Critique after Modern Monetary Theory


The following is an excerpt from the new book Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care, by University of South Florida associate professor Scott Ferguson.  Through a dazzling exploration of economics, film, philosophy, and political history, Ferguson lays out a radical vision for rethinking how we think about money.  Given the growing influence of Modern Monetary Theory in recent years (not to mention my own scholarly interest in the politics of care), this book is a welcome new addition to our excerpt series (used by the kind permission of the University of Nebraska Press; see copyright notice below). — ASC

Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a
human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust,
etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated
person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must
be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other
people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a
specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your
real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return—that
is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through
a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make
yourself a beloved one, then your love is impotent—a misfortune.
—Karl Marx

Money is no object.
—Stephanie Kelton

In the James Bond film Spectre (2015) a cabal of digital surveillance capitalists cum global terrorists attempt to take over the British national intelligence service. This clandestine group builds a flashy high-tech skyscraper in the heart of London, and at one point it is explained that only private investors would be able to afford this cutting-edge structure. In reality the scenes inside the fictitious data center were shot within London’s current City Hall. Yet according to the film’s harrowing story world, the British government simply does not have the money to commission such an extravagant edifice. Though mentioned only in passing, this comment about the insufficiency of public funds appears to structure the film’s entire plot. The story pits what is essentially an embattled government program against the allegedly greater powers of global information capital, imagined as an unruly field of spectral agents that no state can capture or contain. Deemed “Bond for the age of austerity,” Spectre’s cash-strapped hero still gets a pair of handsome cars as well as a perfectly pressed ensemble for every climate and occasion. Sadly, however, what Spectre shows is that today, it is easier to believe a man can single-handedly take down an evil capitalist organization than it is to imagine a government being able to afford dazzling public infrastructures.

Meanwhile, the true specter haunting the latest installment of the Bond franchise is not global info capitalism, as the film’s narrative suggests. Rather, it is the limitless reserve of government treasury bonds that, according the contemporary heterodox school of political economy known as Modern Monetary Theory (mmt), could be immediately deployed to uplift everyone. Modern governments are said to spend by “borrowing” treasury bonds. Yet as mmt economist Scott Fullwiler explains, a sovereign currency-issuing government never needs to borrow, or even tax, before issuing such bonds. “Revenues for bond sales or taxes,” as Fullwiler has it, “do not affect the government’s operational ability to spend.” Lest we forget, writes Fullwiler, it is impossible for a currency-issuing government to run out of a unit that it alone supplies. Additionally, mmt insists that government can always afford to take care of everyone without risking inflationary price rises, so long as public spending remains directed at real resources and unused  productive capacities. mmt’s startling revelation, then, is that austerity is a cruel fiction, an unnecessary condition that can be instantly reversed. More pointedly, there are no economic constraints to government’s capacity to address urgent social and environmental crises; politics are the sole reason why we, as a public, cannot have what we need.

Thus, in contrast to what the mainstream press alleged during the 2016 primary race, the U.S. government can afford everything former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders proposed: universal healthcare; free university education; infrastructure repair; first-rate public housing; environmental retrofitting; and low-cost postal banking. But with mmt, we can do Bernie one better. Just ask Stephanie Kelton, a top mmt economist who also served as Sanders’s chief economic advisor for his role as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee and subsequent presidential bid. In addition to what Sanders had officially proposed, Kelton suggests, we can also create a high-quality public child- and eldercare service; a robust public arts program; and a federally funded yet communally organized public works system, or “job guarantee,” that would grant a living-wage job to everyone who wishes to have one. Think of the latter as something akin to a permanent but more inclusive and locally sensitive version of the Works Progress Administration implemented under the Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidency. This program would not only virtually eradicate problems of un- and underemployment. It would also establish just minimum standards for pay and benefits, put the means of production in the hands of workers, and ensure everyone’s right to participate meaningfully in shaping our world.

In order to rescue our society from the self-imposed horrors of austerity, we require neither Bond-like bodily prowess nor the computer-simulated collisions that dominate Spectre, along with most contemporary action media. After all, money  is not physics, as mmt reminds us, nor is it a “bond” that takes the shape of physics. In contrast to the economic orthodoxy’s insistence upon grounding money in local private exchanges, mmt argues that money is a creature of government and a public system of accounting and law. Money involves abstract inscriptions and simultaneous coordination between a centralized government and geographically dispersed institutions, not localized movements of alienable matter. With this, mmt makes perceptible what I call the unheard-of center of modern life. Precisely because money remains a centralized, abstract, and inalienable relation, mmt concludes, a currency-issuing polity can forever afford to guarantee persons’ employment and involvement, access, and care.

Meanwhile, what I shall refer to as the “Liberal” monetary imagination (in contrast to the imaginary of “small l” American “liberalism”) has hidden this capacious center behind an alienating physics. In a tremendous feat of disavowal, it manages to reduce an acknowledged abstraction to a singular contract and then wrap this narrow association around a contracted physics. Thus, to lay bare money’s boundless center and attain what is desperately needed, contemporary action media’s explosive motion will be, at best, a weak ally and, at worst, an unwitting accomplice in a nefarious vanishing act. In place of Spectre’s abstract physics, then, we shall require a more mysterious combination of elements that are at once more powerful and less substantial: a renewed critical praxis and a resolutely public capacity to generate money out of thin air.

I aim to initiate and orient such a praxis by regrounding critical theory in the unheard-of center that mmt makes newly perceptible. To do so, I break with the Marxist understanding of money that has historically guided critical theory as well as the treatment of the aesthetic it has conditioned. Like orthodox economics, Marxism treats money as  a more or less passive vehicle for material exchanges that are abstractly mediated. As a result, it tends to denounce the money relation as an inherently privative social process and hence as one that is incapable of serving collective well-being. Yet as mmt demonstrates, money is irreducible to a “crystal of value . . . into which the commodity eagerly solidifies” and out of which its abstract husk “dissolves,” as Karl Marx artfully put it in Capital, Volume One. By insisting upon what might be called money’s mediated immediacy, while also reducing the state to a revenue constrained and generally unproductive spender, Marxism’s expressly immanent critique of monetary abstraction reifies the very privation it rejects. As a consequence of adopting this ontology of money, I contend, critical theory misperceives political economy’s actual conditions of possibility and hamstrings the most revolutionary weapon within reach.

The Marxist reification of monetary privation, in turn, leads critical theorists to adopt an impoverished conception of the aesthetic, which constricts the curative capacities of money and aesthetics alike. As the conventional narrative has it, the modern bourgeoisie first sought refuge from the Liberal money regime by turning to the realm of sensibility, culture, and art that came to be called “the aesthetic.” Whereas the Liberal monetary economy was plagued by sensory deprivation, experiential delimitation, and narrow social interests, the aesthetic sphere made room for sensory heterogeneity and repleteness, free play, and yearnings for universal communion. Although the aesthetic project failed to deliver on its mandate, critical theory invested a great deal of thought and hope in its utopian impulses. For some critical theorists, the aesthetic’s failed strivings for autonomy became a form of negative illumination, pointing beyond present alienation toward alternative orders.

For others, the aesthetic’s sensuous and underdetermined communality made for an incipient utopia in the here-and-now. The aesthetic needed only to be generalized and deepened in order positively to overcome political economic alienation. As I shall claim here, however, in placing what Immanuel Kant called the aesthetic’s “unbounded expansion” beyond and against monetary mediation, critical theory forecloses money’s boundless public center and delimits aesthetic expansion to a contracted field. In a word, it debilitates money and aesthetics alike.

My research, by contrast, joins critical theory’s commitments to sensuous immanence with mmt’s ontology of money and makes aesthetics newly answerable to political economy. To do so, it will be necessary to rethink the historical relationship between money and the aesthetic in three ways. First, I argue that money alone harbors the capacity to cultivate a full, diverse, and variable collective life. I risk this claim without appealing to orthodox yarns about self-correcting markets or to mutualist dreams about self-supporting associations that are proffered by advocates of cyber and extra-state currencies. Instead, I presume worldly inclinations toward dissolution and aggression. I critique desires to cure these centrifugal impulses with benevolent forms of mediated immediacy, and I affirm money’s unrestricted capacity to socialize labor and accommodate myriad social differences.

Second, I contend that the modern problem of the aesthetic is best understood as a historical symptom. It is a response to the metaphysical thisness, or haecceity, to which the dominant Liberal ontology of money has reduced monetary abstraction. Coined by theologian Duns Scotus during the thirteenth century, haecceity (pronounced “hæk-see-ê-tee”) is a metaphysical principle that denies causal dependencies between spatially separated beings. Instead, haecceity contracts the totality of being into the thisness of individuated particulars and, more significant, into the thisness of the contiguous and, typically, material relations that condition individuation. Haecceity eventually becomes the metaphysical basis for the hegemonic Liberal money form. Shrinking an expansive and noncontiguous social bond into a contracted and alienable relation, the modern Liberal imagination comes to treat monetary abstraction as a kind of haecceity-in-motion: a mobile and distinctly decentered thisness that seems to fill and evacuate private and public coffers.

When the Liberal money form’s contracted dynamics fail to support the social totality, the aesthetic arises as a symptomatic answer to money’s haecceity. Specifically, the aesthetic seeks to redeem haecceity’s universalizing promise in an alternative and improved form. In place of Liberal money’s impoverished thisness, it offers a rich and open haecceity that is supposed to support the social order in a manner that money apparently cannot. Yet the aesthetic project persistently falls short of its aim. This is not merely a consequence of ongoing social domination. It does not owe to the fact that money has somehow penetrated too deeply into social life. It is because haecceity remains an impoverished metaphysical foundation for any social order, no matter how expansive or universal its aims. The aesthetic is a symptom, then, because despite its salutary openings, it ultimately expresses rather than contests the Liberal money form’s metaphysical commitment to haecceity. As symptom, the aesthetic participates in making undetectable the nonlocal connections between spatially distant persons and environs that money’s public center regularly maintains. It also disguises that center’s limitless capacity to overcome neoliberal devastation.

Third, I turn the aesthetic’s salutary openings toward nurturing and enlarging the money relation. To hang the future of the totality on thisness is to overlook the center’s true causal dependencies. It is also to foreclose the center’s boundless curative potential. Instead of setting aesthetic redemption against monetary alienation as critical theory has done in the past, I call upon the aesthetic’s much disputed saving powers to assist in actualizing money’s social potential. In this project, I remain committed to aesthetic expansion and its social potential, but such expansions must sit squarely within the world that money mediates. They must realize rather than resist the money relation. The aesthetic must seek to enlarge, not escape, money’s own expansive field.

Finally, I should clarify: my claim is that not simply that mmt opens the history of modern money and aesthetics to untapped utopian possibilities for public spending and social care. Rather, my contention is an emphatically normative one. mmt shows that money’s status as a centralized and unrestricted government utility never ceases to structure social production, that it does so as a matter of everyday operational reality. Whether or not this occurs consciously or well remains an urgent question. But no amount of disavowal or negligence can erase the empirical effects of money’s boundless public center on modern history. As a result, mmt forces us to think of money’s utopian and normative dimensions as inextricably intertwined.

The Royal Road to the Neoliberal Unconscious

This leads us back to where we began: the conspicuous convergence of money, physics, and aesthetics in contemporary action media. I opened with a brief analysis of Spectre not merely because the film crystallizes the toxic contradictions that organize neoliberal money relations. I do so because Spectre exemplifies the action aesthetics that define the neoliberal order and because the sublime haecceity that quavers at the center of such media plays a pivotal role in my argument about the history of modern money and aesthetics.

My first claim is that these media physics provide a royal road to the neoliberal unconscious. Arising along with the turn to neoliberal economic governance during the late 1970s, such media physics take initial shape in the immersive “thrill ride” aesthetics of the New Hollywood blockbuster pioneered by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Lucas’s special effects house Industrial Light and Magic. Pre-1970s Hollywood admitted, emphasized, and exploited the moving-picture medium’s uncanny abstractness. So-called Classical Hollywood assumed a homogeneous visual grammar during this period and produced a relatively stable and seamless space-time that film scholars have labeled the “continuity system.” Nonetheless, Classical Hollywood was hailed as the “dream factory” and cinematic experience regarded as hallucinatory and ephemeral. Especially when it came to special effects, or “trick shots,” pre-1970s Hollywood variously delighted in screen action’s spatial indeterminacy and temporal evanescence.

In contrast to earlier Hollywood action aesthetics, post-1970s Hollywood labors to ground screen action physically in a material here-and-now. It does so, moreover, by anchoring the sensorium in a deeply immersive phenomenology that film scholar Frederick Wasser has dubbed a “you are there” feeling. An intensive thisness thus organizes films from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) to Gravity (2015). It also informs a parallel yet distinct history of mainstream video games. Films fracture the old continuity system and shift the locus of continuity from an insecure visual field to bass-driven sensations of locomotion. Games, too, rely upon sound to bring mass and weight to digital appearances, though their sustained and often jarring perspectives tend to break from classical continuity in ways new media theorist Alexander Galloway links to cinematic tropes of irrationality and psychosis. In any case, nearly all action media suppress screen movement’s fundamentally abstract character. At the same time, they fetishize hight-tech abstraction in their production processes and diegetic worlds. What is more, by contracting experience around sensations of friction, falling, and impact, such media comport the senses toward a sublime material flux that variously fills up and withdraws from the perceptual field like some capricious god.

Post-1970s action physics become the dominant aesthetic mode in an age known for diversifying practices, niches, and preferences. Treated largely uncritically by film media and scholars and eschewed by serious aesthetes, these action physics nevertheless become a ritualized site of convergence and repair for a fractured social body. On my analysis, such media both amplify and reify the phenomenology that rules neoliberal money relations. Orienting the sensorium toward a sublime haecceity—a materially expansive nearness, or propinquity—action media teach spectators and players to subordinate abstraction to physics and seek salvation in an erratic material flux. For this reason, action media at once hyperbolize and naturalize neoliberalism’s abstract money physics, eliminating both the sense of abstraction’s curative capacities and an awareness of the boundless public center that coordinates collective life.

By the same token, these media physics are also profoundly meaningful. Far from vacant ideology or brute domination, these forms compose rich and varied expressions along the lines of what film and media scholar Amy Rust has called “figures.” Figures are never empty or just brutal, Rust shows in her study of late 1960s and early 1970s cinematic violence. Rather, figures are deeply historical emanations that teem with both sensation and social sense. In the case of post-1970s action physics, figural returns to material propinquity represent a symptom of collective crisis. As symptoms, psychoanalysis reminds us, such repetitions work to thwart social transformation. But as both Rust and psychoanalysis equally discern, symptoms contribute to the very texture of the real and express genuine historical suffering. Such is the nature of the symptomatic haecceity that drives neoliberal action media. Its figurations lend variable shape to the neoliberal order, even as they prevent  things from appearing otherwise. More important, they harbor cryptic yearnings for deliverance that demand this otherwise be heard and answered. My book is written in response to these yearnings. Its project is less to critique the reifying logics of action media than to uncover collective attachments to neoliberalism’s “you are there” and reverse the social deprivation its figures hold in place.

My second claim about post-1970s screen action follows from the first. With their simulated implosion of formal abstraction and material propinquity, neoliberal action physics play a vital role in reifying not only the neoliberal monetary imagination but also the traditional money/aesthetics narrative. Under neoliberalism, a generalized collapse of abstraction and propinquity unfolds in the nominally separate realms of money and aesthetics. In the domain of political economy, the mid-1970s represents the moment when the Bretton Woods gold standard established at the close of the Second World War is dismantled and money is once and for all untethered from any metaphysical attachments to precious metals. The fatal twist of this shift is that money is affirmed as an abstract technology backed solely by political decree, or so-called fiat, at the same time that it is also envisioned as an alienable thisness that perpetually exceeds government capture and control. Under former metal standards, a perceived gap between monetary abstraction and its material substrate permitted the money relation to be contested occasionally. During the nineteenth century, for instance, critical intellectuals and political movements pointed to differences between what money was and the producibility of gold, silver, and paper dollars. As such, they politicized the gap between what money is and what it can be. The neoliberal period eradicates this distinction; it presumes money’s abstract status. Rather than reveal money’s public center, however, neoliberal political economy paradoxically treats monetary abstraction like a contracted and alienable thing. In consequence, money is banished to a realm of material propinquity, making it impossible to contest its construction.

In the domain of aesthetics, the neoliberal period finds critical theorists declaring more or less defunct the once-utopian strivings of aesthetic modernism and avant-gardism, which had given formal and technical abstractions pride of place.  “Abstract art . . .creates new types of spatial relationships, new inventions of forms, new visuals laws,” propounded artist and Bauhaus school member László Moholy-Nagy. “[It is] the visual counterpart to a more purposeful, cooperative human society.” Inverting such formulas, Theodor Adorno transformed abstraction into a type of negative illumination that turns the indeterminacy of monetary abstraction toward the aesthetic’s more reparative ends. “If in monopoly capitalism it is primarily exchange value . . .that is consumed,” writes Adorno, “in the modern artwork it is its abstractness, that irritating indeterminateness of what it is and to what purpose it is, that becomes a cipher of what the work is.” Conversely, aestheticians in the neoliberal era imagine abstraction’s alterity increasingly absorbed by monetary abstraction. Nearly every aspect of collective experience is subsumed, according to Fredric Jameson, by the “bewildering new world space of late or multinational capital.”  This total subsumption of collective existence is supposed to make the historical antagonism between money and aesthetics all but obsolete. Like a slow-motion film depicting the shutdown of Rust Belt machinery, the dialectical machinery of modernity’s money/aesthetics opposition grinds to an interminable finish. With genuine exteriority to monetary abstraction made untenable, contemporary aesthetic interventions are forced to situate themselves within and against what critics regularly envision as capital’s “global flows.” As a result, both the neoliberalization of money and the neoliberalization of the aesthetic converge in an abstract money physics. The neoliberal age forfeits abstraction’s formal and technical potential for the private sphere and flees to relations of material propinquity to confront the privation now associated with all types of abstraction.

Between these parallel developments in political economy and aesthetics, post-1970s action physics are surprisingly central. Still, to understand their role, it is essential to consider the shifting social significance of formal and technical abstraction in the late twentieth century. The neoliberal period saw midcentury modernism’s utopian and often technocratic faith in abstraction give way to postmodern or so-called contemporary aesthetics, wherein abstraction became increasingly associated with the private sphere and neoliberal pleasures and privations. Coming after the disappointments of an earlier utopian European modernism, the midcentury abstractions of International Style Architecture, Abstract Expressionism, and Space Age kitsch emblematized the era’s state-supported project of white middleclass uplift. However limited, contradictory, or repressive this project seems in retrospect, midcentury modernism’s embrace of formal and technical abstraction nonetheless conveyed, I argue, a complex investment in monetary abstraction and its capacities to order and elevate collective life.

During late 1960s and early 1970s the limits and failures of the midcentury’s sexist and racist military industrial complex became increasingly apparent to both Left and Right. Amid political pressures from the New Left and the Nixonian backlash, aesthetic and cultural producers presented myriad challenges to midcentury modernism’s particular faith in abstraction. Mainstream cultural production organized matter and meaning in disruptive new ways, be it experimental multitrack pop music, post-Code Hollywood filmmaking, or Fluxus and postminimalist art. A contradictory ethos soon emerged, however, that would redefine 1970s political economy and the neoliberal relationship to formal and technical abstraction that followed. On one hand, the New Deal era’s state-cultivated abundance was replaced by a widely hailed “age of limits.” Whether explicitly or implicitly, this rhetoric falsely linked allegedly profligate fiscal expenditures to problems of inflation, overconsumption, state violence, and environmental degradation. On the other hand, the 1970s announced a new era of cultural diversity and individual expression. The result was that while the 1970s constricted the capacities of monetary abstraction through fiscal austerity, high interest rates, and anti-labor policies, the pleasures of the aesthetic and especially of emphatically abstract aesthetics were reborn under the banner of neoliberal privatization. Whereas the abstractions of midcentury modernism became associated with technocratic domination and homogeneity, emergent forms of expression and abstraction became signifiers of a social order organized around public impoverishment and private transformation. Different forms of expression might strive to promote or resist the prevailing order. Yet no form would be produced outside its constricted monetary relation or contest money’s metaphysical reduction to an abstract physics. All forms would bear the signature of neoliberal privation.

This contradiction comes to a head in the dominant culture’s changing relationship to formal and technical abstraction. From personalized electronics to  speculative art market, a neoliberal age ruled by Wall Street and Silicon Valley tied the abstractions of data, design, and display to precarious private thrills. This means that the genuinely expansive and transformative powers of abstraction to transcend relations of material propinquity become wedded to a permanent state of uncertainty and suffering. In an unconscious, yet nonetheless direct response to these difficulties, Wall Street and Silicon Valley inspired and often directly funded the physics-obsessed action films and games that now permeate neoliberal culture. Thus, while abstraction’s imaginative and curative capacities were relinquished to private capital, private capital itself came to devote tremendous energies to creating a popular aesthetics grounded in a reassuring material propinquity.

The upshot is a symptomatic loop that reverses the order of its construction and makes alternative political economies unimaginable. When one begins from the physicalist phenomenology that post-1970s action media engenders, material propinquity seems prior to abstraction, and finite matter appears the literal ground of meaning. This feeling of material finitude then fuels a deep-seated ambivalence toward the technical and formal abstractions that the private sphere apparently and unproblematically celebrates. Finally, by treating material finitude as a ground for meaning and by stoking ambivalence toward all types of abstraction, post-1970s action physics engender comportments to the world that make the structure of monetary abstraction indiscernible.

For this reason, I argue that post-1970s action physics synthesize the converging tendencies we see in post–Bretton Woods fiat money and critical aesthetics. These action media do not represent or merely embody the transition to neoliberalism. Rather, they perform a crucial historical labor in their own right. They quite literally substantiate this era’s imagined implosions of abstraction and material propinquity in the form of a popularly enjoyed Gestalt. They complete the supposed convergence of money and aesthetics thought to define the neoliberal period and reify the dialectical narrative that frames it. As a result, post-1970s action media should be regarded as the unrecognized social epicenter of the neoliberal turn. Indeed, more than the era’s explicit accounts of money, and far more than any abstruse aesthetic theory, neoliberal action physics train the senses at a precognitive and prediscursive level. In so doing, they usher forth a worldview that relegates abstraction’s social potential to private commerce. They accept material propinquity as the unquestioned ground from which to confront neoliberal insecurity. And they make unimaginable any alternative relationship between political economy and sensory life. As such, it may be said that post-1970s action physics stiffen a knot tied long ago by the hegemonic money/aesthetics dialectic. Without recourse to concepts or words, such media physics transform a tangled modern promise into a tightening neoliberal noose.

My third and final claim about neoliberal action media cuts to my core contention in Declarations of Dependence: post-1970s action media open a previously unseen historical passageway, or wormhole, that links neoliberalism’s dead-end dialectic between money and aesthetics to the enshrouded origins of this dialectic in early modernity. I trace these origins to the historical rise of modern haecceity in Italy’s late medieval city-states and to the Liberal political economy these metaphysics came to authorize. Approached from mmt’s heterodox conception of money, or what I am calling money’s boundless public center, these origins reveal themselves afresh. Situating the traditional money/aesthetics dialectic in the context of an emergent thisness and an incipient Liberal political economy, Declarations of Dependence reconstructs the historical relationship between money and aesthetics. Uncovering a more salutatory metaphysics, it severs the noose of neoliberalism and envisions new supports for the collectivity I wish to release.

Modernity’s Unreconciled Origins

The source of the historical dialectic that terminates with neoliberal action media, I have suggested, lies in the social and political turmoil of northern Italy during the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. Specifically, the essential features of the modern relationship between money and the aesthetic can be traced to the remarkable economic and cultural life of the late medieval city-state. At first blush, today’s internationally connected and high-tech political economy seems to share little with the comparatively localized and pre-industrial world of Renaissance Florence. Moreover, what British Sentimentalists and German Idealists would later imagine as a quasi-autonomous
aesthetic sphere was largely absent in the Florentine context. If anything, the primary tension in the period stretching from 1350 to 1500 was between money and morality, commerce and spirituality, economic life and the life of the church.

Still, money and what we call the aesthetic remained bedfellows during this period. Humanist apologists for Florentine elites boasted about the role of the rich in provisioning artworks for both civic and church institutions. This, along with complaints of papal profligacy, led to conflicts between money’s purportedly corrupting influence and the church as institutional center of morality. A contradictory wellspring for contemporary relationships to money and aesthetics, early modern Florence also supplied the budding metaphysics of haecceitas that first shaped a proto-Liberal political economy and an ontology of money as alienable thisness. Prior to this transformation, an explicitly nonproximate, or transcendent, causality held sway over the late medieval intellectual order. Developed furthest by scholastic theologians such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, this causality begins with a boundless center occupied by God and the Universal Church. It then conceptualizes change through the relation of nonproximate copresences, which realize the center’s potential through finite local activities that never exhaust God’s endless abundance. From the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, this transcendent causality informed the operation and theorization of the papal money system under which the northern Italian city-states grew. In northern Europe, where the principles arising from the Thomist tradition received some of their most compelling practical applications, jurists such as Henry de Bracton argued that sovereign governance constituted the center of economic relations. They also insisted on what they deemed the “sacredness” of the public purse, or “fisc,” which was infinite, ubiquitous, and inalienable.

Beginning in the fourteenth century, however, challenges to this vision began to emerge. Thomism’s transcendent causality was spurned for an immanent haecceitas, first by Franciscan nominalists such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham and, later, by humanists of the Florentine tradition like Petrarch and Lorenzo Valla. This immanent haecceitas informed Florence’s libertine ethos of free associationism, which imagined discrete interactions between embodied agents as the sole source of causality, meaning, and value. It also drove Florence into a war against the pope during which the city-state fought for both political and economic sovereignty. The Florentine Republic triumphed against the papacy but at an enormous cost. Instead of assuming their freshly won right to a boundless sovereign purse, the wealthy guilds that dominated the Florentine system propped the newly independent Republic on haecceity’s immanent associations and, worse, on an order that made money a private and finite thing that moved in and out of physical locales. Limiting fiscal spending to tax revenues and bond sales, the republic predicated its social order on an alienable thisness instead of a boundless public account. This hallucinatory alienability brought with it a hallucinatory threat of loss, haunting Florentine society with spectacles of disintegration that threatened to deplete public coffers and dismantle public life.

Responding to money’s spectacles of disintegration, art and religious culture offered anxious sites of material reparation and religious salvation. Florence became the center of Renaissance art and humanist philosophy as well as a historically novel ethos of artistic freedom and individual genius. Characterized by substantialized experiences of a replete here-and-now, this culture contracted sensory faculties around a full and comparatively secure materiality. This materiality promised to open the sensorium to forces beyond the here-and-now. Yet it also furnished the subject with a protective envelope that stabilized a haecceity that otherwise appeared to be giving way. Cutting across the artistic and cultural practices of the Florentine Renaissance, this operation became especially concentrated in visual artifacts such as fresco, tempera, and later, oil painting. Geometrical perspective, in particular, moved Florentine art away from the transcendent causality of Byzantine and Gothic arrangements and toward a hazardous grounding in sensations of material gravity. This gravitropic visuality, as I call it, answered spectacles of disintegration with gravity’s assuring embrace.

Thus, while my argument is hardly novel in presenting Renaissance Florence and Quattrocento perspective as central to modernity, my attention to their haecceity shifts the historical significance of perspectivalism from visual verisimilitude to gravitropic phenomenology. Long recognized for its pursuit of mimetic likeness, or the so-called imitatio naturae principle, Quattrocento perspective supposedly derived from the structure of nature. With parallel lines that converged at one or more vanishing points, it promised to open a transparent window onto the embodied relations of the real world. Suspicious of the viewpoint perspectivalism produces, Marxist aestheticians have historically underscored its links to the possessive individualism of modern life. Such arguments follow Marxist critiques of money in that they accuse an abstract form of naturalizing social domination and economic alienation. The abstractions of Renaissance perspective carve out a disembodied and idealized position of mastery for the viewing subject to whom they extend an illusion of transparency. The result allows the bourgeois subject to imagine holding dominion over the world and possessing myriad objects. As in Marxist critiques of money, however, the dubious mathematics of Renaissance perspective in fact dominate the subject they establish and alienate its illusory viewpoint from connections to the material and social world.

On my reading, Renaissance perspective is neither “natural” nor “abstract,” and the historical significance of Quattrocento pictorialism has little to do with oppositions between transparency and opacity. Instead, I argue, Renaissance perspective constructs a gravitropic phenomenology that aims to ground viewer and viewed securely in a relationship of material propinquity—no matter how stable or unstable, transparent or opaque, that relation may appear. This phenomenology places the spectatorial body in the material here-and-now of a geometrically projected scene. More important, it physically anchors the embodied viewpoint in a distributed array of light and heavy figures suggesting a world held together by forces of gravitational attraction that include the viewing position itself. This overlooked phenomenology harbors a gravitropic wish—a wish to realize what money rooted in haecceity desires but cannot accomplish: to secure social mediation at a distance. In the face of money’s alienable thisness, gravitropic visuality cradles the viewer in its all-encompassing material grasp. It mediates social relations between near and far, seen and unseen, and does so while abjuring what Valla dismissed as the “weightless ravings” of scholastic terminology. With this, Renaissance perspective’s gravitropic phenomenology redeems the anemic haecceity that organizes the money relation in the Florentine Republic. By rendering haecceity a totalizing and all-inclusive relation of material propinquity, Quattrocento perspective at once reduces relationality to contiguity and imagines that this contiguity is capable of holding the social order together.

In the centuries that followed, Renaissance-era conflicts between money and morality slowly transmuted into a recognizably modern dialectic between money and aesthetics. Still, it is the gravitropic wish made palpable by Florence’s enduring visual culture that contained the secret to this dialectic’s still-unreconciled origins. The modern process begins when, in the midst of religious strife and war, elites in the Dutch republic and England suppressed lingering philosophical and legal arguments for money’s sovereign inalienability. They adopted a Florentine-like money form based on haecceity and deployed it at a far grander scale. The Dutch and English internationalized haecceity, in other words, first through the former’s break with the Spanish Empire in the late sixteenth century and, later, the latter’s founding of the Bank of England in 1694. In each case, a growing bourgeoisie established a new type of economic order, one that treated money as a private and alienable thisness that restricted government spending to finite tax revenues and bond sales. As a consequence, production increased and social life transformed. Rather than mobilize a boundless public fisc to employ and care for everyone, however, it gave rise to ongoing financial instability, mass unemployment, poverty, and starvation. Indeed, in spite of its gains, the money form’s haecceity brought metaphysical uncertainty to modern thought and life.

In the Dutch context René Descartes inaugurated modern philosophy with haecceity as an unquestioned yet decidedly anxious metaphysical ground. In Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), the French émigré staged a now legendary encounter with a melting piece of wax, which served to demonstrate the untrustworthiness of the material world. Answering this unreliability, Descartes appealed to the purported certainty of abstract mathematics and rational cognition. In the process, however, his melting wax stamped haecceity’s spectacle of disintegration on the soul of modernity’s rational subject. Hardly born with Descartes, his metaphysical drama was well known to Dutch speculators during the “Tulip Mania” market bubble of 1637 as well as to the thousands faced with unreasonable bread prices as a result. More broadly, it was familiar to Calvinist multitudes whose identities were shaped by what, from a contemporary perspective, was a series of tax revolts against extractive papal tithes and indulgences. Still, it is Descartes who makes a hemorrhaging haecceity the foundation for a “first philosophy” and for heralding a new age of metaphysics forged in contingency, uncertainty, and volatility. Descartes paved the way for a modern regime of knowing that refused transcendent causalities and struggled to find its bearings in the erratic thisness of an immanent here-and-now.

John Locke, for example, roots the operations of reason in contiguous associations among individual ideas. Locke’s epistemology strives at once to know and stabilize worldly relations via the thisness of specific ideas and the haecceity of the associations generated when individual ideas meet. Unsurprisingly, these same metaphysics also inform Locke’s philosophy of money, which attempts to balance modern economic relations on the thisness of individual agents and the heredity of their allegedly free associations. Writers such as Adam Smith develop this balancing act yet further. Building on the ideas of Descartes, Locke, and Isaac Newton, Smith refashioned the imagination into a faculty for envisaging hidden links between disjointed appearances. In so doing, he not only attributed haecceity to individuals and associations but also installed it in the intervals he imagined to exist between material beings and relations. In Smith’s account the positive substance or force that fills these intervals matters less than his presumption that some contiguous element holds the universe in place. It is the task of the imagination to confront these gaps and speculate about the underlying material relations that govern the universe. As a site of metaphysical ordering, this invisible contiguous interval permits Smith to imagine money as a relatively autonomous field made of myriad imperceptible exchanges. Smith’s “invisible hand” fills out the gaps in the field of exchange and brings with it a sense of order and balance. Thus, while he sees the market as an imperfect system that requires government’s visible support, Smith nonetheless reduces the whole of political economy to a problem of haecceity. He does not engage its boundlessness as a public center that organizes and supports inalienable, noncontiguous relations.

Skeptical philosophy maintains Smith’s commitment to thisness as a paradoxical remedy to the precariousness of haecceity. David Hume affirms, for instance, the power of reason despite its dependency on a fleeting and untrustworthy here-and-now. Evacuating metaphysical categories such as substance, force, and selfhood, Hume relies on irony to subvert any widely accepted claims to metaphysical certainty. In this sense the Scotsman realizes the destruction of metaphysical principles initiated by his predecessor Scotus. Like his precursors, moreover, Hume demonstrates a tenacious commitment to the metaphysics of haecceity, one that escapes his corrosive irony. His devotion to thisness likewise orients Hume’s influential contributions to modern political economy. Most notably, haecceity grounds Hume’s well-known “species-flow” theory of international trade. According to this theory, laissez-faire governance is supposed to ensure an even distribution of money and goods between states on the analogy of a fluid passing back and forth between contiguous chambers. With this, Hume makes a finite physical flow between nation-states the central mechanism responsible for production and distribution.

It is Marx, however, who goes furthest in grounding critique in haecceity. Rather than attuning critique to the ways that monetary governance actively organizes precariousness and poverty across disparate spaces, or railing against the state for creating mass unemployment and financial instability, Marx derides earlier juridical arguments for money’s fiat status, calling them “sycophantic service [to] crowned heads.” He develops an elaborate poetics of capital that, by turns, vilifies and eroticizes money’s estranging movements. Money is a “fetish,” according to Marx. It combines religious obfuscation and primitivist charms and transmutes a material relationship between persons into an alienating movement of things. Money is also a “crystal of value.” This crystal is supposed to siphon “surplus value” from the populace as it traverses geographic spaces. “Vampirelike, capital only lives by sucking living labor,” writes Marx, one of many appeals to Gothic monsters. Money is a “chemical bond” that destroys living bonds and does so through “monstrous exactions.” It creates “abysses,” “earthquakes,” and “volcanic eruptions.” Money, in Marx’s hands, is haecceity at its most unmanageable and unmoored.

Of course, the objective of Marxist poetics is never to conflate sign and referent, word and thing. It is to make money’s imperceptible haecceity feel viscerally present so as to denounce Smith’s benign interval for its essential privation and injustice. This is, in fact, how we ought to read the metaphorical thrust of The Communist Manifesto (1848): “All fixed, fast-frozen relations . . . are swept away,” and “all that is solid melts into air.” If such slogans now read as archetypical of modern experience, it is neither because they literally depict money’s operations nor because they describe money’s concrete effects. It is because as figures, Marx’s spectacles of disintegration go furthest to express the calamitous haecceity around which the modern era has come to revolve.

Accordingly, when British Sentimentalists and German Idealists first set sensibility, culture, and art against the money relation, they tendered the aesthetic as a concerted response to the concrete alienations and volatilities that Marx describes and money appears to condition. Yet in truth, I argue, the aesthetic first arose as an answer to the Liberal metaphysics of money and its disintegrating haecceity and only secondarily as a response to money’s concrete historical effects. As Liberal money’s harrowing thisness threatened persons with privation, constricted action, and social isolation, the aesthetic formed a counterimage of collective belonging that was heterogeneous, replete, and strove for universal communion. In this taken-for-granted striving, however, the aesthetic project meets its historical limit. That limit, I contend, is the modern metaphysics of haecceity, the gravitropic visuality of which—from Florentine perspective to neoliberal action media—holds the key for assessing how to overcome the limits of monetary and aesthetic thisness.

The Basis of Social Security

More than any form of artistic experience, gravitropic visuality reveals the essence and limit of the modern aesthetic project. Expressing a wish for haecceity to live up to its promise, the gravitropic aesthetic articulates collective desires for a social bond that is not only materially contiguous but also proves capable of securing far-flung persons and things in its all-encompassing grip. The aesthetic is, precisely, the promise of haecceity writ large. Modernity’s overinvestment in thisness, meanwhile, is where gravitropism finds its limit. The aesthetic is limited because its overinvestment in haecceity arises at the expense of the transcendent tethers that wed a governing body to currency users. The money relation is, after all, a social obligation that orchestrates activity at a distance, not a contiguous physics that pushes this way and the other. Indeed, no amount of sensuous abundance or fellow feeling in the here-and-now can transform that obligation’s essential structure or reorganize the boundless public center that conditions it. Money always outstrips the aesthetic in terms of scope, capacity, and social responsibility.  In a way, we can say the aesthetic marks a threshold beyond which haecceity prevents any concerted social activity from expanding. It designates the full extension of haecceity’s saving powers. The aesthetic is nothing but that frontier’s very name.

The imperative of critical theory in the wake of mmt, then, is to lay bare the deprived haecceity that frames modernity’s contradictory dialectic of money and aesthetics. It must also labor to redeem this relationship by opening both money and the aesthetic to the center’s limitless curative potential. In the end, the aesthetic’s investments in sensuous communion still matter for collective life. Before its promise can be realized, however, we must first grapple with the fact that the aesthetic project arose as an embodiment of, rather than a genuine antidote to, the privation of Liberal money’s disintegrating thisness. I take modernity’s gravitropic visuality as the site for this intervention. I transform its constrictive physics into a site for transcendence by disclosing its immanent connection to the boundless public center it forecloses.

To do so, it is necessary not only to place mmt’s ontology of money at the heart of critical theory but also to rearticulate critique’s essential question and methodological concern. What I propose, therefore, is a shift in critique from problems of power to questions of care. From the Frankfurt School to the diverse fields of inquiry that emerge during and after poststructuralism, critical theory generally takes Liberal money’s privation for granted. With this assumption, it focuses primarily on the social domination authorized by money’s abstract value. Then, in a variety of complex and often implicit ways, critical theory posits its own practice as an alternative method for looking after the totality. In this sense, critical theory foregrounds complexities of power and treats conundrums of caretaking as secondary. When critical theory does engage care’s difficulties, moreover, it generally emphasizes localized associations that resist the present order. In this sense it seeks to release caretaking from monetary obligations. My project, by contrast, radically restructures the way money organizes care from within the social totality.

There is, of course, an important exception to the foregoing depreciation of care in the Marxo-feminist “wages against housework” movement that flourished in Italy and the United States during 1970s and after. Though its proponents left the privation of the Liberal money form unquestioned, Selma James, Silvia Federici, and others nonetheless joined radical critique with demands for compensating and reorganizing unpaid care work. Also notable in this regard are the contributions of mid-twentieth-century African American intellectuals and organizers. From Bayard Rustin and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Coretta Scott King and the Black Panther Party, this tradition carried out incisive critiques of political economy while making radical calls for government-supported full employment, socialized day care, public housing, and the like. These movements proceeded from the problem of care and made demands for change that seem incompatible with the Liberal view of money. From the perspective of mmt, however, they appear imminently realizable.

Yet for the most part, the Liberal money form’s presumed privation has led critical theorists to forfeit questions of care for the whole in the here-and-now. Such questions find little place in rigorous theoretical engagements with the social order that money mediates. Instead, critical theory treats the exigencies of care from the perspective of resistance movements that strive to escape the money relation altogether. In projecting critique beyond the extant operations of public accounting, however, critical theory blinds itself to money’s limitless curative potential and relinquishes care’s riddles to Liberal reformers. Contracting the sphere of care to Liberal modernity’s limited haecceity, it renders care an activity that must oppose present power relations rather than proceed from within them. As a consequence, critical theory tends to exculpate itself from answering the difficulties of collective caretaking in the present. It pursues a liberated and expansive haecceity that Marx deemed a “direct” organization of “freely associated labor” and Max Horkheimer later described as an “association of free men in which each has the possibility of self-development.” But the problem with this model of care is that it derives from the aesthetic’s own impoverished haecceity. As in the traditional conception of the aesthetic, this narrow model of care concentrates on cultivating the sensuous thisness of immediate filiations, either in the midst of current struggles or by holding out an image of a future in which all relations appear as such. It thereby externalizes the difficulties that constitute the present totality and exculpates critical praxis from answering the burden of care in its widest breadth.

Critique after mmt sidesteps the prevailing tendency to set domination against a liberated and seemingly more caring haecceity beyond the money relation. As I deploy it, mmt grounds critique in the exigencies of the present monetary obligation, which establishes interdependent and distinctly noncontiguous relationships between currency-issuing governments and the persons and environs money organizes. More important, mmt permits me to install what I call the mystery of care at the center of the money relation and to insist that this mystery is irreducible to the problems of power that have historically oriented critical theory. By care, I mean something different from the dominant modern understanding of this term as an empathic being-for-others that one adopts or refuses. Rather, I recover care’s original and richer meaning as an anxious and inescapable social obligation and a form of collective cultivation and uplift. On one hand, care is an unshirkable charge, which tethers every person to the social totality and does so in a manner that is prior to questions of individual consent or moral activity.

On the other hand, it constitutes an undetermined activity of cultivating the social totality. Always at issue and never self-evident, care composes that mysterious intersection where a radical sense of implication meets radical transformability and where the social order as a whole hangs in the balance.

In modernity, this mystery is to be found nowhere other than in money’s boundless public center. Money is the locus of care’s inescapable question: How are we to cultivate our world? In order to alter how the boundless center poses and answers this question, care must become critical theory’s primary domain of concern. To subordinate care to power is to disavow the ways in which care never ceases to create and unsettle the world that power inhabits. It is to reduce the mystery of social reproduction to a tellurian force that waxes and wanes. Subordinating care to power passes over the ways in which even the most brutal power relations implicate everyone in the maintenance of a cruel world. Above all, it closes the money relation’s contested infinitude. Critique after mmt must hold that infinitude open—not as an end itself but as a new and radically expanded foundation for politics and the fight for political power.

mmt has set forth a rational critique of the dominant political and economic order. Appealing to logical argumentation, it proffers a counter-rationality that seeks to uncover the irrationality of the reigning doxa. Still, this counter-rationality tends to bewilder and dismay the majority of persons it addressees. The confusion does not result from lack of clarity on the part of mmt writings. It does not involve semantic inconsistencies between different discursive regimes. Instead, it is a consequence of mmt’s deep unseating of the metaphysics of haecceity that have made modern money intelligible. One sees attachments to haecceity in the discourse of heterodox economists who have shown sympathy to or even become associated with mmt. Marxist economist and former embattled Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, for example, has presented papers alongside mmt economists at myriad conferences and openly avowed mmt’s insights into the nature of fiat money. In his well-known book The Global Minotaur (2011), however, as well as other writings, Varoufakis predicates his analyses on what he calls a “surplus recycling mechanism.” Conceived as a kind of hydraulic physics that takes liquid in and pushes it out, this surplus recycling mechanism is supposed to transport money from one region to another and thereby “redistribute” value to the world’s economies. As any mmt economist will tell you, money is a debit/credit system, an instrument of simultaneously marking and accounting, not an alienable chit that can be redistributed. Thus, while Varoufakis wholly accepts that money is an unlimited public account, his unrelenting and seemingly unconscious attachment to haecceity prevents him from perceiving political economy according to the view
mmt makes available.

As most public presentations by mmt economists demonstrate, this attachment to money’s thisness is not only stubborn; it also stirs up anxiety. For instance, mmt economist Randall L. Wray delivered a talk in Spain in 2015 at the invitation of Asociación de Economía Crítica, the Madrid chapter of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens (attac). During the talk Wray explained that a monetarily sovereign state need neither tax nor borrow before it spends. Such a state can always afford any social program it wishes to implement. Wray warned, however, that Eurozone rules have robbed member states of their fiscal sovereignty. For this reason, Spain must exit the Euro currency’s punishing fiscal restrictions before it can spend as needed on public employment, social security, and other urgent programs. After Wray’s presentation, a thoughtful undergraduate student in the audience offered some reflections. “This has been incredibly enlightening,” she pronounced, as she proceeded to rehearse some of the ideas Wray previously conveyed. Still, said the student, something was preventing her from comprehending the full significance of Wray’s presentation. In an effort to clarify her puzzlement, she asked Wray the following, though her tone suggested she knew the question would not prove illuminating. “What else is there to finance . . . social security,” she queried, “if we are not to rely on taxes?”

The Spanish student’s perplexity is not exceptional. This type of anxious questioning regularly follows presentations of mmt’s key claims. Still, the form of this particular student’s question is telling for the way it announces the metaphysical unease mmt’s intervention inspires. Specifically, it indicates the fundamental question that accompanies this heterodox school when it enters public discourse. “What else is there to finance . . . social security if we are not to rely on taxes?” One can restate the inquiry as follows: Without the unnamable thisness that taxes are supposed to embody, where can we locate the source of public spending? To put a finer point on it, the question might finally be stated: When money is stripped of the haecceity on which it is imagined to hinge, on what basis is social security supposed to rely?

The fact that this more fundamental question has neither been asked nor answered suggests that mmt’s rational methodology is insufficient to the challenge at hand. It is insufficient precisely because it has thus far neglected to thematize, let alone explicitly critique, the metaphysics that have historically made modern money thinkable. The real challenge for critical theory, then, is not simply to assist mmt by replacing irrationalism with rationalism or by bringing economic clarity to neoliberal ignorance. Critical theory must conceive new ways of weaving the topology and tissue of the real. It must redefine what counts as real before that reality can be engaged as such. Only by intervening in this preconscious and unheard-of background is it possible to perceive money’s boundless public center and put this center to work for one and all.

I do not trace the linear account of the alternative history in my research. Rather, I pursue a series of critical interventions distributed across four chapters that unfold this history through a set of broader theoretical claims. Each intervention treats a key problem for critical theory while laboring to rethink the relationship between money and aesthetics from the early modern period to the neoliberal present. The four problems are: (1) the ontology of money; (2) the politics of care; (3) the metaphysics of mediation; and (4) the aesthetic’s gravitropic phenomenology. In the end I argue that saving ourselves from social and ecological ruination requires risking money’s enigmatic transubstantiations of matter and meaning rather than settling for the comforts of the aesthetic’s gravitropic deliverance. In so doing, I show how the aesthetic remains vital to any critical praxis. Yet I insist that making good on the aesthetic’s promise of redemption requires exposing the mystery of its sensuous expansions to money’s incalculable grace.

Excerpted from Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care by Scott Ferguson, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2018 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.

Scott Ferguson holds a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Film Studies from UC Berkeley and is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities & Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida. He is a Research Scholar at The Institute for Sustainable Prosperity and co-founder of the Modern Money Network’s Humanities Division. His current research and pedagogy focus on Modern Monetary Theory and critiques of neoliberalism; aesthetic theory; the history of digital animation and visual effects; and essayistic writing across media platforms. He has published in Screen, boundary 2 online, Qui Parle, Arcade, CounterPunch, Liminalities, Naked Capitalism, Dollars & Sense, Flassbeck Economics International, “In the Moment” (Critical Inquiry), Rebelion, and Contexto y Accion.

Author: Tropics of Meta

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