It’s not unusual to see well-known Bitcoin promoters like Udi Wertheimer holding public arguments with peers about how they’re evangelizing Bitcoin. According to Wertheimer, some Bitcoin maximalists are going too far when they label all other cryptocurrencies “scams.” Wertheimer is not exactly a multi-coin slinger. It’s worth noting that he coined the term “have fun staying poor,” a phrase to be deployed with comedic viciousness against people who don’t hold Bitcoin.
As Bitcoin boosters themselves descend into in-fighting, one longtime observer of the space thinks something more significant is going on. We’re seeing a cultural cleavage between “Bitcoin maximalists” on one hand and, well, everyone else in crypto, on the other, according to Paul Dylan-Ennis, a lecturer at the College of Business at University College Dublin. This cultural split could determine the future of Bitcoin: whether it embraces change or turns its back on it.
“There’s this idea in academia that there are two cultures: the sciences and the humanities. Bitcoin sees themselves as the hard nosed sciences, and then you have the softer qualitative side with Web3,” Dylan-Ennis says.
In Dylan-Ennis’ reading, all cryptocurrencies were once subcultures under a larger umbrella of meta-culture. They had similar foundational premises and beliefs, such as an interest in decentralization and cryptography. “Bitcoin was a privileged subculture within this meta-culture, but one of many, including Ethereum, Monero, and so on,” he says.
It’s useful to interpret crypto through a cultural lens, Dylan-Ennis says, to understand why users of some coins reject certain ideas over others. For instance, Bitcoiners won’t drop proof-of-work mining even though it consumes vast amounts of electricity because of a cultural resistance to the alternative, proof-of-stake, which relies on holding large quantities of coins to secure the network.
The immaculate conception
It might be useful to start with a sketch of a Bitcoin maximalist, or “maxi.” A Bitcoin maxi is someone who promoted Bitcoin to the exclusion of all other cryptocurrencies. There are long held technical and economic reasons for Bitcoin maximalism. For instance, a hard limit on Bitcoin’s supply is written in its code — only 21 million Bitcoin will ever exist — which means that it’s a form of commodity money like gold. This is unlike other coins, like Ethereum, where total supply is not fixed.
The image of the Bitcoin maxi has been someone who is pragmatic. They choose Bitcoin because it’s objectively the best form of money, or so the argument goes. But Dylan-Ennis’ recent research suggests that there is a new dimension to maximalism: a moral one.
Dylan-Ennis has been tracking conversations among Bitcoiners of late on Twitter and elsewhere, and he sees a new take emerging. “It’s not purely an economic thing, it’s a political and moral position,” he says. “Bitcoin is uniquely situated to fight the state … and it’s different from other forms of crypto.”
Among the features of Bitcoin that a maxi might valorize, according to Dylan-Ennis: its “immaculate conception,” where Bitcoin was launched without preferential investment terms to venture capitalists, or special allocations for developers or miners. And then there’s the self abnegation of its creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, creating an “absent hero figure.”
The maximalist position comes into sharp relief when Bitcoiners talk about Ethereum, Dylan-Ennis says. “[There is] this hardcore disdain for Ethereum in particular. When Bitcoiners talk about “crypto,” they really mean Ethereum. The failure of Ethereum is that it fails to meet these [Bitcoiners’] moral standards. It’s not about technical stuff.”
The roots of the conflict
Dylan-Ennis traces the roots of this new moralistic position to a conflict among warring factions of Bitcoiners that took place from 2014 to 2017. This is known as the “blocksize wars.” One side wanted to increase Bitcoin’s transaction capacity by increasing the size of its transaction bundles, the blocks that make up a blockchain. The other side wanted to retain Bitcoin’s blocksize limit.
The blocksize conflict came to a head in 2017 when the Bitcoin blockchain forked, or split, creating an offshoot called Bitcoin Cash. The new offshoot offered bigger blocks while the old chain retained its limits. The small blockers had won.
“Prior to the Bitcoin civil war, there was a pretty united front … people had conflicts and there were all kinds of dramas, but people were broadly united around the message, which was the cash kind of view, and the underlying gold bonus,” Dylan-Ennis says.
But after the conflict was settled, the small blockers felt their extreme positions during the campaigning was justified. “By taking the extreme position, they had eliminated a threat to Bitcoin,” Dylan-Ennis says. This position by the victorious small blockers has persisted to this day, where myriad targets are framed as existential threats to Bitcoin, such as the existence of other cryptocurrencies. “They’re still on a war footing, and now the target is the entire crypto economy, except themselves,” he says.
The tyranny of structurelessness
What does it matter, anyway, if Bitcoiners choose to see themselves as in conflict with everyone else? For Dylan-Ennis, it’s a position that is increasingly deciding the future of the original cryptocurrency. “If you become this more dogmatic culture that looks at everyone as scammers, or not as moral as you, you lag behind,” he says. “You don’t really know what’s going on in the world.”
An example is the hottest area of cryptocurrency and finance today, DeFi. Bitcoiners barely talk about them — relying instead on dated examples of Ethereum’s perceived problems from years ago, such as the failure of the DAO in 2016. Ironically, the ideas behind DeFi are precisely the sorts of things Bitcoiners should be embracing, since it’s an expression of the peer-to-peer ethos behind all cryptocurrencies. “But there is a barrier,” Dylan-Ennis says. “If you build this barrier that says everything on Ethereum is scams, you will struggle to import ideas like DeFi on Bitcoin.”
The space for dissent in Bitcoin has narrowed, Dylan-Ennis says. “There are no internal critics. Udi and Rizzo are trying to do that, but they are facing an uphill battle. [Bitcoiners] want to be a bonded community so much that there is no way for anyone to whistleblow that something might be wrong.”
Dylan-Ennis draws a comparison to Bitcoin culture today to an unlikely group: radical feminists in the 1960s. Bitcoiners today believe that the technology is “basically done,” and that this was accomplished through a meritocracy. Open-source developers and others volunteered their time to create a perfect form of new money, without the need for hierarchies or centralized control.
In fact, the absence of formal hierarchies may simply indicate invisible structures of control that dictate the flows of power, as the essay ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ by Jo Freeman has suggested. Freeman based her writing on experiences with feminist collectives that eschewed formal structures.
But instead of a flatter distribution of authority, power simply concentrated in less visible ways, Freeman observed. “In these radical feminist spaces, people would defer to unacknowledged leaders.” Dylan-Ennis says. “In Bitcoin, that’s what we have. Their message is so hardened, that if you’re a ‘heretic,’ your voice will be rejected by them.”
As Bitcoin seems to track further away from the rest of crypto, doubling down on a hardline conception of itself, it risks falling into dogma, and ultimately, irrelevance. That would be a devastating outcome for the original cryptocurrency, which has done so much to unleash a new wave of innovation around the future of money.