Friday, 28 August 2015

Dark Side Anthropology & the Art of Financial Culturehacking


Note: This essay originally appeared in the book Supramarkt: How to Frack the Fatal Forces of the Capitalocene. Available for republishing under CreativeCommons

I worked as a financial derivatives broker in London from 2008 to 2010, at a company clinging on for life in the midst of the financial crisis. That is not a particularly long time to work as a broker, but I was never aspiring to it as a career. I was a left-wing activist steeped in the tradition of Marxian political economy and deep-ecology environmentalism, and with a background in anthropology and international development. I was on a quasi-anthropological adventure on the ‘dark side’, immersing myself in the culture of high finance in an act of subversive exploration.


I say ‘quasi-anthropological’ because it is not exactly like I approached it with a formal academic mindset, and I was never attached to an academic institution. There are professional anthropologists like Karen Ho and Caitlin Zaloom who have done robust, ‘proper’ ethnographies of finance. My style was much looser, personal, emotional, and adventurous, a surreal (and even mystical) attempt to bend boundaries. It was perhaps more akin to ‘gonzo’ journalism than a careful application of anthropological technique, albeit I had no explicit objective to write about it.


I learned a lot about arcane financial instruments, financial culture, the politics of money, and the lives of people involved. I made friends with fascinating and unlikely individuals. Over time I built competence and confidence (for example, I wrote one of the first reports on the nascent and obscure 'sub-sector property derivatives' market), but I was never really the world’s best broker. This is partly because I did not especially care about being the world’s best broker. While my boss always yelled “sell the sizzle, not the sausage”–his code for “we are salesmen, not intellectuals”–I was mostly fascinated with how the derivatives actually worked, or why someone would really use them. I loved the weirdness of walking into some fund manager’s banal offices and having a conversation about their investment portfolios whilst being equally interested in the kitsch corporate art in the boardroom, or the view from the 35th floor. I liked to touch things, to feel and experience otherwise abstract concepts.

This somewhat unorthodox outlook gave me an anarchic, even disobedient, edge that frequently brought me into conflict with my boss. The whole experience makes for a very interesting story, with twists and turns and great characters. 

But, it is not a story that I tell very often. For one thing, I do not want to rely on it, like the rogue trader Nick Leeson or the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ Jordan Belfort doing their sad and tiresome after-dinner speaking tours talking about their ‘bad boy’ glory days.

For another, people find my story hard to understand. They often have discreet silos in their minds to store the concept of ‘activist’ and the concept of ‘financial sector’. When presented with a story involving both, they inevitably settle upon one of three basic strategies to reconcile them. To some, I am the ‘left-wing activist who went undercover in the belly of the beast’. Then there are skeptics who think I originally ‘sold out’, failed as a broker, and then made up the story after the fact. Finally, I am often mistaken for a ‘reformed banker’, a normal financial worker who ‘saw the light’ and left the dark side to do good in the world.

All three of those archetypes–the undercover activist, the sellout, and the reformed banker–maintain the basic distinction between the figure of the activist and that of the financial worker, which is partly why none of them accurately capture my story. The ‘reformed banker’ sits easily within established narratives–the ashamed corporate exploiter changing their path to do good in society–but it is actually the opposite to my story, which involved moving from the moral clarity of do-gooding to murky complicity with corporate power, a dirtying process not a cleaning process. 

The ‘selling out’ narrative is passive and defeatist, presenting the so-called activist revealing their true stripes and drifting into the corporate sector. My experience by contrast was deliberate and aggressive, an active buying in not a wishy-washy selling out. And, finally, the figure of the undercover activist suggests someone who maintains a clear, constant and concealed identity behind ‘enemy lines’. But I was interested in going beyond blunt distinctions between goodies and baddies, and opened myself to shifts in identity.

If I really have to categorise myself, I am a deliberately corrupted–or hybridised–activist. I started from the assumption that spaces like the financial sector were the antithesis of what I stood for. I then opened myself up to that space in a deliberate act of losing myself in the ‘dark side’, or finding it within myself. 


Of course, you might ask why I did this. I perceived it as an experimental form of activism, one that I later came to refer to loosely as ‘culturehacking’. It is a form of deviant anthropological activism. I say ‘deviant’ because it is not ‘straight’ activism, with its insistent focus on good versus evil. Rather, it is bent, ambiguous, dirty, corrupted, dark activism, as much directed at yourself as it is at some external party.

It is not an approach that I advocate for everyone, but it is something to be considered by anyone wishing to get to grips with the structures of power that surround us, and to challenge them. To explain this approach though, takes some steps. It emerges at the intersection of four separate fields: immersive anthropology, activist anthropology, upward anthropology and, for want of a better term, absurdist gonzo reality gaming.

Culturehacking component 1: Immersive anthropology

My aunt Penny Bernard is a somewhat controversial South African anthropologist known for (to use a colonial term) ‘going native’ during her research. She became a sangoma–a Zulu shaman–and started using her dreams and visions to guide her research. When I was in high school I took great interest in Penny’s adventures, accompanying her into some truly unusual situations. I watched her drinking blood out of the neck of a slaughtered cow in an initiation ceremony, and played guitar for her posse of Zulu mystics as they worked themselves into ecstatic trance-states.

Penny’s approach is a fairly extreme form of immersive anthropology, whereby the anthropologist entangles themselves in cultural systems so deeply as to lose objective distance. Penny definitely did lose objective distance, something that my family experiences to this day as she casually gives us white beads to offer to the water spirits after a lunch at the beach. The sheer depth of her immersion in Zulu culture means she has often struggled to get proper recognition from the anthropological mainstream, who have sometimes found her approach too subjective or ‘unscientific’.

Anthropologists often use a methodology called participant observation, in which an ethnographer actively takes part in the day-to-day activities of a studied group whilst also maintaining a degree of distance in an attempt to be both inside and outside of the group in question. You can alter that balance in various ways. Old-school anthropology was very observation-based. In its colonial past, the Eurocentric researcher might land on an island, never talk to the people, and then make sweeping statements to explain the ‘primitive ways of the savage tribes’ without ever getting their hands dirty.

The balance changed around the 70s when a post-modern, reflexive strand in anthropology grew strong. To simplify a complex story, it became more acceptable to engage in more deeply participatory approaches, to lose objective distance to an extent, and to write more about yourself and your emotions in the process. It also became more acceptable to suggest that perhaps there were different truths that operated in different settings. Western rationalism might reject the use of dreams to guide life, but perhaps within Zulu culture dreams are experienced as very real. Maybe there wasn’t a standard universal truth waiting to be uncovered by the objective observer under the layers of culture and ritual.

But let’s face it, academia is still academia and there are limits to how unorthodox and reflexive your research can get. There are peer-review systems and funding bodies that require research to be ‘robust’, which is often a code-word for conformity to methodologies that prioritise observable, verifiable and quantifiable ‘hard’ evidence over intuition and introspective interpretation of personal experiences.

Needless to say, highly immersive anthropology is still controversial. That said, it is undeniable that ‘going native’ gives access to forms of knowledge that–while not being strictly ‘scientific’–are emotionally far closer to the lived experience of people. Penny has an intuitive understanding of Zulu culture that few ‘objective’ researchers will ever be able to gain access to. 

Culturehacking component 2: Activist anthropology

Anthropology started as a discipline of researchers studying ‘down’, looking into the lives of marginalised groups within the political setting of colonialism. Thus the Oxford-educated gentleman found himself in Papua New Guinea considering the religious rituals of the local people, earnestly relaying it back to the institutions and learned salons of powerful London.

As modern anthropologists have tried to shake off this image, the whole political orientation of anthropology has (arguably) shifted leftwards. Anthropology has become associated with international development and liberal humanitarian NGOs that work with indigenous groups, small-scale farmers and slum dwellers brushed aside by the relentless market processes of globalisation.

It’s not like the international development industry is without its own problematic power dynamics, but many young anthropology students envision themselves in such a setting working to create intercultural understanding and progressive change. One of my first anthropology professors was Chris de Wet, who specialised in designing resettlement strategies to help refugees and people forcibly displaced by large infrastructure projects like epic dams.

Alongside this broad humanitarian tradition there has also emerged a distinct strand of overtly ‘activist’ or radical anthropology. The first self-described anarchist that I met was the Serbian anthropologist Aleksandar Bošković, who taught me political anthropology in South Africa. He had a distinct dislike of nationalism and the petty bigotries it feeds on, and this impulse lay behind much of his academic work. Later I became familiar with the anarchism-inspired anthropologist David Graeber, well known for working in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street activists and others like revolutionary Kurds. 

Figures like Graeber are overtly political–something that does not always sit well in austere academic institutions–and have inspired some young anthropologists to use their skills to contest power structures. This form of ‘activist anthropology’ normally involves an anthropologist from a relatively powerful part of society using their position to stand up for the rights of those in less powerful situations. The aim is to provide a voice for the voiceless, or showcase the struggles of those trampled by the invisible and unaccountable forces of the global economy, from artisan mine workers in the DRC to Bangladeshi ship-breakers. 

Such an activist orientation might not be deliberate. It might come purely from the fact that a researcher find themselves in situations of injustice that they cannot ignore, and in which it becomes futile or callous to pretend to be engaging in some abstract exercise in academic objectivity. Revolutionary Kurds don’t give a shit about your peer-review process. They need resources, contacts, media coverage, money.

My Aunt Penny’s explorations were not overtly politicised, but always carried an underlying belief in the validity of traditional practices otherwise marginalised by the cold rationalism of industrial society. Her position of power, and the fact that she took Zulu beliefs seriously, meant other Zulu diviners began to turn to her for help. By default she would find herself standing up for their rights to maintain sacred water spaces over the rights of, for example, property developers. These are the seeds of activist anthropology.

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Culturehacking component 3: Upward anthropology

In 1969, Laura Nader wrote an article called "Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained From Studying Up". In it, Nader asked the following question: “What if, in reinventing anthropology, anthropologists were to study the colonizers rather than the colonized, the culture of power rather than the culture of the powerless, the culture of affluence rather than the culture of poverty”. 

It was a call to action that inspired some anthropologists to turn their attention towards the upper echelons of their own societies, rather than the disempowered Amazonian farmer. The power dynamic was very different. The idealistic young Harvard graduate walking into the Sudanese village would awkwardly stand out like a beacon, but that same person might blend inconspicuously into the corporate deco of an oil trading firm or bank. You might feel different to the oil traders, but you have enough cultural similarity as to not appear entirely alien and strange.

There are now many very interesting examples of upward anthropology, whether it be Hannah Appel of UCLA studying the offshore oil sector, or Bill Maurer of UC Irvine studying the global electronic payments system. Fascinating opportunities exist for ethnographic explorations into the realms of mining, weapons firms, advertising agencies, surveillance states, and the rising technological stars of Silicon Valley. And, of course, we can apply upward anthropology to the financial sector.

The covert anthropologist going into the halls of Goldman Sachs finds themselves in an interesting situation. The key feature of banking environments is not necessarily that everyone there is born an ‘elite’ of society–actually there is a great diversity of people from different backgrounds involved in finance–but rather that the roles available are structurally elite positions that hover above the rest of the economy. It does not really matter who in particular fills those positions, but whoever ends up there finds themselves in the shoes of an elite, channelling elite power. They become de facto more powerful as an individual, and begin to get access to things previously never thought accessible.

Culturehacking component 4: Gonzo reality gaming

If you take the three anthropological traditions described above and blend them together, you get immersive activist upward anthropology. Sounds fun?

The problem with anthropology, though, is that it is still Anthropology. It is an official academic discipline with self-conscious methodologies and norms and it is subject to the institutional constraints of academia: the need to produce formal articles, attend conferences and direct your work to peers rather than the public. Anthropology is a career, and it is a career within precarious institutions that have funding and reputation to protect. There are limits on how politically engaged and personal your research can get within such a setting.

Furthermore, as an official anthropologist, you perhaps only get access to powerful institutions at the goodwill of the institution letting you in. The hedge fund might allow you to sit around in the office and watch the action provided you do not go bad-mouthing them or interfering too much. Studies of finance can thus pick up a restrained, academic, and conflicted feel.

In my view, upward-activist-immersive anthropology can become the less defined field of ‘culturehacking’ by dropping strictly formal anthropological practice and rather adopting an informal ‘anthropologically inspired’ orientation. Culturehacking might involve adopting an outlook that blends an anthropological impulse or ethic with a spirit of subversion and deviance.

In my own case within the financial sector, I was not a self-conscious ethnographer. I did not take notes whilst mimicking the process of phoning up finance directors to try sell them derivatives. No, I was really phoning finance directors and really trying to sell them derivatives and becoming really implicated in the politics of finance in the process. I cultivated a ‘going with the flow’ acceptance of the process, never explicitly attempting to break the illusion. 

During my two years of immersion I only wrote reflective notes twice, and even then it was not in an academic form, but rather in a form resembling stream-of-consciousness ‘gonzo’ journalism, emotionally charged writing about the turmoil and exhilaration of the lived experience, with little attempt at cool objectivity. 

People fight over the meaning of Gonzo, but one thing that appears clear is that it can be as much a way of living as it is a formal style. It is a practice in which you maintain a loose awareness that you are reporting on something, but always subordinate that awareness to the process of experiencing the thing in question: experience first, then (maybe) story later. The emphasis is very heavily on authentic participation and not that much on explicit observation, and when the observation comes in, it is as much observation of yourself as it is of others.

This is a fine line to walk, because gonzo-style mindsets can put you in positions where you become implicated in things, and one mark of ‘reality’–as opposed to simulations or virtual reality–are situations where your actions have concrete material impacts on others. When combined with a subtle awareness that you are in fact to some extent also playing games, it creates a feeling of surrealism or even absurdism. You walk into a meeting with an earnest trader and he totally thinks you are having a deadly serious conversation about derivatives, but in your mind you are also giggling, thinking “This is ridiculous. Why are you talking to me?” 

Pekko Koskinen of the Reality Research Center in Finland specialises in designing ‘live action’ games, sending people off on obscure missions in cities. He recently described to me the obscure practice of reality gaming. Unlike ‘alternative reality games’, which involve explicitly imagining a different world within the setting of the real world–like a child on a train imagining they are a superhero on a mission–reality gaming involves interacting with others in real life settings whilst having a background awareness that you are subject to subtle rules that they are not aware of. The hidden or submerged agenda gives a game-like tone to situations. His description of this gamer sub-culture immediately resonated with experiences I had when immersed in the world of finance. I might be able to have a perfectly normal – even authentic – conversation with a trader, exchange business cards and talk seriously about future plans for collaboration, but in the background have a residual awareness that there is some form of manipulation or play going on. 


And this gets strange. One the one hand, it can be abusive. Very good-natured people can give you time and goodwill whilst you in turn mess with them. It is worth looking into the real-life case of the undercover FBI agent 'Donnie Brasco', who got himself so deep into the mafia that he found himself emotionally tied up in the lives of gangsters who would subsequently suffer real consequences of his actions. 

On the other hand, when you engage in these forms of extreme mimicry (or perhaps extreme method acting like that pioneered by Nellie Bly) and get emotionally tied into the lives and thought processes of others, the boundaries between games and reality become blurry. This is where the danger of capture comes in. You can start to lose yourself, or feel your identity literally bending, splitting or reconfiguring as your mind seeks to reconcile your original sense of identity with the cultural world you find yourself in. Old certainties about right and wrong can warp or implode as the social support for them is removed. In the case of Donnie Brasco, he did lose himself, beginning to feel like he belonged in the mafia and that he was responsible to friends within their ranks. 

Activists get worried about this breakdown of the self-other divide: ‘Get the information behind enemy lines’, they say, ‘but dammit don’t lose yourself!’ 

But this is where they miss the point. Because part of the very point is to lose yourself.

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Levels of hacking: Shallow info gathering to deep reality bending

There is no standard definition for the concept of ‘hacking’ and the broader ‘hacker ethic’ (if you're interested in this debate, check out my somewhat controversial recent piece on the 'gentrification of hacking'). This is partly because hacking is not a strict set of activities–like automobile engineering or accounting might be–but rather a certain feel, sensibility or outlook applied to different situations. One attempt to describe this comes from the journalist Steven Levy, who suggested that:
Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems–about the world–from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and more interesting things

Hacking, on the one hand, is the process of seeking access to something that is normally not easily accessible, with the intent to explore and deconstruct its inner workings. This exploration, however, is essentially subversive. It is exploration with intent to deviate from standard paths and bend established boundaries. Hacking in the realm of computers might involve exploring lines of code with intent to bend or exploit that code in unorthodox ways. Hacking in the realm of cities might involve gaining access to underground train tunnels or obscure logistics yards on the outskirts of town, with the intent to see things you are not supposed to be interested in. Hacking in the realm of culture might involve exploring and uncovering layers of cultural code with intent to bend cultural institutions.

There are different depths of culturehacking though. It might take the form of shallow attempts to gain temporary access to closed social spaces, like a con-man getting someone to drop their guard in order to get some information, or an activist hanging out at a financial conference in order to get information on tax avoidance. Or, it can be deep attempts to breach the very structure of the normal binaries that exist between ‘self and other’ and ‘insider and outsider’.

Level 1: Gaining technical knowledge

If you undertake an adventure in the financial sector, whether it be in the form of an undercover activist, an embedded anthropologist, or a surrealist reality gamer, you are probably going to learn a lot of technical stuff that might turn out to be useful. Indeed, it is helpful to understand the difference between different banks, funds, financial instruments, concepts, and techniques, and for this reason alone immersive experiences can be desirable and empowering. Getting into the nitty gritty of finance helps to dispel myths and misconceptions that are not worth getting distracted by, and this knowledge in turn is useful in debates and battles around finance. Having technical knowledge obviously helps activists argue on more level terms with financial professionals who might otherwise wield obscure concepts as a way to baffle opponents.

Level 2: Gaining empathy and emotional knowledge

Technical knowledge on finance, though, is only so useful. Does it really matter whether or not you know the Black-Scholes pricing model for financial options contracts? Probably not. More important than learning such specialist information is the process of getting a feel for the human dynamics and people within the sector. Much energy is wasted within activist circles fetishising individual financial workers as villains rather than seeking to understand the deeper structures underpinning the system. There is a something fundamentally wrong with any analysis that says ‘the financial sector is bad because the people in it are corrupt’. The financial sector is a political and cultural ecosystem and it is far more useful to learn to empathise with those involved than to demonise them.

Indeed, the demonisation of ‘the banker’ figure only helps to reinforce the existing power dynamic that the financial sector thrives on. It continues to buy into the shroud of mystique and conspiracy aesthetics that financial workers themselves like to indulge in. Within the financial sector are internal ideologies that position financial workers as highly talented, driven, quasi-genius jet-setters that everyone else is envious of. Incoming external critiques that characterise financial professionals as ‘Wolves of Wall Street’ are filtered through, neutralised, and then appropriated by such ideologies. A far more damning strategy is to uncover that financial workers are in fact just ‘Average Joes’.

It is only internal to the system that you discover that the public narrative on finance helps maintain the insider vs. outsider divide that financial professionals use to construct their sense of identity. When you are within Goldman Sachs it will not appear to you as The Vampire Squid, but rather as your home, or your domain. You move beyond merely understanding it in the abstract, and begin to feel the internal structures intuitively, emotionally and empathetically.

Level 3: Coming to terms with the unknown and ambiguous

Culturehacking is a way to build knowledge, but more importantly it teaches you what you don’t know. Many activists implicitly believe that financial professionals are in possession of some type of ‘secret knowledge’ unknown to most ordinary people, which they use for personal gain. In reality though, most financial professionals do not fully understand the system they form part of. They may understand how to do a valuation analysis, or account for credit default swaps, but the everyday business of finance involves using partial, imperfect knowledge to respond to particular practical challenges or tasks. The best traders and financiers all know that there is no singular means of ‘doing finance’, and are at ease with that imprecision.

Of course, the public perception that finance is a set body of ‘secret knowledge’–rather than a mutating uncertain practice–forms part of the structure of financial power. Financial professionals rely on that ‘we know something you don’t’ illusion to intimidate the public.

You cannot ‘defeat’ the financial sector by buying into those public terms, trying to counter one apparently fixed model of reality with another fixed model of reality, like a Marxist trying to win an argument against a neoclassical economist. Rather, you refuse to buy into the idea that a singular model exists in the first place, and embrace the ambiguity. Immersive adventures that wreck your pristine preconceptions are one of the quickest ways of building such openness and becoming alive to the contradictory messiness of systems that otherwise appear coherent and all-powerful.


Level 4: Deviant hybridisation (as immunisation)

And this takes us to perhaps the most important point. Hacking is not just about breaking into something to uncover information or mess with it. The true spirit of hacking involves queering, deviating from established paths and making fluid the boundaries that are otherwise viewed as concrete and static.

The traditional activist often seeks to stay away from contradiction, seeking purism and clear narratives. Built into the identity of many radicals is a sense of shock and dismay at how large corporate beasts appear to work. They might feel angry, overawed, powerless and poorly resourced in comparison to them. They do not want to touch such beasts, or be implicated in them.

A lifetime like that can backfire and give rise to the jaded ex-activist who has given up and ‘become realistic’, taking glee in an almost deliberate watering down and rejection of their original position, scoffing at the futile attempts of naïve campaigners to change the real world.

Powerful corporate entities such as huge banks have no problem with this dynamic. Indeed, they rely on civil society being somewhat overawed by them, and it does not really matter whether it be in the form of disgust or of reverence. Furthermore, the binary notion of the idealistic dreamer of a better society versus the hard-nosed pragmatist of the real world works to their advantage. The former is easily brushed off by contrast to the latter.

Perhaps what we really need is to break that binary. We need activists with a critical mindset who are also able to walk freely on the ‘dark side’ without getting distracted, shocked or dismayed, freer to act within situations of contradiction. One reason why you may wish to engage in deep culturehacking expeditions, then, is to hybridise yourself, and therefore immunise yourself against both the shocked naivety of purity and the sneering disdain of cynical ‘hard-nosed’ pragmatism.

To understand this, consider the (admittedly light-hearted) analogy of the film Blade, in which the vampire council is particularly fearful of a ‘daywalking’ human-vampire hybrid called Blade who is able to interact with both humans and vampires. The critical culturehacker might become such a figure, breaching the established boundaries of contestation by hybridising themselves, internalising the DNA of mainstream finance and fusing it to existing activist impulses.

My experiences have enabled me to work on campaigns challenging fund managers who continue to plough money into fossil fuels, commodity traders who disrupt global food markets, corporations that steer money via networks of tax havens, and banks that continue to pay little heed to the environmental destruction they back.

Do you want to challenge financiers who back dictators and surveillance companies? Do you want to be able to enter a corporate general meeting and critically engage with CEOs as a shareholder activist? Do you want to build networks of insider contacts who can give you information? Do you want to blend like a chameleon into the fabric of conferences on arms financing? Do you want to feel fused into the emotional and human foundations of powerful institutions otherwise cloaked in technocratic, economic jargon? If so, perhaps it's time for some culturehacking.

Brave new world

Of course, there is always the chance that you will be captured and will never come out, discovering yourself years later tired and wasted in the M&A division of J.P. Morgan, having forgotten who you are and why you did this. But, maybe it is worth the risk. The alternative may be to end up years later tired and wasted in a backwaters of critical academia, or tired and wasted in a large NGO filling out grant applications. What do we have to lose exactly? The subversive spirit of deviant dark-side anthropology might be a powerful and exciting force in the huge battles for social, ecological and economic justice we have before us.

(P.S. If you'd like to learn more, or bounce ideas, feel free to email me)

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