Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Review of "Heretic's guide to global finance: hacking the future of money" by Brett Scott

This is an important and interesting book that covers a lot of ground in a succinct and clear way. It explains a lot about how the world of finance works and suggests some ways in which activists can take it on. If you know nothing about finance and financial markets you should definitely read it.

If you are looking for a rant about the iniquities of global finance then look elsewhere. Scott has set out to do something different in this book. As well as an account of how finance works (rather than a critique of how it doesn't), it is also an exploration of the possibilities to act on the financial system – both through disruption and also through the creation of positive alternatives and exploitation of those spaces that do exist for creativity.

For me, I'd have preferred a little more of the critique, although I accept that this would have been hard in a short, focused book – and I acknowledge that there are plenty of other books that cover this ground. Scott is strong on the rationale for the whole edifice of derivatives, hedge funds and so on, and I'd have liked him to apply his strong facility for clear explanation to the irrationality – the short-termism, the way it necessarily drives projects which wreck the planet, the corruption...(I'd have preferred if he'd dropped the references to 'gonzo' engagement, which didn't really work for me).

A more serious issue is about the whole notion of 'engagement' with the world of finance. 'Engagement' has two separate, almost opposite meanings; you engage with the enemy by fighting against it, and you engage with something else as an alternative to fighting against it – 'constructive engagement', in the language of the diplomats. There is a sense in which Scott obfuscates the difference between the two meanings; are we engaging with the world of finance to educate our side as to how it works and what's wrong with it, or because we think it is actually susceptible to influence and capable of change so as to not be evil?

There is a similar issue at the heart of the alternative financial models and entities that he discusses, in what for me was easily the best and most useful part of the book. Unlike the Bolshevik tradition, which argues that nothing much useful can be done until capitalism has been overthrown, and unlike the social democratic tradition which argues that capitalism can be reformed bit by bit until it will no longer be capitalism, the anarchist and syndicalist traditions thought that it was worth creating pre-figurative institutions so as to 'build the new world within the shell of the old'. It's a lovely image, and it's hard to resist the appeal of the idea; why not make things now that are harbingers of the world we want to make, and at the same time create something that is worthwhile in itself? The book has lots of examples of projects in this spirit, and Scott's blog (Suitpossum) has even more. They are inspirations and models, and they deserve the attention he gives them.

That said, it's important to realise that this path, as much as the other two, is strewn with the corpses of failures – the co-ops that went bust through incompetence, the union-owned enterprises that turned out to be no better as employers than their capitalist counterparts, and so on. Each of these failures affects not only the people involved, but all those who were inspired and believed, and who learned that nothing can be changed. For some people – especially those who work in start-ups – failures are as valuable as successes, because you learn so much from them. But social movements are not venture capitalists, and they can't afford so many failures if they are going to keep activists and others involved. Campaigners need a string of little victories, no matter how small, to keep the troops motivated.

But this is nevertheless a great book, with a great set of references and further reading. More people on the anti-capitalist left need to involve themselves in what finance is like, if only to answer the argument that this is the only way that a complex technological and economic system can be organised.

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