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The World According to Modern Monetary Theory

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Looking past money to the sovereign power that makes it valuable

Too often the origins of our economic ills are cloaked by a mystical reverence for some autonomous money spirit. The economists behind Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) seek to lift money’s veil by studying the specific actions that occur as money is created, circulated, and destroyed.

For those seeking a grand, unifying sociopolitical economic theory, MMT will disappoint. But as an analytic tool, MMT clarifies who holds genuine power—sovereignty—within society, and how they organize the money system to serve their interests. Unsurprisingly, this is often a story of tremendous cruelty and exploitation.

But the revelation that the rules of money are not immutable laws of nature but are instead created and constantly modified by people opens up possibilities beyond the scope of our current political imagination. The questions become: What sort of society do we want? Do we have the physical resources to support that society? And finally, how the hell do we muster the political will to get there?

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Decolonizing Israel

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The BDS movement is enjoying success because even at home, Zionists are beginning to lose the PR battle

“The Palestinians are winning,” writes Ali Abunimah in his new book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine. It’s an audacious assessment, and arguably true even in the U.S. This moment of Palestine activism is dynamic and by some measures unprecedented. Of course, Palestinian activism and scholarship have always been vigorous, but at no time in the United States, going back even to the anti-Zionist activity of al-muhjar (the Arab American writers of the early 20th century), has Israel’s behavior been under the sort of scrutiny in evidence today. That scrutiny has been forced into conversation by linking of the Palestine struggle to international movements of decolonization in new media venues, coming together under the name of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions [BDS] movement.

BDS is not simply a political tactic. Even its most optimistic supporter would have a hard time arguing that it will significantly affect détente at the level of the state. However, if we view BDS as a phenomenon on the level of discourse, as Abunimah does, we can better understand its influence on public debate, where pressure on Israel has altered the dynamics of organizing and the vocabularies of advocacy. BDS as a specific movement is nearly a decade old, and emerged out of a weariness about the traditional modes of resistance (dialogue, state intervention, outreach, and so forth), which had largely proved ineffective. BDS has developed through systematic decolonial analysis, with the result that Israel continues to be situated—rightly, in Abunimah’s opinion—as a settler colony.

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Over Easy

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Elite education may impoverish and indebt young women and do little to get them a job, but at least it makes their eggs valuable

Reproductive Medical Associates of New York, a fertility clinic associated with Mount Sinai Hospital, maintains separate websites for egg donors and egg buyers. The home page of the donors’ site features a large stock photograph of a young woman holding schoolbooks. Behind crossed arms the pretty brunette model is clutching what looks like but is not a copy of Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, along with a white three-ring binder. She wears a zippered velor jacket in the same shade of blue as the graphic that emerges from behind her head in an oversize font: Become an Egg Donor.

Beneath is an embedded YouTube video of Dr. Georgia Witkin, a partner at Reproductive Medical Associates, who grins into the camera and delivers a poorly edited four-minute pitch to visitors interested in donating. Dr. Witkin is a woman who has undergone thorough and ambitious plastic surgery. Her stretched skin exposes the contours of her skull around glassy, saucer-size eyes, and she speaks to her audience of young women from behind sheaths of feathered blond hair. “The DNA in your eggs contains genetic material from your entire gene pool,” she says, speaking in a heavy Long Island accent. Dr. Witkin smiles, and blinks heavily at the camera.

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The Whitney Biennial for Angry Women

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I.

First, some definitions:

(White)spatiality: There is a specter here that haunts this space. It has multiple faces. We’ll call one white supremacy: the belief in the universal, a pure idea arrived at by a series of white men who have combed through culture and curated its worth. Another face we’ll call visual oppression. We’ll call it passing. We’ll call it presence without provocation. We’ll call it just enough black faces to assuage liberal guilt without the discomfort of challenging anything. We’ll call it the fantasy of postracial America. We’ll call it visible invisibility.

The Body of the Other: It goes where it pleases under the vague, ever-present threat of violence. It infiltrates. It wears the right clothes. It uses the right words. It has abandoned its mothers. But it claws at the ribs, crawls up the throat, and tumbles past the lips in polite company. Don’t forget what Gloria Anzaldua told us: “Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out.”

The Ritual of Looking: It is pleasant enough, the rapt masses examining objects, reading texts, staring at screens. It is pleasant enough, their whispered exchanges, the sidelong glances at fellow patrons. Like pilgrims, we circumambulate the rooms in near silent meditation, offering our attention to the gods that feel right to us. We want to say that there is a value in this thing we’ve been doing for thousands of years, this thing that’s been with us before capitalism, before agriculture, before patriarchy. This thing was there at the beginning: to make, to regard what is made.

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Buying the Future

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Financialization depends on a standardized product. What happens when it’s applied to people?

With the financialization of the economy has come a revolution in the ability to buy and sell the future. One of the most important instruments is called a “future” exactly for this reason. Futures allow people to buy and sell a specific quantity of a product now for cash, with the product delivered at some point in the future. Firms can lock in raw materials and mitigate the risk of unanticipated price rises (like airlines when they use futures to manage fuel purchases), while speculators can bet on the demand, supply, and price of everything from apples to wood.

Finance can go beyond bringing the future of raw commodities into cash value in the present. A wave of mathematical modeling and computer simulations allows investors to predict the likely value of everything from apartment rentals to sovereign crises to human beings, and a elaborate contractual infrastructure lets them lock down their bets. These fruits of financial engineering will increasingly play a role in our economic lives.

But are these fruits poison? Where will this sort of predictive financial engineering lead, and can anything be done to alter the path? This system of buying and selling the future requires a level of control over far beyond the normal standardization and commodification that comes with capitalist societies. To specify the future in the ways that futures contracts demand means locking down its forms in advance, with an abstract conception suitable to financial exchange positing what will become lived reality. Knowledge of the future breaks down, while financial markets overwhelms areas of everyday life once fully separate from what has been traditionally seen as finance. The consequences of this domination by finance have already begun to unfold and may only intensify as finance’s realms expand.

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