Framing the ideological divide within crypto-anarchism
*Link to dissertation at the end*
Trained as we are to accept authority and the inevitability of submitting to forces greater than us, human beings are mesmerized by rebellious movements that struggle to overturn the established order. I guess that the fascination is natural; everyone has heard a voice inside sighing, or vociferating, that “the system is bullshit”. Specifically over the past ‘post-crash’ decade, the anti-establishment sentiment has been building momentum over the years, as people realize that the economic system is built around the internal stability of shareholder profitability, remaining largely oblivious to social and environmental ‘externalities’ while political elites fail to materialize alternatives.
The insurrectionary fantasies living somewhere in my head found a fictional home in Mr Robot, the TV series wherein a mentally unstable hacker named Elliot Alderson (brilliantly played by Rami Malek) decides alongside his partners-in-crime to take down ECorp, a gargantuan conglomerate that represents a seven-headed monster of monopolistic capitalism, by attacking its servers and erasing the company’s financial archives. Thus, the proof-of-debt that binded clients in their responsibility towards ECorp is erased. The global economic system is left in a coma, and all it took was a few computer geeks who make themselves known as fsociety (symbolic references to Anonymous abound). Talk about bringing down the system with limited resources… Anyhow, the fictional hacker revolt sparked my interest in the disruptive potential that lies in code and cyber attacks.
It was while I was doing research on the hacktivist ethos for the most engaging and stimulating course I took throughout my undergraduate years (taught by a living encyclopaedia on anything related to anarchist theory and history) that I first came across ‘crypto-anarchism’.
The more I read about the origins of crypto-anarchist thought, the cypherpunk movement, radical techies, hacktivists, etc., the more I realized that these ideological characteristics have not been properly analysed yet by the academic community. I had been looking for an exciting research topic for my final year dissertation: this was it.
Around the same time, I read a book chapter that my father had forwarded my way about this new technology that was supposed to be the ‘next big thing’; apparently, it had the transformative potential that the internet protocol had back when it first boomed. I had obviously heard about Bitcoin (although, to be honest, I was amazed at the amount of people that by 2018 still had no clue when I asked them whether they were familiar with the crypto-currency’s existence), but that was about it. I soon discovered that there was much more to blockchain than just Bitcoin. It would take me lots of reading and the visual aid of a few Youtube tutorials to grasp the technical basics of distributed ledger technology, but, in any case, I was confident that the hype was worth learning more about this cryptographic digital tool.
Thus, the main mission guiding my research project was to provide a much-needed framing of the crypto-anarchist ideology(ies), using emerging blockchain initiatives to exemplify what the dissertation points as the great ideological divide within the broad creed that is crypto-anarchism. While it might have become increasingly popular among political analysts to contend that the traditional ‘left-right’ spectrum is fading, the tendencies I found when looking into this cryptography-embracing techno-ideology suggest that the simplifying left and right taxonomy would remain as relevant as ever in a hypothetical cypherpunk future, where the Westphalian nation-state order would have vaporized under the connecting and decentralizing power of networked technologies.
The ideological foundations of crypto-anarchism are, naturally, found close to anti-statist political philosophies that were around centuries before the World Wide Web was created. Not only is it obvious that both left-wing anarchism (against the state, in favour of democratic-horizontal economic and political organization) and right-wing libertarianism (broadly against government, for market-based structures in pretty much every sphere that lends itself to monetary interaction) have a heavy influence on crypto-anarchism; perhaps a more interesting observation is the fact that the ideological divide within crypto-anarchism mirrors to a great extent some of the academic debates between left and right libertarians, such as the interpretation of what ‘freedom’ actually is, a debate that is obviously at the core of the dispute.
In the broadest of terms, crypto-anarchism is the belief not only in the tremedous power that cryptographic technologies offer in the creation of decentralized peer-to-peer networks, but also the conviction that these technologies should be used to bypass the state by creating alternative systems that are beyond a state’s capacity to monitor, interfere or restrict flows of information, money, etc. Any crypto-anarchist can agree to these basic premises.
Now, beyond this point is where crypto-anarchists can fall into different strands. The key dispute revolves around the values that should guide these alternative networks and whether the agent defining the post-state scenario should either be the invisible hand of the free market, or a democratically organized society based on egalitarian principles. In order to conceptualize both camps, I categorize those who suscribe to a vision closer to the former as crypto-libertarians, and those who share the latter values as crypto-commonists.
While over the course of my research stage I had come across a couple of papers speaking of ‘crypto-libertarianism’ to differentiate a market fundamentalist trend within crypto-anarchism, I was unable to find a term that identified those with a left-leaning interpretation of crypto-anarchism. The anarchist teacher mentioned earlier, who also happened to be my dissertation supervisor, denounced passionately the appropriation of the anarchist prefix by Murray Rothbard’s right-libertarian political philosophy of ‘anarcho-capitalism’, on the basis that anarchism is inherently a left-wing ideology.
Well, in this case, talking of crypto-anarchism as opposed to crypto-libertarianism was not a possibility, given that the latter falls under the former umbrella term. At first I decided to work with the painfully long term of ‘socialist crypto-anarchism’ , but it wasn’t too convincing, understandably. While I could have also argued for a redefinition of crypto-anarchism to refer only to the leftist interpretation (in order to preserve the academic integrity of the suffix as my teacher might have advocated), towards the late stage of the drafting process I came across an interesting wiki page at the P2P Foundation on ‘commonism’. Right off the bat, it is an eye-catching word: close enough to communism, but not quite the same.
In essence, commonism (a term coined a decade ago by Nick Dyer-Witheford, an insightful academic whose research intersects Marxism and the contemporary digital era) is based on the crucial notion of the ‘commons’, building on it to constitute an ideological form that advocates the defence of the natural and digital commons, following the logic of collective creativity and welfare that has grown exponentially with the internet and the ‘remix culture’.
This definition fit in perfectly with the main ideological tenets of the leftist crypto-anarchists. For these, a free and open internet is a sacred digital commons where the pool of cultural goods and knowledge ought to be shared, whereas cryptographic tools such as encrypted communication or blockchain technology should be used to bypass the state and construct decentralized networks based on radical democratic and egalitarian principles. In other words, crypto-commonism is the crypto-anarchist strand that aims to build a commons-based peer economy alongside participatory democracy, all of this enhanced by the technical possibilities of the internet, blockchain, and digital technologies to come.
In any case, ‘crypto-commonism’ seemed like a reasonably accurate neologism. In order to back my thesis with real life examples showing this divergence within crypto-anarchism, I analysed blockchain initiatives with clearly disparate motivations and ideological principles. The field of crypto-currencies, the most well-known application of blockchain technology, is home to radically different projects, with the commonist ethos embraced by FairCoin standing in sharp contrast to Bitcoin’s libertarian bias. Similarly, if we take a look at governance mechanisms developed by techno-utopian blockchain enthusiasts, it is easy to see how the post nation-state scenarios envisaged by projects such as Bitnation’s markets for citizenship packages have little to do with the global ‘liquid democracy’ that Democracy Earth advocates.
The discourse used in crypto-commonist initiatives emphasises the commons, as opposed to the embrace of free markets among crypto-libertarians, as illustrated by the following statements:
“Our aim is to create an innovative ‘glocal’ economic system from the bottom up in favour of an alternative and post-capitalist model, paving the way for a collective change towards a life based on values in common”. (FairCoin, mission statement)
“With internet growth reaching over 3 billion lives (far surpassing major religions and nation-states) and the development of encrypted networks known as blockchains permitting incorruptible transactions with permissionless audits, there’s no reason stopping mankind from building a borderless commons that can help shape the next evolutionary leap for democratic governance at any scale” (Democracy Earth white paper, 2018)
“Bitnation’s vision is a global free market for governance services: A post nation-state world of voluntary nations, city states and autonomous communities which compete for citizens by providing a range of opt-in governance services (Bitnation white paper, 2017)
My bet is that crypto-anarchism will continue to grow in importance as an ideological force, as digital technologies continue to disrupt the established order and open new possibilities. We are currently witnessing a retreat to nationalism that may last for years to come; however, in the long run, the global potential of technology is likely to prevail, enabling distributed networks to flourish and undermining state authority. In this context, a coherent framing of the crypto-anarchist techno-political philosophy becomes increasingly relevant.
Crypto-commonism and crypto-libertarianism are as different from each other as anarchism and libertarianism; the sooner the difference between these two contemporary ideologies is understood, the easier it will be to imagine what a future post-statist world could look like, and work towards it.
P.S: You can access the full dissertation here. This post summarizes the main academic contribution of the work (the framing of the crypto-anarchist ideology and the introduction of ‘crypto-commonism’): for more detailed analysis and a chapter on the political properties of blockchain technology, feel free to download. I have been contacted by a few people asking whether they could cite the research, to which the answer is naturally positive, on one condition: please let me know about it!
Mateo Peyrouzet García-Siñeriz