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Author Information: Gregory Sandstrom, Arena Blockchain, gregory.sandstrom@gmail.com.

Sandstrom, Gregory. “Is Blockchain an ‘Evolutionary’ or ‘Revolutionary’ Technology, and So What If It Is?: Digitally Extending Satoshi Nakamoto’s Distributed Ledger Innovation.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 17-49.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references, and includes the full text of the article. Shortlink, Part One: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47f. Shortlink: Part Two: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47m

Image by Kevin Krejci via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

“If you cry ‘Forward!’ you must without fail make plain in what direction to go. Don’t you see that if, without doing so, you call out the word to both a monk and a revolutionary they will go in directions precisely opposite?” – Anton Chekhov

“I’m better with code than with words though.” – Satoshi Nakamoto[1]

Did Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, actually invent anything new that had not previously existed before? Should people stop referring to a ‘blockchain revolution’ and instead call blockchain a ‘technological evolution’ that happened gradually and was caused randomly by environmental pressures rather than the intentional acts of a unique inventor? These basic questions make up the core of this paper, along with the suggestion that an alternative way of describing blockchain development makes considerably more sense than using the concept of ‘evolution’ in the digital era.

While it is unoriginal to ask whether blockchain distributed ledger technology should be thought of as an ‘evolution’ or a ‘revolution,’ since many people have asked it already (see bibliography below, including texts and videos), in this paper I’ll go a step deeper by looking at what people actually mean when they refer to blockchain as either an ‘evolution’ or a ‘revolution,’ or rather inconsistently as both at the same time.

In short, I’ll distinguish between their colloquial, ideological and technical uses and ask if one, both or neither of these terms is accurate of the changes blockchain has made, is making and will make as a new global digital technology.

Introduction: From the Book of Satoshi

In the Foreword to The Book of Satoshi: The Collected Writings of Bitcoin Creator Satoshi Nakamoto, libertarian Bitcoin activist Jeff Berwick wrote: “Bitcoin has changed everything. Its importance as an evolution in money and banking cannot be overstated. Notice I don’t use the word ‘revolution’ here because I consider Bitcoin to be a complete ‘evolution’ from the anachronistic money and banking systems that humanity has been using—and been forced by government dictate to use—for at least the last hundred years.” (2014: xvii)

While I don’t really understand what he means by a ‘complete evolution,’ Berwick’s attention to the difference in meaning between ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ regarding Bitcoin nevertheless sets the stage for this exploration of blockchain technology, as we consider its current development trajectory. Which term is more suitable?

Worth noting, nowhere in Satoshi Nakamoto’s collected writings is either the term ‘evolution’ or ‘revolution’ to be found. Berwick’s interpretation of ‘blockchain evolution,’ framed within his worldview as an anarcho-capitalist, is thus of his own making and not one that derives from Nakamoto himself. I’ll touch on why I believe that is below. Also of note, the book’s writer and compiler of Nakamoto’s writings, Phil Champagne, states that, “Bitcoin, both a virtual currency and a payment system, represents a revolutionary concept whose significance quickly becomes apparent with a first transaction. … Bitcoin has therefore clearly sparked a new technological revolution that capitalizes on the Internet, another innovation that changed the world.” (2014: 2, 7)

Champagne closes the book stating, “Satoshi Nakamoto brought together many existing mathematical and software concepts to create Bitcoin. Since then, Bitcoin has been an ongoing experiment, continuing to evolve and be updated on a regular basis. It has, so far, proven its utility and revolutionized the financial and monetary industry, particularly the electronic payment system, and is being accepted worldwide.” (2014: 347) The use of both ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ in past and present tense shows a debate exists even within this one book about which term best fits blockchain’s current and future status in society.

This paper will look closely at the difference between these two terms as they relate to blockchain, largely staying away from speculation about cryptocurrencies, i.e. digital tokens, crypto-assets, and/or crypto-securities. It will primarily serve to catalogue the way people have used these two terms with respect to blockchain and cryptocurrency and ask if they are suitable or unsuitable terms. In conclusion, I offer an analysis of why the distinction between these two terms matters as different ways to describe change-over-time and assess an alternative model to analyse and discuss these changes called ‘digital extension services.’ 

Reflexive Background and Context 

To set the background and context, let me write reflexively about why I am writing this paper. Over the past 15+ years studying the topic, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on how the term ‘evolution’ is used outside of the natural-physical sciences, in theories such as ‘social and cultural evolution,’ ‘evolutionary economics’ and ‘technological evolution.’

I wrote a master’s thesis comparing the concepts of ‘evolution,’ ‘extension’ and ‘Intelligent Design,’ and have published more than 20 papers and delivered more than 30 presentations at international conferences outlining and exploring the limits of ‘evolutionary’ thinking as well as promoting the notion of ‘human extension’ in social sciences and humanities[2].

My interest in this paper is to clear up what appears as massive public confusion and oftentimes puzzling equivocation about various types of change-over-time, especially non-evolutionary changes such as revolution, development, emergence, and extension. Some people think there is no such thing as a ‘non-evolutionary’ change since all change must be ‘evolutionary,’ in response to which I would like to set the record straight.

There are undoubtedly some people who will consider this paper and having written it to be a complete waste of time and for them, it’s best to stop reading at the end of this sentence. However, others may find in this exploration a key distinction towards gaining even a small bit of insight and perhaps some understanding into the considerable differences between biological change-over-time and technological development[3], innovation and planning, the latter which generally fall outside of the meaning of ‘evolution.’

Notably, I find it somewhat humorous for having studied this rather arcane social epistemological topic quite closely for many years to be able to write this paper now. It’s meant that I’ve had to lock horns repeatedly with ideological (young earth) creationists, Intelligent Design advocates and evolutionists on many occasions along the way[4]. What I have discovered is that sometimes choosing the right term matters and sometimes it doesn’t; some people want to use a term to mean whatever they want it to mean[5] and it’s most often not worth taking the time in trying to stop or persuade them.

When I learned in 2016 that blockchain technology is about more than just cryptocurrency, and that it also has potentially significant and far-reaching implications for a variety of social, cultural and educational uses, it simply made sense to bring some of the knowledge I had gathered as an associate professor and researcher into my study of distributed ledgers, which is what leads to this text.

In Q3 2017, I asked and answered myself on Twitter as follows: “Is blockchain really evolving of its own accord? No.” I copied that message to the Managing Director of the Blockchain Research Institute (BRI) in Toronto, Hilary Carter, who I had met that summer at the Blockchain Government Forum in Ottawa. She replied: “Agreed! Evolution is a series of beneficial genetic accidents. Blockchain and the development of the community is entirely intentional.” (24 Sep 2017) That exchange happened after I had recently arrived in Yangon, Myanmar, first to teach, then to work as Director of Blockchain Innovation at an educational technology startup company. I had many new things and needs to focus on and didn’t think about it too much further at that time.

However, after returning to Canada in 2018, I later raised this topic again directly in conversation with Carter[6]. While she still stands behind the view that blockchain is indeed a revolutionary phenomenon and that its development is based upon the various intentions of its builders and creators, she also suggested that, “the blockchain ecosystem is [an] evolution,” that it is in a state of maturation, and that, “no one is controlling it.” It is the latter contention that I’d like to take up again now and ‘unpack’ during the course of this paper.

Carter’s view, to which I will return below, raises an important question about how blockchain was invented, as well as the way that blockchain ecosystem development is currently being planned and executed, and both how and why people are aiming for social scalability and public adoption. Also, it raises the question of what then counts as the ‘blockchain revolution’ that BRI founder Don Tapscott wrote a book about with his son Alex in 2016.

To me, Carter’s original comment that blockchain development is ‘entirely intentional’ is obviously correct and requires no further commentary for validation. However, it also signifies that there is at least some type of ‘control’ when it comes to actual blockchain technology building, even if the trajectory of distributed ledgers aren’t being controlled, nor are they entirely predictable, by any single person or company, anywhere in the world.

My prior research in sociology of science had shown that while the term ‘evolution’ is used by not a few people in a basic colloquial sense simply as a synonym for ‘change,’ it can also be used, and not rarely, in an ideological sense that draws on ‘cultural evolutionary’ theories in SSH or in the case of technology, one that adheres to the so-called ‘laws of software evolution[7]‘ (M. Lehman). It is the latter usage of the term ‘evolution’ that I wholeheartedly reject and think has caused great damage to human self-understanding and initiative.

Let it be clear, however, in stating this that I am not one of the ‘new evolution deniers’ (Wright 2018) pursuing an anti-biology or anti-science blank slate ideology that doesn’t acknowledge change-over-time, which is evident in many ways across a range of cultural issues. Rather, I’m a dedicated social scientific researcher and more recently community builder of blockchain technology who rejects the notion that ‘no one is in control’ of what is being developed (i.e. ‘unguided evolution’).

Likewise, I strongly reject the misanthropic worldview that claims ‘there is no purpose[8]‘ (Dawkins) in change-over-time. I oppose both of these positions as dehumanising. So, with this context provided, the following sections present my research findings into how other people use the terms ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ with respect to blockchain technology.

Equivocating Between Evolution and Revolution 

“Bitcoin is a completely new narrative. It alters everything, and in 20 to 30 years from now, people will not recognise the world we are in because of Bitcoin.” – Craig Steven Wright (2019a)

Many writers on the topic of blockchain switch back and forth equivocally between ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution,’ apparently without much rhyme or reason, not carefully distinguishing between them. Rather curiously, this includes the Tapscotts. “We strongly believe that India has the potential to lead the blockchain revolution[9],” said Don Tapscott in 2018.

And there are indeed many places where Don and his son Alex use the term ‘revolution’ to describe blockchain in their 2016 book, which I will outline in the following paragraphs. They write, “Like the first generation of the Internet, the Blockchain Revolution promises to upend business models and transform industries. But that is just the start. Blockchain technology is pushing us inexorably into a new era, predicated on openness, merit, decentralization, and global participation.” (Ibid) This type of language continues throughout the book, which explains why they gave it the title they did.

However, they also use the term ‘evolution’ to describe technological change. “The Web is critical to the future of the digital world,” they say, “and all of us should support efforts under way to defend it, such as those of the World Wide Web Foundation, who are fighting to keep it open, neutral, and constantly evolving.” (Ibid)

They quote Blake Masters, who states, “Bear in mind that financial services infrastructures have not evolved in decades. The front end has evolved but not the back end. … posttrade infrastructure hasn’t really evolved at all.” (Ibid) Likewise, they cite Joseph Lubin, who says:

“I am not concerned about machine intelligence. We will evolve with it and for a long time it will be in the service of, or an aspect of, Homo sapiens cybernetica. It may evolve beyond us but that is fine. If so, it will occupy a different ecological niche. It will operate at different speeds and different relevant time scales. In that context, artificial intelligence will not distinguish between humans, a rock, or a geological process. We evolved past lots of species, many of which are doing fine (in their present forms).” (Ibid)

The Tapscotts in this vein also consider human-made technology itself, not just biology, as an ‘evolutionary’ phenomenon. They thus label one of their chapters, “The Evolution of Computing: from mainframes to smart pills.” (Ibid) “Unlike our energy grid,” they say, “computing power has evolved through several paradigms. In the 1950s and 1960s, mainframes ruled—International Business Machines and the Wild ‘BUNCH’ (Burroughs, Univac, National Cash Register Corp., Control Data, and Honeywell).

In the 1970s and 1980s, minicomputers exploded onto the scene.” (Ibid) They continue this line of thinking, suggesting that, “Driven by the same technological advances, communications networks evolved, too. From the early 1970s, the Internet (originating in the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was evolving into its present-day, worldwide, distributed network that connects more than 3.2 billion people, businesses, governments, and other institutions. The computing and networking technologies then converged in mobile tablets and handhelds. BlackBerry commercialized the smart phone in the early aughts, and Apple popularized it in the iPhone in 2007.” (Ibid)

Yet at some point unstated, they switch back to ‘revolutionary’ language, suggesting that, “We’re beginning the next major phase of the digital revolution.” (Ibid) They cite Michelle Tinsley of Intel, who “explained why her company is deeply investigating the blockchain revolution: “When PCs became pervasive, the productivity rates went through the roof. We connected those PCs to a server, a data center, or the cloud, making it really cheap and easy for lean start-ups to get computer power at their fingertips, and we’re again seeing rapid innovation, new business models.”

Just imagine the potential of applying these capabilities across many types of businesses, many untouched by the Internet revolution.” (Ibid) In short, their view is that “the technology is always evolving and designs are ever improving.” (Ibid) This encapsulates their equivocating meaning of ‘blockchain revolution,’ from one of the most widely cited texts in the field of blockchain technology.

Carter followed up with me after receiving the first draft of this paper to clarify her position. She explains, “We’ve evolved from single-purpose peer to peer electronic cash to Ethereum to private distributed ledgers to Cryptokitties. Everything is intentional. Evolution post-Bitcoin is more a figure of speech to reflect that blockchain systems have changed[10].” She continues, saying that, “Blockchain was no accidental software that emerged from the first generation of the internet.”

This sentence brings in another ‘change-over-time’ term with the notion of ’emergence,’ that adds to the linguistic feature of this analysis. Carter concludes that, “maybe ‘matured’ is a better word [i.e. than ‘evolution’] – because of the creativity of humans, not because of fortunate digital coincidences.” This explanation from the current leadership of the BRI helps to make sense of the variety of ways that people around the world are now speaking about the ‘growth,’ ’emergence,’ ‘maturing,’ ‘development,’ ‘advancement,’ ‘expansion’ and other ‘change-over-time’ metaphors to describe what is happening with distributed ledger technologies.

But What Are the Meanings of These Words?

Moving on to another writer and public figure, managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde similarly switches back and forth between ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ in seemingly an unsystematic way. She confirms that, “the fintech revolution questions the two forms of money we just discussed—coins and commercial bank deposits. And it questions the role of the state in providing money.” (2018)

She continues, however, saying, “I have tried to evaluate the case this morning for digital currency. The case is based on new and evolving requirements for money, as well as essential public policy objectives. My message is that while the case for digital currency is not universal, we should investigate it further, seriously, carefully, and creatively.” (Ibid)

One of the most prolific speakers and writers about blockchain, Andreas Antonopolous (2017), believes, “Over time, the way transaction fees are calculated and the effect they have on transaction prioritization has evolved. At first, transaction fees were fixed and constant across the network. Gradually, the fee structure relaxed and may be influenced by market forces, based on network capacity and transaction volume.” (2017: 127) … “Beyond bitcoin, the largest and most successful application of P2P technologies is file sharing, with Napster as the pioneer and BitTorrent as the most recent evolution of the architecture.” (Ibid: 171) He states that,

“the bitcoin network and software are constantly evolving, so consensus attacks would be met with immediate countermeasures by the bitcoin community, making bitcoin hardier, stealthier, and more robust than ever. … In order to evolve and develop the bitcoin system, the rules have to change from time to time to accommodate new features, improvements, or bug fixes. Unlike traditional software development, however, upgrades to a consensus system are much more difficult and require coordination between all the participants.” (Ibid: 256)

Further, he argues that, “Consensus software development continues to evolve and there is much discussion on the various mechanisms for changing the consensus rules.” (Ibid: 266) We thus see a major focus on ‘evolutionary’ blockchain change.

Yet in the final paragraph of the book, Antonopolous says, “We have examined just a few of the emerging applications that can be built using the bitcoin blockchain as a trust platform. These applications expand the scope of bitcoin beyond payments and beyond financial instruments, to encompass many other applications where trust is critical. By decentralizing the basis of trust, the bitcoin blockchain is a platform that will spawn many revolutionary applications in a wide variety of industries.” (Ibid: 304) The future of blockchain, therefore might be revolutionary based on many ‘evolutions’ of the technology.

In Life after Google: the Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy, George Gilder flip-flops back and forth between evolution and revolution with little apparent consistency, speaking about “the root-and-branch revolution of distributed peer-to-peer technology, which I call the ‘cryptocosm’,” (2018: 44) then stating that, “[t]he next wave of innovation will compress today’s parallel solutions in an evolutionary convergence of electronics and optics.” (Ibid: 58)

He suggests that, “[a] decentralized and open global rendering system is foundational for disruptive services and platforms to evolve from the post-mobile world of immersive computing, just as the open web was formed in the creation of Google, Amazon and Facebook.” (Ibid: 205) However, he also notes that, “Far beyond mere high-definition voice, 5G is the technological infrastructure for a coming revolution in networks. It enables new distributed security systems for the Internet of Things, the blockchain ledgers of the new crypto-economy of micropayments, and the augmented and virtual reality platforms of advanced Internet communications.” (Ibid: 231)

Gilder’s language seems to sometimes be more about appearance than substance, as he writes, “In the evolving technological economy, shaped by cryptographic innovations, Google is going to have to compete again.” (Ibid: 239) Further explaining, he notes that, “The revolution in cryptography has caused a great unbundling of the roles of money, promising to reverse the doldrums of the Google Age, which has been an epoch of bundling together, aggregating, all the digital assets of the world.” (Ibid: 256)

One key formulation renders his ideological views visible, reflecting his affiliation with the Discovery Institute: “The new system of the world must reverse these positions, exalting the singularities of creation: mind over matter, human consciousness over mechanism, real intelligence over mere algorithmic search, purposeful learning over mindless evolution, and truth over chance. A new system can open a heroic age of human accomplishment.” (Ibid: 272) Gilder seems to have no difficulty both denying and accepting ‘evolution’ at the same time, regardless of the fact that everyone agrees both ‘minds’ and ‘matter’ are involved in developing technologies.

Uncertainty Too From Financial Technology Leaders

Hanna Halaburda writes for the Bank of Canada (2018), saying, “The market’s excitement about blockchain technologies is growing and is perhaps best summarized in the increasingly popular slogan ‘blockchain revolution.’ It is estimated that the blockchain market size will grow from US$210 million in 2016 to over US$2 billion by 2021.” (2018: 1) Later in the paper she uses both terms, suggesting that,

“The broadening of the meaning of ‘blockchain’ to include smart contracts, encryption and distributed ledger could simply reflect the evolution of a term in a living language. However, precision matters for estimating costs and benefits, or even for predicting the best uses of blockchain technologies. Smart contracts, encryption and distributed ledger each bring different benefits. And since they can be implemented independently, an optimal solution for a particular application may include only some of these tools but not others. This may matter for the future of the blockchain revolution.” (Ibid: 5)

In conclusion, she accepts the same terminology as the Tapscotts, saying, “The blockchain revolution has brought distributed databases to the forefront and may result in wider adoption and new ideas for their use.” (Ibid: 9)

Andrea Pinna and Weibe Ruttenberg (2016) write that, “Over the last decade, information technology has contributed significantly to the evolution of financial markets, without, however, revolutionising the way in which financial institutions interact with one another. This may be about to change, as some market players are now predicting that new database technologies, such as blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies (DLTs), could be the source of an imminent revolution.” (Ibid: 2) “It is not yet, therefore, clear whether DLTs will cause a major revolution in mainstream financial markets or whether their use will remain limited to particular niches.” (Ibid: 32)

Former Chief Scientific Advisor to the British Government, Mark Walport (2016) suggests, “The development of block chain technology is but the first, though very important step towards a disruptive revolution in ledger technology that could transform the conduct of public and private sector organisations.” (2016: 10) He continues, “Regulation will need to evolve in parallel with the development of new implementations and applications of the technology” (Ibid: 12)

However, he also distinguishes a ‘revolutionary’ dimension to the technology, saying, “We are still at the early stages of an extraordinary post-industrial revolution driven by information technology. It is a revolution [that] is bringing important new benefits and risks. It is already clear that, within this revolution, the advent of distributed ledger technologies is starting to disrupt many of the existing ways of doing business.” (Ibid: 16)

And then he reverts back to evolutionary language, saying, “The terminology of this new field is still evolving, with many using the terms block chain (or blockchain), distributed ledger and shared ledger interchangeably.” (Ibid: 17) He emphasizes that, “M-Pesa challenged the notion that value transfer for exchange transactions had to be done through banks, and leapfrogged several developmental stages. But these innovations still rely on an existing hierarchical structure, using proprietary technology and trusted intermediaries. Though the change improves customer convenience, and significantly reduces costs to users and customers, this is evolution rather than revolution.” (Ibid: 54) Walport is one of the few voices insisting that changes in blockchain development are happening at a rather slower than rapid pace, which seems to determine his choice of terms.

Sam Town makes clear his preferred terminology between the two notions, stating, “While the ICO as it exists today may be gone tomorrow, the blockchain brings evolution, not revolution.” (2018) Here he seems to be suggesting that while ICOs may not last long as a credible method of fundraising, at least not without more stringent regulatory oversight, that nevertheless blockchain distributed ledger technologies will indeed have lasting and significant impact on finance and economics.

Does Evolution vs Revolution Matter?

Ugur Demirbas et al. (2018) also write to intentionally distinguish the two terms, saying, “In summary, while digital transformation shows disruptive influence on individual elements, its overall effect is rather evolutionary than revolutionary. The impact of DT in the context of the overarching corporate sourcing strategy is an incremental change than a disruptive creation of something completely new.” (2018: 8)

Again we see an explanation given that ‘evolutionary’ is preferred because of the pace (slow) and type (incremental) of change or the people’s aims and goals involved in developing the technology. They also indicate ‘disruption’ and ‘something completely new’ in their meaning of ‘revolutionary,’ which we will look at again below.

Jagjit Dhaliwal (2018) says that, “We all know that the Blockchain technology is revolutionizing our future by providing distributed networks, allowing peer-to-peer transactions without intermediaries. We have come a long way in a really short period of time from the inception of Bitcoin, one of the first cryptocurrencies based on Blockchain technology.”

He continues saying that, “Everyone is curious about which platform and cryptocurrency will win the race. The DLT landscape is changing rapidly and evolving really fast. I won’t be surprised if some of the solutions in this article will [sic] extinct soon.” Dhaliwal thus likewise shows that the pace of change impacts his choice of terms, though it is unclear how ‘rapid change’ and ‘fast evolution’ differ from ‘revolutionary.’

In a paper curiously named “The Evolution of Blockchain Development” (2017), the team at Alibaba Cloud similarly suggests that, “Blockchain as a technology has evolved rapidly in the past decade.” They continue, however, by appealing to readers: “Let us discuss a few major innovations that have revolutionized this field[11].” This is yet another example of the confusion in using the terms ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ when there is no clear explanation of what differentiates one from the other.

Megan Ray Nichols weighs in on the ‘revolution’ side, when she says, “blockchain is serving as a critical component in a major revolution that also includes rapid prototyping, lean manufacturing, 3D printing, & now blockchain-facilitated manufacturing & supply contracts.” (2018).

This and several of the examples above certainly do not refer to a ‘political revolution’ or ‘scientific revolution,’ but rather to an incoming ‘technological revolution’ that is supposedly happening all around us with ’emergent’ or ‘nascent’ new technologies, including, but not exclusive to blockchain. The hype surrounding blockchain with expectations in the near future, however, often seems to far exceed evidence of what has changed so far because of it.

Don Tapcott responded in an interview with McKinsey that, “the blockchain, the underlying technology, is the biggest innovation in computer science—the idea of a distributed database where trust is established through mass collaboration and clever code rather than through a powerful institution that does the authentication and the settlement[12].”

We have, of course, heard this kind of suggestive language before, so it’s not like predictions about ‘revolutionary technology’ are entirely new. One example of this harkens back to what Fred Brooks asked in 1975, if “technical developments that are most often advanced as potential silver bullets … offer revolutionary advances, or incremental ones?” (1975: 188) While not a few people have expressed inflated expectations for distributed ledger systems, we are still nevertheless waiting for a clear example of widespread usage of blockchain to be able to assess the variable speeds at which adoption can and likely will eventually take place.

With that basic background, we will now look at largely colloquial uses of the term ‘evolution’ as it relates to blockchain technology development.

Colloquial Usage of ‘Evolution’ for Blockchain Technology Development

A remarkable pattern among technology writers is to apply the term ‘evolution’ in what appears to be a basic colloquial way, suggesting no theoretical underpinning or technical meaning, and with no ideological implications. Instead, for these cases, the notion of ‘evolution’ is basically just used as a synonym for either ‘change’ (i.e. over time), ‘development,’ ‘creation’ or some kind of a general ‘process of history.’

Brigid McDermott, vice president of IBM blockchain business development, states:

“We’re asking companies to join to help evolve the solution and guide and steer its direction.”

“We’ll do PoCs [proofs-of-concept] later down the line.[1]” In this case, the verb ‘to evolve’ is meant in the same way as ‘to create,’ ‘to build’ or ‘to develop,’ without the notion of a natural genetic population, implication of a ‘struggle for life’ or ‘survival of the fittest,’ rates of mutation, variation, or other notions usually connected with ‘biological evolutionary theory.”

The Commonwealth of Learning suggests that, “When it comes to educational innovation, blockchains and ledgers are likely to lead to evolutionary gains[2].” While it is not entirely clear what they mean in this short report, we are likely supposed to gather a sense of ‘progress’ or ‘advancement’ in what they imply and suggest blockchain will lead to in the field of education.

Margaret Leigh Sinrod writes about blockchain for the World Economic Forum (2018). “The fact that banks are investing in this [blockchain] technology may sound fairly paradoxical,” she says, “given the context in which it evolved and gained traction.” In this case, the term ‘evolved’ seems to simply signify ‘history,’ i.e. that ‘something has happened’ and that blockchain now continues to persist as a phenomenon.

Dennis Sahlstrom similarly tells us that, “the evolution of blockchain arrived with Ethereum, created by Vitalik Buterin, which was an improvement of Bitcoin. This evolution added a further element which is the ability to build decentralized applications (dApps) and smart contracts to ensure that deals, transactions, and many other tasks can be performed without intermediaries.” (2018)

Here we see ‘evolution’ used as a way to symbolise a historical fact, again that ‘something has happened,’ thus indicating a new ‘stage’ of blockchain that also was ‘created. This approach might be confusing to people who accept a more technical meaning of ‘evolution’ as distinct from ‘creation’ or ‘intentional planning,’ almost sounding as if blockchain has taken on a life of its own.

John Dean Markunas from Power of Chain Consultancy continues this anthropomorphic language, suggesting that, “The [blockchain] technology itself will continue to evolve along with a wide variety of creative applications developed on top of it, similar to the development of the internet and world-wide-web[3].” This usage, while it signifies persistence and continuity, appears particularly confusing since the term ‘development’ is also used referring to the Internet, which other people claim has led to a ‘revolution’ in human society, as seen above.

Tadas Deksnys CEO and Founder of Unboxed writes that, “Though the future of ICOs is vague, the blockchain industry is still evolving and presenting new opportunities[4].” Again, we see here the notion of both history and continuity and that there is some kind of on-going process of unspecified speed, type or significance.

These are all common examples of people involved in or writing about the blockchain industry who suggest that blockchain demonstrates an ‘evolutionary’ rather than a ‘revolutionary,’ ‘developmental’ or otherwise ‘non-evolutionary’ process of change-over-time.

Frederik De Breuck (2019) says that, “its capabilities and platforms (both public and private) are rapidly evolving and blockchain and distributed ledgers remain for me (and many others) two of the most promising technology evolutions of recent decades for their potential to transform both society and enterprises.”

He uses other change-based concepts as well, such as emergence and extension, in the latter case saying, “[w]e think next year will see the ongoing evolution of these complex trust architectures and their extension beyond their organizational boundaries, into both ecosystems and society.” (Ibid) This language basically indicates something supposedly important is happening with blockchain, a description that it is growing and reaching more people in a community, network and/or ecosystem.

Reflections of What May Be Historical Precedents

Jesus Leal Trujilo et al. in their Deloitte paper (2017) base their logic in the ‘evolution’ of digital ecosystems, writing, “Our study appears to be the first empirical attempt to understand the evolution of blockchain using metadata available on GitHub … Our findings could help firms improve their ability to identify successful projects and opportunities based on how the blockchain ecosystem is evolving.” (2017: 2)

They also address the time period in terms of stages of development, saying, “At the current evolutionary stage of blockchain technology, it is likely to be in a developer’s best interest to develop, or watch the development of, blockchain solutions on open source. Blockchain appears to have a better chance to more quickly achieve rigorous protocols and standardization through open-source collaboration, which could make developing permissioned blockchains easier and better.” (Ibid: 5)

They continue, “The data scientists of Deloitte developed and honed a methodology to analyze and organize GitHub data in order to better understand the evolution of a young, possibly transformative technology and its ecosystem.” (Ibid: 15) They conclude saying, “It is our hope that these findings can arm the financial services industry with the data it may need to not only better identify successful projects and opportunities based on how the blockchain ecosystem is evolving, but to become influential participants, themselves, in how blockchain evolves.” (Ibid: 15) Thus, the promote both the development and so-called ‘evolution’ of blockchain technology based on the language of ‘ecosystem’ that loosely mimics biology.

The Systems Academy suggests about blockchain technology that, “over the past years it has been evolving fast, from the original Bitcoin protocol to the second generation Ethereum platform, to today where we are in the process of building what some call blockchain 3.0. In this evolution we can see how the technology is evolving from its initial form as essentially just a database, to becoming a fully-fledged globally distributed cloud computer.”

They add to others in this paper who suggest that, “The development and adoption of the Ethereum platform was a major step forward in the evolution of blockchain technology[5],” suggesting a kind of ‘progress’ narrative that switches between ‘development’ and ‘evolution’ and indicates improvement rather than replacement or destruction of the old system.

Stapels et al. flip back and forth between ‘development’ and ‘evolution,’ stating that, “blockchains are still a rapidly evolving technology, with ongoing developments, especially to improve scalability and confidentiality. Globally, governments, enterprises, and startups are exploring the technology/market fit in a wide variety of use cases and for a wide variety of requirements and regulatory demands.” They also suggest a present lack of knowledge towards building and maintaining trust among blockchain users, saying “There is still much that is unknown about the development of trustworthy blockchain-based systems.” (2018: 1)

Bryan Zhang writes in the Foreword to Rauchs et al. 2018, that, “the landscape of DLT itself continues its swift evolution.” Again, we see the suggestion of a continuity of some kind, as if we are in a historical period of flux and change with the rise of DLTs. In conclusion, the authors state that, “Nearly 10 years after Bitcoin entered the world, the DLT ecosystem is still in early stages: it is constantly evolving and characterised by relentless experimentation and R&D.” (2018: 92)

This usage doesn’t necessarily imply that Bitcoin arrived on its own without a creative inventor or network of users, but rather that it’s simply in a process that has yet to reach its conclusion and thus should be thought of as impermanent or temporary.

ElBarhrawy et al. (2017) “Here, we present a first complete analysis of the cryptocurrency market, considering its evolution between April 2013 and May 2017.” (Ibid: 2) They then suggest there is a theoretical underpinning one can use to study this historical period involving cryptocurrencies. “By adopting an ecological perspective, we have pointed out that the neutral model of evolution captures several of the observed properties of the market.” (Ibid: 7)

In this approach we again see usage of the term ‘evolution’ to mean ‘history,’ yet in a broader way that combines economics with ecology and push the idea of ‘ecosystem’ thinking that is also front and centre in much of the ideological blockchain evolutionism below.

Contact details: gregory.sandstrom@gmailcom

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Videos

“Alex Tapscott: Blockchain Revolution | Talks at Google” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PdO7zVqOwc

“Are Blockchains Alive? Co-evolving with Technology” – Amanda Gutterman (ConsenSys) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7GkkGTnVwA

“Block Chain Revolution | Giovanna Fessenden | TEDxBerkshires” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMhZTEQZJPI

“Bitcoin and the history of money” – “Let’s take a look at the evolution of money.” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IP0jCjyrew8

“Blockchain – evolution or revolution?” –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LojzPukAtmM

“Blockchain Evolution & Empowerment” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSUC9NFccNk

“Blockchain Evolution 2” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCPqXHt-z0k

“Blockchain Evolution or Revolution in the Luxembourg Financial Place? – Nicolas Carey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wp9FB_JQlgI

“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CULUqgfVteg

“Blockchain Evolution” – Complexity Labs – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rO2LSBDekvE

“Blockchains’ Evolution by natural selection like biology’s genetics” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JEFGtsu0s4

“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGcuJoFZLOY

“Chandler Guo on The Bitcoin & Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7g2JFn68LU

“Cryptos Are The EVOLUTION of Money and Blockchain is the REVOLUTION of Trust! Vlog#18” – Siam Kidd – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nu2F6_K0S0

“DigiByte Blockchain – The evolution of the Internet & the revolution in the financial systems” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8h10ckU0sE “The revolution has already begun.”

“Don Tapscott – The Blockchain Revolution – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZEmaSbqfYQ

“Evolution of Bitcoin” – Documentary Film – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUpGHOLkoXs

“Evolution of Blockchain And Its Future Moving Forward In 2018!” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWlMoxMTbDQ

“Evolution of Blockchain in India:The value of Ownership.” – Mr.Akash Gaurav – TEDxKIITUniversity – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtTJmb0jYzE

“Evolution of the Blockchain Economy” – Jeremy Gardner – Startup Grind – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7cPy6ITUm4

“Future Evolution of Blockchain” – Silicon Valley TV – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_6m7LYIEo4

“Future Thinkers Podcast – a podcast about evolving technology, society and consciousness. https://futurethinkers.org/

“Genetics of Blockchain Evolution” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fFsmuvyXeE

“Keynote: Blockchain’s Evolution: Digital Assets are getting Physical” – FinTech Worldwide” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1p5PUn4z_Gs

“How the Blockchain revolution will change our lives? | Eddy Travia | TEDxIEMadrid” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErxKm0b0DIU

“How the Blockchain Revolution Will Decentralize Power and End Corruption | Brian Behlendorf” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tv-XR6gXfLI

“Interview for Bitcoin And Blockchain Evolution Podcast – Sarah Herring – “Evolution – There is a Revolution coming!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIZJsFotDdg

“John McAfee on Infowars: Nothing Can Stop The Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CssU9WBHx6k

“Make the blockchain business case: Evolution, not revolution” (only title, not in video) – PWC – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjr_Wqwk1SI

“The blockchain evolution, from services…to smartphones.” – Mingis on Tech – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvn5zZj5IR8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Hewlett Packard – https://www.hpe.com/us/en/insights/videos/the-evolution-of-blockchain-1712.html

“The Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeyeKXmqQn8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Cambridge House International” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nELBTdqeKuQ

“The Evolution of Bitcoin – Bill Barhydt – Global Summit 2018 | Singularity” Universityhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZjK1i9CE6U

“The Evolution of Blockchain and Global Vision (Shanghai)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56rOLarCttA

“The Evolution Of Blockchain Over The Decades” – With David Birch” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yC8oBJSQ6vc

“The Evolution of Blockchain technology” – Amir Assif. Microsoft Israel” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_eKp1z5hj0

“The Evolution of Blockchain: How EOS is reinventing blockchain” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8aDGf8WpKs

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – Nicola Morris – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSy-UJn1G1I

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – The State of Digital Money 18′ conference” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWfNVTgbqjc

“The Blockchain Revolution – Graham Richter, Accenture” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYTmjZmsUm4

“The Blockchain Revolution | Rajesh Dhuddu | TEDxHyderabad” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrnvX92vlu8

“The Blockchain Revolution by Talal Tabaa – ECOH 2018” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvRJ1kEQ2so

“The Blockchain Revolution Changing the Rules https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTgG8XzcVC0

“The Blockchain Revolution in Business and Finance” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SUfz6p0a7Y

“The blockchain revolution, the ultimate industry disruptor” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hEiHR-K_KY

“The Blockchain Revolution: From Organisations to Organism | Matan Field | TEDxBreda” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OSbseTJWfY

[1] Nov. 14, 2008. https://satoshi.nakamotoinstitute.org/emails/cryptography/12/

[2] Your author of this paper received his degree in ‘Sociological Sciences’ from St. Petersburg State University in Russia, after a dissertation defense at the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science in 2010.

[3] “The gap between biological evolution and artificial systems evolution is just too enormous to expect to link the two.” – Meir Lehman (In Williams, 2002)

[4] It is most likely that none of the authors cited in this study was thinking about ‘young earth creationism’ as a position that they aimed to oppose by using the term ‘evolution.’ Similarly, no theory of ‘Intelligent Design’ as an alternative to ‘neo-Darwinism’ is at the heart of this paper’s rejection of ‘technological evolutionary’ theories.

[5] “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” – Lewis Carroll (Through the Looking-Glass, 1872)

[6] Private conversation 07-02-2019.

[7] “In software engineering there is no theory. It’s all arm flapping and intuition. I believe that a theory of software evolution could eventually translate into a theory of software engineering. Either that or it will come very close. It will lay the foundation for a wider theory of software evolution.” – Lehman (In Williams 2002)

[8] “This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous – indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.” … “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” – Richard Dawkins (River Out of Eden. Basic Books, New York, 1995: 95)

[9] https://money.cnn.com/2018/02/21/technology/canada-india-blockchain-partnership-bri-nasscom/index.html

[10] Private email, 24-02-2019.

[11] https://www.alibabacloud.com/blog/The-Evolution-of-Blockchain-Development_p73812

[12] http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/high-tech/our-insights/how-blockchains-could-change-the-world

[1] http://fortune.com/2017/08/22/walmart-blockchain-ibm-food-nestle-unilever-tyson-dole/

[2] https://www.col.org/news/news/col-promotes-blockchain-education

[3] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/emancipation-from-ball-chain-blockchain-john-dean-markunas

[4] https://medium.com/unboxed-network/our-journey-so-far-unboxed-airdrop-update-72b63ab52631

[5] http://complexitylabs.io/evolution-of-blockchain/

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, Social Epistemology Digital Editor, serrc.digital@gmail.com

Riggio, Adam. “The True Shape of a Society of Friends.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 40-45.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Zv

From the March for Justice for Police Violence in December 2014.
Sassower’s book does not directly touch on themes of institutional corruption, like the racialization of police forces as they act with undue violence and exploitation toward minority populations. But the communitarian moralities he thinks can overcome capitalism also has the potential to build progress here. More material for that sequel.
Image by All-Nite Images via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

As a work of philosophy, of political economy, of institutional analysis, Raphael Sassower’s The Quest for Prosperity has only one shortcoming. It makes for a tantalizing setup for his next work, and gives a reader the distinct impression that we are in store for a stunning sequel. Its title would be something like The Nature of Prosperity, or Remaking Prosperity. To the detriment of the actually existing book, reading The Quest for Prosperity makes you want desperately to read Remaking Prosperity, which unfortunately does not exist.

The Quest for Prosperity itself is a brilliant book, synthesizing many different concepts and images from several disciplines and traditions in the history of Western thought. It is a thoroughly researched and beautifully composed groundwork for a groundbreaking new philosophical approach to political economy.

The book drags a little in part three, which catalogues several hilariously inadequate new visions of prosperity that are unfortunately popular today. It would be news to someone who has only heard the hype of Silicon Valley and other ideologies similarly twisted to make working people desire their own slavery. But the average Washington Post, Manchester Guardian, or even Bloomberg News reader or fan of HBO’s Silicon Valley should already understand the toxic lifestyle PR of these moneyed industries.

As for that groundwork for the groundbreaking, the final two chapters offer a tantalizing glimpse of a work that explores the existence and revolutionary potential of the communitarian values underlying several disparate existing institutions. Unfortunately, it remains only a glimpse.

Economies of Scale

Sassower’s book revolves around an important ethical critique of contemporary capitalism and the culture of business and entrepreneurship that has grown so popular this century. In uncritically capitalist ways of thinking, there is only one set of terms in which people, social networks, technology, building and city architecture, institutions, organizations, ecologies, territories, and ideas are valued: their monetary potential. Such a morality of valuation reduces all that exists, including human identity itself, to a single dimension of ethical worth, and a petty-minded one at that.

The typical narratives to validate and venerate the contemporary economic order often appeal to images and concepts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Smith is a touchstone for Sassower as well, but he is wise not to linger on the image of the “invisible hand” that haunts the populist imagery of harmony through competition. Sassower instead focusses on how Smith describes the molecular connections of market exchanges – vendors and tradespeople buying and selling from each other in a town marketplace.

In the marketplaces where capitalist exchange begins, the individuals making money from each other are not themselves competitors. Their relationships are collegial friendships among professionals, and Smith describes their interaction as “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” So when a community’s prosperity flows from its markets and commercial exchanges, that prosperity is not a product of competition, but of friendliness. (Sassower 60-61)

In such a social atmosphere, a community of people constitutes itself easily from the everyday interactions of the marketplace, where people develop feelings of love at a low intensity for the neighbours who sustain their lives. Relationships of everyday economic exchange occur at such a personal level that the mutual benefit of such exchange is a straightforward fact, discovered through quotidian observation. They are, as Sassower describes them, “sympathetic neighbours.” (Sassower 90-91)

The rapaciousness and greed typical of contemporary business cultures could not arise from such relationship networks of friendly truck and barter. The network’s members connect by dynamics of mutual sympathy. Such a network would not be able to sustain business practices characterized by the greed and hostility into which many young professionals are socialized in the 21st century’s most intense economic hubs. Greed and cheating would result in your immediate expulsion from the marketplace, having betrayed the friendships of the others in the network.

Such sympathetic neighbourliness could most easily be overcome with an outside disturbance. For our case, that disturbance was the flow of massive economic income to those small marketplaces. This was the income of industrialization and colonialism. Speaking more descriptively, it was the income of exponential energy growth in domestic manufacturing, and a huge influx of many kinds of wealth from distant continents (raw materials, currency metals like gold and silver, agricultural goods, slaves).

These enormous flows of capital are too large for truck and barter, too massive to engage instinctual human sympathy. As the stakes of economic activity grow hugely higher, this depersonalization of economic activity leaves a person adrift in commercial exchange. Unable to form the same intimate connections as in the far less intense marketplace exchange, the alienated, angry approach to business as a zero-sum game. No longer sympathy and friendliness, but fear and aggression characterize the psychology of someone engaging with this sort of economic system in daily life. (Sassower 105)

Art by Shepard Fairey. Image by Wally Gobetz via Flickr / Creative Commons

What Would a Virtuous Oligarch Be?

In an economic system where capital flows massively overpower the capacity for everyday personal relationship networks to manage them, business life tends to condition people psychologically and morally into sociopaths. This problem of the depersonalized economy remains a wall in The Quest for Prosperity that, on its own terms, is insoluble. On its own terms, it likely is impossible to restore the virtue of sympathy to the psychological tendencies of people growing up in a high-intensity industrial capitalist economy. Sassower therefore forges an alternative image of the economic leader.

If capitalism can only express justice when the mega-rich are generally benevolent, community-minded people who care about their neighbours regardless of wealth, breeding, or class, then Sassower can at least describe how an oligarch could become kind. He identifies one economic principle, the recognition of which begins to transform an oligarch from a greedy sociopath to a personal ethic of rationally-justified sympathy. That principle is demand-centric economics.

This is a simple economic principle, fairly well-known in popular culture. If too many people in a society are in poverty, then the economy will stagnate from cratering demand; too few people will have enough money to spend, even for basic necessities. When a very wealthy person accepts this principle, he consents to submit a healthy portion of his income to taxation so that government services can close these poverty gaps. A business owner who accepts the principle of demand-centric economics will pay the workers in his business more, so that their spending can continue to drive economic development (Sassower 123-124).

Demand-centric thinking in economics has not been a major principle in how government policy on incomes and wealth inequality has developed over the last 40 years. The Reagan-Thatcher era of Western governance took the opposite principle, supply-side or trickle-down economics, as gospel. This is the notion that as the wealthy’s tax burden becomes lower and lower, they will spend more of that money in capital investment, backing new business ventures, and expanding private-sector employment.

Although the policy was widely mocked in popular culture from its first emergence, it has become the foundation of tax policy for all the largest political parties in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and among almost all conservative or centrist parties in Europe. Despite its success as legislature, the material consequences have been disastrous, as supply-side tax policies have decimated social democratic institutions throughout the West, intensifying economic precarity for millions across Europe and the Americas.

Why supply-side economics succeeded in becoming, until recently, uncontested common sense in popular culture and state-level politics is its intuitiveness in particular contexts. If an ordinary person’s annual income rises from $40,000 to $50,000, she will spend more money. The supply-side propagandist then derives a universal principle: If you have more money, you will spend more money. With that generality in hand, a principle that applies at middle-class incomes will be taken to hold at oligarchical incomes.

This is, of course, false, for three reasons that Sassower describes. One, personal consumption cannot proceed at an intensity of millions or billions of dollars each year. Two, most of that massive personal income never returns to their domestic economies anyway, and is instead burrowed in tax havens. Three, the capital investment industry no longer focusses on supplying startup funding for businesses. (Sassower 116)

Instead, global finance investment concentrates on the day-to-day trading of stocks in already existing companies, securities bundles, and speculation on the future value of stocks, securities, and currencies. High-frequency trading is a blatant sign that these investments are not for reinvestment into the productive economy. In this practice, a firm’s single algorithm will make millions of trades each day, based on its analyses of minute-to-minute market fluctuations. (Sassower 117)

Turning these massive fortunes away from the communities of non-rich people in their surroundings and around the world is a subtle but harrowing moral failure, considering the many hundreds of billions of dollars are wrapped entirely in these trading concerns.

A Fantastic Book That Falls Short of Its Potential

An economy of oligarchial inequality produces an elite for whom the purpose of living is cartoonishly grotesque personal self-enrichment. Such an economy as the one we live in today on Earth also deranges those who have virtually no wealth at all compared to these titans of mass ownership and securities gambling.

Anxiety over a precarious life of low pay and debt maintenance consumes all personal energy to help others. That anxiety encourages hatred of others as desperation and stress pervert any reflective capacity for long-term judgment into a paranoid social reflexivity. Reduced to egotistic, short-term thinking and habituated into distrust and hostility toward others, the poor become easy prey for financial fraud. The payday loan industry is built on this principle. Poverty does not breed virtue, but fear and rage.

This ties to what I think is the only notable flaw in The Quest for Prosperity. Stylistically, the book suffers from a common issue for many new research books in the humanities and social sciences. Its argument loses some momentum as it approaches the conclusion, and ends up in a more modest, self-restrained place than its opening chapters promised. How he does so reveals the far more profound shortcoming of Sassower’s book.

Sassower is admirable and innovative in his call to regenerate communitarian philosophy as a politically engaged popular intervention. His method is a philosophical examination of how four quite disparate civic institutions express effective communitarian ethics in their habitual structure and behavioural norms. The Catholic and some other Christian Churches socialize its dedicated members as “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), whose primary economic concern is safeguarding people from the indignity of poverty. (Sassower 242-247)

The Israeli kibbutz movement governs distribution of goods and the financial results of their community’s work literally according to Marx’s principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Countercultural communes in North America operated according to similar rules of management as kibbutzim, but with quite different moral orientation. Kibbutz political philosophy is a secularized agrarian marxism organized around a utopian purpose of building a communal Zion where all oppressed people of the world can live in a Jewish homeland.

American counterculture communes sought to create a living alternative to the immanent political problem of rapacious capitalism’s continuation of genocidal imperialism. Sassower also offers a phenomenological exploration of how military training builds strong interpersonal bonds of solidarity, a communitarianism among soldiers.

All these templates for communitarian alternatives to the increasingly brutal culture of contemporary capitalism share an important common feature that is very dangerous for Sassower’s project. They are each rooted in civic institutions, material social structures for education and socialization. Contrary to how Sassower speaks of these four inspirations, civil rights and civic institutions alone are not enough to build and sustain a community each member of whom holds a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in her heart.

The Impotence of Civil Rights

You may consider it a bit excessive that a book review would include a brief argument that civic institutions are not on their own adequate to ensure and maintain the freedom and dignity of the people who live in their domain. Nonetheless, Sassower wrote The Quest for Prosperity with an ambition of a similar scope, critiquing fundamental concepts of contemporary ideology and economic morality as part of an argument for communitarian alternatives. So I will maintain my own intensity of ambition with his.

There are two reasons why civic institutions alone, while needed, are not sufficient to overcome with communitarian values the ambitions of people to become oligarchs. Each of the two reasons is a different philosophical approach to the same empirical fact about human social capacities and institutions.

I first want to mention a logical reason. This is the simple fact that, conceptually speaking, law is not itself a material power. There is nothing about the law, as law, that compels your conformity to itself. There may be a moral motive to obey the law, whether that moral reason is a universal imperative or the injunction of social pressure. There may be a coercive motive to obey the law, as when you are under threat of police violence such as arrest, imprisonment, torture, or summary execution. Most often, people obey the law for practical reasons, as when a government’s legislation and regulations structure institutions we need to manage our techno-industrial society. But law alone is not justice, and so compels no obedience.

Law having no power to compel obedience, the existence of laws prohibiting violence against human rights does nothing to prevent such violence. If recognition of the law were all that was needed for obedience, then laws would never be violated. Only some material power, existing in addition to those laws, can ensure their application in managing the actions of a population.

The ultimate material power in the application of the law are state institutions, and any related institutions they support. Raising money through taxation, investment in industrial developments, and central bank mechanisms, states fund law enforcement institutions like courts, rehabilitation centres, prosecutors, and police. But even in institutions whose laws promise equal and fair treatment, individuals operating within those institutions can still use material power to give themselves unfair advantage over the less powerful.

Consider a civil suit whose defendant must make do with the cheapest legal representation in Albuquerque, but whose plaintiff walks into court with Alan Dershowitz at his side. Consider also the many instances where the power of institutions and institutionally-reinforced morality of solidarity encourages police abuse of citizens.

An individual officer may coerce sex from women under threat of arrest, or shoot a civilian with little or no cause; fellow officers or police unions will cover for him. An entire police department will prey on citizens as a matter of policy, as in many cities in the United States whose municipal police departments require a minimum (and growing) number of misdemeanor and bylaw violation fines for budgetary purposes. One of those such cities, incidentally, is Ferguson, Missouri.

The Impossibility of Prosperity?

I give these illustrations to emphasize the ethical importance of the fundamental purpose driving The Quest for Prosperity. Most of the book is taken up by Sassower’s clear and insightful argument for why contemporary capitalism is a moral and ethical disaster. The Quest for Prosperity is a stellar addition to this tradition of critical thought that has accompanied industrial development since its beginning.

Sassower takes a more noble stand than a critique, however, in proposing an alternative to capitalist practice for the domain most essential to resisting and overcoming industrial and economic injustice: public morality and personal ethics. His analysis of existing institutions and societies that foster communitarian moralities and ethics is detailed enough to show promise, but unfortunately so brief as to leave us without guidance or strategy to fulfill that promise.

My illustrations – deep pockets undermining a court’s fairness, police predation and corruption – describe real injustices rooted in the greed and hatred facilitated through capitalism and the racism that turns the exploited against each other. They are here to remind thinkers who are likewise against such injustice of the urgency of our challenges.

Sassower has offered communitarian approaches to morality and ethics as solutions to those challenges of injustice. I think his direction is very promising. But The Quest for Prosperity offers only a sign. If his next book is to fulfill the promise of this one, he must explore the possibilities opened up by the following questions.

Can communitarian values overcome the allure of greed? What kind of social, political, and economic structures would we need to achieve that utopian goal?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Sassower, Raphael. The Quest for Prosperity. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Our Weimar Moment, Part Three.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 32-37.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3VO

Please refer to:

These considerations seem to argue for some type of social-democratic ideal perhaps along Scandinavian lines. This, of course, is not a sure bet. Capital of its very nature will seek to subvert and destroy mixed economies of the social democratic type because it cannot internalize the notion of limit. As such regimes cannot exist without capital they will always be forced to accede to its demands, particularly in a globalized context. Given this a rapprochement between Capital and xenophobic nationalism, Fascism in other words, seems like a strangely logical if, finally, contradictory choice.[1]

A poster from 2012 of Barack Obama as a fascist dictator in the model of Hitler, doubling as an ad for the extremist website Infowars. Image by Madame LaZonga via Flickr / Creative Commons

For those who receive none of the benefits of globalism but bear most of its burdens it may well be a compelling choice. I should point out that in the context of declining public trust in institutions Fascist style myths of national redemption are fatally tempting. Of course neo-liberalism has laid the groundwork for this with its mania for privatizing public assets, often at low cost. These measures, along with ‘austerity’ budgets reduce the efficacy of institutions which can then be portrayed as inept and beyond reform by those who want to profit from their sale.

In this the neo-liberals make strange bedfellows with many radicals who also call for the dismantling of state institutions like the police and military: essentially, both groups take as their target the modern state which one sees as oppressive of economic enterprise and the other sees as oppressive of racial, class and gender difference. Battered from all sides of the political spectrum it is little wonder the state is now an object of general suspicion and contempt. It is little wonder people seek solutions that are radical though radical need not always (or indeed ever) equal progressive.[2]

Here, however, let me address something I think is a crucial error. We are hearing more and more of the ‘weakness of liberalism’ with the disturbing implication that we need something less rather than more liberal to deal with our current crisis. This argument, as it always has, runs like this. Liberalism is committed to the notion of pure tolerance and is thus incapable of opposing the rising tide of extremism. A commitment to pure liberalism will thus destroy liberalism altogether as extremists will use the cover of bourgeois civil rights to subvert the state. This is backed, again as always, with the argument ad Hitleram.

Exactly as the Weimar Republic was ‘too free’ so we are ‘too free’. If only, the argument goes, the Weimar state had been less tolerant and liberal force could have been used to stop the spread of Nazi ideology.[3] Thus, we too, if we are too ‘liberal’, will meet the same fate. This argument is surely balderdash. Firstly, what was it that rendered Nazi ideology a fringe phenomenon for the second half of the 20th century? Why was it that for so many decades, fascism was the preserve of isolated cranks, street thugs and lunatics? Clearly because the post war liberal consensus I have referred to above had widespread support. When did Fascism re-emerge as an option? Precisely when pro-market ideology succeeded in destroying that consensus.

It is simply wrong that Fascism has re-emerged because of excessive liberalism: Fascism re-emerged when liberalism was subverted, when liberals themselves sold out their principles to the emerging class of financiers, speculators and media barons. What is more, this is yet another argument curiously appropriated from the far right: it has been the insistent claim of right wing Islamophobes that ‘Liberalism’ is unsustainable because it entails the tolerance of “Islamists” and those feckless voices on the ‘left’ who undermine the West’s will to fight with their constant critiques of colonial oppression and craven apologies for acts of terror.

Indeed, I find it odd that a rhetorical ploy used so often on the right has now been picked up by the left apparently without anyone noticing. How many times have we been told by Bushes, Blairs and others that opposition to some foreign intervention was ‘appeasement’ because some foreign leader was the next ‘Hitler’? I certainly do think Trump represents a form of Fascism (as I explained above) but it is well to remember that Trump is NOT Hilter. For one thing his movement has nothing like the ideological coherence of the Nazi Party (as noted above) nor has he anything like the shrewdness or determination or even basic competence of its leader. He also leads a country that has a long tradition of anti-authoritarian politics and (for now at least) some functioning checks and balances.

This is important for two reasons. Firstly, the Hitler comparison creates the perception of an emergency to which any response is in principle justified: what would one not do to stop the next holocaust? Secondly, this response closes off an important discussion. If the problem with Trump is that he is Hitler then it follows that his supporters are the new Nazis: this dehumanizes them and renders their concerns moot. Politically this is disastrous for many (though not all) Trump supporters are legitimately upset about the failures of the neo-Liberal order. Fascism does not flourish in a vacuum and Trumpism is not reducible to slow witted people deciding to be jerks. Identifying and allaying these underlying anxieties and tensions is the real work of anti-fascists though it involves less than exhilarating things like humility and listening to others.[4]

A memorial statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in eastern Berlin. Image by Joan Sorolla via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Getting this balance right is crucial for the stakes are high. I believe what is at stake is a crucial component of the modern project. I believe that there is more to the idea of globalism than the ghastly parody of the Washington Consensus. I believe the ideal of a catholic and universal human society is a necessary moral challenge and a marvelous opportunity for human growth. Are we really better off retreating into the parochialism of pre-modern societies? Are we better off fearing and scapegoating the other? Are we better off with the old national rivalries and their attendant violence?

I say this in full awareness that supra-national institutions in the past have taken oppressive and imperial forms (such as the Romans and Ottomans or the modern imperialisms of the Americans and British). If there is something to be saved from the ideologies that drove those societies, it is the idea of universality: not of a universal military or commercial hegemony as in the past but of a moral society of all humans. To use Kant’s phrase there is a Kingdom of Ends that is unlimited in scope and illimitable in principle. We now know, due the simple fact of global communications, that the other is not a monster or if he is a monster, is no more a monster than we are capable of being. We have no need to engage in speculation like a Medieval person would have to concerning distant folk such as the Moors.

Given modern technology the other is among us whether we will it or no. The universal society is a simple fact however much we try to deny the moral implications of it. It is a fact that confronts us every day in the form of the world wide web. To use the language of Marx the material conditions of society already point to the necessity of a universal community!

This is reflected even in demographics: no western society currently has any future that does not involve an infusion of workers and consumers from other societies. Moreover, the many people in the west who do benefit from our current economic system will not easily forego new opportunities for consumption: having tried sushi they will not go back to meat and potatoes grown locally.

Lest both my right and left leaning colleagues sniff at the superficiality of the dining classes with their pumpkin lattes and craft beers let me say that there are many who enjoy the liberty of cultural contacts with other parts of the globe who will not give this up either. In other words, every western society contains a cosmopolitan impulse which will have at least some say in any proposed future and these people wish no return to the pristine purity of square dancing and tractor pulls. I do not mean to be flippant here: in small ways as well as in large we are coming to the understanding of Terence that nothing human is alien. This is the ideal that was once embodied in the old notion of Romanitas and persists though the imperial days of Rome are long gone.

It is well to remember that the first wave of political innovation in the West was the revived imperium of Charlemagne, a distant ancestor of our current European Union. Western culture at its best (as opposed to its worst) has never been about elevating the parochial for its own sake. Almost from the beginning (in spite of its wonderful and lively vernacular literatures) it employed the lingua franca of Latin as the universal norm of cultural discourse. This idea of universalism always has and always will meet resistance for openness entails risk and universalist ideals noble in conception have often disgraced themselves in practice. The temptation to turn our backs on this tradition are thus ever present. Yet those on the far right who trumpet ‘European identity’ while betraying everything good that Europe has ever accomplished not only deny the evident social facts of our world but its deepest moral potential as well.

Practically this means working to strengthen such international institutions as now exist and create new ones that can exercise some control over the flow of capital and enforce common labor and environmental standards. This means, and my right leaning readers will not like this, that I am indeed a globalist. As the ravages of unrestrained capitalism and environmental degradation are a global problem they call forth a global solution.

Similarly, my anarchist readers will also be displeased for I do not envisage the dissolution of the nation state but rather international agreements that will strengthen it as there is little way to enforce common international standards that bypasses national sovereignty. What, for instance, if trade deals between nations were used to buttress labor and environmental standards rather than subvert them? What if corporations that roam the globe looking for the weakest regulations and most immiserated workers were simply shut out of their own markets by newly empowered national governments?[5]

Both right and left envisage a world of spontaneously self-organizing social systems. The first group tell us that these are markets which if left to their own devices will slowly but surely solve all problems. The second group envisage workers organizing into guild like social collectives which can meet all basic needs on a purely local level. Both of these notions belong in the realm of utopian fiction. As Plato long ago pointed out classes emerge from any complex social order: antagonism and difference are grounded in the ineradicable particularity of human experience.

The individual does not merge directly with the collective but must be disciplined by the mediating power of civic institutions to regard the freedom of the other as her own. In other words, evil will always emerge as individuals absolutize their differences and the state (in whatever form it takes) is required to contain and harness these conflicts for good.[6] This banal fact of human experience has long been enshrined in religious and mythic conceptions such as the fall from paradise.

To put it bluntly, the communes envisaged by the anarchists and syndicalists (or any other form of social organization that assumes a direct harmony of interests between human beings) will last as long as it takes for the first love triangle to emerge: for the first individual to oppose absolutely h is subjectivity to another (as in the story of Cain and Abel). On this point at least the existentialist tradition (think of Dostoevsky’s underground man) has a much firmer grasp on reality than the Marxist as it recognizes the necessity of evil and conflict for the emergence of freedom.[7]

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

“”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (https://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/)

Aeschylus, The Suppliants trans. Phillip Vellacott (Penguin Classics, London 1961)

Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner (Doubleday Books, New York, 1958)

Baudrillard, Jean, The Mirror of Production trans. Mark Poster (Telos Press, St. Louis, 1975)

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics, London, 1978)

Blum, George P. The Rise of Fascism in Europe (Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998)

Danticat, Edwige “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” (New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015)

Eagleton, Terry. Marx (Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London 1997)

Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012)

Frank, Dana. “The Thugocracy Next Door” Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/02.

Hegel, GWF. The Phenomenology of Mind (Harper Torchbook, New York, 1967)

Heilbroner, Robert. Twenty First Century Capitalism (Anansi Press, Concord, 1992)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986)

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology (International Publishers, New York, 1970)

Russell Hochschild, Arlie: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump (http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/nov16csfeature_0.pdf)

Pulver, Matthew. “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: How the Clintons Can Apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies”

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany (Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2005)

[1] In Nazi Germany this contradiction was only resolved by the personality cult of Adolf Hitler to whom, finally, the German nation and all the institutions it contained became expendable. The interests of Capital, the Army and so on were sacrificed to a war of national suicide of which the charisma and will of the fuehrer was the only binding principle. That this will was fundamentally nihilistic is shown by the fanatical orders of Hitler’s last days, orders only subverted by the intervention of Albert Speer.

[2] The easy convergence of these two positions should give us pause. That extremists of the alt-right and anti- fascist radicals on the left closely resemble each other is something readily discerned by anyone not an alt-right extremist and anti-fascist radical leftist. I do not simply refer to their unbending dogmatism or their penchant for reflexive verbal aggression and ad hominem attacks. I refer to the deeper truth that both groups are fundamentally Gnostic/Manichean in outlook. They are the lone voices of reason and integrity in an utterly corrupt world where public institutions need to be smashed instead of reformed and armies and police replaced with private militias culled from the remnant of the saints. In other words, to use a theological vocabulary, their outlook is sectarian not catholic (political errors are often secular transcriptions of theological ones). Indeed, one is reminded of Hegel’s claim that ‘absolute freedom’ finds its logical fulfilment in murderous acts of political terror: “Universal freedom can thus produce neither a positive achievement nor a deed, there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the rage and fury of destruction.” (The Phenomenology of Mind, 604).

[3] The ‘liberal’ character of the Weimar Republic should not be exaggerated, at least in this respect. As the Munich putsch illustrates attempts were made to suppress Nazism both by direct force and the banning of Nazi publications. These ultimately failed because a divided judiciary and army (many of whom were sympathetic to nationalism) were unable or unwilling to back up the fledgling Republic. (see Spielvogel, 36-39) Even so, as George Blum notes: “As economic conditions improved after the mid-1920’s, following a currency reform and the infusion of foreign credits, the prospects of parliamentary democracy were much enhanced. It is quite likely that it would have survived in Germany and Nazism would have remained a boisterous fringe movement if the chaos of the Great Depression had not cut short economic prosperity and social stability.” (8) Perhaps it is not free speech we should avoid but depressions.

[4] Exemplary in this respect is Arlie Russell Hochschild: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump “ (http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/nov16csfeature_0.pdf). Changing the narrative of Trump voters requires understanding the narrative of Trump voters. Russell Hochschild points out that this narrative is theological at base and very deeply embedded in the thought forms of American Protestantism (688). Appeals to reason will not affect it. Immiserated whites who abandon myth for reason will live in the exact same devastated communities as before and their view of them will only be that much bleaker. If Trump’s base is to be cracked by a progressive political party, incentives will need to be offered to his supporters to trade their despairing ‘deep story’ for a more hopeful narrative. Clinton lost to Trump because she did not offer such an incentive in material, moral or indeed any other form. No doubt she could not make such an offer loudly and publicly without offending the corporate donor class, which is most likely why she did not even campaign in the rust belt states that cost her the election.

[5] Is it inherently irrational to suggest that countries which try undercut other countries by slashing worker’s rights and throwing out health and safety regulations should simply be excluded from trading blocs that agree to enforce common standards in such matters? Corporations, of course, can impose no discipline on themselves in such matters but might they become so worried about the prospects of global capitalism that, like addicts, they agree to have their hands tied by the state?

[6] It is difficult to know why anyone would assume otherwise. The impression Marx leaves is that in a society without class conflict the individuality of each will fall into immediate harmony with the individuality of all which might, for all one knows, be true if it were not that class conflict is just one subset of conflict in general. People on the same side in the class war are quite capable of utter viciousness to each other as anyone can confirm by hanging around Socialists (or workers for that matter) for any length of time. I have spoken elsewhere of the grave loss to self-knowledge that comes from the occlusion of the theological tradition. This is a case in point: without the myth of the fall people have lost a powerful skeptical check on their motives and can, with fatal ease, identify their basest impulses with their highest and most noble aspirations. It is noteworthy that original sin is probably the least popular Christian doctrine though it is the only one capable of %100 empirical confirmation.

[7] And here I must register my fundamental criticism of Marx (at least the utopian Marx) and the point on which he has failed to heed his teacher Hegel. Total freedom can only take the form of absolute tyranny. Thus it is not in fact an accident that Marx, who gives us a wonderful vision of the possibilities of human freedom (see Eagleton, 19-23), has given us also a formula for abject tyranny. Marx of course recognizes dialectical opposition as central to history. This is what the history of class struggle is all about. However, the notion that these tensions will directly resolve themselves once the capitalist state is overthrown is both forlorn and dangerous. Forlorn because it cannot happen (differentiation will inevitably occur) and dangerous because once the ‘individual’ has been reconciled to the ‘collective’ any further assertion of personal will or individuality will simply be a falling off from the good and an object of immediate suppression. The final state can allow no real opposition or difference to emerge as the historical problem will be, supposedly, solved. This is Blake’s warning about the ‘religious’ who seek to dissolve the tensions of history into a bland unity. (MHH 16, 10) This is also the price paid for historicizing a religious symbol (the millennium and the kingdom of God) and attempting to make of it a literal reality. Thus, the utopian strain in in Marx should at very least be an object of reserve and skepticism: it is no longer possible to separate the hope of Utopian thinking from the specter of mass murder.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Our Weimar Moment, Part Two.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 27-31.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3VF

Please refer to:

On a wall in Montreal, Quebec, on 5 June 2017. Its address was 5317 Waverly.
Image by Fred: via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I am not the person to solve these dilemmas however. I am a philosopher not an activist and my only job is to help clarify our thinking about the mess we find ourselves in. In that spirit I offer the following observations. They take the form of a reflection on Karl Marx whose writing seem to take on new life in the era in which we live. Marx has been gravely disserved by the elevation of his writings into a kind of holy writ.

Though I have deep reservations about certain aspects of his thinking (which I will discuss below) it is surprising to me how accurate a diagnosis he offers of our current crisis. I will not comment here on the strange tension between brutal dialectical realism and hazy utopianism that is the ambiguous legacy of the Marxist tradition. Nor will I be reviving such difficult and contentious notions as the theory of surplus value or Marx’s arcane analysis of Victorian economics.[1]

If Marx is still relevant as a prophet for the 21st century it is not for these things but for his central insight that Capitalism as a system is unsustainable: of its very nature it absolutizes the profit motive and the relentless pursuit of profit at all costs must bring the system itself crashing down. It is clear to me, for instance, that untrammeled markets will destroy the social and ecological capital on which they rest and on this point at least Marxism seems to me correct.

Only a system where the means of production are radically democratized is capable of wielding the instruments of modern technology in a way that is sustainable and broadly fair. Marx got many things tragically wrong but at the beginning of the 21st century we may wonder if he has gotten this one thing right. Not ten years ago this would have seemed a ridiculous question: the consensus surely was that the second half of the 20th century had left Marx’s thought far behind.

However, is it true that current conditions (as so many have claimed) falsify not only the details of Marx’s account but its spirit? The reason for saying so has hitherto been powerful: beginning with the post-depression era and continuing after the Second World War liberal democratic states have been governed by a consensus. Markets have been given freedom to operate on the assumption that in certain key areas Government will intervene to even out the cruelties and inequities of the market place, for example with labor laws, social security systems etc. The true answer to Marx has always been that democratic states have the power and will to balance the demands of the market with basic social goods to a degree sufficient to prevent revolution.[2]

Of course, corporations and their apologists have never really accepted this consensus and, as the post war interventionist state has been fundamentally secular in outlook neither have the people we now call social conservatives. If Marx is right the post war consensus that has hitherto governed us is inherently unstable: corporations who face the imperative of ever improving their bottom line can, indeed must, do so by incrementally chipping away at every aspect of the state that embodies a higher good than the pursuit of individual profit. Since the whole raison d’etre of the liberal state has been to make the world safe for capitalism and the indefinite growth it promises the political class must more and more cede to these demands.

However, man does not live by bread alone: to ensure electoral success corporate interests must align themselves with nationalists, racists, religious zealots and other disaffected groups as these are the one great mass of people outside the corporate sector who regard the post-war state as inherently corrupt. Thus, one sees the strange alliance between evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics and the kleptocrats of the corporate elite: both fundamentally hate the progressive state and wish it dismantled, if for diametrically opposed reasons.

On a wall in Paris, France, on 10 June 2017, near Bellevue.
Image by Gullem Vellut via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Anyone who reads the Communist Manifesto will see that Marx understood this dialectic perfectly well: the liberal state will always be threatened by an alliance of Capital with ethnic, national and religious exclusivism, in a word, fascism. As the liberal state is, in its essence, aligned with capital anyway it will inevitably lose this fight, making concession after concession until it is fundamentally toothless and an object of general contempt.

Ironically, given Marx’s notion that the state must ultimately wither away, the Liberal state will weaken itself to a point where it simply becomes expendable. The resultant unfettered pursuit of profit will produce such environmental devastation, such immiseration of what was once the middle class and such a cheapening of core values in spheres such as education and health-care that it will not be sustainable: the question of an alternative economic model will then present itself whether we wish it or not.[3] It is not for philosophers to predict the future or to dictate to practical people what they need to do. I only make the general point that the question of laissez faire economics is one of the handful of human notions on which the data appears to be in.

Yet it is clear too that without markets (of some kind) there is no way to adjust production to the real needs and demands of individuals (markets, after all, long predate capitalism). The grim catastrophe that was international communism was both the triumph and downfall of the technocratic dream: a universal society devoted to the conquest of nature and of chance. I do not simply refer here to ecological disasters such as the destruction of the Aral Sea or nuclear testing in Kazakhstan. I refer to the entire notion of a state that absorbs society in order to subject it to authoritarian technocratic control.

I think the lesson is clear that no party or political movement no matter how well intentioned can absorb the government. No government can absorb society in its economic, cultural or scientific aspects. This is illustrated, for instance, by the utter failure of centrally planned economies to meet the needs of actual human beings.[4] Contingency and difference, whether in the form of an economic market or a ‘marketplace of ideas’ or a culture of criticism and resistance within the state (in the form of a free press, political opposition and so on) are essential to a free society. As Robert Heilbroner points out a free market at very least provides a place where dissidents and non-conformists can earn a living. (69)

I prescind here from the question of whether Marx (who is still as I have noted a major social theorist) is to blame for the fate of Marxism in the 20th century: certainly Marx says some potentially disturbing things about a temporary ‘dictatorship’ of the proletariat where the workers, or more disturbingly, people who have appointed themselves as representative of the workers, take on the power of the Hobbesian sovereign.[5] State absolutism seems set as the precondition for abolishing the state.

It is no doubt possible to find a reading of Marx that insulates him from all that has subsequently been done in his name: such a procedure, though, runs the risk of turning his doctrine into a mere idealism, something that should have been a moving force in history but, alas, wasn’t due to Lenin, Plekhanov, the backwardness of the Russian people or what have you. Does Marxism allow any judgment but that of history? Does it not seem to fail its own most fundamental test?

I note however that many of the people who currently flaunt the symbols and language of international socialism are (barring the odd lunatic who still pines for forced collectivization) social democrats at heart or anarchists rather than orthodox Marxist/Leninists. Certainly their concerns over environmentalism and the rights of indigenous peoples belong more to the progressivism of this century than of the last.[6] Crucial notions for Marx are the technological conquest of scarcity and the full automation of labor and this certainly now looks naive from an ecological viewpoint. It looks increasingly like a Faustian delusion to believe that nature sets no limits on the possibility of abundance and prosperity. To truly eliminate scarcity, we must redefine our wants and needs, boring as that sounds, rather than overwhelm demand with supply.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

“”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (https://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/)

Aeschylus, The Suppliants trans. Phillip Vellacott (Penguin Classics, London 1961)

Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner (Doubleday Books, New York, 1958)

Baudrillard, Jean, The Mirror of Production trans. Mark Poster (Telos Press, St. Louis, 1975)

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics, London, 1978)

Blum, George P. The Rise of Fascism in Europe (Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998)

Danticat, Edwige “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” (New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015)

Eagleton, Terry. Marx (Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London 1997)

Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012)

Frank, Dana. “The Thugocracy Next Door” Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/02.

Hegel, GWF. The Phenomenology of Mind (Harper Torchbook, New York, 1967)

Heilbroner, Robert. Twenty First Century Capitalism (Anansi Press, Concord, 1992)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986)

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology (International Publishers, New York, 1970)

Russell Hochschild, Arlie: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump (http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/nov16csfeature_0.pdf)

Pulver, Matthew. “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: How the Clintons Can Apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies”

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany (Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2005)

[1] Of course fundamental challenges exist to Marixist economics and the anthropology underlying it. Of particular note here is Jean Baudrilliard, whose Mirror of Production castigates Marx for failing to question the principles of ‘political economy’ as defined in the 18th Century and making a fetish of Bourgeois notions of ‘labor’ under the all- encompassing sign of ‘production’. Thus, Marxism, far from being a radical critique of Capitalism simply reproduces its underlying logic. I cannot weigh in on this critique here but simply note its importance. I will say, however, that confronting Marxist notions of labor and productivity with, say, the ontologies of indigenous peoples shows just how dependent they are on the theoretical foundations of bourgeois Liberalism. Indeed, the Lockean stance towards nature, expropriation as property through productive labor, does not disappear from Marx but is simply socialized. The capitalist expropriation of the surplus value of labor disappears to make the social expropriation of land, “waste lands” as the Manifesto puts it, proceed apace. (54) Progressive advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples will have to rethink fundamental aspects of the Socialist tradition if they are serious about accommodating the indigenous viewpoint on land and ecological responsibility.  

[2] Or complete ecological collapse. Whatever the consequences to the planet corporations have made it clear that they wish to exploit fossil fuels until they are gone: one can only conclude that they prefer death to the intolerable burden of ecological responsibility. So far no national government or coalition of national governments has been able to tell them no. Of course a government that cannot tell private interests no is no government at all. So far, the liberal state has been failing one of its most significant tests and to that extent playing in the general rhetoric that states are useless anyway and might as well be replaced by private corporations or anarchist communes.

[3] We do not suffer from a lack of such models but from an excess. Trying to pick one’s way through the proposals of participatory economists, anarchists, mutualists, syndicalists, anarcho-feminists and so on is rather like trying to decide which of a hundred sects of Protestantism represents the true religion. I offer no opinion on whether social forms like these may play a role in a post capitalist order. For all this author knows they might have many useful things to contribute. They do seem, however, to embody one principle which is surely erroneous: that the community will never have to exercise sovereignty over the will of individuals. As will be pointed out below the most anarcho-syndicalist of communes will still have to function in some minimal sense as a state. I point this out because the utopian notion that the human being can, in her immediate natural will, embody the will of the community is a dangerous delusion which lays the groundwork for 20th century totalitarianism. One way of reading the current essay is as a critique of the utopian impulse as it afflicts both Capitalist and other societies. The problem with all these suggestions is that, for now at least, they are merely ideal and do not reflect forces immanent in the world, a thing Marx himself deprecated.  

[4] Ironies abound here. Robert Heilbroner notes: “As citizens of the former Soviet Union are discovering to their consternation, a market system means the end of the long queues for bread that were a curse of life under a system of centralized command, but it also means the introduction of a queue which did not exist formerly- namely, standing in line at employment offices and looking for work.” (73-74) The curse of a command system is the inability to provide goods in sufficient quantity as and when people actually need them. If bread runs low the command system cannot pivot and continues producing other items (like the notorious black lamps) for which there is no demand at all. The curse of Capitalism is its inability to supply a sufficient amount of meaningful and non-exploitive work for its citizens: one accepts ‘structural unemployment’ and alienated labor rather as the Soviet citizen made due without toothpaste.    

[5] Communist Manifesto pp.53-54. Of course, barring Cincinnatus of early Roman times, no ‘dictatorship’ has ever been temporary by choice. A realist like Marx ought surely to have known that power does not renounce itself. Of this section of the Manifesto Jacques Barzun comments: “Nowhere does Marx’s imaginative weakness and inconsequence appear more clearly than in this mishmash of bloody revolution with reformism.” (Darwin, Marx, Wagner, 188) This may be harsh but there is a grain of truth to it nonetheless. Barzun deftly points up the naiveté underlying Marx’s apparent worldliness: “One therefore wonders by what secret mechanism he expected that in this case (i.e. the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie) men goaded to destruction and sadism would settle down into artisans of peace and order.” (187) In any violent revolution you will have men with guns and men with guns do not readily give them up. Most likely they will then become a militant clique who appoint themselves as representatives of the proletariat assuming its dictatorial function. This clique will already be criminalized by a long standing habit of identifying ethics with political expediency. A revolutionary general (in a depressingly familiar pattern) then becomes the next autocrat after killing or jailing his rivals. A new autocracy is the result and as Eagleton points out: “…a Socialism which fails to inherit from the middle class a rich legacy of liberal freedoms and civic institutions will simply reinforce that autocracy.” (43) Perhaps it is this dynamic of armed insurrections, rather than supposed ‘material conditions’ in Russia or elsewhere that vitiated 20th Century Communism. We might then judge the insurrectionist approach to be largely a failure.

[6] Assimilation of indigenous peoples (so called ‘futureless societies’) was as firm a part of Soviet doctrine as of Canadian or American Liberalism. Indeed, what could it possibly mean to be an indigenous person in the universal technocracy envisaged by Marx and his followers? A person who claimed and expressed indigeneity would be, from this perspective, clinging to outmoded forms of life (i.e. forms of life that do not reflect current modes of production) and would, for that reason, be counter-revolutionary (see German Ideology, 44 for Marx’s dismissive account of indigenous societies). At any rate nothing could be further from the scientific character of Marxism than the mania for ad hominem attacks and personal invective typical of certain contemporary radicals. Whether a capitalist is a loving father or steps on puppies is perfectly irrelevant. Marx is concerned with how institutions affect the perceptions and attitudes of the people who inhabit them. Capitalism is not oppressive because individual capitalists are bad people. A capitalist system run by kindly old grandfathers would not be a whit less oppressive. To be fair though, this contradiction is in Marx himself who never reconciled the vituperative rhetoric of Marxism with its actual substance.