Can FinTech Make Us Less Racist?
I recently had a fascinating conversation with a very good friend of mine. I’d just introduced him to an article that I’d found in the MIT Tech Review, wherein the author was describing how a Finnish FinTech start-up named MONI is supplying refugees with access to a blockchain account so as to facilitate their access to key social services. Why is this important? As highlighted by Claudia Ng, in a technocratic country like Finland, access to the state’s basic welfare provisions are contingent upon having a bank account that can then linked to the individual’s unique immigration identity number so as to verify a claimant’s identity. For refugees who have never had to rely on online banking for financial sustenance, this can make claiming welfare provisions in Finland incredibly difficult. Gaining access to this cryptographic ledger therefore guarantees that refugees as welfare claimants and jobseekers can have easy access to a secure, encrypted platform that lends credibility to the identity verification process.
MONI is an innovative Finnish FinTech company that uses blockchain technology so as to facilitate personalised banking across the globe for those who are currently unbanked (Photo Source: MONI.com).
As incredibly empowering as I saw this initiative to be, my interlocutor was unfortunately not quite as convinced. As secure as we would like for this platform to be, one cannot help but think about the potential privacy infringements that this kind of FinTech platform may enable. After all, one of the most appealing aspects of this technological innovation, at least from the perspective of the Finnish Immigration Service, is the fact that this cryptographic ledger allows for the systematic logging of an individual’s spending, which in turn may translate into complications when it comes to the individual’s potential future aspirations for legal naturalisation. In the context of an evermore polarising political atmosphere when it comes to immigration, one cannot help but wonder how this kind of technology could enable the xenophobic agendas of those who do not wish to see an escalation in immigration numbers.
My friend’s argument was really quite simple: in the context of the escalating European refugee crisis, the government should not be relying upon the private sector so as to optimise people’s engagements with an otherwise complicated legal framework if the government is inhered with the potential to make said legal framework more accessible and agreeable to those seeking personal refuge. In other words, why should the government rely upon FinTech corporations to justify and validate the current legal protocol for providing asylum when it could just change the law so as to make the asylum seeking process easier?
The ‘Finland First’ movement has been an inevitable manifestration of this political polarisation, whereby the group advocates for the racial cleansing of Finland as well as Finland’s departure from the European Union (Photo Source: Savon Sanomat).
At face value, I think that this is a great point, and one that was certainly omitted from the article that had prompted the initial conversation. Of course we should be aspiring to evolve legal frameworks so as to make sure that the legal system optimises people’s access to the safeguards of humanity in the way that it should. At the same time, however, I think that the criticism was also a tad premature on account of how it was devoid of a particular perspective that I think is lacking in a lot of conversations pertaining to the contemporary liberal social justice movement more generally.
As privileged as this may assertion may sound, what the movement lacks is a certain appreciation for how long it takes to enact sustainable and organic social change. By bringing anthropological discussions about race and productivity in the mix, this post aims to demonstrate how the emergence of this new FinTech technology does not automatically omit a direct discussion about the potential for changing the legal means by which the Finnish government, or any government for that matter, engages with the issue of immigration and asylum seeking.
Racialisation as an Extra-Aesthetic Matter
The first aspect that needs to be addressed here is understanding the racialised nuances in the contemporary immigration debate. It is clear that the xenophobic sentiments that are being expressed across an evermore politically polarising Europe are underpinned by a racist sentiment, but not quite in the way that is commonly understood. As controversial as this claim may seem, the conflation between skin tone and race is an erroneous and incredibly dangerous one, for it discounts the role that mentality plays in this. Visual cues do of course play a part in how racist subjectivities are formed, but this visual aesthetic is only a stimulus for the creation of a particular cognitive association that justifies prescribing differential values to people that look somewhat different to ourselves.
As beautifully demonstrated in Ann Stoler’s historiographical ethnography of the education of racialised desire in the Dutch East Indies, aesthetics played a very small role in the way race underpinned the Dutch colonial enterprise in the geopolitical context of what is today contemporary Indonesia. Stoler argues that the mixed-race children, or ‘Indos’, born from the sexual relations between Dutch colonists and indigenous women were viewed as the perfect mediums for ensuring the sustainability of the colonial enterprise on account of the children’s visual resonance with the local population alongside their purported simultaneous susceptibility to Protestant civilising values. These children were therefore whisked away to the Netherlands at a young age so as to ensure that they could be inculcated with Dutch religious, linguistic, and cultural values, all so that they could become the future colonial hegemons of the Dutch East Indies.
Dutch men were encouraged to have sexual relations with indigenous women so as to ensure that the cathartic effect of sexual release would make them effective colonial governors. These cathartic needs led to the formation of an entire mixed-race generation who would be charged with the future governance of the colony, only to be then brutally excised during the post-Independence moment in contemporary Indonesia (Photo Source: Pinterest).
Stoler’s argument is important on account of how it seeks to radically disrupt conventional understandings of race so as to make it clear that racism is, and will forever be, a manifestation of the colonial project that intentionally designed to use mentalities as a means for subjugating and subalternising certain populations in the interest of economic extraction. Racialised sentiments, therefore, refer to the formation of an automatic cognitive association with ontological inferiority when a particular individual is confronted with the visual stimulus of aesthetic alterity. Those who fall back on the scientifically reductionist argument that race is solely about skin colour or physical features more generally are therefore completely ignoring the cognitive association that is initiated by said visual stimulus. But why is this relevant to our discussion about refugees and evolutions in FinTech? For this, we will need to put Stoler into conversation with another prominent anthropologist before being able to synopsise our argument.
Racialisation as a Function of Cultural Citizenship
The Berkeley-based anthropologist Aihwa Ong has written extensively on the relationship between racialisation and cultural belonging in the context of Asian-Americans. Ong’s argument is a perfect extension of Stoler’s on account of how she is able to explain the differential treatment that Khmer refugees have received in the United States in contrast to those Asian Americans who immigrated from Hong Kong prior to the SEZ’s handover from Britain to China. Ong argues that this differentiation boils down to a respective ethnic community’s ability to perform what she terms as ‘cultural citizenship’; a concept that takes Judith Butler’s theories regarding identity performativity to their next logical step. According to Ong, the racialisation of American immigration boils down to economic productivity, by which we are referring to how successfully members of a particular ethnic group can internalise the work ethos that underpins the American Dream. Ong suggests that if one is able to demonstrate conviction and persistence in one’s pursuit of economic success and self-entrepreneurialism, this will lead to a ‘whitening’ of that ethnic group’s public perception. On the other hand, if said ethnic group is unable to demonstrate economic productivity and seamless integration into the wider cultural fabric of American society, this leads to a ‘blackening’ of said ethnic group’s public perception.
Aihwa Ong’s work provides us with an insightful approach not only when it comes to dealing with the differential public perceptions of different Asian-American communities, but also when it comes to looking at the extra-aesthetic underpinnings of racialisation more generally (Photo Source: Ted Nguyen USA).
Ong contextualises this via two different constituents of the Asian-American community. Whilst she attributes the negative perceptions of Khmer refugees to their perceived economic unproductivity, welfare abuse, and high rates of interpersonal violence, those fleeing Hong Kong’s handover to China are viewed in a much more positive light on account of their entrepreneurialism, economic success, and embracement of the Christian faith. In other words, the ‘blackening’ of the Khmer community boils down to their perceived inability to perform American cultural citizenship whilst the ‘whitening’ of the Chinese community results from the group’s somewhat more successful performance of said cultural script. Although both communities are still subject to the abuse of institutionalised racism that permeates American society and the power relations constituted therein, the intensity of experienced abuse is correlated to the extent to which a community within the racial demographic has either been ‘whitened’ or ‘blackened’ in the eyes of public perception. Aesthetics, therefore, plays a very minor role in the degree to which a community can be either ‘blackened’ or ‘whitened’ on account of how the expression of a particular mentality concerning socioeconomic productivity is a far more salient component of said racialisation. The emergent insight that is produced from placing Stoler into conversation with Ong provides us with an interesting means for resolving the perceived lack of impact that the individualisation of FinTech can have on the optimisation of the asylum seeking process.
Sustainable, Organic Social Change and FinTech
My argument here is ultimately very straightforward: we cannot hope to convince law-makers that the asylum seeking process needs to be made more accessible if we do not address the racialised concerns that underpin the reluctances of these law-makers. As has hopefully become clear at this point, racialised xenophobia is, at the end of the day, not a matter of aesthetic alterity alone so much as it is about the cognitive associations that are made between aesthetic alterity and incorrect performances of cultural citizenship. If an incoming community of refugees is viewed as being socioeconomically unproductive, of course this is going to irritate racialised concerns. Xenophobic lawmaking is therefore underpinned by the assumption that immigrants and refugees are incompatible with the social, cultural, and economic fabric of a particular society, which is why their path to a particular country is made notoriously difficult.
I would argue that the script for cultural citizenship in Finland can be reduced to a few very clear ontological and ideological tenets. For one, the Finns pride themselves on their Protestant self-entrepreneurialism and autarchic dispositions, and so any kind of indefinite welfare dependence and economic unproductivity is viewed very negatively. The Finns are also proud of their commitment to gender equality and the equality of opportunity that must be afforded to all regardless of their social intersectionalities. Finally, the Finns harbour limited resentment towards public institutions, traditional authority, and institutionalised power dynamics, and are therefore probably some of the most law-abiding citizens out there.
If we are to understand how we can make Finland, and Europe more generally, an evermore tolerant society, we need to understand how private sector innovations can be used to instigate nationalised cognitive reassociations of immigrants and refugees (Photo Source: Suomen Pakolaisapu)
When we view Finnish cultural citizenship in this regard, it becomes clear that the socioeconomic empowerment that can be afforded by MONI’s cryptographic platform would do wonders for assisting refugees in their attempts to perform Finnish cultural citizenship correctly. Faster access to welfare support, for example, would facilitate the means by which individuals can find the time to educate themselves so as to become more employable in the Finnish job market, which would then have positive impacts on the national economy as well. Heightened employability can lead to increased financial security, which in turn translates into law abidance and healthy self-realisation as opposed to the classic functionalist trap of latent socioeconomic disenfranchisement translating into manifest social deviance (as discussed in the previous post). As more and more members of the refugee community begin performing the Finnish cultural script correctly, the more likely it is that we can instigate a kind of national cognitive reassociation, whereby being confronted with visual alterity will not cause a differential value estimation of human life. As a result, Finnish law makers might become more amenable to the idea of facilitating the asylum seeking process as opposed to impeding it, but this can only come from a protracted national project of cognitive reassociation so as to make Finland, and Europe more generally, a more tolerant and harmonious place for all. This may even allow for the organic evolution of the script itself, which I’m sure would be a very welcome change in the context of a country that is rapidly changing and evolving in light of globalisation. Some more liberal members of the population are already throwing their support behind welcoming refugees, and this is a fantastic thing, but this kind of disposition is not demonstrated by everyone, which is why a more concerted national project is required so as to get everybody on the same page.
As has hopefully become clear at this point, racialised xenophobia is, at the end of the day, not a matter of aesthetic alterity so much as it is about the cognitive associations that are made between aesthetic alterity and incorrect performances of cultural citizenship.
My aim in this post has not been to suggest that FinTech is the only solution to upgrading Finland’s public and policymaking perception of asylum seekers, but to instead suggest that the social justice movement needs to improve the time-scape by which it expects to enact social change. The aim here has been to demonstrate how developments in the relationship between refugees and FinTech might provide a much-welcome impetus for instigating a kind of nationalised cognitive reassociation that can then serve as the fundamental prerequisite for making Finland and its inherent script of cultural citizenship more inclusive and tolerant for all, regardless of where they’ve come from or what they look like. This is also a lesson that can be applied to many other social justice contexts in which small private sector developments can provide the necessary impetus to kickstart a protracted process that will eventually lead to organic, sustainable social change as well.
Cover Photo Source: Medium