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Is Bitcoin Racist? (Review of “The Politics of Bitcoin”)

It is not only those who see themselves as libertarians who, through the adoption of Bitcoin and the political communities around it, routinely distribute political and economic views that are grounded in conspiratorial, far-right accounts of the Federal Reserve and the nature of representative government…

David Golumbia, “The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism”

(Read on Medium)

The Cryptocurrency / Blockchain revolution is the second technological seismic shift to occur within the past 40 years.  The first was of course, the Internet, and once that achieved critical mass the detractors and those who feared the erosion of centralized power that the net signalled began subtly promulgating the memes of  The Four Horsemen of the Internet Apocalypse to warn off the population and justify centralized control (those were: terrorists, drug dealers, pedophiles, and organized crime. I recently dubbed “Fake news” the fifth horseman of the Internet Apocalypse).

It is no surprise then, with Central Banks and governments unable to control the uptake of cryptocurrency and further decentralization a new set of existential threats is being advanced. Let’s call this the “focus group” stage where all kinds of hyperbole will be floated to see what will stick.

The harbingers of the Bitcoin Apocalypse frontrunners are currently:

  1. All four horsemen of the Apocalypse plus
  2. Global Warming
  3. Energy Crisis

and if we are to take Virginia Commenwealth University associate professor of English David Golumbia seriously:

  1. Right Wing Extremism

Right-wing extremism, also known as “far right” politics is described in Wikipedia as…

often associated with Nazism, neo-Nazism, fascism, neo-fascism and other ideologies or organizations that feature extreme nationalist, chauvinist, xenophobic, racist or reactionary views. These can lead to oppression and violence against groups of people based on their supposed inferiority, or their perceived threat to the nation, state or ultraconservative traditional social institutions

In his book The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism, Golumbia attempts to make a case that “[these] political values are very literally coded into the software itself.”

The book was published in 2016 and appears to be an expansion of an earlier paper published in 2015. A colleague of mine made me aware of it before the holidays. It was admittedly a tough slog and I had to read it concurrently with Dave Collum’s year-end review in order to stay sane.

Left unchallenged, we run the risk that this book could eventually attain a simulcrum of academic credibility, from which it could be used as a basis for future fallacious criticisms of the crypto-space. Think “Bitcoin is racist, everybody knows that. (Golumbia, 2016). The end.”

Golumbia himself is somewhat active, publishing articles for Vice and others in which his bio always features a reference to this book among his credentials. He also has another paper entitled “Code is not Speech”:

“Advocates understand the idea that “code is speech” to create an impenetrable legal shield around anything built of programming code. When they do this they misunderstand, or misrepresent, free speech law…The idea that government cannot regulate things because they are made of code cannot be right.”

His core thesis in “Politics of Bitcoin” is that:

in the name of this new technology, extremist ideas were gaining far more traction than they previously had outside of the extremist literature to which they had largely been confined. Dogma propagated almost exclusively by far-right groups like the Liberty League, the John Birch Society[* see update about JBS at end of article – markjr], the militia movement, and the Tea Party, conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and David Icke, and to a lesser extent rightist outlets like the Fox media group and some right-wing politicians, was now being repeated by many who seemed not to know the origin of the ideas, or the functions of those ideas in contemporary politics. These ideas are not simply heterodox or contrarian: they are pieces of a holistic worldview that has been deliberately developed and promulgated by right-wing ideologues.

This passage sets the tone for the rest of the book, the premise follows this basic line of reasoning:

  • Bitcoin was created out of a reaction to current monetary policy (The Fed / Central Banking / fiat money)
  • Previous critics of The Fed were racist, far-right extremists such as John Birch Society and Eustace Mullens

Therefore… and this may sound like I’m exaggerating to make my point, but I’m not:

  • any criticism of Central banking, the current monetary structure or “conventional mainstream economics” is right-wing extremism. And…
  • This extreme right-wing ideology is “very literally coded into the software itself”.

There isn’t a lot to unpack in this, but for a short book there certainly an abundance of problematic material to address.

By the time you finish this review you’ll understand that this book can’t be considered a work of scholarship by the most generous reader as much as it is a piece of academic negligence. It’s a rant, chock full of fallacies and flat out factual errors. I’m astounded that the book passed through editorial review and (presumably) fact checking and made it to press in its current form. I had to check my quoted material several times to make sure I wasn’t reading it incorrectly.

Here we go:

Golumbia’s book has three big problems: