Over the last couple of months I’ve had a very odd experience of having some of my core political certainties shaken to the core, and others confirmed in a way which feels almost dirty in its precision and gloatworthyness. I’ve been wrong, and I’ve been right, and I’m here to tell you all about it. I’ve been wrong about Belarus, right about Bitcoin, and these two experiences represent, for me, two ends of a spectrum, two sides of the world, which have both have recently taught me big lessons.
Much of my life is politics, both the long term goals I have (like abolishing poverty as we know it through voluntary cooperation and open source engineering) and the short tem day to day actions to support those goals; more and more I’m called to decide, not to do. Age, I suppose. I like to think of myself as a fairly politically sophisticated thinker. Bruce Sterling once called me “some guy with a relatively coherent interest in conventional fringe politics” which I thought was rather a fine compliment from a notoriously harsh judge. I kinda thought I had this under control.
But I’m not a real scholar like Herbert Snorrason or a political doer like Smari McCarthy. I’m in a slightly different gear, a pragmatic theoretician, a researching political engineer. To me, politics is the art and science of causing change to occur in conformity with will. There is a continuum of political decision-making from the small politics involved in being the director of a small enterprise, through to the larger and larger political calls that have to be made.
The space of choices is huge, and to make it easier to cooperate with each-other when trying to create large scale change, we work together in teams. Call these teams, parties, ideologies, even countries, these teams are about the core values and action principles which enable us to get things done. If one is an anarchist or a Conservative, certain decision procedures and axiomatic beliefs act as steering points so that people know roughly how we will analyze problems, manage data, and respond to a crisis! Patterns of belief are helpful stereotypes, nothing more… and nothing less. Ideally they help us cooperate, giving us an edge against the Collective Action Problem. At worst, they meaninglessly divide us.
But what happens when these stereotypes turn out to be wrong?
My images of the USSR came from two places: dim memories of the Cold War era, when they were The Enemy, and a few visits to Berlin over the past few years. In Berlin I spent most of my time in East Berlin or Kreutzberg. In East Berlin marvelled at the architecture - the grand scale, the boldness of Alexanderplatz and the TV Tower, all permeated with the stories of the Stasi and people jumping over painted lines into West Berlin, or jumping out of second floor windows on to piles of mattresses as The Wall went up. I used to joke about Aldi being an East German supermarket chain, then realized it probably was and, hey, good enough. It was all a very long time ago.
Then I went to Belarus.
I almost deliberately didn’t do exhaustive research first; I checked the basics as I would before any trip - currency, visas (got that one wrong; but that’s a long story) and health insurance. All fine, no problems. Low crime stats, safe society. Same leader in charge for 20 years and a government that is described in terms that start at “rather stern” and proceed from there in no uncertain terms.
I’m ashamed to say that some part of my mind thought I was going to 1970s Albania. I had a graven image in my mind, a fixed and rigid preconception that authoritarian socialism could only produce unhappiness, poverty and a stuck-in-the-past social rigidity.
I could not have been more wrong.
One of the things I looked at first was GDP per capita - “how much money do the Belarusian have, on average?” There are all kinds of problems with GDP per capita as an index, even if you PPP-adjust your GDP calculations (purchasing power parity) to take account of difference is the price of tortillas from place to place. You need the Gini coefficient to measure inequality, ideally you’d like to differentiate between averages and means, get a sense of the ownership of property and so on. Belarus had a GDP/capita of around $7000 per person, PPP adjusted to $15,000 or so. That’s right around Mexico, Botswana, Turkey. By comparison, Georgia has much lower GDP per capita than Belarus, and PPP-adjusted standards of living are about half that of the Belarusians.
I’d been to Georgia, my other encounter with the post-Soviet world, only a couple of months before, for Spot the Future. Georgia was a real shock to my system: ride from the airport in a 1950s Trabant taxi that bought gas a dollar at a time (and this was not the last of our taxi adventures), potholes the size of asteroid craters, driving styles straight out of Mad Max, escalators with half inch gaps, one of which nearly crushed my a finger in a loose guard rail, the whole bit. This might sound like I’m just grousing about transportation infrastructure, but the feeling it gave me was that Georgia was an actively dangerous place to be, not because of crime or violence, but simply because the infrastructure was decayed, and the social norms very, very different - as with the taxi driver who simply got out of his cab at an intersection and wandered away (maybe to ask directions?) leaving us sitting in the cab in the middle of a busy intersection. I was really not in Kansas any more. These are trivial objections, but I’m an infrastructure nerd, and they rattled me. The flip side of Georgia is that on paper they’re as poor as Swaziland or Guyana on paper, so they’re doing pretty damn well with it - it’s a real, functioning society with high quality of life. The food, music and civic engagement are superb: it’s a place of deep culture, and I greatly enjoyed my time there. In short, I was troubled by the infrastructure, a little shocked by the poverty among the street beggars, and filled with joy and excitement about the cultural environment: the sense of action, of a culture that runs on profoundly different rules to the Euromerican norms I’ve basically spent my life inside of. It was other but good-other. And, yes, I’m not much of a tourist.
That was Georgia.
(You may all now proceed to laugh at somebody who doesn’t even drive a car talking about how scary the road transport is. I know, I’m sorry, this is just a big thing for me given how common a cause of death road traffic accidents are globally. This is a tough scene. These things scare me.
Also, let me put in a word for the Dive Bar in Tbilisi which, once I realized that it was modeled on an old west saloon with furniture made out of crates and beer pong instead of poker, was about the funnest drinking hole I have ever had the good fortune to experience.)
Anyway, this was my experience and preconception of the post-Soviet world, and I’m framing it carefully because it’s probably not all that different from your preconceptions of the post-Soviet world, and I’m here to tell you not only are those preconceptions wrong, but there’s a good chance that your entire understanding of the Soviet union was also wrong, and largely based on our own Euromerican propaganda.
Belarus was a real shock to my system.
Of course, I should have known. Minsk was one of the sacred cities of Jewish culture before the Holocaust, much like Vienna. Yiddish had once been an official language of government in the area. The place had culture. You don’t wind up with Jews that deeply integrated into a society which isn’t fundamentally cosmopolitan at some level, and of course Russia, before the Revolution, had always been the business end of a lot of what we now think of as “European” culture. Before the Cold War, it was a real cultural power whose values and ideas were felt across a continent.
So I arrived in Belarus, with my idiot brain thinking 1970s Albania, and walked out into 2014 West Berlin. Broad streets, prosperous people, new cars. Deeply efficient municipal infrastructure, stunning architecture, and the excellent beer that I’ve come to expect outside of the Anglosphere, but particularly points east.
I think about the GDP numbers: $15,000 PPP-adjusted, $7000 straight, and it viscerally hits me that not only do the numbers not tell the real story, they hardly tell the story at all: my own combination of bad statistics and bad history have left me completely wrong footed and disoriented. It looks like the nicer parts of West Berlin. On $7000 each. This is, to my mind at the time, impossible. I must understand how this is happening!
This starts a real investigation, a political inquiry, into how Belarus works. Obvious questions get asked, and only not of official sources, but of civil society actors and activists: is the rest of the country terrible? “No, it’s much the same, no worse than the drop off between London and Liverpool.” Is there some terrible buried social problem that’s the price of all this prosperity? “No, everything’s basically fine.” This comes even from the activists, who are preoccuped by the need for bike lanes that will work well in winter and similar issues. Things are fine.
Of course, they don’t vote on the same basis we do. The KGB is still called that. The government is called very rude names by the international community. But the ground truth is that Belarus, like Cuba, appears to have created an enormously functional society in economic conditions that could easily have left them ground into the dirt growing potatoes on every square inch of spare soil and looking for massive international aid just to keep the basics of society running.
So how does it work? I’m not going to address the political questions now: they are there, but that story you’ve heard already, every time somebody mentions the place on television. Economically, there seem to be three angles.
Firstly, half the population work in state run enterprises or the government itself, and they really don’t get paid very much. $500 a month was bandied about, but I haven’t been able to find detailed stats.
Secondly, there’s a ton of “do the right thing” investment in mass production of social goods. Need more housing? Build more housing. This kind of approach takes a huge amount of the pressure out of the society: over-all I’d say people were happier than in London, and fundamentally more relaxed and less afraid. When social goods are produced on this kind of scale, there are massive economies of scale, and the economy adapts around those problems being solved. It seems to work, give-or-take political issues.
Finally, Belarus has ancient culture. Minsk is still Minsk, regardless of who is running it or what the political system is. A massively educated population (it was a major centre of science and technology in the USSR) have depth and sophistication and intellectual capital sufficient to make things work out under whatever system they are working with. The city was rebuilt after being razed after WW2 and immense resources were spent into making it look like the best of what it had been before. Deep culture and the patina of a place which has been a cosmopolitan center for many centuries gives a richness to life which is largely independent of many other factors. It’s Minsk.
The turning point for me was in a discussion with a social enterprise about how hard it was to get buildings for bottom-up social good projects in Belarus. They told a story of how difficult and expensive it was, and I shared my tales of trying to solve the same problem in London, and it was the same story: there, bureaucracy, here the ferocious expense of our property markets and the disproportionate power of landlords in our society. We were doing about equally well, against different obstacles to accessing the same basic class of resources. Maybe out situations weren’t so different after all?
I am not convinced that they have it worse than us, and Britain on a GDP of $15,000 PPP each would be hell on earth. The Belarusian modes of production make relative abundance far beyond their apparent financial means, and reduce the fear, insecurity and precarity which are so much parts of our experience of life here. It made me wonder where the UK would be if the Miner’s Strike had brought down Thatcher and pushed us far left of our current position. Would it have been so bad? Is Socialism possible?
But what of political rights? I am not going to speak for either our system or their system: I can’t do justice to that without a much better understanding of the country. I will say this, though: I suspect that, given what we know from the Snowden revelations, including technical issues, I was functionally under less surveillance in Belarus than the UK. The UK and American state has not been playing by the agreed rules of our own societies, and it’s not at all clear that we understand what rules our own governments have been playing by these past twenty years. Much as I suspect I would not do very well in Belarusian society in the long run, we have still lost an awful lot of ground on civil liberties in the Anglosphere in the past few decades, and Belarus is one of the few places I could go to get a genuinely different point of reference to consider those issues from. Consider the rhetoric of our societies, and their reality.
Belarus is hard to discuss for the same reasons that Cuba, China or Israel are difficult to discuss, but no traveller comes back from these places unchanged, simply by virtue of seeing how a completely different society, that questions many of our fundamental ways of thinking about the world works. There is profit in it.
This brings me to bitcoin.
An American friend of mine ended the Scottish Socialist phase of my life with a single phrase: “Socialism requires a central government with arbitrary powers.” I became a Libertarian a few days later. But what I’ve observed since that time has left me with a much more complicated relationship to that observation than I had at first. At the time, in those days, I was fresh out of Scottish Socialism. I’d been raised on the working class Unions And Benefits culture of the Scottish working class; raised on the family mythology that one of my ancestors, an agitator, had avoided becoming a Tolpuddle Martyr by leaving 15 minutes early to go to the pub.
America did not have an income tax until 1913 or so. It was instituted to fight WW1, essentially, and the Federal Government increased in size by dozens of times by the present day. In the first century and a bit of American history, they could only raise taxes by import/export taxation and a few other mechanisms: money was hard to come by for the Federal Government, and it really was small enough to drown in a bathtub, should the need arise. Since then, the Federal Government has grown until it is, frankly, probably of comparable size to the Belarusian one if we could find a good instrument to measure. Budget won’t cut it, alas, as I was so acutely reminded by my experiences there: GDP is a poor measure of value indeed, but if we calculated the size of the US government (including all contractors and monopolies it has created) I suspect the scale might not be far off, measured in manpower rather than fraction of GDP.
The Bitcoiners were, initially, and largely remain hard line anti-State Libertarians. Being able to produce money itself as a private good (and fie to the people who say bitcoin isn’t money: quack quack!) was an unbelievable breakthrough in Libertarian practice. Gold served that function in many minds, but gold has an enormous history and legacy, and the actual processes of mining are brutally environmentally destructive and often rely on near slave labour conditions for the workers, never mind the toxicity of the chemicals used in the industry. A lot of that is very hard to square with good Libertarian practice, unlike racks and racks of shiny boxes turning coal into hash collisions to “mine” bitcoin (computer manufacturing and energy production notwithstanding.) You can perhaps understand those computers are automated roulette wheels, proving to each-other that you have won some bitcoin: gambling against a house that everybody agrees pays you when you come up Green-00 eight times in a row.
Provably fair gambling where you get paid to spin the wheel, and can provably transferably assign your winnings to others if you like.
Socialism was, at the time, an enormous political innovation. Many implementations failed, although having seen the gap between the public perception of life in Belarus and the reality, I’m now questioning much of what I think I understand about the Soviet Union, and China itself. Some appear to succeed, and I think Cuba (haven’t been yet) and Belarus appear to be evidence of that. It’s obvious to me now that the Libertarians are going to get their State, one way or the other.
The Free State Project might succeed in changing the way America works over 20 or 50 years, that’s one angle: a Libertarian fork of the Republican Party could get a president in a few decades, and implement something which is as much a jump from the current Thatcher/Reagan basis as Thatcher/Reagan was from the Bevan/FDR Welfare State. Or Seasteading will bear fruit over a shorter time period, based on bloated bitcoin bank accounts, or somebody will take some other, even more eccentric ideas seriously. Pre-bitcoin, Libertarianism was largely theory. Post-bitcoin it is clearly a theory, practice and orthopraxis. You can get things done with Libertarianism.
However, as many predicted, Libertarians are getting a real lesson in how the world really works, finally having been handed (or, more correctly, having constructed) the whip hand. As I’ve rattled on about elsewhere (scroll down for the Bitcoin Foundation’s take on this line of analysis) the classical anarchist critiques of Libertarianism have always revolved around the formation of monopolies and cartels, and the bitcoin foundation is effectively a monopoly on political legitimacy in the bitcoin space - you talk to them if you want to talk to “bitcoin” as an entity. In this role, it is The State and is, of course, hated for it - but how naturally it formed! Likewise, ghash chooses to be less than 50% of mining capacity in the bitcoin network, but on any given day is one phone call and a kind word away from being able to facilitate double spending at any time. The anarchist critique of Libertarianism looks pretty realistic to me right now.
An awful lot of what happened in the worst ends of State Socialism were predicted by critics, although I’m not sure that anybody really predicted the sheer scale of some of the problems (historians: did anybody?) Likewise, the formation of cartels and natural monopolies inside of Libertarian space was predicted, and happened. We find it relatively easy to poke holes in things and find it quite hard to make things without any holes, but somehow, from time to time, perhaps inspite of ourselves we build things that work.
It’s very clear to me that the Libertarian experiment is going to get tried, and that the anarchists are going to stand around saying “I told you so.” Cuba, Belarus and the Social Democracies/Welfare States have made it pretty clear that the Socialist end of the spectrum is not without its virtues either (compare Cuba to Haiti, say.) But I am still left with a core question: can any political ideology we have face down the twin terrible threats of climate change and uncontrolled technological innovation?
We may have to innovate in ideology faster to fix our real problems. Any idea how we could start?