Bitcoin's Unlimited Potential Lies in Its Apolitical Core

Nozomi Hayase, PhD, is a writer who covers issues of freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movements. 

In this opinion piece, Hayase calls for a ceasefire in the block size debate, appealing to the technology’s cypherpunk roots and arguing that larger political inequities make action to improve bitcoin all the more important.

protest, still here

The ongoing bitcoin block size debate has accelerated into a civil war.

From threats of a 51% attack to online trolls to controversy over the allegations surrounding AsicBoost, disagreements on scaling solutions have created a toxic environment, and as a result, the ecosystem growing around bitcoin has started to echo the craziness of party politics.

In these times, we must remember, we have witnessed a failure of national politics.

From the 2008 financial meltdown to vicious cycles of austerity, unprecedented levels of corruption have spawned a global crisis of legitimacy of institutions and governments. And this only seems to have gotten worse.

In the US, at the center of financial and political power, the populace has been trapped by a corporate sponsored political charade, with a rigged presidential primary and the election of what many felt was the lesser of two evils. More and more, people are beginning to wake up to the broken promises and failed policies of their leaders, creating conflicts and instability in regions around the world.

Media echo chamber lies of “weapons of mass destruction” that led to the Iraq War are now being repeated with the recent US cruise-missile strike on Syria.

Meanwhile, the global economy stagnates with skyrocketing unemployment and debts that are piling up. While solutions provided in the electoral arena have repeatedly shown to be ineffective, bitcoin presents an alternative – a departure from this system of politics.

Politics as systems of power

So what is politics? What are the characteristics of governance designed by it?

The Oxford Dictionary defines politics as “activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power.”

Politics is inherently associated with power and is a means to organize society through leaders gaining control over the majority. Western liberal democracy is politically engineered governance. Its fundamental feature is centralization. Rules made from the top are enforced, and changes in the system require permission from those who are in positions of authority.

Historian Howard Zinn (1970) noted:

“In modern times, when social control rests on ‘the consent of the governed’, force is kept in abeyance for emergencies, and everyday control is exercised by a set of rules, a fabric of values passed on from one generation to another by the priests and teachers of the society.”

This command-control style of governance works in hierarchies and is antithetical to democratic values. The integrity of the system depends on the success of rulers to foster obedience of those in the network and prevent people from dissenting.

For this, managing perception and public opinion through mass media becomes necessary and the system operates under the appearance of democracy, making force of control covert and invisible.

In “Democracy INC: The Press and Law in the Corporate Rationalization of the Public Sphere”, professor of journalism David S. Allen (2005) described the role of professionals in facilitating this managed democracy. He noted how the creation of expert knowledge is essential in this machination. Science has become a methodology to back professional legitimacy, as “individuals began to regard professional judgments, often supported by scientific data as unquestionable.”

The creed of objectivity

Professionals with expert knowledge perform the role of trusted third parties who are supposed to represent the interests of citizens and make decisions on their behalf. Here, the knowledge produced in social science, such as economics, political science and psychology are often used to maintain the status quo of power structures.

From Alan Greenspan to Ben Bernanke and now Janet Yellen, economists who are appointed by the US President as chair of the Federal Reserve get to decide monetary policy for the country and exercise influence through central banks around the world.

What validates their expert knowledge is an epistemological foundation called the “creed of objectivity”.

Social science has incorporated empirical and positivist methodology of natural science and claimed the ability to form knowledge in a similar way as physical science. With this, researchers assert neutrality as if he or she transcends race, class or any personal bias.

Yet, they are embedded within cultural values and their purported value-free objectivity is not actually possible. One’s subjective agendas and personal views do not magically disappear by simply claiming it to be so.

Without transparency that ensures disclosure of researchers’ bias, this creed of objectivity becomes a cloak that hides their motivations, closing off any feedback and ensuring assertions that are not tested are promoted as universally applicable truth.

Money in this representative democracy becomes political money, legitimatised by state authority and tied to monetary policies of investment banks and corporations that run government behind the scenes. A small number of powerful and rich can enact the ideology of neoliberalism and hijack a whole economy. Under the banner of ‘free market’, they justify their plunder as a crusade for progress.

Replacing politics with math

Now, a breakthrough of computer science has found a way to crack this closed logic of control.

Bitcoin opens a path for changing the world without taking power. The white paper published under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto put forward a vision of a “peer-to-peer version of electronic cash”, based on cryptographic proof, rather than relying on a trusted third party.

The underpinnings of this innovation was the science of asymmetrical security that provides a strong armory against violence, exploitation and extreme selfishness through a mechanism of consensus.

Richard Feynman, a theoretical physicist once said that scientific integrity is learning to not fool ourselves. He noted: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

In natural science, researchers are given honest feedback from the real world and nature through observation, repeated testing and experiments. On the other hand, social scientists explore dimensions more divorced from physical reality, and in their claim of neutrality, they can become blind to their own bias.

This creed of objectivity in social science has shown itself to be vulnerable to tendencies toward deception, while math is a property that is impervious to manipulation. Math cannot be fooled, as it does not respond to lies and threats. Computer science relies on solid data, rigorous testing and peer-review.

This gives each person an opportunity to engage in honest work to overcome self-deception and build strong security, even as strong as the laws in the physical world.

Cypherpunks: scientists with a moral code

In the existing model of governance, inherent weakness in the creed of objectivity made the system vulnerable to the tyranny of the few.

Economic incentives set up by a professional class made the right to free speech exclusive for the beneficiaries of this managed democracy, suppressing any views that challenge this authority. Those privileged in the system call these perspectives subjective, relegating them to mere opinion.

This doctrine of false objectivity that has been predominant in academia has conditioned researchers to remain impartial. This turned the populace into passive observers, preventing them from fully connecting with their passions and values.

In the foundation of bitcoin development, there lies a particular philosophy that revolts against this restriction of free speech imposed by central authority.

In the paper “The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work” published in 2015, eminent computer scientist, Phillip Rogaway brought forward the moral obligation of cryptographers and their importance, especially in the post-Snowden era.

In this, he described a group that emerged in the late 1980s who saw the potential of cryptography in shifting power relations between the individual and the state. These are the cypherpunks who held a belief that “cryptography can be a key tool for protecting individual autonomy threatened by power”.

In an interview with Trace Mayer, applied cryptographer and inventor of Hashcash, Adam Back, talked about the “positive social implications arising from cryptography”. He described the ethos of cypherpunks as writing code to bring the rights we enjoy offline into the online world.

The idea is that lobbying politicians and promoting issues through the press would be a slow uphill battle. So, instead of engaging in legal and political systems, Back noted that they could simply “deploy technology and help people do what they consider to be their legal right” and society would later adjust itself to reflect these values.

The cypherpunks, with their adamant claim of subjective domains, apply real objective knowledge that comes from math to bring change.

Solidifying technology’s core

As the forced network effect of petrodollar hegemony begins to loosen, the empire fuels aggression with more wars and sanctions.

While this system of representation weakens, the logic of control from the old world is beginning to infiltrate the bitcoin ecosystem. Regulators try to reach cryptocurrency through exchanges and by enforcing know-your-customer rules, creating a fertile soil for government surveillance and privacy erosion.

Centralization creeps in through industrial mining and patents on hardware, creating a trend toward state and corporate backed monopolies. All the while, the established media keep writing obituaries on bitcoin, wishing to declare the death of this new money they can’t understand.

Politics that spread through the crypto-community have been hijacking discussions on technical development.

With PR, name-calling and smear campaigns, people engage in social engineering, distracting developers who are engineering security. This drama that some perceive as bitcoin’s existential threat brings a crisis, yet at the same time is giving us all an opportunity to solidify our commitment to this technology’s fundamentals.

Bitcoin as a premise of stateless money has brought many people together.

These are free market enthusiasts, traders, libertarians, engineers, venture capitalists, anarchists and artists. Bitcoin is a disruptive technology that has large political implications.

Yet, for it to manifest its true potential, we must not forget its roots in its apolitical nature – solid science. This apolitical nature is not a bug, but a feature. This is what makes bitcoin stateless money, censorship resistant, unseizable and permissionless.

Our commitment to decentralization keeps this consensus algorithm running across the global network and allows all to participate in this scientific endeavor of proof-of-work – to show the world that the ideas of equality, fraternity and freedom are not just ideals  but universal truths.

So, let us call a ceasefire in this political battle and engage in the honest, collaborative work of writing code.

By moving from a system of power to a consensus of equal peers, together we can find solutions to overcome challenges.

Where politicians and leaders have failed, bitcoin succeeds. Our surrender to this scientific process opens a door for development of protocol and gives innovation a chance for humanity to save itself from the mess we have created.

Protest image via Shutterstock

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, CoinDesk.

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