Have you ever stumbled across an article which promotes an argument that strongly resonates with you, but contradicts your ideals when put into another context?
That’s exactly what happened to me today.
During my commute back home on the tram, I came across an opinion piece by Nouriel Roubini titled ‘Blockchain isn’t about democracy and decentralisation – it’s about greed’. I have always been partial to provocative themes, and the title of this article not only piqued my interest, but provoked a strong sense of deja vu. It took me just ten seconds to realise that I had written extensively about the underlying theme of the article (the misappropriation of the term ‘libertarianism’) whilst I was at university, and owing to my involvement within the world of blockchain and crypto, I knew this was going to be a thought-provoking piece.
I wasn’t wrong.
Nouriel Roubini is no stranger to those who follow the world of crypto and blockchain. Roubini has rapidly gained notoriety, a divisive figure whose staunch criticism of crypto and blockchain is riling many in the space, and something which has resulted in him becoming fiat currency’s very own champion. To sum up his stance on crypto, think the total opposite John McAfee, and voila, you have Roubini.
Thus, it was of no surprise that the article opened up with Roubini slamming the current state of the crypto market, highlighting the fall in price and making his disgust for ICOs very clear by labeling the majority as ‘scams’. Blockchain was next in line to experience the wrath of Roubini, being labeled as the ‘least useful technology in human history’, and a ‘so-called’ libertarian smokescreen used by proponents to overshadow their self-serving greedy agendas. Roubini went on to argue that blockchain is in fact all about centralisation rather than about decentralisation, serving only to enrich billionaires within the crypto industry who he accuses of intentionally propagating decentralisation to conceal their tight control.
Having studied the libertarian ideology extensively during my university days, I’d be lying if I said that Roubini didn’t make some interesting points regarding the misuse of libertarianism ideals, however I also feel that Roubini’s inherent loathing of cryptocurrency was always going to result in him painting the entire industry with the same brush.
Libertarianism first came about in 19th century France as a term used by anarchists to promote liberty, egalitarianism and resistance against the state, which in their eyes was a totalitarian entity only serving to defend private property and subjugate people. Anarchism can therefore be viewed as the philosophical opposition to forms of power (often found within the social, political and economic arenas), and as a result, many have come to view the true definition of libertarianism as libertarian anarchism.
However since the 1970s, libertarianism has been accused by many a libertarian anarchist of taking a massive shift to the right, turning into a platform for anarcho-capitalists, supporters of laissez-faire economics and proponents of property rights. As noted by Murray Bookchin, “libertarian” was “a term created by nineteenth-century European anarchists, not by contemporary American right-wing proprietarians.” These right-wing libertarians often build upon the teachings of John Locke, affirming that individuals have rights which no other can violate, and commonly reinforce this point by regurgitating Ayn Rand’s call for the limitation of the state within the daily lives of people.
Proprietarianism was thus a term which interested me greatly, and I felt compelled to identify it in action. It didn’t take me long to see that many a billionaire had been using libertarianism to smokescreen their crony capitalism, ranging from the Koch brothers, Peter Thiel and Rupert Murdoch, just to name a few. Suffice to say, I saw the merit in Bookchin’s argument.
When it comes to the world of cryptocurrency and blockchain, I must admit, I have seen many an example of proprietarianism on display. Without naming any individuals or projects, the terms ‘decentralisation’, ‘economic freedom’, and a ‘new way of doing things’ have all too frequently been used by many an opportunistic individual or project, not only to galvanise people into supporting their projects, but to also to put a smokescreen on their self-serving ends. You only have to look at a projects’s business model, the crazy wealth of their founders, and the negligible benefits that their tokens actually have.
So what did I take away from Roubini’s article?
Firstly, it’s only fair to give credit where it is due, and Roubini most definitely knows how to argue a point. His analysis of the the misuse of libertarianism is spot-on in many cases, however it also happens to be his Achilles’ heel for one simple reason — not everyone in the space subscribes to this crony practice. So although the industry is indeed riddled with scam projects and opportunists, Roubini does a great disservice to all the wonderful projects which are a credit to the industry, projects whose teams often work on nothing more than donations, projects which include their communities in the building process, and projects whose products and platforms have potential to be of great service to people.
So the main takeaway point is this: there is nothing wrong with wanting to have a profitable business. What is morally problematic, however, is leading people on to believe that a project is emancipatory and has investors’ best interests at heart. This will only serve to harm innocent people and the project’s long-term well-being and integrity.
Last but not least, I say this to Roubini: take time to look into the dozens of well-intentioned projects out there. They do exist, and moreover, truly embody the principles of libertarianism and decentralisation.
Bookchin, M. (2005). The ecology of freedom. Oakland, CA: AK Press, p.57.