fashion contest, or, what is to be done?

by Scott Ferguson

Monetary technology is irreducible to the finite pool of funds and exchanges that rules the multinational marketplace. Rather, as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) shows, money derives from centers of political governance and comprises a boundless public reserve that is capable of serving every community and environment it encompasses.

MMT’s key proposal involves the permanent financing of community-organized public works programs, designed to serve communal demands and ecological wellbeing. Such programs would give every person the right to non-corporate living-wage employment, compensate and reorganize much feminized and unpaid care work, and force service sector employers such as Walmart and McDonalds to outdo the public sector’s wages and working conditions. However, MMT offers means to socialize everything from electoral campaigns to non-commercial artmaking and, with this, stands to transvalue the nature of the market as well as the everyday meanings of social labor.

By revealing what I have called money’s unheard-of center, MMT attunes us to previously unimaginable possibilities for social transformation and liberates the politics of public spending from the ill-fated drama of tax collection and capital flight. Yet perhaps most important, I wager, MMT makes perceptible a hitherto repressed horizon of demand that opens existing economic relations to immediate and potentially radical politicization. 

The contemporary Left forecloses this horizon whenever it takes the Liberal ontology of money for granted. In treating a public reserve as an alienable global commodity and the state as a revenue-constrained debtor, present leftists reduce politics to a doomed crusade against multinational corporations and naturalize the ideological fiction that government would have more money for education, social security, and crumbling infrastructure if it only spent less on detention centers, bombs, and drones. We can neither pardon nor dismiss the military industrial complex. However, the Left must radically decouple resistance against military spending from demands for collective caretaking. Such demands would unshackle social transformation from the false either/or logics of economics and address neoliberal cruelty on resolutely political terms. 

Today, the Liberal vision of money stymies the protests of small-l liberals and radical critics alike. For instance, mainstream leftists such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren regularly depict money as a zero-sum game, worry about inconsequential federal deficits, and cast politics as a Robinhoodesque morality play that vilifies the wealthy for not paying their fair share.

(See here and here for Modern Monetary Theory’s critique of the Left’s redistributive approach to monetary politics.)

While National Public Radio warns that the federal government will soon run out of money for disability benefits and that problems of fiscal sustainability shall haunt the U.S. for years to come, jokes proffered by John Stewart and John Oliver assume that so-called “money printing” precipitates hyperinflation and that the U.S. government borrows dollars from China to fund its operations

When the Left’s most trenchant and imaginative critics demand justice, meanwhile, the Liberal image of money functions as an impassible horizon for thought and action. Consider the great Frances Fox Piven’s address to the General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street in 2011.

Wall street is the center of the neoliberal cancer that has spread across the world. You know, you’ve heard people say “they’re greedy.” And they are greedy. You’ve heard people say, “They are thieves.” And they are thieves. But they’re also cannibals because they are eating their own: us! They have managed over the last fifty years to push all of the tax on our backs and to virtually eliminate their own tax. And then what do they do? They say, “Oh the deficits! They are the big problem.” They are a problem because business and finance have stopped paying taxes. And then what do they do? They insist on attacking public education. They insist on firing teachers. They roll back pensions. Does that make sense? They don’t even care if they live in this country. They’re gonna suck it dry and move, I guess, to Abu Dhabi. Well, can we reverse that? Well, the people have reversed corporate greed and madness before. So, maybe, this is the beginning.

Piven’s impromptu speech is eloquent, impassioned and uplifting. However, Liberal presumptions about money’s alleged privacy and finitude shape her oratory from beginning to end. Wall Street is the ever de-centering center of neoliberal capitalism, according to Piven. From there, financiers siphon funds away from the body politic, evade taxation necessary to sustain that body, and push a revenue-starved government ever further into debt. As a consequence, the state is forced to impose life-sucking austerity policies on young and old alike, as Wall Street’s cannibals flee to financial havens abroad.

The problem with Piven’s discourse is not its excoriation of the financial sector’s exorbitant power and sociopathic behavior. The trouble owes to Piven’s tacit Liberalism, which paints political economy as a closed system comprised of so many private flows that variously fill up and drain from government and the social bodyAs a consequence, this historic critic of Milton Friedman and the neoliberal onslaught not only constrains politics to a thermodynamics of power in which private capital will forever have the upper hand. She also unintentionally legitimizes the logics of austerity she lambasts and conceals the political answerability we seek.

Money is not an alienable substance that government amasses and hemorrhages. It is an unlimited public instrument, which the Left must labor to make perceptible as such. In so doing, we ought to decry capital’s death grip on monetary governance and expose how private interests incessantly obstruct public spending. If the Left continues to envision money as a private stockpile that labor must wrest back from capital, we shall only cripple our efforts from start.

The same goes for local struggles, where city, county, and state budget constraints hide and shield money’s inner boundlessness like the nested ramparts of a medieval fortress. Take political theorist Wendy Brown’s 2010 intervention into the ongoing battle surrounding public education in California. Addressing a group of student protesters atop the steps of the state capitol building in Sacramento, Brown offers listeners the following words: 

California, rich in resources, rich in human talent, rich in industries, and very rich in the rich, can afford a first rate education system. But our quagmired political system (minority rule), anti-tax political culture, upside-down state budget priorities, and the configuring of higher education itself on the model of a business — these have demoted public education to the status of a failing discount store. … Without quality public education in our future, we face a people manipulable through their frustrations, mobilizable through false enemies and false promises. This is the dangerous material of democracy’s opposite — despotism if not fascism. …We must come to our senses, quickly, about preserving the most esteemed public university system in the world. And we must do so not only because education is what lifts people from poverty, equalizes opportunities, reduces crime and violence, builds bright individual and collective futures, but [also because it] makes democracy real.

In the face of little political will and zero government accountability, Brown critiques the continuous depleting of public funds from California’s school system and lays out the broad social consequences of such privatizing efforts. Yet in presuming that public education must rely on state-level revenues and, what is more, that the fate of democracy hinges upon the taxability of powerful entrepreneurs and industries, Brown portrays monetary politics as a zero-sum contest, which reinforces the neoliberal governance we wish to transform. Brown bravely denounces the neoliberalization of public education and underscores its legislative, instead of merely economic, origins. However, because her appeal implicitly regards money as a finite thing that government must spirit away from the rich, it inadvertently subordinates state politics to false economic constraints and forecloses our capacity to directly politicize what is, in reality, an inexhaustible public utility.

Tax California’s elite. Take them hard. But untether such efforts from contests over state spending.  Local budgets are needed to respond to local needs. However, because local spending constraints routinely act as alibis for systemic privation, we must overtly politicize the false logics of finitude upon which local spending decisions often rely. If the state of California alleges it lacks funds to serve the general welfare, then we must insist the U.S. federal government deploy its limitless fiat currency to finance education and “make democracy real.” The buck does not stop in Sacramento and neither should our politics.

To every wail declaiming the unaffordability of our demands, we should appeal to the slogan proposed by Modern Monetary Theorist Stephanie Kelton. When it comes to public spending, explains Kelton, money is no object. By this, she means not only that money is a boundless public reserve rather than a “flow” of finite things, but also that a governing body can afford any social project it is compelled to undertake.

Every political demand propagates a particular image of money. Thus political struggle must always be doubly imaginative. It must fabulate a more just future based on extant capacities and imagine a form of money that can bear such a transformation. To assume this dual charge is not to discourage efforts to envision a future without money. It is, rather, to fashion contestation anew by expropriating the most powerful instrument currently available.

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