Bitcoin

Bitcoin’s Thermidor

By Tim Hardy

The fantasy is that the world might go dark, forbidding and foreclosing the state.

There were rumours at the Bitcoin Expo in London on Saturday that Cody Wilson who was due to speak had been arrested while trying to enter Britain and deported. As the notorious publisher of the world’s first design for a 3D-printed gun, the 25-year-old anarchist had already guaranteed his place on the watchlist of government agencies worldwide. The rumours turned out to be false but in his speech, Cody did nothing to calm spooks’ fears as he described his hopes for his latest venture.

Bitcoin is everywhere right now. Fiat Leak shows a live map of the transfer of national wealth into the cryptocurrency the market value of which goes up and down daily by breathtaking amounts. The unprecedented returns this year to early adopters and investors are inspiring both gleeful anticipation that this will be the next Tulip Bubble destroying hopes and lives as it explodes and the frantic desire to get in, profit and get out again before it does so. While the press and television are busy promoting a mix of shallow miscomprehension and light entertainment, it is to the financial pages that you need to turn for a more acute analysis including an informed focus on the current technical limitations of bitcoins and the immaturity of the exchanges that act as gateways in and out of the currency.

But to focus on the fortunes made or “the fish that got away” stories about the current exchange value of bitcoin wallets that have been lost or dumped in landfill is to completely miss the power and significance of a peer-to-peer currency that does not require central banks or states for its existence. Where Occupy, as Judith Butler warned, merely simulated a political participation, bitcoin exists right now as a potential means to hide from the pervasive gaze of power yet it remains too obscure, too technical, too esoteric and too much like the speculative fantasies of capitalism to catch the interest of most radicals.

Vinay Gupta in a speech earlier that morning warned of the enormous dangers of allowing a very small number of people to control bitcoin’s development and the urgent need to build adaptive strategies into the governance structures of bitcoin. Bitcoin is not about making wealth and yet for the first time in history, radicals are becoming rich. For the first time in history, we have alternative institutions making the actors in it wealthy. Bitcoin is showing a greater potential than any previous force apart from Communism to challenge the state – but can we hold it?

Vinay wants to develop a counter-economics that solves the problems capitalism ignores, notably impeding ecological collapse. Cody wants a counter legitimacy to fight the siren song of Venture Capital cash and the domination of the markets. There are many areas on which both men will disagree but neither is in any doubt about the potential for bitcoins to change the world – and the ease with which that potential might be squandered and lost.

Listening to other speakers giving their extended elevator pitches during the day, it was hard not to think of the two fallacies that Cody warns are being perpetuated by the media and affluent participants in the new technology: the “money or nothing fallacy”, that if bitcoin is not money, it has no value; and the “legitimacy or nothing fallacy”, that bitcoin has to be sanctioned by state actors to succeed. Many openly cheered the takedown of Silk Road – and no doubt welcome the ongoing collapse of Sheep Marketplace – as helping make bitcoin ready for business. Cody Wilson does not hide his radical hopes for bitcoin or his contempt for those that are celebrating the failures of these ventures. “If bitcoin means anything, it means a thousand Silk Roads not payment solutions for consumers.”

Readers of Mark Fisher will recognise the dangers of what Cody identifies as the “rush to political realism” by those who have set themselves up as the guardians of the digital currency. He singled out Mike Hearn, the chair of the Bitcoin Foundation’s Law and Policy Committee, who recently promoted the idea of “coin taint” to mark bitcoins used in criminal transactions in order to make the currency more palatable to big business.

Cody does not believe that Mike or the Bitcoin Foundation are evil. He believes they are naive and promoting a fatal conceit. He warns that we need to develop an ethics of bitcoins before it is too late. Like most digital libertarians, the members of the Bitcoin Foundation have “the morality of infants”. Caught in a fantasy of neoliberalism, they use the language of cleanliness and purity to describe their efforts to make the world safe for retail with no understanding of the privilege of their position.

Using Kafka’s The Trial as a metaphor of our relationship with power, Cody warns that each time we confront a process that subjects us in terms those in power understand, we reinforce the process of our subjection. By participating, we create the result we seek to avoid. “Every time we culturally exchange, we, the dominated, are condemned to a more or less desperate effort towards participation – get with the programme or get lost.” By trying to make bitcoins palatable to the financial structures that govern our world, the Bitcoin Foundation is handing power back to those bitcoins might challenge. It is making itself complicit with “the transpolitical: the elimination of the capacity for political resistance.”

No one knows who is Satoshi Nakamoto, the designer of bitcoin who vanished from the world after mining the first coins, creating the romance of a solitary figure, a genius outside the system, but Satoshi left a clue as to the purpose of her project in a message hidden in the first mined block, a quotation with a date from The Times of London:

The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks

The banking system whose bailout brought the world to its knees, a system that demands the poor starve so that bonuses can be paid, that demands the world burn so that the few can enjoy unimaginable wealth, is now looking at ways to sink its tentacles into a medium of exchange that does not need it – with the eager complicity of those controlling the direction of the technology.

Cody is blunt. We are facing “Bitcoin’s Thermidor” – a retreat from its revolutionary origins.

His latest venture is Dark Wallet, a project that is provocatively proud about privacy and anonymisation that attempts to restore bitcoin to its radical promise before the influx of VC money turns it into “the new KY – the new and better lubrication of our domination.”

The first code release will be a bitcoin wallet that offers “trustless mixing” using a system developed by hackers Amir Taaki and Pablo Martin. Each time you buy something, your coins are swapped anonymously before you do so with other users so that your purchases cannot be tracked. However, while the feature list of the first release is sensibly limited, the project is much larger than a wallet and the ultimate goal encompasses a range of tools including distributed identity and reputation systems as well as encrypted messaging that can be combined to create decentralised markets and “a usable privacy reality for the people”.

The developers unSYSTEM live and work frugally out of the anarchist collective Calafou in Spain. Their needs are modest but any help is appreciated. If you’re interested, take a look at how you might participate by pledging a few dollars or bitcoins towards their costs or look at others ways to help at the bottom of the fundraiser page.

Let there be dark.

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