God, Sovereignty and Silver: Clipped Coins and Bitcoins

There has always been a curious co-mixture of god, sovereignty and money. God and sovereignty are both characterised by an ontological gap – God being something like the hole in the ozone layer for religion, sovereignty being characterised by the void it must cover over with self-legitimising violence – and historically god has relied on earthy sovereigns who have in turn drawn justification from the bearded man in the sky. Following Sohn-Rethel’s argument, we can also see how the ability to concieve of a monotheistic and universal God was made possible by generalised market exchange. To be thought at all, a universal God required the universal equivalent – money.


So it was that in a period of transition, presided over by Locke and others,  that heresy or other sins against religion lost their potency and became no longer things you could hang for. Covering yourself in goat’s blood and chanting ‘Satan, Satan’ in the town square posed little threat to civil society. The period was, however, one of a different type of crisis. Silver coins were supposed to carry an amount of silver equivalent in value to their monetary value. The crisis issued from the fact that people were clipping the coins, using the shavings as new currency, whilst the original coin retained its pre-ordained value, although now of course being made of less silver.

Coin in various states of clipping left to right

For Locke this was no small matter. There were issues of international trade at stake, whereby foreign countries cared little for the regal seal and were only interested in the weight of silver. On the international market, a clipped coin was worth less. Yet the primary threat for Locke was domestic. Sovereignty was characterised primarily by the ability to kill people towards the end of protecting private property. There was a direct relation between sovereign power and the ability to issue and guarantee currency. The clipping of coins and the exchange of degraded coins, was at the same time a devaluing of sovereignty. For Locke, the clipping of coins amounted to nothing short of treason, and as such deserved the death penalty. Locke moved quickly to put his friend Isaac Newton in charge of the royal mint, and Newton spent 50 days a year trying people for treasonous coin clipping. It seems as if it was not only these Whig backroom boys who understood the relationship between coin clipping and the erosion of sovereignty. The shears used by coin clippers became something of a revolutionary image, throughout the period. And anti-clipping detection squads were regularly chased out of places in London by the occupants.

Perhaps the preeminent threat posed by clipping, for Locke, was epistemological. If the true standard – ie amount of silver = value of coin – was rendered unsound, then this, by the general circulation of debased coins, gave way to a debasement of Truth itself. Sohn-Rethel is again not far away here. If the very categories through which we think are forged in the market, then what happens  when there is a deterioration of the standard within exchange. Postitivism starts to look a bit rough around the edges. I could, perhaps, somewhat tenuously go on to explain post-modernism by the de-linking from the gold-satandard and the exponential increase in the complexity of the fictions of ‘financial products’. I want instead to turn to a present day example of sovereignty corroding coin clipping.


Bit coins are of course much more above board than the conspitorial and darkened dens of coin clippers. Buying bitcoins from Mt. Gox feels about as underground as completing a transaction with PayPal. Berlin has bitcoin vending machines that you can use in local bars and restaurants. Of course it fucking does. Yet this isn’t the whole story. Bitcoin provides anonymity and is free from ties to any particular state, its sovereignty being algorithmically enabled and dispersed amongst its holders. Used in conjunction with Tor, a browser that enables anonymous browsing of the deep web, bitcoins provide an anonymous currency for transactions between users. One of the most publicised and, frankly useful, uses has been the ability to by drugs, from pharmaceuticals to psychoactive’s that send you flying down kaleidoscopic rabbit holes for several days at a time*, via an emporium called Silk Road. There is a proximity i think between the coin clippers of yore and the digital dealers and anarcho-encryptors that shouldn’t be dismissed as fleeting fad. Now that people are less inclined to proclaim the sunset of the nation, the power to issue and control currency remains one of the foremost tools and performances of sovereignty. For this power to drop below the states radar and into the hands of the people will undoubtedly soon become intolerable to those in in power. If Bitcoins have been left alone for now it is because the currency has a relatively small limit built in – there can only ever be 21 million Bitcoins. Bitcoins are an experiment and was never meant to become a generalised currency.

Like Locke, and the apoplectic haemorrhaged haemorrhoid caused him by the clippers of coins, we will soon see reaction from the those that seek to preserve the monopoly on violence and the license to print money. Thailand has already made moves to ban bitcoins although it not clear how they will enforce them given the anonymity they provide. More worryingly, is a raid made recently in Ireland. The forces of reacton seem to have a near perfect ideological flag to wave as they bring bitcoins fully under the state’s spotlight. Due to the anonymity provided by the deep web, beyond those for whom anonymity is the difference between life and death, and the more prosaic wish buying and selling of drugs from the comfort of their own home, it has also provided a safe haven for paedos, and whatever it is they get up to online. The US, no believer in borders other than their own, recently led a raid in Dublin shutting down one of the largest hosting platforms of the Tor network. By all accounts the website hosted a large proportion of the internets child pornography. Good riddance to the shitbags that host and distribute this stuff, no doubt. Yet involved in the attack was a piece of FBI malware that infected anyone with Java enabled that visited any of the hosts shutdown sites. Many of these had nothing whatsoever to do with illegal images, and there is no way for most users to know what else was being hosted on servers they used. The malware effectively sent ip addresses of users back to the FBI, in short, rendering the deep web about as anonymous as having your home address on your key ring. The legality of all this stuff is up for grabs, and of course connects to the NSA surveilance and Davey Camcam’s recent attempt to make the internet safe by banning ‘pornographic, political, and esoteric websites’. But, we can be sure that the fugitive currency wont last long if the (duurk)heads of state are able to wave a big nonce flag while they go round ransacking houses and demanding encryption master keys.

I am not suggesting some sort of hidden revolutionary power in technological form. Those who think twitter has brought about revolutions can go fuck themselves in 140 characters or less. Revolutions are, as they have always been, brought about by people working together. But, if someone as clear sighted for his own class as Locke thought that eroding coins amounted to treason, those of us who make modern day conspiracy plots should pay attention to bitcoins and its future evolutions. After all we need ways of supporting each other internationally without leaving a paper trail. At the very least,  its a good way to get some mescalin in the post if you feel the need to discuss the universe with your spirit animal. Mine’s the fox.


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