Hacktivist Bitcoin developer Amir Taaki took aim at Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin on Twitter recently for essentially writing off smart contracts inventor Nick Szabo as a right-wing crank.
Taaki wrote that this sort of attitude was typical of an “Eth[ereum] culture which is about sparkling burner parties, privileged digital nomads, microdosing LSD, sex orgies and ‘social-justice’ / vague doing-good.”
Pretty much everyone had the same initial thought: “Why aren’t I getting invited to these parties?”
But Taaki’s comments also highlighted the political divisions between Ethereum and Bitcoin. Is it really as simple as Bitcoiners lean to the right and Ethereans lean to the left?
You can make up your own mind about Nick Szabo’s views, thanks to this obsessively curated list of his tweets. Buterin characterizes Szabo’s utterances as bad faith arguing and “incholate yelling.” He appears to regret naming a denomination of Ethereum after Szabo.
But Taaki, who is British-Iranian, took exception to “white-leftypol” Ethereans canceling Szabo because “he doesn’t fit their worldview” and wrote in a tweet that they reminded him of “white left (fake socialists) on an anti-rascist crusade.”
“It’s neo-colonialist white saviour attitude,” he wrote. “Eth is exactly this.”
A savior to savor
To be fair, Ether isn’t exactly like that, but there are definitely some elements that might lead you to draw that conclusion.
To take one example, the man sometimes referred to as “Ethereum’s chief economic thinker” is self-proclaimed “social liberal radical” Glen Weyl, who founded RadicalxChange. That’s the sort of progressive, nonprofit outfit that thinks the No. 1 most crucial thing to inform new visitors to its website is not what it actually does — some sort of think-tank stuff? — but that it stands with the social justice movements Black Lives Matters and Global Pride.
Buterin is a big fan of Weyl’s and sits on the board of RadicalxChange. The pair have held lengthy email exchanges about his societal engineering ideas, which include imposing a tax to penalize “using standard white English” or taxing “masculinity to subsidize femininity.” A proponent of a Universal Basic Income and quadratic voting, Weyl gave a speech at Ethereum’s DevCon that he described as “a rally cry” against “extreme individualism and capitalism.” At its conclusion, he explicitly asked for questions from women and minority groups first. Of course, Ethereum conferences are just as full of nerdy white men as the rest of crypto, but at least the first guy to ask a question had the good grace to apologize for that fact.
Try that kind of left-wing malarky at a meet-up for hardcore Bitcoiners, though, and you could bring a firestorm down on your head, as the author of Mastering Bitcoin: Unlocking Digital Cryptocurrencies, Andreas M. Antonopolous, found out when he asked his audience for a few suggestions of podcasts he could appear on that weren’t the stereotypical “white, male, finance-focused” podcasters he talks to endlessly, as he wanted to “reach out to a broader audience.”
This seemingly innocuous request outraged his fanbase (which may have some crossover with the Gamergate crowd) and caused a Twitter storm, with users complaining about how “Bitcoin doesn’t care about identity politics” and getting their noses out of joint at his outrageous rejection of meritocracy by trying to chat to some different people. Even Bitcoin icon Hodlonaut questioned his focus on “race and gender.”
Antonopolous was unrepentant. “I will not apologize for being an ‘SJW,’” he wrote, characterizing the backlash as: “A lot of whining because I didn’t allow the implicit bias to drive 90% of my podcast interviews but only 75-80%. Oh the horror.”
Bitcoiners and Ethereans clearly have differences, which is why Crypto Twitter is beset with largely pointless debates about “supply gate” and “pre-mined coin scams.” When Peter McCormack, the host of What Bitcoin Did, asked his followers “What is BTC v ETH really about?” influencer American Hodl summed it up as: “Liberals do Ethereum and Conservatives do Bitcoin.”
It’s not quite that simple of course: Plenty of left-wing people are into Bitcoin, and plenty of right-wing people like Ether. Even Weyl can’t be easily boxed into the left or the right, as he somehow manages to combine his love of socialism with a love of right-wing libertarian hero Ayn Rand. As Bitcoin.com founder Roger Ver told Cointelegraph Magazine: “Both camps are so big now that there are people from every political persuasion involved now.”
And politics understandably comes a distant second when there’s money to be made. As DeFi influencer Degen Spartan said when explaining that he’s not a Bitcoin maximalist or an Ethereum maximalist: “I’m a profit Maxi.”
But still, there is a widespread perception that those with conservative or right-wing ideas are more drawn to Bitcoin and those of a more progressive bent support Team Ethereum. A CoinDesk survey of 1,200 crypto users in 2018 lent weight to this idea, finding that 55% of Ethereans tended left, while 55% of Bitcoiners tended Right. A further 3% of Bitcoiners claimed to be nihilists, which may explain all those Pepe the Frog crypto edgelords on 4chan.
(As an interesting aside, the more hard currency focused the coin, the more right wing, with Monero coming in at 57% right wing, Bitcoin Cash (63%) and Litecoin (69%). The DASH guys must have cupboards full of MAGA hats and Tiki Torches because 78% of them are on the right.)
Quantum Economics founder Mati Greenspan says there are philosophical differences between the two leading cryptocurrency projects that help explain these tendencies.
“It makes sense given the nature of what the coins do,” he said. “I would assume that most people that are into Bitcoin are people who advocate for less government intervention — and especially less government intervention in money — simply because that’s what Bitcoin was built for.”
“As far as Ethereum is concerned, that has many more practical applications that don’t necessarily have to do with governments or banking or even finance in general. It appeals to anyone who’s into technology.”
Greenspan cautions that he’s not basing his views on hard data but says that from what he’s observed: “People who prefer Bitcoin are the type of people who are kind of set in their ways, or that are of a strong mind. Whereas people who use Ethereum and other altcoins are generally going to be more people who are more open to new ideas.”
Bitcoin as right-wing software
Professor David Golumbia is the author of The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism. In the polemic, he argues that not only was Bitcoin borne out of the right-wing libertarian culture of the cypherpunks but that the technology itself is inherently right wing.
There’s little doubt that key figures in Bitcoin’s prehistory such as Eric Hughes, Timothy C. May and John Gilmore were staunch libertarians. They opposed big government and taxation and worried about privacy, the rise of the surveillance state and freedom of speech.
Golumbia says the ideas of right-wing Austrian economist Murray Rothbard, who coined the political philosophy “anarcho-capitalism,” were also very influential to Bitcoin’s early days. That extremely libertarian form of politics that advocates for the elimination of centralized states in favor of self-ownership, private property and laissez-faire style free markets obviously will sound familiar to anyone who has been around Bitcoiners.
“It was born out of anarcho-capitalism,” Golumbia says of Bitcoin. “Rothbard has these ideas that there is a single thing called the ‘State’ whose only point of existence is to enslave people. The only free individual is somebody who is free of government. And these people believed — and they still believe — that it was possible to use encryption technology to hide oneself from the state.”
In Golumbia’s view, Bitcoin was designed to become the currency of this new realm, money outside of the control of the state. (Golumbia’s theory runs into trouble attributing this political ideology to Satoshi Nakamoto directly, and he barely mentions him in our hour-long chat.)
Needless to say, Golumbia is not a fan of the whole culture. He calls May — the author of the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto — “a pretty racist, sexist, very disturbing guy” and paints a portrait of the cypherpunk mailing list as a sort of alt-right techie version of the Tea Party.
“It is really loud and vicious when you read it, full of hate directed at a lot of people. It intersects with a lot of other anti-government movements we have in the world,” he said.
Needless to say, this view is highly contested. McCormack called it “insulting” when I described it to him.
“They were certainly paranoid, and I think legitimately paranoid,” said McCormack. “But I wouldn’t say right wing at all. I would almost imagine a lot of them apolitical. They just wanted to build a better world.
“I consider them a group of freedom fighters who recognize the overreach of the state, the risks associated with lack of privacy, increases in surveillance, and abuse of the money system by corrupt politicians. They wanted to build tools and technologies to free themselves.
“I think if anything, they’re a group of fucking heroes.”
Everybody was an AnCap
Bitcoin.com founder Roger Ver said that when he got involved in 2011, the early Bitcoiners were all libertarians with a strong belief in free markets. He doesn’t see such views as right wing. “Just read about the thoughts of early Bitcoiners like myself, Ross Ulbricht, Gavin Andresen, and others,” he said. “We were all libertarians, not conservatives or right-wingers.”
Voluntaryism — which is an offshoot of anarcho-capitalism — was “what motivated me and others to get involved and promote Bitcoin early on.”
“Bitcoin was made up and promoted by a bunch of anarcho-capitalists originally. Later, its development community was taken over by a bunch of blue-haired San Francisco leftists types. Most of the AnCaps have moved on to coins like BCH, or ETH.”
Kain Warwick, the founder of Ethereum-based DeFi protocol Synthetix, said that no one involved in the early days of Bitcoin could correctly be called a conservative.
“You couldn’t be a conservative in the sense of trying to maintain the status quo in the legacy financial system. You had to see some problem that you thought needed to be solved in order for Bitcoin to make sense to you,” he said.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, those blue-haired leftists were gaining numbers. Buterin describes two strands of political thought growing together in Bitcoin’s early days. “In the crypto space, as early as in 2010 or 2012, there were a lot of people interested in libertarianism, and a lot of people interested in socialism,” Buterin said. “There was this kind of idealistic energy.”
While the two strands can be reconciled, Ethereans’ approach to rapid technological progress and evolving codebases is much more difficult to reconcile with Bitcoiners who are invested in protecting the fundamental properties of Bitcoin. successfully merge. As Bitcoin’s ideology around hard money, fixed supply, decentralization and security became stronger, the Bitcoin community became more resistant to changes to its fundamental properties. Something Ver discovered during the damaging block size debate that led to the creation of Bitcoin Cash.
Bitcoin Magazine co-founder Buterin also ran up against an unwillingness to experiment when he argued in 2013 that Bitcoin needed a scripting language for application development. When he failed to get support, he launched Ethereum in January 2014.
Viewed this way, the Bitcoin–Ethereum battle is not so much “Left vs. Right,” but “Progress vs. Stability.” If, as Warwick said, no one in the early days of Bitcoin could be conservatives, then have Bitcoiners now become the new conservatives set on maintaining the crypto-financial order?
Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, makes the point that Liberals and Conservatives are both largely correct about their central concerns — they just prioritize different values and don’t understand where the other side is coming from. The same is probably true for Bitcoin and Ethereum.
For many Bitcoiners, it’s all about hard money, stability, immutability and security, so they’re unwilling to risk what’s been built. Why improve on perfection? That makes Ethereum a fail. But for many Ethereans, it’s all about experimenting in the name of making technological progress, which makes Bitcoin a fail. If a few things get broken along the way — like the DAO hack, ICO scammers and DeFi smart contract bugs — that’s just the cost of progress.
“I’d rather avoid ‘left’ and ‘right wing,’” said Bitcoiner McCormack. “I’d rather say Bitcoin is conservative; therefore, it’s likely to attract more people with conservative viewpoints.”
“Move slowly. Don’t fuck this up. This is the best money we’ve ever had. It’s slowly, slowly simple, simple.”
“And yes, Ethereum you could argue is…” McCormack clearly couldn’t bring himself to call Ethereum more progressive. Instead he said: “I think Ethereum people just want to go out and experiment, kind of like scientists, experimental technologists. They want to do a lot more with it.”
Warwick is one of those scientists who is comfortable with change. Synthetix began life as a stablecoin project, morphed into synthetic derivatives, and continues to reinvent itself once or twice a year as new ideas come along.
He attempted to integrate Bitcoin with online payments in 2012 but saw the technology as a starting point, rather than a finished product.
“People who wanted to opt out of the legacy financial system, a lot of those people, you know, ended up in Bitcoin,” he said. “And then people who wanted to kind of extend the power of Bitcoin and extend the potential of what could be built ended up in Ethereum. If you didn’t end up in Ethereum, almost by definition, you were someone who was kind of less open to innovation and more conservative.”
Greenspan makes the point that Bitcoin is also much bigger, which limits its ability to turn on a dime.
“Bitcoin is a whale compared to Ethereum, which is more like a fly — but you know, flies can move a lot faster than whales can,” he said. “They can do different things. Sometimes they’ll keep running into a window in the hope of finding an exit, whereas whales are pretty predictable. They’re not going to suddenly turn around and go the other way.”
Warwick believes that the Ethereum community embraces more progressive politics.
“The Crypto Twitter that I’m in is very deep Ethereum Twitter,” he explained. “There is an awareness of societal issues outside of just financial infrastructure. I think that people are much more open to these things and some questioning of the structure of society and how it’s evolved,” he said.
This political bent shares some similarities with Silicon Valley’s left-wing, utopian politics, where technology is seen as something that “can kind of solve all of the world’s problems.”
“I am very sympathetic to that view,” Warwick said. “One of the interesting things about Ethereum is this idea of restructuring the financial infrastructure of the world to make it more open and transparent, and lower barriers to entry. I think it’s really powerful. Technological progress could be one of the biggest levers that we’ve ever seen in terms of improving the world. So, I still am hopeful and optimistic about technological progress.”
Which isn’t to say many Bitcoiners don’t also dream of a better and brighter future due to Bitcoin’s innate properties. But there’s also considerable focus on Bitcoin as an insurance policy against hyperinflation and the collapse of fiat, which is an altogether more dystopian future.
The flipside of the utopia
McCormack has a much less positive view of Ethereum’s grand ambitions. “I think there’s a lot more interference on the left, a lot more desire for rules about what you can, you can’t do, for that kind of stupid equality of outcome,” he said. “I think, I think you may find that a little bit of that in the Bitcoin versus Ethereum thing. I have noticed that Vitalik tends to express more socialist opinions, which is perhaps why Ethereum’s monetary policy is looser than that of Bitcoin.”
Having an undisputed leader like Buterin in a “decentralized” project also sees Ethereum accused of top-down control and centralized planning. Bitcoin maximalist Samson Mow from Blockstream attacked Buterin on McCormack’s podcast in mid-August for saying years ago that “the internet of money should not cost five cents a transaction.”
“That is very anti-free market,” Mow claimed. “That’s a Soviet-type economic event. That’s a central planning agency that sets the levels of production wages and prices of goods, whereas I think most Bitcoiners are very free market and capitalists, which is, you know, transactions will cost what they cost.”
On HackerNoon, journalist Kay Kurokawa wrote of Ethereum that “its leftist tendency is made clear by the grandiose plans of its developers and the actions it has taken to resolve difficult situations such as the DAO hack. Their proposed move to proof of stake will certainly move Ethereum even further to the left.”
But for all of this criticism of Ethereum’s politics, it’s not a particularly ideological project. McCormack himself made this point at the end of the Buterin/Samson Mow debate.
“For me, I think what’s really missing in Ethereum is a strong philosophical backbone,” he said. “And that’s what Bitcoin has, and why we don’t have yield farming and YAMs and all this bullshit existing on Bitcoin because it’s very simple and just focused on one thing, which is what I like about it.”
The love you take is equal to the love you make
In the end, what unites people in the blockchain world is arguably more important than what divides us. One thing that almost everyone interviewed for this piece agreed on was that there continues to be a wide streak of libertarianism running through crypto culture.
Although what is known as “Libertarianism” is most closely associated these days with guns and freedom lovers on the American right, there have been plenty of left-wing libertarian movements over the years from the peace and love hippies to anti-authoritarian punk rockers. Libertarianism is probably best described as a preference that’s at the opposite end of the scale to authoritarianism.
“I think a lot of the people who are building the space truly believe that there are fundamental flaws in the status quo and want to fix them, and I think that most of the time, or quite often, that does come from some sense of anti-authoritarianism or being against the establishment,” said Warwick.
At a deeper level, anti-authoritarianism seems baked into the design of blockchain itself. Authoritarian elements on the far left and the far right might want to impose their crackpot ideologies by force, but that can’t happen with a genuinely decentralized blockchain project — because there is no central authority able to impose it.
“Decentralization is a libertarian concept by nature. For sure,” said Greenspan.