Can’t We Use Crypto for Something Other Than Capitalism?
How to make the next generation of bankers better than today’s

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 20 August 2021

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took a bit of heat last week for suggesting that the blockchain movement may have gone largely off course. Some asked: What about NFTs? Or the decentralized autonomous corporations? Aren’t Bitcoin and Ethereum doing all sorts of great things?

Yes, they are. But I’m not sure those good things are the primary concern of the majority of people involved with these tokens, or that they represent a substantial enough portion of the activity and impact of blockchains, so far, on the greater economy.

It’s hard to tell the whole story of bitcoin, its successes, and its failures in a few hundred words, but the main point I was trying to make — and still am—is that these technologies are not necessarily any more distributed or egalitarian than their predecessors. If we want them to be we must make a conscious choice to use these technologies differently than we are right now.

So far, there may be some new players among the bankers and currency traders, but the same extractive dynamics are at work. I think we’re still serving the same financial interests with our new tools as we did with our old ones. Indeed, we are destined to use our new, distributed digital platforms to amplify traditional capitalism if we don’t summon the courage and deliberateness to try something else.

Unlike many who write about the blockchain’s problems, I do so not from the perspective of a cynical outsider, but as an OG crypto-anarchist fanboy. If anything, I suffer not from too low an opinion of blockchains, but from the too idealistic expectations of a true believer. We were talking about applying PGP and TOR-style networks to a decentralized currency since the early 1990s. (Yes, I know BitTorrent wasn’t around then, but Onion routing was. And Phil Zimmermann had invented Pretty Good Privacy by 1991.) Bitcoin was simply the first white paper outlining a complete solution (2008), or at least the first one that got implemented, about a year later.

Even then, it only turned into a true, widespread movement after Occupy Wall Street. Bitcoin came to prominence as a form of tech support for the circular economic systems that activists were envisioning. Members of both the Occupy and blockchain communities understood that money had become too expensive. There were too many financiers trying to make money off everyone else’s transactions. Money was lent into existence by central banks and sub-institutions, for a fee, and with interest. In order to pay back the banks, borrowing businesses needed to grow. This extractive property of fiat money was itself exacerbating divisions in wealth, while also demanding the growth that was destroying the environment.

In a sense, our economy became a tail wagging the dog situation, with businesses growing simply to satisfy the needs of the financial system, and benefiting only the banker class. And if a sustainable, profitable business didn’t borrow money to grow more, someone who was willing to borrow that money would outcompete them. Whoever has the most capital wins. Meanwhile, “developing” nations could only participate in global markets by borrowing cash from the World Bank and then “opening their markets” to further exploitation by the lenders.

If only there were another way to verify transactions that didn’t require some central institution, then a small group of elites wouldn’t be able to dominate finance this way. We could begin to look at money as an inexpensive utility, and optimize it for velocity instead of growth. And blockchain hasn’t completely failed to accomplish this to some extent in some places — Africa and India, in particular—where people are using crypto effectively for payroll, international transfers, and peer-to-peer exchange.

Bitcoin’s champions can argue that the only reason those transactions work is because of the billions of dollars being invested by speculators and the terawatt hours of electricity being invested by miners—the folks and activities I’m often complaining about. And to some extent, this is true. If we were not attracting speculators to the coin, it wouldn’t have any proof of its worth. And if we weren’t “praying” to bitcoin in the form of processing cycles and electricity expenditure—if we were not burning our tremendous funeral pyre of energy in bitcoin’s name—then it would have no value.

That energy is the “proof of work” we must demonstrate in order for a transaction to be validated. The work serves the same purpose as the gold in Fort Knox once did — to back the currency. And the alternative to this need to prove our work (just think what Marx would have made of the expression) is proof of stake. That kind of blockchain says that whoever already has the most money gets to say which transactions are real, because obviously they have a stake in currency remaining valid. And we have to pay them a service fee, too. Really? So the alternative to having rich bankers in charge of everything is to turn control over to the richest token holders?

There are certainly exceptions, but most crypto-enthusiasts I meet are interested primarily in making money off the crypto itself. They set themselves up as miners (the new central bankers); they speculate on tokens; they lend their tokens to stake other people’s tokens; they build or invest in services and tokens that sit on top of the Bitcoin or Ethereum blockchains; they invest in ETFs that invest in a bunch of that stuff; or they invest in the stock of trading platforms like Coinbase that attempt to “go meta” on this all activity. The founding members of the most well-intended blockchain initiatives still tend to get wealthy off their tokens even if the project fails, and always before any of the social good happens.

I know many fine, bright young people who may have gotten interested in blockchain for great reasons, who now spend a good portion of their time and money trading and speculating in tokens the same way that Wall Street traders speculate on stocks, derivatives, and even the exchanges on which trading takes place. Instead of Bloomberg terminals, they’ve got Binance or Hotbit or Coinbase Pro up on their screens. And they’re reading stories and tweets to see what’s trending. Just like the bankers that the blockchain was supposed to replace, these crypto-enthusiasts are trying to get rich off the money itself.

Then there’s the folks who are developing new forms of YouTube or Twitter, that enable micropayments to creators for their content. Leaving aside the question of whether cloning blockchain versions of the net’s sickest cultures is the best idea, at least these efforts are intended to enable new kinds of transactions to take place, supporting those who are currently being shafted on for-profit monopoly platforms. And maybe if we directly support people through platforms like, the Brave Browser, and Streamanity, it will lead to vastly different outcomes for creators and the culture of the net. I agree, we have to at least try.

But know what’s catching on a lot faster for that purpose in the blockchain environment? NFTs.

NFTs are the current blockchain’s killer app. Finally, there’s a crypto utility that seems to make sense to people and can serve as a clear example of token profits doing something “good for the world.” Thanks to NFTs, digital artists whose work was always replicable and undervalued now have a way to “sell” exclusive ownership of a digital file—verifiable bragging rights—to just one person. So a creator like Matt Furie, whose Pepe the Frog was mercilessly co-opted by the alt-right, now has a way of making some money off his character’s memetic spread. I love his work and his intentions, and am happy for him to make a few million dollars now for all that heartache.

But very very few people make real money off NFTs. It’s a bit like how the Romans would hold a lottery during Colosseum events through which one lucky slave (of thousands) would be granted freedom. A few big news stories about 3LAU or Mike Winkelmann making millions off their GIFs are supposed to grant a halo to the greater blockchain pyramid scheme. When what we’re really looking at is what happens when trillions of dollars are pumped into the economy through emergency Covid-19 cash infusions. Crypto is serving as a sponge for all that money—just like luxury apartments and the 35,000-point Dow Jones Industrial stocks. What to do with all those inflated tokens?

Buying NFTs with blockchain profits is a bit like a bank buying some art for its lobby. Look what good we can do with our money! Of course, the art itself is just a teeny bit of the bank’s art investments, purchased less for love of culture than as an alternative asset class they believe will go up in value. Unless NFTs are being issued by artists tweaking collector sensibilities in the spirit of Andy Warhol auctioning off silk screens of soup cans, I’m not so sure they rise above the crass profiteering that already characterizes too much of the art scene. I don’t see them helping artists level the playing field. And I can’t help but suspect a lot of people are going to end up holding the digital equivalents of Beanie Babies (yes, they crashed, too).

In spite of all this, I still hold out hope that blockchains can someday retrieve their higher purpose — not to reify extractive speculative capitalism, but to replace it with distributed, superfluid economic potentials. No transaction should ever be blocked for lack of currency through which to enact it. Our marketplaces should never be in service to its financial utilities or the people monopolizing them. Nor should the metrics of economic health be based on the requirement of capital to grow.

Cryptocurrencies and blockchains don’t have to be camouflaged trailheads for a new generation of would-be reformers to instead become currency traders, stakers, and brokers. They can instead aspire to develop a genuinely peer-to-peer, protocol-based, distributed database like Holochain. Or create true communities as concerned with distributed governance as the distribution of value, like the RChain Cooperative. Or expand on Joerg Blumtritt’s work using blockchains to distribute aid to refugees or promote liquid democracy.

So, no, Bitcoin and the many blockchains it inspired don’t necessarily have to become just another asset class, and its developers and supporters needn’t turn into the next generation of securities traders. But I’d sure feel a lot better if they stopped acting like it.