This December, we bring you a special Christmas episode of our program, featuring the enigmatic operator behind the increasingly popular Twitter account known as “Neoclassical Marxism,” or @NMarxism. @NMarxism is a deeply satirical Twitter project, which deploys Modern Monetary Theory and some very dark humor to critique the neoclassical economics and neoliberal assumptions that unconsciously organize a lot of present leftist discourse. Our mystery guest agreed to speak with us out of character, so long as we promised to disguise their voice. The episode is a funny but also quite penetrating conversation between @NMarxism and Money on the Left’s Maxximilian Seijo. Given @NMarxism’s problematic proclivity to reduce socialist politics to crass consumerism, we thought what better way to present our dialog than in the form of a Christmas Special.
The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Maxximilian Seijo: Neoclassical Marxism, welcome to Money on the Left.
Neoclassical Marxism: Thank you so much. I’ve been excited about this.
Maxximilian Seijo: So typically we begin our show by asking our guests to tell us a bit about their professional or political background and how they came to consider the importance of money for leftist politics. However, in this episode, we’re speaking with you, the mysterious operator behind the satirical Twitter account known as Neoclassical Marxism. Since we’ve agreed to protect your anonymity, we’ll start instead by asking you to introduce to our listeners what Neoclassical Marxism is and why this project came about without getting too personal or saying anything too revealing.
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. I’m just going to kind of lean in to the pretentiousness of all this and push forward and talk about my method here. Basically, Neoclassical Marxism started as an inside joke with some friends of mine. It was originally a throwaway account that I made to do a couple of tweets satirizing these voices on the left who are really interested in universal basic income and see universal basic income, and the separation of consumption from social obligations of any kind, as like the final destination of socialism. This was something that seemed to embody what I had seen on the Marxist left for a while. It takes whatever the current mainstream economic terms are arguing, and within that framework, tries to spin it in order to come up with some kind of leftist outcome. Since economics is all about distribution and exchange, socialism then becomes reduced to how much money everybody has to engage in consumption.
Maxximilian Seijo: It’s funny that you talk about UBI as the Neoclassical Marxist final destination of socialism. I mean, obviously there’s that corny movie reference that we can think about, but I do think there’s something really interesting in that metaphor of inevitable death inside this UBI conception of Neoclassical Marxism, and I think maybe we can get further into that project as we move along. But there is also something quite pessimistic about the leftists who you are satirizing. And so, before we get into that, as of this recording, the Neoclassical Marxism account has just over 1400 Twitter followers and a good number of these Twitter followers are important scholars, journalists, organizers, and activists. Now, we’ve heard in the discourse many of these followers describe the account as niche, essentially like you said as it started as a giant inside joke for a relatively small minority who happened to be in the know.
However, the reason we on Money on the Left invited you to speak with us, and the reason why I’m interviewing you right now, is because we think that this project is actually quite significant for myriad conversations happening on the left. We’d like you to help us unpack its underlying assumptions and stakes. For this reason, we want this conversation to presume very little and be as inviting as possible for listeners who maybe aren’t in the know of this giant inside joke or maybe as its posited discursively on Twitter. So at risk of sounding a bit pedantic, maybe we can go over some basic terms, like what does Neoclassical mean here? What does it have to do with Marxism on the one hand and neoliberalism on the other? How does the spirit of what you’re calling Neoclassical Marxism frame and limit our political struggles and policy discourse on the left? And above all, why is Modern Monetary Theory important to your project?
Neoclassical Marxism: Starting with Neoclassicism or Neoclassical economics at its core, and by that I just mean in the mainstream of what you would learn in an introductory microeconomics or macroeconomics course, the whole theoretical framework is blowing up this idea of individual barter or individual exchange into this gravitational distributive system where, almost at a subconscious level, there is an invisible hand. Basically, you have some goods that you want, this person has goods that they want. You do some trades that seem rational to both of you at the same time. And then, you end up with a better allocation of goods. And so, it starts with this idea of people whose preferences are fully defined at the beginning. So what everybody wants is already assumed. You don’t have to worry about whether or not the economy is actually producing the right thing, because by definition, it already is. Everybody is just acting in this free space. But then, the market itself is this like static allocation device, and people are still kind of at the center of it in the neoclassical story, even though it’s in a really impoverished way where everybody has their objective interests.
Neoclassicism, I should say, was modeled after physics in the 19th century. So there’s a lot of metaphors of gravity and energy conservation. Basically, these natural forces, regardless of what you want or think, are gonna be constraining the system, or eventually as you get into neoliberalism, are going to be taken over completely. And so, the shift to neoliberalism around the mid 20th century, Friedrich Hayek and other people known as Austrian economists reframe what a market does, where it is no longer a static allocation device that’s just an inconvenience for all of these rational agents. Where you have goods that are scattered around, and by just getting them into the right place, everything is fine. Instead, the market becomes this form of collective cognition that everybody is. And as you get further into where this all leads, your individual preferences and rationality don’t really mean anything because you’re constantly inputting things into this idea of the market. And then, the market becomes not something that is separate from the state, that the state intervenes in, but rather it becomes this almost metaphysical principle that can evaluate literally all phenomena. All social phenomena now operate by markets transmitting information between people. This becomes a basis for a lot of recurring jokes and things that I’m doing with the account.
Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, one of my favorites of those is the idea that the betting markets just substitute for polling. So people will just randomly post the betting markets of the presidential campaign as a reference of what the status of the Democratic primary is. I’m wondering if you could talk about those tweets as a small digression?
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, absolutely. It’s sort of Hayek’s challenge to socialism, or what he described as socialism, which really was any kind of conscious planning by a state authority. And this argument also extends to anything that’s not the market. It’s that, by definition, the market is the greatest information processor that could ever exist. So anything that you could do, any decision or judgement that you could ever make, could be better made by the market. And so, it’s like extreme arrogance and almost anti-democratic that anybody would think that they know better than the market. With this polling example, I had been seeing a lot of pundits on Twitter sharing the betting pools on what the market is saying the polls are going to say in the future. And that becomes a more credible source than the polls themselves, because people who are betting are so close to the market so they must know. They know more than any of these people who are just mere consumers of Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg. They’re much closer to the device that validates all that is true.
Maxximilian Seijo: This was before your Twitter account was up and running, but in the lead up to the 2016 election, I think it was Justin Wolfers, a neoclassical economist, who just kept insisting that Hillary was gonna win because of the betting markets. I find that that approach is just so hilariously paradoxical and anti-scientific, even on the terms of what are supposed to be social sciences. It’s hysterical. Now, I was wondering if you could bring MMT into this? What does MMT have to do with illuminating the paradoxes and the hysterics of the “socialist mobilization” of neoclassical and neoliberal tropes?
Neoclassical Marxism: Right. So MMT at a really deep level unsettles all of this because, at the core of all this, whether it’s traditional neoclassicism or neoclassicism as it unknowingly becomes more neoliberal or works into behavioral economics and all these things that try to act like it’s some insight that people are perfectly rational the way neoclassicals find them to be, what they all have in common is that there are these gravitational forces that, at a subconscious or emergent level, create these distributional phenomena. There’s really no room for agency. And so, of course, there’s no room for money either. So when you try to talk about MMT and the fact that the government spends by issuing a currency, all these people are operating under the assumption that there’s not really any important theoretical role that money has because all the action is people bartering and exchanging goods with each other. Money is just a technology for bartering that people use. At a fundamental level, it’s like a decentered, unconscious gravitational process that everybody is contributing to. What MMT does is say, the government can employ a bunch of labor that’s unemployed and, in doing so, define what is considered to be a productive activity.
This doesn’t make sense in the neoclassical worlds. If anything, it’s just a distortion, because who are these planners to think that they know better than consumers and what it is that they want to do. But I think in uncovering the fact that there is agency in the world, that it’s not just the qualitatively differentiated social outputs that we have, it isn’t just a reflection of some previously indexed set of consumer desires that already exist. Instead, it actually politicizes what it is that we’re making. And then, it makes this vision of socialism–as just giving everybody more money to consume things–it creates a lot of problems for that vision. It makes it seem really weak because what it reveals is, if all you’re doing is distributing money, then you’re just giving people more or less an ability to buy things that somebody else chose to invest in producing.
The work that MMT foregrounds is that whoever issues the monetary instrument has the ability to set what is considered to be productive activity and what the economy is going to be producing. And it shows that, in denying that this is the case, we’re basically reifying and naturalizing the desires of a small group of capitalists. Because, since money has no theoretical role, there’s no reason to think that it should come from anywhere in particular. So then the things that we’re producing, if you actually look at who can buy investment goods and start producing things, it’s the capitalists. It’s private, it’s some particular set of people. And then it begs the question, to turn the neoliberal challenge on its head, who are these planners to decide what’s good for everybody? It shows that any attempt to depoliticize that is gonna fail. You’re still politicizing it. You’ve just naturalized qualitative social output that we’re producing either directly by talking about public works, which is a big current in some center-left Green New Deal discourse or you’re implicitly saying that all the qualitatively differentiated social goods that were producing are natural because they’re just a reflection of all of our preferences, which, of course, are indexed and not political. What MMT does is completely pierce the veil and gets us to start talking about who actually has power in society. And not talk about power and choice and agency strictly in a flat way, where everybody can consume.
Maxximilian Seijo: I love that because what it really foregrounds is that so many socialists today who have, as you said, naturalized the agents of production, the capitalists and how they want to structure output, they call for the seizing of the means of consumption, rather than the seizing of the means of production, which in the spirit of Marxism, one would think would be totally anathema to a really long term leftist project. And yet, as you show in your tweets, there’s many different ways in which these people who you satirize are doing just that. They’re adopting and naturalizing these assumptions, and mobilizing a political platform that is totally in line with the agents of neoclassicism and neoliberalism that have wreaked so much devastation on people throughout the world.
I also wanted to highlight, I really appreciated your lineage of the neoclassicism to neoliberalism turn. We had an episode with Nathan Tankus, called “Inflation and the Politics of Pricing,” which really goes into the nitty gritty of the relationship between neoclassical assumptions of barter and how the way we think about money totally refracts this whole apparatus of an ideological worldview that, as you say, eliminates any space for agency in the process of production. And so, I want to pivot to how you methodologically think of satire itself. Specifically in leftist politics and discourse, your account hyperbolically mimics certain dominant personalities, who I think have been haunting this conversation already, as well as certain publications on the left.
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, the “Matts of the world.”
Maxximilian Seijo: Haha, exactly. Can you describe the various forms that your satire takes and what you’re aiming to accomplish with these forms?
Neoclassical Marxism: I did have some people in mind. I think it’s not gonna be a big surprise to anybody that Matt Bruenig is kind of the main inspiration just because he really is so perfect. Like, he has a blog and he raises money forward as a think tank. Yeah, I did have some individuals in mind, but really just because they do, as you say, hyperbolically embody this idea of a think tank in the neoliberal sense. I should also say that the shift in neoliberalism really changes what economists do professionally. Once they stopped looking at markets as being two spheres, the state and the market, where they’re just trying to keep the state from intervening in the market as much as they can, or they’re allowing the state to intervene and doing a bunch of bullshit mathematics about what the right amounts of intervention are. Whatever an economist does in the neoliberal world, where everything is a market, the economist is somebody who advises on building markets. So the state should be more like a market. Everything should be more like a market. Everything should be more like a platform. We should all be, at every minute of our lives, giving off data and signals. And so, the idea of the professional think tank, it’s not a coincidence that they started popping up during the neoliberal era because they are closer to the marketplace of ideas than a bunch of academics protected by tenure who don’t have the market discipline that Patreon gives them. Patreon really makes sure that your success is based on merit–a merit based on everybody else’s market signals.
Maxximilian Seijo: Right, so you have this tweet in which you literally say “#NotMeMyThinkTank.” We were joking about the role of think-tanker and interviewee, but there is this way, as you sort of noted with neoclassicism and neoliberalism, the agency of meaning becomes institutionalized as a referent into this market making capacity. I just wanted to point out for our listeners that there’s a reason why we’ve brought you on. It’s because your tweets are reflecting these more abstract ideas.
Neoclassical Marxism: Well, thank you.
Maxximilian Seijo: In that vein of this Twitter persona, or the specific tweets that refract these academic-y sounding ideas as satire, I was wondering how your project as a medium of satire, but also of thought, is engaged with Twitter as a platform or Internet culture more generally, because platform and media studies does seriously consider the relationship between social media and neoliberalism as this process of information generation and big data? I was wondering if you had thoughts on that?
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, Twitter, a lot like Patreon and all of these platforms, converges on this flat idea that no one can ever leave, that everybody is constantly signaling, releasing market signals into it. Twitter’s kind of perfect for that because, in an ontological sense, it’s just completely flat. Everybody is a producer and consumer all at once. It’s perfect for a project like this. I mean, it’s no joke. I am actually engaged in the neoliberal building of a platform game or whatever. It’s an extra funny way for me to live the satire of it all because I’ll talk about when I first got into the Think Tank game, or when I first became an account with a 1000 followers. It’s all of these things that could characterize me as a brand or just call attention to my numbers.
Maxximilian Seijo: With characterize as a term, we start thinking about the metaphorical resonances of Twitter, right? The idea of you as a character, but also the characters that you produce in your branding. There’s just so many intersecting narratives going on in your account. It’s fascinating.
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, well, it helps that Matt Bruenig exists. It also helps that all of the professional econ pundits on Twitter have similar quirks.
Maxximilian Seijo: I mean, they do take the discourse seriously.
Neoclassical Marxism: They take the discourse really seriously when all the things that they care about are just consumption goods. They might as well be talking about the utills that they’re collecting.
Maxximilian Seijo: I mean, what are likes if not an indication of preferences?
Neoclassical Marxism: Right. That’s the thing. We’re constantly signaling our preferences or our dispreferences. And we’re signaling our negative preferences by not interacting with something. I think that the way a lot of these big social media corporations have developed in this direction of having platforms is that every minute of your existence as a person is on one of these platforms. And it would surely be convenient if they were all consolidated on one platform.
Maxximilian Seijo: To pick up on that, there’s another tweet that gets us to this point of the intense obsession with the discourse that some of these pundits have. On Twitter–as if I’m citing a piece of academic work–you write, “I like when the public holds shares in private companies and survives off their profits. That’s the same thing as communism to me.” Obviously, this is satire and it’s hilarious, but also I think there’s been an idea of nationalizing Facebook, which at many different levels is a good idea. But then there’s this disjunct where you get things like the sovereign wealth fund, which I don’t necessarily want to go into completely just yet, which argues that we need these profits. And so, there’s this paradox about the profits that we allegedly need with the making public and nationalizing of these companies. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these pundits saw the hand in glove relationship between the discursive generation of data and the profits that they generate to fund socialism or communism. Which, of course, if we think about this critically and from the standpoint of agency, it is completely bonkers. But this is sort of the hallway that these pundits are walking themselves down.
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, that’s a really interesting way of putting it. It’s interesting because, going back to your characterizing of the mission of the account, we’re talking about Marxists adopting whatever the latest thing is in neoliberalized neoclassical economics. They would completely take for granted what we’re doing on Twitter as value producing in some bizarre, big sense. I heard David Harvey actually say–David Harvey, for those who I don’t know, was an old problematic fave of mine, but he’s somebody who does really close readings of Marx. And while I was still feeling my way through MMT, he was at least a voice saying people should really be moving past volume one of Capital and talking about volumes two and three, because there’s really important things happening in finance. Anyway, he has this book called Rebel Cities, where he just sort of throws up his hands and says, “Well, clearly there’s a ton of value being generated in cities.” Just look at all of the profits that people are producing through various things. It’s an argument that would uncritically take in the idea that our actual behavior on social media is value producing in some way or is a form of production in the Marxist sense that should be compensated for. And so, I unfortunately could see a lot of Marxists getting behind the idea of nationalizing our data production or something like that.
Maxximilian Seijo: I think I saw a tweet a while back from Bruenig during the wars over the Job Guarantee about essentially giving people welfare benefits instead of employment–just giving them a posting requirement. I want to pivot to that sort of meme format that you’ve brought to the fore. There’s a few funny tweets that I want to read. You write, “School is just passive income with a homework requirement.” You also write, “Life is just death with a heartbeat requirement.” There’s the coming together of a Job Guarantee is just welfare with a posting requirement. However you want to frame this, there is the linking of the twitter posting neoliberal platform data generation side, and the policy and political positions of the Left that you are critiquing. To pivot into that, can we talk more about labor politics and unemployment and the political and policy debates that your tweets are critiquing specifically on the Left?
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, in some ways, I see this Breunig line is saying, “Well, everybody’s engaged in production all the time. Effectively, for policy purposes, we’re already producing. So let’s just act like nobody’s producing and give everybody some money.” It gets back to us defining what is problematic about the neoclassical view, which says at the beginning what kinds of things were doing and producing. In defining that, it creates a benchmark, which then by naturalizing it, becomes invisible. It was actually arbitrary that we made a benchmark of what are legitimate productive activities and what are illegitimate productive activities. Then, that lets us say what economists love to talk about–skilled versus unskilled labor.
A meme that I’ve seen pop up a lot among non-Matt Bruenig econ pundits, is looking at some ridiculous thing that somebody’s doing and saying, “This is evidence of labor slack.” It’s funny, but it also completely drives home this point that you’ve picked a bunch of arbitrary social goals, pretended that they’ve been picked by nature, and then used them as a benchmark to say who is skilled and who is unskilled. It becomes the basis for the legal construction of things like disability. And it also ties into their approach to labor politics because, from that perspective, anything that is not reflective of our consumer preferences or any production that goes into making those things is make-work. It is the hubris of economic planners or whatever. And so, the only thing that they can imagine is taking these people who are not able to produce anything useful and making them do a bunch of pointless tasks that nobody is benefiting from in exchange for a paycheck. From this framework, you completely erase any actual benefit that people could get from living in a society that makes room for them as somebody who has something to contribute.
Maxximilian Seijo: That’s such a good point. I wanted to highlight one of your tweets that makes exactly that point, but in the most baroque satirical mode possible. You write, “Just because you can’t do useful work doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a dignified place to kill yourself.” This is really dark, obviously. I mean, talk about final destination. But I do think you’re getting at this sense of the naturalization of what is useful and what is valuable work to do. And so, then you write people off by writing a check to them and give them a dignified place to be alienated in consumption.
Neoclassical Marxism: I mean, the paradise image that comes out of this is you don’t have to do anything for anyone else or engage in any kind of social activities. And it’s really just the generosity of the welfare state that’s letting you leech off of everybody as a consumer. But of course, once you’ve abandoned a rights based framework to anything, then the more scarce people feel social resources are, the more willing they will be to exclude you. I don’t know if you want to talk about Fascism at all. I know that that’s a research interest of yours.
Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, that definitely does reference the idea of exclusion. Maybe another way of putting this is considering the neoliberal version of fascism in the sense of exclusion. Not necessarily in the historically specific sense of fascism, but one that takes the form at least on the Left, which again, we’re dealing with all of these paradoxes of categories, but I do think one of the central insights that you have is that these neoclassical, neoliberal assumptions do permeate these categories. It’s this sense of deserving a dignified place to be excluded from society. And that is just so fascinating to me when thinking about exclusion writ large in an historically generalized sense, rather than an historically specific sense of fascism as Nazism or an ideology of Mussolini. What your project brings up are real contradictions that start to emerge. We move from this naturalization of production as a response to these already determined preferences on the Left as a naturalization of not only production but also relations to consumption and production. But then that gets mobilized against things like the Job Guarantee, or even in some Henwoodian circles, this opposition to public spending writ large that isn’t accounted for dollar for dollar on the back end. And so, if we’re gonna talk about money and finance, I was wondering if you could talk about the ways in which you’ve criticized these twisted fiscal and banking approaches that Neoclassical Marxists, or dare I say, sound finance socialists have to these questions?
Neoclassical Marxism: As we kind of implied, they all start with the idea of production itself, of people doing things for other people for some social purpose as a necessary evil that we naturally would want to minimize. All of the public banking schemes or schemes that are ways to neoliberally describe essentially fiscal policy, which is the government’s ability to spend money and initiate production. When you do it on the terms of this indexed social surplus approach, you have to justify every single instance you’re doing a productive activity that includes people on the basis of: is it filling some need that isn’t currently being filled? And so, it’s this useless until proven useful way of looking at labor. Naturally what flows out of that, because that is modeled after a private barter world with no state, is it makes sense that a Left that is being hobbled would reach for things that are more along lines of public banking, public green bonds for the Green New Deal. Things that have a bunch of conditions. The fact that you have to pay back the loan, or that the bond comes with terms or whatever, is driving home the fact that this is a sacrifice. You’ve employed a bunch of people. You better be able to back that up. You just gave a bunch of people jobs when they could have been at home consuming. And so, it makes sense from that viewpoint that you would reach for public fiscal policy that aesthetically mirrors capitalist activity because it is democratically unaccountable. It has this capricious framework of “Let’s prove that it works for me right now,” as opposed to employing everybody as a public good.
Maxximilian Seijo: I mean, it comes down to trade offs, right? That’s the economistic, neoclassical approach that is being evoked in those lines like: “There is no free lunch.” That’s the first thing you learn when you walk into microeconomics 101. I want to keep reading your tweets because you reference this in multiple ways. You write, “Calculating the natural rate of austerity,” which is a reference to the NAIRU (Non-Accelerating Rate of Unemployment). Or you also write, “Anchoring inflation to a worker being dragged across the bottom of the ocean.” There’s often this sense of needing an anchor for socialism, whether that’s mass unemployment in China because we’re doing a Green New Deal and we need to have a tradeoff. Or whether it’s a version of austerity, unemployment, welfare, socially constructed class of those on the dole, or however it wants to be structured, there’s all these ways in which these tradeoffs are manifesting in this approach to economics that these Neoclassical Marxists take. I think you probably have a lot to say about that.
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, so when you index production to this finite thing, somebody actually sent me a Trotsky quote earlier this week because this is what my life is like, that basically says, “You can’t cheat the laws of economics. Anything beyond what is materially necessary is going to cause inflation.” There’s something in Marxism that I do wanna touch on briefly because it’s kind of a running joke in some of the tweets. It’s this idea of the base and superstructure, where Marx said that there is this economic base that, at a material level, there are these relations of production and class forces. They’re your material reality. On top of that, there’s this idea of a superstructure that has law, culture and all of these things that you use to make sense of your material base. But they’re imperfect because human beings paradoxically for Marx are unfortunately trapped in this superstructural existence where they can’t fully perceive everything about their material circumstances. And so, you end up with culture and I think Marx in some of the original quotes also has law there, which doesn’t make a lot of sense since private property is legally constituted. Law should probably be in the base if it’s also constituting class relations. But basically, you have this split, which is not uncommon in Western thought between the idea of material reality and then bullshit culture on top of it.
This makes a lot of neoclassical ideas really intuitive to a lot of Marxists because the neoclassicals talk about natural relations between commodities. They talk about the whole world as if it’s barter from people’s index preferences that don’t really have anything to do with their thinking or agency. It makes a lot of sense for somebody like Trotsky to talk about how you can’t cheat the laws of economics or the economic base. Like you can print money or do all kinds of things with the state–whatever MMT says. But at the end of the day, you’re bound by the economic base. And if you do anything above that economic base, which is kind of an epiphenomenon of everybody’s immediate preferences, exchanges, and behavior that they’re conducting without any regard for whatever aggregate they’re creating. In this aggregate sense, it is creating an objective base.
It makes a lot of sense then for somebody like Doug Henwood to call himself a sound finance socialist. Tangentially, I have seen on social media, him posting things implying that there’s something really cynical about thinking that there’s no material link or indestructible link between the base and the superstructure that’s trying imperfectly to represent the base. He’s talking about that in the context of printing money because if you’re printing money for things that aren’t actually coming from the base it’s just a cheap trick. The real class struggle comes from everything happening at the material base, which then leads into this kind of Protestant sounding discourse of a shared sacrifice of the working class. Because, at the end of the day, it is an ontology of scarcity. There’s no getting around it. They valorize it in whatever ways that they can.
Maxximilian Seijo: It is so interesting that this discourse around sound finance socialism, which in the twitter discourse you’ve really popularized it satirically. But it’s also interesting that it’s happening at the same time that the Phillips Curve, which is the neoclassical imagination of the hydraulic relationship between low rates of unemployment and inflation, the consensus around the Phillips Curve is just falling apart in front of our eyes. And it’s so interesting that the socialists are doubling down on not being able to afford it because of inflation as the Phillips Curve itself is revealing what MMTears and others on left already knew for a long time that it’s based in these flawed assumptions off scarcity. Also, this insight around the base superstructure that we can just keep contracting what the base is until it becomes the naturalized preferences that are already being produced is becoming a theme of this conversation.
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, keep contracting the superstructure so that it is as closely one to one corresponding with the base.
Maxximilian Seijo: Exactly. So then you need to start having the superstructure perfectly mirror this imagination of a natural base. And everything that is not inside of that becomes this hyper-ephemeral relation of superstructure, the signifier and signified of a detached referent. For a lot of these people, that’s what the inflation fear is. It’s this detaching from the base. And in many ways, there’s an MMT reading that can think very nuanced and constitutively about the relationships between real resources and production and endogenous money creation. But there’s this real reduction that happens among these Henwoodian sound finance socialists that disallows any real curative or creative leftist project within that structure of needing to pay for every single thing or needing to bond ourselves in that relation in order to avoid this calamity of the superstructure.
Now, I want to use that as a way to pivot to a tweet that I think talks a little bit about the business cycle in the sense of naturalizing it. In all caps, you write “YOU MATTER. YOU ARE IMPORTANT. YOU DESERVE DECENT WORK DURING GOOD ECONOMIC TIMES.” I was wondering if you could elaborate on this trajectory that we’re charting and think about the business cycle from this perspective?
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, when you erase the agency that the state has to employ people, when you effectively concede that agency to people who have accumulated money over time through private property relations, then this is basically what a left wing platform sounds like. It is constrained by how the business cycle is doing, how much profits are being accumulated by the billionaire class or private finance. It’s funny because it totally makes the idea of a rights based discourse completely illegible. Because the only way they can possibly interpret a rights based discourse if you’re constrained by the economic base as a goal. Or like Elizabeth Warren says, as a framework. As something that you’re striving for, rather than something you can guarantee as a principle
Maxximilian Seijo: Right, like federally guaranteed housing or a Job Guarantee in the sense of a rights based discourse?
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, like all these guarantees just become goals. And then you can have somebody like Matt Bruenig come in and say cynically, “MMT is not adding anything. We’re obviously shooting for universal housing and shooting for this or that thing. But at the end of the day, we can only do so much. A lot depends on whether you’re in the right time of the business cycle.” Another joke that I use a lot is this idea that, because of technology, for the first time ever we’re living in a society that can care for everybody. Before we reached this technological epoch, which is an extremely flat ontology of technological innovation that just translates to enough consumption goods to sustain everybody, then whether or not we live in a society that can care for everybody. It is literally just a technical question of what is our output? Like, is it this number or is it that number?
Maxximilian Seijo: This relates to Aaron Bastani’s “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” line. There’s that post about a universal infinity pool relation or something. I don’t even remember what it was.
Neoclassical Marxism: Oh my god, yeah. Just to go off on that a little bit, it was some article about how nice infinity pools are and he shared it and was like, “In socialism, everybody will have an infinity pool,” or something. It very much comes back to this idea of buying the specific preferences of the ruling class. Just saying, under socialism we’ll all be able to consume qualitatively exactly the same as they consume, it completely contracts agency and wellbeing around what today’s rich people want to do and consume. And then it naturalizes it and uses it as this objective benchmark. Like in a civilized society, everybody should have a yacht or something ridiculous. Maybe we would actually live more fulfilling lives than rich people do now if we didn’t buy these giant houses with moats around them and do all of the weird pathologies rich people have? It completely abolishes the possibility of anything outside of what’s currently happening.
Maxximilian Seijo: I mean, socialism is really just mining asteroids for value anyway.
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, right. That’s why it’s such a big deal when we find an asteroid that has a lot of value in it.
Maxximilian Seijo: For listeners, were referring to a post that happened a few weeks ago. I think it was a CNN article that was like, we found an asteroid with X number dollars of gold. I don’t have the post right in front of me. But essentially, the problem with that is, if we took all that gold and brought it back to Earth, we would have a serious inflation problem.
Neoclassical Marxism: I was about to say, it would cause inflation, right? Because, there’s not enough human labor power in the world right now corresponding to all the gold that is in that asteroid. It would super-structurally throw off the base.
Maxximilian Seijo: It would produce a real pricing crisis. Now, I want to pivot again. It’s related, but the finishing line of the Neoclassical Marxist worldview is that all we have to do is take these naturalized preferences, whether it’s for infinity pools or 7/11 boxed meals, and nationalize them in order to distribute their profits for a dividend.
Neoclassical Marxism: Which of course completely ignores the fact that there are international input-output structures that are producing all of these things. All of these reforms are being suggested to essentially just give Americans more money to buy things produced by sweatshop labor.
Maxximilian Seijo: I mean, that’s one of the basic tenets of Marxism: the labor is happening somewhere, right? Machine relations are still in relation. There’s still labor going on. We can poke fun at it, but I think it’s actually quite pernicious, from a postcolonial perspective, to naturalize these relations of accumulation, let alone the climate implications. And there’s a tweet of yours that speaks to this. You write, “Nationalizing the East India Trading Company to make colonialism socialist.” As satire, that gets at this dividend relation.
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, this is something that is ironic because our modern corporate form that we reify as natural literally came from colonial charters that essentially would let somebody on behalf of the crown do a bunch of horrible things in the global south that then could be distributed as dividends. Before that, I should say, even the legal form of dividends originally comes from the Christian Crusades. So all of these legal constructions were basically created in order to solve the problem of distributing from really, really evil things.
Maxximilian Seijo: They’re just superstructure, it’s fine.
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, it’s just superstructure. They did their work in the base. But yeah, this is the way the logic leads because today you still have really evil shit going on. Distributing the profits more evenly from all the things that multinational corporations are doing among Americans is not going to actually create a just situation in any meaningful way. But when you’ve naturalized profit creating as this kind of emission of human activity, then you get to this point where, if it was two or three hundred years ago, I think Matt Bruenig would be talking about nationalizing the East India Trading company or buying up shares and putting in a social wealth fund. And then, if some people complain about the kind of evil work that they’re doing, he would say, “Well, you should just vote in the next shareholder meeting.” That’s called democracy, right? It’s the hyperbolic example of the social wealth fund, but that is what this whole idea is at its core. You just completely reify capitalist production at its core and just tack on some redistribution at the end. And then politically tie the profits from all that exploitation to the living standard of the working class in the United States. Which then further entrenches the Amazons of the world and all of these other companies that do really evil shit.
Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, I think we’re probably coming closer to the conclusion of the episode. But there’s definitely a few themes that I wanted to hit before we do. And the first of those is you have a very specific critique of capital flight. One of your more popular tweets was a quote of Marshall Auerback, who in fairness to Marshall Auerback, is one of the better economists out there
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, the Neoclassical Marxism Institute really likes Marshall Auerback.
Maxximilian Seijo: So he tweeted in a quote tweet of another tweet that “Capital flight is a metaphor informed by a gold standard construct. Money now basically moves at the press of a computer button,” which one could have nuanced critiques to even this conception of what capital flight is. You, in a satire mode, tweeted, “This is just wrong. Money is a veil over real resources. The sublime horror of capital flight is factories detaching from the Earth and flying across the ocean, showering millions of the unemployed with their debris.” I think this is quite the evocative image taking to the German romantic literary tradition of Karl Marx. I want you to talk about this image. It is a literary image in some sense of the term. Can you talk about what the Neoclassical Marxist Institute take on capital flight is and how you’re critiquing it?
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, if capital flight is what comes out of accepting the neoclassical idea of the state as this thing that’s external to the “real economy,” where all the value is produced and all the money that imperfectly tracks value is produced, you end up centering all of the people who “naturally have all the money.” Which in a just world, should be workers, but in an unjust world are capitalists. But at the end of the day, whoever has the money has the value from what has been produced. And so, implementing socialist policies immediately runs up against this idea. They literally hold all the cards. They have all the money. They’re the only entity that can initiate investment. The only way that the government can initiate investment is by taxing them and borrowing from them. But of course, if you tax him too high, then they’re gonna leave the country. And so, this idea of capital flight comes out.
There’s somebody I will say flat out is a Neoclassical Marxist, like even more so than Matt Bruenig. It is this guy, Vivek Chibber, who is a favorite at Jacobin. He’s kind of old guard at the Jacobin Foundation, which since are they technically called that just drives home the neoliberal element of it. The way that Vivek Chibber deals with this idea of capital flight is through this structural formula of capitalist production where money is this hydraulic thing that’s finite and is just being accumulated by capitalists. And so, capitalists are the only ones with any meaningful agency to initiate investment. And so, the solution he comes up with is that socialists just need to socialize the entire economy really quickly because, if we don’t do it really quickly the capitalists will catch on and capital flight will happen. I’m not kidding. There is a video, I think it’s called “Capitalism and the State” or something where he really does explain it in this way. And then he uses all these examples from countries that didn’t avoid capital flight correctly.
But yeah, it’s an extremely powerless framing. It abdicates the responsibilities of the state. The fact that the state is legally constituting the society that people are being excluded from is illegible. It completely subordinates the state role to this nature metaphor that nobody can touch without triggering inflation. Then, it becomes this conundrum for Neoclassical Marxists, where they have to act quickly or deal with capital flight. They have to impose capital controls or something that will quarantine all of the capital that exists in order to prevent it from leaving the country. It’s so funny, I hear people like Doug Henwood say MMT doesn’t talk about real production and its fetishizing money, but like, this capital flight story is literally conflating money with real resources. It’s this idea that all the money exists somewhere, so all the real resources belong to those people. And if those people’s money leaves, then their use-values, to use Marx’s term, or their real resources, disappear too. Thus, the visualization of that is a bunch of factories detaching from Europe and flying across the ocean.
Maxximilian Seijo: I love the visual of socialists having to wait until Jeff Bezos starts his triathlon before they socialize the means of production so that he doesn’t get back and press the fly away factory, fly away goods button. Or else everything will be lost at that point.
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, it becomes a little bit like a Lord of the Rings story. The fellowship of the capital has to go under the radar to do the deed to create socialism without the actual capitalist class becoming aware. Of course, in the story, the fellowship’s only protection is that Sauron doesn’t know where they are.
Maxximilian Seijo: That’s called Marxism.
Neoclassical Marxism: I was a huge Lord of the Rings fan. I’ve been suppressing revisiting it. It has so many problems. I think we just came across one of them.
Maxximilian Seijo: “Lord of the Rings naturalizes capital flight.” I’m awaiting that post. So yeah, in this conversation, through your tweets and through your approach, what we’ve built is this scaffolding of an argumentation of a brand, if you want to use that terrible word, to reflect a little bit on the Money on the Left project, especially in the sense of what this means for the humanities. And so, on my reading of this, and I think I’m gonna rope in my other co-hosts and speak on their behalf here, what this project does is, instead of simply being a Nietzschean pessimistic approach, what you seem to be doing is through an aesthetics of satire, and sort of an immanentist aesthetics, you’re negatively illuminating a positive political project through these extreme disavowals of everything that is potentially radical and available to us to mobilize for leftist ends.
And so, on our reading, this actually expands the poetic performance and language of what MMT brings to the table in relation to the humanities project. Which is, of course, the podcast that I co host. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that? I do need to flag and bring in the work of my co-host, Scott Ferguson and his book, Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care. He does work to resolve this dialectical opposition between aesthetics and money historically, whether arising in Kant or mobilized by the Frankfurt school. This sense that art, aesthetics, or sensation writ large is opposed to political economy and these forms of production. I was wondering, with all of that in mind, if you had any reflections?
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, I think that the questions that the modern aesthetic project has asked are expanded a lot by adopting a MMT framework for both money in general, but more specifically the agency to invest in the public accountability off what kinds of social goods we’re actually producing. Because, right now, if you accept what the Paul Krugman’s of the world are saying, you end up with an aesthetic project where there’s a lot of beauty in the world, but there’s also a lot of necessary evils that constrain it. Where everyone has to make a living and you end up with a conception of sensory experience that necessarily, in the final analysis anyway, is constrained by what a bunch of rich people want to see produced. And so, you end up with this impoverished idea of art. Here, culture is something that we do on the side or when we’re not engaged in production, rather than something that can be included in production in a way that is more meaningful and isn’t systemically abandoning everybody’s creative needs and creative impulses in this arbitrary and capricious way. In that way, nobody has done a better job than Scott has in showing what MMT has to offer to the modern aesthetic project in terms of a new foundation.
Maxximilian Seijo: Well, Neoclassical Marxism, I just wanted to thank you for coming on Money on the Left and inputting your ideas into this vast marketplace of discourse in which our consumptive listeners can decide for themselves what they think.
Neoclassical Marxism: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to seeing how people consume this.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: Alex Williams (audio engineering), Richard Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art).