Bitcoin, the end of the Taboo on Money

Denis Roio (aka Jaromil)

artist/activist/software developer

Bitcoin, 2013. (Used with permission)

Bitcoin, 2013. (Used with permission.)

“The most powerful forces, those that interest us the most, are not in a specular and negative relation to modernity, to the contrary they move on transversal trajectories. On this basis we shouldn’t conclude that they oppose everything that is modern and rational, but that they are engaged in creating new forms of rationality and new forms of liberation.” [1]

Abstract

Currency historically served at least two symbolic functions. First, it stood in for other forms of material exchange.  Second, the very iconography of printed currency served as part of a system of liturgy designed to “glorify” power. The rise of the credit industry, and elaborate financial engineering, has rendered both of these aspects of currency less visible. Consumers don’t look at as much currency as they used to. The images and symbols are gone, as if taboo. Bitcoin opens up a chance to examine that move, to critique both the original symbolic functions of currency and the recent subsuming of symbol by credit and computationally-based forms of exchange.

(Editor’s note: the following text is an edited excerpt from the longer version available at http://jaromil.dyne.org/writings)

Glory

“Glory, in theology as much as in politics, is what takes the place of the inconceivable void that is the idleness of power; nevertheless, it is this very inconceivable emptiness that nourishes and feeds the power (or, better said, what the apparatus of power transforms in nourishment)” (Giorgio Agamben) [2]

Every form of currency, since the very beginning of its earliest forms, has dealt with the grammar of power. It is the establishment of a sovereign and its glory that justifies the shared trust in a symbolic form of value circulation. The investment of power into currency, especially when its not backed by mineral values, is codified in mystery and glory.

Bitcoin is not exempt from such dynamics: it innovates the way the digital becomes tangible, and so brings some highly disruptive potential. Hence, even when choosing the iconography for its own currency, the Bitcoin community displays a political rupture.

The intriguing mystery of the identity of its disappearing author Satoshi Nakamoto, might seem an important detail, but not for our analysis: it is of central importance to the Bitcoin myth and that of future crypto-currencies. Bitcoin has no single monetary authority, but a shared pact and the underlying rationality of a mathematical algorithm – the intangible dream of neutrality. Being deflationary, Bitcoins exist within a finite range of possibilities, a quantity of value that is increasingly difficult to mine. To the great horror of modern economists that regard fiat currency as a necessary tool within the troubled waters of contemporaneity, no one can create more Bitcoins than those established in the first place. There is no hierarchy in Bitcoin: there is no sacred origin (ἱεραρχία), no written fate, no single ruler, no second thought on its essence.

Bitcoin promises to be the neutral medium for an economy based on participation, not on the edict of a king, a central bank, or their authorized intermediaries. Nevertheless, it must be said, Bitcoin did create new riches for those who believed earlier than others in the promise of its algorithm. The rupture offered by this new perspective on money is not in relation to equality or welfare; Bitcoin might not benefit society or help us get out of the crisis: it is, rather, a protest for network neutrality.

Such a medium, I must also admit, will likely incarnate the approach to market freedom associated with the Austrian school of economics. The European Central Bank produced an analysis of the Bitcoin scheme in October 2012:

“The theoretical roots of Bitcoin can be found in the Austrian school of economics and its criticism of the current fiat money system and interventions undertaken by governments and other agencies, which, in their view, result in exacerbated business cycles and massive inflation.” [3]

This insight should be handled carefully: it might overstate the ambitions of Bitcoin, which first and foremost is a successful implementation of a system for value transactions in the digital domain, whose success is due to the biopolitical dynamics we are exploring in this article. Nevertheless, the interpretation of its ethos in fieri is not far from reality. It is paradoxical that, at a time in which scholars face the failure of most Austrian economic theories, they also encounter those same narratives mystified and popularized on the wave of technical innovation and functional transformation. But such a reductionist way to describe Bitcoin strictly depends on the adoption of universal categories: I am convinced such a method of analysis can’t lead the quest for the comprehension I am engaging in here. So let us take a step back from this dead end and look into Bitcoin’s symbology.

If one was to look back into the history of icons used in the minting of money, we would find a long stream of symbols of leadership: heads or bodies of humans or animals that address or signify the power of scientists, rulers, educators, judges, or that of a nation-state. Many are the symbols of hierarchy that govern the minting and authentication of the currency, as well symbols of wealth and geographical maps.  I’ll refrain now from engaging an analysis of such symbols used in the past, but observe that Bitcoin has, and will have, a different symbology.

The iconography of Bitcoin reflects the shared values of the community behind it. If there would be a single person representative of Bitcoin, it would be its mysterious creator Satoshi Nakamoto [4] but the fact that he doesn’t really exist makes things much more interesting. One of the early symbols of Bitcoin was the alpaca. For instance the mockup presented here comes from an old forum thread [5] and in its own way celebrates the first artisans that ever sold their creations on the Bitcoin market.

As an experiment, in a previous article for the Bitcoin community I’ve suggested the use of the empty throne as a bridge symbol across classical, modern and post-human iconography.  The image of an empty prepared throne (ἑτοιμασίᾳ τοῦ θρόνου) is found in the Old Testament and in books comprising the Upanishad; for some, the sacred image of a throne is never so powerful as when the throne is empty. The empty throne was used on minted Roman currency in the Augustan era, and sculpted exemplars of it are found in Knossos and Rome.

But the response of the Bitcoin community to such an old symbol of power, despite the fact it could represent the absence of Satoshi Nakamoto, has been negative. Someone commented that “perhaps a broken empty throne would be even better, symbolizing the breaking of the old power.” Someone else suggested that “a physical Bitcoin should have a mirror in the middle. Bitcoin is all about the individual,” and again another suggested that “Bitcoin is mercurial – it’s quicksilver. It’s the fool of the tarot and a touchstone. It turns base electrons into gold. It subverts and debases all norms and conventions.  The fool is the perfect symbol for Bitcoin.” Many also acclaimed the use of the Guy Fawkes mask, already adopted by Anonymous, from the V for Vendetta comics and movie.

The glory behind Bitcoin is mostly shrouded in mystery–it is a revolt against tyrannical injustice, the reclamation of individual rights, power distribution and disintermediation, and self-determination. I strongly argue that this glory is also shrouded by the transverse presence of a community feeling and the joyous consciousness that a powerful process is unfolding in history. Those participating in the Bitcoin community are afforded the possibility to express themselves in all their diversity rather than be subjugated to the uniformed, sterile and omnipresent corporate language of economics.

“After the phase in which the Multitude has built its body inside the language, the next opening cycle of conflicts will see the Multitude engaged in the construction of its body beyond language.” (Christian Marazzi) [6]

Conclusion

The time has come to explain the title of this article, namely, that Bitcoin is breaking the Taboo on Money. For numerous years many of us have taken money for granted, without even questioning its engineering, without analyzing accountancy in systemic terms. We have used it and we have been used by it. To paraphrase Georg Simmel, we have made ourselves ”indirect beings”, the intermediaries between money and the creation and satisfaction of our own desires.

As with a taboo that is so close to make us turn the other way, we have avoided questioning what makes money exist. In the past 50 or more years since the abandonment of a gold standard, people have quietly accepted the transformation of money into something more abstract, far from everyone’s hands, in fact becoming just a number in the databases of banks, a gesture of interaction with computers that know more than we do about our possessions. While money is the “root of all evil” to some, it is close to a religion for others. Both parties seem to deem money too important to be questioned, its evolution too natural to be interfered with by the masses. Currency is a system that permeates most if not all societal interactions, at least in the Western world, so many assume it to be neutral and, in any case, will never question its existence.

Most political analyses study the dynamics related to the distribution of money, its relation to labor, accumulation, use value and exchange values. Universals have governed the entire discourse around monetary engineering, and mathematical models have been the method to explain its aspects. As a glaring exception to this, there are sociological analyses such as that made by Max Weber that evaluated the relationship between ethics and money across historical mutations of society. Yet, to this day, only few dared look closer into currency systems and their biopolitical implications, without wearing the protective goggles of historically established universals: this has been a self-imposed taboo for many researchers and practitioners, to dissect this medium, just like a dead body that we are not allowed to study.

Now that money seems to be either dead or dying, it is the time to dare this dissection. It might be the case that, by trespassing this taboo, we will find out ways to change things on a larger scale, especially considering the long due line of innovation in the field of accountancy that has still to be applied.

Ultimately, there are proofs to the rupture I’m pointing out here, in the wake of many new currencies born after Bitcoin: with all irony and irreverence intended. The mystery man left the gates open: Satoshi the fool, Satoshi the saint, trespassed the line in front of
everyone. There is no longer a taboo on money. Bitcoin is not really about the loss of power for a few governments, but about the possibility for many more people to experiment with the building of new constituencies.

References

1. Negri and Hardt, Commonwealth, trans. by primary author (Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press, 2010).
2. Agamben, G., Il Regno e La Gloria (Milan: Neri Pozza Editore, 2007).
3. E.C.B (Virtual Currency Schemesî, European Central Bank, 2012).
4. Nakamoto, S., Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, 2009, http://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf (accessed October 30, 2013).
5. Alpaca mascotte, from the forum thread ìbounty for a bitcoin mascott drawingî, drawn by forum member ìgrondiluî, unfortunately no longer retrievable. April 28, 2011.
6. Marazzi, C., et al., La Moneta nell Impero (Verona: Ombre Corte Editore, 2003).

Bio

Denis Roio, also known by his hacker nickname Jaromil, is an artist, activist and software developer at Dyne.org. His creations are recommended by the FSF and redistributed by several GNU/Linux and BSD operating systems worldwide, while he is also an active contributor to media theory discourses. Jaromil publishes conceptual art in digital form since the year 2000, has lead R&D activities in the Netherlands Media Art Institute for 6 years, was honored with the Vilém Flusser Award in 2009 and awarded a fellowship in the 40 under 40 program for young European leaders in 2012. He is currently writing his Ph.D. as candidate of the Planetary Collegium M-Node at NABA in Milano.
http://dyne.org