The Bitcoin Bull
You have probably heard that Bitcoin is the new gold. But we can do better than that. I say Bitcoin is the new Bull. Crypto is the new cattle.
Why cattle? Because cattle were the primary form of wealth for people who practiced nomadic pastoralism. A large part of human history is based on the conflict between two groups of people: sedentary farmers and nomadic pastoralists.
Crypto is the new cattle because it offers a return to the ancient ways of the nomadic pastoralists. The crypto economy can be the foundation of neo-pastoralism. It promises freedom from the great hierarchies of our day. More about that later, but first let’s go back in history.
The division of people into farmers and pastoralists is, of course, a vast oversimplification. But let me oversimplify for a moment. In history class we learn that the rise of humanity began with the advent of agriculture in the fertile crescent. This led the the rise of great civilizations based in Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Eventually the British Empire inherited this legacy and passed it on to America. And it all started when people began farming in the fertile crescent.
However, there is another side to the story. As historian James Scott argues in his book Against the Grain, agriculture also brought subjugation, disease, and malnutrition. But most importantly for the purpose of our discussion here, agriculture brought hierarchy.
According to Scott, the main driver of early states was tax collection. And agriculture (especially grain) is relatively easy to tax.
The key to the nexus between grains and states lies…in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.’
Taxes lead to the development of great hierarchies dedicated to making sure people pay taxes, and protecting the taxes after they are collected. They also made sure that the farmers didn’t escape. Today we still enjoy this hierarchical legacy, living and working in great bureaucratic mazes that owe their existence to the earliest civilizations of the fertile crescent.
On the other hand, we have the barbarians. The key to pastoral culture is that everything revolved around taking care of herds instead of tending to land. Pastoralists are harder to subjugate because they can just up and move along with their cattle. If you put your work into the land, you can’t go very far. If your investments can graze on naturally occuring grasses pretty much anywhere, you can move much more freely.
The important thing to note is that the manner of producing wealth (food, mostly) had wide-ranging impacts on different cultures. Pastoral societies tended to be composed of small patrilineal units (say, 50–200 people) that could come together quickly when needed. Their nations tended to look more like hordes rather than the regimented hierarchies of “civilized” states.
Throughout history, pastoral nomads from the steppe have periodically banded together in great empires that launched terrible wars of conquest. Names like Attilla the Hun and Genghis Khan of the Mongols live on in the collective imagination.
For more about ancient pastoral cultures, see here. One thesis discussed in the paper is that pastoralism may have developed as a direct result of people seeking to avoid subjugation:
By abandoning or deemphasizing crops, pastoralists could move with their animals when the prince’s army marched, use the mobility of chariots and later riding animals to harass the army, and move back when the army got tired. By discovering the fundamental tactical advantages of movement, concentration, surprise, and offensive violence, pastoralists could defend themselves from numerically and technically superior armies of states
The crypto economy is the modern steppe. It is based around a more mobile form of wealth. It is hard for hierarchical organizations to control. It is subject to periodic flash mobs. It has a culture of raiding.
If the “Wild West” nature of the crypto economy persists for long, it could enable a new culture to emerge: neo-pastoralism. It might not take too long, and may already be under way. Remember, whole societies in North America were transformed into nomadic warriors in as little as 10–20 years after the introduction of horses.
So what might such a culture look like? Like their ancient ancestors, neo-pastoralists might organize into small, independent bands that eschew subjugation by hierarchical society. They will avoid investing in fixed assets like real estate. They won’t stay in one place or in one job for long. We might even see a re-emergence of hyper-masculinity (or something like it) among neo-pastoralists people.
Despite living and working in smaller groups, Neo-pastoralists will be connected to vast networks and at times, these networks will come together in great mobs to achieve their goals (for better or worse). And yes, we will see great displays of intelligence and bravery in the form of engineering marvels as well as marvels of hacking, rug-pulls and ponzi schemes. But that is life on the new steppe.