When tales of money fail: the importance of price, trust, and sociality for cryptocurrency users
CSG/SOCIUS - ISEG, University of Lisbon
CSG/SOCIUS - ISEG, University of Lisbon
This paper is based on research among blockchain communities in the Netherlands and online terrains. Through an empirical example, it explores tales produced by projects based on the blockchain protocol and on the premise that cryptocurrencies are money and that money has generative potential for social and economic change. By unpacking the pragmatics of a particular project – Bitnation and Pangea – I argue that despite tales of decentralisation through the moneyness of cryptocurrencies, and the distributed and automated character of the blockchain protocol, these currencies, and projects, are deeply entangled with fiat and mainstream economies and markets. This is visible by looking at the ups and downs of cryptocurrency pricing and on the effects this volatility has on (certain) projects. The lack of a sustainable community of trust in cryptocurrencies as money – particularly visible in initiatives following more libertarian and utopian tales, detached from everyday life realities – and the way these retain attention mainly due to speculation, have very real effects for blockchain based projects. No matter how radical their tales for decentralisation and socioeconomic revolution are, utterances for these tales to become real have to be there, and seem absent.
Cryptocurrencies; monetary multiplicity; digital economies; fiat; speculation
This article explores tales produced by projects based on the blockchain protocol under the premise that cryptocurrencies are money. By focusing on an empirical example – the borderless virtual nation Bitnation and its market for jurisdictions Pangea – I show how, supported by this premise and technology, the initiative projects a moral and ideological apparatus onto digital engineering. Its aim is to create a platform that can fulfil the founders’ aspirations to change particular socio- technical realities – in this case aspiring for the move towards overall digital (and decentralised) libertarian governance through blockchain, as a digital infrastructure for interactions, and through the platform’s token XPAT, as a reputational money.
The choice of the example of Bitnation and Pangea is tied to the source of its tale as the project’s narrative, communicating and reinforcing both its vision and ideological stand and the role of cryptocurrencies and blockchain in it. This tale is a variation of the idea that cryptocurrencies are money, that changing money can transform society, and that blockchain, as an automated distributed ledger, is a technology with the power to provoke radical social, organisational, and economic change by means of decentralisation. The aspiration for organisational, economic, and governance decentralisation through the blockchain distributed protocol appears in this tale as a promise embedded in the narrative: to bypass institutional intermediation and allow for social freedom  (Schneider 2019; Golumbia 2016). There is faith in the potential of blockchain to do so, manifested in a manner that sheds light onto aspects of this technology as an experimental infrastructure. The very idea of decentralisation is fed by the taken-for-grantedness of the blockchain protocol as an enabling infrastructure, and the belief in its capacity to generate and sustain change through cryptocurrencies as monies (Bernards and Campbell-Verduyn 2019, p. 776). But, to what extent are cryptocurrencies really used as money stuff? How do they relate to the wider economic and market landscapes? Are they trusted as money, even considering their price volatility comparing to fiat? What can radical blockchain-based projects, such as Bitnation and Pangea, their tales, and their practices, tell us about these questions?
The narrative of cryptocurrencies and blockchain as ‘game changers’ at the wider social and monetary levels is ubiquitous among blockchain and Bitcoin (the world’s first and most prominent cryptocurrency) enthusiasts and is echoed in the various stories told by the investors and teams building blockchain platforms, in attempts to produce economic and societal changes according to subjective organisational desires (Swartz 2017; Faria 2019; Faustino 2019). As I will show below, there is more to these tales than meets the eye, since they are bounded to the intersection between creating money through cryptocurrencies and mobilising a community that trusts it in a particular global economic conjuncture (Peebles 2011, Nelms et al. 2018). This reveals technologically mediated modes of governance and desired money production that, despite being promoted as revolutionarily decentralised, are entangled with existing power loci and economic and market dynamics – more than literal, decentralisation is a motif of the revolutionary tales of blockchain projects such as Bitnation and Pangea (Schneider 2019).
Based on an analysis of the infrastructure and currency of Bitnation and Pangea and on the project’s behaviour over time – including its relation with the current dominant financialised economy and, more generally, cryptocurrencies’ relation with fiat – I wish to question a particular variation of the transforming money can transform society tale and its connectedness to the making of communities of money users within a context permeated by external socio-economic and market events. I will do so by exploring the kinds of money, valuation imaginaries, and narratives that both underlie and are put forward by Bitnation and Pangea (Carruthers and Babb 1996; Muniesa 2014; Langley and Leyshon 2017). The purpose of this is to understand how such tales relate to practice, and the extent to which this and other projects are permeable, and even dependent on, their entanglement with the dominant economy and monetary system, despite their purported distance – materially and morally – from such universes (Maurer 2003).
Bitnation and Pangea’s tale, as other tales within the blockchain and cryptocurrency landscape, aims to provoke a real effect via blockchain-mediated, socio-technical devices. However, these are rather perlocutionary narratives, in the sense that they are ‘utterances from which effects follow only when certain kinds of other conditions are in place’ (Butler 2010: 148). Despite the projects’ intentions and narratives, there are external and internal conditions that need to be there for such radical propositions to actually materialise. Community building is a crucial aspect for these utterances. However, the rationales underlying Bitnation and Pangea’s tale, together with crypto market dynamics and its relatedness to fiat and speculation, reveal the volatility of digitally bounded communities and the shortcomings of the moneyness of cryptocurrencies as means for the creation of sustainable networks of trust.1
By examining this example, I argue that the kind of tale produced by Bitnation and Pangea, as by other blockchain projects, illustrates particular relationships between current socio-economic contexts – the external conjunctures that these projects wish to exist in – and the moral economies and monetary media they plan and imagine.
Through a critical approach to a blockchain project’s tales and practices, this article aims to con- tribute to current debates about cryptocurrencies and money (Maurer et al. 2013; Golumbia 2016; Dodd 2018) by contrasting money utopias, and ideas about the generative power of money, with the perils and limitations of implementing these ideas in software and in actual exchange processes (Peebles 2011, Butler 2010, Dodd 2014, Schneider 2019; Arjaliès 2020). The latter of which  being, in this case, largely based on the existence of a social community of trust with a common interest that keeps currencies circulating (Ingham 2004; Maurer 2010; Graeber 2011; Bernards and Campbell-Verduyn 2019).
The relations between proposals for alternative monies and economies, their socio-technical infrastructure, and the actual conjunctures they exist in, have implications within and beyond the blockchain and cryptocurrency landscape. They call for a closer look at the social and material configurations of the relation between alternative and mainstream economies and markets, but also reveal the relevance of creating, in a participatory manner, alternatives that people want and are actually involved in.
This article is based on findings stemming from six months of empirical research online and in the Netherlands. The research included ethnographic and netnographic observations and a total of 32 interviews with members of four selected start-up projects, and with representatives of financial institutions or collectives in the Netherlands and Belgium. The fieldwork involved following independent blockchain projects and exploring financial actors’ perceptions, plans, and projects around blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies. For the purpose of this article, only part of the data collected is used – namely data concerning the Bitnation/Pangea project. This ethnographic, netnographic, and interview-based data was complemented by further research on the development of the project in different periods, concerning the ups and downs of the cryptocurrency market. The Bitnation founders were based in the Netherlands at the time of fieldwork. I met them in Amsterdam. Although highly mobile, some team members, including developers collaborating with the project also passed through Amsterdam. Both the founders and collaborators travelled frequently.
The choice of the Netherlands as a research site is related to its openness towards new technologies and to its regulatory configuration (see Faria 2021). In addition to these aspects, the terrain had a lively ‘blockchain scene’, that I identified in an exploratory fieldwork visit, and was a manage- able area to do research independently.
Below I will present the discussions that underlie the working definition of money that I use in this article, which is relevant for the empirical discussion. Before analysing the case of Bitnation and Pangea in two phases of its development, I will briefly introduce wider imaginaries, tales, and discussions around blockchain as a socio-economic infrastructure and cryptocurrencies as money. In the final section, I will discuss the example and draw some conclusions about the relationships between projects proposing crypto-revolutions, community building and trust, and economic and market landscapes influencing project and cryptocurrencies’ behaviour over time.
On money and cryptocurrencies: monetary multiplicity and communities of trust
Thinking about money is no linear process. There are numerous theories, discussions, debates, ambiguities, and disagreements regarding the emergence of money, its functions, pragmatics, and possibilities of its everyday use (Hayek 1976; Simmel 2004; Marx 1976; Ingham 2001, 2004; Weber 2005; Lapavitsas 2003; Zelizer 1997; Graeber 2011). These become more marked if we look at the conceptions and history of money from the perspective of different disciplines, such as, for instance, orthodox economics versus heterodox economics, and in various social sciences such as anthropology, archaeology, and sociology (Ingham 2004; Graeber 2011).
For Bitnation and Pangea, as with other crypto projects, the notion of money and money systems seems to depart from Hayek’s take on the denationalisation of money. The story goes like this: instead of a single currency issued by governments or a politically-bounded central entity in the form of legal tender, private currencies-from businesses and private actors-should be issued according to the private issuers’ standards and operate according to a free market rationale (Hayek 1976; Golumbia 2016). This narrative on the perks of the competition between private monies underlies multiple radical libertarian views about cryptocurrencies. Less radical cryptocurrency projects mobilise other authors’ propositions on monetary multiplicity. Such is the case with Lietaer:  thinking about the current fiat money system, the author argues for a different kind of monetary multiplicity based on more localised complementary currencies, which can work as a means of economic resilience for communities within a wider economic and monetary landscape (Lietaer 1999). Different projects mobilise different ideas, with recourse to notions that fit their ideological standards, thus proposing economic and governance systems designed according to different monetary theories and moral values. While Hayek’s thesis derives from competition, which constitutes the bottom line of the libertarian proposal of Bitnation and Pangea, Lietaer’s idea derives from a notion of cooperation and the improvement of working and economic conditions, which serve as the bottom line for reflections about money in less radically libertarian projects. The notion of communities of trust also differ within these different positionings about alternative, or complementary, currencies: if on the one hand, libertarian views have an individualised and competition-oriented ethos, based on the idea of individual rational choice (Hayek 1976, Golumbia 2016), on the other hand, less radical views – more oriented towards local and/or complementary currencies – emphasise local, or philosophical, cooperation, and community building as crucial elements to establish trust in monetary media (Lie- taer 1999, Maurer 2010, Peebles 2011, Nelms et al. 2018).
In order to analyse the relationship between ideology, narratives, money, community building, and context, I shall think about money at large as a relational abstract system in constant process, that serves as a common matrix to account for value exchange (Ingham 2001, 2004; Dodd 2014), mediating – or redeeming – credit/debt relations across time (Ingham 2004; Graeber 2011). Over- simplifying for the sake of argument, and inspired by Ingham (2004), I consider money at different levels – in conceptual terms, as a social technology – and following a pragmatic approach, in the form of money stuff and currencies.
In very generic terms, money can be defined by its functions as a medium of exchange, a means of payment, a store or standard of value, and a unit of account (Maurer 2010). Money can, for instance, be considered as a commodity, as in the gold standard, or as credit, as in fiat, based on banking and political conventions (Ingham 2004). Areas of exchange may include taxes, markets, ritual exchanges, gifts, and a plethora of other practices (Nelms and Maurer 2014). Although there are further takes on money (Dodd 2014), what I want to emphasise here is that, departing from a conceptual perspective on money, the pragmatics concerned with it, its purposes, and the process of establishing its value vary historically and across the globe. Although monetary practices are very diverse, money always concerns an already established network of people that trust it, or, more accurately, that trust a kind of currency to serve as money (Maurer 2003; Weber 2016). In other words, there is a wide network of people that trusts that it can be used to pay or be paid (Carruthers and Babb 1996; Carruthers and Espeland 1998; Maurer 2006; Maurer et al. 2013; Dodd 2014). As long as everyone accepts a currency, there are many things that can serve as money (Maurer and Swartz 2013), and one single currency can also be man- aged according to various meaning-making, moral, and social rationales (Zelizer 1997).
This monetary multiplicity – in terms of objects, means of registration and payment, and money management and earmarking practices (Dodd 2014; Zelizer 1997) – has been around for a long time in the form of regional means of exchange and international trading circuits, as well as objects that serve specific relational symbolic functions and non-standardised valuation processes (Carruthers and Espeland 1998; Maurer 2006; Graeber 2011; Guyer and Pallaver 2018). It thus includes not only categories of special purpose money (for instance, ritual money such as dowries) and general pur- pose money (for instance, fiat), but also diverse monetary ecologies and repertoires (Maurer 2010). Without compromising the particularity of money in more systemic depictions of it as a means of commensuration, abstraction, and power exertion – as in the Marxist, Simmelian, or Weberian perspectives – monetary multiplicity has never ceased to exist and manifests itself in creative social and relational ways. In this sense, money usage and what is used as a currency are embedded with narratives and practices, entangled with broader power relations, political and moral agendas, and processes of meaning-making in everyday life that connect communities of users and keep currencies, or money stuff, circulating (Zelizer 1997; Carruthers and Espeland 1998; Hart and Ortiz 2014). Cryptocurrencies are no exception to this.
 Cryptocurrencies and blockchain: socio-technical devices in tales to change the world
Cryptocurrencies are part of a distributed accounting software – blockchain – that can be programmed according to particular monetary and economic ideologies and objectives, and is often used and described as an infrastructure carrying within its functioning the means to implement a promise for decentralisation (Schneider 2019; Bernards and Campbell-Verduyn 2019). Roughly a decade after Bitcoin first appeared as a disintermediated stateless currency (Nakamoto 2008), in 2008/2009, and around the time that the blockchain and cryptocurrencies hype – which had driven the value of a single Bitcoin up to US$20,000 – had given way to a quieter ecosystem, there were some 5,460 different tokens listed on coinmarketcap.2 At the time of writing, in June 2021, the price of Bitcoin had risen once again to over US$60,000, in April 2021, and back down to just over US $35,000, in June. Eyes and money are turning back to the cryptocurrencies market, entangled with speculation and rapid volatility. The appearance of Bitcoin, with its revolutionary decentralisation narrative (Nakamoto 2008, Schneider 2019), was followed by the launching of a plethora of other cryptocurrencies, which differ from the original in various ways. These differences range from the blockchain network consensus and the security algorithm applied – which is proof of work in the case of Bitcoin – to the kinds of purposes that the tokens serve in each platform. Just as Bitcoin appeared as an arguably disintermediated3 means of transferring value under a digital metallism format (Maurer et al. 2013), several different tokens have emerged to offer variations on this configuration, as well as their own tailor-made ledgers (blockchains) derived from the Bitcoin protocol and its code.
Today, in keeping with the multiplicity of tokens available, various uses for cryptocurrencies are being proposed. These include but also extend beyond basic money-like appliances and speculative purposes. Blockchain software and cryptotokens can underpin the design and configuration of plat- forms wishing to provide forms of large-scale organisation and data transfer mediated by algorithms (Davidson et al. 2016). The software has also been used, among many other things, to implement local and cooperative currencies (Faustino 2019), universal basic income projects and environmental sustainability incentive schemes. As I will show below, in the case of Bitnation and Pangea, cryptocurrencies appear as yet another variation: as a form of reputational money and in-platform token.
Although we might imagine cryptocurrencies circulating as tokens in a network, they are really bits of information registered on a distributed ledger. They are, in this sense, not very different from other accounting systems (Maurer et al. 2013), except in three ways: the ledger is stored in a net- work of computers (distributed); it is updated through an algorithm (automated); and it is nearly impossible to change (immutable). It is due to these characteristics that cryptocurrencies and the blockchain protocol are used for more complex purposes than other accounting systems. In the case of Bitnation and Pangea, the project’s function as an automated means to coordinate large- scale groups of people and/or entities (such as organisations, machines, objects with internet of things applications, etc.) in the form of a decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO) is particularly relevant. DAOs are networks of people and entities whose interactions are mediated by a blockchain protocol using smart contracts. Launched by the Ethereum platform for the first time (Buterin 2014), these contracts are designed to obviate the need for trust between peers when engaging in more complex interactions than direct payments. The possibilities brought about by the DAO format inspire dreams of materialising a heterogeneous number of market and bureaucratic increments, as well as more idealistic and utopian endeavours (Swartz 2017; Schneider 2019; Arjaliès 2020).
Despite all the technical possibilities of blockchains and cryptocurrencies, a lot of projects exploring the potential of these systems depart from a monetary premise. However, if cryptocurrencies are to work as money, there needs to be generalised interest and trust in them as monetary media. They need legitimisation as a social technology and, so far, it seems that most of the interest  in them derives from speculation. The variety of subjective valuation rationales supporting the design and circulation of cryptocurrencies and, as Weber discusses, the very absence of a link to economic production or tax redemption in their operation, combined with the speculative markets they are part of, make cryptocurrencies fragile as a money technology, especially when trust, or interest, dissipates (Weber 2016). Despite their multiplicity and potential, they seem to lie somewhere between their original narrative, as stateless digital cash on the one side, and their price in relation to fiat on the other. The market bubbles they make play a key role in the fate of some blockchain-based projects, and shed light on trust and mistrust dynamics within crypto communities, and regarding the possible monetary purposes of cryptocurrencies.
Nevertheless, the technology feeds dreams stirred by the making of ‘world changing’ money, and tales related to such dreams that intend to mobilise communities of users. Such is the case with the example presented below.
Bitnation and Pangea: a tale of reputational money for libertarian governance
I turned to anarcho-capitalists. I realised that in all these fields you just talk ... You teach others, you educate and you realise that the government is forcing the taxation. Instead of that, more market freedom would give us more quality in society. But all these philosophic things are not helping anything if you don’t have something active (Bitnation Ambassador. Skype interview 20-01-2017).
Bitnation is a proof of concept4 for a decentralised, borderless, and voluntary nation, and is part of a larger project and platform – Pangea. It constitutes an anarcho-capitalist-inspired market for competitive governance service provision, in the form of a voluntary digital community (to be) where, instead of paying taxes, citizens buy into government services such as identification, land registration, legal and security services, among others (see Tempelhof et al. 2017). The project’s narrative, as explored elsewhere in this special issue (Faustino et al. 2021), is based on the founders’ subjective experiences of working in conflict and poverty-stricken areas, and their take on the problems of nation states, democracy, and violence. Departing from this experience, and from the ideo- logical and moral stakes of the project’s creators, the ideal solution was to design a libertarian utopia. According to the project’s founder, whom I met in Amsterdam, and in a common libertarian narrative – a market-based anarchy – that does not detach itself from the notion of private property, provides the solution to our current nation-state-based governance systems. In a rather immediate manner, the project found its manifesto in the idea that markets are decentralised, and that if they represent fluid networks adaptable to the everyday life management strategies that people employ, then they would also provide the solution to all the problems facing current democratic governance – cryptocurrencies and blockchain would facilitate these markets, mobilised by the decentralisation narratives they support (Schneider 2019).
Governed by this tale, Pangea appears as a DAO proposing a specific moral economy, where money and monetisation play a central role, following the motto of changing money to change society. Inspired by this belief on the generative power of money, the platform establishes a digital jurisdiction governed by a tokenised reputational system in which people interact through smart contracts. In this jurisdiction, anyone can create their own virtual nation with its own constitution, become a citizen of other virtual nations, acquire services online, and contribute to improving the legal codes for smart contracts. I have focused in depth on this project elsewhere (Faria 2019). In this article, I will focus on its cryptocurrency, the Pangea Arbitration Token (XPAT), and its role in the blockchain infrastructure that materialises the project’s tale of decentralised money and libertarian governance.
As with other projects, the idea for XPAT and the Pangea platform stems from cryptocurrencies and blockchain and intends to create the governance model in which the project founders believe. In this model, the distribution of XPATs is based on non-tradable tokens released by smart con- tracts executed every time platform users interact. These tokens, and smart-contracts that release them, are assessed by an in-platform AI named Lucy, which then distributes XPATs according  to the number of good behaviour points the entities have accrued.5 Finally, these XPATs can be used to buy in-platform services or they can be traded on cryptocurrency exchanges.
The tale here endorses competitive libertarian governance through a system whereby people do not have to trust each other, since their interactions are mediated by algorithms perceived as less biased than humans. Cryptocurrencies as money thus serve as a means to realise a project, and as a measure of social control through an incentive-based reputation system established by algorithmically-made evaluations.
If the project’s reputation mechanism resembles China’s pilot scheme for a social credit system (Creemers 2018), then XPATs appear as a form of reputation money, something that, at this point, only existed in the realms of science fiction (Dodd 2014: 381). Although reputational tokens play a role in different blockchain-supported platforms, such as the prediction platform Augur, the role of these tokens in Pangea extends beyond a merely market-based evaluation system to encompass a wide range of smart-contract-based interactions and sorting mechanisms, which govern the Pangea DAO and its social structure. XPATs are not only valued as cryptocurrencies or assets in relation to their price in fiat; they also acquire a particular moral in-platform meaning derived from the ways in which they are produced and distributed (Maurer 2003). The project thus proposes a kind of moral economy in the form of a digital socio-economic terrain inspired by particular ideological values of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and by the possibilities of encoding these onto blockchain and cryptocurrencies: the first as an infrastructure allowing for tailor made digital economic and governance systems within a libertarian DAO, and the second as the reputational money that enables its functioning.
As its mission statement reveals, Pangea and Bitnation have created an ideologically soaked token that, under a libertarian ethos, converts behaviour into a tradable cryptocurrency via digital reputation scores and automated assessment. These tokens act as a measure of a person’s intrinsic value, as assessed by nodes in the DAO network, and, through their market value, they also serve as an incentive for platform use and as a measure of success for the Pangea project itself. In this sense, aside from reproducing and encoding the longstanding libertarian economic and monetary theories that clearly drove the design and editing of the tokens (Hayek 1976, Golumbia 2016), Pangea and Bitnation are also expanding quantified and profit-bounded valuation mechanisms by directly monetising previously unmonetised features of life, such as exemplary user ‘good’ behaviour (Car- ruthers and Espeland 1998; Maurer 2003; Dodd 2014; Muniesa 2014).
As part of its project to change money, Pangea is thus contributing to changing what can be valued by cryptocurrencies as money, and expanding spaces of monetisation and economic action. While trying to obviate trust in interactions within the platform, trust in the XPAT currency outside the platform is a whole other matter. However radical the proposal of Bitnation and Pangea is, the project, as with all others, has to live with what is already there in the world. This is when challenges to its transformational tale, as well as to the idea of cryptocurrencies as a form of world-changing stateless money, appear.
The relevance of markets and price: cryptocurrencies and fiat
Since the fieldwork I carried out in the Netherlands and online in 2016 and 2017, a lot has happened in the cryptocurrency landscape. Back then, many people and organisations were enthusiastically exploring and proposing institutional, market, monetary, organisational, and economic change using cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. Bitcoin evangelists where preaching in various places and there was serious hype around these technologies. Bitcoin prices were also rising, culminating on 16 December 2017 in a high point where one Bitcoin was worth US$19,500. The rise in cryptocurrency prices was generalised and Ether, the currency of the Ethereum platform, rose to US $1,215 by 11 January 2018. Bitcoin prices rose more due to speculative practices connected to its high volatility than because people were using it as currency. Ether rose based both on speculative motives, but also because Ether tokens are required to use the Ethereum blockchain.
 As with any speculative bubble, including the most recent one concerning cryptocurrencies, after reaching a high value in relation to fiat, prices dropped as speculators sold while users (or believers) kept the cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin dropped to US$3,409 on 7 February 2019 and Ether to US$90 on 13 December 2018. While oscillating up and down, cryptocurrency values remained low until March 2020. Since then, the prices of Bitcoin and Ether have reached new all-time highs in April 2021 and dropped again.6
The 2018 and 2019 drops in the price of cryptocurrencies were taken differently by the various actors in the crypto landscape, but a lot of projects took a hit and business in the so-called crypto or blockchain industry slowed down. There was talk about the ‘crypto winter’ and the ‘crypto crash’ in several news channels, as well as about the problems of cryptocurrencies’ volatility, which created more space for them to work as speculative assets than as disintermediated money – the original tale behind the first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin (Faustino et al. 2021). While looking at all these waves, Bit- coin and other cryptocurrencies seem stuck between their particular value propositions and radical proposals, evident in the tales of their creator(s), and the measure of their value in fiat, which attracts many buyers but not necessarily users.
Bitnation and Pangea were affected by the ‘crypto winter’. During the moment of general hype that coincided with the period in which I accompanied the project more closely, Bitnation and Pangea had a growing community of people and collaborators, a structured initial coin offering (ICO)7 in the near future and, overall, a lively project development and communication rhythm. However, this community was more structured as a community of followers of a libertarian ideology ‘made real’ through blockchain, than as a community of people with consolidated ties forming a more sustainable social network. If within the project there was what can be called a community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991) – learning and participating together in the DIY development of the plat- form – the project was characterized by openness and by a fluid collaboration model outside the core team, which was completely open source and open to anyone who wished to help in any task that needed to be completed.
Although less and less revolutionary in its narrative, particularly due to the need to attract investors and to conduct an ICO that complied with the minimum required regulatory standards, the project was gaining traction. Though in 2019 networking events and presentations were still happening, the project progressively faded away, with the wider community of users and the founders less and less active. Collaborators and potential users proved scattered, unbounded, seemingly motivated to create the proposed utopia by a revolutionary tale, but likely also by expectations on the future price of XPATs. The community that remained active was the core team of the project and some engaged believers. The project lost public traction, and the founders’ expectations about a widespread community adoption of the tale and project platform did not become real. The reasons for this may be manifold: from the need to comply with regulatory demands that did not fully fit the project’s narrative, to the lack of financial interest on the project tokens as assets, or even to the unstable community of trust on the Bitnation and Pangea project and on its cryptocurrency.
After a period of scarce communication activity – the project resorts to a large extent to social media and digital work and chat platforms as means of communication, which I kept following over time – the project founders made an announcement online regarding fundamental restructuring plans: Bitnation would become a full DAO, and a ‘friendly fork’ (in the wording of its founders) would be made to ‘separate the movement and the startup into two distinct and independent organisations’.8 The ‘friendly fork’ idea established Nortrix as the startup branch of the Bitnation and Pangea project – a rather centralised one (see Schneider 2019). Its purpose is to be another service provider of blockchain and automated governance organisational models. Despite these restructuring efforts, the project nevertheless seems to be gaining little traction on both ends: on what the founders call the ‘movement’ – the Bitnation DAO – and the new startup – Nortrix.
At a certain point in its trajectory, a tension arose between the revolutionary libertarian proposal and the need to operate in the ‘real economy’ where startup status would be required (Faria 2019). The clear need for investment and capital – not gathered in the project’s ICO, which the so-called  ‘crypto winter’ and other internal project changes had left hanging – generated the conditions for the creation of the startup project branch, but also led to the project fading away. Cryptocurrency prices in relation to fiat fell, and while devaluation hit the more widespread currencies such as Bit- coin and Ether, the smaller cryptocurrencies, such as the XPAT token, suffered even more, never having reached a significant number of buyers and thus compromising investment in the project.
These events shed light on the tensions between dominant economic and market trends and cryptocurrency and blockchain projects. In this context, and as ‘winter came’, a community that was apparently ideologically-bound to Bitnation and Pangea became less and less active. Could it be that the potential followers of Pangea’s proposal, and the project itself, became overpowered by the lack of attractiveness of the platform’s token, and the lack of attractiveness of a post-speculative-bubble cryptocurrency market? Or can it be that cryptocurrencies are not trusted as money overall? Even though there are projects with different narratives that have kept functioning, also during the crypto winter, the case of Bitnation and Pangea reflects the incongruencies of some of the more radical blockchain tales. The external conditions needed for the project’s perlocutionary utterances to become real were not met in due time (Butler 2010). The community faded away as the highly volatile crypto market stopped growing.
If it is true that, within some crypto projects, there is a belief in the power of cryptocurrencies as money to change society and create alternative economic and governance spaces, then, as happens with financial markets, the volatility of cryptocurrency pricing may create some obstacles: the gross movement in crypto markets appears to be rather more connected to speculation with cryptocurrencies than to other uses of the technology. While trying to create alternative ways to organise society, projects are based in an incredibly unstable speculative market that may cyclically create incredibly rapid success, or likewise might hinder development with equally rapid effect.
The first years of the project took place during a period of high curiosity and widespread experimentation in blockchain development and cryptocurrency use, both by mainstream financial institutions and communities seeking alternatives to mainstream finance, governance, and payments. However, and although the material and external conditions for its materialisation seemed to be there in theory at the time, they were absent after all, and the perlocutionary narrative of Bitnation and Pangea, of creating a libertarian market utopia by monetising everyday life, did not come to fruition as expected by its founders.
Tales of money and change: the importance of trust and price
Supported by the idea of cryptocurrencies as money and by the aspiration that they would be accepted as such, particular tales and narratives about changing society through changing money appeared, attributing generative powers for societal transformation to monetary media. Bitnation and Pangea are supported by a variation of such narratives.
Looking at this case and its desired reputational money, it is possible to see that cryptocurrencies embody some peculiarities. If they serve to mark particular moral and ideological groups and economies (Zelizer 1997; Carruthers and Espeland 1998), and expand quantified valuation processes and sorting mechanisms as in platform tokens (Maurer 2010; Faria 2019; Muniesa 2014), they still correspond to fiat as a general equivalent (Maurer 2003). This fuels current dynamics where, outside communities of practice trying to implement governance and monetary utopias on the blockchain protocol (Lave and Wenger 1991, Dodd 2014; Arjaliès 2020), cryptocurrencies seem to operate more as easy-to-trade, highly volatile assets than as a form of trusted circulating currency. In this sense, however distanced they wish to be from the dominant economy and politics, the tales spread and encoded by some cryptocurrency projects are persistently entangled with them: there are relocated power dynamics in the relations between fiat, global economic landscapes, and cryptocurrencies that reveal how the motif of decentralisation is permeated by multiple tensions and dependencies between mainstream economic and market dynamics and projects’ ‘monies’ to be (Schneider 2019).
 If money can serve to strengthen community ties (Maurer 2010), Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are not accepted or trusted as money outside very particular circles (Weber 2016; Arjaliès 2020). Indeed, despite the radical proposals to change the world based on cryptocurrencies as monies, the social and political ties needed for such transforming endeavours are nonetheless the same as the ones binding communities of users of other currencies: social need or demand; social relations that are already there or are forming; trust; and/or the dynamics of power structures embedded in a currency’s widespread use (Ingham 2001; Maurer 2006, 2010; Peebles 2011, Weber 2016).
These entanglements between proposed and mainstream economies, and the conditions of money to exist as a social technology affect blockchain projects no matter how radical their tales are. They shed light on the perks and perils of perlocutionary utterances (Butler 2010), based on tales of changing society through the generative power of changing – and decentralising – money (Schneider 2019), but also on the fluid boundaries between formal and alternative finance, two areas that are often approached separately but are in fact interwoven in practice.
Bitnation and Pangea appear to have been caught in such fluid boundaries, shedding light on how the immanent power structures and practices of the financialised capitalist economy permeate the pragmatic everyday life of organisations that wish to bypass or transform it. When used as complementary or community currencies – based on trust – cryptocurrencies may have design and organisational logics that, albeit with some difficulties, try to cope with market fluctuations and promote circulation. Unlike these cases, anarcho-capitalist projects like Bitnation and Pangea – based on a tale of technological obviation of trust – obeying a hyper-liberalised market logic with a more competitive and less cooperative ethos, seem prone to be widely affected by cryptocurrency markets’ volatility.
In such volatile markets where prices in relation to fiat vary widely, having crashed after a hype, neither did Bitnation and Pangea’s libertarian tale fully correspond to the desires of followers strongly enough to keep them together as platform and token creators and users, nor did its cryptocurrency become attractive enough to draw buyers in to finance the project.
The utopia and money tale failed to respond to the actual world and to consolidate a stable com- munity. Blockchain and algorithms seem to need more – as infrastructures – to materialise tales of decentralisation (Schneider 2019; Bernards and Campbell-Verduyn 2019). Creating communities of trust and social ties, as well as responding to existing social needs, are important features of pro- jects in order to sustain socio-technical networks that exist beyond money and markets, independently of situated failures and crises. If communities of use and money management transcend market logics, projects may become more resilient (Peebles 2011; Maurer 2010). Used as a social technology within a community that trusts it, as different currencies are, a cryptocurrency could constitute a money technology – there are interesting cooperative efforts being developed in this direction (Nelms et al. 2018; see Faustino et al. 2021; Lopes 2021 in this special issue).
If money, as well as tales, are social technologies sustained by relational networks (Ingham 2004; Graeber 2011), the narratives supporting Bitnation and Pangea, rather than sustained by economic, exchange, governance, and relational needs, are trying to provoke economic, exchange, and relational transformations without a consistent community that wants those changes in place (Butler 2010; Muniesa 2014; Schneider 2019). This is an endeavour that can prove difficult. The conditions for such goals are not always present, neither in terms of social necessities nor in terms of economic dynamics.
Even if the tale of changing society by changing money prevails, projects would do better to use technology to respond to social, monetary, or relational and management needs that are already present. They should create their tales, money, or currencies from, or with, society, and not the other way around.
For reflections on conditions of success and unsuccess of other monetary and community building endeavours see, for instance, Peebles 1991, about the case of the Euro and the case of the Øresund Region. 
Coinmarketcap is a website dedicated to listing cryptocurrencies, their price oscillations, and market capitalisation. See: https://coinmarketcap.com/ [Accessed 12 February 2021].
A software can be considered an intermediary, with its own bias and stakes, as programmed by the creators. In this case, a proof of concept reflects a pilot software program designed to prove that what a project proposes to do – its concept – is feasible.
The system has more complexity than the details described here, please see Tempelhof et al. 2017 for more detail.
See https://coinmarketcap.com/ [Accessed 14 June 2021]
Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) are platform token pre-sales used as a sort of equity-based means of decentralised funding, or crowdsale, in some ways similar to Initial Public Offerings (IPOs).
See: https://www.facebook.com/MyBitnation [last accessed 23 June 2021].
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s). Funding
This work was supported by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia [Grant number PTDC/IVC-ANT/4520/2014, UID/SOC/04521/2019].
Notes on contributors
Inês Faria is a researcher at the CSG/SOCIUS - ISEG, University of Lisbon. She has a PhD in Medical Anthropology from the University of Amsterdam, focusing on reproductive health and reproductive technologies. Since 2016 she has been developing research about ‘alternative’ and mainstream financial uses of blockchain technology, she was involved in the project Finance Beyond Fact and Fiction that explored financial changes and continuities in Europe after the 2008 crisis. Currently, she continues working about the relations between technology and society regarding the areas of finance, but also of healthcare, respectively in European and sub-Saharan African contexts.
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