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VCU professor discusses ‘The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism’

In “The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism” (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), Virginia Commonwealth University professor David Golumbia argues that a far-right philosophy can be found not only among the digital currency’s advocates, but within the software itself.

David Golumbia.
David Golumbia.

Golumbia, an associate professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences, teaches in in the Media, Art, and Text Ph.D. Program, and is the author of “The Cultural Logic of Computation” (Harvard University Press, 2009) and the forthcoming “Cyberlibertarianism: The Default Ideology of the Digital.”

He is also the author of more than two dozen articles on digital culture, language, and literary studies, and he maintains the digital studies blog http://uncomputing.org.

Golumbia recently discussed his new book, Bitcoin, and the far-right political and economic philosophy that he argues the digital currency is spreading.

 

How would you describe the central argument of your new book?

These groups mean something very different by words like “democracy” and “freedom” than the rest of us usually do.

Bitcoin is widely touted as a revolutionary development in both technology and finance. We’re told it will replace banks, replace money, and even end the nation-state. Bitcoin’s promoters write about these things as if it is transparently obvious that everyone should want them to come about.

But when we read closely what Bitcoin promoters say, and when we examine how the software itself works, we find that the system is predicated on economic and political theories that directly emerge from such far-right groups as the John Birch Society and the Cato Institute. These groups mean something very different by words like “democracy” and “freedom” than the rest of us usually do, because — as hard as it may be for others to get their heads around this — they consider democratic government itself to be inherently antidemocratic.

When we look at it closely, Bitcoin’s actual successes in doing what it claims to do are few and far between. But it has been remarkably successful at spreading far-right political and economic views outside of the places they are usually found, and frequently stripped of context. Bitcoin can therefore be seen as a tool for spreading those ideas in a new way.

Why is it important to understand the underlying politics of Bitcoin?

It is far too easy for innocent bystanders to read the rhetoric of “revolution” and “democratization” and “elimination of the middleman” that is ubiquitous in the Bitcoin world and to think that they might want to jump on the Bitcoin express, without realizing at all what the political implications are of doing so. Soon enough they learn a whole story about how the Federal Reserve “prints money” and “steals value from ordinary workers” to give it to “elite bankers,” and how Bitcoin’s controlled supply will stop this, and this may prime them to be more likely to believe these false claims when they hear them on Alex Jones or even Fox News, even though they are no longer connected to Bitcoin.

It is also the case that, as we see in many other communities associated with digital utopianism, members of Bitcoin communities actively discourage each other from actually reading and doing their own research outside of self-contained and self-authorizing “filter bubbles,” and so from understanding the world in nuanced and detailed ways. The world of Bitcoin bluntly says “government is evil” and “central banking is evil” and “‘we’ can take control back from these institutions with distributed software,” but discourages adherents from investigating how governments function, what central banks do, or even what it means for a nebulous “us” to “take control” away from “centralized institutions,” since in practice this usually means just giving more control to institutions that are less accountable and less transparent than governments. And this is exactly what’s happened with Bitcoin, where Wall Street investors and commercial banks and even large collectives in China (that may or may not be tied to the Chinese government) exert tremendous control over Bitcoin, so that despite the rhetoric of “distribution” and “democratization,” in fact ownership of and power over Bitcoin are in many ways far more concentrated and undemocratic than are the national moneys Bitcoin claims to replace.

What do you see as some of the implications of Bitcoin’s right-wing politics?

Some of the things that really worry me include the fact that I have quite a few friends and acquaintances who share my political views for the most part, but who seem to have accepted the “revolutionary” story about Bitcoin without really doing their homework. Those of us who were already familiar with things like the John Birch Society’s positions about the Federal Reserve and gold recognized how much the arguments for Bitcoin relied on them, but a lot of smart people don’t pay that much attention to how the far right operates. So I know a fair number of people who insist that Bitcoin is going to help to realize socialism or communism or democracy, but who really have trouble articulating exactly how the technology realizes those goals. Like many other digital causes, you end up having people with one kind of politics working hard to advance a politics that are actually opposed to their interests.

How did you become interested in this topic?

One of my main areas of interest is right-wing online movements and their close ties to various parts of software development. I also worked for about a decade in financial software development on Wall Street. Since Bitcoin combines these topics in interesting ways, and continues to get such attention inside and outside the world of digital enthusiasts, it’s actually been kind of hard to look away from it.