Cory Doctorow joins Money on the Left to discuss what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) means for building digital commons. Award-winning science fiction writer, prolific blogger, and long-time digital activist, Doctorow explains how MMT has shaped his ongoing work in the realms of digital rights management and anti-monopoly politics. He walks us through his important critical genealogy of Intellectual Property law as well as his contribution to the urgent anti-monopoly accord called the “Access to Knowledge Treaty.” Next, we get a quick preview of two new science fiction books he is completing, both of which engage MMT as a central component of their plots. Finally, Doctorow indulges our curiosity about his aesthetic practice of posting sundry pop and other ephemeral imagery to social media.
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The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Scott Ferguson: Cory Doctorow, thanks for joining us on Money on the Left.
Cory Doctorow: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Scott Ferguson: So you are a person of many talents that wears multiple hats. You’re a novelist, you’re an essayist, intellectual property critic, publisher, a treaty designer, and many more things. Maybe to begin, we can have you tell us about how all of these pieces of yourself fit together?
Cory Doctorow: Yeah, it’s kind of a circuitous journey. I’ve always been involved with computers. I tell people who ask me how to get involved in the industry that, if you don’t have the self discipline and foresight to be born in 1971, I can’t help you. We had a computer in the mid-70s that was a Teletype terminal connected to a mainframe. My dad was a computer scientist. Then, we had early PCs, like the Apple II Plus. They were all very legible. To make them do things, you would buy a magazine that had a program printed in it and you would type it in. And while the user experience leaves a lot to be designed, the German word is fingerspitzengefühl, the fingertip feeling you get for what the machine does, it just comes naturally, you get it for free. And so, we got modems, we got BBSs, we got early Internet, and all of that stuff kind of exposed me to the culture.
I grew up in a very political family. My dad was and is a Trotskyist organizer. It’s a very promethean kind of leftism. It’s not about back-to-the-land-ism or degrowth. It’s not about condemning every lord to live like a peasant. It’s about elevating every peasant to live like a lord. So those two things really intertwined. I also grew up in a great moment to be a “would-be” science fiction writer. Judith Merril, who was a leftist organizer herself, as well as a writer, critic, and editor, and who went into voluntary exile from the United States after the Chicago police riots in 1968, brought her and Frederick Pohl’s kids to Toronto, and was a colleague of my father’s. So I was first exposed to her as the host of Doctor Who on public television, where she would talk through the origins of these stories that underpinned the Doctor Who episodes. I would see her at demonstrations. She founded the largest public science fiction reference collection in the world, which was then called the Spaced Out Library. Later on, she let them name it after her. It’s now called the Merril Collection. She was a writer in residence, and in the early 80s when I was about nine or 10 years old, we took a school trip, and there she was. And she said, “Look, kids, if any of you write a manuscript, bring it to me, and I’ll give you feedback on it,” which is a remarkable thing to be a 10 year old who can solicit editorial feedback from like a legend. So there was that.
She was really quite a nexus. She convinced a guy to start what became the oldest science fiction bookstore in the world where writers worked and who mentored me when I was a kid. Then, when one of them, Tanya Huff, quit full time, I got her job and I worked there. We had a science fiction TV show that was part of her legacy, introducing Doctor Who on public television, that I consulted for. We had science fiction social gatherings, moveable feasts, that were descended from the Futurians, which was like a polyamorous writers commune in New York in the 40s. The Futurians were barred from attending the first Hugo Award banquets for being too leftist. They had this monthly spaghetti dinner that Judy imported to Toronto. So we had that and I got to know everyone. It was really as close to a formal apprenticeship as a writer as you could hope.
As my writing career was taking off, so too was the dot-com bubble or, I guess, the early multimedia bubble, which became the dot-com bubble. So I was able to just kind of walk into jobs. I became a programmer for the Voyager Company. I then started an early gopher site development business, then a web development business, and then founded a company with some of the people I’d worked with and moved to Silicon Valley. Through that, I got involved with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is a human rights organization that works on digital issues. As the 2000 collapse was hitting, we got a buyout offer from Microsoft. Our venture capitalists, who had been pummeled by the crash, saw an opportunity to kind of make good. So they used some fancy accounting to basically steal all of the founder shares in the company, thinking that we would stay with it through the acquisition to get good jobs at Microsoft. I quit, instead. The acquisition fell through. I went to work for Electronic Frontier Foundation. I became their European director just as my first novel was coming out and spent the next several years on the road for them, quit for a bit to write full time, found that I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch both the peril and promise of technology be so badly neglected, and went back to work for them about six or seven years ago.
So over that time, when I’ve been with EFF, I’ve published twenty-some books and also lived in many countries and done a lot of work on treaties, standards, and other policy issues. Currently, my title is Special Advisor with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I contract with them. And my work right now is primarily about interoperability, and specifically, a narrow but important and nearly forgotten interoperability we call “adversarial interoperability,” or “competitive compatibility,” which is when you make new things that are compatible with old things, even though the people who made the old things don’t want you to. That includes things like a third party ink for your printer, but it has lots of applications, like Apple making programs that can read and write Microsoft Office files. Or, early in Facebook’s history, they made programs that would fetch your waiting messages from Myspace and let you read them on Facebook so that you didn’t have to choose between the superior experience on Facebook and all of your friends still on Myspace. They’d radically lower those switching costs. And this is a big moment for it, because we’ve got five bills before Congress to curb big tech.
Part of the anti-monopoly work that’s emerging from that is the ACCESS Act, which imposes an interoperability burden on the largest firms. The European Union is contemplating something similar with the Digital Markets Act. There are proposals for this in the Competition and Markets Authority Reports in the United Kingdom. Australia has a comparable proposal. We are at this tipping point now where the kind of interoperability that was once absolutely commonplace and has been rendered extinct through monopolization might come back. And I hope it will be the wedge for a broader anti-monopoly movement, because it’s not just tech that’s monopolized. Every sector from beer to professional wrestling to eyeglasses to accountancy have been monopolized. So if we can fire up a kind of radical imagination of what pluralism and our economic affairs could look like, and really recover that ability to believe that Thatcher’s decree, “There is no alternative,” was wrong, and that there are, in fact, myriad ways to arrange human affairs, then we can build a coalition of people who love wrestling, beer or eyeglasses, or, who want an internet that isn’t just five giant websites filled with screenshots of text from the other four, and really actually mobilize a force comparable to the kind of political force that sat behind the New Deal, or other radical breaks with the economic orthodoxy, and the very stable equilibria that were so unfair that the New Deal actually collapsed.
Maxximilian Seijo: So you’ve just touched on it there in some terms. In recent years, you’ve become a defender and promoter of Modern Monetary Theory. We’re wondering if you could narrate how you stumbled upon MMT and how you would say MMT has come to inform your work more generally?
Cory Doctorow: Yeah, one of the things I didn’t talk about when I talked about my history is that I’m a blogger. I’ve been a blogger for a long time, longer than most people have been, more than 20 years now. I am one of the owners, and have been for 19 years, one of the editors of Boing Boing, which is one of the most successful blogs in the world. Blogging was part of my method for making sense of the world and its complex narratives. So as these things came over my transom articles, newsletter posts, books, and what have you, I would try to explain what made them seem interesting to me for an audience of notional strangers, as opposed to keeping a private commonplace book, which writers have done for hundreds of years. When you make your commonplace book public, you have to approach it with a rigor that you can get away with when you’re working just for yourself, which is why all the notes I make to myself are incomprehensible. Whereas, the notes that I make that other people have to be able to read, are really complete. And that’s like a powerfully mnemonic exercise as well. It kind of turns your subconscious into this like supersaturated solutions of fragments that periodically will kind of glom together and crystallize a real, new synthetic idea that becomes a long form piece.
In service to that, one of the sites that I read for many years was and is Naked Capitalism. Yves Smith, who composes their link dumps, was highlighting some of the work. I don’t know who it was, maybe it was Mosler or something, or maybe it was like The New Yorker who did a long form piece. But early on, as in the current wave of MMT, someone brought it up and talked about chartalism. Maybe it came about through “Mint the Coin.” It was somewhere in that era, the first kind of “Mint the Coin” era. It was one of those things where I was like, “Okay, here is a long form word piece,” it was in a 10-15,000 word range, “if I’m going to devote the hour to reading it, I’m going to devote the half hour to taking good notes.” And the process of doing that really made me start to rethink some of my own bedrock assumptions about tax justice and resource allocation.
I had been an inflation freter. I wouldn’t call myself an inflation hawk, but an inflation freter, after the GFC and quantitative easing. I was living in the United Kingdom and we had seen asset bubbles for a long time that had really just tormented people and distorted their ability to understand the world. It’s hard to overstate the extent to which British people are insane about housing. There is a complete lack of any sense of proportion or reality, not least because every British person who had the incredible brainstorm to buy a place to live in 1970 now thinks they’re Warren Buffett because it’s worth 2 million pounds. So all British policy is so badly distorted by asset bubbles. And you could see that QE was going to fuel the asset bubble. So I was like, “Okay, well, the asset bubble will continue to destroy people’s lives. And the asset bubble is, to a first approximation, indistinguishable from inflation, therefore, money creation leads to inflation and destroys people’s lives.” I just didn’t really have a better framework for understanding it. And with the intrinsic contradiction of a decade later there not being inflation and there still being an asset bubble, really, MMT was like that missing piece of the puzzle. It was the way to understand when spending is and isn’t inflationary.
One of the things that had always brought me to economics was talking to and listening to games economists. Yanis Varoufakis was working for Yves. Julian Dibbell and other people were writing these books about gold farming and its relationship to economics. You had these toy economies. And it was also part of a long trend that economists have always led, which is social scientists putting on big boy pants by adding numbers to what is an otherwise qualitative discipline, and then claiming to be physicists of human interaction and making up fake Nobel Prizes for themselves and so on. There was this intense vogue. I wrote a novel about game economics and trade unions called For the Win, a kid’s novel about economics and people forming unions using video games as a vanguard for physical world unions in China and making common cause around the world in something called The Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web. So all of this stuff had been really in my consciousness, but I had not really understood where money creation fit in. I just didn’t understand it.
And, in some ways, video games are the key to it, because video games do, in fact, spend money into existence and tax it out of existence. That is exactly what happens. And attempts to create equilibria in video games were catastrophic. It was EverQuest that had a thing where they tried to create a resource equilibrium, where every time you crafted a shirt out of wool, a sheep would disappear. Then, if you use the shirt long enough, it would disintegrate and a new sheep would appear somewhere in the world. And they never bargained on the possibility that there would be people whose self soothing behavior would be making, but never wearing, shirts. And that there was just a person who liked to unwind and would craft shirts and all the sheep disappeared from the world.
It’s an interesting story, because those shirts were not inflationary. Those shirts had been sequestered; they were not in the stream of commerce. They could have done sheep creation without regard to shirt creation and never had an inflationary moment. In fact, they have the telemetry to monitor productive and non-productive shirt production, and to do sheep creation in a way that is very managed that would be hard to imagine on a macro scale in our economy, and they couldn’t figure it out. So it really tells you, if you do try to run a balanced budget, if you try to run a balance sheet shirt budget, you just end up with some weirdo shack full of shirts and a global sheep shortage, which is a real parable.
William Saas: Talking about gaming is actually an interesting segue to our next question. In addition to writing and thinking about Modern Monetary Theory, you’ve also been a very vocal critic of intellectual property and not just a critique of IP as IP, but of the idea of intellectual property itself. Can you give us a sense of your read on the history of IP and why it’s so problematic?
Cory Doctorow: Well, the term IP is itself like a little microcosm of where it all started and where it all went. The origin of this stuff, depending on where you start, is in things like royal patents, where the king would give favored courtiers a sinecure by allowing them to control production of some physical good or process. So you have the silver ribbon patent. Anyone who makes silver ribbon has to give you some money. And you can tell them whether or not they’re allowed to make it. You have the right to exclude, the right to authorize, and you can extract or rent. You have copyright and its origins in a trade war between the English and Scottish publishers. You had the publishers who were called, “stationers,” creating a system of exclusive rights, not for authors, but for investors. So once you secured a manuscript from an author and published it, you could exclude other publishers. Again, it was a part of a national industrial warfare between England and Scotland. The framers of the US Constitution were very much alive to the problems of this kind of exclusive right and what it could do in terms of both encouraging and discouraging different forms of creativity, innovation and productivity gains. They tried to craft a system that would, in the words of the Constitution, encourage the useful arts and sciences by allowing Congress, if it decided to, to create monopolies of limited duration over inventions and literary works.
It’s interesting, because I think it’s the only thing in the constitution that’s optional. Everything else is a shall and this is a may. Like if you identify a problem, if you have a shortfall in production, you can create a monopoly to do it, but you don’t have to. So the implication is you shouldn’t unless there’s a reason. It’s specifically not a moral right, because the framers, again, only twice in the constitution ever tell you why they created a policy. The Second Amendment says you’re allowed to carry a gun to make a well-regulated militia. It’s not just because guns are cool or because you want to hunt or whatever. You can have a gun for this purpose and this purpose alone. The only guaranteed right to have a gun is to be part of a well-regulated militia. And copyright and patents exist to promote the useful arts and sciences, not because everyone deserves to be paid for their work, not because, if we didn’t do it, people wouldn’t make stuff. It’s only when you can show that the policy framework will promote the useful arts and sciences that you’ll get it.
So historically, we call these rights, “monopolies.” We said there are author’s monopolies, industrial monopolies, or government monopolies. And monopolies are an uncomfortable thing to lay claim to. If you’re an industrial entity and you want a policy change, going to Congress and saying, “I find my monopoly is not expansive enough, can you expand it for me,” makes you look like an asshole. So the term that was first proposed in the 1930s, but slumbered for 40 years to replace monopoly, was intellectual property. Given that private property is the state religion of the United States, that just describing something as property gives it a halo of sacredness, it removes the rationale for its creation. It becomes a truth that is self-evident. Safeguarding property is a thing that we do because it is a truth that is self-evident.
My friend Steven Brust, who’s a Trotskyist fantasy writer, says that the way that you can tell if someone’s on the right or the left is you ask them what’s more important, human rights or property rights. And if they say property rights are a human right, they are on the right. That’s the line on which the right and the left cleave. It is the difference between a leftist and liberal. If property rights are there to accomplish some policy goal, but can be modified or eliminated in realms where they don’t accomplish that goal, then you’re a leftist. If property rights are there, because they are sacred and intrinsic, or if you’re a Lockean and you think that somewhere out there was a terra nullius, that some distant ancestor of yours mixed with their sweat and turned into a thing that they could own through the transitive property of owning their bodies, and thus their labor, then you are not on the left.
So the term intellectual property came into widespread use by an international lobbying organization in the 1970s, called the World Intellectual Property Organization. It was a consortium of different industries that lobbied world governments for more expansive copyrights and patents. They became a UN specialized agency. They really started to deliberately blend the differing kinds of rights that we had called monopolies into a single kind of incoherent category called IP. So they asserted an intrinsic equivalence between trademark, copyright, patent, trade secrecy, and sui generis rights, like database rights. They said they’re all just like species of the same thing, which is a really sharp rhetorical move, because the underlying framework for all of these is actually really, really different. Like trademark, for example, is nothing like copyright and patent. The whole basis for trademark, both in common law and in statute, is to protect consumers.
So the idea is that if you buy a can of Pepsi, and it turns out to be full of Coke, you have been wronged, but you as the consumer lack the resources to punish the person who mislabeled their product. So trademark allows Pepsi to act on your behalf to stop confusion in the marketplace. Trademark, historically, has only applied to commercial activity, and only when you can show that there was real or unavoidable confusion in the marketplace on the part of a consumer. It wouldn’t matter if a trademark abuse bankrupted the company that had the trademark. That was irrelevant to trademark. If no one was ever confused, if your can said, “Better than Pepsi,” and people read it, and we’re like, “I’ve always wanted something better than Pepsi,” and they bought it and they were like, “Goddamn, this is better than Pepsi,” and they never bought another Pepsi again, then trademark has nothing to say about it. This is completely unlike copyright and completely unlike patent. Patent was about trading disclosure for exclusive rights. So tell people how your machine works and we will stop them from cloning it. But you have to accept a penalty that now they know how the machine works and they can be inspired by it to make an equivalent machine, a compatible machine, or an add-on to your machine. So you trade transparency for an exclusive right that the state will enforce on your behalf.
Again, that’s nothing like trademark, which is, again, nothing like copyright, which is the ability to assert an exclusive right over expressions, but not ideas. So it’s the opposite of patent. Patents are our ideas, copyrights are expressions. So you can have Captain Marvel and Captain Wonder. You can have Edgar Allen Poe inventing the mystery story with Murders in the Rue Morgue, and the idea of the mystery story being in no way exclusive to him, such that we can now have an entire genre of mystery stories that owe nothing to Poe or his estate, and never have to seek his permission. Again, it is nothing like patent. Fair use and other limitations and exceptions apply to copyright. They don’t apply to patent. Trademarks and nominative exceptions, where you can refer to something by name and where it only matters if it’s in the stream of commerce, those things are not features of copyright. So they’re all very different.
The free software movement was born at the moment in which all of this stuff was being applied for the first time to software, where you had the first assertions of copyright over software and the first assertions of patent over software. The free software movement and its progeny, like the free-culture movement, the Creative Commons, and so on, historically, they’ve been very hostile to the term IP, and they’ve treated it as a rhetorical trick. It’s like calling being anti-abortion pro-life. If you concede the term that it is property, that it’s a coherent category, you’ve already lost the battle. Something that I came to last summer, I had a kind of lightbulb moment, where I realized that they’re wrong. There is a very precise industrial meaning of intellectual property. It carries over across all uses of it in commerce. IP is any rule that allows an industrial actor to control the conduct of their competitors, critics and customers, like if you can stop a competitor from making an interoperable product, or if you can stop a security researcher from auditing your product and describing its failings.
Goldman Sachs made a free font called Goldman Sans. It’s free, they don’t need a copyright to stop you from using it. They don’t want to stop you from using it. But the copyright allows them to attach a license condition and the license condition includes a non-disparagement clause. So you can’t use Goldman Sans to make fun of Goldman Sachs. You can control your critics, you can control your competitors, and then you can reach into your customers home and control your customer. So you can use copyright law to stop someone from refilling their ink cartridge or from adding third party software to their iPhone without paying Apple a share of the revenues. That example is a really interesting one about how the industrial meaning of IP is much closer than the formal reading of copyright law, because if copyright law is there to promote the useful arts and sciences, it’s hard to understand how, if I write some software, and I’m the copyright proprietor, I’m the owner of it to use property talk, and you own an iPhone–again, this is not metaphorical ownership, it’s your distraction rectangle that belongs to you–and then I want to sell you my software and you want to pay me money for my software, which is my copyrighted property that I want to sell to you, and we can’t do it without Apple blessing the transaction, then that is the opposite of what copyright is supposed to do. Because, it is allowing an intermediary to rent-seek, condition, and structure a market for creative work without being a party to the creative work.
They didn’t make the creative work. They didn’t make my software. And you own your phone. Their title to it has been exhausted through the transfer. It’s what’s called the exhaustion doctrine, or when you transfer a copyrighted work to a third party. If I sell you a book, then I don’t get to tell you you’re not allowed to read the last chapter first and find out who did it. That’s your book, it belongs to you. You can do the voices when you read it as a bedtime story to your kids, or not. It’s yours, you can prop up a table leg with it, you can stick it in your little free library, you can start a fire with it. So with that exhaustion doctrine, by overlapping patents, copyrights, neighboring rights, trademarks, and so on, Apple is able to wrap the iPhone in layers of IP that allow them to control their customers, their critics, and their competitors such that the notion of property becomes the exclusive purview of like transhuman, artificial colony organisms called limited liability companies. And natural persons can no longer ever assert the kind of property right that people who claim to support intellectual property say intellectual property is a kind of. The intellectual property therefore extinguishes property as we understand it, and creates this thicket of property rights that are almost exclusively corporate, that trump all other property rights.
Scott Ferguson: Maybe to bring this to the present and to kind of circle back to some themes we were talking about earlier, the present moment feels pivotal in many, many ways, and there’s been a lot of debate across the spectrum, but especially on the left, about to what extent the neoliberal paradigm is in crisis, or is no longer tacitly, fully accepted by the discourse and the powers that be. And we could talk about this all day, but how this overlaps with IP politics is the recent and rather surprising announcement by the Biden administration that they were going to support a waiver for IP protections for COVID vaccines, essentially, pushing back on what I think a lot of us on the left worldwide are concerned about, which is vaccine apartheid. And you’ve thought a lot about this as it’s unfolding. Can you kind of unpack this and tell us a little bit about what’s going on?
Cory Doctorow: Yeah, I mean, it is seismic. I have friends and colleagues who have not been involved in the kind of WTO, WIPO land, who have looked at the Biden administration’s statement, which is admittedly hedged. It’s not a strong statement. It’s like we won’t oppose it, we’ll engage in productive dialogue, and blah, blah, blah. It’s not like vaccines for everybody. But I would have bet that the US trade representative would be a judge on Rue Paul’s drag race before the USTR would make a statement like this. I cannot express just how extraordinary, in the formal sense, and unprecedented this is in the USTR’s history. I worked on this treaty called the Access to Knowledge Treaty with James Love from Knowledge Ecology International. Jamie is the architect of the Access to Medicines Treaty, which was the treaty that tried to expand the WTO pharmaceutical waivers, specifically around AIDS drugs, but other drugs as well. And Access to Knowledge was a very broad treaty that narrowed into something called the Marrakesh VIP Treaty, which is a treaty to harmonize exceptions to copyright to protect people with disabilities.
So most countries have some form of copyright exception to allow the preparation of assistive versions of copyrighted work, like Braille books without a publisher being involved, or without paying a royalty or seeking permission. It’s very expensive. If you think about producing audio editions of books, you’ve got to get volunteer readers to read long books and it’s very expensive. The engineering is intensive and so on. And there’s no cross border reciprocity, so Canada can’t produce a read aloud version of a book with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and then share it with people who are visually impaired in the United States. More importantly, France can’t do this and share it with Rwanda. Cote d’Ivoire can’t do it and share it with Martinique. In places where they’re really resource constrained, where having a disability is already a huge burden, and where there’s very little infrastructure, this is just a no brainer. Because, this is the thing that everyone already has the right to do. It benefits people who are already disadvantaged. There’s no conceivable basis for saying fuck blind people without sounding like a complete asshole and yet that was the US trade representative’s position on the Treaty of Marrakesh.
The Association of American Publishers, all of the big rights holder organizations, all this stuff you heard them saying about the vaccine waivers, they said about the Marrakesh Treaty. Why should people with no arms be allowed to get an audio edition of a book? They could hold a pointer between their teeth and turn the pages. These are just absolutely indefensible statements that were totally par for the course when that came up. So it is remarkable for the Biden administration to have a USTR whose response to anything in the universe of a vaccine waiver is not like, “Kill it with fire, nuke it from orbit,” and is instead saying, “Oh, that sounds reasonable, let’s talk.” There is a reason that pharma freaked the fuck out when that statement came out. It’s like being the favorite kid whose ugly stepsister always has to clean up the fireplace great. And one day, the ugly stepsister says, “I don’t want to clean the fireplace great.” And your mother says, “Hmm, maybe we should have a chore rota.” It’s not that the chore rota will ever make you clean the fireplace great, but just the idea that there would be a chore rota is so shocking and outside of the norm.
So I have some hope for it. It’s also, as a humanitarian matter, indefensible that we would stop these countries from making their own vaccines. I think there is a form of really toxic racism embedded in the idea that brown people are too primitive to make their own vaccines, especially given that the world’s largest vaccine factories are in the global south. And the only even remotely credible argument about why we shouldn’t allow vaccine production to be parallelized into the global south, is that the inputs for vaccine production are limited. Not limited in total scope, but we can only dig them up out of the ground so quickly, or refine them so quickly. And if that’s true, then what we’re really saying is that brown people should have to wait until all the non-brown people have been vaccinated before they can get the inputs. We’re not saying that they can’t do it. We’re not saying that they shouldn’t do it. We’re not saying that it’s a good idea. We’re just saying that we will have fewer vaccine inputs to stick in our arms if we let brown people make vaccines. So as a humanitarian matter, as an ethical matter, it’s indefensible.
As an epidemiological matter, it’s indefensible. Because, when you have a virus, you reproduce the virus. It gets reproduced millions and billions of times, and each one of those reproductive acts has a small chance of a transcoding error–we call that a mutation. Most of those mutations are irrelevant, in that some of them make it more benign, while some of them make it more harmful. Some of the ones that make it more harmful also make it able to bypass vaccines. So given long enough, the chance that we will get a variant that is vaccine resistant and more dangerous, goes up and up. And there’s this weird story that apologists for vaccine apartheid tell, which is that pathogens are gentled over time, that a pathogen that kills its host quickly, or that limits its hosts ability to move around and infect other hosts, will not spread as fast as a variant that it is more symbiotic with–it’s gentler. And that is true over long timescales for most viruses. But the mechanism by which more virulent viruses are extinguished in favor of gentler cousins of theirs, is that everybody who gets the more virulent version dies. That is not a good pathway.
I’ve spoken to some molecular geneticists on Twitter who seem to know what they’re talking about, who say, “Well, we can actually look at the problem space of all the possible mutations of this kind of Coronavirus and say that many of the mutations are likely to make a gentler and not more harsh, but not all of them.” We can just say that, probabilistically over time, we know that Coronavirus’s generally get less virulent. But that doesn’t happen every time. It’s not deterministic, it’s stochastic. And in the meantime, there are viruses like rabies that have been with us since time immemorial that have never become gentler. They have only become more virulent and more dangerous, and for which we have very few effective treatments. So it’s such a crazy bet for us to say, “Well, we’ll just let 2.5 billion people in the 125 poorest countries get vaccinated in 2024,” which is the current timeline. And we’ll just hope that we don’t roll like three snake eyes in a row, that we don’t end up with a variant that just burns through the rest of the world and that is more toxic.
And leaving aside if those nations collapse as a result of ongoing pathogenic spread. Another thing that also happens when you have out of control pathogenic spread is that states collapse. Then, those countries become everyone else’s problem anyway. We get refugee crises, civil war, proxy war, and we get outbreaks of other kinds of diseases, like cholera. There are all kinds of problems, and again, this is leaving aside that humanitarian tragedy of like dooming 2.5 billion people. Even if you’re like, “Well screw those people, they should have emerged from a different orifice if they didn’t want to be doomed to vaccine apartheid. Be born in America if you want to be at the front of the line, dum-dum,” even if you think that, it’s still bad for America. So to see the Biden Administration step up and not embrace this nonsense that has been the orthodoxy for decades, is friggin’ wild. It really does give me a lot of hope.
Maxximilian Seijo: I really appreciate the moral indignation of your response and all the passion. As we move to the latter parts of this interview, we wanted to ask, since you are a science fiction writer, a little birdie told us that you’ve written two forthcoming novels that integrate MMT into their narratives. And so, without spoiling anything, of course, can you preview what you’re up to in those books, how you’ve constructed them, and perhaps also how MMT has changed your writing process, style, and perhaps raised new challenges for you as a writer of literary fiction?
Cory Doctorow: Yeah, so I’ve written a fair whack of post-capitalist fiction with the idea that it’s harder to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the human race in mind. I think that’s wildly oversold. It’s actually pretty easy to imagine a post-capitalist society, it’s just hard to imagine the transition. That’s the tough part. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future really takes a hard crack at it. But as I wrote in my review, Stan flinches away from the violent part of the rupture. It is there. He talks about things like every commercial aircraft being felled by terrorist drones in one fell swoop. Although it is this very impressionistic novel that jumps around point of view characters all the time like a documentary, none of the point of view characters are people on the airplanes or someone who’s the surviving family member who lost a loved one on those airplanes. I know Stan, and he is a wonderful, gentle, compassionate, and brilliant person. I think it pains him to think that the transition will involve that kind of suffering and he didn’t want to glorify it. I don’t think that he put it in there to glorify it or to justify it, but rather to say that this is the kind of thing that desperate people might do.
I wrote a post-capitalist novel that is inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson, and that’s an MMT novel. So it’s a book called The Lost Cause. And it’s set in Burbank where I live now. It’s about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias after a Green New Deal that reorients humanity’s productive capacity to creating resilience for climate change. So it’s an optimistic novel, or a hopeful novel, not in the sense that it hand waves away climate change, or assumes that we can do things like somehow neutralize all of the thermal energy we’ve sunk into the Earth’s oceans. The second law of thermodynamics isn’t going to go away. An optimistic novel about climate change is a novel, at this point, about confronting sea level rises, not about halting them. I think that’s just where we’re at. Maybe heroic efforts will retain some of our caps, but if you heat up the ocean, then the caps will melt. And you can’t cool down the ocean. It’s very hard to cool down the deep ocean. It’s just a thermodynamic process that runs its course as it does. The physics of the dispersal of heat through water is well understood.
So in that world, where they have finally said we are going to confront this and do something about it, like relocate every coastal city 20 kilometers inland, they are able to mobilize their productive resources through MMT. For example, one of the things they realize they have to do is use a lot of prefabricated construction material that’s low carbon. They are able to build factories in the desert that only switch on when there’s more solar in the grid than the grid can absorb. The factories use solar centering to make low clinker, zero carbon prefab concrete slabs that can be used to build a variety of structures that are thermally efficient, seismically sound, and so on. And they are able to coordinate their productive labor around surges and falls in free energy when the wind is blowing, when the sun is shining, and so on. So it’s like a cooperative, nontoxic gig economy, where everyone gets surged into productive work when there’s more energy than we can absorb. But then, everyone gets time off when it’s not happening.
I wrote a short story called “Making Hay” that’s set in this world that just came out in an MIT tech review anthology called Make Shift. It’s the idea that you make hay when the sun shines, that we have a long history as a species of orienting our production seasonally and moment to moment around what’s available. It was the efficiencies that arose out of coordinated production that eliminated our ability to suit our production to local environmental factors. If you’re an artisan making a door and the weather is nice, you can work outside painting. And if it rains, you can go inside and sand. But if you’re on an assembly line and you’re not feeling it, and you wander off to count butterflies, the line grinds to a halt. Now, assembly lines allowed us to increase productivity by a huge amount. They brought material comfort to us. And digital technology allows us to marry the two to create a kind of individualized, self-determining work style that is, nevertheless, productive in the way that those highly coordinated systems are. The Soviets tried to rotate weekends around where everyone got a different weekend. It was a problem, not because people didn’t want to have different days off depending on production schedules, but because you wanted to have time off at the same time as the people you loved so that you could all do stuff together. It’s that coordination that networks are really good at.
We went to Disneyland yesterday and ran into friends who saw us because we posted photos to social media, and they got in touch with us and we were able to get together for dinner. That’s the kind of thing that you couldn’t have done a couple of decades ago, where you would have had to have a much more regimented approach to having this type of social engagement. When I was a teenager, if I wanted to go to a movie on a Friday night and I was downtown, I would get change for a dollar, put a quarter in a payphone, call my friend’s mother, say, “If he calls, please tell him that Cory is downtown and thinking about going to a movie and leave a message if he wants to go.” Then, I would call back in an hour and I would find out whether he called and then maybe we would meet up at the movie theater. We are now able to have a fluid and improvisational style that allows for much more self-determination. And yet, so much of what we do uses digital technology to regiment us instead of to allow us to kind of be loose and fluid.
The best of it are things like Wikipedia, where no one has to direct the labor, but we can all collaborate. I can come in at one in the morning and edit your article and you can come back three months later and challenge my edits. And someone in between who’s never met either of us can correct some punctuation in the middle. That loose coordination allows for really high productivity work without surrendering your personal determination. So that first novel is all about how you can have things like a job guarantee that allow for that kind of improvisation and unstructured, self-determining work that, nevertheless, does the urgent productive labor of saving our planet and our species, and allows us to have leisure when leisure is demanded. Turning on the factory to build the climate changing, or climate remediating, technologies when you’re competing for energy with the air conditioning that keeps people from dying, because it’s a 34 degrees centigrade and 80% humidity wet bulb temperature where you will die if you’re outdoors, that doesn’t save the planet. Doing nothing saves the planet if you do it at the moments when nothing can be done without taking energy at the margin from more important things. So it’s about that. It’s about digital networks, self-determination, and those automatic stabilizers that are embedded in MMT.
The other novel is a real old fashioned noir detective novel called, Red Team Blues, about a forensic accountant and it’s his last adventure. So I’ve never written on these other adventures, but it is his last adventure after decades in Silicon Valley. His origin story is that he was part of an early cohort of spreadsheet users and they bifurcated into people who figured out how to use spreadsheets to hide money and people who figured out how to use spreadsheets to find it. And he’s always been on the red team. He’s always been the attacker trying to find the money that other people were squirreling away illegally. And it’s a Bitcoin caper. It’s about him finding some cryptographic keys that are in contention between two different criminal gangs. One is an ex-Soviet gang from Azerbaijan, and the other one is the Los Zetas cartel from Mexico, who have stolen some cryptographic keys that allow them to manipulate cryptographically secured ledgers, or blockchains, to do money laundering.
His best friend, an economist, is a woman who teaches at UMKC, and whom he met at a forensic accounting conference. The whole thing is sort of shot through with MMT and with the idea that starving the economy of government money just produces income generating bank money for rich people, that every great fortune hides a great crime, and that accounting, and not economics, is how you understand where money comes from and where it’s going. And economics is just a way of training a generation of court sorcerers who can assure you that the king’s plan has divine backing and is provident.
William Saas: Those sound tremendous and we can’t wait to get our hands on them. We want to close out in a really fun way by asking you to talk about mood boards. So some of us have noticed that on your social media feeds you post old ephemera sometimes, and somebody asked you, what is this about? And you said that it was for your mood board. Can you talk to us about what these are and how you assemble them and what they do?
Cory Doctorow: So I think a lot of us subscribe to a social media feed or two that are just images, whether it’s Instagram, Tumblr or whatever. You look at it and it gives you a little jolt of pleasure to see something aesthetically pleasing. But understanding it, or building up a coherent picture of it, or, particularly, if we’re talking about images that have cultural specificity, either to a certain moment or a certain school or aesthetic way of representing the world, I think requires that you do more than look at them. And for me, I find all of these on Tumblr. For me, the act of copying it from Tumblr and pasting it into a Twitter tweet composition window, then copying the title and the URL, and just handling it, it’s like picking up a thing and putting it back down on the shelf. And the moment in which you hold it, it fixes it mnemonically in your mind. And so, it’s just a high touch way of getting that aesthetic experience.
Scott Ferguson: That’s great. Well, we enjoy them, so keep it up.
Cory Doctorow: Thank you, I enjoy them, too. It’s a lovely way to experience the world. And it’s part of this probabilistic way of reading the web, which is a recurring motif in the history of digital communities. When I was first on bulletin board systems, you could read every message that every other member posted to a public forum. Eventually, they grew, they got multiple phone lines, and you had to pick a forum. Then, maybe you would skim the forum, because you would know that the interesting stuff would turn into an argument or a discussion and you could go back and read the thread. Then, Usenet came along and it was the same thing. I could read every Usenet feed that was on my local feed. So you could effectively read the whole internet every day. It went through the same probabilistic process. Then, when the web came along, you had Jerry Yang’s yet another hierarchical obstreperous Oracle, or Yahoo!, where he would post every new website that was created every day, and you could look at every new website on the web.
Then, eventually, you had to rely on signal boosting. The way that you would find the stuff that was interesting is that someone else would repost it in some way. It wasn’t retweeting, but it was like embedding a link to it, writing about it, thinking about it, or quoting it. All of that stuff gave you another bite at the apple, and it made it less important for you to deterministically handle everything, to find all the useful things, and instead created a distributed, implicit collaboration, where we would all big-up the stuff that gave us some intense feeling. And the process of that bigging-up would ensure that it was more likely that the stuff that you needed to see would cross your transom.
Scott Ferguson: Well, Cory Doctorow, this has been a really rich and informative conversation. Thanks so much for joining us on Money on the Left.
Cory Doctorow: Well, thank you very much. I really enjoyed it as well. Leftists don’t talk about money enough.
William Saas: We agree.
Cory Doctorow: Read leftist fantasy novels. Read Stephen Brust. You can always tell when a Trotskyist is writing fantasy, because the ratio of lords to vassals is right. Brust has novels where a character will just walk through fields filled with 1000s of laboring peasants for a whole chapter, just like one after another after another after another just to reach the Lord’s castle. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, this is what it is.”
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Richard Farrell (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)