This month’s Money on the Left episode departs from the show’s regular interview format to reflect on the past, present and future of the Money on the Left project as a whole. We focus, in particular, on a recent special scholarly journal issue dedicated to Money on the Left, which was published by Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies and guest-edited by our friend Andrés Bernal. The issue joins archival text, audio and video with fresh essays about institution building, history, and media composed by co–hosts Billy Saas, Maxximilian Seijo and Scott Ferguson, respectively.
Recorded in what now seems like a very different context before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus disease COVID-19 a global pandemic, the episode additionally discusses the graduate student workers’ ongoing “cost of living adjustment” (COLA) strikes in the University of California system and U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley’s powerful appeal to our colleague David Stein’s scholarship on the Civil Rights struggle for full employment in a recent House Financial Services Committee meeting. Finally, we ponder Money on the Left’s future efforts, including our upcoming second bi-annual conference titled, Money on the Left: The Green New Deal Across the Arts and Humanities. Originally scheduled for April 24 – 26 at Louisiana State University, the conference has recently been postponed to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
You can check out Money on the Left’s special issue of Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies here: http://liminalities.net/15-3/.
The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Scott Ferguson: So Max, what have you been up to?
Maxximilian Seijo: Well, if listeners can notice that my voice is a little bit crackly, the graduate students at UC Santa Barbara are on strike for a cost of living adjustment and yesterday was the first big full rally. And so, I spent most of yesterday yelling into the ether, at administration, arguing for a cost of living adjustment for all of the graduate students across the UC system. I even taught a class on the picket line on Brecht–I had to scream a little extra loud. So listeners will be in for a more crackly episode.
Scott Ferguson: And what’s that looking like–this strike?
Maxximilian Seijo: We’ll see. This is the second full campus mobilization after UCSC. It looks like there could be UC San Diego, Irvine, Davis, following potentially Berkeley and UCLA as well, with some version of either a grading strike or full strike. Obviously, this is in flux and the nature of podcast recordings is that we’re always gonna be behind. But yeah, I’m hopeful and I know that we’re pretty mobilized and really going to try and push hard for this one.
William Saas: It’s still a wildcat strike?
Maxximilian Seijo: It’s still a wildcat. The union is supportive in the ways that they can legally be, but yeah it’s still a wildcat–but decent numbers for a wildcat, considering the fact that it’s technically an illegal strike.
William Saas: And what’s the union?
Maxximilian Seijo: It’s the UAW and we’re represented UC-wide as graduate students. The hard part about this is that we can’t negotiate with our individual universities because we have to negotiate with the UC Office of the President. Janet Napolitano, whatever you think about her and her past, has not been very accommodating of the demands at all. There’s been threats of fires and people have been fired at UCSC. So it’s a little hairy, but I’m certainly not going to stop. I know my colleagues and friends here at UCSB are pushing really hard to get that money that we are advocating for on this podcast.
Scott Ferguson: Turns out money’s important.
Maxximilian Seijo: Turns out money’s important
William Saas: Just real quickly, what is the money situation currently and what are you trying to get?
Maxximilian Seijo: Yes. So basically, the structure of our demands revolve around what’s classified as rent burden. If you pay more than 33% of your income on rent, you’re considered by the FHA to be rent burdened. Nearly all of UC graduate students pay more than 50% of their income on rent, so they are classified as severely rent burdened. The demands are essentially to bring us out of rent burden, which will look different depending on each campus. But we need to be paying, at maximum, 33% of our income on rent.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, this is an old familiar problem. I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley from 2001 to 2009, and the Bay Area is a hell of a place to live–it’s extremely expensive–and we were intensely rent burdened.
William Saas: What’s the fee situation like? Do you have to pay fees in addition to rent?
Maxximilian Seijo: So fees are covered if you are a TA or are on fellowship, and that encompasses, at least at UCSB, the vast majority of graduate students–although there are some programs that are not funded. I know the education program is one of them [not funded] here at UCSB, which is an interesting problem. So fees are covered by the UC system; however, one of the main issues–especially with international students facing retaliation in these wildcat strikes who have been very courageous considering the threat of retaliation– is that if we don’t receive TA appointments, and it’s the graduate division at the UC who has froze hiring at UCSC for graduate students who continue to withhold grades and continue to go on strike, they won’t be able to cover their fees because you need a TA-ship or a fellowship to cover fees, in which case they will be academically ineligible and eligible for deportation. Considering Janet Napolitano’s history [of deportation], it’s speaking to a larger political moment, especially coming out of the Obama administration into the Trump administration of how the left has changed and how these populist and people movements have really ramped up mobilization to change the way left politics is represented institutionally throughout the country. That’s the crux of it. We need to reject the scarcity mindset at all levels. This is certainly one of the biggest ones considering UC is the largest employer in California, which is the sixth largest economy in the world.
Scott Ferguson: Well, on behalf of myself, and I think I can also speak on behalf of Money on the Left–the podcast and the project–we stand in solidarity with you and your fellow strikers.
William Saas: And the faculty across the UC system, at least a significant portion, has been really amazing to see supporting. Yeah, solidarity.
Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, thanks so much. There was a moment yesterday at the march when the faculty met up at the administration building and then marched from the administration building to the picket line in regalia. That was a pretty awesome moment. We’re hoping to see more of that and to continue to reach out to contingent faculty as well. I’ve already been doing that in my capacity in the overlapping departments which I serve. That’s gonna be a big way forward to encourage them, who are all without a contract right now, to get their union to actually formally strike because it wouldn’t even be a wildcat at that point.
William Saas: But your problem is their problem and the problems you’re having in UC are certainly not limited to UC, but also in Louisiana with our graduate students and our faculty. There’s lots that we could talk about, but solidarity. We look forward to y’all winning.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, maybe now we can transition to why we’re here. In addition to expressing our solidarity with the UC strikers, we’re here to shine some light and to maybe celebrate the recent publication of a special issue of Liminalities, a journal of performance studies, that was dedicated to Money on the Left.
Maxximilian Seijo: We should also say that it was edited by a friend and fellow guest of the show, Andrés Bernal, who on top of being an AOC advisor and renaissance style political actor, is a lecturer at one of the SUNY’s and is a doctoral student at The New School.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, we thank him for reaching out to Liminalities and suggesting that a special issue dedicated to our project would be a great thing to do.
Maxximilian Seijo: To begin, I thought we could perhaps reflect upon the entries into the Liminalities issue, which is composed of different sections that include excerpts from previous guests, as well as original essays written by the three of us, and then to maybe transition to what we have moving into the future and what the next year of the Money on the Left podcast and the broader Modern Money Network, Humanities Division project is gonna look like.
Scott Ferguson: Sounds good. So do we want to talk about the structure? You guys had more of a hand, to be perfectly honest, structuring this and I think it turned out great, but maybe you both can talk about what you were thinking in terms of the different sections of the special issue?
William Saas: It’s a tremendous challenge. I think at this point, we had 16 episodes out and loved every single one of them. Now, we have 22 out and I just want to pause and say how awesome that is and how awesome it’s been to grow this podcast and this project alongside you all. Also, shout out to the listeners for keeping us going. There are plenty of ways we could have handled the challenge of trying to adequately represent 16 episodes. Max, your suggestion to break out and include clips from a couple of episodes under different headings and addressing different themes does a really nice job of representing and encompassing the broad trajectories of the bigger Money on the Left project. And so, we have Andrés’ beautiful introduction, then a section on “Postcolonial Money and Internationalism,” a section on The Struggle for Full Employment,” a section on “Money’s Origins and Transformations,” another section on “Money’s Rhetorical Histories,” and finally, “Money and Feminist Aesthetics.” Peppered in throughout, there are our personal individual essays that address, like you said, the past, present, and future of the project. And under each of the sub headings, we have clips from relevant episodes that draw out some really nice moments we got with guests related to those subjects. Overall, it was a really smart way to handle it, if not completely encompassing and comprehensive. There were unfortunately some episodes we couldn’t or did not have space to fit in.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I’ll say this. Again, not being at the forefront of this organizational decision making, I couldn’t help but notice the strategic placement of the “Postcolonial Money and Internationalism” section as essentially the beginning after part one. I will guess that the point here is to push back against the conventional wisdom about MMT that it’s somehow an enclosed nationalist discourse and one that is developed in and for the United States, which of course ignores its origins and growth from all around the world, from Australia to Senegal. I think by putting “Postcolonial Money and Internationalism” first, we are signaling an international solidarity and we are making sure to frame MMT and our expansive project with MMT in a way that is specifically pushing back against this autarchic or imperialist association that we can see from time to time in the critical discourse and on social media.
William Saas: Absolutely. We might just pause real quick to let the listeners know where you might go to find this, and we’ll include the link in the episode description, but liminalities.net is the site for the journal. And then, the specific issue is Volume 15, issue 3. I think it came out in October and was…well, we can edit that.
Scott Ferguson: No, no, let’s talk about it. Let’s put the blame where it is due, which is that you all put it together, you wrote your essays and you were waiting on me to finish my essay and one thing led to the next, and I wasn’t able to get my essay done until basically Christmas. And then, finally, it was uploaded and we started advertising it basically at the beginning of the new year. But technically, it was published in the Fall of 2019.
William Saas: Yeah, I think it’s funny that my approach in my essay is all about disclosing the background information, and so my first impulse on the podcast is, “Let’s not talk about that!” So thank you for recovering that. It was a project that went throughout the Fall.
Maxximilian Seijo: To Scott’s point about the way we structured it, especially with the “Postcolonial Money and Internationalism” taking first bidding, I think we should also reflect upon the first interview excerpt in that section, which is our interview with Ndongo Samba Sylla on “Monetary Imperialism in Francophone Africa,” and that if listeners aren’t familiar with that interview, I would suggest to go check it out. It’s in multiple venues, and it’s one of the interviews that I feel has spread the furthest and had the most impact in the academic or left critical discourse online. We had the transcript originally published in Monthly Review even before we had our partnership with them, and that became the tip of the spear with regards to our partnership with them. The transcript has been published in Africa is a Country, which is the Jacobin Foundation publication. This is one of the crucial pillars of the Money on the Left project in the sense that it is projecting a path forward and illuminating and uncovering a series of oppressive institutional regimes that, once uncovered, can potentially open new possibilities for monetary mediation and the structuring of our international economy. I really wanted to highlight that as a really important pillar for where we’ve been and how we approach this project today.
Scott Ferguson: Indeed. Something I’ll say that I think we’ve all discovered in different ways through this process is, even though on the face of it, it’s just an interview show, right? There’s something very conventional about its structure. And I think our original idea was that there are plenty of text, audio, and video, there are plenty of places to go on the internet and in academic research to get your intro to Modern Monetary Theory or intro to Constitutional Theory of Money, which was really founded by another one of our guests, Christine Desan. But what we wanted to do here was to say that this way of thinking–the modern money approach, the constitutional approach–is irreducible to the discourses that have been developed in heterodox economics and in the legal theory that’s developing in tandem in conversation. There’s so much more to think and there are so many new questions and new problems. And so, this is really a project of expansion and challenging this paradigm to move beyond where it’s been in the past. We’ve reached out to people that are already close to the show, but we’ve also reached out to scholars, thinkers, and activists who we didn’t really have much contact with. We saw something in their work that really resonated with what we were doing and illuminated things that we hadn’t even thought about or connected with thinking about money as a creative constitutive political problem.
The thing that really started to excite me was that this wasn’t just about interviewing people and getting them to talk about whatever they’re working on. It was about, and I really don’t like the word networking, but like it was about building solidarity and building relationships. It was about building connections. It was about, as the title of Billy’s essay puts it, building capacity. And it really feels like, in making these connections and forging these relationships, we’re creating a community and we’re creating an institution–and not just with the people we’re interviewing, but also with our listeners as well. And yet, I just didn’t expect that, to be perfectly honest. It’s delightful and it’s exciting. Another component here is, we’ll hear stories from time to time of folks who are listening to us and what we’re doing really speaks to them in ways that we could have never predicted. That’s something that’s been just so important to me in this process.
William Saas: Absolutely. I think it’s a lot better than one of the early thoughts I had about this podcast and what it could be, like “Let’s read Deleuze through MMT,” which would have been pretty dreadful. But yeah, I think you’re exactly right. It’s been a really exciting process. I think that this might actually be a good opportunity to sort of pause and maybe flesh out your essay and maybe my essay too. Some of the next sections speak a little bit more directly to the historiographic approach that Max takes.
Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, going into the first episode, especially to your point Billy about what this podcast was gonna be and if this was gonna be reading texts or an interview show or however we were gonna structure it, I think right off the bat, when we interviewed David Stein in the episode “Job Guarantee as Historical Struggle,” that set the tone for what this podcast was gonna be. To what Scott was saying and to what your essay points to, we wanted to bring people in, but also expand MMT outward to where people were. And I hope that’s come through. I was wondering if we wanted to reflect upon the details of that episode?
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I was just looking back at the quotation that you guys selected, the back and forth between David and I in his episode. I’m asking him about the fight for full employment largely through the civil rights era, from the fifties through the early sixties and 1963 with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and then finally, culminating with a kind of fizzle with the passage but also gutting of the Humphrey Hawkins Act for whatever it ended up being called–the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act. Those second terms were about like, “Yeah, we’re not actually going to do this.” So David is talking about this, and I’m asking what are the lessons for us today in the fight for full employment. He offers a couple and in the second he basically says: the other key lesson is that in the post-1948 era or so, I can think of about a four year span when winning these sorts of proposals, basically a job guarantee or federal right to public employment, could have been possible had the movements been strong enough. That’s the years 1964 to 1966. That’s the moment of the aftermath of the March on Washington and the publication of Bayard Rustin’s Freedom Budget. And then, 1976 to 1978, which is the Humphrey Hawkins push. I think you can make an argument that had the movements appeared in 2008 to 2010, the years surrounding the financial crisis, they might have been legislatively possible. Yet the movements were not anywhere there during 2008 to 2010.
Then, he moves on to basically say he thinks there’s going to be an opening between 2020 and 2022. And he was right. This is just a couple of years ago. And not only was he right, but his own scholarship, and I think the work of the Modern Money Network and allied organizations, such as the National Jobs for All Coalition and the works of Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton and more, have been central in getting full employment politics and the economics of full employment politics on the map. A kind of spectacular display of this occurred just recently on February 11th, 2020 when Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley was in a congressional hearing with Fed chair Powell, and she cites David Stein’s work on MLK, on the March, on the Freedom Budget, and not only Bayard Rustin but also the ongoing activism and organizing for full employment, and many other things carried out by Corretta Scott King. I just want to read some of the text of what she said going back and forth with Powell. She’s bringing together Stein’s research in this kind of lost history of civil rights, full employment struggle with a critique of orthodox economics that have subtended and naturalized essentially a racist, neoliberal Fed policy and political economic regime. So here’s Pressley:
Ayanna Pressley: Just as with the Fed now, the decisions you make do impact everyday working people. Your decisions impact how many jobs we have, who has what jobs, how much they’re being paid, and who is most harmed when unemployment is high. Now, in the past, you’ve said we want prosperity to be widely shared. We need policies to make that happen. However, the Fed’s approach has never successfully insured enough well paying jobs are available to everyone who wants to work, even for a small time. In the 1944 address, FDR called for a Second Bill of Rights, which included the right to a useful and financially rewarding job. Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that the right to a job is secured by the 14th Amendment. And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on the government to guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work.
Dr. King’s legacy is often reduced to just one speech and the March on Washington often mischaracterized. The March on Washington was actually the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was a march for economic justice. And I take special claim to the fact that Dr. King and Coretta actually met in Boston. I represent Boston and I don’t think that she gets enough oxygen for the role that she played in the movement. And so, after Dr King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King picked up the mantle, pushing the Fed to adopt a full employment mandate and was actually standing behind President Carter as he signed the Humphrey Hawkins Act into law. And that’s the reason that you are here today. So in the interest of time, if you wouldn’t indulge me an answer as succinctly as possible, yes or no, Mr. Chairman, given persistent concerns about inflation, do you believe the Federal Reserve can achieve full employment? And by full employment, I mean anyone who wants to work and can work will have a job available to them.
Jerome Powell: First, thank you for that history. I didn’t know that. So that’s our goal. That’s what we’re working to do at all times. And I think we’re never gonna say we’ve accomplished that goal, but we’ve certainly made some progress.
Ayanna Pressley: I’ll take that as a yes. Could a Federal Jobs Guarantee succeed where the Federal Reserve has not, yes or no?
Jerome Powell: That’s a hard one. You mean by, I don’t know…
Ayanna Pressley: Guaranteeing a job. That’s the history that I was providing. That anyone who wants to work and is able to work…
Scott Ferguson: This a stunning display and talk about a political moment, a legislative opening, and I’m thinking and hoping that this is only the beginning. We’re obviously not gonna take credit. Money on the Left is not responsible for Ayanna Pressley’s stellar performance before Congress and in the face of Powell, the Fed chair. But I will say that I think we are playing a small role in this broader movement and I’m proud of that.
William Saas: Yeah, that was a beautiful moment. I teach David Stein’s essay on Coretta Scott King’s full employment advocacy, “This Nation Has Never Dealt Honestly with a Peacetime Economy.” I think he also wrote it up for Boston Review, which gets recirculated every now and then. But it was just amazing to watch and see, and then also in that moment, see my lesson plans change and become so much better and more amazing. It was so wonderful to be able to kick our first episode off with historian David Stein
Maxximilian Seijo: Bringing the histories and political movements that were sort of tracking and trying to include and expand through this monetary lens and the Money on the Left perspective, I think that leads us really nicely to what we’ve been coming back to over the last 15 minutes of this conversation, which has been Billy’s essay on “Building Capacity with Money on the Left.” And so, Billy, could you say essentially what you’re arguing and reflect upon perhaps the linkages between your essay and the rest of the project that we’ve been discussing so far?
William Saas: Sure, I’m happy to. I think Scott said it a bit more eloquently than I could hope to regarding what this project broadly is about. But in this essay, I do my best to historicize and narrativize the development of Money on the Left as a project. I begin with my own scholarly biography. In year two of my PhD program, at a point when, and I don’t expand on this in the essay, I really had no idea what I was going to write my dissertation on. I felt a bit directionless. I was at a friend’s house right next to Columbia–I was staying there to visit Occupy Wall Street. I talk a bit about that, but I saw this big red book sitting on his table and took a look at it. And it just changed everything for me. It was David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years. And so, I studied that a little bit and then brought it into my experience, trying to work with what I learned through that book and then expanding on that book by following the footnotes to find folks like Randy Wray and Pavlina Tcherneva and the edited volume that Randy put out on A. Mitchell Innis, learning more about the neochartalists and then encountering my own struggles of publishing in that vein. And then, I write about finding community with Scott and various Facebook groups and things, and then meeting you Max and just trying to write a little history of our coming together, and then framing that, and I think I’ve come to understand it as a project of building capacity.
I wrote it both for myself individually, and I think broadly after having talked to people when I was struggling, learning that they were also struggling to publish neochartalist inflected humanity’s critical theory research. And so, refining our arguments through conversation and collaboration, but then also expanding and identifying our territory and the topography of what a critical MMT humanity’s project would look like is a part of this. More concretely, I cover putting on our first conference together and then after that conference, starting this podcast, setting ourselves up to build a project that is inclusive, collaborative, interdisciplinary, crossdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, postdisciplinary, inviting non-academics and anyone who’s interested in this broader project to take part. So that’s the thrust of it.
And I’ll say a little bit more about writing it. I’ve never really written in the mode that I wrote this essay in–for publication anyway. And I’ve got to say that when I opened it up to get ready for this episode, I was not excited to read my writing. You all know my hang ups more than most people. I’m not a big fan of my own writing usually, but I was happy to be at least not mortified, which is reason enough to celebrate, I guess. But yeah, it felt a bit vulnerable talking about, going back to what you were talking about, Max, the struggle of being and working in higher education today. It’s not a super friendly place, and to narrate that and to account for my own struggles as I slog my way through the tenure track was a bit nerve wracking. But I’m ultimately happy to be able to share that with others and anticipate that, as with so much of what we talk about on this podcast, my struggles are not exclusive to me. It’s a shared struggle. It’s a project in solidarity, much like Money on the Left.
Scott Ferguson: One of the implied arguments that I really love in this essay–and you don’t frame it in this way, but this is what generative reading does, it brings out things that are implicit–is something that I had to reckon with myself, which is we often hear of this phrase, “the marketplace of ideas.” This is associated with a very neoclassical, neoliberal rhetoric. And it’s one thing to sit back and critique these market metaphors for thinking about how ideas are created, how writing is manifested, and how texts circulate. It’s one thing to step back and say, “Yeah, that’s nonsense on philosophical, political, economic, and social grounds.” When one is in the academy, one is in many ways atomized. Not that we don’t get help along the way, but you’re atomized and if you’re on the tenure track, for example, you’re lucky enough to get one of these few remaining jobs. You’re under this publisher parish paradigm, and it’s hard not to approach your own project and publication schedule as a marketplace of ideas. You put out an essay and you hope it gets accepted, and then you hope somebody reads it and somebody will one day like it and cite it. And then, you become a competitive enterprise in the world of market exchanges. And yeah, I can admit to the fact that even though I knew better, that’s still how I think I approached it. It wasn’t until really starting to collaborate and institution-build with you all and expand what the Modern Money Network has already been doing, was I able to overcome that fantasy. That, in order to think, in order to write, in order to dialogue, it’s not just a matter of putting out your product and hoping it gets bought. It’s a matter of creating institutions, creating platforms, virtual and otherwise–that’s how you build a reality. That’s how you make ideas sing.
William Saas: We’re variously confronted by and denied dependencies all the time, wouldn’t you say, Scott?
Scott Ferguson: I would, in fact.
William Saas: Absolutely, I think that’s definitely a big part of it. In the alienation, atomization, and isolation, there’s help along the way, but that help is usually in the form of informal camaraderie. And I think what I’ve really appreciated and responded to about MMNHD, MMN, and the broader MMT community is that there is a sense of collective purpose and it feels good. And it does so in ways that the academy, but then also so many other professions in our neoliberal political economy, just can’t offer. So seeking out that surplus wherever I can and however I can, and coming to terms with this is what I’m doing, this is what we’re doing, and we have some confidence and commitment, and I don’t know, I feel I’m saying solidarity too much…
Scott Ferguson: You can’t say solidarity too much!
William Saas: Well, you can because then you lose your voice like Max.
Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, that’s true.
William Saas: Well, solidarity a million times to finding community in an institutional context that wants to refuse and deny you that pretty much at every turn as a condition of employment. But that’s the scarcity mindset that we’re operating within. Looking at my own current interests relative to Money on the Left, relative to broader political developments, relative to Ayanna Pressley’s amazing testimony based on David Stein’s work, it’s so damn exciting to be working in this vein now. And I’m particularly interested in what MMT, the Green New Deal, and all of this stuff can do to fix this long broken and relentlessly un-mended higher education system. What will it look like under a Green New Deal, or articulated with alongside of a Federal Jobs Guarantee that, as it originally was supposed to, guarantee a right to meaningful work to people? And what does that do to the marketplace of ideas generally, and then also the “job market” in academic labor specifically? Here, I’m drawing a lot of inspiration and enthusiasm from critical university studies and abolition studies. Anyway, that’s a bit of a tangent, but I think it’s all relevant. It’s immanent or not.
Maxximilian Seijo: One thing I wanted to reflect upon as well, just in coming back to your essay again, with a bit of time since publication and since going through and curating this issue and structuring it, is this podcast is a little unique in the sense that we’re all in different points in our academic careers. Being on the less experienced end of that, what really spoke to me was what comes through in the commitment that people talk about a lot in higher education and in academic circles, but to practice is something different, is this reaching both up and down the ladder, as well as laterally, and then off the ladder itself, to activists and others to cultivate a network that is actually yearning for this transdisciplinarity or non-disciplinary perspective. The last few years of working with you all in this movement and on this project has certainly not only just changed the path of my academic career, but also it’s helped me understand that there’s also something more, though necessarily bound up in the job search or the search for an institutional home, and that those homes are not fixed or static, and that we need to keep building and keep refusing that answer “no,” when it comes to capacity, and when it comes to, as you said, having spaces and places for people to do meaningful work.
William Saas: Yeah, there’s a lot to say there, but I’ll start with where you just ended. The no’s are coming from just a few places and increasingly fewer as we have continued to build capacity, and so many yeses at the same time, such as from our relationship with Monthly Review Online and this special issue. There’s affirmation along the way and it is as a result of working together. Part of the inspiration to go this kind of on the fly historiography or writing the history and narrating the development of this project is inspired by the heterodox economist Fred Lee and his tireless, dedicated work to writing histories of heterodox economics.
Scott Ferguson: And building out the institution of heterodox economics
William Saas: Exactly. And charting out ways to proactively expand and engage across theories and frameworks. I’m not saying that I’m in anywhere near the same league, but it’s inspirational. Also, increasingly in my field of rhetorical studies, there are lots of people who are writing in the vein of what Chuck Morris calls, “critical self-portraiture,” so getting more vulnerable and a bit more introspective about the conditions of possibility for one’s publishing and one’s subject position in relation to that. I just wanted to acknowledge that, but then also just come back to say, I think we’re doing big things. The yeses have been so much more common and affirming and they’ve overshadowed what we’re doing together, have done together, what we’ll do together as we expand and include more voices in this project. It’s just so worthwhile.
Scott Ferguson: Totally. Maybe we can shift gears and talk about Max’s essay, which is really opening up related questions, but different questions about how we think about history and money from this perspective. Max, do you wanna start us off and give us a little tour of what you’re trying to accomplish in your piece?
Maxximilian Seijo: Sure. So I think a good way to get at this is through the project I worked on with you at the University of South Florida for my MA thesis, which is I am really interested in the history of German and Jewish thought, especially their intersection in the Weimar Period. And I’ve discussed some of this on this podcast before in relation to cinematic representations of World War II and the pre-war German context. But what I’m trying to get at here in this essay, which is called “Intraterritoriality: Money, Inclusion, History,” is through the figure of German-Jewish critical theorist and later American theorist, Siegfried Kracauer, and his various versions of publishing selves that he had throughout his life. I’m trying to get at what specifically the Money on the Left project brings to the question of history, in the Benjaminian sense, of a discipline that can open possibilities for the present. Stein’s work and episode that we reflected on for quite a while so far is another example of the way the past can open anew and bring to the forefront new resonances and new possibilities for ways to think through our present and our future.
And so, I do this by calling on one of our previous guests, historian Julie Mell, who wrote the book called The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender. Her argument, in its vast complexity, can be summarized, at least for the purposes of trying to think through what history means to me in this moment and how we can bring it to the forefront and bring the sufferings of the past to the forefront in order to change the future, to say that Jews in modernity have been figured by plenty of people on the left and right, as external figures to the production and maintenance of political and social space. And the antisemitic tropes that surround Jews and money, go back for quite a long time. She shatters this myth and really makes it clear that the meta-narratives that structure this myth have been truly detrimental and have become the economic explanation for antisemitism. That’s a quote from her book.
And so, bringing together this troubled lamented history of Weimar and what Kracauer’s essays bring to the fore about culture, space, aesthetics, and political economy, I want to perform this going back again, specifically going back to Kracauer’s life and essays, to tease out ways in which his work, and intellectual historians have historicized this, is seen from the perspective of extraterritoriality. So outside the territorial limits or outside the bounds, a wandering image is called to mind. And so, in a way that I also hope honors this self identification that Kracauer ascribes to himself, I figure intraterritoriality that is centered around an inalienability within the money relation, and it’s, as we’ve talked about eloquently, its capacity to include that lights up a new history and specifically with a more historical materialist analysis of Weimar and how we can think about relationships of money and austerity that brings to the fore alternative paths and ways to avow rather than lament our inherent monetary relationality.
Scott Ferguson: Could we potentially spell out some of these implications and maybe spell out what this myth is specifically? It is basically a myth of where money comes from, or at least money in early modern, late medieval Europe. And the myth is that money magically comes from these outsiders that happened to be Jewish. So money is extraterritorial. It sits outside society and its circulation in society remains tinged by this sense of alterity of somehow it’s alien and that it is alienating. And then the figure of the Jew becomes charged with all of the feelings of alienation and ambivalence that actually come from the injustices of European society organizing their own money systems, but then are displaced onto the figure of the Jew as a scapegoat. Is that fair?
Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, that’s a good summary. What I’ll add is what’s really interesting to me about Kracauer’s specific perspective with regards to all this is that coming out of this 19th century and the destructive and tumultuous century that it was, Jewish culture in Europe is one that, in varyingly competing ways, both laments this status but also immanently tries to embrace this extraterritorial lens in order to try and get at a better diagnostic. Through Krakauer, this diagnostic perspective allows for a glimpse at the whole of the totality, given this perceived outside status. And I’m sympathetic to this, especially historiographically and having been of that perspective, and what I want to honor with intraterritoriality is the two sides of that lament, which is that the circumstances of the early 20th century in Europe, especially for Jews, were horrible.
But it was precisely out of this horribleness and the atrociousness of the proceeding genocide, and the exile that was enforced by those who survived, that out of the very depths of that suffering can we see an inverted image of movements for inclusion and insistences upon inclusion in the public monetary maintenance of society and movements for full employment. The history of critical theory is an immanent perspective. And yet, one of the main intervening perspectives that I try to offer here is that this immanence is one which is yearned for, but the language or topographic articulation is one that isn’t accessible to these figures and writers like Kracauer and others. And so, I am hoping to bring the Money on the Left lens back to this history to render it legible and to then use the framing and the level of thinking that these figures bring for our moment now as a way to confront our own ecological presence. It’s about how this circular history can really inflect positively and how we can take this historical and situated lament and really drive what it shows us for the present.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, and just to clarify for listeners who are less familiar with critical theory and Kracauer’s work, most of them are theorists of aesthetics. They were some of the first scholars to take seriously popular culture and the lived space of architecture. They read these texts for symptoms and signs of the political and economic crises of their time as they’ve been historically conditioned. And so, they perform these exquisite aesthetic readings and they illuminate so much of what’s going on, reading the shifting nature of a particular built space, a hotel lobby, a movie theater, or a particular film at a given moment in the thick of the Weimar crisis, for example. But what you’re saying, and again just to paraphrase and maybe to reiterate and help the listeners, is this approach is so rich and so needed for our own moment. But we have to refuse the fantasy that they or we are somehow outside of it and that ultimately that money is somehow an alien technology, that it is alienating rather than conditioning the possibility that can always be transfigured.
Maxximilian Seijo: It reminds me of what you said at the recent MMT conference which is, “The only way out is through.” One other thing I want highlight about this essay is that I think one of the most important things that I’ve been trying to articulate in my work for a little bit now is that we on the left are very much taken by the words of the ultimatum that Rosa Luxemburg gave us, which is that we’re in a moment of socialism or barbarism. I think what intraterritoriality offers us is an alteration of the shape and posing of this question. And so, I try to say that, given our inclusion and insider intraterritorial status and the inalienability of accounting that is available and has the capacity to care for all, we need to insist upon avowing that the question of socialism or barbarism is not a question of a slide into calamity. It’s about avowing our intraterritorial sociality. That is what is at stake in a Green New Deal and in the transition to a true universal and internationalist vision for dealing with climate change in a way that leaves no one behind.
William Saas: I do want to ask something here, Max. I think each of our essays is doing something different and you offer yours up as like Money on the Left’s guiding historical vision and our intervention into the practice of historiography. And as you show in your essay, it’s like it opens up the entirety of the history of critical theory. Could you talk a little bit about how exciting and daunting that is as somebody who is at a different stage in their career and looking to graduate sometime soon?
Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, I like that question. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, especially when it comes to publishing and writing. It’s a theme that I think keeps coming up as well and why your vulnerable reflection about publishing really spoke to me, which is that the historical vision that I’m trying to tease into the fore in a inverted, negative, or almost more mysterious way is one that speaks to a grand narrative that is yet to be parsed, that has yet to be teased out or brought forth to the present. And I think one could take that insight and say, “Okay, well we have to rewrite the grand narrative, right?” And I think grand narratives are important and that they are crucial to understanding and shaping the way we think about the present and the future.
However, I think there is also a way in which our Money on the Left historical vision can really telescope, and that’s why when we bring on a guest to talk about a very specific time and to work through very specific figures or objects, we’re able to bring what could be, if you give all of us six hours and maybe a few drinks, a walk through the grand narrative of how MMT and Money on the Left changes what you thought about history. I think the point is less to do that as such and to instead open up a window into the past that then becomes a historiographic practice of investigation and illumination that takes on a vast and diverse array of historical objects in all of the multiple resonances of what historical objects can mean. There’s a flexibility in this monetary lens because it insists upon an intraterritorial vision of within, that we can provide a guiding method that can enable anyone. They don’t have to be a scholar to look to histories and try and articulate a meaning for the present and future that is spoken to by our incessant and inescapable relation to monetary and legal mediation.
Scott Ferguson: To give a specific and concrete example of this, Max, your work into Kracauer’s context and own point of view have been delimited by a certain horizon and a certain understanding of money. Whereas when you come with a neochartalist, constitutional money lens, you start shining that light on the same context, on the same history, on the same text, on the same artifacts, and other kinds of possibilities and tragedies come to the fore. So for example, you quote Kracauer really lamenting as the Nazis are increasingly rising to power and the unemployment situation seems so desperate, he says something like, “I just can’t imagine any kind of solution to this at all.” And so, what have you uncovered in your own research?
Maxximilian Seijo: A job guarantee, or what we could call a MMT figuration of financing a job guarantee, was very much on the table in the three years that led to the Nazi takeover of power in 1933 in the responses to the Depression. There was a former Bolshevik economist, who ended up working in and for the trade union movements in Weimar and advising the Social Democratic Party, who very much was interested in putting on the table and proposed it multiple times to leaders of the SPD a jobs program that was monetarily financed to guarantee a job to anyone who was unemployed in the middle of the Depression. And it was framed and specifically articulated in opposition to the Nazi calls for exclusion–exclusion that still necessarily employed those deemed worthy of employment.
And so, when we look at the specifics of what occurred and these political economic debates and histories, we can see that the “no way out,” which is what Kracauer talks about, it opens the “no alternative” or nothingness into an alternate possibility. And there’s some word play that is both wordplay, but also more than wordplay, which is that, creating money out of nothing is perhaps the alternative to no path. It’s the in between of the socialism or barbarism ultimatum. It is the third path that we can think about in that histories themselves, no one is necessarily suggesting that if the SPD would have accepted this than we wouldn’t have had the Nazi regime. It’s not about this flat, this or that conception. But the fact of the matter is, there were alternatives on the table that we’re not avowed. And so, it is our job to ensure that we are asking the right questions and posing the right solutions so that when they present themselves, as David Stein said, hopefully in 2020 to 2022 we have the tools to see them. They are legible to us and we can avow them.
William Saas: So there was an outline for what Jakob Feinig might call a moral economy in the Weimar Depression era?
Maxximilian Seijo: I would suggest yes, of course with all of the classical historical caveats, which is contingency, et cetera. But also to then flip that, it’s precisely the contingency over that alternative that I think opens up a path for the future and the world making that needs to occur in the future.
William Saas: You said “third path” and I just wanted to be clear that we’re not talking “third way.” This is not some sort of centrist proposal of a little bit of this, a little bit of that. This was a radical proposal that was for various reasons silenced, denied, and another path was taken.
Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this came from a former Bolshevik statistician and economist. There’s lots of critiques to be made of the SPD throughout the Weimar era and to bring up Rosa Luxemburg without suggesting that I think would not do justice to the injustices of the era, but that is crucially to say, the centrists proposal was precisely what was being fought against and with this. And sadly, the centrist model is what the SPD ended up affirming in their neglect of this job guarantee vision. This also speaks to some contemporary political questions in the recent UK labour election and the refusal to embrace a MMT vision with the fiscal accountability rule. There’s lots of things that some of our listeners might or might not be aware of, but what’s crucial is that living in the neoliberal moment of no alternative, the coming to the fore of the potential for post-neoliberalism needs to be one that understands the historical potential off this Money on the Left, neochartalist monetary vision that was always there, but just hasn’t been rendered or posed in a way that these questions can really speak to us with the biting analysis of how we should move forward.
William Saas: We can go back to Stein in that moment and say the movements haven’t been strong enough.
Maxximilian Seijo: Certainly. The movements haven’t been strong enough, and there’s multiple ways to think about “strong enough.” It’s not to say that there haven’t been enough people pushing and fighting every single day, struggling and suffering, but that movements are a synthesis of theory and practice. And to go and struggle with a theory of the case that opens up this path for the future is one that hasn’t been achieved so far, so that Stein’s research shows, but that his work, along with the work of others who we’ve interviewed and others who we have not, can open this door and this window for the people power to pry open the gates and to push forward with a practical articulation of this theoretical model that we certainly believe the Money on the Left vision provides.
William Saas: It seems like a critical component of that. I just want a pause and say we imagine ourselves within this broader modern money movement that we’ve talked about. And I think a lot of the work that we’re doing in the special issue is complementary to and trying to advance that and at the same time that we need people, we also need a grammar or a language link–a poetics–which is my somewhat artful segue to Scott Ferguson. We need to look for how to break through these obstacles that are very much rooted in the way that we think and describe the world. I think your essay Scott does a really nice job of helping us advance along those lines. Would you give us a summary?
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I can certainly try. The essay is called “Money, Poiesis, and Analog Mediation.” I’m taking this on as a media theorist and taking up the question of money as a media theorist. I think that one of the very first things you learn as a critical media studies student across disciplines is that there tend to be two broad and very contrasting approaches to media, and of course, there’s just thousands of others under each one of these umbrellas. But one way of carving up media studies is into these two approaches. They go by different names, but one often gets called the “constitutive understanding of media” and the other one is called the “correlational understanding of media”–sometimes it’s called correlative or the representational approach. The correlational or correlative approach tends to be the understanding that critical media studies rejects from the get go. What it presumes is that media is a kind of conduit that stands in between a self and other, and allows for a certain truth, a certain idea, or a certain message to be communicated. And the way that it does so is fairly neutral. And then, how it’s judged or how it’s assessed is how well and accurately it conveys that truth or promulgates that message.
Critical media studies scholars, students, and people are instead primarily interested in this constitutive theory approach. Whereas the correlative or correlational approach presumes that media doesn’t actually do all that much–it just sort of moves things along and communicates things that already exist–the constitutive approach says the opposite. It starts with the medium itself, whether that be cinema, something which I’ve studied a lot and teach a lot, or maybe we’re talking about algorithms and data networks, or about the printing press and the typewriter. Different media actually help to create the world that they’re trying to make sense of and trying to convey, and different media have different kinds of forms in different kinds of shapes that you can’t ignore.
In many ways, Marshall McLuhan is one of the great media theorists. I have some critical words to say about him in my essay, but on constitutiveness, he’s right on. The most well known McLuhan idiom that he expresses is “The medium is the message,” which later on became “The medium is the massage” in a book that was a graphic theoretical text that he put together with the artist Quentin Fiore. The idea is that media transform the world. They even create the world. They don’t just convey what is already there. In this sense, they have a kind of poetic function, and by poetic here, I’m drawing on the Greek etymology of poetic. The original word is poiesis, and poiesis has many meanings, but the main one is the making of something, and often it’s thought of bringing something to existence that didn’t exist before. So for constitutive media theorists, they’re going to really pay attention to the ways that media actually bring things into being and shape our world.
From there, I then take a step back in the essay and say, it’s curious that critical media studies scholars and students will insist upon this for basically every media that that you could name across the board, but they somehow deny this to money. Now, most critical theorists in this vein do not truck with the totally apolitical or seemingly apolitical extremely correlational and naive understandings of mainstream neoclassical economics. And we’re all familiar with this. Their definition of money is as a neutral veil for underlying exchanges, and it really doesn’t do anything to shape social relations. These relationships are individual private exchanges, and when we put together our theories and we map our markets with our esoteric and obtuse models and mathematics, what we’re really talking about is just exchanging, and there’s actually no mediation going on whatsoever.
So most critical media studies scholars reject this nonsense, but what they often end up doing, whether they’re following a certain Marxist lineage or others, they’ll acknowledge that money is a function of larger political and economic structures, but there is this tendency to nevertheless reduce money to exchange and the systemic and often unjust patterns of exchange. And in this model, money is still seen as an aftereffect or an expression. It’s a distorted expression of this exchange relationship with all of the class dynamics and antagonisms that the wage relation and capitalist exchange involves us in. So my argument is that critical media scholars don’t really reckon with the constitutive nature of money as a medium, because they basically give up all that constitutive creativity to the activities of exchange, to the dynamics of class antagonism, or to the violence of the state. And they end up not really thinking about how money is shaping the world.
Just as a quick digression and to give another example, there’s a contemporary, very important media studies scholar who does a lot of work on new media and digital media named Wendy Chun. Wendy Chun, in some of her most recent work, has been thinking about the way that algorithms on social media and also advertising on social media and data collection for the purposes of advertising on social media use these linear regression models that go back to and had been developed in the early 20th century, essentially by eugenicist statisticians. That’s of course, horrifying in itself. And she doesn’t make the claim that this means that Facebook is a bunch of eugenicists, right? She’s not saying that. But she notes this history. And then, she suggests that the underlying assumptions–the form, the principles that go into these kinds of algorithms, these forms of mediation–they’re organized to create what are called virtual neighborhoods or communities that are based on the principle of homophily, essentially “like liking like.” What they’re really interested in is creating borders, putting up walls, essentially digital walls, that divide us and keep us separate.
And instead of, let’s say, a contrary movement, which would be algorithms that were designed around heterophily, that looked for all kinds of interesting and strange resonances among differences instead, it’s about creating divides rather than overcoming them or finding patterns of connection that were already there. She makes the case that this leads to racism and is a function of sexism. This is a great example of putting that constitutive theory of mediation to work. The makers of these algorithms think they’re just capturing what’s already there. They’re just conveying what is already the case. These preferences, these dynamics, these values, these people, these bodies, these virtual personas, they just are what they are. The algorithms just capture them and then sell the info for purposes of targeting, advertising, and even predicting the future. But if you go with Wendy Chen and you understand that these algorithms are actually making our world, they’re making communities, they’re putting up divides and walls that we don’t even see because the algorithms are separating us. And so, it becomes a very powerful tool, this constitutive approach. It allows us to not only critique existing forms of mediation but also transform them.
So I take this constitutive approach and say we have got to do this with money. We don’t really have a theory of money when it comes to media. We’ve got powerful theories of money in heterodox economics through MMT, and we have our constitutional theories of money in legal studies, but we have not really translated this to the question of media. And of course, there’s all kinds of overlap. Our friend and one of our previous guests, Rohan Grey thinks a lot about the technicity of money and how that changes things and what happens when money becomes increasingly digitized, and what are the politics of privacy and surveillance that are wrapped up in those questions. If anything, you could say that it’s legal studies that’s offering us more, that is on the cutting edge of thinking about the constitutive technicity of money as a medium. Whereas I think that the humanities and social sciences is pretty far behind.
So at that point in the essay, I kind of turn and suggest that money isn’t just one medium among many media. It is a special kind of medium. One of the things that makes it special is that it organizes so many other media. This is a kind of truism when we think about digital technology. We have language for this. We talk about convergence. Now, all the seemingly disparate media of modernity, sound media, visual media, static and moving images, texts have converged and all been translated into the digital form. And we do have a sense that the digital is a kind of meta-medium for other media or previous media. But we don’t have a sense of how this works with money. And quite frankly, all of the major media that organize our world are organized by this meta-medium that is money. These things have to be funded and usually, as is the case with our digital media, it’s all coming either directly or indirectly from a currency issuing government often for the purposes of war and commercial exploitation. But also, these tools shape our lives in complicated ways that can be just and unjust and always be thought otherwise.
So I want to think about money as a poetic, as a kind of poiesis, as a kind of creativity. And I want to think of it as a meta-creativity. It enables other kinds of creativity, whether it enables people to labor together and make things or it enables other media to come into being. Then, through the mid-part of the essay, I go through some of the episodes that we’ve done and discuss some of the work of our guests, like Christine Desan, Ndongo Samba Sylla, and Rohan Grey. I think I also talk about Jakob Feinig’s work. And then, I basically draw out what I think they all presume. And it’s not just these guests. Nathan Tankus also makes this point very vividly. He’s on the cutting room floor of this particular essay–that money is creative. And that’s what the chartalist perspective really opens up. Money is an active, creative process that allows for the making of the world. It is not a neutral veil. It is not a passive expression of other processes. And all of these authors and organizers that we have talked to and explored their work, I think they’re all committed to that constitutive understanding of monetary mediation in their own ways.
Maxximilian Seijo: I want to interject and highlight this point. That’s an insight that I think people sort of know intuitively, but they also often take it for granted. We began this conversation with the discussion of the COLA movement here at the UC system. And what we are fighting for is the ability to mobilize money’s creative features for our own very different heterogeneous ends. And the first thing that people say, “Well, I want to do something. How are we gonna pay for it?” That’s what you’re talking about.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, Absolutely. The kind of work that I do and some of us do can be esoteric, but it all comes back to that. It all comes back to building capacity, enabling us to do what we collectively want to do in diverse ways and enabling it. One of the terms that gets used a lot now in media studies, and I’ve heard complaints that it’s overused now, is this word affordances. And it’s interesting, we talk about how certain kinds of media permit certain kinds of sensuous and social affordances. Cinema extends our sight and sound and transforms it and opens it up. It affords us ways of engaging, ways of exploring, ways of revealing the world. Maybe we can rescue this now kind of cliche critical trope of affordances through a Money on the Left lens. What we’re interested in is what we can afford. It’s money that ultimately is the meta-medium that permits affordances. It’s the affordance of affordance. It’s the meta-affordance.
Maxximilian Seijo: So now that we’ve reflected on the past and the present with regards to the Liminalities special issue and our contributions to it, what do we think we’re up to next, everyone?
William Saas: I’m glad you asked, Max. April 24th through 26th we are hosting our second international conference at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Our first conference was held at University of South Florida, titled “Money on the Left: Word, Image, Praxis.” I think we did that before we podcasted, though podcasting was part of the idea. The second one is called “Money on the Left: The Green New Deal Across the Arts and Humanities.” We’re having folks from across the arts and humanities, but also activists convening here in Baton Rouge on the front lines of climate disaster, or at least adjacent to the front lines of climate disaster, to think through the history, present, and future the Green New Deal imaginary, expanding it in various ways related to a lot of what we said today, and then hopefully in some surprising ways as well.
Scott Ferguson: I’m excited.
William Saas: I’m excited, too. I should say, if you’re excited, Money on the Left now has our own website, and you should check that out. We have the call for papers, description, and also details about registration and how to get involved in the conference.
Scott Ferguson: So wrapping up here, do you guys have thoughts about where we want to head into the next year or so?
Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, I think we should say, first of all, this last year and a half plus has been quite the ride and quite the journey, but we’re still looking to expand to multiple avenues and to keep pushing. I think the theme of this conversation has been the 2020 to 2022 window, and then there’s beyond that as well, but to keep pushing and to keep building capacity in multiple venues and across multiple media.
William Saas: I think doing everything we can locally and as a collective to win today so that we can win more tomorrow, broadly speaking, in terms of the 2020 situation. But yeah, I think more and even broader conversation expanding MMNHD membership, adding new leadership, and just generally growing.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I’d like to see what people are working on and where, but I certainly would like us to try to expand even more into the arts and the humanities. I’d also be super happy if we could find some people to talk to us about more non-Western contexts across Asia and Latin America. I think there’s a lot more thinking that needs to be done about criminal justice reform. The sky’s the limit. It’s just about trying to find the community and build the capacity.
Maxximilian Seijo: Alright. Good job, gentlemen.
William Saas: Thank you.
Scott Ferguson: Thank you!
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: Alex Williams (audio engineering), Richard Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art).