Cryptocurrency was born as a political project. It emerged from obscure mailing lists and libertarian online forums, blending Austrian economics and computer science, gesturing towards a promised land of individual-to-individual interactions, no middlemen, and governments unable to stop dirty money or fleeing capitals flowing through the internet. That was always the ambition, even if the facts – and the technical implementations – often told a more nuanced tale.
Today a lot of that risks being lost in the noise. Big tech and central banks are locked in a standoff that might result in digital cash flooding everyone’s phone. Bitcoin is an asset hoarded by high-flying financiers congregating in Swiss hamlets and, in the same breath, governments are stiffening their stances, as in the case of the US and the UK’s crackdown on cryptocurrency derivative trading.
Online scams involving cryptocurrency happen almost daily, with a July 2020 heist involving the hijacking of 130 high-calibre Twitter accounts (including Elon Musk’s, Joe Biden’s and Barack Obama’s) standing out for its boldness. New tokens are minted every day, always dancing on the line between shitcoin and useful technology.
Game-theory-proofed financial constructs have taken over the blockchain. The yen for decentralisation and disintermediation might still be there, but it is often covered in a patina of Wolf of Wall Street-esque insouciance.
The growing interest in Bitcoin from institutional investors and big businesses like car maker Tesla – which in February 2021 bought $1.5 billion in bitcoins, and whose CEO Elon Musk is a vocal cryptocurrency champion on Twitter – is an exceptional development whose long-term consequences are still hard to assess.
Well over a decade after Bitcoin’s debut, is cryptocurrency still political?
The easy answer is to say yes and point to the alt-right, the American rebrand of white supremacism for the Trump age. In March 2017, alt-right leader Richard Spencer did call Bitcoin ‘the currency of the alt right’.
A few months later, following the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – when tiki-torch-toting thugs marched across the town intoning, “Jews will not replace us”, and a far-right activist murdered a left-wing counter-protester – Bitcoin donations to far-right organisations and individuals spiked, according to data from blockchain analytics firm Chainalysis. That has persisted to the present day.
Between May 2014 and May 2020, Chainalysis figures found neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer had received the equivalent of more than $280,000 – most of it funnelled through gambling sites.
But it is hard to disentangle ideological affinities from sheer convenience. The ultra-libertarian economics and mistrust of the Federal Reserve that inspired Bitcoin’s creation might have been appealing to some members of the alt-right; it has even been suggested that cryptocurrency’s general anti-banker stance is rooted in anti-Semitic stereotypes and racism.
Yet the alt-right’s romance with cryptocurrency is more of a forced choice: as scrutiny around them has grown, mainstream payment processors like PayPal and Stripe started kicking alt-rightists and neo-Nazis off their platforms at an increasing rate. Bitcoin has become by necessity the only way the alt-right could receive donations – exactly like criminals or Islamic State terrorists.
To hear a (slightly) more articulate political vision hinging on cryptocurrency, however, one does not have to move too far along the political spectrum. In March 2018, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist – and Brock Pierce’s erstwhile business partner – Stephen K. Bannon took to a stage in Zurich and announced that he was launching a populist political movement along the lines of the Donald Trump and Brexit campaigns, and that cryptocurrency would lie at the heart of it.
“That new currency is going to empower this movement, empower companies, empower governments to get away from the central banks that debase your currency and make you what is slave wages – keep you on the spinning wheel of slaves to debt,” Bannon said.
Weeks later he revealed that he was in the process of building “utility tokens for the populist movement”, which would let his followers earn some kind of benefit in exchange for their political activism. As of 2020, Bannon’s ambition to create a Europe-wide nationalist group, called the Movement, had barely registered; no populist token has yet been launched.
Perhaps, however, neither the alt-right’s Richard Spencer nor Bannon should be regarded as significant – if anything, because they have barely any idea of what they are dealing with: they cannot fully appreciate the technology’s potential because they cannot design and work with the technology themselves. For crypto-politics to take off in this sphere, its architects will have to come from within the field of cryptocurrency.
Cryptocurrency (WIRED guides): How Digital Money Could Transform Finance by Gian Volpicelli is out 15th July.