As a person who was first socially identified as white while a sophomore in college in the ’60s (for more on that, see Karen Brodkin, author of “How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America”) I was struck by Raúl Carrillo’s recent Facebook post:
“With just one month until the MMT conference, I want to share some personal notes with people of color (and people of flavor ;)) interested in participating, but anxious about the typical bullshit. Perhaps, especially, I’m speaking to Black, Latinx, and Native folks from the U.S., because that’s most of my personal friends, and I have an embedded sense of how our time and energy are precious. So…I want to humbly encourage everyone to join us in NYC, but also let you know….why.
With so much going down, why should we give a shit about learning about *money,* specifically, as opposed to, say, economics, broadly? How does the struggle against racial capitalism — and other modes of oppression — benefit from monetary analysis (and specifically MMT)?
To put it bluntly: money is a central feature of society, but one of the least understood features. Plenty of folks study taxation, banking, finance, and macro, but few study money itself. I happen to think this is a mistake: Money must be a fundamental unit of power analysis. To borrow a crude analogy, studying economics with a bad grasp of money is like studying biology with a bad grasp of physics. Really understanding money deepens us and helps us protect ourselves from getting swindled.
The Modern Money paradigm views money as a relationship between each of us and the state. It’s a technology at the interface between us and raw power. It’s an almost unspeakably important site of both despair and hope, so, strategically, we need to wrap our heads around it.
It does help to have a sense of the history and anthropology, here. To briefly summarize: money did not “froth up” from barter or peaceful exchange. That myth masks the deeper, darker origins of our economic system. In contrast to the usual story — which literally features two peaceful white dudes swapping surplus goods on an island — the value and use of money is driven by legal coercion. Throughout world history, governments (and other powerful entities, like priesthoods and guilds) have issued specific currencies to coordinate social activity. They ensure some level of value for that currency by demanding payment from each of us in specific contexts and specific times. In the U.S., comfortable white folks might only really think about that in April. For most everyday people, this is all day, every day, throughout history, in obvious ways. Don’t have the money to pay court fines for literally being Black in Ferguson? Go to jail. Don’t have the paper to pay your way out of the draft? Go to war. Don’t have the dollars to pay damages for “loitering” or “trespassing”? Give us what you have, then starve, and maybe got to jail or war anyway.
Some people want money to thrive. But we all need it to survive. And so the world goes ’round. The omnipresent threat of monetized, standardized punishment stabilizes the currency, and drives its usage among private citizens (who are encouraged to hoard and pillage from each other).
In the context of imperialism, this is all quite explicit. Throughout Africa, colonial administrators issued currency & demanded it back in taxes in order to compel entire societies to grow cash crops, rather than subsistence crops. In German East Africa, if you didn’t do the kind of work that got you the right kind of legal tender, they burned your home and took your livestock. In New England, colonists took advantage of confusion about money and debt to dispossess indigenous peoples of their lands and pave the way for expansion through the mortgage system. The list goes on. Even today, the most powerful countries in the world unsubtly hold the Global South hostage, demanding payment specifically in the currencies they control, in exchange for food, energy, and arms.
So, money is regularly used as a tool of state power. But governments also delegate the money power. In the modern U.S., this is a particularly chronic problem. Uncle Sam charters, licenses, and regulates banks as franchises that invoke the government’s power to lend, invest, and grow the economy. But in reality, banks operate as exploitative public utilities. When they’re not excluding people of color outright, they’re surveilling us, speculating on our ability to hold onto property, and stripping wealth from our neighborhoods. When they get bailed out, we get austerity. And to add insult to injury, the government watches this all go down without guaranteeing any of us can even work, can even participate within the system, to start getting money again, to pay the piper. The elimination of the material conditions of self-sufficiency rolls the fuck on.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Because money – the foundational tool of the economy, is a creature of public law, not private markets — we have some hope for transformation. By demanding the state fulfill its duties, and use public money for public purpose – as well as creating alternative institutions within civil society — we can break the cycle of crisis, austerity, and extraction. We can break the cycle that is currently wheeling us into fascism and climate cataclysm.
MMT is not a utopian project. Although I’m a Job Guarantee champion, the JG is not a “silver bullet.” It needs to be part of a suite of social changes. As my friend Angela Harris has quite rightfully pointed out, the MMT community, like most other camps of economic discourse, has not always done the necessary work of incorporating analyses attuned to race, gender, and identity. (https://lpeblog.org/…/09/modern-money-and-historical-trauma/)
But we are improving. I can confidently claim that we are improving drastically, quickly. More broadly, we are constantly evolving from a small crew focused on interventions rooted in a narrow set of (crucial) policy theses and becoming a deep social and institutional ecosystem. A truly vibrant community. With that in mind, we’ve moved this year’s conference from Kansas City to NYC. With that in mind, this year’s theme is “Public Money, Public Purpose, Public Power”, signalling our efforts to build bridges between social justice movements and inspire broad-based participation.
I firmly believe that the MMT community’s future lies in incorporating and advancing diversity and equity in our organizing and in our pedagogy. (http://www.mmtconference.org/diversity.html)
I already know MMTers have a lot to learn from friends in parallel struggles, from other folks helping everyday people better understand other features of the world and grapple with them. Reciprocally, I hope that folks involved in other struggles see value in the Modern Money community, and together, we can continue building, growing, and nurturing a better world.
Hope to see you at the New School!
Love and solidarity,