This book is a very readable and valuable monograph which combines sound historical research with insightful analysis. The issues discussed go far beyond Bitcoin and are directly related to broader Internet governance issues, such as those presented in three important books by, respectively, McChesney, Schiller and Powers and Jablonsky.
Golumbia’s book starts by jumping right into its main thesis: that a specific recent technology (blockchain) is being touted as an enabler of a libertarian revolution, not just by naïve technologists, but by determined and well organized extremist right-wing groups that attack existing governmental institutions, including central banks and conventional monetary systems.
It proceeds to show how that ideology is related to the so-called cyber-libertarian ideology that holds that governments should not regulate the Internet: any required regulation will be developed and enforced by those that provide and use the Internet. And it proceeds to show how, in practice, that ideology equates to regulation imposed on users by private companies that are accountable to nobody because they hold dominant positions in their specific markets (e.g. the terms and conditions imposed by companies such as Facebook and Google). As the author puts the matter, citing Ames (p. 10): “Big Tech’s larger political goals are in alignment with the old extraction industry’s: undermining the countervailing power of government and public politics to weaken its ability to impede their growing dominance over their portions of the economy, and to tax their obscene stores of cash. Google—like Facebook, like Koch Industries—wants a government that’s strong enough to enforce its dominant private power over the economy and citizens and protect its wealth, but too broken and too alienated from the public to adequately represent the public interest against their domineering monopolistic power.”
Consequently, the book concludes that it is no coincidence that political support for Blockchain is found mainly in extreme right-wing groups.
The book includes a good summary of right-wing criticism of central banks and existing monetary systems, an overview of the history and technology of Bitcoin, and a comparison of Bitcoin rhetoric with extreme right-wing criticism of the US Federal Bank. It explains the difference between “currency” and “money”: money is not just a means of exchange, it is also a store of value and a unit of account (measure of value). And it shows how Bitcoin is not a store of value (the value of a single bitcoin fluctuates wildly) nor a unit of account. Consequently, according to the author, it is highly unlikely that Bitcoin would replace current monetary systems, and it is likely that future use of Bitcoin might be primarily by those who cannot use current monetary systems for legal and regulatory reasons. That is, Bitcoin might be used by smugglers, blackmailers (e.g. perpetrators of ransomware), and other types of criminals; not to mention speculators and manipulators who make money off of Bitcoin itself.
The book concludes by discussing blockchains, the technology that underpins Bitcoin, and concludes that, as for Bitcoin, the promised development of applications and services based on blockchains (p.38): “on the surface … seem structured around promises that appeal to and reinforce rightist political ideologies.” The author concludes that (p. 40):“The whole point of the enterprise, as with most of the efforts promoted by libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, is to enable a wide range of extractive and exploitative business practices, and thus to increase the power of corporations and capital outside the scope of any attempts by democratic polities to constrain them.”
It is revealing to cite a comment posted on the Amazon web site for the book: “This article is a statist critique of Bitcoin and its ideological (anti-statist or libertarian) background. Which would be fine, except the author does not realize that statism is also an ideology, and thus does not understand the anti-statist position either.”
The author of that comment appears to equate the two ideologies, without taking into account the fact that state institutions are very real, and pervasive, and have been so for millennia, whereas the anti-statist ideology is a utopia that has rarely been implemented on any significant scale.
In fact, the private companies that are touted by right wing libertarians as the ultimate arbiters of most everything are thoroughly hierarchical, autocratic, top-down, organizations that embody the antithesis of anarchism and individual freedom.
As the book says, proponents of the demise of the state want the state when it suits them, namely to protect private property, intellectual property, etc., but not when it does not suit them, namely to protect users, consumers, and workers. This is corporate violence, which, if it continues unchecked, will surely be worse than the state violence decried by right-wing libertarians.
Thus all concerned citizens should read this book, which is an essential resource for understanding the true stakes of current technological hyperbole.
It is Review of Golumbia, David (2016) The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism, University of MinnesotaPress, available online at: <https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/the-politics-of-bitcoin>