Will the kings of crypto end up going to war? Credit: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

November 19, 2021   6 mins

Who would have thought information technology could kill millions? But between 1618 and 1648, that’s exactly what happened.

It’s estimated that about 20% of the population of Europe died in the Thirty Years’ War, the culmination of some 150 years of religious conflict triggered by the Protestant Reformation. And the Reformation was, in turn, powered by a radical new means of disseminating information: the printing press.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but, as Mark Twain said, it does rhyme. It’s not original to suggest that the internet is as transformative as the printing press: less library in your pocket and more, as David Bowie put it in 1999, an “alien life form”. But less often asked is: if revolutionising how we view, store, exchange and cross-reference our knowledge set off violent religious convulsions 500 years ago, that rewrote the political map of Europe, how long before the internet does the same thing?

The usual response to this suggestion tends to be wild gesturing at the now-common “wokeness is a religion” take, accompanied by “well, look, it’s happening”.

But this has it backwards. “Wokeness” isn’t an upstart faith. It’s a secularised, mutant form of the Protestantism that began with Luther. It’s the creed of our current elite establishment, with near-hegemonic power, and it’s subject to many of the same critiques as the then-hegemonic Catholic Church was in Luther’s time, down to the selling of indulgences. In this story, “wokeness” isn’t the schism; it’s the established church.

For schismatics, look to the emerging coalition of dissenters from woke hegemony. And if this coalition increasingly replaces ‘the Right’ in Covid-era politics, its most action-oriented and potentially disruptive faction is also perhaps the least well-understood: the crypto bros.

Often fiercely anti-woke, this loosely Right-aligned subculture blends tech futurism with a desire to preserve elements of the past, and sometimes unsettlingly strong views on facets of human nature they see as immutable and hence not amenable to progressive social engineering.

The mainstream Right mostly doesn’t really know what to make of this faction, and largely ignores them. Meanwhile, they’re busy building. And what they’re building has the potential to transform not just the internet but our most fundamental political structures — as dramatically as the Reformation and its aftermath.

Thinking of the Reformation as a religious schism driven partly by new information technology isn’t to trivialise it. The shift in mindset it drove was so radical it pushed some to opt out altogether, from a regime they found intolerable. And one form this took was the Puritans leaving Europe for America.

The political scientist Albert Hirschman argues that for this historical reason opting-out, or “exit”, has “an extraordinarily privileged position in the American tradition”.

Hirschman’s influential book Exit, Voice and Loyalty looks at what happens when things start to go wrong in an organisation or polity. As he sees it, citizens can choose to remain loyal, to exercise their voice (ie protest) or to “exit”. And as Hirschman points out, America’s origin story has contributed to an especially robust American political tradition of people voting with their feet when they don’t like how things are going.

Those talking about “exit” today in America aren’t the modern-day Puritans but their opponents. Many prominent figures associated with the subculture I’ll call the Exit Right are determinedly anonymous. Of those who write or speak under their own name, one key thinker is the neo-reactionary writer Curtis Yarvin. Yarvin’s “patchwork theory” offers a model for what exit might look like: he argues that nation-states should be replaced by proliferating, competing, autocratic city-states, each with its own CEO. In effect, this would then institute a market for governance, in which citizens could exit for a different polity, if an existing one didn’t suit.

But perhaps its most well-known powerhouse is Peter Thiel. Thiel is influenced by libertarian individualism and aversion to big government. But he doesn’t just dislike the current woke kind: he seems averse to all large-scale political systems. In a 2009 essay published at the libertarian Cato Institute, Thiel took aim at “totalitarian” and “fundamentalist” politics alike, and also the “unthinking demos” that powers “so-called ‘social democracy’”.

Thiel’s NatCon address took aim at institutional wokeness — but also the fundamental structures of Web 2.0 that power this creed. He denounced the way “the wisdom of crowds” has shaded into “the madness of crowds”. He railed against the “epistemic closure” around approved “scientific” consensus and fiat currency, warning against “a globalist future in which individuals will not exist”. He hinted at his preferred solution to this predicament, when he went on to say his biggest regret was not buying enough crypto while it was cheap. And he called for Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous inventor of the Bitcoin protocol, to be lauded with a ticker-tape parade.

Many looked baffled. But for the tech bros, talking about political models and talking about tech models is the same conversation, because the one enables the other. And when even a sitting president is vulnerable to deplatforming if they fall foul of consensus on proper behaviour, perhaps they have a point.

It’s not just about freedom of speech or association. Because as the Exit Right sees it, the problems inherent in big, centralised tech infrastructures are also there in big, centralised (and increasingly Big Tech-enabled) financial infrastructures and the fiat currencies they use. The Exit Right argues that the only way to protect any measure of freedom for dissenters is to abandon fiat currency altogether, in favour of crypto.

Meanwhile, the stories keep coming about tech converging with government: Google passing search histories to the government, for example, or Amazon hosting UK spy agencies’ data. With every story, the drumbeat grows louder from the Exit Right, to escape the convergence of government and Big Tech for salvation in the decentralising power of the blockchain.

The tech bros suggest the mainstream Right merely carps about “wokeness” from the sidelines, while assenting to every framework that gives this brittle bad-faith “faith” its real-world power: notably finance and the over-centralised internet.

Their proposed solution is leaning into new tech, to escape an increasingly totalitarian present tech. The theorist James Poulos argues in the forthcoming Human, Forever that the only way out of this bind is to embrace decentralised tech, and create “parallel institutions and secure, robust networks of mature and culturally healthy people online and off”.

This means building. Thiel is a prolific funder of projects in the Exit Right ecosystem; Yarvin hasn’t just contributed dissenting theory, but also dissenting tech. He was a founding developer of Urbit, which aims to replace the centralised Big Tech model with a peer-to-peer network of web services in which identities and data are always owned by the user, and not by Big Tech. (Urbit was part-funded by Thiel.)

Another example is New Founding, which aims to connect dissident (conservative) American individuals and businesses with “new media, technology, and commerce that serves and supports the American people”. Poulos also practises what he preaches: his book will launch initially as an NFT on Canonic, a blockchain-based self-publishing platform that sells books denominated in Bitcoin and also recently published Zero HP Lovecraft.

If the internet does drive serious, world-shattering schisms, my money’s not on wokeness as their source. It’s on these decentralising visionaries. Because for all that many of them see their task as freeing the world of Big Tech’s now rapidly-consolidating woke priesthood, their own tech vision will in turn inevitably develop its own priest class — or rather, priest classes (plural).

Right now, the Exit Right is a heavily male-dominated, almost exclusively nerd-only subculture full of exceptionally clever techies: a group that, to a man wildly underestimates the ability or willingness of normal people to get their heads around tech innovations. But in order to go mainstream, the tech that powers the Exit Right’s vision will need explaining for non-nerds. And that means roping in writers. In other words: arts graduates, people with the right mindset to simplify, prettify, explain and popularise.

But as well as bringing an ability to explain, when you get arts graduates involved, they’re guaranteed to bring their moral viewpoints with them. Arguably a key reason why tech is currently so creepily uniform in moral outlook, is because it’s heavily centralised. And its explainers and popularisers — its priest class — are recruited mostly from a small set of elite American universities with a fairly homogenous worldview.

Peter Thiel and the Exit Right argue that the only way to give teeth to the emerging “anti-woke” consensus is to decentralise finance, tech and even governance. But popularising this won’t create one new priest class. Instead, every exiting faction will need its own. If they succeed, the upshot won’t be liberation from tech-adjacent priesthoods but competition between moral outlooks.

And a measure of their success will be that this happens not in an otherwise neutral, unified “marketplace of ideas”. It’ll happen in a world where each competing worldview potentially has its own infrastructures, currencies and perhaps even city-states. Let’s hope they can all get along. Because zero-sum disagreement between moral worldviews with their own infrastructures has a name: just like the last time our information technology changed this radically. Think culture war, but without the prefix.

There may come a time when even those of us who dislike our current stifling woke hegemony look back on it with nostalgia, as the last-ditch effort of a fading age to save us from the oncoming storm.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.