The “crypto revolt” and working class youth

18 April, 2022

Bitcoin Conference in Miami. A landmark event for the "crypto revolt".
Bitcoin Conference in Miami. A landmark event for the "crypto revolt".

Hundreds of thousands of young people from working families live the fantasy of a “crypto revolt”. They hope that the autonomy and personal development denied to them on the labor market will be brought to them by a speculative game.

Table of Contents

What do cryptocurrencies mean to the global capital game?

Depictions of different cryptocurrencies

Cryptocurrencies -cryptoassets, in fact-, are an inefficient and expensive technology in every sense, which amounts to relatively little within the mass of funds mobilized by the global capital circuit.

The main “contribution” of both “cryptos” and, especially, of the technology which makes them possible (“blockchain”), is that – at an enormous computational and energetic cost from a certain number of users onwards – it makes it feasible to keep an automated and, in principle, difficult to manipulate record of the transactions carried out in a digital currency. This record, which is open and accessible to each user, enables operations to be carried out with almost total opacity.

One can easily understand the appeal of blockchain technologies for banks and other organizations that operate internationally and want to reduce transaction costs in a way that is not necessarily visible to the tax authorities. But above all for “black” capitals fleeing from state controls and seeking to be able to insert themselves into the legal accumulation (“laundering”). This is why it has so far been inseparable from the contradictions between the state and the “black” capitals.

The rise in the use of cryptocurrencies has gone hand in hand with the growth of these contradictions and their normalization among mafias, cartels, terrorist organizations and paramilitary groups all over the world. This is why states have gone from ambiguity to control in just a few years. In the last two years we have seen the start of harsh restrictive regulations in the USA and the EU, an attempt at prohibition in Russia and open crackdowns in China.

Only very weak states and national capitals, for whose bourgeoisies criminal business is vital, such as El Salvador or Ukraine, have given cover and encouraged cryptocurrencies.

Read also: Cryptocurrencies: the secrets of black capitalism, 15/1/2018

The ideological message of cryptocurrencies

Home page of “Silk Road”, the first mass online marketplace to use bitcoin openly for illegal trades.

The technologies that make cryptocurrencies possible were born in a very specific setting: the Californian anarcho-capitalist environment. An ideology pushing to the extreme the basic principle of capitalist morality according to which any “free” exchange would be good and egalitarian by definition.

From the very beginning, beneath the crypto movement there was a political program in the form of software: to develop commodification in new areas of life and to “free” commerce from any kind of state control, especially where prohibitions and repression exist, such as in the recreational drug market. In case you thought Randianism was crude and immoral, its simplified version for the crypto world makes the former seem sophisticated and sensible.

According to its brutally ideological view, “wealth” is not the product of social work, but the result of the savvy and risk-taking capacity of certain individuals – the “entrepreneurs” – who know how to anticipate the movements of trade or facilitate them through innovations that “change the world” by making it more “free”, i.e., unfetteredly commodified.

According to crypto anarcho-capitalism, being exploited happens either because you are not good for anything other than being a draft animal or because regulations and “socialist” ideas structurally prevent you from being able to do so. “Entrepreneurs” should be your idols because they are your liberators.

Working class youth and cryptos

A crowd, mostly working-class 20-somethings wait outside the Olympic Palace in Badalona during a break in the IM Academy crypto event.

The paradox is that, as crass as it is, this ideology became increasingly attractive during the pandemic to many young working-class people as the “crypto bubble” began to show signs of exuberance again after leaving behind its first major “crash” in 2018.

[Rising inequality] provides a macro answer to the question of what social problem blockchain solves. Blockchain transforms growing wealth inequality from problem to opportunity, for those willing to take the risk to invest.

The pull of any speculative bubble is based on an objective fact: someone somewhere is making a lot of money and you are not one of them. Many people, like my cousin, a lifelong blue collar worker with a good pension, believe this. And he’s not wrong. That’s something my conversation with Dash [a venture capitalist] brought home: there are a lot of people making a lot of money in cryptos and NFT.

For those of us who are not among the extremely wealthy, the idea that we could join them is a seductive idea that has become a cultural phenomenon. And in an atmosphere of economic precarity and wealth inequality, that attraction has been supercharged. But it is especially powerful among young people. “You talk to anyone under 25 and they’ve been told that cryptocurrencies are their freedom,” Dash says. It’s not hard to imagine why.

Wealth inequality drives the appeal of cryptocurrencies, Tressie McMillan Cottom in The New York Times.

This “freedom” buzz was constant among the young people who showed up in Badalona for the motivational meeting of a Ponzi scheme (IM Academy, known as the “cryptocult”), an event that the Spanish press has publicized by focusing on the complaints of family members.

But make no mistake, regardless of whether these young people have fallen into an organization with cult-like techniques in the style of Amway or Herbalife, the underlying issue of general interest is different.

The key is that the old Ponzi (scam) schemes have turned to cryptos because cryptos have come to represent something very important for many young working class people. The vast majority of them are not even in any formal organization – cultish or not – even though they react violently against any movement that calls them into question.

In fact, when we listen on TV to the statements of those who went to the event the picture becomes clearer. The footage shows us hundreds of working class kids “dressed for Sunday” arriving full of enthusiasm at the Joventut de Badalona stadium. One boy is explaining to the journalist one of the geometric superstitions used by traders to “understand” the evolution of price curves in speculative markets, as if it were the discovery of the century.

The paradox: the difference between those captured by Ponzi selling and the vast majority of crypto-fanatics that flourish in the network is that the former at least have the illusion or the glimmer of being part of something collective. The contribution of the “cryptocult” is that, in the style of the swarm attacks on social networks that are so common to its members because of their previous online life, it organizes its followers collectively into large buying or short-selling movements.

And if we were to approach any of them, organized or not, the picture would be complete: expressions such as “financial security” or “making a living” would appear in the first sentences.

Precarity and infantilization: the background to the appeal of cryptocurrencies

Age of emancipation in EU countries

Is there something strange about the fact that many working-class young people are grasping at the hot nail of cryptos in order to imagine a future as self-employed people?

We are in a society that orients young adults between 20 and 30 years of age to “take cover” at University -if their parents can afford it- or to do cycle after cycle of vocational training with its internships; in which the prospect of “a job to live on” is increasingly delayed; in which working poverty, however much it is painted in pink is part of a precarious landscape in which mini-houses and the so-called co-livings, are part of the price to pay for an autonomous life… that luxury.

The result is an age of emancipation that continues to rise from peak to peak. The media discourse tries to make it acceptable on the basis of an infantilizing ideology on youth which stretches to ever older ages.

We don’t need to go very far. It is a daily occurrence. Just yesterday, El País, determined to turn any identitarianism into state ideology, tried to convince us that inflation is a generational thing, that it is age-related, not class-related. According to them, the generation that is now between 25 and 41 years old would be the most affected.

Just when the economic waters seemed calmer, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic once again dashed their dreams. The entire 25-41 age group was hit hardest. In fact, a report prepared by CaixaBank’s research department indicates that the income of the youngest fell by more than 20% at the start of the crisis, in 2020. The proportion is four times higher than that of adults.

Inflation, the curse of the millennial generation. El País.

The bold letters are ours and speak for themselves: comparing the group of people between 25 and 41 years old with “adults”, as if they were not adults, is not a slip of the tongue, it is more of the same discourse with which the media minorize and extend “youth” to an increasingly wider range of ages in order to normalize and encourage conformity with mass precarization.

It is against the fate that this speech legitimizes and against the grotesque infantilization it distills that crypto-fanatics rebel.

Alienation and loss of the centrality of work

Queue of young workers at an employment office.

If the economy (=accumulation) does not offer them job opportunities, cryptocurrencies allow them to speculate with tools that look the same as those of financial capital and crypto-libertarianism to portray themselves as “wealth creators” fighting for “freedom”.

One would have to go back to the european or chinese peasant religious movements of the 19th century to find a “revolt” as alienated as this one: looking for a way to become a contribution, rejecting the role of family pet given to them by their unproductivity, they embrace an ideology in which social work is nowhere to be found.

But it is not only an effect of the crypto-libertarian frenzy. It is underpinned on a daily basis by the ambient ideology propagated by the media: the supposed end of the centrality of labor and thus the replacement of class interests by interclassist and citizenist “identities” of all kinds, from sex to gender, from language to geographic particularism, and from race to age.

Read also: The End of the Centrality of Work?, 24/9/2021

How do we assess the “crypto revolt”? What to do?

1 Over the last few years cryptocurrencies have gone from being almost exclusively a conduit for incorporating black money into accumulation, to becoming a way of introducing a sector of working class youth into the speculative game.

2 From this perspective, cryptocurrencies are inseparable from the most extreme alienation -there is a reason why they are fertile ground for cults- and from the most reactionary and commodifying ideology. The “crypto revolt” is a real dissolver of collective action in which, atomized and blinded by an almost pure speculative bubble, tens of thousands of children of the working class are heading for ruin with the certainty of a gambling addict and the doctrinarianism of an American Midwestern religious fanatic.

3 Beneath the “crypto revolt” lies once again the antagonism between human development and the growth of capital, in this case on the most basic and vital scale we can conceive. In a society that infantilizes and condemns entire generations of workers’ children to productive and vital sterility for decades, the latter, expelled before entering, seek a way out by becoming the cannon fodder of a speculative casino, renouncing any centrality of labor and adopting the crudest commodifying morality.

4 Yet if the “crypto revolt” shows the reactionary character of the system and its false solutions, it also shows a basic human need seeking fulfillment: work, something that goes far beyond and is in fact denied and alienated by wage labor which is the basic institution of the exploitation of labor under capitalism.

The emancipation of labor, its liberation from the exploitative form it takes in this system, is inseparable from the overcoming of capitalism as a whole. But as in all other cases, this does not mean that “nothing can be done until everything changes”. Communism is an active principle in the present precisely because it asserts itself as a principle through the ongoing struggle to satisfy concrete universal human needs. Communism is the future because we struggle here and now.

The point is not to tell the victims and potential victims of the “crypto revolt” to forget about doing anything, but to show them how collective organization and collective work offers them the only real alternative: they will only find a way out by discovering the centrality of work, they will only develop by siding with human development, they will only gain the autonomy they crave by contributing to the autonomy of their class, they will only be truly free by joining the struggle to liberate humanity from the dictatorship of scarcity imposed by capital.

And to be able to say this it is necessary to do it, that is to say, to translate it into organized forms and realities.

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