On the political force of MMT

From a non-sovereign perspective

By Andris Šuvajevs
A couple of days ago, the British economics commentator, Grace Blakeley, called people who advocate Modern Monetary Theory “naïve.” This was following a public radio appearance earlier that same day, in which she described tax breaks for the wealthy as taking money directly from those who claim public benefits. An MMT perspective objects to this line of argumentation since the actual or technical monetary process does not at all operate the way Blakeley describes it. Since what MMT calls a monetary sovereign, such as the UK, can issue currency without borrowing (or taxing the rich more), MMT proposes a policy that simply says ‘let’s provide more income to the poor’. The outcome is the same as in Blakeley’s approach, but the journey is different – MMT proposes to get rid of the conditionality that inheres in a policy position which rests on ‘let’s tax the rich in order to fund the poor.’ Importantly, MMT advocates tend to be wholeheartedly in favor of taxing immoral and abnormal levels of wealth – they just treat it as a separate policy issue.

It strikes me as surprising that people on the left become so heated and genuinely insulting toward each other in discussions regarding fiscal policy. There is often bad faith on both sides. Blakeley calling MMTers naïve is patronizing and quite simply arrogant, discarding the scholarship of many truly admirable thinkers. However, I often find that some MMTers are equally hostile when trying to make the point that taxes do not fund the government. Blakeley is obviously making a rhetorical rather than an academic point. She might (perhaps) agree with the technical analysis of the British monetary system that MMT provides, but her interest lies in formulating effective political arguments that resonate in British society. Thus, much of the online bickering between the British (Corbynist) Left and the global MMT crowd is often pointless as both sides speak on different conceptual levels.

Nevertheless, there is a conceptual disagreement between people who generally believe that public spending is in some way dependent on private savings and people who see it exactly the other way around. This disagreement concerns the issue of power. There is a reason why Blakeley disparages MMTers as naïve – her perspective is that MMT has no idea how the political world operates and that MMT is nothing more than a technical description of the monetary system. It is precisely on this point, however, that Blakeley—and the part of the British Left that she represents—demonstrates their worst short-sightedness and bad faith.

Namely, it cannot imagine a world where the metaphysics of trade-offs is not the basic principle of politics. I am all in favor of making effective political arguments that are not necessarily based on MMT, but arguments such as the one Blakeley is making are indicative of a fundamental world-view based on scarcity and zero-sum relations that unwittingly reinforce the very logics it supposedly tries to overcome.

In a way, MMT has a more advanced theory of power than contemporary British Marxists in breaking with the normative vision of societies that are discursively structured in classes and other forms of hierarchy. The British Left immediately (and in bad faith) accuses MMT of denying that classes or hierarchies exist. MMT, on the other hand, sees such blanket disavowals of monetary authority as entrenching structures of inequality. The worldview of the British Left is structured as a struggle. The MMT worldview tries to re-define the meaning of the struggle itself.

I suspect that one reason the British Left is explicitly antagonizing in its rhetoric has to do with it being continuously sidelined from power for the last, I don’t even know how many decades. The British ruling classes have been so overwhelming in their political victories that the British Left probably thinks it cannot afford to spend time on redesigning its conceptual toolkit. Admittedly, it is not easy to make public policy based on rather abstract ideas of power such as the one MMT professes.  However, it has been my own professional experience that political arguments based on MMT can be incredibly empowering. I live in Latvia and this is a country that has adopted the euro and thus has no “monetary sovereignty” as it is commonly defined. Latvia has no formal influence over the interest rate, bond-buying programs and whatever else the ECB is doing. It is a country for whom “MMT does not apply” as critics often suggest. In reality, MMT is the only way forward if Latvia is to achieve any meaningful socio-economic development.

Let me give you some examples of the political utility of MMT. To begin with, the neoliberal doctrine of the financially impotent state whose capability is dependent on the entrepreneurship of the private sector has been a central feature of the post-soviet macroeconomic consensus. It is useful to remember that MMT itself emerges in conditions where political arguments on both sides of the debate assume that the state is a secondary institution in the force-field of capitalism and the fundamental scarcity of money is a fact of life. It is precisely this assumption which enables financialization and privatization of social life and public goods – MMT emerges to challenge that, providing nuanced analyses of the monetary system which then form the basis for the political arguments against the privatization of the state. It is quite remarkable that the British Left fails to acknowledge this making one wonder who actually is naïve here.

In Latvia, as in other Eastern European, post-socialist countries this consensus has imposed heavy social costs. Since the restoration of independence in 1991, the country has lost nearly a quarter of its population and the decreasing population rate is projected to continue well into the next decades. The only public policy response has been nationalist-conservative exhortations about women needing to give more births and moral panics regarding same-sex partnerships. The lack of public policy is rooted in fear that surrounds any economic projects undertaken or supported by the state. The yearly reduction of debt-to-GDP ratio is de facto state policy even in conditions where Latvia enjoys a relatively small debt-to-GDP ratio. Even if Latvia can ‘afford’ to spend more, it will not do so if it increases debt by a few percentage points in the subsequent fiscal year. Meaningful public investment in social infrastructure that includes the wages, salaries or stipends of teachers, students, social workers, etc. is effectively unthinkable. The median wage in society at large after tax is 749 EUR. Latvia’s integration into the global market immediately turned it into a peripheral country that supplies low-to-medium value goods and services, and regularly posts a trade deficit. The austerity of the last decade has decimated its long-term prospects as the absence of social and industrial policy has meant the gradual evaporation of doctors and teachers alongside a discombobulated private sector that is left to its own devices without support or strategic guidance.

It is within this sorry mix of affairs that MMT provides a powerful political alternative. MMT helps articulate the view that public debt is a form of investment and thus does not have to be feared at all. MMTers often criticize the Eurozone for its harsh and nonsensical fiscal framework which countries like Latvia currently fully embrace. Yet, almost paradoxically, Latvia could enjoy more freedom of action if there was the political will to use the financial security afforded by the eurozone to small open economies. Latvia could invest in its social infrastructure without having to rely on its export earnings and without having to impose a heavier tax on its (very small) well-earning segment of the population. Latvia could create financial institutions like a state development bank with the mandate to provide credit to specific industries that carry out the objectives of the green transition if there was a will to do that.

Without an understanding of MMT, these policies are politically impossible. If public investment (in which I include salaries, stipends, and pensions) is made conditional upon tax hikes on the well-off, you may as well just fold and retire. Furthermore, MMT helps to advance the public discussion by suggesting a focus on available resources rather than ‘available money’ – if the gap between necessary and available teachers is recognised as a problem, policy has to be focused on bridging this gap rather than reducing public debt despite everything else collapsing.

At this point, the conventional arguments pop up – ‘Well, what about the interest rate?’, ‘What happens when the debt grows and the servicing costs increase? Won’t we have to sell our national assets to pay it off?’ These are legitimate concerns in a country whose politicians willingly sold its soul to the IMF in 2008. It is precisely because Latvia does not politicize its own monetary agency and reliance on financial markets that these arguments carry the weight that they do. Nevertheless, without MMT one cannot properly address them. It is MMT that points out that the interest rate set by the central banks (the ECB in this case) is a policy, not a market rate. It is this fact which lets one argue that increased debt will not be a burden on future generations because the interest rate set by the financial markets depends on the ECB – and if ECB increases rates in a recessionary environment, well that’s just stupid policy, isn’t it? Whereas if rates increase in a pro growth environment – well, then there’s no problems servicing the debt, is there? Even in the Eurozone there’s room for political decisions and pressures around the ‘super-independent’ ECB as the debates surrounding current inflation demonstrate.

So it can be seen why MMT is politically helpful in such an economic environment. If one can demonstrate to the public that spending can be carried out without extra taxation, and it will likely increase the overall productive capacity of society, they can begin to imagine a new economic model that is otherwise inaccessible. MMT provides the theoretical tools to infuse the public sector with a positive meaning emphasizing the ways it complements rather than contradicts the private sector.

However, an Eastern European setting comes with its own challenges. The society simply does not believe that public debt can be harnessed for good and it sees public money as dangerous and not particularly democratic. The experience of the 1990s and the corruption and theft of state resources has made many of us intuitively suspicious of large (or any) state projects. If direct public spending is proposed, the first thought for many will be that some well-connected individuals are about to be generously enriched.

This is probably where many on the mainstream British Left will triumphantly exclaim “I told you so,” reminding us that it is insufficient to simply ‘learn economics.’ In that sense they are right, and MMTers certainly should be cautious about appearing too arrogant themselves by reducing politics to their academic truths. Public debt and spending is inevitably going to be realized through and alongside the existing structures and hierarchies of society even as it, hopefully, tries to change them. Repeating the mantra that ‘the state cannot go bankrupt,’ even practically in the eurozone, will not get you very far. People have legitimate historical concerns and thus there is still work to do in developing MMT’s insights into an effective political rhetoric.

To briefly conclude, my hope in writing this is centered on the possibility that there will be less quarreling among people who are in broad agreement about their political goals. If more MMTers and non-MMT Marxists inject some good faith in their positions and arguments, that’s a chance for both to practice what they preach. Just because struggle is constitutive of politics does not mean that everything has to be seen as a refraction of one struggle. And just because one is technically correct about something does not mean they are correct in their political rhetoric, dependent as it is on their respective societies. 

The Visual Cliff: Eleanor Gibson & the Origins of Affordance

By Erica Robles Anderson & Scott Ferguson

Originally presented at Hidden Histories: Gender in Design, Design History Society Seminar, April 14, 2022.

Part I: TED Talks and Teapots

In a 2003 TED Talk titled “Three Ways Design Makes You Happy,” Donald Norman announced that “The new me is beauty.” Norman – a professor, design firm principal, and the first Vice President of User Experience at Apple – ranks among the most influential figures in the field of user experience design. Yet above all, he is associated with the concept of “affordance,” an invented term now widely employed to refer to the forms and features of any useful thing.

Norman brokered the term from psychology to design in his 1988 book The Psychology of Everyday Things. Citing J.J. Gibson’s 1979 book The Ecological Theory of Perception as his source, he offered this definition: “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes.” In the 1980s and 1990s, the medium of computing was taking form as a mass “personal” technology. Norman was part of a movement to constrain the material and semantic scope of personal computing through psychological principles of use.

The book cover of "The Psychology of Everyday Things" depicts a tea pot with a handle that is directly underneath the spout.
Donald Norman popularized the term “affordance” in his 1988 book The Psychology of Everyday Things, later re-titled The Design of Everyday Things. Norman’s original title self-consciously references the quotidian neuroses Sigmund Freund famously analyzed in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Norman’s book nods even more directly to Freud in the opening chapter “The Psychopathology of Everyday Things” linking daily experiences of frustration to the need for a new psychology of materials. Unlike the psychoanalyst who might help explore repressed desires and unconscious motivations, the designers’ task is to ease frustrations by generating immediate understanding.

A decade later, at the turn of a new millennium, in the aftershock of the Tech Bubble burst, Norman was now thinking about what feelings afford. He dramatized his thought process on stage:

“I really have the feeling that pleasant things work better, and that never made any sense to me until I finally figured out — look … I’m going to put a plank on the ground. So, imagine I have a plank about two feet wide and thirty feet long and I’m going to walk on it, and you see I can walk on it without looking, I can go back and forth and I can jump up and down. No problem. Now I’m going to put the plank three hundred feet in the air — and I’m not going to go near it, thank you. Intense fear paralyzes you. It actually affects the way the brain works.

That’s what fear and anxiety does; it causes you to be — what’s called depth-first processing — to focus, not be distracted. And I couldn’t force myself across that. Now some people can — circus workers, steelworkers. But it really changes the way you think.”

Donald Norman on-stage delivering a talk.
Donald Norman, “Three Ways Design Makes You Happy,” TED, 2003.

The pleasure of well-designed things has something to do with anxiety. In 2003, unease would have been a salient emotion. The United States was waging a so-called “War on Terror” and the national economy was just pulling out of a recession. A plank across an abyss affording safe passage to the skillful and the daring could be an allegory for neoliberal precarity. But Norman’s demonstration also surfaced a different moment and a history underlying affordance that seems, at first glance, to have very little to do with computing or design: Dr. Eleanor Gibson’s visual cliff

To the best of our knowledge, there are no citations of Eleanor Gibson’s work in design literature. We correct that omission. Eleanor played a foundational role in developing a paradigm that came to shape how we perceive aesthetic, technological, and political-economic possibilities.

We are currently writing a media history of affordance. The first sustained cultural analysis of the concept, we account for the term’s diffusion through networks of social scientists, designers, and technologists during a period marked by discourses about market growth and government constraint. We fundamentally reject zero-sum metaphysics. Our engagement with this history is an effort to revisit late-twentieth-century aesthetics in order to enlarge their critical possibilities toward more capacious ends.

Our analysis of Eleanor Gibson rejects additive models of gender history, with their fatal deferrals to “someday”, or “also”,  or “her or they too.” These logics reproduce inclusion as perpetual supplementarity and thus configure the project of history as an asymptotic climb toward completeness. Gibson’s visual cliff was always already a story of affordance. Our task is to critically interpret its world-shifting Gestalt.

The cover of Eleanor Gibson's memoir depicts the horizon. An overlay of lines converge toward a vanishing point.
Eleanor Gibson, Perceiving the Affordances: A Portrait of Two Psychologists (Routledge, 2002).

Part II: Baby on the Brink

In April 1960 Eleanor Gibson and Richard Walk astonished Scientific American readers with photographs featuring a baby boy crawling atop a sheet of glass laid across a checkerboard platform. On one side there appeared to be a drop-off of a few inches. The other seemed to give way to a small chasm several feet below. Although perfectly safe, the juxtaposition of opacity and transparency created the impression of a precipice, as vividly portrayed in filmed recordings of the experiments. The visual cliff staged the problem of affordance, although it was not yet named as such. Images of mothers beckoning infants to traverse the makeshift gorge entered popular culture through New York Times and Life features. They have been canonized in psychology textbooks for more than half a century. We are bringing babies back in order to think about what affordance affords.

The Cover of Scientific American shows a kitten staring over a precipice.
The “Visual Cliff” was the cover image for the April 1960 issue of Scientific American. Babies of all kinds – human, kitten, goat, rat, lamb, puppy – were placed on the apparatus.
Four images of babies on a visual cliff are depicted. In some, the mother can be seen encouraging the child.
Eleanor Gibson & Richard Walk, “The Visual Cliff,” Scientific American, April 1960.

Eleanor and J.J. met at women-only Smith College during the Great Depression. She was a student, he was an Assistant Professor. She completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology, before finishing a Ph.D. at Yale in 1938. The Gibsons spent decades at Cornell University where J.J. was a professor, but nepotism rules prohibited Eleanor from eligibility as a faculty hire. She worked as a contingent scholar, with no lab of her own nor license to apply for grants as a Principal Investigator. When J.J. retired, Eleanor became the first developmental psychologist in the Department of Psychology as well as Cornell University’s first female endowed chair. She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977 and she received a National Medal of Science in 1992, which is the highest scientific honor in the United States. 

If mid-century psychologists were preoccupied with social attachments, stimulus responses, and mental associations, the Gibsons, together, developed a paradigm they called perceptual ecology and the visual cliff was a crucial experimental foundation. By isolating the child from its mother, they established an ontogenetic basis for “independent locomotion” and “discrimination of depth” untethered from the psychosexual dramas and ambivalent interiorities that riddled midcentury white middle-class prosperity. As unnerving as they are exciting, photographs of babies on the brink raise the question: What does the infant see? In the experiment, almost every toddler refused to venture over the cliff. For Gibson and Walk, this not only proved the babies’ perceptual fitness, but also established that mobile depth perception is a direct ecological “endowment,” not a matter of habits, associations, or institutions. 

Newspaper clipping depicting Dr. Eleanor Gibson, President George H.W. Bush, and Dr. Allan Bromley at the White House.
“Eleanor Gibson receives the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1992,” by Roger Segelken in Cornell Chronicle.
Scientific diagrams explain the visual depth cues in the apparatus designed as a "visual cliff."
First- and third-person views of the visual cliff featured in Eleanor Gibson & Richard Walk, “The Visual Cliff,” Scientific American, April 1960.


Cybernetics has long been narrated as the paradigm that shaped human-computer interactions. Perceptual ecology reveals another path, equally foundational but ontologically distinct. Perceptual ecology is not concerned with signals, feedback loops, or uncertainty. It theorizes a sensory-rich, ever-changing world inhabited by animate perceivers. The terrain is a substance. The ground is a surface primordially differentiated from the sky at the horizon. The atmosphere is an immersive, boundless medium. Animate perceivers do not receive bits of information through discrete channels. Instead, they register the constant flux of light on surface as an “ambient optical array.” Persistent sensory information is called “invariance” and it corresponds to the “solid angles” in a shifting world.

A line drawing of a landing field is shown. Arrows indicate multiple perspectival directions of view, which vanish at the horizon and at the point of aim.
Diagram demonstrating the underlying invariant structure of the optic array from James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Psychology Press, 1979).

Perceptual ecology, like other paradigms that shaped human-computer interaction, addressed the predicament of the soldier moving through the world in machines. During World War II, Eleanor took leave from teaching and research to raise children and J.J. led a U.S. Army Air Forces Aviation Psychology Program called the Psychological Test Film Unit. The Unit jettisoned the instrumentation of cockpits and radar screens to make motion pictures. The animated mobile point-of-view shots we associate with first-person shooter games and virtual reality experiences were developed to train pilots and to build a psychological theory of being-in-the-world that is perceptual and ecological at once. In 1947, J.J. wrote that “All spaces in which we can live include at least one surface, the ground or terrain. If there were no surface, there would be no visual world, strictly speaking.”

A gunner door on an aircraft is open and a plane flying nearby, likely a target, can be seen.
Point of view shot from Position Firing, an animated U.S. Air Force training film directed by an un-credited John Hubley and featuring waist gunner “Trigger Joe” voiced by Mel Blanc. The film was developed to teach gunners the basics of how to hit attacking fighters from bombers like the B-17 & B-24. Position Firing is one of many test and training films discussed in James J. Gibson’s previously classified text, Motion Picture Testing and Research, Report No. 7 (1947), written under the auspices of the U.S. Army’s Psychological Test Film Unit after the Second World War.
A room is drawn as if receding from inside the head of the observer. The nose appears close up, the feet appear further back, then the boundaries of the room, then the view out the window, all the way to the horizon.
The cockpit perspective comes home. The first-person view of the wartime pilot is transmuted into a mid-century view from a living room lounge chair. CIT The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
Two renderings of a house are juxtaposed. In the first every edge of the shapes composing the structure can be seen. In the second, only the edges that would be visible to an observer are in view.

Perspective views of solid objects modeled by Lawrence G. Roberts. Throughout the 1960s, Roberts drew extensively from J.J. Gibson’s Perception of the Visual World (1950) to formulate a highly influential theory of computer vision focused on surfaces, edges, and lines. The pictures above were featured in Ivan E. Sutherland, “Computer Inputs and Outputs,” Scientific American 215, no. 3 (September 1966). For a media archaeology of this image in computer graphics see Jacob Gaboury, Image Objects: An Archaeology of Computer Graphics. (MIT Press, 2021).
A hand reaches out, as if attached to the player, to punch an avatar on screen.
First-person combat view from Superhot VR, a virtual reality game designed for Oculus’s Quest & Quest 2 headsets.

The visual cliff brought surfaces and animate perceivers into the lab in order to prove that discrimination is a psychological, rather than merely a physiological, problem. Babies of all kinds – human, kitten, goat, rat, lamb, puppy – were placed on the apparatus to the same effect. Surfaces are meaningful in terms of an organisms’ proprioceptive sensory capacities within an ecological niche. Their perceptual thresholds act as optical footholds or levers for immediate responsive action: edge detection. Affordance names the frame-of-reference as organism-environment relationality. 

Donald Norman’s version of “affordance” channeled perceptual ecology into design. Norman explains, “Affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning…when affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction is required” (Norman, 1988, 9). “Good design,” he argued, “leads to immediate understanding” (Norman, 1988, 23). 

Good, here, means ease, not True or Beautiful. Norman’s “natural design” breaks with Beaux-Arts, Bauhaus, and Arts and Crafts traditions. The aesthetic of “immediate understanding” took hold through the language of “user experience.” In the moment when graphical conventions were being developed, affordances constrained interface functions and forms. Affordance diffused through training programs, professional organizations, and publications. It circulated through engineering, social science, business and marketing, the arts, and the humanities. In the process, terrestrial surfaces became digital media ecologies and affordance became a term for technology, writ large.

A hand pushes upward on a seat adjustment lever attached to the side of a car door.
“Seat Adjustment Control from a Mercedes-Benz Automobile” An example of “good design” as constraint mapping, from Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things (Doubleday, 1989)
A small desktop computer with a portrait of a child's face on-screen is placed on a floating white background.
Macintosh Color Classic, an all-in-one Macintosh with color display targeted at educational institutions was released the year Donald Norman joined Apple as Vice President of User Experience.

At first glance, affordance seems to be a popularized social science term. It is capaciously relational, perhaps almost to the point of banality. Upon critical reflection, however, one begins to perceive how affordance-thinking contracts the view. When ‘what you see is what you get’, social difference, intermediaries, and ethical disturbances disappear from the schema of the given.

If these politics often evade notice, perhaps it has something to do with how elegantly affordance nominalizes the verb to afford. By focusing on “the complementarity of the animal and the environment” it omits political economy, by design. To afford is to provision, to bear the expense of accomplishing something. The Gibsonian neologism replaces the political-economic provocation ‘What is to be done?,” with the perceptual ecological question, ‘What is immediately given?’

Direct experience is a rather narrow and ambivalent mode of ease. It relies upon mediations and hidden labors that must go unseen. A gender history that adds specific figures to the canon can never go far enough. There is trouble with a model that takes what is seen as the limit of what can be given. If we are to reckon with affordance we need to promote the concept to the status of a metaphysical reckoning with being-in-the-world. Like I-Thou relations, a phenomenology for Dasein, a biosemiotic Umwelt, Kantianism, or Cartesianism, there is a big move underway on the visual cliff. But there is also a sensational melodrama of eyeballs on the brink, which Norman’s turn to emotional design brings to the surface.

By queering and expanding the term we could embrace perceptual ecology as political economy as design. We can openly declare that society is not condemned to forever teeter on the cliff, whether narrative, fiscal, or metaphysical. There are many worlds that we can, in fact, afford.

About the Authors

Erica Robles Anderson is a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. She is a cultural historian of network society interested in architecture, technology, and religion, as forms of collective life. She is a founding member of the OIKOS working group on kinship and economy, and the Editor of Public Culture.

Scott Ferguson is a professor of film and media in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida, editor for the Money on the Left Editorial Collective, and research scholar at the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity. His research focuses on money, media and aesthetics in Western modernity.

The Unfathomable Cruelty of Biden’s Latest Afghanistan Executive Order

By Mitch Green

Originally published to Substack

Biden has decided to steal raid $7 billion of Da Afghanistan Bank reserves currently frozen by US financial institutions. The motivation for this guileless heist is two fold:

  1. Set aside $3.5 billion for humanitarian aid in Afghanistan
  2. Make available $3.5 billion for claimants in ongoing 9/11 survivor’s lawsuits

The grotesqueness of this Executive Order has layers that I’d like to unpack. I’m tempted to use the Matryoshka Doll as a metaphor here, but the layers of horror are not cleanly nested so much as they are woven in and out of the policy situation. Let’s examine some of them in turn.

Horror #1: Raiding Da Afghanistan Bank’s reserves undermines the entire Afghan economy

Despite the title, Executive Order on Protecting Certain Property of Da Afghanistan Bank for the Benefit of the People of Afghanistan, dispossessing the central bank of these reserves is a direct threat to Afghan welfare. As Dr. Shah Mohammad Mehrabi, economist and former central banker for Afghanistan explains, freezing these reserves has undermined the payments system in Afghanistan as well as the very ability for the central bank to fulfill its institutional obligations of providing liquidity and price stability.

Effects of Freezing Foreign Exchange Reserves

Billington: The main subject that you have been dealing with, as have we, is that the U.S. Federal Reserve and several European banks have $9.5 billion in reserves which belong to the Afghan Central Bank. This money does not belong to the banks that are holding it, but it’s being frozen for political reasons and disagreements with the new government in Kabul, which makes it essentially a form of illegal economic warfare. Could you describe the impact of this on the people of Afghanistan and what actions you have taken to attempt to free these funds?
Dr. Mehrabi: Here is an important point about freezing Afghan foreign exchange reserves. It has contributed to economic instability which I predicted back in September. I predicted a number of things would occur, and they have all come into being, because now there is data to substantiate what I had already predicted in September. At that time, I predicted the currency would depreciate—it has depreciated by more than 14% since August. I also predicted that food prices would increase to double digits—and double digit has occurred. The Price of wheat has gone up by more than 20%, flour has gone up by over 30%, cooking oil has gone up by 60%, and gasoline has gone up by 74%. 
In the banking sector, I also said at that time that it needs liquidity, and to bring liquidity, it is very important that the reserves must be released, I said, to stabilize prices and to prevent a further collapse of the afghani, which is the national currency. 
The 14% currency depreciation hits mostly consumer purchasing power. It puts people in a position where they cannot buy the basic necessities of life. Also, the asset prices of all these goods have gone up.
 Also, I said that imports would decline, and that has occurred. There was a reduction in demand for these imported goods, and consumption has declined significantly because people have no access to their own money in the bank. On the top of that, they don’t have jobs. Many lost their jobs; they did not earn any income and then higher prices further suppressed the demand for buying goods and services.
So that’s what you see: hunger and starvation has come into being.

I have emphasized key parts of the transcript above to drive home the effects of removing significant sums of reserves from the central bank’s toolkit. This interview was recorded last December, before Biden decided to loot these funds, thereby permanently removing them from play. So, it follows that the conditions will only deteriorate further. Hunger and starvation has come into being, but not spontaneously. No, this was caused by the policy of freezing those assets and the new move threatens to turn the screws further.

Whither the women and children?

Last summer when the withdrawal was underway, most narratives went something like this: “Sure, the war was long and costly, but we told the woman and children of Afghanistan we had their backs. Now we’re leaving them to die.” The implication was that to withdraw was to abandon them, and so if we want to honor that promise we need to stay in perpetuity. In one sense, there’s some truth to this: the withdrawal did leave a gaping whole of demand in the economy and the desire to kneecap the central bank was not on the table while present in occupation. This fact reveals an aspect of this horror: the threat of permanent occupation as the only means by which vulnerable Afghans, of which woman and children serve as an evocative proxy, can have a meaningful chance at life. Not life and liberty. Just life, partly.

Now, rather than take measures to aid in the viability of the Afghan economy to function, the Biden Administration is decided to harm it further. Again, here is Dr. Mehrabi capturing this hypocrisy.

“We talk about the issue of women and so on—women and children are the first people suffering from this. They are not able to buy goods and services. On the one hand, if we argue, that we want to provide humanitarian aid, but we are going to choke off the economy as well—those are two opposite arguments. The arguments do not really make sense. On the one hand, you say, I want to help with humanitarian aid, but I’m going to choke off the economy so that the ordinary Afghans will not be able to have access to food and basic necessities.”

This hypocrisy should be brought to the fore in any serious policy discussion on Afghan welfare. Modern human practices no longer recommend holding a dog’s snout in their own excrement to show them how they’ve misbehaved, but the jury is still out on how to train The Blob. NB: Dogs are lovable and incapable of cold malice.

But, the Executive Order aims to use half of the loot for humanitarian aid for the benefit of the people. It says so right in the name!

This would be funny were it not so disastrous and misguided. You cannot address the immiseration of Afghans resulting from, in part, the temporary restraint of its central bank, by hobbling it to do a one-shot aid package. This is absurd and anyone advising the President on the economic soundness of this concept should be stripped of their credentials and floated out to sea. $3.5 billion is a tiny number for an aid package appropriate for the need. And anyway, what is of crucial importance is the swift return of the central bank’s ability to manage its banking system, exchange rate and afghani liquidity. That’s the plumbing, folks. Imagine ripping the plumbing out of a thirsty person’s house, then handing them a length of the resultant copper scrap and saying, “Drink up! There’s some water left in this pipe. And you’re welcome ;)” That’s what this is like. Or if you prefer less hyperbole, here again is Dr. Mehrabi:

Belsky: […] The World Bank, as you know, is now planning to restore about $230 million in aid. But even this small amount, they’re saying, has to go through UNICEF and the World Health Organization instead of going through the Afghan banking system. What is your view of this?
Dr. Mehrabi: I don’t know where UNICEF is going to use it, for what purposes. I said that before. Or WHO, and even the World Food Program. If they are for the purpose of purchasing grains and other basic necessities, that is good. But humanitarian aid is not a solution to rekindling the activities of the economy. Humanitarian aid, as I have said all along, while it is necessary, it’s a stop gap measure, it’s not a complete measure to get the economy overall to move to a point where they could get an increase in aggregate demand, which is very essential if the economy is going to function and generate enough revenue for daily economic activity.

Horror #2: Robbing Afghans to compensate 9/11 Survivor Claimants with suits outstanding

I’m not a legal expert and will not opine on the standing or other circumstances of the 9/11 Survivors lawsuits. And this one might make a lot people very angry with me. But, I will say that it’s grotesque political theater to seize reserves of a central bank in one country to use as a basis for paying people in another country under the pretense of compensating them for damages caused by individuals from a third country. Even if you could establish a direct connection to some Afghans for that crime, it would not follow that you should punish an entire society of people who have no causal relationship to the event as a mechanism for making financial restitution to a restricted class of beneficiaries in another society. I leave the legality of the whole proposition to the lawyers, which seems to this lay person rather dubious.

And you don’t need to pilfer the central bank reserves of Afghanistan to make 9/11 Survivors whole! A fact that brings me to the last horror I’d like address.

Horror #3: We see once again the deleterious effects of treating money as a quantum of value that needs to be shuffled around

I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right. I did put MMT into this reaction piece. Here’s why: this Executive Order, top to bottom and side to side, represents the sound money scarcity logics that prevail consensus policy views. It’s right there in the notion that you can seize some treasure to move from the plumbing of the Afghanistan banking system to the “humanitarian aid” sector of the Afghanistan economy. Elsewhere, you have the notion that you can seize some of the treasure and push it across the playing board to third parties who are hoping for payments to originate from the legal – economic apparatus of the US system. And yet you still see it in the foolish notion that you can do any part of this in such a way that sanitizes the operations from hitting Taliban balance sheets. Only a sound finance mind can dream up such a fantasy.

It’s the opposite case that draws this last horror out. The idea that economic endeavors may proceed on their own terms (by envisioning the outcome you want and then legislating for the funds to finance it), in non zero sum fashion, illustrates the needless cruelty, waste and punitive character of this Executive Order. It is volitional to destroy the Afghan financial system. It is volitional to starve Afghans so that you may clear a path for resolution for the 9/11 Survivors. It is grotesque and horrific and will be Biden’s legacy.

Read more from Mitch Green’s Substack

On ‘Thin Air’: Money, Metaphoricity & Metatheatre (Essay)

By Rob Hawkes

Last year, I gave a talk on literature, money, and trust in George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) which the MotL Editorial Collective kindly shared as a podcast. Gissing’s novel tells the story of a group of writers struggling to survive in the harsh literary marketplace of the 1880s, one in which artistic merit seems to count for very little and authors who wish to achieve success must regard literature as a trade. The two characters who most clearly embody the plight of the artist who cannot ‘supply the market’, Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen, both die in poverty by the end of the book and, significantly, both recite the same lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest as they approach death: ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.’ This is not simply a coincidence; Biffen is present at the moment of Readon’s death and he later recalls his friend’s last words as he reaches the end of his own life. However, I find the appearance of these lines in this text especially intriguing because they point towards a set of pressing issues in our present-day debates surrounding money.

This is the longer speech from The Tempest that the lines recited by Reardon and Biffen are taken from:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

At this point in the play, the sorcerer Prospero has called a halt to a ‘masque’ which he has conjured to celebrate his daughter Miranda’s engagement to Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples. As Prospero explains to Ferdinand during the performance, its cast are: ‘Spirits, which by mine art / I have from their confines call’d to enact / My present fancies’. One of many instances of a play-within-a-play in Elizabethan drama, this scene in The Tempest exemplifies the thoroughgoing ‘metatheatricality’ of Shakespeare’s works. That is to say that Shakespeare’s plays frequently contain moments of self-reflexive awareness of their own theatricality and, by extension – as in the famous ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech from As You Like It – of the theatricality of life beyond the theatre. Furthermore, as William Sherman notes in the Literary Encyclopedia, ‘Our revels now are ended’ is a speech: ‘which many critics have been tempted to read as Shakespeare’s own farewell to the stage’ occurring as it does in one of the ‘late plays’. As it happens, this speech is also the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the ‘transferred and figurative’ use of the word ‘thin’, to mean: ‘Wanting body or substance; unsubstantial; intangible. Also in to vanish (melt, etc.) into thin air: to disappear completely from sight or existence (formerly only of spirits). More rarely to come (etc.) out of thin air.’ As Money on the Left readers and listeners will know, ‘thin air’ is a much-repeated phrase in conversations surrounding money, and especially in discussions of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). In Declarations of Dependence, for example, Scott Ferguson celebrates the ‘resolutely public capacity to generate money out of thin air‘ that MMT makes manifest.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the topic of money creation to widespread public attention – perhaps as never before – as a result of the vast increases in government spending that were necessary to protect lives and livelihoods around the world and, within this broad discussion, the notion of ‘thin air’ has continued to feature prominently. In April 2020, for instance, still in the early months of the pandemic, an article in the New York Timessought to explain ‘How the Government Pulls Coronavirus Relief Money Out of Thin Air’ as follows:

“The United States has responded to the economic havoc wrought by the coronavirus with the biggest relief package in its history: $2 trillion. It essentially replaces a few months of American economic activity with a flood of government money […]. And where is all that cash coming from? Mostly out of thin air.”

The language used here is fascinating in a number of ways. First, the idea that the US government ‘pulls’ money ‘out of thin air’ connotes the pulling of rabbits from hats, while the ‘flood’ of government money evoked next supports the image of money as a liquid that flows (or sometimes sloshes) around the economy. However, this notion of liquid money sits awkwardly alongside the idea of money being ‘pulled’ from somewhere (or perhaps nowhere) – might money in a liquid form be imagined more plausibly as needing to be scooped or pumped than pulled? Having evoked the idea of a flood of money, however, the article goes on to refer to ‘cash’, suggesting that the $2 trillion ‘package’ of coronavirus relief took the rather more solid form of coins and banknotes (which might be better imagined as a stack or a pile than a flood). Finally, it is intriguing to note that the covid relief money is described as coming ‘mostly’ from thin air – which presumably means that some of it was already lying around somewhere – although the exact proportions remain mysterious. This analysis of the article’s phrasing may seem facetious, but (perhaps unsurprisingly as I am a literature scholar) it is my contention here that words matter. Furthermore, I assert that the difficulty that can frequently be observed in any attempt to put money into words – as in the above example and, more broadly, in the mixed metaphors and confused figurations that abound in public discourse surrounding money – is extraordinarily telling.

In a 2020 interview with the Financial Times, Stephanie Kelton asserts that: ‘we don’t have a debt problem, we don’t have a deficit problem […] We have a language problem.’ Kelton, furthermore, is not the only MMT economist to underline the importance of language and especially of metaphor in the way that money is imagined and discussed. In ‘Framing Modern Monetary Theory’ (2017), Louisa Connors and Bill Mitchell ‘provide a conceptual basis for understanding how the language we use constrains our thinking’ and ‘examine some of the key metaphors used to reinforce the flawed message of orthodox economics’. These approaches tend to present the ‘language problem’ identified by Kelton as something to be overcome in the pursuit of more effective ways of explaining how modern economies work. By contrast, I want to suggest that money is hard – perhaps even impossible – to put into words for a reason and that this is an aspect of money that warrants further exploration and understanding rather than circumnavigation or avoidance. Indeed, it may be that money is necessarily ungraspable, both literally and figuratively.

It is particularly interesting to note that, unlike the image of the ‘magic money tree’, which has repeatedly been evoked in recent years to ridicule those who support increases in public spending, the idea of money coming ‘out of thin air’ has been used both to champion and to poke fun at the MMT approach, despite its equally magical connotations. In a recent review of The Deficit Myth for Forbes, for example, Nathan Lewis caricatures Kelton’s argument as follows: ‘as long as there are unused productive resources in the economy (basically, unemployment), the government can print money out of thin air, spend it, and everything is okey-dokey.’ Lewis’s accusation in this piece is one of naivety, as the phrasing ‘everything is okey-dokey’ underlines. Nevertheless, his characterisation of Kelton’s argument – that ‘the government can print money out of thin air’ – is both intriguing and baffling. If the process of creating of money ‘out of thin air’ involves printing, then it is very hard to imagine how this works. Does air get fed into one end of the printer, where blank paper would usually go? I suppose this at least explains why the air has to be thin (gathered at high altitude, perhaps?) – thick air would no doubt clog up the printer. On the other side of the argument, in another piece written in the early stages of the pandemic response, Thomas Fazi deploys the idea of ‘thin air’ in support of MMT:

“The coronavirus crisis has now revealed the austerity logic to be an utter sham: as advocates of modern monetary theory (MMT) have been saying for years, states that issue their own currency and issue debt in their own currency […] can never ‘run out of money’, nor can they become insolvent because, unlike households or firms, they can literally create money out of thin air.”

In the light of the origin (or, in other words, the coining) of the phrase ‘thin air’ in The Tempest, Fazi’s assertion that governments literally create money out of thin air is a curious one. As the OED highlights, the phrase relies on the figurative use of the word ‘thin’ and much of its impact, I would suggest, derives from its metaphoricity. As the image (or non-image) of thin air going through a printer more readily than thick air was intended to emphasise, the word ‘thin’ in the phrase ‘thin air’ is not a reference to its thickness as such. In the OED’s terms, it means ‘unsubstantial’ or ‘intangible’ and thus the idea of something substantial appearing out of unsubstantial air suggests the involvement of a sorcerer such as Prospero.

Given that, as Kelton observes in The Deficit Myth, ‘money is no object’, I would argue that it makes little sense to describe money as being ‘printed’, ‘literally created’, or even ‘pulled’ out of thin air, because all of these formulations represent the production of money as a physical process. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that the link between Shakespeare/Prospero and ‘thin air’, via Gissing, remains significant. After all, while the spirits that perform Prospero’s ‘masque’ both come from and vanish into ‘thin air’, there is no need to imagine that they achieve substantiality in the interim. As I noted above, the ‘Our revels now are ended’ speech has often been regarded as a moment of metatheatrical commentary. Interpreted in this way, plays and, by extension, other works of literature also come out of thin air (and it is remarkable how little time most of us spend worrying that we are going to run out of plays, novels, or poems). As the literary theorist and scholar Derek Attridge puts it: ‘A literary work is not an object or a thesis; literature happens’. This is one of the reasons, as Attridge also explains, ‘that all attempts since the Renaissance to determine the difference between “literary” and “non-literary” language have failed’ and yet, as he goes on to assert, ‘this is a necessary failure, one by which literature as a cultural practice has been continuously constituted.’ In my wider research, I pursue connections between literature, money, and trust and argue that rethinking this trio of terms and the dynamic relationships between them can shed important new light on each concept. I do so not to suggest that literature and money are the same, but to affirm that literature and money can be thought of as sharing the generative potential to emerge from thin air, a potential that frequently defies articulation. Perhaps, then, the difficulty of putting money into words discussed above is also necessary, because money is no object; money happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what separates Socialists from other think tanks.

Don’t Look Up MMT (Essay)

By Michael Brennan

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

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

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

Doomsday Media

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

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

Doomsday First, Media Second

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

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

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

Money as Media

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

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

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

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

Looking Up’s Contradiction

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

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

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

Affirming Public Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Automating Eden (Essay)

by Geoff Coventry

[Note for readers: This article contains spoilers]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowdfunding Christmas (Essay)

by Scott Ferguson

It’s a Wonderful Life has long been a holiday classic. A 1946 Christmas fantasy by director Frank Capra, the film is a sentimental portrait of communal altruism in the face of economic crisis and existential despair. Every Christmas, millions of viewers ritually revisit the movie to reflect upon the season’s spirit of giving.

From the perspective of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), however, the film’s yearly returns seem more like a perennial nightmare. Whereas MMT insists that money is a limitless public instrument and that private sector production depends on centralized governance and fiscal spending, It’s a Wonderful Life imagines that the state has little to do with American money or production and romanticizes the practice of gathering large sums from many small private donations, or in contemporary parlance, “crowdfunding.” The story in It’s a Wonderful Life is set against the backdrop of a tumultuous period in American history, stretching roughly from the end of World War I to just after the Second World War. Instead of thematizing the turbulent politics of provisioning and privation that shape this period, the film treats money as a private and largely alienating relation. It then holds up crowdfunding as a supernatural salve for working people.

In this sense, the film remains surprisingly relevant to present viewers. As thousands turn to crowdfunding platforms to shore up neoliberalism’s structural failures in everything from healthcare to the arts, It’s a Wonderful Life’s improbable fable of community-funded uplift stokes contemporary desires for digitally mediated miracles.

The film’s dismal economics become clearest in the two key miracles that frame its narrative. First, an angel named Clarence is sent from Heaven to save protagonist George Bailey, the now suicidal head of an insolvent Building and Loan Association in Bedford Falls, New York. Clarence convinces George to embrace life by showing him a dystopian version of Bedford Falls in which he never existed. This theological intervention into the secular realm suggests that any mediation or assistance from above is to be strictly personal, moral, and existential. It also falsely implies that collective life is wholly contingent upon the actions of individuals, as in most Hollywood fare.

The film’s second miracle occurs at the story’s conclusion. On Christmas Eve, the townsfolk of Bedford Falls pool together heaps of their own hard-earned dollars, at once redeeming George’s decision to remain alive and rescuing the Building and Loan on which they, too, rely. Indeed, because the Building and Loan provides Bedford’s downtrodden with decent housing, when the community aids George it is also helping itself. In reality, of course, the New Deal and World War II saw the US government spend like never before or since, and midcentury suburbanization was an overt governance project. But It’s a Wonderful Life envisions money as a slippery private substance, which is monopolized by capitalist slumlord Henry F. Potter. It then dramatizes quality social investment and housing as marvels of bottom-up cooperation.

In the end, Clarence’s and the community’s extraordinary actions snowball into one big Christmas miracle. The result glorifies crowdfunding as the only antidote to systemic breakdown and imbues this antidote with a schmaltzy sense of divine justice. In doing so, It’s a Wonderful Life not only misconstrues political economy and makes a mockery of American history. It also naturalizes so-called “secular stagnation” and renders long-lasting transformation unimaginable.

In response, one might wish to organize a mass boycott against It’s a Wonderful Life this Christmas season. Yet why forsake the charms of a great Hollywood tearjerker when we can build a political movement that turns our shared pangs into miracles that really deliver the goods?

So, happy viewing, everyone. Only, this year let us look askance at It’s a Wonderful Life’s crowdfunding reveries and fight to realize the money form’s still-untapped public powers.

Originally published on Naked Capitalism

Chaplin’s Modern Times: Pretty Pro-Communist (Essay)

How awful the thought of oneness… One merging into all and all merging into one. Just think of merging into Herbert Hoover.

-Charlie Chaplin

In 1952, facing harassment from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, Charlie Chaplin left the United States and moved to Switzerland. Chaplin shared personal tragedy with thousands of suspected communists across American society, swept up in the blacklists and persecutions of the McCarthy era. Perhaps more so than many of the “subversives” whose nonidentity with white middle class culture earned them the communist label, Chaplin’s social criticism really did take on the monopoly capitalism of his day. It’s not difficult to read Marxist themes into Chaplin’s slapstick depictions of Taylorism and “scientific management” in Modern Times (1936). But to honor the creativity of Chaplin, it is important not to conflate his respectful willingness to think alongside Marxist problems with a dogmatic commitment to thinking exclusively within them. 

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is an ambiguous meditation on the political economy of his day. Though Modern Times speaks most recognizably through a Marxist lens, it gestures beyond Marx in its ambivalent depictions of the social roles played simultaneously by various institutions. While Chaplin’s “Tramp” is dehumanized by the factory’s reduction of his individuality to an appendage of private profit, his work advances the narrative in ways that outstrip profit.

At points, Modern Times does feel like a dramatization of Marx’s descriptions of capitalist industry in the Communist Manifesto. In the first part of the Manifesto, Marx writes that the modern factory worker “becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.” Marx describes this enslavement of men to machines as “alienation,” in the sense that their labor becomes directed towards alien ends rather than their own. Chaplin portrays this zero-sum formulation to comic effect in the opening factory sequences, in which The Tramp disastrously switches his attention back and forth between the assembly line and his coworkers, losing track of both.

However, this Marxist formulation is complicated and undermined at the level of narrative. Even as this opening scene manifestly depicts a contradiction between The Tramp’s labor and attention serving his own ends and those of capital, both cohere narratively in maintenance of the society more broadly. Events outside of the factory—on the street, at home, and in prison—work in tandem with those inside the factory to produce a narrative that contains each of these settings. While prison seems to serve the capitalist class structurally as an institution to discipline troublemakers before they are sent back to the factory, The Tramp also finds that within prison he is self-directed. This is played for laughs, but the irony of prison being a place for self-directed behavior belies a paradox of Marx’s critique of alienation: that self-directed collectives require institutional mediation beyond their immanent boundaries.

Of course, Marx would be the first to admit that factories rely on other parts of society for maintenance and reinforcement. “No sooner is the exploitation of the laborer by the manufacturer, so far, at an end, that he received his wages in cash,” Marx writes, “than he is set upon by other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.” While Marx here is allowing for events beyond the factory to be socially meaningful, the social whole in which they cohere is conflated with the social goals of the bourgeoisie. And to be sure, Modern Times does clearly critique the prison and the factory for working in tandem. But contra Marx, it does not necessarily follow from the film’s critique of wage labor that every institution under capitalism serves capital as its ultimate end.

We see a similar polyvalence in the café that The Tramp and his love interest (“the Gamin”) work at, where management’s discipline of the employees does not fully define the terms by which the café can be engaged. The Tramp’s job in the café is waiting tables, and at first this seems to resemble his stints at the factory, in which he is unable to conform his body to the rhythm and pace of work. This seems to culminate in a diner’s roast duck being thrown across the room, but at the moment that this happens, it is caught by a group of athletes and the scene breaks into a performance of a rugby chase that destabilizes the clear division between diners and servers. The diners are folded into a theatrical production, not as a negation of their respective class positions, but as a social valence that was always there to be read.

Later, when The Tramp loses the lyrics to the song he is supposed to perform, he makes up his own song that wins over the audience. Unlike in the factory, The Tramp’s creativity and deviations here are rewarded. The café offers many analogs of social mediation at once, insofar as its social valuation is figured as multidirectional and polyvalent. Whether The Tramp’s mimetic creativity is allowed is a social decision that implicates more than just management. The diners, wait staff, and management are responsible in different ways for the social meaning of The Tramp’s performance. 

Leftists today who are anxious to unify around a single mass organization or “theory of change” would do well to study Chaplin’s non-identical engagements with the problems and themes of Marxism. At a 1942 dinner held in Chaplin’s honor, Chaplin frustrated an FBI informant in the audience with this exact maneuver. “I am not a Communist,” Chaplin declared, “but I am proud to say that I feel pretty pro-Communist.”

Modern Monetary Theory and The Trans Agenda (Essay)

By Nia Cola

To be trans today is to be treated as a political agent at all times, but afforded no  substantive political agency. Everything you do is scrutinized, as your right to exist remains under constant review. In response, trans liberation means actualizing authentic ways of being, without waiting for the sovereign judgment of cis society. The question of how to achieve this will always be open-ended and multi-faceted. Whatever our focus, however, trans liberation requires a gender framework that expands the present bounds of possibility, in excess of the limited forms of life that have been previously afforded space. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) gives us just that framework. 

MMT allows space for limitless social rearticulation through public spending and employment. In positing money as an infinite public resource, MMT provides a viable counter-narrative to dominant theories of “commodity money,” which account for human differences as economic costs and potential liabilities when it comes to building a mass political base. And while the prevailing economics casts money as an unproductive and symbolic veil over finite resources, MMT’s insistence on money’s active role in directing production allows us to see the affordance of difference as a policy variable. MMT also serves as a powerful analogue for the trans struggle against what could be called “sound gender” ideology—the assertion of a strictly material gender reality that the introduction of new pronouns can only debase. 

Grounded in such materialist reductionism, the stigmatization of trans people is implicit in the hegemonic gender binary system, which is part and parcel of colonial systems of knowledge and control. The patriarchal family, as an “independent” driver of social reproduction, stands in for the Western nation-state’s self image as necessarily profit-seeking and extractive. And Western anxieties about queer and trans forms of life allegedly “replacing” traditional lifestyles are in some ways a projection of the West’s own justification for settler-colonialism, whereby the existence of colonizers required the genocidal “replacement” of indigenous populations.

The sweeping social identities that Western thought derives from the ideology of biological dimorphism, however, are by no means universal. Despite sexual dimorphism, not all cultures have held to a strictly binary view of gender. There are, in fact, many ways for sexual reproduction to be folded into social reproduction, and so the supposedly “practical” and “material” bases of gender identity are in fact socially constructed and essentially contestable. What is more, because the archetypal reproductive household is socially constructed, the very fact of trans existence holds open space for rearticulation and reconfiguration. Trans existence, in other words, belies the falseness of cis society’s claims about itself. If trans existence is so destabilizing, what we’re dealing with are the symptoms of repressed truths about gender—namely, that there are no fixed truths. 

A rigid gender binary restricts individuals from acting outside of a narrow scope of social norms and becomes the basis for social and economic exclusions predicated on one’s performance of gender. While there is nothing evil about trying on binary gender roles, the politics of performance must be self-consciously nested in a contingent and playful non-binary spectrum. This essential space to play and experiment with gender cannot be conceived merely as escaping coercion. It demands ongoing cultivation and maintenance by way of an MMT-based political economic “agenda” that aims to secure trans agency in myriad urgent ways.

The Trans Agenda

As a function of a repressive cis gender binary regime, trans people must daily confront tremendous hardships and challenges. They face extraordinarily high rates of unemployment, for example, often recorded at around three to four times the rate for cis people. Trans persons also suffer from meager wages, lower levels of college attainment on average, and extremely high rates of poverty. Due to social and institutional discrimination, a large proportion of trans people are involved in the Sex Work (SW) industry. The criminalization and stigmatization of this precarious line of work exposes trans people to high degrees of financial and bodily risk, contributing greatly to the high rates of violence perpetrated against the trans community. 

For this reason, decriminalizing SW is an essential part of any trans liberation agenda. It is undeniable, however, that a significant portion of trans participation in SW is tied to discrimination elsewhere, and so justice for trans sex workers cannot be taken in isolation. If trans people are going to achieve liberation, it will mean provisioning lives we want to lead—including those of us who happily participate in SW. 

The issue of discrimination at the point of access to social goods can be viewed as a matter of equal protection under the law, and for this the solution is simple: pass statutes that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity. While this is of course a long Civil Rights fight, a good start would be passing the Equality Act, which would immediately alleviate explicit discrimination as a concern by making it illegal at the federal level. The Equality Act was passed by the House for the second time on February 25, 2021 and is awaiting a vote in the Senate. 

Still, the trans agenda must go further. A comprehensive policy platform could fill a tome, of course, and it would be good to develop such an agenda in the future. Here, however, I would like to focus on two key policies–a Federal Job Guarantee (FJG) and, below, Medicare for All–which are only realizable if we embrace the radical implications of MMT. 

The MMT lens implores us to look at the world in an expansive and generative way, rejecting binary and zero-sum thinking at the level of fiscal provisioning. The fundamental insight of MMT is that money is not a private commodity that must be taken from the market via taxation in order to fund the public sector. To the contrary, governments create money to finance their operations, and taxation is simply one tool among many to manage the shape and distribution of monetary demand (as well as ensure a common denomination. Money’s role in mediating access to and participation in social provisioning is a limitless public resource, which can be used however we want and across any time horizon. 

For this reason, the monetary agency of the Federal government to name and finance public priorities can be mobilized at any time to create a public option for employment. If designed and fought for as a fully inclusive and trans affirming program, a FJG would not only establish a wage-and-benefits floor for the entire economy and begin to challenge and change the social meaning of work. It would also create an inalienable foundation to both support and further facilitate trans liberation, while buttressing trans resilience against hostile employment authorities. 

Building a trans positive FJG, meanwhile, would build union power by diversifying and expanding the traditional white cis culture of union membership. As a unionized public works system, the FJG will no doubt irreversibly alter the balance of power between unions and employers throughout the economy. Yet while unions have in the past proven to be crucial countervailing forces against employers, traditional unions are far from perfect and insufficient on their own. Indeed, even in their heyday, large unions predominantly shaped and supported a repressive and exclusionary mid-center social order. 

A diversified FJG union, by contrast, will not merely boster trans life. It would also strengthen the bargaining power of public and private unions alike by preventing them from holding minority groups hostage to exclusionary majorities, or even corrupt alliances with management. A FJG union, moreover, would allow workers to refuse to work in striking sectors, providing an expansive foundation for industrial solidarity that transcends the false opposition between living for one’s self and living for one’s class. 

Too Many Pronouns Chasing Too Few Genders?

As with any expansion of government spending, the standard objection leveled against the FJG is that it will cause runaway inflation. Behind this explicit argument looms an implicit and quite violent social implication: If paying everyone to work increases the rate of inflation, as might be alleged by mainstream economists, the implication is that some of those people are being paid above what they’re worth. Or to paraphrase the economists, it is too many dollars chasing too few socially legitimate goods. Setting aside other critiques of mainstream economics, this is a startling statement about the value of the work of women, queer people, and people of color. It’s a declaration that we are not capable of producing work valuable enough to justify a living wage.

If one outright rejects the possibility that marginalized people can make social contributions that justify a living wage, then it follows that they either should live off the goodwill of “the productive” through redistributive policies, or that they don’t deserve to live at all. While few people will state the latter openly, the former view is highly patronizing and built to fail under pressure. Buttressed by such toxic logics, the work of marginalized communities has therefore long been under-valued, and the expectation that their employment will result in inflation reflects this legacy. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the inflation bogeyman is also wielded against trans people through opposition to trans healthcare. Medical interventions allow trans people to assimilate into cis society to the extent that they desire, or equally to challenge the gendered expectations that are hurting them in the first place. We can hear echoes of the inflation panic about illegitimate jobs in objections to trans inclusion in universal healthcare policies such as Medicare for All. According to this reactionary logic, gender affirming care is superfluous and cosmetic rather than “material” in some fundamental sense. The suggestion that there is a tradeoff between trans and universal healthcare implies that provisioning healthcare services for trans people is beyond the capacity of our economy to manage. But this is a demonstrably false statement. The expansion of trans healthcare would likely be a one-off event in terms of increased capacity needs. 

It is reasonable to expect the amount of trans people who would need to be served would increase as stigma falls, more people decide to transition, and healthcare provisions become more available; however, there is scarce evidence that provisioning such a future is somehow beyond our economy’s ability to adapt to these increased needs. It can be hard to shake the feeling that many of these detractors are opposed to trans healthcare not because they genuinely believe in a resource constraint, but simply because they do not wish to see trans people exist in public life. 

Queering Money

To guarantee adequate jobs and healthcare to trans people—and build coalitions around such struggles—we need a fundamental shift in thinking when it comes to government budgeting. When money is imagined as fundamentally scarce, social change is routed through the problematic language of redistribution and replacement rather than creation. This in turn creates an “any port in the storm” mentality when it comes to building coalitions, as the variegated experiences of trans people are reduced to a representative “average” trans person who can be more simplistically advocated for. And as we see, the impulse to reduce and assimilate what is particular into what is imagined as universal for the sake of “widening the coalition” is observable in class reductionist calls to not discuss trans healthcare at all, in favor of supposedly “universal” healthcare services.

MMT, by contrast, provides a different foundation that allows us to articulate a comprehensive trans agenda on generative rather than zero sum terms. In the MMT story, when public money is motivated toward some end, fiscal authorities create it. Because money is created rather than found, spending precedes rather than follows taxation. Creation does not need to be “paid for” by destruction, and the trans agenda does not need to be routed through such zero sum logics. Money creation authorizes public job creation at the same time that it authorizes private purchasing power.

In the dominant economic view, money creation is inflationary because it is imagined as abstract bids on fundamentally scarce goods. In contradistinction to this view, MMT sees public spending, not as subtracting from a fixed pool of public resources, but instead directing its expansion. This is because, as any heterodox economist will tell you, resources are as socially constructed as gender. The flow of inputs at every point of production is linked to the flow of outputs at another. Capacity is therefore created rather than given, and when the government invests properly it can create new capacity over time.

The policies discussed above are possible only with an MMT framework that speaks in the register of rights and guarantees, rather than goals and aspirations. A FJG will require large variations in spending, and any method of ‘paying for’ the program would have to be just as flexible. And while Medicare for All would likely entail more stable spending patterns, it’s too great a budget item to tie to taxation, dollar for dollar. The last thing we need is policy that analogizes gender affirming healthcare services to zero sum redistribution. A proper budget in an MMT framework would deliberately target resource bottlenecks and invest in expanding production where necessary. 

If properly wielded and understood, public money harbors radical potential to reshape society for the better. These two policies would vastly improve life for trans people, but there is no final word in what makes the trans agenda, any more than there is a final word in what makes a trans person. It is imperative, however, to go big. Putting a Federal Job Guarantee and Medicare for All into action for this trans agenda would be a great start.

* “Money” by free pictures of money is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.