Left Conversion Therapy w/ Ian from Twitter

Ian (@ian_as_portrait) joins Natalie Smith to discuss the hyper-normative left rhetoric of philosophy instructor and frequent Jacobin contributor Ben Burgis. Emblematic of a certain deadpan logical sobriety seen in certain left circles, Burgis’s debate style downplays heterogeneity, pleasure, and generativity in an effort to convert libertarians and right-wingers to an incrementalist tax-to-spend vision of democratic socialism. Calling out the austerian and deeply fatalist assumptions of Burgis’s reactionary approach, Ian and Naty instead affirm the potentials of an inclusive, heterogenous, and emotionally wide-ranging left discourse.

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

Building Digital Commons with Cory Doctorow

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

Theme music by Nahneen Kula (https://www.nahneenkula.com)

Link to our Patreon: www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Link to our GoFundMe: https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/money-on-the-left-superstructure 

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Saas: We agree.

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

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

Modern Movie Theory (MMT): Loki

Maxximilian Seijo, Andrés Bernal and Scott Ferguson plunge into the latest Disney Plus streaming series, Loki (2021), as part of their ongoing examination of Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For all its deliciously queer aesthetic & political potentials, they argue, Loki represents another MCU tragedy about the promise & perpetual failure of social contract theory, and fascism’s seductive exploitation of that failure. In doing so, they critique how the show’s neoliberal and tacitly Deleuzean conception of time as “univocal difference” problematically pits care against heterogeneity in a zero-sum trade-off between fascism and democracy. At the same time, they suggest that Loki’s polyvalent and often-campy aesthetics nevertheless express new longings for alternative modes of questioning and organizing the world.

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

Processions – Season 1

In Processions, host Maxximilian Seijo reads and reflects on one page of a given text, five days a week. Taking a tour through a vast array of thinkers, concepts and methods, one snapshot at a time, Maxx explores the redemptive capacity of the Money on the Left Editorial Collective’s method of analogical critique.

To hear Season 1’s 15 episodes, follow the embedded link to the Soundcloud playlist. Find a detailed list of Season 1’s readings below.

  1. Jean Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra, (Page 1)
  2. Theodor W. Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth, (Pages 48-49)
  3. Dante Alighieri, Inferno, (Canto 1, lines 1-15)
  4. Rebecca L. Spang, Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution, (Page 6)
  5. Stuart Hall, Essential Essays (Vol. 2): Identity and Diaspora, “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities” (Page 67)
  6. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, (Page 127-128)
  7. Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, (Page 8-9)
  8. G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, (Page 90)
  9. Ndongo Samba Sylla, “Colonialism’s Neoliberal Origins”, (https://moneyontheleft.org/2021/06/14/neoliberalisms-colonial-origins/)
  10. Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, (Page 272-273)
  11. Siegfried Kracauer, History, the Last Things Before the Last, (page 42-43)
  12. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, (page 9-10)
  13. Sean Cubitt, Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technology, (page 7)
  14. Silvina Ocampo, “Forgotten Journey”, Thus Were Their Faces, (page 1-3)
  15. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, (page 16-17)

Subscribe to our Patreon: www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula (www.nahneenkula.com)

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.

The Neoliberal Blockbuster: Star Wars: A New Hope Part 2 (Preview)

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

For access to the full lecture, subscribe to our Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure.  

If you are interested in premium offerings but presently unable to afford a subscription, please send a direct message to @moneyontheleft or @Superstruc on Twitter & we will happily provide you with membership access.  

Course Description

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

Blockbusters:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999)

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

25 – The Official MMT Personality Test

Hosts Natalie Smith and Maxximilian Seijo dive into the world of personality types as exemplified by the likes of astrology, MBTI and Enneagram. Complicating John Ganz’s recent dismissal of personal types as univocal, alienating and repressive, Naty and Maxx queer such typologies, drawing attention to their playful, generative and relational meanings. Sprinkled with references to Adorno, Deleuze, Leibniz, and Hegel, the episode treats astrology, MBTI and Enneagram as analogical practices and asks how such practices can inform a non-zero-sum left politics of money.

Link to Ganz’s essay: https://johnganz.substack.com/p/thats-not-a-personality-sweetie

Digital Money Beyond Blockchain with Rohan Grey

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

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

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

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.

Link to our Patreon: www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Link to our GoFundMe: https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/money-on-the-left-superstructure 

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Saas: How’s next week for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Saas: Thanks, Rohan.

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

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.