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

The Mark of Fascism: Lebensraum for the Left (Essay)

By Maxximilian Seijo & Scott Ferguson

A thought that stands outside subjectivity, setting its limits as though from without, articulating its end, making its dispersion shine forth, taking in only its invincible absence; and that, at the same time, stands at the threshold of all positivity, not in order to grasp its foundation or justification but in order to regain the space of its unfolding, the void serving as its site, the distance in which it is constituted and into which its immediate certainties slip the moment they are glimpsed—a thought that, in relation to the interiority of our philosophical reflection and the positivity of our knowledge, constitutes what in a phrase we might call “the thought of the outside.”

Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside

Anti-fascism has always been central to critical theory. Yet in resisting fascism, critical theorists have too readily taken fascist projects at their word. When fascism asserts itself within a polity, for instance, or imposes order on another community, it posits territorial rule over and against what is tacitly framed as an external and pre-political commons. Crucially, such a commons is imagined to exist beyond any particular territory, somehow belonging to no one and everyone at once. From this initial commons, fascism decides who is permitted to exist inside the ethno-nationalist state and who must be pushed out. The very act of exclusion, then, strategically defines the ethno-nationalist state at the same time as it shores up its legitimacy.

One finds critiques of this formulation in numerous works, including those by the likes of Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Gilles Deleuze, and Giorgio Agamben, and others. All of these authors opt variously to counter fascist territorialization with a version of what Deleuze and Félix Guattari call a logic of “deterritorialization.” Deterritorialization seeks to undo fascism’s expulsive territoriality so as to carve out extra-territorial room for life. Such seemingly critical gestures are right to contest territorialization. We will argue, however, that they err by problematically repeating, even romanticizing, the appeal to a pre-political commons that drives fascist logics in the first instance. In this brief essay, we wish to not only challenge metaphysical appeals to a pre-political commons, but also set forth a far more capacious and anthropologically-grounded critique of fascist territoriality.

It is instructive to return to one of the relatively unknown architects of fascist theory, the Nazi linguist Jost Trier. An important influence on both Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, Trier argued that the origin of politics must be postulated through the question of terrain and the central problem of what he terms the “fence.” As he intones, “The fence marks the beginning. Deep and thoroughly defining, the fence, the border, nurtures [Hegung] the world formed by humans.” For Trier, the fence does more than establish a territory. It demarcates the political as such. And the political, on Trier’s reasoning, is nothing other than the function of an inherently exclusionary care.

Construed as a line of division inscribed on a blank slate, such logics borrow from Rene Descartes’ planar geometry, Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature, and John Locke’s extension of such logics to theorize the origins of the human psyche as a tabula rasa. Reducing the political to a foundational enclosure, Trier relies upon and gives voice to the metaphysical bedrock of modern Liberalism and its justifications for the private seizure of common forests, fields and waters in early modern England. Yet he also radicalizes Liberal metaphysics, carrying their suppositions to their implied logical and political ends. As a result, he reads the relationship between inside and outside through a univocal prism of absolute opposition.

In order to undo this violence, the critics we mention above respond to Liberalism and fascism alike by attempting to reclaim an original, external commons, which supposedly precedes and exceeds enclosure. Critics affirm “lines of flight,” to again borrow from Deleuze and Guattari, which would seem to defy and escape any sovereign interior. Against the univocal violence of enclosure, then, they picture a pre-political commonality or commons, where humanity and nature exist together in open and unbounded relations teeming with repressed social and ecological potential. In place of enclosure, modern critics construct a politics of exteriority and difference, which frequently appears to mirror, or simply invert, the absolutism of their fascist interlocutors. In the face of fascist efforts to secure a passive environment for a chosen people, these critics call upon a pre- and, in certain iterations, post-political commons to accomplish something disturbingly similar. As a consequence, such critics often naturalize the ontological core of fascistic violence and let Liberalism’s comparatively mild operations too easily off the hook. 

We in the Money on the Left Editorial Collective begin from wholly different premises. Rejecting the ontological exclusion of the fence, we regard the political and, with it, money as an originary multi-scale interdependence. In this way, we turn the entire edifice of Western political philosophy outside-in. Proceeding from heterogeneous institutions and forms of decision making that know no absolute exteriority, we refuse the figure of the fence as politically constitutive, as well as the illusory commons upon which it is based. Demarcations of course differentiate social and material relations in meaningful ways. But any demarcation, we contend, remains forever nested within and relative to broader domains of social and ecological mediation. Put another way, demarcation can never be said to intervene in an untrammeled or pre-political field free from integrated social coordinations and meanings. Eschewing an absolute commons or state of nature, we maintain that there is no legible or legitimate outside to the problem of mediating social and ecological dependence, no matter which side of demarcation one considers.

Crucially, such inclusivity is decidedly not spatialized, or at least not in any Cartesian sense that would imply linear partitions over an infinitely extended plane. Inclusion is instead a qualitative relation interior to infinitude, which relies on overlapping and vastly different proximities to particular centers of mediation and indicates no unaffected outside. Particulars necessarily participate in this ubiquitous inside which, despite their irregular differentiations, nevertheless manages to reach all. As such, the “externalities” and “marginalities” that so flummox neoclassical economists and delight continental philosophers endure always-already inside a broader human and ecological condition, even and especially when it comes to apparatuses of expulsion.

For this reason, Liberalism and ultimately, fascism fail in positing as origin the opposition between fence and commons. In contradistinction to Siegfried Kracauer’s self-conception as “extraterritorial,” what we have elsewhere called the inextricable “intraterritoriality” of existence undermines the modern metaphysics of expulsion. The failure of fascist demarcation to fully externalize those who it identifies as enemies does not, to be sure, make such regimes any less brutal. On our reading, it doubles their brutality, secreting away a clandestine ontological violence under cover of the manifest horrors of genocide. Fascism’s overt violence of course owes to its destructive practices, which perpetuate psychic and social terror in the name of an impossible, pure interiority. Yet what has hitherto been overlooked by fascism’s most trenchant critics is Western modernity’s violent externalization of naming, which surreptitiously legitimizes fascism’s spectacular failures. This violence does not derive, as critical theorists regularly argue, from the supposed imposition of nominalization on reality. It arises, instead, from the metaphysical delusion that nominalization penetrates Being from the outside.

Repudiating an absolute inside and outside, our claim is that designation and, specifically, designation through money always involves contestable analogies. Analogies are nothing but patterns of dynamic relation, entailing diverse spheres of obligation and need. On this view, analogies may partake of homology or likeness, but cannot be reduced to isomorphic sameness. Presuming a shared interiority, analogies forge difference within sameness, with sameness in this case understood as the heterogenous background of Being as such. Analogies at once disclose and shape not only power and its ongoing problematics, but also interdependence and the ongoing difficulties of care. They do so, not from some Archimedean point of mastery, but rather through partial and participatory articulations of nested relationality.

We draw regularly on chartalism and related traditions to show that the analogical conditions of moneyness represent a relative constant throughout much of human history, despite great variations in social and material life that comprise said moneyness. Diverse, multiple, and ubiquitously visible, such histories demonstrate that the conditions of moneyness are as generalizable as they are particular. They also harbor endless lessons for anti-fascist politics.

Take historian Robert Gates indispensable insights into Weimar-era struggle over the nature of money and its political capacities. While Germany’s Free Trade Unions supported a program of massive public works funded by direct public money creation, the Marxist leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) such as Rudolf Hilferding rejected the program as unrealistic and “un-Marxist.” Preparing for a nationalization program projected into some indefinite future, SPD Marxists actively worsened the catastrophe by calling on the party to permit the ensuing economic crisis and joblessness to run its allegedly natural course. Although certainly not solely responsible for the subsequent nightmare, they nevertheless unwittingly assisted in hastening fascist scapegoating of Jews and other minorities along with the meteoric rise to power of a once-beleaguered Nazi party.

Unexplored by Gates, SPD’s disastrous incapacity to approach monetary mediation otherwise relies upon a tacit externalization of inscription. According to the SPD’s logic, the capitalist mode of production and its countless contradictions appeared to operate as a univocal imposition of private property onto unbounded nature. In the face of private property’s total imposition, the SPD could only concoct an antithetical, yet equally univocal project of nationalization that would socialize private industry as part of an eventual dialectical movement toward what the young Marx once referred to as “lower-stage communism.” Far from effectively combating fascism, however, the SPD reified the metaphysical exteriority upon which fascism thrives. The result not only deepened a political and economic calamity the Nazis could exploit, but also paved the way for fascism to wield state money as a weapon of exclusionary uplift and mass extermination. 

Hardly isomorphic to present conditions in and beyond The United States, the work of revealing such historical possibilities and blind spots nonetheless offer haunting analogies for the fallout of persistent neoliberal austerity and the resurgent ferocity of ethno-nationalist violence. And yet, there is still so much more work to be done.

We need historians across disciplines and fields to assist us in tracing the possibilities and limits of the many analogous human attempts to thematize our inalienable dependence on monetary mediation in myriad and unpredictable forms. Through this expressly analogical practice, historians can enable us to envision money’s previously untapped potentials, as well as expose reactionary logics and practices we wish to avoid and struggle against. In doing so, the critical historian must prioritize the vast and heterogenous interiority of monetary inscription, while jettisoning the fascist mirage of exteriority that the Nazis notoriously hailed as “living room,” or Lebensraum.

Long held at arms-length by leftists as a noxious fiction belonging to the far right, the lure of Lebensraum in actuality looms as a powerful temptation for critical theorists as well. Echoing Michel Foucault’s meditation on Maurice Blanchot’s “thought from outside” quoted above, contemporary art critic and media theorist Boris Groys, for example, recently published an avowedly leftist ode to Western philosophy’s dream of immanent exteriority in the journal e-flux. Groys aches for the philosopher’s historic “meta-position” in a non-locatable elsewhere, criticizing the “politics of inclusion” as a form of univocal domination that miserably abets “a comfortable life of consumption.”

“[A] politics of inclusion,” Groys explains, “which presupposes the improvement of the living conditions of the excluded, is precisely directed towards the elimination of the meta-position that is occupied by the excluded. The politics of total inclusion aims to get rid of the space outside of society, to eliminate any external, potentially critical position towards society as a whole. This politics calls for everybody to play by the same rules, to obey the same laws, to pursue the same goals, to be seen and treated like everybody else and to see and treat everybody else in the same way.” Later, he surmises, “The truth is always on the side of the excluded. To recognize the excluded means not to include the excluded, but precisely to recognize this truth—to accept the dignity of the slave by rejecting all property and working hard (Christianity), or to accept the dictatorship of the proletariat (communism). It would not make sense to give a saint or a revolutionary a regular income and a comfortable life of consumption.”

Although he would surely bridle at the accusation, Groys in this piece seems to pine for a kind of living space, or Lebensraum, for the left. Such a realm, to Groys’s mind, would align free-thinking philosophers with the dejected. It would also furnish philosophy with a critical vantage point from which to evaluate society in its existing totality.

As enticing and, perhaps, well-intended as these twisted judgements may be, in truth Groys’s conclusions only further entrench the mark of fascism in the guise of its apparent opposite. Equating inclusion with punishing sameness and transformation with capitalist expansion, such reasoning explicitly flattens the path to justice to an impoverished common denominator born of subjugation. Dignifying the externality of slavery, propertylessness, and a dictatorial party, Groys’s left utopia looks just as univocal as his characterization of capitalist dystopia. Implicitly, moreover, Groys belittles, if not outright forecloses, profound political movements that confront money and mediation head on. Abolitionism or the Black Freedom Struggle for full employment, from this contorted purview, are predestined to conformist complicity.

The allure of what we are calling a left Lebensraum is a fascist trap that critical praxis must abjure. There is no place external to interdependence. Politics are never univocal. And neither care nor critique are micro-level affairs. Only by circumventing the false appeals of “thought from outside” can we begin to radically reconstruct the world we actually inhabit.

Decolonizing Money Through Deana Lawson’s “Portal” (Essay)

by Scott Ferguson

We owe others our language, our history, our art, our survival, our neighborhood, our relationships, … our ability to defy social conventions as well as support these conventions. All of this we learn from others. None of us is alone; each of us is dependent on others.

Toni Morrison

The challenge was to make the unseen–the abstract–seen, in a way.

Deana Lawson

In nearly all of her now widely-hailed large format prints, artist Deana Lawson flexes photography’s stubborn techno-social facticity in order to, as she puts it, “represent an entity beyond what is actually present.” Photography, here, operates not as a primarily deictic or indexical medium, as many would have it. It does not directly or, at least, exclusively index an immanent circuit from referent to apparatus, picture to the out-of-frame. Instead, it constitutes what Lawson construes as a “vehicle,” an “altar,” and also a “portal,” which defies oppositions between proximity and distance that underwrite modern Western conceptions of light, space, and locomotion. Part social documentary, part stylized portraiture, Lawson’s work saturates the photographic process in a “mythical,” “surreal,” and even “divine” inheritance. In contradistinction to notions of the spiritual as either super-added to or exceeding a bounded reality, then, Lawson foregrounds transcendence as a primary domain of mediation, one that encircles momentary comings and goings in nested layers of abstraction. 

Seemingly far afield from heterodox economics, Lawson’s aesthetic intervention, on my reading, has a lot to teach left Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) about decolonial politics.

Consider, for instance, Lawson’s “Portal” (2017), in which an enigmatic tear in a hotly lit brown leather sofa takes the iconic shape of the African continent. Rough and tattered, the seemingly bottomless icon renders Africa a distant presence. The result opens the photo’s punctual inscription in Rochester, New York–the birthplace of Lawson, the Eastman Kodak Company, and a certain American photographic vernacular—to the very real and rich realm of Black diasporic history and legend.

Portal (Deana Lawson, 2017)

The icon’s obscure depth has little to do with European perspectivalism and the infinite extensionality conjured by the camera obscura’s contracted vanishing point. Undermining this white patriarchal visuality, the iconic tear betokens a mysterious coincidence of near and far, now and then which, on Zadie Smith’s reading of Lawson’s work, discloses a passage “between the everyday and the sacred, between our finite lives and our long cultural and racial histories.” 

Draughtsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Reclining Woman (Albrecht Dürer, 1600)

Tucked inexplicably behind and to the left of the photo’s mystical seat one glimpses a colorful drawing of a pink lily. According to Greek and Roman myth, the pink lily is a figure of feminine admiration, maternity, and nurture, associated above all with Hera, or Juno, queen of the gods. In a sense, the lily’s feminine majesty stands in for Lawson’s fierce and strikingly adorned Black men and women. Photographed in such disparate locales as Brooklyn, Port-au-Prince, and Gena, figures like “Sharon” (2007) pose as gods or royals in cramped and frequently run-down domestic spaces. Often leaning upon sundry chairs and couches, Dawson’s women in particular stare unflinchingly at lens, spectator, and world. Thus as one finds in the works of Simone Leigh, Dawoud Bey, and other contemporary artists, Lawson’s photographs explore the repressed powers of what bell hooks has famously termed the Black “oppositional gaze.” 

Sharon (Deana Lawson, 2016)

In another sense, however, the pink lily in Lawson’s “Portal” simultaneously speaks to a distinctly European feminine mythology. The racial and colonial implications of this distinction are then further reinforced by the picture’s surrounding surface, which is conspicuously white in contrast to the darkness that frames the coffee-colored sofa. The color contrast distances the lily’s femininity from Lawson’s Black divinities along racial lines at the same time as it invites convergence along the axis of gender. More complicated still is yet another gendered convergence in “Portal.” I refer to the fact that both the dark Africa-shaped tear and the pink European lily are similarly vaginal forms. More significant, the picture of the lily appears to be just as worn and soiled as the visibly aged dark sofa in which it is lodged. As a consequence, Lawson’s photograph stresses the misogynistic brutality that cuts through Euro-African history, implying both acute injuries and slow violence over time. Tying such entanglements to questions of African-American beauty through entwined legacies of picture making, Lawson’s photo thus calls forth a common, if disastrously asymmetrical, history of racialized and gendered subjugation and systemic disregard.

Sentinel (Simone Leigh, 2019)

Significantly, though, Lawson’s photography never reifies the crushing enclosure or isolation often associated with Black experience. One recalls the hellish Middle Passage marked by the overcrowded and alienating hold of the slave ship and the deadly chokehold of racist cops who regularly terrorize American streets. For scholar and poet Fred Moten, fantasy in the hold places Blackness in the “constant autodisclocation” of “nowhere,” trapped between the immediacy of touch and the propinquity of a transcendence “understood as immanence’s fugitive impurity.” For Lawson, however, remote mediation necessarily transcends attempts to contract being’s wide berth to a brute here and now. Abjection, for this reason, can never be absolute. And both the pains and splendors of Blackness issue from what from Lawson envisions as a fundamentally centripetal, rather than essentially fugitive ontology. Eschewing a reductive immanence that would externalize relationality, Lawson’s pictorial practice approaches Black experience not as immediate improvisations or inevitable disintegrations but as a variously shimmering and laden center, signified by turns as “Black diaspora,” “Mother Africa” and, as the artist once characterized it, an “ever-expanding mythological extended family.”

Hence the title of Lawson’s latest award-winning show, Centropy, a para-scientific concept associated with thermodynamics. In opposition to entropy and its dissipative logics of heat death and drive toward equilibrium, centropy, like its better known synonym “negentropy,” names a centralizing tendency toward life and coordination within diversity. Through Lawson’s myriad photographic arrangements, centropy both subtends and exceeds disorder and decay. Flying in the face of the modern West’s morbid investments in “being-towards-death,” such arrangements reckon with ongoing historical traumas and unmet needs by radiating the hidden magnificence of a shared though habitually unrecognized interdependence.

Centropy (Deana Lawson, 2021)

For this reason, Lawson’s photography goes further than merely registering and redeeming worldly injustice in syncopated extremes. To the contrary, Lawson’s work asserts a defiant counter-ontology, which affirms the enduring dignity of a vast interdependence in order to redeem the meaning of redemption as such from Western modernity’s expulsive metaphysics. Redemption, in this mode, does not take exclusion at its word. It does not rescue being from utter dehumanization. Rather, it refuses dehumanization’s claims on Blackness by illuminating centropy’s fraught yet inalienable radiance.

We discover radiance in the round torus hologram that hovers in middle of the Centropy exhibition, along with the crystal-encrusted mirrors that frame many of the show’s prints. Yet Lawson has inscribed this radiance deeply in her work from the outset. Take Lawson’s windows which, in her compositions, are rarely left uncovered. Be it the hastily taped paper concealing a bit of door glazing in Sons of Cush (2016) or the unfathomable billowing curtains in Chief (2019), assorted window dressings tend to obscure or outright block direct passage from foreground to background. Such occlusions do not confine or restrict pictorial space, paradoxically. Occlusion makes room for the supernatural by closing off Cartesian extensionality and its colonizing reach. As a consequence, Lawson tinges what Siegfried Kracauer has called photography’s “physical redemption of reality” with the kind of magical realism associated with Toni Morrison’s haunting spirits or Kara Walker’s phantasmagoric silhouettes.

Sons of Cush (Deana Lawson, 2016)

Chief (Deana Lawson, 2019)

What draws me, in particular, to Lawson’s centropic photography are the ways it unwittingly advances the MMT-informed project of decolonial humanization, as theorized in a forthcoming essay by Jakob Feinig and Diren Valayden in the journal Humanity. Bringing together the writings of Paulo Freire and Frantz Fanon with contemporary work in heterodox economics and law, Feinig and Valayden argue that, against racializing colonization dynamics that violently diminish participation and knowledge, radical humanization is “that which emerges when people pursue the creation of new relations and institutions without relying on exclusionary conceptions of humans-in-society.” Critiquing the Cold-War era UESCO strategy that sought humanization through culture to the exclusion of political economy, moreover, Feinig and Valayden crucially insist that any genuinely global humanization project must place money and its abstract modes of mediation at its heart.

Money, Feinig and Valayden assert, is not a scarce and decentered exchange instrument for acquisitive modern subjects. Money is a capacious public utility that, however well or miserably, organizes inextricable dependencies across heterogenous scales. Money comprises what I have elsewhere called a boundless public center, which remains forever able to mobilize care and participation, invention and repair. On this basis, Feinig and Valayden surmise that the dehumanizing designations of certain communities as “outside” or merely “surplus” are as erroneous as they are noxious. “If there is a center that can always mobilize and connect people and resources,” Feinig and Valayden conclude, “then surplus people cannot exist.”

Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (Kara Walker, 1994)

Still, if, as scholars in heterodox economics and law argue, money emanates from government’s centralized “fiscal backbone,” as legal scholar Christine Desan has described it, then how might we envision money as a distinctly global relation, which is irreducible to the modern nation-state and can be redirected toward anti-racist humanization?

A political blueprint exists in present proposals for a Global Green New Deal. Developed to its greatest potential, any Green New Deal program worthy of the name should aim to abolish the carbon economy and military- and prison-industrial complex within a single country, territory, or region by building up a politically democratic, environmentally sustainable, and fully employed care economy in their stead. Extending this vision across the entire world, a Global Green New Deal would pursue social and environmental justice in a similarly holistic and productive manner. In place of today’s zero-sum imagination of competition, domination, and marginalization among allegedly sovereign nation-states and stateless actors, a Global Green New Deal will attune us to inexorable social and ecological interdependencies and then labor to decolonize such entanglements by working through complex problems and promises looming therein. As MMT economist Fadhel Kaboub reasons, a Global Green New Deal of this kind will require us to establish new world-wide institutions and processes. Kaboub proposes fashioning, for example, a “Global Truth & Reconciliation Commission,” which would “hear and acknowledge the grievances of people who suffer the socio-economic, environmental and humanitarian consequences of colonial and post-colonial policies that have contributed to climate change and global inequality.”

Baby Sleep (Deana Lawson, 2009)

To realize any such political project, however, it is imperative to overcome the entrenched ontological exteriority that has long buttressed colonialism and its de-humanizing racializations. Lawson’s centropic photography, I claim, provides one important, if preliminary, way forward. Without always overtly or self-consciously thematizing money, Lawson’s confined and often damaged interiors indicate how monetary projects of dehumanization historically shape empire, colonialization, and post-coloniality in ways that crisscross continents and undermine self-exculpating divisions between inside and outside. Repudiating Western modernity’s metaphysical oblivion,  Lawson’s pantheon of Black luminaries also enfolds multiple loci of monetary mediation into a voluminous diasporic center, wherein marginalized forms of belonging and indebtedness assert their inexpungible pride of place. With this, a global demand for deliverance coincides with the esteem of worldly belonging.

In this way, Lawson might be said to proffer a kind of propaedeutic for Feinig and Valayden’s notion of humanization and, ultimately, for a Global Green New Deal. As a preliminary and indispensable re-orientation to globalized dehumanization, Lawson’s photography enables us to newly imagine anti-racist humanization as a truly reparative project in which money becomes a problem of worldly care and dignity is not so much bestowed as exalted.

Neoliberalism’s Colonial Origins (Essay)

By Ndongo Samba Sylla

For those who have studied the history of colonial Africa through its fiscal and monetary dimensions, the similarities between colonial macroeconomics and neoliberal macroeconomics are striking. One might be tempted to see the neoliberal era as an avatar of colonialism. Actually, the main principles underlying the fiscal and monetary paradigm of the neoliberal era (1980 – 2021)—sound finance, regressive taxation systems, central bank independence, and the direction of the credit system by oligopolistic banks—were already applied in the European colonies, particularly in Africa.

In the neoliberal era, sound finance, as a principle of macroeconomic management, is based on the idea that governments should avoid fiscal deficits and should even aspire to fiscal surpluses. As Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) shows, this view is based on the misleading analogy between a household and a governing currency-issuer. Indeed, while it may be desirable for households to build up net savings, a government that issues its own currency may not always have an interest in running a balanced budget or even budget surpluses. For its fiscal deficit has as its exact counterpart the financial surplus of the non-government sector. If the government sector wishes to have a balanced budget, this means that the domestic private sector (households and businesses) will only be able to achieve a financial surplus if the rest of the world is in a deficit position vis-à-vis the domestic economy.

During colonial times, sound finance had much more basic and transparent justifications than it does today. As an imperial doctrine by essence, it amounted to saying that the metropolis did not intend to participate financially in the colonial enterprise, which was supposed to be self-financing. The “colonial self-sufficiency policy,” as historians call it, implied that the colonized territories had to pay for the costs of military conquest, the current expenditures of the colonial administrations as well as their investment expenditures, which were often oriented towards infrastructure projects that favored the profitability of private metropolitan capital. The metropolis was just supposed to intervene sporadically, by granting subsidies or loans, when the financial situation of the colonies required it.

In spite of the metropolitan rhetoric on the expensive or unprofitable character of the colonial enterprise, the fact is that the latter had been financed essentially by the colonies, through taxes and forced labor. Public transfers from the metropolis had been relatively minor, both for France and England, the two former and most important metropolitan powers on the African continent.

Since metropolitan governments ruled the monetary operations of their colonies, they managed through the colonial administrations to gradually impose a unit of account in which taxes would be collected. This meant, as MMT teaches, that they had no intrinsic financial constraint. In principle they did not depend on taxes to finance their local expenditures. The possibility to expand their fiscal space was not used, however, owing to the extractive orientation of colonial economic policy.

The choice to run balanced budgets implied that the colonial government did not usually create net financial wealth for the private sector (and in particular for the indigenous private sector). The accumulation of financial wealth by the private sector—and thus growth of domestic income and tax revenues—was made dependent on the external financial balance.

This extractive orientation was accentuated by colonial monetary arrangements and by the behavior of the banking sector, dominated from the outset by oligopolistic banks.  In parallel with fiscal austerity, the fixed parity between the colonial and metropolitan currencies in a context of free capital mobility between the colonies and the metropolis and the obligation to cover the money supply entirely with foreign exchange reserves (as with the currency boards in the British Empire) gave a highly restrictive character to monetary policy. The idea that private banks should organize the credit system with some freedom—the freedom not to finance productive activities as opposed to extractive activities—while colonial governments should maintain balanced budgets was part of the imperial credo.

In the major British colonies in West Africa, the Bank of British West Africa and Barclays DCO ruled almost unchallenged for the first six decades of the 20th century. The role of metropolitan banks had generally been to protect the interests of metropolitan businesses at the expense of local entrepreneurs through discrimination in access to credit. It had also consisted in facilitating the short-term financing of the exports of primary products as well as the transfer of local economic surpluses (financial savings) to the metropolis.

As captive markets and cheap sources of supply of raw materials, colonial empires also played the role of financial valve for the metropolises. In the case of England, the over-accumulation of foreign exchange reserves by its most resource-rich colonies had contributed significantly to its financial stability and to the alleviation of recurrent liquidity crises on the London money market.

During the last decades of the 19th century, England had lost its industrial and commercial edge over Germany and the United States. In this context, England was able to maintain both the international gold standard and its financial leadership only thanks to its control over India’s external surpluses.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, Nigeria and Ghana played a similar role in the sterling area. Capital exports from England to these two territories were lower than the sterling balances they had accumulated in London. These external surpluses were built up through a drastic reduction in their imports, a reality described by the concept of unrequited exports.

Nowadays, under neoliberalism, for many countries of the Global South, the priority given to balanced budgets and exports, the over-accumulation of foreign exchange reserves in a context where their local resources are under-utilized, the dominant role of foreign banks and financial institutions, the under-financing of the “real” economy, etc., all represent elements of continuity with the colonial period.

Neoliberal economics, it could be argued, is an iteration of the logic of colonial economics in a context where trade and financial flows are less and less hampered by the barriers once created by the coexistence of formal colonial empires. With neoliberalism, the latter are replaced with the networks and agencies of globalized capital. In the Global North, this pursuit of colonial economic logic entails an undermining of the previous socioeconomic and political achievements of working classes and hence a widening of within-country inequalities. In most of the Global South, next to the weakening of working classes power, neoliberalism has consisted in suppressing nations and peoples right to self-determination through the imposition of deflationary policies, forced “free trade,” privatization and financial liberalization.

To break with such an orientation, MMT is valuable in at least two aspects. On the one hand, it provides the elements for a critique of the constitutive principles of colonial macroeconomics (rigid separation between fiscal authority and monetary authority, sound finance, priority to exports, over-accumulation of external reserves, dependence on foreign finance, etc.). On the other hand, MMT allows us to reorient economic policy around the mobilization of domestic resources by emphasizing that, even in an unfavorable external environment, the countries of the Global South can create a fiscal space that is larger than usually admitted.

Achieving shared and sustainable prosperity will necessitate a strong epistemic challenge to neoliberalism’s colonial economics. It will also require concerted efforts on several other fronts: addressing global structures of domination that reproduce the economic logic of colonialism; submitting to popular control the orientation of public policies as well as the management of economic resources and instruments.  

A Graceful Kind of Non-Absence (essay)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Money Beyond Sovereignty (Essay)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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