Bitcoin and the Blockchain: A Coup D'État through Digital Heterotopia?
27 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2015 Last revised: 29 Aug 2015
Date Written: July 8, 2015
This conference invites us to explore new organisational forms and practices that might be alternatives to “neoliberal market managerialism” and “financial capitalism”. Our starting point is that the latter two phenomena cannot be separated off analytically from powerful actors — such as the state — that have co-emerged with and played a key role in the evolutionary process through which capitalism has come to be (Graeber 2011). Specifically, this paper takes its move from Hobbes’s (1651/2005) idea of the Leviathan, which has provided a foundational intellectual basis for the nation-state form, which is today ubiquitous, and on which both neoliberalism and financial capitalism are reliant. Hobbes rooted his construct in a pessimistic view of humankind that is naturally inclined towards the ‘war of all against all’. He argued that people must recognize that such a ‘state of nature’ is destructive, and must accept, on the basis of utilitarian reasoning, the necessity of a social contract to constitute a supreme actor whose power is absolute and enforced by a monopoly on violence. Hence, the Leviathan and the body politic are constituted at once and are irreversible. No exit is allowed; no ethical, moral or religious limit can be posed in front of this power. The Leviathan is total because there is no room for any other rationality, and finite because all people are tied to the social contract. Hobbes’s idea of the Leviathan has proved to be enduring and alluring, and provides a primary focus for this paper. What is especially interesting for us is that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin have emerged from a similar ‘thought experiment’ beginning with a ‘state of nature’ not unlike Hobbes’s depiction.
Here, the seminal contribution is by the mysterious individual or individuals known as Satoshi Nakamoto who, in 2008, published a paper that set out the basis for the ‘blockchain technology’ on which cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, and other services, are based (Nakamoto 2008). Not unlike Hobbes’s ‘state of nature’, Nakamoto begins with an imaginary world populated by trustless individuals. The problem he addresses is how to enable trustworthy transactions on the internet without recourse to a ‘trusted third party’, such as a state-regulated (and state-supported) bank. Indeed, in line with libertarian ideology, one of Nakamoto’s key objectives was to preclude the possibility of any single and all-encompassing ruling authority emerging. His elegant solution is Bitcoin, a purely digital cryptocurrency that is not administered by any constituted organization and is not circumscribed within any consistent jurisdiction. The ‘blockchain’, on which Bitcoin is based, is a public ledger of transactions maintained by a dispersed and open-ended number of ‘miners’ who provide computing power to maintain and guarantee the integrity of the ledger.
While the Bitcoin economy is tiny compared to official currencies — but remarkable compared to alternative and local currencies — it plants the seeds of a currency (intended as a mode of regulating transactions) that could threaten many of the quasi-monopoly powers that the state currently exercises through the central bank, viz: surveying and collecting data on citizens and corporations, setting credit rates and monetary policy, deciding on and implementing exchange rate policies, assuring the robustness of the payment infrastructure, protecting the interests of consumers, controlling money-laundering, and regulating/supporting existing financial service providers (Murphy 2014).
Nakamoto’s attempt to create a money system without a central authority is best seen at the intersection of diachronic and synchronic issues. Historically, the blockchain is one of a long string of information technologies that, since the 1960s, have avoided centralization, partly as a defence against possible Soviet nuclear attack, and partly in sympathy with the Western open culture of the 1960s and 1970s. In relation to contemporary phenomena, Bitcoin entangles with the state’s power and jurisdiction, which is simultaenously being challenged by the shadow economy, by individuals and corporations choosing where they wish to pay tax, by the free flow of information within trans-national information infrastructures, and by global internet services and commerce. While Hobbes and Nakamoto start from similar positions, they end up in quite different destinations, and, since theory can be performative (Austin 1970), this means that very different worlds come to be. Analytically, each provides a lens through which one can examine the other, in theory and in practice. Together, the lenses provide a framing device for reimagining key concepts and practices that underpin the contemporary nation-state and, by extension, financial capitalism. The full paper will report on this comparative analysis.
The Bitcoin phenomenon raises interesting methodological and theoretical points that we will also explore in the paper. Methodologically, the actor-network injunction to ‘follow the actors’ — i.e. focus on performance — is practically impossible due to the sheer scale, technical intricacies, global dispersion and far-fetched effects of currency-related phenomena. Focusing on visible performance is also misleading theoretically because it fails to distinguish between what does not happen, those “influences which operate behind the back of agents, and which therefore cannot be found in micro-situations” (Knorr-Cetina 1981: 28), and what is purposefully avoided (Law and Singleton 2005). Indeed, Bitcoin is a manifestation of a totem of digital cultures: there is always an elsewhere, beyond the control of organizations. Creating an elsewhere free from Leviathan’s constraints (which resonates with Foucault’s notion of heterotopia) disrupts the body politic by exceeding or overflowing its framings (Callon 1998). The peculiarity of Bitcoin is not in any frontal clash with authority but rather in its strategy of avoidance, which we might interpret as a form of différance or the playing of an alternative game. What Bitcoin also illustrates is that the link between the micro and the macro is neither based on an immutable social contract nor maintained by an unbounded power. Rather, scalable and publicly accessible computing resources coordinate trustless macro actions without necessarily constituting actors and identities (Czarniawska 2008/2014). The paper will further examine the paradox where the supplement of the age of visibility is action without actors and the emergence of new boundaries between frontstage and backstage, public and secret.
Keywords: Bitcoin, blockchain, information infrastructures, currencies, heterotopia, Leviathan, state
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