Cryptocurrencies are best understood by examining the community structure and the cultural values they exhibit, rather than the economic activity they create. Cryptocurrencies are truly “cryptocultures” and these cultures are many, a plurality. I define a cryptoculture as an open source community with its own micro-economy. Each culture integrates its values into its blockchain. It is a socio-technical arrangement: values and technology merge.
Dr Paul J. Ennis is Assistant Professor in the College of Business, University College Dublin.
Crypto Questioned is a forum for discussing the ideas and philosophies that drive the cryptocurrency industry.
Many assume that the cryptocurrency culture is monolithic, essentially a Bitcoin culture, but those involved in the long run come to know each blockchain as a particular point of view: Dogecoin (memelogy), XRP (corporate), Monero ( privacy), SushiSwap (degen) or Polygon (Efficiency). Those responsible for managing the blockchain, usually the developers and miners (or a variant), constitute the ‘blockocracy’.
The Bitcoin blockchain is designed to express a belief in scarcity based on a libertarian fair money market theory. Bitcoin is a “theory of society” based on the collapse of the fiat money system. The project is supported by the discourse around bitcoins as rare digital gold, digital metallism. In particular, scarcity is built into a code that is difficult to modify, an algorithmic authority.
Bitcoin’s political philosophy is well known, but one rarely wonders what political philosophy drives Ethereum.
The Ethereum blockchain is often conceptualized as a shared global computer. This computer is agnostic about what goes on there. Ethereum says we’re just the infrastructure and how you organize yourself is up to you. In the white paper, Vitalik Buterin, a Canadian computer programmer who co-founded Ethereum, suggests a few applications, but these are just suggestions. But being infrastructure neutral is deeply political because it extends Ethereum from an economic experiment, like Bitcoin, to an experiment in public goods supply.
The closest Ethereum came to formalizing a political philosophy was its flirtation with Eric Posner and Glen Weyl radical markets or radical liberalism. Radical liberalism shares with Ethereum a desire to reimagine the inherited political economy – corrupt democratic institutions, neoliberalism – by creating alternative market agreements.
Buterin and Weyl co-authored an academic article on one such reimagination: the quadratic vote for the provision of public goods. This has found its way into Ethereum with Gitcoin’s quadratic funding mechanism, where small voters are paired with a large pool to ensure that the distribution of infrastructure funding is varied and reflects the entire community.
Providing and maintaining infrastructure is at the heart of the Ethereum mindset, of Ethereum cryptoculture.
Author and philosopher Craig Warmke argues that Bitcoin is a case of hyperauthor. The Bitcoin community collectively follows the narrative of the bitcoin movement.
Ethereum is a case of hypergovernance. The Ethereum community collectively creates the infrastructural conditions for new forms of governance. These new forms are alternatives to the inherited forms and implicitly propose to replace them. These substitutes will perform functions previously performed by corrupt democratic states and neoliberalism, but in a more decentralized manner.
Ethereum is “minarchist”. Minarchism is a libertarian position advocating a state of night vigil. Associated mainly with the philosopher Robert Nozick, minarchism advocates a almost completely anarchist position where all government functions are eliminated except those related to security (police, army, justice).
In Nozick’s hands, the night watchman state is a right-wing libertarian concept, but in Ethereum it turns into a left-wing libertarian concept. The community mutually provides and maintains a shared public good, the Ethereum world computer, but after that it is without intervention, which is libertarianism.
Ethereum is not meant to confront the state, but I think it offers a version of latent minarchism where it offers a better Infrastructure that the state cannot. These services would gradually replace their centralized analogues in the traditional world. They cover the broad areas of the community well: organizational (decentralized autonomous organizations, or DAO), financial (decentralized finance, or DeFi), cultural (non-fungible tokens / social tokens). Minimum mutual governance.
Hash, Bash, Cash
What unites cryptocultures in the achievement of their different objectives is a decentralized organizational model “hash, bash, cash”. Users chop it up by treating blockchain as a shared place of cultural truth and making sure it stays that way. Bashing it out refers to the discourse and cultural values expressed socially within the community. Cashing in refers to the centrality of money in the cryptocultural experience: invest, trade, exit. All of these experiences bind the community as a culture.
We hash, bash, cash for different reasons, and the assumptions found in one cryptoculture do not carry over into another. In Ethereum’s case, the community hashes, beats, and cash in order to provide and maintain a shared global computer, an infrastructure of public goods. It is mutualism. This infrastructure then shelters experiences of hypergovernance, it is minarchism. The political philosophy of Ethereum is mutualist minarchism.