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Ethereum's Political Philosophy Explained | Paul Ennis
Cryptocurrencies are best understood by examining the community structure and cultural values they exhibit, rather than the economic activity they create. Cryptocurrencies are really “cryptocultures” and these cultures are many, a plurality. I define a cryptoculture as an open source community with its own micro-economy. Each culture embeds its values into their blockchain. It’s a sociotechnical arrangement: The values and technology are mixed up with one another.
Many assume cryptocurrency culture is monolithic, essentially a Bitcoin culture, but those involved long term come to know each blockchain as a particular point of view: Dogecoin (memelogy), XRP (corporate), Monero (privacy), SushiSwap (degen) or Polygon (efficiency). Those responsible for managing the blockchain, usually developers and miners (or a variant), constitute the “blockocracy.“
The Bitcoin blockchain is designed to express a belief in scarcity premised on a right libertarian commodity theory of money. Bitcoin is a “theory of society” predicated on the collapse of the fiat monetary system. The project is sustained by the discourse around bitcoins as a scarce digital gold, digital metallism. In particular, scarcity is built into difficult-to-change code, algorithmic authority.
Bitcoin’s political philosophy is well known, but we rarely ask what political philosophy animates Ethereum.
The Ethereum blockchain is often conceptualized as a shared world computer. This computer is agnostic about what happens on it. Ethereum says we are just the infrastructure and how you organize yourselves is up to you. In the white paper, Vitalik Buterin, a Canadian computer programmer who co-founded Ethereum, suggests some applications, but those are just suggestions. But to be the neutral infrastructure is deeply political because it expands Ethereum from an economics experiment, like Bitcoin, into an experiment in public goods provisioning.
The closest Ethereum came to formalizing a political philosophy was its flirtation with Eric Posner and Glen Weyl’s radical markets or radical liberalism. Radical liberalism shares with Ethereum a desire to reimagine the inherited political economy – corrupted democratic institutions, neoliberalism – by creating alternative market arrangements.
Buterin and Weyl co-wrote an academic paper on one such reimagining: quadratic voting for the provisioning of public goods. That found its way into Ethereum with Gitcoin’s quadratic funding mechanism, where smaller voters are matched by a large pool to ensure the spread of infrastructural funding is varied and reflective of the entire community.
Providing and maintaining infrastructure is central to the Ethereum mind-set, to the Ethereum cryptoculture.
Author and philosopher Craig Warmke argues Bitcoin is a case of hyperauthorship. The Bitcoin community collectively tracks the narrative of the movement of bitcoins.
Ethereum is a case of hypergovernance. The Ethereum community collectively creates the infrastructural conditions for new forms of governance. These new forms are alternatives to the inherited ones and implicitly propose to replace them. These surrogates will provide functions previously provided by corrupted democratic states and neoliberalism, but in more decentralized ways.
Ethereum is “minarchist.” Minarchism is a libertarian position advocating a night-watchman state. Associated primarily with philosopher Robert Nozick, minarchism advocates an almost completely anarchist position where all government functions are eliminated except those related to security (police, army, justice).
In Nozick’s hands, the night-watchman state is a right libertarian concept, but in Ethereum’s it morphs into a left libertarian one. The community mutually provides and maintains a shared public good, the Ethereum world computer, but after that it’s hands-off, i.e. libertarianism.
Ethereum is not in the business of confronting the state, but I do believe it proposes a version of latent minarchism where it provides better infrastructure than the state can. These services would slowly replace their centralized analogues in the traditional world. They cover the broad areas of community well: organizational (decentralized autonomous organizations, or DAOs), financial (decentralized finance, or DeFi), cultural (non-fungible tokens/social tokens). Minimal mutual governance.
What unites cryptocultures in achieving their various aims is a “hash, bash, cash” model of decentralized organization. Users hash it out by treating the blockchain as a shared locus of cultural truth and ensuring it remains so. Bashing it out refers to the discourse and cultural values expressed socially among the community. Cashing it out refers to the centrality of money in the cryptocultural experience: investing, trading, exiting. All these experiences bind the community as a culture.
We hash, bash, cash for different reasons, and the assumptions found in one cryptoculture do not carry into another. In Ethereum’s case, the community hashes, bashes and cashes in order to provide and maintain a shared world computer, a public goods infrastructure. That’s the mutualism. This infrastructure then houses experiments in hypergovernance, that’s the minarchism. Ethereum’s political philosophy is mutualist minarchism.