Wendy McElroy: The Jiu-Jitsu of Crypto – Personal Freedom vs Social Change
The Satoshi Revolution: A Revolution of Rising ExpectationsSection 4: State Versus SocietyChapter 9, Part 7The Jiu-Jitsu of Crypto: Personal Freedom vs Social Change.
It is often assumed that power derives from violence and can be controlled only by greater violence. Actually, power derives from sources in the society which may be restricted or severed by withdrawal of cooperation by the populace. The political power of governments may in fact be very fragile. Even the power of dictators may be destroyed by withdrawal of the human assistance which made the regime possible.
–Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action
Cryptocurrencies withdraw assistance from the state’s engine of power: the financial system. But they do more. They create a parallel payment and monetary system that draws upon the state’s own energy to defeat it.
The Japanese martial art of jiu-jitsu is a method of defeating an armed opponent in close combat, even though the defender is unarmed. The attacker’s force and power are used against him. The defender never directly confronts the attacker with opposing force. Jiu-jitsu is an art of self-defense in which the attacker is not the opponent; his movements are.
Bitcoin defeats the central banking system even though crypto has no force of law or standing military with which to directly confront the attacking banks. Instead, crypto feeds off the backlash of discontent created within society by the corruption of the financial system. Crypto’s strength as a freedom tool lies in its role as a parallel system, which revolutionizes payment and monetary systems to eliminate the state and banks as trusted third parties. It recognizes these parties as armed opponents in close combat. In short, crypto uses the arrogance of the central banking system to good advantage by attracting the rebellious and disillusioned within society to engage in financial self-defense.
This current strategy of jiu-jitsu confronts two obstacles, however.
One is the state. Or, rather, it is users and institutions who view crypto as a type of new fiat, not as a vehicle for freedom. They view exchanges as a new type of traditional bank that is geared to handle an innovative specie, in much the same manner as credit card companies handle a different type of transaction. These users want state involvement because it brings “respectability” and the safety they believe a trusted third party can provide. To them, those who prattle on about freedom are irritants or troublemakers who hinder the true future of crypto.
The second obstacle to a jiu-jitsu strategy is an alternate manner of addressing the state: confrontation. This strategy has its time and place-generally as a last option-but it is in conflict with the self-defense tactic of waiting for an opponent’s movement and drawing upon it for strength. Direct confrontation relinquishes the jiu-jitsu advantage. Julian Assange and Satoshi Nakamoto clashed about their attitudes toward bitcoin when Assange flaunted the crypto as a donation method to the otherwise financially embargoed Wikileaks. Theirs was a clash of strategies for freedom: confrontation versus low-profile growth. Assange crowed, “Bring it on!” to government officials; Satoshi recoiled because the prominent bravado endangered the quiet paradigm that was replacing the dominant one by exploiting the latter’s weaknesses.
A fist of defiance thrust into the air is emotionally satisfying, to be sure, and it may be appropriate in some circumstances. But those who want crypto to become a part of daily life should ask: is the goal to be free, or is it to vent? Is it to construct a different society, or is it to rail against the current one? There can be real tension between these goals. Crypto is not big enough or powerful enough to win in a face-to-face conflict with the state, especially if the battleground and weapons are of the state’s choosing. The state excels at brute confrontation. Crypto’s advantages differ: it is fast on its feet; it is incredibly inventive; and, it draws on the state’s weaknesses as well as on its power. By commandeering the animosity and corruptions that banking creates, a David and Goliath scenario plays out in which a diminutive but nimble challenger defeats a lumbering giant.
What Strategy is Optimal? Personal Freedom vs Social Change
The “best” strategy-if only one exists-depends on the goal being pursued.
Those who view crypto as an investment or as a paternal twin of fiat will embrace the state. Those who view crypto as a path to personal freedom will avoid the state whenever possible. The situation becomes more complex if the goal of social change is added to the mix. Although personal freedom and social change are intimately-related concepts, they are also separable. Those who seek social change may well engage in the high-profile rebellion that can be anathema to personal freedom.
Personal Freedom. Bitcoin was designed to free individuals. Its emphasis on privacy and pseudonymity allows people to navigate the financial world with unprecedented autonomy. Governments may loudly announce that they can crack transactions wide open, but they are scrambling, with no clear idea of how to handle mixers, tumblers and the other privacy innovations. Crypto advances more quickly than repression can, and governments—like bullies—are often loudest when they are impotent. If governments could kill the independence of crypto, they would have done so already. As it is, they fall back upon a standard method of enforcement: intimidation. The next step is open violence, the last resort of the state, which prefers to operate as though consent were present. Open violence means social control has failed, and no other alternative is available.
Social Change. Traditionally, social change involves an entirely different dynamic than personal freedom. The reform-minded individual does not seek privacy or avoid the state because the established strategies of social reform require visibility and confrontation. Public speeches, protest marches, petitions, guerrilla theater, editorials, sit-ins, boycotts, buycotts, pamphlets and books, civil disobedience…these strategies aim at raising a social issue to such prominence that it can’t be ignored but must be addressed.
Catching the state’s attention is dangerous. Its first reaction to an effective challenge is usually repression. That’s why those who engage in nonviolent action often go through training on how not to react to a backlash-how not to react to police attacks, for example. Social reform can be a dangerous business.
Cryptocurrencies have a valuable edge over traditional social-change approaches. Instead of being convinced to confront and resist the state by raised their political awareness, people use crypto out of rational self-interest; they avoid the state for the same reason. Traditionally, social reform seeks to change the hearts and minds of people, one by one, until there are enough people to create a tipping point at which society itself is altered. Crypto seeks to change people’s perceived self-interest, one by one; self-interest is a far more prevalent and accessible motivation than social consciousness. (The preceding statement is cynical only to those who hold a negative view of self-interest.) When a sufficient number of people prefer crypto over banks, and crypto over fiat, then society will have changed…without violence, without martyrdom, and without courting danger.
How many individuals must be “converted” before a society is reformed? No one knows. But the success of freedom or of repression does not seem to require large numbers. The Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy observed,
“A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand men…have subdued two million…? Do not the figures make it clear that it is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves?”
Equally, many revolutions have been led by a handful of believers who tapped into strong emotional currents of the people, such as the hatred of corruption and a desire for a better life.
A tipping point is not a measurable dynamic. This may be especially true of crypto because so much of the activity and so many of the people are low profile. Typically, activists look over their shoulders and notice that a significant change has occurred. Then they say to themselves, “That was it—three months ago.” Radicals have debated what the “tipping-point” is for centuries. Ninetenth-century individualist anarchists in America believed that laws became unenforceable if ten percent of the people refused to obey them; that is, the laws became “dead letter,” which is just as effective as repealing them. An entire system can also become unenforceable.
At that point, of course, the topic is no longer social change. The topic is revolution.
[To be continued next week.]
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Wendy McElroy has agreed to ”live-publish” her new book The Satoshi Revolution exclusively with Bitcoin.com. Every Saturday you’ll find another installment in a series of posts planned to conclude after about 18 months. Altogether they’ll make up her new book ”The Satoshi Revolution”. Read it here first.