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The Infrastructure of Dissent: The Internet, the Blockchain and Life After Roe
Imagining a new digital infrastructure for resistance and organizing against government overreach.
Last week, I wrote about how the blockchain provides a parallel institutional order for those failed by the existing system. I did not, however, imagine how relevant this “infrastructure of resistance” would become to so many Americans last week. Next week I will return to writing about tokens and incentive design, but this week, that feels hollow.
So this week, I want to extend what we talked about last week. I want to focus on how new technology provides scaffolding for digital resistance and organization.
I know this isn’t why you read this newsletter. But as I have written before, blockchain is an inherently political technology. Individual freedom is literally written into its code. Resisting oppression is its core ideology. Building coalitions that can replace corrupt institutions is its central function.
If you’re uncomfortable with politics, you shouldn’t be swimming in blockchain waters. And if you think the only legitimate political use of technology is avoiding taxation– well, I won’t be offended if you unsubscribe.
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The Millennial Mistake
Recently, I heard someone say that millennials and Gen-Zs inhabit two opposite political worlds.
For millennials, our political awakening happened with the Obama years. Between 2008 and 2016, we saw the US elect a Black President, expand health care and legalize gay marriage.
For Gen-Z, their awakening was the election of Donald Trump. Between 2016 and 2020, they saw the US reject its first female Presidential nominee, then roll-back climate protections and reverse protections for women and minorities.
Is it any wonder that millennials are more optimistic than their younger siblings?
But between blind optimism and blind nihilism there is a giant middle ground. Progress is not inevitable, but neither is destruction.
To restore forward momentum, we need the courage to confront two conflicting realities:
Americans are overwhelmingly aligned on moderately progressive values.
American policy still continues to move in a more conservative direction.
By way of example, let's look at two of today’s most controversial issues: abortion and gun control.
A shocking number of Americans (85%!) say that abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances. At the same time, 81% support universal background checks for firearms. 64% support an assault weapon ban. Those are progressive - if modest -positions.
And yet, last week - the SCOTUS struck down a 100 year old gun control law in NY. Then followed that up by striking down a 50 year old precedent protecting the right to an abortion. Congress, for its part, seems incapable of passing popular progressive policies.
How can this be?
Here’s the dirty truth: “silent majorities” don’t rule in American democracy. Engaged coalitions do.
For too long, the mainstream has trusted in their rightness and their popularity to save them. Meanwhile, their opponents organized, planned and won.
As Jason Linkis wrote in the New Republic, conservative minorities won because they have a theory of change that works. The Center and the left, meanwhile, lack both a strategy and a movement that can realize their goals.
To build one, they will need to blend the lessons of activists past with the technologies of the present.
By learning lessons from historical movements, progressives can design proven strategies to win. By leveraging online communities and blockchain-based financial infrastructure, they can move faster than historical movements ever considered possible.
Let's start with some history. After last week, we can all use a fucking drink. So let’s start with the movement that guaranteed your right to one.
In 1919, a dedicated Evangelical movement achieved the passage of the 18th Amendment. Alcohol was now illegal to manufacture or sell in the United States.
77% of Senators approved Prohibition. 69% of the House did too. 75% of the states ratified it within 18 months.
And yet – 15 years later, an equally decisive majority repealed Prohibition. What happened to cause such a pronounced swing?
The Prohibition experiment failed. And it failed embarrassingly quickly. People kept drinking. The government could not enforce the law. There was no massive, professionalized movement for fighting prohibition. There were a thousand speakeasies. There were individuals who drank in their homes. There was a dawning recognition that a motivated minority would never impose its will on a determined majority.
Rather than limiting alcohol, Prohibition demonstrated the impotence of the federal government. It also stimulate a massive blackmarket for alcohol fueled by organized crime.
Within a decade, even advocates of the Temperance movement had to admit that their project had failed. As billionaire and Prohibition advocate John D. Rockefeller wrote a friend:
“When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognised. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”
Herein lies a key lesson. If you want to change a bad policy, demonstrate that it cannot achieve its desired outcome. If you want it to end quickly, show that its costs are too pronounced for the experiment to continue.
Walking the Silk Road to Undermine Restrictions
This weekend, I watched the excellent HBO Documentary The Janes. It recounts the story of the women who risked their lives and their freedom providing illegal abortions in Chicago before Roe. It’s both terrifying and heartening.
It's terrifying because we are once again heading toward a world of black market abortions in much of America. But it's heartening because the “black markets” and “back alleys” of today are far less daunting than the ones of the 1960s.
Many Americans in Red States will still be able to procure safe abortions even after draconian policies in place.
Medication abortions (which require two pills to be taken) are safe and effective up to 10 weeks into pregnancy. Their mortality risk is 1 in 100,000. That's 5x better than Viagra and 18x safer than pregnancy.
As 90% of abortions occur before 12 weeks, medication abortion will continue to be a viable option for almost all Americans. That’s because it has never been easier to find these drugs online. The Austrian based nonprofit Aid Access has long made it easy for Americans in restrictive states to receive medication by mail. A JAMA study found that prior to Texas passing SB8 in 2021, the service was receiving ~11 requests from Texas each day. After the rule went into effect, requests spiked to ~140 per day.
Of course, a major shift from the era of the Janes is the ease of digital surveillance. Many Americans worry that their private internet data will be used against them. But once again -- the internet provides. The original killer use case of Bitcoin, after all, was enabling people to securely buy controlled substances online.
In 2013, the FBI arrested Ross Ulbricht, the founder of Dark Web megamarket “The Silk Road.” I first learned about Bitcoin from friends who used this site in 2011 to purchase LSD online. When they showed me the website – it was hard to believe. The marketplace felt like Amazon – down to robust seller and product reviews. It offered every medication or illicit drug on the planet.
While the Silk Road was shut down, the US Government only succeeded in fragmenting the darknet market, not closing it. Today it would take the typical web user about fifteen minutes to get set up on one of these sites and make their first purchase.
Playbooks that explain how to use these sites securely -- through the use of private browsers like TOR, end-to-end encrypted messaging like Signal, and anonymous financial transactions with cryptocurrency-- are readily available via Google search.
As Prohibition long-ago showed – wherever there is demand, someone will provide supply.
Of course, none of this should be normalized or treated as OK. Forcing citizens to engage with online drug traffickers for health care is insanity. Worse still is that options for the highest-risk pregnancies often require surgical intervention. For these cases, easily available medication is hardly enough. But a network of local abortion funds and an online community of “Aunties” are organizing to support interstate travel for those in need.
Prohibition fell when it was eminently clear that anyone who wanted a drink could still get one. The data on pro-life policies in other countries is remarkably clear that it will achieve the same failure.
But demonstrating the impotence of government overreach is not enough. The internet cannot just be a stopgap for failed institutions. It needs to help us build better ones.
The Non-Violent, Broad Coalition of the Civil Rights Movement
After a century of setbacks, the Civil Rights movement achieved stunning victories in the 1960s.
Martin Luther King and his contemporaries modeled their strategy to overturn segregation on the work of Gandhi in India. Both leaders advocated an aggressive, but non-violent program of resistance to unjust laws. Their goal was to win hearts-and-minds over the long-term.
They achieved this by leveraging King's Six Principles of Nonviolence. That strategy called for movement members to always be peaceful and solicitous in conflict. King understood that every overreaction from segregationists would play to the movement's advantage. Each episode of violence shocked the conscience of moderates and created new allies.
King also argued that potential allies were to be met where they were, not tested for purity. Anyone who expressed interest in the movement should be welcomed, educated, engaged with and inspired to action. There was to be no gatekeeping on who was sufficiently committed to the cause.
That's because Martin Luther King was not interested in showing how virtuous he was. He was interested in winning.
As a result, the Civil Rights movement was not a single organization. It was not just the Southern Christian Leadership Council. It was a constellation of hundreds of organizations that worked together to deliver victories.
These methods got results. In a period of five years, the movement delivered the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
A non-violent disposition toward friends and opponents need not result in moderate wins. The goal of any movement must be to welcome allies, entrench them in the movement and turn them into evangelists. Politics, after all, is a game of persuasion.
Organizing for Perpetual Revolution
While America’s political institutions have many anti-democratic features (looking at you, US Senate and gerrymandered House districts), the reality is that the silent majority has been out organized for a generation.
That needs to change.
Civil Rights Leaders understood the importance of organizing consistent, non-violent pressure. As Michelle Goldberg explained in the NYT yesterday, the Conservative political movement understood this, too.
Conservatives have not built a movement anchored around any single organization. The NRA, for example, is a shell of its former self. It is racked by in-fighting and by corruption. But the gun movement’s power continues to grow. Like Hydra – when you cut off one head, you find three more waiting to join the fight.
How Conservatives have achieved this is instructive. They built a media operation that signals direction via Fox, Christian Media and the NRA. They have used this direction to guide a loose network of aligned organizations that include Churches, gun clubs and industry groups.
Meanwhile progressive causes have been driven by professional nonprofits. But the movement has lacked a consistently broad-based grassroots movement that drives progress.
So how can the Internet help us to fight back?
This past weekend, I’ve been following the growth of a new organization called ChoiceDAO that sprung up Friday after the SCOTUS ruling. The group’s first act is to raise $1M in 26 Days. By itself, that’s not that interesting. Lizzo and Live Nation already donated that same amount. But it’s how they intend to use it that’s more fascinating.
The group is structuring itself as a DAO. This has a few key advantages. First, they were able to stand up a shared wallet controlled by an online group of both friends and strangers within hours. Next, that community is publicly and transparently deciding how to use those funds. The group’s strategy is literally developing in real time in a Discord channel. Anyone can jump into help. I encourage you to check it out.
Now – a community of strangers that have organized online to fund political action might sound like performative chaos. Who, after all, are these online-kids that think they can do it better than the pros?
This weekend, Twitter lit up with denunciations of ChoiceDAO. But the ire of the professional activist class was also directed at women who were offering their homes to the vulnerable as part of a grassroots effort.
This kind of gatekeeping may be understandable – “we were here before they cared and will be after they may leave,” the pros explain – but it’s also counterproductive.
Yes, newcomers should do their homework, but suggesting they “sit down, shut up and defer to the pros” tosses away a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a movement. Many Americans are feeling anger right now. They want to help. But the options on offer – donate money to a giant organization or perform your rage on social media-- both feel inadequate to the moment.
Yes, grassroots efforts are inherently less efficient than donations to large, professional organizations. But efficiency isn’t the goal. Engagement is.
The only way to build a political movement is to engage allies, train advocates and help them to spread the word. This was the guiding insight of Dr. King’s Civil Rights movement. It's how they built a constellation of student groups, faith groups, nonprofits, labor groups and volunteers – that shared a vision of a better America.
DAOs, in particular, also add something new to the equation. Historically, only non-profits could pool resources to maximize impact. Setting up new organizations with trustable bank accounts was an arduous process. So new organizations were rare. Collective action was hard to coordinate.
But DAOs shift this balance. They enable groups of friends – or even strangers on the internet – to pool their resources to achieve real world outcomes. It allows them to do this without the headaches of setting up a company bank account or nonprofit foundation. Groups that trust each other – because of existing relationships or reputation – can launch action funds in minutes.
A quick look into ChoiceDAO highlights the possibilities for these new movements. The group is sponsoring Town Halls to engage with experts around how to best deploy their funds. They are surfacing local small abortion funds that could use support. They are bringing together technical talent that can build tools for small nonprofits.
DAOs like ChoiceDAO enable activism to spread at the speed of memes. They will also enable group chats to become a central fixture of organizing. Imagine that every group of friends that messaged about the Dobbs decision could create a shared account to raise money and decide collectively how to deploy it.
Those chat groups would engage and research and ultimately mobilize. They will ensure that our political movements become embedded features of our social lives.
The Right has long understood this as a path to power. It’s why Churches are so incredibly effective at mobilizing political movements. As Michelle Goldberg wrote in that same piece:
“In “The Making of Pro-Life Activists,” the sociologist Ziad W. Munson found that many activists had been ambivalent about abortion, or even pro-choice, before being invited to a rally or meeting. The movement welcomed them, and the experience of activism converted them. “
For students, for young adults and other members of the mainstream “silent majority” this mobilization would be revolutionary. It could make activism as simple as engaging with your friends on a chat thread. That’s how you build a movement in the internet age.
The revolution is messaging you. Don’t leave it on read.