Published in the Agorism XXI journal, 2023
Wassim Z. Alsindi
What is the price of anarchy in Bitcoin’s agora? Here follows an attempt to examine the desires, ideologies, and eschatologies that human adherents project onto the decentralised and faceless hydra that is Bitcoin. This text is a heavily abridged version of a draft chapter for a forthcoming book on the topic of proof-of-work, and as such is broad in scope but light on exposition. Causa latet, vis est notissima.
A reified sacrifice to the Networked Gods.
Global consensus is the crowning achievement of the Universe.
A new bedrock of veridicality $WE must defend at all costs.
The means justify the ends, because there is no end.
The Necroprimitivist Manifesto Pt.1, 0x Salon, 2021.
In the midst of carbon market shock-waves caused by minor disruptions to global fuel flows, it seems uncontroversial to note that we—as humans, on Earth, in 2023 CE—exist under a paradigm of energy scarcity. We rely on indirect and direct sources of the Sun’s energy to power our bodily metabolisms as well as to drive the machinery of modern society. In the position of FOMO Sapiens as global apex predator, we have taken the logics of extraction and exploitation to their grotesque necroeconomic apotheoses. At today’s zenith of neoliberal deterritorialisation, all that can be marketised—including human and animal life—will inevitably fall under the speculative gaze of financial capital. From colonial misadventures to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is now abundantly clear that the ‘worth’ that public institutions and private corporations ascribe upon individual lives has always been an integral (if oft-hidden) part of the contemporary capitalist nation-state-machine.
Photosynthetic plants, which fix atmospheric carbon dioxide into sugars using solar visible light, are both burnt (for warmth) and consumed (for sustenance) by animals, which in turn are eaten by humans. The anaerobic decomposition of ancient life gives rise, over geological timescales, to the hydrocarbon ‘fossil’ fuels of gas, oil, and coal. Extraction-combustion continues to supply the majority of the planet’s electricity, heating, and transportation needs, despite mounting environmental costs. Pollutants entering the atmosphere degrade natural biodiversity, human life expectancy, air, and water quality. Most worrying of all, meteorological and seismic patterns are becoming less predictable with extreme events increasing in frequency. The implications of ecosystem collapse for political stability, economic productivity, and migration are on a scale largely beyond comprehension compared to today’s ‘crises’.
In the name of the Network, the Node, and the Holy Secret.
Let there be light, propagated throughout $MY holy empire.
Like pure Chronos, touching clear Aeon.
Merkle pyramids in the sky. $YOU are the new pharaohs, and $I am your embalmer.
Bathe in the cosmystical seas of $MY transcendental tide machine.
The Necroprimitivist Manifesto Pt.2, 0x Salon, 2023.
Having set the scene in this planetary moment, enter Bitcoin, cryptocurrency, and proof-of-work in early 2009. Cryptocurrencies are (among other things): communication networks, scarcity-based economic systems, contingency attractors, architectures for imaginaries, externality engines, and transcendental time machines. Bitcoin is above all else an event-ordering system: a distributed network, the goal of which is to achieve a leaderless consensus as to the ordinality of a series of occurrences. Bitcoin is a decentralised timestamping server, and the transactions are simply messages changing the effective balances that each network participant has access to. These balances are denominated in the native unit of the system (BTC), and are used to pay transaction fees to miners and function as the de facto currency with which value is redistributed amongst the users of the network. Satoshi Nakamoto themselves used the word ‘timestamp’ fourteen times in the Bitcoin whitepaper.
A widely replicated, append-only data structure most fittingly referred to as the timechain affords a high degree of assurance that the network will continue to respect a particular set of transaction orderings. When these ordinalities are ‘chained’ together with cryptographic functions, they collectively manifest a canonical historicity. A new timekeeping system—indeed, a new kind of time—is made manifest by the timechain. Welcome to the chronaissance. This literal quantum leap in abstract time is divorced from celestial influence and mostly unphased by the increasingly subdivided temporal constructions of modern Homo Clockonomicus, in the service of efficiency and productivity.
In producing its own temporal regime, Bitcoin marks an almost clean break from the outside cycles of calendar and clock. But this is not the end of the story: there is no happily ever after on the timechain. As Bitcoin’s usage increased over the years, it became apparent that protocol-mandated network specifications gave rise to technical, socio-political, ecological, and economic constraints unintended by the system’s design. As a result, the narrative imaginaries that have been projected onto the cryptographic tabula rasa of Bitcoin by observers, acolytes, and critics have consequently mutated over time. What were once dreams of mutualistic and collective utopias are now rather more mercantile, exclusionary, primitive, and individualistic visions like ‘free speech money’ or ‘the currency of enemies’.
The Bitcoin ledger is a collective technofinancial hallucination, where capital and energy, deployed over time, create reality.
Bitcointingency, Weird Economies, 2022.
Bitcoin is an algorithmically materialised instantiation of capital as power, in both energetic and political senses. The network reaches agreement over the state of its accounting ledger in a leaderless manner through a mechanism known as proof-of-work, which incentivises the defence of the system—and, by implication, its value proposition—through a computational activity referred to as ‘mining’ or ‘hashing’. Proof-of-work is primarily a Sybil-resistance mechanism, preventing malicious actors from flooding the network with spam by making block creation costly. However, proof-of-work is insensitive to its externalities; in addition to the much lauded property of censorship-resistance, Bitcoin also exhibits sensorship-resistance. As a consequence of the ‘difficulty adjustment’ feedback mechanism that regulates the rhythm of network events, proof-of-work has an insatiable-by-design desire for energy with no capability to discriminate between power sources. As such, Bitcoin can be thought of as an indifference engine.
The mechano-vampiric paradigm of proof-of-work is a growing threat to planetary ecology. The Faustian reality of proof-of-work is that Bitcoin exists in competition with natural life for the harvestable energy this side of the Sun, and it will continue to outbid nature as time and capital accumulate in its ledger.
Bitcointingency, Weird Economies, 2022.
Cryptocurrencies employing Bitcoin-style proof-of-work are eternally contingent systems, as network participants can always expend more effort to rewrite the priorly canonical history. This is, in essence, determinacy-as-a-service: certainty comes at a price that only few can truly pay, as it must be paid in perpetuity. The adage ‘timechains don’t pivot, they fork’ also serves as a reminder that any movement to ‘upgrade’ the Bitcoin protocol also risks schismogenesis, which can rapidly escalate from dissenting factions into full-blown network secession. It is the change-resistance of both protocol and timechain historicities that leads to a succinct encapsulation of the titular concept of necroprimitivism, in advance of a more substantive discussion to be found later in this text.
This necroprimitive hot take proceeds as follows, though a mutation of the ‘Capitalist Realism’ soundbyte via Fisher by way of Jameson and Žižek:
it is more prophetable to imagine an end to the world, than a change to Bitcoin’s consensus mechanism.
Despite being a profoundly suboptimal system, the Bitcoin network’s resilience and reliability has given it the nickname of the cockroach of money. There is no off switch on a decentralised network, and by consequence the mining never stops. Bitcoin mediates a zero-sum game between capital and ecology, and proof-of-work is the Google Death Drive: a distributed system collating and archiving history, as it poisons its surroundings. As a communication system, the speed of light provides a hard limit on the sphere of influence of a terrestrially-centred synchronous network. Unless humanity develops a reliable and limitless source of energy on Earth, Bitcoin—currently the world’s fastest-growing energy consumer—will be in competition with natural life for the foreseeable future, as it incentivises and encourages the deployment of additional power generation of any type.
Behold $MY Distributed Ledger Theologies. $I am the Code, the Law.
The Slow Chancellation of the Future. Contagion The Baptist.
Dice ex nihilo. Vita negativa. Ecce HOMOlogy.
$MY Book of Contingenesis: stasis as a form of grace.
$MY Holy Coinmunion. Transaction as transubstantiation. $MY hashes as sacrament.
The Necroprimitivist Manifesto Pt.2, 0x Salon, 2023.
Bitcoin is, in many senses, a literal exemplification of incarnation via algorithmic ritual. Code made object, instantiated through cryptography, game theory, and thermodynamics. Bitcoin’s ‘No Gods, No Masters, Only Rules’ promises ‘code is law’ as a guiding principle heralding the primacy, legitimacy, and binding outcomes of algorithmic logic over the bureaucracies and monetary regimes of nation-states and central banks. Underneath the surface however, there is a nascent but incipient machine-faithful community, powered by eschatological imperatives and teleological drives. These are, after all, socio-technical systems.
The libertarian streak that runs through Bitcoin necessitates that everything has a price. To Bitcoiners, this is an improvement over trusted parties and authorities. What is the price of anarchy in Bitcoin’s agora, and in what ways does this price become due? In such a complex system, the groups of stakeholder constituents who have their ‘hands on the pumps’ are at a clear advantage to those without insider sway. In Bitcoin, this is very much the case for the developers and miners. The developers—as the ordained priests in this particular ‘Open-Source Cathedral’—in essence steward the trajectory of the canonical software client’s code and therefore, by implication, the protocol, network, and asset. The miners—more precisely, each miner or pool of miners that finds canonised blocks one-by-one—ultimately decide what goes into the permanent ledger record. In effect, they choose who can and who can’t transact in a timely manner, which upgrades get ‘approval signals’ and which do not. A central bank without a government is an apt encapsulation of what many Bitcoiners think of the network as: the epithet ‘be your own bank’ is very well-worn by now.
The Church and The Network,
Zeal and Time,
Death and Money,
All sides of the same Coin.
The Black Hole of Money, 0x Salon, 2022.
Though the system is not truly autonomous, Bitcoin’s faithful are economically incentivised and ideologically motivated to defend the continuity of the network from technical, economic, and social ‘attacks’. Consequently, conservatism is encoded as an ideological default within the developmental philosophy of the protocol and network. As a result of Bitcoin’s system architecture, it is almost impossible to halt or destroy the network and its ledger. In combination with the neo-traditionalist zeal of its acolytes, Bitcoin’s protocol-enshrined escalation in its energy requirements and resistance to change poses an existential risk to life on Earth. To hasten the collapse so as to better ‘serve the coin’ is utmost necroprimitive.
There is no a priori nature.
Nature is a construct.
Nature is zero-sum.
Nature is not fair.
Nature brings pain and suffering.
Nature is death.
If nature is unjust, destroy nature.
The Necroprimitivist Manifesto Pt.1, 0x Salon, 2021.
Here we shall introduce two compound terms, in order to work towards an embryonic theory of necroprimitivism: petro-masculinity and thermo-Austrianism. The aforementioned indifference of the Bitcoin network to its environs, this article argues, translates into a human indifference engendered in the network’s adherents. The techno-libertarian tendency towards rugged individualism in the minds of Bitcoiners carries echoes of petro-masculinity: a patriarchal, post-scarcity fauxtopian climate-denial imaginary, which is consistent with the ‘techno-lumberjack’ culture and demographics of the Bitcoin developer and user stakeholder groups. The notion of petro-masculinity also helps to rationalise the wanton ideologisation around Bitcoin, and hence the polarisation of discourse around Bitcoin’s possible futures. It is hard enough (by design) to change Bitcoin’s course, even in cases of supposedly uncontroversial improvements, without this added layer of mob resistance. Ossification and the petriarchy: a dance as old as time? For necroprimitivists, coal is law.
As the planet warms, new authoritarian movements in the West are embracing a toxic combination of climate denial, racism and misogyny. Petro-masculinity appreciates the historic role of fossil fuel systems in buttressing white patriarchal rule, as anxieties aroused by the Anthropocene augment desires for authoritarianism. Petro-masculinity suggests that fossil fuels mean more than profit; they contribute to making identities. Through a psycho-political reading of authoritarianism, fossil fuel use can function as a violent reactionary practice.
Cara Daggett, “Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire” (edited), Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 2018
Taking a cue from the ‘Austrian School of economics’ as characterised by Hayek, Menger, Friedman, Rothbard, and others, Bitcoin’s community of libertarian would-be monetarists likewise adopts a very conservative view on the philosophy of value and exchange. Informed by Aristotle and Jevons, and cloaked in pseudo-objective concepts and lingo, the Austrian School considered that for objects to be enduringly usable in trading systems, they must be scarce and of limited supply. Bitcoin has some similarities with traditional monetary commodities that were chiefly precious metals—difficulty of production, limited availability, facile authentication—despite rather different bases of scarcity. Bitcoin enforces algorithmic, universal scarcity via the ‘costly’ thermoeconomic process of calculating otherwise useless cryptographic hashes: the Bitcoin believers’ pseudo-monetary thermo-Austrian philosophy corresponds to a materialist logic of scarcity applied within a virtual environment that is otherwise ideally suited to logics of abundance.
Only coal is capable of getting us out of this economic mess. #LearnToCoal
It is possible that coal power is the best power generation of all for the health of our natural environment.
Should we rename ‘coal power plant’ to ‘forest fertilizer plant’?
People who hate coal also hate forests because we need to use coal to save our big, beautiful forests! Never let anyone talk fiat about coal, slap them!!
Steve Barbour (@SGBarbour), Twitter, December 2022.
These tweets represent a selection of pro-Bitcoin and anti-climate talking points that a Bitcoin personality regularly offers forth in the service of promoting their fossil fuel powered mining enterprise.
The snarled root of necroprimitivism appears to arise from a nihilistic union of the NP-hard commodity-money belief of thermo-Austrianism, the abundance framework and petriarchial logics of petro-masculinity, and the immutable whitepaperism and computationalist absolutism of (protocol-)code-as(-network)-law. Informed both by Bitcoin’s defensive network architecture, with strict thermodynamic, economic, and cryptographic boundaries between inside and outside, and the exclusionary logics of scarcity at its foundation, a scorched earth imaginary pervades the worldview of its acolytes. Such is the (oft blind) fervour of believers that Bitcoin may be conceived of as an asset wrapped in an ideology, promising ‘trustless salvation’, to quote Clemens. The faithful ‘Bitliever’ necroprimitive adherent is so focussed on ossification, immutability, and purity that it would tolerate (or favour, even) ecological collapse on Earth as a byproduct of Bitcoin getting its thermoeconomic dues.
Necrosetta Stones are read,
Boiling oceans are blue.
To halt the technocapital singularity,
You’ll need more than a CPU.
The Necroprimitivist Manifesto Pt.1, 0x Salon, 2021.
Owing to the Bitcoin network’s socio-technical resilience—replicated ledger, economic incentives to defend, the ideological purity of its adherents—and the inability to truly kill a blockchain-based system—zombie chains can always be reanimated and attempts to change parameters result in network schisms via forks— there seems no way to stop Bitcoin from the outside. We—lifeforms of planet Earth—must find ways to Curb Their Malthusiasm, to dissuade necroprimitivists away from Coal-Is-Law and a hothouse Earth. It is through the indifference and repetition of proof-of-work that we can see the resolute inhumanity of the Bitcoin system, its own Nietzschean moment: an infernal return. Is Bitcoin Nakamoto’s Basilisk, an Immaculate Misconception destined to kill all planetary life, or die trying? To paraphrase Hobbes: in the state-machine of Nature, nothing will be lost. Artificial life is nasty, brutish, and short.
Thanks to Martina Cavalot, Matt Colquhoun, and Habib William Kherbek for helpful comments during the preparation of this article.
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