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Bitcoin Subverts Power, But this does not make it Democratic

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A sociologist from the UK analyzes in a paper, how Bitcoin can be understood as a political technology. The approach is pretty interesting – even if the result is somehow weak.

Tom Redshaw is Ph.D. at the School of Social Science at the Manchester University. And when it happens that a Social Scientists analyzes Bitcoin, he doesn’t care about technology, economy or legal issues, like many other publications about cryptocurrency, but focuses on the really big issues; on Bitcoin as a political technology. In his paper “Bitcoin beyond ambivalence: Popular rationalization and Feenberg’s technical politics” Redshaw wants to answer the question, what does Bitcoin do with the individual and society as a whole.

Redshaw’s definition of Bitcoin is already full of politics; “Bitcoin emerged as an alternative monetary system that could circumvent political and financial authorities.” The cryptocurrency is interesting for Social Science because it is “a practice in libertarian prefigurative politics“ and “demonstrates the capacity for online subgroups to creatively appropriate internet-based technologies to enact alternative futures.”

The theoretical framework for his work is Andrew Feenberg’s critical theory of technology, which analyzed the impact of technology on power structures. The central question, Redshaw takes from Feenberg, is, if a new technology cements existing power structures – or does it give power back to the powerless and helps the democratization of society?

The answer Redshaw gives a paradox. Yes, Bitcoin subverts power structures with technology, but no, it does not promote democracy. Not a bit.

Technology as the Hegemon’s Toolset

But let us start with Feenberg’s critical theory of technology, which serves as a framework to understand what the cryptocurrency does with society.

Andrew Feenberg is a philosopher from Canada who intensively studies the classical authors of the critical theory, like Marx, Marcuse, Heidegger, Lukacs and all these intellectuals which found our late capitalistic way of live alienated, perverted and so on. Beside this Feenberg developed his critical theory of technology during the 1990s.

“His analysis of contemporary power structures is one of technocracy, at the heart of which lies the capacity of industry and institutions to reproduce the conditions of their supremacy,” as Redshaw puts it:

“Technocracy thus underpins social inequalities for Feenberg, and in this analysis of power structures technological agency, the capacity to influence technical design, becomes a principal mode of resistance. Technology must be democratized.”

Technology as itself reproduces power structures, based on its development, which is not democratic, but elitist; “As the greater part of technological development involves only those that can mobilize considerable resources, this entails the exclusion of many.” The basic design of technology doesn’t represent the interest of the many, but of a tiny elite, “In this way, the rationality governing technology design and development is hegemonic.” The design of technology is not a product of luck or necessity, but of the intention of power.

Most people are unaware of the power of technological design, because there is a dominant myth “of technology as politically neutral, that its progress simply reflects scientific laws of efficiency. This serves to conceal the political processes at play in the design and ensures technology is always managed from above.” This understanding of technology as political neutral “forms the basis of a rationality which ensures technology exists outside the realms of social critique.”

The Subversion of the Technological Codes

This interesting approach is just the start. Like all the combative cultural theories of the 1990s, Feenberg’s critical theory does not let the ruler win easily but extracts a source of resistance in every power structure. “At the heart of Feenberg’s theory is thus a conception of technological agency. Revealing the political processes at play in technology design is the first step in challenging its hegemonic consequences.”

Despite the hegemonic design, there are always “alternative possibilities in technology design, and the choice between these alternatives ‘depends on neither the technical nor economic efficiency, but on the “fit” between devices and the interests and beliefs of the various social groups that influence the design process.’” This technological agency becomes the vehicle for resistance; it enables “creative appropriation, a technique, “in which users are able to ‘reinvent’ technology through appropriating it to new purposes and investing it with new meanings.”

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A good example is the Internet which “allows certain groups to add new socio-technical ‘layers’ to computer networks, forming communities around shared relations to technology that enable them to perceive and actualize alternative meanings and purposes.” Creative appropriations “subvert the dominant codes from within by introducing various unexpected delays, combinations, and ironies.”

The cultural theories of the 1990s understood class struggle as some kind of Judo; the people take the messages and design, with which the ruler wants to dominate them, and turns it against the system by appropriating it, redefining it and giving it a new meaning.

With this perspective, it should be no surprise that Bitcoin is a good example of the creative appropriation of technology. It takes computer science and cryptography, both developed by the US government, and uses it to give people autonomy. But what happened exactly? Which values and goals have participated in the appropriation? And why is this allegedly undemocratic?

Bitcoin as Creative Appropriation

Redshaw applies this theory of technology on Bitcoin. “The emergence of Bitcoin illustrates the value of creative appropriation as a conceptual tool for understanding the capacity of subgroups to innovate new functionalities for internet technologies.”

He recognizes Bitcoin as a “collaborative effort” from Internet users brought together by their “shared values and relations to technology.” These shared beliefs formed every aspect of the young technology. The developers of Bitcoin understood that they have an agency on existing technology, and they used this agency to enforce an “alternative rationalization” of it. They broke the scheme, with which the technology forces the users to obey the will of the rulers, and instead enforces their own will on the technology.

Bitcoin is not just the product of some lines of code. It is the product of belief, will, intentions, dreams. It is a product of human winning over technology, of the individual gaining power by technology instead of being dominated by technology. It is more political than technological. 

Feenberg, quite an academic child of the 1990s, believes that everything that comes from below, that is a grassroots movement, resistance, or revolution, has to be democratic; as if democracy was the only goal to revolt against rulers. Redshaw, in this regard a child of the 21st century, does not believe in this, and finds a proof for this in Bitcoin:

“There was no necessity for the designers to justify the ethical significance of the technology, or how it impacts on the moral and political position of subordinate social groups.”

Instead of being democratic, Bitcoin was designed that “it deliberately evades conventional paths of democratic politics.”

Bitcoin as an Incarnation of Menger’s Theory of Money in Code?

Redshaw identifies the origin of Bitcoin in the Cryptography Mailing list. In this list, he sees a strong tendency to libertarian and individualistic politics, which is a product of the way the participants appropriate technology.

“Through the individual possession of cryptographic keys, cryptosystems were perceived by subscribers to Cryptography as a means of shifting power away from large centralized organizations entrusted with protecting data, to the individual.”

Exactly. Cryptography is emancipation. The significant innovation of Bitcoin is this it enables the individual to manage his money autonomously. It made it possible “to project a libertarian monetary theory chiefly oriented around precious metals onto a system of digital signatures.”

But how makes Redshaw the turn into the negative? How does he find the connection to libertarians  – and against democracy? Let’s follow his thoughts.

Conceptually Bitcoin is, the sociologist notes, very similar to precious metal money – and hence with Menger’s theory of money. According to Redshaw, this theory never stopped circulating. “While the gold standard fell out of favor in mainstream economics, Menger’s theory continued to resonate in circles committed to limiting the capacity of governments.” And while the critical theory highly estimates resistance and revolution, it doesn’t tolerate resistance against a democratic government. Or at least it holds this kind of resistance as undemocratic.

These kinds of libertarian ideas have become fundamental design decisions of Bitcoin. They determined that a number of monetary units must be finite, which is not a necessary part of conception – as Redshaw thinks – but a product of a belief. “It follows a libertarian conviction in the superiority of precious metals, valued as currency for their properties, chiefly their scarcity, but also the inability of institutions to create them in response to market conditions.”

The Appropriation of the Theory by the Hegemon

The creative appropriation of technology makes Bitcoin “a successful demonstration of a subgroup introducing new and alternative values into technology design.” Because of the imprint of Menger’s theory of money in the design, however, Bitcoin, as an “alternative rationalization of technology,” does not “challenge the capitalist technical code.” Instead, it is intended to “circumvent democratic processes to advance libertarian economics.” Bitcoin is not democratic, but capitalistic!

And with this, an interesting approach analyzing Bitcoin and society ends with a black and white scheme. With a mindset that dismisses a century old school of philosophy and economy simply as “undemocratic,” and with a mindset that praises resistance, but does not tolerate resistance that is turned against a democratic government and that questions the power of the hegemon on the creation of money.

You could note, that with Redshaw’s understanding of creative appropriation the theory itself has been appropriated – by the hegemonic mindset itself.