Postmodern Money Theory! (Part 3)

In the third installment of Superstructure’s “Postmodern Money Theory!” series, Rob Hawkes and Scott Ferguson wrap up their discussion of B.S. Johnson’s novella, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, which self-consciously weaves money and accounting into the very fabric of literary form. Rob and Scott tease out the text’s lingering potentials and blindspots in order to problematize dominant forms of political economic and aesthetic critique. (Click the following links for Part 1 and Part 2.)

To start, our co-hosts zero in on the book’s estrangement of taxation. Characterizing taxation as a zero-sum game that breeds extreme pettiness, resentment, and violence, the book critically distances itself from orthodox visions of money, while providing only faint hints of possible alternatives. Next, Rob and Scott read Christie Malry’s generative tensions alongside two misleading tendencies in critical theory, both of which are predicated on the false barter story of money’s origins. 

The first tendency links the end of gold standards to the rise of modernism and postmodernism, respectively. Advanced by the likes of Jean-Joseph Goux, Jean Baudrillard, and Fredric Jameson, this expressly lapsarian tendency frets an absolute volatilization of forms and values across political economy and aesthetics, rather than affirming a contestable and imaginative politics of public inscription unencumbered by legally sanctioned austerities and inequalities. 

The second tendency, meanwhile, casts the orthodox problem of dyadic exchange in terms of debt and credit. From Friedrich Nietzsche to David Graeber, this discourse reduces debt to narrow oppositions between domination and freedom, while foreclosing credit’s collective and always disputable caretaking capacities. Although both impulses inform Christy Malry’s construction, Rob and Scott underscore the ways that Johnson’s constant formal experimentation subtly reframes and exceeds these tendencies’ erroneous totalizing judgments.  

Finally, Rob and Scott uncover money’s repressed public foundations and alternatives in Christy Malry’s allegorical conclusion. Working to redeem Johnson’s unrealized longings for socialism, the co-hosts consider the text’s enigmatic appeals to credit overdrafts and debt write-offs in relation to its tragicomic play on Christ’s sacrificial death. 

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On Paradox with Elizabeth S. Anker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Ferguson:  This is why we fight!

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

Internationalism in Name Only: The Left’s Realist Turn

By Jane Ball

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 touched a dormant but significant fault line on the left. On the one hand, much of the left was outraged by the invasion, believing it to be an illegal and genocidal land grab. On the other hand, a cadre of the left, especially in the US and the UK, took the opposing position. They blame the US for NATO’s eastward expansion for provoking Russia’s invasion to defend its “legitimate security interests.” This second group, given voice by Noam Chomsky and by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), has consistently demanded Ukrainian capitulation to Putin’s demands. These voices combine an economistic definition of capitalism with the offensive realist IR theory (mainly John Mearsheimer‘s) of international relations as driven by the politics of power projection. Thus, they attribute Ukrainian unwillingness to capitulate to an American capitalist Realpolitik that perpetually threatens Russian security and not as an authentic defense of their nation. 

However, this argument suffers from a poverty of theory. It views the world as a mechanistic body driven solely by predetermined (capitalist) instincts and denies human agency to affect the world. It also suffers from acute ahistoricism. Mearsheimer’s formulation of an anarchic “security competition” is a tautology that self-consciously excludes factors that contradict his theories as outside the scope of international relations. He does not explain how this anarchy developed, what specific social property relations it expresses, or how those social relations evolved. Thus, while it is necessary to question NATO’s continued relevance in the 21st century, the critiques by Chomsky and the DSA rely on a theory of international relations that is divorced from the material realities of the actual historical process. A leftist IR theory must be firmly rooted in the specificities of history and must account for the development of the social relations buttressing the international order. If Western capitalism is to be blamed for the war, then capitalism should be defined. The theory must also understand the evolution of internationalism as a complex and sometimes contradictory ideology, which implies a complete understanding of its revolutionary origins. Finally, a left IR theory must consider how militant worker action impacts the creation of world systems and their tensions.

The Head and the Heart

The DSA position is that the US is uniformly responsible for capitalist expansion and exploitation. It is easy to dismiss this as typical left-reactionary anti-Americanism, but this proposition is critical to DSA’s analysis of capitalism. For example, its original NATO statement argues that provocation from NATO’s expansion is the sole reason for Russia’s militarization. The International Committee’s opening statement proceeds from the organization’s 2021 platform, which states “DSA operates in the heart of a global capitalist empire” and later says, “as socialists living in the heart of the American empire.” The conflation of the US with the totality of an empire of Capital suggests that they view the two as indistinguishable. It is not just a rhetorical posture; it is a philosophical disposition.

From a moral standpoint, the DSA statement is correct. As the sole remaining superpower, the US is responsible for many atrocities and horrors, disproportionately targeting people of color and developing nations. These horrors have been committed – sometimes justified – as necessary actions to spread democratic values, protect human rights, and above all, capitalist social relations. The DSA is right to call out these hypocrisies, and they stand on firm moral ground. However, as a critique of the current imperial order and an analysis of the specific social relations that comprise the existing order, they present a reductive and mechanistic theory of history that ultimately undermines their moral capital.

Consider DSA’s description of an individual’s relationship to the system of Capital. The system is a body, the US, the body’s heart. Humans living “within the heart” are individualistic cells encoded by DNA for specific functions. Cells have no agency – they can only do what they were programmed to do. A single cell cannot change the direction the body moves and does not exist apart from the body. The body is intrinsic to the cell’s identity and existence. Not only do people have agency that goes beyond the orchestrations of a univocal political “body”, but this agency is social and linked to other relations of affiliation and dependence. 

Likewise, analogizing the US as the “heart of empire” has problematic implications. The heart pumps blood, distributing blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. Without it, the body could not function. This reasonably analogizes the US’s function in the imperial system. As the prime hegemonic power, the US economy and military have an unprecedented ability to exert their influence directly and indirectly to maintain the imperial order. However, this is where the analogy breaks down. DSA presents the body—capitalism—as a totality, defined and driven entirely by a mechanistic heart. There is no agency here, let alone the heterogeneous institutions and stakeholders that actually make things move. The inevitable march of capitalism flattens everything. 

These notions of inevitability are at odds with the historical process. By imagining people as individualized cells within a mechanistic body, the DSA theory denies the working classes of the past the agency and the ability to effect positive change in the world that inspires them to organize today. It collapses the last five hundred years of human history into an inevitable, perpetual, and all-consuming system called “capitalism.” In doing so, the DSA theory merely inverts the Whig narrative of historical progress rather than changing them. It does not analyze the structure of the current imperial order, its origins, or what specific property relations they reflect. They see that the US pumps capitalism’s blood but ignores the mind controlling the body. The US acts in “service to Capital.” Still, DSA does not precisely define what capital is. Capital is everything and exists a priori and apart from the human experience. The US may be the “heart of empire,” but the heart does not direct the body’s actions. It does not create the logic through which the body engages with the world. By centering the mechanical heart and not the dynamic mind, DSA conflates the guarantor of the imperial order with the imperial order itself. This mistake renders their geopolitical posture incoherent; there’s no specificity to the social relations guiding the imperial international system. The United States’ actions are definitionally imperialistic, regardless of the actual social and political context. 

The Left’s Realist Turn

There is no better demonstration of this tautology than a portion of the left’s critique of NATO and response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For instance, here is how Noam Chomsky summarizes the crisis

There are some simple facts that aren’t really controversial. There are two ways for a war to end: One way is for one side or the other to be basically destroyed. And the Russians are not going to be destroyed. So that means one way is for Ukraine to be destroyed. The other way is some negotiated settlement. If there’s a third way, no one’s ever figured it out. So what we should be doing is devoting all the things you mentioned, if properly shaped, but primarily moving towards a possible negotiated settlement that will save Ukrainians from further disaster. That should be the prime focus…We can, however, look at the United States, and we can see that our explicit policy — explicit — is rejection of any form of negotiations. The explicit policy goes way back, but it was given a definitive form in September 2021 in the September 1st joint policy statement that was then reiterated and expanded in the November 10th charter of agreement.

According to Chomsky, the outcome of the war is a foregone conclusion; Russia will inevitably “destroy” Ukraine, and the only way for Ukraine to avoid destruction is to negotiate with Russia, having accepted this inevitability from the start. Since this outcome is obvious, it is irrational for Ukrainian officials not to accept this reality. Therefore, the refusal to accept Russian demands must come from an external force – the U.S. Rather than Zelensky’s refusal to capitulate reflecting Ukrainian rejection of Russia’s terms, it is caused by the US not allowing him to negotiate. The US is forcing the Ukrainian military to continue to fight to weaken Russia, thus confirming that the US and NATO are actively antagonizing Russia via NATO expansion and justifying Putin’s “legitimate security concerns.” Even now, a year into the war, Chomsky downplays Putin’s responsibility for the war in favor of placing blame on the United States while continuing to hint at Ukraine’s inevitable destruction:

Let’s return to the current topic: how policy is being designed to bring about “much worse” by escalating the conflict. The official reason remains as before: to severely weaken Russia. The liberal commentariat, however, offers more humane reasons: We must ensure that Ukraine is in a stronger position for eventual negotiations. Or in a weaker position, an alternative that does not enter into consideration, though it is hardly unrealistic.

On the topic of NATO’s expansion, the Chomsky argument weds itself to the statements made by proponents of the offensive realist school of foreign policy – John Mearsheimer in particular. In a New Yorker interview in March 2022, Mearsheimer makes a similar version of this argument:

Nevertheless, what has happened with the passage of time is that we have moved forward to include Ukraine in the West to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. Of course, this includes more than just NATO expansion. NATO expansion is the heart of the strategy, but it includes EU expansion as well, and it includes turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy, and, from a Russian perspective, this is an existential threat.   

Mearsheimer, like Chomsky, depicts the United States as the prime mover in the story of NATO’s expansion. NATO’s expansion is something the US did to push a “Western bulwark” further east, closer to Russia’s borders. In both accounts, the US is the only country with agency; everyone else is just along for the ride. Both deny Putin’s imperial desires and believe Russia is only reacting rationally to the security threat the US is perpetrating. However divergent their intellectual paths to this moment may have been, Chomsky and Mearsheimer are in complete alignment in arguing that the US has stretched the limits of unipolarity and is facing the natural, inevitable, almost mechanical reaction from its adversaries. This convergence is not new; for instance, Chomsky has long argued that NATO intervention in Kosovo was an imperial act of aggression by the US against Serbia. Nor is it just a rhetorical convenience; it betrays that both Chomsky and Mearsheimer share a highly deterministic view of capitalism and empire that, at its base, rejects the importance of diverse human agencies in the historical process. Nothing is contestable.

The left should be wary of aligning itself with offensive realists like Mearsheimer and, more recently, Henry Kissinger. In the first place, Mearsheimer’s worldview is highly simplistic and self-reinforcing. He defines his worldview on his website: “I believe that the great powers dominate the international system, and they constantly engage in security competition with each other, which sometimes leads to war.” This statement reveals that Mearsheimer believes that competition is every state’s historical default security posture and that international relations can only be defined as the sum of this competition, with the most powerful states monopolizing this competition. Only the Great Powers can express agency; minor nations are along for the ride, and the heterogeneous agencies of a state’s populace receive no consideration in his analysis. The reification of the nation-state and the naturalization of competition as a universal law of politics is antithetical to any leftist project that believes that collective action by the working classes can positively transform society. 

Second, leftists who would invoke realist foreign policy should know why Mearsheimer is so critical of the US’s focus on Russia. He is not advocating for dismantling American imperialism; he believes the US is distracted by a weakened Russia and is not doing enough to engage in Great Power politics with China, which he views as the true global rival. In his words: 

We do face a serious threat in the international system. We face a peer competitor. And that’s China. Our policy in Eastern Europe is undermining our ability to deal with the most dangerous threat that we face today.

Contrary to the left’s goal of preventing a new Cold War between the US and China, Mearsheimer is advocating for such a Cold War. 

Finally, neorealism self-consciously lacks historical explanations for international relations and state behavior variations. The theory declares a universal and transhistorical motivation for state behavior – specifically “security competition” – and only concerns itself with factors affirming the view. Aspects that contradict the theory are externalized; these are forces outside the narrowly delineated sphere of international relations beyond the scope of consideration. Mearsheimer presents another mechanistic world where complex social relations are relegated to a series of If/Then loops with narrowly defined parameters. Outcomes are predetermined, and reactions are instinctual and predictable. 

Ignoring the social complexity of history’s unfolding, Mearsheimer reduces inter-state politics to competition for security dominated by the most powerful states. Each state, like each individual “under capitalism,” has objective “interests” that are defined a priori: a zero-sum game of security flatly mediated by the invisible hand of power. Chomsky’s theory of international relations is nearly identical to Mearsheimer’s, with the difference that Chomsky incorporates a vulgar Marxist specter of Capital to position the US as the invisible hand moving all international relations. It assumes that if a Russia-Ukraine war were against the US’s interests, the US would prevent or stop it. Therefore, the conflict continues because the US wants it to continue. The US is one “actor”; the heart beats, the body responds. 

Internationalism in Name Only

DSA claims its anti-NATO position is principled internationalism. However, carefully reading their statements undercuts both claims of internationalism and the arguments made to justify the DSA stance. In the preamble of the June 11th, 2021, “No to NATO” statement, DSA calls for an immediate and unilateral withdrawal from the alliance. Regardless of NATO’s continued relevance in the 21st century, such a unilateral move by the US would be viewed – rightly – as an act of betrayal by our allies and would seriously hinder possibilities for future international cooperation. Further, immediate withdrawal would create a defense vacuum, as the defense umbrella European countries have planned their entire economies around for decades will suddenly evaporate. The vacuum would cause a rapid intensification of defense spending, well beyond the 2% of GDP requirement, leading to increased instability domestically and internationally. Domestically, intensifying defense spending would divert essential resources from the civilian sectors. Internationally, unilateral withdrawal makes the concept of “common defense” across Europe moot. The sudden vacuum of the American defense umbrella would spur a flurry of regional defense pacts among factions with diverging – and sometimes competing – security interests. Instability on both fronts is likely to be exacerbated by the fact that many of the NATO countries are also part of the Eurozone, whose monetary policy is effectively controlled by the German central bank. Far from undoing American imperialism, a unilateral withdrawal of the US from NATO is a continuation of Bush-era foreign policy and displays utter contempt for international institutions. 

Additionally, the language of the first bullet point in the “No to NATO” statement is inherently nationalist, not internationalist. The bullet point reads: 

Article 5 of the founding document that binds NATO members stipulates that “an attack on one is an attack on all.” A hypothetical attack on small Baltic nations that border Russia, although all the way across the Atlantic from the US, would force Americans to fight on European soil.

This statement is explicitly isolationist, arguing that the Baltics are too distant and insignificant for Americans’ concern. The phrasing of “European soil” also naturalizes the arbitrarily delineated borders of the nation-state.

Likewise, the fifth bullet point in the No to NATO statement is ostensibly a critique of the hypocrisies of liberal internationalist humanitarianism. However, in practice, it does more to cast doubt on the legitimacy of humanitarian concerns rather than the methods used to affect humanitarianism. The statement doesn’t argue for a better way to address humanitarian concerns; it dismisses any humanitarian justification as a pretext used to manufacture consent. Strikingly, though, the most potent example of the US using humanitarianism as a pretext for naked American aggression – Iraq – receives the least attention. Most of the critique is directed at the NATO intervention in Serbia, where the humanitarian situation was unambiguous. This position is consistent with Noam Chomsky’s overt denial of Serbian ethnic cleansing and genocide of Bosniaks and Kosovars as part of his criticism of the intervention., The Chomsky-DSA foreign policy may be anti-imperialist, but it is not internationalist. An approach that calls for the unilateral withdrawal of the US from its defense commitments combines all the arrogance of Bush unilateralism with all the fatalistic bleakness of Kissingerism. The denial of the genocides that precipitated NATO’s interventions in the Balkans and, more recently, the dismissal of Ukrainian sovereignty perpetuates fascist propaganda propagated throughout Europe and Russia. The defense vacuum created by the abrupt withdrawal advocated for by DSA would further destabilize Europe during its second refugee crisis in a decade. The lack of an American presence will drive European military spending, not decrease it. DSA’s No to NATO statement demonstrates this fact. 

On the one hand, to support its claims that NATO encourages European militarization, the statement points to an increase in France’s defense spending in 2018. On the other hand, it notes that the US and France’s chief executives have recently questioned the relevancy of NATO, with Trump nearly withdrawing the US from the alliance. The specter of a NATO without the US increased French military spending. Realizing such a withdrawal will encourage more militarization across the entire continent. With decades of austerity policies and multiple refugee crises, widespread militarization increases the threat of reactionary and fascist movements. The Chomsky/DSA position is reactionary anti-imperialism and is a dead end as a leftist vision of international relations. 

What Must Be Done

DSA’s adoption of neorealism comes at the most inopportune time. Now is a time for questioning the continued relevance and future of NATO. If the left is to have a voice in this conversation, it must be able to speak coherently with other political factions in this country. A left critique of the current state of IR cannot resort to polemics and sloganeering. It is not enough to say, “the US acts in service of capital.” This statement has no explanatory value. A critique of American foreign policy cannot assume that historical “forces” – capitalism, imperialism, or liberalism – are self-motivating, nor can it be guided by purely economistic theories of history that adopt conservative premises and assumptions of international relations. 

Missing from both left and right neorealism is any social content. Both ascribe the movement of history to large and impersonal forces impervious to human input, a riderless locomotive charging through a desolate landscape. “The US is the heart of the imperial project and acts in service to capital.” This is a description, not an explanation. It treats imperialism and capitalism as interchangeable words rather than distinct phenomena that interact with each other. For example, while NATO’s intervention in Kosovo certainly qualifies as an imperial projection of power, it’s unclear how such an intervention served the interests of capital. These words need grounding to a materiality that clearly defines them as social relations and is tied to the specificities of history. Capitalism isn’t a thing. It is the name used for a set of social relations defined by market dependency to meet basic needs. These social relations are not a transhistorical force; they developed in a particular place under specific circumstances. Moreover, the constitutive relations of “capitalism” are not constant over time. They are contestable across and within classes and often adapted ad hoc to crises and changing circumstances.  

Likewise, there must be an explanation of the origins of the imperial state system, from the seniority rankings of European monarchs below the Papacy to its evolution into today’s liberal internationalist rules-based system. Much of the imperial system’s history predates the global dominance of capitalist relations; the political and social character of early modern imperial disputes must be understood on their terms, not as subordinate parts of capitalism. Imperial competition in the 17th and 18th centuries was motivated by dynastic rivalries and the secularization of the Reformation into disputes over political rights and legal jurisdiction. It was not until after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 that capitalist relations became integral to imperial power competition. What precipitated these reconfigurations, what social tensions did they mediate, and how did states respond? 

Additionally, we must make distinctions among different iterations of the imperial system and the purpose of each. Differences must be enumerated. For example, the Congress of Berlin system is qualitatively different from the post-war liberal internationalist system. The Congress of Berlin self-consciously triggered an imperial competition for resources as the European powers rushed to industrialize to catch up to Britain. On the other hand, the post-war liberal international system saw itself as the ultimate triumph of the ideals of the French Revolution; the Declaration of the Rights of Man heavily influenced the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the very least, a Left IR theory should use these principles as our comparison point; how has the US, the other western powers, and the international institutions they created undermined these goals? It should then attempt to answer how to articulate better and realize the UDHR’s principles. We should not, as realists do, reject their importance as superfluous or merely as a cynical excuse. 

Finally, a Left IR theory must recognize heterogeneous working-class agencies and their ability to affect the trajectory of history, including in international relations, for both better and worse. Mass movements over the past two centuries have profoundly impacted the foreign policies of imperial nations. For instance, during the negotiations for the Treaty of Paris in 1814, the British government considered recognizing Haiti as a French possession to increase the legitimacy of the newly restored Bourbon monarchy. However, the British public, building off over two decades of grassroots agitation against the slave trade, vocally rejected this concession. A massive protest campaign organized by the African Institute sent 800 petitions with 750,000 signatures to Parliament. The outrage forced the British government to back away from the proposal and ultimately to insist the Congress of Vienna include an international repudiation of the slave trade. Returning Haiti to France was essential to the British government’s geopolitical interests- it would have provided the Bourbon monarchy financial self-sufficiency while still leaving them beholden to British sea power to protect French trade, neutralizing them as a threat on the continent. Public agitation intervened to change the treaty’s terms decisively, forced the British government into an anti-slavery position, and committed the resources of the British Navy to enforce the ban on the slave trade. 

However, just as these mass movements forced human rights concessions from the ruling class, they have also been co-opted by the ruling class to further the imperial mission. As anti-slavery sentiment grew in mainstream society in the middle of the 19th century, it coalesced in the “Free Soil, free Labour” ideology. Historian Eric Foner argues that the Republican Party formed as a coalition among certain aspects of the Capital class, artisans, professionals, and radical worker elements espousing this ideology to counter the political influence of the Slave Power. By the end of the century, the abolition of slavery was a primary justification for colonial intervention in Africa; Germany, France, the UK, and King Leopold of Belgium used the suppression of the slave trade to justify carving Africa amongst themselves at the Berlin Conference in 1884-1885. On the one hand, this represented the ultimate success of abolition over the planter classes. On the other hand, it represented the ultimate betrayal of the radical ideals of the abolitionist movement. 

Similarly, the international institutions and world order created by the United States and the Soviet Union represented the ultimate success of many revolutionary ideals espoused since the English Civil War. In his 1941 State of the Union address, FDR outlined four universal freedoms that became the justification for the Allied war effort: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Roosevelt later expanded on these four freedoms in his 1944 State of the Union speech when he argued for a Second Bill of Rights that guaranteed economic and social rights such as guaranteed employment, a basic income, decent housing, adequate healthcare, and education. In many ways, the Second Bill of Rights echoes some of the most radical revolutionary demands from the 1800s; the Soviet Constitution of 1936 likewise contains similar provisions. The four freedoms became the basis of the Allied war goals and formed the ideological underpinning for the United Nations. Though there were deep ideological divides between the Allies, each manifested a society shaped by similar revolutionary ideals. The post-war international institutions were designed to extend these ideals worldwide. 

Despite these lofty goals, and although much of the world’s population did see a significant overall increase in living standards, the reality of the post-war consensus was a betrayal of many revolutionary ideals. The post-war “peace” was predicated on preventing another land war in Europe and domestic politics hostile to labor militancy in Europe and the US. The transition from coal to oil as the primary energy source after WWII allowed for the extension of middle-class prosperity to more people spatially dispersed across a wider area. Replacing coal with oil also altered the social relations of energy production and consumption. Coal mining was labor intensive, required high concentrations of largely autonomous workers to extract and transport to sites of consumption, and was done by workers within Europe and the United States. By comparison, oil requires far less labor to extract and transport, and reserves were primarily in formerly colonized countries. This change in production requirements and locations further cemented the control of capitalists over energy planning, undercutting worker movements in industrialized nations by shifting the nature of work while reinforcing the economic power of former colonial states in the newly independent states of the Middle East and North Africa. With coal, labor could exert significant control over energy production and, thus, the entire economy, whereas, with oil, workers were too few and spatially dispersed to exercise political power similarly. The change in geographic location outsourced the violence and instability necessary to maintain worker discipline from urban centers in both the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries to newly independent nations in the MENA. The post-war attempt at securing political, economic, and social rights for the middle classes of the industrialized nations came at the cost of undermining those same rights for people living in oil-rich countries. 

One year into the conflict and contrary to Chomsky’s prediction, Russia has not destroyed Ukraine. While it is undoubtedly true that NATO’s military and financial support has been invaluable to the Ukrainian war effort, the failure of the Russian invasion is a testament to the Ukrainian people’s will to maintain their independence from Moscow. Despite ongoing resistance from Ukrainians, the Chomsky Left continues to view the war through a lens of brute economistic offensive realism. They rely on vague assertions that NATO’s goal is to destroy Russia and “expand capital.” However, their arguments lack specificity and are unmoored from the historical process. They adopt a mechanistic view of history that assumes that capitalism is natural and inevitable. They claim the mantle of internationalism while utilizing isolationist rhetoric to advocate for unilateral treaty withdrawals. Further, by aligning with offensive realists, they dismiss the possibility of cooperative institutions at the international level, rejecting the left’s first attempt at ending imperialism during the first world war. Finally, by characterizing capitalism as a totality, they deny working class agencies in affecting history, including international affairs. 

If the Left is to articulate a coherent anti-imperialism for the 21st century, it cannot adopt conservative theories about the construction of the international system. The historical specificities around the development of capitalist social relations and the imperial order must ground our critiques. Likewise, it cannot hold itself hostage to the ideological battles of the Cold War nor be guided by a rote opposition to anything the United States supports. The Chomsky-DSA reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine failed on all accounts. As a result, they’ve squandered an opportunity to offer a coherent alternative to the current international order that deals with the challenges of the 21st century – particularly climate change and the rise of authoritarianism both at home and abroad. By joining with neorealists such as Mearsheimer, they eschew a material analysis of the imperial system for one that treats the system as constant and inevitable – a mechanistic progression of history – rather than constitutively polyvalent and contested. More than strange bedfellows, such a marriage is a death knell for international solidarity in the 21st century.

Bank of the People: History for Money’s Future

By Dan Rohde

Who would’ve guessed that the sudden failure of a state-chartered, regional bank would’ve inspired fundamental reckonings with the nature of money and banking? Yet, this is exactly what we see today. The failure of Silicon Valley Bank (“SVB”) and its $200 billion of mostly-uninsured deposits has spurred renewed debates about not only whether and when banks should be allowed to fail, but what role they play, or ought to play, in modern society.

The ongoing SVB episode has laid bare two fundamentally opposed views of banks. First, there are those who regard banks primarily as private businesses. This orthodox camp largely (though not entirely) opposes the present rescue efforts, insisting that the market be allowed to discipline banking enterprises. Poorly run banks, they argue, should generally be allowed to fail, unless their size and systemic importance dictate otherwise. This business approach to banking lies behind the current design of deposit insurance, which only insures deposits up to $250,000 per account on the presumption that only small account holders should be protected; holders of larger accounts are presumed capable of monitoring their bank and moving money to a safer institution if necessary. The market should thereby privilege safer banking institutions. Such thinking similarly underpins much of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which attempts to isolate banks that are “too big to fail,” while leaving smaller institutions more to the discipline of so-called “market forces.”

But, as the events of this weekend underline, this is an increasingly strained perspective. SVB’s largest depositors plainly did not adequately supervise its practices, and this is not particularly surprising. And, in spite of being a regional, state-chartered bank not identified as systemically important under Dodd-Frank, within 72 hours of the panic beginning, Treasury, the Fed and the FDIC, through some creative and surprising legislative maneuvering, pooled their resources to engineer a rescue of all SVB’s deposits – both insured and uninsured.

Such apparent failures and exceptions from the orthodox perspective are much less surprising to those who understand banks to be public institutions. As laid out in a recent editorial by Morgan Ricks and Lev Menand calling to remove the cap on deposit insurance altogether, this position holds that banks are best understood as privately-owned entities charged with a fundamental public function: issuing the vast majority of the deposits we use as money. Eliciting language from Saule Omarova and Robert Hockett, they describe a bank charter as “an outsourcing arrangement, a franchise, to issue money on behalf of the government.” Eliminating the cap on deposit insurance “would underscore the fact that banks exist to serve the public interest, not to privatize gains and socialize losses.”

To gain greater perspective on the present debate, it’s useful to consider the historical foundations of modern banking – both in the US and elsewhere. My forthcoming paper in the Osgoode Hall Law Journal offers one example. There, I explore the introduction of banks into Canada – a period when, even if privately owned, banks were openly and explicitly conceived as public institutions. (Accordingly, they also marked a central site of political contestation.) Elite monetary engineering on behalf of one partisan camp was met with opposition from another, followed by direct, democratic contestation. Returning to this past can help us in at least two ways. First, it helps clarify the role that banks were meant to serve and still serve today in our monetary system, foregrounding the actions of the state in creating and backing them. Second, narratives like this can help us conceptually to imagine and work toward creating a more democratic monetary architecture, both today and in the future. 

The Chaos of Canadian Colonial Money

Money in colonial British North America was a mess. And the colonies were in a tight spot trying to fix it. The law generally forbid colonies from issuing their own money, either through establishing their own mints or issuing bills of credit. Further, as of the 1820s, the British government required that all colonial accounts be denominated in sterling. All the while, continuous growth and a trade balance favoring England constantly tapped the money supply, leading to near constant calls for more liquidity.

The colonies responded to this with legislative ingenuity. With jurisdiction over their own revenue and courts, they would declare coinage of various nations “current” within their borders, meaning that such designated coins would both satisfy debts to the colony and count as legal tender. They would then “rate” those varieties of coin under their own unit of account – granting each a domestic value that differed from (and typically exceeded) either its face value or what value it would acquire in foreign markets. While the official unit of account was English, many goods were priced in dollars, and most actual coins in people’s pockets were Spanish. This process, known as “overrating” coinage, fomented a currency mélange throughout the colonies that immensely complicated even basic everyday transactions.

Still, the colonies enjoyed a brief reprieve from this complexity during the war of 1812. To fund that conflict, the British forces issued legal-tender “Army Bills” directly to soldiers and suppliers.

These bills not only serviced the war effort but also were widely adopted and appreciated by the settler population at large. Typically denominated in both dollars and pounds, they greatly simplified everyday exchange, offering settlers a paper currency that was, more or less, worth the value listed on its face. Significantly, the bills were issued in good supply, reaching a peak of £1.5 million in 1814. The result granted the colonies a level of liquidity they would not know again until for decades. Exposed to their first paper money in good supply, the colonists thus experienced previously unparalleled liquidity through public money–even if a money, of course, issued for military conflict.

Enter the Banks 

In spite of such achievements, the British fully redeemed the Army Bills after the war. Retiring the bills led to a deep and profound monetary contraction. And it was this specific moment that directly inspired the chartering of Canada’s earliest banks. First was the Bank of Montreal in 1817, followed by the Bank of Quebec in 1818, the Bank of Upper Canada at Kingston in 1819, the Bank of New Brunswick in 1820, and, as will be discussed below, the Bank of Upper Canada founded in the town of York (later incorporated as Toronto) in 1821.

The first Canadian banks were universally run by wealthy, politically connected and conservative individuals, often with direct ties to England. And they were chartered to offer a public service. They could store varieties of legal tender coinage and issue notes that, like the Army Bills, listed their value on their face. While not legal tender, these banknotes could thereby replace legal tender coin for much everyday exchange. Banks could additionally issue more notes than the amount of coin they kept in reserve, thereby directly increasing the money supply for the still liquidity-starved colonies. Thus while certainly commercial enterprises driven by private profits and interests, the early Canadian banks (as with many chartered corporations at that time) were not merely commercial institutions, but expressly political ones. They were individually chartered and empowered by statute, run by politically-connected colonial elites, and specifically charged with a public service in simplifying and augmenting the money supply.

Crucially, such elite banks “of issue, discount and deposit” were not primarily held out as savings institutions or mere intermediaries, but money issuers. Generally, they built their reserve of specie by selling shares rather than attracting depositors, and their primary purpose was to clean up the colonial money supply and expand monetary circulation. Banknotes almost immediately became the predominant currency for everyday use in the colonies.

Where government had receded, government-supported for-profit enterprises were called in. But private bank money came with very new terms. Whereas Army Bills offered payment to individuals, banknotes were issued through loans, meaning that they came at a cost and with a commitment. To many, this new money felt less a monetary expansion, than a shift of obligations – away from the state and towards these new, undemocratic corporations.

The Bank and the Government

In Toronto and much of Upper Canada, nearly all banknotes were issued by one especially partisan institution, the Bank of Upper Canada. The first chartered bank in the Canadian colonies, the Bank of Upper Canada was founded by Anglican archdeacon John Strachan and his followers in the “Family Compact” – a close-knit conservative political faction that wielded an outsized influence in the colony. Indeed, the bank inscribed its ruling position directly on its notes. The notes proudly announced that the bank was “chartered by parliament.” They bore images of St. George and Britannia, unabashedly mimicking iconography from the Bank of England.

While it never took on exactly the role that ‘The Old Lady’ played in England, the Bank of Upper Canada was explicitly established to represent elite interests and, for a considerable period, it was the only bank chartered in the region. During that period, anyone who needed money would have to either borrow from that bank (in which case they owed it a debt) or work for someone who had previously borrowed from that institution. In either case, money was issued in Upper Canada with lines of obligation running directly to a single, unapologetically anti-egalitarian institution.

This bank’s anti-egalitarian activities were particularly egregious to Upper Canada’s “Reformers”  – a political movement directly opposed to the Family Compact that advocated to make the colonial government more responsive to the electorate. To Reformers, banking institutions like the Bank of Upper Canada benefitted from public legitimacy and support, but lacked democratic accountability. If banks were in a fundamental sense government agents, then their control was a political cause. The interest on their loans, furthermore, was akin to taxation, only not paid into public coffers. With this, banking reform became a central plank in the Reform movement.

The Reformers began by attempting to make the Bank of Upper Canada more accountable, and then by proposing alternate public monetary bodies. Failing in this, a group of Reformers then established their own (unchartered) institution in 1835 named the “Bank of the People.” As with the Bank of Upper Canada, the Bank of the People was erected overtly as a political institution. Its board was made up exclusively of established Reformers, and the bank issued money largely to communities excluded by the Bank of Upper Canada. (Indeed, one of its first loans was to future leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion, William Lyon Mackenzie, to establish his newspaper, the Constitution.) In house, too, the bank joined the politics of credit issuance to the politics of publicity by hosting a newsroom on its premises featuring “the leading liberal Journals.”

Bank of the People notes differed starkly from the Bank of Upper Canada’s, reflecting the different political community to which the bank spoke and the alternative values it sought to express. In the place of British monarchial imagery, its notes feature bustling cityscapes and ports, alongside generic symbols of industry, such as Vulcan and Demeter.

Despite its judicious management, the Bank of the People did not last long. We know it was well run, because it managed to be both profitable and to be the only bank in British North America to not suspend payments during the banking panic of 1837. Still, the Bank lost many of its supporters after the failed Upper Canada Rebellion, and competition with the Bank of Upper Canada led its founders to sell to the Bank of Montreal in 1840.

From the Bank of the People to Banks Today

Obviously, the Bank of the People was established in a very different era from the present moment. There were few banks then, and they carried their association with government on the face of their notes. But much is also the same, as the discourse around SVB’s collapse makes evident. Privately-owned, for-profit banks are still tasked with issuing the vast majority of our money, and this remains, in many regards, a very public mandate.

Banks today are critical public infrastructure, which stand upon a massive edifice of government infrastructure and support. Because we use bank credits as money, when they fail, the consequences can lead to massive economic fallout with a very real, human cost. They also act as a primary vector through which government intervenes in a crisis. (This includes even our recent global health crisis that did not originate in the financial sector.) No wonder they are among the quickest institutions to receive government support when under threat. No wonder also that, in the wake of SVB’s collapse, explicit government support has been offered not only to “too big to fail” banks, but to smaller banks as well – an experience Canada also went through in 1985.

The monetary system that the Bank of the People actively contested is now the norm, but, all the while, its public nature has become less visible to us. Revisiting such democratizing efforts reminds us of the indelibly public role that banks play, and that they were intended to play, since their very introduction into North America. The Reformers movement equally reminds us that monetary systems that appear resistant to change, may yet be subject to contestation. Faced with the legal inability to make the existing monetary order more accountable, the Reformers turned to establishing their own institution. While short-lived and little-known today, the Bank’s example and influence lived on through its participants to influence Canada’s future monetary order. Similarly, today, current public banking efforts (in, for example, CaliforniaNew YorkMassachusetts, & Pennsylvania) remind us that, regardless of how hard it might be to see at times, there is always the possibility of alternatives to elite, private, and for-profit means of issuing money. Times like this, looking to the past may help us to more clearly see our present, and to imagine our future.

Stayed on Freedom w/ Dan Berger

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

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

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

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Music by Nahneen Kula:


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

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

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

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

Dan Berger:  Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Prince:  Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Ferguson: Other questions?

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

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

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

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

Steve Prince:  The landlady sitting on the front porch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postmodern Money Theory! (Part 2)

In Part 2 of Superstructure’s “Postmodern Money Theory!” series, Rob Hawkes and Scott Ferguson explore B.S. Johnson’s postmodern novella, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973), which self-consciously weaves money and accounting into the very fabric of literary form. Regarded as brokering a broader transition between modernism and postmodernism, Johnson paradoxically conceded that “to tell stories is to tell lies,” while remaining committed to the revelatory “truthfulness” of literary form. In Christy Malry’s Own Double-Entry, Johnson tells the metafictional story of a disaffected young man, Christie Malry. Throughout the book, Malry applies the principles of double-entry bookkeeping in response to injustices in his life, “crediting” himself against society in an increasingly violent manner for perceived “debits.” 

Our co-hosts trace Christy Malry’s multifaceted approach to accounting, which cuts across questions of money, narrativity, enumeration, and reckoning in economic, ethical, historical, and even biblical senses. Affirming the text’s defamiliarizing insights, Rob and Scott unpack how Johnson’s satirical and estranging use of language unsettles dominant visions of money as a merely finite and located particular. At the same time, however, they also weigh the book’s problems and limits, flagging Johnson’s unquestioned white masculine framing of accounting, for example, despite his socialistic aspirations and attentiveness to form’s social restrictions. Stay tuned for the third installment of “Postmodern Monetary Theory!,” in which Rob and Scott further plumb Christy Malry’s Own Double-Entry for its postmodern lessons about the aesthetics and politics of credit and debt.

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Mikhail Bakhtin Pt. 1 – Carnival Laughter & Grotesque Realism

Will Beaman (@agoingaccount) inaugurates the first of a lecture series on the work and ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin. Drawing parallels with right wing attacks on contemporary drag performance and ballroom traditions, Will discusses Bakhtin’s analysis of the Medieval carnival humor, its manifestation in Renaissance literature, and its unique aesthetics of what he terms “grotesque realism.” Quotations are drawn from the Introduction and first chapter of Bakhtin’s text, Rabelais and His World (1965), with additional references made to Siegfried Kracauer’s 1927 essay “The Mass Ornament” and Marx’s Capital

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

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

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

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Postmodern Money Theory! (Part 1)

Launching a new Superstructure series, Rob Hawkes joins Scott Ferguson to explore the ins and outs of “postmodernism.” Postmodernism is a heterogenous and disputed regime of aesthetics and theory that arose in the second half of the 20th century. Dated to midcentury, but promulgated as a discourse from the 1970’s to 1990’s,  postmodernism is known primarily for its preoccupations with multiplicity, difference, surface, language, image, constructedness, reflexivity, and the integration of art and everyday life. Decades past its heyday, postmodernism today frequently serves as a pejorative for reactionary critics of social and ecological justice and aesthetic diversity. In their conversation, Rob and Scott critique noxious voices both outside and inside of today’s Modern Monetary Theory movement, who similarly wield postmodernism as epithet to discredit and police money’s contestable public capacities to provide for all. Our co-hosts dismantle such false zero-sum invectives by weighing the historical nuances and semantic surfeits of terms including modernity, modernism, postmodernity and postmodernism. As a result, this episode prepares the groundwork for a forthcoming engagement with B.S. Johnson’s postmodern novella, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973), which self-consciously weaves money and accounting into the very fabric of literary form. Check out the second installment of this series here.

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Gramatneusiedl’s Job Guarantee w/ Thomas Schwab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Schwab:  Yes, it’s fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Saas:  Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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