The Black University Concept with Andrew J. Douglas

Andrew J. Douglas, political theorist and professor of political science at Morehouse College, joins Money on the Left to discuss his latest article, “Modern Money and the Black University Concept,” published April 19, 2024, in Money on the Left: History, Theory, Practice. 

In the article as in the interview, Andrew stages critical encounters between the little-studied but tremendously potent concept of the Black University–an alternative vision for higher education oriented to Pan-African research and community development–and recent public money-driven proposals, like the Uni Currency Project, that aim to activate colleges and universities as sites for radical public provisioning and meaningful political participation. Proponents of both projects, Andrew argues, stand to gain much through collaboration and close study of each other’s work, with the prospective outcome of a revitalized 21st-century public money-driven Black University movement lingering just within reach.

Toward the end of the conversation we discuss Andrew’s planned participation in a symposium on the cooperative university that was to be held later in the month at Columbia University. In solidarity with campus protestors at Columbia and across the world, Andrew withdrew in advance from that event.

Andrew J. Douglas is author of three books, including (with Jared Loggins) Prophet of Discontent: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Critique of Racial Capitalism (2021); W.E.B. Du Bois and the Critique of the Competitive Society (2019); and In the Spirit of Critique: Thinking Politically in the Dialectical Tradition (2013).

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Music by Nahneen Kula:


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

Billy Saas: Andrew Douglas, thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left.

Andrew Douglas: Thanks for having me. It’s a real treat.

Billy Saas: We’re excited to have you here and to celebrate the publication and to discuss the substance of your piece for Money in the Left: History, Theory, Practice titled, “Modern Money and the Black University Concept.” Before we get into that, or maybe as a way to get into that, could you talk to us a little bit about how you found yourself at this project? What is your research background and what brought you to be interested in the Black university concept?

Andrew Douglas: I’m a political theorist, and have fairly recently come to money and the philosophy of money. Most of my work over the past decade or so has been focused on histories of Black radicalism, Black Marxism. My two most recent books have dealt with critiques of racial capitalism in the works of DuBois and Martin Luther King, and Walter Rodney and others. I’ve taught for the past 13 years at Morehouse College, the historically Black liberal arts college in Atlanta. The “Black university concept,” which I think we’ll have an opportunity to talk about in some depth as the conversation unfolds, that’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. But I haven’t really been thinking about this in relation to money and finance until fairly recently. A few years ago, I started teaching a class on debt at Morehouse, and I was prompted for whatever reason to get on Twitter, as part of this new class that I was teaching. I had, for years, sort of avoided all forms of social media, but finally in 2021, I decided to get on Twitter to expose myself to some new things and try to learn some new things. One of the things I was exposed to was Money on the Left, and some thinking about money and modern monetary theory. Gradually, I began to incorporate some of that into my teaching. When y’all put out the piece that you did for the AAUP, I think it was Scott, and maybe Benjamin Wilson were the authors of that one. That piece really got me thinking about monetary experimentation and philosophy of money in the context of what I had been thinking about for quite some time in the Black university concept and movement. I started thinking about doing a historical piece, where I could put some of this new thinking about money in conversation with some of the history of Black radical institution building. My sense is that there’s some real overlap with what you all are trying to do with the ‘Uni’ currency project, and what the theorists of the Black university in the mid 20th century were trying to do. I just wrote this piece to kind of draw out some of those connections, and also try to think through some of the tensions between those two. But that’s kind of how I got here.

Billy Saas: Like you said, you have a background in political science, you have previously written on racial capitalism. The introduction of Twitter into one’s life can be a radically changing experience. Is there a through line that you can identify through your own research that if you were asked by say, tenure review committee, how to make sense of your research, how did you end up here, do you think that you could draw that through line pretty clearly?

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, I could draw that throughline without Twitter, for sure. I’ve been thinking for a long time about political economy, critical theories of capitalism, and I was trained in a kind of Marxist, European Critical Theory tradition, and pretty quickly after graduate school became more firmly rooted in Black radicalism, Black Marxist, Black sort of radical variations on Marxist critical theory. Political economy and thinking critically about capitalism has always been central to my work. I think the turn to money, in particular, even if that was kind of prompted by some things I was exposed to on Twitter, it’s all organically connected to thinking broadly about political economy and how we organize institutions within capitalist societies to try to mitigate some of the worst possible outcomes of market, commercial society.

Scott Ferguson: If you were to introduce our listeners out there, who might only have a vague sense of the Black radical tradition, Black Marxisms of all kinds, what would you tell them are some of the key tenets of those traditions? And maybe, tell us a little bit more about what some of your previous books have offered those traditions?

Andrew Douglas: In 2019, I published a book on Du Bois. It’s called W.E.B. Du Bois and the Critique of the Competitive Society. It looks at his work in the 1930s, which was a period of transition for Du Bois. This was a period in which it became more distinctive. He had always been a critic of capitalism and empire. But in the 1930s, he became far more disillusioned with liberalism, broadly understood. I use the framework of what I call the “competitive society” as a way of articulating the distinctiveness of Du Bois’ critique of Western European modernity in the 1930s in a way that I think speaks to our neoliberal present now. This was a time period in the 1930s, when the term neoliberalism was coined, when market reformers were trying to promote competitive market relations and use the apparatus of the state to promote competitive market relations. Du Bois at this time was someone who was deeply worried about what our celebration of competitive market principles would mean for Black people and for race relations. He was concerned with the kind of mainline civil rights buy-in to this idea that we just need to give people the freedom to compete, and that would resolve racial conflict and tension and racial injustice and inequity. He saw early on that that kind of approach was just going to exacerbate racist animosities. So the book I wrote in 2019 deals with some of those questions. Then, the more recent one I did on Martin Luther King with my colleague, Jared Loggins at Amherst College, tries to use contemporary discourse on racial capitalism to reconstruct Martin Luther King’s critique of capitalist society. We argue there that King, widely understood to be a critic of capitalism, we try to reconstruct the critical theory of capitalist society that is there in King, but not always fully articulated. We use contemporary discourse on racial capitalism to do that.

Scott Ferguson: Great, well, maybe we can plunge into the article you wrote for the Money on the Left journal, and start with the, I think, first and most appropriate question, what is this “Black university concept” as you understand it?

Andrew Douglas: The concept, as I indicated in the paper, is not well studied, well known. I should qualify that a little bit. We at Morehouse where I teach, an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and University], we had a roundtable discussion on it last semester. There are quite a few folks in the orbit here who are familiar with this tradition and this concept, but outside of HBCU communities, it’s certainly not well-studied or well known, and it doesn’t really have a definitive or singular genealogy. Du Bois’ writings in the 30s are a key reference point. As he was becoming more radical in this period, he had some writings on the Black University where he begins to articulate what becomes known in the 1960s as the Black university concept. But the concept really does come to maturity in the 60s, in the throes of the Black Studies movement, in the throes of anti colonial liberation struggle worldwide. If there’s one essay that I would recommend on the Black university, the idea of the Black university, it would probably be Vincent Harding’s 1970 piece in Ebony Magazine. I think it’s called “Toward the Black University.” He’s got this great line there that I repeat all the time: “Dark copies of dying whiteness are no longer needed.” This really kind of captures the essence of the Black university vision. The idea is that white civilization, European modernity, is unsustainable, unjust, unworthy of efforts to try to redeem it. Conventional universities, whether predominately white institutions, or what we call HBCUs, have long been kind of in service of this white world project. This is language that really comes from Du Bois. Du Bois had a notion of a white world, and a Black world. The white world was the European modernity that we all know. It’s property ownership, it’s capitalism, its empire, it’s anti-Black violence. The Black World is this alternative that has yet to manifest itself. But it cannot simply be a copy of this whiteness. So, the Black university vision is an idea of an institution that can hasten the demise of white world principles and practices and experiment with and imagine and build Black world alternatives. So, in the paper, I leaned on Adom Getachew’s notion of a “Black Worldmaking agenda.” I think the Black university project is part of a Black Worldmaking agenda, where it’s about building a new, more sustainable world that transcends this kind of violent, inequitable, racist white world that we know. I should stress that it should be clear, based on what I’ve said already, that I’m not talking about existing HBCUs, or Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCUs are integrated into the capitalist, imperialist project, from the very beginning. I think they’ve evolved accordingly to the point where today, they’re really run like neoliberal universities, just like any other. The Black university as a concept is really more of an aspirational ideal. There was always some question of whether or not that ideal could take root within established HBCUs. This was Du Bois’ struggle. He was ultimately pushed out of what was then Atlanta University, an HBCU in the 40s, because it was just not an environment that could nurture his vision. This was the struggle of Vincent Harding and so many others in the 1960s, who were trying to imagine and build the Black university as well. Harding, for example, was chair of the History Department at Spelman College in the mid-60s. He, of course, was well known for authoring Martin Luther King’s 1967 anti-Vietnam War speech, “A Time to Break Silence.” Then, when King was assassinated, Harding was called upon to lead a library as part of the King Memorial Center. Coretta Scott King called upon him to build a library and a scholarly apparatus in the King legacy. But even that, he felt, was too tied to white philanthropy, in ways that would not allow him to kind of carry on his vision for a space of Black study and Black radicalism, and pan-African scholarship and research and community building in the way that he wanted to do. He broke off and founded the Institute of the Black World in the early 1970s. My co-author, Jared Loggins, and I have written about this. If anyone’s interested, we’ve got a short, very accessible piece in The Boston Review thinking about how some of the theorists of the Black university in the mid-60s were compelled to break off and try to build institutional spaces for Black study and Black learning and Black scholarship that were not rooted in established HBCUs. For a long time, I’ve been really interested in trying to revitalize, renew, and recommit to this idea of the Black university concept and vision and think about whether or not there’s any potential to build something like this from within established HBCUs. I think that’s really what brought me to this question of money and finance: how do we materially support the building of this kind of institution?

Billy Saas: I’d like to explore your work and the trajectory of your work on the Black University concept and your engagement with the history of the Black radical tradition. I’d like to know if you think it’s a competing vision or a complementary vision, but an alternate vision as articulated in the work of Fred Moten, and Stefano Harney, which is their project on The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, which you don’t engage in this piece, but I presume you have factored into your argument and advocacy. What do you have to say about their work visa vie your own?

Andrew Douglas: This is definitely something that Jared Loggins and I discussed both in the concluding chapter to our book on King and in the spin off piece that we did for Boston Review, “The Lost Promise of Black Study,” taking that term “Black Study” from Harney and Moten, and now others who have taken up that term, like Joshua Myers, and so forth. The reason why the concept of the undercommons doesn’t surface in the paper that I’ve written for Money on the Left is because I think the idea of the undercommons is born out of a notion that the university is a capitalist, imperialist, largely white supremacist institution, that is unreformable and that liberatory education, what Harney and Moten call Black study is relegated to what they call the undercommons. It’s not in your formal classes, in your for credit, accredited course of study, that you really get the real education. It’s what happens in the hallways, after class, in the dorm rooms, on weekends, in your on campus activism, a disruption of a speaker coming to campus and the conversations and the reading groups that you put together in anticipation of that sort of work, that’s sort of the undercommons of the university where the real work goes on. The reason why that notion doesn’t really appear in the piece that I’ve written for Money on the Left is because in some ways, I’m trying to imagine whether or not a different approach to university finance can move us beyond this notion that the real good work in the university has to be relegated to the undercommons. Is it possible that we can transform the university in ways that make what Harney and Moten called the undercommons more of the commons proper. I’m certainly attracted, generally, to this idea of the undercommons. I experience it in my own work on campus. It often does feel like what we’re compelled to do by our accreditation bodies, and by our deans and all the rest is the least genuine, educational work and experience that we can be a part of. And that the real work happens when students who are not formally in your class come in and ask you a question about Fanon or something.

Scott Ferguson: Can “learning outcomes” be radical?

Andrew Douglas: Right, exactly. Yeah. You know, maybe here and there on the margins, but it certainly cannot be the core curriculum.

Billy Saas: The topic of money: Your approach is radically different from from Harney and Moten where they have the chapter on debt. They’re participating in and extending a tradition of a kind of utopian, post-money vision. Whereas yours is coming at it from a different tack. I’m not suggesting they’re incompatible. It just seems like that’s where the projects might diverge.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah. Some of the questions that I do raise in the end and some of the work that I’m trying to do now that doesn’t factor into this particular essay, do push on some questions that are emerging from Black Studies literature that I think do raise some kind of challenging questions that I’m sympathetic to about the kind of promise of public or what I call “counter public money” or modern money as a kind of means to building transformative institutions.

Scott Ferguson: I’d like you to walk us through your rather nuanced, even if cursory, genealogy of the Black university concept and the thoughts about money and about financing, that sometimes in that discourse, you do find openings, you do find possibilities, but other times, and very often, you find dead ends, stop gaps, cul de sacs. You have a sophisticated and subtle way of approaching this discourse and this conversation that I’d like you to spell out for our listeners a little bit, if you can.

Andrew Douglas: Theorists of the Black university imagined an institution dedicated entirely to Pan African study, and to Black community development. They were very good on the curriculum and the pedagogy side of things. They laid out brilliant, and really inspiring visions of what curriculum and programming would look like anchored in liberatory pedagogy, African-centered pedagogy. But they weren’t so good when it came to thinking about how the institution could serve as an engine of sustainable community development. This was really crucial. They wanted an institution that wasn’t just an ivory tower or a space for theory, but it was really, practically transformative for the communities that they were serving in which they were rooted. So the question was: How could the institution materially function within a hostile world, within a capitalist, imperialist, white supremacist world? And they kept running into dead ends. All the funding proposals were essentially calls to redistribute private wealth. It was either about calling on the government to tax and then give them money, redistribute through tax and spend. They weren’t confident that taxpayers and the state were going to support this kind of investment in a Black radical institution, or they thought it was going to have to come through philanthropy. They didn’t think that was particularly viable, or the money would have to come through tuition. But given the communities that they were trying to serve, and what they were trying to do that was, of course, extremely limited. This the 1960s is when I’m focusing on the theorists and the writers who were trying to imagine this. There was an important conference at Howard University in 1968, called “Toward the Black University,” where folks from a range of disciplines got together and tried to hash out different visions for how this might work. They were working from what I call a “private money” paradigm. I suspect most, if not all, listeners will be familiar with this kind of classical orthodoxy. This idea that money comes from the private sector and needs to be captured and redistributed. Obviously, a “public money” approach opens up all sorts of new opportunities here for our thinking–in particular, if we begin to think of the university as a site of monetary experimentation. What the theorists of the Black university wanted to do was use the university as a kind of anchor or centralized node to mobilize resources in more locally accountable and locally productive ways. The labor power was there, they just didn’t have the means to mobilize it. This is where I think we might introduce monetary experimentation as a means of realizing what the Black university concept was meant to do. If the university, as a kind of governing authority within a particular community, can establish itself as a currency issuing institution, can establish a demand for its currency, can use that currency arrangement to determine investment priorities and mobilize labor, all of this is like an organic extension of the Black university concept. It’s just they didn’t have the language or conceptual resources to articulate it. They were subjected to the sort of “monetary silencing” that Jakob Feinig, whom you’ve had on the show, talks about in his great book. In the 1960s, the theorists of the Black university had been subjected to this orthodox view of money as a means of exchange that emerges organically from the private activity of market actors, and it needs to be raised or captured and redistributed, as opposed to thinking of how public or communities that are hierarchically or centrally organized, can use money creation as a means of mobilizing resources. What I argue in the paper is that this new way of thinking about money is a kind of organic extension of what the theorists of the Black university were doing. They kept running into dead ends, because they were thinking through this private money paradigm. But this public money paradigm, what I call a “Black counterpublic money paradigm”–and I want to flesh that distinction out a little bit–really opens the door, frees them to realize the vision of the Black university in a lot of ways.

Scott Ferguson: I’m endlessly fascinated by the ways that the private money paradigm licenses, naturalizes, reifies all kinds of other systemic and justices, including racism. In the broader Modern Monetary Rheory community, there’s a well understood critique of the taxpayer paradigm, as a racialized one, based on any number of our colleagues’ contributions. White people have been provisioned to earn more money in a white supremacist society, and if we have a private money paradigm in which money can only be gotten through revenue or through recycling it through taxes or through bond sales, then money is de facto white money, and its whiteness has to be redistributed to non-whiteness.

Andrew Douglas: Yep.

Scott Ferguson: Your genealogy here, I think, is expanding that work and showing us this in another situation and in a particular place in time in the 60s, in this Black radical tradition surrounding universities trying to reimagine and radicalize what the university can be. The racialization of money, even despite their best efforts to push against racism, is pushing against some of the very radicals who would like to undermine it. Because of monetary silencing, they don’t necessarily have the tools to do so.

Billy Saas: It’s a conception that is reinforced by, in most radical traditions, the Marxist rejection and negative orientation to the money form. So, you have the double punch, neoclassical Orthodoxy in the mainstream in your economics courses, and the critical historical background of Marxist anti-money positions. There’s so many good reasons, I think, to imagine, or to help us understand why this sort of thinking wasn’t operative and wasn’t active in those conversations that they were having. You mentioned that you have and will continue, I would imagine, to participate in conversations around the Black university around cooperation and different modes of operating differently to the existing structures that are in place because of the private money paradigm. How has or how do you anticipate that this work on the Uni and the counterpublic money approach that you’re proposing for the Black university concept– How will that be? Or how has that been received by your colleagues and other folks who are currently interested in something like the Black university concept?

Andrew Douglas: Well, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to contribute to expanding folks’ imaginations around money. it can be such a heavy lift to try to get people to think about money in these sorts of heterodox ways. It requires more than just a casual conversation more than just a 15 minute paper presentation at a conference.

Scott Ferguson: We hear you.

Andrew Douglas: I will say this: A year or so ago, when I was writing the first draft of this paper, I actually taught a class here at Morehouse. It was modern political thought was the umbrella title of the class, but it was really a special topics course on modern money in the Black university concept. Over the course of the semester, we got to the point where the 25 or so students who were taking that class were really intrigued by thinking about the possibilities here. But that required quite a bit of exposure to monetary theory, to both Orthodox and heterodox ideas about money, to you how the university is governed and structured, and how University finance exists now, in order to think about how it might be changed to function differently. That took a whole semester to really adequately introduce to folks. It does take some conversations. I’ll just add, I’ve got a piece that just came out in the AAUP journal on Du Bois. It’s trying to think about the university as a cooperative and to try thinking about the academic labor movement as part of a broader cooperative movement. Even though that piece doesn’t introduce the money stuff, I think there is room for the academic labor movement to think seriously about the legal structure of our institutions. I think that can and should include thinking about money as a creature of the law as part of that process. There’s a great new book out–it doesn’t deal with money, but it’s a fascinating book–and I think there is a connection here with the Uni currency idea and this thinking about money as a creature of the law. This book by Timothy Kaufman Osbourne called the Autocratic Academy traces over time how the North American University has come to be structured legally as a property corporation, where absentee governing boards have unilateral governing authority over the institution as property. They’re entrusted with carrying out the will of donors and protecting the asset value of the institution as property. The takeaway of that book is that we can fight for shared governance, we can even organize into collective bargaining units, but at the end of the day, because of the way the university is legally chartered, governing boards hold unilateral governing authority. They can do what they want, or they’re conscripted into governing the institution according to the dictates of the competitive accumulative logic of the property corporation. The takeaway from that book is that the only real solution is to dissolve the corporate structure of the university and recharter the university as a member cooperative. I think there is a broad interest in trying to imagine the university as a cooperative, that is governed as a cooperative.

Scott Ferguson: And legally designated as such.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, exactly. Bernard Harcourt up at Columbia, in a couple of weeks I’m going to participate in a conversation with him about the cooperative university. I’m going to try to introduce some thinking about finance and money and credit creation and complementary currencies. Insofar as we’re thinking here about money as a creature of the law, we’re thinking about universities as creatures of the law. We’re thinking about how legal reforms, or public popular agency over these legal institutions, it’s all kind of connected. If we’re going to push the academic labor movement to think more radically about the need to recharter our institutions and to build momentum toward that outcome, then thinking about how we legally organize our monetary arrangements can and has to be part of that.

Billy Saas: It’s interesting to think about how that notion of the cooperative university is so out of alignment with the day to day operation of the current university structure.

Andrew Douglas: Right, totally.

Billy Saas: However, at the same time, I think that is the image that is very actively cultivated by universities, as these places of yes, sharing of knowledge, as cooperative spaces where professors and students work together to discover the technologies and thinking of the future. So what you’re asking for is ultimately calling universities to be the things that they’re pretending and presenting themselves.

Andrew Douglas: Right. Don’t promote your community service, while simultaneously buying up property and gentrifying the neighborhood.

Billy Saas: Exactly. I’m excited that you brought up the class that you taught, because I remember when you shared your syllabus on Twitter. I was preparing to teach a class when you posted that syllabus, and I was motivated and inspired by the way you were directly going for it in a way that I am not used to, to do it more myself and to foreground the money question more often, instead of coming eventually to it.

Andrew Douglas: One of the most generative ideas that came out of that class was the idea that all 105, or however many HBCUs there are, joined together in a kind of monetary union and issue of currency that has receivability across campuses to sort of expand the scope of currency as currency. I think that’s intriguing. I have this crazy aspiration: I’m on the AAUP’s committee on historically Black institutions. Part of the reason why I accepted that appointment was this lofty idea that I could get all the HBCUs together, and we could really think radically about complementary currencies and radical approaches to university finance and really pioneer some new projects and experiments. I don’t know, maybe it’s possible. We’ll see.

Scott Ferguson: The thing about our Uni currency project is that it’s really adaptable to all kinds of circumstances, and it can be as bottom up and grassroots as one would want to pursue it. It can also build capacity by incorporating multiple institutions across scales. I think for us, the big picture, the end game would be to, essentially, force the US government at the federal level, to formally and legally grant credit-issuing power to a host of public institutions for a public purpose, essentially breaking the extremely exploitative and austere, private monopoly of the finance franchise, in which this country is essentially founded. Although this country has a history of monetary experimentation that is still going on today, for the most part the macro structure is that we have a federal government, which gives itself the right to create currency, and then we have a franchise system that says private banks and private financial firms on and offshore can create dollars according to certain requirements. And all of our other public institutions–our states, our municipalities, our counties, our cities, our school systems K-12, our universities–you all have to pretend to recycle all the money that’s created by these narrow channels. There’s something incredibly anti-democratic and austere and unjust about the very structure and foundations of this system. The Uni provides, I think, an important political, rhetorical, imaginative problem-space from which to begin to contest that status quo and to bring it out into the light. Who knows where this might lead in terms of political results? But I think for us, first and foremost, it’s about ending the monetary silencing about the structure that we have and saying: Wait a minute, is it not just unjust, but actually inefficient to only give a finance franchise to these private actors for private purposes, for the purpose of private profit and exploitation, and actively deny it to these major public institutions, let alone new institutions along new cooperative models that we might create along the way? To me, I always like to separate this question from the question of optimism versus pessimism. Will this go anywhere? Is this the revolution or is it not? Is it just going to be co opted or is it not? There is something critically important politically about challenging the silencing around the structure that we have. That goes further than only critiquing capitalism as if capitalism. This opens up political contestation to a wholly different framework.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, agreed.

Scott Ferguson: Maybe we can talk about your idea of the Black counterpublic, especially around the university.

Andrew Douglas: The basic public money, private money contrast is familiar to most listeners here. My concern is thinking about Black history, Black struggle, thinking about Black institution building, thinking about the way in which the state, and the official public sphere have been set up to control and exploit and underdeveloped Black people and communities. I’m interested in how those communities have established or how they might establish alternatives, or what I call “counterpublic” institutions. My sense is basically, certainly within the United States, but I think this applies more broadly in an anti-Black global context, that Black people, Black communities are relegated to a counterpublic space, insofar as formal public or state institutions or international institutions that are dominated by imperial powers are just not set up to work for them. This is really the concept of Black counterpublic money is what I’m trying to introduce in this paper. Using the Black university as a case study, or a site for how the Black counterpublic as a space of monetary experimentation might play out. My thinking is that this might be a basis for a larger project, a book project that I’m imagining, tentatively, titled Black Counterpublic Money: Monetary Experimentation in the Black Radical Tradition. Thinking about how Black counterpublics have sought to organize institutional frameworks, over and against the kind of formal institutions of the formal public sphere. Thinking very specifically about what monetary arrangements or monetary institutions, as part of a Black counterpublic agenda, has looked like or might be made to look like. Again, I think a big part of this is about to lean into Jakob Feinig’s framework of monetary silencing and democratizing moral economies of money. Trying to think about that in the context of the Black radical critique of the state, Black radical critique of Global capitalism and empire. I think there is a risk that in the shift from Orthodox private money thinking to public money, there is a tendency to not pay sufficient attention to the extent to which public money, by itself, may not work for Black people. That certain public money approaches or initiatives may actually exacerbate the problems for Black communities, whether in the United States or, you know, in different sort of parts of the global supply chain. That’s what I’m trying to think through. I think we need to further complicate the shift from a private money to a public money framework to try to think through both some of the possibilities for what I call Black counterpublic money, but also some of the sort of challenges that exist there. Again, this piece that I’ve written is just a first stab at this using the Black university as a kind of case study or a canvas on which to sketch out some of these concerns and questions.

Scott Ferguson: A lot of these concerns and questions, I think, take shape around a complex treatment of sovereignty, monetary sovereignty and sovereignty in the latter part of your piece. Would you mind exploring that with us a bit here.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, sure. I mean, I’ve got to admit, I’m a little hesitant here. Sovereignty is a foundational concept in my field of Political Theory, so I should be like a total expert on this. It’s one of those things where I know enough about the literature in the debates on sovereignty to know that I probably shouldn’t be talking about it.

Billy Saas: Just start with Bodin and get us going.

Andrew Douglas: There’s some great work coming out in real time. It seems like sovereignty, maybe it’s always been the tip of the iceberg in my field, and I just haven’t been privy to it, and I now am. There’s some really great work, just to flag a couple of really good books that have come out in the last year. My political theory colleague, Inés Valdez, has a new book out thinking about sovereignty in the context of the Black radical tradition. David Timmons has a great new book out thinking about this through North American indigenous thought. But I’ll just say a couple of things. One, the notion of monetary sovereignty is, of course, central to Modern Money Theory, this notion that people must have some sovereign control over the monetary system. I’m drawing, Scott to your suggestion, that we might introduce some alternative language here. So instead of thinking about sovereignty, with its, you know, invocation of borders and security and insiders and outsiders, and this really absurd notion that the sovereign inside is somehow independent of everything on the outside. Instead of invoking these familiar Western conceits, maybe we ought to think about interdependency, and responsibility in our collective capacity to use money to do things, specifically to nurture interdependency and responsibility, rather than kind of disavow it. I’m attracted to the way in which you all have sought to kind of complicate and in some ways move beyond the framework and the language of sovereignty in your thinking about modern money. I try to run with some of that and in the paper, but I do so very specifically, by leaning on a particular figure who is integral to the Black university movement, and that is the economist Robert S. Browne. I was up at the Schomburg looking through his papers in January while I was revising this paper, and I came across just a really interesting passage. For those who aren’t familiar, Robert Span Browne was initially a program officer with USAID and its predecessor in the late 50s, but quickly became an outspoken critic of US foreign policy in Southeast Asia. He was a founder of the Black economics research center in Harlem, directed that for many, many years, was a founding editor of the Review of Black Political Economy, which is a journal that is still running. He passed away, I’m not sure entirely when. [2004] In the mid 60s, he was integral in those conversations around the Black university concept. He attended that famous conference at Howard in 1968. As a trained economist, he was someone that many of the participants in those conversations really look to for help on the financing question, the funding question. As a figure of his time, he was very constrained by this private money orthodoxy and didn’t really have the conceptual tools to think beyond it. When I was up at the Schomburg, I came across this passage from a piece he published in 1975, where he’s thinking more broadly about Black institutions, not just the university, but Black control of Black finance institutions. Maybe I’ll just read this passage, it speaks to this question of sovereignty in ways that I think are potentially rather generative. So here’s a quote he says, “We need a range of soundly conceived, Black-financed and therefore Black-controlled institutions, which can carry on the struggle on our behalf, much as sovereign governments carry on the struggle for their national constituencies. But since we lack sovereignty, our institutions must in effect become our government. That is why they must be Black. That is why they must be funded by the Black community and accountable to it. Our contributions should be seen by us as an obligatory tax, whose enforcement agent is not the IRS, but our personal commitment to Black survival. My brothers and sisters, let us get on with the serious business of freeing ourselves from domestic colonialism and move ahead with the business of self government. If we can successfully build such institutions, meanwhile, resisting the external pressures to divide us from one another, I have every confidence that our beloved Black community can survive, prosper, and illuminate the way for others yet to come.” There’s a lot going on here, but this idea that he’s acknowledging that since we lack sovereignty, I think what I’m particularly interested in here is this idea that the absence of sovereignty conventionally understood is not perhaps a deficit or something to be overcome, but perhaps a kind of asset to how we imagine monetary arrangements beyond the paradigm. In the paper, I speak a little bit about how this critique and suspicion of sovereignty has long been integral to the Black radical tradition. If you look at one of the key spokespersons of theorists of that tradition, Cedric Robinson, his first book really goes after sovereignty as one of the kind of founding core constitutive principles of white European civilization and really has to be challenged and problematized. It’s a concept that I think sits problematically at the heart of Modern Money Theory, and that we need to complicate for reasons, Scott, that I think you’ve been particularly articulate in expressing. My thought here, again, is that we see the seeds of a critique of sovereignty that can be extended to a critique of monetary sovereignty in the work of a figure like Robert S. Browne in the early 70s. Once again, I think there are ways in which we can put new thinking about money, new heterodox thinking about money and monetary experimentation into conversation with this history of Black radical institution building in ways that are really quite generative. I think some of this stuff on sovereignty, there’s just some really generative lessons to be teased out here.

Scott Ferguson: I noticed that in the quote you read, even though I imagine that Browne is probably working with a money recycling paradigm, I noticed in the quote that you read us, there is no talk of redistribution. So that quote actually lends itself to what MMT would call a tax driven money.

Andrew Douglas: Exactly. Absolutely. Thanks for bringing that out. I mean, that’s the other reason why I quoted this passage and why I was so happy to find it in this unpublished manuscript in the Schomburg because I think you’re absolutely right. It’s about using taxation to create a demand for a currency, and that’s it. That’s all he says about.

Scott Ferguson: And it doesn’t have to be foundationally coercive. It doesn’t have to be backed by the “man with the gun.”

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, exactly right. It’s understood here and articulated here as an obligation based on a responsibility to one’s community.

Billy Saas: That’s beautiful. Another interesting thing about this is that, I think it might be fair to say that without the Modern Money Theory perspective, this quote when you found in the Schomburg might not have read so interestingly, but at the same time as it kind of activates this new lens, you’re using that new lens to turn it back and critique MMT. It’s just a beautiful movement there. I guess, on that note, one of the ways that one’s mind might go in encountering this quote, without the kind of public money or counterpublic money perspective would be: Yes, we need to bank Black. We need to patronize Black businesses. I think that would be the conventional, liberal neoliberal lens that would be brought to this text. Do you think that’s going too far?

Scott Ferguson: Or the “Black capitalism” lens.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, I need to do a little bit more work on Browne to really be able to sort of tether this to his thinking in any way. But these were the kinds of questions that he was absolutely thinking through. He was a critic of capitalism, but largely working from this kind of private money framework trying to think about how to pool resources and all that sort of stuff.

Billy Saas: But he’s thinking bigger. He’s not saying we need Black banks.

Andrew Douglas: No, absolutely. The passage that I read is absolutely part of a much more imaginative envisioning of monetary arrangements for radical transformation. How can we use monetary design, new approaches to public finance, to liberate communities from the constraints of capitalist logic?

Scott Ferguson: You end this piece with a word of caution or a cautioning question that has been hovering over our conversation for quite a while. I want to read this question or this series of questions. “Does the public banking movement, even if made to incorporate Black colleges and universities, as licensed community development banks, with the power to issue credit, nevertheless, reflect a dead end-integration into the nation’s finance franchise as a kind of acceptance into the deracinating arms of the mother country?” And that’s a quote. You’re quoting somebody else there. “What would a more radical or more decolonizing politicization of money entail? And how, if at all, might a shift toward what I have dubbed Black counterpublic money help to build and sustain institutions that could advance that effort?” So at the end, you’re suggesting maybe using the conventional language of sovereignty, what might it mean to give up on a certain kind of autonomy or a certain kind of self-standing Black project? Are there not dangers of simply capitulating to a system of entrenched white supremacy that’s baked into the very institutions, even if it’s in the name of something that might appear to be better? And I’m wondering, do you have more thoughts about that, since you’ve penned these lines?

Andrew Douglas: You all saw an earlier version, a pre-R&R version of this article, which tried to articulate some of these questions a little more fully. I’ve scaled much of all of that back and saved it for another occasion, another paper. I think the readers were right, that this paper wasn’t the place to really flesh out some of that stuff. I’m not sure that I’m fully prepared to really do that now. Trying to think about racial capitalism and empire and the geopolitics of global supply chains, trying to think about the limits of monetary reform as a means of denaturalizing capitalism. Can we use money to fundamentally transform modes and relations of production? I think that some of this gets at my ambivalence with at least some of what flies under the banner of MMT. I’m not sure, you know. But if we use money to mobilize labor, we’re still commodifying labor power, we’re still compelling market actors to sell their labor power in order to survive. We’re still subjecting market actors to the impersonal domination of market society. Given the sheer power of capital to control markets, I think given the complexity of today’s global supply chains, I just wonder about the extent to which any sovereign country, we introduced the language of sovereignty, but any country, any more local complementary currency project, could really unravel or supplant the pitfalls of commercial civil society. And I just don’t know. Are we running up against a world that has been so thoroughly shaped and dominated by the logic and the materiality of capital that it’s become a force that no amount of tinkering with money can really undo. Or put differently, I think this was really the nature of Marx’s contention, that monetary reform is not really going to undo the demand for commodified labor and the capitalist value form and that we’re still going to be endlessly sort of wrestling with the impersonal domination of the market, so long as we use money as a means of mobilizing commodified labor. So these are some of the questions I’m trying to think through. I think there is room, and this is a paper that I’m trying to write now, to kind of bring some of Marx’s criticisms to bear on Modern Money theory. I think some of the criticisms of Marx from MMT are apt but I think he has some things about commodification of labor and the capitalist value form that we still need to sit with. Another figure I’m trying to think we have here is Fanon. This idea that we need to stretch Marxist analysis to deal with questions of empire and race and colonialism. I’m interested in what Fanon says about racial fetishism as a kind of corrective to Marx on the money fetish. This idea of whiteness as money or whiteness as credit and credibility. I mean, if we’re interested in not simply reducing calculations of creditworthiness to a logic of return on investment, are we nevertheless finding ourselves shaped and constrained by a more fundamental logic of anti-Blackness that shapes our understanding of credit worthiness? There’s some recent work in Black Studies scholarship that raises some of these questions, trying to think about whiteness as credibility, Blackness as unpayable debt. I want to think through some of this, so it’s premature for me to flesh out any substantive claims here, but just to kind of maybe bring the conversation full circle, if monetary experimentation in the Black radical tradition is and has been relegated to counterpublic spaces, appeal to public money by itself does not necessarily resolve that, and may even exacerbate. Those are some of the questions that I’m still trying to think through.

Scott Ferguson: Those are all really helpful and helpful challenges. I guess what I would say as a response, is that I have no optimism about an immediate dethroning of entrenched power that has been enfranchised by global legal systems and imperial structures. But I would still insist that it is those legal structures that condition, and that mediate that power in the first place. And that if you want to attack that power, you need to attack their conditions of possibility in that way. I would also raise the question: What would a genuinely democratic, cooperative grassroots Uni project mean for the Marxist critique of the “value-form”? Is it even fair to use the same language or analytical vocabulary to talk about it? tthis is not an example of what I just said, but Billy was talking about his own classroom currencies and the conversations about what should we mobilize this currency to do? There was an ongoing conversation about particular needs that were identified by students who are parts of the community. They are  on the ground and they live these lives, they see where the lacks are, they see where the deficiencies are. I have a really hard time appealing to the language of commodification, or a kind of external imposition, or alienation of labor, when we’re really stretching the bounds of what monetary experimentation can be. I think that Marx is often thinking about money as a circulation problem even if it even if it conditions production, production is still somehow logically first, just to give a sort of push in the other direction. I hear your concerns, but I also wonder how these kinds of radical monetary experiments can really challenge these logics, whether or not they’re taking down multinational capitalist power structures, immediately or not.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, I mean, and I think Marx’s own life work may be instructive here in so far as he never gave up on efforts at monetary reform. He just thought they weren’t necessarily going to ultimately solve the problem as he understood it. So regardless of where am I thinking, which is still very much in progress and not settled lands on this question of monetary reform and monetary experimentation as a kind of means of denaturalize, wherever that sort of lands, we got to try. I think the Uni currency project is a worthy effort at getting us started and introducing more folks to the concerns of, again, using Feinig’s language monetary silencing, and the possibilities of trying to claim and forge agency over monies design and opening up new possibilities for how our communities or publics or counterpublics can use money as a kind of utility to achieve outcomes that they would not be able to otherwise. So I’m on board with all that.

Billy Saas: I think it’s a wonderful place to start wrapping it up. By the time this is published, you will have participated in that conversation you mentioned at Columbia University. We’re anticipating it now. What are you looking forward to talking about there? And where can people who are listening now turn to find out more?

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, Bernard Hardcourt. I’m not sure how many folks are familiar with his work. He’s a legal theorist, political theorist at Columbia. He’s got a new work out on cooperation, and he’s doing a series of conversations around cooperation and cooperative movements. The 13th and final is on the cooperative university, and that’s what I’ve been asked to participate in. I think they’re all recorded and posted on YouTube, so folks can see them there. There’s also some resources on the website. Maybe we can in the show notes link to some of that. I hope to introduce and plan to introduce some conversation around money and finance which I think is sort of a missing piece for some of the discussions they’ve been having around cooperatives and cooperative movement building. I think there’s a real opportunity to expand both that project and the money side of things by sort of bringing these two discourse communities together. So I’ll try to do that, focusing again on the university as a kind of concrete site at which some of this might play out. So I’m excited about it.

Billy Saas: Excellent. Is there anything else you’d like to share that you’re working on?

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, we’ve been talking quite a bit about Du Bois. So I’ll just do a quick plug for a new volume that a few other colleagues and I have in the works. It’s an edited collection of Du Bois’ writings on political economy. So hopefully that’ll be out within the next year or so. There’s some previously unpublished work if you can imagine that. There’s still unpublished material from Du Bois out there. So we’re excited about that. I’ve been searching in vain for some creative heterodox thinking about money in Du Bois and I have not found it, which is fine. So that’s a project and then, I don’t know where this kind of larger book that I’m imagining on this notion of Black counterpublic money, where that’s going, but that’s what I’m going to be working on for the foreseeable future.

Scott Ferguson: Keep us posted.

Billy Saas: Andrew Douglas, thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left.Andrew Douglas: Thank you, I really appreciate it.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Robert Rusch (graphic art)