I'll admit it. I've watched all the Twilight films. It's not just that I have a thing for emo vampires though, I think the series has relevance for the future of finance. Let me explain.
The intersection between campaigners for radical economic justice and the mainstream financial sector is frequently presented as an epic battle of good vs. evil. Even the more moderate mainstream debates on financial reform revolve around how to socialise the financial sector, or how to soften it so that it doesn’t rapaciously trample over peoples’ lives in a singular pursuit of blood-sucking profit-maximisation.
Against this backdrop, champions have emerged from within the financial sector – a bit like our hero Edward from Twilight – who attempt to balance two apparently separate impulses: The ‘rational’ risk and return mentality of investment – hard-edged, efficient, calculating, cold, individualistic, macho – with the ‘fuzzy’ or emotional world of social good, with its soft, imprecise contours of community and caring.
Examples include socially responsible investment funds, and the emergent social finance community. A social finance professional, for example, might concern themselves with how to steer investment into education and health projects, or how to finance social entrepreneurs.
I appreciate much of the spirit behind the work of the socially responsible finance movement, but it’s also a sector that naturally attracts controversy. Some social finance innovations, such as social impact bonds for example, have been seen by some as another step towards an erosion of state services, a type of ‘privatisation as innovation’.
A more subtle issue though, is embedded in that name ‘social finance’. It seems to reinforce the pervasive distinction, frequently endorsed by both radicals and mainstream finance professionals, of the distinction between ‘the social’, and ‘the financial’. Contrasting ‘normal’ finance to an imagined social finance appears to tacitly accept an unequal power dynamic, as if there’s proper finance and then a ‘nice’ version of it on the side. Certainly, when Goldman Sachs wants to improve its public image it draws attention to its social finance initiatives, somewhat like a patronising Mafioso showcasing their charitable side, or Twilight’s Edward being gentle.
One contrasting vision to Twilight is presented by Buffy the vampire slayer, boldly Occupying Sunnydale High School, defending earth from the hellmouth beneath it. Buffy’s narrative is appealing, straightforward and empowering: Equip yourself, get a team together, kick ass. Buffy makes a direct challenge to the Bella figure in Twilight – defending the realm of the social needn’t be an unequal battle requiring a knight in shining armour. Barclay’s CSR team can take a hike.
Don’t get me wrong. I think both Twilight and Buffy have important things to offer in the overall task of curbing bloodsucking behaviour, and perhaps they even complement each other. I do though want to propose a third possibility: Blade.
Blade could be interpreted as a fusion of Twilight and Buffy. It’s grittier and grimier than Twilight, but also lacks the all-to-easy clear moral boundary both Twilight and Buffy are prone to. Blade is the story of a human-vampire hybrid, a ‘daywalker’ who scares the hell out of the vampire council. Blade is not ‘nice’, but he does seem authentic. Above all, Blade is a heretic, defined by Thomas Aquinas as a person who “having professed the faith of Christ, corrupts its dogmas”.
Admittedly, the warlike analogy of Blade is somewhat over the top. Heretics could resemble mystics, inventors, jokers, witches and drag queens too. One powerful heretical archetype though, is the hacker, driven by the radical and creative impulse of the Hacker Ethos. It’s this figure that I focus on in my new book, The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money.
So what would it mean to be a financial hacker? In a previous openDemocracy article I wrote about ‘hybrid radicals’ who, much like a hacker, fuse together rebellion with entrepreneurialism. Here’s a quote:
Financial activism, traditionally associated with economic justice ‘activists’, should also be thought of as including those who are proactively building new models outside of the traditional activist scene. Perhaps the ideal is a hybrid radical, well-versed in the micro-level practicalities of alternatives, and possessing an entrepreneurial flair infused with the rebellious spirit of critical theory… Hacking, in its true sense, is at once an act of rebellion and an act of creative re-wiring, engaging in innovation as a subversive act. It’s the art of creative disruption, rather than just disruption, or just creativity. The aim is not merely to build something new (standard entrepreneurialism), but to actively subvert an existing object in the quest to build something new.
Perhaps Twilight, Buffy and Blade are useful, above all, to illustrate potential differences in mindset, rather than definite differences in forms of alternative financial innovation. All three can end up fighting vampires, but the first is more inclined towards surface-level soppy love that can be co-opted into Goldman Sachs PR photo shoots. What we need is financial innovation that has constant Buffy-esque radical input, alongside commitment to building truly challenging Blade-like hybrids that begin to crack status quo dogmas.
This, to my eyes, is something that the Left has been struggling with for a while: Lots of insightful rebellious statements and moral posturing about economic injustice, but not enough practical building of alternatives. I sense that this is going to change over the next few years and in the book I explore a variety of interesting areas that are being developed. In particular, four areas excite me:
1) Economic ‘circuitbending’: Developing ways to divert existing financial instruments and institutions away from their orthodox modes of operation. Perhaps the most well-known example is shareholder activism, which still has huge scope to be developed and refined. 350.org is at the forefront of a new wave of divestment campaigns, and another area that needs pioneering is the development of activist hedge funds.
2) Disintermediating, democratising, and decentralising: Finding ways to decentralise power away from existing financial institutions by bypassing them. The key current examples are the emergent peer-to-peer and crowdfunding platforms. Take a look at Abundance and Seedrs. Note that the emphasis of these is seldom just about morality. Kickstarter is not ‘ethical finance’, it’s just a new way to fund creativity. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that a more decentralised system is free from abuse. The key point is that these are creating financial diversity, distributing power and offering greater degrees of connection to the process of investment.
3) Reconnecting to exchange: Alternative currencies have been on the fringe of economic justice movements for a while, but new innovations like Bitcoin have raised their profile significantly. Our current monetary system is like a blunt sledgehammer that distracts and disconnects people from the intricate cultural foundations of exchange. Increasing monetary diversity via local currencies, digital currencies, and sharing economy technologies is not only more economically resilient, but it’s also more empowering for people, jolting them out of complacent acceptance of a monetary monoculture.
4) The risk-sharing revolution: Over the last decade many books (e.g. Wikinomics) have noted the emergent forms of open-source and co-operative production, exchange and consumption. New technology offers new ways to co-ordinate economic activity, and the hierarchal, alienating firm interfacing with the passive consumer is being challenged. Startup culture, for example, is one of small equity-financed teams, nimble and adaptable, challenging the debt-fuelled complacence of decaying corporations. It’s a scene naturally aligned to the bootstrapping ethic of the activist, and it’s just a matter of time before a left-wing quasi-anarchic startup community emerges, bringing the sexy back to workers co-operatives. Such activist enterprises will give people personal stakes in the risks their firms take, or to put it a loose Marxist framework, seek to reduce alienation.
To me, pop culture examples like Buffy, Blade and Twilight are fun ways to orientate oneself towards what type of activism you want to do. I’d love to hear of other figures that offer new ways for people to think of themselves, so please do comment. Here’s one great hybrid vision my friend Eli showed me last night: Dharma Punx – street punk culture meets Buddhism. We need more of this.
Brett Scott is a campaigner and writer who works in alternative finance and financial activism. His new book – The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money – is published by Pluto Press and is available now. Alternative currencies also accepted. He tweets as @suitpossum