you the outcome you want, then you just use another one. So if contract law doesn’t give you the outcome you want, then you use property law, tort law, or something else. And you can create the same phenomenon of say, a contract through the language of property with a slightly different window dressing. And so, by being able to separate the form from the substance, but also understanding how important the form is to the substance, it allows you to be pretty creative with the way that you design things, and the way that you redesign things to illuminate different aspects of the system, or to open up new possibilities and things.

So we’re going to do more work on that. I’m interested in helping social movements and things have their ideas being sufficiently granular and legally robust, even as I work on the inside with these policymakers and things. But ultimately, even when I was at the ITU conference that we helped organize at Cornell Tech a few months ago, one of the central bankers from Brazil, who is sort of the head of the Bank for International Settlements group that works on digital money–the Committee for Market Payment and Infrastructure (CPMI)–said, “Well, I’ve been working on developing a taxonomy of digital fiat currency, but I’m not a lawyer. It’s really great that we finally have a lawyer here who can help with this stuff.” Because, ultimately, this is going to be written into law. It’s gonna be written into policy documents and things. So at the end of the day, the lawyers are going to be called in eventually. We might as well get there pretty quickly.

William Saas: So your project, as we understand it, is to design a digital fiat currency system that radically restructures finance around public and environmental interests and severely contrasts, or in Keynes’s words, euthanizes the private rentier banking system. But before we get too deep into those weeds, would you mind giving our listeners a brief introduction to the present structure and perverse workings of the private, for-profit banking system?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, I mean, how much time do you have? My advisors at Cornell, where I’m doing my legal PhD at the moment, Robert Hockett and Saule Omarova, have written a very good piece that goes into this in a fair bit of detail called, “The Finance Franchise.” Essentially, their argument is that the commercial banking system, with all of these chartered banks, when they make loans, they don’t just take the money of people who’ve deposited money at that bank and lend that money out. You give me $100, I lend $50 to Billy, blah, blah, blah. Actually, what happens is they extend credit, and they get support from the central bank, which in turn is backed by the rest of the government. And in doing so, they’re creating new purchasing power and new forms of bank deposits that function with money and properties. So in that sense, they’re essentially engaging in fiscal activity. They’re extending the full faith and credit of the government to new forms of investment, new forms of spending, in ways that are, in theory, in accordance with a kind of public purpose, or a public-private partnership model. And you have a whole range of macroprudential regulations and microprudential regulations about the kinds of loans that banks should be able to issue and the purposes for those loans, etc.

Of course, once you go beyond the commercial banking layer, you also have the kind of broader shadow banking, or shadow money system, which, in part, relies on the commercial banking system, and, in part, relies on the ability to use collateral, including government Treasury securities or other forms of safe collateral, and turn that collateral into money through legal contractual arrangements called repurchase agreements with either dealers or the central bank. My friend, Daniella Gabor, has written a lot on the way that this creates this whole shadow money system underneath the regular public money and franchised commercial banking system. So both of those layers are what I would call franchise money, which is explicitly channeling the full faith and credit of the government, and these forms of shadow money, which are trying to give the impression through various forms of legal technology and business arrangements that they are as safe as, or somehow connected to or backed by, public money. You essentially have a world where, as Hyman Minsky said, “Anyone can create money, the challenge is to get it accepted.” And various forms of financial institutions have worked out various ways of getting their money, or their liabilities, accepted as money more broadly.

The last way I think it’s useful to think about the existing banking system is that, in many ways, it serves a social function as a payment system, both at the retail level–you and I do most of our transactions through a bank account, not through cash or not through any other financial platform–and also, at the wholesale level, where you have these large institutional investors with hundreds of billions of dollars in a pension fund, a hedge fund, or something, storing their money in very, very liquid forms of financial assets, like Treasury securities or money market fund shares that are supposed to function similar to a bank account. One of the reasons why they don’t just use bank accounts is because of the legal limits on deposit insurance. So I have a friend who was in the Treasury department at Goldman Sachs, the people responsible for keeping the cash flow alive at Goldman Sachs. And I said to him, “Most of the time you’re keeping your ‘cash’ in three month Treasury securities, or T-bills, right?” He said, “Yeah, of course. That’s what the money markets do. We keep our money in T-bills. When we talk about cash, we talk about T-bills.” And I said, “And you can’t keep it in a bank account, because you have limits on how safe that money is above a $250,000 cap. He said yes. I said, “If you didn’t have a cap, if there was unlimited deposit insurance, would you need to be doing all this stuff with T-bills?” He said, “No, we would just keep it all in a bank account.”

So the entire structure of the payment system is also a function of the way that we set up these rules for the banking system and money. To use that Minsky line again, “Anyone can create money, the challenge is to get it accepted,” if money is a credit instrument, then anyone that will accept a credit instrument of someone else as acceptable payment is engaging in a monetary activity. So you need to think of the payments infrastructure and the payments ecology as intrinsically connected to the monetary system, which means intrinsically connected to public finance, but also intrinsically connected to banking.

William Saas: So then, how can a new digital fiat currency transform money creation, finance, banking, and so on?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, so the first thing is I don’t think that the technology itself necessarily changes the underlying political potential to transform money creation, finance, etc. It was always there. What it does is change the balance of power and change the viability of certain strategies. So firstly, I think it simplifies and clarifies the way that the public financial and banking systems work. Just to give an example about that, right now, we finance government deficits by issuing Treasury securities, usually into a private market, or places like Canada have had the central bank buy that directly in the past. The private actors buy up these Treasury securities with money that central banks have injected into the banking system. And then, once those securities are held by those private actors, the central bank then intervenes, again, to buy up as many of those Treasury securities as it feels necessary to make sure that the overall supply of liquid reserves, or settlement balances, stays roughly the way it was before the whole process began. So even though what looks like governments are “borrowing” from private actors or private actors are “buying” government debt, really what’s happening is the central bank is monetizing or funding the government deficit indirectly through those private bond auction participants. As long as those bond auction participants know that they could turn around and sell those Treasury securities directly to the central bank the next day, or four to five minutes later for a profit, they’re always going to stand in the middle of that trade, because they get a free profit. 

So the creation of digital fiat currency allows us to revisit a conversation of why do we do it like that. Why don’t we just allow central governments to issue a currency, a digital version of a platinum coin or something, and finance the deficit directly like that. And if we want to create some other kind of instrument that functions the way that a Treasury security does in the financial markets for collateral purposes or anything else, we can do that as well. But we don’t have to keep the system the way it is right now. And we can be more clear about what these processes are actually doing today, even if they might have done something very different at the time that they were first instigated. So, of course, if you’re under a gold standard or a fixed exchange rate regime, then Treasury debt does serve a very different function to cash itself. Treasury debt is a claim on cash, which is backed by gold, but Treasury debt itself isn’t backed by gold. Whereas today, in the modern time, that distinction is largely non-existence. In addition to making the system more simple and more clear, it can also make explicit the underlying political claims or dynamics at play.

So as I was talking about before, as my advisors Bob and Saule talk about, if you think of banks as franchised entities of the sovereign, then every time a bank extends its own liabilities, creates new bank deposits when they make a loan, what the Bank of England calls “fountain pen money,” because the minute you approve a loan with your pen, the money comes into existence, there’s no reason for that instrument to look and function differently than the government money that’s been created. There’s no reason to have bank deposits and government money be two different kinds of instruments when bank deposits are backed by the government anyway. It’s sort of like, why have a private army wear its own uniform when it’s serving the sovereign, rather than just putting them in the same uniform that everyone else is wearing and be very clear about the fact that these actors are engaging under public authority. It’s useful if you want to give the impression that black water activities are not the government’s activities so that you can distance yourself from them optically, but my argument, I think, is that that’s not actually very useful for public policymaking or for the way that the public understands these systems.

The other thing is it allows you to go back to the very foundation of these structures. I was a classical musician before I went to law school, and if you’re studying to be a world level pianist or something and you go to a new, top level teacher after being a prodigy in a small town or something, often what happens in those situations is they break your technique down to its most basic elements and rebuild you. At that time, it feels very disruptive and violent. You sort of feel like you’re an infant again for a while. But the reason they do that is because you may have learned some bad technique along the way that needs to be excised before you can build the strongest foundation possible, which usually the world class teachers have. And so, when we have an existing financial system that in many ways is the product of generations of historical sediment–legal, political, and technical–what new forms of disruptive technology allow us to do is to break all of that down and rebuild it again without the weight of that history being the dominant, guiding light. The last thing that it can do, and this is actually, I would say, something slightly, technically new, so maybe I’m going against what I said earlier, is that it can separate out different functions that, until now, for some technical reasons, were very hard to separate out.

So if you imagine the 1860s, you have a bunch of national banks around the US–very limited digital technology at that point–and all of these banks are doing various forms of payment processing. Now, even if these national banks are extending the full faith and credit of the government, because their banknotes are backed by government securities or something, it would still be a lot more difficult for each of those banks to call up the mint in Washington DC and get them to send out coins or government paper notes every time they make a new loan. In that context, unless you wanted to deputize every single bank to be its own mint, it would be technically difficult to collapse the banking payments layer with the public payments layer. First, just because it’s physically a long way away. And that is something that digital technology has the potential to allow us to revisit.

Actually, if you go to the common law of bank deposits, it goes back to the 13 or 1400s. Benjamin Geva has got a great chapter in Money in the Western Legal Tradition by Wolfgang Ernst and David Fox on this topic. The law of deposits emerged because of the technical challenges with carrying large bags of gold on behalf of account holders, essentially. These gold money changers, or goldsmiths, would have different people’s bags of gold that they would take in a horse and cart or something. It was very difficult to keep track of them all. It was a lot easier, technically, at that point to have a general claim against the goldsmith, or the money transmitter, and then to let them pull all of those various funds into a single pot and carry that pot around. If you did really care about your money, if it was sentimentally valuable or was a certain kind of Spanish doubloon or something you wanted to keep, you would seal the bag. The sealed bags would be kept separate from the general funds that were being transported. And that was actually a point of divergence in the law. On one hand, the common funds became the law of deposits. Anyone that gave money to that money transmitter had a general contractual claim against them. If you had a sealed bag, you owned the stuff in the sealed bag. That was the law of bailment, or the law of debt.

Today, the law of bailment or debt plays a very small role in most financial intermediation. It’s primarily a law of deposits. But with the form of digital cash technology, you could have an intermediary, as I was saying before, essentially managing your wallet for you, or managing a safety deposit box equivalent for you, and it would be possible to resume or return to that other legal tradition of bailment where the individual retains ownership over the phones even as there was an intermediary managing their wallet. That allows us to separate out the payments processing aspects of banking from the credit creation, or credit extension, aspects. And it’s not that it couldn’t have been done beforehand in an analog world, but it becomes exponentially easier and more viable with the technology we have and are developing today.

Maximilian Seijo: To those ends, it’s interesting, we neochartalists typically insist upon money’s fundamentally centralized and public character in order to put pressure on hegemonic views that see money as a form of decentralized exchange. But importantly, and what you’ve been alluding to with your last comments, you stress that monetary design should always provision certain forms of relatively decentralized, or even private, money use. Can you explain why this is politically and socially important, and how it might work in terms of the digital technology that you’re describing?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, sure. I just want to start with a caveat or note here. One reason this is a challenging topic, or that it sounds a bit counterintuitive from a left point of view that I do talk about these things, is because a lot of leftists, myself included, are not necessarily naturally technologically adept, or technologically inclined. We criticize surveillance state politics and organise anti-corporate campaigns from platforms on Twitter, Facebook, and Gmail not because we necessarily think that’s good praxis, but because the technological hurdle of switching to other more free, or politically consistent forms of technology that align with our values, is difficult, unless you’re a coder or programmer. So we’ve been predisposed to downplay the risks and scope of technological politics. I think this is the way that Boots Riley talked about his recent movie, Sorry to Bother You. When you feel paralyzed by the inability to act, it’s easier just to pretend the problem isn’t as bad as it is and to learn to accept the problem is inevitable. And for a while, I was one of those people. If I’m not doing anything wrong, why do I care? Surely, the best that we can do is to just trust in this thing, these government systems, to do the best job for us. If everything’s gonna go to hell in a handbasket, there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing any of us can do about it other than just try as hard as we can.

But a law professor of mine at Columbia, Eben Moglen, who is a longtime technology and privacy advocate, said something that stuck with me. He said, “Privacy isn’t an individual or private thing. It’s a public, ecological issue. It doesn’t matter if you don’t give your social security number out to anybody. If they have every other person who was born in Boston that year, you’re just the other person left. You’re the other guy. So every time you send an email via Gmail, you’re not only placing yourself under surveillance, you’re placing everyone you send that email to under surveillance. So you can’t really leave privacy to a matter of individual, neoliberal politics of the self. It really needs to be considered a social and public phenomenon.” Two other things stuck with me. One was that the way historically–he’s a legal historian, by the way–totalitarian regimes and empires have typically fallen, is that the empire or the regime over exerts itself, either materially, in its attempts to control the populace, or more ideologically, in that eventually the people on the wall, they refuse to shoot the protesters or the people going over the wall.

But in a world of perfect technological surveillance, and of data mined dreams where the government knows you’re a political risk before you might know you’re going to be a political risk because of the way that you were browsing certain websites, or the way that your learning profile at the age of five matches the learning profile of other radicals or something, the cost of total surveillance and control drops dramatically. And then, when you have drones who won’t hesitate to shoot anyone who comes over the wall–they don’t have a conscience–suddenly, the biological or social circuit breakers against persistent totalitarianism don’t work as well anymore. So the last thing he said to me–it really got me, his family were Holocaust survivors–he said, “Next time they come for my family of Jews in Eastern Europe, they’re going to get every single one. Because they’ve got a list now of everybody. Everybody knows where they are at all times because they’re carrying a little computer in their pocket that sends a GPS signal directly to a central database that they can monitor and track.”

So that’s kind of when the gravity of the privacy issue hit me. And then, when I walked into these debates about cash, you have people like Ken Rogoff, who when he was not busy making spreadsheets that justified austerity for a generation, writing books called The Curse of Cash, because he says it facilitates crime and, most importantly for him, it makes it hard for central bankers to maintain the myth that monetary policy and interest rates can manage the entire economy on their own without any fiscal intervention. The classic monetary theory of the Zero Lower Bound is that you can’t drop interest rates below zero, or too much below zero, because everyone will just move their money into cash and store it under their mattress. Now, if we could get rid of cash, he dreams and salivates, then we could have negative interest rates, which would stimulate investment and we’ll never have a situation where we need to rely on fiscal policy, because interest rate management has run out. I’ve written about that in a paper called “Do Negative Interest Rates Live up to the Hype.” I think it’s actually incoherent on its own front, but either way, the central bankers who are desperate to preserve the relevance of themselves are willing to throw anonymous cash under the bus in that process.

And what we’re seeing is the central bankers behind closed doors are having debates about whether we really need privacy or anonymity in cash at all. And they’re mostly concluding that we don’t. This bank of Sweden is one of the few exceptions on that front. But as I said, these are not people who are trained in civil liberties or legal and political science. These are people who’ve got degrees in mostly mathematical modeling. To use their own favorite line, they’re just not technically qualified to comment on the privacy implications of what they’re talking about. And so, I think it’s really important that people who do care about these issues address them. On one hand, Sarah Jeong has talked about the idea of financial transactions as a form of free speech, or a form of political expression, because we’re leftist or materialist enough that we acknowledge that ideas have to have a material form in some way. So with campaign donations and other things, you can’t organize politically without resources. And if all resource transfers require the approval of a central regulator, then it’s gonna be very hard to do things that are potentially quite disruptive to that regulator. One person’s anti-terrorist law is another person’s anti-freedom fighter law.

In addition to political action, you also have things like socially stigmatized activities, like the war on drugs and sex work criminalization. There are fascist things like the Trump administration under Kris Kobach proposing to “fund” Trump’s wall by taxing cross border remittances of immigrant workers from Mexico who are coming up to work on farms and things, and to use control over those cross border payment networks to potentially disrupt what is currently about a $17 billion industry, which would be more than enough to pay for a chunk of the wall, or at least to force Mexico to come to the negotiating table on that. So transactional freedom has a lot of different dimensions of political freedom inherent or intertwined with it. And it’s not the same as being a right wing free speech advocate or saying we should allow corporations to funnel millions of dollars in dark money to political candidates, or to have people create dummy corporations in the Cayman Islands or something. There are going to be crude thinkers who are going to conflate those two different conceptions of monetary privacy as a form of free speech privacy, as a form of political privacy, but in my view, they’re fundamentally different. And it’s important that the left doesn’t abandon that issue to the right wing.

In terms of how I see this working technologically, I’m not an infosec guy, but the way that I think of this as a metaphor is, rather than transacting with other people digitally, rather than having an account where my money flows from my account to your account, what we are creating is a kind of common wallet network layer or protocol, kind of like the TCP/IP protocol, the internet, or the email protocol. Every time you and I want to transact, we take our wallet that has the equivalent of a digital version of a paper note, where, however much our wallet has, just has that number written in the corner of that note. So I’ve got a digital note worth $87.50, and you’ve got one worth $45 or something, and when we want to transact, we go to the wallet network. We say, “I’d like you to rip up my note and rip up this other note, and then give us two other notes back that are worth the same amount overall, but have different relative values.” What I mean by that is, if I have $50, and you have $10, and I want to give you $20 so we both have $30, it would be like we both go up in balaclavas to a robot and we say to that robot, “Destroy this $50 note, destroy this $10 note, and give us back two $30 notes.” The robot doesn’t need to know who we are, doesn’t need to know which one of us is giving the $50 and the $10, and it doesn’t even actually need to know that it’s $50 and $10 going into $30 and $30. Technically speaking, all it needs to know is that $50 plus $10 on one side equals $30 plus $30 on the other.

If you imagine an envelope, and it can weigh the two envelopes in its hand, as long as the two weigh the same amount, it doesn’t actually need to know how much is in there, it just needs to know they weigh exactly the same amount. So technically speaking, what you’re looking for here is a way for monetary transactions to take place between two entities where the transactional network is ensuring there’s no counterfeiting, there’s no double spending, and there’s not someone taking the same $10 bill and spending it in two places at once. But beyond that, the only people who know anything about the transaction are the two people transacting themselves. And that is, to me, the essence of what physical cash allows us to do today.

The government can still control how much cash is out there. You can still see what barcodes are on the notes when you try to deposit them in a bank or use them to pay taxes or something. But if you and I both happen to have some cash, and we want to meet somewhere in a public square, and we’re wearing a balaclava because it hasn’t been criminalized yet in that state, we can go do that and make a transaction like people do in the fish markets where they transact with these long robes and put their hands into each other’s robe so that nobody can see exactly how much transacting is going on, so that nobody else knows the prices people are paying. You could do that kind of anonymized transaction, technically. That’s the political goal that I’m working towards as a matter of privacy and economic freedom.

Maxximilian Seijo: What’s so brilliant about what you’ve done is you’ve taken the previously calcified relations of how people see abstract mediation or governance, like Kafka or even Foucault, where there’s a potential for the medium of itself to be viewed as inherently totalitarian, as inherently abridging freedoms of the actors who participate in it’s shadow. And what you’ve done is you’ve kind of proved and shown how one could design a system that’s inherently abstract, and mediates abstractly, but still preserves the freedom and privacy that formerly could only seem to be happening in supposedly real or immediate interactions.

Rohan Grey: Yeah, and I think the critical thing to note here, and this is why I’m involved in the MMT project more generally, is that this only works if you have an underlying theory of the public nature of money itself, right? We’re talking about cash as an instrument. But that doesn’t work unless there is actually cash circulating in the economy at a reasonable amount that people can have access to. So this is a sort of “microeconomic,” dare I say that word, kind of issue in the sense that it isn’t presupposing, one way or the other, how the money gets injected into the system, whose hands it ends up in, how much starts off in those hands, or what can it be used to purchase things, etc. Those are questions of politics and socialization. This is just pointing out that, at the point at which we have that foundation, transactional privacy is in itself a political and social good. This is something that, again, there are certain leftists who romanticize a sort of pre-industrial or pre-developed complex civilizational view of small towns or hunter gatherer societies where everything is based on kin relationships, or based on personal relationships, as the kind of vision for the future of optimal social interaction.

My view on that, which is probably influenced by being a city kid, is I think that’s quite oppressive in many ways. If you’re a weird, queer, alternative kid in a small town, and everybody knows your shit all the time, that’s extremely unpleasant. And for those kinds of people, the big city, however grinding and crushing it is from a kind of industrial point of view, from an identity point of view, is extremely liberating. That anonymity, that ability to walk outside and blend into a crowd, has a protective aspect to it, both from the local cop or lynch mob, but also from your own family. There’s a reason why in the US people go to college to find themselves. We don’t do that in Australia. And dare I say it, I don’t know how many people find themselves as much in Australia as a result of that. So yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And it’s critical to keep both layers in your head at the same time, even if they may feel like they’re in tension–between this inherently political nature of money and that inherently abstract way that it gets used in certain individualized interactions.

Scott Ferguson: Will you spell out for our listeners, then, the difference between this anonymous e-cash that’s connected to a digital fiat currency, and the vision of the future that is being spelled out by crypto enthusiasts and Bitcoin lovers?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, definitely. This is a critical point. And to be clear, I have a lot of respect for a lot of the motivations of people who are in that space. Not all of them, obviously. But a lot of people are there because they care about privacy, because they’re fundamentally anti-totalitarian and anti-fascist. I think a lot of them are victims of bad economics education, or simply are not yet sufficiently monetarily informed to realize, in many ways, they’re barking up the wrong tree. Because the legal view that I have is that economies and markets are ultimately legally constructed down to the base. You have to own property to sell it, you have to be able to have contracts that can be enforced for transactions to have some sort of enduring stability. And in that sense, the alternative to a government is a mafia that enforces black market transactions, or set of gangs and things, which is just another way of saying government but with slightly less accountability. And so, people who are trying to imagine money without the state, to me that is sort of like trying to imagine law without a form of public authority. It’s a sort of misnomer to me. So, on one hand, some of the technology that comes out of those attempts can be very useful and really adoptable in other public contexts that are valuable.

But my argument would be that it’s actually public cash backed by a democratic macroeconomic vision. That is the best way to preserve individual liberties, rather than trying to sidestep the state entirely on the money layer, even as you’re ultimately going to rely on the state to keep the property titles of the goods that you want to trade. There could be some anarchists and others out there in the Bitcoin space that would love a world where they hire private armies to defend their wallet from a house robber or something. But I think most people who think that we could have a “non-governmental money” as the dominant monetary regime do so without fully thinking about how the government’s still going to be all up in the rest of economic and commercial regulation anyway. And the MMT analysis that looks at money as public money, as starting as a tax credit, and that looks at forms of private money as contractual relationships, those things are inherently also tied to the enforcement of private commercial behavior. If you have a contractual dispute and the judge issues an order of damages, that’s a form of debt, that’s a form almost like an individualized tax. And I’ve said elsewhere, the story of taxes driving the value of public money that MMT talks about, you don’t even need a head tax or a land tax or something. You could even do it with just the threat of legal sanction. You drive down the street and there’s a risk that you hit someone with your car, and if you do so, they’ll sue you and you’ll have to pay them money and whatever the court says you have to pay that person gains a sort of public moneyness in whatever the legal tender is for the settlement of that dispute.

So I don’t think you can have an economy that isn’t grounded in public law. And as a result of that, I don’t think you can have money that serves the functions that the public monetary system does today that isn’t grounded in public law. And because a lot of these private actors don’t see that, they start from the wrong foundation and they end up not getting to where they think they’re going to get, which is why you see things like Matt Gaetz ultimately go under and have all these legal disputes. Or there is the famous case of the decentralized administrative organization that ended up suffering huge amounts of fraud and getting embroiled in legal conflicts and things. Mervyn King had a great line, the former Bank of England governor, that “Banks are global in life and national in death,” which is a way of saying, when the times are going good, cowboys like to think that they don’t need anybody else. And when the shit hits the fan, suddenly, they’re in need of a community again. So I’m not really interested in being a cowboy when it comes to this design stuff. I’m interested in starting from the community framework and moving from there.

William Saas: It seems like there are a lot of potential futures of money running in parallel to each other. I want to ask you, as we close up here, what do you think it’s going to take to realize the kind of transformation you are envisioning for the future of money that you’ve got in mind? Could you tell us a little bit about what the obstacles are as you see them and what we can and should be doing to overcome them? And maybe even what humanities scholars can do to help?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, I guess a global revolution is probably where I’d start.

William Saas: How’s next week for you?

Rohan Grey: I’m sort of being mildly facetious, but not really. I mean, the work that I do with the IT world right now is, in part, a defensive stock guard, in the sense that there’s no way in hell that the Chinese Communist Party, or even the NSA, is going to take the recommendations of the UN as the the end point of their own geopolitical decisions about how surveilled a currency should be. Other countries may: Sweden, and Canada may even. But imperial power certainly isn’t going to be considering that. That said, in the same way we think about the TCP/IP standards, if the technical standards can be kept open, that is to say, if the technical standards allow for a form of anonymous digital cash, and we build this global technical layer that is harmonized across different countries, even if the way that the Chinese Communist Party, or the US government, chooses to manifest that in their own jurisdictions by adding a surveilled layer on top, then as long as that underlying kernel or structure is able to be open there’s at least the possibility of it being undone in the future, or the global infrastructure is not being poisoned by those interests. So I don’t think that the UN is the space in which that political fight is going to be won. I think it might be the space in which we can keep that fight alive. I think this fight is only going to be won when social movements, leftists around the world, and others who care about freedom, totalitarian concerns, economic justice, and distributional and inequity issues, work together to put political pressure and bring attention to these issues.

And they’re going to be hard. It’s not going to be easy. Someone like Brett Scott, a friend of mine who’s written on the war on cash, he’s shouted the alarms as well as any. He is an excellent communicator. But it’s a hard one to bring to people’s attention. So we need to make sure that leftists, as they’re building their programs and vision of the future, that they have this as a layer of concern. That means connecting the economic justice folks with the technological justice folks. It means thinking about empire at the same time as we think about domestic justice, and thinking about technical and legal standards and design at the same time as we think about red blood politics and distributional questions. It also means not being blasé about the scope of this challenge. It’s worth remembering that, in the 1990s, public key encryption software, which is a complicated mathematical way of creating some of these large numbers as a resulted of the multiplication of other prime numbers that’s hard to break cryptographically and forms the basis of a lot of secure communications on the internet, was considered a form of military munitions. And the first person who shared an open source version of public key encryption software was charged with violating the Arms Export Control Act–a guy called Phil Zimmerman.

So I have some sympathy for people who claim that Satoshi Nakamoto is staying offline because he could have really pissed off some governments by starting this whole debate, or by kicking it up a notch. If we’re going to get close to something that’s really meaningfully challenging, in the total surveillance division of both the NSA and the Chinese Communist Party, it’s gonna piss some really powerful people off. We need to be ready for that fight. We need to have all of our allies ready to support us in that fight. I think academics can try to bring attention to this issue and to make sure that they don’t downplay it or consider it as someone else’s problem. This was what my professor at law school really beat into my head. This isn’t someone else’s problem. This isn’t something I have a right to dismiss simply because I’m not technologically sophisticated enough yet to really understand the whole thing. This is a matter of good praxis and good research, as with everything else–and everything else when it comes to understanding and learning our responsibilities as politically informed and engaged people.

Scott Ferguson: But what about culture and aesthetics and the kinds of things that we like to think about in the humanities? How does that figure into these questions you’re raising about the future of digital money?

Rohan Grey: Yeah, great question. One person whose ideas have influenced me a lot in recent years, in addition to MMT and other lawyers, is Viviana Zelizer, a sociologist at Princeton, who wrote a book a few decades back called The Social Meaning of Money. She talked about the way that people experience and use money independent of it’s cold, colorless, and functional economic purpose, and the way that they attach meaning to economic transactions in social ways. Think of the red envelopes of cash people in China send as gifts, or the way that mafioso people don’t like to put their criminal earned money in the collection plate when they go to church on Saturday and things like that, even though it doesn’t really make a difference whether you use the money that somebody gave you for your wedding to buy a gift, or you use that to buy groceries. There’s still something about the act, or the symbolism, of the money that people gave you at that moment. We attach social meanings to economic transactions, I think, because we’re social creatures, and we like to make meaning in otherwise day to day activities, like communal feasts, tea ceremonies, and things. I think this is intrinsic to the history of money.

Alla Semenova and Michael Hudson, MMT related monetary historians, have talked about the origins of money in Greece and near-Eastern civilizations in religious rituals and activities of temples and priests. There’s a ritualistic aspect even to the political nature of money. You can see that today with the key signing ceremonies for various forms of cryptocurrency, like Z-cash, or people who identify on Reddit and Twitter as HODL-ers–people holding crypto assets. And it’s also in the competing cultures that have built up around Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Dogecoin. It’s important to think about the aesthetic experience of using money when trying to change or influence social dynamics and money writ large. Bitcoin, in part, was successful because it’s a cool word. It was a cool concept. It was made cool. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and Corbyn made socialism cool again in a way. In part, because, obviously, there’s underlying structural reasons why people were primed to hear those ideas. But it matters, whether you’re the white-haired grumpy grandfather or the young, cool looking person from New York, in terms of the way that that message gets received. The Ecuadorians, in particular, who were some of the more farsighted policymakers in this space, learned this lesson the hard way. They introduced a government mobile phone-based central bank currency in 2014. But they limited it only to a narrow range of government transactions with a pretty unsexy government-developed mobile phone app. It didn’t really spark the imagination or engender trust. It didn’t really generate a particularly growing usage. And it was ultimately cancelled and is now considered a failure case, tragically.

By contrast, one of the groups the e-currency team that I’ve been consulting with works in the Philippines and is a commercial bank that’s working under one of these regulatory sandboxes with the central bank of the Philippines.They realized early on that they weren’t going to get widespread adoption of this digital currency technology unless they built a whole ecology. So they’ve gotten marketplaces and merchants involved from day one. They had this big kickoff event where they had everybody wearing t-shirts and made it like a whole festival day where people could come and go to a marketplace and buy and sell things. They put these promotional videos out, etc. And it’s a bit hokey, a bit market-y, and kind of gimmicky, but I think that’s ultimately part of the way that we need to think about this. And of course, the private sector guys know this intrinsically, because half of them are snake oil salesmen. And if you’re a snake oil salesman, the one thing you gotta do is make sure your snake oil is better than everyone else’s, or at least looks better than anyone else’s.

So we need to think about the aesthetic experience, as well as just the functional improvements that we’re offering. In addition to that, we need to have new stories and new cultures to fit this new monetary paradigm. If you think about the early cypherpunks, who were working on those anonymous cash ideas, as well as other forms of cryptography, in the 80s and 90s, they had their own movies, their own books, and they had their own chat rooms and things. I think that really gave them a sense of communal identity and a set of cultural references that facilitated their educational and political journeys and served as heuristics in many ways, or at least artifacts that carry significant depth of meaning in ways that just being explicit in communication wouldn’t. 

Just to give an example, my partner is part of this Facebook group called NUMTOT, New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens, which started as this joke group but now has about 100,000 members around the world–people who are enthusiastic about public transport. And they have this set of memes, inside jokes, and implicit expectations and understandings around the way that they talk and think about public transportation. And she was already an enthusiast, which is why she joined the group, but I think it’s fair to say that that space and that aesthetic and cultural experience really has further radicalized her and made her feel part of something bigger that wouldn’t have happened simply from logic and just having strong political values. I think the last element here is that we’re in a world driven by attention scarcity.

There’s so many sources of stimulus and information out there. There’s so many competing and serious political challenges and economic and social pathways that we can choose. Part of the challenge is working out where to put our attention. And that requires building a culture that brings in the kind of people that we want and need, educates them, respects their time, respects the rest of their life and fits in with it, rather than asks them to change. I think media and culture, particularly viral and mass media, has the potential to capture the public imagination at this moment and drive public debate and set the terms of the agenda in ways that dry technical statements, or even direct political statements, don’t do. And again, Boots Riley recently, I think, has probably done a better job with Sorry to Bother You in educating a whole segment of the population about labor struggles and union militancy than a thousand Marxist reading group sessions would have done. It’s brilliant art, in that sense.

On the dark side, I think Trump was pretty successful in dominating the national stage and captivating the media in a trainwreck style. He was transfixing in a brutal and violent way, as he acted a real life version of his fake real life persona on The Apprentice. In DC, rather than in a New York studio, but it was this fake life-real life version of a larger than life person that was so effective and enabled him to develop a huge following with very little payment of his own media spending in the campaign. And on the other side of the fence, art reifies existing myths and retrograde understandings about what money can be, and should serve as a site of critique and contestation, which I think you all have been doing excellently and I’m so excited about MMNHD as a project. Obviously, money, and particularly digital money, or maybe less so digital money, is a dryer topic than some other political topics like racism, sexism, or other things.

We should be trying to problematize and deconstruct portrayals of money in popular culture and in artistic artifacts and things in the same way as we deconstruct other problematic representations. There’s some pretty good analysis, for example, of how “The Dark Knight” Trilogy is a fascist trilogy. And there are other more basic examples, like the Bechdel test, which has done a good job bringing to light the subconscious oppression inherent in the way that we tell certain kinds of stories and media. And Max’s analysis of Inglourious Basterds, I think, is a paradigmatic example of how we can be moving that kind of effort ahead. But in order to do that, we definitely need a clear picture of what the political and legal and technical issues are when it comes to money, and what we actually mean and what we want when we talk about economic and monetary freedom and justice in the digital age. So that requires that deeper kind of technological, political, and ideological education as well as a merely artistic and cultural critique.

Scott Ferguson: Rohan Grey, this has been incredibly enlightening. Thank you so much for joining us.

Rohan Grey: Yeah, thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.

William Saas: Thanks, Rohan.

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

Kenya in the Digital Finance Revolution with Sibel Kusimba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the Money w/ Maren Poitras

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

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Remaking Radicalism with Dan Berger & Emily K. Hobson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Hobson: Thank you for having us.

Dan Berger: Thanks so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Ferguson: And I may be misreading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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)

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)

The Franciscan Invention of the New World with Julia McClure

Money on the Left is joined by Julia McClure, lecturer in Late Medieval & Early Modern Global History at the University of Glasgow. McClure’s 2017 book, The Franciscan Invention of the World, draws compelling and confounding conclusions about the role of the late Medieval Franciscans in shaping the modern capitalist and colonialist world. We talk with McClure about how these surprising but profound connections relate to the problematic construction of money in Western modernity as a kind of scarce and finite technology of alienation and privation.

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

Scott Ferguson: Julia McClure, welcome to Money on the Left.

Julia McClure: Thank you very much. It’s great to chat with you guys.

Scott Ferguson: So maybe to start, we can kind of take a step back. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your personal and professional background, and how you came to study the things that you do?

Julia McClure: Well, many thanks for having me on. It’s great that you were interested in the themes and ideas in my book, The Franciscan Invention of the New World. So I started out with a degree in history. I became interested in the Middle Ages as a kind of cache of concepts, perspectives, and value regimes that were distinct from those that were embedded in Eurocentric capitalist modernity. I was particularly interested in the way in which the meaning and boundaries of concepts that have normative definitions today, such as property, were actually debated and fought over during the Middle Ages. Theologians and scholars were actively debating questions like what constitutes a just society. They were consulted by rulers on questions, such as just war, and other very diverse questions. And now, while governments do consult academics today, and academics use their research to make policy recommendations, you can’t quite imagine a foreign secretary asking university academics to determine whether certain wars or trade deals are morally justifiable. So it seemed like an interesting time period to study. 

Now, I’ve had a wide range of scholarly interests from the medieval history of the Franciscan Order. Today, I’m more interested in indigenous agroecology movements, and the history of the Spanish Empire. But overall, my diverse interests have been, in some way, linked to the histories of poverty as a political project, as well as the historic pathways to inequality. Throughout all of this, I’ve been interested in global history, but I’ve maintained an interest in the indigenous history of Latin America. I’ve been interested in the way in which the intellectual history of political concepts, and so called cosmovisions, or different ways of seeing the world, have varied and been constructed in different ways at different times. This includes the ways in which the world should be ordered and the fact that there’s been different visions of this emanating from different societies.

As you know, I started in medieval history. This was mainly because I got interested in the socio-religious movement known as the Franciscan Order, which we’re going to talk about in just a moment. This wasn’t because I had a passionate desire to study medieval religious history, but rather because I got interested in the particular radical concept of poverty that they were experimenting with in the Middle Ages. In studying this, I came to find out that the Franciscans were also the first global religious order to emerge from Europe. This also led me to my interest that I follow today in global history. The Franciscans had a particular way of seeing the world. I did the PhD and the first book on the history of the Franciscan Order, but not long after finishing the PhD, I followed the Franciscans across the Atlantic myself and worked on that transatlantic history at the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History at Harvard, where I became more interested in the global history of capitalism. This was work that I managed to develop further at the European Institute in Florence, then at the Global History Center at Warwick. Now, I’m at the University of Glasgow. So I’ve worked on a number of different projects during these different positions, all linked in various ways to the global history of poverty.

I’ve just published a co-edited monograph on The Routledge Handbook of Poverty in the early modern world. I’m working on a second monograph at the moment, Empire of Poverty: the Moral Economy of the Spanish Empire. These different projects in a way have been inspired by the work that I did on Franciscan poverty, but have very much broadened out from there. The other thing I wanted to say about my biography is that I also got interested in the political implications of histories of poverty in today’s society, and I have established a poverty research network. I’ve got a grant in order to go and look at the different histories and politics and aesthetical representations of poverty in different places around the world in a project called “The Local Visions of Global Poverty,” holding workshops in the UK, Senegal, and other places–most recently, in Chiapas, Mexico, where I’ve been working with academics on various agro-ecological projects and also thinking about the Zapatista movement. So I have quite a diverse range of works, but in the end, they are all linked to this idea of the global history of poverty.

William Saas: So to transition into your research on Franciscan poverty, I think we should begin with some basic questions for our audience and for us. Who was St. Francis and who exactly are the Franciscans? When did they emerge? What did they believe and what drew you to study Franciscanism? And why in your review are the Franciscans so important for us in this contemporary moment as we rethink the emergence of the modern West?

Julia McClure: The Franciscans were a socio-religious movement that emerged, I would argue, in reaction to the emergence of money and markets in the 13th century. They were rhetorically rejecting money and markets, and in this way, could be thought of as the first anti-capitalists. Franciscan scholars, over the course of Franciscan history, have also contributed in many ways to the legitimation of capitalist economics within the framework of Christian ethics and other principles of finance. It’s a very complex history. That’s important because, since its origins in the 13th century, Franciscan history has been a very heterodox movement. There are different branches of the Franciscan Order. There have been spiritual branches, there have been more rigorous branches, and there have been more observant branches. Basically, across these different traditions, there are different kinds of iterations of the Franciscan movement. It’s very difficult to universalize what Franciscanism has stood for because many things have been debated throughout the course of Franciscan history, and subsequently, in the historiography.

The other point about the heterodoxies and contradictions of the order is that these tensions within the Franciscan Order began really with the origins of the order. It was established by Giovanni Bernardone, who was the guy that later became St. Francis. He was the son of a wealthy class merchant family in the Umbrian market town of Assisi. He was from a reasonably wealthy family and what’s significant is that he renounces his possessions and takes up a voluntary life of poverty. Now, again, the discussions about how this happens or what it meant are part of this Franciscan question and the hagiography of St. Francis. What’s important is that this act of renunciation is the renunciation not only of individual property but also of common property, which marks the Franciscans out as distinct against other mendicant orders. Mendicant orders are those that devote themselves to a life of voluntary poverty and are meant to be existing by begging, such as the Dominicans, yet the Dominicans have a form of common property. But the Franciscans were meant to also be abdicating from that notion of common property as well as individual property. Again, we’ll talk about that in just a moment.

But the point here is to note that St. Francis, the guy who’s founding this Franciscan Order, was from a wealthy family and became voluntarily poor. This is a distinction between religious poverty and real poverty. I think that this tension is significant in terms of understanding the ideology of poverty that’s at stake within the Franciscan Order, because it’s a play at poverty in many ways. They were intellectualizing experimentation with the legal implications of poverty that’s distinct from the economic condition of real poverty to a certain extent. So there were a number of radical implications when this Franciscan Order emerged. Something else that’s interesting to say about the early years of the emergence of the Franciscan Order in the 13th century is that they weren’t the first people to renounce possessions and to play at poverty as a way of critiquing the wealth of the church.

In fact, for example, the Valencian Order had wanted to live a life of voluntary poverty and been condemned as heretics by the church. What made the Franciscan Order unique in its history was that it tried to find a place for this socio-religious movement with an ideology of poverty within the framework of the Catholic Church by getting recognition as an order. This process of institutionalization meant that many of the radical implications of the early years of Franciscan poverty were attenuated through that process of institutionalization. A lot of the first debates were about the approval of the Franciscan rule, for example, and there’s lots of contentions about what that early rule was, but it had more radical claims about the meaning of poverty than that could be approved by the church. These compromises in the history of institutionalization and acceptance and avoidance of the charge of heresy are kind of what make the history of the Franciscan Order. As I said, these different debates lead to different branches and made the heterodoxy of the movement. Whenever you say, “Franciscanism represents this,” straight away, it gets ten people disagreeing with you, because it could represent a lot of different things. So that’s kind of how the Franciscan Order emerged.

Why I got interested in them is because of this claim that they had that the renunciation of all property was a form of radical freedom. At the time, that seemed like quite a radical claim. And there are different Franciscans that tried to articulate it in quite extreme ways. They wanted to be free from the trappings of property. It is interesting how they tried to normalize this, and it had implications for the lives of the real poor. The Franciscans, because they seemed very ascetic, closer to God, and had this real value within the spiritual society of late medieval Europe, attracted a lot of attention and support from the laity and quickly started to acquire wealth. This was at odds with the doctrine of poverty that was at the core of the institution of the Franciscan Order, but they had an arrangement in the early years that they could have a certain aspect of property, of things around them, because they didn’t actually own those things. So they kind of theorized a theory of use that was distinct from property. The minister general of the Franciscan Order, Bonaventure, set out a fourfold category of relationships to temporal goods that included ownership, possession, usufruct, and simple use, which was simplex usus

In 1279, this principle of simplex usus got taken up in the Exiit qui seminat and said that the papacy would own the things Franciscans used in a category of simple use of fact–simplex usus facti. And so, the Franciscan Order did become quite rich, but they could also say, “Well, we don’t actually own these things, the papacy owns them on our behalf.” Then, a whole kind of moral questioning about use comes in. Peter Olivi, for example, in the late 13th century, says, “Okay, this is a fine arrangement, but let’s remember that we also need to have poor use, that we need to use things in a minimalist way.” This is kind of a response to the arrangement of simplex usus facti in that, yes, they’re not owners, but they also need to remember to be poor users of things. I know that has significance in the context of the debates that you want to talk about, so we’ll probably come back to that.

What happens in the 14th century is that this arrangement is revoked. This affects the ways that the Franciscans claimed they were living in the world outside of the constraints of property, rights, and living according to a simple use of fact, which is a form of fas as well. The metaphor that they often used was to cross through somebody’s field to use something without having any stake of ownership in it–this is fas. This gets denied by the papacy, who say that people need to be the owners of the things that they use, especially if those things are destroyed through the use of them, and only an owner can have the right to destroy certain property that can’t be granted to another by virtue of a license. These are the debates that take place in the 14th century phase of the Franciscan poverty disputes, which characterize the history of the order. Now, just to bring this all together, I was interested in this because of the implications for theories of property. 

What I would argue is, coming out of this, property gets established as a paradigmatic right, in that there were these other ways of existing in the world that didn’t rely on property, but in the end, after the papacy revoked this particular arrangement of simple usus facti, it was important that you were the owner of things that you use, thereby establishing property. In fact, it also becomes heretical to claim that Christ owned nothing. Spiritual poverty based on an idea of how Christ was in the world becomes a form of heresy. The debates are particularly focused on whether Christ carried a purse. This bothered people for years, going back and forth asking whether Christ carried a purse. The Franciscans were particularly against money, but at the same time, the papacy says it becomes heretical to say that Christ didn’t carry a purse. So in my work, I wanted to think about the implications of all of this for the early history of colonialism. That resulted in the book, The Franciscan Invention of the New World.

Maxximilian Seijo: This movement of heresy and then synthesis back into the church relationships, as you’re suggesting, really is pivoting on the fulcrum of money. And so, perhaps we could dig into the relationships of poverty to money, as you mentioned, with this purse and within the specific disputes that the Catholic Church and the Franciscans had with one another? And maybe we can discuss some of the details of how these debates were resolved or weren’t, as well as some of the shapes of these crucial problems? Can you do that with just a little bit more attention to the monetary aspect?

Julia McClure: Sure. When the Franciscans emerge, they’re particularly opposed to money. They see it as a form of evil. In the sources that you have around the life of St. Francis, they’re always critiquing money in particular. He says that, if his brothers, the Franciscans, were to come across money, even accidentally, they should treat it as dust that is trampled underfoot, that anyone that holds money should be considered a deceptive brother, an apostate, a thief, and a robber. There’s a citation from the Assisi compilation, a collection of Franciscan sources, that regards any friar who touches money needs to be rebuked, reprimanded, and should be ordered to pick up the money with his mouth and put it in a pile of donkey’s manure. This association of money with all that’s bad with the world is in the early Franciscan texts. They do have this particular anxiety about money. In fact, in what I mentioned earlier about the distinction between the different rules of St. Francis, there was the Regula non bullata, which was the rule that wasn’t approved by the papal’s seal. In this, it said, “The devil wants to deceive those who value money or deem it more valuable than stones. Let us who’ve abandoned everything beware of losing the kingdom of heaven through something so low.”

That passage doesn’t make it to the Regula bullata, which is the rule with the papal seal. Although, the Franciscans are still told that they can’t touch money. This defines the history of the order in the early years alone, I would say, to a certain extent. In the article I mentioned earlier, “The Globalization of Franciscan Poverty” from the Journal of World History, I talk about some of the ways that anxiety travels with the Franciscans. There’s quite an interesting example of how they need money, but struggle to separate from it. At one point, they had the idea of spiritual friends, amicos spirituales, who would carry the money on the Franciscan’s behalf like an agent. There’s a story of William of Rubruck crossing Eurasia at the end of the 13th century–this is before Marco Polo–and traveling to China. He’s got spiritual friends carrying the money for him. In the text, it says, this spiritual friend needs to stay behind. They’re trying to explain to the people that they’re meeting that the spiritual friend can stay behind because they’ve got to carry the money since the Franciscans can’t carry it. This is a theatrical performance in a way.

You can follow these kinds of stories in the Franciscan texts, but of course, this also gets critiqued. A lot of the things that we can read about the Franciscan Order comes from the negative stereotyping you get within confessional discourses from the likes of the proto-Protestant thinker, John Wycliffe. He charged the Franciscans with hypocrisy, arguing that they are not allowed to touch money, but they get around this by wearing gloves or touching it with a stick. So the Franciscan Order became a wealthy order and they had these tensions at the start. Then, they tried to think about the separation in different ways. Now, the 14th century Franciscan poverty disputes are a critical moment for the Franciscan Order, where many of their claims to radical poverty are effectively renounced and denied by the papacy at the time. They revoked earlier arrangements and also made it heresy to say certain things about the Garden of Eden. The pope that is overseeing this Franciscan poverty dispute is Pope John XXII. He argues that Christ carried a purse and that the apostles had money. In one of the papal bulls, he says that, to have some things in poverty, with respect to ownership, doesn’t detract from the highest poverty. This is part of the Franciscan poverty dispute.

Now, to a certain extent, we can trace all of this. How much is it about money? For the Franciscans, it is about money. In terms of the implications, it’s really about property. There are many scholarly takes on whether Christ carried a purse. Inside that purse, yes, there are coins, but in a way, this is shorthand for ecclesiastic possessions. So it’s a broader theory of property and the legitimacy of church property. It’s not only about money. In fact, a lot of the attention has been focused on the implications for the history of property and rights. I would say the implications of the history of money has probably received less scholarly attention, which is something of interest. In relation to what people are thinking of as money, property, and wealth, the framework in the early modern period is more open in a way, because it’s harder to monetize on certain things that have value in other ways. This is the problem of taxation before monetization, you could say, as well.

This idea that the Franciscans had a disdain for money, but were also actors in the world that had relationships with money, continues into the Americas. Some of the documents I came across from looking at the early Franciscan missions whilst doing research in Mexico City in the Franciscan archive there is that they talk about how money, tribute, and other things as well, was given to them by the indigenous populations, not as a form of taxation for the missions, but as a form of charity as alms. The word that they use to describe this income stream that they’re using to fund their missions based on the wealth generated by the indigenous population is Limosnas, alms. It’s quite interesting to think about what they’re calling money, what they’re calling alms, and what other things have value. How much of this is about money and how much was other forms of value?

The other important thing to say, and this is one of the points that in the book I talk about as one of the paradoxes of Franciscan history, is that they also contribute to theories of money, capital, and finance. Peter Olivi, who was the Franciscan I mentioned previously and who was talking about the importance of use value, or the need to have a very poor use of things, also constructed ideas about a theory of just price. He’s thought of as one of the earliest theorists of the notion of capital. He uses the idea of a seed that increases in value. In Latin, this is rationes seminales. He makes a distinction between money that’s just simple money and capital, which he thinks of as fertile money. He’s thinking about what kinds of ways of making a profit from money could be legitimate. In this way, it’s thought that he could be one of the early theorists of capitalism. Although, one of the things that he says in his text is money might be permissible in trade where you might not necessarily know that you’re going to make a profit from the transaction. So it’s not usurous in the same way that usury was condemned in the Middle Ages.

He also says that when this happens, you should think about it in terms of consequences for a common good. It’s a complex text, but also of interest. On the one hand, yes, you can cherry pick these citations of the Franciscans being radically opposed to money, especially in the early spiritual texts. On the other hand, you’ve got Franciscan theorists who are really thinking about value and meaning in very deep ways throughout the Middle Ages. So it’s a complex picture. One final thing to say about in terms of what could be a Franciscan theory of money after the years of early radicalism that was radically opposed to it is that they do have a notion that wealth should circulate. That if there’s a profit coming back, it should be for a common good.

So in the early years, yes, they shouldn’t touch money and this is satirized in a number of ways by their critics. They do become a wealthy institution. Then, they are also very committed, as they develop their financial institutions, to charity. This wealth should circulate. The other thing that they do that’s quite interesting is effectively set up the first micro lending institutes. They’re called the Monte di Pietà. These emerge in Bologna at the end of the Middle Ages and they are basically lending to the poor. This is also not just an act of benevolent charity, but about undercutting Jewish lending practices, due to the anti-semitism within the Franciscan Order. But it’s interesting that they go from being very critical of money to then perhaps thinking about how money can be used in other ways as the order develops. But fundamentally, there’s this idea that wealth should be redistributed that doesn’t fully go away.

Scott Ferguson: Except not to Jews, right?

Julia McClure: Exactly. Again, in that article I keep mentioning, I talk about how they’re constructing a universal but unequal notion of a world unified by this unequal notion of poverty. And it’s particularly focused around this Christian society. And so, they want to convert people to Christianity and to be a model of salvation. On the one hand, they’re involved in the missionaries in Latin America and elsewhere, and on the other, they’re also engaged in anti-semitism in Europe in the Middle Ages. This is a schema for exclusion as well. It was not an inclusive charity–if charity is ever really inclusive in any way.

Maxximilian Seijo: So perhaps moving on from here to how this leads to questions of colonialism and how the Franciscan’s colonial project became a part of the roots, as you described them in your book, maybe you could walk us through some of this or describe how Christopher Columbus’s journeys were conditioned by Franciscanism?

Julia McClure: What happens is Christopher Columbus famously visits the Franciscan monastery of La Rábita on the Spanish-Atlantic coast. There’s this legend that Columbus visited this monastery and there he learned about the Americas from the Franciscans, who were these unique custodians of global knowledge because they were the first religious order to establish a global network. They were in China before Marco Polo. They had missionaries that had gone to the Indian Ocean, Russia, and all over. This knowledge of the global connections of the Franciscan Order form the basis of this legend that Columbus learned about the Americas from the Franciscans. It’s obviously nonsense. In fact, it turns out this legend itself might have its origins in Francoist ideology, because a lot of these books that were written about this had dedications to Franco at the start. I think this was about getting the Genoese out of the picture and getting the proper Spanish origins to this story into the picture.

Nonetheless, they accepted this legend. Columbus did go to this monastery. He wanted to leave his son there. And there’s different kinds of rumors about the different intellectual exchanges, what the Franciscans knew and so on, that are happening there. Columbus famously gets buried in a Franciscan habit. You could argue, if Columbus did play at the Franciscan identity, then this was part of a laundering of his reputation as a colonialist and the things he was getting up to in Hispaniola and so on. Because the Franciscans were penitential. That means that they were cleansing from sin. To behave like a Franciscan is to be able to cleanse yourself from sin. That’s the trade off of value for Columbus.

The Franciscans did become the first religious order to be established in the Americas. This is coming on the back of their legacy as the order that has the first global network. In the Americas, they tried to make their world vision a reality. They saw the discovery of the new world in a providential way. They fitted it within their particular eschatology, this idea of the end of the world and the apocalypse. They believed before this there was going to be an age of holy poverty, and that everyone needed to be converted and share in the holy poverty of the Franciscans in which they were unique leaders. And they wanted to have missionary spaces that they were in control of. And so, they established these missions and became the best linguists of colonialism, in that they were learning indigenous languages. They were catechizing, or teaching the religion in indigenous languages, like Nahuatl in Mesoamerica, but also other indigenous languages. In fact, scholars today studying indigenous languages still use these texts and grammars that the Franciscans created.

They also taught in Latin as well, which many of the conquistadores would not have known. The argument for this is they didn’t want the missions, which they used to construct this new world of holy poverty, to be corrupted by the greed of the conquistadores. That’s what their rhetoric was. It’s a real battle for control. You see this idea popping up across the Americas as people are trying to realize dreams and visions of different ways of organizing society through these projects of colonialism. That’s what I was talking about in the book in terms of the origins of why it was the Franciscans who were interested in going to the Americas and what they were doing when they got there. Their early role in colonialism, which I say throughout the book, is ambivalent, in that these missions could be sites of oppression.

There was this thing called the “Franciscan Terror,” where the violence of the conquistadores was so extreme that when the inquisition arrived in the Americas years later, the Amerindians were exempt. One of the arguments for this was, because the “Franciscan Terror” had been so extreme, they then had to exempt the Amerindians from further violence. On the other hand, they had projects working with the Amerindians at schools that they established. There is a famous one in Texcoco, which is just outside of Mexico City now. It wasn’t even originally part of Mexico City now that Mexico City’s expanded so much. In these workshops, they were working with indigenous scribes and creating these documents for the Florentine Codex, which was a monument for the preservation of Amerindian culture. It is an ambivalent history of colonialism.

William Saas: So part of what makes this story of the Franciscan Order over time that you’re telling so interesting to me–and I’ve been hung up on this image of the spiritual friend just holding bags of coin–is this emergence of paradox and contradiction, and then reconciliation and evolution over time. We’re talking now about their role in colonialism, but you’re talking about ambivalence and maybe you could say something about how they resolved their dedication to and service to your vision of themselves as defenders of the oppressed and poor with their participation in exploitation, violence, and destruction? I’d also like to talk a little bit about the spiritual friends maybe after we talk about reconciling this paradox.

Julia McClure: Yeah, I’ll just say two more things on this idea of the role of the Franciscan’s in conquest. Mendieta, who was the first Bishop of Mexico and one of the earliest Franciscans in the Americas, writes about the Conquistador, Hernán Cortéz, who after his conquest of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, welcomes the Franciscans. There were twelve of them in a kind of apostolic, eschatological symbol, and he welcomes them after the conquest and bows before them. This is meant to show the Amerindians the value of Franciscan poverty at the moment of their conquest by the Spanish. A moment of conquest by the Spanish is a moment of conversion to the Franciscan value of poverty. There’s lots of ambivalence in terms of the Franciscan meaning and understanding of poverty in the Americas. I mentioned this issue before about how they were meant to subsist by begging or how an urban landscape would facilitate their ability to subsist by begging, which of course, was challenged in the Americas. They would need to appropriate the means for subsistence like a Conquistador as a colonial act, but then they might justify it as the sharing of charity amongst spiritual friends with this shared notion of poverty.

Of course, this notion of poverty was the product of a particular intellectual history of late medieval Europe and was not shared by the Amerindians they were conquering. This is a culture clash typical of colonialism. The other thing that was significant in terms of this confrontation is that the Franciscans–I’ve described them elsewhere as the first hipsters–were performing poverty. They were often walking around, for example, barefoot even though they were from wealthy families and could afford shoes. This barefoot act in particular was a symbol of their poverty. I’ve written about other things associated with this aesthetics of poverty. When they arrived in the Americas, they met the Amerindians–people who were scarcely clad, often without shoes, having as they saw it, minimalist diets. They got out povertied. There’s a tension in the writings about the Amerindians. This fuels their eschatological vision that they need to share this holy poverty and convert the real poverty of the Amerindians to their holy poverty. Then, for them, this will be the pathway to the final age before the coming of Christ. It is a very messianic vision of the world, as you’d expect.

There’s also descriptions of them sometimes mimicking acts of the Amerindians that they see as closer to a more poor way of life. Going back to those ideas about use that was the preoccupation of Peter Olivi in the late 13th century, yes, you can have this, but you should not use it, you should only use what you need. So there’s a lot of mimicking the Amerindians in certain places of the mission. This meaning of poverty and how it’s represented is debated and played with in these early missions. I can’t remember the rest of the question that you asked me, unfortunately. 

William Saas: Oh no, I think you answered the original question. I’m really glad that you offer the analogy with hipsters, because I’ve been, regarding the spiritual friends, trying to put together my own historical analogy between the spiritual friends who are charged with holding the money and keeping the Franciscans clean and free from corruption, and the modern austerity theater, or performance of poverty, that happens institutionally in a country like the United States that is sovereign in its own currency. We identify social needs, but rather than answer those immediately with public provisioning of money, we go to our own spiritual friends at the Congressional Budget Office and say, “Is this okay? What moral and political consequences will this have for us if we do this?” I am wondering, in terms of the spiritual friends, and this is a bit of a detour but we’re circling back in a way, what was their social status or standing? Did they have any kind of accounting role? Were they overseers of the coin that they held? Is this historical analogy that I’m trying to draw completely reckless?

Julia McClure: Not to avoid the question completely, but this idea of the laundering of ethical issues of late stage capitalism, I don’t think would make the analogy with the Franciscan spiritual friends. But I had a project last week with the Tax Justice Network and we were looking at the role that philanthropy, charitable institutions, and tax breaks have done in the name of anti-poverty legislation. Wealth accumulates in charitable institutions. This idea of the spiritual friend is a particular historical moment in the 13th century, and then it falls away. When they’re in the Americans, you don’t have this kind of continued performance of a spiritual friend. But there’s still a separation of the money that they own and what it’s for, but that’s because it’s invested in charitable institutions. These charitable institutions, I argue, in the monograph that I’m writing now, Empire of Poverty: the Moral Economy of the Spanish Empire, constitute the institutional landscape of the empire. These institutions are where that money’s being held. This point about how comparable Franciscanism is in relation to today’s austerity, I have an answer to that question, but it comes later. With regards to the spiritual friends, it is a performative and experimental thing that doesn’t really outlive the 13th century as far as I’m aware. A lot of these things fall away when certain aspects of Franciscan claims get revoked, if that makes sense. If they no longer can say that they own those things, then that becomes less of a theoretical burden.

Scott Ferguson: I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit about the kinds of theological, political, and juridical justifications that the early modern Franciscans used to make sense of and essentially hasten and excuse colonialism and colonial subjugation in relationship to these matters of poverty and charity. And then, something you don’t talk about in your book, but we’ve discussed between the two of us, can you discuss any related explanations that are also mobilized to give justification to chattel slavery?

Julia McClure: I know I’ve started every sentence here with, “Well, it’s ambivalent,” and there’s different roles and interpretations of the Franciscans, but with regards to the justification of colonialism, members of the Franciscan orders definitely had two different impacts, let’s say. One would be in conjunction with other mendicants, especially Dominicans like Francisco de Vitoria, or perhaps more like Montesinos, in denouncing the colonialism of the conquistadores. Throughout the history of colonization, the post-colonial period, and the crimes of neoliberalism in Latin America, you get mendicant orders who are denouncing abuses of power, violence, and making claims about the rights of indigenous peoples. That’s a strong part of the role that the Franciscans have played historically from the 16th century and continued, one might argue, into the theology liberation movement in the 20th century.

I’ve got a chapter called, “The Darker Side of Rights: the Ambivalent Case of Franciscan Poverty,” in a book called, Rights at the Margins, that has just come out. And this is similar to arguments that have been made by others, in that when you make certain claims about rights and legitimacy and justify colonial conquest, you’re effectively whitewashing empire and providing a framework for legitimizing that empire via the discourse of rights and law, which are not necessarily protecting people from abuses. So that’s one thing. They’re defenders, but then that’s also not necessarily having the desired effects if their desired effect is to protect the proper rights of indigenous peoples.

The second thing, which I think is the thing that you’re more interested in, is that, coming from the Franciscan tradition, there is an idea that suffering is a pathway to salvation. This is one of the things we’re going to come back to discussing with regards to whether or not this an origin for austerity economics. I have an answer, I think, on this question. But this idea of suffering for salvation is interesting, because they’re rhetorically rejecting the violence of the conquistadores. They have these missions, which have their own form of colonization, of course, because they are engaging with the europeanisation through christianization of indigenous people. This is epistemicide, which is the destruction of ideas and cultures of indigenous peoples, as well as the manipulation and oppression of indigenous bodies and appropriation of labor and other forms of resources. All this happens within the space of missions. But I think there’s something else that’s interesting that goes on, which is about this discussion of poverty and what it means to be poor. Within the Franciscan tradition, there’s always been this idea that to abdicate from possessions is a better position to be in. You can be closer to God, effectively. If you’re already materially poor, that doesn’t mean that you’re spiritually poor, but you might get there faster than somebody that has got to give up their possessions first.

When they see the Amerindians, there’s an ascetic branch of the order that sees the subjugation of the body as a source of freedom. Before I make the quotation from him, Angelo of Clareno gets called a heretic for being too radical during the medieval periods. But he argues, “He, who frees himself from earthly desires from the bottom up, who wants to be free from the body, and wants by means and punishments and torture to cross over to Christ, who bore the suffering and the death of the cross for us when we were the enemies of God and servants of sin mostly meriting eternal death.” And so, this Christian paradox that suffering is the pathway to salvation is particularly strong in the Franciscan tradition. Within the Franciscan’s ideology of poverty was a particular idea about obedience and humility. It’s the idea that not only should you get rid of your things, but also that you should get rid of your will to want things, and that actually, you should get rid of your will to power for complete powerlessness. Nobody should want to be a leader because that’s a will to power. To be a true Franciscan, you wouldn’t want that to be a spiritual condition. You can see where this is going. Some of the more radical asceticism gets condemned as heresy with the burning of four spiritual Franciscans at the start of the 14th century, but you have, nonetheless, ascetic branches of the order that remained.

But also the ideas about humility and obedience remain as important values. I think that the idea that suffering is virtuous, that to be without is virtuous, and that obedience is virtuous, are all there in terms of a framework for justifying colonial subjectivity. On the one hand, there is a denunciation in the Franciscan’s intellectual contribution to the history of law and rights, but also in looking at the religious history of the Franciscans about this suffering and salvation, which is not unique to the Franciscans, but part of the Christian paradox and ideas about humility and powerlessness. Coming back to this idea about money, they also saw labor as virtuous. And so, to labor without monetary reward, was also virtuous. Again, in terms of what their contribution could be to coloniality and colonial subjectivity, yes, they are vocal critics of the enslavement of the Amerindians, but in terms of other forms of oppression, such as to labor without pay and be obedient, that’s also seen to be something virtuous.

Within the sources of our Franciscan history, they are also playing creatively with the language of slavery. They denounced the conquistadores as slaves because they’re slaves to the sin of corruption and greed, whereas they see the Amerindians as more free because of their poverty. So there are ways in which they’re denouncing slavery, but also perhaps finding ways in which subjugation is virtuous because it’s a form of complete humility. There’s a biography of St. Benedict who was born to the parents of people who had been enslaved in Africa. He was born in Sicily in the 16th century. The hagiographical story of St. Benedict goes that he was so pious that he gained his emancipation. Then, after emancipation, he voluntarily chose to re-enslave himself by joining the Franciscan Order, which is a voluntary renunciation of possessions and a voluntary selection of a pathway of humility and obedience and abdication of possessions. He has a quite crazy hagiography. He dies and is buried near a Franciscan monastery. They exhume the body, later for reasons that are unclear, and it looks like the body’s uncorrupted. This is one of the classic miracle stories. The relics get taken on parade to Madrid.

Lope de Vega writes a play about this black saint who had been a Franciscan, who actually was sainted later. He wrote, “To be black, to be humble, and to be a saint, were closely connected.” Then, what happened in the 16th and 17th centuries, is that the Franciscans were also supporting the emergence of daughter institutions, let’s call them, that were confraternities amongst all people across the Americas. And those that were founded by predominantly black communities, with people who were enslaved and free, often had this saint as their patron saint of the confraternity. That’s where there’s a whole history of slavery, and what role they played in justifying it, ties up, because they’re thinking about voluntary acceptance of a form of enslavement, denial of will and possessions, as a righteous way of being. I think that there’s something important to this in terms of what’s given value within a broader framework of colonialism. So in addition to colonial subjectivity, there is something to say about slavery.

Maxximilian Seijo: To this composite theological vision you’re playing out and describing, without taking too clean of a knife to compose a narrative, there is something to, and ultimately why I think we’re really taken by this history, this construal of money as the source of all evil, as this material thing that you can’t touch, and this affirmation of enslavement as a relationality to the structure of thinking about austerity as, ultimately, you need to take austerity on the chin, because it will be good for a moralized argument–and not wanting to spend too much by risk of moral hazard. I think we see links, at least analogously, not to imply this as a direct causality, to the structures of thinking that are at work in this tradition of thought.

Julia McClure: I have a comment on whether Franciscanism is connected to the origins of austerity. Should I answer it now?

William Saas: We’re ready.

Julia McClure: I’ve written about this in different parts to a certain extent. The idea that one needs to suffer to be saved and that there’s a pathway to salvation is part of the legitimation of the narrative of the program of austerity. I think we see this not only in the state programs of austerity, but also especially in programs of international development and the role that institutions like the IMF play. Joseph Stiglitz writes about this in his critique of all these processes of globalization and its discontents and the way in which poorer countries are, via austerity, made to suffer in order to be saved. On the one hand, you can say, well, this has a genealogy in the Western tradition via Franciscanism. And in the history of suffering as a pathway to salvation, one could say that it’s in the background to the history of austerity.

But I think that it’s important to remember that there have been different ideologies of poverty, and not only the Franciscan one. Poverty has always been a political and cultural construct, as well as an economic condition, and one that changes over time. And the origins of ideologies of poverty, such as with austerity and its role in the history of capitalism, have continuously been part of historic debates. I was thinking about how these have been particularly confessionalized in the past Catholic versus Protestant debates. This, to a certain extent, can be traced to Max Weber, who famously identified Protestant parsimony as the spirit of capitalism rather than the Franciscan disdain for mammonism, although work has been done more recently by Giacomo Todeschini on the Catholic origins of capitalism. So there is a confessional debate about the origins of austerity within capitalism.

But I think that it’s important to note that there are different historical genealogies of poverty as a political project. The poverty politics of austerity is against the lives of people with the aim of economic growth, again, coming back to this idea of what’s value for, how do you justify it, and what’s action for. In the case of austerity, the ultimate endgame is economic growth. If this kills a few people along the way, and people do die as a result of austerity politics and the poverty it causes, then that does not seem to be so problematic to the protagonists of neoliberal austerity. And this is not an apology of Franciscanism. I’m going to flesh it out a little bit more in a moment. But one could argue that Franciscan poverty was orientated towards sufficiency, the idea of reduced consumption, and the purpose of the common good and ecological survival

You could see Franciscan poverty as more of a precursor for post-growth and degrowth economics than the politics of austerity, which is more against life in favor of economic growth. I think that austerity is a big problem and that it’s been a tool of late stage capitalism to both impoverish and oppress the poor. And poverty under austerity has a particular aesthetics. It’s constructed as a form of alterity, which is a stigmatized identity. The way to avoid that aesthetics of poverty is by the increased consumption of commodities. That’s why I think that the genealogy is slightly different to that of Franciscan poverty politics. This idea that you need to suffer to be saved, which is part of the austerity program of governments and international development, has resonance with the Franciscan doctrine of poverty, including its asceticism, its aesthetics, and it’s theories of eschatology of what’s necessary to do now and to change the future, but nonetheless, historically, they have two distinct genealogies.

Actually, I was thinking about this in relation to my current book project, which is on the 16th century and poverty politics in the creation of the imperial state of the Iberian world. This is important because, in looking at these different distinct genealogies, it points towards the need to look at more granular conceptions of politics and their particular protagonists in different contexts. I think the concept of austerity is the product of a liberal state formation. Karl Polyani traced the emergence of poverty as a subject of political economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since then, poverty has been central to the political projects of liberalism, and later neoliberalism. In my work that I’ve done since the Franciscans, I’ve been tracing this birth of poverty as a political subject distinct from the Franciscan tradition to the 16th century. What’s interesting there is that you have the emergence of states that are thinking about poverty and making distinctions about the deserving and undeserving poor, the rationing of resources of what should be distributed in ways that benefit state formation, and that are also criminalizing poverty, which again, is part of austerity. You have this means testing of the poor, the creation of poverty, and then also the criminalization of poverty.

There’s also been interesting work done on the way in which that gets racialized as well. In the 16th century, the mendicant orders were actually questioning the new poverty politics emerging within the new iterations of states. With the poor laws that came out of the Iberian world and into the Elizabethan laws–although the Franciscans, of course, would not have been critics in Elizabethan England because they were Catholics and wouldn’t have been allowed in–but in the Iberian world and the Catholic world, these mendicants were opposing the poor laws that emerged in the Habsburg Empire, and the ways in which they oppressed the freedoms of the poor, especially their freedoms of movement. So I’d argue that as modern states developed, they didn’t coopt the poverty politics of the Franciscan Order. Often, the mendicants were in opposition to the ways in which states treated the poor. We can see this in the history of the emergence of the liberation of theology movement in the 20th century. We started with this point that the need to suffer to be saved resonates with austerity, but then perhaps, there’s these two different genealogies.

Scott Ferguson: Thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Julia McClure: Great, thanks for having me on.

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

Historicizing the Neoliberal Blockbuster (Preview)

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

For access to the full video lecture, subscribe to our Patreon here:

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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)

Money as a Constitutional Project with Christine Desan

The Money on the Left Editorial Collective presents a classic episode from our archives along with a previously unavailable transcript & graphic art. In this episode, we are joined by Christine Desan, Leo Goettlieb professor of law at Harvard Law School to discuss her excellent book, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism. Desan argues that money is a constitutional project, countering the dubious “commodity” theory common to contemporary economic and legal orthodoxies. Desan develops her constitutional theory of money through rigorous historical examinations of money’s evolution, from medieval Anglo-Saxon communities to early-modern England to the American Revolution and beyond.

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.

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Scott Ferguson: Christine Desan, welcome to Money on the Left.

Christine Desan: Thank you.

Scott Ferguson: It’s great to have you here. Can you tell us about your scholarly training and intellectual influences? Do you situate your work within a particular school or tradition within legal studies?

Christine Desan: I think I do situate my work within a particular school. I’m probably most closely affiliated with critical legal studies (CLS). For me, that affiliation began when I was in law school. I took a course called “Death of the Law,” which was taught by Owen Fiss and Tony Kronman at Yale Law School. It explored the difference between liberal approaches to law and the critiques of liberalism that were developing in the late 1980s. The seminar was formative for me because, on the one hand, Fiss and Kronman were deeply invested in the liberal project that was a rights based defense of progressive social change–and I was sympathetic to that project. At the same time, the critiques that they wanted to understand were more persuasive to me. Those critiques were mainly based in critical legal studies, and to a lesser extent, in some allied approaches, such as the normative work of Robert Cover.

The CLS critiques really evoked for me an older influence, which was social theory and cultural anthropology. I had studied that work as an undergraduate when I majored in religion and sociology of religion. I would say, going way back to that moment when everyone was taking the cultural turn in the earlier 1980s, I was thinking through that work, which was itself critical. This is work that taught us the complexity of reason and knowledge–the kind of layered nature of those conclusions and practices, or the way they depend on different strata of learning, contexts, assumptions, and experiences. Later in law school, when I stumbled into this course, it seemed to me that critical legal approaches were in some ways developing those earlier insights and applying them in the legal field. So that set of approaches was very influential for me.

Later, I started doing historical work. When I did historical work, I found the early institutional historians of the 20th century really fascinating. I thought their work was very important. This was a set of historians whose work in many ways had been set aside in the late 20th century as people were more interested in, and following themselves, the cultural turn–they we’re doing cultural and social history. I was finding that with earlier progressives, people like Beard and later people like Jackson Turner Main and Jack Green, who were fascinated by the importance of institutions and the way practices within institutions changed, their work illuminated power structures in a way that I wanted to understand. The institutional histories of the 20th century became a place for me to learn and explore power structures. People in the 80s and 90s were also doing a lot of interesting work about ideological history. And so, for me, the practice of authority within governance structures became a focal point. I wanted to be able to use both institutional and ideological histories to understand this practice of authority.

William Saas: Thank you. I wanted to ask, given the narrative of your intellectual history and the fact that you sort of arrive at an interest in authority structures and the role of institutions, it’s not so surprising that you end up at money. But it probably is a little bit surprising, I’m guessing. Was it a straight line from that interest in institutions to money, or what brought you to the question of money?

Christine Desan: It was not at all a straight line. I think I spent a lot of my life avoiding money. That is to say, I spent a lot of my life–and I think I’m not alone in this, I’m in very good company–avoiding the economy. I was someone who really thought that the economy and commercial matters were not as important as other human drivers of experience and existence. I was more interested in other aspects and was kind of emphatically avoiding economic and monetary matters. In some ways, I think, this is a disciplinary instinct. Many of us went to law school or went to history graduate school in order to avoid going into economics, or going into some other field that was focused on commerce, trade, or finance. In the early work that I did, I remember skipping the references to money. I was doing historical work on early colonial legislatures. There, I kept tripping over these references to money. And like many historians and legal scholars, I kept skipping them because it seemed like a technical detour, and one that I didn’t really understand. I also didn’t completely appreciate that they were spending so much time arguing over this technical detour, so I kept skipping it.

Belatedly, I came to the recognition that legislators, commentators, and lay people who are arguing over power and authority and making claims–all of the things I talked about when we try to understand how law works–they were always talking about money. Money was all over the records that I was looking at. I realized I had to confront and face it and that, in fact, it would be the way into the market for me. When I spoke about property and how critical scholars want to understand property not as a kind of one off concept that you either have control of or you don’t, but as some kind of complicated, negotiated phenomenon, I wanted to do the same thing with the market as a whole. Instead of assuming that it was just a natural entity or something that was somehow clear, universal, and rational, I wanted to understand it. After having avoided money for several years, I realized that money was actually the way into the market. If I could understand the way money worked, then I would basically be understanding the medium for the market. It seemed to me that maybe money was the institution that would allow me to understand the market as a legal project and to take a critical approach to the market itself.

William Saas: Was there one moment, text, or set of ideas you encountered that really made it most clear to you, or was it more of a gradual realization?

Christine Desan: Yeah, there was an arresting moment. I did all this work about early America while avoiding money but immersing myself in the discourse and the way people were speaking about governance. Then, about a year later, I started looking at the famous late 18th century debates between Hamilton and Madison. Here, I realized that the whole discourse of governance had changed, or was changing, and was dramatically different from the way that people had been talking 100 years later. The grounds of their debate and the change was monetary. The way that people were talking about the market was dramatically different. That was the moment where it struck me that I had to understand what money was as an institution. I really desperately wanted to understand what had changed and why the debate was so different between the early and late 18th century. And just to get to the punch line, it turned out that they were basically debating, in my view, the transition to capitalism. Hamilton and Madison were right on the cusp of a new approach to money and the monetary as a mode of governing. By contrast, their peers in the early part of the century had been talking about money in a completely different way. They’d been working towards a different form of governance around money–that is, money as this medium was creating for them a different kind of governance experience than it would be for Madison and Hamilton. So it was very arresting seeing the difference in the character of their discussions about money.

William Saas: While it was arresting, how did it feel, given the common experience of a lot of people having studiously avoided money for so long, coming to the realization that, “Oh, no, this might be the key to what I want to do?” How did that feel and what was the next step that got you doing what you wanted to be doing?

Christine Desan: It’s such a great question. It felt like falling into a black hole. It felt really scary. It was frightening because I really did not understand their debate. And I understood that I didn’t understand their debate. It has been a series of black holes ever since. I spent probably four or five years trying to understand the early American transformation. After that time, I thought, I really can’t understand what money is. And so, it was another cliff that I fell off and I went even further back to try to understand what money was in the English experience. I really felt like I couldn’t understand what the colonists were actually doing. I wanted to understand where they got their ideas from. I had figured out some things about money and had more reference points. I had a compass by then, which was a little bit of a comfort, but the compass was taking me further back. So yeah, there were a series of cliffs that I fell off. But, on the other hand, I was so fascinated and became more and more convinced that these were extremely important debates and that people like me had been ignoring them for years. At the same time, other people who I wanted to understand, like Madison, Hamilton, and their predecessors, had not been avoiding them. They’d actually been focusing on monetary matters.

Just to leap forward, I think that’s also part of a historical transition. I think we’ve learned to ignore money and that that’s an important part of our current modernity. We’ve learned to ignore how it actually operates. We worry about it, we obsess over it as a thing, but we don’t try to get inside of it and understand it. Whereas, in earlier generations, people did actually try to manage, understand, recreate, and reimagine money more than we do. So all those people who had been immersing themselves in money and money creation, they were kind of an invitation to me. In trying to understand money, they were at least an inspiration that I should try to retrace their steps and figure out what they were arguing about.

Maximilian Seijo: So let’s dig into it. In your book, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism, you do just that. You argue that the 17th century sees a revolution in money’s design that obscures its underlying social structures, or institutional and constitutional power. I am wondering if you could sketch that history for our listeners and explain why it’s so important to discern?

Christine Desan: Yeah, so the book really does try to tell the story of this great transformation. It argues, basically, that money can be designed in different ways, that communities have designed it in different ways, and that politics and social life change with those changes in design. In a nutshell, at the end of the 17th century, and in the 18th century, the British improvised a series of changes in the way their money worked that put private investors in charge of money design and that change had huge ramifications. On the one hand, it broke through old constraints on the amount of money in circulation. At the same time, it elevated the rights of creditors in new ways. And that really restructured governance and the economy.

Just to dive in and clarify why we could understand this as lawyers and historians, money, it turns out, really is a contract. It’s a kind of credit contract. And contracts for credit, for things owed, can be made in different ways. The reason money can be designed in different ways is that you can make an agreement to pay in different ways and with different conditions and characteristics. And changing that kind of monetary contract is what communities do when they’re redesigning money. To get really specific, what the book does is take a trip back in time to understand early kinds of money as a contract and then compare them to the new modern design. The early design, the design that’s kind of iconic and that we all think we understand, is commodity money, or the silver penny. I thought I really needed to understand what the silver penny is because, according to economists, it’s just a thing. It’s a slug of metal that has value because it’s silver. Intuitively, that seems so appealing, but we’ve not asked whether that’s really what a coin is. In fact, when I dove into it, it turns out that is not the way coin works. The fact that it contains silver was only one of its characteristics and not the one that made it operate particularly as money. Maybe I should just tell a story about how silver pennies got going. This story, I hope, will make it clear about how money operates, and then we can play with the story and make it modern.

The old story goes something like this: there are communities in which everyone’s contributing. That’s how they survive as communities. We have labor that everyone contributes to the center and, let’s say, everyone gives a day of labor every month. At a certain point, the community faces some kind of emergency where they can’t just rely on the routine contributions of the ten or so people who happen to be on call that day. Instead, they have to enlist more people to work that day to repair a dam that breaks or repel enemy invaders. And so, they enlist all those people. When the enemy’s repulsed or the emergency is over, the stakeholders for the community give those people who worked early before their time of contribution, who contributed their labor before it was actually due, a token or an IOU. This token or IOU says that we recognize the next time we come around asking for your contribution, you’ve actually contributed early and you can just give back this token. It will represent your contribution and we will accept it as such. That kind of IOU is now a unit that holds value that everyone recognizes, which is the value of the tax contribution given early. One more twist makes it money, which is if the stakeholder will accept that token back from anyone, then the people who contributed their labor early can use it and trade with each other. It represents a certain amount of value, which is the tax contribution. Everyone is willing to take it because they can use it themselves to pay off their taxes.

This story, which I’ve told before, and for people who’ve read the book, they’ll recognize it as the stakeholder story, explains money as an IOU given from the center to people who have contributed their own labor early. And they’ll also see that, if you have these kinds of tokens and you allow them to travel between individuals, then people can use the token as a medium of exchange. In the medieval world, pennies functioned in that way. The question then becomes, why would you make this token or IOU out of silver? It turns out there were many reasons. In a primitive and sort of rough world where there’s not a lot of administrative capacity, to make money out of silver was durable. You don’t have to worry about it falling apart while people are holding it, which is something that would make the people who had contributed early very unhappy if you gave them a token that then fell apart, such as one made out of wood. It was also hard to counterfeit. For people who had the silver, it wasn’t easy to refine or to mint, and only the authorities at the center who could control the mints might have that capacity in order to control the number of tokens out there. And finally, you actually had created a token that contained collateral. People had something with value that they could trust more than they might if you just gave them a written promise.

When we actually think about how money came about, or the incentives for a public to make money and for people to hold and pass around money, we sort of flip the story of the penny. Instead of the penny existing because it is silver, we have silver acting as collateral for a money that actually comes about first for a kind of credit agreement with people. If you think about that kind of money design, it makes sense of many things, like the control of medieval sovereigns of the mint and their claim over money. It also makes sense of conditions of the market. The market was a difficult and not very liquid place in which money was hard to come by because silver was hard to come by. We can also understand other things. For example, and this book tells this story at more length, the mints had this very interesting capacity in which they’d actually charge people for money. The king of the sovereigns could set up a system in which they are actually taking silver for people and creating coin for them. You could, in other words, buy money at the mint for all the kinds of exchange you wanted. You could buy coin for private purposes as well as buy the kind of coin you needed to pay your tax obligation, because increasingly kings were going to tax in coin and not in kind or in labor.

We could talk more if you’re interested about this old world kind of money, but the point is that it was a very carefully structured system of political obligation in which sovereigns had converted in kind political obligation into tokens that were made in a material that was durable and hard to counterfeit and provided people with collateral, and even allowed them to buy more money at the mint for their own private use. It was a very interesting, sophisticated system. I’ll add one other thing: sovereigns also supported this system by enforcing deals made in money insofar as they agreed with those deals. Common law, or the law of contract, property, and torts, were forms of public enforcement made in money. The early English common law only enforced contracts that were monetary. The early Roman law enforced contracts that were monetary. So you could pay off a debt only in coin–not in silver. An interesting part of this is that sovereigns are actually writing their own systems for law and order into their agreement to enforce obligations for people. I could go on about that, but it’s worth noting that the law we think of as kind of existing on its own terms is actually written in the enforcement of money. So as money penetrates society, that is the channel that sovereigns are using to determine which things they’re going to enforce and therefore write their own system of order into the social world.

Maxximilian Seijo: This is such an interesting story because in your book, you then tell the story of how the public institutional construction of money gets reinvented in a way that eschews its public origins towards private commerce origins. I am wondering if you could talk about the specific moment in which that reinvention happens and how it skews production in favor of the profit motive as opposed to broader public social processes?

Christine Desan: This is the critical moment, in fact, and now that we have an example of the way money works as a contract, we can see that it could be made of anything. We’ve talked about why societies in early worlds might make it out of silver, but really there’s no reason that money would have to be made out of silver. Many different communities have made money out of many different materials, as you know, such as with shells, paper, wooden sticks, and all sorts of things. What the English do, as one of these series of experiments, is decide to make money out of the promises of investors. The catalyst for this new monetary adventure is war. In the 1690s, the British were fighting against the French, as they often were in those days, and the government was very short on funds. The silver currency was going through one of its usual periods of disarray. Often, silver coin, which seems so stable to us, is actually a really hard medium to keep in circulation because it wears down and people begin to hoard or export it. And so, the British were experiencing all these problems in their silver money supply at the end of the 17th century for various reasons.

Then, the British government decides to experiment. It agrees with a set of wealthy investors to take their promises. It invites them to lend to the government 1.5 million pounds and it will pay it back over a long period of time. The kicker or innovation is that the government agrees to take the 1.5 million pounds from the investors in written promises to pay–in banknotes. And those banknotes promised the bearer silver. So instead of the government needing to have silver, the wealthy investors would have the silver. They make the contract, the bankers hand over the 1.5 million pounds, mostly in banknotes, the government spends the banknotes, and then at some point in the next years, it starts taking back the banknotes in taxes. If you think about it, the government really has to take back the banknotes because it spent them. It has to stand behind them and recognize them as valuable just as it paid people. It will accept the written promises of the bank back in taxes, but once the government does that, it has set up the same kind of credit issue and credit redemption that it set up with the very first tokens, and in turn, with coin. It has set up a loop of credit in which it’s issuing a unit de facto and taking back a unit. In other words, it’s created money without using silver or gold.

The striking thing here is it’s not clear the British understood exactly what they were doing. People had theorized different bits and pieces of it. But what’s not clear is if they realized that if they set up such a system, then nobody really needed to cash the banknotes, because the banknotes held as much value as the government would give for them as long as the government was taxing, was a serious, viable government, and people had to pay their taxes in something. They might as well pay it in paper as in silver. There was no need to go to the bank to cash the money. So this is an amazing moment where we see this innovation, which is de facto the government creating credit money out of paper through the intermediary of a group of investors in a way that will liberate the government to spend much more paper into circulation than the amount of silver coin that is in existence. The other thing that’s striking about this moment is that there’s no reason you actually need the investors in the middle of the relationship between the government, its taxpayers, and its citizens. In fact, at the same time that the government is borrowing from the Bank of England, it’s also experimenting with just direct issue bills, where it spends English money into circulation and taxes it back. With both of these things, whether you spend the government’s promises into circulation and tax them back, or you spend the bank’s promises into circulation and tax them back, the government’s basically supporting and creating money that depends on its own credit loop.

Yet, the system that takes off, for many different reasons, is the bank structured system, perhaps in part because the government finds it useful to assimilate and channel the legitimacy of the investors who nevertheless are holding a silver reserve, and perhaps also because the investors are a politically powerful group who find this to be a really lucrative profit making opportunity. And so, over the 18th century, the English basically started developing this relationship with this group of investors who are the Bank of England. The Bank of England is the first really robust national bank that issues what becomes the everyday currency, although it takes a long time. At first, there are only large denomination bills, but over time, the Bank of England will be issuing the money that becomes the English paper sterling. And there are many governance changes we could talk about that are wrapped up in this innovation. For example, the government is for the first time delegating its public power, or its sovereign monopoly over money creation, to investors who will make decisions about when to issue money. Those investors will also have the incentive to police taxation, so they’ll be pressing the government to tax in a disciplined way in order to get repaid. It’s the bank investors who will now profit from this funding technique that allows them to issue many paper promises on a much smaller silver reserve. Anyway, what we’ve done is see that the government, working with wealthy investors, have created an intermediary, a set of creditors, who will now intermediate the relationship between the government and taxpayers.

Scott Ferguson: In your book, you triangulate this revolution in money’s design, this story of political economy, between, on the one hand, an emerging liberal philosophy by the likes of John Locke, probably Newton, and others, and on the other hand, with a specifically legal story centered around this case of mixed money. I am wondering if you could talk about those two poles of this story?

Christine Desan: John Locke’s intervention into this moment of experimentation exposes in a really valuable way the changing philosophical bases of money, the market, and the economy. That is to say, he shows us how the old way of making money and the new way of making money are based on and perpetuate very different ways of thinking about the market and the economy. To leap to John Locke in particular, what he articulates and captures about the new method is that it’s based on the notion that individuals determining their own profit will be, in his view, the best agents for the economy and are the way to understand the economy. That is, we should understand the economy as an aggregation of individuals acting for their own profit. The reason that he comes to encapsulate this view is that he understands money–when you go back and look at his work–as something that people all converge upon for their own interests. Let me just connect that to the new monetary form and then we could talk more about Locke and the specifics about the way he tells the story.

Now, if you think about the new institutions, the device that is supposed to run, this new money making machine, is based on an individual incentive to profit. In particular, the investors have the incentive to lend to the government for their own profit. By calculating the amount that they’ll benefit, they’ll determine how much to lend to the government. So instead of thinking about money as something that is a public medium which the sovereign is controlling, we’re now thinking about money as a medium in which the device that’s calibrating the supply will be the incentive of investors to create money when it’s beneficial to them. This is a very unusual way of thinking about money, or thinking about individual profit, because, as you know, in the medieval world, usury, or making money for profit and making profit on money, was considered a vice and a sin. Greed was a sin. It was the office of the church that tried to suppress human motivation for greed and self serving profit. 

By contrast, and what seems to me so important in terms of understanding the governance aspects of this, what the British are doing is they’re institutionalizing the motive for profit and individual self interest at the heart of a public project, which is money making, and they’re understanding that incentive as therefore beneficent. Instead of identifying self interest and the drive to self interest as a sin or as a problem, they’re identifying it as a benefit. You can also see this in the era more generally. Another kind of monetary move that they make that’s very closely related to this is they’re creating circulating public debt. They’re convincing people to lend to the government for their own profit. And so, they begin to issue public bonds. And the way public bonds work is that anyone who lends to the government will be creating a public good, because they’re lending to the government, but they’ll also be doing that for their own profit, because they’ll get interest on the public bond. Now, that’s before sovereigns had borrowed from big financiers, but they hadn’t tried to popularize the incentive to act for your own interest. And they hadn’t identified that as something that would actually be beneficial to the public. So they’re kind of identifying public good and self interest.

This is all to get back to Locke, which is to say, he understands self interest and the drive to individual profit as something that can be beneficent and can act as a driver in the aggregate of good things. That’s how he understands money in the economy. It’s a way of thinking about the market as private decision making that, when practiced collectively, will lead to good outcomes. And part of what’s fascinating to me is that this new theory about the way the market works really emanates from these institutional experiments as well as other influences that allowed us to get to the institutional experiments in the first place. But the institutions, if you see what I’m saying, are actually creating practices that invite theories that really change the way we think about profit or change the way that early modern thinkers considered profit and greed. It rehabilitates them, if you will, or habilitates them for the first time. By contrast, in the earlier world where we had commodity money circulating, there’s no group of private individuals who have a controlling interest and whose interests are themselves driving the system. Instead, we have the sovereign and public officials tasked with making determinations that are for the good of the whole.

I don’t want to idealize or romanticize the medieval world. It is not a democratic, populist order by any means. But the way people are understanding the sovereign’s role is that the sovereign should act, maybe for religious reasons in terms of divine right, for the good of his realm and the people in it. That produces a different way of thinking about money and the market. You asked about the case of mixed money, that’s a case in which the decision makers in the court faced and articulated this different kind of theory. In particular, what happens in worlds with coin is that sometimes you have to expand the money supply either because money has worn out and it needs to be re-minted or because there’s some kind of, in this case, military demand and sovereign’s want to greatly expand the money supply. My point is that the way you recalibrated a money supply that was metal was by changing the amount of metal in the coin. Usually, that meant debasing it, or diminishing the amount of silver in the coin, either to get all coins to be backed with a certain amount of silver in them, or because you wanted to create more coin to pay for military expenses. And while we might not think military expenses are in the public interest, and certainly many of them aren’t, in the medieval world, the question that often arose was: could a sovereign expand the money supply or change the amount of money and coin for what they consider the public good, such as the defense of the kingdom?

Well, Queen Elizabeth had done that. She debased the money supply to put down a rebellion in Ireland. This is part of the oppression of the Irish by the English. And so, the question that came up to the British court was: was that exercise by the sovereign, that refiguring of the money supply, something within the power of the sovereign? Despite the harmful ends of military action, the court confronts the issue of public power over the money supply and confirms it by emphasizing the need for the sovereign to protect the realm, to protect the money supply, and to be able to manage the money supply and create additional money when it was necessary to defend the people. What the court does in the case of mixed money is elaborate a theory of money that understands money as a contract between the people and sovereign for the public good that has to be managed in the public’s interest. And you might disagree with the ends here of the use of money, but there’s nothing in the decision about individual profit and that understands the market as an aggregate of people acting in their own self interest. Instead, it’s a decision that understands the market, the economy, and the use of money as completely for public ends and within the control of the public–in this case, the sovereign–not in the control of private individuals or creditors. So the contrast between that way of thinking about money and 100 years later, or Locke’s way of thinking about money, is really dramatic.

William Saas: Now, a critical listener might hear this story about money’s revolution in terms of these experiments, this improvisation, and then Locke’s intervention, and hear the words profit and self interest and sort of come to understand them as baked into the cake of the modern money form. And then, they may conclude that, yes, modern money is critical to capitalism, it’s somehow not redeemable, and we can’t go back to that moment where it’s serving the public. To what extent do you think that self interest remains sort of at the center of the story? And do you think that there are other encouraging ways to think about what modern money is and how it works, not just based on self interest?

Christine Desan: I think that self interest remains baked into the cake in important ways and that is not the same thing as saying we need to leave the cake that way, to play with that metaphor. Let me give one example of the way it’s baked into the cake and then maybe we’ll figure out if we would want to redo or rethink the recipe. One thing we haven’t talked about that seems important to add here is that every community I’ve looked at that makes money, they’re all different. Each time that I see money, what I see are communities creating different ways to issue credit and take it back in–sometimes through these investors and sometimes in other ways. In each case the community does that, the people who are engaging in everyday exchange want more money than the government makes for its own purposes. One thing to take away from understanding the stakeholder story is that the public is doing this for its own reasons, such as to mobilize an army in the case of Elizabeth, to build a road in a more beneficent world, or to create a welfare system in another world. The government’s working to create a medium for reasons that are publically oriented. In each of these worlds, people want to exchange with each other, but there’s not always a correlation between the amount of money that should be in circulation from the government and the amount that people want for their own uses. And so, in each of these communities, people are looking for and are working with public authorities to amplify the money supply.

In the old world, we already talked about the way they amplified the money supply, which is the mint would sell people more coin than was needed to pay your taxes, would sell people coin for silver, and people would go buy it at the mint in order to be able to make exchanges with pennies. The reason I mention this is to get to the baked into the cake point. In the new world, and that is to say once we had the Bank of England creating a money supply at the center for the government, there were a whole set of other modern banks. There were banks in the medieval world that were run by and in response to merchants that facilitated merchant trade and cleared accounts between merchants. Modern banks, however, don’t act that way. Modern banks came along sometime after the Bank of England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Joint stock banks and country banks set up shop using a model that was very much like the Bank of England’s model. In some ways, they’re echoing the logic of the Bank of England. And they would, and still do today, just as the Bank of England took promises from the government and issued promises, take long term promises from individuals and then issue notes against them, atomizing the agreement by individuals to pay back eventually. If that is a long term promise by a person, then these commercial banks would issue little notes to the people who were borrowers allowing them to use those banknotes to go off, do their projects, and pay back the bank eventually.

What I’m saying is that these commercial banks are amplifying the high powered money of the Bank of England. And the Bank of England began to support these little banks in various ways by helping them clear their accounts against each other. We won’t go into the technicalities. The point is that this kind of supplemental money that goes into circulation has become enormously important today. Probably 90% of the everyday money supply is money issued by commercial banks now in the form of deposits, not in the form of banknotes, but deposits and banknotes are the same thing. And if we think about that form of money, then it’s also built on the self interest of commercial bankers. We’ve institutionalized self interest into the retail money supply in a way that penetrates everyday life. And governments, both the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve, support that structure. We could think of the banks as delegates. Some scholars call the commercial banks franchisees of the government because they’re basically producing private money authorized by the government. They represent the dollar. This is all to say your question really goes to the core of a capitalist world in which the money supply is made through both central banks and then through a network of commercial banks supported by the central bank. 

Now, having said all that, are we stuck with this recipe? I don’t see any reason that we’re stuck with this recipe. There are advantages to the recipe. Again, I don’t want to romanticize the medieval world. But let me just point out that, what central banks and commercial banks do, is make liquidity available. They make the ability to exchange with one another through money available in new ways that have facilitated all sorts of productive enterprises. In the medieval world, you had to have silver before you could get money. In other words, you had to have capital before you could go out and do a project. In the new world, you come with a promise that you’re going to be productive and you get banknotes or you get bank deposits. And so, this new monetary system facilitates exchange and projects that are supposed to be productive in ways that have broken through old strictures and ceilings on production. I think we need to recognize and respect that and understand that there are great advantages that come with understanding that money is credit, and move beyond a world in which it was restricted by some arbitrary ceiling, like the amount of silver that people had.

Even as I try to abstract the logic, thinking about this credit money that is independent of the requirement of silver collateral attached in the old world, we can see that it doesn’t need to be attached to commercial bank calculations of profit. There are many ways to create credit and to circulate promises. We don’t need to have a world in which the only recipe for money production are the lending decisions of commercial banks. Right now, the only way that we engage money creation in the modern world is through commercial bank lending to individuals. That’s the engine of money production in the modern world. And that engine is attached to commercial bank calculations of profitability. In fact, we know that many projects that will not be profitable to a commercial bank lender would be profitable for us as a society. So I think what we need to do is think about how we want to innovate and improvise new modes of creating credit and extending credit to people outside of the strictures of commercial bank lending.

Maxximilian Seijo: Before we get to the end of this podcast, I actually wanted to touch on something that seems to be a bit of a recurring theme on this show, which is the relationship between war and money. I was particularly taken while rereading the introduction to your book last night of this quote where you have a 12th century account from Exchequer. You quote this account by writing, “Money is necessary, not only in time of war, but also in the time of peace. For in the former case, revenue is expanded on the fortification of towns, the payment of wages to soldiers, and in many other ways. And when the end of the hostilities arrived, “weapons of war are laid aside, churches are built by devout princes, Christ is fed and clothed in the persons of the poor, and the Mammon of this world is distributed in other acts of charity.” And so, what I think you’ve been alluding to, especially with the question of the cake, is that the way money is structured is both different now than it was back in the 12th century, where it was used not just for war, but for the public good in many ways–housing, feeding, infrastructure, employing, etc. But now, those aspects of money remain, the potential is there, and it remains for the cake to do those things again. This is not much of a question, I guess. I just wanted to make clear that I think what you’re saying about the cake now is so vitally important to the question of modern public governance, and your book does a really good job of teasing out the origins of those stakes. 

Christine Desan: Thank you for the question. I want to just talk about early America for a moment in response to it, because it seems to me we are still early America in many ways. When I first got sucked into studying money, when I fell into the black hole, it was in a world in which people had no money because the coin they had kept going back to England. The things they bought from England cost more than the things they sold to England, so they never had money stay on the shores of America. And so, they invented these forms of money that were not commercial banks, where they basically just created IOUs, first to pay soldiers. War is often the existential moment. If you can’t defend yourself, then you need money for that, because you won’t be around to then philosophize about other uses of money. But once they realized that they could pay the soldiers with IOUs and tax them back, which is how it started–they paid the soldiers with it, taxed it back, and therefore made a local currency–they realized they could make local currencies for their own economic development. They could really push out the boundaries of what was possible by inviting farmers to borrow from the legislature to mortgage their land and pay them back. They created these little pockets in which they’re circulating credit. 

Then, farmers could borrow in order to improve their land, make more exchange with each other, and start their own manufacturers and industry for that matter. They started understanding that, as communities, they could plot their economic development. Even in things like how much they lent to each person, they were making distributive decisions. They put a ceiling in each province on the amount they would lend to each farmer, which was 200 pounds. They thought to spread this money widely and understood that they were making distributive decisions when they taxed. They understood that they were basically engineering the way they wanted their local political economy to function and look, and that they were really building a world as they did so. And we know the end of the story. In many ways, that experience led them to understand their provinces, and eventually their entire coast, as a different world from the British world.

So in many ways, this experience of creating local money, and then trying to chart their own courses and create communities of political economic development, split them from the British Empire. It convinced them that they were a different world and different communities. And it just strikes me that it goes to the point you were making about both war and peace, because they actually innovated and stumbled into these monetary experiments because of war. But they understood quickly that they could and should use them in times of peace. Peace, economic development, and political development, were their own kind of exigency and public need. Peacetime was the period in which they could flourish and concentrate on human development. And so, it’s really an inspiring story of the possibility of creating communal flourishing, strength, growth, and productivity, and thinking outside the box, but monetarily.

This was a monetary adventure, but it was one in which people were acting in concert and collective ways with each other to try to build, for the first time, a prosperous world. They made a lot of mistakes. We know about their flaws, but we also could learn from the way they were trying to engineer their own development, and to do so in ways that went beyond the kind of commercial calculation that we have today. We have actually used money in many productive ways to build a state that is stronger, that actually understands how we need to prioritize education, infrastructure, and healthcare needs, and that there’s no reason why we can’t create money towards those ends. Understanding monetary theory and the way money works helps us enormously. Once we understand that money is basically this kind of credit loop and a public medium, and that is fraught with all kinds of distributive decisions, we can use it towards all those ends and be creative about the devices. There’s no reason that we should be stuck with one channel or one device for money delivery once we understand the way money works.

William Saas: So your constitutional approach to money, looking at it as a governance project, shares some key assumptions with a chartalist approach that’s been developed by Modern Monetary Theory, which is a theory and movement that a lot of our listeners will be familiar with. How would you say your work converges with and diverges from MMT?

Christine Desan: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about that. I think, in many ways, we’re fellow travelers. For centuries, some groups of people have understood money as an issue of credit. In that sense, for centuries, there have been what you called chartalists. Both my work and MMT are within that tradition. To me, it’s the most persuasive way of understanding money and it makes a break with the orthodoxy. Both my work and MMT approaches make a break with the orthodoxy in recognizing the critical role of the public, recognizing money as debt, and recognizing money as a public medium, ideally used for public welfare. Some areas of divergence, I think, are areas of emphasis. I am really interested in how money has been redesigned. It’s been redesigned, it’s been improvised, and it’s been engineered in many different ways in many different communities. I’m fascinated by the diversity in design. I think that monetary design profoundly affects both governance and knowledge in society. That is, it affects both the way we structure and allocate power and the way we think about what the market is. For me, there is a pre-capitalism, whether we’re talking about medieval coin or we’re talking about early American paper money. Also for me, there are many different kinds of capitalism. There are changing assumptions about human nature and about governance that seem to be intimately connected with the kinds of monetary structure and governance that’s going on. I think that is less of a focus for MMT scholars.

To give a very concrete example, there’s a lot of great MMT scholarship about the role of public debt in absorbing or expanding the money supply. That is to say, the management of public debt and open market operations are an important lever of policy in the modern world. For me, the advent of circulating public debt is a critical moment in which we change the governance structure of a community and begin to prioritize creditors, use investors as an intermediary, and basically delegate great political power to that group. Along the way, the innovation of public debt underscores and reinforces different ways of thinking about individual self interest and the way the individual connects with the government. Just as an example, I’m interested in things that are more about the kinds of governance decisions that are wrapped up in monetary design. I would say, at a technical level, MMT scholars have unparalleled expertise in current institutions of modern money. They are focusing on the prescriptive use of monetary theory. Also at a technical level, my own expertise has been trying to understand this historical change that has led us to a certain repertoire of money design. I also focus more on the legal attributes of money and why they matter. The character of money as a kind of political obligation, the aspects of monetary value that are embedded in the details of what we enforce, are what I call the cash premium. And so, I’m focusing, in some ways, on the elements of the repertoire. I think MMT scholarship is, in some ways, focusing on how to use the repertoire that currently exists and prevails.

William Saas: That makes sense.

Christine Desan: Yeah, I think it’s been a really productive dialogue, actually, between the constitutional approach to money and MMT. The last thing I’d emphasize is that these approaches to money as a kind of credit that’s circulating are ancient as well as modern. There have always been these approaches to money. People have been theorizing money for centuries. And so, we’re not the only two kids on the block. There’s a lot of really interesting work out there from ancient, medieval, and early modern thinkers who also saw money as a public medium and understood its potential. So this is, I guess, an invitation to people to think broadly along whatever lines that makes sense to them to try to understand and grapple with this public medium, because it is so incredibly important. It’s something that penetrates our daily life and basically creates material governance in our world.

Scott Ferguson: Well, this has been hugely illuminating. Can we close by asking you to talk about what research projects you’re working on at the moment?

Christine Desan: Yeah, so I have three that I’ll mention. One is an attempt really to take apart and to understand the change that occurs in a society when it goes to money. That is, it considers that first transformative moment, the moment from going to political contribution that’s made in kind to a world in which a community decides that they’re going to convert the in kind contribution into tokens and then use those tokens as a medium–going from an income world to a market based world. I’m working on one essay that really tries to understand how it changes political capacity and personal orientation to move from an income world in which everyone’s contributing equally to a world in which there’s actually money circulating, and to consider what the advantages and disadvantages are of that moment. That essay also thinks about how the law works here, how the government is actually projecting its power when it’s enforcing monetary decisions, and how it’s curating the market when it’s deciding which property, contract, tort, and damages to recognize monetarily–how it’s actually building the market. So that’s one project. 

The second project I’m thinking through is an essay that looks at the stubbornness of our myths about money being private. One thing we haven’t talked about is that we have strong intuitions that money is private. People will often mention that money comes from barter and that private exchange produces money, or they’ll mention old stories about POW’s using cigarettes as money. A recent occurrence of this kind of idea that money could be private is Bitcoin, or that maybe money can exist outside the government. I’m interested in trying to understand why we intuit money as private. I think this is because of our experience with private institutions, such as commercial banks, and the dominance they have in our society. But I’m interested in trying to interrogate that and understand what the form of our intuition is, and why we keep thinking of money as private and therefore the market as private.

In the last thing that I’m working on, I’d really like to resurrect this old work about early America. I started this whole project about early America. I mentioned that I kept falling over cliffs and ended up doing the book about the medieval and early British world. But I’d really like to go back to that early American world and finish it. There are great stories about the adventures the settlers were having in the way they tried to work out money–the conflicts they had among themselves, the things they did right, the things they did wrong, the Revolution, the Constitution, and the dramatic kinds of debates that Americans had over what money was and how they should make it. That’ll be my next project.

Scott Ferguson: Christine Desan, thank you so much for joining us. This has been incredible.

Christine Desan: Great, thank you so much for having me.