Cryptocurrencies have always had staying power due to institutional and retail investors as well as its traction as a digital means of exchange. Yet its uncensorable nature, and the potential of having relatively private transactions as well as an alternative to fiat currencies has lent itself well, in theory, to protest movements that are threatened by the use of state force.
In a world being swept by protest, some of that potential is manifesting itself now. At a recent protest for Black Lives Matter, one of the speakers talked about bitcoin as an alternative for the financial systems that had oppressed them for so long. Chinese netizens have used ethereum to make sure that messages that would otherwise be censored in online protest could live as long as possible, secured by a network of coordinating nodes. In Hong Kong, cryptocurrency has helped finance the distribution of supplies to protestors and when protestors sought to switch out from Hong Kong dollars to demonstrate their opposition to the erosion of fundamental rights, some of them thought of bitcoin as an alternative.
Some protests seemed focused on the very ills cryptocurrency first arose in opposition to: an out-of-control and out-of-touch monetary system controlled by the very few and designed to benefit those closest to the halls of power. In Lebanon, a funeral was held for the Lebanese pound, and a branch of the central bank was burned down in Tripoli. Yet, cryptocurrency adoption there is low, and the demand seems to be driven to the USD as a safehaven, not towards cryptocurrencies directly.
Some of this shows the difference between the ideals and where cryptocurrencies are now in practice. Yet, sparks are coming up. Art collectives are using blockchain to protest in the United States. People are mining monero with the intent of providing funds for bail.
This doesn’t just extend to just individuals who are protesting. Organizations such as the Catalonia government were using bitcoin to finance and fund independence referendums. Declared illegal after it was enacted, the Spanish government alleged that the Catalonia movement was using bitcoin to hide its expenses — but it would have made little sense, in any case, to conduct financial transactions with the ledger of trust that constitutes to the Spanish and European financial system that was going to smash the Catalonian referendum.
Catalonia is also a hub for the decentralized web and mesh networks that exist somewhat independent of centralized telecommunications providers. In many ways, technology is now enabling the underlying democratic and political preferences of people even if the fullest extent of their political aspirations are not permitted under the geographic legal boundaries they live in — something that forms the blunt foundation for protests.
As we live in a world where digital transactions and currencies are increasingly being adopted by the state — from China, to the EU, to the United States and around the world — as a more efficient means of exchange, cryptocurrency’s rare ability to hold value outside of the context of centralized monetary authorities (often aligned in policy with their political peers, or in the case of China, subordinated to them) and private banking systems that must stay utterly loyal to the state is starting to show its value.
We’ve seen governments from Iran to Venezuela to China censor the Internet and the free flow of information whenever it was convenient for them, or wherever would best consolidate the power of these respective states. They are likely to do the same with any digital means of exchange directly under their control, and have much more granular control over rewarding and punishing those who deviate from central state ideology.
As a result, protestors and protest movements around the world are starting to put their faith in cryptocurrencies. The uncensorable nature of cryptocurrencies as well as its decentralized peer-to-peer networks might be seen as weaknesses for institutional investors looking at bitcoin as just another portion of their portfolio — but for protestors, these are central strengths of cryptocurrencies not available in any other means of exchange. There are sparks of cryptocurrency activity as protests increase — examples that might shed the light on how cryptocurrency will co-evolve with different protest movements.