On Paradox with Elizabeth S. Anker

Elizabeth S. Anker joins Money on the Left to discuss her provocative new book, On Paradox: The Claims of Theory (Duke University Press, 2022). Anker is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University and Professor of Law in the Cornell Law School. In On Paradox, Anker contends that faith in the logic of paradox has been the cornerstone of left intellectualism since the second half of the twentieth century. She attributes the ubiquity of paradox in the humanities to its appeal as an incisive tool for exposing and dismantling hierarchies. Anker, however, suggests that paradox not only generates the very exclusions it critiques but also creates a disempowering haze of indecision. 

Tracing the ascent of paradox in theories of modernity, in rights discourse, in the history of literary criticism and the linguistic turn, and in the transformation of the liberal arts in higher education, Anker shows that reasoning through paradox has become deeply problematic: it engrains a startling homogeneity of thought while undercutting the commitment to social justice that remains a guiding imperative of theory. Rather than calling for a wholesale abandonment of such reasoning, Anker argues for an expanded, diversified theory toolkit that can help theorists escape the seductions and traps of paradox. In our conversation, we explore strong parallels between Anker’s call for a reparative “integrative criticism” and our own constructive hermeneutics of provision. 

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The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Billy Saas:  Elizabeth Anker, welcome to Money On The Left.

Elizabeth Anker:  Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here. Wonderful to meet you guys.

Billy Saas:  It’s great to meet you, too. We were just talking about coming into contact with your book and some of the reasons we’re excited about it. That book is On Paradox: The Claims of Theory out with Duke University Press in 2022. Before we get into and I think to help us contextualize our discussion, could you share a little bit about your personal and professional background and kind of the academic fields and concerns that have driven your scholarship and, and your teaching up to the point of like the publication of On Paradox?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, absolutely. I have an unusual background, and that I have both a JD, and a PhD in Literary Studies, and a joint appointment between the law school at Cornell and the English department. So I’ve spent lots of time thinking about both the stakes of interdisciplinarity and some of the challenges of doing interdisciplinary work and kind of speaking across audiences. So I’m incredibly sensitive to the difficulty of certain humanities fields that they experience in addressing wider audiences. But in a way, this book really stemmed from two different projects that I spent a lot of time working on, both of which were edited collections. The first was a big edited collection on law and literature, which is actually an interesting field because it was one of the first interdisciplinary junctures, so to speak. So scholars already back in the early 80s, were bringing literature to bear to think about legal questions, and vice versa. So a few years ago, I edited this collection with my friend and colleague at Stanford Law School, Bernie Meyler. And in the process of doing that, we really tried to make sense out of the dominant shape and orientation of scholarship that thinks about law and literature together. And in that effort to taxonomize and dissect these main approaches to that particular interdisciplinary field, we seized on a series of problems. And there’s a way in which those problems also inform some of the arguments that I make in this book. For instance, literature scholars tend to almost scapegoat law, precisely so that they can make the argument that literature comes along to save the day. So a lot of humanistic work on legal questions turns law, this big monolithic thing, into almost a kind of straw man. It’s really easy to be torn down, but through a series of super reductive critiques that actually ended up falsifying the legal process, and its real world operations in certain ways. One of the arguments in On Paradox has to do with this ongoing tendency to explain law in ways that are just plain inaccurate, and reductive and simplifying, I’m sure I’ll get to talk a little bit more about that in a minute. But the other big project that I spent years working on that very much sowed the seeds for this book, was another edited collection with my former mentor, Rita Felski on critique and post critique. Rita has written a lot about the limits of critique. And in a way, that’s a big project trying to weigh in on what people refer to as the method wars within theory. So this book On Paradox is kind of my own foray into the method wars to account for where theory has gone wrong, so to speak, and for the ways in which it needs to reinvent itself. So, just to sum up, a lot of the book stems from the fact that I’m somebody who has one foot in law and one foot in literary studies, and have therefore been able to assume something of an outsider’s vantage point, asking about the crisis in the humanities, and these larger trends that are overtaking humanistic inquiry. But with all of that in mind, there’s a way in which the book is also kind of my take on the crisis in the humanities. People have probably seen the recent article about “The Death of the English Major”. And these outcries about the end of the liberal arts or the corporatization of the university, have been on everybody’s mind of late. And in a way the book is also its own account of where that crisis came from. That’s in part an account taken from an outsider’s viewpoint and there’s a way in which I take an unpopular view, which is that humanists are in part responsible for their own growing obsolescence. Obviously, there are all sorts of other big factors tied to neoliberalism, and so on. But some of that responsibility that humanists carry themselves has to do with what I call paradox, or this idea that some other primary methodological approaches have either backfired or gone astray or simply haven’t delivered on their promise. So there is a way in which the book is a plea for humanists’ own self reckoning.

Scott Ferguson:  Thanks for that. So maybe we can focus a little bit more about the specific origins of On Paradox. It’s a pretty wide ranging book in terms of the topics and the issues that it covers. So what are the origins of this specific project? What questions did it emerge from? Did its arguments spring from a core inquiry or focus, we know from communicating with you that you were going to write a modest, small book about one little thing, and then it kind of blossomed into what it’s become?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, the book initially was going to be a mere fraction of its current length and scope. And it was initially an attempt to wrestle with what people have referred to as the human rights turn in the humanities, about 10 to 15 years ago. A whole series of humanistic fields: history, anthropology, even gender studies, literary studies, were all abuzz with excitement talking about human rights, and what rights were their limits and their promise, and I decided I was gonna write a short book that attempted to make sense out of that growing preoccupation. Given the skepticism about law that prevails within a lot of these fields, to me, it seemed perplexing that suddenly a bunch of literary critics thought human rights were so important, and were kind of rah rah jumping on the human rights bandwagon. In the process of accumulating, trying to digest, trying to make sense out of what on earth people thought they were talking about, when they started talking about human rights. I was struck by a series of things. The big thing being almost everybody either began or concluded by observing just how paradoxical rights were. So as a diagnosis of rights, paradox was held out and arrived at by almost everybody. And often people did so in a way that also presented paradox as some kind of epiphanic recognition. So I was struck by the kind of rote predictability of paradox as a way of talking about rights discourse and human rights. And in a way that’s absolutely true. There’s no question that rights have proven deeply paradoxical. They’ve been kind of impaled by their paradoxes, again and again, whether in practice, or as a philosophical construct, or even as a discourse. Rights are deeply contradictory. There’s no question about that. But I was nevertheless troubled by the uniformity of the ways that theorists were talking about rights. And in the process, I was also struck by the fact that paradox tended to stand in for deeply polar things. On the one hand, paradox was a way of talking about the fatalities of rights, the failures, the limits, the disappointments, the spent promise, so everything wrong with rights, it was almost a way of critiquing rights by saying they’re too paradoxical to be valuable. But at the same time, all sorts of other theorists and literary critics were citing paradox as the very locus of rights’ ongoing promise. The fact that rights were paradoxical was what made them fertile, fecund, open ended this valuable source of justice for the future. I was trying to make sense out of the fact that paradox meant two totally different things. And it often would even do so in the same study. Somebody would blame rights for being willfully paradoxical and therefore complicit with power. But then say, well, their paradoxes is also what makes them democratic and ethical, and just, so I was initially trying to wrestle with all of this and suddenly realized that this framework, these tendencies for making sense out of rights, were showing up in all sorts of other areas: debates about democracy, debates about the humanities, debates about modernity. And so I came to recognize that I was really attempting to map and contend with a whole kind of worldview or mentality, or even epistemology or way of knowing, we could say that really has been definitive of theory. So I felt the need to really broaden the focus of this initially narrow study on right, to make sense out of and grapple with the genetics of theory, so to speak, or some of the dominant assumptions that inform critical theory as this really far reaching intellectual formation and intellectual tradition. So it became, as one of my friends would tell me, a book about everything.

Billy Saas:  It really is a book about everything. And it got me thinking a lot about the evolution of my relationship with critical theory from the experience of graduate school, this sort of initial excitement of encounters with paradox. And then the eventual kind of malaise, melancholy and inertia that comes from paradox, ultimately realizing while on the job market, and then in my first job, that humanities scholars have been talking about these things for a long time, and our work conditions, our workplaces have not gotten the same kind of critical attention or critical self reflection, and that the paradox of that is, is very difficult to live with. And so I think part of what we’re up to here at Money On The Left, and our collective more broadly, is the kind of constructive, let’s build something, in place of this void of paradox. Let’s improve our workplaces. Let’s take that inventory and get to the business of making a better world which is why your work and Rita Felski’s work resonated for me, especially, but I know that her work and your work are also having broader and deeper impact. So we’re super excited to have you and to talk more about this.

Elizabeth Anker:  That comment very much captured the trajectory or history of this style of thought, or sort of intellectual mindset that I’m trying to track and make sense out of, which is that you’re absolutely right, that paradoxes are thrilling, and a particular style of thought, grounded in reasoning through paradox or the discovery of these, again, revelatory eye opening capacities of paradox was this exhilarating, new, highly creative thing when theory came of age in the Academy right. So with the advent of theory 50 years ago, or what have you, 40-50 years ago, paradox was new. But over the last 40 years, it’s become routinized. This particular style of thought that once carried all this promise has become too predictable, too much of what we do, and really fails to speak to our kind of lived conditions, and ongoing, most urgent political realities. So some of the book’s arguments are, first, that this style of thought needs to be updated. It’s become passe, right? Ideas that made sense 40 years ago, don’t necessarily make sense in the present. And one of the big reasons, secondly, that it needs updating is that it’s failed to translate into what we could call a practice, or an applied theory, or a set of tools for building better worlds. And I think one of my arguments is that it’s not only that it’s failed to translate, that this style of thought that I call paradox can actually short circuit or impede forms of real world action, because of the various sort of hang ups that come with it.

Billy Saas:  When you start to encounter administration, within the context of the university, you start to wonder to what extent that paradox, that style of thought, actually serves the system as it exists, the de facto administrative apparatus, and, of course, folks who end up in administration have been around for a long time, and they weren’t in those theory wars at the beginning or theory development at the beginning.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, just piggyback on that, we theorists have tended to presume that this method of reasoning that again, I call paradox, equals a particular politics, that to be attuned to paradox is to be a good lefty, to be a good radical to be social justice oriented. And that’s just not the case. This style of thought is highly susceptible to being co opted or hijacked. And in fact, I really think that’s what we’re witnessing at this moment in history, whether by administrators who might not actually have the best interests of English departments or other humanities fields in mind, or, frankly, by really powerful political actors who are kind of ruining democracy right now. I hope we get to talk a little bit about my next project at some point. But the thing I’m working on right now is precisely to try to track how this style of thought is being actively misappropriated to undermine and sabotage a left social justice progressive political agenda.

Billy Saas:  You can sort of see it in your teaching. And I wonder if this is something that you may have experienced, too, where the same kind of surprise and delight that I got from paradox as a student, maybe it’s my own failings as a teacher, but I struggle to reproduce that for students today because it feels so de rigueur, and not surprising, and not delightful, right? In fact, it’s all over everywhere. So where does pedagogy figure into your kind of view of the situation of paradoxes effects?

Elizabeth Anker:  You know, to be totally honest, pedagogy is where it gets hardest for me. On the one hand, it is absolutely true that paradox has become second nature to our current generation of college students, kids in their 20s. All you have to do is a quick search of Amazon for books with “paradox” in the title. That language actively works to trivialize and dumb things down and, again, applies to everything from food crises. So if anything, it’s become its own sort of neoliberal mantra, or self help recipe to talk about paradox and there’s a self-indulgent-wallowing-in-paradox-feel-good-self-discovery element that gets capitalized on in a lot of bestsellers, popular culture or what have you. So students, there’s nothing new about paradox to students. But I find that it’s tricky because I myself in the classroom sometimes do, nevertheless, praise the virtues of things like indeterminacy, inconclusivity, indecision, irresolution as values for awakening, or eliciting a particular kind of moral and ethical engagement. So pedagogy and the experience of teaching very much helped to crystallize and motivate some of the book’s arguments but, to be honest, it’s also where I find myself still championing and celebrating the powers of paradox and insisting that we still need some paradox, and there are still lots of things that we can learn from it. I’m by no means arguing that we need to do away with this style of thought, the book’s main take is that it’s simply become far too much of what we do. And if anything, the only thing that theorists have learned to do, and that’s the problem with it, not that it doesn’t contain value in certain contexts, but that we’ve lost sight of the specificity of context and deploy this reasoning everywhere, whereas it should be confined to much narrower types of debates and inquiries.

Scott Ferguson:  So across your first five chapters, and a brief interlude, your book traces paradox’s surprisingly consistent importance and centrality for a wide range of critical disciplines, fields, discourses, and even social movements. Would you mind walking us through some of your key arguments in the specific chapters and maybe we can start with chapter one where you take on the grand conception of modernity as a periodizing term. And you make the case that our very theorisation and conception of modernity is, to the bones, thoroughly paradoxical.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, again, one of the book’s goals is to really show that this reasoning shows up absolutely everywhere. Basically, any issue that has been deemed worthy of serious intellectual attention, or theorisation, ends up being found to be paradoxical. And one of the prime sites where that occurs, and I would wager even one of the earliest sites where that occurs, if you think about intellectual history, is debates about modernity. And if you do one of those Google ngrams it’s even right when people started using the language of modernity, late 18th century you see a spike in the use of the term paradox. Once again, that diagnosis makes total sense: of course, to be modern is to be steeped in paradox. Basically everything about modern life, selfhood, individuality, politics, you name it is no doubt paradoxical. But one of the things I tried to trace in that chapter is, again, the routinization of that diagnosis, and how it came to be a kind of intellectual second nature, so that it became impossible to talk about something like modernity, without citing to its paradoxes. But I kind of use modernity and debates about modernity in that chapter as an example also to show the very ambidextrous and multifaceted intellectual labor that that citation to paradox carries out. This is true within most theory that performs a particular kind of reasoning. So paradox basically oversees all stages and all aspects of the reasoning process. So for instance, it’s a diagnosis. Right? Modernity is paradoxical, of course it is. But that diagnosis usually embeds a critique of certain aspects of modernity, we can think about classic Marxist critiques of capitalism as a distinctly modern bequest, right. Capitalism is obviously a bad thing. It’s by way of citing to or excavating its many paradoxes and contradictions, that it’s revealed to be so lethal, and predatory, and all of those things. So paradox is a diagnosis, it’s a critique, it comes to basically oversee method or become the backbone of method. Again, it’s almost impossible to find theory that doesn’t operate or proceed by way of the identification and mining of success of paradoxes. So it becomes hardwired into a method. One of the things I try to wrestle with in the book is how this diagnosis of paradox which most immediately encodes all of the bad things and liabilities is something like modernity, with the emergence and arrival of post structuralism, and all of the intellectual ferment that happens in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of identity politics, the revolution in the humanities, etc, also leads to a change in the way people started thinking and talking about paradox. So that this very notion of equality, that sums up all of the perils of something like modernity, simultaneously comes to be redemptive or salvific, much in the way I was talking about with rights. So the fact that modernity is paradoxical, also comes to be something to be celebrated as the source of modernity’s untapped promise. And I develop an account for the confluence of factors and intellectual developments that allow this diagnosis of paradox to suddenly also become a salvific one. What happens is that paradox also emerges as a kind of destination or cure, or remedy or antidote to all of these liabilities. And that’s in part because paradox does something else too. And that is that it becomes deeply autobiographical for theory. It becomes its own kind of self-referential way of talking about what it means to be an intellectual to inhabit paradox. And paradox almost comes to be transposed onto the persona or character of the great thinker, or the harbinger of modernity, or the great intellectual stage. And there, too, everybody from Max Weber to you name it. These great thinkers are almost always deemed embodiments of paradox and what makes them great is because their own personas metabolize all of these different paradoxes. So it also becomes, again, deeply autobiographical or about the identity of what it means to do theory. And just really quickly, we can see how that would play out. Even in terms of the way people have defined theory over the years to be Paradoxa: as to be contrary to Orthodoxy, to be a dissident, to be a gadfly, to be anti-authoritarian, all of those things. And so it makes complete sense that we as theorists would cathect onto that logic of paradox, or see within it mirrors of our own understanding of our job as leftist, critically-minded intellectuals. Paradoxes are also deeply anti normative. So we can see just thinking about the sheer etymology of the word paradox, why it would be part of the genetics of theory.

Scott Ferguson:  Could you talk a little bit more about the Cold War context in which you trace the rise of post structuralism, especially in the states and why paradox becomes so newly enticing given that context?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, absolutely. Basically, my argument about what happens in the 70s is that there are a whole series of intellectual development and a particular historical milieu, that come together in ways that really reinforce paradox as a way of knowing or an epistemology, but all provide separate kind of intellectual warrants for intellectual reasons that paradox becomes so incredibly powerful as an explanatory framework. One of those is absolutely the Cold War context. And a particular definition or account of totalitarianism that begins to take hold, and that everybody agrees on and totalitarianism is increasingly defined as a political system that is hostile to pluralism, plural vocality, paradox. And so totalitarianism is misunderstood as the sort of unifying force that’s going to, by definition, devour multiplicity and paradox and dissent, and all of that. Democracy and everything anti totalitarian, is increasingly explained in terms of its paradoxes. This sort of thinking is, I think, generally in the air at that moment in history, the kind of anti totalitarianism of paradox, but also explain why deconstruction would continue, would be one of the most influential progenitors of this kind of reasoning, perhaps, within the academy. So there’s something about that cold war environment and a celebration of speech for speech’s sake, that lends this logic of paradox incredible currency. That cold war environment, one of my arguments, also colluded with these lingering residues of the 1960s and 68, which also endowed the dissidents of paradox and the anti authoritarianism of paradox with a particular kind of purchase. We can think about the sort of magical psychedelic thinking of 68 as its own appetite for paradox, and for those mind altering discoveries that we can associate with that thinking, but a series of other things come along in sort of intellectual developments within the academy, perhaps the biggest is the linguistic turn. And the rise of Saussurean theories of language and representation provide a separate warrant for why paradox is so powerful and all meaning is going to stem from or inhere within paradox. I also talk about the rise of literary study. The 80s are sort of the heyday of aesthetic theory. I talked a little bit about how these thinkers are also drawing from theology. But the point is that all of these things kind of come together in the perfect intellectual storm that all separately reinforce and incite this sense that to be paradoxical is to be alive and energetic and attuned as a thinker.

Scott Ferguson:  Would you mind discussing one particular example of one of the supposed paradoxes of modernity, whether it’s in reference to Baudrillard or any other of the thinkers that you cite.

Elizabeth Anker:  I guess I would come back to something like democracy. And I’ll use that as an example simply because I think this mode of thought, this modality, is particularly rampant still today within a lot of political theory, and especially radical democratic theory. We can see why democracy would be paradoxical, right? It’s a perennially failed project. Democracy depends on this artificial construction of ‘the people’. But we know that nation states are woefully exclusionary, and are never going to have perfect representation. The paradoxes that extend from modern practice of democracy are countless and incurable in many respects. So again, no doubt that democracy as an institution is fatally flawed, and fatally flawed because of these paradoxes of incomplete representation. But what occurs in a lot of political theory is that that very incompleteness comes to be celebrated, because it’s seen as paradoxical. So the fact that ‘the people’ is forever and complete, gets read as a positive thing. And the source of the very fluidity and indeterminacy and open-endedness of that category of ‘the people’. If ‘the people’ was closed, then it wouldn’t be paradoxical. So there’s a sort of embrace of the very properties that one might, and simultaneously in the same breath, is despairing of. So one of my arguments about what this logic of paradox that again, starts to take hold in the 1980s, does is that it performs a kind of alchemy or almost a transient substantiation. There’s almost kind of something theological about it where it works to redeem legitimacy deficits, or justificatory deficits. The fact that ‘the people’ is fatally flawed, going back to Rousseau, it’s clearly a problem for the legitimacy of democracy. One of the reasons democracy is paradoxical is because it confronts this irresolvable legitimacy, crisis and deficit of legitimacy. But by describing that legitimacy deficit is paradoxical, that very failure comes to be rescued and, lo and behold, fully celebrated or extolled as the very wellspring of democracy’s promise. And this is a move that comes very, very clearly from the long history of aesthetic criticism and theology. Let’s think about The Odyssey and attempt to reckon with the limits of a deity, right? We’ve all had to study this stuff once upon a time. The fact that God is omnipresent and omniscient, yet nevertheless allows evil in the world, that’s a paradox. But that, unknowability of God, and unfathomability of God within theology comes to be embraced and exalted as the very essence of what makes God God. Again, this logic of paradox performs a kind of conversion that takes what looks at first blush like a liability into the very locus of the just and ethical promise of something, whether it’s God or the humanities.

Scott Ferguson:  I’d like to try to paraphrase some of the argumentation you’ve been working through in order to tease out some of the resonances that I’m hearing, which is: part of the problem with this mode of paradoxical thinking that, maybe there’s other paradoxical modes of thinking, but this particular mode that’s so widespread that you’re tracing. Part of its major problem is that it weirdly wants to unsettle the master signifier, the law of the Father. Yeah, in order to unsettle these dominant, hegemonic terms, ‘the people’, democracy, right? It has to perform the failure of its univocity. The failure of its single or array of clustered, singular meanings and say, “no, no, it actually does the opposite. You think it does inclusion? It does exclusion. You think it brings people together? No, it brings people apart!” Right? And I think one of the ways in which what you’re up to resonates with what we’re up to, I think, is you don’t have to take those hegemonic understandings for granted. You don’t have to give away the game to a particular enlightenment understanding of “the people”. For us, especially, you don’t have to take the liberal understanding of money and its ontology and its topology. You don’t have to take it for granted and just do immanent critique and show how it’s internally contradictory. You can say: Well, wait a minute, what if you start from different premises? What if you don’t start from the premise that money is a private barter relationship that ends up in this massive system of mutual exploitation? What if you start with it as a public utility or a legal design question, what opens up instead? So to me what’s so illuminating about your book is it gives us this language and so many historical analyses of this problem of giving over to the master term that you’re supposedly trying to undermine.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, I love that point. And I have to confess that I haven’t thought about one of the things I’m after along those lines, and that’s why I love it so much. But I think you’re absolutely right, that some of the problems with this style of thought is that it ends up reinforcing the authority of the very thing ostensibly being critiqued. So it ends up almost like reifying, or ceding the game, to the explanatory power of liberal accounts of capitalism, or liberal accounts of rights, because it’s so dependent on that, again, almost kind of reductive notion of what’s being critiqued. I think you’re absolutely right. And for me, another extension of that is that it can contribute to this kind of romance of failure and romance of impossibility, because part of the logic of paradox is to be adamantly resistant to ever lodging itself, or installing itself as a new dominant or a new normativity. So the moment you win, you have to immediately undercut what you just want. So they’re almost like tripwires installed in this logic. The moment what’s excluded comes to be included: Oh, that very thing becomes bad, right? Because it’s the new dominant, but that becomes an endless game that leads us nowhere. So yeah, I love that way of framing it. Yes. Another paradox. Yeah.

Billy Saas:  Is there something about paradox, inherently, that we could say is atomizing or alienating, and maybe affectively discouraging? It’s exciting, but there’s a sort of flat affect afterwards where there needs to be a kind of supplement. And that might be what you’re after or suggesting here?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, and again, I’m perhaps most critical of the modes of thought that we can associate with post-structuralism that took hold in the 80s. First I very much agree that there’s nothing about this reasoning on its own that’s inherently problematic. The idea is that this logic that’s been so dominant, and, if anything, the exclusive way people think in certain fields really needs to be supplemented or complemented with other styles of thought. We’ve been doing half of what we need to do, and we need to do and the other half. But just kind of is one further example of where this perhaps comes from, to sort of explain how it takes hold and why it has placed a stranglehold on more affirmative, constructive modes of thought. Again, I think so much of this style of thought can actually be attributed to post-Saussurean linguistics and the theories of meaning that emerge. If we think about Jacques Derrida in his account of a text or writing, meaning inheres with the slippages, the deferrals, the gaps between words, the impossibilities of clear presence, the fact that you’re never going to have a transparent understanding. Meaning is going to kind of emerge through those impossibilities, through those delays, through those foreclosures and limits to what we can know. Meaning, action, agency, everything has been imagined to inhere within those kinds of slippages and deferrals. And I think what’s taken hold within a lot of theory is anytime there’s an effort to account for meaning, or agency, or action, that’s not displaced along such lines, it’s dismissed as simply wrong or selling out or “liberal”, or again, just plain mistaken. And one of the challenges in writing the book has been recognizing just how thoroughgoing this mode of thought is, while really trying to push back against a tradition that’s hardwired to dismiss an effort to be affirmative, concrete, constructive, etc, as point blank mistaken, or point blank wrong or missing the picture.

Scott Ferguson:  So this is a great pivot, I think, to our question about your second and third chapters. And that’s where you uncover what you reveal to be this deep anti-legalism that subtends, paradoxically, both a positive discourse of rights, but also the critique of rights. We’ve been kind of referring to it, but can you delve into this problem, and how are dismissals and recuperation of rights both rooted in paradox? And then what, for you, does this have to do with aesthetic theory?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, absolutely. It’s a big question. One of the things I tried to do throughout the book is to think about how reasoning that lends precedence to paradox can lead to polar impulses. One of them that I think we were touching on or you brought up when you talked about how this logic can end up reinforcing the power of the very thing being critiqued is that when something like capitalism, and this is where I, would have a fight to pick with at least some Marxist theory, capitalism, for instance, is seen as fundamentally contradictory in ways that basically ontologize or reify that property. And I’m sorry, right? Paradox is something that my brain is a quality in my head that I’m reading onto something to help me make sense out of it. It is not a material property of reality. I would dispute that it is, but when it is deemed thus, or fatally part of something’s architecture or gene pool, that ends up rendering paradox a foregone conclusion. I worry about that tendency, in terms of how it can tie our hands in resisting a given structure or cause the problem to seem so fatally incurable that it can lead to forms of defeatism and inertia in the face of this structure that’s deemed paradoxical. I think that plays out with particular vividness in the skepticism about law that has prevailed within and basically across the humanities, and even within a lot of critical legal studies circles. My favorite example, Wendy Brown and Janet Halley have edited a collection called Left Legalism/Left Critique, and their introduction basically says, submitting any otherwise principally minded left project to the law is going to contaminate it in certain ways. So making recourse to the legal system is going to, by definition, dilute a particular left progressive justice-oriented agenda and is inevitably going to involve a form of self betrayal. And I think that’s just wrong. But that mindset that law is fundamentally bankrupt prevents all sorts of political action that might be really, really successful. I think that mindset is incredibly widespread, and really gets us in trouble as theorists, because it rationalizes and can lead to an excuse for forms of opting out, or not trying in the first place. And that suspicion of law is so pervasive in a lot of theory. The other example I like to bring to mind is a text like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, probably one of the most influential theoretical texts, and rightly so, right? It revolutionized our ways of talking about gender, in ways that have trickled down into the popular consciousness, amazingly important and successful text. Nevertheless, within this otherwise fantastic book, the rhetoric of the juridical circulates throughout in ways that basically are shorthand for power and oppression. So to describe something as juridical is basically to mean that it’s oppressive. And again, that just erases and obscures and it’s just plain wrong about all of these really important social, political advances that over the centuries, the law has facilitated. So this kind of suspicion of law is really problematic in terms of how it can basically sanction inaction and discourage inaction. Like I’m sure some of my humanities colleagues kind of looked down their noses at me even having a joint appointment in the law school as its own form of selling out. So, I’m really trying to push back against that legal skepticism as one of the reasons that so much theory has really failed to actualize itself in a viable practice, or why so many humanities fields have remained cloistered and refuse to get their hands dirty by actually tangling with real world forms of action.

Scott Ferguson:  And then what about the school that embraces rights as a framework, and yet in your reading, always predicated on the anti legalistic failure arguments that the straight up anti law scholars embraced?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, yeah, the school of post-structuralism, deconstruction, somebody like Jacques Rancière is this very hot figure these days, I think subscribes to its own kind of anti legalism or legal skepticism, but it plays out in a somewhat different way there in that justice is seen as fundamentally uncodifiable. So the minute you can actually codify or consecrate something in a legal decision or law code, that is seen to be the betrayal of these otherwise just ideas. And again, this comes directly from a particular theological tradition that is antinomian. So antinomianism is perhaps the better way to describe that impulse.

Scott Ferguson:  Can you describe what that means for you?

Elizabeth Anker:  Antinomianism simply means that it’s tied in more Protestant traditions to a conception of grace that is very individualistic. It basically means that law in the books is going to be fundamentally incomplete and flawed. It’s almost more of a Pauline Conception of divine inspiration.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, the term that we often use at Money On The Left is anti-medial or anti-mediation, right? There’s a sense that mediation is necessarily extrinsic and imposed. And it’s something that we may be all fallen into in a biblical and Lacanian sense, or a Heideggerian sense. We’re all fallen into it, but it is still nevertheless an imposition that we sort of wish that we could be outside of, and we try to conceive of and imagine a just world with that critical leverage of not being fallen into language or not being fallen into the juridical. Yeah, so that’s how we make sense of it.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, and thinking about the antinomian a bit further,  the big prophet of paradox that, again, everybody was reading in the 80s, is Søren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling, this meditation on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and the language of paradox is everywhere in a text like that, and it’s the incommunicability, the un-translatability, the fact that nobody would understand that willingness that it would see mad and, frankly, evil to everybody except Abraham is its own version of antinomianism. Kierkegaard was also a big conduit for the thrill of paradox, right? You probably remember reading Kierkegaard for the first time, and I’ve had people over the years when I tell them about the book say: that sounds like the first time I read Kierkegaard!

Billy Saas:  You mentioned a couple of times the phrase “selling out”, which resonated with me for a couple of reasons. One, we’re talking about, actually, Scott’s book in class yesterday, Money, Culture, Media with students, we were talking about critical theory, so this is very pertinent to what we’re talking about now. The concept of, through discussion, how selling out was more of a concern, it seems like in the heyday of the logic of paradox. I’m making this connection myself. It’s sort of an early rise. And I think today, there’s a romance of selling out now, as opposed to… So it’s the rise and grind. There’s the culture of hustle as a completion of that rejection of selling out as an abject thing that you don’t want to do as a participant in the economy. And it’s part of this idea that money is bad, whereas now it’s like, yeah you gotta get your hustle on, you gotta get your stuff. And selling out is probably a good thing. So you probably have some colleagues who are like, get the bag. Do your thing. Scott, I know that you wanted to get us into the aesthetic question.

Scott Ferguson:  Right. Well in your interlude, Liz, you wrote this anti legalism into an argument about the “aesthetic” as an intellectual project, as an institutional project.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, I think one of the big sources of this style of reasoning is aesthetic theory or literary and poetic criticism, frankly, going all the way back to Plato. There are brief interludes in this long history of literary criticism where people are doing something different in the 18th century for a couple of decades. But there’s been a remarkable centrality attributed to paradox when talking about the power of art, I think to be able to see the symmetries are parallels between what that work does in theology. A lot of these early theorists were also doing literary studies, and as theory kind of migrated through the Anglo American University, it stopped first in English departments. So English departments were the big proponents of it. So I think it picked up a lot of these tendencies there. But already the early moderns, Renaissance thinkers, were obsessed with a paradox that you get from Plato, which was referred to as the liar’s paradox. Everybody loves this paradox, right? If I say I’m about to lie to you, it’s raining outside. Am I telling the truth? Or am I lying? It’s actually like 90 in Ithaca. If you tell someone you’re telling a lie, is that telling the truth, or is it lying? But that’s what fiction does. That’s what all art does. All of art says, I’m a fiction, this is imaginary. And so it’s different, it’s a paradoxical form of truth telling. For Plato, that was one of the reasons to expel the poets from the Republic, because they were fiction tellers, they were lie tellers. And basically, since the early modern period, someone like Sir Philip Sidney is a great example. The logic of paradox, they’ve recuperated that epithet and said: actually, no, what was the problem for Plato, we tell lies, is the very power of art that we tell lies. So this kind of spirit of paradox has defined accounts of what art is, and what the value of art is, you know, basically for hundreds of years. And I think that the endurance and longevity of that tradition is one thing that people picked up on. One of the reasons that this style of thought that I’m saying took hold in the 1980s was so readily internalized, because it capitalized on intellectual traditions that have been around for a very, very long time. There, too, there’s a particular relationship to truth telling, or meaning, that needs to be routed through forms of deferral, and delay, and that it can’t be present and actualizable. It’s something that can’t be codified in any kind of positivistic regime. Does that speak to your question or not?

Billy Saas:  No, I think that answers our questions. Probably better to segue to the selling out bad versus selling out good.

Elizabeth Anker:  But do you mean like an embrace of the fact that everybody’s complicit? And so why not just —

Billy Saas:  Yeah, maybe the headline is: there is no ethical living under capitalism, right, as a kind of catchphrase for millennial Gen Z online life.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah. So, I think that’s showing up and, again, the stuff that I’m kind of working on is a spin off of this project. I don’t see that kind of embrace of selling out so much in my colleagues, or among my English majors. I wonder if that’s kind of the mindset of the New Right or the Alt Right. There’s a lot being written and kind of in process on the extent to which the New Right NatCon youth are kind of embracing a certain bastardized version of Marxism. But some of the animating creeds of that kind of crowd are, I think, precisely this real politic where everything is deemed coercive. There’s a generalized view among the right, increasingly, that all actions are coercive, all power is dispersed. So we might as well just engage in some power play, unabashedly. I think this reasoning is kind of in the air in some of these Alt Right circles, but increasingly in institutions of power that are pretty mainstream.

Billy Saas:  I think I see it in left cultural spaces, maybe not among left academics, maybe so much. I do think that there is a kind of well what are you going to do, give people a hard time for working and trying to make money so that they can take care of themselves. And then that being sort of like the baseline, but then we should be happy for so and so that they have gotten this big deal or this big outcome, and, if if nothing else, that abject state of sellout is no longer a category, I feel like so much today in the way that it was.

Elizabeth Anker:  I think the kind of internal, the going small, is very much among the left. This kind of downsizing of ambitions, and your comments also making me think about Anna Kornbluh’s forthcoming book, and her accounts of the rise of auto fiction and first person narration. All we can do is think about this very narrow sphere of influence. Everything is so sullied and suspect, so there’s something deeply … kind of retreat or withdrawal, that I think license or sanction by this, like, “everybody’s selling out.”

Scott Ferguson:  I’d like to pivot to your fourth chapter, fourth and fifth. To me, in these chapters, you really drill down into very specific paradoxes or specific fields. And I think that they’re maybe among the most likely to offend, to put it mildly.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah. You’re the first person who has said that so directly.

Scott Ferguson:  Oh well, you’re welcome. And I think they are, another way of putting this is that, because they really touch a sensitive nerve of, I think, what the left Intelligencia takes for granted. Just to start with your Chapter Four topic, The Paradox of Exclusion. The paradox of exclusion is that dominant forms exclude. This is bad, it’s unjust, it’s painful, it’s harmful. There’s so many things, negative things, that you can communicate about exclusion. And then the response is often, in this modality, to give voice to the excluded or in an Adornoian parlance, to give voice to suffering. And that becomes the injunction of the paradox of exclusion. And just re-articulating this paradox, it’s really hard to think otherwise, it’s really hard to think: Wait a minute, so what are you saying — exclusion is okay? And are you saying we shouldn’t give voice to the subaltern? What are you saying? So, I want to give you a chance to kind of nuance your critique, and put your most persuasive case forward?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, my critiques have less to do with the power of that mode of consciousness raising, because this really emerges with the consciousness raising campaigns of the 70s and 80s. Right with, you know, it shows up in Catharine MacKinnon’s early work trying to awaken women to their own oppression. But that logic, or that project of forever uncovering new sites of exclusion epitomizes the way in which this style of thought can backfire. On the one hand, it’s limitless or insatiable, there’s no end or stopping points to uncovering yet new sites of exclusion. Because once something gains recognition, or is included, it’s no longer excluded, and so becomes part of the problem. And in my own account, a lot of this has contributed to some of the infighting in a lot of humanities fields. A lot of humanities departments, literary studies, perhaps in particular, have become really internally self divided, even though everybody is on the same team, so to speak. And that’s because we’ve identified with that plight of the excluded. Humanists perceive themselves as being paradoxical or, contrary to doxa, themselves excluded. So if our primary mission is to speak to terms of exclusion, there needs to be exclusion somewhere. So we’re going to find them or create them even if they don’t really exist. I think that this project of giving voice to exclusion has really consumed certain humanities fields in ways that have become really counterproductive, and, again, led to forms of internal infighting and rivalries that prevent those fields from taking up other challenges. We only have so much energy and can only fight so many fights. When we’re incessantly fighting with our colleagues, we’re not going to take on other battles. The kind of internal self reference has become a real problem in certain disciplines. It’s one of the reasons for the crisis in the humanities. And I tried to argue that this political consciousness raising project that, again, has governed some of these fields has ironically, led to a form of navel gazing in certain ways. I know that’s a harsh condemnation, I have two other big complaints that I’ll highlight for now about why this project of consciousness raising by giving voice to exclusion became self limiting. One, the problem with this reasoning is that it gets applied to everything in a self reproducing structure. So regardless of what’s being analyzed, there’s a particular methodology that gets brought to bear. And that does a couple of things that lead to the exact same conclusions when you’re applying the same methodology, regardless of whether the object of exclusion is racial oppression, or misogyny. You’re going to reach the same conclusions. But what that does is that also works to obscure or minimize differences between different sites of exclusion. And that can lead to its own forms of inertia, because I’m sorry, to act in the real world, we need to make decisions about which problem is more grave, or more severe, and which is less severe. And there’s a real reluctance to undertake any sort of judgment, that hierarchizes in a lot of these humanities fields. I’m not saying we should do this, but I’m just using this as an example. So if I were to walk into my faculty meeting later today, and say: I think that abortion access issues are more important than the fight against police violence right now. And I think that that’s where I should direct my energies, I would be exiled from the department within the next half hour. But real world political action requires that we differentiate and draw distinctions. Again, because this particular methodology of analysis has tended to operate on autopilot, it prevents normative analysis that actually tries to differentiate between the magnitude of injuries and their severity suffered in diverse sites of exclusion. So in a way, one of my arguments is that we haven’t been critical enough. And that’s because in critiquing everything, by way of the same methodological apparatus, we actually end up preventing ourselves from making critical judgments about where to direct our limited resources. And this logic of exclusion tends to do that. The third real problem with it is just how easily it’s appropriated. All of the men’s rights stuff buys into and reproduces this exact same formula for talking about exclusion. I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I’m starting to work on what’s going on in the US Supreme Court. I have a reading of Dobbs, the decision that overruled or did away with the right to abortion, and I’m sorry, Samuel Alito deploys this logic of giving voice to exclusion, to talk about the rights of the fetus, and to start to pave a pathway for recognizing fetal personhood. And so this thinking is, again, by no means tied to a particular left progressive agenda. It’s super easily plundered and misappropriated. So I’m not sure that it’s the recipe for all of the good things we expect it’s invariably going to be a recipe for.

Scott Ferguson:  So in your fifth chapter, you take up the role of paradox in what’s called trauma theory. Maybe to get us into that argument, you can tell our listeners a little bit about what trauma theory is, how it arose, and how it’s been on your view, overridingly positive, but that it, too, has limitations and blind spots that we need to be thinking about otherwise and especially when it comes to pedagogical cultures in classrooms where trauma theory is taught?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah. Over the course of the book, I look at a series of innovations that demand to be attributed to theory, or this revolution in the humanities, and just how much they’ve really revolutionized popular discourse. Ideas about gender would be one wherein theory won, right? We’ve changed the game, talk of structural oppression. Even five years ago, discussing structural oppression would not be in common parlance. It’s become a kind of dinner table fair. My students arrive in college knowing what structural oppression is. And that’s amazing. Another way in which everything we’ve been doing in the humanities has, in fact, changed things. Trauma theory is another enormous site of influence. Before Vietnam, trauma was not a recognized medical diagnosis. And trauma theory arose in the academy in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and gained enormous popularity. It initially thought specifically about trauma stemming from the Holocaust, and it was heavily influenced in its earliest incarnations by both psychoanalysis, specifically psychoanalysis in the vein of Jacques Lacan, and by deconstruction, so thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man. It’s changed a lot and departed in many ways from its roots and what is often thought of as Yale school, because it happened at Yale. Yale School of Trauma Theory. But trauma theory has also been widely critiqued as colonizing our available vocabularies for talking about victimization and injury. So all sorts of people have complained about… there’s an influential book called The Empire of Trauma, have complained about the ways trauma has become, not that trauma theory is wrong or bad on its own, but it’s become our dominant and often only framework for thinking about forms of abuse, injury, victimization, and all of that. So the perfect example of a theoretical innovation that’s reverberated throughout the real world instituted all sorts of enormously positive change, yet, nevertheless, needs to be rethought precisely because it’s dominated our explanatory framework so much. The book actually concludes by thinking about the ways it has proven limiting. And some of those limits have to do with this recurring theme of just how easy it is to be hijacked. It’s easy to deploy these dominant definitions of what trauma looks like, and to kind of weaponize them in ways that discredit particular injuries. And I’m also concerned about the ways that it draws from an understanding of representation and linguistic meaning that can work to strangely deem trauma ethical. So in a way, it buys into a line of thought that’s really commonplace, and again, enormously productive in many instances, that asks us to think about pain and suffering as endowing the victim with privileged insight and understanding. This is the kind of reasoning that shows up in one of the most influential texts from the African American literary canon W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, where he coins the notion of “Double Consciousness”, which is this idea that to be the victim of protracted racial and other persecution endows one with an elevated way of knowing, or a double and multiple consciousness that allows more sophisticated grasp of not only the forces that lead to oppression, but of one’s own relationship in the world. Du Bois actually called Double Consciousness a paradox, believe it or not. And that thinking is super positive and super empowering, but what it does is it nevertheless takes pain and finds something redemptive within it. Again, this is valuable thinking for all sorts of reasons. But I tried to reckon with the ways it’s maybe gone a little bit too far. And trauma theory draws on a similar type of understanding, but supplement it with a model of the psyche that understands trauma as fundamentally elusive, repressed, fragmentary, that kind of resides within these gaps of consciousness. Trauma is something we can never actually localize, all the brain does and cycles around it kind of questing for its origin or cure. Hence, this repressed nature. But there’s something about that mode of thought that can take repression, and treat it as restorative and even ethical. So some of this early trauma theory actively describes trauma as the ethical connective tissue that will provide a link across cultures. You can see why I may be skeptical of that kind of move. I do try to wrestle with how that kind of thinking can be problematic, among other reasons, and that it can disqualify certain kinds of injuries from counting as trauma, lots of people have made that argument about it. Early trauma theory has been widely critiqued for being beholden to a very Eurocentric conception of the subject along these lines, but I’m interested in how especially that model needs to be updated due to historical factors. But how that model for understanding injury can again be turned on its head, or exploited and manipulated, to discount historical forms of oppression to actually undermine the victim, to gaslight, or ghost particular kinds of injuries. So for me, some of these ways of talking about trauma, again, kind of epitomize the ways all of these really great innovations that come from theory can nevertheless be misappropriated and misused by hostile forces.

Scott Ferguson:  So I want to try to use some legalese. And you can tell me if I’m not using it correctly, but it seems to me that when trauma theory reaches its limit, it sort of edits worse. In the realm of law, it’s like turning everything into torts. It’s like everything is an injury, and from the point of view of what do we do going forward? How do we construct and fight for a just world? Well, let’s tally up the injuries and then remedy the injuries, which we should do. But that’s only one place to start. And I worry that we foreclose posing questions about the right thing to do for people, the right thing to fight for individuals, for collectives, for groups, for the globe, that aren’t necessarily predicated upon intelligible injuries.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, that’s a critique of trauma that others have also raised, that I absolutely agree with because trauma assumes that there was some clearly-isolatable injury that happened at one discrete moment in time. It actually writes off more systemic forms of injustice and injuries that can’t be pinpointed in such a precise fashion. So it can actually do a real disservice to thinking about generalized conditions of harm, or low grade forms of violence and Injury that are woven into the day to day. Trauma is often thought about as exceptional. For most people, a decent percentage of people in the world, trauma is written into their most ordinary, mundane, non-exceptional interactions and realities. And I would also say that one of the things I tried to reckon with in the book is how this particular methodology of reasoning, that I call this Logic of Paradox, tends to be reproduced quite formulaically again and again and again, everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. And trauma theory exemplifies the way in which all sorts of wildly divergent and very, very different injuries nevertheless come to be digested and deciphered, by way of this recurring formal logic. So all traumas end up looking the same or being defined in the same way. And there, too, it works to actually level or erase differences between different traumas that are profoundly meaningful, and that I think we as theorists should be setting out to measure and to wrestle with and to document. A lot of trauma theory precedes from the notion that there’s something fundamentally unverifiable about trauma that can’t be documented, and that can’t lend itself or that will elude legalistic regimes of evidence. And maybe, yes, that clearly is true for certain traumas. But it can actually obscure our ability to engage in forms of documentary labor, or to undertake the kind of normative differentiation that I think the humanities have really forfeited, but that seems essential,

Scott Ferguson:  You have an analysis of the trauma theory classroom that I’d like to give you a chance to elaborate. The classroom in which the pedagogue is encouraging students to confess, I have to say that I don’t think I’ve been in one of those classrooms. But I don’t think I ever took a strictly trauma theory class, either.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, you’re totally right. And I think this plays out within a lot of these really foundational theory texts from the 80s and 90s where, in fact, witnessing one’s own trauma is heralded as its own form of pedagogy. And so the sort of confessional mode has overtaken a lot of humanity’s classrooms. It’s perhaps different now than it was back in the day, but I can absolutely remember classrooms wherein you authorize your own voice as a speaker by first confessing to the forms of injury that had been inflicted on you. I’ve even taken exams back in the day where that confessional mode was how … I won’t name any names … how one was guaranteed an A or not. But what that does is that also deauthorizes certain voices. Again, it risks trivializing the injuries at hand. So I do think that part of the consciousness raising aspect of pedagogy has been about broadcasting one’s own sites of victimization, and that that kind of exercise has become compulsory in a lot of different spaces. I think the other reason we should be a little worried about that model of pedagogy, that’s oriented around consciousness raising in the classroom, is that it presumes that symbolic change in these elite institutions of higher education is going to trickle down or translate into action on the streets. I’m not so confident the symbolic awareness when one’s in college is actually going to meaningfully activate an electorate. I mean, it’d be nice to think it does. But the seamlessness of that trickle down effect, I think, has been overstated, or over-wagered, in a lot of humanities scholarship.

Billy Saas:  I think that there’s some interesting overlap potentially, between what you’re kind of calling for which seems to me like a little bit more specification about trauma like a reconceptualizing, that is about expanding and becoming more specific and not, not just sort of identifying all trauma as co-equal. With some of the histories of money that we interact with, as opposed to the kind of original, primordial barter situation where we’re all just autonomous actors, hopping around trading with each other, and then some genius person or group invents money to make it more efficient. There’s a anthropological history that’s much more feasible or tenable, that locates it in Medieval Period Weregild, which is trying to identify specifically, quantitatively forms of recompense that are adequate for trauma that one inflicts on someone else. And in this case, it’s like, how much is a nose worth? If you took somebody’s nose off, what is that worth in terms of livestock, and gold and money and things like that? And it’s a gruesome origin story. And it’s not the whole story. I want to ask you to maybe specify or differentiate how your theory of integrative criticism, which you have identified toward the end of your book in the second interlude, and then the final chapter is a potential path forward for left theory? How is it not in the field of trauma or in the logic of paradox and trauma studies? How is it different or more than, better than, different from, distinct from? You know, one ear is worth 10 pieces of gold?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, a great question. I think, first, why is an integrative approach to theorizing things different from the way trauma is often accounted for? I mean, one of the staples of a lot of especially early trauma theory is that it’s resistant to healing or defiance of the cure precisely because it’s kernel, that traumatic kernel is going to remain fundamentally elusive. So what that means is, if you’re a trauma victim, whose trauma is no longer repressed, whose trauma is self present, who maybe thinks that they’re cured, you’re not properly traumatized. And that’s not really trauma that you’re suffering from. So if trauma can be integrated into the psyche, it ceases to be trauma. We can see why we have this really narrow definition and super normative lens for dismissing or discounting certain traumas. In thinking about those types of issues, types of debates that have been left off the table, or kind of prohibited by what I tried to describe as an epistemology of paradox, or paradox as a way of knowing, are a lot of things that are vital ingredients of a livable and effective politics. And so by thinking about the integrative in a way that’s my framework for trying to put my finger on a series of things that it’s been impermissible to talk about, not to mention analyzed, in a lot of critical theory, or lefty circles. And those are things such as when things succeed or work relatively well. I mean, how often have you read a book written in the humanities that takes the relative success story in the history of politics or law and says, I’m gonna write a book about why this worked? Never! Right? So we’re just allergic to taking stock of, not to mention celebrating, our limited accomplishment. Even here, I’m like mincing my words. I’m scared to say success. Right? I certainly can’t say progress, right? Not to mention, I would call something a victory. Ah, right. But come on. There are political accomplishments that have been successful, that have proven lasting and effective, that we should take seriously and take stock of and ask why they worked, so that we can emulate them and replicate them. We should also ask those types of questions about forms of community, day to day practices that prove sustaining and effective. When I appeal to the integrative it’s a call to train our attention to all of these things that have been off the radar screen of theory and actually deemed impermissible. So I think about the integrative as also a matter of when things hold together as sort of something different from the logic of paradox. Paradox has worked to fracture, break apart, fragment established truths, break down orthodoxies. But sometimes it’s important to examine the kind of glue or connective tissue that isn’t about when things fall apart, but is what renders things sustainable, livable, habitable, again, are when things kind of come in hold together in ways that we want to applaud. So it’s really a plea to turn our theoretical attention to those things that prove non contradictory, or we might experience as non contradictory. Not that they’re going to be permanently thus, but even just episodically so…

Scott Ferguson:  One of the things I really appreciate the style of your theorizing, the stylistic turn, that your theorizing takes in the late interlude in the last chapter, is you really stage for us, not in like a “woe is me”, but I think as an important intellectual project. How difficult and challenging this has been for you and has been part of your pedagogy? And how do I get out of those rote forms of the paradoxical with students? And what do they think? And what am I even saying? And what language am I going to use, and what kind of stylization or aesthetics are going to matter for this one potential of many alternatives to the paradoxical? So I just want to say, I really appreciate that bringing us into the problem, that’s a stylistic choice that you make. And I was wondering if you can speak to that, but also tell us a little bit about Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own, which is a bit of a touchstone in the Money On The Left community, just because precisely I think we’re picking up on similar things. She’s making normative demands, a room of one’s and this much money. You want to solve the women in fiction problem, people? Well start paying women to, and furnishing their lives to be able to write fiction. So your response?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, no, thank you. And thank you for saying nice things. I mean, this last chapter of my book where I put forward a kind of alternative or supplement to paradox: single-handedly the hardest thing I have ever written or will ever try to write. I can’t tell you how many different iterations of that I went through. Initially, I had settled on the rhetoric of the prescriptive, or the need to be prescriptive. Getting at normativity without fully going normative, a tentative way. So, to me, that was really a lesson in just how stifling this intellectual tradition had become, and also just how hard it was to escape, again, what increasingly felt like a stranglehold or its own sort of internal policing mechanism. So, to me, it was just an unbelievably both fascinating and kind of arduous and painful experiment to try to think differently. I do feel like I put forward the integrative as one way to think about a supplement to paradox. I do want to emphasize that I’m not saying it’s the only way or the right way, it was the best I could come up with. But to me, what matters most is that we do something different. And we kind of add something to the mix, and that we don’t walk away from every conversation, throwing our hands up in the air and citing paradox. For me, what matters most is that we try to undertake so much more constructive, affirmative, and practically oriented labor. I think there’s a way in which theory has lost sight of all of these aspects of lived experience, and the very pragmatic, practical realities of day to day decisions about how we guide our lives, necessary decisions that factor into any political decision making process, right or any legal judgment for that matter, since I think about law a lot. For me, the integrative was one way of focusing our attention on certain elements of those practical choices that get elided, or written off, and a lot of our intellectual labors. By deploying the term integrative, I am also, of course, trying to think about how we might better integrate our intellectual activities into our lived routines. In directing us to the day to day, you probably also have picked up on the extent to which the day to day is written off as some kind of debased sphere of intervention. There’s an incredible utopian future oriented impulse and a lot of theory that any politics needs to be utopian in its fundamental ambitions. I’m pretty skeptical of that, too. So looking at the integrative is an effort to counteract that impulse that shows up in a lot of places. That’s cool you’re also Woolf people, too. I didn’t realize that everyone’s own …

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, I’ve taught a class on essayistic writing across text, and photo essay, and video essay, and film essay, and I always do A Room of One’s Own. So I have a really intimate relationship.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, I’ve actually never taught it.

Scott Ferguson:  Oh, god, it’s so great. Yeah.

Elizabeth Anker:  But I’m also in literary studies, right? There are so many of these canonical or widely celebrated texts that tend to be read in through a particular framework. That’s why I’m so, even having written about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and I’m still kind of fixated on it because it on the one hand rightly tends to elicit these interpretations that think about it as a meditation on structural oppression, and the tenacity of this kind of monolithic edifice of racism. And that’s right, that’s in there, that absolutely lends itself to those interpretations. But there are all of these other moments in the text that just get neglected or overlooked, that are actually gesturing towards something a lot more complicated, a lot more affirmative. And that’s one of the reasons I’m also so interested in Woolf right, as she’s often one of the great spokespersons for a particular kind of queer consciousness. And that’s true, that’s there. But she’s also doing this really normative project.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, while being a radical critic of British Empire,

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, yeah. And those two things can go hand in hand. Right? And for all sorts of reasons, again, hence, the book, we’ve just been utterly resistant to thinking about those things as going arm in arm or being part and parcel of the same intellectual fabric, and they can be and they are, and they should be, and they need to be.

Scott Ferguson:  It’s interesting, there’s a certain kind of contemporary defeatist utopianism that I think you’re speaking to, which is like: well, we must overcome capitalism, right? And if we don’t overcome capitalism, which, by the way, on this show, we actually find the word capitalism to be highly reifying. But that’s another conversation. But if we don’t over time,

Elizabeth Anker:  I’m going to be the new regular listener.

Scott Ferguson:  You’re welcome to! So if we don’t fully overcome capitalism, then you can’t ultimately have legitimate justice, right? One of the normative political projects that our heterodox world of econ and law and US humanities folks are committed to is a federal job guarantee, a right to work. This goes way back to Louis Blanc in the 19 century, throughout the Reconstruction period, the Black struggle for freedom. There’s a long, long tradition to point to. And there’s a lot of other leftists we’re in critical conversation with who will say: no, that won’t work under capitalism, capitalism won’t allow that to happen. Our point is not to say, “No, utopia is coming tomorrow. A right to work is arriving. Let’s all start celebrating joyously that utopia is tomorrow.” Nevertheless, we think there’s a difference between standing by principles, and of critically evaluating the world with those normative claims on the table and in mind, and being put into the conversation as the values that were weighing this reality against, that I think we see in Woolf and I also think that we see in your project.

Elizabeth Anker:  Just to echo your observations about how the insistence on a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is the only way to go, it also blinds us to some of these more complicated histories that exist within a particular intellectual formation. My most recent version of that is four years ago, I started teaching 1L contract law. Which is great fun, but had you talked to me before then, or talked to any of my colleagues in the humanities, they would say: contracts are tools of oppression, they’re individualistic, they’re at the root of capitalism. And so I’m teaching contract law and discover within that history that, lo and behold, there have been all of these very progressive reforms, many of the efforts to codify and systematize contract law, were informed by people influenced by German socialism. So, lo and behold, the sort of real story of the evolution of contract law, especially in the early 20th century, is so much more complicated and nuanced and deeply collectivist, and in a spirit we would actually want to get behind. There’s a way in which this either or thinking leads to these blinkered responses that actually shut down or blind us to avenues for instituting change. I tend to be a bit more willing to accept incrementalist arguments for change, too. But, you know, you don’t want to tell anyone that.

Scott Ferguson:  Well, I think here we’re but we’re open to increments, and we’re open to leaps and everything in between, I guess that’s what I would say.

Elizabeth Anker:  I love your account of capitalism. And yeah, I tend less to run in, I tend to do less of the economic stuff and I’m less steeped in Marxist theory and those debates, just because they sometimes tend to be more, I want to say, inside baseball, but you know that. I don’t know about baseball. But yeah, we need to be coming up with viable approaches and strategies and solutions that don’t depend on the end of capitalism, or what have you.

Billy Saas:  There’s one particular source that I think often gets read by our interlocutors as support for that idea that a job guarantee couldn’t happen under capitalism, because capitalism is a piece by Michał Kalecki, called the political aspects of unemployment, where he argues, basically outlines here are the reasons that capitalists will object to a full employment economy. Here are the reasons that they’re going to do this. And he gives three, the specifics don’t matter so much. They take that as supporting evidence that it will not work. I sort of understand it, anyway, as yeah, these are things to watch out for as you build.

Scott Ferguson:  This is why we fight!

Billy Saas:  Right. This is why you fight and show up and like to propose and repeatedly iterate and build upon experiments and positive affirmative projects. And so I think the language that you’ve provided in the book is really, really awesome. I mean, the language, the argumentation. What are you doing next? You mentioned a next project, are you developing in that project, some of the integrative criticism methodology or what can you tell us?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, I’m still a little bit in between projects, but the one thing I’ve just started avidly working on is precisely to think about the propensity of some of these standard moves and standard left argumentative strategies, and frankly, ideological positions and critiques to be appropriated. So I’m increasingly haunted by how some of that reasoning is getting hijacked by more right wing jurisprudence, and in the court system. Just to give a few examples, one of the things I track in my book is just how hardwired a skepticism of law is among the left. Well, that kind of legal skepticism was a Breitbart platform. And so, skepticism about incrementalist visions of law is becoming rampant among the New Right. I’m very interested in how certain critiques of liberalism, for instance, that we’ve long thought of as kind of the bread and butter of more left progressive theory are being irrigated among the left. I’m sorry, among the right, increasingly on the right in the judiciary, kind of an anti liberalism. And this isn’t just in fringe circles. Like Adrian Vermeule, I don’t know if that’s a name that rings a bell, has this blog called The Post-Liberal Order, and about a year ago published this book called Common Good Constitutionalism, which basically does Carl Schmitt in order to argue for a return of vitalism to politics by way of a strong leader. So it’s this weird apologetics for Trump. He teaches at Harvard Law School, this book is getting taken seriously by all sorts of academics. It is leading to positioning on the right as a result. If we had a half hour, I would catalog the number of sort of staples of theory that are alive and well and flourishing in the right, and I’m simply focusing on legal stuff as a discrete point of entry. I’m trying to sort of prove the extent to which both our ideological positions and our critiques and our methodological tactics are all being actively hijacked. And a lot of these really recent, really controversial Supreme Court cases. It’s precisely in that light, I’d finished the book well before the Dobbs decision was handed down, but that, for me, exemplifies the ways in which a whole series of classically leftist moves are being deployed to justify overturning the right to abortion. But there’s a way in which that decision also gives me new fuel for thinking about the value of integrity as something we need to theorize in affirmative terms because when all of these kinds of modes of critique are being deployed against us, we the critics, how do we react to them? I’m not sure that throwing more indeterminacy into the mix is the answer when somebody like Alito, Samuel Alito says, well, all legal rules are constructs. We don’t respond to that by evoking a constructivist thesis of truth, right? We need to have something that we can independently build or take as a foundation. And I think integrity is one of those values that we maybe need to be adapting, endorsing, not without cognizance of the many dangers that would come with integrity. I mean, integrity carries with it all sorts of problematic associations. I can enumerate, but nevertheless thinking about the integrity of women’s decision making, women’s bodily integrity, all of this stuff might be a helpful counterpoint to such a ruling.

Scott Ferguson:  I was just kind of free associating. I was thinking about, if you thought about these spectacular melodramatic performances, crying, breaking down on the witness stand before a panel like Kyle Rittenhouse or Brett Kavanaugh. The way that there’s a kind of performance of trauma and victimhood on the right that may or may not be playing into the legibility that trauma studies has brought to bear. Not to blame trauma studies for those manipulations, but I’m curious if you’ve thought about that?

Elizabeth Anker:  Oh, yeah, absolutely. I actually have one of my graduate students, Christina Fogarasi, has this brilliant analysis of how the efforts to invalidate the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford in Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, actively enlisted the conventions of trauma theory but turned them on their head as this pretty savvy tactic for discrediting her testimony, and undermining her authority as a witness. So trauma theory, itself, is a sword that can be weaponized to poke holes or discount particular manifestations of trauma. Her argument is, that’s exactly what happened. I think that would have to go hand in hand with the performance of the traumatized male victim, which just goes to show that all of these bequests of theory have been so valuable, but they’ve been too often presumed to equal a left progressive politics. And these are all examples of how that’s just not true. They don’t necessarily feed into a particular political position or agenda.

Billy Saas:  So not discrediting trauma theory but more crediting or identifying the cynicism, opportunism, appropriation of trauma theory’s strongest aspects by some of its worst opponents.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Scott Ferguson:  Well this has been a great discussion. Thank you so much, Elizabeth Anker for joining us on Money On The Left.

Elizabeth Anker:  Thank you again for having me. This has been so rewarding. I’ve learned new things about my book, because of so many of your really brilliant interventions and spins on its argument. So I am hugely grateful for the chance to talk to the two of you

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Emily Reynolds of The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (graphic art)

Stayed on Freedom w/ Dan Berger

Money on the Left presents a public conversation with Dan Berger about his important new book, Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power through One Family’s Journey (Basic Books, 2023). 

Berger’s Stayed on Freedom tells a new history of Black Liberation through the intertwined narratives of two grassroots organizers. The Black Power movement, often associated with its iconic spokesmen, derived much of its energy from the work of people whose stories have never been told. Stayed On Freedom brings into focus two unheralded Black Power activists who dedicated their lives to the fight for freedom. Zoharah Simmons and Michael Simmons fell in love while organizing tenants and workers in the South. Their commitment to each other and to social change took them on a decades-long journey that traversed first the country and then the world. In centering their lives, Berger shows how Black Power united the local and the global across organizations and generations. Based on hundreds of hours of interviews, Stayed On Freedom is a moving and intimate portrait of two people trying to make a life while working to make a better world.  

This public dialog took place on February 24, 2023 at the University of South Florida. It was graciously moderated by Tangela Serls (Professor of Instruction in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and Special Advisor to the USF College of Arts and Sciences Dean on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and K. Stephen Prince (Professor in the USF History Department).

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Steve Prince:  Well, Dan, thank you so much for joining us. This is wonderful, and I really appreciate the opportunity to do this as a discussion, as opposed to simply a book talk would be wonderful. But hopefully bringing it to a more discussion-based format will be really productive. It is a truly wonderful book. I will echo what Scott said: absolutely beautifully written, engaging all the way through, and powerful and so, so important. So I guess we’ll start with a couple of softballs, and then we’ll save the hard stuff for later. You open the book with a couple passages about the way that you first became engaged with Michael and Zoharah Simmons, so I hope you could start with that. Just how did this book come to be? Who are Michael and Zoharah Simmons? How did you become engaged with them? And why did you decide to tell their story?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, thank you for that, and thank you all for coming. Thanks to everyone who helped organize this. Thanks, also, everyone who organized and participated in the protests yesterday, which I was with you in spirit. I’m very excited to be here even though I was promised it would not be this hot. In a lot of ways, this book began 23 years ago when I started at the University of Florida, the same year that Zoharah Simmons started there. When I started there as a student, the same year that Zoharah Simmons started there as a professor. She had gone back to school late in life to finish first her undergrad, and then ended up getting a PhD. And she was invited to speak to a history class I was in about her experience in the civil rights movement. I was 18, I guess, at the time, and I was just a young activist, trying to figure out some things about the world. I was just really blown away by her presentation about her experiences. She talked about growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, raised by her grandmother, who had been raised by her grandmother who had been an enslaved person. And I’ll just say that I was very close to my grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor. So I think I recognize something about that kind of connection to a traumatic history that inspired activism in the younger generation really spoke to me in a particular kind of way. She talks about employment in the civil rights movement, where she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and then also played a key role in SNCC’s turn to Black Power and the rise of Black Power out of the civil rights movement. That was really interesting to me, because at the time, people didn’t really talk a lot about Black Power. It wasn’t in a lot of certainly the kind of mainstream history that I had encountered in high school. So I wanted to learn more about it, and it inspired me on a personal level but it also inspired me intellectually. I went to the library to check out a lot of books, and everything I could to read on, on civil rights and Black Power, and was really struck at the time by how different her experience was from what I was reading in the scholarship and in the literature. Even though we know a lot more about Black Power, we know a lot more about civil rights and the connection between them now than we did then, that experience really stuck with me. After I graduated, I moved to Philadelphia, I met her ex-husband, Michael Simmons, and it was the same thing all over again. They were always kind of on my shoulder, or in the back of my mind as I read other people’s work, and they talked about, “no one in the movement did this” or “everyone in the movement did this” and I would always be like “no one did that?” Because Zoharah did that thing.” Or “everyone did that? Well, Michael did something else.” Just to give two examples, and then I’ll stop for this question. Both Michael and Zoharah were part of something called the Atlanta Project of SNCC, which was the first time that SNCC had an urban project. Most of SNCC’s work was in rural places throughout the South. Most of the literature on the Atlanta Project to this day, in fact, says that this was a group of northerners who had no basis in SNCC who tried to take over the organization. And Zoharah from Memphis was the co-director of the project and became the co-director after three years in the organization and had no desire to be the leader and was never trying to take over SNCC…etc, etc. Alright, so there was already something that was off to me. Likewise, I’ve written a lot and studied a lot of the 60’s era, broadly, and a lot of the work on the anti-war movement of that era sees it as synonymous with the white left. But Michael is someone who spent two and a half years in prison for refusing induction into the military during the Vietnam War and was organizing for Black draft resistance. So there are just all of these ways that their stories expand the scope of that time period, but also of the Black Power movement beyond that time period that I think really kept me honest, as a scholar, reading other people’s work and writing my own. After a while, I asked them if they wanted to collaborate on this book because it seemed like something that could make a difference more broadly.

Tangela Serls:  I love that. And I want to just reiterate what Steve and Scott both said: beautiful work. I felt, at the end, that I knew Michael and Zoharah personally. It was that compelling. Thank you for your work.

Dan Berger:  Thank you.

Tangela Serls:  To that point, the notion of family is a powerful thing throughout the world. So obviously Michael and Zoharah are family, literally, metaphorically. We recently listened to a podcast where the three of you did, and I was struck to learn about the conflict that happened with Zoharah leaving to go to Spelman and her grandmother warning her not to get involved with all of the protests and all of that. And when she finally split and decided not to return, it was a big falling out and all of that. So when she went to join SNCC in Mississippi, straw Lynn (spell check) told her after he sent the money and it got intercepted that “we’re your family now”, because her family had told her not to return. Especially her grandmother was really upset. There really seems to be different conceptions of family throughout the novel. There’s familial love and familial betrayal. And I know that just the idea of family, in general, can sometimes be contested. Family is not always a safe space for folks, so I get that. I’m just wondering if you could speak a little bit more about the meaning of family and all that senses as it relates in general and more specifically, as it relates to Stayed On Freedom?

Dan Berger: Yeah, it’s a great question, and I will try to be concise. I think there’s a lot there to talk about. It was important for me to call this — the subtitle says, “it’s one family’s journey” — I think there’s a lot about the journey there. There’s a lot of travel that happens, criss-crossing the country, and then criss-crossing the world. But it’s also that it’s family, and in the way that you articulated in the question. Part of it, for me, is that sense that family brings together a lot of contentious, contradictory dynamics, right? Where there’s a lot of love, but also, it’s a cliche, but about the basis of Freudian psychology. The wounds between parents and children. This is a biography as well as a movement history, but there’s always pieces of the author in any story. So I thought a lot about the struggles that I’ve had with my own family, and my own activism. When Zoharah talked about choosing the movement over her family’s wishes and some of those breaks that happen there was more intense than anything that I have experienced, and she sacrificed way more and put herself in the line of danger far more than I ever have, and probably ever could. But that sense of a break, and a kind of coming into one’s own required in that moment, or demonstrated in that moment felt familiar to me. And I think that’s something that a lot of people have to go through, whether it’s about their politics or their identity with a fundamental clash that happens with family. So the movement does become family in both the kind of chosen family and the biological family. There’s a lot of pain and even betrayal that happens in this story. Zoharah recounts an experience in the training for Freedom Summer being almost sexually assaulted by someone who was a prominent activist within SNCC. When she tried to report it, other members of SNCC were like, “We don’t have time to deal with this. We’re going to Mississippi. Why don’t you just go along with it?” I mean a very deep betrayal. And also she went to Mississippi and got swept up in the urgency and didn’t even have time to process that betrayal at that moment. Then, later in the book and later in their lives, Michael and Zoharah have a child who was sexually abused by Michael’s stepfather. When Aisha, their daughter, told them about this, they couldn’t handle it. In much the same way that people in SNCC couldn’t handle it when Zoharah raised that; that family could be a site of pain and family could be a site of violence. Those book-end the book, these are echoes of that betrayal in these different forms of family. I think we’re getting to the idea of why the book is called Stayed On Freedom, right? Their consciousness had to be expanded. That was Zoharah’s first sense of realizing that the movement was not only a safe space, but also potentially a site of danger. And it was not until many years after their daughter confronted them that they really reckoned with the fact that they themselves could be silent accomplices, or accomplices through silence, to the ways that biological families could be sites of violence, as well. That’s something Aisha has written a lot about this, and this is a big thing for her own activism. It’s been really amazing to learn from. I think that family is never a kind of static thing. It requires this work, it requires a constant struggle or constant engagement. It’s a learning process for me in writing the book, and I think they learned a lot as we wrote about it as we were going through these histories. There were lots of ups and downs in the seven years of working on this book that they would talk about in our interviews.

Steve Prince: Thank you. You have this wonderful line in the introduction of the book that Michael and Zohara Simmons “seemed representative of the rich messiness of social movements in the modern United States,” and you’ve touched on some of the places that we find the Simmons through their journey. They start with SNCC organizing in the rural south. They take us through the transition to Black Power and an awakening of a Black Power consciousness. But over the course of the book, they’re also involved in union organizing, and anti-war activism, prison activism, and anti apartheid activism. They’re involved for a long period with the Friends. It is just such a remarkable journey that they take us through. And, as you say, “representative of the rich messiness of social movements in the history of the United States.” These movements that we tend to isolate and segregate are all there. These two lives connect them all together. So I was hoping you could speak a little bit about this, this breadth of their political imagination through their careers as activists, and what’s the significance of that broad vision of justice and activism?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, thanks for that. I think that so often, we talk about the 60s, when we talked about these time periods that freeze people in time, that freeze our sense of history in time. Or we talk about particular organizations, but obviously, time goes on. So the 60s become the 70s. Started in the 50s. So we have these lapses of time, but we also have these changes in organization, so very few of the frontline organizations of the 60s, survived the time period. SNCC started in ’60, and ended by ’68. The Panthers started in ’66 and technically lasted until ’82, but really they’re an Oakland organization after 1972. So the organizations that really dominate a lot of our historical consciousness and popular consciousness don’t actually have that long a life in the grand scheme of things. Certainly there’s a lot to be learned from focused organizational studies, and I drew on a lot of those works. There’s a lot to be learned by focus studies of particular places. A lot of the civil rights history has been moved to these local studies of how civil rights play out in one particular county or one particular town, and that’s fantastic work. I wanted to do something different, not as a disavowal of that work, but as an expansion of that work because people don’t necessarily stay in that one town their whole life. And people learn new things from their experiences. I think we get a richer, but also a truer picture of what life on the left looks like, what a political life looks like when we follow people rather than following organizations. Obviously, this is a biography; the biography genre, by definition, is following people. But I think that gives us a sense of how that experience in SNCC led people to ask me questions, and what happens when you leave, or in their case, get fired from an organization? I think there’s a lot of just downright heroism, bravery and courage — inescapable in the civil rights and Black Power movement. And it’s people: there’s pettiness, there’s ego, there’s fights that happen. And if I know organizations that I’ve been a part of have fallen apart over that stuff, why wouldn’t I expect that people 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, didn’t also have falling out over that stuff? So I think, for me, it became– I mean, you’re always an evangelist for your own method, at some level, at least when the book was new — but for me, it became, the clearest way to understand not only their lives, of course, but to understand the impact of that movement. The impact of that work is to see that move from SNCC, to the National Council of Negro Women to the Nation of Islam to the American Friends Service Committee to the National Black Independent Political Party, to the Philadelphia Worker Organizing Committee, and others that I’m skipping over. There’s a wide range of groups that express a vast spectrum of ideological positions that operate in a wide range of geographies, and yet, the same people move through them. Right. It connects, in some ways, to your earlier question about family. There’s a quote from Michael in the book, “it’s not this or that, it’s this and that” and that it’s everything. I really think, to me, that just knowing that has expanded my sense of the left or radical possibility to understand that people might have their own ideological proclivities and might find themselves working in organizations that don’t share all of them, but that they do some good work with them, and that they can change and push those organizations in the process. So to me, I think that the AFSC, American Friends Service Committee, was fundamentally changed by Black Power activists including Michael and Zoharah, but others as well, in ways that I think we would miss just by doing a history of AFSC. I think we get that sense of how people persist in that sense of change over time.

Tangela Serls:  I want to tie what you said earlier, Dan, about family requiring work, family sometimes being the site of pain or betrayal, and this notion of what Michael said in terms of it being “this and that”, because that was one of my favorite quotes too, to a question that we had about hope. After you answered the earlier question about family, it’s easy to just think about it like it’s pretty depressing. To that point, in explaining the decision to write the book, you describe a longing to tell a hopeful story after some of your earlier work which focused on incarceration and prison activism. We think you’ve achieved this with both Michael and Zoharah Simmons, and the book is resolutely hopeful, but yet there’s still a lot of darkness and tragedy and violence. So why is it still a hopeful story? And what is the power of hope in this work?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, Thanks. I’m glad that you picked up on that line because I meant that line in a couple of different ways. Partly, I meant it as a pure narrative description. I finished Captive Nation, which Scott kindly mentioned in the introduction, and it’s a book about the role that incarcerated people played in the civil rights and Black Power movements in the 60s and 70s, focused mostly in California. The 60s and 70s is the run up to and the beginning of what we now call mass incarceration. Most of the people I write about in that book died painful deaths, sometimes an internecine conflict, sometimes murdered by the state. Many of those who survived that were interviewed are wonderful, committed people, but deeply traumatized by the things that they witnessed and the tortures that they experienced. It was hard to write that book. It took a toll on me emotionally to do those interviews, to sit with people. I’m the better person for it, so I don’t mean it in that sense. But I wanted to do a book that I thought would be more hopeful, right? Because that’s a book that ends not only with this death and torture and violence, but also that ends with mass incarceration. Here we have this profound movement inside of prisons in this country that was so powerful and such a challenge to the established order that prison systems remade themselves to be more austere and punitive to prevent them from happening. It was grim, friends. So when I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, I thought: let me turn to this idea that I’ve had for a long time, that I think would be a hopeful story, because it’s about that continuation. And I was also a new parent at the time when I reached out to them and really thinking about, which touches on another answer to your question Steve, as well, I was thinking about how we played different roles in the different phases and stages of our life. I was living in a new city that I was still getting used to, and now I had this newborn. I couldn’t be at the meetings, and be at the protests and things the way that I once had been. I loved being a parent of a newborn. Being a parent is the best thing I’ve ever done, and it’s changed how I do things in the world. So I wanted to figure some things out about that. I had a lot of hope in that way. But I also mean that line as a bit of self criticism because, I thought, I’m just gonna tell this hopeful story about ongoing continuing activism, and I didn’t quite appreciate the level that, of course, that’s a story of pain and trauma and betrayal. There are some unique and particular ones, because these are specific people. But that, too, is a story of a life of organizing. So I think that line, for me, was also an honest estimation of that process of how I came to the book and the emotional state of coming to the book. But I also mean it in a way that I hope readers will come away thinking, as you did, that it’s not just a hopeful story, right? There’s a lot of difficulties here as well. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of people in my narrow sense of the world who I would consider famous. I mean famous in the “on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list” sort of famous. Some of them I’ve gotten to know well enough that I can see the obvious point of any famous person, which is that they’re just people. That, to me, was the takeaway that we can have, as Martin Luther King talked about in a very different context, we can’t have a foolish hope. We can’t have a magical hope that things will just work out because we’re on the right side of history. Or, we’ve made good choices and so everything will be fine. We certainly see that in a myriad of ways right now in the world we live in. So, to me, it was a reconsideration of a kind of naive sense of hope. I hope, I want, I think that the book is better and more hopeful for that. Because we walk through the real difficulties of life or the real difficulties of this kind of long haul commitment and the sacrifices that accompany that in a way that allows us to reckon with those tensions and contradictions and difficulties without glossing over them.

Steve Prince:  Great, thank you. I think we should talk about Black Power. One of the beautiful things about the book is that it is a narrative. It’s a story of a pair of lives, for the most part, but it does make a series of important historical and historiographical interventions, at the same time. I really do admire the way that you thread those in a way that is seamless and organic, but still clear and effective. I think one of the more significant historical claims that you do make regards to the nature of Black Power, in that it is a much broader program. I think you’re basing it in the Atlanta movement on the Black Consciousness paper as a formative moment in the theorisation of Black Power. Can you briefly discuss what Black Power means? Perhaps meant in the mid 60s and then perhaps what it means later for the people who were involved in it, and maybe what the story of Michael and Zoharah Simmons does to our textbook classroom vision of Black Power, where it’s Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers, full stop. So speak to the ways that your story hopefully challenges and expands what Black Power means.

Dan Berger:  Yeah, thanks. I would love to. A bit of context that, as I said, the Atlanta project of SNCC, was SNCC’s first time organizing in an urban context. And part of that was an effort to elect Julian Bond, who was SNCC’s communication secretary to the state legislature in Georgia. That happened in 1965. SNCC had long been debating whether to take a position on the US war in Vietnam. And again, if you look at a lot of us are anti war. What is presented as this anti war movement as those “campus anti-war movement,” i.e. what exists at mostly white universities, ’65 means there’s been a demonstration, a big and important demonstration, but there’s not much that has happened thus far. In the fall of 1965, practically on my birthday, before I was born, but the day was when I wouldn’t be born. Years later, Michael and Zoharah met at a SNCC meeting in Atlanta, where Zoharah was advocating very forcefully that SNCC needed to take a position on the Vietnam War. But not just on the Vietnam War. SNC needed to take a position on US imperialism. The US had recently invaded the Dominican Republic, US support for the apartheid regime in South Africa was an increasing topic of conversation. SNCC had always been slyly internationalist which is to say it was very focused on the US, but with a global context. John Lewis at the March on Washington said, “One man, one vote is the rallying cry in Africa. It needs to be ours as well.” There are these ways that SNCC was very indebted to and fired by global currents, particularly in Africa, and Southern Africa. After Mississippi Freedom Summer, a delegation of SNCC people went to Africa and came back and these were moments of exchange. By ’65, people like Zoharah were really adamant that this is a global context and that a critique of the US role in the world was important. Zoharah talks about this monster we live in, and those are archival records of the meeting. So SNCC drafts a statement that doesn’t go anywhere. It sits in the office, and then on January 3, about a month later, a Navy veteran and SNCC member named Sammy Young was shot and killed while trying to use a “white bathroom” in Tuskegee, Alabama. SNCC organized protests about it, but also released this statement. It’s a very powerful statement that you can find on the SNCC digital gateway. It’s still well worth reading. Julian Bond is asked about the statement, and he says he agrees with it. So the state legislature refuses to let him take the seat that he had been elected to. So that’s the origin of the Atlanta project that Julian Bond had to be reelected to a seat that he had won, but was not allowed to take because of SNCC’s anti-war sentiment. Bond’s campaign was abolishing the death penalty, raising the minimum wage to what would be set over $17 in contemporary amounts, pro-unions taking on the right-to-work laws. So it wasn’t exactly internationalist, but it was a very radical campaign. But the fact that it was SNCC’s opposition to the war in Vietnam that prevented him from taking his seat made it already very internationalist. So the Atlanta Project was organizing domestic workers, tenants in Atlanta, but it was also doing anti-draft organizing. One of the favorite parts to write and research was this big protest at the induction center, and this cat and mouse game that Michael did to try and avoid induction into the military. But I say all of this to say that the context of Black Power was very immediate, but also very global from the outside. I think that’s one thing that we often miss with a perspective that says, “oh, Black Power was Stokely Carmichael in Greenwood, Mississippi saying, we have to start saying Black Power” or the Panthers in an armed patrol of the police sort of way. All of those things happened, and are obviously significant, but we miss that sense of the world that I think was at the heart of Black Power. The other thing that is really significant, and is there in the Atlanta Project’s paper and thinking from the outset, is that Black Power was a coalitional politics. So Black Power was a recognition that we needed broad constituencies who oppose racism and white supremacy. SNCC had always been a Black-led organization, but during Freedom Summer, a lot of white volunteers came in, and a number of them wanted to stay and wanted to organize in the organization. SNCC’s constituency was always Black communities. It was rural Black communities, starting to be urban Black communities. So if Black organizers were organizing Black communities and the white organizers were organizing black communities, no one was going to where racism lived to build anti-racist constituencies there. So the idea, there’s a great passage from the Black Consciousness paper where everyone talks about Uncle Tom and no one talks about Simon Legree. No one talks about the white character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. If we want to end racism, we can’t just organize black people. That was this argument from the Atlanta Project; that we needed broad coalitions who opposed racism and white supremacy. I think Zoharah, in particular, still talks about that. That was part of what inspired me when I first heard her speak was saying we needed white people to be anti-racist, and that meant we needed them to bring other people along with that. That made a lot of sense to me at the time, and I think still does. In the book, I talk about Black Power as both a movement and a paradigm, and I think the movement largely didn’t disappear, but certainly faded by the mid 70s. But I think the paradigm is one that in many ways still carries them to this day. As some of the movement work died down in the way that they haven’t been doing it, they became more international in their outlook. Zoharah travels to Vietnam, and Cambodia, and China, and the Middle East, lives in Jordan for two years doing her research, but also other things. Michael ends up living in Budapest for many years after doing all this work in Central and Eastern Europe and in southern Africa as well. They expanded their sense of the world. I think we can trace that to that meeting where they first met and Zoharah was saying we have to talk about the global arrangement of power and how it can be different. I think it was really important for them to learn from the rest of the world. It wasn’t just charity, but it was a sense that things aren’t great in the US, and maybe people in other parts of the world have some things figured out that we can learn from here, as well. I think that sense of solidarity and coalition that was at the heart of Black Power from the beginning, has guided them throughout their careers as activists.

Tangela Serls:  Thank you for that. I’m going to connect two of our questions, and then connect it back to something you said, because even with that question about Black Power, I was surprised to learn about the call for the coalitional-based politics and, more explicitly, the call for white communities to do inter-communal consciousness raising. A simple question would be, does that inter-communal consciousness raising, does that demonstrate a Black Power paradigm?

Steve Prince:  Thank you.

Dan Berger:  I think that was certainly a part of it. I think consciousness raising is always a part of an organizing process. But I think they really took questions of power seriously. So they’re doing consciousness raising with the tenants in Atlanta. Michael and Zoharah both speak much more powerfully about this than I could, but Michael always says: if I think something can be changed, I should be able to get somebody else to think something can be changed. Part of their work was just getting people who had been beaten down and oppressed just by conditions of life, to feel like they could do something different about it. That’s consciousness raising, but that’s the step toward them doing something about it. Rather than just feeling like oh, maybe this isn’t my fault. Maybe this is part of something bigger. I think that absolutely they would see that anti racist consciousness works in non black communities, and particularly white communities, as a part of that. But fundamentally it’s about policy, it’s about power, it’s about transforming the institutions and structures. The consciousness raising is a necessary step in that process.

Tangela Serls:  Thank you for that clarification, that makes a lot of sense. The other question I wanted to ask, which goes back to one of Steve’s earlier questions about activism, he talked about how very few organizations have a long life with how they die out. So when thinking about the struggle for rights and freedom, the book explains how some of the organizations and movements Michael and Zoharah were part of broke down because they weren’t necessarily rooted in a collective understanding or acknowledgement of struggle. Folks allowed ideological differences to prevent them from moving forward. You kind of talked about that on one of your other podcasts. One of the questions that I wanted to ask: as an historian, can you comment on the ways in which struggle and ideology are compatible and sometimes incompatible, as you seen it, like when you were working on the project?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think that ideology is important, but I don’t think it’s as important as many leftists think. Amílcar Cabral, the great leader of the independence movement in Guinea-Bissau, and he said it better than I am about to, but something like: people don’t fight because of the ideas in their head, they fight for freedom, land bread, right? They fight for the sort of things in the world that will make their lives better. I think sometimes, again, he said it better you should read his version. But I think the point is that it’s cartoonishly easy. It’s a cliche to think that social change pivots on the point of ideology. This is the Monty Python Judean People’s Front versus the People’s Front of Judea. That these organizations are just constantly split, and that’s all they can do. I think ideology is important to the extent that it gives you a sense of the vision of the world that you’re working towards, and where you’re trying to go. I think ideology, what your values are, and what you’re not willing to compromise on, those are really important things in the world. They’re important ways of being able to locate yourself and locate your sense of proximity to power and your sense of proximity to other people of the organization. But I think many people err in thinking that if you just have the right ideological positions, then you win, and therefore think that the goal is to get everyone to have the right ideological position. What you’re talking about, the parts of the book where things break down, is where that starts to happen. Michael was a part of a communist organization in the 70s. I mentioned earlier, the Philadelphia Worker Organizing Committee that was steering this effort to build a new Communist Party in the United States, across a few different organizations, and they call their effort the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center. I know what you’re thinking with that name, how could it not take off and succeed? But it failed! And I think, obviously I’m joking about it, but it’s clear that it failed, right? I mean, there are some reasons that you read about in the book. But I think that sense of “okay, we just need to get the right ideology, and then we’ll win.” I think for me, this gets back to what you’re talking about earlier about the role of the power of biography or just thinking through people that people are messy and complicated, and I think electoral politics brings us out so clearly. That people who follow politics very seriously, that have an ideology think, “well, how can this union member vote for Trump?” Lots of people don’t have a developed ideology. They respond to people who they think are fun, or funny or interesting, or whatever the case may be. Obviously, I’m not saying that Trump’s base is union members or something. Far from it, but the point is that ideology only goes so far in actually explaining the political affiliations that people have. And I think a lot of things fail and where I become deterministic, perhaps. But Michael was a part of this communist effort I mentioned, Zoharah was part of a Black nationalist effort around the same time. That was very different, in some ways, ideologically. The particulars of their ideologies were different. But it was similarly ideological, if that makes sense. Their orientation was about: okay, everyone needs to be on the same page as an ideology. They were trying to organize through ideology. And they both failed at the same time. To me, that’s part of their story of why I wanted the book to happen. Because usually a history of Black nationalism and a history of Black Marxism and Black communism, they live in different projects, or at least different chapters. But usually in different books. These are different trajectories, or different tendencies, they are not in conversation. The fact that here you have this divorced couple who are very close to each other to talk politics with each other all the time who were doing really different efforts, but they’re both trying to build these ideological parties. They both fail around the same time. To me why I said this is where I get deterministic is my take away from that is that the early 1980s was an awful time. I think that’s true, separate from the book. Politically, to be on the left trying to organize in the early 80s, there’s lots of reasons why it was a terrible time. It was a terrible time. The idea that getting people to have the correct ideology will be the way out of a terrible time, I think, is mistaken. How you make people’s lives better in a terrible time, I think, is a more generative starting point. I think the ideology can actually come from that rather than leading with ideology, as I think happened in those cases.

Steve Prince:  I think this really is a book about the latter half of the 20th century. It’s not just a book about these two figures, or at least the left and latter half of the 20th century. But I think, really, it’s a book about the modern United States, and its broader context, actually. You manage to weave so much into the story, and part of it is you do have these characters who were really everywhere. For those of you who haven’t read the book, there’s this remarkable succession of individuals who just appear. She sang with Isaac Hayes in her choir, and she stumbled into the church, which is Ralph David Abernathy’s. The guy at dinner is Malcolm X. It’s like, come on. A part of it is just their lives: it’s true. But you also managed to weave in events that they didn’t necessarily attend. Neither of them were at the March on Washington in 1963, but you’re able to write about it. You alluded to Reagan, he’s in this book as well. How did you manage to craft the narrative being true to their own life story, but also connecting it to these larger trends and events and what was your thought process there?

Dan Berger:  It’s funny that you say that. Michael often jokes that he is the Forrest Gump of Black liberation. Many times I mentioned somebody and he’s like “oh, yeah, I went to Cuba with that person.” And there’s something at some level, that’s just profoundly unfair about it. Like, come on. For me, some of it was like, well this is how life works. Right? I mentioned this earlier book that I wrote about as an organizing Captive Nation, and that book focuses a lot on George Jackson, too. How many people here have heard of George Jackson? So, about half of you. How many have heard of Sundiata Tate? Nobody, right? George Jackson was, as he himself would say, part of a cohort, part of a generation of people. How many of you have heard of WL Nolen? George Jackson was mentored by WL Nolen. He would say Nolen was his teacher. The reason we know George Jackson, and we don’t know who WL Nolen is, is that George Jackson was a writer. People recognize that he was a writer and published his writings. Often people who are writers in prison we’ve never heard of. But he was a writer whose stuff was published. That allowed him to get our attention and our focus, but the coin lands the other way, and we know WL Nolen, and we’ve never heard of George Jackson. There’s a dimension of that that I think is true here as well. Zoharah’s RA in her dorm was Alice Walker. Well, maybe if Zoharah was a writer, she’d have a Nobel Prize talking about her RA. So some of it is just luck of the draw. We pass through people who become famous. Like, when she met Alice Walker, she was her RA. She wasn’t Alice Walker. Sometimes we meet the Malcolm X example. Michael was very young, but his brothers were significantly older who were early recruits to the Nation of Islam. He tells us in the book, his conversation with Malcolm X, when he was seven or eight years old, was not about Black nationalism. This conversation was: why don’t you eat pork? Like, that was the craziest thing you could imagine. Right? I think there’s just something deeply human about all of this. And I think that, to me, was the most important thing. I wanted a human book on the left. I wanted a sense of just what it means to be a person. I think what it means to be a person, particularly a Black person who came of age in the time that they came of age is that of course, you saw the pictures of Emmett Till’s murdered body in Jet Magazine. Of course, you watched or listened to the March on Washington, even if you weren’t there. Of course, you were outraged and furious and scared when Ronald Reagan was elected. I think, for me, a lot of the guide was needing to contextualize these lives and make sense of these lives. Also, just thinking, to bring it to my own life at some level that was a little bit of a guide was just thinking if I would write something about my coming of age, I remember when Bush was elected. I remember the walkouts that happened when he was reelected. Yes, I went to class, but I also went to the protest. Those sorts of things are like, trying to choose between them: do I go to this protest? Do I go to this class? I just think that’s part of what it means to be human in a time to be paying attention and things are scary or outrageous or exhilarating or exciting. Some of it came from oral histories from things that they remembered, like being there when this happened. Michael talked about being in Philadelphia when the Three Mile Island nuclear explosion happened. He was just leaving a visit to Russia when the Chernobyl nuclear explosion happened. He just casually mentioned that Forrest Gump of the left commented that he may be the only person who was within 100 miles of both nuclear meltdowns. It was like, okay, that’s going in the book. Obviously. But then things like Reagan, or whatever, that was just such a profound reorientation of American politics and such a profound moment of what you can hope for is possible, as someone who had been a committed organizer for close to two decades at that point. I think it was, for me, clearly a part of their lives, but also just a benchmark to help the reader place what’s happening in the larger arc. It totally works the way you do it. It feels organic. It never feels like you’re forcing the history on the reader. Because I think you’re right, it comes from their experiences, and that’s the focus. Very effective.  Yeah. Thank you.

Steve Prince:  Can we take one more question and then open it up?

Tangela Serls:  I think I’m gonna ask my question about Alice Walker. Okay, so when thinking about the introduction, which is titled “A Love Supreme”, after John Coltrane’s album, and your line, that “freedom is a love story.” I kept thinking of one of Alice Walker’s definitions of Womanism, which is: a Womanist is one who loves music, loves dance, loves the moon, loves the spirit, loves love, and food and roundness, the struggle, loves the folk in herself, regardless. So my question is, did an understanding of Womanism factor into your assertion in any way? And additionally, when writing the book, did you struggle to reconcile the fact that love was going to be one of the foremost themes with the fact that you were writing a historical project?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, that’s great. My initial proposal had no introduction. So that chapter “A Love Supreme”, which I’m very proud of and I’m glad is in the book, was not part of the book. My editor said that I needed an introduction to explain, there’s a preface that talks about how I know Michael and Zoharah, and these were some of the serendipitous connections, which are deeper than I mentioned today, but you’ll see in the book. So I had that, but my Editor said I needed something to frame the big picture of it in a more explicit way. I was thinking about different things, but it just struck me that it’s a love story. Clearly there’s this love between two people who do have a lifelong love for each other, even if their romantic relationship only lasted a few years. But it was less, for me, about the love between them as individuals, though that’s obviously important. But that sense of how they keep going. Ultimately, I came to realize that it’s a choice to keep going. I’ve met lots of people, I’m sure at various moments in my life, I would have said of my own self like, “well, this is who I am. Of course, I’m going to do this. Of course, I’m going to be on the picket line. Of course, whatever, that’s just who I am.” I don’t want to deny that self-description of anybody, but just hearing Zoharah stayed in Mississippi for 18 months after Freedom Summer and had no plans to leave but left because she had several run-ins where she was almost killed by the Klan, and she was incarcerated by the police after demonstration and these were very torturous conditions. She was just starting to have a breakdown, and comrades and SNCC said “you have to leave because you’re not well there. You need a reprieve.” And she could have left the movement. She left Mississippi, but she continued to organize. I’ve interviewed several people for this book, but for other projects as well, who have been part of some of these far left organizations, and some of this ideological stuff we’re talking about earlier, who said that was the last organized left effort I was ever a part of. These are progressive people in how they try to live their lives, but they’re no longer involved in anything. I think we always make choices. We always are deciding to choose to do things or not to do things. So I was trying to think through the best ways to understand that choice of how they kept going, and how they kept going, and the ways that they kept going. It’s just so clear from the two of them. I know you were saying you really met them in the book, and I’m glad to hear that because you do feel in talking to them and hopefully in reading about them that they have different personalities, of course, but they both just have this deep love of humanity, this deep love for social change. I don’t know how else to put it, they just love being in the struggle. Michael had this quote, “I just love being a pain in somebody’s ass.” As a youngest child myself, I relate to that as a little brother sort of response. But I also think it’s just true, right? There’s a lot of joy and playfulness in that idea that I love being a pain in somebody’s ass. So to me it was oh, of course, this is a love story. Once it struck me, it was like, well this is what it had been all along. Even though I didn’t plan it, it was like oh, of course this is what it is. You read that beautiful quote from Alice Walker. I was very inspired by bell hooks, who obviously wrote several books about love and talked about that a lot. But it’s really a constant theme throughout Black political thought that you see these ideas of love being central, but also being centrally embedded in questions of struggle, and questions of a transformation.

Scott Ferguson:  So Tangela had this little slip that I think was really productive. She called your book a novel. Because it kind of is a novel. I think that’s a wonderful way of describing it. It’s rich, it’s love. It’s got all kinds of continuities and threads and divergences and you can just gobble it up, and there’s an all at once-ness about it. I guess this is a craft and method-y type of question. I’ve interviewed some folks, but I’ve never had to do the work of interviewing subjects who are also your friends and your mentors over a long period of time, and taking what is probably a fragmentary, iterative process, and turning it into this. And I’ll put another thing out there, which is: we forget so much. So what I’m wondering is, what was that process like? What was their recall? Was it like, “Oh, I barely remember that day.” I guess I’m just kind of curious.

Dan Berger:  Yeah, so they’re very different in that regard. Michael has an impeccable memory, and will tell you, “it was Thursday at 3:30, and he had a blue pork pie hat.” And that may or may not be true. I’m not saying that in any malicious way, but just that memories are always fungible. But he is so precise, so precise, in a way that is believable. Zoharah falls over herself with apologies that she doesn’t remember anything. And that’s also not true, but she doesn’t have to recall. She recalls feelings, she recalls the emotions, the connection. But she doesn’t recall the order, the timing, that kind of thing. It’s obviously based on a lot of oral histories, but I did a lot of archival work, as well. It was that the archives are very much in conversation with the interviews. I really wanted to use the interviews to capture that sense of the things that only they could know, the things that only they could tell me of what it felt to be incarcerated at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds. I can find the date of when you were arrested, but I don’t know what it felt like to be there. I’ve tried to put them in conversation that way. I thought of people like you, like friends who work in the 19th century or earlier time period, because I would be in the archives, and I could text them like, “Oh, look at what I found.” Like, I remember being in the AFSC archive when I found the press release for when Zoharah got hired, because she couldn’t remember the exact time. So it’s like, “oh, looks like you got hired on this date.” This was right when David Blight’s book about Frederick Douglass came out. He did alright for himself with that book, he didn’t need the help. I think it was definitely very iterative, definitely very conversational. I think there’s a lot of times that I was worried that this book was impossible to manage these multiple, two very deeply braided storylines, but still different storylines, and the amount of archives, and so on. But mostly it was a gift to be able to work on something about people, but also with people. I really think of my scholarly method as relational. All the work that I’ve done, some of it like this still comes from pre existing relationships, but I also meet new people in the process of doing it, including this book. Certainly we’ve become much closer than we were when I started it. I just think the relational dimension of research, anthropologists talk about it a lot, historians don’t really consider it. They just don’t discuss it very much. So that relational dimension is really important to me. Depending on how much you want to go into this, I certainly was both reading a lot of novels, but also listening to novelists talk about their craft. Toni Morrison would talk a lot about how Black life is universal, and to push against this idea that Black authors needed to explain Blackness to non-Black audiences. She was like “fuck that” Black life is universal, like everything about the world is contained in Blackness and Black relationships. I really felt that deeply and I wanted to do a book of that. I think that there’s no way to talk about the left or peace or justice or anything like that that is not rooted in Black Power, specifically, a Black politics more generally. The last thing I’ll say about novels and craft is that I have friends who are fiction writers who will talk about, “I didn’t want to write it this way, but the characters took me there.” As a historian of the left, I often feel like I didn’t want to go there, but that’s where the characters went. So I do think there is something to the craft of writing that I feel very excited about, passionate about, and interested in that I think can translate across genres in ways that I was trying to do this book and was a big appeal to me about doing this book.

Scott Ferguson: Other questions?

Crowd Question #1: Going back to the conversation that opened you up to this at UF, how much did you say “that sounds like me.” How does it fit? I was at Florida State in the 60s, and I didn’t come as an activist other than within the church. But then several things happened in a hurry. Though I was always in favor of civil rights, it was in the news, it wasn’t next to me. And I found myself asking if these issues are fundamental or human. So what’s the connection to the people in my dad’s churches? Pastoring in Powell’s Park (spell check) where there are carpenters, cabinet makers, union electricians. What’s the connection? What’s the connection related to me as a working person?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, I think a lot of studying history, generally, is trying to make sense of my own place in history, and trying to make sense of the world. I’ve had a very different life and upbringing than Michael and Zoharah, certainly temporarily, and all the things that come from being born after Jim Crow, but also being a white Jewish person who grew up in the suburbs. They were both raised Christians, Zoharah is now Muslim. Growing up in segregated environments. A lot of differences. But I do think there is something about that kind of universalism that I was talking about via Morrison, that you were mentioning about the civil rights movement, that has always spoken to me. I certainly was asking myself as I was writing this book. I’ve written stuff about people who have been part of underground movements, and engaged in revolutionary violence. And I can’t imagine myself doing that, I guess I would say. I think the choices that they make here are ones that I could see myself making, even if I haven’t been in some of those conditions that they’ve been in.

Steve Prince:  Can I actually follow up on the violence question since that was something that I was thinking about. Neither of them embrace the notion of armed self-defense really, at all. Am I right? I mean, they’re around people who are considering, right? Am I forgetting any elements?

Dan Berger:  So Zoharah starts carrying a pistol when she’s in Mississippi and is really grateful for the local people in the community who were engaged in armed self defense. So certainly in that ‘64-’65.

Steve Prince:  The landlady sitting on the front porch.

Dan Berger:  Yeah, exactly, exactly. So I think she embraced it in that sense. I was very curious that they didn’t join the Panthers. The Panthers were not a part of their purview. This is just human circumstance: they were in Atlanta, and the Panthers weren’t in Atlanta at that time. They met Eldridge Cleaver, and they thought he was a jerk. So they’re like, “we don’t want to be that guy. What else can we do?” So they knew folks from the Nation of Islam. Actually, the person who built the Atlanta chapter was the person who got Muhammad Ali into the Nation of Islam who, of course, was a childhood friend of Michael’s because that’s how these things go. So they joined the Nation of Islam. I think just that sort of serendipitous sense of it all was really part of it, for me. I think they supported armed self defense and Zoharah engaged in it in the sense that she carried a gun for some time in Mississippi, but didn’t use it. So let me be clear when I say engaged in it. But I think the bigger question of violence is, when Michael was working for the American Friends Service Committee and anti-apartheid forces in South Africa, began armed struggle, and Quakers are a pacifist religion. That was a real strong point of contention for many years. But I think it’s more abstract than armed self defense because it was about somewhere else. It was a more ideological conversation than it was about their own personal involvement.

Crowd Question #2:  First, thank you so much, everyone. This has been really insightful and wonderful. As an activist today, I learned a lot from your discussion of love and the difference between struggle and ideology. I think those are really useful concepts. I guess I’m just wondering, with movements today, we are kind of in a unique moment in which we have these mass communication devices in which we reach more people than ever, seemingly, but yet we still seem stifled by that ability. I’m just wondering if they had any insights into organizing today? Or what you learned from the process of writing this that might be helpful to younger organizers?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, thanks for that. I think that’s certainly a question that they take very seriously, as do I. I think for them, the most important thing is, there’s a sense of humility. Michael has often said he’s been on Twitter, but he doesn’t use Twitter. He’s never been on TikTok. He doesn’t have the knowledge to engage in the communication mechanisms that younger people are using. So he knows that means he’s not in a position to tell young people what to do, because he’s not conversant with the things that younger people are using. I think I appreciate that sense, right? Because as both he and Zoharah would say, there’s a lot of folks out their generation who have a hard time exiting the stage who want to always be the ones in control, or in positions of leadership. I think they both have a sense that people are involved in different ways, in different capacities. And all that is great. They’re not in a place where they are or could be the leaders that they once were. Mostly, I think they’ve shifted to a sense of how to maintain that kind of long haul perspective, to thinking about the kind of movement of movements approach that brings together multiple forms of coalition and multiple forms of solidarity. I think that tends to be more how they operate than a sense of like here’s what you should be doing in a prescriptive way. I think that one thing that I’ve been saying, I think social media, obviously, has been useful in a lot of ways. I think equally obviously, it has wrecked our brains in a lot of ways. For all the ways that it’s new, I think it still exists within a media ecosystem that should be familiar to us, which is to say that they’re privately owned corporations that people try to make use of for their own ends, and have their deep limits that always come from that. I think Twitter has been tremendously valuable in showing the limits of speaking truth to power as a position. Because I can log on to that website every day, and unfortunately I do. But I could log on to that website every day and tell the President of the United States, hypothetically the most powerful person in the world, I could tell him what he’s wrong about. I could say, and I do often say, that your border policy is racist. Whatever, I could do that. That’s true, I am literally speaking truth to power. Twitter allows me access to the president in a way that has never existed before. Previously, I would have to write a letter, make a phone call. Now I can just tell him in a sentence, and it’s absolutely meaningless. It means nothing, right? I might feel better for five seconds, but it doesn’t change anything. So I think, to me, the one thing that I learned is the difference between being right and having power. That’s the shift from civil rights as a kind of orienting point or organizing rubric to Black Power. One of the benefits of that, in my view, is that it did squarely identify questions of power as the object and focus. I think we are better when we shift from speaking truth to power to speaking power to power because when you look at pretty much any issue in the United States today, you will see a discrepancy between what public opinion wants and the policies that exist. Clearly, just the idea of getting the ideology together, or getting people to agree with us is not enough. That’s not how change happens. So I really appreciate that sense of, okay, how do we think about power, both the structures of power that already exist, and the forms and structures of power that we need to create in order to bring about the kinds of changes that we want to see.

Crowd Question #3:  Were there moments where it felt like for your oral history, that the people you’re interviewing are telling you things that you realize weren’t true or miss remembered, or did you have any challenges like that?

Dan Berger:  Most of the ones, at least the ones that I can remember, were things that were not that significant to the story. It was a question of dates, or the order of things. Michael remembered being arrested with one person in the archive, I found he was arrested with another person. And he was like, “I swear it was this person.” But also, archives are wrong, too, right? So it’s not to say that where there was a discrepancy that I always needed to choose the archive. In that specific example, I resolved it by just not mentioning the name of the person. I could just say that he was arrested with somebody else. It didn’t matter to the story whether it was this person or that person. I think most of the discrepancies were things like that, they were details that I could write around because they weren’t consequential to the story. The thing that I was most worried about where that difference would happen is their divorce or separation. A friend once beautifully put it that a breakup is when two people have different stories, and their stories don’t match anymore. And I love that idea. I was really scared of how this was going to work. Both the story of the divorce and also the story of how and when and why they didn’t respond to their daughter’s abuse. Why they didn’t when she raised it, or why it took them so long to acknowledge it. I did those interviews separately when talking about their divorce, when talking about Aisha’s abuse, and their response. In part, because their lives were separate at that point, so I wanted to talk to them in isolation. We had a lot of interviews together, and they really did jog each other’s memory in really wonderful ways. But also, it was important to have time separately to hear how they would process it separately. Some of it is luck. But I was amazed at how similar their stories were. Now, again, they had different details, but they weren’t in conflict. So Michael talked about some of the things about the divorce from his perspective. And Zoharah had different details. When we think about history as argument, they had the same argument for why it didn’t work. The different details that they offered were not contradictory. They were just perspectives. In another context for another project, I did have an oral history where I really felt like someone was trying to pull one over on me. And, ultimately, I appreciated the time that he spent with me, but I haven’t done anything with it because I just didn’t trust it enough to do anything. But that’s a totally separate project and nothing to do with one.

Scott Ferguson:  I’m wondering about Michael and Zoharah’s own reception of the book. A.) I would imagine you shared chapters along the way and maybe got notes, so I would maybe like to hear about that and B.) With the finished product and going through all the reviews and the edits. This is like a mirror or several mirrors of their lives. How are they feeling?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, so I didn’t share individual chapters along the way, but I shared the manuscript with them, I think, three different occasions. I didn’t share individual chapters in part because I was often figuring things out from one chapter to the next and everything felt tentative. We spent a lot of time, when I approached them about doing this book, just figuring out what it would mean to do this together. So let me say that. And we are sharing any royalties that come equally between the three of us. It was important that this not be an extractive project, that it would be deeply and materially collaborative, not just ideationally collaborative. In the agreement that we drew up, I think it said something that I would share with them in the actual process, but obviously I would anyway. But in the actual process of doing it, when I had a draft they were like, “Oh, you’re done? We’re just hanging out! Like, what do you mean? There’s a book here?” They were surprised when I had a draft. I gave them drafts more times than they read them. My sense of timing now is off, as well. I think I got a lot of feedback after the first one, and then definitely at the final one when it was like: here’s the last chance to change anything. I don’t think I got much in the middle reading, if I recall, but the first draft was significantly longer than this one. They definitely corrected a few things like, “well, you said this, but it meant this,” or “the way that you use this quote feels different from the rest of the passage.” We refined a few things from that point. Not many, but a few for sure. I think their biggest disappointment is that it’s not 200 pages longer. Not in an aggrandizing way, to be clear, but in a sense that there’s three paragraphs in here that was a whole chapter, right? There’s a whole really interesting, really fun thing to Zoharah’s time in New York after she got pulled out of Mississippi. She’s cursing at Ishmael Reed for dating a white woman, and just very funny and interesting things that end up on the cutting room floor. I was sad about that. There was a lot of Michael’s time in Europe that is not in the book. The book ends, for the most part, in 2003, which was only moved to Europe. So I did one interview with somebody about his work in Europe since then, but that’s work that he was really quite proud of, and was sad about not having in the book. Pre-COVID, I had planned a trip to Europe, and I wanted to do all this archival work and interviews. It just wasn’t possible. That’s their biggest complaint so far. It’s been a month. I think there’s some interest in how some other former SNCC comrades will respond to it because the way that former SNCC people talk about Black Power has changed to become more pro-Black Power, but still very anti in that project (spell check). There’s some stories in here where they don’t look good, but there’s some stories in here where some of their comrades don’t look good. So far, no one has said anything about it, of that crew. But I think that’s what we’re all curious to see.

Crowd Question #4: I really appreciate your comments on balancing hope with also dealing with pain and trauma and violence, and I just wondered if you could talk a little bit more about how delicate that balance is in that process, because I think they’re both so important and they’re so often intertwined.

Dan Berger: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Mariame Kaba who talks about hope as a discipline. I think that’s how to reconcile them or how I reconcile them because there’s so much to be despairing about in the world, and I think it is objective to despair. I think an objective appraisal of the scenario is grim, but it’s not hopeless. I think differentiating between them is critical. I remember I went to Memphis with Zoharah to see where she grew up. I went to church with her, like the second or third time I’ve been in the church my entire life, at least for a service. She was driving around the neighborhood, and she’s saying, “this was the dividing line of segregation.” Like “this was the white neighborhood, this is the black neighborhood” while we’re driving. She’s like, “Oh, this was where this white man exposed himself to me. This is where, if you came over here, the white kids would throw rocks at you as we went to the bus.”  Just walking through the petty indignities of Jim Crow, and now, it’s a totally different neighborhood. Which is not to say that it’s necessarily a better neighborhood. She was also like, “this was a thriving black business district.” And now, it’s a bunch of abandoned buildings…But I guess I’m trying to say that driving around, getting this tour from her, I was really struck by how many lives she’s lived. Here was someone who grew up and could tell me those very specific sites of Jim Crow. Now, I have to use my imagination, because we’re driving through them in the very specific context of neoliberalism of whatever you want to call it, our contemporary racial and economic order, where a formerly segregated neighborhood is now an all Black neighborhood, and a formerly mixed-class neighborhood is now a very poor neighborhood, like exclusively very poor. It was very full of people and now has lots of abandoned houses and abandoned stores. Here’s someone who lived through all of that, and who did a lot to make the good parts of that change happen, and who still works against the bad parts of that. I don’t know that I quite have the words to express it. but there is something very hopeful for me about that, that we could tour through Jim Crow in a way that I had to use my imagination on those specific sites, but that those sites are constantly changing. I think that sense of the inevitability of change is the fact that the inevitability doesn’t point in any one direction. So change is a constant, but whether that change is, broadly and simplistically speaking, good or bad is undetermined and unknowable. That’s where hope as a discipline, as a framework, meets the realities of the world for me.

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste w/Rohan Grey (Bonus Episode)

In this bonus episode of Money on the Left, Rohan Grey joins co-hosts Scott Ferguson and Billy Saas to assess the epistemological and political implications of the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) failure. While orthodox economics and law tell us that economic crises are essentially matters of private risk and market discipline, Rohan, Scott and Billy argue that blatant federal mediation throughout the ongoing SVB crisis exposes money’s public and contestable nature. Rather than another story of capitalist contradiction or bankers behaving badly, then, the SVB crisis opens contemporary money politics to a host of invaluable tools for a stable, just, and green transition: democratic state and municipal credit issuance; public digital banking; focused credit regulation and demand management; and full deposit insurance without arbitrary and destabilizing caps. 

For more on the significance of the unfolding crisis, see Nathan Tankus, “Every Complex Banking Issue All At Once: The Failure of Silicon Valley Bank and Five Quick Implications.”

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Gramatneusiedl’s Job Guarantee w/ Thomas Schwab

This month, Money on the Left is joined by Thomas Schwab who, as mayor of Gramatneusiedl in Lower Austria, oversees a promising Job Guarantee pilot program. Seeking to eliminate long-term unemployment, the program guarantees public jobs to anyone in the community who seeks them. In our conversation, we explore the philosophy and structure of Gramatneusiedl’s municipal employment service. We also discuss a key inspiration for the program: a Depression-era study of the effects of unemployment conducted in the same region as Gramatneusiedl. Titled “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” (or, “The Unemployed of Marienthal”), the report detailed the deleterious effects of systemic unemployment in wake of a severe economic downturn and soon became an early classic of European sociology. Decades later, Schwab wrote a master’s thesis about the report, aiming to revive its findings in defense of public employment today. The Gramatneusiedl program is presently being studied by Jörg Flecker, a sociologist at the University of Vienna, as well as Lukas Lehner and Maximilian Kasy, economists at Oxford. The pilot is set to expire in 2024. Thereafter, however, Schwab and his allies anticipate leveraging current academic studies to renew and potentially scale up Gramatneusiedl’s public employment program.

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson:  Thomas Schwab, welcome to Money On The Left!

Thomas Schwab:  Hello, thank you for the invitation. I’m very excited and look forward to an interesting conversation.

Scott Ferguson:  You are presently Mayor of Gramatneusiedl, a small town of roughly 3,000 people in Lower Austria. We’ve invited you to speak with us today about a municipal employment program you currently oversee that guarantees public jobs to anyone in the community who seeks them. Before getting into the details of the program, would you mind telling our audience a bit about your personal and professional background? How did you become Mayor of Gramatneusiedl?

Thomas Schwab:  Before I tell you something about myself, I would like to introduce Gramatneusiedl to your audience. Gramatneusiedl is about 15 kilometers away from the city limits of Vienna. As you probably know, Vienna is the capital of Austria. Due to its proximity to Vienna, the population of Gramatneusiedl has risen relatively sharply in the last 20 years and today – you mentioned it – we have around 3,700 inhabitants. In Gramatneusiedl itself there are not too many jobs. Many people commute to work in Vienna or other communities in the area every day. Therefore, Gramatneusiedl is close to the city, but still in the country. We still have a few farmers in town who cultivate the fields around our community. Many young families have moved to us in recent years. Mainly because we can provide good care for children and young people in Gramatneusiedl – with kindergartens, an elementary school and a middle school. We have very active organizations and clubs that shape life in our community. For example: a volunteer fire brigade, a brass band and of course a soccer club. From my point of view, Gramatneusiedl is a livable small town with many advantages that make this place very attractive to live. Now about myself. I’m 52 years old. I’m married and have two children who are now 19 and 17 years old. I’ve lived in Gramatneusiedl my whole life. After kindergarten, I went to school here. After compulsory school, I completed a high school with an economic focus in Vienna. At the beginning of my professional life, I worked at Vienna Airport and for a company that manufactures safe systems. For around 30 years, I have been employed by a supplier for the automotive industry in a neighboring community of Gramatneusiedl. I worked in accounting for this company for many years. I’ve been on the works council for around 20 years, which is currently my main job. I work full time in this company – that means at least 38.5 hours per week.  From 2005 to 2009, I studied beside my job in Vienna. At the end of my studies, I wrote a master’s thesis that dealt with the world-famous study “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” or “The Unemployed of Marienthal” – but maybe more on that later. I have been involved with politics in Gramatneusiedl practically all my life. My father was active in the municipal council of Gramatneusiedl for many years. As a child, I learned how to shape and positively change the lives of people in our community. I myself have only been active in local politics for around 13 years. In 2020, I was the lead candidate for the Social Democratic Party in our community. We won the elections and achieved an absolute majority of mandates. In our federal state of Lower Austria, the Mayor is elected by the municipal council in a constitutive session. I was elected Mayor of Gramatneusiedl with 15 out of 21 votes from the mandataries. My group, the Social Democratic Party, has 11 seats on the municipal council. The next municipal council election will be held in 2025.

Billy Saas:  Very cool, and we became aware of your work in Gramatneusiedl through a — Did I do okay?

Thomas Schwab:  Yes, it’s fine.

Billy Saas:  Okay. We became aware of your work through The New Yorker article [by Nick Romeo], which was published in December, and it was titled, “What Happens When Jobs Are Guaranteed?” Can you give us an overview of your experience with that, with being interviewed for that piece and talking to the folks for The New Yorker and a sense for how this story came to be?

Thomas Schwab:  I think a reporter of The New Yorker also was informed that there is a new kind of program for long term unemployed people, and he visited Gramatneusiedl and wrote this article. The idea of the guaranteed jobs program was developed by the Public Employment Service of Lower Austria. This organization wants to show a new way in the labor market policy. Today, it is usually the case that the Public Employment Service tries to find jobs for the unemployed. For unemployed people, this can sometimes mean that they are unemployed for a very long time. This system turns those affected into supplicants and can lead to different difficulties for individuals.  After deciding to carry out this experiment, the Public Employment Service of Lower Austria looked for suitable municipalities. Essentially, a community was sought whose long-term unemployed corresponded as closely as possible to the average for Lower Austria in terms of the age of the unemployed and the duration of unemployment. Apparently, Gramatneusiedl met these criteria best. The historical reference to Marienthal certainly also plays a major role, because Marienthal is inextricably linked to the term unemployment through the study “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” or “The Unemployed of Marienthal”. After Gramatneusiedl was selected, there were initial talks with the head of the Public Employment Service of Lower Austria, Mister Sven Hergovich, who presented the project to our community. I wasn’t mayor back then, but my predecessor involved me in the discussions and in that way in the project.  Overall, the Public Employment Service of Lower Austria asked three potential organizations to develop this project for the long-term unemployed and to present the possible implementation. I don’t know the individual concepts. The fact is that the organization named “itworks” was entrusted with conducting this experiment.  As a municipality, we have supported “itworks” from the start, for example in finding suitable premises. The cooperation with the people involved worked immediately. Since the start of the Guaranteed Jobs Program, we as a municipality have been awarding contracts to “itworks” in order to enable the project participants to do meaningful work for the community.  Through the work in the community and making people visible, this project did not encounter any resistance that I know of, on the contrary, there were many positive reports – especially about the quality of the work done. I think that was also part of the article in The New Yorker, where the reporter interviewed the participants, and I think, more or less, he gave that picture to the readers of The New Yorker. And that’s why we talk to each other today.

Jakob Feinig:  Thank you for this. How would you describe the philosophy behind the program? How does this philosophy shape the program structure, its rules and also its operations?

Thomas Schwab:  It is clear to me that the market does not solve the problem of unemployment. Because just reducing the price of work – people’s income – until a company offers work cannot be right. On the one hand, we want an income from which we can live, on the other hand the working conditions have to meet our standards. Unfortunately, there are not always enough jobs in a region. A company will not hire anyone if there is no work. We saw that very clearly if we look back in the 1930s, when people didn’t want any wages at all, only food for their work and still couldn’t find work. For this reason, for me, the neoliberal economic approach is wrong!  In my view, the idea of the Guaranteed Jobs Program was developed precisely to refute this approach. This program tries to respond very individually to each person. There are usually reasons why people become unemployed and unfortunately sometimes cannot find a job for a long time. The philosophy behind the program recognizes that each participant has strengths and weaknesses. For example, someone may not be sufficiently qualified to find a job or may be too old to be hired. From my point of view, people often become desperate after a long period of unemployment and do not even try to find work anymore because they have the feeling that they are not needed. In the Guaranteed Jobs Program, an attempt is made together with the participants to find a job that is suitable for the individual. The wishes of the project participants are also taken into account, as is the extent of the possible working hours, for example. I think it is very important that participation in the Guaranteed Jobs Program is voluntary. If a participant decides to take part in this program, they will receive an employment contract and will not be unemployed any longer. With few exceptions, all of the long-term unemployed have accepted the offer to participate in the Guaranteed Jobs Program. It is the task of the program to find a meaningful activity. There are job opportunities in the program, but also public contracts, for example from the municipality of Gramatneusiedl. We have also established contacts with companies that have now placed individual orders with the Guaranteed Jobs Program. For example, apartments are renovated by the project participants and prepared again for the next tenant. You have to be unemployed for at least a year to be able to take part in the program. About 150 people have decided to participate so far. I know many participants who have found a job in a company again. I think that’s the most important thing: to be ready for the job market — to be ready to be able to get a new job in the primary job market. That’s the goal of the whole program.

Scott Ferguson:  So we’ve been mentioning a few times in our questions and answers so far, the fact that this program has been subconsciously inspired by history, and in particular, this depression era study of the effects of unemployment in this very region. The English title, as you suggested, for this report, was called “The Unemployed of Marienthal”. And the report became an early classic of sociology. Decades later, you wrote, as you said, a master’s thesis about the report. Can you tell us a little bit about the report? And why was it worthy of a master’s thesis, however many decades later, and how has it helped inspire you to engage in what you’re doing today?

Thomas Schwab:  Yeah, I think The historical study “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” or “The Unemployed of Marienthal” is quite rightly a standard work in social science. Essentially, the fate of people who became unemployed overnight after the closure of a textile factory and unfortunately these people did not find work for a very long time.  You may now be wondering what Marienthal has to do with Gramatneusiedl. Marienthal was never the name of a separate community, but only the name of this textile factory and the associated workers’ settlement. Most of Marienthal is in Gramatneusiedl – for that reason the connection.  In my view, this explanation was necessary at this point.  From my point of view, the most important chapter in the study is entitled “Fading Resilience”. This chapter clearly proves that the long-term unemployed have lost all drive and motivation. Even though they had all day, they didn’t do anything. While the women had to take care of the children and the household, the men were completely lost. Before unemployment, there was a rich cultural and sporting life in Marienthal. During the period of unemployment, people were not interested in these activities. It was similar, for example, with borrowing books or other leisure activities. The study shows very impressively how long-term unemployment changes people. This is exactly where the Guaranteed Jobs Program comes in. The Guaranteed Jobs Program enables project participants to use their time wisely and gives structure to the working day. The social contacts with the other project participants are also very important – just as working people have these contacts in their companies.  In my master’s thesis, I tried to compare the Marienthal of the years 2008/09 – there was an economic crisis at that time – with the historical Marienthal. For that reason, the title of my work was “Marienthal – 75 years after the publication of the historical study “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” or “The Unemployed of Marienthal”.  The link was, of course, the crisis situation, but you can compare the 1930s with the financial crisis at the end of the 2000s. The decade 2008-2009. Of course, in the historical study you had a situation in our community that was like a laboratory. Nobody has a car. The people were used to walking in our village and they don’t have the possibility to go to another community where they can work. And also, of course, there was a global crisis with horrible figures of unemployment. And therefore, I tried to ask the same questions as the scientists did in 1930. But of course, I was alone, it’s only a master thesis and not this study with 17 scientists. They spent months, approximately half a year here in Marienthal. And of course, they had much more experience with all these things. But at the end of the day, I wrote the study and a lot of literature connecting with this study. Therefore, I think I know quite well how the people live and what’s going on in Marienthal at that time. Therefore, for example, we had a small museum here in our village, and we did some tours with interested people. I really appreciate that each time because a lot of people are interested in that topic, of course, because unemployment is, unfortunately, a topic all the time because people will be unemployed also in the future. Therefore, it is also very interesting that the people today have the same problems as the people in the 1930s. As I mentioned before, the problem is that they had a lot of time, but they had nothing to do in that time. After a long period of unemployment, we know that people are frustrated. And they stop searching for work because they don’t think there is somebody or company who needs their work. Therefore, I think you can compare the feelings of the unemployed people from the 1930s to today. It’s the same situation, of course, the work itself is another work with the textile industry completely changed. Most companies are not in Europe anymore. But of course, if you’re unemployed, you have the same problem as the people in the 1930s, and the only huge difference from my point of view is that you are more mobile. That means you have the possibility to go from, for example, Gramatneusiedl to Vienna, it’s no problem. You can also go to other places in Europe because of the European Union. That was not possible in the 1930s. But I tried to figure out in my small work that there is something you can compare, and there are things you can compare at the end of the day. But I can only recommend the historical Marienthal study to your audience. Unfortunately, I think we cannot discuss the study for a long time because we will have a lack of time, I think. But I hope that some people will know that the historical study is quite small — not too many pages to read, but very, very interesting. I’m sure that people will understand that the problems are more or less the same. The times are changing but the problem of unemployment, especially long term unemployment, is the same as it was in the past.

Billy Saas:  So how have community members, people living in Gramatneusiedl, responded to the jobs program? How is it affecting the community and individual lives within the community? And then I guess finally: would you call it a success?

Thomas Schwab:  Yeah, I have briefly indicated before that the response from our community members has been consistently positive. Of course, in a small community, it matters a lot if about 150 out of 3,700 residents are or have been participating in this program. Every project participant has his family and his friends and talks about this program. Of course, there are also very isolated negative voices, but that’s life. Generally speaking, the individual project participants are part of our public life. On the one hand, when they work in public within the framework of the project, but on the other hand also as self-confident community citizens. The positive coverage in numerous domestic and foreign media certainly contributed to this. In these reports, project participants were often shown or quoted – whether on television or in print media. Some former project participants have even found new work in Gramatneusiedl.  From the mayor’s point of view, the citizens of Gramatneusiedl like that more can be done for the municipality through this project. We cannot do all the work that we should do ourselves. For this reason, the project participants help to keep Gramatneusiedl nice and well maintained.  I have the impression that the Guaranteed Jobs Program is a great success. At the end of the project period, the results will be scientifically evaluated. The previous interim reports of science give hope for this result. I think these reports or the media: it looks fine, it looks perfect. It seems that it will be a success, and I’m sure that we will see the results in a very positive way after the period of this project. I’m looking forward to it.

Billy Saas:  Would you say there’s anything particularly special about Gramatneusiedl that makes a jobs guarantee program especially suited for it? Or do you think that other communities, say in Austria or smaller cities, towns, villages or maybe bigger cities could use this, could do this program and could follow this model that you’re setting with the program in Gramatneusiedl?

Thomas Schwab:  I’m sure that it would be possible to do this program in other communities, as well. But I’m sure that it makes sense to start with this program in a quite large community because there you have the possibility to make it visible. That means they do work for our community. That was in all the discussions with Sven Hergovich and the Public Employment Service. One of the goals that we should or would like to give the people the chance to work for us because we would like to use the resources of this program, as well. But in a smaller village it makes no sense, I think, because there are not enough long term unemployed, thank God. We had a significant number of more than 100 long term unemployed people before the program as we know it started and we had a lot of people who were unemployed for more than three years or a longer period of time. That means, of course, the research work before starting this project and selecting Gramatneusiedl was more or less to find a community who is in a range that is able to manage that. If they studied, for example, in Vienna, Vienna has 2 million people. It makes no sense because there is no organization from my point of view in Austria who can manage this. Therefore, they had to find an organization who is able to do that in a smaller town like Gramatneusiedl. At the beginning, approximately 100 people split into two groups. They started with the program in October 2020, three months later, the next 30 people started with the program and so on. Therefore, it makes sense to do that in these steps, and you have to also think about, maybe we’ll talk about that a little later, that you need, of course, new participants for the program as well. It makes no sense if you had a project period of three to four years, and then there is nobody, not any unemployed in the village anymore. There needs to be some size, but not too much. I think all these thoughts were made before they started to select because they had to know how many people can be part of this project and who can do this job for the Public Employment Service.

Jakob Feinig:  Yes. So I have an additional question, which would be: given that there was so much positive media coverage, and that there does seem to be very few critical comments, what do you think about the political possibility of scaling this up to Lower Austria, to the entire country, maybe beyond the country? What’s your take on that?

Thomas Schwab:  Yeah, I think, of course, there is a political chance there. But as you know, the mainstream of political thinking in Europe, also unfortunately in Austria, is more or less I would say a conservative approach. That means all these programs are hard to roll out to the whole country because you need the government of, for example, our province Lower Austria, as well as you think bigger of the whole country. Therefore, of course, you need the political will because unemployment is a sensitive topic in politics. That means you always have the discussions: why do people get money, and they don’t work? And maybe, for example, in that case, a lot of companies are searching for workers or for people who can work, and there are some unemployed, and it’s easy to see why they don’t work. We know that there are a lot of different reasons. That’s why I’m really glad that we have the possibility in Gramatneusiedl because now we have no long term unemployment in our village. I think that’s one of the first things that is really really positive, especially of course, for the people. On the other hand, it shows that there is a possibility to manage the topic of long term unemployment. If there is a will. I think there is a political chance there. But you need all the politics for doing that and bringing that in a wider range and then a larger area. I think that is not a huge problem. I’m sure that if the results of the program will be ready after ending the program, the political discussion will be harder. Then we have the results and it is connected. That’s also a fine situation for us with scientists from the University of Vienna and the University of Oxford. Therefore, a lot of media coverage came out of these scientists. They told the story, they wrote reports, and a lot of people are interested in that in the perfect world, I think.

Scott Ferguson:  So you are getting so much positive feedback from the community, from researchers close and far, and also the press, and even the international press. But you’re also very cognizant of the fact that this very much pushes against, both in its philosophy and its implementation, is very much against the reigning neoliberal and conservative ideology. So are the people, the organizations, the institutions who hold up this conservative ideology, are they just letting this fly under the radar? Are they worried? Are they speaking out against it? Are you playing out a happy utopian experiment and no one seems to know or care who might be politically rattled by it?

Thomas Schwab:  I think it is discussed, and a lot of colleagues, a lot of mayors contacted me, or we talked about this program. Everybody would like to have this program in his community, of course, because the results are positive. But on the other hand, politics is more or less a game. You would like to find voters, and I have to be careful, but I think it’s more or less a game. You try to find out where you can catch as many voters as possible, and the group of unemployed people does not have a large pressure group behind them. There are no unemployed people in the Houses of Parliament in Vienna, for example. There is nobody fighting for them. Of course, political parties do that, but in Austria, on one hand, we spent a lot of money in COVID times for all measurements for the people, and much more for the companies. On the other hand, we discuss unemployment payments and all other social payments for people. They do not have the highest income, to say it very carefully. That means it’s easy to fight against them, to say that’s not the best way because they do nothing for the community. On the other hand, we know it is not their goal to be unemployed in a high percentage of cases. I think that’s also one of the positive things in this guaranteed jobs program because most of the people who were invited to be participants of this program said: yes, I would like work. Of course, with the different possibilities they have. At the end of the day, only a handful of people have joined the program up to now. I think that’s one of the reasons why we can say to the people that if an unemployed person is offered a job, then he will do the job if it fits more or less to his qualification or other things if he is not. If it’s in our region, of course, because it’s not possible in Austria, compared with the US, you move from your home village to 500 kilometers away for work. Not very usual in Austria at that time. But, of course, there are some challenges in the program. Challenge for the program is, as I mentioned before, the number of possible new project participants, and a lot of discussions will take place after the end of the jobs program because then we have results from scientists, and nobody from politics can say this is all nonsense, I think. Therefore, I’m quite sure that the discussions will be harder and will be more direct to the topic if the program is over, when the project period is over.

Billy Saas:  You mentioned that the project and the program itself is being studied, and the data is being analyzed by researchers at the University of Vienna and Oxford. Could you tell us a little bit about what you understand to be their preliminary findings? What are they discovering and how are they contextualizing what y’all are doing alongside other kinds of contemporary debates about things like public investment, unemployment, automation, and so on?

Thomas Schwab:  I think the accompanying investigations of the addressed scientists are a very important part of the project. Sven Hergovich, head of the Public Employment Service in Lower Austria, put forward the thesis that the Guaranteed Jobs Program costs about the same as the costs for an average unemployed person. We’re talking about costs at the start of the project in Austria of around 30,000 euros per year. Since no final results are available yet, there is currently only a debate about whether a job guarantee is a sensible solution or whether the current system should be retained. I am convinced that the results will show that the Guaranteed Jobs Program will be the more sensible and cheaper solution for society. The fact that long-term unemployment can be avoided or, so to speak, defeated by this model, is an important finding so far.  From the point of view of the mayor of our community, of course, I also see the support for the well-being of the community citizens. Thanks to the work of the project participants, our community has become even more livable and some of the citizens – the project participants and their families – are happier. I think we see the positive influence today: we see the positive influence since the project has started, and I’m sure that we will see that also in the future. For me, this is a great success. From the point of view of a citizen of Gramatneusiedl, we see also the people — they work now, they are more part of our community because they stayed at home and are frustrated because they have no money, they have no job. The major point is that they understand money for working now within this program as if they would sit at home and receive their unemployment payment. That means they have no positive influence from the income side, but on days that they have the chance to find work they see that they have useful work for themselves and they have the possibility to create their own job, more or less. If they would like to do something new, for example, they will have the possibility to try that. It’s not possible if you go to a company and you have no experience to say I would like to do the job, you will have troubles to get this job in normal times. Maybe sometimes it works, but normally you have no possibility to do completely new work without any experience, and in the job guarantee program, you have the possibility to learn new things, you can change your professional life a little bit, and with this experience out of the program, you will have better chances on the primary job market.

Scott Ferguson:  Can you give us a sense of some of the particular jobs that have been created or filled in the program? And what kinds of services or goods or forms of maintenance are they involved in?

Thomas Schwab:  For example, for our community, they do a lot of gardening work. We had a lot of things to do in that way. For the community itself, it makes sense that they had a lot of people. They have a lot of time and they do this work. They have instructors in different kinds of work. They do some renovation work for apartments as well as furniture; they have their own workshop there. It depends on the instructors, what they can do on a more or less professional basis. On the other hand, they do some creative things. They do all the things with textiles or something like that. They produce some goods, and they sell it on the weekly market in Gramatneusiedl. Also, they have their own market within the, that’s also an interesting point, they are located with their workshop and with their meeting rooms and the offices of the project within the historical textile company building, more or less. In former times, the director of the textile company lived there. After this period of time in the next company, which was located in that area, there was the office building. They are located in the same area as the historical textile company. They had a lot of interviews with the participants before they started to work, and they had the possibility to tell them what they would like to do as they try to find a way to give them the possibility or to give them the chance to try these things. Therefore, it’s easy for some of them to learn new things. On the other hand, of course, companies in our area are looking for workers or for employees, and they contacted me in the past, asking: “how is it possible to get workers out of this program?” And we tried to bring them together and yeah, a lot of people had the chance to start working in a company and I think they are happier.

Scott Ferguson:  Can we hear a little bit more about the instructors? Where are they sourced from? Are they permanent employees of the Public Employment Service? Do they come from elsewhere: do they have other jobs and they volunteer? I’m curious to hear about the details of that part of the system.

Thomas Schwab:  As far as I know, they come from the organization “itworks”. The organizations I know are familiar with working with unemployed people. They have a lot of activities in Vienna, and an instructor normally comes out of Vienna to Gramatneusiedl or we work there for the whole time. But they are employees of the organization itself, and they are trained, they are familiar with these kinds of people because they also have their projects in other communities, especially as I know that in Vienna. In Gramatneusiedl, the responsible people try to find out with the participants what they would like to learn, what they would like to do, which possibilities they have, which opportunities they can fix with them. Then, they come to our village and work with them.

Jakob Feinig:  Could you maybe explain what “itworks” is? What kind of organization, what kind of history, trajectory, and experience they have?

Thomas Schwab:  As far as I know, they are specialists for social projects themselves. They do a lot of work with the unemployed as well as with elderly people. They do that on a professional basis. They work together in Vienna also with the Public Employment Service. As I explained before, three of such organizations were invited to find a solution, to find a concept for these long term unemployment projects in Gramatneusiedl. They are well known in this scene for the public employment service, they will know them. I didn’t know them before, I have to tell you that. But I think in Austria, a lot of organizations work with people, and they get their employees from the market and the jobs they are looking for should fit the employment programs. If they work with old people, for example, they need other qualifications as here in Gramatneusiedl. But I don’t know them really well because we are glad they are here and we didn’t talk about their other work, more or less.

Billy Saas:  Are you aware of or have you become aware of, since the increased media attention on your program, of any other similar programs that are either sort of in proposal stages or being developed? Or maybe in fact, are underway? I’m not, but I wonder if you might have become aware of other programs? No?

Thomas Schwab:  No, unfortunately not. I think that’s why we get the whole coverage of the media.

Billy Saas:  Yeah.

Thomas Schwab:  Because it’s unique. Of course, there is a conservative government that rules Austria at the moment. Despite this, the Public Employment Service managed to get this great project and the financing of 7.4 million euros, I think, off the ground. I think that’s a huge amount of money. On the other hand, Mr. Hergovich and his colleagues had the idea, and now we have this experiment. We will see how positive the results are at the moment, if there is a possibility that the politicians will use that as an example and find a way to implement it in, for example, the region of Lower Austria or in the region of Austria or somewhere else in Europe. I’m sure it is possible all over Europe because we had similar systems in some countries, therefore, it should work in that way. That can be an example for a lot of people that it is possible to do something against long term unemployment, and I’m looking forward to that. As I said before, Marienthal is not only linked to unemployment. Maybe in the future, also well known as a village to find a solution against long term unemployment with this guaranteed job program.

Billy Saas:  Part of the reason I asked that is that, yeah, I’m not aware of any others either. In the early 2000s, there was a similar sort of program the Hefe y Hefas in Argentina, which has gotten some attention and comes up every now and then. There have been, in recent years, more experiments in cities and municipalities, towns, villages, experimenting with a universal basic income where they just cut a check to people. I wonder: what would you say to those who might come to you and say: “Why induce people to labor in the first place? Why not just cut a check to those who are long term unemployed?” And I think you’ve given us a sense of what your answer would be in terms of like the social and sort of mental, physical health, and well being benefits that come from working. Would you have any other answers? Or what else would you say to someone who said, maybe just do a universal basic income with those 7.6 million euros next time?

Thomas Schwab:  I think, if you have a basic income, it’s another kind of discussion, for me, because that’s more or less another approach because everybody would receive the same amount of money. And if you do some work, you will earn more than other people. Yeah, I’m not sure if that is the solution for unemployment. Because if you receive, for example, 1,500 euros per month, and you are fine with that, you will not work. Then we have the same problem. You will not be part of the society, you will stay at home, you have no social interaction with your colleagues, for example, in a company. You will be fine, you will be able to pay the rent for your apartment, the energy, and you can buy some food. I think that’s a fine approach, but I’m not sure if this will help in every case. In Austria, you don’t have an income for all, but you have a minimum standard of income that’s not enough for living, but it’s also a possibility to increase the demand. Therefore, it would not be a huge problem, but I think it’s another kind of solution. It makes sense to me. I think in Sweden, or somewhere, they tried it. As I wrote in the newspaper, they were not 100% happy with that, and I think we have to try another approach. Maybe in that direction, but not in the same process, because the results will be the same. Here we are in another topic: employment, unemployment is more or less living. If you sit at home and do nothing, and you have enough money, the chance that nobody does anything is quite higher. We live in a time where a lot of people, even though they are neighbors, don’t know more than 10 people in their surrounding. Of course, a lot of social interaction happens in a company or university, for example, if you go out of your flat. Therefore, I think it’s an interesting discussion and basic income is also a good approach, but it’s another topic. I think it would help us in some cases, but I’m not sure if this is completely the best solution. A job guarantee program for long term unemployed is the solution to help the people come back to the society, come back to work, in a positive way or help the people to do something where it’s no pressure because working in a company, something is another work as if you work in the program and you don’t go out of the program because you are not ready for the job market. Therefore, it’s different to other things because you have the possibility to choose if you would do something more or not, it depends on the personal condition and on your personal behavior and on your possibilities. Do you have the possibility to go to another village because you have no driving license, for example? When I started work in my company, the first shift started at 5am in the morning. There is no public transport. You cannot come to the company, and all these things are very, very different. If you have such a program, you also have opportunities that the people will do their work. Maybe within the program, maybe for the community, but not for a company. There’s no pressure on it. You are also fine if you work only 10 hours a week there; you’re not forced to work 40 hours a week because if you work 10 hours a week in a company you only earn a few euros of money. As much time as you work, as much money will you receive from your company. In that case, you have the possibility to find solutions for people who are not in the condition to work, for example, the whole day or the whole week.

Billy Saas:  We’ve talked quite a bit about the jobs guarantee program being a solution for long term unemployment. I wonder, one of the things that excites me about the idea of a larger scale job guarantee, perhaps, is the notion of what it offers for those who are currently employed in work that is not good or rewarding or who might be short term unemployed, but would like to try something new. Could you say something about how you imagine a program like this, if it scaled up, what it might do for those who are, say, in jobs that they don’t like, doing work that they do not find meaningful. Do you have thoughts about that?

Thomas Schwab:  Yeah, I think at the moment, we have a quite good time for people who would like to change their jobs. We have large amounts of fluctuation in Austria, also in normal years, but now a lot of companies are looking for new employees. Now, people have the possibility to quit their job if they are not glad with the working conditions or with the salary or something like that and find another job. At the moment, it’s easy to do that. That’s maybe a difference to the US. In Austria, we have unemployment payments. If you’re unemployed, you receive money from the government. You will always have people who change their jobs or they are short term unemployed. I think the one year period of time you have to be unemployed, that you are more or less a long term unemployed, is connected with the period of time you can receive some money from the government out of the unemployment payments. It’s not a good deal in Austria because, unfortunately, you receive only 55% of your income as an unemployment payment. That’s not the best percentage in Europe. In Belgium or other countries in Scandinavia, the people who are unemployed receive much more money. But at the end of the day, I think the problem is if you try to implement a guaranteed jobs program for all unemployed, it is not possible for any organization in Austria to deal with that. Therefore, it makes no sense to try that. Of course we have the Public Employment Service whose job it is to find a job for the unemployed. Of course, it’s easier in one case, and it’s more difficult in another case because the jobs are different, the qualifications are different. It is necessary to look where the jobs are needed, in which region they are needed. For example, as you probably know, in Austria, tourism is a strong economic factor. But tourism is more or less within the Alps or in cities, and the people are not there in that amount of necessary employees. As I mentioned before, nobody from Gramatneusiedl would go to Kitzbuhel to work in a hotel. If he has a family, if he has a house or an apartment here, why should he do that? That’s also an end point within the discussion: what is possible for the unemployed and what will the government force them to do? And that’s a huge discussion all the time because, of course, you have other kinds of unemployment in Austria as you have in the US. There is another culture connecting with work, as we have it, here in Austria or in Western Europe. There are a lot of people, and it’s growing more and more. They are traveling around the world all day, but a normal worker with not that much skill is more or less fine if they are in their community. They don’t want to go away from home in most cases. Therefore, it is a problem. On paper, it’s easy. You have at the moment 300,000 unemployed people in Austria. We need 200,000 employees somewhere. Why are 300,000 people unemployed? That’s the argument of the right wing parties, especially. They argue in that way.

Billy Saas:  Perhaps there’s no agency or institution in Austria yet that could handle a universal guarantee of a job. But thank you so much for being so generous with your time, Mayor Thomas Schwab. Thank you for joining us on Money On The Left.

Thomas Schwab:  It’s a pleasure. I enjoyed it a lot. Thank you for the invitation, once more. I wish you all the best. And I hope that we will see that this program we discussed will be a part of the programs all over the world to get rid of long term unemployment. That’s my hope. I hope you will hear a lot about this program in the future because I think it’s a wonderful idea. In our small village works, more or less. Very, very good from my point of view. Thank you, also for your time. I’m looking forward to hearing the podcast.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Emily Reynolds of The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (graphic art)

Money & Solidarity in Latin America w/ Andrés Arauz

Money on the Left is joined by Andrés Arauz, recent candidate for the Ecuadorian presidency, heterodox economist, and outspoken advocate for the creation of the “Sur.” The Sur is a complementary currency for use in intra-Latin American trade and cooperation. Dismissed by New York Times blogger, Paul Krugman, as a “terrible idea,” Brazilian President Lula De Silva’s proposal for development of the Sur as a tool for encouraging economic and political integration between Latin American countries has stoked the imaginations of progressive leftists within and beyond the region. As he makes clear in our conversation, Arauz is among those who see in the Sur urgent opportunities to build plurinational solidarities among countries like Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, and Peru, as well as to diminish the hegemony of the U.S. dollar and financial institutions over Latin American economies and politics. Arauz offers an astute and defamiliarizing perspective on the Sur for anyone who may be committed to or uncertain about the political economic potentials of a SUR-driven future for the Latin American Left. 

In our dialog, we speak with Arauz about his time serving as director of the Ecuadorian Central Bank. Remaking an orthodox organization with heterodox tools, he not only oversaw the Central Bank’s transition from a neoliberal handmaiden for corporate interests to a robust public institution in Ecuador’s complex “dollarized” economy, but also empowered and secured the country’s network of local credit unions by integrating them into the Central Bank’s federal payment system.

Money on the Left is proud to present transcripts of this important conversation in both English and Spanish.

Andrés Arauz on Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR): https://www.cepr.net/staff-member/andres-arauz/

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

English Transcript

The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Billy Saas:  Andrés Arauz, welcome to Money On The Left.

Andrés Arauz:  Thank you very much for having me. I’m excited to be here. I’ve been following your work for the last few months and years, and I’m happy to be here.

Billy Saas:  Oh, that’s exciting to hear. We’re excited to have you here with us, especially now, because these are some pretty historic times in Latin America with six now (very recently, seven) of the most populous countries, including for the first time Colombia, run by leaders with progressive left politics. How would you characterize this moment and its importance for the future of the region?

Andrés Arauz:  Well, this is a very exciting moment for progressives, especially people in Latin America that already lived through the first pink wave, the first progressive tide in the region. Of course, now there’s a bit more maturity in the progressive space, in general, and I think we have learned a few lessons. One of the most important issues that we have learned is the importance of regional integration. Right? So we know that one country by itself will not change the world. One country by itself will not change the major dynamics of the world system, or come out, in a sustainable way, out of poverty and transform its economy, its industrial base, and so on. We know that that can only be achieved with a regional plan or integration. And I think that has definitely been incorporated into the left’s agenda. That’s why this is a critical moment in history, because now we see that President Lula, who just arrived to power only 10 days ago in Brazil, and has already faced the first putsch attempt, has said that regional integration, specifically with South American countries, is one of his key priorities in his foreign policy. So this is exciting for us, with the leadership of Lula, of course, the situation in the region changes completely. We see that the sort of extra regional forces like the US have also taken note of this shift towards the left, and that has implications for the entire region. Hopefully, we will overcome all these putsch attempts and violent threats against progressive forces. And this can be not just a reaction, a resistance in opposition to the forces of Empire, the forces of Neocolonialism that threaten progressive politics all over the region, but that we are able to actually build something. And I think the monetary, the financial issue is definitely something that we can achieve in a short timespan. Because of the electoral dynamics in the region, I would like to insist that for Latin America and progressive politicians and those who are leading the countries, we don’t have an infinite timespan. We have a very limited window of opportunity, which is exactly this year, 2023. If we go beyond that, it will probably be much more difficult, because of the domestic political junctures, the correlation forces, and so on. So I think this year is the year of hard, hard work, and to put things in order and get them rolling.

Scott Ferguson:  So how would you understand Ecuador’s place in this particular historical moment? And I’m wondering, in your experience, taking advantage of this particular historical opening, how have you pursued speaking about money and public financing from a heterodox point of view and communicating that to everyday people?

Andrés Arauz:  Okay, so let’s begin with Ecuador’s role in all of this. Ecuador, unfortunately, right now is headed by the antithesis of progressive money with policy, which is a banker. A neoliberal billionaire banker, who has completely sided with the IMF in their conventional, and old school, and effectively-demonstrated false and incorrect policy advising and policymaking, and he’s leading the country into a major economic crisis. The country of Ecuador is probably the country that has least recovered after the pandemic. So it hasn’t grown, really, because of very restrictive monetary policy and fiscal policy, in general. He is promoting capital flight as part of the government policy. Just yesterday, or I don’t know when this will air, but very, very recently, he just announced that he will scrap the money outflow tax that we have in Ecuador. It has been there for a while. So that will promote capital outflow. But the thing is, his main line of business as a banker is actually to own an offshore bank based in an offshore center in Panama, whose approximately between 80 to 85% of all deposits actually come from rich Ecuadorians. So it really is very messed up for any country, in general. But for my country, it actually hurts, you know? When you have a president whose main line of business is to actually promote capital flight to his offshore bank based in Panama. And of course, all the policy is changed to fit his line of business. And it’s actually quite absurd, but also a bit disgusting, because he has not quit the bank, he has not put his shares into a blind trust or whatever. No, he has been explicit about holding his property, and that’s very sad. Also, because if you extrapolate this or you zoom out a bit, you’ll see that this is the type of character that will oppose a proactive role that has always been Ecuador’s foreign policy, except for this government, to be a part of a regional force. To be part of a regional bloc. So he will most likely oppose all these initiatives, and it is very sad because until very recently, Ecuador was the capital of UNASUR: it was the head seat of the headquarters of the South American Union. The former President Moreno, who betrayed his program, and now Lasso, have resigned, have renounced the fact that Ecuador was the Capital of South America, the city of Quito. Fortunately, on the other hand, Ecuador’s population is markedly progressive. So in the last elections, where I ran, Ecuador’s population voted around 70% for progressive parliamentarians. The presidential result was not exactly the same: I lost by just a bit. But the parliament is overwhelmingly progressive with social democrats, with progressives with what we call the indigenous movement of plurinational national forces. They are over two thirds of the parliament. And the population, in general, is fairly progressive, as well. So this means that sooner rather than later, Ecuador’s population will step up, will start exerting their democratic rights, and will probably have a changeover in the administration. It is very unlikely that the current president would be reelected. And we will have a progressive government in place to align themselves with the regional integration project. You also asked me about how to approach heterodox money and heterodox economic policy in this context, and I have several hats that I wear all the time. In the context of my own country, I am predominantly a political actor within my country. Ever since the election two years ago, I am now seen as a political player, so it’s a chance to be in the media quite a bit. It’s a chance for my social networks to have plenty of followers, and it’s important to try to relay the message adequately. I tried to share my knowledge in very lay terms and with fairly easy vocabulary, but mainly showing contrasts. I think that’s been a very effective way of communicating to people, to large segments of the population by contrasting either policy recommendations or policies from orthodox money, monetary policy or in general economic policy, with what can come about with a heterodox approach. That’s my hat that I use within Ecuador, but outside of the country, I have, perhaps, still more of an academic hat on. I use my knowledge to communicate to specialists and specialized media, to those, perhaps, that are monitoring the international financial institutions, in general, and try to use that sort of language to reiterate and to insist on my academic credentials, which I think is also important in terms of legitimacy building. That’s more or less what I do. I work in several spaces, always around issues related to money and technology. I’m pretty happy in that space and trying to change the world with my knowledge, my brain power, with the networks that I can try to build. Hopefully, we can also leverage that to further develop and transform my own country.

Billy Saas:  As you’re doing this communication work, are there any other thinkers who model the kind of communication that you aspire to? And then under the broad banner of heterodox economics, are there any schools or perspectives that you find yourself more consistently drawing on?

Andrés Arauz:  I haven’t had any specific person in mind in terms of how to model the communication. I have been exposed to many leaders and to many economic thinkers. I can’t deny the incredible and important role model that, for example, Rafael Correa has been in terms of economic policy communication. He used to have a weekly radio program where he explained the economic policy and government policy to the entire population. It was a program that lasted between two and four hours every Saturday. And then, of course, making issues easy and communicating them to people using PowerPoint slides and so on was also, I think, something that did not only affect me, but it was a style of communication that everyone in my country got to be familiar with. In terms of economic thinking, though, I definitely recognize the influence of many Latin American economists that have been around ever since Raul Prebisch; structuralists and dependency theory thinkers. More recently, I think the influence of Post-Keynesians has been very explicit in my economic thought and practice. I would say that I would ascribe to the broader Post-Keynesianism, and then there are many smaller groups within that broad school, and I like to gather elements from all of them. I have really grown to like some of the main elements gathered by the separatists, the French separatists school with some Italians in there as well. My PhD work includes a lot of their work, as well. Specifically, Augusto Graziani because I specialized in payments systems, and in money dynamics, and the role of banks, and so on. And I like to consider that as well. But also, and this is perhaps something that is related to more of Latin American context, is what I call the Solidarity Economy school; economia solidaria in Spanish. The Solidarity Economy is very important in our region because we are a late comer to industrialization. We’re a late comer to capitalism, itself. We’ve been under basically feudal economies well into the last century, the 20th century. Solidarity Economy is important because it is a way of including those who were excluded by the capitalist system. If you analyze my country, or my neighbors, between 70 and 80% of the working age population is not a formal worker. They’re not under a capital-work relationship. They are basically survivors in a system where they have to find a way to survive every single day. That doesn’t fit into any neat economic theory, so Solidarity Economy tries to say: okay, what can we do as people that have been excluded from the system? Let’s save each other. Let’s cooperate. Let’s build community. Let’s build a cooperative economic system where we can recognize that we are partially excluded from capital and capitalism, but we have to talk to capital and capitalism. We’re partially excluded from the state, but we have to interact with the state, as well. We are divorced from our own realities because we have to survive. We also have to work together. We have to become cooperatives, we have to get together into associations. Even though we’re not a union, or a Workers Union, we have to come together so that we can negotiate in better terms with the forces that be. Solidarity Economy, I think, has a very important and marked influence in how I think about development. Yeah, there are probably many more that I’m missing right now, but definitely some of these that I’ve mentioned.

Scott Ferguson:  When you ran for and nearly won the presidency of Ecuador in 2021, the press liked to note that you would have been the youngest president in the country’s history. But we find it just as remarkable, if not more remarkable, that you already served as Director of Ecuador’s central bank when you were just 24. How did this situation come about? What drew you to that work in monetary policy in the first place?

Andrés Arauz:  I would have to definitely mention my Masters thesis director Pedro Paez Perez. He was a very important person in my early stages of professional development. I actually got my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor in both math and economics, and then I went back to Ecuador and started doing a Masters in Ecuador. The order is usually the opposite: people get a local degree, and then they get a Masters abroad. I did it the other way around. Actually, it was very, very helpful because when I enrolled at FLACSO, which is a Latin American university that has offices in different parts of the region, in my case Ecuador, all my professors were going to become ministers of finance, planning, development, central banking, and so on. My thesis director, Pedro Pais, had been a central bank researcher, so when he became Minister of Economic Policy, I became his advisor.  I was actually 22 when I was advisor to the Economic Policy Minister. I was in charge of what we called the new financial architecture, which is basically proposing a transformation of the domestic financial system, but we were also working on transforming the South American financial system and their institutions. I worked with him on a lot of those issues, and I got to know the central bank from the outside. I was an advisor to the ministry, but most of my work had to do with the central bank. So I was able to criticize it all the time and to push them to make changes and so on. It’s important to mention that before all of this, I had worked at the central bank. I was a statistician at the balance of payments statistics area, and my job allowed me to see the individual transactions of money that went in and out of the country. I got to see names of people, names of companies, and that knowledge has always been valuable to me because when an economist goes and finds the statistics, you see a bunch of numbers, you see a bunch of aggregates, you try to build a story in general terms, in general concepts. Well, when I see statistics, and when I see these numbers, I don’t see general stories and general concepts. I see people. I see the companies. I know their behavior. I know their patterns. I know exactly who we’re talking about because of that experience that I had failed more than 15 years ago. So that’s definitely a plus when you build the policy, when you know what makes up the statistics, and how much of it is also just hot air and how much is actually rigorous statistics building. I always thought that statistics, and therefore accounting, were absolutely crucial if you really want to do rigorous economic analysis. That’s also why I sometimes laugh when I see colleagues putting out all these nice, econometric models and using numbers as if they were some sort of physics and hard science when a bunch of these statistics are absolutely made up and have very strong deficiencies, or very large, significant deficiencies. I’ve actually written quite a bit about problems about monetary and balance of payments statistics Anyway, to come back, I was an advisor to the Economic Policy Ministry, and we had a major issue because the central bank of Ecuador had been ran, perhaps over two decades, by the most conservative, Orthodox people in the country, and with clear links to the more powerful bankers. So in 2008, under Correa’s government, we had a new constitution of Ecuador, which was a very interesting process of democratization of lawmaking. We had thousands and thousands of people propose amendments, and changes, and wording, and so on, for the Constitution. And eventually, I really think it’s a piece of artwork, the Ecuadorian constitution. It is very progressive, it is forward looking, and one of the things that the Constitution did was to change the nature of the central bank. It said that the central bank would no longer be independent. It will no longer be autonomous, that it would be democratically accountable to democratic forces, and therefore be part of the executive branch. Now, we’re also a dollarized country, but with a non-independent central bank, that was run as a branch, effectively, of the executive government, and the President was a PhD economist. Okay, so this was a very particular moment in time. And if that guy wanted to have the central bank also comply with the new constitutional mandates, which also changed for the central bank. For example, we have financial inclusion as a constitutional objective, not just inflation or whatever. You have a list of constitutional mandates for the central bank. You wouldn’t find anybody in the central bank staff that would even understand much less so be aligned with the new constitutional objectives. So since I had a monetary background and I specialized in those issues, and I knew the central bank both from the inside, and the outside, because I had been able to live within its framework, but also to criticize it from the outside. I became the general banking director, which is basically the one in charge of the central bank’s operations. It was a very happy moment for me because I was fairly young, but I already, perhaps, could be considered an expert in central banking affairs. And I knew the workings of the payment system, the reserve management areas, the international payment systems, and financial institutions. I knew accounting very well, and it’s key to know that if you’re running a central bank. And I had the correct political orientation as to what were the key transformations that I had to achieve within the central bank, so as to instead of destroying the institution, leveraging the institution to fulfill these new constitutional roles. So I had a key role there in transforming the central bank into what it still is today, even though we now have, again, a conservative government. But because we had very important changes in place, even in the culture of the central bank, I think it’s difficult for them to revert all of that. So that’s how it all came about. It’s a really nice story, and I think it’s not easily replicable elsewhere in the world, unfortunately, but there are many things that on the margin can be done to use an immense power that any central bank has in any society to democratize that society, to democratize its economies.

Music Break – “This is Not America” by Residente

Billy Saas:  So moving from critic of the central bank’s activities to someone who’s effectively directing them, were there things that you learned or surprises that you encountered in your new position on the inside? Did anybody take your place as the critic from the outside? And what was that criticism of your work like?

Andrés Arauz:  Well, to be honest, no. There was no strong criticism at the time because, like I said, we were moving really fast.

Billy Saas:  Yeah.

Andrés Arauz:  This academia in Ecuador had been dominated by neoliberal thought by neoclassics and no real thought about heterodox monetary policy, and so on. The payment system was something that was completely out of the discussion, out of the debate. None of that. The central bank’s proactive role in the economy had been forgotten for the last 20 or 30 years, and so on. So the people in academia, even the right wing academia, had no idea what we were doing. They looked at the balance sheets, and they just couldn’t figure it out. They didn’t even know how to read the balance sheets, because they had excluded that sort of training for a long time. So the first few years, there was really no criticism, not because they didn’t feel like something was wrong, but because they didn’t know what to do about it. We had also kicked out the IMF and the World Bank from our country. We had expelled the World Bank from Ecuador. The IMF was still in the country; they used to occupy a large office at the central bank, and they didn’t pay rent. So we said, “no, if you don’t pay rent, you get kicked out of the building.” And of course, they didn’t have as much access to what was going on within the central bank, either. So there was really nothing that they could do or say during that time because we were making changes in the plumbing of the system. We were working on, for example, democratizing the payment system by something so simple as retrofitting the telecommunications requirements for connecting to the payment system, and for making a light version of the software available for credit unions. In Ecuador, we had over 600 credit unions that were operating, but were not included in the payment system. So they weren’t able to offer the same kinds of financial services, transactional services, payments of government wages, and so on, like big banks were able to. So just by democratizing the payment system, we had a revolution at the base of the pyramid where rural credit unions all of a sudden became a major force in the economic system. These guys were part of the Solidarity Economy, so they had another value system in there as well. Not just capitalist banks, right? Just by democratizing the payment system—something that we did out of the mainstream or the media’s radar—we were able to make major changes. Now, when did they start to pick up when they, by then, I mean basically right wing academics, opposition pundits, and so on, was when we started the launch of what we call the mobile money system. Ecuador was the first central bank digital currency. Now it’s a fad. But we did this 10 years ago, and the project started in 2009. So this is like 15 years, 14 years ago. We changed the regulations so that citizens, any citizen, all they had to have was a national identification number, so their ID, and that was the only requirement to open an account at the central bank. A central bank digital currency, we called it mobile money then. It was designed in such a way that was perhaps another tenant of my way of thinking about technology, its appropriate technologies, rather than vanguard technologies, or the latest thing. You need to make technology appropriate to people’s needs, not to just…

Scott Ferguson:  Disrupt.

Andrés Arauz:  Right, so we had this mobile money that would work with the most basic feature phone, without the need of having a smartphone, without the need of having a data plan. All you needed to do was dial a shortcode, and you will get access to an entire system to transact. And that’s when the right wing opposition started to criticize. I had been out of the central bank by the time it actually launched, but that’s when they started to pick up on some of the major issues. In part, because one of the main people that they recruited was a former central bank guy, who then went to work for the private bankers association, and is now working at the IMF. So this person is perhaps the only one that was able to educate the right wing as to what was actually happening. And now it’s only about 10 or 14 years later, writing about what we did in 2009, 2010, and 2011 with a critical perspective. I think it took them a while to understand what was going on. People, when they think about a dollarized country, they usually say, “you lost your monetary policy, and you’re screwed,” and so on. That’s not true because when we went into the central bank, and when I was an advisor at the Economic Policy Ministry, we said look, sure an Orthodox dollarization removes all of those tools and possibilities and policies and you just sort of quit and say: I renounce everything and let the markets dominate. But in a heterodox dollarization, it forces you to be creative. You will have an advantage, which is that you have a stable unit of account, which is actually a challenge for many developing countries that try to apply heterodox economic policy. You get these devaluations, depreciations, people lose faith in the currency because of the pundits and the markets react quickly. But when you have a dollarized economy and a stable unit of account, you can be a bit more creative without worrying about these speculative attacks, because they have nothing to attack. So then you really start to play with actual issues that depend on credit creation, and the role of banks in society, and the workings of the payment system, and the velocity of circulation of money, and how the securities market operates. You can be more creative without worrying about issues like speculative attacks. For example, we have a neighboring country, Colombia. President Petro is also an economist. He’s pursuing a heterodox policy. But of course, the speculative attacks against the Colombian currency are there, and you have an Orthodox central bank that is not aiding or helping or contributing in that same heterodox orientation. So it’s much more difficult to be heterodox when you don’t have all the pieces aligned.

Scott Ferguson:  So do you still have a critique of dollarization, despite having a more nuanced, creative, heterodox, experimental approach to moving and creating institutions, and developing forms within a dollarized country?

Andrés Arauz:  Absolutely. Yeah, I’m critical. First, we have to understand that there are many dollarizations, right? I’m critical, absolutely, of dollar hegemony, for example. So this is geopolitical. This is a colonial thing. The south does not have to use a New York or Miami account to make payments between Uruguay and Peru. Why, right? So dollar hegemony, and the fact that dollar hegemony contributes to imperialist measures like economic sanctions, unilateral coercive measures that are destroying entire countries. Furthermore, if you put dollar hegemony together with transactional systems such as SWIFT that are a global monopoly, and if you cut them off SWIFT, you are also effectively cutting them off. And it’s basically being weaponized. Money as a weapon, and the plumbing of the system used as a weapon, I’m absolutely critical of dollar hegemony. I will continue to be so, and I will try to build alternatives because I don’t think the world has to subject itself to one country’s currency. I think that it has to be a global system, and that means going towards a more democratic, multilaterally-based economic monetary system. Just like it was dreamt decades ago, almost 100 years ago, by key thinkers such as Keynes: you have the Bancor, a global monetary asset. Of course, there are key power players. We cannot deny that, but let’s have a more balanced approach. Now, that’s one issue that has to do with dollarization. For example, dollarization of international transactions, of international trade, and so on. Then there’s the issue of domestic economies and adopting the dollar for domestic means of payments. Like I said, one thing is the dollar as a unit of account. Another is the dollar as the actual physical means of payment that people use on the street. I think that even if you’re dollarized de jure like my country is, it’s best to try to replace the physical dollar used for means of payment domestically with electronic means of payment, and keep the physical dollars as international reserves for the current international system that requires that you use the US dollar. That way you free up dollars that you’re using for domestic payments that you don’t really need to better import equipment, technology, and resources that you don’t have available in your own country. So I think there are nuances to all of this. And while I’m a critic of dollar hegemony, I think we have to recognize that until that changes, the dollar plays a key role in Latin America, and basically 99% of international transactions in the region. Many domestic prices in the region are pegged to the dollar de facto like real estate, in cars, of course imported technology, and then that sort of creeps into the rest of the prices in the economies. So the dollar is there. Now, how do you optimize that? How do you gain degrees of freedom? How do you get some policy space, a bit of sovereignty in that context, is what it’s all about. And that is independent of whether you’re a de jure dollarized country, or just a normal market economy with a domestic currency. But that has to comply with the rules of dollar hegemony. So I think there are many similarities in both approaches, and I think you can be a critic, and as well, be a proactive thinker, and policymaker, in that context.

Billy Saas:  So you are making the best of the situation, working in the dollarized economy, but it clearly was not the case, when Ecuador’s economy became dollarized, that they had these sort of advantages in mind. So can you talk a little bit about, you’ve been a critic before of President Jamil Mahuad’s decision, the administration’s decision in Ecuador, in 2000, and into 2001, to give up the Sucre and adopt the dollar as the state currency. Could you sort of tell us, what was their motive as you understand it? And why was that a particularly bad idea for Ecuador at the time?

Andrés Arauz:  It was a bad idea because it was a conspiracy. Now that Mahuad just came out with a book, and there are people that are doing a bunch of research. Marco Naranjo has also come out and said this was a conspiracy. He was the one guy who was planning dollarization five years before. You have declassified reports from the United States government saying that they actively pursued the dollarization of several economies in Latin America. It is not a coincidence that Ecuador accepted a US military base in Manta in 1999, and Ecuador was dollarized in the year 2000. There were only four months between both decisions., and, unless you believe in fairy tales, that’s fairly easy to link up in terms of the international political economy. Now, Mahuad was a terrible president, predominantly for what he did to the people of Ecuador. He was bankrolled and financed by bankers. He put bankers in the ministries, in the central bank, and everywhere. Private bankers, who did not quit their jobs as bankers while they were being government bureaucrats at the same time. So just plenty of conflict of interest, nasty policies, and so on. He started basically bailing out banks when the crisis came, which was not an accident. Again, crises are not natural disasters in the sense that there’s an unforeseen circumstance. Financial crises are anthropogenic in nature; they are manmade, they are engineered, if you will. And there is enough research into financial crises, especially from Hyman Minsky, and all of his disciples, and people that have studied him, we know how crises come about, and how they play out, and then how they eventually get resolved. So instead of preventing the crisis, instead of solving the crisis, Mahuad basically started pumping all this amount of money for the bankers, but at the same time, didn’t close the capital account or didn’t put exchange restrictions. So what the bankers immediately did was they got all this bailout money in Sucres and they literally just went through the revolving door of the central bank and came back with the Sucres and bought Dollars. Now if overnight, you have this increase of demand for dollars because of the huge supply of Sucres, that without any exchange rate restrictions, without any capital account restrictions, of course, you’re going to have a devaluation, depreciation of the local currency immediately. But this is not something that requires a genius mindset. This is sort of very, very basic. And they did it anyway to purposely weaken the local currency and justify the dollarization measure, which had been in the workings for quite a bit. So now, Mahuad 24 years later is trying to come out and say, “Oh, look, I wanted a dollarized economy. Look what would have happened if the Sucre kept devaluating,” and so on. But they did it on purpose. It’s not like it was an accident, and he cured the illness. It is that they created this crisis to justify the measure, so they weren’t thinking about the creative uses of dollarization. They had no idea about the actual workings of the dollarized economy or the balance sheet logic that you can apply. They were working on, basically, assumptions that you would renounce monetary policy, and that it would be a hard restriction on fiscal policy, as well. Basically, they said, if you have dollars, then the central bank cannot lend to the government anymore. And then, we’ll starve the beast, and then we’ll justify our privatization program, and so on. It was very purposely a neoliberal agenda. The law of dollarization was written, not in Ecuador. It was written in DC at the IMF, and then sent via fax to Ecuador to be copied and implemented. It’s a very long story, the story of how dollarization was implemented. But they didn’t see that we were going to be smart enough to find loopholes and creativities and creative solutions to that. For example, and I will mention this quickly, but starting in 2009, the central bank of Ecuador started to lend to the government, even though we’re dollarized. This completely blew their minds because it was like, “Isn’t dollarization supposed to forbid the central bank from creating money out of thin air?” No! You can still create dollars, right? You can still create dollars on a central bank’s ledger. They are just accounting dollars, right? Of course, you can’t go and print physical dollars, but you can still create dollars on the ledger, and then have them be transacted in the domestic economy. Sure, that creates an issue then later with a balance of payments, international reserves, but then you have to have a proactive balance of payments policy, like any developing countries should, in fact.

Scott Ferguson:  Isn’t this the case with Eurodollars, as well?

Andrés Arauz:  Yeah, I mean, that’s exactly. The thing is, when it’s private banks doing it, nobody has an issue with them creating dollars in their banks, and in the ledgers. That’s how offshore dollar banking systems also work, in general. I use the term “xenodollars” to be more etymologically correct. But yeah, that’s exactly how it works. What they didn’t like is that now a state institution, which was the central bank, was doing exactly the same, perhaps with even more care, with more oversight, with clearly defined parameters under a democratically accountable system than what private banks were doing, which was creating Ecuadorian dollars when they lent. That’s definitely something they didn’t have in mind in the year 2000. When the economy was dollarized, there was a huge crisis in terms of prices. Relative prices just got really messed up over the next year or so. Many economic activities became non-competitive overnight, and Ecuador could have collapsed, even as a country, except for one thing, which was that the crisis of the late 90s and dollarization created a mass migration of millions of Ecuadorians. We lost almost 15% of the population that went to live in the States, in Spain, and Italy, and then started sending remittances home. So it was this hard currency that was coming from abroad that basically saved the country from catastrophe.

Scott Ferguson:  You’ve been a vocal advocate for the development of a regional currency in South America called the S-U-R, the Sur. And this currency would be used instead of dollars in international cooperation and trade. Could you share with our listeners a little bit about the Sur currency and what its adoption will mean for member countries like Ecuador.

Andrés Arauz:  So the Sur is actually an initiative by President Lula, by former presidential and now Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad, and his team. The Sur is not a currency like the Euro that wants to replace the national currencies. That’s something that I have to insist from the start: it is not a currency intended to replace national currencies. It’s a complementary currency. It’s a regional complementary currency that wants to contribute to the dynamics of intra-regional trade. Okay. So, right now a country like Argentina, in order to buy staples or equipment from Brazil, has to have Dollars in their reserves, and then it has to transfer those dollars to a Brazilian bank in order to get the equipment, the machine, or whatever, from Brazil. Why? Why? Then, of course, the logic of that is that the dollars aren’t in suitcases or wherever. The dollars are just accounts in US banks abroad. The dynamic of that is creating institutionalized capital flight because you have to have a liquidity pool, a bunch of money basically deposited abroad, that you cannot use for your developmental needs. So, by having the Sur, we’re basically setting up a payment system with a regional unit of account, the Sur. We have to still talk about how we’re going to value it, but most likely, it will be pegged to the SDR, the Special Drawing Right. And the Sur will avoid having to require US dollars for these international transfers, for these intra-regional international transfers. We can just use this unit of account for our purposes. Again, it does not resemble the Euro in the sense that it replaces national currency. More likely it resembles, even though I don’t like to use this example that much, the European Currency Unit, the ECU, which was an ancestor of the Euro. So you have a unit of account composed of a basket of currencies whose idea is: let’s avoid using an extra regional currency for inter regional trade. I think that will definitely create some flexibility and policy space for countries so that they can free up some of their reserves, and use those for technology and equipment that’s not available within the region; stuff that we may need to import from the US, Europe, or Asia. At first glance, it does not seem so ambitious. I am proposing to the working group that we start with a bit more ambition, which is allowing payments in Sur from any bank account in the region—twenty other bank accounts in the region—in real time, like the Brazilian Pix payment system is working. We already have the technology. We don’t really have to make anything up. All we have to do is connect the softwares, and the pointers, and the parameters, and we can get that rolling overnight. Why is this very important? Because in South America when people think about regional integration, sometimes they think it’s a thing about politicians, and presidential summits, and they gather once a year, all the flags are put together and they hug each other, and so on. But we need to make this very tangible and to build regional integration in such a way that it’s actually existing in people’s lives. And the way to do that is, I think, by making a democratic payment system where you can actually make transfers within the region, denominated in Sur in real time. That will be a big, big competitive leap compared to the legacy system, dollar based, SWIFT-based system that runs today.

Billy Saas:  That’s super helpful. Thinking a little bit more in terms of on the ground in Ecuador, there have been major indigenous uprisings over the last several years, indeed going back to the 1990s. Then, there was recently a call this past week by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, for more protests after one of their leaders, the chairman of CONAIE was arrested and detained. The CONAIE endorsed your candidacy and 2021, and I imagine you might like to have that endorsement again. Could you talk to us a little bit about your vision for the newly created Sur, and a reinvigorated Unasur, and how those will serve and advance the interests of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples? So thinking about on the ground, in material terms, how does this complimentary currency improve the lives of Ecuador’s indigenous?

Andrés Arauz:  First, CONAIE is an organization that I really respect. I think they have decades of political organization and work. They were, unfortunately after 2003 specifically, infiltrated and contaminated by different intelligence agencies—Local, neighboring, and foreign intelligence agencies—to try to break it apart because it was becoming a very powerful force, and they clearly had a left wing agenda. During the left wing progressive government of Correa, there was a lot of tension with CONAIE, but during my candidacy, we were able to find common ground, and to admit some of the historical mistakes that progressive forces had made, which allowed these foreign interests to penetrate such a valuable movement. Now, I didn’t have the endorsement of the entire CONAIE. I had the endorsement of the President of the CONAIE at the time, and let’s just say good relations with the rest. But specifically with the Amazonian indigenous peoples of Ecuador, which is the Confeniae. This year, we had protests in 2022 over several issues, among them, importantly, the price of gasoline and fuel. Of course, there was a packet or package of agreements that the government reached with CONAIE, but the government has, of course, continued their neoliberal agenda, because that’s what a private banker is there to do. There will probably be more protests. Now with the government, Lasso’s rampant banking corruption will probably come out in 2023, and we’ll see a change there. So that’s what’s happening in Ecuador. In Ecuador, what has always been my proposal is we need to build what’s called the historical block, which is reiterating the same forces that supported the new constitution of Ecuador in 2008. That sort of waned over time. We need to rebuild that and have that be strong again. So that involves an agreement, a political, social, and economic agreement with the indigenous movement and the Citizens’ Revolution which is the political space that I belong to. Now, the Unasur that is now in zombie status, but will not be for long because in the next few days, we’ll see Unasur have a rebirth, especially with Lula’s leadership. One of the reasons that I think Unasur failed—and I want to emphasize this is my perspective—was because it did not have a material or tangible effect on people’s lives. It remained as a general idea that was mostly around political circles. It was not a culturally ingrained concept. I see that Unasur cannot just be an integration of politicians or of states, it needs to be an integration of the peoples. And I use that term on purpose. The peoples of South America need to perceive that this thing is actually something that is useful to them. I think the way of doing that is, first, having the Sur allow all these transfers like I mentioned, in real time, denominated in the unit of account, which will be a thing that would materially impact trade in the region. You will get businesses, small, medium, and so on, to support this. You would also have an education pillar that would allow for students to have an exchange program; a year long exchange program in any of the countries in the region, both high school students and university students. That would also make it very concrete. The third thing is the thing that Evo Morales, former President of Bolivia has started, which is called Runasur. Runa, in other indigenous languages, means person or lay man, and it is, of course, a reference to an indigenous integration of the South. I think we have a key opportunity there in terms of the urgent needs for climate change, biodiversity, and above all, the respect of indigenous peoples. So I think that also will be a key pillar in strengthening the integration of the peoples. Hopefully, that can also become an integration of social movements. Why not, instead of having 12 different workers unions, for example, in a specific economic sector, just have a regional workers union with 12 chapters, or with local chapters. Just like a big organization, because transnational companies all work in that way; they operate in different countries, but they all respond to the logic of the headquarters. This is what we should do in terms of workers unions, women’s movements, students movements, indigenous peoples, and in general, the organizations that respond to the majority of people and our capital. So hopefully, not Unasur per se, because it’s more institutional space, but Runasur, which is the space of lay people, can also have a political union going forward. That’s why it’s important for the indigenous peoples of Ecuador to support that initiative, as well.

Scott Ferguson:  Are there critics of these complementary currency systems, either on the right or left or center? And if there are, what do you say in response to them?

Andrés Arauz:  Yeah, of course there are critics. People that think and believe that we should always just comply with the dollar hegemony and base all of our economy on the needs of US interests, and who are happy to have their double residence in Miami and another Latin American country. Unfortunately, this sounds caricature-esque, but this is what it is. Bolsonaro was a supposed nationalist and supposed Brazilian Jersey fan. Even before leaving the presidency, he went to live in Orlando, Florida and put on the Mickey Mouse hat. I don’t know if you saw it, but he also wore the US Soccer Jersey.

Scott Ferguson:  Oh yeah, we saw.

Andrés Arauz:  I mean for Latin Americans who are football fans, and we just had Argentina win the World Cup, it’s really symbolic. It’s pretty bad. That shows how these fascist nationalisms in Latin America say that Latin American Integration is bad, but somehow wearing the US Soccer jersey is good. It makes no sense whatsoever, but this is how they think. This is what’s in their mind. And that’s also where their wallets are, and what their bank accounts are, and where the property is. Lasso has 140 properties in Broward County and Miami Dade County, in Florida, so this is who they are. The elites, unfortunately, are more Miami-based than Latin American-based, and we will have to face that struggle, show these contrasts, and make that transformation happen.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, it’s a big middle finger. What about the center left and left? Because I think we’ve come up against many critics and oppositional forces, whether it’s in the British Labour movement, British Labour economists, or left wing media folks and activist in the United States who are not thinking with Post-Keynesian theories of endogenous money, are really thinking in these old fashioned, even classical hydraulic models of finite money redistribution. Do you come up against those kinds of criticisms from center left and left interlocutors?

Andrés Arauz:  Yeah, unfortunately, there is not enough education as to how money works. You have covered this extensively in the past, and yeah, we all have to face not just a radical idea, but then we have to also deconstruct the previous theoretical assumptions that even our peers or comrades are having in their day to day. A logic of understanding policymaking, or economics, or money to sort of rebuild from scratch and say, “Okay, now forget everything you know about this and let’s start all over.” Yeah, there’s that. Fortunately, I think, the pandemic and then before that the financial crisis, were lessons in what is scarcity? What is scarce money? What is money, where does it come from, and so on. Now, it’s very easy to point to that. All you have to do is show a graph or even show examples. It’s much easier than before. You know what else, actually? The crypto space, even though it doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to understand endogenous money, has at least opened the minds of people in terms of the discussion about money. So what they have done is popularize the issue of money to the point where now people are just more open minded, in general. And that’s also important, and it has also been key in opening the doors for these heterodox approaches, endogenous money, MMT, Post-Keynesianism, and so on. I think, also in academic circles, you’ve had key people and gatekeepers admit to the fact that that is how money works. The famous Bank of England paper, and so on, and we’re getting there. I still think we still have a lot of work to do in terms of how the formal education system talks about money and textbooks and stuff. If you go to a classic Econ 102, an introductory course in university, you still get brainwashed with other kinds of things. We still have to do a lot in terms of the curriculum and universities, especially in developing countries, which need to know this more. But I think we’ve definitely gone forward a lot, including with center and center left people in the region. That, by the way, the Post-Keynesians are pretty strong in Brazil, and that’s also a big one.

Billy Saas:  Awesome, I think one other area of concern for some people who might be interested in the Sur but worried is: what happens when the political tides change again? Hopefully they don’t ever, right? But say the Sur is built, implemented, and the gains of the left are lost over the next several years. Could the Sur not be weaponized against the countries in the region? What do you say to those folks who might have that kind of concern?

Andrés Arauz:  So my approach to policy making is, of course, planning. When I want to make these major transformations, such as when I was in the central bank or in other spaces, like the developing ministry, planning is central. Improvisation is bad. You need to plan. You need to make a short, medium, long term plan. You need to have the risks involved in there as well as plan for the risks, as well. And then something that most technocrats forget is, what those of us that have a bit of Marxist influence, is the correlation of forces. So how is the political economy? What’s the political economy for this? It’s thinking about sustainability in terms of political economy. Is this going to be reversible or not? Right? So that’s when we start having some implementation issues with some peers and colleagues on the left, because we just assume that we’re going to have power, and we’ll keep power forever, or for a very long time, and then people just get used to this somehow or another. That’s not how it works. We need to make sure that the political economy of this is sustainable over time so that the forces, the political and economic forces, sustain it over time. Like the example that I gave you with the credit unions, I can’t imagine Lasso, the banker, President of Ecuador, even after coming to the central bank, trying to turn off the switch, which disconnects 600 credit unions from the payment system. He will get sort of a massive push back and strikes, and it won’t happen, right? So we need to achieve that point of irreversibility in terms of the political economy, but also in terms of the usage of the system. So if three or four people use the system, whatever, they’ll disconnect it, and that’s it. But if you get many people using it, this is why I think it should be part of the regional payment system and get businesses, small and medium enterprises specifically, using the Sur payment system. We need to have a dynamic sector. We need to have even capitalist forces support the system saying: this is much cheaper than using the dollar-based SWIFT system. And have that incentive in place, as well. We need to sort of create incumbents that will defend the system, even when the left wing politicians are out of the game. That’s the kind of process building that we need to achieve, both in terms of the Sur and the Unasur. That’s why the economic pillar has to be in place, as well, and not just the other pillars of integration that happened in the past, such as the military union, or the health union, or the democracy union, or whatever. All of those can be stripped away as soon as the politicians are gone. When you have the fabric of society, an economic and productive fabric, that needs the regional system, then it’ll keep moving forward and it’ll become the incumbent. It will become a long lasting, sustainable project.

Scott Ferguson:  In December, you published a significant report for the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) titled “Putting Climate At The Core of IMF Governance.” To close out our conversation, would you mind giving our listeners a sense for what you are arguing for in that project?  Well, first, I’m really thankful to CEPR for opening the doors to my contributions, to my thoughts, to whatever I can do to coincide in terms of our priorities in an economic and policy arena. I’ve been studying the IMF for over a decade now. I’ve seen the IMF face to face, and I’m strongly versed with some of its policymaking, which strongly coincided with some of their issues like SDRs. I think SDRs are a very important instrument that, even though they’re not perfect, we should continue to push for them.

Billy Saas:  Special Drawing Rights, could you say just a little bit about the Special Drawing Rights?

Andrés Arauz:  SDRs, or Special Drawing Rights, are international money, international currency, that is created out of thin air. It’s endogenous money. And it’s political money: it was created as an international treaty to replace gold and the US Dollar as a reserve asset in the 60s. So it’s the thing that mostly resembles an international currency even though in the SDR basket, the US dollar has a large weight, like 40%, or something like that. It’s okay because it will have to recognize the realities of world power players. And hopefully one day, the Sur will be part of the SDR basket. That’s actually something that I am proposing should be one of the long term objectives of the Sur. We’ve been working with CEPR on promoting SDR use. Also with other organizations such as Latindadd, the Latin American Network of Economic Justice. Other organizations around the world like Oxfam, Arab Watch, and so on. Really, a large coalition has been built in civil society, and people who think and propose economic policy issues use SDRs beyond the narrow monetary reserve asset quality of them. I wrote a handbook for Latindadd saying, look: SDRs can actually become an instrument of fiscal policy. Then, that opens the door for central bank-Ministry of Finance coordination even though it’s taboo that many want to hide and not speak about until after the pandemic. Anyway, I really like SDRs, and I want to keep exploring and writing and mainstreaming them. But this other thing, this paper on putting climate at the core of IMF governance comes about because I started to read a lot of greenwashing from the IMF, especially in the RST, the Resilience and Sustainability Trust. They put out a climate strategy, and so on and so forth. Most of it is, unfortunately, sort of greenwashing: just basically saying that they’re going to work on climate issues, but not really incorporating that into the main logic of the functioning of the monetary system like they could. For example, they don’t mention the fact of the Petrodollar, the exorbitant privilege of the dollar issuer that can acquire extrasomatic energy needs from Petrostates just by printing their own money versus the rest of the world, and how that relates to historic CO2 emissions on behalf of the United States. So there are many issues that are systemic in terms of the relationship between climate and money that the IMF is not even touching with a stick. I thought that it would be interesting to say:  well, if you’re serious about climate change, if you’re serious about having systemic structural change with regards to the climate, let’s talk about how IMF governance has an incidence in that. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but the Bridgetown agenda, which is basically being promoted by Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados. She’s saying we need more SDRs so we can invest those SDRs in climate because if we just wait for the rich countries to give us money, that’ll never happen. Poor countries don’t have money on their own to do this, because you need hard currency. The next best thing to hard currency are SDRs, and they can be created out of thin air. Hey! We have the money to invest in fighting climate change. Let’s do it. And of course, then the rich countries are saying: hahaha, no, maybe later, let’s think about it…And they pretend not to hear. That all could happen if the IMF governance system could change a little bit. Right now, at the IMF, there is only one country that has veto power over the decision to create more SDRs, and that country is the United States. You can have veto power with 15% of the vote, and the United States has 17%. So you need to change that. You need to have more weight for developing countries, and especially for the countries that are vulnerable to climate change because they are the ones most desperate to actually make things change and make things happen. So in this paper, with my co-authors, we propose changing the formula of how the IMF voting share is distributed. How the votes are allocated within the IMF, among the different countries. All we do is very simple. There’s a formula with five variables: GDP, reserves, openness, amount of trade, and so on. And they have a weird variable called variability of capital flows. I have these five variables, and sure the biggest countries get the biggest voting share, but we just add one more variable, which is historic CO2 emissions. We say keep the same variables and divide the openness variable by the cumulative, historic CO2 emissions of that country so that we can include their degree of responsibility to climate change as part of the IMF form. We use non-ambiguous, objective metrics published by the Potsdam Institute for Climate to measure the country’s contribution to climate change via cumulative CO2 emissions. Of course, as you would expect, the United States voting share at the IMF falls from 17% to somewhere like 6%. China’s also falls significantly to somewhere like 6%. Rich countries, in general, all fall significantly, and developing countries, in general, increase their voting share significantly, especially small island developing states. So those that risk being destroyed, those at risk of disappearing from rising sea levels, are actually the ones that increase the most, from around 2% to around 20% of IMF voting share. That would have a significant impact on the entire monetary system, the practices of IMF lending, the logic of power within the institution, and they would actually have a transformational impact on how the world, how the planet, deals with climate change. The IMF is a powerful institution with a trillion dollars of lending power. That’s not counting how much money it can create via the SDRs, and it’s not counting the influence that it has over financial markets, and not counting the influence that it has over local policymakers in terms of the ideas of money, the ideas of policymaking, the ideas of fiscal management, monetary policy, and so on. I think if we start from the core, then we can have far reaching effects. Of course, I’m not naive to think “oh, wow, how could we not think of this and have the US accept this change overnight?” That’s not gonna happen. But at least we’re putting the discussion forward so that we can understand the true magnitude of this reality.

Billy Saas:  We will, of course, link to that on CEPR and your other work there. Andrés Arauz, it has been an absolute pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for joining us on Money On The Left.

Andrés Arauz:  Thank you all! I hope we get another chance to share some more stories about CDBCs and what’s happening in that space, as well. I’m quite involved in that area, as well. I’m advising a tech company called Nym on that issue. I would also like to talk about creating unions, financial inclusion in the solidarity sector and the role that money plays there. So yeah, in general, I’d love to share this on another occasion with you and it’s been a pleasure talking to you all.

Spanish Transcript

The following was translated by Sisa Pacarina Tixicuro Duque and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Billy Saas:  Andrés Arauz, bienvenido a “Money On The Left”.

Andrés Arauz:  Muchas gracias por recibirme. Me complace estar aquí. Vengo siguiendo su trabajo desde hace unos meses y años, y me alegra estar aquí.

Billy Saas:  Oh, qué emocionante saberlo! Estamos encantados de tenerte aquí con nosotros, y más ahora, que estamos viviendo un momento histórico en Latinoamérica, puesto que seis (hace muy poco, siete) de los países más poblados, incluida por primera vez Colombia, están siendo gobernados por líderes con ideas políticas progresistas de izquierda. ¿Cómo calificarías este momento y su importancia de cara al futuro de la región?

Andrés Arauz:  Bueno, este es un momento muy emocionante para los progresistas, sobre todo para la gente en Latinoamérica que ya vivió la primera Marea Rosa, la primera corriente progresista en la región. Desde luego, ahora hay un poco más de madurez en el entorno progresista, en general, y pienso que hemos aprendido un par de lecciones. Una de las más importantes que hemos aprendido es la importancia de la integración regional. ¿Verdad? Así pues, sabemos que un país por sí solo no cambiará el mundo. Un país por sí solo no cambiará la dinámica fundamental del sistema mundial, ni saldrá, de manera sostenible, de la pobreza, ni tampoco transformará su economía, su base industrial, etcétera. Ya sabemos que eso sólo puede lograrse con un plan regional o de integración. Y creo que definitivamente eso se ha incorporado a la agenda de la izquierda. Por eso este es un momento crítico en la historia, pues ahora vemos que el Presidente Lula, que acaba de llegar al poder hace sólo 10 días en Brasil, ya se ha enfrentado al primer intento golpista. Él ha declarado que la integración regional, concretamente con los países sudamericanos, es una de sus prioridades clave en su política exterior. Así que esto es emocionante para nosotros, con el liderazgo de Lula, desde luego, la situación en la región cambia por completo. Observamos que fuerzas extrarregionales como Estados Unidos también han tomado nota de este giro hacia la izquierda, y eso tiene repercusiones para toda la región. Esperemos superar todos estos intentos golpistas y amenazas violentas contra las fuerzas progresistas. Y esto puede ser no solamente una reacción, una resistencia frente a las fuerzas del Imperio, las fuerzas del Neocolonialismo que amenazan la política progresista en toda la región, sino que realmente seamos capaces de construir algo. Y pienso que lo monetario, la cuestión financiera, es sin duda algo que podemos conseguir en un corto período de tiempo. Dada las dinámicas electorales en la región, quisiera insistir en que para Latinoamérica y los políticos progresistas y quienes dirigen los países, no contamos con un lapso de tiempo infinito. Disponemos de una brecha de oportunidades muy limitada, que es justamente este año, 2023. Si traspasamos ese plazo, probablemente será mucho más difícil, debido a las coyunturas políticas internas, las fuerzas de correlación, etcétera. Así que considero que este año es el año del trabajo duro, y de poner las piezas en orden y echarlas a andar.

Scott Ferguson:  Entonces, ¿cómo interpretarías la situación de Ecuador en este momento histórico en particular? Y yo me pregunto, según tu experiencia, aprovechando esta peculiar apertura histórica, ¿cómo has conseguido hablar sobre dinero y finanzas públicas desde un punto de vista heterodoxo y comunicarlo a las personas comunes y corrientes?

Andrés Arauz:  De acuerdo, empecemos con el papel de Ecuador en todo esto. Ecuador, por desgracia, ahora mismo está dirigido por la antítesis del dinero progresista con la política, es decir, un banquero. Un banquero multimillonario neoliberal, que se ha alineado completamente con el FMI en su asesoramiento y formulación de políticas convencionales, y de la vieja escuela, y demostrado eficazmente que son falsas e incorrectas, y está llevando al país a una gran crisis económica. Ecuador es probablemente el país que menos se ha recuperado tras la pandemia. En general, realmente no ha crecido a causa de una política monetaria y fiscal muy restrictiva. Él está promoviendo la fuga de capitales como parte de la política del gobierno. Ayer mismo, o no sé cuándo saldrá al aire, pero muy, muy recientemente, acaba de anunciar que eliminará el impuesto a la salida de divisas que tenemos en Ecuador. Existe desde hace tiempo. Así que eso promoverá la salida de capitales. Pero la cosa es que en realidad su principal línea de negocio como banquero es poseer un banco offshore con sede en un centro offshore en Panamá, en el que aproximadamente entre el 80 y el 85% de todos los depósitos proceden de ecuatorianos ricos. Así que es realmente muy complicado para cualquier país. Pero para mi país, es realmente doloroso, ¿sabes? Cuando tienes un presidente cuya principal línea de negocio es promover la fuga de capitales a su banco offshore con sede en Panamá. Por supuesto, toda la política se cambia para adaptarse a su línea de negocio. Y es bastante absurdo, pero también un poco repugnante, porque no ha abandonado el banco, no ha puesto sus acciones en un fideicomiso ciego o lo que sea. No, él ha sido explícito acerca de mantener su propiedad, y eso es muy lamentable. Además, porque si uno se aleja un poco y amplia la visión, verá que este es el tipo de personaje que se opondría a un rol proactivo como lo ha sido siempre la política exterior ecuatoriana, salvo este gobierno, para ser parte de una fuerza regional. Formar parte de un bloque regional. Así que lo más probable es que se oponga a todas estas iniciativas, y es muy lamentable porque hasta hace muy poco, Ecuador era la capital de UNASUR: era la sede de la Unión Sudamericana. El ex Presidente Moreno, que traicionó su programa, y ahora Lasso, han renunciado, a que Ecuador fuera la Capital de Sudamérica, la ciudad de Quito. Por fortuna, en cambio, la población ecuatoriana es notablemente progresista. Así, en las últimas elecciones, a las que me postulé, la población ecuatoriana votó alrededor de un 70% a parlamentarios progresistas. El resultado presidencial no fue exactamente el mismo: perdí por poco. No obstante, el parlamento es mayoritariamente progresista con socialdemócratas, con progresistas de lo que llamamos el movimiento indígena de fuerzas plurinacionales. Representan más de dos tercios del parlamento. Y la población, en general, también es bastante progresista. Por tanto, esto significa que, más temprano que tarde, la población de Ecuador dará un paso al frente, empezará a ejercer sus derechos democráticos y probablemente se produzca un relevo en la administración. Es muy poco probable que el actual presidente sea reelegido. Y tendremos un gobierno progresista que se alineará con el proyecto de integración regional. También me preguntaste sobre cómo abordar la política financiera y económica heterodoxa dentro de este contexto, y tengo varios, digamos sombreros que me pongo todo el tiempo. En el contexto de mi propio país, soy principalmente un actor político. Tras las elecciones de hace dos años, se me considera un actor político, lo que me da la oportunidad de aparecer bastante en los medios de comunicación. Supone para mis redes sociales la oportunidad de contar con muchos seguidores, y ahí es importante procurar transmitir el mensaje adecuadamente. He intentado compartir mis conocimientos en un lenguaje sencillo y con un vocabulario bastante fácil, pero principalmente mostrando contrastes. Pienso que ha sido una forma muy eficaz de comunicarse con la gente, con amplios segmentos de la población, contrastando las recomendaciones políticas o las políticas monetarias ortodoxas, la política monetaria o la política económica en general, frente a lo que se puede conseguir con un planteamiento heterodoxo. Ese es el sombrero que uso dentro de Ecuador, pero fuera del país, tengo, quizás, más reluciente el sombrero académico. Empleo mis conocimientos para comunicarme con los especialistas y los medios de comunicación especializados, con aquellos que, tal vez, hacen un seguimiento general de las instituciones financieras internacionales, y trato de utilizar ese tipo de lenguaje para reafirmar e insistir en mi acreditación académica, lo cual creo que también es importante en términos de construcción de legitimidad. Más o menos eso es lo que hago. Trabajo en varios espacios, pero siempre en torno a cuestiones relacionadas con las finanzas y la tecnología. Me siento bastante feliz en ese espacio y trato de cambiar el mundo con mis conocimientos, mi capacidad intelectual, con las redes que puedo tratar de establecer. Espero que también podamos aprovechar eso para seguir desarrollando y transformando mi propio país.

Billy Saas: A la hora de realizar esta labor de comunicación, ¿hay otros intelectuales que modelen el tipo de comunicación al que aspiras? Y dentro del amplio espectro de la economía heterodoxa, ¿hay alguna escuela o perspectiva a la que recurras más a menudo?

Andrés Arauz: No he tenido en mente a ninguna persona en concreto como referente de comunicación. He estado en contacto con muchos líderes y pensadores económicos. No puedo negar el increíble e importante modelo que ha sido, por ejemplo, Rafael Correa en cuanto a comunicación de política económica. Él solía emitir un programa de radio semanal en el que explicaba la política económica y la política gubernamental a toda la población. Fue un programa que duraba entre dos y cuatro horas cada sábado. Y luego, por supuesto, explicar los temas de forma sencilla y comunicárselos a la gente utilizando diapositivas de PowerPoint y demás también fue, creo, algo que no sólo me afectó a mí, sino que fue un estilo de comunicación con el que todos en mi país llegaron a familiarizarse. En términos de pensamiento económico, sin embargo, reconozco definitivamente la influencia de muchos economistas latinoamericanos que han existido desde Raúl Prebisch; estructuralistas y pensadores de la teoría de dependencia. Más recientemente, la influencia de los post-keynesianos ha sido muy significativa en mi pensamiento y práctica económica. Diría que me adscribo al post-keynesianismo más extenso, y dentro de esa amplia escuela hay muchos grupos más pequeños, y a mí me gusta recopilar elementos de todos ellos. Realmente me han llegado a gustar algunos de los principales elementos recopilados por los separatistas, la escuela separatista francesa junto con algunos italianos también. Mi trabajo doctoral abarca muchos de sus trabajos. Concretamente, Augusto Graziani porque me especialicé en sistemas de pagos, y en la dinámica del dinero, y el papel de los bancos, etcétera. Y también me gusta tener eso en cuenta. Pero además, y esto es quizás algo que está más relacionado con el contexto latinoamericano, está lo que yo llamo la escuela de la Economía Solidaria. La Economía Solidaria es muy importante en nuestra región porque nosotros llegamos tarde al proceso de industrialización. Llegamos tarde al capitalismo mismo. Hemos estado bajo economías básicamente feudales hasta bien entrado el siglo pasado, el siglo XX. La Economía Solidaria es importante porque es una forma de incluir a los que fueron excluidos por el sistema capitalista. Si analizas mi país, o mis vecinos, entre el 70 y el 80% de la población en edad de trabajar no es trabajadora formal. No están bajo una relación capital-trabajo. Son básicamente sobrevivientes en un sistema en el que tienen que encontrar la manera de sobrevivir cada día. Eso no encaja en ninguna teoría económica definida, así que la Economía Solidaria trata de explicar: vale, ¿qué podemos hacer las personas que hemos sido excluidas del sistema? Salvémonos los unos a los otros. Cooperemos. Construyamos una comunidad. Construyamos un sistema económico cooperativo en el que podamos reconocer que estamos parcialmente excluidos del capital y del capitalismo, pero tenemos que dialogar con el capital y el capitalismo. Estamos parcialmente excluidos del Estado, pero también tenemos que interactuar con el Estado. Estamos divorciados de nuestras propias realidades porque tenemos que sorbrevivir. Además, tenemos que trabajar juntos. Tenemos que convertirnos en cooperativas, tenemos que juntarnos en asociaciones. Incluso sin ser un sindicato, o una Unión de Trabajadores, tenemos que unirnos para poder negociar en mejores términos con las fuerzas que nos gobiernan. Considero que la Economía Solidaria tiene una influencia muy importante y marcada en mi forma de concebir el desarrollo. Sí, probablemente hay muchos más que me estoy saltando ahora mismo, pero desde luego algunos de los que he mencionado.

Scott Ferguson:  En 2021, cuando te presentaste a las elecciones presidenciales de Ecuador y estuviste a punto de ganarlas, la prensa destacó que hubieras sido el presidente más joven de la historia del país. No obstante, para nosotros resulta tanto o más extraordinario que hayas ocupado el cargo de Director del Banco Central de Ecuador con tan solo 24 años de edad. ¿A qué se debe esta situación? En primer lugar, ¿qué te llevó a dedicarte a la política monetaria?

Andrés Arauz: Sin duda debería mencionar a mi director de tesis de maestría, Pedro Páez Pérez. Él fue muy importante en mis primeras etapas de desarrollo profesional. De hecho, obtuve mi licenciatura en Ciencias en la Universidad de Michigan Ann Arbor, en matemáticas y economía, y después volví a Ecuador y empecé a cursar una maestría en ese país. Por lo general, el orden suele ser el inverso: la gente obtiene un título a nivel local y luego hace una maestría en el extranjero. En mi caso, lo hice al revés. En realidad, fue muy, muy útil porque cuando ingresé en la FLACSO, una universidad latinoamericana que tiene sedes en distintas partes de la región, en mi caso Ecuador, creo que todos mis profesores iban a convertirse en ministros de finanzas, planificación, desarrollo, banco central, etcétera. Mi director de tesis, Pedro Páez, había sido investigador del Banco Central, de modo que cuando se convirtió en Ministro de Políticas Económicas, yo pasé a ser su asesor.  De hecho, tenía 22 años cuando fui asesor del Ministro de Políticas Económicas. Yo estaba a cargo de lo que llamábamos la nueva arquitectura financiera, que básicamente proponía una transformación del sistema financiero nacional, pero también trabajábamos en la transformación del sistema financiero sudamericano y sus instituciones. Trabajé con él en muchos de esos temas, y llegué a conocer el Banco Central desde fuera. Fui asesor del ministerio, pero casi todo mi trabajo tenía que ver con el Banco Central. De modo que pude criticarlo constantemente y presionarles para que hicieran cambios, etcétera. Cabe mencionar que, antes de todo esto, yo había trabajado ya en el Banco Central. Trabajaba como experto en estadísticas de balanza de pagos, y mi trabajo me permitía ver las transacciones individuales de dinero que entraban y salían del país. Pude ver nombres de personas, nombres de empresas, y ese conocimiento siempre ha sido valioso para mí porque cuando un economista va y encuentra las estadísticas, ve un montón de números, ve un montón de agregados, intenta construir una historia en términos generales, en conceptos generales. Pues bien, cuando yo veo estadísticas, y estos números, no veo historias generales ni conceptos generales. Veo personas. Veo empresas. Conozco su comportamiento. Conozco sus patrones. Conozco exactamente de quién estamos hablando gracias a la experiencia que tuve hace más de 15 años. Así que eso es definitivamente una ventaja cuando se construye la política, cuando se sabe lo que compone las estadísticas, y en qué medida es también sólo palabrería y cuánto es en realidad la construcción de estadísticas rigurosas. Siempre he pensado que las estadísticas, y por tanto la contabilidad, son absolutamente cruciales si realmente quieres hacer un análisis económico riguroso. Por eso a veces me río cuando veo a colegas que presentan modelos econométricos muy bonitos y utilizan números como si fueran una especie de ciencia exacta y pura, mientras que muchas de esas estadísticas son pura invención y tienen grandes deficiencias, o deficiencias muy grandes y significativas. He escrito bastante sobre los problemas de las estadísticas monetarias y de balanza de pagos. En fin, retomando el tema, yo fui asesor del Ministerio de Políticas Económicas, y ahí tuvimos un gran problema porque el Banco Central de Ecuador había sido dirigido, quizás durante dos décadas, por la gente más conservadora y ortodoxa del país, y con claros vínculos hacia los banqueros más poderosos. Así que en 2008, bajo el gobierno de Correa, redactamos una nueva Constitución de Ecuador, que supuso un proceso muy interesante de democratización legislativa. Tuvimos miles y miles de personas que propusieron enmiendas, y cambios, y redacción, etcétera, de la Constitución. Y al final, realmente pienso que la Constitución ecuatoriana es una obra de arte. Es muy progresista, está orientada al futuro, y una de las cosas que hizo la Constitución fue modificar la naturaleza del Banco Central. Dictó que el Banco Central ya no sería independiente. Ya no sería autónomo, que sería responsable democráticamente ante las fuerzas democráticas, y por lo tanto formaría parte del poder ejecutivo. Ahora bien, también somos un país dolarizado, pero con un Banco Central que no es independiente, que estaba dirigido como una rama, en efecto, del gobierno ejecutivo, y el Presidente era un economista doctorado. Bien, así que este fue un momento muy especial en esa época. Y si ese sujeto quería que el Banco Central también cumpliera con los nuevos mandatos constitucionales, que también cambiaron para el Banco Central. Por ejemplo, la inclusión financiera es un objetivo constitucional, no sólo la inflación o lo que sea. Existe una lista de mandatos constitucionales para el Banco Central. Entre el personal del Banco Central no habría nadie que entendiera, y mucho menos que estuviera en consonancia con los nuevos objetivos constitucionales. Así que como yo tenía formación monetaria y estaba especializado en esos temas, y conocía el banco central tanto desde dentro como desde fuera, porque había podido vivir dentro de su marco, pero también criticarlo desde fuera. Llegué a ser director general de la banca, que es básicamente el encargado de las operaciones del Banco Central. Fue un momento muy feliz para mí porque era bastante joven, pero ya se me podía considerar, quizás, un experto en asuntos de la banca central. Además, conocía el funcionamiento del sistema de pagos, las áreas de gestión de reservas, los sistemas de pagos internacionales y las instituciones financieras. Poseía excelentes conocimientos de contabilidad, algo fundamental para dirigir un banco central. Además, tenía la orientación política correcta respecto a cuáles eran las transformaciones clave que tenía que lograr dentro del Banco Central para, en lugar de destruir la institución, potenciarla para que cumpliera estas nuevas funciones constitucionales. Así que desempeñé un papel clave en la transformación del Banco Central para convertirlo en lo que sigue siendo hoy, aunque ahora tengamos, de nuevo, un gobierno conservador. Pero como introdujimos cambios muy importantes, inclusive en la cultura misma del Banco Central, creo que es difícil que puedan revertir todo eso. Así es como surgió todo esto. Es una historia muy bonita, y por desgracia creo que difícilmente podrá repetirse en cualquier otra parte del mundo, pero hay muchas cosas que, al margen, pueden hacerse para utilizar el inmenso poder que tiene cualquier banco central en cualquier sociedad para democratizar esa sociedad, para democratizar sus economías.

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Billy Saas: Pasar de ser un crítico de la gestión del Banco Central a alguien que, de hecho, lo dirige, ¿te ha traído sorpresas o lecciones aprendidas en tu nuevo papel dentro del banco? ¿Hubo alguien que ocupara tu lugar como crítico desde fuera? ¿Y cómo fueron esas críticas hacia tu trabajo?

Andrés Arauz:  Pues, sinceramente, no. En aquel momento no hubo fuertes críticas porque, como he dicho, íbamos avanzando muy deprisa.

Billy Saas:  Claro.

Andrés Arauz: La academia en Ecuador estaba dominada por el pensamiento neoliberal de los neoclásicos y no se pensaba realmente en una política monetaria heterodoxa, entre otras cosas. El sistema de pagos era algo que estaba completamente al margen de la discusión, fuera del debate. No había nada de eso. El papel proactivo del Banco Central en la economía había quedado en el olvido durante los últimos 20 o 30 años, y así sucesivamente. De modo que los académicos, incluso los de derecha, no tenían ni idea de lo que estábamos haciendo. Examinaban los balances y no podían entenderlo. Ni siquiera sabían cómo leer los balances, porque durante mucho tiempo habían dejado de lado ese tipo de formación. Así que los primeros años no hubo realmente ninguna crítica, pero no porque no sintieran que algo iba mal, sino porque no sabían qué hacer al respecto. Además, habíamos expulsado de nuestro país al FMI y al Banco Mundial. Expulsamos al Banco Mundial del país. El FMI seguía en el país; ocupaban una gran oficina en el Banco Central y ni siquiera pagaban alquiler. Así que dijimos: “no, si no pagan alquiler, los echamos del edificio”. Y por supuesto, tampoco tenían mucho acceso a lo que ocurría dentro del Banco Central. De modo que no había nada que pudieran hacer o decir durante ese periodo porque estábamos haciendo cambios en las cañerías del sistema. Por ejemplo, estábamos trabajando en la democratización del sistema de pagos mediante algo tan sencillo como la adaptación de los requisitos de telecomunicaciones para conectarse al sistema de pagos, y para poner a disposición de las cooperativas de crédito una versión ligera del software. En Ecuador, teníamos más de 600 cooperativas de crédito que funcionaban, pero no estaban incluidas en el sistema de pagos. Por tanto, no podían ofrecer el mismo tipo de servicios financieros, transaccionales, pagos de salarios públicos, etc., que los grandes bancos. Así que, simplemente democratizando el sistema de pagos, se produjo una revolución en la base de la pirámide, donde las cooperativas de crédito rurales de repente se convirtieron en una fuerza importante en el sistema económico. Estos sujetos formaban parte del sistema de Economía Solidaria, por lo que también integraban otro sistema de valor. No solamente bancos capitalistas, ¿verdad? Sólo democratizando el sistema de pagos -algo que hicimos al margen de la opinión pública o de los medios de comunicación- pudimos introducir cambios importantes. Ahora bien, cuando empezaron a darse cuenta, me refiero básicamente a académicos de derecha, expertos de la oposición, etc., fue cuando iniciamos el lanzamiento de lo que llamamos el sistema de dinero móvil. Ecuador fue el primer Banco Central de moneda digital. Hoy día es una novedad. Pero nosotros hicimos esto hace 10 años, y el proyecto empezó en 2009. O sea que esto fue hace como 15 años, 14 años. Modificamos la normativa para que los ciudadanos, cualquier ciudadano, solo necesitara un número de identificación nacional, su cédula de identidad, como único requisito para abrir una cuenta en el Banco Central. La moneda digital del Banco Central se llamaba por aquel entonces, dinero móvil. Se diseñó de tal manera que, quizás, fue otra muestra de mi forma de concebir la tecnología, las tecnologías apropiadas, en lugar de las tecnologías de vanguardia o lo último en innovación. Hay que hacer que la tecnología se adapte a las necesidades de la gente, no…

Scott Ferguson:  Interrumpa.

Andrés Arauz: Exacto, entonces contábamos con este dinero móvil que funcionaba en los teléfonos más básicos, sin necesidad de tener un smartphone, sin necesidad de tener un plan de datos. Basta con marcar un código corto, y tenías acceso a todo un sistema para realizar transacciones. Y ahí fue cuando la oposición derechista empezó a criticar. Yo ya estaba fuera del Banco Central cuando se lanzó, pero fue entonces cuando empezaron a darse cuenta de algunos de los principales problemas. En parte, porque una de las figuras principales que reclutaron fue un antiguo miembro del Banco Central, que luego pasó a trabajar para la Asociación de Banqueros Privados y ahora trabaja en el FMI. Así que esta persona es quizás el único que pudo educar a la derecha en cuanto a lo que realmente estaba sucediendo. Y ahora está solo unos 10 o 14 años después, escribiendo sobre lo que hicimos en 2009, 2010 y 2011 con una perspectiva crítica. Pienso que les llevó un tiempo entender lo que estaba pasando. La gente, cuando piensa en un país dolarizado, suele decir: ” perdiste tu política monetaria y estás arruinado”, etcétera. Eso no es cierto porque cuando entramos en el Banco Central, y cuando yo era asesor en el Ministerio de Políticas Económicas, dijimos mira, por supuesto que una dolarización ortodoxa elimina todas esas herramientas y posibilidades y políticas y uno simplemente renuncia y dice: “Renuncio a todo y dejo que los mercados dominen”. Pero con una dolarización heterodoxa, estas forzado a ser creativo.Tendrás una ventaja, y es que dispondrás de una moneda estable, lo que en realidad supone un reto para muchos países en desarrollo que intentan aplicar una política económica heterodoxa. Se producen devaluaciones, depreciaciones, la gente pierde la fe en la moneda a causa de los expertos y los mercados que reaccionan rápidamente. Sin embargo, cuando se tiene una economía dolarizada y una moneda estable, se puede ser un poco más creativo sin preocuparse por estos ataques especulativos, porque no hay nada que atacar. Entonces se empieza a jugar con cuestiones concretas que dependen de la creación de crédito, del papel de los bancos en la sociedad, del funcionamiento del sistema de pagos, de la velocidad de circulación del dinero y del funcionamiento del mercado de valores. Se puede ser más creativo sin preocuparse de cuestiones tales como ataques especulativos. Por ejemplo, tenemos un país vecino, Colombia. El Presidente Petro también es economista. Está llevando a cabo una política heterodoxa. Pero, naturalmente, los ataques especulativos contra la moneda colombiana están ahí, y tienes un Banco Central ortodoxo que no está ayudando ni contribuyendo en esa misma orientación heterodoxa. Así que es mucho más difícil ser heterodoxo cuando no tienes todas las piezas alineadas.

Scott Ferguson: Entonces, ¿continúas criticando la dolarización, a pesar de tener un enfoque más sutil, creativo, heterodoxo y experimental a la hora de mover y crear instituciones, y desarrollar distintas estructuras en un país dolarizado?

Andrés Arauz:  Por supuesto. Sí, soy crítico. Para empezar, hay que entender que existen muchas dolarizaciones, ¿no? Soy crítico, rotundamente, por ejemplo, de la hegemonía del dólar. Así que esto es geopolítico. Se trata de una cuestión colonial. El sur no tiene por qué usar una cuenta en Nueva York o en Miami para hacer pagos entre Uruguay y Perú. ¿Por qué? Pues por la hegemonía del dólar, y por el hecho de que la hegemonía del dólar contribuye a medidas imperialistas como las sanciones económicas, medidas coercitivas unilaterales que están destruyendo países enteros. Además, si pones la hegemonía del dólar junto con sistemas transaccionales como SWIFT que son un monopolio global, y si les cortas SWIFT, también estás cortando de manera efectiva. Y básicamente se está convirtiendo en un arma. El dinero como arma, y la cañería del sistema utilizada como arma, soy absolutamente crítico con la hegemonía del dólar. Seguiré siéndolo, y trataré de construir alternativas porque no creo que el mundo tenga que someterse a la moneda de un solo país. Pienso que tiene que ser un sistema global, y eso significa ir hacia un sistema monetario económico más democrático, de base multilateral. Tal como lo soñaron hace décadas, hace casi 100 años, pensadores tan importantes como Keynes: tienes el Bancor, un activo monetario global. Desde luego, hay actores clave del poder. No podemos negarlo, pero adoptemos un enfoque más equilibrado. Ahora bien, esa es una cuestión que tiene que ver con la dolarización. Por ejemplo, la dolarización de las transacciones internacionales, del comercio internacional, etcétera. Luego está la cuestión de las economías domésticas y la adopción del dólar como medio de pago doméstico. Como he dicho, una cosa es el dólar como unidad de cuenta. Otra es el dólar como medio de pago físico real que la gente utiliza en la calle. Creo que incluso si se estás dolarizado, como mi país, lo mejor es intentar sustituir el dólar físico utilizado como medio de pago interno por medios de pago electrónicos, y mantener los dólares físicos como reservas internacionales para el actual sistema internacional que exige el uso del dólar estadounidense. De este modo se liberan dólares que se utilizan para pagos internos y que realmente no son necesarios para importar equipos, tecnología y recursos de los que no se dispone en el propio país. Así que creo que hay matices en todo esto. Y aunque soy un crítico de la hegemonía del dólar, creo que tenemos que reconocer que hasta que eso cambie, el dólar juega un papel clave en América Latina, y básicamente en el 99% de las transacciones internacionales de la región. En la región, muchos precios internos están vinculados de facto al dólar, por ejemplo los de la propiedad inmobiliaria, los automóviles y, por supuesto, la tecnología importada, y eso se extiende al resto de los precios de las economías. Así que el dólar está ahí. Ahora, ¿cómo optimizar eso? ¿Cómo ganar grados de libertad? De lo que se trata es de conseguir cierto espacio político, es decir, un poco de soberanía en ese contexto. Y eso es independiente de si eres un país dolarizado, o simplemente una economía de mercado normal con una moneda nacional. Pero se tiene que cumplir las reglas de la hegemonía del dólar. Así que creo que hay muchas similitudes en ambos enfoques, y creo que se puede ser crítico, y también un pensador proactivo, y un responsable político, en ese contexto.

Billy Saas: De modo que estás sacando el mejor partido de la situación, trabajando en una economía dolarizada, pero es evidente que, cuando la economía ecuatoriana se dolarizó, no tenían en mente este tipo de ventajas. Has criticado la decisión del presidente Jamil Mahuad, la decisión de la administración ecuatoriana, en 2000 y en 2001, de abandonar el Sucre y adoptar el dólar como moneda del Estado. ¿Podrías explicarnos cuáles fueron, en tu opinión, sus motivos? ¿Por qué fue una mala idea para Ecuador en aquel momento?

Andrés Arauz: Fue una mala idea porque se trataba de una confabulación. Ahora Mahuad acaba de sacar un libro, y hay gente que está investigando mucho. Marco Naranjo también ha dicho que esto fue una conspiración. Él fue el que estuvo planeando la dolarización cinco años antes. Hay informes desclasificados del gobierno de Estados Unidos que dicen que buscaban activamente la dolarización de varias economías en América Latina. No es una coincidencia que Ecuador aceptara una base militar estadounidense en Manta en 1999, y que fuera dolarizado en el año 2000. Sólo hubo cuatro meses entre ambas decisiones y, a menos que se crea en cuentos de hadas, eso es bastante fácil de vincular en términos de economía política internacional. Ahora bien, Mahuad fue un pésimo presidente, sobre todo por lo que le hizo al pueblo de Ecuador. Él fue financiado por banqueros. Colocó banqueros en los ministerios, en el Banco Central y en todas partes. Banqueros privados, que no dejaron sus cargos de banqueros mientras eran burócratas del gobierno a la vez. Por lo tanto, un montón de conflictos de intereses, políticas repugnantes, y así sucesivamente. Él empezó básicamente a rescatar bancos cuando llegó la crisis, lo cual no fue un accidente. Nuevamente, las crisis no son desastres naturales en el sentido de que existe una circunstancia imprevista. Las crisis financieras son de naturaleza antropogénica; son provocadas por el hombre, son diseñadas, por así decirlo. Y existe mucha investigación sobre las crisis financieras, especialmente de Hyman Minsky, y todos sus discípulos, y las personas que lo han estudiado, sabemos cómo surgen las crisis, y cómo se desarrollan, y luego cómo se resuelven finalmente. Así que en lugar de prevenir la crisis, en lugar de resolver la crisis, Mahuad básicamente comenzó a bombear toda esta cantidad de dinero para los banqueros, pero al mismo tiempo, no cerró la cuenta de capital o no puso restricciones de cambio. Así que lo que los banqueros hicieron inmediatamente fue recibir todo este dinero de salvataje en Sucres y, literalmente, pasaron por la puerta giratoria del Banco Central y retornaron los Sucres y compraron dólares. Ahora bien, si de la noche a la mañana se produce este aumento de la demanda de dólares debido a la enorme oferta de Sucres, sin ninguna restricción del tipo de cambio, sin ninguna restricción de la cuenta de capital, por supuesto, se va a producir una devaluación, una depreciación de la moneda local de forma inmediata. Pero no se trata de algo que requiera una mente brillante. Esto es algo muy, muy básico. Y lo hicieron de todos modos para debilitar a propósito la moneda local y justificar la medida de dolarización, que había estado en marcha durante bastante tiempo. Así que ahora, Mahuad 24 años después está tratando de salir y decir: “Oh, mira, yo quería una economía dolarizada. Miren lo que hubiera pasado si el Sucre se seguía devaluando”, etcétera. Pero lo hicieron a propósito. No es que fue un accidente y curó la enfermedad. Es que ellos crearon esta crisis para justificar la medida, por lo que no estaban pensando en los usos creativos de la dolarización. No tenían ni idea del funcionamiento real de la economía dolarizada ni de la lógica de balance que se puede aplicar. Estaban trabajando, básicamente, asumiendo que se renunciaría a la política monetaria, y que sería una dura restricción a la política fiscal, también. Básicamente, dijeron, si tienes dólares, entonces el Banco Central ya no puede conceder préstamos al gobierno. Y entonces, vamos a matar de hambre a la bestia, y así justificaremos nuestro programa de privatización, y así sucesivamente. Fue una agenda neoliberal muy intencionada. La ley de dolarización se escribió fuera de Ecuador. Se redactó en Washington DC, en el FMI, y luego se envió por fax a Ecuador para ser copiada e implementada. Es una historia muy larga, la historia de cómo se implementó la dolarización. Pero ellos no se imaginaron que íbamos a ser lo suficientemente inteligentes como para encontrar vacíos legales y soluciones creativas. Por ejemplo, y voy a mencionar esto rápidamente, a partir de 2009, el Banco Central de Ecuador comenzó a conceder préstamos al gobierno, a pesar de que estamos dolarizados. Esto les dejó completamente atónitos porque era como: “¿No se supone que la dolarización prohíbe al Banco Central crear dinero de la nada?”. ¡No! Aún se pueden crear dólares, ¿verdad? Todavía se pueden crear dólares en el registro contable de un Banco Central. Son sólo dólares contables, ¿verdad? Desde luego, no se pueden imprimir dólares físicos, pero sí se pueden crear dólares en el registro contable y hacer que se muevan en la economía nacional. Por supuesto, eso crea un problema con la balanza de pagos, las reservas internacionales posteriormente, pero entonces tienes que tener una política de balanza de pagos proactiva, como, de hecho, cualquier país en desarrollo debería.

Scott Ferguson: ¿Acaso no ocurre lo mismo con los eurodólares?

Andrés Arauz: Sí, eso es exactamente. La cuestión es que, cuando son bancos privados los que lo hacen, nadie tiene problemas con que creen dólares en sus bancos, y en los libros de contabilidad. Así es como funcionan los sistemas bancarios de dólares offshore, en general. Yo uso el término “xenodólares” para ser más etimológicamente correcto. Pero sí, así es exactamente como funciona. Lo que no les gustó es que ahora una institución estatal, que era el Banco Central, estuviera haciendo exactamente lo mismo, quizás con más cuidado, con más supervisión, con parámetros claramente definidos bajo un sistema democráticamente responsable que lo que estaban haciendo los bancos privados, que era crear dólares ecuatorianos al hacer préstamos. Eso es algo que sin duda no tenían en mente en el año 2000. Cuando se dolarizó la economía, se produjo una crisis enorme en materia de precios. Durante el año siguiente, los precios relativos se alteraron mucho. De la noche a la mañana muchas actividades económicas dejaron de ser competitivas, y Ecuador podría haber colapsado, incluso como país, salvo por una cosa, y es que la crisis de finales de los 90 y la dolarización crearon una migración masiva de millones de ecuatorianos. Perdimos casi el 15% de la población que se fue a vivir a Estados Unidos, a España y a Italia, y luego empezó a enviar remesas a casa. De modo que fue esta moneda fuerte que venía del extranjero la que básicamente salvó al país de la catástrofe.

Scott Ferguson: Has sido un firme defensor del desarrollo de una moneda regional en Sudamérica llamada S-U-R, el “Sur”. Esta moneda sustituiría al dólar en la cooperación y el comercio internacionales. ¿Podría compartir con nuestros oyentes un poco sobre la moneda “Sur” y lo que su adopción significaría para países miembros como Ecuador?

Andrés Arauz:  Entonces, “Sur” es en efecto una iniciativa del presidente Lula, del ex presidente y ahora ministro de Finanzas, Fernando Haddad, y de su equipo. El “Sur” no es una moneda como el euro que quiera sustituir a las monedas nacionales. Eso es algo en lo que tengo que insistir desde el principio: no es una moneda que pretenda sustituir a las monedas nacionales. Es una moneda complementaria. Es una moneda complementaria regional que quiere contribuir a la dinámica del comercio intrarregional. Bien. En este momento, un país como Argentina, para comprar productos de primera necesidad o equipos a Brasil, tiene que tener dólares en sus reservas, y luego tiene que transferir esos dólares a un banco brasileño para obtener el equipo, la máquina, o lo que sea, desde Brasil. ¿Por qué? ¿Por qué? Entonces, claro, la lógica de eso es que los dólares no están en maletas o en cualquier lugar. Los dólares son simplemente cuentas en bancos de EE.UU. en el extranjero. Esta dinámica está creando una fuga de capitales institucionalizada porque tienes que tener un fondo de liquidez, un montón de dinero básicamente depositado en el extranjero, que no puedes utilizar para tus propias necesidades vinculadas al desarrollo. Por tanto, al crear el “Sur”, básicamente estamos estableciendo un sistema de pagos con una unidad de cuenta regional, el “Sur”. Aún tenemos que hablar de cómo vamos a valorarla, pero lo más probable es que esté vinculada al DEG, el Derecho Especial de Giro. De este modo, el “Sur” evitará tener que utilizar dólares estadounidenses para las transferencias internacionales, es decir, las transferencias internacionales intrarregionales. Podremos utilizar esta moneda para nuestros fines. Repito, no se parece al euro en el sentido de que sustituye a la moneda nacional. Más bien se parece, aunque no me guste tanto utilizar este ejemplo, a la Unidad Monetaria Europea, el UME, que fue un antecesor del euro. Se trata de una moneda compuesta por una cesta de divisas cuya idea es evitar el uso de una moneda regional adicional para el comercio interregional. Sin duda, pienso que esto creará cierta flexibilidad y espacio político para que los países puedan liberar parte de sus reservas y utilizarlas para tecnología y equipos que no están disponibles en la región; cosas que quizá necesitemos importar de Estados Unidos, Europa o Asia. A primera vista, no parece tan ambicioso. Lo que yo propongo al grupo de trabajo es que empecemos con algo más ambicioso, que es permitir los pagos en el sistema “Sur” desde cualquier cuenta bancaria de la región -otras veinte cuentas bancarias de la región- y en tiempo real, como está funcionando el sistema brasileño de pagos Pix. Ya disponemos de la tecnología. En realidad, no tenemos que inventar nada. Lo único que tenemos que hacer es conectar los programas informáticos, los indicadores y los parámetros, y podemos ponerlo en marcha de la noche a la mañana. ¿Y por qué es esto tan importante? Porque en Sudamérica, cuando la gente piensa en la integración regional, a veces cree que se trata de un asunto de políticos y cumbres presidenciales, que se reúnen una vez al año, se juntan todas las banderas y se abrazan, etcétera. Pero tenemos que hacer esto más tangible y construir la integración regional de tal manera que realmente forme parte de la vida de la gente. Y la forma de hacerlo es, en mi opinión, creando un sistema de pagos democrático en el que se puedan hacer transferencias dentro de la región, expresadas en “Sur” y en tiempo real. Eso supondrá un gran salto competitivo en comparación con el sistema actual, basado en el dólar y en el sistema SWIFT.

Billy Saas: Eso es muy útil. Centrándonos un poco más en la situación local de Ecuador, en los últimos años se han producido importantes levantamientos indígenas, que de hecho se remontan a la década de 1990. Además, la semana pasada la Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de Ecuador (CONAIE) convocó más protestas después de que uno de sus líderes, el presidente de la CONAIE, fuera detenido y encarcelado. La CONAIE respaldó tu candidatura y la de 2021, e imagino que te gustaría volver a contar con ese respaldo. ¿Podrías contarnos un poco sobre tu perspectiva de la recién creada “Sur”, y de una UNASUR revitalizada, y de qué manera servirán y promoverán los intereses de los pueblos y nacionalidades indígenas de Ecuador? Pensando en términos tangibles, ¿cómo mejorará esta moneda complementaria la vida de los indígenas ecuatorianos?

Andrés Arauz: Primeramente, la CONAIE es una organización que realmente respeto. Pienso que tienen décadas de organización política y de trabajo. Por desgracia, a partir de 2003, concretamente, se vieron infiltrados y contaminados por diferentes agencias de inteligencia -locales, vecinas y extranjeras- para tratar de disolverla porque se estaba convirtiendo en una fuerza muy poderosa, y claramente tenían una agenda de izquierda. Durante el gobierno progresista de izquierda de Correa, existió mucha tensión con la CONAIE, pero durante mi candidatura, pudimos encontrar puntos en común, y reconocer algunos de los errores históricos que habían cometido las fuerzas progresistas, que permitieron que estos intereses extranjeros penetraran en un movimiento tan valioso. Ahora bien, no tuve el respaldo de toda la CONAIE. En aquel momento tenía el respaldo del Presidente de la CONAIE, y digamos que tenía buenas relaciones con el resto. Pero en concreto con los pueblos indígenas amazónicos de Ecuador, que es la CONFENAIE. Este año, tuvimos protestas en 2022 por diversos temas, entre ellos, de manera importante, el precio de la gasolina y el combustible. Por supuesto, hubo un paquete o un paquete de acuerdos que el gobierno concertó con la CONAIE, pero el gobierno, por supuesto, ha continuado con su agenda neoliberal, porque para eso está un banquero privado. Probablemente habrá más protestas. Ahora con el gobierno, la corrupción bancaria rampante de Lasso probablemente saldrá a la luz en 2023, y veremos un cambio allí. Así que eso es lo que está pasando en Ecuador. En el caso de Ecuador, mi propuesta siempre ha sido construir lo que se llama el bloque histórico, es decir, consolidar las mismas fuerzas que apoyaron la nueva Constitución de Ecuador en 2008. Eso fue decayendo con el tiempo. Necesitamos reconstruirlo y que vuelva a ser fuerte. Entonces eso implica un acuerdo, un acuerdo político, social y económico con el movimiento indígena y la Revolución Ciudadana que es el espacio político al que yo pertenezco. Ahora bien, la UNASUR que ahora está en estado zombi, pero que no lo estará por mucho tiempo ya que en los próximos días, veremos a la UNASUR tener un renacimiento, sobre todo con el liderazgo de Lula. En mi opinión, una de las razones por las que la UNASUR fracasó -y quiero subrayar que ésta es mi perspectiva- fue porque no tuvo un efecto material o tangible en la vida de las personas. Se quedó en una idea general que rondaba sobre todo los círculos políticos. No fue un concepto enraizado a nivel cultural. Yo considero que la UNASUR no puede ser sólo una integración de políticos o de Estados, tiene que ser una integración de los pueblos. Y utilizo este término a propósito. Es necesario que los pueblos de América del Sur sientan que esto es realmente algo útil para ellos. Creo que la forma de hacerlo es, en primer lugar, que el SUR permita todas estas transferencias que he mencionado, en tiempo real, denominadas en la unidad de cuenta, lo que tendrá un impacto material en el comercio de la región. Las pequeñas y medianas empresas apoyarán esta iniciativa. Además, habría un pilar educativo que permitiría a los estudiantes participar en un programa de intercambio de un año de duración en cualquiera de los países de la región, tanto para estudiantes de secundaria como universitarios. Eso también sería muy concreto. Lo tercero es la iniciativa de Evo Morales, ex Presidente de Bolivia, denominada “Runasur”. Runa, en Kichwa y otras lenguas indígenas, significa persona, y es, por supuesto, una referencia a una integración indígena del Sur. Pienso que ahí tenemos una oportunidad clave en cuanto a las necesidades urgentes del cambio climático, la biodiversidad y, sobre todo, el respeto a los pueblos indígenas. Así que pienso que eso también será un pilar clave para reforzar la integración de los pueblos. Ojalá pueda convertirse también en una integración de los movimientos sociales. Por qué no, en lugar de tener 12 sindicatos de trabajadores en un sector económico específico, simplemente tener un sindicato de trabajadores regional con 12 secciones, o con secciones locales. Al igual que una gran organización, ya que las empresas transnacionales funcionan todas de esa manera; operan en diferentes países, pero todas responden a la lógica de la sede central. Eso es lo que deberíamos hacer en cuanto a los sindicatos de trabajadores, los movimientos de mujeres, los movimientos estudiantiles, los pueblos indígenas, y en general, las organizaciones que responden a la mayoría de la gente y de nuestro capital. Entonces esperemos que, no necesariamente la UNASUR porque es un espacio más institucional, la “Runasur”, que es el espacio de los pueblos pueda tener también una unión política hacia adelante. Por eso es importante que los pueblos indígenas de Ecuador también apoyen esa iniciativa.

Scott Ferguson: ¿Existen detractores de estos sistemas monetarios complementarios, ya sean de derecha, izquierda o centro? Y si los hay, ¿qué les responderías?

Andrés Arauz: Por supuesto que hay detractores. Gente que piensa y cree que siempre debemos conformarnos con la hegemonía del dólar y basar toda nuestra economía en las necesidades de los intereses de Estados Unidos, y que están felices de tener su doble residencia en Miami y en otro país latinoamericano. Por desgracia, esto suena caricaturesco, pero es así. Bolsonaro era un supuesto nacionalista y presunto hincha de la camiseta brasileña. Incluso antes de dejar la presidencia, se fue a vivir a Orlando, Florida y se puso el sombrero de Mickey Mouse. No sé si lo vieron, pero también se puso la camiseta de fútbol de Estados Unidos.

Scott Ferguson:  oh, sí. Lo ví.

Andrés Arauz: Quiero decir que para los latinoamericanos que son aficionados al fútbol, y acabamos de ver a Argentina ganar la Copa del Mundo, es algo realmente simbólico. Es bastante malo. Eso muestra cómo estos nacionalismos fascistas en América Latina afirman que la integración latinoamericana es negativa, pero de alguna manera llevar la camiseta de fútbol de Estados Unidos es positivo. Carece de todo sentido, pero así es como piensan. Esto es lo que tienen en la cabeza. Y ahí es donde están sus billeteras, y sus cuentas bancarias, y donde están las propiedades. Lasso tiene 140 propiedades en el condado de Broward y Miami Dade, en Florida, por lo que esto es lo que son. Por desgracia, las élites son más de Miami que de América Latina, y tendremos que afrontar esa lucha, mostrar esos contrastes y hacer que se produzca esa transformación.

Scott Ferguson: ¿Y qué pasa con el centro izquierda y la izquierda? Porque pienso que nos hemos topado con muchos críticos y fuerzas de oposición, ya sea en el movimiento obrero británico, economistas obreros británicos, o gente de izquierdas de los medios de comunicación y activistas en Estados Unidos que no piensan con las teorías poskeynesianas del dinero endógeno, piensan realmente en estos modelos hidráulicos anticuados, incluso clásicos, de redistribución finita del dinero. ¿Te enfrentas a ese tipo de críticas por parte de interlocutores de centro izquierda e izquierda?

Andrés Arauz:  Sí, por desgracia, no existe suficiente educación sobre cómo funciona el dinero. Ya has abordado este tema ampliamente en el pasado, y sí, todos tenemos que enfrentarnos no sólo a una idea radical, sino que también tenemos que deconstruir los supuestos teóricos previos que incluso nuestros compañeros o camaradas mantienen en su día a día. Una forma lógica de entender la elaboración de políticas, o la economía, o el dinero para de alguna manera reconstruir desde cero y decir: ” Bien, ahora olvida todo lo que sabes sobre esto y empecemos de nuevo”. Sí, eso existe. Por suerte, creo que la pandemia y antes la crisis financiera, dieron lecciones sobre ¿qué es la escasez? ¿Qué es la escasez de dinero? ¿Qué es el dinero, de dónde viene, y así sucesivamente. Ahora, es muy fácil señalar eso. Basta con mostrar un gráfico o incluso mostrar ejemplos. Resulta mucho más fácil que antes. ¿Y sabes qué más? El criptoespacio, a pesar de que no entiende o no quiere entender el dinero endógeno, al menos ha abierto la mente de la gente en términos de la discusión sobre el dinero. De modo que lo que han hecho es popularizar la cuestión del dinero hasta el punto de que ahora la gente tiene una mentalidad más abierta. Y eso también es importante, y también ha sido clave para abrir las puertas a estos enfoques heterodoxos, el dinero endógeno, la TMM, el poskeynesianismo, etcétera. Pienso que, también en los círculos académicos, gente influyente y expertos han admitido el hecho de que así es como funciona el dinero. Por ejemplo, el famoso documento del Banco de Inglaterra, y así sucesivamente, y estamos llegando a ese punto. Todavía creo que tenemos mucho trabajo por hacer en términos de cómo el sistema de educación formal aborda el tema del dinero y los libros de texto y demás. Si vas a un clásico Econ 102, un curso de introducción en la universidad, todavía te lavan el cerebro con otro tipo de cosas. Aún nos queda mucho por hacer en cuanto a currículos y universidades, sobre todo en los países en desarrollo, que necesitan saber más de esto. Pero pienso que definitivamente hemos avanzado mucho, inclusive con la gente de centro y centro izquierda de la región. Que, por cierto, los poskeynesianos son bastante fuertes en Brasil, y eso también es importante.

Billy Saas:  Impresionante, pienso que otro aspecto que preocupa a algunas personas que podrían estar interesadas en el “Sur” pero preocupadas es: ¿qué ocurrirá cuando las mareas políticas vuelvan a cambiar? Esperemos que no lo hagan nunca, ¿verdad? Pero supongamos que el Sur se construye, se pone en práctica y los logros de la izquierda se pierden en los próximos años. ¿No podría ser la “Sur” un arma contra los países de la región? ¿Qué le dirías a la gente que podría tener ese tipo de preocupación?

Andrés Arauz: Mi forma de abordar la elaboración de políticas es, por supuesto, la planificación. Cuando quiero llevar a cabo estas grandes transformaciones, por ejemplo cuando estaba en el Banco Central o en otros espacios, como el ministerio de desarrollo, la planificación es fundamental. Improvisar es malo. Hay que planificar. Es necesario hacer un plan a corto, medio y largo plazo. Es necesario tener en cuenta los riesgos y planificarlos. Y algo que la mayoría de los tecnócratas olvidan es, para aquellos de nosotros que tenemos un poco de influencia marxista, la correlación de fuerzas. ¿Cómo es la economía política? ¿Cuál es la economía política dentro de esto? Se trata de pensar en la sostenibilidad en términos de economía política. ¿Será esto reversible o no? ¿Verdad? Ahí es cuando empezamos a tener algunos problemas de aplicación con algunos compañeros y colegas de la izquierda, porque simplemente asumimos que vamos a tener el poder, y vamos a mantener el poder para siempre, o durante mucho tiempo, y luego la gente simplemente se acostumbra a esto de una manera u otra. Esto no funciona así. Tenemos que asegurarnos de que la economía política sea sostenible en el tiempo para que las fuerzas, las fuerzas políticas y económicas, lo mantengan en el tiempo. Como en el ejemplo que les di de las cooperativas de crédito, no me imagino a Lasso, el banquero, Presidente de Ecuador, incluso después de llegar al Banco Central, intentando apagar el interruptor que desconecta a 600 cooperativas de crédito del sistema de pagos. Él recibirá una especie de rechazo masivo y huelgas, y no va a suceder, ¿verdad? Por tanto, necesitamos alcanzar ese punto de irreversibilidad en términos de economía política, y también en términos de uso del sistema. Así que si tres o cuatro personas utilizan el sistema, como sea, lo desconectarán y ya está. Pero si consigues que mucha gente lo utilice, por eso creo que debería formar parte del sistema de pagos regional y conseguir que las empresas, las pequeñas y medianas empresas en concreto, utilicen el sistema de pagos “Sur”. Necesitamos un sector dinámico. Necesitamos que incluso las fuerzas capitalistas apoyen el sistema diciendo: esto es mucho más barato que utilizar el sistema SWIFT basado en el dólar. Y tener también ese incentivo. Necesitamos crear una especie de agentes que defiendan el sistema, incluso cuando los políticos de izquierdas estén fuera de juego. Ese es el tipo de construcción de procesos que tenemos que lograr, tanto en términos de “Sur” como de la UNASUR. Por eso el pilar económico también tiene que existir, y no sólo los otros pilares de integración que se dieron en el pasado, como la unión militar, o la unión sanitaria, o la unión democrática, o lo que sea. Todo eso puede desaparecer en cuanto se vayan los políticos. Cuando tienes el tejido de la sociedad, un tejido económico y productivo, que necesita el sistema regional, entonces seguirá avanzando y se convertirá en el sistema dominante. Se convertirá en un proyecto duradero y sostenible. 

Scott Ferguson:  En diciembre publicaste un importante informe para el Centro de Investigación Económica y Política (CEPR) bajo el título “Putting Climate At The Core of IMF Governance”. Para concluir nuestra conversación, ¿te importaría dar a nuestros oyentes una idea de lo que defiendes en ese proyecto? 

Andrés Arauz: Bueno, en primer lugar, estoy muy agradecido al CEPR por abrir las puertas a mis contribuciones, a mis pensamientos, a todo lo que pueda hacer para coincidir en cuanto a nuestras prioridades en un ámbito económico y político. Llevo más de una década estudiando el FMI. He visto al FMI cara a cara y estoy muy familiarizado con algunas de sus políticas, que coinciden en gran medida con algunos de sus temas, como los DEG. Creo que los DEG son un instrumento muy importante que, aunque no sea perfecto, debemos seguir impulsando.

Billy Saas: Derechos Especiales de Giro, ¿podrías hablarnos un poco de los Derechos Especiales de Giro?

Andrés Arauz: Los DEG, o Derechos Especiales de Giro, son dinero internacional, moneda internacional, que se crea de la nada. Es dinero endógeno. Y es dinero político: se creó como un tratado internacional para sustituir al oro y al dólar estadounidense como activo de reserva en los años sesenta. Por tanto, es lo que más se asemeja a una moneda internacional, aunque en la canasta de los DEG, el dólar estadounidense tiene un gran peso, como el 40%, o algo así. No importa, porque tendrá que reconocer las realidades de las potencias mundiales. Y esperemos que algún día el “Sur” forme parte de la canasta de los DEG. De hecho, eso es algo que yo propongo como uno de los objetivos a largo plazo de “Sur”. Hemos estado trabajando con el CEPR para promover el uso de los DEG. Asimismo, con otras organizaciones como Latindadd, la Red Latinoamericana de Justicia Económica. Otras organizaciones de todo el mundo como Oxfam, Arab Watch, etcétera. Realmente, se ha creado una gran coalición en la sociedad civil, y las personas que piensan y proponen cuestiones de política económica utilizan los DEG más allá de su estrecha calidad de activos de reserva monetaria. Escribí un manual para Latindadd diciendo, mira: Los DEG pueden convertirse realmente en un instrumento de política fiscal. Entonces, eso abre la puerta para que exista una coordinación entre el Banco Central y el Ministerio de Finanzas, aunque sea un tabú que muchos quieren ocultar y del que no quieren hablar hasta después de la pandemia. En fin, me gustan mucho los DEG, y quiero seguir explorándolos, escribiendo sobre ellos e incorporándolos a las discusiones generales. Pero este otro asunto, este artículo sobre situar el clima en el centro de la gobernanza del FMI, surgió porque empecé a leer mucho sobre el lavado verde del FMI, especialmente en el RST, el Fondo para la Resiliencia y la Sostenibilidad. Han sacado una estrategia climática, etcétera, etcétera. Desgraciadamente, la mayor parte es una especie de lavado verde: básicamente dicen que van a trabajar en cuestiones climáticas, pero no lo incorporan realmente a la lógica principal del funcionamiento del sistema monetario como podrían. Por ejemplo, no mencionan el hecho del petrodólar, el privilegio exorbitante del emisor del dólar que puede adquirir necesidades energéticas extrasomáticas de los petroestados simplemente imprimiendo su propio dinero frente al resto del mundo, y cómo eso se relaciona con las emisiones históricas de CO2 en nombre de Estados Unidos. Así que hay muchas cuestiones que son sistémicas en términos de la relación entre el clima y el dinero que el FMI no está tocando ni siquiera con un bastón. Me pareció interesante decir: bueno, si nos tomamos en serio el cambio climático, si nos tomamos en serio un cambio estructural sistémico en relación con el clima, hablemos de cómo la gobernanza del FMI incide en ello. No sé si han visto esto, pero la agenda de Bridgetown, que básicamente está siendo promovida por la Primera Ministra Mia Mottley de Barbados. Ella dice que necesitamos más DEG para poder invertirlos en el clima, porque si nos limitamos a esperar a que los países ricos nos den dinero, eso nunca ocurrirá. Los países pobres no tienen dinero por sí mismos para hacerlo, porque se necesitan divisas fuertes. La segunda mejor alternativa son los DEG, que pueden crearse de la nada. Tenemos dinero para invertir en la lucha contra el cambio climático. Hagámoslo. Y por supuesto, luego los países ricos dicen: jajaja, no, quizá más tarde, pensémoslo… Y hacen como que no oyen. Todo eso podría pasar si el sistema de gobernanza del FMI cambiara un poco. Ahora mismo, en el FMI, sólo hay un país que tiene poder de veto sobre la decisión de crear más DEG, y ese país es Estados Unidos. Se puede tener poder de veto con el 15% de los votos, y Estados Unidos tiene el 17%. Así que hay que cambiar eso. Es preciso conceder más influencia a los países en desarrollo, y especialmente a los países vulnerables al cambio climático, porque son los que están más desesperados por hacer que las cosas cambien y sucedan. Así que en este artículo, con mis coautores, proponemos cambiar la fórmula de cómo se distribuye la cuota de voto del FMI. Cómo se asignan los votos dentro del FMI, entre los diferentes países. Todo lo que hacemos es muy sencillo. Hay una fórmula con cinco variables: PIB, reservas, apertura, cantidad de comercio, etcétera. Y tienen una variable extraña llamada variabilidad de los flujos de capital. Tengo estas cinco variables, y seguro que los países más grandes se llevan la mayor parte de los votos, pero simplemente añadimos una variable más, que son las emisiones históricas de CO2. Decimos que mantenemos las mismas variables y dividimos la variable de apertura por las emisiones históricas acumuladas de CO2 de ese país, de modo que podamos incluir su grado de responsabilidad ante el cambio climático como parte del formulario del FMI. Utilizamos métricas objetivas y no ambiguas publicadas por el Instituto de Potsdam para el Clima para medir la contribución del país al cambio climático a través de las emisiones acumuladas de CO2. Por supuesto, como era de esperar, la cuota de voto de Estados Unidos en el FMI cae del 17% a un 6%. La de China también desciende significativamente hasta el 6%. En general, todos los países ricos disminuyen significativamente, y los países en desarrollo, aumentan significativamente su cuota de voto, especialmente los pequeños Estados insulares en desarrollo. Así que los que corren el riesgo de ser destruidos, los que corren el riesgo de desaparecer por la subida del nivel del mar, son en realidad los que más aumentan, de alrededor del 2% a alrededor del 20% de la cuota de voto del FMI. Esto tendría un impacto significativo en todo el sistema monetario, en las prácticas de préstamo del FMI, en la lógica del poder dentro de la institución, y realmente tendría un impacto transformador en cómo el mundo, cómo el planeta, se enfrenta al cambio climático. El FMI es una poderosa institución con un billón de dólares de poder de préstamo. Eso sin contar la cantidad de dinero que puede crear a través de los DEG, y sin contar la influencia que tiene sobre los mercados financieros, y sin contar la influencia que tiene sobre los responsables políticos locales en términos de las ideas del dinero, las ideas de la formulación de políticas, las ideas de la gestión fiscal, la política monetaria, y así sucesivamente. Pienso que si arrancamos desde el núcleo, podemos tener efectos de largo alcance. Por supuesto, no soy ingenuo al pensar “oh, vaya, ¿cómo no se nos ha ocurrido esto y que EEUU acepte este cambio de la noche a la mañana?”. Eso no va a ocurrir. Pero al menos estamos planteando el debate para que podamos comprender la verdadera magnitud de esta realidad.

Billy Saas:  Por supuesto, incluiremos un enlace sobre el CEPR y sus otros trabajos. Andrés Arauz, ha sido un absoluto placer hablar contigo. Muchas gracias por estar con nosotros en Money On The Left.

Andrés Arauz:  Gracias a todos. Espero que tengamos otra oportunidad de compartir más historias sobre los CDBC y lo que está ocurriendo en ese ámbito. Yo también estoy muy involucrado en ese campo. Estoy asesorando a una empresa tecnológica llamada Nym sobre ese tema. También me gustaría hablar de la creación de sindicatos, de la inclusión financiera en el sector solidario y del papel que el dinero desempeña en él. Así que sí, en general, me encantaría compartir esto en otra ocasión con ustedes y ha sido un placer conversar con todos ustedes.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Emily Reynolds of The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (graphic art)

Making Digital Public Spaces w/ MUSICat

This month Money on the Left is joined by the folks behind the MUSICat project, an online music streaming service for public libraries designed to share heterogenous local music with local community members. We speak with Preston Austin and Kelly Hiser from Rabble, the company behind MUSICat, as well as with Racquel (“Rocky”) Mann, who coordinates the MUSICat service with Edmontonians as Digital Initiatives Librarian for Edmonton Public Library

Launched by the Madison Public Library in 2014, MUSICat has since been adopted by public libraries, including in Pittsburgh, Nashville, Fort Worth, New Orleans, Edmonton and elsewhere. Artists who share music via MUSICat are paid for their work with library funding and are granted other substantial forms of support through the library system. 

MUSICat serves as an inspirational model for mobilizing public institutions and forms that can provision communities in diverse and locally sensitive ways. Exploring what we at Money on the Left have called a hermeneutics of provision, we affirm public libraries’ critical function as creative stewards and producers of regional public cultures. 

Special thanks to Edmonton artist Jill van Stanton for the album art used in our episode graphic. Thanks also to the Edmonton musicians, whose work is spread liberally throughout this episode. Featured tunes include: Shout Out Out Out Out, “Never the Same Way Twice”; Souljah Fyah, “8 Days of Summer”; Farhad Khosravi, “Escape”; Denim Daddies, “Roadrunner”; and The Tsunami Brothers, “Stink Bug.”

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure


The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.

William Saas: Rocky Mann and Preston Austin, welcome to Money on the Left.

Rocky Mann: Thank you. 

Preston Austin: Good to be here.

Rocky Mann: Great to be here.

William Saas: We’ve invited you on the show today to talk about your MUSICat project, which as we understand it, is an online music streaming service for public libraries. Which is an unconventional way for collecting, curating, and distributing music. Could you start off our conversation by telling us a little bit about yourselves and how you came to the MUSICat project and what the MUSICat project has become and where it might be going?

Preston Austin: Sure, I’ll start. I’m the co-founder of Rabble, a company that actually writes the MUSICat software. So I work as a web technology guy in Madison, Wisconsin and my history includes a lot of working with both higher ed and mid-tier media production for the web. So producing audio-video things that work on webpages, especially back when putting audio and video on a webpage was difficult and involved all sorts of plugins and browsers, we didn’t know how to do things. So I had a background in that tech and built a framework for doing things on web pages that was called “media landscape.”

And that mostly had to do with actual stuff like what we’re doing today recording meetings, or presentations to classrooms and producing multimedia from it. That led to me working in a startup that had to do with publishing music for people to consume music collections. And while I was working on that, word got around that I was the music guy for web pages for one of them in Madison, and a music librarian from Madison Public Library approached me and they wanted us to work on a project called the “Yahara Music Library.” 

And I said, “no, it was a cool idea. But I’m really, really busy.” But it remained a cool idea. And so over a period of about a year, I ended up talking to a guy, Hank, the music librarian from Madison. And eventually we said, “let’s do this” and built a prototype. This was based on Iowa City’s earlier music collection online. We built a prototype, and that became the Harlem music library. And that project involved a business partner who will be on the program later, Kelly Heiser, and that all formed a foundation. And we said, this is interesting. Libraries, in general, are going to be interested in this, this is not a one-off product, do you want to start a company to build a platform to make this thing practical? That platform is what became MUSICat. 

And that company has Rabble as the first library partner, and it was really formative. And working with us on that platform was Edmonton, thus the connection with Rocky.

Scott Ferguson: Can you give us a sense of the years here? When did these initial experiments take place? And when did you found the company?

Preston Austin: I’m terrible at this sort of thing. But, I think the initial conversations were happening in 2013, possibly as far back as late 2012. And I think we founded the company in 2014. It’s possible it was legally formed in 2015 as an entity. It was originally in a partnership with a startup that I was in at that time, but we purchased their interest in it. I exited that venture and became full-time focused on Rabble shortly thereafter. Within a few years, we were a completely independent venture. And so currently, Rabble is a company that’s closely held and slowly works with libraries. We have no external investors and we’re not a grantee of any foundation or anything like that.

Scott Ferguson: Rocky, you want to tell us about your background? 

Rocky Mann: Sure. I came to the project in 2016 as part of getting this new position with Edmonton Public Library, the Digital Public Spaces librarian. Prior to that, my background was in music. Before moving to Edmonton, I was pretty heavily involved in the music scene in Victoria on Vancouver Island. I was doing, you could call it “participatory video” or “participatory media,” community-based research with the UBC Okanagan with Indigenous communities on Vancouver Island and all over BC.

The concept of collaboratively built infrastructure online and how to share, distribute, and ensure authority and authenticity with communities when sharing content has always been something I’ve been very interested in and in working on. I started in this role in 2016, which was one year after we launched our collection with MUSICat. But this project with Edmonton Public Library started as part of an internship in 2013 with my predecessor, Alex Carruthers. 

She was looking at: what’s the digital public space? What are other libraries doing? And she came up with a really great trend-spotting report. And through community discussions and things like that, we identified that of all the different types of digital public spaces, people wanted something about music. We’re generally thought of as a blue-collar working-class city compared to Calgary–I don’t know if you should put this on!–Calgary is the Texas of Alberta and Edmonton’s the Austin. 

Scott Ferguson: That’s helpful.

Rocky Mann: We love our arts. Edmonton loves their arts: theater, music, the community is quite tight-knit. She embarked to do an environmental scan of what technology is out there. And from that process, she chose to work with Rabble because it was really important not to work with something that was proprietary. The fact that it was open source, the fact that it was community-based and collaborative, and we can work together to build it. 

Because things change, having that type of relationship was–from what I’ve read from her reports and in talking with her– a key factor. When I was onboarded, I remember the introduction from her and my supervisor, “oh, we’re gonna work with this tiny startup and there’s some challenges, but it’s really great.” I’ve loved every moment of it. And then in 2014, I think our initial feedback–and I wasn’t there yet– was from an “unconference” called YEG, which is our airport code. YEG Band Camp, where we brought in musicians, artists, nonprofits, all the businesses and people who are really active in our music community to talk about what they would like to see in a platform and initiative. So there’s the technology side and then how it branches out in real life. That fed into our early discussions with Rabble: What should this thing look like? What’s our community saying?

Scott Ferguson: That’s so fascinating for a number of reasons. I’m a media studies scholar, among other things. And very often, media studies scholars want to understand social and cultural change in terms of tech as disruptors. What I hear you saying is that, of course tech is playing a big role, but that actually culture and a culture of participation and aesthetic construction is side by side with tech. Could you speak a little bit more about that?

Rocky Mann: Sure. Coming from my background through Indigenous research methodology and the concepts of OCAP, which is ownership, control, access, and possession. Personally, those are really important. And my other portfolio is building an Indigenous digital public space. Similar in the way that we’re working to build it for indigenous content here, but I really see the music community and artists. 

The industry has a historical background that is quite exploitative in many regards. You could really describe artists, upcoming artists, or generally that group, as vulnerable in that sense. So the need to share, the need to be exposed, the need to get your creative works out there often supersedes protecting, ensuring that the standards of who you’re working with are ethical, of a high ethical standard. So my background was coming from that previous research background. 

And every step along the way Rabble’s values seemed to match my personal ones, and the library’s vision of being community-led, which is one of the appeals, foundational philosophies about how we deliver and develop programs, identify barriers, your community discussions, and then, with our communities, find a way to attend to those and reduce those gaps. So it’s a civic gap, participation in your creative community, in your profession, access to technology, access to being a creator and participating in our civic society.

William Saas: Let’s run with that. You mentioned the history of music as an industry, music publishing as having been, well, straight-up exploitative. MUSICat seems to be coming at music making and publication from a very different direction, which seems like it’s probably informed by critiques of some of the larger streaming platforms. How would you articulate your criticisms of the platforms that exist and have existed around music circulation and publication? And how is MUSICat different?

Preston Austin: Who wants to go first?

Rocky Mann: I think I’ll throw that to you.

Preston Austin: MUSICat’s thesis, Rabble’s thesis with MUSICat is that empowering public institutions to invest in artists and with artists together to invest in collecting is valuable, full stop. I want to start there, that the public investment in artists is a thing unto itself. And if you send an artist a $200 check to license their work into a library collection, on very clear terms that are artist-friendly, and leave them able to continue to use their work the way they want to, where they want to, this is a good thing to have done. Somebody gets 200 bucks, and that respects and supports them.

We wanted to build a way to focus on building value. Communities being able to build value and technology that is not disruptive technology really, it’s supportive technology. And I’m not trying to break up the dynamic of how people listen to music and create some new thing that changes the world and deflates the costs and disintermediate people, etc, etc. That gets a little frustrating. So we didn’t build it to compete with streaming services or to replace them or even really to contemplate them. We built it to complement them, we really built it with the idea in mind that it is its own thing. Public spaces for music, a concept that I wasn’t calling it then and had a different notion of before the work with Edmonton. But I really liked Alex Carruthers’ work and Kelly contributed to that. That was a good conceptualization, and we absorbed that value or more of those values. 

What we did is we said, let’s focus on this question of power, local control, local power, artists as real participants in the process, the library as a convener. What is appropriate within that in terms of technology? And what we did was, instead of building a leanback music experience that tries to create an adhesive listening, okay, you’re in there, and now you’re stuck to it. And you’re playing that playlist for a long, long, long time. And we’re trying to get everybody in the world’s music available to every listener in the world, and everybody’s going to pay eight bucks a month or something like that–I just picked that number out of the ether. 

And instead of creating that all to all process, which critically in its incentive structure means that whomever is collecting that money and paying for that streaming is trying to minimize the amount of those monthly revenues that go to the creation because they’re trying to get all the music in the world to all the listeners in the world and they want them listening all the time. So this structure is fundamentally minimizing the return to artists. We designed on the other side of it, we designed on maximizing the public’s ability to invest in their artists. 

And those artists’ ability to invest in their public via the collecting and the community formed around it. And it’s all via invitations, everything is understood upfront, the relationships are personal, the fact that the relationships happen in this public and safe space is important. 

So what’s my criticism of the streaming universe, which I think is what you’re actually asking me to do? It creates a world within which the technical intermediary or the licensing intermediary who licenses art from artists and licenses it to either listeners or downstream services, where those intermediaries’ motivation is to take a piece of that pie. And it does so in a way that really abstracts music into a commodity to be listened to that is valued primarily in terms of listening, and then it turns everything else in the musical community into something around that commodified listening. 

Here we’re saying “no, no, no.” The process of collective involvement in building this collection, building with the library, that these are all part of it. And we actually want the technology to be more part of it, we’re not as open as we want to be. We’re open-source to our library customers, but there’s not a distribution. And getting to that ethos of everyone being able to invest with everyone else around these local nuclei is what we want to do, in terms of the experience created, these collections, we call it “lean forward”, it’s a terminology that I’m not sure if I made it up or picked it up from somebody, but I haven’t been able to track it down. But you have “lean back” listening experiences, you hit a play button and music comes out forever. 

MUSICat and the library collections are leaning forward. It is a collection. It’s more like being in a listening room and being able to look at titles and pick one off the wall and play it on a fancy old-fashioned turntable there and interact with information about the artists, use it as a jumping off place to find their other material online. So we’re not trying to solve the problem of, how on earth would I get music into my ears right now? We’re trying to solve the problem of how would I become a participant in starting as a listener, but possibly in other ways, my local community, my local music community, and were can I make the technical supportive choice in doing that, where can I do that knowing that there aren’t money grabbing assholes, let’s say, in the middle. 

All of that said, it’s a long project, I think we’re about halfway there. So in the aggregate right now, of all the money that libraries spend on artists’ licensing direct to artists, plus Rabble MUSICat fees, money that comes to develop the software platform, we’re not on a very large base of libraries yet. And so the cost of maintaining the software platform is still quite high. When we started, we were probably getting actually two thirds of the funding, there were almost no libraries, and most of the money was going into developing software. 

We’re now at a point where maybe 55% or something in aggregate of the money is going directly to local artists from their local public library if you look at that combined budget. There’s other budgets.That doesn’t include internal budgets at the library and things like that, we’d like to be in a position where more than 80%, possibly 90% of the total spend, inclusive of platform costs, goes to artists, and that’s getting the technology part of it to where it’s just tech that different vendors can compete to do this sort of thing. And then it’s a fairly straightforward and deflated technical process. We’re a few years away from that goal.

Scott Ferguson: That’s so interesting. So can we talk about how, from an artist point of view, how does submission work? And then from a curatorial point of view, how does the review process work?

Preston Austin: Rocky, do you want to take this from the perspective of governing that process? Because from my perspective, it’s a little bit reductive. I can talk about our publishing chain, there’s the artist’s submission and a jury, but I feel like in terms of what it really means for the community, you speak to it better than I do.

Rocky Mann: So I’d say before the submissions, I think the jury and the curators and the terms of reference are the goals, criteria of the collection, which are word for word, but the criteria of the collection being something that a collection that is representing diversity in terms of demographics, genre, and contexts. And perspective, which really matches our Public Library’s collection policy anyway. It’s really important to have representation on the jury that can also speak to that diversity. The balance between ensuring that you have a quality collection, that is of value to be in for an artist. So you don’t accept everything because you need it to maintain a certain standard, but also something that captures all of our niche existences in our community. 

So, for example, when the initial jury came on, it wasn’t a call out to who was invited… members of the jury were nominated, basically, through discussions with the community. Who does the community respect, celebrate? Who does the community think can make really rich decisions on what music is important here and important to represent? So then we would invite those people that were named to those discussions, then what happens is, as submissions go through the years, and through holding open calls, each time we assessed the collection. What’s missing? What are the gaps, what do we have a lot of and what do we not have a lot of and why? 

For example, Edmonton has a very, very active and large indigenous population, and we weren’t seeing music from that community in the submissions. And there wasn’t really representation in our curators group. So reaching out actively to that community to find somebody who would be interested and also a really good fit. And then for the subsequent round, that curator or jury member, I know two different terms are used. We’ve always used jury, but we’re considering going to curator for our refresh in 2023. I’ll stick to the jury for the purposes of this discussion. I do really like “curator”, but there’s something about “jury” that’s exciting during this admissions process.

Scott Ferguson: I had no idea when I was using that word, “curatorial”, that I was walking into a minefield of semantic complications.

Preston Austin: It’s a nightmare, where we’re at right now, to the degree that we have an official line on it, the role is curator, which is both a public role and an internal role and the process and the group formed is jurying and the jury with respect to a round of submissions, that’s how…

Scott Ferguson: That makes a lot of sense.

Preston Austin: That’s how I try to clarify it. However, there’s a long history of discussion around this. And so that is far from normalized language across all of MUSICat. 

Scott Ferguson: Did you want to keep going?

Rocky Mann: Sure. I’ll save that other rant for later. Then those jury members or those curators are active in their community. So they’re reaching out and they’re connecting with other musicians and artists, and encouraging their submissions or just by being present. I think their presence can encourage groups to submit. So on that end, I think the representation and the participation in the community by each jury member is really significant for what it has an impact on what submissions that we receive. 

The submission process, we’ve been through a few practical iterations of it, I think initially, we were going for four times a year. So accepting 100 albums per year. And really quickly… There was one before I came on board, and I think 50 albums were added. There were some big celebration concerts in the city. It was really exciting. And then, after going through that process, I did the next one and realized, well, it takes three months to prep our marketing and communications department to be sending out the message encouraging people, notifying people that the call is open, then it takes a month for that submissions period to be open, then it takes a month or two, depending on the support needed by the jury or lives are busy to select. 

And there’s also always like, Oh, this album or this track didn’t upload. So there’s always technical support needed. So another month, maybe a month and a half for the jury to go through the submission, then another month to support artists who have been invited to the collection, and uploading their submission, uploading their album, creating their profiles, and then another month or two, to celebrate the new additions to the collection. So that’s a six-month process. So I think now, our model is once a year, and to have up to that full amount. So 100 albums a year is what our collections budget has been set aside for. 

Which I’ll say, too, in the submissions, what I really love about Edmonton Public Library’s model– is they have permanently integrated the budget for new albums through capital city records into our regular collections management and access budget. So it’s not with digital initiatives, my department, which is always exploring new technologies. And some things live for a long time, some things fade out, it’s with our permanent collections budget, just like any other type of collection that we have, physical or digital, which I very much appreciate. So it does give that sense of commitment and sustainability. 

With artists’ admissions, too, I do a lot of active work on the ground, we really want it to be inviting. So I’m part of, I don’t know, 20 local music community Facebook groups, I’m going to events, I’m talking to people and making sure that everybody who might be interested is aware, I keep a list of artists who email me through the year with inquiries and I make sure to add them to this list of those who wish to be notified every time something happens just so things don’t get lost in the very overwhelming fear of internet and communications. So it is a very supportive thing. 

If a submission isn’t quite working, or I’ll reach out personally to say, “hey, your track, the quality isn’t so good. Do you have another one?” I would not like to see somebody not be recommended because of a technical barrier, for example.

Scott Ferguson: Is the basic unit of submission an album? That’s what I thought I heard you saying or can a band submit a song or a few tracks?

Preston Austin: Let me speak to what’s possible first, and then the library-ality maybe. So the submit form, the initial process entry point into the technical layer of publishing is a short form and it gathers very basic metadata. And metadata is going to come up later probably in the conversation because it’s so important. But we gather very basic metadata; the album title, or the work in question, the artist’s name separately from the act, so the name of the individual versus the act, which are often not the same, some very basic high-level genre information. 

And then the library administering the collection has control of additional meta information that they might want and ensure and process. And what that includes is how many tracks that are going to collect. So they could collect just one or they could collect many if they want to make many tracks available. And that does vary across collections. So some libraries, for example, they only collect albums, they have minimums and how many tracks they want. And they want to see three tracks presented to the jury so that they can make a judgment across that. So that’s like a very high investment, both for the submitting artist and for the jury in terms of how much is involved there. 

We try to remember all that later, so that nobody ever has to redo any of that data entry, or uploading. But they can also ask other questions. So if they just want to ask a question of the artists they can, and two questions that have become standardized, and I think these actually didn’t both come from Edmonton, but I can’t remember right now where they came from the two questions that have become standardized are basically where have you been playing out? And then how would you describe your connection to the musical community? And so they were these two long-form questions in the submission that are basically like, tell us why you are connected locally. So that’s the technical layer of the process. And that produces a package that you get many, many, many pending submissions that the jury can work with.

Scott Ferguson: That’s so fascinating. I was thinking about comparing that process to what used to be the process of getting verified on Twitter. Which is like, show us your numbers, show us your raw numbers … this is totally different: write us some, give us some language about how you’re connected to the community. It’s so different.

Preston Austin: Sorry, go ahead.

Rocky Mann: I was just gonna say, it’s really important not to restrict what it means to be part of a music community. So our criteria we asked for, I think we have a field for a postal code, but it’s a greater Edmonton region. So it can be you either are born here, produce your album here, or have significant activity within the community here. So we want it to be local, it must be local somehow. But there is always room for that gray area for that one-off or that person who is really important, or that group that is really important to this community, based on their description, so we don’t want it to be a hard line of territory or region.

William Saas: Rocky, when you were talking about the process for soliciting submissions, it sounds to me a lot like canvassing, political canvassing. And the community organizing that you’re doing resembles workplace organizing. A couple of questions. One is: did your background that you were describing before, coming to the Edmonton Public Library, seem to entail some of that organizing work? How did that inform your approach to the submission process? Was it a one-to-one? What’s different about it? And then also, as you’re doing this work, I wonder how often local political community issues come into the conversation? And do you see potential within this territorial juried process, the community music community building that you’re doing there? Is it just inevitably also a political project?

Rocky Mann: It’s interesting the words you select. I would say that it’s more outreach. There is an organization part. But the public library, Edmonton Public Library, first and foremost, is really about outreach. So before this role at EPL, I was a community librarian. Basically, my job is to drive around, look at what’s there, and talk to people. So I might drive by a building and see a sign. Some group or organization that I’ve never heard of that might not even have a website or be in the phonebook. And I’ll try to connect to see what, what they’re up to. 

And the question of, what are you up to? What are your goals? What are your visions? And how can the library support you? So what are the barriers to doing what you want to do in this community and for yourself? And then from those, from that “discovery interview” to use traditional library terms, we try to find ways the library can support. Versus I would say, and I think the platform supports this as well, because it’s collaboratively developed, this community based feedback. We bring that to Preston and Glen, and try to see it technically applied in that in a technical way, how can that technology support that need? 

So we take what they’re saying… This is opposite, I think, of a corporate model where a business says “we’ve built this amazing thing. Now, you should probably want to use it and this is how you can use it.” That, to me, is very like if you build it, they will come where the focus is on the company or the product versus the process. My background is really, process is just as important as product. When I’m reaching out during the submissions process. I’m trying to build a relationship. Everything is about relationships. 

Everything is about trust. I think Capital City Records and the MUSICat platform is the foundation of a safe place for sharing creative works, not just for the artists, but also there’s a gap of access for our Edmontonians, for example, and the world to access local content. A lot of this stuff may exist elsewhere on Bandcamp, or SoundCloud, or other things, but to be part of this collection, that is recognized by the library that is seen as this something that has value in that sense. There’s almost that, for lack of a better word, there’s an authority there, people trust the library, people know that there is very, very strong values, ethics process behind selection, and a historical commitment to intellectual freedom and things like that in a way that, there’s a lot of hot debate around those subjects as well.

And there will never be a clear answer. But the library is the appropriate place for those decisions to be made, as I’ve discussed before. So how do I recruit, how does that all work into it? Relationships are of the utmost importance, whether it’s an individual or group, making people aware of what’s available, but in that talking to people to learn what they need, and then feeding that into creating something available. So it’s ground up that way. And that’s powerful. It’s wonderful, I can reach out to an artist I maybe connected with once and it’s always a pleasant interaction.

I see them in my community on the ground, I really see the technology in the platform as the foundation for that. It’s the foundation for education, artists’ education, artists’ awareness, organizing around it, connecting people in real life on the ground, building those communities between artists and the rest of Edmonton and celebrating the culture and identity here, which in turn, those strong communities helps for that mutual support. That identity of what we are historically and now is really important to this global divide in places. I know it’s so strong between political views, you talked a lot about politics. 

The politics that are thereI hope that this project can help curb that socio-economic gap between access to equitable distribution sharing and representation through the technology and the initiative. But it’s also about taking the politics out in a way that’s about–it’s first and foremost, the people and their works, and the perspective that might encompass politics, but it’s never neutral. But we strive for equity. Long-winded answer.

William Saas: Solidarity maybe?

Rocky Mann: Solidarity and strengthening community access, it excites me so much. And I know the biggest needs because I constantly get feedback. I’ll tell you how the artists really influenced two parts of the submissions process and how we do things, but I constantly get feedback and ask for feedback. What do they need now? What is of interest? So music business industry education, embedding metadata, we could get into that, too.

There’s so many overwhelming aspects to participating in these creative new industries that really important things like having proper metadata to protect your creative works is something I don’t think most artists know how to do or really are informed about. And so there’s that and even in our honorariums, I would say originally, I got some feedback being like, “hey, I’m an experimental artist and my album is two tracks and 40 minutes long.” 

But we have tiers for honorariums. You asked before, can people submit one song or is it albums? It’s not just one track. We don’t have submissions for if you have a single, although I was just asked about this, and maybe that needs to change because singles are a very important thing these days. Maybe that’s a future discussion. But it is an EP, so originally, it was three tracks as an EP and above six tracks is an album and 12 or 10 plus gets the highest honorarium because we do want to attribute work somebody who’s invested in an album-length work, we want to compensate them for that contribution for maybe for an EP length or something. But we were doing by number of tracks, and that really wasn’t equitable. 

So, upon that comment, I further reached out. I did a survey of all 300 artists. Tell me about your work. Tell me about what you consider. So now it’s an either or. So if you’re out and I based it on LP length, so a 7 inch how many minutes of music can that hold? 10 inch how many minutes of that and an LP–12 inch–how many minutes? And everybody agreed, that seems fair. So now the honorariums are based on either this amount of minutes, or this many tracks, because a punk or country album, which might have 12 short songs, but still be 15 minutes long.

Like my album is a full album, but it’s not as long as other genres. So out of all my creation trends, genres, and these works was all through those conversations, and then they result in our submissions process. And how we compensate. Two rants.

Scott Ferguson: Can you discuss a specific example of how artist participation changed the tech?

Preston Austin: Sure. There’s really a bunch. I’m trying to think of some that are odd and core to it. My mind is still on this question of album lengths right now. So which has ended up by the way being a constant area of work? So we’ve revisited again and again and again and again and again. So I think a key area where artist feedback changed the tech that I want to talk about in terms of responsiveness and the fact that this is a public platform and stuff like that. We’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, or not, depending on who you ask. But if you’re asking me, it’s still going on. 

And at the beginning of that, we had a situation where everybody whose work was not considered a societal priority, and whose work depended on getting a bunch of people in little venues and rooms together just went away, all over the place. And so, we saw this situation where people who wait tables and artists who play in the venues where people who wait tables, and artists who play in small venues and cities and venues themselves, and we’re all just saying, “oh, we used to do things, and now we sit around at home, and this is ruining us. What should we do about that?” 

There was push-back in a lot of spaces that were non-commercial, to say, “okay, how can we support each other?” So our libraries, we’re hearing from artists, a little bit of, “hey, basically can we do more to link out to places where we can generate revenue?” And so our reaction to that was twofold at Rabble… actually threefold, we did three things. One, we put up a product, which actually I need to take down on the webpage because we can’t afford it anymore. But we put up the product which we said, okay, for the duration of the pandemic, if you will support your local artists, if you have a budget for artists, we will bring up your MUSICat collection rate. And we actually still have one, I’m not going to say who because I don’t like to reveal who’s paying and who has not. 

But we have a city that actually does not pay anything for MUSICat for a major urban market because they wanted to support their artists. And we said “fine, we won’t charge you anything, get a budget worked out when you can when there’s money.” That was one thing we did. Another thing we did though, and this is changing platform in reaction to artists, we added the ability for participating libraries who want to do it to offer their artists the ability to put up links to peer-to-peer payment platforms as part of the artists page that did not exist as a feature. And we just straightforwardly said, if people want to be able to jump off to give the artists money, we’re going to make that an aspect of the artist page. 

So somebody in Rocky’s role can turn a feature like that on or off and an artist can opt into it. And if they want to put in links to things like CashApp, or Venmo, or Paypal or whatnot, we recognize those and offer those links on the page. And that was just one of the ways people are supporting each other during this pandemic, artists in particular are being hit hard by these, small local artists are being hit harder than artists in general, we’re just going to do this. So that’s a durable change to the technology that was just completely in response to that. And then the final thing we did is for two or three months as a company, we put down all of our work at MUSICat completely. 

We built a separate platform for people to simply give money to local servers at restaurants. So we just built something called tipyourserver.org. We built it around a simple spreadsheet driven product that somebody named Emil Wimmer had built, which was cool, we thought that’s awesome. Let’s build a way for people to just give money to people during this pandemic, who were working at restaurants who they normally tip. I don’t think by the way that there should be a tipped minimum wage, I don’t think anybody should be paid in tips. I think that that’s all crazy. But that’s the reality of the world. And we knew there were social relationships there that would support people. So we built tipyourserver.org, which basically leveraged the same approach. Let people say what restaurant they worked for in what city and then jump off to a Venmo, or CashApp or whatever. And we don’t track things in a way that would allow me to know who does what. We’re very anti-surveillance. 

But we did do a little bit of basic logging of how much that got used. And we did some analysis of some of that use from users. Basically, these platforms helped early in the pandemic move, tens of thousands of dollars a week at the scale of a city like Madison into the hands of people who needed the money to buy groceries. So these are reactions in technology. I’ve gone a little afield maybe from when we’ve started. But I think it’s an important aspect of where we’re at and how we’re trying to react to library values. We work with libraries. When the pandemic came, libraries dropped everything in order to become local support institutions for their communities, because they have a public mission. And so they do what’s important if they can, they don’t… this gets to Rocky’s point. They’re not trying to sell their product, they’re trying to react to their community needs. We have to do that, too. So that’s what we tried to do in that case.

Scott Ferguson: So we had a question that I think the language was spin “spin off projects.” But I almost feel like that question is wrongheaded. Because from your answers, it’s clear that the tech and the community and creating values and it’s all related, and everything spills into everything. This is as much about streaming local music as it is about local outreach as it is about supporting people during a pandemic who are restaurant workers. 

But I guess maybe to ask this question in a slightly different way. Clearly, this is a project that goes beyond just a streaming service. Rocky referenced a concert that had happened. What kinds of other projects that are music based, have spilled out of this music streaming project?

Rocky Mann: A lot, so many. I guess I’ll start. Concerts were always part of the goal. And also part of that community building aspect. We started with concerts, every open round we’d have a concert and then there was this thing we were seeing that Capital City Record artists were really excited to be in Capital City Records together and wanted to put on their own Capital City Records events. 

Which is usually they’re hosted by the library or a partnership with an organization or, or venue or something. So that was really cool to see.

William Saas: When you say “in Capital City Records,” do you have a physical space in addition to the catalog?

Rocky Mann: We do. We have a theater and a stage in our downtown library. I think our initial concerts were held in the park beside one of our other libraries, but also in other local venues. It’s really important to be supportive. Those music venues. And those local businesses aside from nonprofits and organizations are the heart of our music community. And especially during the pandemic that was really tough on our venues, who are the most… they’re really actually our pubs and our bars, who put on live music are really trying to be identified as culture hubs versus pubs or bars for funding and other reasons for their contributions. 

So we like to work with those groups, those businesses as well. Concerts can happen anywhere. We started partnering with festivals to have a Capital City Record stage where if you showed your library card, which is free, you could have free access to the Capital City Record stage, because a barrier to participating in local culture is access to music, festivals and events. All our events are free. We don’t charge for anything when it comes to the community accessing Capital City Records work or events. So concerts were one. And they really spread the gamut of what kinds of events are shared.

Sometimes we just support another group if they want to use Capital City Records artists, so we’ll recommend and we’ll make that relationship connection for them as well. The second thing was a podcast with our local radio station here, CKOA Songs of the Week, which was so cool, because it was starting to connect other local celebrities with the collections. So they come and pick their favorite artists or track, and there’d be a five minute mini-podcast about why they love it. We’ve had the mayor on there. It could be anyone. So that was really great. We had two seasons of the podcast. So it was a partnership. 

The technology when Rabble created the playlist, so getting other record stores or local music enthusiasts to also share their picks and playlists just like in other aspects of the library. We have people give book lists and things like that. So that was really important, Matt has been really great for little projects. Then, there’s the Posters Archive Collection, that was a side project or not a side that was always built in. It’s something that I really hope to have the resources to expand. 

I love that as a piece to the site. So I know in Alex’s notes from that original report and transcending that it’s not… There’s the contemporary music collection, which is the submissions process, but it was really important that the platform also celebrate Edmonton local music history, as well. So it’s not just what are the albums in the last five years or that a part of submission? It’s what’s the history that feeds into what makes the community today. So the Gig Posters Archive is part of that. 

Then we had a group of protest, the community group called Legends of Edmonton Music Scene Society, who have probably spent thousands of hours passionately collecting information and media about Edmonton music life. So it started off from the Shoebox Radio Show where Pete The Rocker was interviewing local legends. It’s quite amazing. He’s very passionate about it. These legends are here right now and he wants to celebrate them and make sure that they have a name and he will cry. 

He has a lot of emotion talking about it because it is important. It’s important to those artists themselves, their families, and the community. It’s been a long… It’s an intensive process, but immediately Rabble said, “okay, let’s build a showcase.” We need something on there that can offer the opportunity for libraries to build other types of collections. There’s five categories, musicians, bands, venues, media (media is really important for a thriving music community). Who are those players in media who have really boosted artists in the past? And what are their stories? Builders. So who’s the music community builder that’s a category in the Legends of Edmonton Music Scene Society collection. 

We’re trying to support a volunteer-run group to build a really beautiful collection, celebrating Edmonton music history, with old archive radio shows and other things. That’s another not side project, but that has come from those relationships and that has also fed into new aspects of the technology and platform. And there’s music videos, the video feature that Rabble implemented, we were getting requests to showcase music videos or other projects in the community, there was one called Northern Sessions or the Dead Venues Documentary that was all about our historical venues. So I think originally, we made a separate page that was linked in to MUSICat. 

But then they built it right in. So now it’s part of the product. It’s part of the platform, which is awesome. And now it’s being used in so many different ways by all the libraries who use MUSICat. So I love going on to all the different libraries that are using the platform and seeing what they’re doing with these features and what their other projects are. Because the ways that you can use the technology are endless. There’s so many ways you can represent the community. Aside from the album and submissions collection, then one of the more excited ones was… I think we’re maybe the first public library to press a vinyl compilation. 

So we’ve been building as makerspaces. And making becomes part of a lot of public library services, as it’s seen as another type of literacy and route for civic participation. We built living recording studios, we’ve had them for a long time. And when our downtown library was going into renovations and revitalizing it, we really set up and so we were doing fundraising. It was part of a fundraiser for these new recording studios that are complete and in full use. Very beautiful. But also it was from one of our members on the City Council at the time, who was very passionate about the arts community and he said let’s press a record and I said “well, that’s my idea, too.” 

Councilor Scott McKeen was really wonderful on that. So he just rallied, helped us rally a bunch of players. We had somebody who was an expert in working with visual artists to help us with the artwork. Long story short, Edmonton Arts Council also came on board to fund it. We had a separate jury onboard of very… they didn’t have to be in Edmonton, we had Cadence Weapon from Edmonton, but like a huge mentor and celebrated artists here in Canada, on the jury, so we had a separate jury, we invited artists to really submit tracks previously unreleased in physical format, because again, we didn’t want to limit the ability for artists to be sharing through this long year, wait a whole year for this album to be pressed before they could continue on with their business. So that was awesome. 

We worked with the radio station to curate the record once the submissions were selected. Everything was local, we had a local press here, press the vinyl. The artwork was from a muralist from Edmonton. So that was a really exciting project, you can see the artwork from behind me.

William Saas: I’ve been admiring most of the entire show, our conversations… that’s awesome.

Rocky Mann: There’s… she calls them easter eggs that are inside jokes and the music community you can find in the artwork. But I’ll say that through that process, the feedback from that project was, it’s so expensive, some artists, there was such a range of people present on there like Juno Award winners, and people who maybe recorded that track in the basement, who would never be able to access or afford to have at that time, their music pressed on wax. So it was just really exciting. 

And a challenge to make a compilation across genres. We have the north side because Edmonton is split by a river and there’s a joke of like the north side of the south side. So all of it really celebrates the city. So we’ve pressed a record, we’re hoping to do a volume two. We’ve also had projects during the pandemic through Capital City Records for virtual concerts. So we were holding interactive people on Valentine’s Day and other concerts and streaming them in hospital wards and long-term care facilities where the artist would share messages from between loved ones. So we were making connections between those artists and different kinds of community groups. 

Which led to another realization that not everybody can attend a physical concert I have to say a positive thing came out, the platform and these spin off quote “spin-off” projects that come out of it help us realize other barriers that music lovers and music makers face in connecting their art with local art and culture. And that was one. So we’re continuing to do those even if live venues are open again.

William Saas: How long have you been doing the MUSICat project? That sounds like 10 years.

Rocky Mann: That’s how I started in 2016. Oh, and we started a physical collection of CDs, which is interesting.

William Saas: Amazing.

Rocky Mann: So hoping to represent physical works from the digital collection, alongside local authors and things like that. But, 7… 6 years. And now we’re partnering with the Juno Award. So I’m hoping that can become a thing, too. We’re talking about a song… a music expert, or musician residents like the local poet laureate. So that’s very new. I don’t know where that will go. 

But it’s something that the education artists education and support through the initiative, all founded through the platform and the technology that is the base for all of these other things. It opens up so many opportunities to bring people together. And I think that’s why we determined a digital public space, is because this technology is so deeply entwined into all the ways that we can connect and support artists and Edmontonians. That was a long rant, but there is so much.

Scott Ferguson: Beautiful, it was so beautiful. This is all just so glorious. I think it’s wonderful. Maybe we can have a bit of a meta-conversation about what else we want to get on record. So we’re holding maybe some of the technical discussion for when Kelly arrived. Do we want to do some of that? Preston?

Preston Austin: I’m absolutely happy to. Kelly started this project as the representative. She was doing a public humanities fellowship during her PhD in musicology at University of Wisconsin Madison, she went to work at the library during that and built in the way that a super high-end intern can do moving freely in an institution built the foundations of a few things. One of them was everything internal to make possible the collaboration. So we’re one week into that process of working with her and I go talk to one of my business partners, and I’m like, “wow, like this Kelly Heiser person, holy shit. Is she good at absolutely everything?” So she’s getting her PhD in musicology. 

But she’ll be like, “well, how does the tech work on this?” Then two days later, she comes back, and she’s gone and read StackOverflow, or whatever. It’s not magic work. But she just puts in the work and brings it back and is unafraid to try things. And so I think we were probably less than a month into this collaboration with Madison, when I was like there’s gotta be a way I can work with Kelly in the future on something. I don’t want this to end with this fellowship. And so that’s a little bit of a history of how they came to be Rabble. And I think actually, when she first invited us, when we first said to her, “hey, do you want to start a company or something like that?” 

I actually think that is much like with the art music library project. I mean, I’m pretty sure the answer was no. And I was like, well, I won’t bother. But then opportunity opened up. So as a musicologist and as a scholar and as a participant from the library side, initially, she brought an abundance of theory to this. A thoughtfulness around sound, we can talk for two hours about sound. What is sound? Kelly and I used to go on at great length about how annoying it is to deal with people in technology who are obsessed with fidelity, with linearity, with the reproduction of objectively perfect sound. What the hell does that even mean? I’m not going to do that on your program.

Scott Ferguson: Oh, please.

Preston Austin: Not without Kelly. I have somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about and conversation. Otherwise, I’ll go too far out of land of some bullshit exposition on a topic. So anyway, there’s no aspect of the history of building Rabble MUSICat that I’m not also a party to. It’s just worth understanding that she founded this company, and I worked for her during the period of time prior to and the first few years of Rocky’s work in Edmonton and the establishment of the core values and all of this. There’s never a point at which that’s not under Kelly’s leadership. And I just think that’s important. And there’s Kelly!

Scott Ferguson: There’s Kelly!

Preston Austin: I have invoked her into the conversation. I was singing your phrases here.

Kelly Hiser: I know I missed you. It’s been way too long. 

Rocky Mann: Preston just said that you just miss the good five minutes…

William Saas: It was as though his job was to introduce you before giving an amazing talk. So you’re up.

Scott Ferguson: No pressure.

Preston Austin: No pressure, Kelly. I’m pretty sure that I just said that you can do anything at all.

Scott Ferguson: We’ve taken quite the tour, all around MUSICat. But we’d like you to talk a little bit about the initial challenges with the technology and what the design process was about, especially initially, and then Preston has suggested that because of your musicology background, you have some things to say about music theory or music fidelity or non-fidelity.

William Saas: What is sound? 

Scott Ferguson: What is sound? You take this, however, wherever you want to take it.

Kelly Hiser: In terms of thinking about sound from a more philosophical standpoint, I have always had this stance that being an audiophile is more about status than any real quality in music. So I was always… just make it work, I don’t care. As long as it… once you get to a certain point, people will say they can tell the difference between different levels of fidelity. But in most cases, that’s just not how people are actually using music in their lives. 

And it just ultimately, that’s not what these collections were about at all to me. They are more about building community demonstrating the value of music in a community. And I don’t think the value of that music is in any way tied up with some technological fidelity to sound quality.

Preston Austin: Agreed. That said, the sound quality is perfect. I can speak a little bit to some of this, too. So one of the things that was a question basically, is what formats are accepted. And so what we targeted was making it basically anything. And we encourage these days artists to upload WAV for 4.1 kilohertz 16-bit so that they have a baseline standard that is equivalent to what was used to offer CDs. When you run into all the problems and talk about dynamic range, and loudness, and compressing everything into the upper end of that, artists are going to do what artists are going to do. But if they have mastered tracks in WAV, we’ll use them. But there are other people who are doing their entire workflow in mp3 tools, and they want to upload an mp3 and we’re not going to be like, “oh, it’s 120 kilobit mp3 that you made five years before the first collection was done, and we’re not going to take it because that’s not master quality or whatever.” F that. 

Kelly Hiser: That’s a good point, too, because those differences are very much tied up in genre and race. Fidelity to some audio quality can be a white male status symbol. And a lot of the time when folks are creating stuff in mp3, it’s Black musicians who are working in their local hip hop scene. So another reason to really question audio quality as a marker of value or goodness.

Rocky Mann: I’ll agree and I’ll just say even when on that vinyl record, even on wax, which is “oh gosh, you must have spent $10,000 to get a master to sound good enough for a pressing,” we had such a range of file types, compression, quality. They all sound great somewhere like basement recordings and submitted on mp3. And they sound equally good on wax as they do on the platform. So that to just follow up on what Kelly said.

Kelly Hiser: Rocky, I’m sorry, I have to take a tangent. I have that print of the vinyl hanging in the entryway of my house downstairs. It’s framed. The exact same thing is right underneath me before.

William Saas: Are copies still available? Now I feel like I want in. Can people outside of Edmonton get a hold of it?

Rocky Mann: You can just email me after. We can mail one.

William Saas: Well, I was gonna say, we could also put it in the show notes and invite listeners, if that’s something that you have copies to sell. Awesome. I’m definitely intrigued.

Preston Austin: I need to get in on that as well. So we were going to make our poster that you sent us as a gift for Mark Bracken, who was one of the interface developers who was instrumental in your first submission round. Mark Bracken killed himself to make it possible for Edmonton to get through the jury process. We were literally writing every interface a couple of days. And Kelly was presiding over that process. 

And I was making sure that the servers worked. And Mark, we were going to frame your poster, put a little plaque on it, a little brass plaque. And so it was a framing shop when the pandemic hit. And between one thing and another, it has been lost to the world of framing. So if I can get another poster, that would be great. I want to but I still want to give Mark that gift if I can.

Rocky Mann: No we can get that. I’d have to say that’s another example. We wanted to do this thing, we needed a different type of submission process, we needed the technology to work differently than the regular round. And again, something was created that could support what we need to do. 

Kelly Hiser: And that goes to that question about what was the design process like? Preston says I can do anything. I had zero tech, or UX, or product management experience when I came into the role. And really what I did instinctively, and what was Preston’s philosophy as well from the beginning, was we just worked incredibly closely with our library partners, so that the design process was really working with them and not for them. 

We talk a lot about designing with, not for and that was really what we did. We had librarians in our GitHub repo actually in the code with us checking things out and testing stuff as we went. And it was… there were no mocks, there were no requirements, it was very messy and chaotic. It was a chaotic collaboration among a couple of really talented developers who put in a lot of backbreaking hours for us, which I have sworn I will never ask another developer to do again, if at all possible, because it was not fun for him. 

But he cared about the work and believed in it. And we all did. So I can’t speak to there being some actual process, it was very much more just let’s have some meetings and put some basic requirements together and have Mark go off and build a thing and just keep that circle going.

Rocky Mann: And then I’ll show it to you. So that’s the thing, it opens and then it was even on color, which was a whole thing.

Scott Ferguson: That’s awesome.

William Saas: Blue vinyl.

Rocky Mann: It’s so pretty.

Kelly Hiser: It’s really pretty. It’s really good, too. It’s such a good album.

William Saas: So Rocky, I imagine in the context of Edmonton, the pitch to artists is pretty easy now, after you’ve done this work for over six years and built this community out. I’m wondering, for newer or aspiring libraries who would like to join the network and become part of and have MUSICat. What does the early pitch look like? How do you get artists involved? Is it the honorarium? Is that what you lead with? Or do you lead with the mission of MUSICat and the mission of the platform and the sense of community? You have all of that in Edmonton. And I think that it would be implied in your approach, or at least you could point to it. But in places where that’s not established yet what does the pitch look like to artists to join the network? 

Rocky Mann: To artists… Because there’s a pitch to artists, there’s a pitch to libraries. And there’s a pitch internally to continue. So I’d say to artists, the honorarium is part of what I call this is a safe space of integrity. This is so aside from just sharing music, there’s so much more to part of it. It’s supporting their career, their civic participation, as we say. So all these aspects to be in this archive collection to have… Preston and I were talking last night about the Marc Record, what it means. 

What it means to have a historical authority that applies to your work, so it’ll be discoverable. And as a snapshot of a place in time, and a culture in time, historically is so important. It’s very different than the… I will say it here, but in a sense, it’s part of a community question. It’s something that we talk a lot with the university and there are researchers there and how can we make this something of value into the future to long beyond, which gets into other interesting conversations about forms of technology, how people might want to be not identified the same way, all through history all through time, moving forward, but the value for artists, one, what I call a safe space, that means a lot, it means a supportive space, that means something that strives for an ethical standard. 

Strives from a different agenda, it comes from a different agenda, that they know that we might not always be fluid will be changing. A $200 honorarium is a lot for some people. And maybe for other people, it isn’t so much. If we could pay more we’d love to, but that being paid something to share your work, instead of having to pay or having to have something cut out of your work. Just the idea of that is really meaningful. Then there’s the opportunities on the ground, and not opportunities in the way, if you join us, a corporate mentality, something that’s trying to sell a product might communicate, there’s so much opportunity if you join our organization, or our business or our thing, it’s not like that, it’s let’s connect you. 

There’s other people who have similar interests as you and there’s other knowledge out there in our local community that is exciting. So, that’s the piece. I have a whole paper right or document right here, we come back all the time with quotes from artists and for example, say the Denim Daddies, who are a local country group, I’ve written letters of support for grants they’re applying for. I help with some of those quality files, I’ll help share knowledge. And then if I know another artist, then I’ll connect them to that artist who might have that knowledge to share. 

So that’s part of it. I think it’s the community and being attached to the library, for all the value the library has in society is what’s meaningful. So they say, “the Denim Daddies are excited to be part of this unique project that connects Edmonton talented artists with the library community. It gives the public access to local musicians whom they may not have heard, and gives them an accessible way of discovering artists from Edmonton. DCR is writing an ongoing history of Edmonton’s ever growing and always talented community.” So I think in that quote, it’s the greater importance in place of a public library including accessibility, not just for artists, but for music lovers and for those who need to connect to local culture.

Scott Ferguson: So to close us out, I wanted to explore with you all, a federal policy proposal that we at Money on the Left are very much advocate for, is the Federal Job Guarantee. This would essentially guarantee everyone who is willing and able a public service job to participate in their community, whether it’s in the arts or working in any number of communal senses, and one of the reasons we’re so inspired by your project, is that it seems you’re already doing the work that we imagine would be done across scales, and would be guaranteed by federal spending through a Job Guarantee.

So we were wondering if you feel like your experience in doing what you do… Well, we’re sure that you have things to teach us who are advocates for the Job Guarantee. But what might a Job Guarantee program of public service employment mean to you all and what you do?

Preston Austin: I can speak a little bit to this, or maybe a lot, but I don’t have time. So I assume when you’re talking about looking at this as a federal policy proposal that you’re basically talking about Sandy Darity and Derek Hamilton’s version of this concept.

Scott Ferguson: There are multiple versions of it. And we are in solidarity with…

Preston Austin: Okay, sure, fair enough. So that’s the recent discourse that I’m familiar with. So one of the things I want to say is that, if we’re going to use an Employment Guarantee as a way of creating economic security and economic justice, one of the questions I have is where does being an artist stand in public employment? Is it a public value that can be funded from a public budget? And I think that building a skeleton towards that, with material payments and relationships between public entities that act as a qualifying enterprise for eligibility, and that build the relationships along which funds can flow, I think is important. 

And I think that while it is not… it prefigures something very thinly. But I also don’t want to overstate what’s happening here, like getting a single $200 check from your Public Library is where a $300 check is great, respectful and material. And that’s what we want it to be respectful and material, straightforward, artist friendly terms upfront, no bullshit. But we don’t want to pretend that this is lots and lots of money. Not right now. However, we do want it to actually become lots and lots of money. 

So we’re trying to validate direct public funding of artists’ work. And I think that connecting the throughline from there to direct public funding of lots of people’s endeavors in a Job Guarantee program is not that hard to draw. So I’d like to see that become $200 a month for the duration of work on the collection. And I’d like to see it become more than that. I’d like there to see fellowships within this where artists are really a city’s artists and residents are one of a collection of and then that group gets expanded over time.

This is really, really important. And again our philosophy is not, “hey, let’s find a valuable work.” Our philosophy is “let’s invest in the valuable activity of people producing art and working with very local public institutions to collect and celebrate and share that.” So that’s what I’d like to see funded, I don’t want to construct an increased purchase of your work, I’m not particularly interested in metering or something like that. Instead, it’s increased support for the activity of those who produce these valued local works. I’ll stop there.

Kelly Hiser: I can hop in, too, and just say that I think when you’re imagining other possibilities than the ones we live in, it’s great to have big theoretical frameworks. But it’s also crucial to have real work happening within the cracks of the system. And I think that’s what we’ve been able to do really successfully. I think we heard a lot of doubt about how you can do this with the way copyright is and the way libraries are constructed. And we just pushed and we’re able to create a model that’s been replicable in a lot of different kinds of communities. 

I agree with Preston, we don’t want to pretend that we’re revolutionizing the world, but at the same same time, this is a radically different prospect than the commercial music industry. And it’s one crack in the fortress.

Rocky Mann: What really hits home for when you said validate direct public funding of artists’ work, I can see that happening. I just have never really thought about it that way. For example writers and authors and books are really the traditional content in a public library. So we have a writers-in-residence program, they get paid for a year to be a writer-in-residence. And now, as I mentioned earlier, especially now that we have recording studios and other things, other aspects, and it’s become recognized that this content is also important in cultural content, that the library is a really valid and important piece of our collections. 

And how do we represent that? So a music expert, or musician, or songwriter-in-residence is on the table. Same with the fact that a lot of the artists who… that validation piece, I know artists in the collection who’ve been able to get CVC spotlight, national spotlight, funding or have gotten big awards through being through… I think it’s supported, I’m not gonna say directly influenced, but I will say that being part of this collection or that validation by a public, not just institution, because CCR is funded here in Canada by residential taxes. 

So basically, that image in public libraries, saying that the community who is paying taxes has determined that this is a value to them. So that money from the pockets of the community is supporting those artists’ work. And being in the collection is indirectly saying to these other ways that an artist can survive and make money and continue to subsist that our civic community has identified that this is of value, and therefore programs are being created that can allow them to maybe make some of a living by what you said… I don’t know… I think the education piece and the whole licensing royalties here is so different than the states. 

But to me, that’s a huge part. When artists come in, some are aware, some don’t know how to properly also receive royalties. And we have several complicated CMOs and PROs. But that’s a piece that we can help with. So that can also play into that income to subsist and continue to provide the public service of culture production and connection.

Preston Austin: Real quick, I want to expand on a point that Rocky made if there’s time. So one of the things Rocky mentioned earlier in the conversation was Marc Records. So Marc Records, M-A-R-C Records are basically catalog card digital records. So if you imagine your old school card catalog with a little… So one of the things we do that feels like a dry library world concern is we export Marc Records of the collection was actually a big hassle. It’s hard to do. And libraries have different standards for it. And we thought it was really important. And the reason why is because for a lot of these works locally, it’s the first cyclical existence of the work and possibly the act, the artist as a band that they can point out that goes into durable institutional memory. 

And I don’t know quite how to tie this together. But I think that this is one of these things that connects to the value that leads to flows of money as is like existing to institutions, as a record, in a good way… Is really, really important and not trivially accessible and being citable isn’t just an academic concern. It’s a validation for all sorts of things. And collectively, it’s the validation that allows things to be counted. 

So for example, Austin Public Library, when they take artists off the collection after the period that they’ve licensed their work for, they’ve ended up using the features that we helped write with Rocky that Legends of Edmonton Music is based on the showcase feature, to keep the artists represented as one of the people who built this collection by making a showcase record for them so they’re no longer an artist page because that’s connected to the published album and that’s not fair after three years. 

They keep 300 albums at a time on the collection. But that showcase page again, it’s part of keeping excitability alive and acknowledging contribution and respecting in a way that has more permanence and I think that that’s going to, as this goes forward, play more and more a role both individually and collectively and why it matters to artists.

William Saas: Well, Rocky Mann, Kelly Heiser, Preston Austin, thank you so much for your excellent, amazing, tremendous work on this. I think revolutionary technology MUSICat and thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left, it’s been really amazing talking to you. 

Rocky Mann: Thank you.

Scott Ferguson: We did it! Amazing.

William Saas: That was so fun.

Scott Ferguson: Thank you so much. Wow. So I know Billy has a hard out.

William Saas: Gonna get a hard knock on the door here in a second.

Scott Ferguson: But we want to talk about securing permission for using the art in our art… we also and we were talking to Preston before about this. Rocky if you could potentially secure permission to use some clips from local music.

William Saas: Gotta be The Denim Daddies… gotta be.

Scott Ferguson: And we can splice them in as interludes throughout our conversation if that’s possible and we’ll just be in an email contact with you about that.

William Saas: This is awesome. I hope we can talk more in the future. Bye, guys.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mercedes Ohlen (transcription), & Emily Reynolds of The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (graphic art)

The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art

Money on the Left
 is joined in conversation with curator Emily Ebba Reynolds & artist Nando Alvarez-Perez, co-founders of the Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art, or BICA, in Buffalo, New York.

BICA is a new and distinctly heterodox arts organization, offering physical space for artist shows and educational seminars, as well as fiscal space for provisioning micro-grants to local artists. In 2018 Emily & Nando founded BICA, in their words, in order to “reframe contemporary art around issues of regional community, create a plurality of art worlds, and reconceive art as a practical tool which can be used to reshape the world around it.” Along this journey of re-conception, reframing, and reshaping, they’ve confronted and engaged creatively with the “money” question in its numerous and challenging forms. We talk about these as well as get Nando’s and Emily’s take on why a “jobs guarantee” is something artists should fight for.

Learn more about BICA (and discover ways to support the project) at THEBICA.org. 

Special Thanks to Nando for lending his artwork titled, Primary Document 08262022a, for our monthly episode art. Scroll below the transcript for a full view of Nando’s piece. See if you can spot the reference to the Money on the Left crew! 

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Jakob Feinig and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Emily Ebba Reynolds and Nando Alvarez-Perez, welcome to Money on the Left.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Thanks, really excited to be here! 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Thank you.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks for joining us. We’ve invited you on the show today to speak with us about the Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art, which is known by the acronym BICA. It’s an experimental arts organization you two have co-founded in Buffalo, New York. It’s dedicated to communal practices, pedagogies, and publishing.

We’d like to highlight BICA’s accomplishments and aspirations to think together with you about how Modern Monetary Theory might help us reimagine relations between political economy on the one hand, and aesthetic practice on the other. But to start us off, maybe you can tell our listeners something about your personal and professional backgrounds to lay the land for this discussion. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Let’s go way back, I grew up on a farm in Colorado. Then I went on to study art history in undergrad, and then exhibition and museum studies in grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute. After school, I started working at museums, I worked in marketing primarily at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), a multidisciplinary Art Center that, especially at the time, was more interested in shifting culture than traditional exhibitions and the more typical institutional art exhibition projects.

At the same time, I was also starting my own projects: I ran a gallery with three friends, a communally owned and run gallery. We did all kinds of exhibitions, and I also did a parking lot art fair where people could just pull up their car and show work out of them, guerrilla parking lot style. A few years ago, Nando and I moved to Buffalo, where I’ve also been working in museums and marketing, and then we also started BICA. Currently, I’m part-time at the University of Buffalo art galleries. I still got my toes in a more institutional setting, but I’m running BICA.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: My name is Nando Alvarez-Perez, and, bear with me, I stutter. I was born in Buffalo and did an undergraduate degree in Film Studies at Hunter College because I thought I wanted to work in the movie industry, and then wound up at SFAI to do my MFA in photography, which is where Emily and I met. At the time, right after grad school, I was exhibiting my work in the Bay Area, adjuncting, working in tech, wearing all the hats that artists need to wear. I am currently a visiting faculty at Alfred University.

William Saas: How did you get together and first conceive of BICA? What kinds of problems were you responding to at that point with respect to the art world and art education?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I think we can specifically point to late summer 2017. I was doing a fellowship at YBCA, where Emily worked with the artist Tania Bruguera who was teaching an eight-week workshop about her Arte Útil program which is all about reframing arts away from traditional visual aesthetic values and norms and more about how we can re-value aesthetics through the lens of usability and practicality. And obviously, a very vague word in art, but to us, it means meeting people’s needs as they actually exist in the world. 

This was the first year of Trump being in office. I think we were both really burnt out on the hustle culture of the Bay Area, of the art world there. And it felt like art promises so much for institutional and community change, that was just not feeling lived up to there. I remember I had a great run of exhibitions, and I had done work I was really proud of, but by that summer, I was feeling like this whole art game is just an exercise in narcissism. We want to think through ways that we can make it valuable to people. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: You nailed that, nothing to add!

Scott Ferguson: I used to live in the Bay Area, but you were there more recently than that I’ve lived there. And clearly, Silicon Valley Tech has increasingly overtaken San Francisco, Oakland, and the surrounding areas and made rents go through the roof. The culture is changing. What was it like to be artists, curators, students as those changes were happening?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Everybody moves there thinking that every artist who lives there, and every gallerist that goes in there has this moment where they’re say: “Oh, obviously, we just have to figure out how to take advantage of all of this tech money.” Like there’s just some magic code that we can crack that will suddenly convince tech people to buy physical art! That was the thing. I feel like when we first started grad school, that’s what we were like, “oh, this is somebody’s just gonna do this. It’s easy.” 

And then as we moved on, we realized that, no, it’s really hard to crack that nut. We would laugh at the next group of people who said, “oh, we’re just gonna sell art to the tech people.” But, they really–as a large generalization–were more interested in things like real estate and cars and watches and these sorts of more stereotypical, more material, wealthy things, instead of something that supports artists. And even when the big-time galleries moved into San Francisco, the Gagosian Gallery moved in and tried to have an outpost there, it’s closing now, they didn’t ever figure out that special way to get the tech people to pay attention. Of course, now we have NFT’s, which are questionable… well, that’s another conversation we don’t have to go into. Nando, do you want to add anything else?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I felt we caught what felt like the last gasp of an art world there. Since we left in early 2018, a lot of curators have left, private spaces have closed down, galleries have closed down. I am laughing because our school closed as well. It first closed in March 2020 and then reopened. We were involved in rethinking what this program could look like in the future. And they were like: “no, thank you,” and went back to normal, and then they shut down. It’s one of the things that comes up in Buffalo: A lot that the Bay did have something Buffalo does not: that when you’re an artist there, you can find work in tech and actually get part-time creative work that will help you pay for artwork. In smaller places like Buffalo, there’s not as many opportunities for those intersections.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: The job quality is a little lower. I also do want to push back a little, Nando. I was just reading an article on ArtNet about this narrative that the Bay Area art scene is dead, but it’s coming back, it’s just not not mirroring the traditional art market. I think that’s something to investigate further there. But it’s certainly not easy. It’s not as easy to see what the art world is looking like in San Francisco, and it doesn’t look as traditionally successful as it has.

William Saas: When you said the “physical art” bit, I knew we were going to touch on NFT’s. Was that something that was live when you were still there? Or is that something that happened after you had skipped town?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Definitely after.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Nando, I remember you reading an article about a photographer who maybe did a picture of a sunflower you saw.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Even that was around 2018. I definitely had a lot of friends who were investing in various crypto things back then–some have done very well, some have forgotten the passwords to their bitcoin wallet, ups and downs!

Emily Ebba Reynolds: That wasn’t really the art scene that we were plugged into.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Even that thing wasn’t getting check money at the time.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Like I said, the Gosian Gallery opened there in 2016 and then closed in 2014 and 15. They did the–I’m stuttering a lot you guys, bear with me. They did two trial runs of the Silicon Valley Art Fair, they were trying to attract artists that would make objects that tech people would like. And it was all either derived from emojis or very shiny, mirror-based things you could do a lot of looking into. They were a complete bust. I remember walking in there and on the front, they had a paintball gun attached to a drone that was making an abstract painting. That was that desperation of time.

Scott Ferguson: Wow. So where is the high-stakes art flipping market in all this? That’s in New York, that’s elsewhere? 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: There are certainly people who buy new art, this happens in Buffalo too. The really rich people who buy art don’t buy art in the city they live in, it’s part of a bigger experience of going to another place, feeling like the red carpet is rolled out to you in a big fancy gallery or at an art fair. It’s not unheard of, it happens that people buy art in the city that they live in, but a lot of collecting really, especially people who have been used to living in a secondary or tertiary city, they’re used to going to a place and they like doing it that way. I think that’s a big part of it. Nando, anything else?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Even though local people who are well-endowed and love being in Buffalo and love the Buffalo cultural scene tend to still be drawn to LA and New York. Even in the Bay Area, it was just not a big part of the culture and a lot of galleries had a hard time making it work.

Scott Ferguson: Nando, you’re obviously from Buffalo. Our next question, I think, has a partial baked-in answer, but we’d like to hear you talk about what drew you back to Buffalo. Why did you want to establish BICA in Buffalo? Maybe you can tell us a little bit about the history of Buffalo. What’s the region been like? What are the major industries? How have things changed? What’s it like now? And maybe reflect a little bit about how place shapes your thinking about arts and arts provisioning.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I’m gonna butt in because I’m the one who convinced Nando that we should move back to Buffalo. He was resistant to it at first. When we were in the Bay Area, we were thinking about all of these problems that we’ve already covered. But another thing that we didn’t talk about is we also felt really stifled by conversations about gentrification–arts and gentrification get put together a lot, there’s definitely some chicken and egg stuff happening there. And we were concerned about anywhere we went to try to start something, if we didn’t have some kind of roots or stakes there, it being or looking like some kind of colonial enterprise. 

We started to think about how either Buffalo or Colorado (where I’m from) might be the right places to have at least a historic position in the community. And Colorado has all kinds of other growth issues and we said “maybe not the place we want to dive into right now.” And when we came to Buffalo, often, it was so clear that people were actually needed here in Buffalo, we needed more people of every kind to come here. 

Buffalo is a huge resettlement city for refugees and immigrants because we just literally need the population more. The other thing that really struck me in our previous trips to Buffalo was that people here seem to really care about the arts, maybe I was just recovering from the Bay Area syndrome of being like: “why doesn’t anyone care about this?” But we’d go to Nando’s friends’ parents’ houses, and they’d have original artworks they had paid for on their walls. And I said, “this is amazing, we should just, we should just be here, it seems like people care about that.” That felt like a good base to have. 

Historically, obviously, Buffalo is a Rust Belt city, and it has a lot of the characteristics of most Rust Belt cities. The population has been declining, from the 60s to the last census, our current population in the city is 277,000 or so. It’s not a big city, and it does have a bigger metro area. That 277,000 also puts us as the second-biggest city in New York, which is wild, because obviously there’s a huge disparity between New York City and Buffalo. 

Because of that, we’re also in this interesting position where as far as state funds are concerned, Buffalo tends to get a little more support per capita because it’s important for lawmakers to look like they’re spreading money around the state. And as the second-biggest city, you tend to have more attention than is warranted for a city of the size. The other thing that really drew us here, and that anybody who comes into Buffalo, I think, will be able to relate to, is this idea in the public imagination here that Buffalo is constantly on the edge of a resurgence. We’re just about to have our big Renaissance, party is about to start here!

William Saas: The Bills will be good this year.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: The Bills are a big part of it, and have always been, I think, but in the city that has been dealing with economic depression and struggles you could really see mental depression and emotional depression being a reality for a lot of people. There’s this strange, unending sense of, no, it’s going to get better, things are going to turn around. Which feels like a really fertile place to try something new. Nando you want to add anything? 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Not a whole lot to add there. We were thinking about where a project like this could work. Emily’s from outside Boulder and Denver where they weren’t going to solve the quality-of-life stuff and the cost-of-living issues. In Buffalo, it feels like there’s a lot of opportunities to make things happen because there’s a lot of unfulfilled and unaddressed needs. We could have gone anywhere, but we really wanted to be someplace where we felt we had real stakes and a personal connection.

William Saas: When you get back to Buffalo, you have the idea for BICA. We’d like to hear more about what y’all do. But, to set the stage: What’s the first step? We want to start an Institute for Contemporary Art in Buffalo for all these great reasons. What’s the next step? I imagine it involves money.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: The first step was that we had an idea for what we thought we wanted to do, what we thought would be a good fit. And Rock Model was a residency program that would invite artists to Buffalo. They would have an exhibition first, and then they would teach their non-art skills to non-artists. Graphic design, accounting, transcription, all of these things, but it felt with all of these new demographics moving to Buffalo, it felt like there was a need for this intersection of art and vocational work. 

Then we got back there, and we spent the first year talking to people, trying to find out where we could actually be helpful. In a place that small, the vocational art stuff was fairly well covered. But we found that the regular art scene had been diminishing a bit because it had aged so much, and there were no easy on-ramps for younger audiences. Just going to a lot of exhibitions and openings and talking to younger artists there, it was clear that there were no role models, mentors, or spaces that they felt like were theirs.

That turned into the first thing we felt we could tackle. We did a pop-up in fall 2018, just to get the name out there and give people a sense for the vibe of what a BICA exhibition and opening is like. That was as part of an event called Playground, which we’re actually partnered on now, but that first edition of it was: Artists were invited to do installations in this old school, one artist per classroom.

For our pop-up, I did an artists design classroom where I made these reading books with books, beanbags and readings for all ages. Then I invited a local drag queen, Fidelia May, to do a performance about art, culture and blow jobs. I also invited my high school history teacher, who’s a local actor, to do a lecture on whatever he wanted to (this was around the time of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings). He did this this great talk about [Anne] Hutchinson, an early Jamestown proto-feminist figure who had been expelled from the community. I wrapped that up with readings for audience members. 

Once we had this pop-up done, it was time to find a space. I had worked as an intern in arts organizations while I was in college here, and so I knew people who were on boards. I don’t want to go too much into the specifics of this, but there was a lot of drama with some local art organizations that people were eager to direct resources into something else. Our first base was an old mechanic’s shop on Elmwood Avenue, which is a main thoroughfare in Buffalo. It is a very tiny space and rent was quite affordable and it left room to be nimble, with what we wanted to do.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I also want to point out that the first thing we did was start looking into how to become a 501(c)(3), and if that was the right path for us. We did try to explore non-501(c)(3) paths, which I think is important for anyone who thinks that they have to be a 501(c)(3). But in the end, for us to take the donations that we wanted to take, it made the most sense to go that direction.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: And to get the grants. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: And for grants. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Which we knew we would need to do.

Scott Ferguson: Can you talk a little bit more about the money side of setting up this experimental community arts institution?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Like Nando said, we had a couple of people who we had been talking to for a while and had also known Nando for most of his life at the very beginning. We were able to sell them on the idea of helping us at the start, and explained how with some upfront money, we would be able to start getting grants and doing more fundraising and keeping it sustainable on a broader level where we didn’t need just their support for as long. Obviously, we hope that everyone who has ever supported BICA will continue to, but we did get a couple of people to take a big leap with us at the beginning.

Scott Ferguson: What were the upsides and downsides of the 501(c)(3) path?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: One of the things that we’ve been actually exploring as of late –there’s ideas you can’t do, things like having a co-op that’s a 501(c)(3) but that’s actually untrue, you can. There’s something about the structure of having the board that traditionally has been a board of wealthy people who guide the decision-making of the nonprofit but often are not well versed in the work the nonprofit does, but have the ability to make huge financial and governance decisions about the organization. There’s all kinds of problems with that model, for sure. It’s based on an idea of philanthropy that comes from wealthy people who continue to have all the power and direct their funds into communities in the way that they want them to be directed. 

That was, I think, our biggest concern going into it. But as we’ve done more research, and seeing that there are people really pushing on what the structure of a 501(c)(3) has to look like. Actually, none of our major donors are on our board. Our board is mostly artists and friends. It’s all people who are close to our age. It’s not the traditional–a bunch of old white men sitting in a room that you serve coffee to while they make crazy assumptions about what you’re doing.

Scott Ferguson: Stroke their beards and deciding your fates. What you’re saying is that there’s a set of normative rules and prescriptions and procedures that attend this legal category of the 501(c)3 which, for ideological reasons, have been cemented together, but are not actually part of the legal definition of the form in the first place.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Exactly.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It’s a pretty essential designation when it comes to donations and asking corporate sponsors for money.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: And federal and government sponsors.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Over the last few years, we’ve also been able to act as a pass-through for other projects. I was talking about Playground, which we’re involved with now. The funding and grants we get to do that–they would not appeal to these givers if it was not tax deductible. They really want to give for the perks.

William Saas: This is something that’s front of mind for us, and probably a lot of people who are interested in starting something like BICA. I’d be interested in your experience with the first confrontation you had with the wall of bureaucracy and paperwork, and the option of a lawyer.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: There’s this guy in Buffalo, he’s a friend who is an artist and a lawyer and does this. He helps people form their 501(c)3s. It’s all he does. And so I want to say it was like, we just paid him $500. Is that right Nando?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It was a bit more, like $750. Happy to direct all listeners to him because it was very easy. As an artist, one of the things that I’ve learned is–as an artist who also has to work and teach, I’ve learned that you just don’t always have the time to do the things you want to do. And if you have the resources to make your life a little easier on most fronts, it made things so much more smooth.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I want to say, we opened the forms two times, and both times we’re fighting and at each other’s throats about not understanding what anything meant. And we said, let’s call that guy.

William Saas: Remarkably similar to buying drugs. You either know a guy or you’re waiting for the system to change to where it’s like… Glad you knew a guy.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Outsourcing work, too. We do all of our own bookkeeping. But when it comes to tax time, it’s not the most affordable way to have an accountant do all that work. It’s just something I have been hesitant to tackle because there are so many ins and outs and details. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It’s just a poor use of our time. It’s something that we’re not interested in and don’t want to do.

William Saas: You start to feel like you’re one of those conservative lawmakers, “there’s too much paperwork at the IRS”!

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I will say, the IRS these days, post-COVID, is impossible to get in touch with. It does seem like everything is delayed. If you have a problem, it’s scary because there’s no one there listening.

William Saas: This might seem like a left turn or a divergence from the conversation. But this is exactly where we want to go. The path of the IRS to the question of public funding and public provisioning and money as such. One of the things we’re interested in talking to you about and what we’re up to in every episode of Money on the Left is rethinking money and its relationship to art, aesthetics, and also social provisioning, media making. 

We know that MMT wasn’t front of mind when you set up stakes in Buffalo with BICA, but it’s our understanding that you’ve encountered it and spent some time with it since. How would you say–as curators, artists, and community members invested in Buffalo and the art scene there–how has MMT aligned with and maybe informed or shaped your thoughts and decisions? Short version: What does money mean to BICA?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: MMT was not on our mind or even on our radar when we started BICA. But I do want to shout out that thinking about finance differently, or thinking about money differently, was part of our early conceptions. At the same time, as I left San Francisco, I had been working at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and as I was leaving, I convinced them to keep me on as a project manager on a project they were working on called Culture Bank, an idea that was germinating between the director at the time, Deborah Cullinan, and this woman, Penelope Douglas, who was a pioneer in the social finance world. 

I was working with them on writing case studies about artists who were contributing in non-financial ways to their communities, but in thinking about artists and community assets in a really different way than it had been traditionally thought of. That was ingrained in a lot of the language we were using, especially at the beginning of when we were talking about BICA. And when we were selling the initial donors on the project, we were already taking a financial [view] … framing things in a way that made more sense to them because they were people who thought more about money than about art.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: The default brain mode for all artists and arts organizations is scarcity, being afraid that there’s never enough. In the Bay Area, our school closed down, and obviously, somebody there had the resources to make that not happen. It sucks that that’s how it went. We came into Buffalo just preaching that more is more and more is better. And there is enough. There’s enough money, attention, and resources to be equitably shared with everybody.

Of course, once you are paying a lawyer to do your 501(c)(3) paperwork, and you’re working on a budget, and you say, “I’m going to invite these artists here for a period of X amount of time.” We install all of the work hours. So there’s still a production budget, a shipping budget, and an artist fee. We always want our artists to be paid for their work. When you’re doing bookkeeping, money becomes a very grubby material thing: in and out, in and out, in and out. 

It becomes really hard to stay in that mind that there’s enough out there. We are always trying to think about ways to make the very limited financial resources that we have, make an impact beyond just an exhibition or just an artist talk. The ways that we’ve done that have been buried. You wake up one day, and it’s just like, “we can make this work,” which is amazing. And then you don’t get a grant and it’s like, “okay, well, now we need to be very practical and scrappy about how we pull this out.”

Scott Ferguson: I want to get into some of the specific projects and programs. You’ve teased us with a bunch of the different things you do. I want to get into it. But before we do, I want to ask you about the pandemic. I’ll just say in learning about BICA, and about you two and what you’ve been up to, and what you’ve been building, I came across a podcast that was recorded, I think, in 2019. It was a Bay Area arts podcast. I was listening to it from the vantage of 2022, knowing that a pandemic is coming, and you two are talking about your plans and what you’re up to, and it was all very exciting. And I just kept thinking to myself, “oh my god, the pandemic is coming. And they have no idea that they’re gonna have to try to do all this in this global emergency.” So I wanted to ask you, how did that go? How did you build all this out in the midst of a pandemic?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I think it’s so funny that you were listening to a podcast from before, I was just listening to a podcast with my fitness guru. It’s before the pandemic and I thought, “oh, God, she doesn’t know what’s gonna hit her.” Anyways, go ahead Nando.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: That is a good way to get into the work that we do, too, because I feel like the pandemic–obviously, I don’t want to be dismissive of anyone else’s experience. But it was not a not positive thing for us. By the time BICA closed in March 2020, we had done four exhibitions in our space there, and every year of programming was designed around tackling or addressing some specific issue. 

That first year of curating was about reimagining how arts institutions can be more engaged with the world around them and actually serve a purpose to their users. Each exhibition, like the first one, was when we wanted to address this issue about the younger audiences. We reached out to our friends, Bonanza, a queer, collaborative group in the Bay Area that does work that’s very campy, kitschy, fun. They’ve gotten known for their fashion shows where they make clothes out of all kinds of different things, often just garbage. We knew that these fashion shows would be a great way to draw in this new audience. They did an all-ages, all-body-types, all-experience-levels fashion show that went great. 

The following exhibition was the work of Lindsay Preston Zappas, who runs an art review in Los Angeles called Carla, Contemporary Art Review LA. We asked her to come and do a show and then do an arts writing workshop. And that led to [the magazine] Cornelia, as we realized that we could produce this print publication, selling ads to local arts organizations who had nowhere else to advertise. Each exhibition came with this social-practice, community-engagement thing and they were, honestly, really hard to pull off. Each one, we felt, was tapping into a new audience and we weren’t gaining long-term traction with those people. 

In early 2020, we exhibited Puerto Rican artists. We were talking about creating a float for the Puerto Rican Day Parade in August 2020. Thank God, that didn’t happen. It felt like we were just speeding up and speeding up and speeding up, and we didn’t know to what end or outcome. When the lockdowns hit, it was like, “okay, this is a good time to take stock, breathe.” 

We got the magazine online, which we at first insisted would only be in print, but then it seemed like a good time to go online. And all of those social practicey engagements, we were able to re-evaluate and rethink how we want those to work at max. That’s where the impetus for the BICA School Program started, because it was a way to start building an audience for these artists, engagement and projects. Do you want to add?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Through another organization’s misfortune–an organization that didn’t weather the pandemic as well, although I think their finances were questionable beforehand, and then the pandemic laid everything there. They moved out of this space we have moved into. Which, for us, was huge. It’s a much bigger space. We spent the first three months of 2021 building out this space to meet our needs instead of this previous organization’s needs. We’re now part of this historic art center, we get to build on this cool legacy. So we got really lucky in that moment, as well. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: The rent went down too. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: And our rent decreased, which I think we’re not the only business that figured out that the real estate market was crazy in the middle of COVID. Since we don’t depend on income from ticket sales or anything like that–it’s free to visit BICA, it’s free to pick up our magazine–we weren’t losing money. And then suddenly, there were all these new grants to help support arts organizations and increase their visibility during these times when everybody was stuck inside. Artists can often think of crazy ideas to entertain people, we were able to take advantage of some of those. Which was just lucky in positioning. Now as we emerge from a pandemic, we keep trying to remember that the feeling of speeding up and speeding up and speeding up is not sustainable. And so we have to keep remembering to not let ourselves get back there if we can.

Scott Ferguson: Tell us about the BICA School, which is different from traditional art schools you attended.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: BICA School is the most recent project we have launched at BICA. As Nando mentioned, our school started closing in March 2020 and then continued to zombify, and really closed last June, I think. As they were trying to figure out if there was a way to stay open, Nando and I served on the Committee to Reimagine SFAI where we met a lot with people who were interested in trying to keep the school open for various reasons. As we had all these meetings, I started to instill in both of our minds that the things that were most important about our education were the people we met there and the community we formed while we were in this intensive two-year program.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: To expand on that a bit, I think at BICA, a great many of the exhibitions we’ve done have been through SFAI role models, connections, and friends. Besides just being the community that was formed, it’s also the professional milieu we were able to build.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: There’s this importance of this network. The other thing that we really felt or especially that I really felt that we got out of SFAI–which was a small and scrappy school when we were there–was something about learning to do things ourselves, because the institution was not going to provide us the resources and things we needed. We needed to learn how to build the thing ourselves: If we wanted to stage an exhibition, we needed to figure out how to do that on our own because the administration was not prepared to help us with that. Thinking of those is the most important things that we got out of school. Obviously, the readings and writing papers was helpful, but I don’t go back and read my thesis very often. So I said, “oh, well, those things should be free, right? Those things are not very expensive to put together!” Yet, somehow, I graduated from art school with over $50,000 worth of debt, we don’t need to go to exact numbers. 

Obviously, it doesn’t make sense, especially in a field where you know people are not going to make a lot of money. The person who goes into the art fields and makes a lot of money is a very rare breed. It doesn’t make sense for professionalized art school to cost that much. And maybe it doesn’t make sense for it to cost anything at all. With those kinds of ideas we said, “well, we should try to start this school.” And then we fought ourselves for like a year thinking, “oh, we need to set up all these structures for it.” And then, finally, we realized we are getting to that point where we’ve been talking about this to all of our friends and families for too long, and we needed to just actually do something about it. 

We pulled the trigger last June and had an info session where we invited anybody who was interested in the BICA school to come and learn more about what we were thinking. We sent it to all of our audiences, but we also tried to send it especially to the universities who could make sure that people who had recently graduated from BFA programs or art programs would get it, trying to focus on Gen Z, the millennial generation. And also, obviously, there have been a bunch of people we’ve met through the years that we had been envisioning when we thought of the program. We invited all these people to come, we thought that maybe we’d get 15 people at this info session. Then we talked about it for an hour. At the end of it, we presented people with a piece of paper that asked them to commit to this journey with us for the next year.

We thought that maybe eight people might sign on to a year-long thing no one really knows what it is yet–seems risky. We thought maybe people wouldn’t want to do that. But all 30 of the people who were there signed the piece of paper. In July, we started having biweekly reading groups and critiques. At the beginning, they were mostly led by Nando and me but the group has started leading them themselves. They’re very insistent on not having a hierarchy which is great with us because the idea isn’t that we do way more work to make this happen. We provide the space and a basic framework.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: For the Money on the Left audience, maybe it’d be helpful to expand on what the traditional model of an art career is supposed to look like, which is that you are essentially regarded as untouchable if you don’t have an MFA. First you have to pay a school to get this degree that qualifies you to look good to potential buyers and galleries and also, of course, to teach. And when you exhibit your work, you’re doing it all on […], the gallery doesn’t pay you up front, you’re only paid in sales. So you go further into debt to make each exhibition happen. And teaching jobs, as you guys know well, are few and far between. We’re all in this debt scheme together.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Especially as arts programs are cut (I’m not saying that I think that everybody should get this professional degree) but if you’re also cutting all the jobs they can go into, it’s especially confusing.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: You realize that what you get out of school is a community of like-minded peers and colleagues who will help you build a thing, and a way of being an artist in the world. You shouldn’t have to pay for that. The BICA school model is nothing new–there’s lots of examples of self-organizing alternatives to MFAs, some that have gone on longer than others. We figured we could take this core idea that what you get out of school is a community of peers and start with these basics of readings and critiques and let the users of the school develop it.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Fear is pretty important. It’s pretty important to have fear. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Fear helps.

Scott Ferguson: And do the participants work across media?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Yes, we’ve got some poets who are trying to see if this is helpful for them, too. The group is all over the place, but in a way that’s fun to experiment with right now and see how it goes for everyone.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Poets, musicians, painters, 3D printer people …

Emily Ebba Reynolds: A sex education specialist. She’s a fun one.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It really runs the gamut. Some people are there more for critiques, some are there more for reading groups, some are there just for the energy and being involved in this thing. The last thing I’ll add is that, within about two months, it started to become clear that the participants were eager for a space of their own. We helped them lease space, it’s also in the BICA Complex, a shared workspace, exhibition space, and event venue.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: They’re running that fully collectively. They each pay in for rent as they can each month, and then are fundraising to cover the rest of their rent for the year. Again, we’ll see how it goes. But so far, they’re not very far behind, which is good.

William Saas: Much talk about finance and art in those contexts?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: We’ve talked a lot about the problems with the art market. One of the things we’d like to do as we go forward is focus on areas for multiple weeks. As we’ve gone so far, it’s been like, “oh, one person wants to read this, or another person wants to read this or last night, they wanted to listen to a Frank Ocean album,” and that went okay. I think more directed reading is probably the right thing. I think that some MMT stuff might be helpful and some thinking about how it can materialize and how artists could illustrate it might be a fun exercise to bring in.

William Saas: Maybe we can just sketch that out–what would that look like? Coming from you and your background? How would the MMT approach fit in the ad hoc curriculum?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, because I’ve been very into reading about … But it’s been a tough conceptual sell.

Scott Ferguson: To you or to others?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: To others. I think people hear about the Federal Reserve and most artists’ brains just go off. It has come up a bunch of [times] Taxes are not for what you think they are. We’re working on a grant, I’ll just be very honest about this. And we’ll see how much is […] people don’t listen. We and the BICA Schoolers said, “we need to pay rent.” This grant cannot be used to pay rent. So we need to create roles for each person to pay because they really just want to pay as many artists as they can. A lot of the pandemic responses have been a spray-and-pray approach to just blasting out as much money in small chunks to as many artists as possible. I feel like the effects have not been too different than the $1,200 that we got from Trump. It just all goes into rents and stuff. But the specifics of each grant rarely allow you to put the money where you want to. For us, it’s usually overhead stuff. We are still not paid for our work at BICA. That is one thing that makes it all go round, I think. And as we’re talking about how to write this grant, we need to create facilitator roles for the artists that will then get paid. I was not there last night, but it sounds like they had a conversation clarifying that it’s okay, that they will get paid, and this pay goes back into rent. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I said, “we can’t use this to pay for rent, but we could use this to pay each of you as facilitators.” Before I even finished the sentence, one of them said, “yeah, and we’ll pay it back in rent.” And I said, “if that’s what you want to do, that sounds good.”. I’m not gonna tell you that you can’t do it that way. 

Scott Ferguson: What is that stipulation designed to do? 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: All of these things are put in place because at some point, there was a problem. The past problem is that nonprofits have paid outrageous salaries to their employees, have had insane overhead costs for rent and other things, and justify why the state doesn’t want to spend money on things that are not being used appropriately.

But then, of course, it’s the thing of bad faith versus good faith. No one feels like they can trust anyone to do the right thing with the money and they’re not willing to take that leap to assume that anybody would not misuse their funds. In history, it’s not always proven that people do use their funds properly. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: We’re in the space that we are because of a mis-used grant. It definitely surprised us. We’ve had such an exciting year with the grants that we’ve gotten. And we thought that would start solving all of our problems. But the step from getting those grants to consistent staffing funding is a big relief.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It’s really weird because it essentially asks for organizations to use private money to pay for all those things–whatever you can get from private donors. When I worked at YBCA, our biggest fundraiser each year was a dream house raffle, which is essentially gambling, right? People who never came to the organization paid money to buy tickets to possibly win a home that they would immediately have to sell because the taxes would be so high. That was the only way that the organization could make enough fundraising money that they could pay their overhead, their basic overhead of staffing, which is such a backwards way to think of it. 

Instead, perhaps, we should take care of the people who are working every day and not make those positions dependent on that private money. Because then we start to run into the same thing where boards say, “oh, well, I’d like my son to do this job.” Or, “let’s make sure another white man gets to this position” and continues to sustain all the same problems.

Scott Ferguson: If we were to imagine a world of arts and arts provisioning that wasn’t austere and that was publicly supported and funded in robust ways, and included a federal Job Guarantee, which in our previous conversations you have suggested you support. What is your position in the world, your experience as artists and curators? What can you teach us folks who are really interested in fighting for a federal Job Guarantee? What should we be thinking about? What should we be arguing for from the arts world perspective?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: A couple of things. First, thinking about how many of the are-related pandemic responses to COVID have been to take usually federal money distributed to a lot of artists in fairly small amounts to do aesthetic embellishments to pre-existing programs and projects. That can be fine, it can absolutely be very helpful to put a nice artists-made veneer on top of community development program, but when I’m thinking about what a Job Guarantee could mean in the arts, I would hope that local organizations on the ground would have a way to direct the financial resources to where they see a need. 

I think on the one hand, arts organizations that are always dealing with issues of staffing would all of a sudden have access to people who could handle marketing, social media and all of these things, they can really help the organization bring in more people. And then on the artist’s side, the crazy optimist in me says, “I would hope it would mean that the art world would actually decenter.” We talk so much in the arts about “art worlds” and not an “art world.” But when we talk about the Art World–big A, big W, most people have an idea of what that means. It’s the art fairs. It’s the major museums in New York and LA and Berlin. I think that if artists didn’t feel like the only way to sustain a life was to move to New York or LA, we would see artists staying where they are or going to places where they felt a real connection. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Somewhere they just wanted to be. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: If you spend any time talking to artists from New York City… some will love it, but most are just white-knuckling it for years and then decades, hoping that things will work out. And it’s true, that is the one place where you can make a career in the arts because people actually window shop for art there. It just doesn’t happen in Buffalo. I could see artists’ evaluations of where a life could be made completely reshaped.

Most artists don’t get into the arts because they want to be a famous artist, they do it because it’s a way of using their brains that suits them, because we’ve all been sold on this idea that art is good, culture is good, the aesthetic realm can offer all these new ways to see the world. I think artists are often simply not making the work they want to make because they have to direct it towards a certain market. And I could see that the JG starts to dissolve that.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I also think it would take some of the risk out of being an artist, when you have a sense that there’s something to fall back on. I think a lot of people are artists because they feel they always even want to be, often it’s one of those things… “oh, this is the only thing I can do.”

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Just to go back to the Bay Area, on the one hand, it’s great to have all of these jobs available to artists. On the other hand, most artists leave the arts because they say, “I can get a job at Apple? What am I doing?” There’s this constant brain drain out of the arts to other sectors. It would be so interesting to see that being reversed.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Healthcare and having the support to not feel like you’re making a stupid decision that’s just too risky to make any sense.

William Saas: I’m thinking of David Graeber, his advocacy for something like Universal Basic Income, specifically for artists. As artists, maybe you could help us consider, as we start to wrap up, why the Job Guarantee makes sense over other possible avenues?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I don’t want to toot our own horn, but we spend a lot of time talking to artists and organizers and community members where they are and we can get an actual sense for what their needs and resources are. Reading more about the Job Guarantee helps me reframe UBI as this libertarian dreamscape of “it would be nice to have more cash in our pockets, but what are we going to spend it on and why?” I think having those voices on the ground that can direct the work where it’s needed would make the money useful and not just inflationary.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I want to throw out a maybe more holistic and less financial [perspective]. There are a lot of UBI programs being tested on artists right now. It’s a really common thing.

William Saas: You say tested on artists that sounds like…

Scott Ferguson: Art rats.

William Saas: Yes, art rats.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I think they probably mostly like it. But I also think that it continues to propagate this idea of the lone artists working alone in their studio, having not a great sense of their world or their community, which I think is a really “over” idea of what art is … It’s a very capitalistic idea, a very patriarchal idea of how art works. 

Funding it in a way essentially continues to be in the form of: “We’ll just pay you your salary to do whatever you want” doesn’t help the rest of the world see the value. This doesn’t really help. It’s meant for a very specific kind of artist. I think a lot of artists are perfectly happy to work in a job that helps them have a better sense of their community. They bring a lot to jobs that they work in. Obviously, I don’t want artists to have to do backbreaking labor for 40 hours a week, but I think most artists are pretty happy to see people and solve problems with them.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I will add that this came up in a BICA School conversation a couple of weeks ago, it was at the extreme ends of a Job Guarantee, at least as we have seen it in America, is artists no longer wanting to paint WPA murals really badly. And so we get, in large part, abstract expressionism coming out of a rejection of this. You do still need to leave space, artists are going to do what artists are going to do. But I do think that they are, generally, by their nature, more other-directed than a lot of other kinds of laborers. You would still need to find some fine line there. It sounds really cheesy. I said this when we had the first info session for BICA School: “I know that when you get artists in a room, awesome things happen, and they’re capable of making things happen out of almost nothing.” Providing more opportunities and more intersections for artists to work in the real world would be awesome.

Scott Ferguson: We’ve spent a long time criticizing capitalist atomized society and artmaking. But, still, individuals do exist and Nando, you’re an artist, and you make a lot of really provocative and interesting work. Could we ask you to talk about your own work and what are your practices? What materials do you work with? What are you up to? What have you been exploring?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Feel free to cut me short on this. Obviously working with tiny […] has made me think about BICA and Cornelia and all this stuff as an artwork of its own. Emily and I always have conversations about: “Are you an artist, Emily?” And it’s just like… who cares. Good work is being done. My own work hasn’t moved into social practice, but thinking about BICA and working through BICA has helped me reframe my own work around audience and context. 

For years, I’ve been working with photography as a kernel of everything else, the work might come out in installations. I do larger installations that use extruded aluminum, there are a lot of conceptual underpinnings in the material. It’s a material you see used for trade show booths, and they’ll use it a lot in sci-fi movies and TV as a material that looks really futuristic. I think it already looks dated. It’s also often used to make things like 3D printers and cotton carve machines. Most recently, it’s been used as COVID barriers. I keep thinking I’m moving away from this one material, but it just keeps waking up. The installations use a lot of photographs I make in my studio that collapse historical movements into one flat scene. Lots of blending of both avant-garde and kitsch stuff. And then there’ll be books and beanbags and things to get people to engage with the intellectual backdrop to the work. 

Two exhibitions I’ve been pretty proud of recently: I showed some work in a middle school here, where my usual work just felt overbearing and condescending to a bunch of eighth graders. I was trying to think, “what were the things that I was aesthetically into then?” It was jean patches, chain wallets,boondoggle and Tamagotchis. I was doing, you can’t see me, in quotes, “research” on YouTube and discovered the world of a VSCO girl, who’s an ecologically minded, middle schooler/high schooler who really loves to wear crocs, drinks only out of metal straws, and is really into save the whales.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: The turtles I thought.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: And there’s this whole culture of Tamagotchis. And then I got into the e-boy and e-girl scene, this post-goth internet persona. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: These things are probably so dated, I feel like they didn’t survive the pandemic.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It was weird for me to discover that kids these days have a lot of nostalgia for the same objects that I have nostalgia for at that age. And so that show was called Eternal Flame. The Eternal Flame is a local geological feature here, open natural gas events behind the waterfall that as a kid growing up here you go to a lot. That name just seemed to work, it is calling upon the weird eternal recurrence of these consumer trends.

Last fall, I did an exhibition in a confession booth in an old girls’ middle school. That was a really fun opportunity to address conversations around disinformation versus conspiracy theories, using the confessional as a way to explore trauma, especially national traumas that are under-researched. I’m just reading about Jeffrey Epstein, weird connections to intelligent figures was really the start of that work. And I thought it would be a much longer project but then had this opportunity, this very, very, very tiny space to bring it all together. That was a lot of fun. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It came with an essay, which I feel like was written as part of the show. The essay is part of the exhibition.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: And the text existed as a standalone piece that was about the backdrop of the work and didn’t exactly directly address it and that work was a lot of fun. Using Polaroids to take pictures out of old newspapers and off my screen and using the Polaroid, which is regarded as a very truthy medium, to start to tell these lies and shake your certainty about how an image got made and where I was in its making.

Scott Ferguson: I’m looking at this show, it’s so striking. There’s an image of JFK, a cut-out collage image where JFK’s face is like wood. And then I also see this really dark picture that looks like a clay Mickey Mouse. What are the implications or suggestions? What are the relations here?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: JFK with his head removed is an image familiar to a lot of Americans. He’s photographed with this wood veneer as the background and the wood veneer start to work their way into the work as a way to frame these works. It was just a perfect match for the confession booth architecture itself. 

Veneer art has become this really interesting thing to me, because it’s a very overt lie. It’s lying to you on its surface. But you’re still supposed to act as though it’s just wood. And then the Mickey Mouse piece, I was thinking about the stories and myths that constitute our political imagination, and how over-simplified and reduced a lot of the–no offense to my fellow Americans–Americans seem to have a pretty narrow scope of how we come to believe the things that we do, and how those things relate to broader historical narratives.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I was going to say I think there’s something–going back to that idea of what, how does this come in art? I feel like that’s something Nando might be working towards. But something about that art has often–art in the broad sense to television, and movies, and all kinds of music–have helped people sometimes see those moments when a deeply held truth is not true. And something like the way that money works, or that they’ve been told budgets work on the federal scale–these are the kind of things that maybe someday artists can help make a little space for people to think more imaginatively about.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: That was a great way to tie it all. 

William Saas: Excellent.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I’ve written some essays in my day.

Scott Ferguson: Maybe you do go back to your thesis.

William Saas: Are you working as a curator again, as we close out? Is there anything that you’re working on you’d like to talk about?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It’s funny because now Nando and I almost always curate together, which I actually really appreciate. I have always been more of a person who likes to work on a team than alone. We’re in the middle of a series of exhibitions at BICA right now under this umbrella of recovering futures, but we’re really thinking about recovering from the pandemic in a more holistic way. That sounds really cheesy, but the artists we’re working with are in the witchy vein of recovery or…

Scott Ferguson: That doesn’t sound cheesy. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: No, it’s not cheesy. That’s the thing, we wrote a lot of grants to make it sound very cheesy because the grantors love a cheesy thing. But in reality, it’s about community healing and long-standing practices of healing that people have done together instead of medicines. Next year, we’re working on a certain entity… want to talk about the Maps to the Territory series?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Sure. For Fall ’23 through Summer ’24, we’ve got this rough idea of looking at artists who are–now I’m thinking too hard about what we wrote in this NDA Grant–who are reframing traditionally known narratives, and well-mapped territories, through new indices. We’re showing the work of Lee Hunter, who has been working on this world-building project. They’re working in stone photography, video work, to create this future landscape and artifacts that come out of this imagined archive of a post-human future. And we’re showing the work of Maximilian Goldfarb–I would have a hard time describing exactly what he does, but he’ll take a found image of some unusual industrial objects. One thing he did was an Indian Maoist group was making IEDs, and he made a fake IED.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: He takes a picture. And then he writes an odd audio or an Alt Text description of the image. He’s working on over 1000 of them.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Weirdly, the IED he made was used as a news photo about this actually existing Maoist group in India, which is just wild. And then finally, we’ll be selling the work of Joy Reid Minaya, a Dominican-born artist who’s been in New York for years. She tackles postcolonial narratives about the Caribbean, usually through the lens of tourism, and how tourists view the Caribbean world now.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks so much for coming on the show. Before we go, you can tell our audience how to find you online?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: We’re not Twitter people because artists tend not to live in the twittersphere. But you can find BICA @BICA.Buffalo on Instagram or at TheBICA.org. If you want to find me on Instagram, I’m @EmilyEbbaReynolds. And Nando is @NandoDotEternity but “dot” is spelled out. And Nando’s website is NandoAlvarezParez.com.

Scott Ferguson: Great, thanks so much for coming! I hope we can continue this conversation in the future. Thanks.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Thank you guys. Yes, please.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It’s been fun.

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

Primary Document 08262022a by Nando Alvarez-Perez

Internet for the People with Ben Tarnoff

Money on the Left is joined by Ben Tarnoff—tech worker, writer, and cofounder of Logic Magazine—about his book Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future (Verso Books, 2022). In his book, Tarnoff provides a comprehensive history and a critical topology of this thing we have come to know, love, hate, swear off, get on, and grow bored of: the Internet. Throughout our conversation, Tarnoff displaces the haphazard history of the Internet that circulates often-unquestioned in our foggy collective memories, helping us to see more clearly how the Internet came to be “so broken.” Tarnoff refuses to accept privatization or the profit motive as given or inevitable. Instead, he evaluates the history of privatization and profiteering from the perspective of public provisioning. He does so, moreover, in order to advocate for heterogeneous public alternatives and cooperative futures. Ultimately, Tarnoff fashions a vision for the future of the Internet as a de-privatized, public space for collective flourishing, which is to say, an “Internet for the People.”

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Ben Tarnoff, welcome to Money on the Left.

Ben Tarnoff: Scott, thanks so much for having me.

Scott Ferguson: We’ve asked you to join us today to discuss your recently published book, Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future (Verso, 2022). The bulk of the book tells a synoptic, critical history of the internet: How it came to be, and how it came to be–as you note–so broken. 

You tell this story in an unexpected way. You not only eschew the fallen redemption narratives of Web3 and blockchain libertarianism, you also proceed with a set of assumptions and values that very much complement the approach to public money politics at Money on the Left. Specifically, your project refuses to accept privatization or the profit motive as given or inevitable. Instead, you evaluate the history of privatization and profiteering from the perspective of public provisioning while advocating for heterogeneous public alternatives and cooperative futures. To start us off, how would you characterize most hegemonic histories of the internet today? What do they tend to overlook or get wrong? How does your approach substantially differ? And why does this matter for building what you call an internet for the people?

Ben Tarnoff: It’s an interesting question, Scott, because I’m not sure there is a hegemonic story about where the internet comes from, if I had to think about it. I think there are pieces of the story that the person on the street would know. I think folks are vaguely familiar with the idea that the internet came out of US military research. I think the more recent history of the internet, the rise of Google, Facebook, Uber and so on, may be familiar to them depending on how old they are. 

But I’m not sure there is a hegemonic story about how all those things fit together, that there is a continuous single narrative of the internet’s creation, its development, its commercialization. There is some good scholarly work on these subjects, which I draw on in the book. But I really have thought of my intervention as not so much telling people what they get wrong about the story of the internet but giving them that story for the first time (in many cases) or at least the story as a single story, knitting together some of the bits and pieces they may have floating around, half-remembered in their head, trying to bring it all together into a story with a beginning, middle and end.

Scott Ferguson: Perhaps to clarify what I was up to with that initial question: I think that floating, underarticulated narrative or bits of narrative that are around I tend to associate with some sense that the government and the military were involved at the beginning, but then this almost tabula rasa, where the web became a libertine, freely associating, extra-legal, extra-political utopia. And then Web 2.0 comes along, and these major corporations take over and ruin that utopia. And then that licenses a certain hegemonic project today, which is trying to imagine a Web3 that is returning to that wild west utopia, but now with private property laws and more order. That’s what I had in mind, which maybe isn’t the totally hegemonic, or the full story, or not everybody believes that. But I guess that’s what I was gesturing towards.

Ben Tarnoff: I think there’s a generational aspect here: Folks who remember the web of the 1990s in some form are likely to hold the types of views that you describe, Scott. I would characterize it as a form of internet nostalgia. I talk a bit about internet nostalgia in the book, and I think it’s important to note that nostalgia has been a component of how people have experienced the internet from the very beginning. People have felt nostalgic for the internet of the mid-1980s, the early 1990s. All of us feel nostalgic for some era of the internet and I happen to be of the age where I do feel nostalgic for the so-called “Open Web” of the 1990s, the world of GeoCities and so on.

In the book, I try to treat nostalgia fairly because there is something real there. There is an accurate perception of the fact that the internet has changed quite dramatically. And I think we could say, in some ways for the worse. But it also can give us a somewhat distorted view of how the different periods of the internet fit together. For instance, to take the era of the so-called “open web”: we still have the open web. In fact, the openness of the web is what has facilitated the rise of the so-called platforms. Google, to take an example, is able to sprinkle its advertising software throughout the web precisely because the web is open. So, the open parts of the open web are what make the closed parts closed, if that makes sense. The open and the closed exist, if you like, in a dialectical relationship with one another. This is a left podcast so I can say words like dialectical. I want to encourage us to take that view of internet nostalgia where again, I don’t want to be dismissive or condescending to people who have these views because I have my own private set of longings for a different internet, but they don’t always give us a complete picture of how these different things fit together.

I should also say that any project to build a better internet, which is partly what motivated the decision to write this book, my commitment to that project, can’t go in reverse. There is no way to reverse the privatization of the internet, for instance. What we need to do is to come up with a creative reimagining of the internet that takes it forward, we can’t simply put the gears in reverse as much as we might like to.

William Saas: I want to sit with that for just a second. I think the argument that there is no reversal of the privatization of the internet–that’s a very profound observation that may be troubling for some listeners. I want to ask you to expand on that. One might imagine a world where the internet goes down, and there’s some kind of catastrophe. Is there not a clean slate? There’s no reversing the privatization? Maybe you can unpack that for us a little bit more? 

Ben Tarnoff: What I mean by that is that privatization created the modern internet and that process was a creative process. It wasn’t simply a matter of enclosure. Enclosure is a metaphor that is very popular among Marxists, among those on the left, and has been increasingly applied to digital spaces, and there may be contexts in which it’s appropriate. But it would not be accurate to say, precisely, that the private sector enclosed the internet, which had formerly been a commons, which would suggest that all we need to do is to break down the fences erected by those bad landowners, as in rural England, and reclaim the commons for ourselves. 

 That’s not what happens. Of course, the internet, as I’m sure we’ll discuss, was created by the public sector, specifically by the US military, and its development would not have been possible without billions of dollars of public money. And indeed, the private sector did take over the internet without paying the public sector any compensation. However, it didn’t simply inherit it and keep it as it is, because what it was taking over was essentially an academic research network. It was relatively small by today’s standards. It was relatively unusable by today’s standards.

It had to be quite significantly developed and crucially, it had to be renovated for the purpose of profit maximization. Privatization is not simply this passive process whereby public assets pass into private hands and that’s that. In the case of the internet, privatization is a creative process. It involves remaking the internet into what we have today. So that’s what I mean when I say we can’t simply reverse that process because the internet as it exists today is a product of that process. Something, I think, more imaginative, is required.

Scott Ferguson: Before we dive into the details of the history of the internet you tell, would you mind first sketching out the structure or topology of the contemporary internet, as you do in your book, I think it’d be really helpful, especially for our less tech-savvy listeners to sketch this out and define some of the key terms you unpack in the book such as “stack,” pipes” and “platforms.”

Ben Tarnoff: The “stack” is a metaphor that would be familiar to folks who are in the world of computer science or software engineering, it’s a very common metaphor in the worlds of computing and networking. And in particular, it’s applied frequently to the internet. Now, my take on the “stack” is a bit reductive, it’s a simplified schema of the “stack.” I split the “stack” into two layers. A “stack” is really just a set of layers piled on top of one another, like a house, you can think of the floors in a house. 

In my simplified schema, I’m talking about two layers: what I call the “pipes,” which is basically the physical infrastructure of the internet, the fiber optic cables, the routers that are required to get a packet of data from one place to another. And here the companies involved are firms like Verizon and AT&T–internet service providers–as well as companies that operate the deeper networks of the internet. And then when we move up the “stack,” we get to a different layer, which is inhabited by what people often call the “platforms.” I take issue with that term, which is a bit of pedantry we can get into later if you like, but this is essentially the application layer of the internet. This is where the apps and the sites are. This is where we experience the internet. 

Splitting the internet into two helps organize my book, it’s literally the two sections of my book. But there’s also a chronological story implied here, because my book is mostly about not just how the internet was created but how it was privatized. And privatization begins at the bottom of the “stack” with the “pipes” and then it moves up the “stack” to the application layer. There’s a spatial metaphor, which helps us understand how the internet fits together. But there’s also a historical aspect because privatization ascends from the bottom to the top of the “stack.”

William Saas: So where did it all begin? How did this thing we call the internet get started? Where was the first pipe laid? And what does it look like at the outset? And if we could think also about the original vision, values and ideals behind the internet at its origins.

Ben Tarnoff: To talk about where the internet comes from, we probably have to say very briefly what the internet is. We discussed the “stack,” which gives us an architectural overview of the internet, but it doesn’t give us the ontology, so to speak, it doesn’t really give us what is the internet. The internet is fundamentally a language. It’s a language that lets different computer networks talk to one another, and thus interconnect to form a network of networks. What this means specifically is that the internet is a protocol, a set of protocols. And a protocol is basically a bunch of rules for how computers should communicate. 

The very first internet protocol was created by US military researchers in the mid-1970s. And through a series of experiments, they figure out that this internet protocol is capable of stitching together different networks from around the world into a single network of networks. And why this matters, why they’re doing it–the military pretext for these experiments–is to project computing power from the United States into the battlefield. 

Now, what does that mean more specifically? What it means is that there are large mainframes, million-dollar machines, very heavy, very expensive computers, located in places like northern Virginia, that are capable of running computationally intensive programs of the kind that might be useful to soldiers who are deployed in places like Vietnam. The vision is that those soldiers who are deployed in places like Vietnam could have a small, less powerful computer in their Jeep, for instance, and communicate wirelessly with that mainframe in northern Virginia through the internet protocol and maybe get some output from an application that helps them gain an upper hand on the battlefield. 

That’s the vision for the internet. That’s why it gets funded by the Pentagon’s R&D arm, DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. Now that’s not actually what the internet is used for. Once they have this protocol, the Pentagon realizes that it could be useful for interconnecting various computer networks they have within the Department of Defense. They have various computer networks, and it would be useful for various reasons for these networks to be able to communicate with one another, and they use this new internet protocol to do so. Over the course of the 1980s, the internet goes from being a protocol to a place. It actually begins to describe a distinct set of networks that have been interconnected with the internet protocol, which in turn becomes the internet protocols. 

By the early 1990s, the federal government continues to control the internet. But it’s passed from military to civilian hands. By the early 1990s, the National Science Foundation, which is a federal agency tasked with supporting basic research, controls the internet. In particular, it controls the main backbone, which is really the main artery of the internet at that time, something called NSFNET. In the early to mid-1990s, the National Science Foundation takes steps to rapidly and comprehensively privatize these “pipes” of the internet. 

It’s important to note that privatization was the plan all along, the federal government never had any intention of running the internet indefinitely. But the timetable gets moved up because there’s so much demand–unexpected demand–by people who want to get online. At the time, the internet is mostly for academic researchers. But things like the rise of the World Wide Web, the rise of graphical web browsing, is making the internet more popular. So, demand is soaring, capacity is limited, and the National Science Foundation feels that privatization has to happen sooner rather than later in order to stimulate the type of private investment that would be needed to create capacity to meet that expanded demand.

The crucial date is April 1995, at which point the National Science Foundation terminates its backbone, the NSFNET, and the private sector takes over. Crucially, this takeover happens with no compensation, with no conditions, with no enduring public or non-commercial foothold in the new internet. In other words, privatization of the “pipes” in the 1990s takes a particularly extreme and comprehensive form. And this is really due to extensive industry influence over the process. Telecoms have a lot of money to make from the new internet, from selling access to it, and they don’t want any interference in their profit-making prerogative. 

There were alternative proposals floating around at the time, I talk about them in the book. There were always ideas of how the internet could be organized differently that would not have ceded the “pipes” so completely to the private sector. But crucially, no social movement existed to make those ideas active and to overcome industry opposition. This story is really what I tell in the first part of my book, because privatization was not an event, it was a process. And this is actually just the first part of the process. This is the privatization that begins at the bottom of the “stack” in the basement of the internet, if you like, with the “pipes.” The next piece of that story will be privatization moving up the “stack.”

Scott Ferguson: How would you situate this within the political and ideological climate of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s? I think of familiar stories about the rise of Reaganism and then Clintonism being a neoliberal re-articulation of the Democratic Party and its platform. What are those broader changes doing to shape privatization as a process of the internet?

Ben Tarnoff: The ideological backdrop here does matter. You have Clinton on the one hand, whose politics I think will be pretty well known to your listeners. And then Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in Congress. Gingrich, as some of your listeners may not know, actually had a turn as a poster boy of techno libertarianism. He was interviewed quite favorably in Wired magazine, presents himself as a forward-thinking cyber netizen… so many silly words from that era.

Scott Ferguson: We have no silly words. 

Ben Tarnoff: Nothing that will embarrass us in 20 years.

Scott Ferguson: We’re good. 

Ben Tarnoff: Ideologically, there’s a lot of alignment around the idea that the market is the best mechanism for organizing outcomes, that the private sector should lead not just in the realm of the internet, but in all realms of social life. And that certainly helps create the conditions for industry lobbying to be particularly effective, and to close down political space for alternatives to emerge. I think there is a confluence of factors that conspire to ensure that privatization takes a particularly extreme form.

William Saas: On your telling, it seems like this was almost inevitable, given the historical factors operative at the time. You’ve got Gingrich hanging out with Alvin Toffler and the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. We’re not going to claim this for the public–that’s communist and communism is over. It’s just in the air.

Ben Tarnoff: Absolutely. And I would add that one of the things that makes the fall of the Soviet Union so significant, is that it ends the justification, or an important justification for industrial policy through the Pentagon of the kind that had really laid the foundation for the internet. I mean, the internet is created by DARPA. DARPA, as the Pentagon’s R&D arm, is created in the aftermath of Sputnik, when the US policy-making class has a collective freakout and figures, they’re losing not just the space race but science and technology is falling behind the Soviets. So that demands significant federal investments in science. That rationale disappears after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, for a number of reasons, privatization emerges in a particularly comprehensive form.

William Saas: I recently read with some students an essay by David Graeber called “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” His argument is basically we’ve stalled out technologically, we don’t have flying cars now because all the ambition, innovation, and he calls them “poetic technologies” are channeled into this bureaucratic state, you know, R&D for military reasons, and that seems to track here. But I wonder if in those early days, and as part of that early history of the internet that you are so familiar with, were there any internal debates, discussions, alternate imaginations about the kinds of applications for the internet in a non-martial direction? Maybe some more techno-utopian ideas? Or was it all like, “let’s outfit our boys on the frontlines with the information they need?”

Ben Tarnoff: Well I’d say utopian sentiments were part of the internet from the very start. The thing about the military justification for the internet is: that’s how they got the money. But a lot of the people who are actually developing the protocols and working on different aspects of the network were not motivated by the military pretext, they may in fact have had anti-war sentiments of their own.

Many of them, when you talk to them, they’re just scientists. They thought it would be a really cool thing to do, it’d be really impressive to get these different computer networks from all over the world to start talking to one another. There’s a gee-whiz aspect that’s very motivating, which is very familiar if you know scientists. Often, it’s just the kind of sense of wonder that is motivating.

Certainly, once the internet exists as a place, as a network of networks, it’s primarily used for email. It’s primarily used for mailing lists for people to argue with one another. It’s a kind of proto social media. People are getting flamed, I don’t know if “flaming” is still a current term, or if that just become everyday internet, it’s become too normalized to even merit its own term. Certainly, when we think of the creation of online worlds, of virtual communities where people socialize with one another, that happens initially through email. Email predates the internet. Email is actually invented on ARPANET, which is an important computer network created by the Pentagon as a predecessor to the internet and one of the networks that gets linked into this network of networks. 

It’s important to note that, while the initial justification was military because they were getting money from the Pentagon, what it’s used for is basically social. The internet emerges as a social medium from the start. And in fact, the social aspect of the internet is what has endured most today. I mean, the internet of 2022 looks nothing like the internet of 1985, in terms of how you would use it, in terms of the applications, in terms of who is using it. But that social quality, that it’s being used by people to connect with one another, has endured.

Scott Ferguson: So maybe we can circle back to the story of the 90s: privatization and the turn toward the profit motive. I don’t know if you want to talk a little bit more about the privatization of the “pipes” and then the rise of the “platforms” in more detail, maybe getting into some of these flagship companies like eBay, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and more.

Ben Tarnoff: April 1995 was the date that I had mentioned earlier. And this is, again, the date at which the National Science Foundation terminates its backbone and the private sector essentially takes over the “pipes” of the internet. 1995 is important for other reasons as well, because it’s the year that the dot-com boom launches. So ’95 is the year that Netscape has its explosive IPO. Netscape, for folks who might be a bit younger–imagine not knowing what Netscape is! But in fact, there are people who don’t know Netscape. So, Netscape was the creator of the first popular graphical web browser, Netscape Navigator, and it has this very exciting IPO, in the summer of 1995. 1995 is also the year that amazon.com opens for business. And in subsequent years, tens of thousands of startups are founded, billions of dollars flow into internet companies. 

All these folks are trying to figure out, how do you make money not just from selling people access to the internet because that’s what the companies down the stack are doing. That’s what the internet service providers are doing. But how do you make money from what people do once they get online? In other words, how do you monetize not access but activity? And this turns out to be pretty challenging. 

The dot-com boom is mostly a story of companies struggling to find profitability. One company that does manage to be very profitable from the beginning is eBay, initially called auction web. I spend some time looking at eBay in the book, because to my mind, it is a really interesting example of all of the elements that would go into what we later think of as the “platform” being expressed in a primitive form in eBay in the mid-1990s. 

What are those elements? Well, eBay is a middleman. It facilitates interactions, in particular between buyers and sellers. It is a sovereign in the sense that it writes the rules for those interactions, it doesn’t just sit back and say, “you guys connect and figure it out,” it has to be intimately involved in how people connect. So, there’s a governance element that’s really important. The third piece is that it’s a maker and beneficiary of network effects. The more people interact on eBay, the more valuable eBay becomes to everyone. These are the three elements that, to my mind, distinguish eBay and help eBay leverage this social quality of the internet that we’ve been discussing, which has been a very important part of the internet from the beginning. It helps leverage the socialness of the internet and turn it towards commercial ends. 

I talk about eBay as the first community market. People are brought together in a type of community, and, particularly at the beginning, eBay uses that rhetoric very explicitly, but under the sign of capital, for the purpose of commerce. And this innovation–the creation of the community market through those three elements I described earlier–is very profitable. At a time when dot-coms are taking on a lot of venture funding, but in fact, losing a lot of money, eBay is printing money. 

As we all know, the dot-com boom collapses in 2000, 2001. Out of the ruins of that era, the so-called platforms–the big firms that still dominate the internet–begin to build these complex computational systems. Post-2001, that’s when we really see the rise of Google, the founding of Facebook, the founding of Uber, the rise of Amazon, and so on. This is when these various empires of the modern internet consolidate, and they do so, in my view, by applying the same patterns that eBay had developed as early as the mid-1990s. In most cases, that influence is not direct or conscious. But nonetheless, the building blocks of the modern platform were really discovered by eBay in the mid-1990s. 

The one piece that platforms add to the recipe, if you like, is that they are also manufacturers and monetizers of data. Data is actually the most crucial piece of the puzzle for them. If we think about those elements of the community market that I discussed before, what’s most important is that this is a space for interactions. What the so-called platforms do, what I call the online malls, ensure that all of these interactions that are happening, that are transpiring within the walls of their enclosure, if you like, are occasions for manufacturing data, and then this data can in turn be monetized in a variety of ways. 

I think the broad outlines of that story are quite familiar to people in the context of online advertising. Everything you do on Facebook creates data, which in turn can be used for the purpose of selling ads. But it’s important to note the data can be monetized in a variety of different ways. So that’s ultimately, in my view, how privatization gets pushed up the stack, they try and they fail with the dot-com period, but then they finally succeed in the aftermath of the dot-com bust with the platforms.

William Saas: If the metaphor of enclosure doesn’t work to capture the process we’re describing, are there any other metaphors that you could supply us with to help us understand? I think it does sound like a bit of enclosure but I get what you’re saying also–it’s not like there was a commons that was enclosed, it’s more complicated than that. Do we have any abstraction to encapsulate that metaphorically?

Ben Tarnoff: First a note on clarifying the term enclosure. I had just used the word enclosure in my last response, which you may have noticed, and by that I simply mean a structure with four walls. I think then there’s also the Marxist use of enclosure, which is from the Enclosure Acts in Marx’s study of primitive accumulation of a commons that is enclosed. And I think that suggests that there is something within the fence that we can reclaim, if we could only tear the fence down. That’s what I would object to, in the case of the internet. 

Marx also has this distinction between the formal and the real subsumption of labor by capital, which is the distinction between the process whereby capital inherits a labor process without reorganizing it. For instance, let’s say a subsistence farmer becomes a wage laborer, but still works on a farm. Now, he’s been absorbed into the wage relation, he no longer produces for his own consumption, he earns a wage and uses that wage to buy the necessities of life. But the way in which he works has not changed. This is what Marx would call “formal subsumption.” Now, let’s imagine a little further along: The farm is expanded, it’s mechanized, it’s industrialized, and the way in which our wage laborer works is completely transformed. He’s no longer using the same practices that he did as a subsistence farmer, he’s now a cog in a much bigger, industrialized agriculture machine. This is what Marx would call the real subsumption of labor by capital. 

I use that distinction to talk about the internet in the sense that in 1995, when the private sector takes over the “pipes,” the private sector inherits a network, a network of networks, that has not been organized around the principle of profit maximization. Something that was created by the US government, that was developed mostly by research scientists for their own use. At that point, you have formal subsumption. But what has to occur in the subsequent years and decades is the very difficult process of real subsumption: this network of networks, this research network built by scientists has to be remodeled, reorganized for the purpose of profit maximization. And this is ultimately what I think the platforms achieve. This is their legacy: managing to unlock the profit potential of the internet by reorganizing it.

Scott Ferguson: I also think your metaphor of the mall, which I think you borrow from somebody else in the book, but this trope of imagining, the “platforms” as online malls. It’s absurd to imagine a mall as an enclosure in the historical sense of English law. There wasn’t, there’s no “pre-mall”, that then a private corporation takes over. I think that’s one thing to hold on to here.

William Saas: I wonder if there was any internal struggle at the NSF that you were able to uncover or discover about just saying, “okay, here, take this thing that we’ve built and go crazy.” I know that we talked about the spirit of the times being distinctly and acutely neoliberal. But were there any opposing viewpoints from the NSF that you could discover to what actually happened?

Ben Tarnoff: Within the NSF, there was an alternative proposal that I discussed in the book that was embodied in a Senate Bill put forward by Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, which would have created what advocacy groups at the time called a “public lane” on the information superhighway (“information superhighway” being the preferred metaphor at the time for the internet). And this bill would have done a number of things such as forcing telecoms to reserve up to 20% of their network capacity for non-commercial uses, which would have been granted specifically to nonprofit organizations like libraries. 

Broadly, Inouye’s bill, and the organization around it that was pushing for it, looked to the legacy of public media for inspiration. If radio and television could have spectrum set aside for public non-commercial uses, why can’t we do the same with the internet. Of course, public media has always been very weak in the United States, compared to other advanced capitalist countries. But nonetheless, that was an important piece of inspiration.

This bill–I don’t have to tell you–doesn’t get passed, and this idea doesn’t go anywhere. But nonetheless, there were alternative proposals at the time and that’s something I try to emphasize in the book: It wasn’t inevitable the way it went. But it was a question of the balance of forces. And there simply was not a social movement, at the time, that would have politicized this issue and made it legible to masses of people. The internet is still fairly obscure at the time and it would have been hard to have built a movement around the internet. But nonetheless, this is how privatization takes such an extreme form: Not the absence of alternative ideas, but the absence of enough social power to make those ideas active in the face of the opposition of the capitalist class.

Scott Ferguson: Now that we have a stronger sense of how the internet was publicly provisioned, and then multiply privatized in a processual way, it seems like we’re pretty well posed to discuss some of the more exciting democratic and public alternatives you promote in your book.

But before we get into some of those details, I want to make our listeners aware of the fact that you importantly couch what you are calling “an internet for the people” within broader political struggles, as part of the political struggle for the provisioning of food and housing and health care and public financing. Can you talk a little bit about that larger framing? You don’t just offer a narrow politics of the internet, you have a much more nested sense of where we are and how this fits into the broader political order today.

Ben Tarnoff: I tried not to do too much of that in the book because I wanted to try to keep the lens as narrowly focused on the internet as possible. But inevitably, the problem with writing about the internet is that the internet is entangled with everything. So other things start to creep in. 

I think I also want to give a sense of what’s at stake. Discussions about the internet are often quite dry and quite technical. I wanted to try to make the point that what’s at stake is the possibility of democracy without putting it too grandly. We live in a profoundly undemocratic society. And what I mean by a democracy, and this is a definition that I go into in the book, is the ability for people to rule themselves. For people to rule themselves, they need to have certain things available to them. In other words, as I say in the book, freedom isn’t free. If we want to lead self-determined lives, we need access to resources that enable us to do so. You can’t rule yourself, you can’t lead a self-determined life if you’re hungry. If you don’t have a roof over your head. If you’re bankrupt from medical bills.

Similarly, the internet has become an indispensable precondition of participation in social, economic, cultural and civic life. We saw this in the early days of the COVID pandemic, people needed to get online to apply for unemployment insurance, and we had to work from home, their kids needed to attend school from home. And that helps bring into view the stakes of the social crisis around connectivity in the United States. The United States has absolutely abysmal broadband. We pay on average higher monthly costs in the United States for broadband than our equivalents in Asia or Europe. We rank fourteenth in connection speeds–below Hungary and Thailand. And most astonishingly, in 2018, Microsoft researchers determined that 162 million Americans do not access the internet broadband speeds, which is about half the country. We could talk about these statistics in the dry language of the digital divide, and so on. 

But I think we need to elevate our rhetoric and talk about democracy. If people don’t have access to the resources, they need to lead a self-determined life, they can’t exercise self-rule. The ability to exercise self-rule at a personal level is intimately bound up with the ability to exercise self-rule collectively. In other words, the reason that people don’t have access to the resources they need to lead self-determined lives is because certain political choices have been made about how those resources are distributed. And those are choices that those people don’t have an opportunity to participate in.

To my mind, this is the other essential ingredient of a democratic society: Giving people not just the resources they need to lead self-determined lives, but the opportunity to participate in the decisions that most affect them. And those are the guiding principles for my project of how to create a more democratic internet. And it has implications, different implications, we should say, at different parts of the “stack.” It means something different at the “pipes” than at the “platforms.” But nonetheless, these are the principles that I think can guide us, not just in building a more democratic internet, but in building a more democratic society.

William Saas: Let’s talk about some of the proposals that you engage with in the book for doing just that: For creating and recovering the internet as a channel technology with a series of “pipes” and “platforms” we can use to advance democracy. 

These proposals include, but aren’t limited to, creating public and cooperatively owned networks on the model of ongoing experiments in Chattanooga (Tennessee), and rural South Dakota, supporting decentralized open source models of social networking, such as the Mastodon Project, and using public libraries and post offices–I like this one–as local administrative hubs for social networking and journalism across the United States. Can you take us on a brief tour through these alternate horizons for the internet, and perhaps tell our listeners how we might or how they might get involved with such efforts?

Ben Tarnoff: My term for the political project to build a better internet is deprivatization. And deprivatization aims at creating an internet where people and not profit rule, that’s the North Star. What does that mean in practice? It means developing models of public and cooperative ownership that can shrink the space of the market, diminish the power of the profit motive and encode practices and principles of democratic control. In the book, I look at a number of experiments that are, in my view, putting those ideas into practice that represent–even if it’s on a small scale–deprivatization in action. 

One example, which you indicated, is the Community Network. Community Network is a publicly or cooperatively owned broadband network that could be owned, for instance, by a municipality or by the members themselves. More than 900 communities in the United States are currently served by community networks. These networks tend to provide better service at lower cost than their corporate counterparts because they don’t exist to enrich shareholders with stock buybacks and dividends like the big firms such as Verizon, they’re able to prioritize social goals like universal connectivity. 

Crucially–this is the piece that I find most promising–they are able to give users an opportunity to participate in decisions around how infrastructure is developed and deployed. I see community networks as the main protagonist in deprivatizing the pipes of the internet–not the only one because we can’t simply have a series of local networks. That’s not what the internet is, the internet is composed of networks at various scales. But nonetheless, community networks, I think, are the most promising form deprivatization can take at that layer of the internet. 

When we move up the stack to the realm of the so-called platforms, the situation becomes more complex, the path to deprivatization here is less linear because we’re immediately encountering creatures of a greater complexity and greater diversity. Facebook, Uber and Amazon: These are creatures of much greater technical sophistication than ISPs down the “stack.” And they’re more different from one another than ISPs are from one another. So inevitably, how we deprivatize these different sectors will depend a lot on what we’re actually talking about. As a result, the experiments are somewhat less mature.

As you mentioned, I allude to experiments that are ongoing among a number of different communities, such as the decentralized web community, and projects like Mastodon, which aim to create decentralized social media networks, which in turn could enable something like a cooperatively owned and cooperatively moderated social media site, which interconnects freely with other sites. There’s also the platform cooperativism community. This is a group of people who are interested in trying to create worker-owned and -operated app-based services. What would a cooperative alternative to Uber look like, for instance? These experiments are quite limited, we have to say, I think we have to acknowledge their limitations and also acknowledge that they are, in most cases, modeled on corporate counterparts. If you use something like Mastodon, it looks a lot like Twitter. Inevitably, these are the first draft of what a deprivatized application layer might look like. 

To go further, I think we’re going to need a lot more experiments. And in particular, we’re going to need public investment to create spaces of imagination where ordinary people can come in, get connected to the resources and the expertise they need to build the online services that are capable of meeting their needs. This latter part about imagination is where I place most of my faith in the book. I know it can sound a bit wishy-washy and a bit open ended. But I think if we think of imagination not as something a solitary genius does alone in their room, but rather a collective embodied process of experimentation that necessarily requires resources and investment, I think we can get a bit closer to creating the type of process that will eventually result in a deprivatized internet.

Scott Ferguson: To circle back to something you said before, this definition of “platforms.” We’ve been using it in this conversation, just heuristically, normatively, but you also noted that you had a critique of “platform” as a concept, as a term, and the way that it frames our understanding of the world. I want to give you an opportunity to flesh that out.

Ben Tarnoff: You’ll notice I’ve been doing annoying things like saying “so-called platforms,” trying to always put quote marks around “platforms.” I should say in general, the terms and metaphors we use to talk about technology we’ve mostly inherited from the tech firms themselves. And that’s a problem, because we’re operating on enemy territory, if you like. “Platform,” I think, is a good example of a metaphor that does a lot of strategic work for the firms themselves. It suggests neutrality, it suggests openness, and a certain kind of levelness. They have an interest in presenting themselves this way in presenting themselves as not, in fact, intimately involved in organizing and governing our online life, but rather being a neutral receptacle for it. 

Rather than “platform” I use the term “online mall” because to my mind, the best way to understand the systems that these firms create is: They operate like the online equivalents of shopping malls. They are spaces of commerce that incorporate an aspect of a public square. They’re spaces where all sorts of different interactions can transpire. Interactions between buyers and sellers, social interactions. If you’re an American teenager in the suburbs, you probably spend a lot of your social life in a shopping mall. Similarly, online malls can be quite a social space. 

Whatever these interactions are, they are all organized around the manufacture and monetization of data, which we discussed earlier. But data is the essential ingredient and motivating purpose of the online mall. Moving away from the spatial metaphor of a train platform, let’s say, the horizontal line, into a cube, into something that you’re trapped inside of and you can’t get out of. I think that’s much closer to the experience we have of these computational systems.

William Saas: There’s not even a Cinnabon, what a crummy deal. Going along these lines, I think there were some other phrases and words and concepts we use that I would like to maybe plumb just a bit more. We at Money on the Left have been committed to everything you’re talking about doing and specifically around, well, imagination. Advocacy for expanding our horizons–not just on the individual level, in a long office, talking about these things in an academic way. But collective imagination and building in common with each other. 

We don’t have what it seems like the platforms, the corporations, the eBays, the Googles, the Netflixes have, which is the profit motive. I think that this is something that we come up against, in terms of left politics, left organization, there’s a dearth of money, in terms of just piles of money just laying around to fund the movement. Whereas on the right, there are lots of more piles of money for reasons of the profit motive, and the people who have that money are engaged in the business and market activity that leads to profit.

I was thinking, the cooperative motive, the social motive, the poetic motive, I don’t know, if we can devise or think about or just riff and imagine, collectively, we three right now, what that motive could be and how could it be sufficient to, to motivate us, our listeners, people? To say, okay, I have all these bills I have to pay. But what’s more important is building a collective new, imaginative, cooperative internet. I’m going to eschew this profit motive, I’m going to go for the new internet motive. Let’s dream.

Ben Tarnoff: I think you have to politicize people’s relationship to technology. I think you have to help clarify that there are political stakes to these different technical artifacts that surround their lives. And I actually think that conversation has gotten a lot easier in the last few years, because broadly, that awareness is actually there. It gets politicized in different directions, more successfully often by the right than the left. But the idea that Facebook is not some neutral arbiter, some kind of neutral communications platform that you just throw ideas on to but is actively involved in shaping and organizing our online lives with consequences that can be socially disruptive–that’s an idea with very broad currency, it’s nearly common sense. 

That creates an opening. I think from there, you have to make people feel as if their well-being, and even their sense of themselves, is wrapped up with this project. I think that’s how you get people to participate in any project of social transformation, whether it’s joining the union, whether it’s joining a political organization, whatever kind of political work you’re asking them to do. I think they need to feel as if their sense of self and their material interests are bound up in that project. 

I don’t mean to suggest that we should define interests in a simplified way, because I think people often will also have an interest in living in a fairer, more solidaristic world. Interest does not simply have to mean the kind of rational actor definition of interest. In fact, people have a lot of complex and contradictory interests. And it’s the work of organizers to try to give certain interests greater prominence. Interests are, let’s say, another terrain of class struggle. But I think we can make a distinction between a moral as opposed to a material view of how change happens. Which is not to say that morality isn’t useful or justified. There’s certainly some polemic in my book that draws on morality–morality can be useful in organizing projects. Of course, a sense of outrage can be very useful. 

But morality doesn’t change the world. I think this is an observation that I would draw from the work of Marx. Marx uses a lot of moral language, he can be a great moralist, but he recognizes that moral exhortation is not a force for social transformation. It can be a useful agitating tactic. But at the end of the day, in order to bring masses of people into some kind of transformative project, you need to make them feel–you need to make them see–as if their material interests are served by that project, however you are defining those interests.

William Saas: Maybe by sharing our experiences of how we came to see those things as important to our material interests as well.

Ben Tarnoff: Right. And the process of social transformation, I think, involves and entails self-transformation. Part of making the case to somebody about why they should join the union is appealing to one set of interests over another: They have an interest in not getting fired, there’s a risk involved. They may have an interest in maintaining certain hierarchies in the workplace that benefit them. But then they have other interests as well in the context of a union campaign and interests–maybe in job security, in more clarity around job progression. And also, certain solidaristic interests–in being a good co-worker, in taking care of one another. So inevitably, this conversation about which interests should be given prominence and which interests should be downplayed, or de-emphasized, involves a process of personal transformation as well.

Scott Ferguson: To close us out, I was wondering if you could put this book in the context of a lot of the other work that you do. You’re an accomplished author, you’ve published essays, you’ve published many, many books. And you’re also co-founder and writer at Logic magazine. Can you give us a breezy tour through your broader horizon of work and where this fits in?

Ben Tarnoff: I’m trying to think of how to make it breezy.

Scott Ferguson: Or belabored!

Ben Tarnoff: I could certainly make it belabored, that won’t be hard at all! I’m someone who works in the tech industry, I’m someone who thinks about the relationship between technology and society. And I think most of my writing and editing and intellectual projects flow from that concern. But I’m also someone who’s getting bored of the internet. Technology is such a useful way for thinking about power but then it’s easy to get stuck in different threads of it. I find that I have to keep re-centering myself and try to figure out: What am I really interested in? 

Because I don’t want to become just an expert on the internet. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I think my interest in the internet is an expression of my interest in how power is organized in society. I remember doing an event with the great Astra Taylor once. She said something to the effect of “I’m not interested in technology, I’m interested in power. But the reality is that if you care about power today, you have to care about technology.” And I don’t think that’s entirely accurate for me, because I do really love technical details and technical complexity. But at the end of the day, as a writer and editor, what is most important to me is the stakes, the consequences: Who’s going to be affected, whose lives will be changed through the use of these technologies? And I think that’s what guides me rather than a more specific interest in this or that technology.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks so much for coming, Ben Tarnoff, everybody should go out and get your book. Highly recommended!

Ben Tarnoff: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me.

William Saas: When you said you were bored of the internet, you reminded me of the Le Tigre song “Get Off the Internet.” As a kind of left politics, at the turn of the century, the idea of getting off the internet …

Ben Tarnoff: We lost. 

William Saas: We have, I mean, we’re bored, where do you go? You were bored of it. I thought that could go a couple of ways. I think a lot of us are bored with it, angry at it, or frustrated or befuddled by it but feel like we have no choice but to participate and stay on the internet. A little bonus question here if you have anything to say about “get off the internet” politics?

Ben Tarnoff: It’s something I struggle with, I wrote a book about the internet because I love the internet. I vividly remember the first time I used the internet in 1994. I was in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, which is in Portland, Oregon, right on the river. It’s a lovely museum. And I would have been maybe nine years old. I was wandering around this museum with my mom and I was looking for astronaut stuff–rockets, space shuttles, astronaut ice cream. And we stumbled across a room full of computers: the computer lab. And these are enormous (by our standards) computers–big towers, huge CRT monitors.

And I sit down at one of them. We’re informed that these are connected to something called the internet, which I had not heard of. I must have brought up Yahoo! or whatever was available at the time for finding websites on the internet–this being, of course, before the rise of the modern search engine. I start looking up information about Star Trek and start learning about precisely how many millimeters the width of the starship Enterprise’s wings are. Information about halls and phasers and how many torpedoes are loaded–all sorts of nerdy stuff that I felt I needed to know. I was just exhilarated. There was so much information about Star Trek on the web in 1994, as you can imagine. 

William Saas: I think that’s all there was actually! 

Ben Tarnoff: That could have been! It was probably mostly Star Trek information. I fell in love with the internet and spent much of my childhood online, in online communities. If I didn’t love the internet, I couldn’t write a book about it. But it’s something I struggle with because increasingly the rest of the world has caught up to where I was, as a kid and I don’t think it’s been a constructive development. It was seen as somewhat antisocial, even pathological, although my parents permitted it for me to just spend all my time on the internet all day. 

Now this is what we all do anyway because we have it with us in our pocket and because it mediates so much of our lives. Lives that formerly had many offline components have been absorbed into the internet. It is something I wonder about and struggle with. I try to avoid taking a moralizing tone because I remember how life-giving the internet was to me as an isolated kid–that was actually the world where I felt most comfortable, and I think there’s still a lot of kids who feel that way. I wouldn’t want to take that away from them. But there’s something lost when the offline world has become so emaciated, so emptied out that, we can’t even get offline I don’t know. But now I also listen to myself and I sound like I’m pushing 40. Maybe I don’t have the right perspective on this anymore.

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

Democratizing University Finance

Benjamin Wilson and Scott Ferguson join guest-host Jakob Feinig to discuss their recent article about Money on the Left’s “uni” project to democratize university finance. Titled “Stop Trying to Find the Money–Create It!,” the article argues that the Public Banking Act can empower universities to issue new forms of public money that serve democratic communities and repudiate austerity. The text will appear mid-October 2022 in the American Association of University Professors’ publication Academe Magazine as part of a special issue edited by Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education. In this conversation, Ben and Scott recount the evolution of the uni project from its original politicization of emergency Federal Reserve facilities early in the Covid-19 pandemic to its most recent iteration joining bottom up learning-by-doing with top-down federal legislation. Along the way, the conversation turns toward the project’s commitments to democratic pedagogy through participation, the need to recognize universities as powerful economic provisioners and anchors, and the uni’s role in challenging the current dollar system from within.  

*Special thanks to Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education for inviting Money on the Left to collaborate and for inviting us to contribute to their issue for Academe Magazine. 

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Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Welcome to a very special Money on the Left episode. This is an unconventional episode in that I am being joined not by my regular co-hosts, William Saas and Maxximilian Seijo but by our beloved colleagues, Assistant Professor of Human Development at SUNY Binghamton, Jakob Feinig, and Associate Professor of Economics at SUNY Cortland, Benjamin Wilson. Thanks for joining us.

We’re convening this irregular episode to update our listeners about and discuss the project that we and others in our Money on the Left Collective have been variously working on: University financing using a Modern Monetary Theory and endogenous money approach. We call this project, if you’re not aware of it yet, the Uni-Currency project. We’ve been developing it over the course of several years–it started during the early pandemic moment when austerity was being threatened and sometimes enacted in all kinds of unjust ways. And we developed it to provide an alternative, and hopefully not just a financial alternative, but a just and new direction for university expenditure and governance.

We’ve published many papers on different platforms over the past couple of years. Last year, we were invited as a group to join and begin collaborating with an exciting group that’s been doing important advocacy and politicizing around University financing, the Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education. We were aware of what they were up to and we were excited about it. We also felt that they were missing the MMT approach that we brought to the table, and they invited us to the table. They’re all really great and nice–we had some meetings and we taught each other about what we were up to. 

Next thing we knew, a subcommittee on university finance in that group was invited by the American Association of University Professors’ Academe magazine to put together a special issue which would eventually be titled “Revolutionizing Higher Education Finance for the Public Good.” A couple members of our team, Ben Wilson and myself, took up the task of writing what is essentially an updated version of the Uni project that we had been developing. The purpose of this particular episode is to work through the latest iteration of the Uni Project that is being published in the October issue of Academe magazine, but also to reflect upon where we’ve been and how this project has unfolded over time. 

We have published a lot about the Uni, we’ve talked about the Uni in different episodes, like our episode with Ben Wilson, but we haven’t dedicated a whole audio conversation to the Uni. That’s what we’re up to today. Jakob has been in the wings the whole time–he hasn’t been part of the core team but he’s been a trusted advisor and editor in the background. And we thought what better person, given his own interests in moral economies of money, to reflect on this project with us. We’ve given him the job of moderator. He’s written up a list of questions for us that we’re going to use to catalyze the conversation as we move forward, but it can also be an open, free-flowing kind of thing. 

Jakob Feinig: My first question would be: What does the crisis of higher ed today look like from other critical lenses, and how is that different from your approach to improving the lives of people on campuses, but also the people who live adjacent to campuses? 

Benjamin Wilson: That’s a great question. And I think it moves through various iterations, depending on the timing of when you talk to people, having started in higher-ed just after the financial crisis, and then seeing the COVID-19 pandemic unfolding and seeing many of the same struggles and questions arising again. The thing that comes up in our union meetings, for example, is people complaining about being overworked and not being compensated. Being asked to do more than what their job actually entails. This is real utilization of us as care workers by the administration, to get us to do more with less, because as a faculty member, my priority is always my students. Even if I’m getting less, I’m still putting out the same efforts and care toward my students. 

And this way of discussing the problems that we’re facing, often just devolves into this complaint, soapbox section, where we’re all sharing the various ways in which we’re being exploited without really being able to articulate how to solve that problem. And the only way the current paradigm presents for us to solve those problems is either the state has to provide more money for universities, or the federal government has to do that. There’s this helplessness in that idea, because it’s just so distant and far off from where we are at the table and where we are in our day-to-day working to try to get through a pandemic higher education year. So, for example, the SUNY system hasn’t increased the state budget since the financial crisis. 

In fact, recent estimates by our Faculty Senate say that we’ve actually had a real reduction in the funding of higher education in the State of New York by approximately $440 million since the financial crisis. We have been asked to do more with less for a very long time. And that presents great challenges for trying to ask for more, especially when we fell short (at my university, apparently, in budget terms by $10 million last year). So there’s this dread and hopelessness, that there’s no way that we can do better. And in fact, we are again being asked to do more with less. 

I would say the objective of this project is to allow us to move beyond these narrow confines, and to relieve the students as the biggest bearers of the financing of the university through tuition and fees, rent, and so on. Imagine what higher-ed would look like if it was able to sell finance and create its own credits, and model the behavior that MMT has made so clear that is available to the United States government through the creation of the dollar and its relationships with the banking sector to mobilize resources that our community sees as valuable and necessary.

Jakob Feinig: Terrific. Maybe you could just spell out for listeners how that would work in practice–maybe outline the basic architecture of the Uni?

Benjamin Wilson: This is a complicated question because I think there’s really two distinct paths that we’ve been talking about as the development of the Uni has advanced. In the case of Modern Monetary Theory, the US government issues the dollar. It’s the sole issuer of the dollar, the monopoly issuer, and all these stories that I think most of our listeners are familiar with. But why stop at the US government? What would it look like if sub-national or nested institutions within the system were given that sort of freedom, and we [already] have a model of that with the banking sector. I think the crises–in particular, the Great Financial Crisis, and then again with COVID–really exposed the connections between the banking sector and the federal government through the way the Federal Reserve backstops the creation of their instruments. What would it look like if universities were able to issue credit to mobilize resources the same way that the banking sector did, what would that backstop look like from a macro perspective? That’s one approach to the Uni.

The other approach to the Uni that we’ve been advocating for is one that’s familiar to those who have studied at places like UMKC, Denison University and Bard College where, in order to demonstrate how the issuer of the currency works and acts, how tax-driven reciprocal obligations operate, we’ve run this program in our classrooms to demonstrate the possibilities of full employment and a Job Guarantee, and the reality that spending creates the space for taxation, and the taxation-based demand for the currency. 

In those humble beginnings, the Uni Project could begin to build a grassroots understanding of how currency operates, and then leverage up to larger institutional legal levels. A learning-by-doing process that would gradually step the reciprocal obligations from say, a certain percentage of the grade in the classroom, to tuition, or the payments on campus for fees. And when we’re doing public goods production through our classrooms and learning-by-doing projects, connecting those to the municipality in various ways through, potentially, acceptance through property taxes and things of this nature. 

These are some ways that we could create the political momentum and pressure to start utilizing this in bigger and bigger spaces rather than simply thinking of it from this top-down perspective that is admittedly a very hard thing to teach, and for people to grapple with. I think this ground-up, grassroots approach is one of the things that’s really exciting about the Uni but it can also cause a little bit of confusion for folks.

Jakob Feinig: That’s fascinating. It sounds like you think of the Uni as a multi-level pedagogical project. That is, you’ve started to implement a classroom currency that actually works. Together with many others you have begun teaching about how public finance actually works, and what the implications are for how we think about our lives together, and how we want to organize our lives together. And now you’re adding intermediate layers between the classroom currency and the federal dollar. There is something that goes beyond the classroom but doesn’t aspire to have the reach of the federal dollar. And each of those levels teaches people about monetary life in different ways. Would that be fair to say? 

Benjamin Wilson: I think that that’s absolutely the objective here, or one of the many objectives. Money is curriculum, so to speak. It really is a new way of understanding and thinking about how the world works, and how we can use money not as the end but a means to an end as you so eloquently put in your chapter for the edited volume that just was released. I think that’s one of the most rewarding things about teaching these things in the classroom: it really does take the process of them receiving the money in class for doing work, and then realizing: Well, I couldn’t have paid the taxes until after payday. 

The lesson there is fundamental and important. And the practice of a new monetary politics is not as simple as just waving a wand and spending more money into the economy. It’s really about connecting that money to the real resources that are needed to address the systemic crises that we face, in higher education, climate, public health, etc. And so the micro-level issuance process really helps people see just how much work we really have to do and how many resources are sitting around and are not applied to those sorts of problems, because we’re so busy trying to find the money, instead of simply creating it and creating the relationships that we need to mobilize the resources to make the world safer, stabler–the resilient, happy, amenable, inclusive place that I think we would all prefer to live in.

Scott Ferguson: I want to say a little bit more about how our approach contrasts with, but also complements, some of the important critical work around university politics and University Studies. An important contemporary figure in this field is Davarian Baldwin and his really important book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower. He’s tracing a whole interconnected system of political economy in higher ed structured around perverse incentives and pressures that are the result of states not keeping up their commitment to finance public higher ed and basically turning these supposed nonprofits, with these tremendous public authoritative powers, into quasi-private entities who have to scramble for revenues, go into debt, and speculate on the stock market. This has tremendous consequences, as Baldwin tells us, across issues of land, housing, labor, policing, and healthcare. 

While Baldwin teaches us a lot, and I so appreciate his work, it seems like that analysis only goes so far because it doesn’t question the “having-to-find-the-money” incentive. Having to find the money through the taxpayers doesn’t break out of the paradigm enough. And I think there’s a little bit of an implication that money is this necessary evil in this process. Then the analysis, I guess I would say, ends up feeling like a list of indictments. And then those indictments become the ground from which you mount an opposition. 

I think, what turning off the “where we’re going to find the money” question and turning on the endogenous credit creation frame, does is this: It allows us to see universities as complex public authorities who are doing collective care work–but often very badly, often very selectively. I wouldn’t say that we would want to soften the kinds of critiques that Baldwin is making–making visible systematic exploitations, and politicizing them, is very important. But I think we’re recognizing that, nevertheless, universities are community leaders in provisioning. Not just fallen angels or terrible institutions. And as these complex collective caretakers, they can reorganize themselves.

Jakob Feinig: And can you maybe say, two or three words about what that would look like concretely? Maybe give listeners an example of how the lives of people on the campuses, but also beyond would change were we to introduce Unis?

Benjamin Wilson: So when I read Baldwin’s book, I was really excited. Because when I read it, I see it through a chartist/MMT lens. One of the things that I’ve been wrestling with or thinking about in terms of the long legacy of the Land Grant Institution and the University, in particular, is its 501(c)(3) status. They were given all this property in all these communities and very decentralized ways across the United States.

Scott Ferguson: Stolen from Native Americans. 

Benjamin Wilson: Yes, thank you. 

Universities don’t pay any residential property tax. One of the ways that I’ve been thinking about how to diversify the circuit of the Uni: The initial idea was that the Unis would be spent into existence and people could use the Unis to satisfy their tuition liability. And that would be the reciprocal circuit. And, like my classroom currency, that runs into some limitations as students are graduating–they have no use for it any longer. How much labor and resources are you really going to be able to utilize with this limited space for reciprocation? It also may or may not do much to change the tuition model. In order to diversify the circuit, one of the things that I’ve imagined is that the University, instead of paying zero property taxes in their local communities, would pay some portion of those property taxes directly to their host communities–in Unis. And if the city is willing to accept the Uni in property taxes from the University, then they would be willing to accept it from anyone. 

In Ithaca, where I live, Cornell University is by far the largest landowner. They pay zero property taxes, and they give an annual gift of $1.2 or $1.3 million to the city. A couple of years ago, a group did a study of just how much property taxes Cornell would pay if they paid the full amount. In the interview, the then-mayor Svante Myrick said if Cornell paid their entire property tax bill, the property taxes for the other Ithaca residents could be cut in half. That’s an enormous amount of value that would be made available. So if you think about cutting your property taxes in half and thinking about the cost of homes and housing, this is an opportunity to really transform what that looks like. 

Davarian Baldwin’s book points out are all these spaces where universities use not only their property and their tax exempt status, but they use it in such a way that they’re supporting the balance sheets of corporate partners, either new research in pharmaceuticals, or, in Arizona, to create new mixed-use residential properties that also contribute to the university objective of connecting with community, and maybe there’s some classrooms there. But at the end of the day, the [universities’] corporate partner gets financing because the bank is confident that they’re going to be able to generate enough revenues because they won’t be paying the full tax liabilities on those commercial properties. So we’re already booking that tax-exempt status as future wealth, just in a very narrow way, where we could be issuing the currency to book future creation of, say, carbon sequestration or diversified farming systems that better connect people to local foods, or training large groups of people to help students with reading disabilities in middle schools. 

There’s a significant amount of work that’s not being done to address the problems we have. And the reason why we’re not doing that is because we can’t find the money to do it, when the money is really sitting right in front of us: as a design problem. And we can’t see the ways to design an experiment in those spaces, because we’re spending so much time trying to book future earnings and revenues that are just turning the money into more money instead of turning it into meaningful goods and expanded capacity for communities.

Scott Ferguson: I think there’s not one answer to that question, as I think Ben’s answers are beginning to suggest. A Uni, a Uni project, a Uni system–from the classroom to the federal government–can transform relations all the way up and down and back and forth. So you know, we can talk about Unis administering Green New Deals in cities and counties. We can talk about community, staff and faculty governance, we can talk about participatory budgeting. And all of these possibilities, of course, are available to be thought, to be fought for, to be theorized, to be developed. But I would argue that when they are all brought together in a project that is not zero-sum, and that is not oriented around finding the money, they all take on a new kind of capacity. 

This doesn’t prevent neoliberal governance practices, nasty administrators and university leaders with nasty politics, it doesn’t prevent any of any of that from continuing to do what it does. But that nastiness is usually justified by not only the naturalized austerity, but the naturalized necessity to find revenue such that even the critics of that nastiness can’t see beyond that horizon. It would open up these opportunities for contestation. And the old excuses will not no longer resonate in the same way they do now, and have for years and years.

Jakob Feinig: Those are great answers, thank you–I’m really starting to get a sense of the breadth and potential of the Uni project.

Scott Ferguson: When we first began the project, as I think Ben might have referenced previously, this was the beginning of the pandemic, and the Fed, unlike Congress, was willing, at least at first, to really act boldly and to experiment. They opened up their balance sheets and created all kinds of new facilities and new ways of responding to the financial crisis. Now, there’s much to be critiqued in how they did that, and how some of those programs ultimately played out. But in 2020 and into 2021, the Fed became a site of such bold paradigm-breaking that it became a site of politicization. So at first, we’re thinking, well, we can recommend for university communities, activist organizers, and intrepid faculty and leaders to lead a movement to issue their own currencies and then demand, or ask, or dare, the Fed to backstop the liquidity of those currencies, using a new facility they had opened up, the Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF) that was mostly for municipal bonds. Ultimately, the way that was designed was terrible. And the way it was administered was terrible, because it was ultimately just about so-called propping up the confidence of the bond market. They didn’t actually really want to purchase any of those. They just wanted to show that they were ready to purchase them so that the bond investors would feel comfortable enough to invest more. Anyway, that situation called for an intervention, we thought. 

In the meantime, we’ve turned our attention to another intrepid thing that has happened at the federal level: the drafting of the Public Banking Act, which some of our friends helped to draft. The Public Banking Act is what it sounds like: It has not gone to vote, but it is an act that is designed to explore, support, and create a system of public banks in the United States. And it provides all kinds of support for doing so. 

Our reading of the Public Banking Act is: It’s worded in such a way that universities could count as nonprofit organizations that would fall under the Public Banking Act, they could be given what we call the finance franchise, the capacity, the legal ability to issue credit on behalf of the US government. We also argue in our forthcoming piece that we might want to work for an amendment to the Public Banking Act, just to make it clear, just to stipulate that universities are included, rather than arguing about the given language, maybe before it’s put to vote. In any case, we now see it as part of a potential public banking fight that would frame the Uni in this broader conversation about who has the finance franchise in the United States. 

That’s how some of our thoughts about the projects have shifted over time: We have moved from politicizing this emergency facility at the Fed as a kind of lender or purchaser of last resort to a more active provisioning as part of public banking at the federal level. Not to say that that’s the only path: We talk about “bottom-up” and “top-down” always having to work in tandem and speaking to one another. But that’s the federal path that we’re seeing right now.

Benjamin Wilson: I think that that’s a really good point. What does a public bank look like? How does a public bank operate? How does it make decisions? What is it investing in? The language around the bill is pretty vague. AOC says that it’s an opportunity to ameliorate systemic crises. What specifically does that look like? And these are the questions that also come up when we talk about the Green New Deal and a Job Guarantee, what are people going to do? What are these interventions? How does this impact my daily life? And I really see universities as being a great place for experimenting and imagining what that looks like. 

I think lots of people have a really nice idea of what public banking looks like at the retail level, through the post office, for example. But what does the investment arm of a public banking sector look like? How does it operate? How does it assess the quality of the financial instruments and what it is that it’s executing? What are the returns that we’re getting? David Freund’s work in particular really has been inspirational for me here. The United States really reformatted the housing sector after World War II to greatly enhance the availability of mortgages and extend the timeframe for repayment. In that process, they had to really reinvent and create an entirely new sector of appraisal and thinking about who’s going to make these decisions where organizations are licensed and accredited to establish that a house is worth X amount of dollars. 

This is what we need to be doing and thinking about. This is an intervention into climate change that is going to relieve us of so much carbon output and sequester so much carbon, and these are the impacts that we’re predicting and forecasting will occur. Very much a grant model of understanding impact and outcomes and whether or not we’re really reaching success in our projects, I think it is a space where universities are really well suited to start building that sort of infrastructure and a learning-by-doing, ground-up approach to these problems.

The language in the bill, both in the Public Banking Act and in the E-Cash Act, outline that we need participation and experimentation to ensure that we’re creating secure, privacy-respecting and inclusive monetary systems that are, in fact, functional and operating. I would much rather us experiment with these technologies at small scales in different communities and being able to share successes and failures in an open and honest way, than, say the monetarist experiment from the 1980s (that we seem to be pretty intent on reliving) to quell price overheating with a recession. That doesn’t seem to be the way that we should be experimenting with monetary theory, it should be done in much more controlled and smaller spaces so that we can reduce the ill effects and the devastation in real lives that that type of macro-monetary experimentation entails.

Scott Ferguson: What I’m hearing you say and I want to develop is: This really rethinks what banking is and what it can be. We are saying: Extend credit creation functions that have been relegated to a private banking system to universities. But we don’t stop there and what we’re up to really unsettles what a bank even is, or could be. 

One of the threads I want to pick up here is: We have this sense that investment and production gets separated through this private banking system–that the banks have the money, and they decide who gets it, which firms are going to get it and are going to do the production. There’s a division of labor there now, is it in fact, actually much more complicated and, and entangled? Of course, it is. But I think we have this idea that there is this separation, whereas universities are productive centers, in addition to investment centers. And I think universities–as problematic as they can be–being the hubs of cities, of counties. of communities, and imbricated in them, much better situates them for doing the investing, rather than the investing being something that we’re farming out to Chase or other Wall Street banks.

Benjamin Wilson: Community banking is effective, and a good way of running small businesses. You know, the disconnect in the mortgage industry, where you can get a mortgage on your phone–that doesn’t do much for “know-your-customer.” And when they immediately sell off your mortgage and 100 others in one fell swoop. They have no incentive to see that those are paid back in a timely or meaningful manner. The creation of the investment products or systems, the public provisioning that I envision is an interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary connection of the people that are living and doing the work. 

One of the projects that my classroom Uni is helping to finance or mobilize the resources for is an edible park. That is going to be a public space where people will reconnect with nature that is celebrating indigenous culture and past of the area with the revival of plants that have been exterminated by weed killers and things of this nature, that have strong medicinal [properties] and flavors that we’ve forgotten about that previous cultures really understood as a meaningful connection to nature. This re-embedding of the connections between people and ideas, the environment, all start to melt away all the ways in which higher education has been morphed into our different silos where we’re all our specialists, and we’re all competing over scarce resources. And that would really give us an opportunity to branch out and to collaborate across the university with other nonprofit actors in our communities. 

The SUNY system is a 64-campus institution across the state of New York. There’s really not a community that isn’t within easy driving distance of one of these spaces. So we’re talking about projects that would cover the state. And if you start to think about questions of transportation and the movements of students, and people being able to work at multiple SUNYs, then it starts to become a system. (In healthcare, I was always so very frustrated during the time mom was sick that all these doctors–none of them talked to each other, none of their accounting, or their charts, or any of that stuff was connected in any meaningful way. It was just, they all happened to be marketed with the same hospital system). 

[Similarly, in the case of] SUNY, I feel like in our competition across our campuses, for students, and scarce resources and things like that, we’re not leveraging the full power of what it would be to be coordinated and collaborating, and tackling the problems that the state of New York so desperately needs to be addressed.

Scott Ferguson: And we can run small programs and justify them as small programs, rather than in the credit creation model, rather than putting these programs on the chopping block, because oh, well, you know, demand is down. And so they’re not bringing in revenue. And so why even have them? If you’re not chasing scarce dollars, you can proliferate little experiments here and there.

Benjamin Wilson: It changes all of our research questions, fundamentally.

Jakob Feinig: It also changes how people think about money. Just to go back to that, because when you say, the doctors are separated from the accountants and we come to experience ourselves as passive victims of a monetary system that’s out of reach, it’s outside of our lives. And that contaminates the university or makes it work in ways that we don’t like. And I think what I hear you say is that, if money creation and the other things that we do are no longer seen as separate, we experience them as intertwined and inseparable, necessarily going hand in hand, then that becomes a very large-scale classroom for reimagining society in the sense that it’s always something that is in the process of being coordinated. We are the ones who can do that.

Benjamin Wilson: I’ve always seen it as a little bit arbitrary that we go to college from 18 to 22. I think there’s a lot of Americans in the later stages of life that would really benefit from having access to coursework and education and re-engaging in new literatures. Part of the reason I think we’re in so much trouble economically is that you can see when a politician is talking about the economy, the scissors moving in their head from their Econ 101 class 40 years ago, and the textbook hasn’t changed. And that robotic understanding of how things operate is detrimental. The university [could become] this lifelong learning social fabric, where any and all age groups, or people that have been to college before, would just enrich the experience in ways that are fun to imagine.

Scott Ferguson: We can reintroduce open enrollment, we can have multiple kinds of programs that differentiate the traditional four-year degree.

Benjamin Wilson: Which in some ways, they’re already trying to do with all these certification programs and your news types of master’s programs, but they’re all structured in a way to generate revenue. You go to a master’s program, you’re not going to get funding to be a TA. Lots of colleges love big masters programs so they can break in that revenue, and maybe get a TA in the process. 

So we don’t have to do that anymore. Students won’t have to, for example, spend their whole summers working as free laborers for a corporation because they have to get an internship in order to get a job at that particular institution when they graduate. We will be affording them learning by doing, real world experience throughout the year that will help supplement both the costs of their day-to-day life and their education, so that they don’t have to leave the university straddled with massive amounts of debt.

Scott Ferguson: I think another major, maybe theoretical, point is: turning around the causal relationship that is often understood between a university and financing the private sector. I guess the expression to use is: “the tail is wagging the dog.” “The university is just so dependent on the bond investors and their hedge fund and that whole world and all the private contractors, the university, it could do these good things. But you know, really, where’s the power? All the private contractors run everything now.”

Whereas, I think what we want to say is no, it’s very similar to what MMT argues about the federal government, where we imagine that the tail is wagging the dog. The federal government is “always too broke” or “spending too much,” it’s always riding the waves of this force that’s outside of them. So we’re saying, like the federal government, the universities and university systems are at the center of authority and provisioning–they set wage floors, they implement wage ceilings, as (often) the largest employers in cities and in counties. If they raise the wage floor, which actually my university just did a little bit, not enough, but they’re bumping everybody up to $15/hour. That tremendously affects other wage ratios in the rest of the city and surrounding areas. 

The university has to fess up to its power and fess up to its capacities, and fess up to its causal centrality for us. That’s another thing the Uni Project does, and that’s part of the pedagogy.

Jakob Feinig: That is very different from other types of community currencies. Maybe, since you live in Ithaca, Ben, could you maybe say two words about the difference between the Uni and previous experiments?

Benjamin Wilson: I think the community/complementary currency literature and experiments are modeled not on the MMT framework, but on the fictional narrative of the barter economy–if we add more currency into the system, we’ll facilitate the exchange of goods and services. Very much like Bitcoin, it can be this decentralized thing that circulates and solves these problems. And what’s fundamentally different here for us, is: we’re trying to downsize the idea of MMT to local communities. How do we leverage the knowledge of a tax-driven circuit, at smaller scales, such that the tax-driven circuit is even maybe too obligatory, too coercive. Maybe the threat of incarceration for not paying your taxes is not necessary. How do we structure reciprocal obligations so that it allows a currency to continue to circulate while also highlighting the fact that money is a collective endeavor? That is a public instrument that should be designed and created through public discourse in a way that it’s just not in our society. 

And I think that that’s one of the really beautiful things in your book Jakob, and I’m curious in your studies of moral economies and money in these colonial systems, were there similar experiences in these communities that brought people together to question money? What was the catalyst to say, “Hey, we can do this in a better way, let’s start organizing our tobacco as a form of reciprocal payment” –maybe you can speak a little bit to that. 

Jakob Feinig: I think in many periods of US history, it was clear to quite a few money users that there are different levels of money and different levels of money creation and that municipalities or states or individual provinces can create acceptability. This [the uni] is, in a sense, reconnecting with earlier (in many respects, deeply problematic, but still real) monetary systems, where colonists had this experience of paying taxes either in kind or in labor or–which was their preferred way–in bills of credit. When the provincial government of Massachusetts was longer allowed to issue bills of credit, [they said] we’ll just do it at a local level. And maybe five or ten towns decided to accept that in payment of taxes. So they started knowing that that could work. 

It also worked in eighteenth-century New York City, when they created water works, just before the War of Independence. They put together what was then a high-tech water system by issuing municipal bills of credit–by issuing municipal money that worked only because the university, I mean, the municipality, accepted it in payment of taxes. All those different levels of acceptability and of organizing collective life were, I think, a lot more visible. 

And I think what the two of you talk about is structurally similar, in the sense that different levels of society become more legible. As you understand what’s going on in the classroom, you understand the federal government better. If you already have the MMT understanding of the federal government, then Unis will be more plausible. There is no reason for not multiplying those layers and exploring possibilities for democratization and inclusion, at all those different levels. And if one of the levels fails, maybe the other one is ready to jump in, maybe if one level cannot provision people, then we have something else to fall back on. There is no longer this monoculture of just one possible source of money.

Scott Ferguson: That’s really great. And I think it gets at another way in which what we’re up to is different from certain traditions of complementary currency. I don’t want to say all of them, but certain traditions. The instrument is called complementary because it’s not the main currency, but it’s one that is situated seemingly on the outside. So there’s an inside/outside on a spatial, cognitive map. And the outside, it’s precarious, it’s only as good as people are willing to barter with it on an individual level. I think it has an evil twin, which is the company script model. The company town that gets workers into debt, and makes it so that they get paid in their own currency and can only use that currency at the company’s stores and buying company newspapers, we’re all familiar with that. 

But all the good and evil versions of that inside/outside model are being challenged here with our Uni project. Because yes, like the histories that Jakob has studied, that doesn’t exhaust what is actually going on. And that there isn’t just one currency. Even the US dollar is a heterogeneous hierarchy of multiple instruments. We have dollars that are created by fiscal appropriation, we have dollars that are created in the Federal Reserve System. And then we have all kinds of dollars that are created in our wild, digital financial system and shadow banks and things like that. 

And yet we call most of those things the dollar even though they’re a heterogeneous collection of institutions that have different design models–the fiscal appropriation model is not the same design model as the Federal Reserve system model. So I think when we were first working on this project, we got some negative feedback that suggested: Oh, well, this is weak, it’s like a complementary currency or worse, it’s evil, like company script, but either way, it’s outside the dollar. 

And we want to be helping people, and we want to really be giving them the dollar. I think one way of answering this is to say: Not only is the dollar this heterogeneous hierarchy of contested designs and claims, but I wouldn’t necessarily even say that the Uni isn’t the dollar. We could say it’s a mode of the dollar. It’s one iteration of the dollar in the dollar system. Now, if it’s just Unis in one of our classrooms, it has a limited function in the dollar system, in a similar sense that Starbucks gift cards are denominated in dollars. A “$5 gift card,” right? But they have limited receivability, they have a limited circulation power. So this to me, is how we’re conceiving the Uni and trying to get out of this inside outside weak strong way of thinking about currency creation and currency circulation.

Jakob Feinig: That’s really excellent. To see it not as complimentary, as outside, but as part of a hierarchy. I do have another question: The people who told you you’re trying to reintroduce company script, they might have thought about something that I was also thinking about, which is, who has to accept Unis? When probably in any local setting, most people would still prefer the dollar or some people might still prefer the dollars because I have a hard time seeing faculty and staff overnight switching to “tomorrow I’ll accept 80% of my salary in Unis.” How would that work?

Scott Ferguson: I think there’s multiple ways of answering this. One is at the level of language and packaging. So like I said, you can buy a $20 Starbucks gift card, and you have 20 American dollars in Starbucks gift cards, and I think rhetorically I would want to pursue a similar strategy that you have. Here’s an amount of $200 of Unis–rather than rhetorically making sense of the Uni as it’s just its own weird thing.

Jakob Feinig: Perfect. Okay, that’s exactly what I needed to understand it because it’s like, I have $500 in my bank account, right? That’s not the same thing as Federal Reserve notes, it’s lower in the hierarchy. And yet I’m convinced I have $200 and no one will dispute that I do have $200. 

I love the way you put it, and it really makes me understand that I was still thinking of the Unis as complementary, when in fact they’re not complementary. It’s one way of implementing credit money creation within the dollar system. For me, it was very tempting to think of it as complementary, but actually, no, it’s not. You know, it’s $20, period. So I really thank you for that– I really needed that!

Benjamin Wilson: And I think when you start to think about the gift card and all the other ways that we change our US dollars into less receivable instruments, it starts to make it seem a lot less weird. Especially when it comes to paying for higher education. I’ve got special savings accounts for my children. I can’t use any of that money, but it’s still US dollars. It’s US dollars that can really only be used to pay for higher education by me without being taxed, but that money has been sent to Wall Street and hedge funds to grow. 

That is buffering and creating another stream of revenue that is outside of the university system. It seems a little strange to me that we invest in sending our kids to college, in places that aren’t directly improving the places we want to send our kids to get educated. Why aren’t our savings accounts expanding the resources and educational opportunities in these places? The Uni could be that instrument. You don’t have to save for college in Wall Street funds, you can save for college in Uni funds, and you can design those in all sorts of different ways. 

So from the classroom to the Public Banking Act, these are all just part of peeling away the layers of an onion that has been decades in the making: This revenue-driven higher education model. And there’s just so many places where things could be done differently, that I think do a better job of organizing public provisioning to do the things that we really want it to do, from the university mission statement to questions about what education is as a public good, to the provisioning and creation of all of our public goods from healthcare to public spaces, our parks and where we recreate, I am also thinking from the perspective of an urban planner and designer. The amount of possible reductions in heart disease from having adequate shade in your community and things of this nature, allow us to plant trees and do things that are nice for people that right now just seem unaffordable, or undoable.

Scott Ferguson: And we don’t have to outsource to for-profit corporations, we can build up provisioning capacities within the university, as we are learning from, collaborating with, listening to, and partnering with communities that have been policed and not served, and are being displaced by for-profit university administration.

Jakob Feinig: We could start in-sourcing stuff like food production, or provisioning or kitchens, or all kinds of things.

Scott Ferguson: Simple examples from my own life: On the campus at UC Berkeley that I was at, which has its problems, there were several food establishments that had been there for a long time and were local businesses, and were a part of the community. The campus that I’ve worked at for the last decade plus, it’s all Subways and Chick-fil-As. Of course, all of it is actually Aramark, the firm that is licensing all the logos and the food supply chains and all the stuff for these subcontracted workers to come in and do the work. We could rethink that if we’re owning up to our authority and responsibility as community provisioners.

Another part of this project that I want to flag is, yes, it’s a proposal, and it’s an evolving proposal. But it’s also what I’ve come to call a “problem space” that invites participation. So what we’re offering is not “the Uni–one thing” and that’s going to be the solution, but rather an ongoing participation in a paradigm that opens up new questions, new fights, new possibilities, new responsibilities.

Benjamin Wilson: That’s what we’re in now. Neoliberal austerity didn’t just explode on the scene, right? It’s been a slowly evolving thing, closing off more and more possibilities for decades.

Scott Ferguson: While opening up all kinds of private and precarious ones.

Benjamin Wilson: Absolutely–I love the idea that it’s a problem space, it’s an open invitation. I think the conversation that Erica and Will had was dead on and thinking about debt as this unifying rallying call. This calls into question university debt, it calls into question student debt, it calls into question public debt at large, and we can experiment with really new ways that are nowhere near as limiting as what we’re currently facing.

Scott Ferguson: We should mention that we have the goal of making higher-ed free again. In the problem space of the Uni that is contingent upon what level of receivability any given Unique project is working at. If we have a Uni based on the Public Banking Act, then that is probably the most capacious, authoritative and powerful Uni that we can have as long as it is participatory all the way down. And in that case, we can absolutely not only abolish all student debt, but also all tuition and fees. If we’re talking about local experimentation in a classroom or a program, or even just one university, then we have to move more slowly toward reducing tuition. We have big dreams and a big goal. But achieving that goal is going to have to be connected to which part of the fight or which part of the build-out are we investing in at any given time.

Benjamin Wilson: And the more people that participate in various ways, either through advocacy, at federal and state-level policy-making, to sharing successes that they’re having in these classrooms, the more evidence, the more power, the more buy-in, the more people get involved in, the better the process will be, the more informed, the better trained people will be to be the administrators of a Public Banking Act. It’s not going to be an easy job, just like being the head underwriter for Bank of America isn’t an easy job. But it’s a better job, I would argue.

Scott Ferguson: Less so in the humanities, but primarily in the sciences and social sciences, we have big grants, and then big initiatives and research programs and labs that are granting and provisioning and keeping track and doing that already. I want to get to the point where we’re not simply defending this proposal for the Uni. I want to get to the point where other people are teaching us about what the Uni is and what it can be. That’s where I want to get.

Benjamin Wilson: That would be magic. That would be phenomenal.

Scott Ferguson: And it’s a big hurdle, because it’s a very different way of imagining. It’s a different emotional relationship to the world. It requires a different emotional stance.

Benjamin Wilson: It’s hard to be optimistic sometimes. But this would make that a lot easier and end the “you’re alone” narrative and all that stuff.

Jakob Feinig: How do you make the switch of thinking of yourself as a money issuer?

Benjamin Wilson: Well, doing it helped! Creating “Benjamins” [Wilson’s classroom currency] and I talked to touch base with Michael at EnergyWeb and said that I’m presenting it again, hoping to recruit more faculty to join me at Cortland. And he was like, yeah, the more the merrier, scale is not a problem for us. Like, if you’ve got people at other universities that want to use the system, we can get to work on trying to think through all the different technological dynamics of allowing your currencies to be measured and understood and how many are circulating and how much of the tax liabilities are being extinguished. And all that stuff on like a very large scale, which is super exciting. 

Jakob Feinig: I have mine right now on paper. Students named them “Googly Shallaghs.”

Scott Ferguson: I think too, there’s a double move, which is inviting people and teaching them about how this could work: How you can be a currency issuer and provisioner in your classroom or in a larger program or working with community outreach organizations on your campus and things like that. But there’s also the flip of the switch, which is just a mental one. Which is coming to realize that, if we’re talking about instructors, you’re already doing it, you already are in a system of credits. And you have students who work for credits. And you assess those, you assess their performance, through, usually, grades. Not everybody does that. But my campus does that. And those grades are receivable as part of the university system, right? That leads to a diploma but also when you graduate, and when and when you leverage your degree toward a job or toward another degree. Those grades might matter and be receivable and valuable for different reasons. So we’re already doing it. We just think that we’ve just so naturalized it that we don’t know that we’re doing it.

Jakob Feinig: And when you do it for the first time, it’s like the similar shift from just being a receiver of grades to all of a sudden–the creator of grades.

Scott Ferguson: That’s true, that’s true.

Jakob Feinig: And I hated it. And I still hate it.

Scott Ferguson: You feel this responsibility. Yeah, absolutely.

Jakob Feinig: But this is not something I would hate. It’s different. It’s a different kind of credit. I hate issuing those credits, but I don’t have to hate it. I mean, I don’t think I would hate issuing Unis, that’s different.

Scott Ferguson: I mean, whether they’re like traditional grades, like A, B, C, D. I mean, we could imagine all kinds of different evaluative modes. I mean, they can be just qualitative or whatever. But I think you would feel less bad about that if it wasn’t in the context of an austere punitive cutthroat system where there’s not enough to go around. Different people have different views on grading, but we might not feel as bad even using traditional grades when lower grades don’t mean abjection.

Benjamin Wilson: If you’re known as a hard grader, students will still take your class, because they know they’re getting a really good education rather than avoiding it just because they can’t take that risk in their GPA. It’s amazing. People definitely avoid my classes, because I have a reputation of being hard.

Benjamin Wilson: But I’m not.

Scott Ferguson: So you say. 

Benjamin Wilson: I’m really just a snuggly teddy bear. My mission post-sabbatical, this next phase of my career, is to soften that a little bit. I think part of that is just being new and not wanting to be taken advantage of, knowing that you’re doing it right, and not letting people slack off. I think it’s just part of the mindset, maybe. But I’m not nearly as scared of that anymore. 

I really see education as an opt-in. Some students are going to opt out, and that’s okay. And I’ll do my best to keep you there. But if you’re not opting in, then I’m going to continue to focus on those that are really buying in and ready to take it on. I think the Uni gives us the freedom to do that too. You don’t have to issue Uni to a student that’s not doing the work, just like in the Jobs Guarantee.

Scott Ferguson: The Uni can be a part of the Job Guarantee. I co-authored a piece with William Saas a year or two ago that was published in the journal Liminalities. I will give credit where credit is due: This was Billy Saas’ idea that I supported and co-wrote with him, but this was very much his idea. He came to me with this idea for a Green New Deal-driven and university-focused academic job guarantee which would leverage federal funds to extend security and benefits equivalent to tenure to all workers on public college and university campuses. 

We call this the SBET or SBET: Security and benefits equivalent to tenure, where essentially termination has to be for cause rather than at will. Coupled with a robust unionization effort and legislation, this would make worker power much, much greater. And it would create a collective safety net for expanding not just worker power but the provisioning powers of the Uni currency project.

Jakob F: Wow, I have to read that!

Scott Ferguson: The title of the paper is “Performative Public Finance for Higher Education, Academic Labor and the Green New Deal.” 

Jakob Feinig: I want to read it right away. I wanted to ask maybe as a last question, how do you see the project unfolding in the next years and months? What do you think the next steps should be?

Benjamin Wilson: First, I hope that this discussion, and the piece in Academe magazine, sparks larger discussions. And really the Uni project is something that is evolving and changing and it’s not really this, you have to do X or Y in order to be involved, but really be open to any sort of suggestions or ideas and participation. For me, the next iteration of the Uni is going to take place in my urban class–I am hoping to build an edible park. I’m hoping to expand it up into the Adirondacks where I’m working with some great community folks to ameliorate food security, clean water, and access to health care. 

I’m hoping that as more people get involved, either on my campus or across SUNY campuses, or from other places, we start putting together a database of all the beautiful things that we’re getting done by mobilizing student work, and the production of public goods in all different fields, from public art spaces to food systems to in-stream habitat interventions. Whatever you think is a way of ameliorating the climate crisis or social inequities, I would be super excited to collaborate and hear more. And at the other end, hopefully folks will start advocating for the Public Banking Act and writing letters for state level policies for public banks, the Job Guarantee, the Green New Deal, the E-Cash Act, all these amazing federal legislative projects that would all contribute to moving beyond the austerity model that we’re living in today.

Scott Ferguson: And just to close, we’re also imagining this as an alternative to a lot of the frantic and excited activity around blockchain and other forms that bill themselves as private currencies, from crypto to NFT’s and this kind of thing that have proven to be insecure and volatile, and certainly not serving public purposes. And even after all of these market crashes, companies like Facebook or Meta are still investing millions if not billions of dollars in propping up a vision of the future in which these private monies are supposed to play a central role. 

The notion that people can start participating in money creation is actually everywhere. It’s in headlines. It’s on social media. It’s just that that’s such a terrible model. It’s such a horrible model. But if we can harness some of that energy toward public purpose, then we’re talking. 

I think with that, we can end. Thanks so much for joining me for this great conversation, Ben and Jakob.

Benjamin Wilson: That was so much fun! Thanks for organizing. 

Jakob Feinig: Thank you!

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

Performing Hard Money with Frederic Heine

Frederic Heine joins Money on the Left to discuss his recent essay, “Performing Hard Money: Monetary Policy, Metaphor and Masculinity in the Making of the EMU,” published this summer in the Journal of Cultural Economy. Heine is a university assistant at the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at Johannes Kepler University, Linz (Austria). In his essay, Heine analyzes the cluster of masculine metaphors that ground and mobilize the European Monetary Union’s (EMU) hard-line opposition to “soft” money politics. At the time of this episode’s publishing in early September 2022, what Heine classifies as the masculine performative agency of EMU leaders can be seen all over Europe, with French President Macron decrying the end of abundance and the European Central Bank signaling a coming period of sacrifice across the Eurozone. We speak with Heine about this essay as well as his broader inquiry into the intersections of gender, global finance, and political economy.

See Frederic Heine’s essay here.

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Frederic Heine, welcome to Money on the Left

Frederic Heine: Thank you very much for having me. 

Scott Ferguson: To kick things off, can you tell our listeners a bit about your background, be it personal or professional or both, and what brought you to the study of gender, culture and political economy? 

Frederic Heine: I am currently working as a lecturer, or university assistant, at Johannes Kepler University (Linz) at the Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies. I did a PhD at the University of Warwick, and before that I did a master’s in global political economy at the University of Sussex. That’s my academic background. Before that, I studied at the Free University of Berlin, the place where I got interested in gender in political economy. 

Basically, at the Institute for… Political economy, Marxism, feminism. And led me to ask all these questions. And at the same time, shortly after I started, there was also the beginning of the first signs of the global financial crisis kicking in. So that was a big part of me being interested in trying to understand what was happening there. And at the same time, maybe gender and masculinity has been something that had been a more… permanent [interest] in my background. I needed the inspiration by the feminist flare at the university. But then I started questioning masculinity and relating it back to my own experiences of gender masculinity, some gender-related bullying in my youth.

When I came across Roman Connell’s work on hegemonic masculinity and subordinate masculinity, hierarchies of masculinity, that was very much a game changer in understanding my own identity, and also my place within the larger agenda structures in some ways. But at the same time, as male at birth and with a masculine self-presentation, I also experience it very much as a privilege, especially in combination with whiteness. For example, the attribution and assumption of competence, and even some level of authority now that I get older, which seems a little absurd at times.

In any case, that’s my background: On the one hand, there were these big macro events, like the global financial crisis that I was trying to understand. And on the other hand, this understanding of my own identity within that context. I think the tension between those macro events and identity/subjectivity, on the other hand, was what maybe always kept me in this interest about how gender and political economy relate, especially, of course, when I discovered feminist political economy as a sub-discipline, when I came to the UK and discovered IPE [International Political Economy] and the complexity and diversity of approaches. And feminist IPE in particular. That shaped a lot of the ways in which I was approaching these questions.

William Saas: Thank you for that really great answer. We’ve come to your work by way of an article you’ve published very recently in the Journal of Cultural Economy, titled “Performing Hard Money: Monetary Policy, Metaphor and Masculinity in the Making of EMU.” I wonder if by way of starting our conversation and making sure that we all have a common ground or grammar to work with, could you share with listeners who may not know what the EMU is, where it came from, and maybe its role in shaping the neoliberal project in Europe and beyond?

Frederic Heine: The European Monetary Union, the EMU, is the monetary aspect of European integration. It’s the institutional context for the single currency that probably all listeners know, which is the Euro, a currency that was first meant as a currency for the entire European Union, but a number of countries decided not to participate or haven’t adopted the Euro yet. The European Monetary Union is governed by the European System of Central Banks, comprised of National Central Banks, and, at the top, the European Central Bank. 

The idea of some kind of monetary union to proceed with economic integration and political integration has been a long time in the making. Since the first proposals in the 1970s, there has been ever closer European economic integration. As a background to these proposals, that meant that a single currency seemed desirable for economic and political reasons. 

And even before the European Monetary Union, there had been several attempts to reduce currency fluctuations between European Union and European European Community member states, trying to keep exchange rates and inflation rates somewhat aligned, mostly to foster trade and mutual investment. And that had been the case ever since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. This is the background why the project was taken in the first instance. And ultimately, this process cumulated in suggestions for a European Monetary Union, a single currency, and so on.

The crux, however, is not so much in the fact that we do now have a currency union, but the kind of currency union we have. Instead of an integration of financial policies and monetary policies, only monetary policy is Europeanized and institutionalized in the European Central Bank. And while there are some restrictive rules for member states, which are also arbitrary rules for how much debt and how high a deficit they can run, there isn’t a political mechanism by which, for example, an expansionary fiscal policy approach could be coordinated. And worse, that’s partly on the insistence of of the Bundesbank [the German central bank], which we will talk about. 

There’s the “no bailout clause” that forbids the European Central Bank to act as a lender of last resort for member states. So the monetary union ended up as a setup that works okay in normal times, but in times of crisis seriously limits the room for maneuver, for example, the demand-led recovery from crisis. And we know all this because of what actually happened in the Eurozone Crisis from 2010 onward. So that’s what we experienced as a result of that.

William Saas: And how have critics and critical scholars engaged with the EMU previously?

Frederic Heine: There has been a lot of attention, especially since the Eurozone Crisis, on the institutional side of of the European Monetary Union. And there’s a literature that looks at the evolution and institutional design of the European Monetary Union and regards it as more or less as institutionally flawed, a result of political compromises between the main players, especially France, Germany, etc. It also looks at the power politics between the main major nations, so this is the intergovernmentalist approach to how the European Monetary Union formed. 

There is also a literature that looks at the relevance of ideas, and especially the emerging neoliberal consensus as discussed by [Kathleen] McNamara, for example–how, in the process of creating the European Monetary Union, there was an increasing shift towards the understanding that a central bank should be independent, that the nation-states should have a limited room for maneuver to run deficits, that welfare states should be reduced.

These elements are also part of the institutional setup of the European Monetary Union by design. And that is the focus of an interpretation that looks at the European Monetary Union mostly as a result of class politics, an institutionalization of neoliberal principles by constitutionalizing them, by setting them up in the treaties of the European Union, and therefore making them uncontestable (by the labor movement especially). And in the way of central bank independence, and this focus on price stability, rather than other central banks also are concerned with making sure that there’s full employment or that levels of employment are as high as possible. This is not within the remit of the  European Central Bank. And so it’s also seen as a way of, through monetary policy, limiting the room for maneuver of trade unions and the labor movement.

Scott Ferguson: In your essay, you take up from a critical perspective what you call “gendered performative agency.” Can you define “gendered performative agency” for our listeners? And why, on your reasoning, does it matter for critically understanding the EMU?

Frederic Heine: One reason why I wanted to do this, and one thing that I haven’t seen in that literature that looks at the evolution of the European Monetary Union was to look at: Did gender plays a role in all of this? I tried to do this with that concept of gender performative agency. And it might get a bit abstract now, but basically, I was looking for a way to conceptualize how gender discourses and narratives might matter in economic governance. 

I tried to do this without reifying either what gender is or what exactly the economy is, and rather understand it as the result of these kinds of processes. Very briefly, it’s a lens that focuses on how agents mobilize performances and constructions of masculinities and femininities in their political discourse in their practices, to serve specific agendas within economic governance. And I use the term “performative” because in this way, this process both describes the performances involved in it: speeches, language, but also bodies, mannerism, dress, etc. I invoke the concept of performativity, the idea that language doesn’t only passively represent the kind of things that describes, but that it has at least some power in shaping it. A very basic example would be that if a child is told that it has a certain gender at birth, and then later is told and demonstrated what it means to be that gender, to perform the gender, then there’s a likelihood that it will behave according to these ideas as well. 

Although, of course, there’s always a chance of failure, and of a critical questioning of these. But basically, the idea is that that language doesn’t just represent something that is outside of it, but does create what it describes, in some ways, and through mechanisms and social practices. This idea has been developed in relation to gender famously by Judith Butler, as the listeners will probably know, and also in relation to the economy by scholars such as Michel Callon and others.

In a sense, I tried to capture how the economy is gendered through this performative language. And then, I looked at how these practices are very much leveraged by actors within economic governance. If we look at elite actors, such as the Bundesbankers in the paper, that have also a lot of moral authorit,y as I will explain hopefully, later. So even though single actors always have limited performative agencym as Butler argues, they still have comparatively more than you and me, for example. 

I argue that this agency and performing the economy is gendered because gender is not always but often a central component of our subjectivity and our worldviews, and even if we’re not necessarily aware of it, it shapes us. For example, V. Spike Peterson argues very deeply how we ascribe cultural value, effective value to things simply because the dominant worldviews are still very much gendered. And for this, studying how gendered meanings are mobilized, basically, look at language and metaphors. I hope this wasn’t too abstract.

Scott Ferguson: It was really clear, thank you. I really want us to spend some time as you do in the paper, unpacking these metaphors. Why metaphor? What are the metaphors? How are they being mobilized? How do they work through very often hierarchical binary oppositions that position certain terms as subordinate? As lesser? And then also how do these potentially change over time?

Maybe, to get things going, I just want to say one of the many things I appreciate so much about your work, is that very often when we’re thinking in terms of gendered performance or gender performative agency, we’re thinking about how broad social constructions, social meanings, discourses, imagery, etc. shape the way that individual persons and bodies become legible. And I think that work is very important.But what I see less done, but I see operative in your paper, is to say no, actually institutions that are irreducible to just–I mean, of course, it matters that these are men, who are the presidents of the Bundesbank, who have this authority in the European Monetary Union, and of course, their individual performativity matters. And legibility matters.

But it seems like you’re arguing that the very kind of constitution of this vast institution is a gendered performance. Is that fair to say?

Frederic Heine: I think that’s correct, thanks for your thoughts and for your developing the ideas of the paper. What I try to do is to see how the construction of certain institutions and certain cultural political economies as gendered is a process that is in principle contingent. It does use, of course, the larger discourses and cultural meanings ascribed to gender and mobilizes this data is only possible because there are shared understandings of what gender is and how it matters, etc. 

But the idea is that how this is articulated in a specific context is principally contingent. And that there can be variations, be specific institutions that do this more than others. I think you understood exactly what I’m trying to do. Thanks for these thoughts. But to go back to your first question, sorry. 

Scott Ferguson: Let’s get into some of these metaphors. I don’t know if you first want to talk about your archive a little bit more? What you’re studying?

Frederic Heine: I was going to start with the background of why I think metaphors matter in the discourse of these Bundesbankers. To talk about the archive: I looked at a lot of speeches and interviews these Bundesbankers did in the context of of the question: How should an EMU be structured? Should it exist in the first place? And all these issues. In that context, I looked at the public performances and speeches they did. 

And on the one hand, some of that discourse is pretty dry for the average audience member. It might seem surprising that metaphors play a key role here. But despite the technical role these central bankers often have, it is curious that in the German public, there used to be quite well-known, quite important public figures. Jacques Delors, for example, who was a very important figure in the EU negotiations and the President of the European Commission at the time, made the joke that not all Germans believe in God, but all Germans believe in the Bundesbank. So it had quite a big cultural role within the German polity. How is that possible for technocrats? Part of my argument is that this is the case because their discourse is not just technocratic, it’s not just about economics, but it carries a moral message that carries an effective stance.

And this is where the metaphors come in. They help to imbue the speech and discourse with meanings borrowed from other source domains. And metaphor theory has shown that metaphor is an important way in which cognition works. We understand something in terms of something else that we already know, that we are already familiar with. And metaphors can also mobilize affect and motivation, borrow authority and legitimacy from the source domain. In the paper, I argue that the Bundesbankers use a range of metaphors in their discourse on inflation and the necessity of price stability, that they were trying to make sure that the EMU was going along this direction. I examined these metaphors and I argue that the the range of metaphors used weaves together a tapestry that constructs a more or less coherent narrative. But the moral story of why price stability should be so important as to make it the cornerstone of the European Monetary Union.

And one element of this is how inflation is described through the metaphor of temptation. So this is something that seems irresistible. So this is literal, for example, when Karl-Otto Pöhl talks about the always lurking temptation, or related metaphors, such as a pinch of inflation, or the drag of inflation, and so on. The most pointed one is when Helmut Schlesinger, his successor, calls this “the siren calls of inflation,” a metaphor that is then repeated a few times. Or back in the 60s, one of the first Bundesbank presidents called inflation a nymph that doesn’t contend itself with the light flood. So what we have here is a discourse that compares inflation to something that equalizes giving in to desires and in the Greek mythical figures of nymphs and sirens, and this is a sexualized femininity that represents this temptation. 

And you can imagine this temptation to the assumed heterosexual men that are usually the assumed subjects in this language as well. So it plays on this feminization of temptation. And the assumed consequence of these temptations, following the songs of the sirens means shipwreck, flirting with a nymph, in this mythic mythological background means a threat of madness, distraction, taking drugs, addiction, etc. So, these are all consequences of losing self- control. The key to resisting that kind of temptation that inflation supposedly is, is the idea that of self-discipline. 

Self-discipline is regarded as the key not only to not giving in to this temptation, to resist the temptations, to [not] walk the path of least resistance, and all these kinds of metaphors are also implied to represent the remedy against the temptation of inflation. And so, this discipline in relation to EMU–the metaphor is used to stress the importance of discipline on the side of member states, for example. 

Pöhl evokes self-discipline, on the one hand, on the part of member states. Also market discipline is thought necessary to avoid these temptations. Market discipline as a result of investor behavior. And then also external discipline, through institutional mechanisms. And the latter, especially the the mechanism to create discipline, on an institutional side was the focus very much of the Bundesbank, who argued that this external discipline was required because member states couldn’t be trusted with this kind of self discipline, nor could market actors in themselves. 

The idea here is that there needs to be an authority that instills this discipline and that itself needs to be highly disciplined. So, these kinds of binaries between temptation and discipline that are connected to femininity on the temptation side and masculinity on the discipline side, were used by Pöhl to argue for the kind of an EMU focused on instilling discipline. And it did so from the position of the Bundesbank that prided itself in having that function within the German economy and arguing that the German economy has been much better placed to resist that kind of temptation. Because of its “stability culture” that is called in the language of the Bundesbank, and that stability culture itself then, is the result of the past tough choices and tough policies of the Bundesbank. 

So, again, we have here, or I’ll come to that set of metaphors in a second. And basically, I argue that these metaphors of temptation and discipline reference enlightenment, as well as reformist ideas of masculinity, of the composed, rational subject, that never strays from its mission, so to speak, that is always in control. And I also argue that these ideas of masculinity were particularly strong. 

For reasons we might later go into, in Germany, where the idea of the rational will conquering the bodily temptations was a key component of constructions of masculinity vis-à-vis femininity hich was seen as much less able to control the self, the impulses etc., in 19th century discourse, and therefore, needed a male guardian and patriarchal ideology. And at the same time, it was also constructed in an emerging national discourse as something that distinguished Germans. 

And the assumption here is, again, particularly German masculinity, which was often the focus of the national stereotypes as they developed in the 19th century. And also from other nations within Europe, particularly France, and Southern Europe as reference points. And here, this was not only a nationalist discourse, but also related to the idea of race because the idea of rational self controlled masculinity was also very prevalent in European colonial discourse, seen as a key feature that was supposed to distinguish white Europeans from people of color, ultimately, this discourse was one of governance. 

So it justifies and legitimizes governing over others, because one is able to demonstrate the ability to govern over the self. And that is the context in which this self discipline became central in these self representations subjectivities in that context. And so, another set of stereotypically masculine traits that is also used through metaphor in this context is strength, toughness, hardness, they often use to talk about currencies and to talk about basically, relationships to others. So, when choosing, for example, frequently emphasizes that the European currency, the euro, needs to be at least as hard as the D-Mark. 

This is on the one hand, common pylons and currency trading. So hard currency is one that has has a relatively low level of inflation. But it carries the potential metaphorical charge. So the Bundesbank was founded, basically on the mantra of its first president, who repeatedly said with soft measures, you can’t have a hard currency, meaning basically, that you need to be tough and resilient for your currency to be hard as the result of the toughness of the decisions that are being made. 

And the Bundesbankers themselves needed to perform this toughness as well. Schlesinger for example, was asked whether he had turned into a softy when he was perceived as not defending the D-Mark enough, which Schlesinger then sought to strongly deny. And Tietmeyer, who was the third president I look at, described himself as a tough oak, this fabian oak, to instill this idea that he will be unwavering in the face of crisis. And there’s this level of trust and resilience and resistance towards any attempts from outside to influence the decisions that might be present. And so you have, on the one hand, this reference to self discipline, and on the other hand, these references to toughness and hardness as a badge of honor of the economyt hat is masculinized in this discourse. 

For example, maybe I should add this is Schumpeter, for example, described also the idea that basically, the monetary policy of a people demonstrates, shows, as he formulated it, what kind of wood it is made of, which is the literal translation of the German which also expresses this idea that there’s a sort of… it reflects the morale, the toughness of the people that it represents. And this is very much present as the badge of honor in some ways of the national pride of the hard currency. It relies on the fact that it demonstrates this toughness. 

And both references to self discipline and toughness, together, make sense as a discourse of the strict father. This is also what George Lakoff has identified as the metaphorical, a kind of core argument also in US Republican discourse. The idea that the moral authority of a strict father is the desirable cultural trait. The strict father that is, on the one hand, morally strong and constantly and in self control, fighting off the possible internal temptations that he might have. And on the other hand, disciplining the dependents. So children, especially, and also the wife, to some extent, to do the same. And by being also strong and tough enough, to confront external dangerous or external kinds of threats.

The metaphorical tapestry of the Bundesbank invokes this strict father performance both for themselves and as the authority figures and as a cultural moral ideal of the ideal economic behavior. And in that way, there is this charge of the discourse around the D-Mark and the German values of being very hard-working people and tough etc, is reflected in these metaphors. I hope I made myself somewhat clear.

Scott Ferguson: Extremely clear, just for our listeners, something that I think is implicit in what you’re saying, but just to air it out: When you’re discussing the political rhetoric and legal construction of the EMU, you threw in metaphors of temptation versus self- discipline and hardness.

We’re talking about fiscal capacity, and how it should be constituted. And we’re also talking about interest rate policy. And we’re talking about employing and not employing certain kinds of people. So that while we have this intensely gendered institution, that’s a real legal construct. It’s a real social-ideological construct at this macro-political, economic, and even geopolitical level, but that construct is doing real damage through enforced austerity, whether it’s through the… baked into the Maastricht Treaty which founds the EMU. Or its individual decisions in relationship to crises, such that this metaphorical language and talking about being self-disciplined and not being tempted is about not being tempted to provision jobs that might be needed for an immigrant community.

This is dangerous, not just because the discourse itself, the metaphoric city itself, is so colonial and patriarchal and exclusionary as a cultural imaginary, but it itself is justifying all of this institution-building and policy work that is systemically violent in its ways. I just wanted to spell all that.

Frederic Heine: Thank you. That’s very important. As you say, completely implicit, or… and what I said, but an important consequence, … it’s also related directly to the discourse that makes it seem as if inflation was a result of indulgence and of overly luxurious consumption practices–basically, of living beyond one’s means and all these other kinds of narratives that belong there as well. 

And not about abilities to have a welfare state that that is able to take care of people in need and to create jobs and to have an economy that works for everyone and all these possibilities that could be created by an environment in which monetary policy could be used in a way to support policy goals, rather than as a result of this approach of the Bundesbank being in the hands of unelected set of people, mostly men, that make the decisions about the bounds around which the economy and economic policy basically has to orient itself.

Maxximilian Seijo: In your essay and in this discussion, you focused a lot on the German specificity of the EMU’s hard money, metaphorical and damaging discourse and policy as well. And I wanted to maybe hover a little bit on some of these threads that I think I’m sensing in your answers here. 

At the end of one of your answers, you implied Max Weber’s idea of the Protestant work ethic or perhaps that there’s something specifically German, even embedded in German history, in the language about this hard money, patriarchal discursive and cultural approach to monetary and fiscal policy. Can you talk about this history? I mean, I think of Protestantism, a word you just use a second ago was “indulgence,” which I think also links up to that history in its own way. There’s something there. I think that I want to hear you dive into a bit more.

Frederic Heine: Thank you. I definitely think there is a of specificity in German history on that. However, I haven’t looked at it comparatively. But as you say there’s specifics to German culture that one can trace this discourse back to and I have done that a little bit in the context of my PhD thesis, which maybe I can also later talk about a little bit. But for me, there might also be a larger picture that I’m missing. The two key processes that I have identified as maybe one of the reasons why this is prevalent in German monetary policy discourse, in particular, is on the one hand, the polarization of discipline in Prussian culture. 

And that’s partly because of Prussian state formation. Gorsky has this argument that in the Prussian state formation, under the first kings that was central to the Prussian state formation and the reform reforms that created the bureaucratic and military structures of that state, very much informed by Calvinism. The Protestant Ethic that you just mentioned, was very important in the top-down formation of the state, and particularly through military discipline. The Prussian state was very much an innovator in that respect. And stereotypically the German, the Prussian military, was known for its extreme level of core discipline.

That was reflected in the Prussian culture as well, where the military had a particular hegemonic quality, representing masculinity in that period. So I think that’s one reason for the historical trajectory for that kind of discourse. And then why, what does that have to do with central banking, monetary policy? This is where I believe the Weimar Republic comes in. The experience of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic, after the First World War in the period between 1918 and 1923, there was a period of hyperinflation in Germany. At the end of it, people had to carry bucket loads of cash to buy basic necessities because it devalued so rapidly after the First World War. So on the one hand, there’s a scare about inflation there. 

That is often referenced as well, as one of the reasons for a general culture of stability, the hardest core. But then again, you could have similar experience of national trauma in relation to hyper deflation in some ways, if we look at the consequences of the world economic crisis of the 1930s and of mass unemployment that happened in Germany at that time, that was certainly had arguably a lot more economic social consequences than hyperinflation period. But in any case, so, I also looked at that period and the cultural discourses around that period, around hyperinflation and partly building on Ben Videx’ work in relation to that. 

And what we have seen just now in relation to the references to metaphors, about temptation, discipline, etc., are … how to say this? Basically, I kind of tame in relation to the metaphors that were used at that time because one of the sort of key metaphors there was of inflation as a vicious Sabbath, the figure of the witch was basically mobilized in relation to the experience of hyperinflation. And so that’s another sort of deviant femininity that is kind of seen as being involved in this process and this experience of inflation. And that’s very interesting, right? Because that goes back to misogynistic representations of femininity, as they were abound in the period of the witch hunts in Europe, which were particularly savage also by the way in German speaking regions. 

In that context, witches stood for those aspects of deviant femininity that are seen as threatening to the patriarchal order as Silvia Federici, for example, has argued, famously argued, and witches were seen as kind of those aspects of femininity. Mentally weak, being insatiable, insatiably lusty, insubordinate, incapable of self-control, etc. So the witch embodied all these things that threaten patriarchal social order. And this mobilization of this metaphor, I argue, has to do with the time period in which this happened, because after the First World War, Germany has lost the kind of military ideal of masculinity, has lost a lot of legitimacy in that context. 

And on the other hand, there was renewed a progress for women in the Weimar Republic, who had during the war taken on a lot of jobs in the economy that had been reserved for men previous to the war, and were still employed in that area. So there was a lot more female employment. There were also a lot more political rights in the Weimar Republic, they were granted the, I mean, the world suffrage, universal suffrage was introduced in the 1980s, as well. 

So I think it also reflects in some ways that there’s anxiety not only about the loss of monetary stability and monetary order, but also the anxiety about patriarchal order, expresses itself in some ways in those metaphors of witches that can contribute to inflation. And on the other hand, just to finish on that, then, when inflation was ended by the introduction of a new currency, and the appointment of a new central banker, named Hjalmar Schacht, the kind of patriarchal military masculinity that he represented in that context was again celebrated as he was called a magician who was able to rein in these demonic forces of the inflation, and in that context, also had a specific ways of retooling certain decisions, fiscal budget decisions, and started that discourse of “we have to limit the fiscal resources of the state” etc. 

So I think, in that context, the attention to monetary policy and what it means culturally and this association with ideas of masculinity on the one hand in order to bring under control some aspects that were ascribed to femininity is something that also dates back to that historical base.

Scott Ferguson: I’m fascinated by all the tensions and the contradictions that I think are teeming beneath all of these metaphors. So certainly from the point of view of Modern Monetary Theory, hard money policy, let alone hard money metaphors, tend to be destabilizing because they induce crisis, and they have a crisis response to crisis. 

So it’s ironic, it’s contradictory. It’s hypocritical in addition to being violent and unjust, that it’s the very construction of hard money as an institution and as a metaphoric that is actually a massively destabilizing element in its own right. And then there’s so many other things I want to ask you about, for example, have you thought much about the figure the “schwarze Null,” “the black zero” that is so prized in in German banking? I think it’s fallen out of favor in more recent years. But, you see these these helicopter view shots of all these bankers celebrating a balanced budget. With this aestheticized giant zero, like a plastic sculpture that they treat as a kind of fetish object. I don’t know if how much you’ve thought about that.

Frederic Heine: Totally. I also talk about the years on the crisis period itself in my thesis, and there’s a lot of… the shots celebrated when Schäuble was stepping back from the Finance Ministry positions. You have actually the Prussian references that I was kind of making, you have the Bild Newspaper, which is the biggest German tabloid. And at a certain point before Mario Draghi was doing the “Whatever it Takes” speech that was a turning point in the European Crisis Governance. When he was appointed, they depicted him with a Prussian spiked helmet, which is this military thing, kind of declaring him an honorable German, that was adhering to the monetary ideals of of Germany and later also, during an interview, presented him with the precious spiked helmet–an original one–from some time in order to remind him of the Prussian virtues that he was supposed to inhabit. So there’s a lot of fetishism is I think the right word to kind of describe this. 

Obviously, the Bild newspaper is not the Bundesbank itself, but actually you even have at one point and this is shortly after the announcement of the of the “Whatever it Takes” speech. You have the then-president of the Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann kind of deliver a speech in which a press release which is about the treatment of monetary policy in Goethe’s work, Faust. And where basically he cites Mephistopheles, or the devil, in relation to un-backed paper money, and kind of I don’t have the exact quotation but something else you know, if the devil says you know, if you have un-backed paper money, you don’t have to worry about gold or silver or anything like that you can just indulge in lovemaking and wine drinking and everything and that of your problems will be solved essentially.

Maxximilian Seijo: Well, just to add on that point–Goethe, in his life, and feel free to add to this, is responding to this feeling of expropriation and in his era in the context of the French Revolution, and later on, and these particular monetary allegory and Faust as, as you say, is dealing with in that same model of trauma and then looking and searching for that hard ground and allegorizing all of the externalization that that that go on whether it’s in the figure of the witch or later on, or the vampire or…

Of course, during World War Two and precursors with the Nazis, the figure of the Jews. But I find your exploration of this really, really exciting and fascinating, I think precisely because that history that you’re bringing up all the different strands is so rich with all of this detail and all of these metaphorical tensions and problems that you’re playing out.

Frederic Heine: Thank you very much. And you probably know more about Goethe and Faust than I do. And I realized recently that probably I should do some more studying of that, because it also combines the sort of thinking about inflation on the one hand and a very present kind of work that prominently places the witch as a cultural figure in German discourse, might also be related to why that was so present in the Weimar Republic as a metaphor. Just to say that, maybe I should go into that a little bit more.

William Saas: A little bit more out of left field, but I was intrigued–Was it Schäuble who got the spiked Prussian hat? The pickelhaube? 

Frederic Heine: It was Mario Draghi.

William Saas: Mario Draghi. Okay, I was just very curious, because one of the things that I think another thing that’s been implicit in our conversation and maybe it’s worth talking about or not is the sort of phallic character of a lot of these metaphors. And that that helmet, of course, is quite… I got I got interested in the relative height of the spikes on top of those helmets, and a very reliable source here, maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like: “an AKO of May 1899, would set the height at 9.5 centimeters for officer spikes and 8.5 centimeters for all other ranks.” 

Lots to talk about here, I suppose. I wanted to also circle back to talking about hard money, hard leaders. And kind of the theory of history at play here. It’s very tragic and romantic and zero sum where you have these hard leaders managing hard money systems in order to kind of defend but also fend off vulnerability and femininity. And I wonder if, as we’re having these conversations and talking about the EMU and your published work, if it’s hard not to in the States, look at our situation, and try to trace out and track the perhaps, German lineage of much of the same kind of rhetoric and discourse over here around inflation, especially today. 

And so for example, we talk one of one of our most recent episodes with Brett Scott, and we got into all sorts of money metaphors, and we sort of brought up the metaphor of Paul Volcker, at the end of the 70s, breaking the back of inflation, which is an interesting also that kind of displacement of or characterization of inflation in this case, thinking of them as kind of like a mortal enemy that you want slain, maybe not so feminine. 

But in any case, Volker, probably not who you would think of as this sort of heroic figure of history being cast in this heroic role. All of that, by way is saying, have you done much thinking about the way that these metaphors and systems of metaphors have ramified and played out in international finance discourse?

Frederic Heine: I think… Well, that’s very interesting observations. The short answer to this question is not very much. But Melinda Cooper, for example, has looked at the inflation period, like the 70s, sort of high levels of inflation in the US and kind of traced is somewhat similar discourses kind of in social conservative thinkers that kind of also have seen this as a sign of moral weakness and moral kind of lack of morals in the American population. 

I can’t recall any particular metaphors at this moment, but certainly I think there’s a lot of circulation of this kind of thinking I mean, Schumpeter as well was widely regarded economists that kind of also contributed to the circulation certainly have these ideas. I would have to speculate maybe to answer.

William Saas: This is following my Germanist colleagues. Maybe y’all can help me figure out… are there… can we track any? Are you seeing direct connections, as you’re asking these questions between these sort of inherent or essential Germanness of many of these metaphors, and the way that these are also found, I think commonly in other and especially US contexts.

Scott Ferguson: I guess Max’s questions about Protestantism, reformed Christianity’s role in and beyond pressure is maybe one avenue. One thing I’ll say is that the metaphor of whipping comes up everywhere. The Ford Administration had a campaign called “Whip Inflation Now”, and that’s in Frederic’s article, there’s whipping all the time in EMU discourse.

Maxximilian Seijo: One thing I’d add, when I was studying economics, it was very common for people to ask you, “are you a hawk or are you a dove?”  And there’s something complicated there, too, with regards to I think metaphors. Hawk is the predator. And the dove is in a sense, well, as an image in religion and theology is important. But but also is not a predator, we just say, so that’s maybe another avenue in the US context to… where this kind of exploration would be fruitful.

Frederic Heine: That kind of hawk was the stuff kind of metaphors have also been also used in the European discourse around central banking and during the Eurozone Crisis, there was also this kind of talk about Mars and Venus relating to an IR-type approach, which kind of position the US as Mars, so the masculine kind of foreign policy, and Europe as the Venus which was kind of trying to have influence through soft powers, as it’s also called. And that was kind of referenced in the German press in relation to monetary policy being like, “Yeah, but in monetary policy, we are Mars and the USA is Venus.”

Scott Ferguson: Maybe we can situate this article in your dissertation. So it’s our understanding that this article is one of the fruits of your dissertation that I would presume you’re turning into a book, although I don’t want to speak for you. What’s the broader project of the dissertation and perhaps a future book?

Frederic Heine: Basically, this is correct. Yes. It’s based on one chapter of my thesis. And in that thesis, I kind of look, I mean, the focus of the thesis is the governance of the Eurozone Crisis. And I asked similarly to what I do in the article we just were just talking about, I asked what role cultural gender politics play in the governance, discourses of the crisis. And the rationale to do this was because there was a lot of research about how the crisis and austerity had gendered impacts on social reproduction on public sector employment, on gender equality policy, in that regard, but not so much research to understand maybe gender, if gender can also be seen as integral to the governance of the crisis. 

And so I ended up looking at these metaphors and this cultural kind of politics. And I also ended up taking a historical approach, right discussing these things we’ve just been talking about both in relation to Weimar Republic and then the period of the making of the European Monetary Union. And so the broader argument and the thesis maybe is that masculinist performative agency, as discussed, for example, today has been constitutive for the crisis by asserting a valorization of disciplinary masculinity in the governance of the European Monetary Union.

But secondly, that also that cultural gender politics have shaped and contested crisis governance in a contingent way as well. And that there were sort of variations in the kinds of performative agency that was the general performance of agency that was employed. We’ve already talked about some aspects in which they have been reinforced right in certain levels in relation to how central banking views of the ECB have been represented–the Prussian spiked helmet for Mario Draghi, etc. But also, there have been variations, for example, when Angela Merkel, advanced as a figurehead of austerity with the image of the stabian housewife. 

So kind of mobilizing more an image of domestic femininity as as a sort of virtuous kind of role to apply to austerity. And that sense, in a similar move to some of the discourses around, post financial crisis, would the crisis have happened, if it would have been Lehman Sisters, rather than Lehman Brothers? And this kind of valuing valorization of certain kinds of femininity in this context, as a result maybe of a portrayal of certain masculinities as well. 

And I also look at how anti-austerity discourse, for example, that masculinity is also mobilized with some exclusionary effects, partly in anti-austerity mobilizing. I look at the context of Spain, where at first there was this kind of sense that feminism doesn’t really have a place in this kind of anti-austerity movement. But then, at the same time, that was very strongly contested by feminist activists and kind of formulating centrality of social reproduction as well as the topic of contrasting austerity. I look at those politics as well in my thesis.

And so overall, the argument basically, is that gender representation still matter very much in legitimation of that economic governance, but how they do so is principally subject to specific circumstances, but also to agency in some level. And to answer the the other question that you have, I am working on a book of manuscripts on the basis of this, but I haven’t sort of formalized the book contract yet. So it might be a while until it sees the light of the day.

Scott Ferguson: We wish you luck. I want to follow up with one comment, before we move on to our last big question, which is yet another dimension of what you’re up to a bit we really appreciate that really jives with our project is that while on the one hand, it is important to have a critique and a refusal of austerity is as natural or given or necessary. And zero some trade offs and other kinds of exclusionary punishing systems. 

But it’s not enough to have a positive political or economic language of anti-austerity, because because the world is more than just narrow, political and economic language, all kinds of other language, all of language and culture is involved. So what I think what we’re often trying to do and you’re doing spectacularly on your own journey here is teasing out and shining a critical light on languages that remain austere, that remain exclusionary, that may remain deeply problematic, even as you suggested in the midst of overtly anti-economic austerity campaigns.

Frederic Heine: I like very much what you’re saying here, and it’s important to remain also self critical, and not to kind of assume a sort of coherent understanding of the economy and sort of a coherent system of contrasting power structures within the economy with reference to one’s own class position, for example, without also reflecting intersectionality on the one hand, on sort of the different impacts that crises have on different subject positions. 

An important paper, also on the subject of the Eurozone Crisis, by Bassel and Emejulu made the argument: whose crisis? If we talk about economic crisis, it might be experienced as big crisis in particular by maybe privileged subjects who are immediately losing out, but then for very sort of marginalized people it might not even sort of register as much because they’re concerned a lot more with for example, refugee status within a country. And obviously, crisis still affects them in the long run, but it also… so it’s important to reflect on the way… on the intersectional ways in which economic social policies matter. 

And also often in anti-austerity movements and discourses there’s a tendency of men participating in these movements of assuming this grand analysis and grand strategy approaches that have it all figured out and have this sense of authoritative knowledge that doesn’t need to concern itself with the details maybe or the internal processes. What’s happening within one’s own movement. And that’s also one place where then hierarchies reestablish themselves within contrasting austerity and those those hierarchical relationships. It’s important to be reflective of these things.

William Saas: Absolutely. Frederic Heine, it’s been wonderful having you, but before we let you go, we’d like to take some time and chat with you about another essay you’ve recently co authored and published with James Brassett titled “Men behaving badly”? Representations of Masculinity in Post-Global Financial Crisis Cinema, published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics in 2021. 

Essentially, the essay analyzes complex and shifting gendered depictions of finance and films released after the Great Financial Crisis, such as Inside Job, Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Big Short. Can you, as we’re on our way out the door, give us a window or glimpse into how you and your co author read the role of gender in these post-GFC films?

Frederic Heine: Thanks for asking this question. Basically in those films about finance, we look at how they represent masculinities and how this changes in some ways over time, so more often than not films about finance do center quite strongly on the male protagonists. Even in more recent films on finance, despite maybe the rhetoric of Lehman Sisters that kind of emphasize a bit more the increasing role of women in finance as well. Anyway, so, we try to understand how these representations of masculinity is what functions they serve in those firms. And often in these films, there is a kind of analogy basically between a critique of finance and a critique of masculinity or a critique of excessive masculinity. 

So, the predatory excessive masculinity if, for example, take the film Wall Street and the iconic figure of Gordon Gekko it portrays financial excess in terms of a toxic financial system and in some ways, that is seen as toxic to the real economy or to the heteronormative family, or the fabric of society. Kind of understood in the context of embedded liberalism. And this toxicity of finance in this respect is represented through hyper masculinity. So, masculinity is of, for example, Gordon Gekko, that are seen as extremely dominant, as greedy, as extremely sexually active, promiscuous, predatory. 

And in that kind of sense of embody in some ways, this disembeddedness of finance being represented as toxic through toxic masculinity basically. And that happens also in the post financial crisis films to some extent, the most extremely this is the case in The Wolf of Wall Street, which is a film about excess anti-gravity from the beginning to end basically. But it also focuses quite clearly on the realm of the legal because it’s actual financial fraud that is described in the film. 

And so, in some ways focuses more on the behavior of the bad apples rather than systemic issues. And it’s also partly coupled with class distinction. So, in the film, it’s about working class guys basically turning to investment banking, and sort of adopting some elements of working class culture within that process, and then you have a representation of brazen risk taking, overt sexualization, etcetera, in in these processes. As a shift cipher for something going wrong in finance, but in The Wolf of Wall Street, through the distancing through humor, and through the distancing through class and through sort of focusing on a particular case of clearly illegal sort of practices. It’s not necessarily as sort of indicting as the Wall Street film. 

But then, in the films, Margin Call and The Big Short, you also have elements of this brazen risk taking, overt sexualization, partying, as metaphors for the excesses of finance. But you have a redemption of certain masculinities in those films. And with them off finance, too, as we argue, so that’s on the one hand, the geeky masculinity that doesn’t understand social clues and therefore doesn’t get caught up in the irrational exuberance that is portrayed by the sort of culture of excessive partying, etc. 

And so this idea of this hyper rational, geeky masculinity that’s not subject to these temptations, if you want to connect this also to some of the stuff that we’ve been talking about before. And these masculinities don’t get distracted and they look at the real data and therefore aren’t taking part in the herd behavior, as Keynes would have said, for example. And then turn out to be the real men and the heroes of the films like Michael Burry in The Big Short, or Peter Sullivan in Margin Call. And on the other hand, there’s a level of emotional learning as portrayed in the films particularly in The Big Short that sort of good apples and that behave that sort of have a moral compass still intact that learn from past mistakes from past or working like Baum in The Big Short

And so, we kind of see this sort of redemption of some aspects of masculinity as a way in which the potential of both finance and masculinity is kind of seen as to kind of remain with maybe unfortunate toxic masculinity referenced earlier. But sort of the kind of redeeming that and sort of kind of portraying a masculinity that has come under some level of criticism within the sort of kind of discourse of excessive predatory masculinity in the context of financial crisis, the excessive risk taking, etc.

And kind of redeeming a figure of reinstating rationality of the market and of finance, through references to on the one hand geekiness and rationality and that aspect. And on the other hand, of sort of emotional learning of appropriating, if you will, some aspects of femininity of kind of off yet constitute femininity of being emotionally more aware of oneself into sort of a discourse of resilient finances. Basically, what we come out with at the end of these movies.

Maxximilian Seijo: Well, Frederic Heine, it’s been a real pleasure having you on Money on the Left, we hope at some point, maybe to have you back soon.

Frederic Heine: Thank you very much. It was a great pleasure. And thank you so much for these great questions and spin offs. It was a very good and pleasurable experience. Thank you very much.