After a pandemic year in which a craze for all things cryptocurrency spread over a housebound U.S. population, political battle lines are now being drawn over the issue. At a Senate hearing in June, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) fired what seemed to be an early warning shot on the issue on behalf of many progressives skeptical of the phenomenon. Bluntly describing crypto as a tool to “scam investors, assist criminals and worsen the climate crisis,” Warren called for federal regulators to take steps to help “drive out bogus digital private money.” It was a sentiment that likely resonated with supporters of the liberal senator, many of whom have already been beating the drum about a technology they view as a source of pure speculation and waste.
Murtaza Hussain is a reporter at The Intercept who focuses on national security and foreign policy.
On most issues, my political sympathies in the U.S. fall left of center. I’m in favor of treating quality healthcare and transit as a public good, urgent action to combat climate change, a fair system of taxation and peaceful cooperation with nations abroad. But I’ve realized that I’m a bit of an outlier when it comes to the subject of crypto: I don’t hate it. To push it further than that, the more I learn about the technology, the more I can envision cryptocurrencies and blockchain being applied as tools to restrain corrupt institutions and loosen the grip of an incumbent elite that constantly lies, fails and abuses its power, and yet never seems to face real accountability for its actions.
Consider the role of bitcoin, the first and most famous cryptocurrency, which today is somewhere near the level of global public adoption that the internet reached in the year 1997 when it had roughly 200 million users. Bitcoin was conceived as a form of permissionless money, recorded on a decentralized ledger known as a blockchain. Transactions on the blockchain ledger are immutable and transparent, and they can’t be censored. The wealthiest users can’t change the rules of the system in their favor, nor can they block the poorest users from having access to it. The only technology anyone on Earth needs to take part on equal terms in the network is a phone with internet access.
The energy expenditure of Bitcoin, which Warren criticized in her Senate hearing for being frivolous, is designed to protect the ledger from malicious attack by raising the resource requirements for attacking it. Contrary to popular belief, the blockchain ledger is not a black box impervious to surveillance. But in a manner similar to encrypted messaging platforms, the system is designed in a way where targeted surveillance of individual users may be possible with enough effort, but mass surveillance of everyone is not.
How attractive such a system sounds to you is likely to be a function of how repressive you believe that society can be and how satisfied you are with the current global financial system.
After more than a decade spent documenting the domestic and foreign impacts of the U.S. global war on terror, my own opinion is that our society has the capacity to be extremely repressive and the financial system, as presently constructed, is frequently used as a weapon in the hands of unaccountable elites.
The U.S. government for its part has used the dollar and its control of global financial infrastructure like SWIFT to wage economic warfare on entire countries to devastating effect. It has surveilled, blacklisted and shut down legitimate businesses and aid organizations across the world that have had the misfortune of falling on the wrong side of Washington D.C.’s political divides. For millions of innocent people whose lives have been ruined by this global dragnet, as well as those living under undemocratic regimes subject to their own unaccountable domestic monetary regimes, there’s often no question of justice, let alone…