Don't Leave Bitcoin to the Libertarians! Why the Progressive Movement Needs Open Source Money
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Among activists one often finds an aversion to even thinking about money. Associating it with the opponent — who has lots of it — they try to do without money themselves. Often, for as long as they can, they try to organize and resist without it, until burning out, quitting and getting into a different line of work just to keep up on rent. But, as the 19th-century U.S. populist movement recognized, money is also a battleground. Today, as a new wave of sophisticated digital currencies are beginning to arise, this is perhaps more true than ever before.
Bitcoin (the open-source software and peer-to-peer network) and bitcoin (the currency) first appeared in early 2009 — just after the housing bubble burst. It was heavily promoted by a tech-savvy, anti-establishment, libertarian community concerned with the power of big banks and government regulation. Critics have dismissed Bitcoin as being “ by the privileged, for the privileged,” while defenders have claimed with an equal lack of subtlety that it is somehow “ post-privilege” altogether. Regardless of the label, however, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency platforms like it aren’t going away, and they are poised to become increasingly disruptive.
To understand why, I turned to Devin Balkind, founder and director of Sarapis, which promotes the use of free/libre/open-source software among non-profits and popular movements. He has recently written (and is continuing to write) a public working paper on cryptocurrency, “ Finance Without Force.” Last year, we spoke about the role of open-source tools in the Occupy Sandy relief effort, in which he played a leading role. Before that, he had the distinction of being the first person to tell me about cryptocurrency in the first place, insisting that this was something I should be paying attention to. It has taken a while, but I am finally coming back to him for more.
What do social justice activists need to know about crypocurrency?
Cryptocurrency is open-source money. It lowers the cost of producing a means of exchange — a money system — down to almost zero. That means it’s easier than ever to organize alternative monetary systems. Some activists know about time-banking and mutual credit systems. Cryptocurrency makes it possible for people to turn the hours or credits from systems like that into money that can easily be sent around the world or spent at a local store. It completely changes what’s possible from the perspective of solidarity economics.
Where does the “crypto” come in? What role does cryptography play, and why is it so important?
The primary challenge with creating cash is that you have to produce a medium of exchange that can’t be spent more than once. If you could simply photocopy a dollar bill to make more cash, the U.S. monetary system wouldn’t work. The government uses security features such as special paper, ink, designs and holograms to prevent people from “double spending” cash. A unit of cryptocurrency, on the other hand, is just a string of characters — letters, numbers, symbols. This actually represents a “private key,” and when you share it with someone, you give them the ability to upload it to the network for authentication. Through a process of cryptography, every transaction is checked against a public ledger on a peer-to-peer network. If it’s illegitimate the transaction doesn’t execute.
What will it take to make cryptocurrency work in ways that are more democratic and just than the economy we already have?
The existence of strong cryptocurrencies is already making the economy more democratic simply by giving people a choice when it comes to the type of money they want to use. Many people take for granted that there is only one type of money used in the United States, but this wasn’t always the case. Scrip, bank notes, precious metals, whiskey and livestock have all been popular currencies in the United States over the past 200 years. While these might not seem like good currencies from a modern perspective, they all made it possible for people without access to official currency to trade and make deals with each other. From my perspective, that’s precisely what we need today: more ways to exchange with and reward people. Cryptocurrency makes that possible today, just as barter or using silver made it possible 100 years ago. Cryptocurrency can be money by the people and for the people.