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Waiting for Bitcoin

What’s next for cryptocurrency: the masses or the Übermensch?

Bitcoin hits $3K. The blockchain is bloated. And Dennis Rodman just goodwill-visited North Korea as an advertising stunt for PotCoin. In other words, the mainstreaming of cryptocurrency is generating absurd events at about the expected rate. Gestated by a pseudonymous creator who later dropped out of the public sphere and nurtured by libertarian ideologues pining for the end of the Westphalian nation-state, Bitcoin was never meant for the wide world; the wide world was meant to be refashioned in its image.

“Crypto is not going to enable the bottom 90 percent. . . . Crypto enables the Übermensch,” wrote Timothy May, an early cyberlibertarian and founding cypherpunk. To discuss cryptocurrency is inevitably to use a variety of words with prefixes beginning with the letter “c,” and cyberlibertarianism is among the most important of these. A movement that emerged in the late 1980s, cyberlibertarianism is defined by the belief that “freedom will emerge inherently from the increasing development of digital technology,” as David Golumbia puts it in The Politics of Bitcoin (2016). Cypherpunk followed soon after, with its promise that, roughly, Public Cryptography + the Internet = Freedom.

Bitcoin was never meant for the wide world; the wide world was meant to be refashioned in its image.

May and other early cypherpunks (including Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation John Perry Barlow) self-mythologized as cowboys, staking out unclaimed digital homesteads while erecting fences to keep out their hated tax collectors. Their unlimited virtual vistas looked, strangely enough (or perhaps not so strangely), a lot like our American frontier past. It this mythology, more than anything else, that has shaped our current understanding of cryptocurrency’s possibilities, as a recent book by Thomas Rid makes clear. Rid may track the Rise of the Machines (2016), but when he turns to the topic of cyberlibertarianism, he shows how insistently its adherents gaze back at the concerns of classical political theory, notably the relationship between the sovereign and the citizen.

Public-key encryption, the basis for Signal, PGP, Tor, and basically any contemporary way to protect yourself from surveillance (outside of smashing your iPhone with a brick), was vitally important to the cyberlibertarians. As Rid explains, public-key encryption amounts to “the recipient . . . add[ing] noise to the signal and then subtract[ing] it afterward”; this creates an unbreakable code without using a preordained codebook. Developed in 1973 by the British intelligence organization GCHQ, such cryptography was closely protected by intelligence services. The NSA used threats and gag orders to stop academics from publishing on it, but the cypherpunks eventually managed to circumvent their federal foes. As the old adage goes, information wants to be free, but data wants to be expensive.

Yet even as the cyberlibertarians pushed for an end to elite monopolies on the flow of information, they were also in thrall to right-wing extremist thought, which aims to fashion a future out of an idealized past. Golumbia points to cyberlibertarian dependence on the writings of “Friedrich August von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, Rothbard, and others,” and Rid points out that May so idolized Nietzsche that he named his cat after him. A purely digital currency, anonymous and untied to any national currency, was to be the cyberlibertarians next project. Yet digital currency, first conceived of by OG cypherpunk David Chaum in 1983, proved remarkably difficult to create, partially due to problems of verification outside of state banking, and it took more than twenty years for the cypherpunks’ ideological inheritors to suggest a workable solution.  

When the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto invented the blockchain in 2008, he solved the problem of verification, securing bitcoin transactions by solving complex math problems. As Adam Rothstein puts it in The End of Money (2017), “No one ‘sends’ the coins anywhere. They just update the blockchain to reflect who owns what.” This makes counterfeiting impossible, thus eliminating the need for treasury agents and the state that employs them. But Golumbia argues that Bitcoin and the blockchain itself “satisfy needs that make sense only in the context of right-wing politics”—a politics designed to benefit the few and only the few.

Because bitcoin, by design, “floats free of any anchor to ordinary valuing processes,” its ability to serve as a unit of account (a fundamental function of money) is deeply compromised. Golumbia posits that “if states were to go away and if entire economies existed in Bitcoin, then it could become money.” These are extraordinarily big “if”s, and when the mainstream defenders of the blockchain trumpet the blockchain’s potential as a democratic tool, they tend to pretend otherwise. This may be why many of us have been watching Bitcoin’s recent dramas with a sense of confused expectancy.

Can cryptocurrency ever step off of its Nietzschean tightrope or burn down its cowboy kitsch?

It may also be why most of us have trouble defining what Bitcoin is, instead of what it could be. Bitcoin isn’t a technology designed to flow around nation-states, as it’s often depicted; it isn’t even fully anonymous, as the blockchain contains information that, with sufficient legwork, can be used to identify its transactors. Instead, Bitcoin is a speculation. Its proponents have made a big bet that the concept of the nation-state will soon go up in flames. Meanwhile, the continued mining of bitcoin, which has a fixed possible number (21 million), will drive up the value of the existing supply. In the perverse future of which these speculators dream, Bitcoin is the only money, and the wealthiest will be those who bought in early and held out through the dark times. The geek-Übermensch May envisioned will reign.

Can cryptocurrency, then, ever be repurposed for any sort of collectivist or radically transparent program? Can it ever step off of its Nietzschean tightrope or burn down its cowboy kitsch? Rothstein’s book suggests that as much as get-rich individualism is baked into Bitcoin’s past, its survival now hinges on community. Randomized proof-of-work, which is how the blockchain is stabilized and verified, is essential to its integrity and to the continued existence of Bitcoin. If three computers run a blockchain, they all have fairly equal shots at generating false side chains to substitute for the real thing; this means bitcoin-holders could have their holdings deleted from their accounts, their financial histories unwritten.

It wasn’t until “more people downloaded the software and set their computers to perform the tasks necessary to generate the currency” that Bitcoin began to approach something like solidity. A large number of computers on the network also protects from a “51% Attack,” wherein a false blockchain is generated by an “attacking computer . . . faster than all other computers on the network combined.” If any single conglomerate manages to achieve 51% of the mining, the blockchain becomes similarly vulnerable. Hence the decentralization of cryptocurrency is inherently written into the system, not by the politics of its inventors but by the limitations of the technology. As Rothstein writes, “The solution is to make sure that no individual has this control of the blockchain, by making sure that everyone does.”

And so here we are, teetering between one future and another. Rothstein argues that Satoshi Nakamoto’s departure from public life means there is “no major figure to deliver pronouncements about the direction that development should take.” So at least we know that Bitcoin is not the most obvious path towards authoritarianism (although the fan-boy love from neo-reactionaries certainly suggests that the two are not totally unrelated).

Tomorrow won’t bring any cryptocurrency singularity, or the day after that. Having reached an all-time high of $3,018.54 on June 11 (according to coindesk), Bitcoin has since dipped back down to $2,594.45 (as of the exact second of this writing). And then there’s the matter of the possible upcoming fork, with the blockchain splitting to help accommodate processing, creating vulnerabilities for the falsification-counterfeiting mentioned above. This volatility might mirror our current political turbulence nicely, but it’s worth remembering that Bitcoin has profited off political anxieties in the past, with surges coming in the wake of Brexit and the U.S. presidential election. Meanwhile with the introduction of ICOs, there is the possibility that Bitcoin has a more robust future as a commodity, rather than a currency. True cryptocurrency, like communism, remains aspirational. For now.