We can’t escape the 19th century and its monsters. Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud are the acid bath that dissolved the Christian subject by accusing it of biological strategies, a will-to-power, production relations, unconscious sexual drives. The thinkers are perhaps the most articulate symptoms of a historically emerging clinical eye that inevitably redefines the metaphysical as process structured by violence. Hence the 19th century spirit inevitably aims for that quality seal of an original and interested violence as the endpoint of all analysis: After all, it is the only bottom line it can truly trust and that can reliably stabilize reality. We’re witnessing the prevalence of this zeitgeist in popular aphorisms and prejudice — progressively outlawed in the late 20th century for the purposes of social engineering– reemerging in the form of the internet’s thirst for the power-knowledge of the “redpill.” The internet esotericism of the redpill is chtonic. It drags down towards the biological ground and into the dirt, postulates a return of the real and cuts excess culture it denounces as mystification. Nothing escapes its spiteful pull and its social output of critical masses second-guessing high-minded ideas subjecting them to the most ruthless criticism.
Meanwhile, the 20th century has already proven that despite the most sobering of 19th-century attacks and sophisticated onslaught, God refuses to die. His monopoly market days for the sky-cult, however, are also numbered: Eclectic short-term spirituality fills in against the horror vacui of meaningless existence lacking the distinction and sublime beauty of old-school Catholic Mass, postulating instead various shapes of political ideology and secular techno-utopia — at times flavored as spiritually stunted cosmist psychosis or various shades of tasteless Promethean immoderation. Often the common structuring promise is to develop technological fixes for social and biological problems.
The Bitcoin protocol as a sustainable and superior alternative to traditional currency appears in this legacy, albeit as a sophisticated and measured form of techno-optimism. The idea is tempting. Bitcoin, as the ur-crypto currency is transparent, intrinsically limited, secure, and theoretically offers a stable development of value (minus the unknown of speculation). The sophistication of its protocol is alternatively stunning to downright eerie. Bitcoin presents itself as “a system for electronic transactions without relying on trust” heralded in by the transparency of the blockchain, a decentralized and thus practically incorruptible system providing a significant advantage over the obscure mechanisms of fractional-reserve banking.
Now, being a 19th-century spirit amongst 19th-century spirits, I know that the phrase you just stumbled over was “not relying on trust.” It sounds like a suspiciously high-minded claim, so lets have a second look. Bitcoin markets itself as the neutral arbiter of transparency. Its claim is perhaps ultimately contemporary in an age so profoundly marked by the expectation of total or partial state or currency collapse. Dwelling in paranoia as a metaphysical condition, the Bitcoin community thus even prepared for the currency’s perennity in the case of sustained internet outages through the use of SMS and even radio transmissions.
But as a 19th century spirit, you’re, of course, interested in the gory stuff. Where’s the original violence? If cybersecurity strategies are any indication, there are still solutions if one aims to compromise an actor. If it is not the protocol which is imperfect, it is of course everything around it which is still subject to the laws of politics. From US military strategy we know that it is ultimately the mind that has no firewall. Hence, in the crypto security stack, head for the user layer! As internet-dystopia-hardened 19th century spirits, we leave unnamed the number of ways a malign panicking state actor would lead its campaign against crypto owners challenging currency as a core governance function, particularly in times of crisis. On the softer end, it can use taxation, highly mediatized legal sanctions against companies and individuals for non-compliance. Perhaps this is the reason why Bitcoin still somewhat nervously looks to the state actors’ acceptance it was originally set up to ignore. While it is true that, particularly with increasing distribution states can’t entirely destroy Bitcoin’s value, they can make it significantly more costly to use it and less convertible and usable which should be an important argument for most of the populace excluding principled actors willing to take into account the fiercest of such troubles. Certainly, this doesn’t lessen the importance of blockchain technology as a whole, but it calls into question the use of any specific cryptocurrency whose value in large parts depends on adoption and tradability.
We thus suspect that currency trust, adoption and value has never really been about transparency of process. The weird thing about trust is that despite knowing the obscure ex nihilo creations of trillions of dollars and overwhelming distrust of the Fed, the ECB or the respective governments for fiscal responsibility, we still viscerally trust the greenback when forced to choose. Our instincts being formed by the violence of the past, what we do trust in is in the historical precedent of the state guarantee linking the US production apparatus to the US violence apparatus. The former produces high quality shiny consumer goods and the world’s greatest propaganda, the latter creates a global lethal threat to force the dollar upon a great part of the world to use its as the lead currency for raw material trading in the post Bretton Woods system. After all, it was not intellectual or procedural inferiority that made Gaddafi’s gold-backed Dinar fail. The violence investment of taking out Saddam and Gaddafi or of sanctions and political hostility towards all those challenging the world financial system is non-negligible precedent. Excluding physical commodities, we thus continue to trust in the US Dollar as the currency choice for the state of exception and most forms of secular apocalypse.
Since you already see where this is going, the next question is, of course, “How many divisions does crypto have?” Is it really crypto’s impeccable protocol that makes it so sustainably valuable or is it its birth connection to the internet dark-markets which makes it convertible into the offline supercurrencies of drugs, guns and slave labour? If there’s an army defending crypto, it would be the international networks of mafias, drug dealers, of sex and human traffickers and of parapolitical actors and their interest in sustaining a transnational, selectively invisible (i.e. invisible to a large fraction of state actors and law enforcement) and permissive dark economy. Since such networks are by now constituting a non-negligible force in international relations, willed by the structure of the international system, this is actually an argument in favour of the sustainability of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
The question is, then, what happens to defensive crypto if things are actually going “well” politically? (Don’t worry, they don’t seem to be.) If what we’re observing is in an age of deglobalization, a move towards multipolarity of the international system, of a sovereignist reterritorialisation including of the internet, that might just be bad news for crypto, which has a non-state and international DNA. If we’re in an age of “draining the swamp” and shutting down the dark markets and its parapolitical pillars that would probably also be bad for crypto. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: You will never eradicate crime completely, but there’s differences in scale between US-Mexico and lets say North Korea. And if there’s no guaranteed exit to trade your bitcoins into a suitcase of easily marketable heroin, what are you left with?
Ah, that’s right: Trust that there is trust in the perfection of its protocol.
Nicolas Hausdorf is a German editor, analyst, and essayist based in Melbourne. His essay “Superstructural Berlin,” an experimental sociology and pulp theory of Germany’s capital (with illustrations by Alexander Goller) has been published by Zero Books. He tweets at @dcntrrr.