Anything But Disruptive: Blockchain, Capital And A Case Of Fourth Industrial Age Enclosure


A critical turn is needed in discussions of blockchain — the tech that underpins the virtual currency bitcoin – especially with respect to it as a phenomenon of the so-called fourth industrial age.1 Many have been swept-up in (if not duped by) the swell of excitement around a technological architecture which appeared, at first sight, to puncture the power and hegemony of global financial capital. By “at first sight” I am of course referring to Satoshi Nakamoto’s infamous white paper which gave birth to Bitcoin and exposed blockchain – a distributed ledger and means of immutably timestamping digital and digitized information – to consciousness beyond that of computer science.2

Published at the very point that the scale of the 2007/08 financial crisis was coming to light, it is the opening line of the abstract to Satoshi’s paper that demands attention: “A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution” (my emphasis).3 In this brief and arresting statement Satoshi points to two important but, I argue, now essentially debased characteristics of blockchain: decentralization and disruption. Moreover, captured in Satoshi’s words is a clear ideological intent to circumvent the authority of (centralized) global financial capital. But, against a backdrop of accelerating advances in blockchain technology, this ideological intent is now in palpable decline in the face of a resurgent post-crisis Fintech industry under the sway of the same corporations Satoshi was so keen to avoid.

So, should we still take seriously the possibility that blockchain might still evolve into something other than capitalism’s latest technological fetish? Perhaps not. Blockchain is, after all, arguably a product of the capitalist imagination, albeit a marginal and anarchic species of capitalism outside the mainstream. And yet, within the origin myth of blockchain captured by Satoshi is the clear sense that the technology does not exist exclusively for the advantage of capitalism.

Accordingly, what is at stake here is political and ideological. Blockchain is the opening of a new contestable horizon in the cyber-social field, which is largely informed by the proliferation of enclosed blockchains (private permissioned ledgers), interpreted here as the latest (re)enactment of an imposition of capitalist property definitions on common cyber-space.4 By definition enclosed blockchains reject the concept of a permission-less, open and public blockchain, and thus erode the potential for radical transparency through blockchain-as-commons. The answer is to resist to this trend by using the capabilities and promise of the technology itself to counter enclosure.

The following two-part discussion will explore the ideological evolution of blockchain, marked by this recent stage in its development: the proliferation of private permissioned ledgers. In part one I will discuss how decentralization and in particular disruption are wholly inappropriate terms to apply to the context of blockchain as we presently find it, as well as in terms of the direction in which blockchain is heading under the control and cognizance of multiple Fintech consortia. In part two attention will turn more specifically to the matter of enclosure.

The Fallacy of Disruption

Somewhat against my nature I will begin with a sporting example as a means of explaining why I believe that talk of disruption surrounding blockchain (as well as other technologies in the Fintech domain and beyond) is nonsense. The example is short and to the point (the explanation will be a little longer): in football when a player has the ball and is tackled by a member of the opposing team, this does not change the fundamental nature of the game. Rather, it is part and parcel of the game as such. No one, spectators and players alike, is under any illusion that that particular tackle, or any tackle before or after, disrupts the game. Quite the reverse in fact. In watching a game of football spectators expect to see tackles. Similarly, players (or their managers or coaches) expect to make tackles and, in reply, be tackled.

Now, some might argue that something approaching disruption occurs in the momentum of the team that loses possession. But a tackle nevertheless remains a transient event or moment within the norms and expectations of ninety minutes of football. Of course, it might reasonably be said to disrupt the game if the tackle breaches the norms of the game, for example if it is overly physical and breaks the leg of a player. Although, even in that instance the game fundamentally remains the same into the future, it is simply the case that the injured player is replaced by another, or in an extreme event the game simply stops (and may even be replayed at a later date). A tackle might be considered game changing therefore, but it is not disruptive.

If, in our game of football, a player should suddenly decide to pick the ball up and run with it, this is something quite different. It may still be a game, but it is not football. In the first instance we recognise yet another transient and momentary breach of the norms of football for which the player will likely be penalised. The effect however will be that the game will revert to type soon thereafter (possibly minus the offending player). But what if, in the aftermath of that game, a critical mass of spectators and players decide that they actually liked the fact that the player picked the ball up and ran with it? That it was actually more fun for spectators to watch, and more enjoyable or meaningful a game to play? On the one hand you get the story of William Web Ellis and an origin myth for the game of rugby. For present purposes, however, you get a useful metaphor for what disruption actually is: an entirely new game, realised and actualised as a new set of norms and expectations. This new game is not something that occurs within an existing set of norms, nor can it rightfully be called anything as clichéd as “game changing”. Why? Because game changing events can still occur within the boundaries of existing norms. Thus, to step outside or break free from a prescribed set of norms (to handle a ball meant only to touch the feet) is to be truly disruptive, not least because it radically alters expectations within certain social conditions.

Blockchain as we presently find it, and based on where it appears to be heading given all the signals at the time of writing, is a mere a tackle in the game of capitalism; it is capital playing with capital and all other social concerns are essentially excluded. Blockchain, in that sense, is not radical but just another technological fetish, a play-thing in the hands of capital. Arguably, Satoshi tried to invent rugby (although that is not entirely clear and certainly open to debate – with or without the sports metaphor). But what we are now seeing is a resurgent premier league of global financial institutions intent on ensuring that blockchain remains a part of their game, whether as a substitute bit player or a key striker.

Having, I feel, well and truly exhausted the football metaphor, hopefully the point is clear. Disruption, so-called and preached by many of the major global banks, to the extent that IBM are now claiming that more than half of those banks will be using the technology in the next three years, is anything but disruption because it leaves unchanged the conditions (norms and expectations) in which it occurs, namely those in which global financial capital has exclusive dominion over the social.5 That is, the very same conditions Satoshi claimed blockchain (and Bitcoin) would, indeed must, circumvent as a part of a radically new decentralized global financial framework. An idea which is now fast losing traction in any meaningful way, and will doubtless end up as nothing more than a feature of blockchains own origin myth in years to come.

I accept that in reading Satoshi’s outline for a peer-to-peer electronic cash system there is no express suggestion that the intention was a counter or foil to capitalism as such. Indeed, many high-libertarians who believe in the incontrovertible good of free market competition would likely argue that attenuating or even dismantling the modes of centralized clearing, transaction and exchange that we presently see manifest in the financial services sector would free society and allow it to move towards a purer form of capitalism. The pendulum, therefore, swings both ways.

Libertarian perspectives certainly seem a good fit for the blockchain envisaged by Satoshi. Therefore, as a site for the implementation of (crypto)-currency exchange, the avowedly transparent public blockchain created by Bitcoin is an example of ultra-capitalism, not anti-capitalism, and indeed that general tenor is plain to see in blockchain development trends. Blockchain in that regard is the stuff of high-libertarian and anarcho-capitalist fantasies, and a long way from being the source of or basis for any entirely new post-capitalist games along egalitarian lines. That does not mean that blockchain should be disregarded yet by thinking that seeks either to check or go beyond capitalism. For example, in part two of this essay I will discuss one domain impacting social and ecological relations, provenance, in which blockchain is being mobilized, albeit in something of a comprised form, as a record to check the exploits of capitalism.

Blockchain, like most innovations in the capitalist domain of Fintech, is therefore not disruptive if we understand that term to mean a radical break from the existing norms of a particular form of socio-economic organization. Indeed, far from being disruptive blockchain is, on these terms, actually ultra-normative, especially in financial terms. In many ways this ultra-normativity can also help explain why lawyers, especially from major global firms used to dealing with equally major global financial institutions, who are drawn into frothy exchanges about the revolutionary potential of blockchain tend, quickly, to fall back into exceedingly banal explanations of where blockchain fits into existing legal/economic paradigms.6 In other words, some (high-powered) lawyers are baited by entrepreneurs and those further up the capitalist food-chain to engage in the idea that blockchain is forging a wholly new socio-economic reality, when indications are that blockchain is merely the latest pillar being used to prop-up the same old financial institutions. Hence, conclusions, at least from the point of view of doctrinal law, tend to pour cold water on the revolutionary fervour largely because blockchain, in the eyes of the law at least, is little more than indicative of the old adage, “nothing new under the sun”. Law, in that sense, is well placed to cut through the rhetoric.

Yet, we cannot underestimate the significant commercial potential blockchain presents, and thus the forceful desire of Fintech in particular to enjoy its latest technological fetish and have law structure this desire. This leads lawyers to engage, all too often, with blockchain innovation as if they were judges of a beauty pageant, their lustful gaze fixed on a pure entrepreneurial spirit that parades before them and exposes itself in all its lascivious financialized glory.7 Thus, in the end, law fails to call-out the nonsense it sees behind the rhetoric, and settles for a profitable dialogue with the entrepreneurial spirit on classic litigation concerns and how best, like the generations of risk-aware capitalists before them, the average entrepreneur might avoid liability when things go wrong, and live to profit another day.

What of the concept of decentralization – another of the foundational blockchain characteristics outlined by Satoshi? Here we find a strange twist in proceedings, because the signs are that leagues of financial and technological institutions want to promote decentralization, even as that appears to undermine the authority and control over the movement and flow of global finance and information of which they have become accustomed in the last twenty years or so. And yet, like disruption decentralization as talked about by the likes of Thomas Jordan, the president and chairman of the board of Switzerland’s central bank, is really nothing of the sort because it is, to all intents and purposes, a small and elite centralized dictate which is determining the form and substance that decentralization will ultimately take.8

Whether directly, through large research and development consortia consisting of global financial and technology corporations who are forging and shaping the myriad paths of decentralization in their own image, or indirectly, via investment in entrepreneurs and start-ups keen to promote and develop blockchain along manifold “decentralized” lines, decentralization is only ever occurring within the boundaries of existing capitalist norms and expectations. That is, decentralization is accepted as a method for the creation of new markets and enforcing longstanding (conservative) modes of productions. Indeed, the role of “start-ups” in respect of blockchain (and perhaps more broadly as well), is little more than outsourced research and development on behalf of the global financial and technological elites concerned with mitigating their direct exposure to the risks of backing new and potentially lacklustre technologies.

Moreover, decentralization is a canard because the general blockchain trend is not towards continuing to support decentralization per se in the form of the public blockchain. Rather it is towards private or permissioned ledgers against which the concept of decentralization means nothing. In other words, far from circumventing the institutions of global finance, these permissioned ledgers are set to become the sine qua non of future banking, even if this means, as the Bitfury Group and Jeff Garzik claim, ending up with a “third way” of merged or meta-chains incorporating public and private entities that soften the effects of privatization.9

Beyond the public and transparent blockchain, and thus any hope of preserving a common space if not exactly or politically-speaking a “commons”, we see a potent indication of the victories of normative liberal and, to a greater extent, global financial capitalism over the blockchain narrative. An ideological victory which is in no small part manifesting itself through the proliferation of permissioned enclosed ledgers which are altering the dynamic of blockchain development in ways that need resisting. As will discussed in part two of this essay, as ideological events these enclosures re-enact the enclosures of the first industrial age, but are also notable in the fate of a far more recent commons, the world Wide Web. Could this rejection of the commons signal a final strangulation of the concept of blockchain as a radically disruptive technology, or as in any way other to the needs and desires of capitalism?10

Under the aegis of a feverish entrepreneurial spiritualism and redoubled post-crisis capitalism of the fourth industrial age, the radical transparency and openness once promised by blockchain is in retreat.  We are witnessing blockchain-as-enclosure; enclosure through the proliferation of private permissioned ledgers, which are indicative of capitalism’s generalized tendency towards the imposition of property definitions on common (cyber)-space, and the promotion of non- or anti-relationality via forms of withdrawal, exclusivity and privatization.

Part II

In the first part of this two part essay, I argued that the oft-quoted notion of blockchain as “disruptive” was a fallacy.  In particular, when disruption confers upon blockchain a revolutionary character that attempts, falsely, to sustain the idea of it as a radical alternative to long-standing and well-rehearsed modes of financialization.  Moreover, it is the same global financial corporations who caused the 2007/08 global financial crisis, and who thus helped accelerate the birth of cryptocurrencies and blockchain as an attempt to negate centralized financial control, who have now taken firm control of the blockchain-as-disruption narrative.11 And, it is those same corporations who now lead the charge on blockchain enclosure.

The Enclosure Thesis

If we take seriously the importance of the dichotomy between the public (open, unpermissioned) and private (permissioned) blockchains that lies at the heart of the enclosure thesis, then it is a shift in cyberspace at the ideological level via an intentional withdrawal into exclusivity, and the erosion and impoverishment of technological potential, which is at stake in the future development of blockchain.

We have, of course, seen this recently with the internet and World Wide Web, the inventor of which, Tim Berners Lee, has been vocal in his opposition to, among other things, the issue of net neutrality.12 But as various Fintech consortia, including global accounting firms and large technology corporations like Microsoft and IBM, consolidate their grip on both the prevailing narratives and modes of implementation of blockchain architectures, the loss or collapse of the blockchain’s potential as a counter or foil to the hegemony of global financial capital (call it blockchain egalitarianism) seems likely.  And the echoes of the fate of the internet and World Wide Web only seem to get louder as the hyperbole surrounding blockchain continues to grow.

Tim Berners-Lee’s concerns over the future of his invention remain strident, and the parallels with blockchain are noteworthy. As the following report from The Guardian demonstrates:

[I]n spreading from the grassroots up, his invention has arguably lost many of the egalitarian principles Berners-Lee hoped for. It has become less straightforwardly a force for good. Earlier this month, Charles Leadbeater, former policy adviser to the Labour government and a champion of the web’s potential to give power to hitherto deprived groups, published a report called A Better Web for the Nominet Trust pointing to the pervasive misogyny of the web as an example of how the democratising potential of the internet has not been fulfilled.13

Enclosure was the sine qua non of early stages of capitalism and the first tentative steps of what Marx calls primitive accumulation and David Harvey has latterly called accumulation by dispossession. To be clear, however, a direct comparison between 18th century land enclosure and blockchain would be nonsense, or, at the very least, exceedingly hard to justify in the round.  Accordingly such a comparison is not the intention here.  Rather, enclosure is evoked primarily because it is indicative of capitalism’s desire to impose private-property definitions on common (cyber)-space, which leads, amongst other things, to the promotion of non- or anti-relationality via withdrawal, exclusivity and privatization.  Something, it should be noted, that in this instance only has a marginal impact upon the nature of the technology itself.  In other words, blockchain appears much the same whether in a private or public form.  Fintech consortia are busy ploughing a furrow in which to lay the seed for future development of exclusive and privatized blockchains capable of generating new and recycled revenue streams on behalf of large private commercial interests.  In other words, the Fintech ideology is monolithic in its concern to impose, indelibly, on the blockchain phenomenon the mark of capitalist property definitions.

“'[E]nclosures’ under the private and general Enclosure Acts”, Eric Hobsbawm reminds us, “broke up some six million acres of common fields and common lands from 1760 onwards, transformed them into private holdings, and numerous less formal arrangements supplemented them”.14  “[T]he social violence of enclosure consisted”, argues E.P. Thompson, “precisely in the drastic, total imposition … of capitalist property definitions”.15 Enclosure occurs therefore, not as a single event, but as a violent series of “less formal arrangements”.  In other words, there is more occurring outside of plain view of blockchain enclosure (in spite of the rhetoric!), and it effects are potentially far greater.

And, indeed, this would appear to be the case.  As a corollary to enclosure there are also calls to deregulate the financial and market landscape in which blockchain is already operating or being primed to operate in the near future.16  As a product of enclosure, this threat of further deeper deregulation of financial markets is arguably potentially more dangerous in the long term.  Enclosed permissioned blockchains therefore are not only being re-orientated and re-mobilized towards a contentious ideological (privatized) sphere, but in doing so a backdoor to further deregulation of markets is being opened.  Using blockchain to inaugurate further market deregulation, we might argue, returns us to the fallacy (the smoke and mirrors) of blockchain as disruptive.  But it also suggests that blockchain is a proxy for the realisation and actualization of new markets and the deeper entrenchment of financialization at a global level, through a scarification of the existing regulatory and legal landscape.

Traditionally law plays a key role in shaping long-term behaviours across both public and private social domains.  But in this instance (in the UK at least) law or rather regulation has by and large left the evolution of blockchain well alone.  This is due to a number of factors, including governmental promotion and celebration of innovation and the feverish entrepreneurial spiritualism that has been unleashed by the neoliberal age.  This does not mean there is a legal vacuum where blockchain is concerned.  Far from it.  The global financial arenas in which blockchain is now beginning to be deployed already have significant levels of regulation able to capture any potential problems in the deployment and use of blockchain and associated technologies, such as smart contracts, without having to resort to direct legislation and regulation.  This is, however, precisely the legal and regulatory landscape that some would like blockchain to “disrupt” to their advantage.  Law must therefore remain critical where blockchain is concerned, and avoid being seduced by the sand-box fantasies of capitalism.

Blockchain Provenance as Counter-Enclosure?

Provenance is a domain in which blockchain can be, and to some extent already is, primed to serve a purpose that is not exclusively for the benefit or advantage of global financial capital.  Although it must be pointed out that this domain is already compromised.  In other words, a perverse entrepreneurialism has already begun to capitalize on blockchain provenance.  The question, therefore, is whether or not any viable possibility of an open and egalitarian blockchain, counter or post-enclosure, remains?

Provenance, as a general concept, is presently the strongest exemplar of a blockchain use case that is not exclusively geared towards benefiting capitalist modes of production and satisfying the imposition of capitalist property definitions.  Provenance is able to hold the exploits of capital to account by creating, among other things, immutable records of commercial supply chains.  In the name of “social enterprise” and corporate social responsibility (CSR), however, this concept of provenance has already been compromised through a bridging of commerciality with egalitarian principles.  In this spurious concept of free-market fairness we find both a conflicted and watered-down mode of social good.  In their white paper,, who fall into the category of social enterprise, claim that:

There is a growing rallying call by customers and governments demanding more transparency from brands, manufacturers, and producers throughout the supply chain. In the UK, 30% of consumers are concerned about issues regarding the origin of products but struggle to act on this through their purchasing decisions. The market for products of proven origin is growing. In the future, regulations like the European directive on non-financial reporting or the UK Modern Slavery Act will require companies to transparently disclose reliable information about their business footprint17., I argue, precisely advocate for the type of neoliberal values, not least on the front page of their website, which are highly problematic and serve to undermine provenance as a tool to counter the hegemony of global financial capital.  Does this perfectly demonstrate how something as vital as provenance can be soured – especially when it comes with a price plan?  The concern here is obvious: why leave determinations of the quality of commercial transparency to the very actors who ought ultimately to be being scrutinized?  No matter if those interests are related to global multinationals or local entrepreneurial start-ups, the mantra of incessant growth recited by any commercial interest who take seriously their commitments and responsibilities to the cause of capitalism will, indeed must, ultimately see past any and all modes of regulation and critique that threatens their survival.  That is the nature of capital.

As a tool for transparency and provenance blockchain could provide a secure way in which to monitor and check the exploits of global financial capital without having to be subsumed, neck-deep, in it.  But, as suggested previously, the pendulum swings both ways.  Blockchain transparency and provenance can clearly also strengthen capitalism by painting upon it a trusted and friendly face.  Trust thus becomes nothing more than a commercial prosthesis, a marketing strategy for leveraging new markets.  Rather than a foundational, first principle of social relations.

In precisely these terms are seeing blockchain provenance drawn into the fashion for “circular economy”.  A strategy that allows business to appear to take seriously the need to manage supply chains for the social good through, for example, mitigation of physical waste, as well as waste in terms of time and energy.  But while the concept of circular economy appears socially and, perhaps more importantly, ecologically focused, we must not disregard the fact that commercial interests, by and large, begin and end with the company balance sheet.  This truism of capitalism underscores the focus on blockchain, largely because blockchain can help lend legitimacy to business practice and thus the exploits of capital.  The appearance of blockchain’s “disruptive-ness” provides a tabula rasa, and chance for capital to claim a new saintliness.

Blockchain provenance can be a radical answer to enclosure if it remains in an open and public blockchain able to bring together hard monitoring, recording and reporting of the exploits of capital.  At present provenance appears to be heading towards the nonsense of onanistic forms of commercial self-regulation.  This will not provide an egalitarian outcome.  Capital is not self-correcting; it is self-perpetuating.  Thus critical examinations of blockchain are needed to reclaim the initial promise of transparency and those latterly of provenance.  Blockchain, under such conditions, could provide a highly reliable witness to the exploits of capital, with a view to maintaining a critical, honest and true disruption of capitalism.  Contrary to the prevailing mainstream narratives that would be blockchain as disruptive, and that is why enclosure must be resisted.

Vasilis (Bill) Niaros is the sustainability steward of the P2P Foundation and a Research Fellow at the P2P Lab. His research work is related to commons-oriented urban and regional development with an emphasis on the use of ICT and desktop manufacturing technologies.

Originally published at Critical Legal Thinking:



  1. The fourth industrial age is the latest stage in the ongoing global digital revolution, and refers to the proliferation of technologies that advance the commercial and social role of the internet and mobile technologies. Like land, steam and coal in the first industrial revolution, the fourth industrial age relies on specific resources and assets to help drive innovation. More importantly, like the first industrial age, the contemporary digital domain, and the resources and assets therein, is, first and foremost, a site of exploitation for the advantage of financial capital. For further definition see, for example: Schwab, K. 2016, The Fourth Industrial Revolution : what it means, how to respond (Online) Available at: (accessed 28 September 2016)
  2. Distributed ledgers, as well as proto-electronic currencies, were first theorised and tested in the 1980s and 1990s, but they failed to materialize due to different factors, including a lack of computational power and infrastructure. In short, the world was not ready for them in the same it was for Bitcoin.
  3. Nakamoto, S. 2008. Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. (Online) Available at: (accessed 18 January 2016), p.1
  4. o be clear, a direct comparison between 18th century land enclosure and blockchain would be nonsense, or, at the very least, exceedingly hard to justify in the round. Accordingly, such a comparison is not the intention here. Rather, enclosure is evoked primarily because it is indicative of capitalism’s desire to impose private-property definitions on common (cyber)-space, which leads, amongst other things, to the promotion of non- or anti-relationality via withdrawal, exclusivity and privatization.
  5. See: Allison, I. 2016. “IBM finds 65% of banks expect to have blockchains underway in three years”, International Business Times (Online) Available at: (accessed 28 September 2016)
  6. For a recent example of this, see: (accessed 12 October 2016)
  7. I am also reminded of Jill Lepore’s article “The Disruption Machine”, in which she talks about “the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder”. In other words, so much of what is considered disruptive is for and on show. See: Lepore, J. 2014. “The Disruption Machine”. The New Yorker, June 23. (Online) Available at: (accessed 30 September 2016)
  8. See: Castillo, M. del. 2016. “Swiss Central Banker: Blockchain Turning Finance ‘On Its Head’”. Coindesk, 27 September (Online) Available at: (accessed 29 September 2016)
  9. Bitfury Group in collaboration with Jeff Garzik. 2015. Public versus Private Blockchains Part 1: Permissioned Blockchains. (Online) Available at: (accessed 29 September 2016)
  10. It was never meant to be this way: 29 September 2016)
  11. This is summed-up well in a recent article on the blockchain-focused news site Coindesk, in which lead strategist of Ernst & Young’s blockchain and distributed infrastructure, Angus Champion de Crespigny, maintained that, ‘he is interested in how a consortium may help harness the disruptive power of the technology’.  The article continues: ‘Originally viewed as a possible threat to parts of the financial sector, the technology (blockchain) is now being embraced by Champion de Crespigny’s firm and others for its potential to streamline many repetitive tasks and generate entirely new forms of revenue’. (Castillo, M. del 2016. “’Big Four’ Accounting Firms Meet to Consider Blockchain Consortium”. Coindesk, August 11 (Online) Available at: 12 October 2016)
  12. See, for example: (accessed 20 September 2016)
  13. Jeffries, S. 2014. “How the web lost its way – and its founding principles”. The Guardian, 24 August. (Online) Available at: (accessed 30 September 2016)
  14. Hobsbawm, E. 2002. The Age of Revolution 1789-1848. London: Abacus, p.188
  15. Thompson, E.P. 2013. The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin Modern Classics, p.238
  16. See: Innovate Finance 2016. Blockchain, DLT and the Capital Markets Journey: Navigating the Regulatory and Legal Landscape. (Online) Available at: (accessed 12 October 2016)
  17. (accessed 29 September 2016)

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