Bitcoin, Digital Culture, and RightWing Politics

IN THE EARLY 2010S, and then especially throughout 2013, observers of digital culture began to read more and more about a new form of digital payment called Bitcoin. Although any number of digital payment systems had already emerged from relatively straightforward tools for money transfer such as new Western Union services, online bill paying, and PayPal, to more exotic systems such as Liberty Reserve (Langlois 2013), “beenz” (Richardson 2001), and forms of “digital gold” like E-Gold (Zetter 2009)—Bitcoin was said to be different. Its difference stemmed from at least two sources: first, that it was based on a relatively new form of cryptographic software technology called a “blockchain,” and second, that throughout 2013 Bitcoin had skyrocketed in its value relative to official world currencies like the U.S. dollar. At the end of 2012 one could buy a single Bitcoin for around US$13. By May 2013, that one Bitcoin was worth upward of US$100, nearly an 800 percent gain for those fortunate enough to have held it for five months. In November and December of 2013 Bitcoin’s value briefly exceeded US$1,200 (“History of Bitcoin”). In just under a year investors who timed their buying and selling correctly could have made around 8,000 percent in profits, far exceeding the performance of most, perhaps even all, traditional investments. Those who had bought or “mined” Bitcoin earlier in its existence (the first coins were created in 2009 and started out as essentially worthless) could and well may have realized gains that dwarf even these. This remarkable performance thrust Bitcoin into the public eye, eventually attracting numerous start-up projects, venture capitalists, and investors.

By far the majority of interest in Bitcoin came from technologists and those who follow and admire the work of technologists. To those of us who were watching Bitcoin with an eye toward politics and economics, though, something far more striking than Bitcoin’s explosive rise in value became apparent: in the name of this new technology, extremist ideas were gaining far more traction than they previously had outside of the extremist literature to which they had largely been confined. Dogma propagated almost exclusively by far-right groups like the Liberty League, the John Birch Society, the militia movement, and the Tea Party, conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and David Icke, and to a lesser extent rightist outlets like the Fox media group and some rightwing politicians, was now being repeated by many who seemed not to know the origin of the ideas, or the functions of those ideas in contemporary politics.

These ideas are not simply heterodox or contrarian: they are pieces of a holistic worldview that has been deliberately developed and promulgated by rightwing ideologues. To anyone aware of the history of rightwing thought in the United States and Europe, they are shockingly familiar: that central banking such as that practiced by the U.S. Federal Reserve is a deliberate plot to “steal value” from the people to whom it actually belongs; that the world monetary system is on the verge of imminent collapse due to central banking policies, especially fractional reserve banking; that “hard” currencies such as gold provide meaningful protection against that purported collapse; that inflation is a plot to steal money from the masses and hand it over to a shadowy cabal of “elites” who operate behind the scenes; and more generally that the governmental and corporate leaders and wealthy individuals we all know are “controlled” by those same “elites.”

Understanding how Bitcoin comes to embody these extremist ideas requires situating it within two broader analytical frameworks. The first of these is the phenomenon that scholars call cyberlibertarianism. The central texts describing cyberlibertarianism are Barbrook and Cameron (1996) and Winner (1997); for more recent accounts see Turner (2008) as well as Golumbia (2013b, 2013c, in preparation). In its most basic and limited  form,  cyberlibertarianism  is sometimes summarized as the principle that “governments should not regulate the internet” (Malcolm 2013). This belief was articulated with particular force in the 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” written by the libertarian activist, Grateful Dead lyricist, and Electronic Frontier Foundation founder (EFF is a leading “digital rights” and technology industry advocacy organization) John Perry Barlow, which declared that “governments of the industrial world” are “not welcome” in and “have no sovereignty” over the digital realm.

In practice, opposition to “government regulation of the internet” is best understood as a core (and in important ways vague) tenet, around which circulate greater and greater claims for the “freedom” created by digital technology. At its most expansive, cyberlibertarianism can be thought of as something like a belief according to which freedom will emerge inherently from the increasing development of digital technology, and therefore entails  that efforts to interfere with or regulate that development must be antithetical to freedom—although what “freedom” means in this context is much less clear than it may seem. As Winner (1997, 14–15) puts it, to be a cyberlibertarian is to believe that “the dynamism of digital technology is our true destiny. There is no time to pause, reflect or ask for more influence in shaping these developments. . . . In the writings of cyberlibertarians those able to rise to the challenge are the champions of the coming millennium. The rest are fated to languish in the dust.”

Cyberlibertarianism is thus not to be understood as the belief system of someone who overtly describes themselves as a political libertarian—a member of a libertarian party or someone who votes for libertarian candidates—and who supports or promotes the development of digital technology. Someone who fits this description would likely have cyberlibertarian beliefs, of course (and a few pundits associated with the Koch brothers–funded Mercatus Center do explicitly embrace the label; see Thierer and Szoka 2009). But the analysis of cyberlibertarianism is getting at something subtler: the way that a set of slogans and beliefs associated with the spread of digital technology incorporate critical parts of a rightwing worldview even as they manifest a surface rhetorical commitment to values that do not immediately appear to come from the right.

Certainly, many leaders in the digital technology industries, and quite a few leaders who do not work for corporations, openly declare their adherence to libertarian or other rightwing ideologies. Just a brief list of these includes figures like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Eric Raymond, Jimmy Wales, Eric Schmidt, and Travis Kalanick. Furthermore, the number of leaders who demur from such political points of view is small, and their demurrals are often shallow. But the group of people whose beliefs deserve to be labeled “cyberlibertarian” is much larger than this. The core tenet of cyberlibertarianism—the insistence that “governments should not regulate the internet”—appears to be compatible with a wide range of political viewpoints. As EFF’s senior global policy analyst Jeremy Malcolm (2013) has written, “Even politically progressive activists are inclined to be more distrustful of governmental intervention online than offline, in an expression of Internet exceptionalism.”

As Winner makes clear in his 1997 paper, the critical point about cyberlibertarianism as a belief system is that it “links ecstatic enthusiasm for electronically mediated forms of living with radical, rightwing libertarian ideas about the proper definition of freedom, social life, economics, and politics” (14). His emphasis on “proper” definition is the key to Winner’s analysis: people who subscribe to cyberlibertarianism for the most part do not describe themselves as cyberlibertarians and may not call themselves “libertarians” or even identify with rightwing political parties. Instead,  and  at  least  sometimes  without explicitly knowing it, they accept definitions of certain fundamental terms that come from the political right, especially when digital technologies are at issue.

The  most  important  of  these  redefined  terms  that  occur  repeatedly  in discussions of Bitcoin are “freedom” and “government,” both of which are central to all cyberlibertarian and political libertarian rhetoric. Referring to the 1994 manifesto “Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age” by Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth, and Alvin Toffler, Winner (1997, 16) writes:

Characteristic of this way of thinking is a tendency to conflate the activities of  freedom-seeking  individuals  with the operations of enormous, profit-seeking business firms. In the “Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” concepts of rights, freedoms,  access,  and  ownership justified  as appropriate to individuals are marshaled to support the machinations of enormous transnational firms. We must recognize, the manifesto argues, that “Government does not own cyberspace, the people do.” One might read this as a suggestion that cyberspace is a commons in which people have shared rights and responsibilities. But that is definitely not where the writers carry their reasoning.

The “freedom” these writers advocate turns out, in a way they themselves do not always acknowledge, to be identical with the use of “free” in the phrase “free market”: that is, free from government regulation. Building on the foundational, often unspoken rightist beliefs about the uniquely oppressive nature of governmental power, they “advocate greater concentrations of power over the conduits of information which they are confident will create an abundance of cheap, socially available bandwidth. Today developments of this kind are visible in the corporate mergers that have produced a tremendous concentration of control over not only the conduits of cyberspace but the content it carries” (16). Indeed, in the nearly two decades since Winner wrote, this is exactly what we have seen happen; in the name of vague slogans like “internet freedom” (Powers and Jablonski 2015), wealth and power have concentrated enormously (Hardoon 2015; Piketty 2014) as digital technology has spread all around the globe.

From a cyberlibertarian perspective, governments—all governments, not simply whatever current “bad” government we describe as doing wrong—exist only to curtail the freedom that is inherently negative (in the classic sense of “negative” vs. “positive” freedoms developed in Berlin 1958): to  be  “free” simply is to be “free” from government. The core cyberlibertarian belief that “governments should not regulate the internet” really makes sense only if it is true that government exists to curtail rather than to promote human freedom. Yet in most non-rightist political theory, government exists in no small part to promote human freedom.

Their advocates make it sound like, and may often believe that, cyberlibertarian commitments are about limiting power, but this is only true so long as we construe “government” as equivalent with “power,” and “the internet” as being oppositional to  power,  rather  than, at  least  in  significant  part, being  strongly aligned with it. The most direct way to arrive at this perspective is to accept the definition of government developed by the far right, especially anarcho-capitalist theorists like Murray Rothbard and David Friedman, and echoed by politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. According to this view, “government” is inherently totalitarian and tyrannical; indeed, “government” and “tyranny” are essentially synonyms.

Cyberlibertarian doctrine did not develop in a vacuum. It fits into, and at best does nothing  to  resist,  the  profound  rightward  drift  evident  in  so  much  of contemporary politics. This becomes clear when we examine the explicit political and economic doctrine and practice that is usually called libertarianism in the United States (here meaning the political movement that is explicitly advocated by rightwing partisan institutions such as the Cato Institute, the Heartland Foundation, the Mises Institute, and others, as well as astroturf movements like the Tea Party and political figures like Ron Paul and Rand Paul) and its connections with the less explicit doctrine analysts call neoliberalism. Both of these doctrines or dogmas stem from the writings of core rightwing thinkers such as Friedrich August von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, Rothbard, and others, as well as their more recent followers. The most trenchant critic of this work, on whose research my analysis relies in particular, is the economic historian and theorist Philip Mirowski, whose Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (2014) remains the single most comprehensive account of what he calls the Neoliberal Thought Collective and the nearly identical Mont Pelerin Society (MPS), of which Hayek was the founding president.

Mirowski, along with some of his colleagues, has explained with particular cogency how Hayek and others disseminated neoliberal  doctrine.  From somewhat different angles, writers like Chip Berlet (2009), Berlet along with Matthew Lyons (2000), Claire Conner (2013), Sara Diamond (1995), Michael Perelman (2007), Jill Lepore (2010), and the writers in Flanders’s edited volume (2010) give us thoroughly documented accounts of how those wider spheres of rightwing political thought and practice operate, distributed among actors whose overt adherence to MPS doctrine can vary widely, though they tend to be found far more on the right than the left.

The journalist Mark Ames explains how apparently disparate political interests, especially in the context of Silicon Valley, can be seen to work together. Reflecting on some surprising alliances between today’s technology giants and the lobbying groups and of the world’s major extractive resource companies, Ames (2015) writes that even if we still give Google and Facebook the benefit of the doubt, and allow that their investments in the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute weren’t directly motivated by killing Obamacare and throwing millions of struggling Americans back into the ranks of the uninsured and prematurely dying—nevertheless, they  are  accessories, and very consciously so. Big Tech’s larger political goals are in alignment with the old extraction industry’s: undermining the countervailing power of government and public politics to weaken its ability to impede  their  growing  dominance over their portions of the economy, and to tax their obscene stores of cash.

Google—like Facebook, like Koch Industries—wants a government that’s strong enough to enforce its dominant private power over the economy and citizens and protect its wealth, but too broken and too alienated from the public to adequately represent the public interest against their domineering monopolistic power.

In this way, much rightwing discourse, even when it appears to be focused on issues that are not purely economic, turns out to work extremely well for the most concentrated sources of capital and power in our world.

Power is one of the central subjects for political analysis, and perhaps the central subject: who has power, who wants power, what the perspectives those who have and want power are on the creation and maintenance of methods for the management of power. We might say that rightwing politics sides emotionally and practically with power—it identifies with power, and via this identification works to ensure that nobody interferes with the concentration and exercise of power. On this view, left-wing politics is specifically focused on the limitation of power, on mechanisms for distributing power equitably, and on the excesses that almost inevitably emerge when power is allowed to grow unchecked.

Rather than a balance of powers and regular elections to curb the inherent possibility of abuse of power, the cypherpunks and crypto-anarchists accept, often without appearing even to realize it, the far-right, libertarian/anarcho- capitalist definition of government that extends from the German social theorist Max Weber (who famously and tendentiously defined the state as a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”; see Weber 1919, 33; see also Giddens 1985 for a thorough critique of Weber’s definition) to Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address of 1981, in which he famously claimed that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” In Why Government Is the Problem (1993), Milton Friedman, a key player in the creation of neoliberal economic doctrine, makes the same case at greater length.

The clearest articulation of these views is found in the work of arch rightwing thinker and Cato Foundation cofounder Murray Rothbard. In an essay titled “Anatomy of the State,” first published in the 1974 volume Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature, Rothbard abruptly dismisses with almost the entirety of political theory prior to Hayek, while taking Hayek even farther than he was willing to go, at least in print. Arguably the position Rothbard develops is among the farthest to the political right offered in Western discourse, with the exception of those who explicitly identify with fascism: “We must, therefore, emphasize that ‘we’ are not the government; the government is not ‘us.’ The government does not in any accurate sense ‘represent’ the majority of the people” (Rothbard 1974, 56). With no supporting argument or analysis, Rothbard dismisses nearly all the political theory on which democratic rules are based (even the monarchist Thomas Hobbes thought that the sovereign represented the people over whom he ruled, in an abstract sense) and the entire theory of representative democracy.

At their limit—a limit that is often surpassed in current cypherpunk and crypto-anarchist rhetoric and practice—these views suggest bizarrely that only government is capable of violence, and that even when private institutions and enterprises engage in what appears to be physical violence, it is in some sense of a different order than that practiced by governments. Even more bizarrely, these views entail that democratic government lies about the one thing that does in fact distinguish it from other forms of power—that it is directly accountable for its actions to the people from whom it draws its power—while simultaneously entailing that power derived from capital and markets is accountable to citizens. Worse still, it suggests that this market-based form of accountability does not merely  trump  the  electoral  and  legal  accountability  built  into  representative government, but also shields corporate forces from the political critique to which the right routinely subjects government. In other words, no matter how much power corporations take, their power can never be “evil” in the way that governmental power inherently is.

There are certain keywords that move with a fair amount of ease between explicit rightwing discourse and more general political discussion but that serve as rallying cries for rightwing political action. Two of the most prominent and most relevant to Bitcoin are “tyranny” and “liberty.” When the right wing uses them, these words are removed from their more general meanings and grafted onto holistic bodies of political thought, so that it can sound reasonable to oppose Social Security or Medicare on the grounds that they offend “liberty” and constitute “tyranny,” despite the signal lack of substantive political thought that would make such assessments coherent. It is no accident that the rightwing ideologue and talk show host Mark Levin titles one of his best-selling books Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto (2009), or that he misleadingly claims that “the Founders understood that the greatest threat to liberty is an all- powerful central government” (4), and that “conservatism is the antidote to tyranny” (11), a “tyranny” that in the United States is best exemplified to Levin by social programs enacted under the New Deal (6–7). Despite our abhorrence of real tyranny, then, the right wing uses the words “liberty” and “tyranny” to solicit and activate populist energy against exactly those democratically enacted structures and programs among whose main purposes is to curtail the tyrannical abuse of individual liberty by concentrated economic power (Puddington 2013 describes this dynamic with regard to uses of the word “tyranny” by the Tea Party). The effect is to make such concentrations of power even more possible and even less subject to oversight, and this is very much the direction in which Bitcoin heads.

There are many things worth saying about Bitcoin. This short book is concerned not with providing a thorough description of the technology, a detailed history of its uses, an account of the scandals and triumphs associated with it, or profiles of the various personalities involved in its creation and subsequent use (for which good introductory resources include Lanchester 2016; Murray 2013;  Pagliery 2014; Payne 2013; Popper 2015; Robinson 2014; Scott 2016). Its goal is more limited: to show how much of the economic and political thought on which Bitcoin is based emerges directly from ideas that travel the gamut from the sometimes-extreme Chicago School economics of Milton Friedman to the explicit extremism of Federal Reserve conspiracy theorists. While it is beyond doubt that many who “believe” in Bitcoin think they do not subscribe to these theories, it frequently turns out that they rely on assumptions and concepts that do emerge from the far right. As they are currently configured, Bitcoin and the blockchain technology on which it rests satisfy needs that make sense only in the context of rightwing politics; those of us who do not share those politics must, therefore, view Bitcoin and the blockchain with both skepticism and a clear eye for the political terms and concepts invoked in the discourse surrounding them.

I am sometimes asked to account for Bitcoin enthusiasm among those with explicitly left-wing politics. My response is to ask two questions analytically prior to this one: first, to ask for accounts of where and how it happened that a technology developed specifically to magnify the powers favored by the political right has mutated so as not to serve those powers but the forces they oppose; and second, to ask for accounts on economic and political-economic grounds that proceed from left-wing thought (whether Marxian or Keynesian) to the need for and utility of Bitcoin. Almost uniformly, responses to these queries repeat some of the rightist tropes about central banking and governmental tyranny I describe here, and those that do not (e.g., Bauwens 2014) emerge very skeptical about Bitcoin. Perhaps Bitcoin and the blockchain can serve politics other than the ones from which they were birthed and which they continue to embody; my goal here is to document those politics and to show what any non-rightist politics of Bitcoin needs to overcome.

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