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Margaret Levi:
swimming, flashing octopi

Margaret twinkles, the sparkle of a full life exploring her two passions: political science, for which she is famed, and Aboriginal art. Growing up in Baltimore in the 1960s, Margaret was taken on civil rights marches as a young girl and she is still marching now. Margaret shows us how we are living through the declining years of neoliberalism. It is time to bring a new political and economic system into being, she says, as she explores what it would take to build one that ensures wellbeing for all.

Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.


I’m starting. I’m sitting in my study where I spend most of my time now. I’m looking at some paintings that I have and some photos. The painting I’m staring at right now is a very small piece, one of the very early pieces produced by the artists in the desert in the 1970s. This is a 1972-73 piece by a man we call Johnny W, Johnny Warangkula, and I disappear into it. It looks like sometimes it looks to me like a constellation of stars. Sometimes it looks to me like I’m swimming in the sea and that it’s filled with swimming and flashing octopi. What it really is, is a painting in reds and blacks and whites and pinks that is showing his place, his country, the country, he had to take care of. That it was his responsibility to be the trustee of that part of the world, to lead others there, to take them to the waterholes, which are essential for a hunting and gathering society. And this is a map, it’s a map of the country, and it’s a map of his mind, of how he sees that country.  

Future is a kind of time, and I sit here surrounded by Australian Aboriginal art, whose notion of temporality is so different than ours and, but from which we can learn an immense amount. For them, the future, the present, the past are all one. They’re all intercepting each other and cycling with each other, all at the same time. So that’s what future means for me, it means something that recognises and respects the past from which the future has arisen, deals with the immediate problems of the present, and looks forward to paths and ways to ensure that what is good and needed by people is actually provided. 

Also on that wall is another piece. It’s a photograph that was done during the period in the great depression of the farm security administration. Probably the most famous of those photographers who were sent to document what the world was like for those who were suffering from poverty is Dorothy Lange. I’ve read several books about those photographers and they always end by saying there were these eight or 10, very famous photographers who were involved and three who we can’t seem to locate. This is one who wasn’t located. His name was Doug North and he made a choice at some point, after returning from the merchant marines, after the end of World War Two, to be a photographer or to be an economist. He went to have dinner with Dorothy Lange and her husband who was a Berkeley economist, who both of them arguing that he should follow their path. He chose the path of economist. He was my mentor. He went on to win the Nobel prize, economic historian, who also mapped the world, but mapped the world in a way that enabled us to see how institutional change comes about, how States can be a force for good and a force for problems, how to think about a whole set of ways in which technology can matter and knowledge is important. Until I was describing these two pieces I hadn’t quite realised their links. Visually they couldn’t be more different. Doug’s photograph is of a small girl sitting on stairs in a very dark space. She doesn’t look unhappy, but she does look deprived. And he’s mapping her world and giving us an image of it. Just as Johnny W is letting us into yet a different world with his map and his constellation.

As I write over and over and over again, what has happened is that whatever political economic framework we exist under, and there have been a succession of them since Adam Smith and the dawn of capitalism, and they adapt, they change as the world changes, we get a new political economic framework, but people tend to get stuck in the mindset of whatever particular framework we’re in and believe as some of the ideologues behind these frameworks try to make people believe, believe that what they’re in is natural, that it’s God given that it’s the way it has to be when in fact change is a constant in the world of ideas, in the world of politics, in the world of economics and social infrastructure. And so what we have seen over, over time is transformations, is ways in which we have run our organisations, our lives, what defines our moral code, they’ve all changed. Sometimes they’ve changed for the better, sometimes they’ve changed for the worst, but change is as much a part of the world as constancy. 

The problem is the world is full of contingencies. As my friend, John Seely Brown says we’re in a world of radical contingency. Things are constantly changing before our eyes, and we have to be able to, uh, act in response and to move with a tide as it were, a whitewater world, a world in which you get into a kayak and you go down the rapids and you have to be able to read the context very, very easily and to figure out what, how to respond as things are morphing and transforming around you, as you don’t know what’s around the corner. The trick is not so much the policies, we can figure those out, we’ll debate about them as we always do and should. But if we could build into our institutions and organisations as capacity for constant transformation, that it’s an upheaval every time, but a capacity to really notice that the world is in flux and to move with that world.

I run a project called generating a new moral, political economic framework. And the idea behind it was to really confront the fact that our current political economic structure is totally fraying. We’re very, very good at analysing the past and explaining how we got to where we are. We’re not so good at visualising the future. And more importantly, visualising alternative futures. We think about going back to the new deal as opposed to thinking about a future deal. We have to think beyond things like Universal Basic Income and be really innovative. We have to think about new ways to create communities and community systems that empower people but intermesh with, uh, the whole variety of levels of government and community that are out there. My language is we want to create an expanded community of fate, F-A-T-E fate, where we recognise that people’s destinies are intertwined, that they recognise that their destinies are intertwined, but it’s not just recognising that it’s actually building the institutional structures that support that and building them using the most sophisticated technological tools, but also recognising the human piece of that. It’s also new ways of thinking about our universities, about our schools, that aren’t just digital, that are thinking about ways of empowering people to learn and to be lifelong learners. It’s new forms of voice for those who are working and employed, new forms of regulation or limitations and constraints that permit innovation, but also restrict technology companies and other big corporations from gaining too much power over our lives and too great a wealth inequity.  So, do I have a narrative to tell about the future? Not yet, check back with me, I’m working on it. 

The thing that I grapple with as fundamental to my work and to the way I perceive the world is, how do we evoke from individuals a sense that they are part of a larger whole, so that they’re thinking about the interest of others and not just their individual interest? And I’m impressed with how many people in the short run at least are willing to do that. Particularly those who can afford the relatively minor sacrifices that they are being asked to make. But I’m also impressed by those who refuse to think that way and, and how hard it is to get them to think that way.

I’ve lived a very long time. I was born in 1947, I’m 73 years old. I’ve lived through a lot of changes in the world and seen a lot of action, though I must say the current experiences are not quite like anything I’ve had before. Polarisation and conflict has been a theme of my life I’d say. I grew up in Baltimore, which was an incredibly racially segregated city, but not only racially segregated. If you knew somebody’s address, you knew what class they were, what religion they were, possibly even whether they went to private or public school and which school it was. There were so many divides in that city. Growing up my mother was very, very active in the League of Women Voters, which in Baltimore was a very important organisation, one of the few that women could be actively involved in. But it also crossed all those boundaries that I’ve mentioned across racial and religious and class boundaries in a way very few other organisations in Baltimore did at that time.  And therefore I had friends, the children of my mother’s pals, who came from different parts of the city. And that was an important part of my growing up. But when we were small, my mother used to dress us up, um, and we would, and we would look very middle-class and we would go marching, marching for civil rights. It was important, my mother said, for the world to know that middle-class white people supported the civil rights movement. So from the time I was seven, I was on the streets, um, engaged in political action.  

You might remember, or you might know that the summer of 1963 was the summer of the big March on Washington for jobs and freedom. I got on a bus with my pals, and we went off to DC. My mother and sister got on a different bus with the League of Women voters who went off to DC. And there I was on the lawn of the Lincoln Memorial, not paying attention to all the speakers, but sort of having a party on the lawn. And suddenly this voice takes over the whole space. ‘I have a dream’ and Martin Luther King gave the speech of a lifetime. I’ve never heard a speech like that. I’ve never been awoken that way before. And it’s remarkable that I was able to be there. I then went off to Bryn Mawr college in the fall where I, um, helped to initiate the first branch of SDS Students for Democratic Society at Bryn Mawr college. I was told by one of the SDS men that he thought I was amazing, but if I didn’t calm down, I’d never attract a boyfriend, um, I was just too out there and aggressive for most boys. I didn’t understand how to take that at that time. Remember, this is before the second wave of feminism. By the time I was leaving Bryn Mawr in 1968, the second wave of feminism had of course begun. And when I got to Harvard, but I have to say it was very unsatisfying. I had gone to this very feminist, in many ways, college – Bryn Mawr – whose motto was, our failures only marry. And if things like if you have a clean house, then you don’t have enough work to do. And where I was treated and my work and my capacities were treated with respect and encouragement. I had several wonderful teachers at Bryn Mawr college, but the one who really influenced me the most was Peter Bachrach. And I took his class on power and it was again, a transformative experience.  It taught me how to think analytically, it raised questions that I had been struggling to articulate, and it helped me to articulate them. And I’m sure it was perhaps, it was probably the major impetus to my ultimately becoming the political scientist that I am. 

So the dominant way in social sciences of thinking about power is that it had to do with direct influence, getting people to do something they didn’t want to do. He was interested in another dimension of power. Those who were persuaded not to do something they wanted to do often, not just because of coercion, but because of fear of, if they spoke up, it would go against the grain, that they might get punished, that their families might get punished. So coercion was in there, but it was the, not the only basis. So why was it that Blacks, um, who clearly were being, um, discriminated against in all kinds of ways and suffering real atrocities in the South were not speaking up. It was because of this second dimension of power. Um, even though they had the right to vote, it was hard to exercise the right to vote, even though they could be in legislatures, it was hard to be in legislatures. When they did have places where they could be, sometimes they were afraid to say anything because it would come back to haunt them. And they were fearful of the consequences.  

Even if you look back at those, of those, we think of as the great political economists, they didn’t provide a total framing. They provided a set of ideas, um, inspirational ways of thinking about things. They tried to change mindsets so that people would operate in a different way. And they thought about, um, institutional arrangements to some extent that would ensure that. So I’m not sure we’ll ever come up with a blueprint and I’m not sure we ever should, by the way, because I think one of the things that we’ve learned over the last centuries, millennia and certainly has been more reinforced recently among some of us is the importance of constant experimentation and tinkering. So all of our institutional arrangements, any policies we establish, have to be reexamined in some kind of regular and periodic way. And we have to be willing to experiment and, you know, cut, we have that capacity: we have communities, we have States, we have regional and sub regional governments everywhere, as well as multiple governments around the world that can try out different things and we can figure out what works and under what conditions. So I think that having, a blueprint, um, unless it’s pretty high order is not really where we want to go. So that brings us back to what are the fundamental principles and standards if you will, or that we want to live up to. And I think the most important of all, and that will lead to things like caring and other such issues is really thinking about what it means to ensure well-being for all, to not just worry about economic growth, to think about what does it mean to flourish, if we want to use that term, it means that we have to care about each other and we have to provide care for each other. Even Adam Smith, with his limited government framework, thought you had to, one of the things government had to do was worry about, you know, the, the widows and the elderly and those who really needed help. So there’s always caring in the system, but we have to really now figure out what that means and how to ensure it. It’s also allowing people real opportunity and to figure out what it means in a society to provide the kind of education, training retraining, to enable people to realise their capacities and to be contributors. I mean, part of thinking about us as interconnected and a society and being social beings is you want to develop those capacities, not just for your own self satisfaction, but because you want to be contributing as well to the wellbeing of others, in whatever ways you can.  

So I’m looking now at a bark, that was done in Western Arnhem Land, and it’s of a hollow log coffin is the central motif with a serpent in it, hollow log coffin is the burial coffin and the Aborigines pick the appropriate, uh, logs, and then paint them up for, to become burial retainers for bones. And inside of it is a snake. I’m not going to go through all of these, there are an immense number down here, those are two that I was looking at, but I’m also looking at two pieces by Gonubie [inaudible]. One is a hollow log coffin that is his version of a hollow coffin. And whereas up until this time, most Aborigines looked for the most perfect, um, log that they could find, that had few blemishes, was really straight and clean, he looked for the most wonky log that he could find and then painted it up with the marking that’s appropriate for him and his ceremony. And above it is a flying Barracuda, a flying fish. I mean, it’s flying only because we have it hanging from the ceiling and again, covered with marking. And we always try to get people to figure out what it’s made out of. And they figure it’s a log because inside you can see some log-like texture, but it’s actually a PCV pipe. So one of the things that Gonubie is famous for is he, for example, um, took the rubber that was in the mines on the conveyor belt and would engrave in it. And he would take, I’m looking at a satellite dish from a TV thing that he’s painted up. In his community, the elders told the artists that they had to use traditional materials. And when they told him that these were not traditional materials, his response was, this is what I grew up with, this is what I see everywhere, these are traditional materials. They looked at him and agreed. And a great artist was born. 

I can’t leave without telling you about a fish that’s hanging from the ceiling in the other part of the gallery. It is a large saw tooth, which barely, no one ever sees them anymore, but the artist told us he used to see them a lot as a kid. And what it’s made out of is ghost netting, the nets that are left on the beach from large commercial fisheries, both to tell us and remind us of what has been lost and also to make a protest against this invasion of their country and their waters by these nets and by these fisher people who seem unrespectful of, uh, the natural world, that the Aborigines are doing their best to protect. In this COVID era, um, it has my Pilates Allegro machine here, which we move out of the way for parties, but who’s had a party for a while. It’s now about a mat and the foam roller, magic circle and weights. 

When I think of the word metamorphosis, I immediately think of two different cultures that aren’t my own – one is the ancient Greek and Roman, it’s not just Ovid’s metamorphosis which told the story of all these ways in which humans and Gods became others be turned into natural beings, Daphne turning into a tree or Echo turning into the water that he was part of, but that, that he was looking into. But it’s also the story of how the world gets created. And that of course brings me right back to my other big obsession other than how to create a moral political economy, which is Aboriginal art. And so many of the pieces of Australian Aboriginal art are about these transformations, about the ways in which things are created, about how violations of laws turn you into something else so that we can remember that there is a law and that it should not be broken or how, um, how we find a pathway through the world, by telling stories, by telling the narratives of change that rock, she see that rock, that, that damn rock, that rock he is that, that, that girl, that, that girl that, that wasn’t able to, to got away from that man, that, that girl. So it’s, it’s about the metamorphosis, and it’s about the ways in which transformation becomes stability, but has to constantly be fighting stability.  

What does it mean to have a partnership? What does it mean to really partner with the earth? What does it really mean to partner with the machine? What does it mean for them, for machines and nature to partner with each other? One can argue that both nature and machines have a kind of mind, but it’s clearly not the same kind that we have. So it, it raises just incredibly interesting issues, just putting the word partnership in there, as opposed to just thinking about relationship, because a partnership suggests that there’s some kind of equality that it isn’t, that one is going to dominate the other, that each has to contribute something to the relationship. A relationship can be one of dominance. Um, and that’s not what we’re searching for. I think that this is the natural next step out of the moral political economy thinking, to really think about moral political economies have a life that they’re not forever. And this one’s lasted a little too long for my particular taste, but you know, it’s going, it’s frayed.

The world is changing. We have a much deeper appreciation and understanding of the earth than we’ve ever had before. Machines are developing at a rapid rate, machine learning, robotics, a whole bunch of things. You know, machines are part of our world in a way, in a very different kind of way than say the cotton gin was part of the world of the 19th century and machines of these sorts, give us all kinds of power that we never had before but in order to have that power, we have to give them power. So what, what does that mean and how do we work that out? So I think in the long run, really thinking about these relationships and, and how they are partnerships is going to be the critical step as we evolve a moral, politically economic framework that actually deals with the, um, issues that will be confronting us in the world to come. 

I have seen many futures in my life. There are moments when things look really, really bad, so you sleep for a couple of weeks, you know, you go into retreat and then you stand up and you say, okay, where are the levers? Where can we fight? What can we do? There may be this going on at this level, but over here, there, there are things we can do. And those will start to scale at some point, the moment will come back around, the moment keeps coming back around. We keep having another chance to make it better. And I think we’re at that moment right now and we need everybody in there doing their piece of the work, whether it’s marching in the streets, whether it’s coming up with the ideas, trying to create a life that works in a world that doesn’t fully work. All of those are inspirational, not just putting one step in front of another, but actually, you know, pulling up your sleeves and getting involved in the process of, of making things better. And you can do it in small ways with the world immediately around you. And you can do it in big ways if you have that kind of capacity or that kind of inclination.  

I think this is such an odd moment I don’t, I don’t know, but there are stars to follow. I mentioned just one, Martin Luther King, but there’s so many others that we can start looking at and creating. And recovering the sky and the Earth with some, some hope. That’s what we need, some hope and some paths forward that people can see and grab and follow, um, and to the extent I can help be a guide or the extent that I can help be somebody who digs the earth up so that they can walk, um, and plays a very small role that way. I want to do it. Onwards, as I’ve been saying in the signature to my emails, onwards. Bye for now.