Bitcoin’s price explosion made news headlines this last year. Topics of digital assets entered onto dinner tables and friendly chats at work places. Fever of the digital gold rush that has swept mainstream finance became contagious. Institutional funds are now entering into cryptos, seemingly hedging their bets with their “sugar high” bubble economy. Jamie Dimon, the JPMorgan CEO who previously slammed Bitcoin as a fraud is said to be regretting his claim. He now praises the blockchain, the underlying technology of Bitcoin. Goldman Sachs recently acknowledged Bitcoin as money, comparable to gold. The firm is already setting up a trading desk for digital currencies.
While Bitcoin is gaining traction in financial circles, Naval Ravikant, the CEO and co-founder of Angel List saw this technology’s profound socio-political impact. He noted, “Bitcoin is a tool for freeing humanity from oligarchs and tyrants, dressed up as a get-rich-quick scheme.” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange also recognized the revolutionary power of this money based on math. At the end of 2017, from the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he has been confined more than five years, Assange tweeted, “Bitcoin is a real Occupy Wall Street”.
What is this disruptive force of Bitcoin? The Occupy movement that had spread over dozens of US cities and across many countries created a wave of uprising. It inspired a new vision of politics outside of the electoral arena. Now, years after Occupy’s demise, this new innovation of decentralized digital currency could offer a way to reinvent activism, helping all around the world to organize and create radical social change.
The era of creditocracy
First, let’s look back at the rise of OccupyWallStreet protest. The movement kicked off in New York’s financial district in 2011, uniting people from all walks of life under the banner of the 99% against economic inequality and corporate greed. Occupy emerged within a cultural milieu of transparency, spearheaded by WikiLeaks’ disclosure of documents pertaining to government secrecy and corruption.
The insurgency in lower Manhattan marked a peak of disillusionment about the current state of democracy. People began to wake up to an invisible hand of the market – 1% global oligarchy, that was controlling resources through money based on debt. In the article “Student Debt Slavery: Bankrolling Financiers on the Backs of the Young”, attorney and author Ellen Brown described the advantage of “slavery by debt” over owned slavery, which was an idea argued in a document reportedly circulated during the American Civil War among British and American banking sectors. Brown showed that while slaves need to be housed and fed, “free men could be kept enslaved by debt, by paying wages insufficient to meet their costs of living”.
This debt-based financial system has become what professor and veteran of the Occupy movement Andrew Ross calls a “creditocracy”. In this, ordinary people with student loans, medical and credit card bills have become indentured servants. Ross explains how it is the Western version of a “debt trap”, where debts are piled up with monthly credit card balances or underwater mortgages that cannot be ever paid to ensure continuing revenue for the banks. He notes how this is similar to the developing countries that fell under IMF dependency in the course of the 1970s and 1980s.
In the era of creditocracy, ubiquitous anonymous corporations keep the force of control invisible, making people obey their rules. MasterCard tells their customers who the master is with exuberant chargeback fees and penalties. VISA maintains US hegemony of the world, denying access to finance for refugees and immigrants and assisting US government sanctions on countries like Russia and Iran that challenge dollar supremacy. This is a two-tiered financial patronage network that exempts fees and extends credit lines to the rich and privileged, while it exploits the poor by seizing their funds and engaging in predatory lending.
Creditocracy now expands around the globe and threatens civil liberties. Recently, PayPal came under scrutiny, with their failure to provide services in the West Bank and Gaza, while making its service available in Israel. This payment processing company was accused by pro-Palestinian activists as enacting “online apartheid” against Palestinians.
Vision of new democracy
It is people’s indignation against this systemic economic oppression that sparked revolt at the center of world finance seven years ago. Occupy was unprecedented in its scale and its unique style of no central coordination or formal leadership. It was a move away from electoral politics and top-down decision making to the principle of consensus and direct action, which activist scholar David Graeber described as “the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free”.
During the early days of this movement, the mainstream media criticized demonstrators for not having a clear mandate. Yet this lack of demand was a strength and refusal to recognize the legitimacy of power structures that protesters were challenging. What unfolded then was a new form of activism that truly channels uncompromising power of ordinary people. It was an activism that doesn’t acknowledge external power or seek for permission. Instead it encourages people to change society by simply building new alternatives.
This was a seed for a real democracy that is horizontal and participatory. It was manifested through activists’ effort of creating people’s libraries, media hubs and kitchens and forming a new way of governance through mic check and General Assemblies. This vision of organizing society through mutual aid and voluntary association went viral, spreading with internet memes and Twitter hashtags, creating solidarity across borders.
Cypherpunks write code
Occupy’s permissionlessness, without a need to refer to central authority, is embodied at the core of Bitcoin. The idea of Bitcoin was introduced in a whitepaper published in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. It is clear that the anonymous creator of Bitcoin was concerned about deep corruption of government and their mishandling of monetary policies. This was shown in the message embedded in the genesis block of the blockchain. It contained a headline of a newspaper that read “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks”.
Richard Gendal Brown, chief technology officer at software firm R3, provides a summary of the invention of this open source software:
“Bitcoin is the world’s first system of digital cash, which allows peer-to-peer value transfer over the internet with no reliance on third parties. It is built on a new invention, the decentralized global asset register. This global asset register is the world’s first decentralized consensus system.”
What is behind the protocol of a truly peer-to-peer currency is a revolutionary mind that refuses to obey the command from above and declares independence from all that claim authority. This fierce autonomy is the moral value of cypherpunks, a group that emerged in the late 1980s, who saw a potential of cryptography as a tool to shift balance of power between the individual and the state.
Cryptographer and one of the notable cypherpunks Adam Back, who was cited in Bitcoin’s whitepaper for his invention of Hashcash described the ethos of cypherpunks as that of writing code. This is an idea of making changes by creating alternatives. Back noted how pressuring politicians and promoting issues through the press tends to be slow and create an uphill battle. He pointed out how instead of engaging in the political process through campaigns and appealing to authority for changes, people can simply “deploy technology and help people do what they consider to be their legal right”. Then society would later adjust itself to reflect these values.
Network of resistance
While the mainstream media is obsessed with Bitcoin’s price and investors speculating gains in their portfolios, this technology’s defining feature lies in censorship resistance. The integrity of Bitcoin relies on decentralization, which is a method to attain security by flattening the network and removing levers of control, rather than performing checks and balances of power that tends to concentrate through control points inherent within the system, seen in the existing model of governance. This unprecedented security creates a network of resistance resilient to any forces of control.
When governments that are meant to defend civil rights act against their own people, Bitcoin preserves the network value of public right to free association and speech and distributes this to all users. This right was claimed and exercised in real time. In facing the illegal financial blockades imposed by Bank of America, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union, WikiLeaks showed ordinary people how they can circumvent and combat economic censorship with Bitcoin.
As the whistleblowing site continues to publish CIA Vault publications, political persecution intensifies. Now the Freedom of the Press Foundation, an organization that was founded to tackle attacks on free press, decided to terminate processing of donations for WikiLeaks. In response to this new political pressure, Assange urged supporters to continue making contributions with cryptocurrencies and unleash the power of free speech that belongs to all.
As trusted institutions and governments are failing, people around the world are finding their own path of self-determination. In Argentina, as the Peso has been steadily falling since the country’s 2002 economic collapse, Bitcoin adoption has been accelerating. Bitcoin historian and former tech banker who goes by Tweeter handle @_Kevin_Pham noted, “Bitcoin’s killer app can be found in Venezuela, it’s called: ‘not dying.’” As hyperinflation is rendering their national currency worthless, Venezuelans are flocking to Bitcoin as a safe haven to store their savings.
In Iran, the government came on full force, engaging in internet censorship and cracking down on protesters who revolted in response to the country’s long economic stagnation. It was reported that leading up to the civil unrest, the Bitcoin community has grown with more people entering into cryptocurrencies. In Afghanistan, a company that advocates Afghan women’s computer literacy empowered women with bitcoin, helping them gain financial sovereignty.
The Occupy movement ignited aspirations for the rule of the common people, verified and upheld by a network consensus created through people’s trust in one another. Yet the enthusiasm for real democracy that was mobilized through social media could not withstand state coordinated police crackdowns. With the eviction of encampments and squares, people’s power that had arisen then dissipated.
Now, with Bitcoin surging, a new stream of disruption is emerging. These old financial engineers aim to protect their dying fraudulent world of central banks by upending their speculative casino with this hyped crypto market. As incumbent banks geared with regulatory arms try to control the bubbling civic power, perhaps this technology calls people to rise once again to halt financial aristocracy by innovating the ‘activism without permission’ – this time with better security and robustness.
Knowledge of computer science empowered by the ethics of cypherpunks now provides a viable platform for people to occupy society with their heart’s imagining. Sovereign individuals can now defy the rule of creditors and create their own rules, ending financial apartheid and discrimination. They can coalesce to fund independent media they support with their money and defund wars that they oppose. Permissionless activism can bring a jubilee, making rapacious debt obsolete through each individual simply walking away from this erroneous system, uniting with those who share goals to create a new economy.
The imagination of this invention opened the potential for a radically different future. From Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery Alabama to occupiers’ adamant refusal to make demands, Bitcoin’s networked consensus creates an autonomous currency that allows all to move struggles of the past forward.
The rise of Bitcoin is poised to disrupt the world of creditocracy, as we know it. As the price rally continues, many now proclaim the rise and rise of Bitcoin! The question that remains is: Can our imagination rise with the revolutionary force this technology brings? Bitcoin already unleashed a potent power within. The future is now in our hands. It is up to each person to claim this power and show the world what democracy really looks like.
Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movements. Find her on Twitter @nozomimagine.