This is the fifth in a series of Changemaker Profiles, which introduces the work of changemakers I know and admire, and offers insights into their approaches to communication and change work.
Brett Scott is a campaigner, former derivatives broker, and general economic explorer. He has been involved in various financial campaigns, and is a Fellow of the Finance Innovation Lab. I’ve written for publications like The Guardian, The New Internationalist, The Ecologist, and openDemocracy, and I’ve been on channels like the BBC, Arte TV & the Keiser Report. He is the author of The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money, published with Pluto Press. He is a Fellow at the WWF/ICAEW Finance Innovation Lab. He blogs at www.suitpossum.blogspot.com
1. Tell us about the work you are involved with:
I am part of a growing global network of people who are attempting to rewire the global financial system. Part of that involves me just exploring various facets of the system, from base level questions – such as the nature of money – to anthropological questions on financial culture, to technical questions like the operations of derivative markets. I actually worked in derivatives for a couple years, which helps a bit in that process. I also help activist groups who are running campaigns targeting negative aspects of the financial system. I’m also involved in the alternative finance community, people who are building alternatives to mainstream finance. An important part of this involves me trying to use weird and interesting new platforms to test them out. I also published a book recently called The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money.
2. What motivated you to be doing this work?
I figured that a lot of the traditional NGO work has already been pioneered, and I wanted to try something different. Part of the motivation is based in curiosity: I love to learn about how massive systems work for the sheer intellectual pleasure of doing so. The other part is rebellious or creative: to use that knowledge to try take on massive systems of power. I also try to have fun in the process. I mean, in trying to ‘alter the economic system’ we’re in an underdog position, and I don’t for a moment assume that we would succeed. I view all victories in improving systems as unlikely and unstable bonuses, not everlasting fixes.
3. What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
It’s cool to see people coming to me and saying that my book really helped them understand stuff. I actually don’t really like pitching myself as a ‘financial expert’, because I’m not really a financial expert. I’m more an explorer who likes to share my explorations with others so that they can explore too. That process is fun in itself, but also can be very empowering for people who have been indoctrinated into believing that finance and ‘economics’ are inaccessible. It’s also rewarding to feel a growing movement in the ‘alternative economics’ space, albeit I always hold something of an outsider ethic, and try to maintain some degree of distance from more evangelical economic change movements (ie. people who believe they have the precise answer to all the world’s economic ills).
4. What do you feel is your biggest communication challenge?
The financial system is cloaked in a layer of mystique and seemingly impenetrable language. It’s naturally challenging to convey it to people, and also sometimes to understand what the hell is going on. Luckily, most financial professionals don’t know either, so we’re all in the same boat.
5. How do you handle a situation when you find yourself in conflict with someone about your work or ideas?
I like to listen to their points. Luckily I have a very anarchic intellectual stance on things where I don’t strictly believe in singular truths, so I don’t really mind that much if someone contradicts something I say – there may be elements of truth in both perspectives. Also, to a large extent I’m a chancer who throws out statements about the world and then attempts to revise them in light of responses – criticism is great for refining what you really think. There’s this weird expectation in society that things you say somehow must exactly reflect what you believe, and who you are, but I often say things that I’m not entirely sure I believe, just to test them out. That said, when I first started writing pieces I’d get defensive when people attacked them, but now I try to understand where they’re coming from. For example, a lot of rich white men get uppity about stuff I say, and then it dawns on me that ‘oh, they’re rich white men, clinging onto outmoded models underpinned by gigantic systems of power. I shouldn’t hold it against them’.
6. What’s your best piece of advice for change-makers and activists?
You should always seek to discover why you personally want to be involved in the causes you take on. Too many activists don’t really have a coherent narrative as to why they care about something. It’s easy to say stuff like ‘oh that’s a terrible injustice in Indonesia’, but then you look into their eyes and want to shake them and say, ‘but why do you in particular feel moved by that?’. I feel moved and angry when I walk past homeless people on the street and see a clawing aspirational elite viewing them like pieces of trash that have failed at life. I get very warlike in those situations, and I realise it’s probably because I’ve always sympathised with underdogs who get marginalised in society. It’s not because I’m ‘good’ in some abstract sense, it’s because I empathise with certain types of people.
I’d also say it’s worth having a healthy degree of skepticism about the individual’s ability to affect change in the world. In middle-class university-educated society there is a massive bias towards believing in the power of the individual to shape the world, but much historical change is related to technology and mass movements (this, for example, is the basis of much of Karl Marx’s work). In that formulation people like Steve Jobs mean very little – they’re individuals who happen to strike it lucky and are carried along in the wave of mass acceptance for what they happen to create (Mark Zuckerberg is a good recent example – to me, he is not Facebook, he just happened to be the person who created a platform that would have been created anyway). These figures are manifestations of broader trends in society. Likewise, if you start a social enterprise, and you assume that somehow you’re going to forge a new route for society through your sheer charisma and talent, you should probably try to put yourself more in historical and cultural context. I love trying to do cool stuff, but I always attempt to put myself in context and say, yeah what I’m doing is cool, but it’s not really just about me.
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