Freedom or the Emperor’s New Clothes? Legacy Battles for the Heart and Soul of Tech Crypts

john haskell
Nov 27, 2019 · 6 min read

In my last entry, the conversation focused on how concerns/theories of freedom animate law tech debates surrounding blockchain technologies.

Two themes seem to run beneath most theories of freedom. First, usually freedom is oriented to how something can be monetised. Words like ‘disruption’, more often than not, just mean ‘privatisation’ or a call for shifting the service provider within the private sector (e.g., ‘hey money managers, invest in our tech platform rather than …’). Second, freedom tends to be seen as escaping formal modes of coercion (e.g., law/government). So we speak of freedom from government over-regulation, freedom from the weight of tradition, freedom from the static dictates of the law. We end up with a theory of freedom that is quid pro quo/transactional, and I suggested, philosophically impoverished.

I am hoping here to just briefly push a little further on this thought experiment @ the intersection of law-technology-freedom. For related streams within crypto, please see:

When we sit back and look at these discussion of freedom within the crypto communities (from here on in, ‘crypts’), there is a strange paradox. On the one hand, the semantic tone of conversation is alternative, heterodox, innovative, liberating, pragmatic, radical, that sort of thing, but on the other hand, the ideology/logic is deeply conservative. It is this paradox, and specifically the conservative-ness of some crypts and its antithesis (I’ll call it democratic modernism) that I want to just hone in on here.

The type of conservative-ness I am speaking about is easier to understand with a bit of background context in 20th century philosophy and political economy. Here, I am not going to concentrate on these foundations, but they inform the conversation and are a crucial reference point for tech builders whose vision is truly democratic and modernist. It would be an interesting project to build a bibliography/reader of useful texts and interesting take aways. Or a twitter feed of 10 living and 10 dead people to read and why they are important. But I’m getting away from myself — back to the conservativeness of (some) crypts and its antithesis, a freedom that is democratic and modernist.

By democratic, I mean, wanting more and better substantive choices for more working people. By modernist, I mean seizing on the 1920/30’s belief that humans can make and remake the conditions of our social existence and are not simply left to individual survival tactics or postmodern irony.

Nowadays, we are told this is not possible or it is a dangerous dream. We are told this because we still live — even after the 2008 experience — in a conservative legacy. This is a conservative legacy that finds its roots in ‘methodological individualism’, in ‘procedural’ rather than substantive democracy, in a general distrust of democratic enfranchisement, in intellectual traditions tied to Chicago-style ‘law and economics’ and the politics of Thatcher and Reagan, in the governance turn to internal audit/assessment data driven value added regulation, etcetera.

Even though this legacy has given us Trump and the climate change crisis, it is so entrenched in our ideational and institutional frames of perception, in the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world, it feels almost inescapable, just the way things are… even while it also feels as if everything hangs by a thread at the edge of a cliff. We don’t feel it quite yet on the drive to the airport, or in our holiday conferences on the beaches of Cape Cod and La Jolla, but even in our most hallowed enclaves, I think we are beginning to sense at least intimations of these tremors. Of course, we can say we celebrate these ‘changes’ and call them ‘disruptive’, but a lot of it is anything but a good omen. In fact, the very legitimacy of the ‘disruptor’ is based on the assumption that things are not working. And yet, despite the fact we (at least on an unconscious level) know things aren’t working, we double down on the ‘same ole same ole’ of the last 50 years that got us here in the first place.

If we really want to be disruptive, I think we might internalise a few ideas.

First, the alternative to government is not ‘the market’ or ‘the individual’, but the ‘mafia’. If this doesn’t make sense, think the immediate years after the dismantling of the former Soviet Union, the distribution networks servicing the illegality of marijuana in the US, or the wild west villains in your favourite cowboy movies. #BlackBoxSociety (a la Frank Pasquale’s writing and others of similar ilk). Cartel/mafia war games are at the heart of blockchain protocol design and crypto tribalism:

Second, if the government runs a surplus (e.g., cutting debt, stepping back from service provision), then the private sector runs a deficit (in other words, at the aggregate level, individual private debt). And debt, at the individual level, is freedom constraining. #Neo-Chartalism (see, for instance, Mehrsa Baradaran, Christine Desan, David Graeber, Rohan Grey, Robert Hockett, Fadhel Kaboub, Stephanie Kelton, Roy Kreitner, Martha McClusky, Katharina Pistor, Randall Wray). To pull out government services almost invariably means the private sector as a whole assuming debt — even if it also means a few people get very rich and there are some consumer conveniences attached (if you can pay for it). So we don’t want to be just willy-nilly ‘disrupting’ government services; often, we want to be re-vitalising them (a better public library not more Amazon call centres; a better post office, not more FedEx competitors). In political economy terms, smart government deficits = private sector surpluses.

Third, Bob Dylan (as usual) is right, everyone serves masters — so why not be obligated to each other and rule together? It took a long time and a lot of blood, sweat, tears and flesh to overthrow a world of hereditary aristocracies and untouchable kings (as we see with the Prince Andrew/Epstein scandal, maybe they still are untouchable). What we set up instead was a system built on professional processes (aka bureaucracy) meant to provide universalised standards of care that would increase individuals’ bargaining power. You have a guaranteed right to health care, you don’t need to stay in a job just because they provide health care. You have a right to education, you don’t need to pay out of pocket to learn. And so forth. So much of the gas driving tech is private equity and money managers searching for higher returns and safe money against a backdrop of reduced government investment. These financial titans are just the new kings and queens, and we don’t need to be their henchmen and jesters. It betrays our ancestors and what they fought to give us. Instead, we could be each others masters and servants. In the Christian tradition, for instance, God not only rules on high but washes the feet of the poor on his knees. #democracy4us

We’re in it together and tech crypts can help get us there. Our freedom is not freedom from coercion, but the freedom to collectively have more and better choices individually. A technology driven by a democratic modernist legacy would be truly radical and liberating. Anything else is just the emperor’s new clothes.

[Editor’s Note: “legacy battles for the heart & soul of tech crypts” (Haskell) or battles for their “hearts & souls” (Das Gupta)— ?]

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