How to Kill Your Boss and Buy Drugs on the Internet

Anthropology, Alternative Currencies and Crypto-anarchism

This is bouncing off of Avi’s presentation at the bit coin conference that can be found here. Read it.

In the late 90’s somewhere out on a frontier of the still fledgling internet Jim bell, committed cypherpunk and professional nutcase, came up with the beautifully scary idea of assassination politics.

The basic premise of assassination politics is using an encrypted online currency people can anonymously pay into a pot labelled with the name of some union-busting boss or war mongering politician as a ‘prediction’ of their death. When the pot contains a sufficiently big amount someone can then ‘bet’ on the date that the person will die. To read between the lines, the person who bets will carry out the killing and receive the pot of money. It is essentially a means of crowd funding assassinations.

Bell ask you to imagine politicians, bosses, corrupt cops, wall street speculators constantly under fear of retribution from the crypto-prols, activists, renegade anthropologists, whoever. A beautiful feeling it would be to have those who speculate on the lives of third world people to have their own lives speculated on. If conservatives shit bricks over unions having collective bargaining rights imagine what the reaction would be if they had the power to crowd source assassinations.

Bell Is currently enjoying time in a federal prison for ‘illegally’ running surveillance operations on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in a bid to prove that surveillance works two ways. His previous incarceration was for tax dodging and the accumulation of bomb making and political literature and actually there are many circumstances in which the assignation market seems pretty scary. As George Orwell, the greatest sociologist/ethnographer who never was, tells us “In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ‘thou shalt not’, the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.” [Politics vs Literature]

It’s still a juicy idea though and one made all the more possible in our technological age, people can browse the internet completely anonymously using software such as TOR and the “Digital Cash” bell hypothesised exists in its most popular form as Bitcoins. Using tor to browse the darkweb as it’s known one can find many references to assassination markets. Most of the links are corrupted or the site itself is inactive. But these whispered mentions show the idea has been sewn and maybe, given more foot fall through the dingy dark web, it will one day germinate.

A more popular use for bitcoins exists in the form of anonymous markets. Sites such as the Silk Road have become prime places for the buying of contraband. Given that browsing and payment is completely anonymous very few people have been prosecuted and in those cases only through a lack of care in upholding their own privacy. Crypto-markets and crypto-currency provides a way for those without the gumption to head out to the street, to be able to purchase mail order drugs from the safety of their own home. The phrase ‘street drugs’ loses its meaning and the market that was once described by Marx as the ‘noisy sphere’ becomes a quiet, hidden abode like that of production. This cryptographical veiling pushes the street corner deep into the dark web. The street becomes the road.

Avi asks at the end of his lecture “How important is the decryption of Bitcoin relations? In the sense of understanding the weave of relationships that make it happen.” For anthropologists it is obviously very important to understand the social context in which the economy is embedded, ‘the weave of relationships’, but for many of the more elicit uses of bitcoin, the fuzzy relationships and the alienation with the commodity, is the very anonymous nature that draws people to bitcoin.

Bit coin obviously is great for global transactions free from taxation but what about creating strong resilient communities, capable of resistance against a corporate state? During the great depression informal exchange groups such as ‘The Unemployed Cooperative relief organisation’ formed in order for people to exchange in-demand services even though money had dried up. A strange symptom of capitalism is that even if there is a supply of labour, a source of commodities and a demand for services, people can still be unemployed due to a ‘bad economy’. Similar situations have been documented by Naomi Klein in the form of ‘solidarity economies’ between occupied factories in Argentina. Despite the economy being so ‘bad’ that the factories couldn’t run, the labourers (who don’t magically disappear in a recession) were still available to run things. Their products helped supply another factory who would supply their products to other factories. Eventually occupied retailers sold to the general public. Although not a complete replacement to capitalism, the legally unemployed were able to support their families despite the grimmest of forecasts from government economists.

The Anthropologist Bill Maurer charts the rise and fall of the alternative currency Ithaca HOURS in his ethnography ‘Mutual Life, Limited’. Four Ithaca HOURS would buy you four hours of someone elese labour, either in the form of a commodity that took four hours to produce or in four hours of service. While clearly currency based on labour time has its flaws (four hours of dentistry doesn’t equal four hours of bread baking, or does it?) it did manage to foster a strong community by keeping money within the local economy of Ithaca New York. It also unveiled the ‘weave of relationships’ and de-alienated the commodities of everyday life. You know and talk to the man baking your bread, he knows your dentist and so on.

A downside of a physical currency is its shady legal status. People have been arrested for the printing of alternative currencies as in the case of the liberty dollar (as if this doesn’t indicate how determined the state is to keep control of its monopoly on money) and even the yuppiefied Ithaca HOURS is on dodgy legal ground. Crypto-currency would rectify this but to me it seems strange that Bitcoins need to be bought with standard currency, their value is always based on previous transactions. The HOURS credit comes into being as a means of exchanging commodities and does not require a collection of dollars to start with. Could there not be a crypto-currency that has all the benefits of state evasion but also be a far more pragmatic means of enabling exchange when state backed currencies disappear?

Maybe the real anthropological insight into Bitcoin and crypto-currencies is that while repelling state intervention they should also be geared towards making local communities resilient, fostering solidarity, de-alienating people from their commodities. A global currency working on a local level. There is hopefully soon to be a free-market of online currencies to choose from and maybe some team of entrepreneurial anthropologists, economists and programmers will work out a way to create such a Glocal currency.