Popular philosopher Slavoj Zizek has occasionally spoken up about the emancipatory potential of cryptography in the age of digital control but he is not easily convinced by Bitcoin and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). In a recent RT essay, Zizek argued that it’s naive to believe that digital assets bring freedom.
Zizek placed futuristic technology, including artificial intelligence and brain-machine interface, under Marxist-Hegelian scrutiny before in books such as ‘Hegel in a Wired Brain (2020)’ and ‘Like a Thief in Broad Daylight (2018).’
His 2020 ‘Pandemic!’ also rallies cypherpunks like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden as a key line of defense against state opacity and high-tech manipulation.
Zizek’s latest op-ed, however, is nowhere near the crypto enthusiasm of his Wikileaks allies who have previously used bitcoin to evade financial censorship.
“The best indication of the changes affecting our financial system is the rise of two new interrelated phenomena — Cryptocurrency and NFTs. Both emerged from a libertarian idea to bypass state apparatuses and establish direct communication between concerned parties,” he explains.
He proceeds to give the classic Marxist explanation of ideology that “for the system to function, we have to remain formally free and perceive ourselves as free.” Zizek says that this condition is enabled by bitcoin and NFTs on behalf of the digital control and manipulation that sustains libertarian capitalism.
Continuing his Marxist reproach to digital assets, Zizek argues that NFTs and crypto have no value in themselves but rather represent self-referential exchange value and capitalist speculation.
He also criticizes the mining of bitcoin as a form of exploitative hierarchy and as an ecological burden on the planet.
‘NFTs have no use-value’
Marx famously critiqued commodification as the passing of goods from their use-value to their exchange value. Zizek noted a similarity between the blockchain and how stocks are priced:
“However, one difference is that — at least, in principle — the value of stocks is not purely self-referential, it refers to investments that are expected to generate profit from ‘real’ production.”
What is intriguing in NFTs is the idea of taking a digital asset that anyone can copy and claiming ownership of it. An NFT has almost no use-value (maybe it brings some social prestige to owners), and what sustains it is its potential future exchange-value. It is a copy with a price, an item of purely symbolic ownership that can bring profit.
“The key Hegelian insight here – just as in the case of bitcoin – is that, although bitcoin and NFTs appear as an anomaly, as a pathological deviation of the ‘normal’ functioning of money and commodities, the two effectively actualize a potentiality that is already contained in the very notion of commodity and money,” he argued.
Crypto insider and co-founder of Switzerland-based Castello Coin, Sven Wenzel, responded to Zizek, in an interview with BeInCrypto:
“Zizek’s comments on the environmental impact of Proof-of-Work fining are fair, but many other important technologies are also energy-intensive. Plus, renewable energy sources for mining are becoming increasingly utilized across the industry — just look at El Salvador’s move to mine Bitcoin from its volcanoes,” he said.
Wenzel argued that traditional central bank-backed money can equally be said to lack inherent value whereas bitcoin derives its value from community values.
“As well as being a store of value, bitcoin is a social movement; its value is derived from the community’s belief in the power of a hard, censorship-resistant form of Internet money,” he said.
“NFTs can also be thought of as a cryptocurrency, one that’s been particularly powerful for creators looking to monetize their medium. Thanks to NFTs, digital artists, musicians, and other artists have been able to ascribe value to their work like never before. As we saw, they exploded in popularity last year. The community’s belief in the technology is proof enough that they have value,” added Wenzel.
Crypto lovers seek to own capitalism, not end it
While Zizek’s Marxist intervention hints at the failure of cryptocurrency as a radical alternative to money, it does not offer a different solution to the problems of financial censorship and state authority addressed by Bitcoin and its derivatives.
Zizek’s dismissal of crypto highlights cracks on the digital left and the cultural left. After a century of Marxist sentiment made possible by the very capitalist infrastructure it claims to fight, new romantics and revolutionaries of the left, including crypto enthusiasts and pop supporters of NFTs, perhaps positing that the point is not to end capitalism but to own it.
Adam Jeffcoat, CEO and founder of StudioNX, an NFT-focused project, told BeInCrypto that Zizek’s argument that “crypto is merely a vehicle for speculation is not entirely untrue.”
“As this asset class is still in its nascent stages, early adopters are placing their bets on where they believe the technology could go – often in hopes of striking it rich,” he said, adding:
More than just a speculative asset class, crypto combines philosophy and politics. For its most ardent proponents, it’s a vote against the traditional finance system that’s locked so many out for millenia. Even today, in many countries, the general population is unable to access a bank account. But bitcoin and other assets are completely permissionless – anyone with an Internet connection can participate.
The blockchain has its flaws as a radical alternative to the traditional idea of money and property but its democratic infrastructure is a fair starting point for conscientious progress.