Can Crypto Go From Movement to Campaign?

Yesterday, after an SEC agent reportedly gatecrashed a conference organized by Messari founder Ryan Selkis and subpoenaed a guest speaker, Selkis announced he was running for office. That is good for crypto, really.

AccessTimeIconSep 21, 2021 at 6:10 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 4:26 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconSep 21, 2021 at 6:10 p.m. UTCUpdated May 11, 2023 at 4:26 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconSep 21, 2021 at 6:10 p.m. UTCUpdated May 11, 2023 at 4:26 p.m. UTC

Cops like pulp fiction, too. Yesterday, choosing one of the most high-profile crypto conferences of the year, an agent for the U.S. Securities and Enforcement Commission (SEC) reportedly subpoenaed a crypto founder as he was preparing to take the stage.

The plot point would certainly fit the narrative: Crypto, a movement fighting for freedom and equal access in finance, was being curtailed by the state. The latest chapter of this familiar story allegedly played out at the top of an elevator shaft at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan.

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No reporter has yet to verify the details of the incident. But Ryan Selkis, founder of the Messari media company that organized the Mainnet 2021 conference, gave credence to it when announcing his run for U.S. Senate.

“If you’re wondering when I actually decided to run for Senate, it was when these [redacted] came to my event, didn’t buy a ticket and served one of the speakers a subpoena,” Selkis tweeted yesterday.

How’s that for hard-boiled?

No one is sure if Selkis is serious. Asked about his run, Selkis told CoinDesk, “no comment.” It’s all very fitting for the novelization of crypto. Yet, in announcing his bid for office, Selkis is bringing crypto into a new era of political action – distilling a movement into a campaign.

That is a significant turn for an industry that reads like fiction and a chance for crypto to get clear about its goals. Selkis is a vocal proponent for crypto to start lobbying and electing individuals favorable to the industry. Although there are “hodlers” in office, or those who would like to be, it isn’t clear yet what it means to be a “bitcoin candidate” beyond saying vague approving things about the industry.

In his 1995 essay “Movements and Campaigns,” philosopher Richard Rorty outlined how the 20th century’s great political dramas might be better understood as a smaller history of discrete events, individuals working toward specific goals, rather than systemic processes.

Campaigns, Rorty writes, are finite things, “something that can be recognized to have succeeded or to have, so far, failed.” In contrast, movements – like Marxism or Christianity – are “too big and too amorphous to do anything that simple.”

Crypto is a movement. Bitcoin is at the center of a generational conflict looking to re-architect everything from money to the internet to people’s diets. It has millions of invested players and an infinite number of contradictory ambitions. It’s a brand. It’s a way of life. It’s a story that we’re telling.

It’s like what Irving Howe said of modernism, calling it “one of the major turnings in the cultural history of the West.” Howe was the lens Rorty used to make his point. In his younger years, Rorty wrote, Howe was embroiled in the world-historical attempt to establish socialism in the United States. He was a believer in the modern human spirit and founded a magazine, Dissent, to tell its story through literature and criticism.

Like others of his ilk, Howe grew disillusioned with grand political machinations. But he never lost sight of the achievable goals of socialism: using Dissent to campaign for workers’ rights, for free speech and for egalitarianism. Howe was a “warrior saint,” but he didn’t win all of his battles.

That’s for the better, Rorty thinks. “Movements can go rancid,” he wrote. They can, and are often, replaced (modernism lost to high modernism which lost to postmodernism). These grand narratives set up good versus evil but are never clear about what it means to succeed.

Specific campaigns can be won or lost, but it’s about conscious attempts at transformation.

One of the major conflicts in crypto right now is the lack of regulatory clarity. Rarely are people clear about what they want from the government. People are content to build in the shadows and occasionally bask in the spotlight of a conference stage. Up until the moment a process server comes by.

Selkis’ run for Senate could offer crypto a new platform to stand on and get straight about the actual political ends it’s striving for. The SEC is pursuing concrete goals: It is targeting founders and protocols, filing lawsuits and speaking regularly about the industry.

There’s a question about whether crypto will ever go out and vote, but it’s worth it for Selkis to run. The industry cannot keep telling itself the same story, it has to get real. As Rorty said of Dissent (in a perfect world):

“It would never occur to such a person to ask whether Dissent was central or marginal to the cultural or political life of its day. She would only ask whether Dissent did some good, whether it contributed to the success of some of the campaigns in which it took part.”

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Daniel Kuhn

Daniel Kuhn is a deputy managing editor for Consensus Magazine. He owns minor amounts of BTC and ETH.