Democracy for Everyone!

Good news, everyone: finance is getting more democratic, because technology.

You know how democracy works, right? It means that a service that was previously only sold to some people gets sold to everyone now. It used to be that only finance dudes got to have finance, but now everyone does. Hooray! Let’s watch a video of democracy happening.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah: today’s breathlessness about the democratizing potential of financial institutions comes from Mohammed Al-Erian, who, as “Chair of Barack Obama’s Global Development Council,” apparently has a job whose sole requirement is an uncriticial embrace of the Silicon Valley doctrine of social policy, i.e. the best way to deal with the social problems caused by deterministic technological change and inevitable laissez-faire economic governance is just let them keep happening.

He assures us that this creeping expansion of financial logic into all areas of our lives isn’t just democratic, it’s also disruptive. I mean, what could be more disruptive than just letting faceless, inevitable social processes (“innovations suddenly appear…mechanisms emerge… business models face challenges”) proceed without any attempt to manage their social consequences at all?

Tackling these claims to disruption, democratic potential and to brand-new, never before-seen processes can get pretty tiring. Jill Lepore at The New Yorker has done a pretty devestating take-down of the disruption discourse, attacking head-on the idea that economic change proceeds in big leaps rather than incremental steps. Peter Frase at Jacobin points out that those most committed to “disruption” get cold feet when the disruptions aren’t derived from a tech-enabled business model. Evgeny Morozov has made his career skewering those with a growing religious faith that “more tech means everything is better for everyone” and, if he can be accused of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, part of the reason is that there is just so, so much dirty bathwater.

There are lots of reasons to be happy about increased access to certain financial services. Bringing down the prices of life insurance and small business loans could put them within the reach of people who didn’t otherwise have access to them. That could make their lives better. Al-Erian may be right that technological change will “reduce the cost of financial intermediation while providing for fairer risk-pooling outcomes and better credit underwriting.”

But here’s the thing: cell phones are now within the reach of almost everyone, and it hasn’t made society more democratic. Buzzfeed may have displaced community newspapers, but I can’t see how that makes things more democratic. The last 40 years of financial innovation brought us near-unprecedented levels of wealth inequality and the largest economic crisis since the 1930s. Why would anyone believe that the next 40 years of financial innovation are going to automatically create a utopia of equal democratic citizenship? How can Al-Erian keep using this word “empowerment”  to describe things like kickstarter, Kiva and bitcoin? It’s inconceivable.