Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips argue that hackers, pirates, drug dealers and inner city gangs are natural-born-innovators with more in common with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs than you might think. Their book The Misfit Economy, published this year by Simon & Schuster, investigates the dark side of innovation from Mexican drug lords to the Mumbai underworld, searching out the criminals and “misfits” whose ingenuity makes them an essential component in developing solutions for a myriad of challenges in black and grey economies. Here, political economist Philips and economics historian Clay explain their theory of underground pioneers.
PIRATES, GANGSTERS AND TERRORISTS
Alexa Clay: The Misfit Economy started out as a joke. It was a provocative pitch to ask, ‘What can we learn from pirates, gangsters, even terrorists? Why do businessmen and dead white guys seem to have a monopoly on innovation?’ And then it stopped being a joke. Pirates developed democratic constitutions before many European nations became democracies. And gangsters aren’t just ‘bad guys’ – they are natural entrepreneurs and hustlers. They run businesses, even if they are illegal. And as much as we lament the evils of terrorism, terrorists have innovative financing methods and ways of laundering money.
THE DARK SIDE OF INNOVATION
Kyra Maya Phillips: Misfits are those who go against the status quo. They can be in the black markets or be disruptors within an institution, but often they are the ones pushing the boundaries. Society should value misfits. Recognise gang leaders as having the equivalent skills to corporate CEOs and see how they can be redeployed in the workplace. Or see Nigerian spammers as competent IT professionals.
Alexa Clay: Most breakthrough innovation isn’t created by drones embracing ‘business as usual’, but by renegades who shake up systems. When Sean Parker founded Napster he transformed the music industry and paved the way for things like Spotify and even iTunes. And much of the great video streaming technology that we all benefit from today was incubated in the porn industry.
THE NEW ECONOMY
Kyra Maya Phillips: For us, the future economy is one where everyone can honour their ‘inner misfit’ – where our individual authenticity bubbles up and spills over into economic life. So many people work in deadbeat jobs that lack imagination and disruption – unless people have the courage to bring their whole self to work then we are going to continue to live in this outdated system. It’s not just about dressing like Lady Gaga (though of course feel free), but about hacking and re-animating the cultures that feel dead.
Alexa Clay: Some of our favourite misfits are performance artists who provoke us into seeing new possibilities. Today we spoke to Marvin Gaye Chetwynd (previously Spartacus Chetwynd), for example, who told us how with her latest identity she was ‘just trying to plant that next seed of annoyance.’ She’s gentle in her provocations, but what artists like her are trying to do is save civilisation from apathy.
THE KEY TO SALVATION
Kyra Maya Phillips: Old-school pirates left their work aboard merchant vessels because they found commercial ships too dehumanising. And that’s what many misfits are doing today. They are living experimental lives that can help us develop alternatives to the stale version of capitalism we find ourselves trapped in. That includes squatters, activists working to transform our financial system, urban prototypers and underground hacker collectives working to make cities more livable – people that aren’t afraid to act first and apologise later. There is a teeming underground economy that is key to our civilisation’s salvation.”
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