Bitcoin!

I went to the Fishamble play Guaranteed about the Irish bank bailout tonight. It was a bit strange to be at a play where I not only knew it didn't have a happy ending but the unhappy ending was part of my past, current and future lived reality. I saw it in a community theatre in a suburb of Dublin, and unusually the crowd were equally male and female who mostly seemed around the 50 - 60 age group.

The conversation in the car home, about bubbles, banks, bonds, hedge-funds and liquidity, turned to Bitcoin. I am slightly fascinated by Bitcoin because a friend of mine was given one at a party, so we've been watching its value rise, wondering at what point to cash in this unexpected gift.

For those who are also interested, here are a couple of Bitcoin stories

1. Man buys $27 of bitcoin, forgets about them, finds they're now worth $886k

2. Where can you spend your Bitcoins, a brief guide.

3. Gaming company using customer machines as bitcoin botnet shut down

4. The Bitcoin Bubble and the Future of Currency

5. Live Bitcoin Market data (901.06 dollars!)

6. I bought stuff with Bitcoin

7. BBC report on Bitcoin

8. Pay your university fees with Bitcoin

9. How to mine bitcoin, plus an lovely infographic on how it works

10. Wikipedia on the Silk Road

Even more stories

11. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/nov/27/hard-drive-bitcoin-landfill-site

This one also speaks to the problems of digital preservation.

12. It looks like the succesor to SilkRoad, Sheep Market Place has done a runner with $42million bitcoins. (Friday 29th of November)

13. Bank of America says Bitcoin will maximise at 1,300 dollars (5th December 2013)

14. Dog coin, new currency released, seemly originating on a sub-reddit, its based on an internet meme (very meta) and being traded on a redit community called Dogemarket (16th December 2013)

15. Is it all over? BTC China stop taking chinese yuan deposits as the Chinese government barred financial institutions from using bitcoin, bitcoin value halves over night. Banks of Americas assessment above was based on two assumptions

"Assuming Bitcoin becomes (1) a major player in both e- commerce and money transfer and (2) a significant store of value with a reputation close to silver"...

This step is a blow to assumption 1. (18th December 2013)

16. JP Morgan doesn't like bitcoin. In December they filed a patent for a bitcoin-like online payment system. Though unlike bitcoin it is tied to credit cards (so I presume doesn't allow online transactions). In February the launched a report arguing that Bitcoin was "vastly inferior to fiat currencies".

17. More trouble for bitcoin. A bot is attacking bitcoin exchanges.

Picture: Mining Bitcoin, by Xianfu http://www.openmobilefree.net/?page_id=474

18. Bitcoin comes to The Good Wife (May 2014) http://www.tv.com/shows/the-good-wife/the-deep-web-3026604/

Seeing like a state bis: the failure of the intellectual left

I've written about this issue here before , but some things deserve a second comment. At the moment we have the combination (in Ireland as in several other northern countries) of an economic austerity package, an unpopular government tied to neoliberal economic policies more broadly, an ineffectual mainstream left pledged to the same basic line (whether in or out of government), outbursts of popular anger but nothing much really changing in political terms. So much, so far business as usual.

Or at least, business as usual within the terms that we have now come to accept as normal for these specific countries in the last decade or two. These are not, after all, universal features of life; they are the result of substantial political defeats. There are many reasons for those defeats, and it would be overestimating the power of Ideas of the official, hold-a-conference-to-talk-about-it kind to ascribe them mostly to the intellectual left. But insofar as left intellectuals hold that our activity is significant, try to convince others of its significance and believe that what we are doing matters, it isn't unreasonable to ask on occasion "is it so?" And, "if it matters, does it matter in a positive way?"

One of the most obvious results of the takeover of left organisations by the intellectual - or at least university-oriented - left in recent decades has been a drift to the right, to insertion within the establishment (usually justified with the claim to being critical in some obscure way) and to a shift in class power within those organisations. This is - in part - the story of the once-great Italian Communist Party, the once-significant Workers' Party in Ireland, and more than a few other organisations which will probably spring to readers' minds.

I put "university-oriented" rather than "university-educated" there, because IMHO the latter is rather less significant. What matters seems to be (a) the desire for intellectual respectability - to be credentialed by "real" intellectuals rather than by fellow activists - and (b) the orientation towards a "public conversation", in other words one carried out on the terrain of universities, the "serious" media, and so on. How conscious this is is another question, but these are the visible effects.

In the past, there was an aspect of this that made sense in the context of parties that aimed towards what could reasonably be thought of as a takeover of power, whether of a revolutionary kind or as the result of the kind of popular movements and electoral landslides that might mark a dramatic shift in power. Such parties aimed to have their own intellectuals, preparing the terrain (and other party members) for the responsibilities associated with this, developing the strategies that might enable a transformative government to actually do some transforming, and so on.

Little of this applies today, but the implied state focus remains. We are treated to endless discussions on the structure of the economy, polemics against the hired journalists and academics who justify the status quo, occasional bursts of enthusiasm for clever ideas proposed or implemented elsewhere. What is lacking, though, is any discussion of the purpose of any of this.

We have just seen twenty years of ecological campaigning put the issue of global warming on the international scientific and political agenda - without bringing about any real change, or even translating to a serious awareness that indefinite growth in production is impossible on a finite planet. More recently, fifteen years of anti-capitalist campaigning has put neo-liberalism squarely in the intellectual firing line - yet it continues unabated, and remains (in a country like Ireland) seen as the only alternative.

Put another way, endless critical argument and analysis has got us nowhere. Even in a crisis, with massive popular anger, nobody is finding those arguments actually motivate them to join movements that might take matters in a different direction. The vast majority of those who have lapped up critical sociology in college will go on to vote at best for parties like the Labour Party, which is already committed to economic austerity.

It may be time to ask whether that kind of intellectual activity serves any real purpose at all.  It certainly has not given us any adequate indication as to what to do on the left in this crisis - if anything, it has served to distract attention from that question and leave unions, community groups and movements open to the first initiative or proposal that comes along, with very little critical discussion. It has not generated a serious alternative public sphere. Even on its own terms - the supposedly critical analysis of the kind of economy, culture, polity or society we now live in - it has been ineffectual at suggesting what the way out might be (while simultaneously being rather good at encouraging structural pessimism and dismissing proposals for action as naive).

The strange thing is that many of its proponents are not just personally sincere and decent individuals, they are also politically engaged - but not politically reflective. A habitual kind of intellectual "business-as-usual" sits very uneasily with a gossipy and anecdotal approach to political practice, which then appears almost as an afterthought within a professional left intellectualism whose parameters are largely taken for granted.

Assuming for the moment that what we are going to see is the eventual collapse of the government and its replacement by one in which Labour plays a substantial role but within an essentially unchanged framework of imposed austerity (perhaps with clientelistic sweetheart deals for particular sections of the union or community movements), this kind of unreflective practice turns out to mean in essence intellectual passivity. On the one hand, the more critical analyses will remain unheard (because they have never seriously posed themselves the question of how they can engage directly with other people's concerns or help to mobilise people around the issues they focus on) and presumably take refuge in ever-more-critical accounts of the universe which have ever-decreasing space for popular agency. On the other hand, those who are allowed to expound their positions in the organisational milieu around Labour (unions, partnership-oriented community groups etc.) will find themselves more and more captured by the institutions: Ireland's new Polly Toynbees.

Is there an alternative? If there is, it is surely one of intellectual good faith: of thinking through the political implications of one's own analysis and asking what it means in terms of agency, rather than separating a day job in critical analysis from evening activism. Or perhaps remaking the critical analysis in light of what one is learning through practice. Gramsci insists on the need to have not just a conception of the world but a line of conduct which is consistent with that. For our left intellectuals, who are often or usually better activists than they are intellectuals (or whose practical intellectual activity is often at odds with their official intellectual activity) the problem may be more to find a vision of the world, and an official intellectual activity, which is consistent with what they and their fellow activists are doing in practice.

The Other Economic Crash and Working Time

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In this blog, I have been noting how the economic crash is affecting working time. National governments have proposed increases in working hours as a way of escaping recessions. These proposals have been either supported (Ireland) or opposed (Denmark) by the unions. Private companies are also drawing on the economic collapse as a rational for increasing working time, and in some cases, such as the transport industry, attempts to alter contracts have resulted in industrial action.  So what about the last great crash – the Great Depression. What were the nature of working time struggles then?  I have been reading an interesting article by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt in the edited collection Work Time and Industrialisation that looks at New Deal and the Shorter-Hour movement.

In the early years of the twentieth centuary working hours in the US declined. Trade union struggles mobilised around calls for shorter hours. Following the economic crash in the 1920s unions threatened ‘universal strike if national 30 hour legislation was not introduced in order to reduce job losses caused by the economic downturn. Businessmen and industrialists also supported the shorter hours calls, albeit demanding that wages be reduced accordingly and that hours were reduced only for a temporary period. In 1932 half of American industry had shortened hours in order to save jobs. By then the “share the work” movement was growing and both Hoover and Roosevelt incorporated “share the work” policies into their political platforms. With Roosevelt’s election, the move was towards a legalisative basis to working hour reductions. A 30 hour bill was drafted and passed its first senate reading. However, whereas business would contance reducing hours voluntarily and on their own terms, they weren’t comfortable with legalisation.  Opposition to the bill began to grow, an opposition that was drew on a new definition of progress, a definition based on “right to work” and a “full-time job”. Ultimately Roosvelt bowed to this pressure.  Kline argues that this commitment to shorter hours was abandoned as Roosevelt and other politicans came to see the free-time produced by these policies as a threat; the policy agenda moved towards increasing employment and working time – and this policy has continued through to the present day. Trade-unions similarily changed their approach to working hours “labor’s call for “the progresive reduction in the hours of work” has been replaced by the more general call for more work and more jobs (1988: 237)

In the Irish context, is interesting to see a similar process for work today. Rather than calling for short hours, some like the INTO executive, recommend their members vote for an agreement that increases working hours. In this trade unions accept a definition of efficiency, drawn from business interests, that see progress and economic recovery as being based on more hours worked. To give a sense of how things have changed, I've added one of my favourite trade union posters to this post. From the Irish Women Worker's Union at the turn of the century, it proclaims "The Irish Women Worker's Union is out for more independence, more leisure and more comfort for the Working Classes". I wish.

Cross, Gary. 1988. Work Time and Industrialization: An International History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Cutright, P. 1986.