It all started with a white paper published in 2008. An unknown innovator under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto outlined an open source protocol for a public ledger that has come to be known as Bitcoin – which among other things is a peer-to-peer form of
digital cash. Five years since its inception, more people are coming to recognize the revolutionary force behind the underlying technology
of the Bitcoin blockchain that enables this decentralized network to achieve consensus amongst strangers at a global scale.
The disruptive force this innovation brings to existing systems is enormous. From potentially replacing the remittance industry to empowering the underbanked and those whose currencies are tightly controlled and subject to hyperinflation, the world is just beginning to see its effects in the financial realm. This capacity of Bitcoin to transform society is attracting activists and global citizens dedicated to promoting equality and a more just world. In particular, the ability of the blockchain’s decentralized trust to build a truly peer-to-peer platform for transactions is a very powerful force for those who seek to flatten the current hierarchical system that favors the one percent oligarchs who have their hands on the levers of power.
Yet as with any new invention in its early phase, many are still skeptical and hesitant to get behind this technology. They call for a more critical examination of Bitcoin as a digital currency. One argument revolves around perceived inequalities embedded within the design of the currency that create certain privilege of early adopters. The contention is that Bitcoin is centralized; that roughly half of all bitcoins belong to around 927 individuals. If true, this puts half of the world’s Bitcoin currency in the hands of a tenth of a percent of all accounts. A Washington Post published an article called, “Forget the 1 percent. In the Bitcoin world, half the wealth belongs to the 0.1 percent”. It called out Bitcoin’s apparent inequality and highlighted the gap between those who own Bitcoin and those who don’t.
All new technology takes time for mainstream adoption and in the beginning it is inevitable that the user base and innovator pool are relatively small. This is certainly true with Bitcoin. Compared to the situation in its early stages, bitcoin adoption now is moving very quickly. That said, what lies beneath this concern about the imbalance between users appears to be a fear that Bitcoin early adopters could end up replacing the current 1% oligarchy of bankster gangs of Wall Street and Goldman Sachs and would simply recycle the old world order of robber-baron capitalism. So the question arises, could Bitcoin’s revolutionary potential be overshadowed by this imagined pitfall, or worse yet become just another tool for neoliberal forces? By engaging this question, we can deepen our understanding of the genius and revolutionary potential of this innovation.
Perhaps the ideal currency in the minds of some of those who criticize Bitcoin’s perceived design of inequality is one that could bring all of Bitcoin’s positive features without creating so-called ‘early adopters’. For this to happen, coins would need to be premined and distributed to all people equally while still achieving the massive hashing power needed to secure the system from any external force determined to hijack or compromise it. This all sounds good, but practically speaking, who has the resources to set it in motion and bring it to that point?
These kinds of efforts might be achieved at a local and smaller scale, like Auroracoin in Iceland, even though it was reported that the experiment stumbled with problems in its design that caused a dramatic drop in value. In addition to scale vulnerability of the blockchain hashing power with a smaller currency, the larger question remains regarding how to effectively challenge the current global cartel of Western financial institutions that have over the years undermined sovereignty of local communities and destroyed whole countries through limiting access to payment networks, debt peonage, rent seeking and money printing. How is it possible to create a common currency that connects people around the world in a truly peer-to-peer way without it being intermediated or hijacked by a patronage network of states and corporate banksters that regularly steal from the commons and act against the interests of the people?
The creation of Bitcoin and its ecosystem follows a trend of decentralization that has emerged in recent years, such as the Occupy movement’s leaderless horizontal organizing, the Free and Open Source Software movement and collaborative production like Wikipedia and Linux. In traditional movements, a group of individuals or a particular organization takes the lead and organizes the cause. Activists generally struggle to fund their efforts, as altruism does not get rewarded financially in the current extreme capitalistic environment. Across the board in struggles for social justice, funding is often the most challenging issue. Identified leaders communicate the purpose of a project and rely on existing networks and systems for funding and material support. Oftentimes for the sake of efficiency and lack of alternatives, such organizing tends to crystallize into another form of hierarchy.
In addition, over the years, the old methods of dissent and social change have been shown to be less and less effective. Establishment forces target leaders and recognized organizers as a point of control for co-option and weakening movements. This is likely one reason why the inventor of Bitcoin decided to be anonymous and minimize his influence in the operation. Any open declaration of resistance against state and corporate power will not go unnoticed and a direct confrontation with the establishment is inevitable if what is created is at all effective. Such efforts are often met with attacks and in most cases easily squashed.
In a case of building Bitcoin network, the hashing infrastructure of the Bitcoin blockchain needed to attain a stable and impervious size before it could go truly viral and gain more mainstream appeal. Early on, Satoshi Nakamoto appeared to have strong concerns for protecting the development of the software against any just such external threats. This revelation surfaced in Julian Assange’s latest book “When Google Met WikiLeaks”. In a footnote, the founder of WikiLeaks depicted an alliance with Bitcoin community that goes back years before this new cryptographic invention matured into the currency of contagious courage it has become (bitcoin was eventually used to support funds for WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden).
In December 2010, just after WikiLeaks faced the unlawful financial blockade imposed by Bank of America, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union, a debate emerged on the Bitcoin Forum, concerning a risk that using bitcoin for donations to WikiLeaks could “provoke unwanted government interest in the then nascent crypto-currency”. Responding to one poster who welcomed such challenge, Nakamoto emphasized the importance of protecting the software development at this early stage. “Bitcoin is a small beta community in its infancy. You would not stand to get more than pocket change and the heat you would bring would likely destroy us at this stage.” Six days later Nakamoto disappeared from the Bitcoin community. WikiLeaks read the analysis, agreed with his view and decided to postpone launching the Bitcoin donation until the currency attained stability.
Perhaps past protest and resistance movements can teach us something. In order for the creation of an alternative system to be truly effective, it needs to be subversive and under the radar until it gains strength. In a sense, Bitcoin is a living example of such an effective decentralized organization. After 5 years of existence, it has created the largest global network of supercomputing power. It has now grown to such a level that it is virtually impossible for one nation-state or corporation to undermine or hijack the network.
The idea of blockchain crypto-currency was put forward in 2008. The following year the Bitcoin software was launched and the first blockchain network came into existence by miners producing and transacting bitcoins. Someone had to do the early work of building of this open source ledger and securing the system at a time when few would even believe it possible or support this innovation. Where did the impetus for this work come from?
The unfolding process of the growing Bitcoin ecosystem can be looked at as an expression of a phenomenon called the “Swarm”. Rick Falkvinge, founder of the first Pirate Party describes the Swarm as a new style of organizing. He explains how this differs both from an egalitarian way of working where no single person or group has authority for guiding the process. He notes how it is a “scaffolding set up by a few individuals that enables tens of thousands of people to cooperate on a common goal in their life.” Falkvinge describes a Swarm is driven by voluntarism. People join the cause because they believe in the idea. There is no leader, but each person’s action inspires others and guides the Swarm in moving forward together.
Bitcoin is an open source project that generates a Swarm effect. From outside, this might appear mysterious or unsettling with its lack of a traditional core. Some have difficulty believing there is no controlling authority and are compelled to try to unveil a “ghost outside the machine”. Whether it is innovation or activism, people tend to first look for some subversion behind a seemingly progressive idea and then look for individuals or entities that are possibly pulling strings to divert the original intention. This can be a healthy skepticism, yet in the case of Bitcoin, there is no company, director or physical entity. There are no CEOs, no offices; no group of individuals running the operation.
At this time, the origin of the blockchain technology has been traced only to an anonymous unknown creator. The idea itself is not attached to a particular individual or group. It is somewhat similar to the way the online collective Anonymous express themselves as simply “ideas without origin” and claim that “there is no authorship … no control, no leadership, only influence, the influence of thought”.
Bitcoin is simply an ingenious idea and an open source computer code that anyone can read, take up, modify and develop. Whoever created it didn’t give it only to specific people, but instead made it accessible to everyone in the world. Doug Carrillo, founder of Bitstop.co tweeted, “Satoshi’s greatest gift was uniting all the intelligent, altruistic, visionary people from all over the world working on Bitcoin”. The impulse that got this global currency enterprise going was this gift of protocol.
— Doug (@docbtc) September 8, 2014
One notable characteristic that emerged within the Swarm surrounding the Bitcoin ecosystem is the creation of an unique form of volunteerism. Volunteering is generally associated with charity; one gives time, resources and skills for free. Traditionally one does not expect their work to be compensated. The Bitcoin ecosystem generates a new volunteerism in the form of innovation without permission, where those who engage both generate and expand new economic activity simply by creating, acquiring or using the currency. The value they create and the efforts that support it are rewarded in a way that strengthens the system as a whole, while further encouraging innovation on the edges. This all works with a network effect where voluntary peer-to-peer interaction creates and expands an autonomous zone impervious to patronage and monopolization. Each person moves toward something they believe in, while building a kind of common wealth that inspires further participation.
This is made possible through one particular feature of the Bitcoin currency. When we look at Bitcoin technology as a distributed trust foundation upon which global society is building a network that empowers everyone, we can begin to understand the brilliance of its design and why its first application is an open source mineable currency.
With a cap of 21M, Bitcoin has a fixed monetary policy. This design seems deflationary in fiat economy terms, yet Bitcoin’s infinite divisibility (8 decimal points and more if consensus is reached) makes it possible to accommodate any level of economic growth. Some view this design as an inherent flaw, arguing that it rewards early adopters and encourages hoarding, yet this element has played a crucial role in the development of the blockchain. It provided a way of building a global public asset ledger through integrating a reward structure by means of increasingly difficult proof of work tied to network capacity and value expansion.
This all functions as an incentive for volunteerism by creating the Swarm, which creator of Netscape and early web browsers Marc Andreessen characterizes as “a four-sided network effect”, namely “four constituencies that participate in expanding the value of Bitcoin”. Andreessen explains these 4 participants as “(1) consumers who pay with Bitcoin, (2) merchants who accept Bitcoin, (3) “miners” who run the computers that process and validate all the transactions and enable the distributed trust network to exist, and (4) developers and entrepreneurs who are building new products and services with and on top of Bitcoin”. This design, combined with unparalleled flow and infinite divisibility creates an open source network effect – not just squared, but cubed.
The Bitcoin incentive structures have shown to be very effective. Bitcoin is expanding infrastructure with ATMs and exchanges and improved POS interfaces. When people are invested enough in something, it motivates them to solve challenges that come along the way. In fact, it has generated enough incentive to make people keep the network decentralized and avoid the issue of a 51% attack (the phenomenon of concentration of a hashing majority and temporary takeover by one mining pool). Each member of the global mining pool has a strong incentive to strengthen and maintain the integrity of the system.
Many early adopters put resources into creating new start-ups to support the ecosystem. After becoming the first major retailer to accept Bitcoin globally, Overstock announced it would donate four percent of cryptocurrency revenue to foundations that promote the use of digital currency in the world. A new Bitcoin Exchange in Norway is reported to donate 5% of their profits to charities fighting poverty.
Bitcoin is an open source project that is self-organized and crowd-sourced by all who are involved in it. Early adopters are like shareholders who also can take responsibility for maintaining the system. Although justification of the percentage of reward accruing to them may be debatable, if we look at how vital their role was in building the system and the risk they took early on in supporting the innovation, it looks different. One should also note that their accumulation of bitcoin was not made through cheating, manipulation and exploitation like with fiat and debt ownership, so we may be compelled to draw more nuanced conclusions about this perceived inequality.
Genesis Block and the Network of Affinity
So what was the idea encoded in protocol that set this in motion? Bitcoin is a neutral technology, yet the genesis of the idea is not neutral. It had clear political implications. The Bitcoin protocol emerged during the financial crisis of 08 and the creator was aware of how badly governments were handling monetary policies. The first block of the Bitcoin blockchain known as the genesis block includes the following quote in its metadata. “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.” Although this might have been intended to be just a timestamp, his choice of this Times of London article as a date of proof might give a sense of his background motivation.
Satoshi’s white paper pointed to the “inherent weakness of trust based model” of the existing financial system and proposed “an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof” as a viable alternative. The Bitcoin open source protocol was a response to the crisis of the existing centralized financial system. Over time, this has created a network of affinity through voluntary association and mutual aid based on trust in the common person.
In this network, individuals out of themselves turn their computers into mines. Out of themselves they create start-ups and test the system. Some might be driven to earn bitcoin or build a cutting edge business, while others are motivated by a principle and vision of a decentralized future and redistribution of power. Whatever the motives driving users, miners and innovators, by choosing to be a part of Bitcoin network, they are all bound by one shared idea – that of supporting and maintaining the integrity of the public ledger for all the world to use.
This may remind us of what fueled the Occupy Movement. In fall of 2011, people from all walks of life came together in lower Manhattan. There were socialists, libertarians, housewives, anarchists and teachers. Those whose houses were foreclosed, students with onerous debt, businessmen – all came together because they could see how the system was rigged against them. They were not willing to put up with the current hierarchical financial and economic system that is run and controlled by the 1%. Their shared frustration became a network of affinity bringing people together to engage in efforts to solve problems of corrupt hierarchical institutions and false forms of representation. Through activating trust in one another, they attempted to create a peer-to-peer decentralized network. They were willing to work together and abide by this particular protocol of consensus and egalitarian form of decision-making.
Bitcoin is a similar social movement empowered by decentralized consensus decision-making processes. While the Occupy movement was crushed by a brutal police force as it tried to build decentralized networks on existing centralized corporate occupied territory, with Bitcoin, a whole new network is built upon a distributed trust platform that is structurally autonomous and out of reach of any private third party authority. We now have an alternative to over-centralized social forms that were programmed to manage wealth and resources for the rich and powerful and can enter into a network of peers impervious to these forces of control.
As noted, some see and criticize the existence of privilege within this Bitcoin network of affinity. Yet the issue of equality disparity was brought up even within the 99%. Concerns surfaced within Occupy that it was not truly addressing issues of racism and class divides. In the U.S, the Occupy movement arose mostly out of white middle-class issues such as mortgages and student loans, while for people of color in US cities like Oakland and Detroit, the oppressive issues were more about police brutality, not having grocery stores in their community and lack of the basic work and means to fulfill the needs of everyday life.
The same thing might be said about the Bitcoin network, as it is potentially composed of people of different backgrounds, nationalities, cultures or economic classes, within which there is clear inequality. This is really a reflection of our current social structure that carries a long history of colonialism in the form of Western hegemony. Despite all the differences, there is one thing in common. Participation in the blockchain network is voluntary. Both with the Occupy network motto of “In Each Other We Trust” and with Bitcoin, those who are in it choose to join because they see what an improvement it is over the current system and how it could at least offer benefit beyond monopolized rent seeking for oligarchic powers.
Whatever incentives bring people into the network, by joining they are working to build on the genesis idea that brought them together. It is to eliminate the need for central authority and replace hierarchical third party based representative forms of governance with a truly peer-to-peer decentralized trust network. They do this by each person simply participating and becoming the change they wish to see in the world.
Beyond Levers of Control
Perhaps in transitioning into the Bitcoin ecosystem, the biggest challenge we face is the limit of our ability to imagine. Corporate colonization has not only created vast inequality of wealth by way of an economy based on exploitation and wars, but its real damage was creating a poverty of the mind that cuts humanity off from its connection to the earth. It captured the imagination into materialistic economy of exploitation and extraction and many no longer think with the earth as the First Nations used to do.
We are now so used to centrally planned and hierarchically organized societies, it is difficult for many to imagine how a truly decentralized society might work. People are conditioned by the old paradigm and tend to look for levers of control even where there are none. They cannot even imagine a system that does not create such points of control. So when faced with the idea of a Bitcoin 1%, so called early adopters, it is easy to automatically apply the current reality of the 1% that can print money at will, create debt slavery and rent seek at every choke point. Some fail to understand how radically different the Bitcoin ecosystem is from the existing centrally controlled economy and forms of governance.
Let’s examine this more closely. The existing fiat world is organized by physical and social confinement of populations within nation-state boundaries, where sovereignty of nations ostensibly determines currency and monetary policy. Creation of currency has been enforced by monopolies by means of taxation. This central authority creates levers of control that are now mostly co-opted by corporations. These levers prevent ordinary people from fully counting themselves in as the true source of legitimacy. It creates a chain of command where institutions and professionals can gain power to coerce others to serve the interests of those at the top of the hierarchy and make people work against their own interests.
In this environment, accumulation of money can be easily translated to power and corruption. We see how this has panned out in history. Those who have money can control the flow, get to the top of the system, buy politicians and even take over governments. As a result, we now have a massive inequality where a tiny percent of the population, 0.001 percent controls access to the majority of the wealth and transactional flow of the entire world.
In the last few decades, this corruption reached an extreme level after taking the dollar off the gold standard, with the Federal Reserve and other private central banks (private corporations) using this power to print money out of thin air. With this and the monopolization of banks and payment systems, they maintained massive power to fund divisive resource wars and debase currency through inflation. This is now destroying the middle class and slowly turning the whole population toward a medieval-like debt servitude. Bitcoin completely challenges this system of control through enabling a decentralized network that cuts out third parties that create monopolies and insidious levers of control.
Money as Flow
In the Bitcoin distributed trust network, there are no choke- and checkpoints. Currency gains its true meaning – pure flow. What would it be like if currency functions as flow rather than a form of control? As we move into a more decentralized future, the current hierarchical institutions and central authorities lose power. In the Bitcoin network, accumulation of money is not easily translated into power over others. All that those 1% Bitcoin adopters can do with their acquired money is to spend it. They cannot interfere with or undermine the integrity of the value transfer network. They cannot print more and debase the whole system and they can’t rent seek each transaction.
So let’s imagine a scenario where they try to buy up all the media, lobby politicians and buy real estate and land. With new blockchain based social media and forms of crowd-funding and micro-payments, it will become harder for big media organizations to own the airwaves, to control and dictate narratives. Also, it would be difficult for individuals and corporations to buy up politicians, as their transactions are transparent in the blockchain and private agendas would be harder to hide. Besides, politicians will themselves become increasingly irrelevant as taxation is completely transformed in a Bitcoin world.
In a Bitcoin ecosystem, the familiar world crumbles. It is an entirely new world. A 1% here looks a lot different than the 1% in the current fiat world. This is a world where people interact through voluntary association rather than coerced will. The current monopolies seen in the existing financial system would become difficult to maintain. It makes the government more transparent and eventually more accountable.
Perhaps the larger ramification of the blockchain invention is the potential of code to facilitate an equal application of law that ensures the principle of consensus. If a Bitcoin 1%er wants to buy land from farmers or even buy whole cities, the land owners would have to be willing to sell. People won’t as easily be manipulated and forced to act against their will. In a Bitcoin decentralized society, farmers and others have a choice to say no and this ability of each person to decide what to consent to defines personal power.
In the world created through this two-way voluntary participation, accumulation of money or goods means isolation. If one wants to create a society of control and domination, it would have to be a little pond kingdom where one can maintain an illusion of control. But the same rules of consensus apply and the participation in this pond is also voluntary. Everyone can freely choose what kind of community and people they wish to associate with.
As the two worlds interface at this early stage, some voice concern about the current 1% trying to buy up bitcoin. But if they do this in order to maintain the current power which they gained in the fiat world, they will shoot themselves in the foot. They cannot buy out the system, but can only buy into the new network just like everyone else, which would only lead to expanding and strengthening the decentralized network and accelerating the demise of the fiat system itself and the illegitimate authority that goes with it.
The Bitcoin network creates decentralized consensus at a large scale without anyone in the middle. Can we really understand the significance of this and imagine what a future created through a truly peer-to-peer network looks like?
With the invention of the blockchain, we are entering into a new era. Security expert and technologist Andreas Antonopoulos describes how up till 2008, sovereignty created currency. He notes how the world of sovereign currency ended in 2008 and that after 2008, currencies could be created by individuals. When broadly adopted, these currencies create their own sovereignty and purchasing power.
The current sociopolitical system is built on a long history of colonization. Western civilization has a dark past of violence, brutal subjugation of indigenous people to enforce domination and resource extraction. This unredeemed shadow is carried on even now as a force that has morphed into a pervasive globalized corporate power with its privatization and financialization of everyday life.
While the concept of sovereignty in the current nation-state paradigm is based on a colonial mentality where independence of a country was attained through conquest of others, the blockchain invention opens a door for a new kind of sovereignty, one that is not based on the logic of control and domination, but through mutually shared ideals and voluntary association.
Bitcoin is the world’s first stateless currency that transcends borders in a similar way as the Internet. Its unmediated flow delivers more power to the periphery. As a result it could dissolve the hegemony of U.S. empire and end the monarchy of the petrodollar that controls flows of oil, finance and global geopolitics. This could potentially shrink the wealth gap between the Global South and the North. For the first time in history, humanity has the option to really heal the wound of long history of brutal colonization; to end major wars, transform poverty and inequality and move toward a more humane world. Humanity has a chance to embark on a new path, where technology of Western society is used to serve for the wisdom of indigenous cultures and together create a new civilization.
If we let the imagination follow its natural current freely, it leads into a future where collective creativity can solve the centralized problems of the old world. Even if Bitcoin as money dies tomorrow, that will only happen because a better designed blockchain cryptocurrency has come to replace it.
We don’t know exactly where this will go, as this kind of thing has never occurred before. But one thing is certain: The invention of the blockchain has already changed the world forever. No one can think of this world in the same way as before. The blockchain has already unleashed the flow of radical imagination, becoming the waves of uprising of a decentralized future.