The Agar Plate of Cryptocurrency

by Finn Brunton on November 10, 2023

One useful way to think about Silicon Valley ideologies is through looking at cryptocurrency. Payment systems like Paypal were as much a part of the Silicon Valley story as platforms like Facebook. They have always been entangled with political aspirations. According to Peter Thiel, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon was required reading for Paypal’s leaders. They wanted to displace the US dollar with their own private currency, building a new global economy. Then came Bitcoin, and Ethereum, and a whole host of privately issued cryptocurrencies that entangled various political aspirations with the desire to make a whole heap of money on the foundations of blockchain.

Cryptocurrencies, as a category of technology, are extraordinarily well-suited to hosting ideologies. Extraordinary relative to what? Consider email. Email can certainly be a subject of ideological concern – I wrote a whole book about how it became a space for negotiations about speech, markets, and political and private power. But at the level of developing the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) to copy text files from one box to another, at the level of fiddling with address and transport schemes for messages, it partakes of the implicit ideological background radiation of a network technology developed in modern society, but without attempting to deliberately embody a coherent political-economic system of theories, goals, and policies. You might call email an ordinarily ideological technology. Crypto’s very foundations are a set of explicitly ideological projects whose ongoing thrash and debate inspires forks (when one protocol splits into two or more), fights, and further development at the level of protocol and platform.

Put it this way: can you imagine someone identifying politically, in seriousness, as an “email maximalist”? Or someone saying that email is the postnational “flag of technology”? Back in the early years of digital cash, Tim May – an actual no-kidding ideologue who wrote manifestos and coined -isms for his mutant strain of militant libertarian political economy – described this problem. For purposes of developing the technology, “it’s fairly clear what ‘encrypting’ or ‘remailing’ means”: making email secure and private has a stable and shared set of concepts and questions. But “the situation becomes much murkier for things like digital money … just what is a ‘digital bank’?”

The question is this: what is money, and what has the authority to mint it? That eminently political query lies behind the bewildering myriad of terms used to describe different aspects of crypto- and traditional currencies: centralized, decentralized, distributed; inflationary, deflationary, stable, pegged, speculative; currency, commodity, ticket, asset; private, transparent, pseudonymous, anonymous; reversible, irrefutable, airdropped, contractural; institutional settlement, microtransaction, collateral, on-chain, off-chain; proof of work, of burn, of space, of stake – and more, some presupposing each other, others mutually exclusive. What constitutes identity, ownership, and the rules of exchange? National or extranational, and if so what’s the interface – is there one? – to territorial, central bank currencies? What is mandatory, easy, encouraged, difficult, or forbidden? And, above all, who has the capacity to make these decisions and on what grounds? To develop the technology – to actually write and commit code – you have to start with answers to ideological questions.

This fact has made crypto into an ideological agar plate, a growth medium for political-economic ideas and theories. Some are preexisting, some are widely accepted, some are novel to crypto and its sister technologies, and some are deeply weird. What follows is a tentative, brief, and somewhat snarky typology aimed at identifying and grouping these ideological formations and subformations, and at reflecting on some of the larger ideological changes they reflect.

Hard Money Libertarians

There are lots and lots of libertarians in all their ideological and theoretical variety in crypto, but the main current of old-school libertarianism is the hard money crowd. They believe in money and other financial tools secured by something other than the authority of a central bank to issue and redeem it. Usually this means precious metals, sometimes land, or, in a more avant-garde mode, energy, human labor, or computational work. This conviction is the most salient part of a larger complex of beliefs, from disputing the right of the state to mint money, to debates about humans as rational market actors. Subfactions include:

Digital Gold Currency Entrepreneurs. DGCs were the original internet payment platforms, created at a confluence of market opportunity and ideology – a still deeper history that threads back through gold- and silverbug commodity money activists in American history for more than a century. DGC proponents and architects are still around, and their ideas and examples continue to play a role in modern crypto, albeit diminishing and rather unfashionable.

Heterodox + Austrian Economics Nerds. People who read doctoral dissertations from the 1930s and wrestle with brontosaurus tomes of econo-metaphysics to explain the need for free and private digital banks that can issue their own currencies.

End-the-Fed Activists. Entirely devoted to the destruction of the creature from Jekyll Island, for which crypto provides a useful ally. The End the Fed crew stand like the Archdeacon Frollo in Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, pointing from the book on his desk to the cathedral outside and explaining, “This will kill that.” They would rather not talk about the whole Eustace Mullins thing.


Those for whom crypto in form or another is a means to the realization of a potential future human condition (as opposed to the return of an idealized political-economic past with the hard money crew).

Extropians. Early transhumanists, the Extropians combined a philosophy of human potential with a sci-fi sensibility and a reading of libertarianism focused on emergent order and the potential of free markets to drive technological innovation. This heady cocktail is a cosmic ideology in which new digital currencies are fuel for a cascade of breakthroughs heralding the end of the human condition; it led to much foundational work in cryptocurrencies. Their philosophy, aesthetic, and membership has had a massively outsized and under-recognized cultural influence, not least on the crypto space.

Singularity-Longtermist-Effective Altruism Ethical Wealth Capturers. Slightly tangential to crypto as such but exerting a heavy pull: the utilitarian-utopian ideology of capturing wealth, primarily through production of and speculation on crypto. This captured wealth is supposed to be deployed in worthy endeavors that tend to tip over from near-term priorities like mosquito nets and carbon capture into more futuristic and theoretically groovy projects like friendly artificial general intelligence, space exploration, and existential risk scenario management. Crypto is a means to underwrite this philosophical project, but both the means and the ends share a similar attitude of seeing past the limits of contemporary irrational ideological institutions to a rational, data-driven future order.

NRX + Dark Enlightenment Fascists / Monarchists. The ultimate in tech CEO worship identifies crypto as a vanguard component of an emergent post-national tech-finance elite who deserve to be put in charge. Prolix and verbose in style, characterized by multi-hundred post threads, novella-length documents, and droning podcasts. There are various degrees of overtness about the “race science,” antidemocratic, and eugenicist dimensions of the program. Crypto here acts as an ideological store of value, a membership card or flag of allegiance, and sometimes an outright technical version of a philosophical claim (as with Urbit, which began as a neoreactionary digital feudalist authority-and-property scheme for a computer network).

Smart Contractors + DAOists + NFT Metaversists. Most notably Ethereum. I’m putting this in the accelerationist bucket because many of the technologies and implementations involved reflect a diverse ideological landscape of ways that society and property could be organized, with the technology as a means of getting there. Crypto as voting rights, crypto as a component of consensus or constitutional processes, crypto as a tool for the ownership of intangible property; providing access to savings, credit, and financial tools for the unbanked; self-sovereign identity, polycentricity, 21st century versions of the Hanseatic League: attempts to move towards political processes and institutions that do not yet exist, united by the family of crypto-blockchain tools and imaginaries they use. This subcategory could easily be broken out into several distinct sub-subcategories.


The third leg of the historical stool of cryptocurrency, along with Extropians and hard-money libertarianism. The cryptoanarchist current identifies the protection of transactional data as the most important part of the technology. Their reasons reflect some interesting ideological distinctions.

Cypherpunks. Another small but remarkably influential movement, identifying the components of cryptography that could be used to protect computer users from surveillance. Their shared belief was that the mathematical breakthroughs that constituted modern cryptography should not be classified military secrets, but their reasons were varied – ranging from protecting classic civil liberties and personal privacy from the power of a computerized state, to the promise of the collapse of governments into “crypto-anarchy” due to the proliferation of untraceable, untaxable, unseizable digital cash. These distinctions play out in their current day heirs.

Agorists. Ideologically, agorism is the esoteric postpunk to libertarianism’s pop-punk: intellectual, challenging to get into, more European than American, and with better graphic design. Founded by a couple of ultra-obscure theorists and science fiction writers, agorism is premised on the creation of “counter-economics,” anonymous covert grey and black markets whose operation outside the state diminish its capacity to govern and produce non-state spaces for people to conduct more and more of their lives. Crypto was well suited to adopt into this ideological project, and the Silk Road contraband marketplace was a deliberately agorist project that ran, of course, on Bitcoin and provided its first substantive use case. Numerous copycat marketplaces (several of them honeypots built by law enforcement) may not share the same sense of mission, but they share the operational need: the currency should be anonymous.

Privacy Oriented Civil Rights Defenders. People who recognize the threat of transactional surveillance and seek to avert or mitigate it with currency, among other tools. Privacy is the main benefit of these technologies, and others (portability, ease of transaction) are secondary. David Chaum epitomizes this current. They are part of the deeper history of the analysis of the dangers of governmental overreach; when Paul Armer was warning about the threats of electronic funds transfer surveillance in the 1970s, his reading list included Nixon administration memos on domestic intelligence gathering and Lucy Davidowicz’s The War Against the Jews.

Basic Beige Neoliberalism

Operating in the context of a default finance-capitalist political-economic model of the world. Powerful, entrenched, ubiquitous, boring – the index fund of ideology. The interesting parts relevant to crypto and Silicon Valley clump into three clusters of mutant activity that express, in my opinion, three failures on the part of beige neoliberal ideology to address its crises and internal contradictions. I don’t think any of these qualify as ideologies on their own, exactly. Instead, they act as decadent, cultish, performative ideological formations.

FOMO VCs. Suffering from 0% interest rate psychosis, investors poured money into venture funds, and venture fund bets went beyond wild into some other dimension. This produced a fascinating evolution of the greater fool into a more comprehensive fear of missing out. Crypto, blockchain, and NFTs all got a chance to be the subject of frenzy at the institutional and retail levels – not because people held ideological convictions about them, quite the contrary: investors followed one another like an ant mill. This changed the shape of the crypto space by emphasizing stuff that was fundable rather than functional, feasible, or useful.

Grindset Lifestyle Entrepreneurism. Hustle culture bros on TikTok leaning on what is clearly a rented Lamborghini and telling you about how they get up at 3AM and read five books a day, then segueing to their crypto trading course or pitching you on investing in some variety of crypto you’ve never heard of. A performance of the ideal subject of beige neolib ideology, for which crypto is the ideal product: pure branding and confidence and hustle, free of the burden of actually making or producing anything.

YOLOism. The decadent stage of investment nihilism: buying into, speculating on, and memeing about cryptos for the sake of drama and clout. The wild swing, the ruinous bet, the diamond hand bravado of “Lambos or food stamps.” Think ugly, low-effort NFTs and cringe meme cryptos like Dogecoin, asinine jokes that lurch into actual money. This is a retail investor’s financial capitalist ideology when there is no plausible future on which to base an adult portfolio strategy – you only live once. This overlaps with the meme stocks scene, parts of which have now entered a completely conspiratorial unreality.



Trader Joe 11.10.23 at 4:00 pm

An excellent rundown of the space. Thank you.

The only omission I might note (slightly tongue in cheek, but not really) is: The Vampire Penguin.

These are found in the powerhouses of Wall Street and legal firms and their purpose is to find a way to suck a cupful of blood out of each of the aforementioned groups. In the end they know with certainty they will win all the chips on the table but they need these groups to keep trying and developing potential use cases so by the time they suck the victims dry there will be a valuable market to exploit and the non-feasible ideas will have consumed themselves (see FTX et al).


someone who remembers the bell curve issue of the new republic 11.10.23 at 5:16 pm

nice taxonomy, but i think it would be easier to list which of these groups aren’t deranged eugenics/race science enthusiasts. like, yes, it might not be part of the End The Fed ideology but when you, in practice, talk to one for more than a few minutes, eventually their eyes will widen and they will start talking about “national IQ” in the frantic tones of the aggrieved. it also is vital to understand the absolute, ironclad loathing of women that most of these groups have.


John Q 11.10.23 at 11:21 pm

One thing all these types, but particularly the crypto fans, share is a failure to understand fiat money. The crucial fact about fiat money is that the governments that issue it accept it as payment of tax obligations. As long as those governments exist and are capable of levying taxes, fiat money will have value. And as long as governments plan to be around for any long period of time, they will prefer levying taxes to allowing inflation at a rate that will destroy the value of their currency.


bekabot 11.11.23 at 4:03 pm

“crypto as a tool for the ownership of intangible property; providing access to savings, credit, and financial tools for the unbanked; self-sovereign identity, polycentricity, 21st century versions of the Hanseatic League: attempts to move towards political processes and institutions that do not yet exist, united by the family of crypto-blockchain tools and imaginaries they use”

This is best understood as an ad campaign targeted at people who want or need some sense of order in their lives but understand that they’re dismissed as no-accounts by the financial system which currently exists. They would buy into it if they could, but it has no use for them and makes sure they know it. The state of mind is that of an unpopular kid who’s not asked out to the prom (fill in your own analogy if you need to) and the impulse, if you are that kid, is to shrug off your ressentiment and throw a prom of your own. Which is basically a healthy impulse, the problem being that you can’t build up an economy single-handedly (though that’s what the captains and kings of the tech world like to pretend that they’ve done). For most of us participation in an economy is an invite-only situation. The need for connection has become so great, though, that it’s now possible for people who look prosperous and sound plausible to persuade other people who are subject to this need that it’s possible for them to get in on the ground floor of something really magnificent and to remedy their outsiderhood in that way. (I’m mostly talking about economic outsiderhood here, but the sense of being left out I’m referring to extends to all departments of life.) The pitch is a familiar one — “X or Y has been phenomenally successful and wants to share their good fortune with you. Admission to the fringes of their circle costs only a pittance and you will reap benefits galore. You’ll never be sorry; sign up today!” — but it’s gussied up with lots of techy add-ons. Since the tech ambience is still a fashionable one, it’s not surprising that so many marks line up to be rooked. The case is not improved, as I hinted above, by the fact that the heads of the tech world honestly do look as though they’ve engineered economies of their own and make it a habit to advertise themselves that way, with the result that lookers-on who are not heads of the tech world end up thinking they can imitate the feat, if only on a modest scale.


Ebenezer Scrooge 11.11.23 at 5:44 pm

Great typology! A few comments:
1. Crypto is not the same thing as nonstatal money. Game money (Robux, Linden Dollars, etc.) is pretty common stuff, often convertible into state fiat. This money is pure fiat, since the issuer makes no promise to convert it into something else. (It might do so when profitable, but that’s an FX operation, not redemption.) Game money is also account money, rather than token money: thus auditable.
2. Game money does not rely on taxing authority. Instead, it relies on a community for which this money is an acceptable medium of exchange. Libra/Diem might well have succeeded, if the regulators didn’t squash it. Mark Zuckerberg does not have the power to tax (yet!?), but he commands an enormous community.
3. This is for Trader Joe, at #1. I’m not sure that the Vampire Penguin needs a corpse to feed on once it has sucked all the blood out of the crypto fools. The banking community is mostly selling pickaxes to the gold prospectors. It’s a decent business, while the gold rush lasts. And it doesn’t have many sunk costs, so it’s easy to abandon once the fools are gone.


Chetan Murthy 11.11.23 at 7:05 pm

bekabot@4: you’re on the right track, but I’d argue you don’t go far enough.

I remember back in 2015, meeting “Jed” and his partner who were trying to stand up what became the “Stellar” network (a rip-off/clone of Ripple, IIRC). I remember they had all these gushing pleas for why they were working to help the “unbanked in Africa” and other shit. And yet, it seems that what they were really doing, was trying to get rich. Like every other crypto huckster. The thing, is, they have these stories about helping the unbanked, b/c it sounds good to goo-goo funders: people with enough money to fund them, and hey, it’s also for a good cause! FOMO!

The truth is, for any of these cryptocurrency schemes to work out, you need ubiquitious network connectivity anyway. And at that point, you can stand up a centralized scheme at a fraction of the cost. And (haha) it turns out, “the unbanked” also don’t want their savings stolen by a “rug pull”. So you need regulations and supervision and all the stuff that brings with it the inevitable long arm of the state. That is to say, you might as well go with a fiat currency.


Fake Dave 11.12.23 at 1:07 am

It’s funny to me that so many of these people claim to have read Cryptonomicon because I distinctly remember the part of the book where Randy realizes most of their customers are, in fact, dangerous criminals and it’s already too late to get out of bed with them. His friend Avi, who sees this project as a way to build an independent base to prevent the next Holocaust seems like a quintessential long-termist doing bad shit for the sake of a worthy cause that shades into quixotic savior fantasy. By focusing on the cool technology and the thrill of doing something revolutionary, they let themselves become cogs in a brutal machine and I don’t recall the book ever truly vindicating them.

Stephenson doesn’t really resolve this as he instead strains for a climax involving Nazi gold and a deranged anthropologist, but the adventure romance elements aren’t as interesting as the deep insight into techie exceptionalism that preceded it. Maybe if Stephenson hadn’t pulled his punches for the sake of individual happy endings, the tragic hubris would have come across more (at the risk of alienating his fan base). It’s there already though and it makes me wonder how much of the book (or Stephenson’s writing generally) some adherants have actually read and understood.


bekabot 11.12.23 at 2:54 am

“they have these stories about helping the unbanked, b/c it sounds good to…people with enough money to fund them, and hey, it’s also for a good cause”

There are ideas so absurd that only intellectuals can believe them, and there are schemes so ridiculous that only people with money to lose will invest.


TM 11.13.23 at 2:24 pm

Still no clue why Bitcoin is still a thing. How do they manipulate the trade price?


Daragh 11.13.23 at 2:49 pm

Really good post. What I find (mildly) fascinating about crypto is that in many ways it is the end point of STEM supremacism – that is, it’s an engineering solution for digital money made without any thought about what money is or how it works as a social institution. To my mind the idea of having a currency that isn’t ultimately created and backed by the state has a ‘the clock struck 13’ level of absurdity.

And yet, despite lacking the most basic level of political knowledge, crypto advocates are as the OP rightly notes intensely political. And because they’ve skipped over the fundamentals which would tell them ‘crypto is idiotic magic beans stuff that somehow manages to be even more scammy than a Ponzi scheme’ they’re even more committed to the terrible politics and ideas crypto engenders, not necessarily because they’re bad (or ONLY bad) but because they have no idea what they’re doing. Thankfully, the ‘STEM guys try to half assedly replace essential social institution without any knowledge of how it works’ approach seems to have failed.

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