Daily reports in financial news and mainstream media show the extent to which financial institutions and regulatory agencies like central banks are fascinated and puzzled by the seemingly sudden emergence of crypto currencies. Of these currencies, Bitcoin has attracted the most attention. Prominent skeptics, such as former United States Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, warn that Bitcoin is susceptible to a speculative bubble, and has no intrinsic value. Some regulators express concern that such currencies are prone to use for money laundering and funding terrorism, and sometimes question whether crypto currencies constitute legal tender. Bitcoin devotees rather see Bitcoin and its variants as the future of currencies in a world where regulatory agencies and banks can no longer offer security and trust. The world of finance, and possibly the everyday use of money, are therefore experiencing a radical experiment.
These developments beg reconsideration of one the most classic sociological observations about money, namely, that money cannot exist without trust. Furthermore, contemporary, neoliberal realities also raise new questions. How, if at all, can communities of trust emerge in the shadow of the crisis-ridden sovereign state? How, if at all, can money and trust be co-constitutive when the state no longer provides the regulatory environment forming the backdrop to modern money systems? Who are the individuals who are willing to take on the personal risks entailed in trading and mining these currencies? Is there a quiet social revolution unfolding, with new social actors emerging mostly from the world of computer programming and with little history of involvement in the finance world, poised to challenge established financial elites? Is the predominantly male composition of digital currency actors a factor in the attempts at creating an alternative community of trust, while leaving women behind just as women are making (small) inroads into established financial professions? And how will states’ and international agencies’ responses to digital currencies affect their viability as a new form of money?
This project emerges from a broader set of questions I am asking about divergent populist movements and disenchantment with contemporary governance.