I grew up in a political tradition that critiques markets as decisively coercive constructs, intimately tied up in the formation of the state, the expansion of colonial rule and the systematisation of racist and gendered violence. It is therefore a strangely surreal feeling to find friends subscribing to markets as the primary motor of a liberatory political project. Where half of my compañeras are rebelling against the continued compulsion of market capitalism extracting resources and labour, the other half are frolicking in the green pastures of Venture Capital funds; fueling ever more elaborate financial constructs, building castles in the sky (or should we say tokenised palaces in space?). Strangely, both seem to have the same aim: liberation from money constraints and the ultimate escape from the hell that is being broke, collectively and individually. For my newly rich crypto-buddies, this implies tapping their newly developed faucets of magic money. But for my fist-in-the-air anti-capitalist buddies, “broke” does not refer to a lack of money as much as being displaced from what would otherwise be a naturally occurring abundance were it not for the deserts created by extractive machines of capitalist markets. I, in the meantime, suddenly find myself writing go-to-market strategies and joining slack channels for entrepreneurs and business owners, feeling a little like an amusing LARP, albeit with very real-world consequences, including for my bank account. In other words, I am not writing this piece from a purist point of view.
This essay is a rehearsal. It is me, publicly revising my old political economy notes and gearing up for a much longer reflection on markets, black markets, growth, cybernetics and psychotherapy (coming soon, watch this space etc.). And the point that I want to make in this essay is simple: if taken as a primary method to organise social relations, markets will be as coercive as, though more nebulous than, any state or religious doctrine.
To rehearse the arguments from the political tradition I grew up in then, the history of markets as we know them in current day capitalism goes a little something like this: in earlier times of what is (for now at least) known as the UK, people used to largely subsist off of common lands,rivers, lakes and forests, shared resources cared for by a community that depended on it. These common lands were then expropriated, fenced off and turned from a shared resource into private property by a handful of landowners (a situation that has persisted until today). This resulted in the expulsion of many people, whole communities cut off from their means of subsistence, which created a working class, spurring a mass migration to cities and factories. No longer able to depend on naturally occurring resources, people were instead forced to find ways to get their hands on money, usually selling their labour and bodies in various gendered ways, in order to access basic needs. They also had to pay taxes to the state in order for them to be able to pay for armies. These could then form joint ventures with the “entrepreneurs” of the day and sail out and to repeat this violent process of expropriation and exploitation at epic scales across the globe, in highly racialised and systemically violent ways, extracting people as much as metals and timber, in a raid that has not ceased since.
In short: capitalist markets, colonialism and the modern state are historically highly intertwined – a point worth remaking given the persistent myth of states and markets as mortal enemies. Markets need states to enforce the rules that enable them to operate effectively, while states need markets to fuel and fund their operations. Importantly, this is only half of the story, because of historical battles and struggles, states have also enshrined varying levels of rights and protections for commonly owned wealth and resources, the “social state”, so to speak.
Sometime in the post-war period a perspective began to take hold. “The Market” in an abstract sense became not just a place to buy and sell goods and services, but a decentralised information processor. The Market was now a machine to compute and coordinate human activities at a large scale without the need for central planning. This myth of markets as a means to free people from state and society properly took hold in the 1980s. Markets would provide the minimum coordination needed in order to provide for material necessities, leaving all other aspects of life entirely up to individual preference. Or so went the propaganda. While one might subscribe to this elaborate scheme and find it attractive on paper, the theory had some serious blindspots. Not least that without any social, cultural, political or legal forces to back up the terms of engagement, “The Market” rapidly centralises into giant monopolies until there are no meaningful markets to speak of anymore but merely mafias with more or less legal standing.
There were some mildly psychotic aspects to these ideas too. For it to work in practice, people would need to actually behave like the automatons in the market model of information. In short, they had to be isolated, self-interested and mindless, relegating the work of reflection, response and responsibility to the feedback mechanisms encoded in the market model. It would no longer be the duty of humans to reflect on their immediate surroundings, to trust in their experiences and each other, instead, a higher order was at work. And as it turns out, markets have serious “failures” and “externalities”, meaning consequences and conditions for people and places that are simply not accounted for.
For most people, there is nothing voluntary about the market. It is merely different degrees of coercion (for some, one paycheck away from disaster, while for others it is five or six). Another strangely persistent saying is that the state has a monopoly on violence. Meanwhile the market too often has the monopoly on the means of survival, inserting itself into every relation enforcing a moneyed intermediation. “The state” might hold most of the guns, but the market has a big say on where to point them.
A lot of the ideals, deals and social contracts built up through this history were revealed and some came tumbling down in the 2008 financial crisis. No fool could fool themselves, let alone others, that “The Market” was a rational force operating at a higher level of aggregate coordination than any single human or institution could comprehend. Unfortunately, amnesia sunk in fast, and the admirable project of Bitcoin as a digital form of anti-authoritarian cash instead turned the volume up on an elaborate renewal of this retrograde ideology.
This was quickly generalised through the initial ethos of Ethereum – namely, that the problem was not the mindlessness, isolation, expropriation and mistrust that markets manufactured, but that these clumsy old artefacts were simply not engineered quite right. In short, market dynamics-plus-computation would rectify the simplicity of capitalist markets into a more elaborate, more adequate design. Much of the original mindlessness persisted in a new naive form. And here I mean mindless literally: the intention of Hayekian economics for the human is to remove critical cognition in favour of a cog-in-the-wheel-behave-like-a-selfish-asshole and the-collective-goodwill-be-taken-care-of form of blind ideology. Similarly, although this time rewired through the vocabulary and cultural curiosities of peer-to-peer histories, hacker andinformation security engineering concepts, humans were now considered not only irrational but also untrustworthy. In short, do not trust anyone, and behave like a selfish isolated automaton, because really, although this initially sounds kind of bad, it will all come together in a higher form of organisation, a computationally mediated greater good.
Luckily, lessons were quickly learned, and after a few fuck-ups, the volume of markets as elaborate computation that would be more perfect than people was turned down in favour of bespoke approaches and more immediately useful tools. And here we are today. Markets are now a design-space. A tool in our hands which can be designed in order achieve specific organisational and behavioural outcomes – many of which remain to be proven. Incentives are elaborately balanced in books of the nth dimension.
It’s all very cool. As constructs, I mean. I perceive these as almost crystalline dream-like expressions of wishful worlds, and I actually find them stunning for the sheer cognitive creativity that goes into their construction and write-ups in white papers and Rust.
I nevertheless continue to consider and keep an eye on the coercive motivations in many of these. Elsewhere, some years ago, I wrote:
the explosive arrival of blockchain technology has splintered neo-liberalism into tiny shards that instead of being destroyed have rained down and pierced into all of us and our stuff, turning all our things into capital/assets and all of our endeavors into financial speculation.
But actually, what has been splintered into a myriad of forms is ideology. White papers are the new ideological manifestos. These are utopias, dreamed up at university desks. As those who know me well understand, utopias, to my mind, are oppressive. Any utopian write-up carries a latent desire of covert coercion to conform with yet another idea of a perfect world. Utopias are often attempts at domesticating a far more stunning chaos into some new idea of universal rules, another set of predictive processes and patterns. And with the new brands of markets as a bespoke design-space for incentives that will amount to a greater collective good, eager efforts to establish social control keep seeping in, disguised through layers of code and computational complexity.
I have been a fence-sitter from the very beginning of Bitcoin, and I continue to be a fence-sitter, meaning that I nevertheless much prefer design interventions over police interventions. So to be less witty and more real for a minute, cryptoeconomics and game theory to me is more akin to the discipline of design and planning than authoritarianism. What I mean is that it is an approach that uses markets as a means of power by shaping the environments that people operate in rather than using outright violence.
But as any designer will be aware of, states also make use of planning and design as a more subtle and therefore often more effective form of power.
Now (in what I hope will please my friends who commissioned this piece) there is a very different and far less authoritarian approach to the idea of markets as a tool rather than an ideological aim. Namely when markets are a means to or first step towards escape. As someone constitutionally concerned with freedom I am an advocate of two things: work that does not consider itself a complete and comprehensive solution to the problem of being a human in this world, but rather a responsive and responseable dialogue with an open world that continues to change; and secondly, multipolarity and the option to always go elsewhere if and when ones environment or community turns toxic. That second point is an important corrective to the first, because markets, and algorithms as information processors too for that matter, in many ways are open-ended and responsive to a world that is never fully complete and never fully knowable. However, these continue to present themselves as necessarily expansive and singular modes of doing.
Markets cannot be the sole organiser of social relations. As a social or political project in and of themselves, markets are mindless and coercive. And to go farther, dark markets does not imply the absence of coercive power, but a vacuum for coercion to set in. Either through violence or ever more fine-grained crypto economic modelling, as coercive as, though more nebulous than a state.
This brief essay presents a revision of old notes. Next comes the full analysis and argument.
Published by Agorism in the 21st Century
Contributors Paul Dylan-Ennis, Jaya Klara Brekke, Nick Land, Amy Ireland, Harry Halpin.