Libra Colonialism

Taking Libra at its word.

L. Parsons
Oct 28 · 8 min read

You might have heard about Libra, Facebook’s plan to launch a global cryptocurrency. It’s supposed to be a new fancy global money that’s separate from all state control.

But look through Libra’s own website and it just looks like Colonialism 3.0.

Let’s take a quick scroll.

Here’s the home page.

The woman is beautiful, but she does not look happy. Maybe she’s meant to symbolize the problem, the problem of disenfranchisement and disempowerment.

You know, in Africa. Where the disenfranchisement and disempowerment happens. “Because of the sad legacy of colonialism…” we’re told.

But that’s ok, beautiful sad woman. Just scroll down.

Here’s a beautiful taller able-bodied white woman with a cell phone who is teaching another other black woman about Libra.

Libra.org Homepage (October 24, 2019)

Standing outside a Starbucks, with her mouth agape, you can almost hear the taller woman saying, “Just look on my phone, let me show you how to get unbanked.”

Does that offend you? It should. The Libra website is offensive; so much so, one wonders whether the imagery was part of a deliberate internal critique.

Alas, no, the website is just Libra’s posture on display. It’s Libra as it wants to be seen. And it’s not a good look.

Here’s the same photo with the text box that appears directly above, now put into the mouth of the person with the tech. Why is the person holding the tech speaking? Because Libra is a tech project that’s offering tech and “financial infrastructure.”

Could the black woman be a successful CEO and the white woman her poor intern? Yes, but that’s not what the text & context are telling us. On a BigTech website, the person holding the tech is the narrator. By default. That’s not only a reasonable inference; it’s literally the story being told.

Scroll down the website more, and there are photos of more Africans. This time they are helpless amidst a big sea in a small boat … and presumably ‘unbanked.’

Because how else can one signal the need for empowerment other than conjuring up stereotypes about Africans?

The two black men on the boat are working hard. The Captain is steering & avoiding the waves. The Sailor is trying to balance in uneven seas.

“If only we had Libra to buy a bigger boat,” they’re probably thinking.

Or maybe they dream of ‘development’ so they can leave the perilous sea and go to work in a glistening office park, like the one behind them on the website.

So when they’re back at port, they go to Libra.org in search of empowerment and whoa ohhh, here’s what they find:

“Nahodha, unaongea Kirusi?” asks the Sailor.

That’s Swahili for “Captain, do you speak Russian?”

“Lugha yetu iko wapi? Hiyo ni aibu.” the Captain responded, trying to muster a laugh, so as to reassure the sailor.

The Captain then looked out deep at the sea, and scanned the giant tankers on the misty line of horizon. He repeated the line again, this time in English:

“Where’s our language? That’s shameful.”

He wasn’t speaking to anyone in particular. The Sailor had gone home by that point.

But the Captain couldn’t stop shaking his head in disbelief.

He thought back to early lessons that his parents and elders had taught him.

One proverb kept coming back, over and over:

“Mkosefu wa mali si maskini.” (Not having money does not mean being poor.)

It seemed anachronistic at first. But the more the Captain played with English translations, the more relevant it became.

Libra.org Homepage (October 24, 2019)

The Captain went to bed conflicted and sad. While he was thrilled to see people of color represented on a BigTech website, there was something off about this website.

  • Were there no disempowered people in Asia, or elsewhere?
  • Was his homeland — Africa — being used as a staging ground for yet another global power game?
  • Were those African brothers and sisters on the boat and in the market ever compensated for their photos, or were their faces too dark to be recognized by Facebook’s royalty tracking algorithms?
  • Are the North Africans, a group that mostly speaks Arabic with white-passing features, not ‘African’ enough?

Now, if you’re one of those people who think that analyzing symbols and language politics on Libra’s website is nit-picky or inconsequential, please bear in mind that these symbols and language are our most basic social glue.

What Libra wants to disrupt—money — is, at its core, nothing but a collection of symbols and language.

The problem isn’t just Libra’s decision to offer their website in 9 languages while shutting out and Othering everyone else.

David Marcus interview (in French) with Radio Télévision Suisse (Financial Times)

As the Captain told us, the problem is also in the way these 9 languages are presented.

Libra is pitched as an empowerment tool for Africa & other developing states — but ‘empowerment’ will happen on the colonizer’s terms, in the colonizer’s languages:

  1. The language of Indonesia (??? — the local name for the language is bahasa Indonesia, not ‘Indonesia’), spoken in Indonesia
  2. Chinese language (中文), for 简体中文 (simplified Chinese)
  3. English —the universal language of Libra!
  4. French, spoken (only) in France, apparently (with no mention of Africans or Caribbean or other French speakers)
  5. German, spoken (only) in Germany, apparently
  6. Portuguese, spoken in Brazil, apparently, but not Portugal or, say, Angola
  7. Spanish, spoken in Latin America, but not Spain
  8. Russian, spoken (only) in Russia, apparently

Couldn’t Facebook just use a tiny plug-in so users could translate the website into any language they wanted? Wouldn’t that be actually empowering?

The answer lies in the G word (Google) and the L word (Law/Liability).

You see, Facebook has its own translation widgets, but it wouldn’t let them anywhere near its flagship money project because FB wouldn’t want to introduce linguistic ambiguity that could inadvertently impose liability obligations on FB or the Cartel. And FB couldn’t just use the free Google plug-in because, well, it’s Google — a mortal enemy.

So much for empowerment, Africans! Please don’t get uppity; just allow us to empower you — on our terms and in our languages!

And so the brainy folks at FB/Libra decided they would split the baby by offering a global empowerment website in 9 random languages (probably corresponding to the languages of legal teams that got their translations in on time). Without major language family groups, like, say, Arabic. But including Indonesia — the language; and Portuguese for Brasil. Because, reasons.

Is this incidental? Of course not.

Undermining linguistic sovereignty is like page 1 of the Colonizer’s Handbook. From Wikipedia’s English-language article on the Languages of Africa:

The colonial borders established by European powers following the Berlin Conference in 1884–1885 divided a great many ethnic groups and African language speaking communities.

The point here is that FB/Libra have no excuse for selecting several “dominant” languages for their supposedly-global flagship currency project — a project whose entire stated purpose is empowerment of billions of people.

Libra is yet another ‘gentle civilizer’ and benevolent dictator, here to tell Africans and the ‘unbanked’ what to spend their hard-earned Libras on.

Source: en.wikipedia.org (Swahili language)

Under the guise of greater individual sovereignty, Libra just perpetuates age-old colonial patterns. In the words of Michael Kimani of the Kenya Blockchain Association:

Libra coin and the Libra Association is a neo-form of colonization, where, the global rich northern countries and their corporations, sit around a table and decide what is good for Africa.

In reality, for-profit currencies like Libra submerge poor folks and poor communities into deeper cycles of oppression.

The point here is that when ‘empowerment’ happens on someone else’s terms, empowerment is just a pretty way of saying: “pay your debt!”

This isn’t left-wing propaganda. These are reports from outlets like The Economist & Bloomberg, bastions of economic liberalism.

And how do cartels like Libra enforce these inherently unequal socio-economic regimes? Of course, through Law — the handmaiden of empire.

Libra Association, Terms of Use (October 24, 2019)

The following morning, the Captain watched a livestream of Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony. The Captain had so many new questions about the relationship between Libra, Facebook and other members of the Cartel.

He was especially surprised that FB had 60 full-time lobbyists/lawyers working on this project — just in DC! With so much legal and public relations firepower, didn’t anyone notice the latent racism oozing off Libra.org?

The Captain was bothered by the fact that no one seemed to care. The politicians, journalists, and analysts seemed occupied by broader narratives of power and control.

Taylor Monahan was right, however. The collective “we” in those narratives was extremely weird.

Because the more the Captain thought about the images on Libra’s website, the more convinced he was that the African faces used to sell Libra ‘product’ were never compensated for their rights.

And he was pretty sure that if folks saw the big picture, that nobody would voluntarily consent to ‘sanctions,’ ‘soldiers,’ or the Libramerican “projection of influence, globally.”

The Captain went back to the Libra website. He wanted to see how he could maybe help shape these narratives and economic empowerment opportunities.

He was glad to see the Libra Association advertise its global presence. Then he clicked on the jobs:

Without jobs in Africa, business as usual felt as awful as always.

Crypto Law Review

A journal pushing the bounds of our legal imaginaries, on-chain, off-chain, and against the chain.

L. Parsons

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Crypto Law Review

A journal pushing the bounds of our legal imaginaries, on-chain, off-chain, and against the chain.

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