Following a recent episode of the Interdependence podcast on “non-fungible tokens” — or NFTs — my Twitter timeline has been a buzz with enthusiasm and cynicism in equal measure.
I can’t proclaim to be that well-informed on the comings and goings of cryptocurrency. I have a wallet of my own, and prefer to invest in coins with some sort of broader utility, like Filecoin, but I cannot claim to understand the technical aspects that underline each token. A vigilant approach seems necessary. That is even more true when we become aware of cryptocurrency’s many associations. David Golumbia, perhaps most infamously, declared it to be a form of “software as right-wing extremism”. Though I’ve not read Golumbia’s book, the reasoning behind this seems to be because of its primary investors. (Capitalists are going to capitalist, I guess?)
But it seems to me that this is a superficial appraisal, and one perhaps worthy of some reconsideration — not least because NFTs intervene in interesting ways in the more recognisably-capitalist dynamics of crypto-markets, precisely because of their non-fungibility.
The fungibility of currencies is, generally speaking, pretty common-sensical. It allows a currency to be internally coherent, for instance — 100 pennies are equal to a pound — and also interchangeable, irrespective of any other currency’s vitality — GBP can be exchange for USD, et al. The fungibility of cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, allows it to function in a similar way. Bitcoin can be exchanged for other cryptocurrencies but also for traditional currencies as well.
Nick Land seized upon this innate consistency with other currencies in his unpublished work Crypto-Current, and broadly affirmed it. If capital is to be understood as a kind of “decoded money”, as Land has referred to it in his Nineties works, then Bitcoin is capital in a far more literal sense than was true according to Land’s previous cyberpunk pretensions. The way that the blockchain was being implemented to automate other processes only extends this resonance.
Land had always gone far beyond Marx’s gothic view of capital, as that autonomous and vampiric force, in order to produce not just a philosophy of capitalism but a capitalist philosophy, instituting capitalism as its own form of Kantian critique — that is, asking not what we (are able to) think about capitalism but instead asking what capitalism thinks about us. That might be a fair summary of Land’s Nineties work and it remains broadly true today. It is along these same lines that he has argued that Bitcoin is the latest capitalistic development to cause philosophical problems for the Left. For one thing, in side-stepping the trust protocols of mints and national banks, cryptocurrency allows capital a new lease of autonomy, but it also proliferates capital in itself, complexifying its self-valorisation process, with each brand of cryptocurrency effectively giving rise to a new and self-contained economic system in its own. This newly Balkanises, whilst also allowing greater access to, the global economy in its fungibility. Soon, the world becomes fungible all the way down.
As such, although some on the Left see a great deal of potential in cryptocurrency as a technological innovation, Land focuses his attentions on affirming its “techno-libertarian or crypto-anarchist” philosophical foundations. What it presents, he argues, is a further challenge to the Left’s fundamental principles, and indeed further alienates the Left from capitalism’s ever-advancing frontiers. He covers all this and more in the conclusion to Cryptocurrent‘s introduction, when he writes:
The left thus recognises its enemy [capitalism], with striking realism, as an emergent — and intrinsically fractured — agent of social dissolidarity. A crucial symmetry has to be immediately noted. The “struggle” here is not even imaginably one-on-one. Capital is essentially capitals, at war among themselves. It advances only through disintegration. If — not at all unreasonably — the basic vector of capital is identified with a tendency to social abandonment, what it abandons most originally is itself. That is why the left finds itself so commonly locked in a fight to defend what capital is from what it threatens to become. Bitcoin tells us — more clearly than any other innovation — what it is becoming next, by escaping transcendent governance in principle. Consistent “right wing-extremism”, automated governance, and unflinching critical philosophy are inter-translatable [– fungible? –] without significant discrepancy. The crypto-current is a nightmare for the left (rigorously conceived). It is other things, but that is the main one. Philosophical phase change doesn’t happen without a fight, least of all when attempting to route around one.
Against this background, aren’t NFTs precisely a challenge to this right-wing claim to the politics of cryptocurrency? Though many read about their focus on scarcity and ownership and run scared, surely they challenge cryptocurrency’s continuity with capitalism more generally? By emphasising social solidarity over dissolidarity; commitment over abandonment? Trust remains key, but that trust is constituted socially rather than the capitalist superstructure itself.
John Palmer’s experiment with $ESSAY seems like a fascinating step in this direction — and I look forward to hearing his appearance on Interdependence. I’d love to try something similar myself. That is, after all, the hardest thing about contributing to this strange world. Solidarity is a difficult thing to come by, not least the kind that lets us all earn and live and do what we do. NFTs might just allow us to build solidarity in a way that both challenges the expectations of a capitalist economy — solidarity without similarity — alongside our own cynicism regarding what is required to sustain our treasured cultures, online and off.
That, to me, is an interesting prospect.