Hacking Finance: Brett Scott’s Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance

In his book, The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance, Brett Scott offers activists a primer on the world of finance and how to turn it to potentially better ends. Not all of the ideas Brett puts forward – and the book is full of ideas – are without critique, but the book as a whole is an excellent example of Upward Anthropology, and the uses to which an anthropological analysis of power can be put.

The book is broken into three sections: Exploring, Jamming, and Building. In the section on “Exploring” we are given a general guide to understanding nearly ever aspect of the global financial system. Scott uses his training as an anthropologist and his background as an employee at a financial firm to give a very detailed and useful map of the way financial organizations channel money, and the underlying assumptions in that process. Those who are deeply embedded or have done extensive research on the financial industry might find the examination provided a little general, but I learned a great deal from the section. Often in the activist community, the world of finance is treated as a homogeneous structure with little variation in values and interests. Scott demonstrates effectively that there are significant, though sometimes subtle, differences between hedge funds, for example, and your average retirement fund. Furthermore, he points out the cracks in the system – the spaces where it might be opened up and exploited for positive ends or brought crumbling down given the right pressures.

The following sections on Jamming and Building delve further into these cracks and explore a host of possibilities for exploiting, undermining, and even dismantling the system. “Jamming” involves using the language and culture of the financial industry to your own ends. The term was popularized by Kalle Lasn, but Scott focuses the energy into a laser-tight strategy of disruption using the very terms of discourse that financial industry insiders use to exclude the public. “Building” goes a step further and proposes alternative models for using the financial system to benefit people rather than just feeding profit to the wealthy. For example, Scott suggests creating a hedge fund that leverages investments in order to oppose unjust, unethical, and illegal corporate activities.

The book is not without critique. The very idea of using the financial system to address social problems might rub some people the wrong way. Scott addresses those concerns, but ultimately glosses over them suggesting that this kind of “hacking” is the most effective way to promote change. Whatever you call it, the actions Scott proposes are not absolved from possible harmful consequences, and it is important to remain aware of the limitations of the strategies he suggests. Nevertheless, there are many good ideas and suggestions in the book, and it is worth exploring the possibilities further – especially since there are relatively few similar examples of really practical approaches to addressing social issues.

These are the kinds of direct actions that can only come from a deep understanding of the system and how it maintains itself, and Scott’s approach is an excellent example of the potential for Upward Anthropology. We look forward to more from Scott, and more “heretical” work in other areas as well.

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