Crypto and the Real Meaning of 'Radicalism'

The right-wing economics that shaped crypto doesn’t determine its future, argues a new book by Joshua Dávila – aka The Blockchain Socialist.

AccessTimeIconAug 3, 2023 at 5:37 p.m. UTC
Updated Aug 3, 2023 at 5:44 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconAug 3, 2023 at 5:37 p.m. UTCUpdated Aug 3, 2023 at 5:44 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconAug 3, 2023 at 5:37 p.m. UTCUpdated Aug 3, 2023 at 5:44 p.m. UTC

I first got interested in Bitcoin, going on a decade ago now, thanks to some of its more extreme political affiliations. In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, investor interest in gold skyrocketed, particularly among survivalists and “preppers.” These “gold bugs” were often extremely libertarian (with hints of what we’d now call the far-right), and it was through talking to them that I started thinking really seriously about Bitcoin.

I came with an outsider’s viewpoint on the hard-money longings and radical free-market ethos of these early Bitcoin adopters. Personally, I was, and remain, a dishwater-boring European-style democratic socialist, with a cypherpunk’s commitment to privacy and a few dollops of anarcho-syndicalist sympathies. But that political disconnect has never swayed my interest in crypto. In fact, even if I never much agreed with their conclusions, I came to respect many of the principled libertarians involved in the space. (I have infinitely less patience for the authoritarian far-right, especially in its overtly statist Zoomer form.)

The past four or five years, though, have seen a significant widening of political thought within crypto. Perhaps most significantly, Ethereum’s smart-contract architecture has attracted a huge wave of would-be economic engineers, focused not on Bitcoin-style individual sovereignty, but new incentive structures they hope can foster a more balanced and healthy society. Two key examples include Glen Weyl’s "Radical Markets" theories, and the nascent “regenerative economics” discourse spearheaded by Gitcoin founder Kevin Owocki and others.

It was in that context that a new Twitter account declaring itself “The Blockchain Socialist” appeared on my radar two or three years ago. An accompanying podcast welcomed truly transformative figures like artists Rhea Myers, Ethereum cofounder Amir Taaki and Sci-hub’s Alexandra Elbakyan, who saw the utility of crypto to their widely varied activist projects. The Blockchain Socialist became a nexus for discussions of American economic imperialism and the left-wing case for privacy in particular, two pillars that have helped define positions outside of crypto’s largely libertarian mainstream.

What is a radical?

The Blockchain Socialist finally came out from behind the curtain this year, revealing themselves as Joshua Dávila. Dávila has spent several years with Deloitte in Europe as a business consultant on blockchain issues, and also founded Breadchain, a project aimed at building “solidarity primitives” that parallel the “financial primitives” beloved of smart-contract developers.

Now, to help get his points across, Dávila is publishing his first book: "Blockchain Radicals: How Capitalism Ruined Crypto and How to Fix It," out Aug. 8 from Repeater Press. Buterin describes the book as “an important complement to existing narratives” in crypto.

What actually defines a radical is the willingness to rethink assumptions at the very deepest level

The book is essentially a long exploratory essay, working to flesh out Dávila’s fundamental belief in crypto as a tool for organizing non-state social and economic alliances, from mutual aid groups, to bail funds, to new models for funding technology development.

Dávila says that, up to now, he has had a much harder time pitching his peers in politics on the promise of blockchain and crypto.

“If you try and talk about crypto stuff in a left-wing forum, you’ll get banned,” he told me. “I was constantly accused of being a scammer. I assumed we could just have a grounded conversation, but I found out that wasn’t really possible.”

"Blockchain Radicals" pushes back against this sort of reductive condemnation of crypto. What’s most ironic is that these dismissals have come most often and loudly from neoliberal centrists who long to fall back into the warm embrace of institutions (such as, very recently, notoriously repressive intelligence agencies).

These centrists have seemingly spread their knee-jerk, ironically uncritical dismissal of cryptocurrency as a fraud from snout to tail as a corollary of their talent for masquerading as justice-oriented progressives—an easy enough task in the American political context. Dávila characterizes these responses to crypto, including catastrophizing about crypto’s energy usage without addressing broader systemic issues, as a liberal “moral panic.”

"Blockchain Radicals" can function partly as a deprogramming manual for those waylaid by this skewed and deceptive just-so story. Crucially, the book includes concise, workable, and open-minded introductions to basic crypto concepts like proof of work, smart contracts, non-fungible tokens. (NFTs) and distributed apps, as well as historical briefs on, for instance, the creation of Litecoin and "the DAO" hack. These are well-marked, and so easy to skip if you don’t need a refresher, but crucial for anyone who has spent years dismissing blockchains with a sneering hand-wave instead of substantive engagement.

“My book is not necessarily meant to answer the question of ‘what is blockchain socialism,’” Dávila told me. “I don’t think that’s really the question to be asking. What I was trying to do with this book is deconstruct the way people think about blockchains … and show how those mental models are flawed.”

Crypto’s radical potential

In that sense, the title "Blockchain Radicals" may be confusing. Despite growing awareness of right-wing “radicalism” over the past decade, the term is still often associated with left-wingers like the Weathermen or Che Guevara.

But a “radical” can actually have any set of political beliefs whatsoever. What actually defines a radical is the willingness to rethink assumptions at the very deepest level, including truths that a society may take for granted or hold sacrosanct. The linguistic origin of the term “radical” is in the Latin radix or radic-, meaning root: a radical is someone who digs beneath the soil to uncover both the origins of things, and their true nature.

[Dávila] unapologetically lauds crypto’s potential for circumventing unjust laws.

The radicalism of crypto will be obvious to the truly crypto-pilled, regardless of political orientation. Over the past decade crypto first invited, and more recently forced, reconsiderations of basic concepts like money, banking, investment, borders and even the nation itself (Dávila repeatedly pushes back against Balaji Srinivasan’s "Network State").

One of the broadest “radical” potentials Dávila ascribes to crypto is its ability to redefine, and maybe revivify, “the commons.” Historically, European and other feudal or tribal societies were organized around an agricultural “commons” shared by a community. New land and labor regimes led these to be cut up into hierarchical private holdings (a process later known as "enclosure") between roughly the 18th and 20th centuries.

In its later stages, this restructuring was justified with the false and racist narrative of “the tragedy of the commons.” This trope has since become a rationale for all kinds of profit-juicing privatization initiatives, including modern patent and intellectual property regimes that can restrain the advance of technology.

In this light, crypto's fundamental structural reliance on open-source software development may be one of its deepest radical tendencies. Dávila also describes crypto as enabling new kinds of digital commons that leverage new mechanisms for shared property and incentive design. That’s just one aspect of the broader potential he sees for bottom-up economic engineering via blockchains.

Dávila also proudly embraces more in-your-face crypto-radicalism: he unapologetically lauds crypto’s potential for circumventing unjust laws.

He shares my awestruck admiration, for instance, for Kazakh developer Alexandra Elbakyan, an information insurgent on par with Aaron Swarz or even Edward Snowden. Through her 100% against-the-law site Sci Hub, which I am linking here, Elbakyan has for more than a decade been liberating publicly-funded scientific research from the vampiric grasp of fundamentally corrupt, rent-seeking “publishers” like Elsevier. She’s pushing back against one of the most glaring perversions of the common good by capitalist enclosure of public property—and Bitcoin has made that effort sustainable.

Concrete proposals, projects, and tendencies are explored throughout "Blockchain Radicals." They can even seem prosaic, at least for anyone who hasn’t directly faced the challenge of building them with pre-crypto tools.

Possibly most interesting is the potential for DAO-like structures and smart contracts for building new kinds of cooperative businesses. As boring as it may seem, a huge barrier to building new economic models is simply bookkeeping, trust and coordination. For instance, I lived in collectively owned housing for many years as a student, which was great for keeping costs down. But it required a lot of commitment and mutual trust, especially when it came to managing collective funds for things like house repairs and taxes.

In today’s America, worker-owned businesses or resident-owned apartments may sound like radical ideas, but they were once common in this country. The first U.S. co-op was apparently founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1752, and they’ve since successfully demonstrated the practical benefits of at least a little bit of socialism. The transparency and immutability of a well-designed DAO and smart contract stack could make such collective ownership much easier and more transparent, potentially putting more money back in workers’ pockets.

Dávila is right to warn that his book doesn’t try to define precisely how blockchain tech can help create a more economically just and stable world. While he details many specific admirable examples, and draws lessons from them, "Blockchain Radicals" is not a prescriptive taxonomy or game plan for “socialism on the blockchain.”

Instead, the book is about opening minds to a broader set of possibilities in crypto than you’re ever likely to encounter in mainstream media. If you’re interested in changing the world, that conspicuous silence alone should be plenty of motivation to pick it up.

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David Z. Morris

David Z. Morris was CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, and small amounts of other crypto assets.