Until recently, I assumed that true communism was not feasible. Communism, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a hypothetical economic system in which people are rewarded for their labor with something other than money. In Communism, need outweighs effort as determinative of remuneration. How could such a system exist in a world where every country has a currency, every currency has monetary value, and people are incentivized to amass as much of that currency as possible?
The short answer, up until very recently: it couldn’t. Nothing could compete with capitalism’s ability to incentivize productive behavior by leveraging greed and other vices. Communism, a system that depended on trust and faith, was simply not possible. Anyone who said different was delusional. Every structure, every institution, every debt and asset (even intangible assets like education), are inexorably tied up with each other, and managed by a complicated system of checks and balances that all flows to and through the dollar, the Euro, the pound, the yen, and a hundred other currencies. The amount of effort required to reconfigure that system by untangling the total monetary value of everything in relation to everything else, as well as the unwillingness of many people to cooperate (and a supermajority of the people on earth would be needed for the transition’s success), and the latent tendency of people to revert to capitalistic tendencies, all conspired to doom attempts to move toward communism in the past.
But the short answer to that question has changed. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, imaginary online data made from nothing but traded as though they had some intrinsic value outside themselves have seen their supporters (and monetary value) skyrocket.
Cryptocurrency, for the layperson, is a packet of data that is created and kept valid using “blockchain technology.” It comes into existence when a computer or group of computers solves an increasingly-complex equation. Everything about this packet of data—the date of its creation, its movement, its use—is verified by members of the online community in which it exists. It’s easy to move between individuals, exists (at the moment) largely beyond the control of nation-states, and depends for its authenticity on unhackable code, along with an impossible-to-hack procedure made up of individuals and groups that do not trust one another yet are incentivized to cooperate for common benefit.
Thus far, libertarians have been cryptocurrency’s biggest fans. It’s not hard to see why. Cryptocurrency freezes government out of a place that libertarians feel it doesn’t belong (the economy), while making the work of basic regulation extremely difficult for federal enforcers. Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies like it mean that individuals have more actual freedom to conduct transactions—legal or not—than at almost any point in time in the last century—at least since the last time precious metals were widely accepted as legal tender. People interested in achieving communism (owing likely to a reflexive dislike for the word and idea of “currency”) have pointed to cryptocurrency as evidence of capitalism’s weaknesses and excess. Only accelerationists see any benefit to its success.
Ostensibly, libertarians and communists don’t have much in common. And it’s probably hard to see why a libertarian attempt to forestall governmental regulation and oversight might end up offering people interested in achieving communism anything, let alone their most credible pitch in almost a century.
Focusing only on their economic beliefs, libertarians support capitalism. They believe that the system is good. They believe that markets are capable of regulating themselves without government interference, and oppose market regulation therefore. Their complaint about regulation is that it makes capital markets inefficient at best, and at worst, constitute an infringement on the liberty of an individual.
Communism, on the other hand, asserts that capitalism is an inherently flawed system where the wealthy use money to exploit laborers by compensating work at less than its true value. In a non-capitalistic world—one might say, in the real world, unadulterated by a civilizing impulse—most people work until they don’t need. Until comparatively recently, people worked until sufficient goods (clothes, house, food, transportation) were accumulated to account for the seasons and disaster. Without modern technology, only the hardiest, healthiest, most diligent and cleverest workers were able to turn a “profit.” During the industrial age, one of the key promises behind the advance of technology was that it would result in an unprecedented age of leisure for the individual, as their needs required far less work. At that time, many agreed that a communistic society would be good, and was socially and technologically feasible.
With the exception of sociopaths, those damaged by the trauma of deprivation, and hard-core libertarians, all of whom desire more than they need and believe that any limitation on anyone’s freedom to hoard is a direct assault on one’s liberty, most people still believe that communism offers a compelling theoretical vision for the future… if only it worked it practice.
Why doesn’t communism work, though? What causes it to fail? The greatest criticisms of true communism (I am excepting previous failed attempts to establish systems capable of transitioning to communism, for reasons interested readers are welcome to review here) are as follows. First, people are not sufficiently trustworthy to operate in a system that depends on good faith transactions. Second, even if they were trustworthy, the practical challenges inherent to replacing capitalism with some other sort of system by which to value labor is unworkably sophisticated and would entail too much hardship in the form of violence. In other words, the criticisms of communism are that it does not work, and that attempts to make it work are unethical, immoral, and also impractical.
The success of cryptocurrency in spite of greed and competition (in part because of those factors, paradoxically) suggests that it is, in fact, eminently practical and achievable to incentivize people to buy into a non-capitalistic revaluation of their labor. Furthermore, the checks and balances being developed to keep cryptocurrency markets transparent and to preserve the value of cryptocurrencies ameliorates concerns about bad-faith actors polluting the system. It is true that cryptocurrency behaves in a capitalistic framework, where “currency” can be “owned” and amassed by individuals. Nevertheless, it is a major step away from the type of control that has (traditionally) been exercised over the existing economy.
And cryptocurrency was built from nothing except coding, computers, and electricity! No major institutions helped create cryptocurrency, no wealthy donors, no capital—only human ingenuity. And what is a major (and valid) concern about cryptocurrency as it exists today should also be a major source of inspiration for people interested in ushering in a new form of transaction, a new economy: it depends almost entirely on the willingness of people to exchange it for goods and services.
Cryptocurrency, beloved brainchild of libertarians, could be the first realistic answer that communist hopefuls have had since the early 20th century to that age-old question: well, it’s a nice theory, but how will you make it reality?
Cryptocommunism. Thanks, libertarians!