Updated: Oct 30
Image Graphics by Team Geostrata
Appeals to nostalgia (Kurylo 2020) and collective grief are often touted as one of the core performative features of populism. However, the popularisation of cryptocurrencies in the realm of the digital is challenging such a conception. Further, whereas the mainstream understanding of populism relates to populists eyeing a capture of the state and regulating society through captured state (Moffitt 2014), populism in cyberspace entails transcending state power and collapsing cyberspace and the society into one realm of common interface. This paper conceptualises a ‘crypto’ frame for understanding populism in cyberspace and, through an inspection of ‘crypto populism’ anchored in Moffitt’s (2014) definition of populism as a ‘political style,’ argues for the replacement of ‘nostalgia’ with ‘fantasy’ while applying conventional understandings of populism to the emergent populism in cyberspace.
Performative aspect of POPULISM
Moffitt (2014) argues that the changing orientation of the political in the present scenario of reflexive modernity, which is underpinned by the collapse of the legitimacy of ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ politics, has resulted in an increasing ‘stylisation’ of the political. This implies that rather than the usualised markers of politics, such as party platforms and ideological evaluation of policies, ‘styles’ and ‘repertories’ have come to acquire a considerably greater practicable resonance. Moffit thus defines populism as a ‘political style,’ which alludes to the “repertories of performance that are used to create political relations.” It is to be “performed and enacted.” This paper shall employ this definition of populism to inquire into the manufacturing of the crypto frame.
Crypto’s rise to prominence
Crypto movements in cyberspace, just as political movements, are responses to entrenched economic inequality. These responses entail en masse flaking of political and economic elites for their ostensible failures and unwieldy control over social institutions, such as banking, governance and communications. Subscribers to crypto movements share an active distrust of political institutions, which they regard as inefficient at best and corrupt at worst. Crucially, the cause around which they mobilise is the global economic system, which they regard as “a rigged game:”
The crypto movement can be traced back to the 1970s libertarian critiques of the state. These dubbed central banks as illegitimate and government taxation as a “protection racket” (Tilly 1985). The beginning of the proliferation of digital technologies in the 1990s stoked hopes among libertarians that the state's power could finally be transcended in cyberspace. American cyberlibertarian political activist John Perry Barlow (1947-2018) had published A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996, the first paragraph of which is instructive for the crypto frame of analysis:
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” (emphasis mine.)
Subsequent developments in cyberspace, especially the advent of crypto, have concretised prospects for a realisation of this vision. Bitcoin was conceived in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis as a means to disintermediating the banking system, which is seen as an instance of illegitimacy among crypto advocates. In fact, the front page headline from The Times dated 3rd January 2009—“Chancellor Alistair Darling on brink of second bailout for banks”—is coded into Bitcoin's. It entailed a whiff of intolerance with the fact that economic elites were in cahoots with one another, rather than serving the ordinary, innocent people. As an “easter egg,” this encoded headline marked the beginning of an ideology powering the rise of crypto.
Laying the crypto frame
The very nature of crypto renders it fit for imagining a struggle to snatch authority from centralised figures and establish horizontal publics, wherein welfare, incentives, rewards and benefits are impersonally and objectively distributed. In terms of the significance of crypto populism for literature on political populism, it is interesting to note that the people who champion crypto as an alternative to centralised state structures have no collective memories to anchor their collective behaviour in. They have no sense of nostalgia. The participating people have not lost anything in the first place, given that they are scattered across the world:
Furthermore, the very structure of crypto, which is sustained on cryptographic codes, lends itself to a high degree of anonymity. Crypto essentially is a floating signifier for the blockchain, which is a digital public ledger that securely records transactions between parties, which are verifiable. The ledger is decentralised and distributed: it cannot be obtained from a single server. It is copied and synchronised across thousands of computers across the world. The ledger is cryptographically encrypted to ensure anonymity and security of users. It is submitted that cryptography is soaked in an anti-establishment emotion. The use of crypto lends itself to conceptions of anonymity, whereby state surveillance of people’s personal identities and actions on the internet can be—at least that is the emotion—curtailed. Given that multiple social institutions and services are being mapped onto the internet by the state and corporations to operate these at scale, crypto advocates have been nursing a fantasy to integrate all of these much closely with the internet and shun the state and exploitative corporations completely, handing control to scattered people operating decentralised blockchains built on the crypto plane.
This is the minimal ideological basis for crypto populism. This idea has recently found expressions in varied permutations in terms of delinking structures of the internet from centralised authorities, such as financial transactions, digital collectibles, central bank currencies, and the internet itself. This idea shall be referred to subsequently as the ‘crypto frame’ and shall be employed to understand crypto populist fantasies.
Fantasy, not anger
This paper uses Eberle's (2019) conceptualization of fantasy, i.e., fantasy is the narrative frame that “constitutes and stabilises” the subjective sense of reality. Fantasy is that affective process whereby subjects (social actors) relate to and reproduce reality (social structures) by delineating the relationship between subjectivity, social order and desire (Eberle 2019). Fantasy links subjects (crypto advocates in this case) to social orders (in this study, social orders are driven by the state and corporations) either affectively or (in this study) pejoratively, by arousing desire and directing it towards “socially constructed objects” or social institutions, like the state, businesses, commodities and exchange, communications or ideologies. Crypto advocates, as social actors in their own right, mobilise themselves around a “void” that represents their primordial grievance in ontological sense; a lack of essence or foundation that would anchor their identity beyond the “ultimately unstable” realm of a state-regulated internet. This inhibits the consummation of the “corporeal” and “affective” aspects of their subjectivities, which they derive from their mobilisation in cyberspace (Eberle 2019).
Encountering this lack produces anxiety (or irritation) in terms of a want of decentralised and democratic control over the internet. This anxiety is most vividly experienced when a crisis is being projected, as is done by a populist leader. On most occasions, the people concerned do not spend their time in introspection; rather, they immerse themselves in routines that provide them with a “reasonably stable sense of belonging'' (Eberle 2019). In sum, people do not seem to truly experience much of the alienation described in the preceding paragraph. Borrowing from Eberle's (2019) conceptualization of fantasy, it is submitted that this fundamentally unavoidable ontological lack is temporarily alleviated by fantasies, which do work as a protecting mechanism that prevents crypto advocates from being overwhelmed by anxiety. To preempt or ward off this anxiety, crypto advocates construct fantasies that promise a resolution, or at minimum, an “occlusion” of this “original deadlock” of overbearing state control which obstructs the fulfilment of their self-conceived autonomous identities (Zizek 1997 cited in in Eberle 2019).
In crypto advocates' fantasising, this ontological lack within the subject is transmuted into an “empirical” or tangible lack, i.e., a lack of particular 'objects,' whose “recapturing promises the restoration of an imaginary full identity” (Eberle 2019). However, since no empirical ‘object’ can resolve the ontological lack in totality and make the people feel fully complete, their desire is ultimately slated to remain unfulfilled, leading to frustration. This frustration is often employed in the construction of “narrative justifications” concerning why and to what extent the ‘object’ is out of reach (e.g. some ‘other’ keeping it from us). These narratives ultimately construct new fantasies for ‘objects’ to complete the lack in one's ontological conceptions of identity. Thus, we observe among crypto advocates a closed feedback loop: lack stimulates desire, desire conceives missing ‘objects’ and attaches fantasy to them, only for them to be frustrated by its non-fulfilment and rediscovering the lack, resulting in new fantasies and reinforcement of existing ones with regards to a decentralised cyberspace founded upon crypto.
It is interesting to note that anger is not the key emotion driving crypto populists; the innovative digital structures that they propose are products of fantasies relating to reconstructing how cyberspace is ordered. Such dispersed publics as crypto populists cannot sustain drawn-out periods of mobilisation around novel structures of ordering cyberspace solely by anger. As one can figure from the screenshots above, it is fantasy that provides them a futuristic, populist view of how to reorder cyberspace and, even the societal landscape.
The Elon Effect: manufacturing crypto populism
The fantasies discussed in the preceding section emerge only in the context of a named crisis, upon which the ‘crypto frame’ finds application, resulting in associated fantasies. In this section, building on Moffitt’s (2015) six steps towards the creation of a crisis for the staging of populism, the creation of crypto populism is analysed. One caveat is in order. Since crypto populism is spatially very diverse and cyberspace does not entail demarcated borders, different individuals at different moments have contributed to the consciousness of crypto advocates. The emergence of crypto populism is thus to be mandatorily traced back to multiple events and individuals to best explain the creation of the crisis of state and corporations which is driving crypto fantasies.
Firsty, a failure in the workings of banks and governments was identified in the 1980s in the works of Tilly (1985) and others, as discussed in section 3. Libertarian critiques had condemned state institutions as inherently elite, anti-people and exploitative. The 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace had served to express the latent, unpoliticized anxieties (Curato 2016) of the few people exposed to cyberspace. The failure of public institutions was hereby put on public record.
Secondly, the headline from the 2008 global financial crisis coded into Bitcoin’s genesis block by Satoshi Nakamoto, as discussed in section 3, clearly identified and named the crisis of elite misgovernance and carterlization. It plugged latent anxieties regarding inept state institutions into the ongoing global financial crisis to create a crisis framework within which to propose solutions to the centralised control of the internet and the social institutions scaled upon it: through the popularisation of a decentralised and people-driven currency sustained on global blockchains, to be powered through thousands of computers scattered across the globe, cutting off central banks—signifying state control—regulating money supply and currency.
Thirdly, the populist leader(s) frames ‘the people’ versus those responsible for the crisis. Crypto influencers claim to be voicing the collective will of the people. Oftentimes, they invoke “the community,” as Do Kwon had done while announcing his (failed) rescue plan for his touted cryptocurrency Terra-Luna:
Elon Musk, famous for his overt appeals to ‘the people,’ has popularised Dogecoin, the cryptocurrency he advocates, as “the people's crypto.” He went further, tweeting that nobody needs to be a “gigachad”—referring to larger-than-life elites—to own Dogecoin:
Dogecoin was created in 2013 by some software engineers as a joke. Its website dogecoin.com alludes to its funny origins: it features its Shuba Inu mascot as the first image on the page, imitating the meme that roused it. The mascot is captioned: “Dogecoin is an open-source peer-to-peer digital currency, favoured by Shiba Inus worldwide.” The cryptocurrency founds its messianic advocate in Elon Musk, whose April 2021 tweet, “Doge Barking at the Moon” as caption to Spanish artist Joan Miró's painting titled “Dog Barking at the Moon:”
Musk was responding to the subreddit r/dogecoin, where thousands of dogecoin supporters resolved to push its value “to the moon.” Dogecoin soared over 600% in value in that push. The joke component of this cryptocurrency played right into the crisis of legitimacy that was framed against state institutions. The barrage of tweets and retweets propelled by Musk has a distinct ‘kitschy’ appeal. Musk's tweets follow a discreet populist aesthetic, are “excessively sentimental” and “pander to popular taste” (Kjellman-Chapin 2010 in Kurylo 2020). Musk and other influencers drew on such banal, informal and simplified emotions, compressing everything to the narrative of the ‘virtuous people damaged by the elite.’ Mandating no additional cognitive thought on the audience's part, the attractiveness of such visually arresting and thrilling populist performances is in their simpleton tendency to “say the unsayable” (Kurylo 2020). Their familiar and repeated affirmations provide “the community” with a shortcut to complex problems.
Musk has employed the classic populist tropes to nurture the crypto populist narrative. Framing social media giants' regulations towards content moderation as “contrary to the will of the people,” he has convinced the people to think themselves as the innocent, polar opposites of these institutions, who, having a stranglehold over cyberspace, want to discipline them:
By applying the crypto frame on this particularised crisis, crypto influencers (read leaders) such as Musk create a constituency of crypto advocates who rally behind them to build decentralised structures in cyberspace, stitched together into a coherent “the people” by fantasies such as Dogecoin becoming the next, decentralised and independent currency of and for a global people.
Fourthly, direct mediation by the leader, with organic tartness and informality, adds to performances a distinct frankness. Musk, in January 2021, had simply changed his Twitter bio to ‘Bitcoin,’ sending the cryptocurrency shooting 14% in value. Musk's aesthetics of direct communication with his crypto constituents over Twitter creates an impression of a direct, unmediated emotional connection between him and his target audience. He funnily channelizes crypto advocates' latent anxieties concerning encroachment by governments and corporations into cyberspace, mismanagement of the financial system, et al. This has created the ‘Musk Effect.’ At this point, crypto advocates will rally around anything that Musk supports; just like they surged the stock price of e-commerce company Etsy when Musk
had tweeted, “I kinda like Etsy.”
Fifthly, crypto populists present simple solutions and strong man leadership.
By using such Twitter poll plebiscites as above, Musk adds an informal flexibility in his messaging to his constituents. By hyphenating both ‘politicians’ and ‘billionaires’ with “who do you trust less?,” Musk reinforces the running logic in his constituency of exploitative elites versus innocent people (Mudde 2004). By posting such rogue polls without apprehension of political consequences, he presents himself as a strongman who is believable. Responding to the US president Joe Biden’s “little creeps” gibe at Silicon Valley leaders, Musk tweeted this meme:
It presents politicians and corporation leaders to be in cahoots. Musk generated considerable applause and controversy among his followers and commentators, further cementing his image as a crypto populist standing firm with the cause of crypto populism. Further, when US Senator Elizabeth Warren called out Musk for allegedly not paying taxes, he replied, again on Twitter:
With this response, Musk at once established a reputation as an honest, genuine taxpayer among his followers, although this was bullshit (Hopkin 2017) chiefly for his followers’ consumption (Mint 2021). Musk even went on to call Warren an “angry mom.” With his no-holds-barred style, he creates ample populist spectacle to continually reinforce his credibility as an anti-elite and pro-people hustler invested in the mainstreaming of crypto. It is illuminating to note that Musk is even called as “daddy” by a chunk of his hundred million plus Twitter followers, reminding of populist, super-competent father-figures.
Finally, crypto leaders have to incessantly propagate the crisis to reinforce crypto fantasies and their strongman image. Musk had recently proclaimed his desire to buy Twitter for USD 55 billion to directly amend its algorithm and make it an “inclusive arena for free speech” (New Yorker 2022). This reinforced crypto populism’s logic of centralised control of cyberspace and the necessity to dismantle and decentralise this control. He went on to troll Twitter after backing out of the deal on the alleged deployment of “bots” by Twitter, but the strongman message to crypto populists had been conveyed:
Hence, it is along these steps, as demarcated by Mofitt (2015), that the failure of public institutions and corporations to advance the people’s best interests is identified, and, on the right occasion, narratively hyped up into a crisis. It is in this crisis that the crypto frame is applied, through which crypto fantasies subsequently spring, get frustrated, and then spring again, as the crypto populist keeps enacting populist performances that continually reinforce the logic of crypto populism.
The crisis of public and corporate misgovernance and elite cartelization makes crypto advocate feel as nominal citizens of cyberspace, i.e., citizens in name only with no voice to bear on the functioning and policies of the government and corporate intermediaries such as Twitter and Facebook (Pfeifer 2020). As the crisis keeps getting reinforced, crypto populists’ fantasies keep flowing onto newer objects in a series of metonymic slides.
Crypto populists have begun advocating web 3.0, a fantasised next generation of the internet's technical, legal and payments infrastructure. Web 3.0 shall putatively operate on blockchain, smart contracts and cryptocurrencies. The peer-to-peer model of Web 3.0 would render it more democratic than the present Web 2.0, which is hegemonized by powerful intermediaries (Google, Twitter, and other big tech companies), who are chastised for extracting rents from digital creators. Here, Web 3.0 fantasy converges with antitrust populism (Portuese 2020), which aims to break up big tech to advance consumer welfare:
Crypto populists, breaking the confines of cyberspace, have begun fantasising about an alternative, decentralised society now: they imagine a metaverse, which would be an open, real-time and interoperable virtual reality (VR) world that could be founded on Web 3.0 innovations. The Decentraland (decentraland.org) has started operating as a primer to the Metaverse.
The Metaverse’s payments and legal infrastructure shall be constructed on NFTs, blockchains, cryptocurrencies and smart contracts. This vision, which was painted in Snow Crash, can finally be realised in crypto populists' thinking. The metaverse fantasy promises virtual but lived experiences of a dystopian, equitable reality, which would be relatively much more benign, wherein people could voice their deepest feelings and share their personal lives. Further, Decentralised Finance (DeFi), i.e., peer-to-peer, blockchain-based financial services shall provide for payments, borrowing and credit-scoring. Provision of internet services, cloud storage and web infrastructure shall also be putatively decentralised.
Lastly, crypto populists have also modelled alternative, Web 3.0-sustained institutions to shadow present institutions, ranging from banking, financial services, to automatic enforcement of contracts. These fantasised institutions are known as Decentralised Autonomous Organizations (DAO). For example, CULT DAO announced in May 2022 a new revolutionary earning concept under decentralised finance: a self-governing, autonomous ecosystem that would automatically reward those who contribute to it. (Bloomberg 2022). An extract from CULT DAO’s Manifesto is in order to round off this discussion:
“We have social media spreading the truth, and lies, quicker than the media can run their own narratives, society is escaping the leaders of the old world, the beginning of the end is here, the borderless society is coming and with it, the death of sovereign nations. Bitcoin was the beginning, CULT is here to usher in the end.”
A ‘crypto frame’ to understand the rise of crypto populism in cyberspace is thus conceptualised. The stages in the creation of a crisis of a rampant elite protection racket are mapped, onto which the crypto frame is applied to explore the ontological insecurities of crypto advocates worldwide and the concomitant ‘crypto fantasies’ they induce, leading up to the creation of a global crypto populism seeking to remake structures of cyberspace and society, in order to seize control from centralised authorities and decentralise it, i.e., redistribute it equitably among all people through crypto.
BY ASISH SINGH
Asish Singh is a rising sophomore pursuing Political Science
and International Relations at Ashoka University.