Jakob Feinig, assistant professor of human development at Binghamton University, joins Money on the Left to discuss the history of political organizing and activism around money in the United States, from the pre-Revolutionary period to the New Deal era. Characterized alternately by periods of widespread “silencing” and mass mobilization, the history of money politics that Feinig documents in his research has much to tell us about the present and future of the modern money movement. For more about the history of money politics, see Jakob’s research on money politics in Sociological Theory and the Journal of Historical Sociology.
The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity
Maxximilian Seijo: Jakob Feinig, welcome to Money on the Left.
Jakob Feinig: Thanks so much for having me.
Maxximilian Seijo: We’re wondering if you could start by talking a little bit about your personal and scholarly background and how you came to the question of money politics?
Jakob Feinig: Sure. I grew up in Austria and did a degree that was very deeply connected to political economy. When I started learning about money creation and political economy, I had all those “aha!” moments that I’m sure many of your listeners have also had at some point–that [money creation] is connected to unemployment, central banking, commercial banking, et cetera. Also, at that time, there was the famous changeover to the Euro. I started trying to understand what this meant for countries like Austria, but also other countries, especially those in the European periphery. I couldn’t believe that everyone around me was completely uncritically celebrating it, so I started looking for ways of understanding the relation between institutions that create money and people who use it. I was struck that I couldn’t find a good way of thinking about that as an historically existing and changing relation. So even though the ECB never [directly] shows up in my writings, they are driven by trying to find a way of speaking about that relation.
Maxximilian Seijo: Later on, you came to America to explore those interests. Where did you do your PhD?
Jakob Feinig: I did my PhD at Binghamton University in a department that’s very much focused on historical sociology. It also has an important tradition of critical political economy. It’s a department of Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi, so it’s very deeply rooted in historical thinking about economic life.
Scott Ferguson: Most of our efforts in the present neo-chartalist and constitutional money movement are dedicated to critiquing and posing theoretical alternatives to the orthodoxy–be it classical, neoclassical, liberal, or neoliberal. Yet, in your work, you’re doing something rather unique. You’re actually unearthing a repressed genealogy of popular left democratic monetary movements, which can provide a really rich and complicated, but nevertheless, positive resource for the contemporary left. Maybe to ease us into this discussion, you can tell us about how you are framing this intervention? I’m thinking about how you’re in the field of historical sociology. Where does money sit in your field and how are you responding to those who have either directly or indirectly taken on the question of money and monetary politics?
Jakob Feinig: Sure. There are two major ways of thinking about money historically that might resonate with what your listeners already know. One of them is the classical sociological approach. Here, money dissolves all bonds and social relations. It‘s the notion that all that is solid melts into air. It’s very grounded in Marx and Simmel. In this canonized tradition there are very broad claims about money being an individualizing force that breaks apart communities and traditions. The other claim about money is more recent. It’s most famous writer is Viviana Zelitzer. She writes about money as micro relations, challenging Simmel and Marx, saying “Money is actually more complicated. It doesn’t mean that everyone is individualized. It’s just a different way of relating to people.” She focuses on the micro rather than macro level–on what people do in households with money and how gender relations [are shaped].
I’m distancing myself from both of those traditions by asking this question: how do money users relate to the actual institutions that issue money? It’s not about how they relate to their bank accounts or organize money in households, but how people relate as political beings to the institutions that issue money. And how that changes over time and shapes possibilities for political action. It’s deep historical thinking about who we are in relation to these institutions. The goal is to emphasize how the way we relate to money is much more recent than we think, and therefore, much more easily changeable.
William Saas: Great. Now, where would the work of Geoffrey Ingham fit into those two camps and in relation to your own work? The sociologist who wrote the book, The Nature of Money.
Jakob Feinig: Geoffrey Ingham is complicated. I would say that he offers something that’s distinct from Simmel, Marx, and Zelizer. He offers a very large, institutional approach to money, focusing on patterns of money issuance. He does not look at how money users’ knowledge are shaped, how social movements understand monetary institutions, or how the very constitution of money changes over time by involving people in different ways.
Scott Ferguson: Maybe to further talk about your understanding of the relationship between canonical sociology and contemporary sociology, what I know of Ingham is that he seems to rely on Weber and his thinking about power. And I know you have a critique of the Weberian approach to money. How do you see that potentially influencing Ingham?
Jakob Feinig: I think Ingham is more complicated. He draws on Searle and this notion of collective intentionality. He also draws very much on the notion of legitimacy. Maybe we can just focus on the legitimacy aspect without claiming to do justice to the complexity of Searle. The idea of legitimacy–that people relate to public institutions through legitimacy–means that they’re somehow external. They relate to what they think is legitimate. They don’t relate as thinking beings who understand their relation. They relate to institutions on a superficial level by thinking they are either legitimate or not. From a participatory democratic perspective, it is a very problematic assumption to think that people simply cannot understand the institutions that govern them. And so, Weber is very skeptical of deep, social democracy. He openly states that he’s in favor of elite rule.
William Saas: Circling back to your own work, you contrast processes of what you call “monetary silencing” to moral economies that are rooted in shared knowledge about money’s institutional shaping. Can you tell us a little bit more about some of these terms? Where do they come from and what are their stakes for you?
Jakob Feinig: Absolutely. When I talk about moral economies, I talk about events and processes in which money users relate to the institutions that issue money, and also about monetary knowledge that informs direct action. It can also be electoral action or campaigning. [Moral economies] mobilize an idea of monetary justice that’s not limited to questions of money distribution or demand for welfare payments. They’re about what money is, about money’s public purpose, and about how monetary institutions should be arranged to conform to their specific ideas about justice. The idea of moral economy comes from the British historian, E.P. Thompson. She developed it to counter dismissals of non-elite economic thinking that were and are still common. They are still very present in the historiography about popular involvement in monetary institutions. [Moral economies] are about taking seriously non-elite economic thought. They’re also about how people nominate forms of economic thought and form action.
And so, I’m trying to understand this: who mobilizes moral economies and how are they developed? And, on the other hand, how are they silenced? I derive the term “monetary silencing” from the Brazilian thinker, Paulo Freire, who says that silence about political issues is a relation between those who have a voice, those who don’t, and those who have already been silenced. For him, such situations of silence are dehumanizing because they embody a denial of people’s right to participate in making their own history. So I am looking at processes of monetary silencing, which from his perspective, are also processes of dehumanization because they disconnect people from the institutions that condition their individual and collective lives. [Monetary silencing] is about excluding people from knowledge of monetary institutions and turning them into mere money users and consumers–people whose knowledge doesn’t go beyond using a credit card, depositing a check, or knowing where to get money from a pay-day lender. It’s about silencing anything that comes close to a structural vision.
William Saas: Maybe promoting our impoverished sense of financial literacy?
Jakob Feinig: Absolutely. I think even the concept of financial literacy can be a form of silencing if it promotes an individualistic way of thinking without any structural vision. Like, “Don’t worry about larger institutions, they’re all taken care of. Just focus on doing these few steps and learn how to survive as an individual.” Claiming [institutions] are not necessary can also be a way of depoliticizing money and negating moral economies. There are also many forms of silencing that can inform truncated moral economies. You can have moralistic thinking about money. You can have individualistic thinking about money. There are all kinds of ways of relating to monetary institutions that do not enable people to understand them as institutions. The very big one, which is like a moral economy of fools, is antisemitism. It is a way of creating scapegoats and distracting attention from the actual institutions for money users.
William Saas: There’s silencing and suppression in antisemitism, but also, from a gender standpoint, maybe thinking about notions of “sound money” and claims that our money should be physical and hard or limited and scarce?
Jakob Feinig: Totally. Those are also very truncated moral economies. They mobilize a certain sense of justice and injustice similar to commodity money festishism or even Bitcoin. There’s also technophilia–the idea that there is a technological fix to all our problems. With those, there is a sense of outrage and injustice, but they don’t allow people to connect to the institutions that already structure our lives and can ultimately be restructured. They don’t allow a true engagement.
Maxximilian Seijo: And so, your forthcoming book then concentrates through this lens on a fairly large swath of American history from 1637 to 1936. Why focus on America then in particular? And how does America’s evolving relations to money differ from other international histories of money politics?
Jakob Feinig: I think there are two conditions that establish the British North American colonies and later the U.S. in part. First, two things overlap that do not overlap in other North Atlantic national histories. In the Middle Ages, governmental monetary practices were more visible because it was more understandable [for people] that public authorities issue money to tax it back. Thus, MMT, or chartalist views of money, were much more common and easily intelligible. But at that time, popular action or non-elite action was limited to crowd action, so there was no legitimacy for significant parts of the population to participate in electoral processes. In the North American colonies, there were intelligible modes of money issue. Plus, a significant part of the population were propertied white men, so many of them could vote and participate. So you have this overlap of monetary intelligibility and significant electoral participation for a specific group. I think that explains why there is this recurring dynamic of a politicization of money in this geography.
Scott Ferguson: You tell a pretty long story about American monetary politics. And it’s a story that I think needs to be revised because there’s so much potential in it. In addition to pointing out there are limits and problems with this story, you begin with a rather cautionary tale of monetary production in service of settler colonial violence. I wonder if you can sketch that out for our listeners?
Jakob Feinig: Sure. In November 1637, the Massachusetts government declared wampum legal tender. A few months prior, one of the worst colonial massacres occurred at Mystic river, where the English, together with their native allies, killed 400 Pequots within a half hour. Now, there are different interpretations of that event and of the Pequot War in general. To give you a little context, at that time, wampum was first used by natives. The English would buy it first from natives and then export it back to Britain in payment of debts.
Scott Ferguson: For those who are less familiar with the term wampum, can you describe it? Like, what is it physically?
Jakob Feinig: It’s a form of shell beads manufactured by natives. They were used in trade and in payment of some local taxes by the colonists. It’s a very labor intensive process to produce wampum. It needs to be drilled. In some histories, wampum is seen as this nice currency that connects settlers with natives. It’s viewed as a symbol of coexistence and mutually beneficial exchange. When in fact, it was a way of organizing trade on a very large scale to the sole benefit of settlers. The English called the Pequots “mint masters” because they were the main group that produced wampum. They could make wampum scarce and expensive. And they were also potential competitors in the fur trade. Because, since they produced this currency, Pequots could buy fur from inland natives themselves.
After the colonial massacre, the Europeans levied a wampum tax on surviving eastern Pequot. They imposed all kinds of fines and forced them to deliver tribute. That meant, from now on, they had a free and plentiful money supply from the group that had formerly controlled the production of the currency. The English made it legal tender status, which meant they could organize local exchanges and pay down taxes in it. This was all based on one violent event, but also on the ongoing threat of violence in the case of not paying tribute. I begin the manuscript with this episode because I write mostly about white men’s moral economies–their understanding of monetary justice and political practices. Many histories of money in the U.S. and North America start with colonial paper money, overlooking the fact that the first legal tender was based on settler colonial violence. So it’s an attempt to not idealize American monetary history by talking about unspeakable settler colonialism.
William Saas: You begin with a story of monetary silencing as it’s been told in the history books–the white man, moral economy history of money in the United States. Could you trace out the rest of your project where you track this silencing and politicization over the rest of your time period?
Jakob Feinig: Absolutely. I’ll focus on two great waves of politicization. The first one that we started to talk about is the 18th century moral economy, where many propertied white men could vote. They had a moral economy that was based around the idea of white man’s independence, which meant that white men thought of themselves as the center of the household. They also thought of themselves as the center of political economy, to which everyone else was subordinate, including women, children, slaves, and the people they subjected to genocide. [White men] thought the position they claimed was constituted through money. They believed they had the right to reorganize money in ways that stabilized their position. If too many of them went bankrupt, lost their land or status as independent men, or even saw their status threatened, they believed it wasn’t their own individual fault. It was the fault of monetary organization. In other words, not enough money was reaching them as independent white men to stabilize their position. Since [white men] knew how to reorganize money, and money was a visible government practice, they claimed they needed to reorganize it to keep their status. That’s the basic assumption of 18th century moral economies, which progress into the 19th century.
There were several episodes all over the colonies that led to clashes between different classes. There’s this very complex story of the land bank where class tensions within the colonies overlap with imperial relations. After the British prohibited paper money issue, a few merchants, together in alliance with the property holding class, set up what’s called a land bank without getting a charter. They started circulating those notes against the expressed opposition of the governor, a crown appointee who wanted to enforce British priorities. The money did not have legal tender status. It was not backed by commodities. It was backed by land. And it was not receivable in payment of taxes. So how did it start circulating? The settlers and individual townships decided that they would accept it in payment of local taxes. They were so used to what today is MMT, or the idea that taxes drive money, that they said, “If the governor and legislature won’t take this in payment of taxes, then we’ll do it ourselves.” That was seen as an outrageously rebellious move. The governor resorted to all possible means to stop the land bank. He dismissed judges. He dismissed militia officers. He withdrew tavern licenses. It was a real uprising where both sides fought with all means at their disposal short of violence.
William Saas: On one side, you have the townspeople who are accepting those land bank notes. Then, the crown says, “No, you cannot accept those.” Both sides seem to recognize what’s at stake: the question of sovereignty. Would you say that’s right?
Jakob Feinig: Yes, I would. At that time, there was already an emerging moral economy that was different from the North American moral economies E.P. Thompson writes about. There was an emerging sense that [this moral economy] was somehow connected to rights that were not just traditionally theirs as Englishmen. And money is part of the sphere open to that kind of intervention. Also, they didn’t think about themselves as rebels. They thought of themselves as embodying the just social order. This is found in a lot of movements from the pre-Revolutionary period through Shays’ Rebellion. They thought of themselves as regulators and as embodying a just authority distinct from and opposed to a government that had been led astray. There was a sense of white man’s justice not limited to obeying the government.
Scott Ferguson: Can you walk us through how a counter tendency, a tendency towards silencing, takes over as we move through the Revolutionary period to the Constitutional Convention, and eventually, into Jacksonian America?
Jakob Feinig: Sure. Even at the very beginning, there were writers who published pamphlets in an attempt to silence and ridicule moral economies. They were openly anti-democratic and elitist. They believed crowds cannot participate in [monetary governance]. There was a specific class of wealthy merchants who decided gold was the right commodity. And if everyone did not follow their lead, they claimed chaos would ensue. So there was always this idea that a monetary state of nature was right around the corner. And there was always a fear of the crowd and non-elite monetary thinkers participating in government.
One of the most famous pamphleteers is William Douglas, a Boston physician who posed, as Jeffrey Sklanksy shows in his book, moral economies of money cannot and should not be democratic. But also, the goal moral economists had, which was creating a just society of independent white men, was not something he agreed with either. Douglas wanted a few large landowners [to govern]. So there are silencing projects from the very beginning. There was never a moral economy without a silencing project at the same time.
Scott Ferguson: What happens with the Constitution and after, that seems to really change the tenor of your story?
Jakob Feinig: Yes, it does. I draw on the great work of Terry Bouton in a book called, Taming Democracy. There was a very clear elite project that put out documents to reorganize money less democratically by prohibiting state legislatures from emitting bills of credit. This is from Section 10, Article 1 of the Constitution. Instead, they put it in the hands of congress, which was deliberately constructed as an institution less open to non-elite pressure. After that reorganization, we start seeing a truncated moral economy. We started seeing the moral economy of Jacksonianism, where paper money is now popular because the banks issue it.
Banks are very different from colonial legislatures. [Banks] issue paper money supposedly backed by commodities. The legislature’s also issued paper money, but it was not backed by commodities, even though the notes that people held in their hands were made of the same material. Before, paper money was a symbol of popular sovereignty and popular democracy. Now, paper money is a symbol of corporate prerogative. It becomes very easy to deride paper money, to attack it, and to think that it is always bad. It’s always arbitrary. It’s always anti-democratic. People even started lumping together colonial practices with the corporate banks of the Antebellum era.
From there, once you’ve completely changed the function and meaning of paper money, it’s just one step to saying, “Well, because paper money is always arbitrary and anti-democratic, because there’s something inherently bad about it, we need to go back to the invented tradition of commodity money.” Previously, this idea was completely unthinkable. I think it is one of the most striking examples of an invented tradition–that commodity money is the popular, non-elite, and insurgent way of organizing money.
Maxximilian Seijo: A crucial part of the way you work through this history in your manuscript is by making an argument about periodization. In particular, you draw a line at the New Deal as a specific moment in which the politicization of money becomes silenced. I am wondering if we could work through this history and think about the ways the 19th century and early 20th century demonstrate a flourishing in the politicization of money? Were moral economies being created by actors throughout this American history? Like with the Civil War Greenbacks?
Jakob Feinig: Of course. To briefly remind listeners, as an unintended consequence of Civil War finance, there was a departure from the gold standard. The U.S. government issued paper money that was not convertible into anything else. It was receivable in the payment of almost all taxes. And, as another unintended consequence, different groups picked up on it because of an ideology of independence connecting the colonial era with the post-Civil War era. But the way that’s connected to money changes all the time. So one part of the ideology changes, while the other one does not. Enabled by that unintended politicization, you have all kinds of movements.
There were significant alliances between poor whites and blacks around the Greenback Party after the end of reconstruction. There were also very significant alliances between black and white populaces threatening redeemers who tried to silence democracy. In Virginia, there was a biracial alliance called the Readjusters. They issued state bonds that circulated as pay tokens to hire teachers and build schools. It was a really significant turn in terms of how groups relate to money. Typically, historians think that this moral economy of money ends in 1896 with the defeat of William Jennings Bryan. However, I’m arguing that it does not end until the New Deal. There were important generational links between the Populists of the 1880s and Neo-Populists of the 1930s. There were people who, with the help of farmers and veterans groups, kept those moral economies alive long enough for them to be activated in the context of the Great Depression. One way of thinking about the first wave of politicization is, when Shays’ Rebellion was crushed, popular money politics ends. And it was through state violence against veterans.
Scott Ferguson: Can you describe that?
Jakob Feinig: Sure. Going back to the 1780s, many of the people who had fought in the Revolutionary War faced very high debt and taxes. They found that their economic conditions had not really changed all that much from the colonial period and had even worsened in some cases. Many of them had participated in money politics before so they knew what was possible. A lot of them ended up in debtors’ prison, so they asked for more paper money issued. They shut down the courts and ended up arming themselves. Again, those events are typically described as Shays’ Rebellion. Yet, they did not see themselves as rebels. They saw the government as rebels. The government had huge problems financing itself. They put together an army by using privately raised funds. There was a battle and I think two members of Shays’ army were killed.
Moving forward, something comparable happens in the 1930s. World War I veterans walk on D.C. to set up camp in what’s called the Bonus March. They demanded advanced payment of a bonus owed by the government for their service. The government said they cannot afford it without threatening the viability of the gold standard. The veterans said, “Well, we’re more important than the gold standard. You’re using the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to give money to all kinds of shady actors. We also have the right to participate.” So many people and veterans, some with their families, camped in front of Congress demanding early payment. This connected them to the Greenbackers. After some time, Hoover sent the armed forces [on the camp] and two or three people were killed. Both waves of politicization end in violence.
Yet, it was not quite over. In 1932, when Roosevelt took office, he did not have a master plan in terms of how to deal with money politics and major groups demanding moral economies of money. In the first several months of his presidency, Roosevelt removed all issues connected to moral economies and replaced them with the notion of rights. When marches went to Washington again to demand payment, he did not send the military. Instead, he offered them jobs. That’s a much more preferable way of dealing with popular demands. Yet, at the same time, he consistently denied all ways of thinking about money as political. He used all kinds of talking points about the monetary and banking system. He used moralistic tropes by blaming greedy bankers. He talked about banks as an unchanging part of the political landscape. He did whatever he could to depoliticize money. But, at the same time, he made a crucial advance by legitimizing some people’s socioeconomic rights. Of course, those socioeconomic rights were severely limited to white men.
So there was a sense that rights were due, including stabilized access to money. But he granted those rights to the group that still had, by far, the loudest voice in national and local politics. This discouraged moral economies because they weren’t really necessary for white men anymore. By actively discouraging Neo-Populists and granting rights to a select group of people, the New Deal ended up being one of the most effective silencing mechanisms for moral economies of money. And I think we see that in the post-World War II period too, where money is constantly politicized. There are [money] movements, such as community reinvestment programs and women getting access to credit cards. So money’s never really depoliticized, but there’s also never the sense that money is inherently a public good. At the very least, [money politics] are marginalized in this context.
William Saas: I’d like to take a moment to pause. A lot of people listening might hear you claim the New Deal marking the end of money politics as counterintuitive. And so, I want to reflect on a couple of really interesting, innovative, and useful moves you make. First, to call it money politics is provocative. I think today, in public discourse, we figure money and politics as opposites. Like, people often say, “We want money out of politics.” But then, by also marking the New Deal as a time when money politics becomes marginalized and loses its voice over the next few decades, I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that. I wonder what you make of that specifically? What can we make of the fact that a lot of folks look back at the New Deal as the beginning of something different, where money is politicized and put to more public ends? How do we account for that counterintuitive move that doesn’t seem to line up with what a lot of people think?
Jakob Feinig: Absolutely. I think there are two things. One is the way money is actually being organized institutionally. And the other one is how people talk about money. In the sense that policy makers were granted much more maneuvering space with money and there was a different way of thinking about money in policy making circles. There’s also this undeniable process where a privileged group gets very stable access to money that allows them to build wealth. For instance, in housing finance, which David Freund writes about, publicly organized credit enables white suburbs to flourish. So as a matter of institutional fact, there were very large scale public investments, public credit mechanisms, and public money creation [organized].
At the same time, it’s a discourse. It’s the way people relate to money. They were still relating to money as a creature of the market. FDR actively discouraged people from thinking about money as a public good, even though his administration did all of those major restructurings of money. This has really important effects later on. It kind of marks the boundaries for the anti-racist and anti-sexist movements, which tried to make the New Deal order more just. Ultimately, by not having a robust understanding of money as a public good, [these movements] could not put the same kind of pressure on public institutions that veterans and farmers did during the Great Depression. Once the welfare state and stabilized modes of access to money were chipped away, the situation became distinct from before the New Deal. In some ways it was worse because people no longer had the possibility to claim money as a public good and they were deprived of New Deal modes of access to it. It’s kind of the worst of both worlds.
William Saas: Welcome to neoliberalism, right?
Jakob Feinig: Yes. I think that’s what it is. That’s why I’m trying to push up against depoliticizing money. If we look very specifically at money, there is a commonality between the New Deal and neoliberalism, in the sense that both depoliticize money while at the same time engaging in all kinds of major projects to restructure it.
Maxximilian Seijo: It seems like the way you described the New Deal as a relation to the planning of neoliberalism suggests one of your main interventions is to say the New Deal isn’t necessarily what it rhetorically claimed to be. It wasn’t an intervention into the market. In other words, money and the politics of money are constitutive of all the planning that went on in the New Deal. And so, when it’s looked at in that way, it seems a bit more obvious and less counterintuitive as to how things seem to fall apart when it comes to monetary politics. Because, when we view money as a creature of the market, we see the ways in which government and politics are outside of it, which, as MMT and neo-chartalism would say, is not true. More importantly, it illustrates how people interact with money by decreasing their own agency. I see that as one of the fundamental takeaways of your work.
Jakob Feinig: Yeah, I think that really works. I think that’s correct.
William Saas: I just wanted to say too, going back and looking at FDRs rhetoric–in public speeches and also internal documents–it’s interesting to discover [he is] quite a fan of balanced budgets for much of his tenure as president. [He is] a bit of a gangster in terms of money politics.
Jakob Feinig: Absolutely. That was part of his first campaign. He was a balanced budget guy.
Scott Ferguson: How do you deal with the fact that your protagonists in this important story are predominantly property owning white men who sort of imagined themselves as independent? I mean, obviously you have a complicated rhetorical problem on your hands of wanting to affirm parts of these histories, but also critique and complicate them as well. Can you talk about that?
Jakob Feinig: Absolutely. I’m using Aziz Rana’s book, The Two Faces of American Freedom, where he does on a larger scale for many areas of political life what I’m trying to do with money. He looks at really robust democratic practices in North American past and how those were based on the exclusion of others. It’s about trying to see if those freedoms, liberties, and robust ways of thinking about democracy can be extended and generalized–he says universalized. And it’s a way of trying to inherit the institutions that we have inherited, while avoiding all of those exclusions. And to not purely reject [these institutions]. A pure rejection is not something that necessarily enables agency in the present. There needs to be a way of historically understanding the institutions that we have inherited in order to make them different [and more just].
Scott Ferguson: Pulling a few threads together, in the imagination about and struggle for a Green New Deal, an implication of this discussion is money cannot be external to that project. And to make it external to that project is misguided and we do so only at our own peril. Then, as many have pointed out, the original New Deal was tremendously biased toward white men. I wonder how much you’ve thought about the new context of the Green New Deal and how important that is for you?
Jakob Feinig: I think, on a discursive level, the proponents of the Green New Deal and the Jobs Guarantee are still inheriting a New Deal dichotomy. On the one hand, there are technical issues that ordinary people don’t need to worry about. On the other hand, there are those really robust human rights put forth, especially the right to a job. Since before the New Deal some non-elite groups could connect those two, I wonder if [proponents] are articulating their rights and money as a public good in this institutional context. That’s what is really distinctive about moral economies. You can connect institutions to your rights and not see those rights as something you claim without institutional grounding. So I hear the technical argument about the Jobs Guarantee as a macroeconomic stabilizer and I hear the right to a job as a human right–both of which I agree with.
At the same time, in order to develop a progressive and inclusive moral economy of money for today, it could be important to stress money as an arrangement that connects people and enables societies to coordinate what they do with the Jobs Guarantee. In other words, it’s more than just a right to a job. It’s a possibility intrinsic to this large scale institution that people are already part of. So I see potential for developing moral economies of money. I’m not in a position to say if that should be a priority when talking about the Green New Deal. There are so many other issues at stake. And there are some ways to go to develop a moral economy of money at the level of what the populists did.
Maxximilian Seijo: Throughout your study, you seem to be keenly focused on the question of media and mediation, be it the material substrate used as money or various forms of aesthetic practices about money, including the ways in which media are used to influence money politics. Would you mind ruminating about the importance of media in your work for our listeners?
Jakob Feinig: Absolutely. I think about how this apparatus of money talks to people. What does a bank or an ATM tell you when you withdraw money? How am I connected to this set of relations that either reaches me or does not? The way a bill of credit talks to you is very different from an ATM or credit card, especially as part of a larger discursive knowledge about what money is. And those knowledges are really everywhere. They’re not just in political debates. They’re in all forms of cultural production, which I’m trying to understand systematically. I’m trying to find out how people thought of themselves in relation to money, like with subject formation. What kinds of people do we think can be in relation to this institution? That’s where media is not just about representation. It’s actually constitutive of what money is today, how people talk about it, and also the languages we have or no longer have to talk about it.
William Saas: Riffing on that, in my own conversations with people about money–what it says to them and how they understand themselves in relation to it–I’m looking at money as a generically social constructionist project, where money is money because we believe it is money. However, you’re saying that it’s more than that. And I agree that we need to interrogate our relations with money and money’s relations with us. I know that your project is firmly situated in the present. This history is being done in order to better understand where we are now. Given the lay of the land and the way that a lot of people imagine the money relation today, what’s next for us? What are our next steps? What’s the future of money on the “Left”?
Jakob Feinig: Well, I wish I had a good answer to that.
William Saas: We’ll take anything.
Jakob Feinig: I don’t have any clear pathways to offer, but there are a couple of things that I want to mention. One of them is, given that money was politicized for such long periods, the current rise of politicization is much less surprising than it might appear at first sight. There’s a lot of history. This is not something that emerges out of nothing. It’s clear that in the decade since Occupy Wall Street, MMT has punctured monetary silence. And given what I’ve said about moral economies, many people are really electrified by this idea of being able to understand money. It’s so liberating to have all these mystifications about money and truncated moral economies, which are always erecting barriers between money users and institutions, being challenged. It has democratic potential for people.
At the same time–and Scott, you have done this in your book–I think there is a lot of leeway for developing a way of relating to money that can become common sense and not reductionist. That doesn’t mean that everyone will know all of the technical details, but at least develop a way that vaccinates people against ahistorical lies about money–one that enables people to develop a moral economy. What can a society look like if we rearrange money and use it in accordance with our vision of social justice? I see a lot of potential for using that electrifying process of understanding money through a chartalist lens and creating a deep sense of what a society is, what a society can do, and what a society can be.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, thank you. I think this also puts into relief one of the problematic tropes that sometimes surrounds MMT and MMT culture. Often, there’s this framing that, “MMT is just merely describing and giving us a technical understanding.” When in fact, those people who are vociferously and sometimes angrily proclaiming this on social media are enacting and disavowing their own participation in moral economic processes.
Jakob Feinig: Yeah. I think the idea that there is a technical description of reality is misguided. Because, if you talk about capital and labor as a conflictive relationship, but then say, “That’s just a neutral description of reality and what you do with it is a different story,” there are politics in that description. It encourages you to think about politics in a specific way. Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any neutral description of monetary institutions.
Maxximilian Seijo: Jakob, thank you so much for coming on Money on the Left.
Jakob Feinig: Thank you.