The (a)political economy of Bitcoin

A short essay (co-authored with Michel Bauwens) which serves as a point of departure for a P2P Lab‘s oncoming research project:

Bitcoin emerged as an incarnation of the fantasy of “apolitical” money, i.e., a currency of the people, by the people, for the people, as Varoufakis eloquently puts it. We are not going to describe what Bitcoin is or how it was created as this has been done in detail elsewhere. First things first: there is no such thing as apolitical – even being ostensibly “apolitical” is a political stance–, therefore, a “de-politicised currency” is not possible. Bitcoin is premised on scarcity and wherever you have scarcity, power structures emerge. For instance, we are observing the creation of a “Bitcoin aristocracy” consisted of those who entered the Bitcoin ecology early and/or those who own the so-called “monster machines”. For this and various other reasons, such as speculation and instability problems (read Varoufakis’ piece and an April BBC report on Bitcoin panic), we deem that Bitcoin is not a Commons-oriented currency designed to serve effectively social purposes, rather a manifestation of a new form of capitalism, called “distributed capitalism”. In a true Peer-to-Peer (P2P), Commons-oriented currency, the peers must be humans, not computers. In Bitcoin, the computers are peers, but some humans can have thousands of computers, and others none.

It becomes obvious that the political identity of Bitcoin is by no means apolitical.

While Bitcoin represents a model where P2P infrastructures are designed to allow autonomy and participation of many players, the main focus rests on profit-making: trading and exchanging through a currency designed for scarcity. Under such conditions, any Commons is a byproduct or an afterthought of the system, and personal motivations are driven by exchange, trade and profit. Many P2P projects, such as Bitcoin or even Kickstarter, could be seen within this context, striving for a more inclusive, distributed and participative capitalism. In Bitcoin the role of distribution is not related to the distribution of the means of production for enabling autonomous, Commons-oriented productive efforts, but as part of a vision of a virtual economy based on scarcity and, thus, on competition.

On the other hand, Bitcoin can be viewed as part of an anti-systemic entrepreneurialism directed against the traditional monopolies and a proof that the hypothesis of a digital currency is feasible. So our second argument, is that the idea for a digital, global, distributed currency is worth-trying, though with a more Commons-based orientation. A Commons-based currency(-ies) could jump start the creation of a “Global Commons” on a transnational global scale. As we notice in Commons-based peer production (CBPP) –this community-driven, hyper-productive mode of immaterial value– productive efforts are distributed and facilitated at both local and global levels. And the conjunction of CBPP with desktop manufacturing technologies (such as 3D printing) could create ecologies in which the resulting micro-factories, essentially networked on a global scale, would profit from the mutualized global cooperation both on the design of the product, and on the improvement of the common machinery. Any distributed enterprise could be seen in the context of transnational phyles, i.e. alliances of ethical enterprises that operate in solidarity around particular knowledge Commons. The participating enterprises, with the supportive infrastructure of a Commons-oriented currency, could be the vehicles for the commoners to sustain Global Commons as well as their own livelihoods.

Therefore, we, as commoners, conclude that what we need is a digital currency premised on a different political economy, one breaking the shackles of capitalist opportunism and ushering in a new era of economical transaction based on the finer aspects of the human spirit.

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