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Down and Dirty in the Field of Play: Startup Societies, Cryptostatecraft, and Critical Complicity

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Abstract

Climate change and fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies are massively shifting the material and social conditions of existence on Earth and contribute to a state of indeterminacy and increased political experimentation. While various models for what might become the ‘next iteration of governance’ are currently emerging, this essay turns to specific contemporary political experiments which claim to democratize power, distribute and/or share sovereignty, function as peer-to-peer or actor-to-actor, and move beyond criticism—be it to the moon or to soil. More precisely, I look at extropist experiments in competitive crypto-governance and at (post)critical laboratories closer to the conceptual frame of international law, which both, in different ways, rely on a specific practice of determination characterized by binary relations and existential negation. In favor of an alternative approach, I argue for an ethics of legal thought capable of attending to indeterminacy and the relationalities it enables differently.

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Notes

  1. Timothy Mitchell (2013), for example, demonstrates how physical-material flows (in his case energy, and more concretely, fossil fuels) make possible particular political forms, as well as their modes of resistance (Mitchell 2013).

  2. This not only holds true for digital platforms. Mark Beeson, for example, speaks of the challenges that environmental changes and the threat of environmental destruction poses to centralized governments. His essay focus on one possible development, which he calls ‘environmental authoritarianism’ (Beeson 2010).

  3. While ‘posthumanist’ refers to an intellectual stance critical of concepts’ humanist roots, it must not be confused with the term ‘posthuman.’ The latter primarily refers to a transhumanist mindset in which the posthuman is the final stage of human enhancement: a digital, non-biological self. For a detailed analysis see also Chapter 1 in Gandorfer (forthcoming).

  4. See Startup Society website: https://www.startupsocieties.org/about-us [11/25/2021].

  5. See the institute’s website: https://www.seasteading.org [May 2019]. The term ‘seasteading’ is a combination of ‘sea’ and ‘homesteading,’ a legal principle according to which ownership can be acquired of a natural thing by using it or building something out of it.

  6. See https://www.seasteading.org/videos/the-eight-great-moral-imperatives/ [May 2019].

  7. Atlas Society. ‘The Atlas Society Asks Patri Friedman,’ YouTube, 04/28/2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsgSEiOfiHQ&t=295s.

  8. As the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) for example states: ‘Many fundamental rights of Honduran citizens who live within the borders of ZEDEs are not protected under the new ZEDE law. These rights include: the right to Habeas Corpus or Amparo 20, Article 183; the inviolability of a right to life, 65; guarantees of human dignity and bodily integrity, 68; the guarantee against the extraction of forced labor, 69; freedom of expression, 72; protections for a free press, 73; freedom of religion, 77; guarantees of assembly and association, 78, 79, and 80; freedom of movement, 81; the right to a defense, to court access, and to counsel for indigents, 82 and 83; and freedom from non-legal detainment, 84 and 85’ (National Lawyers Guild 2014, p. 8).

  9. Such a view builds mainly on the Austrian School, Charles Tiebout’s ‘A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures,’ anarcho-capitalism (David Friedman, Murray N. Rothbard), and extropism (the forerunner of what has become known as transhumanism).

  10. In reference to Mireille Hildebrandt’s assessment according to which Big Data is a ‘game changer’ (Hildebrandt 2013, p. 32). Blockchain is an immutable, public distributed digital ledger of transactions recorded in blocks, linked together through cryptography, and shared among a peer-to-peer network.

  11. For an illustration of what this might look like, see Code-X-Diagram’s #hodlthevoid: https://hodlthevoid.com. More information about the project can be found here: https://medium.com/cryptolawreview/how-to-make-sense-of-crypto-governance-572fe306f93b. The relevance of this project becomes even clearer when seen in relation to Balaji S. Srinivasan’s ebook entitled “The Network State”, in which he is arguing for the use of blockchain technology to establish network states. In the section on “God, State, Network,” he explicitly argues that the Network represents the new Leviathan. The book was published on fittingly published on Amazon.com on July 4. It is also publicly available online: https://thenetworkstate.com/god-state-network.

  12. See announcement by McKinney on the SSN website: https://www.startupsocieties.org/blog/announcement.

  13. Joseph McKinney, ‘Startup Society Manifesto,’ 2017, https://www.startupsocieties.org/blog/startup-society-manifesto. For McKinney’s speech see: Startup Society Foundation, ‘Startup Societies Foundation,’ YouTube, Nov 20, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scq4TE1mC-Q&t=123s.

  14. Nathan Schneider. ‘Beyond Cryptoeconomics: Platform Cooperativism and the Future of Blockchain Governance,’ The Reboot, October 14, 2021, https://thereboot.com/beyond-cryptoeconomics-platform-cooperativism-and-the-future-of-blockchain-governance/.

  15. By ‘crypto-governance’ (or blockchain governance) I mean decentralized network governance approaches that are strongly informed by blockchain technology in their attempts to reshape the structure of political organization, forms of normativity, processes and modalities of decision-making, and possibilities for sociality and collectivity.

  16. Max T. O’Connor decided to change his name to Max More to further emphasize the extropian ideal of progress and enhancement. For the sake of readability, I will refer to O’Connor as Max More, even in the cases where he has published under O’Connor.

  17. What is more, already in the first issue, the fascination with new frontiers is expressed clearly. It is especially their ‘opportunity to make a fresh start as we like’ and their offering ‘a chance to experiment with new social orders, new religions, and new ways of living,’ which has been ‘hampered by existing governments which lay claim to every inch of the planet,’ that make them a crucial concept for extropians (More 2013, p. 4; 6; 10).

  18. For a detailed account of the role that extropians played in the genesis of digital cash, see Chapter 8 of Gandorfer (forthcoming).

  19. Blockchain Workshops. ‘Keynote by John Perry Barlow,’ YouTube, November 6, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExKt1BNsX0s.

  20. ‘Vitalik criticizes ‘individualistic mindset’ of the crypto community,’ Cryptonews, online, May 25, 2019, https://cryptonews.net/news/other/122236/.

  21. An umbrella term for an array of, partly strongly differing and differently motivated approaches towards alternative modes of analysis in response to the limits of critique. See for example: (Anker and Felski 2017) (Best and Marcus 2009; De Sutter 2019; Felski 2017; Latour 2004).

  22. The enactment of ontic-semantic determinations is what Barad terms agential cuts (or: cutting-together-apart): ‘The agential cut enacts a resolution within the phenomenon of the inherent ontological (and semantic) indeterminacy’ (Barad 2007, p. 140; 335). For a more detailed account of Barad’s quantum-physical notion of ontological indeterminacy, which builds on Niels Bohr and argues against Heisenberg’s epistemological uncertainty principle (in favor of ontological indeterminacy) and informs my account here, see Barad (2007).

  23. See especially chapter 1 (‘Difference in Itself) of (Deleuze 1994) For difference as onto-epistemological expression of ?-being, see Chapter 1 of (Gandorfer, forthcoming).

  24. Such engages reaches from, for example, the positivist H.L.A. Hart, who frames indeterminacy the consequence of the ‘open texture of language’ and claimed the existence of a ‘core of certainty’ (in which most legal cases fall) as separate from a smaller ‘penumbra of doubt’ (open for interpretation) to critical legal scholar Duncan Kennedy, who argues that the ‘essential determinacy or indeterminacy’ of legal materials is ‘unknowable,’ and the interpreter’s work is strategic and ideologically informed. The valid body of law is a ‘complex compromise’ of principles, policies, rights, and worldviews being in ‘ineradicable conflict, within each of us as well as between us,’ so Kennedy (Hart 1994, p. 123; 128) (Kennedy 2007, pp. 303–304).

  25. Colin Koopman points to Hegel’s resistance to think indeterminacy and his claim according to which every indeterminacy is already a kind of determination: Everything there is, is already determinate. Thus, for Hegel, there is ‘no positivity role for indeterminacy.’ It is in virtue of this, Koopman argues, that ‘Hegel is reliant on the category of contradiction and the operator of negation to put thought into motion. If everything that is already is determinate, then the flow of determination can take place only by way of the negation of contradictory determinations—philosophy always starts with what is determinate and identical with itself: and from there derives difference by way of the negativity of contradiction. The only place for movement in such a view is the movement of negation because everything is determinate and so anything can be overcome only by way of its negation’ (Koopman 2016, p. 96).

  26. In Facing Gaia, Latour describes the territory of an agent as ‘the series of other agents with which it has to come to terms and that it cannot get along without if they are to survive in the long run’ (Latour 2017, p. 252).

  27. To understand why indeterminacy for Koskenniemi is a systematic, yet also semantic and epistemological condition, it is worth looking at his understanding of concepts (and expressions). For in his deconstructivist account, expressions are like holes in a net, each on being empty and acquiring meaning only through the strings which separate it from the neighboring holes. Although he states that meaning is relational, the relationality is determined by opposition and formal differences that separate it from others. Further, in Koskenniemi’s account, meaning is discursive and ‘constituted by a conceptual opposition,’ the result of conflicting concepts and arguments. Any shift in meaning take place on a conceptual universe open for contestation (Koskenniemi 2015, pp. 8–9; 2021, p. 9).

  28. ‘It [fascism] is desire turned against itself’ (Massumi 1999, p. 116).

  29. Dan Milmo. ‘Rohingya sue Facebook for £150bn over Myanmar genocide,’ The Guardian, Dec 6, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/dec/06/rohingya-sue-facebook-myanmar-genocide-us-uk-legal-action-social-media-violence.

  30. Gehorchen! Herrschen!—ungeheuere, schwindlichte Kluft... Gehorchen und Herrschen!—Sein oder Nichtsein’ (Schiller 1988, pp. 381–382).

  31. For a detailed account of Barad’s notion of agential cut see Barad (2007).

  32. https://thenewinquiry.com/a-cryptoeconomy-of-affect/ and https://3ecologies.org/3e-process-seed-bank/.

  33. https://lo-ph.agency see also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jFAvO-12XQ.

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Acknowledgements

Thought is collaborative. Many thanks to Zulaikha Ayub for reading and thinking through each stage of this paper; to Dimitri Van der Meerssche (who deserves special thanks for making this issue possible), Andrea Leiter (without whom thinking would be a total eclipse of the heart), Marie-Cathrine Petersmann, and Geoff Gordon for thinking together about indeterminacy in Brindisi; to Nofar Sheffi and her relentless loyalty to precision; to the Logische Phantasie Lab (LoPh) which demonstrates what theory can do, to Raviv Ganchrow for sparking thoughts and sounding capacitant sites, to the ‘International Law and Tech’ reading group assembled by Andrea Leiter, in this context especially also Gavin Sullivan and Isabel Feichtner, and the ‘Digital Legalities’ reading group with Fleur Johns, organized by Gregor Noll and Matilda Arvidsson; to Christine Marizzi and Yael Plitmann who invited me to present the paper to the ASciNA community and the Berkeley law reading group respectively; to Massimiliano Tomba for organizing a seminar session around the paper at UC Santa Cruz, and to the participants who generously offered comments; to Brendan Rogers and the Boston connections, to Peter Goodrich, Patricia J. Williams, Judith Butler, Stefan Helmreich, James Martel, Marianne Constable, David Kazanjian, and Karen Barad for reading, commenting, and sharing. Thank you, Dejan Ivković.

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Gandorfer, D. Down and Dirty in the Field of Play: Startup Societies, Cryptostatecraft, and Critical Complicity. Law Critique 33, 355–377 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10978-022-09327-0

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