“The money could always be arranged. Especially in a foreign country.”
— Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
“I’ll see it when I believe it.”
In a recent article by James Risberg, originally at CoinCentral.com,
Risberg highlights the public spat between John McAfee and JP Morgan Chase corporate boss of bosses, Jamie Dimon.
Risberg’s take on the war of words is worth reading as it highlights a central issue in the emergence of cryptocurrencies – namely the question of risk and faith.
Normally one thinks of faith in relation to religious questions. That’s normal but here we’d like to take a moment to address the unspoken question of faith inherent in the current (dominant) financial system and the future of crypto currencies.
Dimon, a tribal chieftain of the establishment, is here cast in the role of financial Papal advocate, cheerleader for the system and scolding ayatollah (If you’ll forgive the mixing of religious titles) admonishing the flock that McAfee is a heretic and that cryptocurrencies will not get you through the gates of financial heaven.
Granted McAfee is a heretic; a kind of cross between Hunter S Thompson coming down off an ether binge and Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz after consuming a wee too much home-brewed jungle juice.
But the world (and history) are full of people who were weird and brilliant and if being weird or cantankerous was a barrier to cultural relevance the world would be a fairly boring place and everyone would still be getting around in ox driven carts.
That Dimon, as Risberg’s article makes clear, is against cryptocurrencies should come as no surprise. That McAfee is in favor of them should also surprise no one. What concerns us though is the extent to which we can frame the argument as a repetition of any number of other confrontations between establishment and rebellion.
It’s not that by being an alternative and thus subversive that cryptocurrencies establish their legitimacy. Plenty of things have been subversive of authority without being legitimate. Being in opposition to what’s old or in favor of something new doesn’t make you right. On the other hand asked what he was rebelling against, Brando in The Wild One says: What have you got?
It’s not really a question so much as it is a declaration of existential rebellion. It says the entire system is so shot to hell and such a mass of obvious contradictions and blatant hypocrisies that rebellion as a way of life is the only ethical position open to anyone with a soul.
After all Jamie Dimon as a tribal chief is about one bad day away from having to do his best Nixon imitation and declare: I am not a crook. Speaking about cryptocurrencies Dimon said: “If you’re stupid enough to buy it, you’ll pay the price for it one day.”
Well, even if you grant his point (and we’re just speaking hypothetically) the fact is you can say that about the stock market but Dimon doesn’t get paid to slag off the saints in New York or in London.
And by that we don’t mean to suggest Dimon is a crook, exactly, but we do mean to say is that, is there any rational and intelligent person anywhere who believes the world wide banking system isn’t being held together with tape and good wishes?
Back in 2008 when the system was heading over a cliff and bankers everywhere were screaming like the evil witch in The Wizard of Oz, I’m melting, George W Bush said if they weren’t careful people could lose faith in the free enterprise system.
Well, ol W wasn’t right about a lot but he sure wasn’t wrong about that. But what certainly never occurred to him is that faith in the “invisble hand of the market” or the “free enterprise system” isn’t intrinsically very different from any other faith based system. Sure you can hold a dollar or a Euro or a penny in your hand but the world is full of people who hold books or other objects in their hands and say it proves that the world was made in six days or the rain is falling because the rain god is feeling frisky.
Of course people on the side of cryptocurrencies will say, correctly that blockchains and assorted algorithms are not a matter of faith but science; they are fact based. And we don’t disagree but what we do mean to point out is that belief in a system’s ability to function as means to organize society is very much a question of everyone buying into to that particular faith.
Cryptocurrencies may crash and burn; they may come to replace the centralized top down regulatory-heavy system we currently have. Or they may morph into some hybrid or into something completely unforeseen. It’s impossible to know for certain and not even McAfee with his algorithms and his off-kilter intelligence knows with certainty exactly what’s going to happen.
But what we do know is that power never surrenders its power willingly nor does it surrender it to anything except greater power. Jamie Dimon and the rest of the establishment chiefs will not go quietly or easily.
The thing is, people get complacent and corrupt and corpulent and the last thing they want to do is change. As a result, change happens to them like an earthquake or a revolution.
As Risenberg puts it:
“Arguably, the constant deluge of negative opinions works to keep the excitement levels down, leading to more organic growth. However, it may also serve to keep financially conservative or risk-averse citizens out of the market while early adopters and those with higher risk tolerance accumulate crypto-wealth.
How this will shake out in the long run, only time will tell. For now, at least, it seems Bitcoin isn’t going anywhere.”
Well, there’s no (legitimately) arguing with any of that.
And it is crucial to add that as a kind of formula Risenberg’s analysis is applicable across the centuries. Substitute any number of words for Bitcoin and you have the nature of subversion versus establishment from one social upheaval to the next.
We began with a line from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises to contextualize an idea. Facing a collapsing system and a porcine establishment that, as they used to say about the old Bourbon monarchs of Europe, had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, Hemingway was focusing his (and our) attention on the long view; the idea that systems fall apart and new ones take their place. The money could always be arranged because like gravity it isn’t going anywhere and especially in a foreign country because off the establishment radar, people get itchy and irritated by systems that not only don’t work but by cheerleaders for systems that don’t work. As a result, they try other things. McAfee may be a nut but so was Newton. And Jamie Dimon sounds like a thousand other establishment figures who looked at a crowd and said it’s just a riot only to be told by their advisors, no sire, it’s a revolution.
Cryptocurrencies aren’t going anywhere and neither is the human push to change.