Reviewed by Matthew McKeever
Mark Alizart’s Cryptocommunism is the first book to consider the potential cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have for left-wing political, economic and philosophical thought. Creative and iconoclastic, it asks the right questions, and even if its answers will ultimately find little favour, it fills a notable gap in the literature.
‘The wealthy largely have central banks to thank for their good fortune last year.’ Who said this? Someone from Verso or Jacobin, a rogue government economist, Jeremy Corbyn? No: it’s from a recent column in The Economist. If The Economist is right, it seems that left-wing thinkers, or generally anyone concerned with economic and social justice, should be interested in central bank actions. The aim of many cryptocurrencies is to neuter the effects of central banks by algorithmically defining them out of existence, and to do so, moreover, by creating a monetary system that is commonly owned and open to everybody. You might accordingly expect there to be more left-wing interest.
The blurb of Cryptocommunism itself tells us why there isn’t: ‘cryptocurrencies are often associated with right-wing political movements’. Others, such as Yanis Varoufakis, associate it with neoliberal technocracy. For such liberal economists and commentators (including people like Adam Tooze, Tony Gates and Francis Coppola), hard-coded money is just a bad idea, one whose unworkability has been shown, for example, by the euro. Finally, cryptocurrency is understood by many as synonymous with or synecdochal for Bitcoin, its most famous exemplar, and Bitcoin’s use of polluting fossil fuels might lead one to discount, in a world on fire, the whole crypto-sphere.
The case against crypto, then, is strong. But without minimising the existential importance of the energy use on which many cryptocurrencies rely, that they have powered themselves by polluting fossil fuels doesn’t mean they will always do so. And it’s precisely Alizart’s claim that crypto needn’t only be the preserve of right-wingers or libertarians or neoliberals, but instead offers the chance for ‘the collective appropriation of the means of monetary production’ (47, 76-7). Cryptocurrencies deserve at least a hearing, and so Alizart’s book is valuable.
The book is, in a word, Žižekian. Its scope is extremely wide: across 12 wide-margined chapters yet only about 110 pages, it gets through a lot: the genesis of Bitcoin in the ‘cypherpunk’ and ‘cybernetic’ movements; a brief sketch of the formal properties of Bitcoin; a discussion of Marx and problems with his theory of capitalism; rather extensive discussions of things like thermodynamics and cellular biology, and less lengthy references to mathematical logic and the Reformation, all of which Alizart thinks shed light on cryptocurrency. In other words, a lot!
This makes for a heady sort of style where ideas are tossed about but not expanded upon. Again like Žižek, it tends to presuppose rather than explain, assuming the reader is au fait with everything from the mechanics of steam engines to Bataille. While mostly fine, a problem is that the explanation of cryptocurrency itself (chapter three) is likely to be hard going for the neophyte: for its intended audience, considerably more could have been said to make clear exactly what cryptocurrency is.
The main idea in Alizart’s book is the eponymous ‘cryptocommunism’. Here is what he says about it:
‘Cryptocurrencies enable the optimal adjustment of the relationship between money and activity by serving as a converter between information and energy […] Bitcoin is not just a currency, or even the regulator of social thermodynamics it is the currency of life, it is “living currency”. Hence blockchains allow us to imagine a future in which relations between us are no longer dictated by exploitation because they are mediated by “dead” money […] this ontological communism, this communism of substances, is ultimately what we could call cryptocommunism’ (110-111)
There is a lot to unpack here, but first some terminological issues. Cryptocurrency is an umbrella term for certain systems of digital money, of which Bitcoin and Ethereum are the most famous examples. And a blockchain is a sort of data structure or protocol that many (not all) cryptocurrencies use. Moreover, there are at least two very different ways of developing blockchains. Proof-of-work mechanisms give rise, typically, to large amounts of energy consumption. At present, both Bitcoin and Ethereum use proof-of-work, but partly for environmental reasons, the latter is switching to the alternative proof-of-stake, the details of which we don’t need to get into, since Alizart’s arguments don’t turn on it.
This isn’t (just) pedantry: although Alizart’s book is billed as about the left-wing potential of cryptocurrency, the core idea of ‘cryptocommunism’ really only makes sense for proof-of-work systems. It’s that, I think, which accounts for the fact that in the above passage, but also other places (63), Alizart seems to use cryptocurrency and Bitcoin interchangeably (yet elsewhere, such as in chapter 10, he marks the difference).
But let’s return to the quotation above. Alizart’s description involves three distinct points: there is, first, a bold statement both about the potential of cryptocurrency; second, an equally bold claim about the source of contemporary economic exploitation; and third, a speculative answer to a rather technical question in political economy about the role that money should play in society. Let’s take them in reverse order.
So first: what role should money play in society? Alizart thinks that money is an important economic institution, one that he takes to be underappreciated by Marx and Marxists – ‘[Marx] never took any particular interest in the issue of money’ (47-8) – and one that any communist society needs to get right. Even if one disagrees on the Marx exegesis here, that money, and its institutions and policy, are tools of economic control, it is something deserving of attention (especially if one is sympathetic to the work on the financialization of the economy in the neoliberal period). To think accurately about money, Alizart argues, we need to navigate between two different types of money, or two different ways of thinking about money, which are typically called hard and soft money. State-backed money is money whose properties are determined by central bankers, a fact that gives rise to concerns about bias and unfairness. People ask, reasonably enough: in whose interests are the bankers working? As Alizart reminds us (46), Bitcoin started in 2009 and in the system there is encoded a Times headline about the UK chancellor bailing out banks in the 2008 financial crisis, a fact as offensive to fans of cryptocurrency as to leftists.
The most famous cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, offers an alternative sort of hard money: digital gold, as it’s often called, something that can’t be manipulated by vested interests, because its properties are predetermined, roughly, by code. A natural question is then whether it has potential for left-wing political goals. Alizart’s answer is a resounding no. He quite blithely tells us the fault of hard money like gold is that it ‘limits liquidity’ (67; historians of economics might demur), that ‘the idea that the value of money can be fixed forever is simply infantile’ (70) and that its creator was ‘simply wrong’ (70) in aiming for a hard money. For Bitcoiners, these are fighting words! Instead, Alizart proposes an abundance of different types of currency performing different roles, a world in which ‘everyone’s a banker’ (chapter 8). This – that proof-of-work blockchains are promising but needn’t be tethered to hard money policies – is an intriguing thought but much more would need to be done to show it’s viable in theory or attractive in practice.
Let’s turn to exploitation, our second point. For Alizart, contemporary exploitation arises as a result of the financialization alluded to above (61). He defends the very iconoclastic view that Marx was wrong about economic exploitation. He thinks ‘the remedy that Marx proposed for inequalities, the abolition of private property, is very counterproductive, since it results in an acceleration of the equalization of temperature levels’ (54). Indeed, he suggests as an explanation for the decline of the Soviet Union ‘accelerated heat-death’ (55). Very roughly, the thought is that just as a sort of work (heat) is produced when bodies of different temperatures interact, so economic activity requires difference in economic situations – so, for thermodynamic reasons, economic inequality, such as inequality in the possession of property, is good!
Thirdly, the potential he sees in cryptocurrency is its ability to navigate between the two extremes of hard and soft money mentioned above. The basic idea behind cryptocurrencies is that they are computer networks open, in theory, to everyone, to which anyone can contribute by supplying energy to secure the ledger it encodes which attributes quantities of currency to users of the system. The more people who use it, the more secure the ledger, which means the harder to forge an alternative (say, one in which one attributes lots of currency to oneself, or one in which one conveniently forgets to record transactions you previously made to another), and so the more people trust its record. Moreover, the amount of energy required by an individual to secure the network is dynamic: it depends on how many others are also using the system (and code). It is with this in mind that we should understand the above paragraph: the ‘activity’ Alizart must mean is the energy one gives to secure the network, and the thought would be that, if the value of cryptocurrency is proportional to the amount of energy used by people to secure it (which is empirically dubious, but perhaps defensible with refinement, provided one doesn’t mean by ‘value’ simply exchange rate relative to state-backed currency), then in cryptocurrency we have a system whose value is proportional to the work done on it, work open to anyone, in theory, to perform. This sounds like a labour theory of value updated for our digital, financialized age, or again like the sort of ethos attractive to people who see the value in cooperative ways of working and living.
What are we to make of all this? This reviewer is not sure whether the sense of ‘activity’ at play in the quotation can be made to apply univocally both to the computational work used to secure blockchains and human economic activity. The very quick criticisms of Marxism and Bitcoin are likely to irritate their respective adherents. It would have been worthwhile to explore at more length the possibilities non-proof-of-work-based blockchains offer. Despite that, the questions Alizart asks are good ones, deserving of our attention. What sort of monetary policy should a post-capitalist world have, if at all? What is exploitation in a financialized economy, and how can it be avoided? The value of Alizart’s book is in the questions it opens and not the answers it gives, in the avenues for exploration that have been up to now overlooked. Even if ultimately the cost of crypto is too high, and the problems perhaps irresolvable (112-3, and 113 fn2), Alizart has done a service by setting out what benefits we might get for those costs.
30 July 2021