Pockets of liberation
The 7th and final post in a series
A popular narrative goes like this: web3 is a grift. The whole thing’s a Ponzi scheme.
My complaint with this narrative isn’t that it fails to appreciate the real value hiding among the froth. It’s that it fails to engage with the economic insecurity that drives people to trade their life savings for crypto—that is, for the possibility of a different life.
My partner’s friend grew up poor. Her mother, who has fibromyalgia, posts on Facebook about her bets on Shiba Inu coin. What drives someone in her position to join the “Shiba army?” A lack of alternatives. As Ali Breland of Mother Jones articulates, the only rational response to an economy that’s rigged against you is to try your best to become untouchably rich. Ape NFTs might be a scam, but so is the labor market.
My regular bartender complained to me for months about ‘crypto’ (their term), the environmental devastation, the scam of it all. I’ve fumbled, various times, explaining proof-of-stake, trust, identity. My explanations never took. “Sometimes, people with good politics are inexplicably accepting of crypto,” they once summarized.
Their tone changed last week. A mutual friend recently made a small killing working for a web3 startup; word got to this bartender, and now they want to work for crypto. They pay two-thirds of their income to their landlord. Why not try minting their music as NFTs?
The real surprise came a moment later: my friend, seated next to me at the bar turned and said, “I want to know how to do this, too. I’m tired of not being able to pay my bills.” Of everyone I know, this friend had brushed web3 off as “grift” with the greatest frequency and the least interest in hearing arguments to the contrary.
After digging, I discovered that their mind hadn’t changed about web3. They still believed the whole thing is a scam. Their motivation was as simple as they made it out to be: they’re tired of not being able to pay their bills.
An escape hatch
My goal is not to excuse grifters and rug-pullers. Nor do I believe every well-intentioned project will succeed in delivering sustainable financial security to its backers and believers. My point is that, for the people whom neoliberal governance has failed most acutely, web3 is the only escape hatch in sight.
A popular movement that connects web3 to a coherent theory of political change—that uses web3 to forge a path from where we are to somewhere closer to where we want to be—is the best path available for opposing capitalism as it’s practiced.
The past six posts are the beginnings of that coherent theory of political change. I’ve described why a governable internet is desirable and how DAOs could make directly democratic internets possible. I introduced the identity bureau, a grassroots institution that could turn those internets into governments.
My message today is that we can and must build popular assemblies that test these ideas in practice.
Now, some advice. To you who may attempt these experiments this year or next year or ten years from now, heed the following.
1. Democracy means all the people
The biggest risk in any governance experiment is elitism: that only those with the privilege to think and dream and take economic risks can participate.
Our experiments will be of no help if they exclude the people who most acutely suffer from the status quo. A just experiment will assure diverse participation across racial, gender, age, disability, class, and any other lines present in the community in question.
This participation must not only “include” diverse participants, but represent them. I can imagine an experiment in which identity cards are given widely, but efforts to include their holders in democratic processes fall in practice in the hands of the system’s creators. Stronger social ties between activists than between activists and community members, or confusing the “KPI” of identity distribution with the ideological work of instilling democratic action among community members, could create a dynamic in which the many are disenfranchised in practice. Democratic experiments must actively and contentiously involve the polis—the whole polis.
In a direct democracy, politics is an occupation. While Bookchin is careful to specify that civic involvement must never be forced or coerced, we must foster a culture of participation so that people can represent for themselves their diverse needs and desires. Without a politically activated polis, there will be no democracy in practice.
While monetary incentives could play a role in incubating assemblies, incentives are no substitute for culture. A thriving direct democracy would continue without external incentives. Its functions would become self-perpetuating, a way of being, as natural and regular as coming home for dinner.
Create a culture of participation. Get as many people into the popular assembly—face-to-face—as you can. Let active participation and deliberation, not mere voter turnout, be your indicators of success.
2. Overlay on top of the society you find
We must not, as Tao Lin would do, leave society. We’re better to heed Jenny Odell, who would have us stay put, entrench our resistance amid the structures that perpetuate the oppression we oppose.
A successful experiment will happen in society. It will act as an overlay on top of the society it finds: the cities and municipalities in which they are organized.
Live within the systems you seek to reform. You are replacing those systems, not retreating from them. The assembly must fight to meet the needs of the people it finds. Staying put will mitigate the risks to those who join, particularly marginalized participants who cannot afford to ‘exit’ their day-to-day lives.
3. The people will own the results of the experiment
If you build a popular assembly out of an identity bureau, the ‘results’ of your experiment will belong to the assembly. The story of the institution belongs to the people who live it. Any institution’s story is its most fundamental common good. It will be up to the popular assembly to decide how its story is told.
Heed the work of Dorothy Howard and Lily Irani, who ask how to “know” when participants stand to gain (and lose) from your experimentation. It is possible to find knowledge from political practice. All technical work, all research, is political practice. But you must mind the people whose experiences you seek to study.
Build your research process—ethnography, design research—into the work of governance, and do so early. The experiment provides a mechanism for consultation and deliberation with your participants: the popular assembly. Use it.
4. Accept success, however small.
No revolution is complete. The French Revolution has yet to topple several still-existing absolute monarchies. Look instead to The Black Panthers, whose “small” experiments with social welfare programs in Oakland and Chicago reverberated throughout the 1960s and 70s.
Nor is progress monotonic. We must accept that any system we build will be worse, in some ways and for some people, than today’s. We must be clear-eyed about tradeoffs, willing to abandon experimentation when need be. Openness to critique, to dissenting views, to good epistemic work that runs counter to one’s views will be critical.
Small success is possible. Pockets of liberation can exist. Insofar as liberation has ever existed, it has only been in pockets. The work is to make those pockets better and bigger. A single neighborhood that joins together for any number of weeks or months will have been direct democracy.
Follow the advice I’ve given, add to it and rewrite it as necessary. Do not give up when success doesn’t come quickly. Learn and continue. If you can learn, and you can continue, that is success.
Thank you for joining me over the last seven posts. I appreciate your time and energy. It may surprise some of you that my newsletter’s circulation is quite small—only a few hundred readers. But I can see that you are quite engaged—not only by Substack’s metrics, but by your reactions when I see and talk to you.
This blog has been the most intellectually influential work I’ve done in my life. In the interest of providing a degree of privacy to my subscribers, I will say only that I have been consistently surprised and impressed with the seniority and prominence of the people who have cared about this work. It has been a privilege to write for you.
Your interest speaks to the importance of the project at hand. We are approaching, in the United States, a series of pivotal political confrontations. It is not clear which institutions will survive or what form those that do will take. On the global scale, we are approaching a confrontation with our governance traditions in the form of a climate crisis. We will foresee some of its effects. Others will surprise us.
The only prevailing sense is that the status quo will not remain. Yet liberatory possibilities come only in crisis. When the long scope of history turns its eye to today, whose revolution will our time’s have been? A nation-states’? Tech companies’? The peoples’?
These posts have dared to imagine the latter. They begin work I expect I’ll continue for the rest of my life. There is nothing better I can imagine doing with my time then trying to build a society that is more rational and free.
To my academic colleagues: idle critique has poisoned our attentiveness to political action. Take arms.
To my open source contributors: we will build this together, but accept that you do not know better than anyone else, only differently, and your voice will be one of many in the next system.