This article looks into the ways in which meaningful, positive cultural change is being made by revolutionary movements around the world, including the Cypherpunk movement, which advocates encryption as a tool to foster free expression and equality. It is the first article for the Cryptosphere by noted writer Nozomi Hayase.
The current global financial and political systems are becoming increasingly unsustainable. Economic inequality around the world continues to worsen, while the corruption of governance deepens. Turmoil is building and more and more people are looking for solutions outside of electoral politics and traditional protest.
With the rise of worker owned cooperatives and the resurgence of sharing and gift economies, people are organizing themselves without central command. The new site “Its Not Government.Org” documents the power of voluntarism where people begin to perform government functions without the government. As coalitions are built beyond party lines and seemingly disparate efforts begin to converge, we are seeing new movements of radical imagination. Where did these impulses for deep autonomy come from and where are they going?
These waves of autonomous actions are a response to the crisis of legitimacy of Western liberal democracy and the world order established in the post cold war. Spokesperson for the Zapatistas Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano (formerly Marcos) described this power structure as a system driven by an ideology of neoliberalism and identified it as “a new war for the conquest of territory”.
Scholar activist David Graeber (2013) noted that neoliberalism is a “relentless campaign against the human imagination” and its real success is making people believe that this controlled-market driven world is the only possible system. What moves behind this market fundamentalism is an abstract deadening force. Its static and rigid thoughts have squashed the spontaneous forces of the imagination and enforced the domination of a single point of view. Like unruly cowboys, corporatism conquers the indigenous mind; that is, the way of knowing through the heart practiced by many of our ancestors.
Reason that is cut off from its roots has now been put in place as the new authority. Physician and activist Vandana Shiva pointed to a new measure of wealth implemented with the concept of GDP (gross domestic product). She noted how this abstract valuation, which insulates itself from feedback, has created a model of growth which destroys life and perpetuates deep inequality and unsustainability within society.
This closed market logic has been incorporated as a new frame of mind, replacing native principles of shaping a sustainable world for seven generations into the future. With hardened corporate rationale, material acquisition-driven lifestyles and pursuit of transient pleasure have been relentlessly promoted and over time become normalized. These autonomous networks of ordinary people are a revolt against this tyranny of abstract reason that squashes diverse seeds of thought from the heart.
Opening Cracks into a New World
The precursor to resistance against the regime of abstraction came from one of the poorest and most exploited communities in Chiapas, Mexico. On January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, the Zapatista Liberation National Army (EZLN)declared war against the Mexican government. They called for building another world, getting off the grid of national and supranational governments, and creating their own bottom-up autonomous communities.
The Zapatista uprising became a focal point of global rage against the profit-making machine. The spirit of “Ya Basta! -enough already!” ignited sparks for a Global Justice Movement. In the week of protest against the WTO in 1999, known as the Battle of Seattle, people fought against corporate globalization and its assault on the human imagination. Then in 2011, the Occupy movement struck a chord around the world as a response to systemic corporate takeovers, privatization and debt peonage that increasingly consumes dreams and reduces citizenry to mere consumers or debt slaves.
Known for his influential idea of changing the world without taking power, sociologist and philosopher John Holloway put forward a way of freeing oneself from existing central authority, which rewards rigged competition and exploitation. Calling it the “logic of cracking capitalism”, he explainedthat:
“It is possible to emancipate human activity from alienated labor by opening up cracks where one is able to do things differently, to do something that seems useful, necessary, and worthwhile to us; an activity that is not subordinated to the logic of profit”.
He pointed out that opening these cracks is made possible through reclaiming our uncompromising power to imagine “another world outside of the logic of capital.” The revolutionary effect of the Occupy movement was in unleashing the imagination of the masses. This was a shift away from the logic of capital control to a new horizontal organizing through the principle of consensus. The global Occupy Movement opened cracks in the dominant system of naked capitalism, creating autonomous zones to be expanded through mutual aid and voluntary association.
By 2012, the demise of Occupy became undeniable with brutal police attacks and eviction of camps, yet many had awakened to the necessity of decentralization as a solution to the growing crisis of representation, particularly the problems caused by the elites control of the economy and their taking over so many aspects of our lives. What then unfolded was the beginnings of a radical decentralization toward economic justice. With the recovered factories movement along with worker-run co-ops and time- banking, (a system that uses swapping skills and units of time as currency), the impulse for autonomy was mobilized beyond the streets.
The mosaic of this new world was mirrored in the underground virtual network behind the rising rubble of speculative and extractive capitalism. Even before the Zapatistas’ call for the creation of international solidarity, creative moves toward decentralization had already been quietly underway.
Internet Revolt against Enclosure
The advent of the Internet created an opening for a global society that was steadily being devoured by corporatism. In cyberspace, the borders of the Industrial World began to crumble and virtues that had not seen the light of the day under rigid market logic began to thrive. Contrary to the commonly held view that the internet was originally financed by the Pentagon, author Steven Johnson argued that, along with government support in the early research and private sectors, the internet was created by “decentralized groups of scientists and programmers and hobbyists (and more than a few entrepreneurs) freely sharing the fruits of their intellectual labor with the entire world”.
The Internet grew out of an open source network of peers. Later British programmer Tim Berners-Lee built the World Wide Web on top of it, providing another hypertextual layer. The Internet in its early age was more open and decentralized. This is where citizens beyond borders longed for another world, independent of Anglo-American economic hegemony and hidden corporate governance.
When the force of commodification crossed boundaries and seemed to have reached the entire planet, the Internet offered a final refuge. In this deep net, the pursuit for freedom emerged with the formation of cyber-activists, hackers and programmers who saw potential in strong cryptography to effectively challenge government control over their lives. One of these online affinity groups came to being through an electronic mailing list known as the Cypherpunks.
The Free Software Movement that sprang from the 1970s hacker culture pioneered a way toward liberation technology to combat a growing corporate culture of control. The creation of operation systems like GNU/LINUX was an effort to keep the stream of source code outside the realm of proprietary licenses and decentralize the creation of software to support freedom for every computer user.
In 1991 a young cryptographer named Phil Zimmermann, wrote a free and open source encryption program called “Pretty Good Privacy” (PGP) that protects private conversation online. This program has its foundation in the belief that the right to privacy is a fundamental part of free speech. In the digital space, torrents of citizens’ free thoughts began to link to one another for further emancipation.
In an effort to create secure networks and make them more immune to censorship or surveillance, cryptography that had traditionally been used to seal messages was employed to counteract traffic analysis. Later this evolved into free software known as TOR which stands for The Onion Router, an open network that generates anonymity through shuffling the users and hiding IP addresses from the inevitable digital big brother eyes infiltrating the Internet. Journalist and security researcher Jacob Appelbaum described how Tor provides privacy that is a prerequisite for free speech. He said, “It gives every person a voice. Every person has a right to read and speak freely, not one person excluded.” It paved a way to create autonomous zones that are more free from private and state mass interception.
For a while the young Internet appeared to be moving into a future that was becoming more free from coercive force. But it was just a matter of time before the influence of the ossified forms of the outer world began to invade. In the 1990’s, the first cryptowar was waged when the U.S. Gov. tried to ban the export of strong crypto. This battle was won by the citizens. Yet, with the centralization of servers and commercialization, cyberspace was still moving toward increased privatization and corporate control.
In recent years, new waves of resistance against the commodity economy that restricts the autonomy of the common people began to emerge. Spontaneous creative action of the net-generation helped the decentralized network of peers to blossom into an online culture of sharing. BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer file sharing protocols challenged the copyright industry and Hollywood monopolies. Creative Commons licensing chartered an alternative to intellectual property rights that enforced information propriety and ownership. The Open Source Movement fostered peer-to-peer production and collaboration. Wikipedia challenged the orthodox top down writing of history through horizontal creation of knowledge, with people sharing ideas with no claims of ownership. All this brought new alternatives to the closed hermeneutic circle of peer review encrusted with corporate or government interests.
In 2010, we saw another step in the decentralization of information. With its method of transparency, WikiLeaks’ scientific journalism lifted the established media shield and distributed the right of free speech around the world. The online collective Anonymous activated a new form of global free association and furthered the flow of information that had become stagnated through institutional hierarchies.
As one of the original contributors to the Cypherpunk mailing list, WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange saw encryption as an “embodiment of the laws of physics” that “does not listen to the bluster of states, even transnational surveillance dystopias”. He envisioned cryptography as “the ultimate form of non-violent direct action” and saw how it would help those trying to hold the state accountable.
Assange (2012) asserted in Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet:
“Strong cryptography can resist an unlimited application of violence. No amount of coercive force will ever solve a math problem. But could we take this strange fact about the world and build it up to be a basic emancipatory building block for the independence of mankind in the platonic realm of the internet?”
A crucial step for this building block emerged in a further evolution of the cypherpunks. In 2008, the open source protocol for a public asset ledgerwas put forward by an anonymous developer. The invention of the blockchain was a breakthrough of imagination in computer science. Bitcoin, with decentralized currency as the first app, became operational in early 2009.
With its irreducible essence of digital scarcity and algorithmic consensus, Bitcoin self- regulates the production of money and clearing of transactions that have traditionally been handled by banks and monopolistic payment systems. As an encryption-based currency, Bitcoin enables the secure transfer of value as content through almost any network directly from sender to receiver without counter-party risk. Its global autonomous network disrupts the old hierarchical financial institutions and rebels against central authority, potentially rendering the archaic payment systems irrelevant.
This revolutionary technology that emerged in the belly of the beast of dominant market forces hacks corporate proprietary governing systems, creating cracks of autonomous zones. It opens the guarded gates of an oligarchical financial system, unleashing unmediated flows of exchange. Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur and author, Andreas Antonopoulos, describes how “currency comes from the word for ‘flow’ in Latin”. There never was a currency that had flow like Bitcoin does, with “no borders, no checkpoints, no intermediaries.” Bitcoin is the world’s first currency that lives up to the full meaning of the word ‘flow.’ The autonomous movement of this stateless currency can liberate our imagination, which has been captured by the rigidity of narrow, commercially driven worldviews.
What we are seeing now is the effect of freeing the flow within markets that have been dammed up by state sponsored ‘too big to fail’ industries and its rigged winner-take-all monopoly game. This is one reason why, in this early stage of development, Bitcoin has appealed most to those who wished to restore a kind of spontaneous force of market and entrepreneurship. Yet, contrary to some views that Bitcoin is just another tool to recycle a crony capitalism, it is actually not really money for libertarians or any particular group for that matter. The premise and the genius of this innovation lies at the core of its technology. A piece of mathematics enshrined in computer code enables a form of decentralized trust; the ability for strangers anywhere to achieve consensus at a large scale without central authority.
Bitcoin is the currency of radical imagination; a vehicle that can carry democratically chosen values of collectives through individual free association. As we move toward more decentralized systems, values created through network effects could save the marketplace from rule of greed and grandiosity by the few, that has destroyed healthy price discovery and systemically rent-seeks at almost every turn. This could also potentially free society at large from a neoliberal ideology that locks people into unequal, monetized and commodified relationships.
Bitcoin’s unique monetary design of fixed supply is often criticized by economists as deflationary and for its potential to promote hoarding. Yet, many fail to see how this is a vital incentive structure that helps bootstrap the whole operation. It facilitates a way of building new infrastructures for a more decentralized world and generates bottom up consensus power.
While many traditional social movements interface with the existing infrastructure of the corporate state and struggle to gain economic sustainability to create real effects, Bitcoin’s new monetary features create a viable alternative to the existing parasitic incentive structures of the corporate state.
In this crucial time of transition from the overarching ambition of corporate oligarchs, the blockchain based cryptocurrencies allow anyone to more fully connect with their own principles and ideals and to act on them without permission. This is a new social ecosystem that fuels innovation and activism on the edges, providing new ways to fund projects and aspirations that have traditionally been rejected by a monolithic vision of the world conceived by the few and dictated from above.
Through open source and peer-to-peer value exchange networks, people are coming together to build new social forms. This is creative direct action; if one doesn’t like the existing system, instead of fighting it, they can now simply innovate a better one. For example, OpenBazzar, a decentralized alternative to Ebay, brings the power of the market back to the common people. Fair Coop aims to create online transnational cooperatives. Envisioned by Enric Duran, cofounder of Spain’s Catalan Integral Cooperatives (CIC), the cryptocurrency called FairCoin offers a means of value creation and exchange suited to those around the world who support economic equality, fair trade and a sustainable way of living.
These new waves of independence from traditional structures of power can redirect the current that is now used to carry corporatist values to prefigure a different world. Collective efforts of divesting from the logic of profit at any cost can starve the beast of neoliberalism. It releases public wealth and what belongs to the commons, which has been increasingly swallowed up by vulture capitalism. Networked flow across borders can creatively disrupt the hierarchies of domination. It has potential to decolonize and reorganize society at a global scale.
As the mind begins to free itself from the confines of the market, the force of control will desperately try to infiltrate new opening cracks in order to reassert power. A new digital war is being fought, with the unprecedented level of mass surveillance revealed by Snowden’s NSA files, government efforts to outlaw cryptography and continuous assaults on net neutrality. Corporations like IBM aim to centralize the blockchain by shifting an old payment system into this new digital platform in order to preserve the old levers of power. Through governments and firms like Goldman Sachs, there will be many more attempts to regulate or compromise Bitcoin’s core innovation of decentralization to turn it to the benefit of the few.
The Internet of human creativity is being turned into a battleground. Yet, the imagination of everyday people has already arisen. From the ashes of a dying world, we are seeing a new horizon. Our willingness to dialogue and connect across boundaries of differences ushers forth a new power of consensus. Around the world, networks of our radical imagination are becoming a shield against a cold abstract thinking that freezes the current of the heart. We are opening the world to diverse pathways chosen by each person’s self- determination into a confluence of our common dreams.
Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movements. Her work is featured in many publications. Find her on twitter @nozomimagine