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The other side of the Bitcoin

Economics
Image by Marco Verch (CC 2.0)

Bitcoin: everyone is talking about it – even (maybe especially) people who don’t know anything about it.

Bitcoin, the world’s first digital currency, is all things to all people. To some lefties, it is akin to the proletariat planting the seeds of revolution in those parts of the internet where the elite forgot to sprinkle their weedkiller. For rightwing Infowars fans, it is the nativist ‘taking back control’ from the elite financial institutions with their ‘globalist’ agenda.

Cryptocurrency also seems to attract people who like the idea of starting their own countries in faraway islands. Only this time, someone’s started an independent currency instead of an independent state.

A lot of the attraction around Bitcoin is that it is attacked, even hated, by ‘people who matter’, like Goldman Sachs. It must be good, the logic goes, if it has such powerful enemies. But then so does North Korea.

Whether it’s a gold rush or not, one thing is for sure – our grandkids will ask us if we got our cut. The crypto bubble is the new dotcom bubble. Remember the dotcom bubble? Some guy called Jeff had the crazy idea to sell books on the internet and named it after a random rainforest just to confuse us. I hear he’s doing quite well.

But I have to admit: I’m a bit suspicious of Bitcoin.

I think it’s popular because it’s the first post-truth currency. It is the envy of even the Zimbabwean Dollar for its unpredictability and mystique. In a single hour, my social media newsfeed has told me that: a $100,000 value for a single Bitcoin will soon be ‘a reality’, Bitcoin has crashed, and Bitcoin is actually just slightly Photoshopped scans of Monopoly money.

To Bitcoiners, it isn’t about money. It’s about freedom. It’s about giving the elite (the banks, the government, the IMF, your parents, your ex, your boss) the finger. And every serious Bitcoiner I’ve met is a male in his early 30s who, within minutes of meeting me, mentioned the 2008 financial crash. It’s no coincidence that Bitcoin started literally a few days after Lehman Brothers collapsed.

Bitcoin is more than premium bonds for hipsters or the veganism of finance. It is the remedy for millennials who’ve been suffering with economic PTSD for the last decade. They read about eight billionaires being as rich as the entire ‘bottom half’ of the world and tried to code their way out of inequality.

This is why if you aren’t a millennial, you probably won’t ‘get’ Bitcoin. You only appreciate the cure if you’ve caught the disease.

Wherever you stand, it’s hard to distinguish the hype from the truth. Bitcoin acolytes will tell you that Bitcoin’s USP is that there is ‘no trusted third party’; that it can form the cornerstone of a sustainable and equitable economic system, because it is protected from inflation. They will remind you that half the world don’t have bank accounts, and cryptocurrency can lift that half out of economic apartheid.

Maybe this is true. But what they won’t tell you is that Silicon Valley venture capitalists invested in Bitcoin as early as 2013, or that there is now a Bitcoin exchange on Wall Street.

This ‘revolution’ sounds very elite to me. It’s not really a coup if it’s backed by the king.

Omar Hamdi is a comedian, TV host and writer.

New Internationalist issue 511 magazine cover This article is from the April 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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