This is the first Christmas our family has ever put up a tree. When I see it, I cringe. The mechanisms of assimilation are hard at work on my diaspora.
Besides the regular dressings of a store-bought tree, a battery-operated poo emoji is tied to a branch as an ornament. Looming over the tree hangs the painting of a sad boy that my parents carried across three continents as refugees. The story of the painting, as my father once so earnestly told me, is that the boy was on his way back from the village well when he dropped his impoverished family’s only water urn. Surrounded by the broken pieces, he sits despondently by the door to his family home, wondering what the fuck he is going to do with himself now.
When I stumble in the door, the last of the family to arrive, I’m still drowsy from the Valium and jet-lagged from twenty-six hours in transit from Melbourne to Springfield, Virginia. My sister gives me a pair of tacky Christmas pyjamas, scowls at my black nail polish and gets me to pose for a photo. Later that night, wide awake and knee-deep in wrapping paper, I find myself at the kitchen table with my night owl of a brother-in-law. We share green tea and home-made roht, an Afghan dessert covered in sesame and poppy seeds, sweet like cake with the smoky aroma of cardamom. He works in tech and eventually our conversation arrives at cryptocurrencies. “Have you invested in Bitcoin yet?” he asks.
I wonder if there is any Bitcoin hidden as a gift for me in the virtual Cloud around the Christmas tree. “Not yet,” I respond. I am always sceptical and a little resistant to the obsessions of tech bros, even the ones in my own family. Perhaps this is foolish; my obscure interests certainly didn’t skyrocket in value over 1000 per cent in 2017 alone.
Over the next few days, the topic of Bitcoin resurfaces during conversations with my family. Upon further investigation, each family member seems to have varying insights into the power and possibilities of Bitcoin. I learn my parents have somehow gathered together enough money to purchase part of a Bitcoin. My mother, who speaks beginners’ level English after almost thirty years in English-speaking countries, has been converted. My six-year-old niece tells me the machines that do the Bitcoin mining live in her garage. The cryptocurrency has galvanised a community that is otherwise well insulated from hot trends in global finance.
“We are seeing one of the largest redistributions of wealth the world has ever seen,” my brother-in-law emphatically tells me later, determined to bring me onside. I find it hard to believe. Surely the surge in Bitcoin’s value benefits only those already clued in to its potential, I think, most of whom are connected, if not by blood than by trade, to wealth, knowledge and technology? Haven’t the rest of us been priced out already?
Of course, my seemingly rhetorical musings have hard and fast conclusions that Google links me to instantly. I learn that in places with crumbling financial infrastructures, Bitcoin is already playing a role in reorganising power. In Venezuela, hyperinflation has skyrocketed the bolívar fuerte up 4000 per cent, making Bitcoin a common alternative by which goods and services are traded with stability. In Afghanistan, where the business contracts of women have historically been torn up on the spot by men in high places, people like Roya Mahboob are spearheading entrepreneurial initiatives to preserve the financial autonomy of Afghan women using Bitcoin. In the case of both countries and many more, it’s the working class who bear the burden of corruption and disorder at the highest levels of government. This is a pattern that neo-liberalism propagates. In this sense, Bitcoin has the potential to undermine the central bank’s monopoly on a state’s monetary base and how easily that money can change hands. The egoism of tech bro rhetoric makes it hard to digest, but if there is truth to this reorganisation, the way we conceive of exchange could change forever.
For many, Bitcoin is so titillatingly threatening because it decentralises power in a way that disrupts traditional market hierarchies. No one owns it, no one has yet been able to hack it and there will only ever be twenty-one million Bitcoins available in the world. There are no headquarters or paid employees. The technology behind it, blockchain, is similarly radical in that it is an open, accessible ledger upon which any number of new currencies can be launched and traded. In practice, cryptocurrencies testify to the possibility of breaking open existing models of capital circulation. If these chains of wealth, which structurally disenfranchise so many, can be broken down, then they can also be rebuilt. Therein lies our hopeful, albeit small, window to re-do inclusivity and equity under capitalism.
Immaterial as it is, Bitcoin’s value stands purely in the virtual. Though its existence can be verified by secure webpages and Reddit forums, Bitcoin will always be a currency of faith, worshipped as the eccentric god of high risk and high return. Its religiosity is partly led by its enigmatic, unidentified creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, who disappeared without a trace soon after the currency first surfaced. With each additional think piece or business review that Bitcoin commands in its proverbial home, the internet, the mythology surrounding it balloons to pseudo-religious proportions. Like all religions, interpretations and levels of engagement differ among followers. It’s likely my parents found their way to Bitcoin simply because they view it as a lucrative investment opportunity. With Trump barking “Merry Christmas!!” from every public TV, the conversion to capital is unsurprising.
Still, I can’t tell whether my own cynicism rests in the implausibility of a currency evading reserve banks and government regulations altogether, or in those who’ve become the unofficial mascots of cryptocurrencies. Many of the tech bros who claim that Bitcoin technology heralds a new revolutionary era fail to acknowledge how race, gender and class have given them unprecedented access to that era. Yet, if it weren’t a big deal, the world’s major banks wouldn’t be doing everything in their power to impede its growth. They wouldn’t have designed their own cryptocurrency, the alt-coin Ripple, to compete with Bitcoin if it wasn’t a danger to some kind of financial hegemony. I say all this, but I still don’t really get it, and I think that’s okay. Maybe it has to do with growing up working class, but investing my emergency rent in something as mysterious and faddish as Bitcoin seems fundamentally unwise. Then again, I guess that’s the same risk aversion that plays right into the hands of existing class divisions. My resistance can probably be boiled down to the same neo-Luddism that keeps renewables out of some agricultural communities; our brains are maps for the transmission of habits and money. The boy in the painting will never be able to mine cryptocurrencies with the shards of his broken urn.
The Christmas tree is now boxed up and stored away. In a few years, new emojis I’ve never even heard of will surely make their way onto its branches, emitting bullish fluorescence into the living room in which I grew up.
This is the third in a seven-part series called 'Levity', published in the Lifted Brow 37. You can purchase a copy here.
Bobuq Sayed is a writer, artist and community organiser of the Afghan diaspora. They co-edit Archer Magazine and they are the founder of the QTPoC activist collective Colour Tongues.