School of Sociology and Social Policy

The Bauman Institute

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An Island in the storm

In September 2008 I found myself in California, presenting to a conference of anthropologists, technologists, social researchers and financial experts on the subject of Everyday Digital Money.  It was the week that Lehman’s was allowed to go bust and afforded a front seat experience at the collapse of the American Dream.  The sense of shock was palpable as previous certainties were replaced by fundamental questions about the benefits of free capital and markets could bring to society.  It was not so much that the Emperor was wearing no clothes, but that they had been borrowed and sold several times over and now the debts were being called in.

It was here that I first started to hear about the ‘real economy’ and various of the speakers began to critique the processes by which what you might characterise as ‘industrial’ or ‘solid modern’ money had overtaken the conventional modes of wealth creation and become both an opportunity for enrichment and risk in what turned out to be unequal measure.  The theme was a familiar one for someone who had spent the previous 10 years inside financial organisations trying to introduce some alternative ideas about what money is and how it is used and valued in everyday life; specifically how money had become ‘disconnected’ from the ‘social world’ and reduced to a technological object of mechanistic markets and economics.

My presentation was about how as an “entrepreneurial ethnographer”, I had played a part in the creation of www.zopa.com ; at that point mainly known as an academically interesting talking point for the future of money  and peer to peer networks, but hardly more than a drop in the ocean of finance.  What became clear over the coming weeks and months was that Zopa represented something far more than just an alternative way for individuals to lend and borrow money, it represented a way of thinking about money which challenged the myths written since the industrial revolution that has allowed financial services to become not the lubricant, but the engine of the modern, largely Western economies.  Zopa stood as an island in the storm, seemingly immune from the credit crunch, changes in LIBOR and offering a relative safe haven for money looking to invest or borrowers looking for a source of credit.

This paper will seek to illustrate why Zopa has thrived through the ‘Age of Austerity’ and how the insights which led to its creation have wider application in the challenges of re-building the ‘real economy’ as something sustainable both economically and environmentally.  It will also demonstrate how the thought of Zygmunt Bauman was instrumental in bringing about the changes of perspective and understanding of the meaning of consumption in everyday life which allowed a team of bankers, researchers and marketers create something genuinely new and radical  and something which conventional banking and economic wisdom said ‘would never work’.

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