Natalie Smolenski is Senior Advisor at the Bitcoin Policy Institute and Executive Director of the Texas Bitcoin Foundation
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine took most of the world by surprise; it shouldn’t have. It is the logical and material result of a war of ideas waged by a small group of Russian intellectuals and political leaders over the past few decades – a war that the West has ignored at its peril. Fortunately, Europe and America already have an answer to this attack at work in the world: Bitcoin. It is in our best interest to embrace the Bitcoin currency network as a new social institution that embodies liberal values in open-source software.
For too long the West has ignored political theory—yes, the political theology – behind Vladimir Putin’s particular brand of Russian nationalism. Putin espouses an ideology elaborated in recent decades by Aleksandr Dugin, a philosopher who argues that the Russian collective identity must assert its supremacy on the world stage in the form of a Greater Russia, which in turn must become the political center of a larger “Eurasian Union”. Dugin’s nationalism stands in stark contrast to what he calls the “Atlantic” project of universal human rights, international law and technological advance. Dugin (and Putin) see NATO as the military embodiment of the Atlantic project, the mere existence of which is hostile to the interests of a Eurasian Union united under the banner of multipolar ethnic, linguistic and cultural conservatism.
Dugin is not the only ethnonationalist philosopher Putin uses to guide state policy. He is also known to publicly quote and recommend reading Ivan Ilyin, the early 20th-century philosopher whom Putin reburied in Russia in 2005. Ilyin predicted that the Soviet Union would eventually fall and he drafted a political blueprint for the new Russian state. He dreamed of a day when Russia would show the world a fascism superior to the failed fascisms of Italy and Germany – a zero-party state characterized by the complete unity of the people with their dictator, in which the absence of the rule of law redefined will mark the nation’s virtue and enduring historical innocence in the face of terrible enemies, including Europe and Ukraine.
Most disturbingly, this philosophy has an apocalyptic dimension: in recent days, Russian state media have openly stated that a “Peace That Does Not Include Russia” (language suggesting NATO agreement to Russian demands) is a world not worth living in (allegedly for anyone). The veil of nuclear annihilation, therefore, hovers over any serious attempt to repel Putin’s imperial expansionism.
It goes without saying that this political eschatology is not a majority opinion among the Russian population, which remains largely excluded from political participation. Yet marginal as that worldview is, it is represented by people of extraordinary power who are reshaping the geopolitical order as we speak.
Perhaps its very extremism has made the Eurasian political project too easy for Western military analysts, scholars, and political theorists to ignore. More broadly, however, Europe and the United States have grown complacent in the face of our own success: after the fall of the Soviet Union, we succumbed to the comforting myth that the world has reached “the end of history,” that Western ideals of free-market capitalism and liberal democracy had simply won.
Today we see that this is expressly not the case. The rise of imperial ambitions in Russia and China makes it clear that capitalism does not require democracy. Furthermore, the pervasive state surveillance by Western governments and interventionist Western central banks has caused the citizens of these countries to question how free our political discourse and markets really are. A growing number of elites in countries around the world are willing to embark on a path of prosperity without freedom, under the growing assumption that these two social goods are in conflict with one another.
Europeans and Americans from all walks of life must respond by reinvigorating the core ideas that lie at the heart of both the European and American projects: the recognition of the individual as the fundamental unit of society and the recognition of the state as subordinate to and derived from his legitimacy of this society. Many of us are already engaged in this revitalization work, doing what we do best: building supranational public infrastructures that standardize these core political ideals. We create digital architectures to do the work of political debate.
In a world of collective identity movements, Bitcoin is perhaps the clearest embodiment of the liberal ideal of individual sovereignty. Bitcoin enshrines individual ownership and action rights at the protocol level, enabling the peer-to-peer transfer of value in much the same way that the Internet enabled the peer-to-peer transfer of information. It is no coincidence that alongside other countries, both Russia and China are making extensive efforts to represent the internet, suppressing its emancipatory potential and either banning or significantly restricting the use of Bitcoin. But information wants to be free. Likewise, possession and the transfer of value want to be free.
The Atlantean civilization project is not simply a Cold War-era military alliance and economic community. At best, it is an institutional reminder that the state serves society, not the other way around, and that the rights of the individual — to property, to speak, to associate — are essential to any thriving society. By elevating the individual, Bitcoin is a critical infrastructure that will help humanity take the next great leap in its progress toward a shared prosperity that is based on, and not opposed to, liberty. Bitcoin achieves this not through kinetic conflicts like open warfare, but through the material power of leaderless open-source code and predictive game-theoretic incentive structures.
Behind the shooting war in Ukraine is a war of ideas that is breaking at the lines of civilization. By embodying values that many European and American leaders forget, Bitcoin reminds us of who we are and sharply contrasts the alternatives. But Bitcoin goes one step further: it demonstrates that individual freedom to trade information and values when stripped of overt cultural content and political affiliation is, indeed a human universal. And this is what makes those fomenting the civilizational war against the West (including those on both the far right and far left of the West itself) most uncomfortable: the existence of human universals that do not adapt to the specifics of place or linked to the culture of origin. It is the great diplomatic task of this generation to help humanity find a common future that honors cultural and civilizational differences without discarding the common humanity that makes those differences possible in the first place.
This is a guest Contribution by Natalie Smolenski. The opinions expressed are solely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc. or Bitcoin Magazine.