Alexa Clay

Think you've nothing to learn from pirates and hustlers - our next guest urges you to think again. When it comes to creative innovation pirates, gangsters and hackers may have as much to teach as the Steve Jobs and Richard Bransons of the world, successful misfits, in fact, may be the best matched to make it in today's askew economy, at least that's the case made by Alexa Clay in her book, cowritten with Kyra Maya Phillips - The Misfit Economy. Clay's cofounder of The League of Intrapreneurs and the director of the Human Agency Collective about which, more later.

Laura Flanders: Alexa, welcome to the program! 

Alexa Clay: Thanks for having me.

Laura Flanders: Do I have your co-author's name right, alright! The Misfit Economy, I read this.

Alexa Clay: Yeah.

Laura Flanders: You really want me to believe that an Amish camel milker will save us from this sick and stagnant economy we've come to know and hate?

Alexa Clay: Have you tasted camel milk?

Laura Flanders: Well, no, it's true, I have not.

Alexa Clay: Yeah. I mean so, yeah, I spent a lot of time traveling the world, speaking to misfits, going into different subcultures, and one that I just found mindblowing was the Amish, and really, I think, at a time when so much of entrepreneurship is controlled by this Silicon Valley narrative. For me, it was really refreshing to find this return to basics, this idea that entrepreneurship doesn't have to invoke this kind of lone cowboy type of myth but can be done collaboratively.

Laura Flanders: Although, return to basics doesn't immediately sum up camel milking.

Alexa Clay: No, in that way, it's pretty off beat and I would say innovative. And it's gray market. It's a commoditiy that has been really illegal in a lot of parts of the US. And Amish camel milk farmers have really fought around some of that legislation. Now you can buy it in California in Whole Foods, for example. And the way they got around some of that legislation was by selling it through buyers' clubs. Which is how HIV and AIDS medications used to be sold in the 80s when there were also issues of legality. 

Laura Flanders: Now the other people you're very keen on are pirates. 

Alexa Clay: Yeah. 

Laura Flanders: Tell us why.

Alexa Clay: Well, it started with looking at historic pirate cultures, so really going back and understanding that pirates were some of the first people in the world to create democratic constitutions, so before Western European countries had democracies pirates were creating egalitarian contracts for really governing their vessels. And there were a lot of misfit subcultures that have this streak of egalitarianism  - hacker collectives, for example, that operate without bosses, without traditional senses of leadership, where their organizations are much more decentralized. And for me, you know, we're in this moment where we're trying to escape a very command and control type of capitalism that we've inherited through the legacy of the Industrial Revolution and so looking elsewhere, looking to the fringes, looking at some of these alternative ways of structuring economic activity in organizations, I think we can learn a lot from them.

Laura Flanders: Well it's interesting that you would say that because you do describe this sort of misfit culture as comparable perhaps to those loosely structured guilds of the craft economy age, before industrial capitalism. What changed with industrial capitalism and was it inevitable that it turned out this way?

Alexa Clay: I mean I don't know if it was necessarily inevitable. I think what intrigued me about certain moments in the Industrial Revolution is you actually did see instincts of collaboration that just didn't fit the reporting mechanism of neoliberal economics. 

Laura Flanders: What do you mean?

Alexa Clay: So, for example, R&D IP - there's this whole narrative that companies should have proprietary access to intellectual property. But during the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, it was actually IP thiefs, pirates, who took these patents from Western Europe, brought them to America and laid the entire groundwork for the Industrial Revolution

Laura Flanders: I did think when I saw your pirate chapter, well I thought, what would be the relevance today, here were people who were trying to protect their own fishing waters from encroachment by foreign trawlers - could we take hostage - I don't know - big box stores as they drive onto main street to take away our custom?

Alexa Clay: Yeah, I think it's emboldening. I think a lot of the activities that we look at within the misfit economy are about provoking systems that need to be shaken up, that need to be changed and so activism is certainly one angle there. But I think you also see a lot of different types of activities. So one of the identities that I have been working with a lot is the notion of the "insider misfit", the intrapreneur, the person within these huge companies, within government, within large NGOs, who is bringing their full self into the workplace, who is bringing a huge societal agenda into the workplace. Who's actively trying to hack the cultures of the institutions that they're a part of and to me that's a completely different remit than a kind of "lean in" business philosphy that's suggests that you just conform to this job description and you pursue an idea of success that's not your own, and that I think is a powerful movement.

Laura Flanders: You talk about another man that I'd love for you to share the story - Antony Fernandez - who tried to not just re-brand, really transform the Latin Kings organization in New York, explain what happened to him. Huge vision, not so successful.

Alexa Clay: Yeah, and I think that was the challenge. Was it just a rebranding, marketing ploy, a sort of greenwashing of the gang. 

Laura Flanders: And remind me what the Latin Kings were?

Alexa Clay: So the Latin Kings is a Hispanic street gang, orginated in Chicago, but has global influence. There are Latin Kings in Sweden, even. He gave a talk there and was surprised to meet some. But Antonio Fernandez was essentially the CEO of the Latin Kings during a period it was recovering from a really deadly reputational identity and sort of internal violence that was happening. And his mission was, which is in his name - tone - was really around restoring the tone of the gang, how could this gang pivot and become a social movement, how could you take underground organizations and turn them into politicla movements and political communities. So that was part of what he tried to do. He really brought in a lot of activists to upskill gang members in different elements of protest. He launched curriculum. So they would be reading books together - there's a whole philosophy of Kingism that is almost like a self-help philosophy in a lot of ways. And he was one of the first people that I spoke to completely got me thinking about gangs in a different way. 

Laura Flanders: One concern that I had reading some of this was that it could be seen as a libertarian, "just deregulate and individual entrepreneurs and Ayn Randian brave peopel will solve our problems". Is there a danger here that you'll end up with a, I don't know, survival of the Misfitist?

Alexa Clay: I think you're right to call attention to that narrative. In a way it's a Trojan horse narrative for me, there's so many social justice and economic issues that I care deeply about. And yet, the issues that we talk about in the book, there's maybe a voyeurism that comes with learning about pirates, learning about gangsters, but what makes people interested in those issues? And to me it's seeing this libertarian ethos around hustling, as something that also exists in the Black Market. And so I very much see my role not as one of objective scholarship if you will but really what was the bridges that we can use to get communities talking to each other. So at our launch event for example, we had former drug kingpins there, members of the Latin Kings. We also had start up founders, and a lot of people who would ascribe to this kind of Ayn Rand vision. And they were interacting, maybe awkwardly at times. But it was beautiful. And I think when you look at the emmense privilege of all these tech incubators and startups around the world and just the amount of wealth that the venture capital community has, how can we take some of that and how can we give access to communities that have been marginalized from that economic opporutnity.

Laura Flanders: And change the sort of profile of who deserves respect. You end the book by visualizing your pro-misfit culture, the culture where people's, I think you call it, positive deviance, is unlocked. You also urge us to learn how to unlock our inner hacker or personal pirate. How? What are you top five tips or something?

Alexa Clay: I think so often we wear a sort of script or persona professionally, and so part of the misfit revolution that I would see is people unmasking. I think when you bring your full humanity into what you do, I think you'll come to see conflicts. I was at an advertising conference on Monday, and it was amazing to see people taking of these masks and saying actually these are some issues that I really care about and being really critical about the institutions that they're working for. And I hope that that kind of restlessness, that sort of frustration, that there are pathways for people to have enhanced agency. And very concretely, some of the tools we look at are around hustling, which we mentioned, copying, which is around doing things much more collaboratively with less of a premium on ownership, we look at cultures of hacking, which is beyond hacking and penetrating computer systems but this idea of culture change. And we're all born into cultures that we didn't ask to be born into, so how do we transform those cultures. How do we appreciate what's there and that sort of historic legacy while at the same time bringing either a revolutionary or reformist agenda into that. We look at the spirit of provagation, so people that are really good at creating alternatives realities and different types of worlds. Protest movements, French feminist collectives, and just some of those different tactics. And then the last thing we looked at was pivoting, which is not just pivoting an organization or changing focus, but so many of the misfits that I interviewed had these stories of going down these crazy rabbit holes, of unplugging from the system and really following an instinct or a passion and that was really the key for them to unlock a completely different way of being in the economy.

Laura Flanders: It's great talking to you, thank you so much, Alexa Clay, and thanks for the book. You can get more information and learn your own lessons in creativity from pirates, and get a copy of the book through our website. Thanks for coming in Alexa.

Alexa Clay: Thanks for having me. 


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