Finance and the Social
In recent decades, a range of organisational formations have emerged across Europe around ideas and practices of alternative finance. These scholarly and activist formations—including groups, networks, and platforms—have developed in response to the financial crisis of 2007–08 and its social, political, and cultural consequences. More broadly, they are a response to the financialisation of mature capitalist economies since the 1970s, which has seen the increasing encroachment of financial instruments and logics into the daily lives of workers, students, and households. Finance has increasingly ‘colonised’ spheres of education, consumption, and everyday life.
With this spread of financialisation, there has been increasing interest from academics across the humanities and social sciences in how financial instruments and logics might be co-opted and repurposed towards more democratic or social ends. Cultural economy analyses by Max Haiven, Randy Martin, and others, for instance, have documented the ways in which financialisation has given rise to novel forms of association and collaboration which provide opportunities for the development of alternative political imaginaries.
This academic engagement has been supplemented by the development of practice-based organisational formations experimenting in alternative or social finance. One of these is MoneyLab, an international ‘network of artists, activists, and geeks experimenting with forms of financial democratization’. A similar example is the Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative, a ‘platform for the crypto finance of the commons’ that seeks to ‘reclaim’ finance for the benefit of social as opposed to private aims. These groups, networks, platforms experimenting in alternative finance aim to ‘democratise’ finance both in the sense of broadening access to the instruments and techniques of finance, and in the sense of ‘socialising’ the value generated by these so that workers and communities benefit from it, as opposed to private interests. They share a progressive politics which, for some, extends to remedying the social injustices wrought by neoliberal capitalism and, for others, is explicitly post-capitalist in its horizons.
Evident within these organisational formations is an assumption that the ‘socialisation’ of finance can be achieved through workers ‘seizing the (financial) means of production’ and co-opting these for the production of common wealth. I aim to query this assumption and examine its theoretical roots by employing participant observation. Broadly, my aim is to clarify the relationship between finance and the social that is operationalised in these groups—how finance is theorised as relating to or impacting upon the social, and how it is conceived as an agent of economic transformation.
In addition to exploring the guiding assumptions, theories, and aims of organisational formations in alternative finance, I aim to situate these formations and their understanding of finance and the social in historical context. I employ a historical materialist approach to analyse the relationship between finance and the social as it has been articulated in pre-capitalist social formations as well as in the development of industrial capitalism from the late eighteenth century. This historicization is necessary, I contend, because many contemporary experiments in the socialisation of finance appear to ignore (and therefore cannot learn from) a) the actual ways in which finance has existed as a truly social instrument historically; for instance, in indigenous societies such as that of Māori; and b) the extent to which finance has, historically, facilitated the socialisation of wealth within the confines of capitalism i.e. without being a true socialisation corresponding to actually existing socialism. Exploring these historical examples, I hope, can provide pathways for ‘opening up’ contemporary discourse and practices in alternative finance.