QZ&A

Anarchist hacker Amir Taaki says bitcoin’s boom means it’s on the verge of a collapse

Amir Taaki in Catalonia in January, 2018

Amir Taaki is notorious in the bitcoin world for his radical political beliefs and technical skills—which is saying something in a culture that has spawned a cast of infamous characters, like the cryptocurrency magnate “Bitcoin Jesus” or the rapper CoinDaddy.

Taaki, 29, an influential bitcoin voice and programmer since 2010, could have become a crypto-millionaire himself. He has often hosted the leaders of today’s multi-billion dollar crypto projects—such as ethereum inventor Vitalik Buterin—while occupying abandoned buildings in London, Barcelona, and elsewhere around Europe.

A self-described anarchist, Taaki worked on a number of projects that put him at odds with governments around the world, including Dark Wallet, an attempt to create an untraceable version of bitcoin, and DarkMarket, a version of the drugs marketplace Silk Road that was designed to evade law enforcement. He worked on these projects with collaborator Cody Wilson, who pioneered 3D-printed guns and also worked on Dark Wallet.

In 2015, Taaki seemingly vanished from the cryptocurrency world—only to resurface amidst a flurry of press last year to reveal he had been fighting ISIS in Syria on behalf of a would-be autonomous state called Rojava (paywall), which borders Syria, Turkey, and Iran. When he returned to the UK in 2016, he says British police arrested him, and kept him in the country for a year. British counter-terrorism officials have told Wired, the Evening Standard, and others that they won’t comment on any ongoing investigation. The London Metropolitan Police told the Evening Standard that anyone returning from the conflict in Syria should expect to be “reviewed” by them.

The booming cryptocurrency industry Taaki returned to was nothing like the budding bitcoin scene he had left behind. Instead of a nascent technology driven by amateurs with libertarian beliefs, now there were venture-backed startups worth billions of dollars. Bitcoin itself was on the cusp of a major price rally that would take it to nearly $20,000 a coin in December of 2017—about 20 times higher than Taaki had ever seen.

 Bitcoin is in the period which is analogous to the collapse of the Soviet Union 

Taaki currently lives in Barcelona, where he is setting up an academy called the Polytechnics Institute to train “ideological hackers.” He wants to create a “political cadre” of technologists committed to the cause of the “complete overthrow of the state system.” Students would live at the institute, wear uniforms, and wake at 6 am each day to do chores before commencing technical training, according to a draft schedule he shared with Quartz. The institute would be part of his Autonomous Polytechnics Group, which would have chapters around the world.

He has no funding for his latest plans (he holds only “some small amount, not much” of bitcoin), so is tapping his now wealthy cryptocurrency friends. Quartz spoke to Taaki on a voice call over the encrypted Signal messenger app about his plans and the current cryptocurrency mania. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Why did you return to the UK in 2016? Press reports said you had returned for work?

No, I went back to the UK because I wanted to get a visa to go to Texas. My plan was to organize some projects [with Cody Wilson] there then go back to Rojava after six months. I ended up getting arrested and had to stay in England for one year. I had a different plan originally, it was a lot smaller: It was just six months, get some money, sort a couple of things out, then I’m ready. Now I’m like, oh I’m going to take over the world.

When you were in Rojava did you follow cryptocurrency news, for instance that Craig Wright claimed he invented bitcoin and was the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto?

One of the triggers [to leave Rojava] was Craig Wright—the Craig Wright scandal. When I saw that, I thought, wow, this is the entire—bitcoin’s foundation has just come down completely. It was just very ripe for me to come into that space and to start to talk about things.

Satoshi is a genius. He might not be a young person, he might be an older person, but Craig Wright is definitely not a genius. The way he carries himself, the way he acts—not the mannerism of a genius. The guy is an opportunist, it’s blatantly obvious if you have an iota of social understanding.

Did you ever correspond with Satoshi?

Yeah, a couple of times, but not much. Not as much as other people.

What do you make of the bitcoin price, which a few weeks ago, was at nearly $20,000?

There’s a lot of capital in cryptocurrency; that capital is not matched to the utility of these technologies that are being developed. Especially utility in advancing society…I don’t think the price increase necessarily matches the value of these technologies. I think there are far greater technologies with far greater value. In terms of potential value, I think there is a lot of potential value in cryptocurrency, but I don’t think it’s a given.

On our current trajectory, that potentiality is not on its way to being realized as a grand project…So if we look at the price increase, what is that price increase coming from? It’s coming from a lot of speculation that the future price is going to keep going up, but it’s not any real value underlying it, that is not going to be able to realize itself.

Bitcoin has had a very particular world view, about what is the greatest threat to humanity, to freedom—what is the greatest cause that we need to struggle for—[bitcoiners] made that narrative their own, because I guess it gives them, like, consensus and meaning and purpose, you know like, everybody wants to think they are doing something impactful, and world changing, and important. Unfortunately there is a mismatch between their worldview and the actual reality. The more that they continue on without reevaluating their position, the more the gaps open and widen up, until reality is going to hit them hard in the face.

 What is that price increase coming from? It’s coming from a lot of speculation 

Has bitcoin lost its way?

I think bitcoin is in the period which is analogous to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union gave a raison d’être for liberalism to exist, for liberalism to fight against, but bitcoin had its moment where the Foundation, where the Bitcoin Foundation, all those financial opportunist types, in their attempt to coup d’état bitcoin, were overthrown by idealists.

However, once we’re now in the post-period where bitcoin hasn’t really got a clear perception of what it’s really about and there is nothing really giving that drive for struggle except people amusing themselves, creating different technologies, and they don’t really know what they are doing it for, they don’t know what problem they are trying to solve. If I say that, people will tell me, Oh we know why we’re doing it: We’re doing it for privacy. [They] give some platitudes, but it’s not anything concrete, it’s not anything seriously formulated.

Who is ‘they’?

All of them. When I speak to some of the bitcoin developers, I’m trying to explain to them the importance of ideas, and the value that vision gives in developing technology. If we want technology to be actually helping humanity and society and not being just another commodity that makes our lives more comfortable, and more easy and actually entraps us into a system of rigid control—if we want to actually break free of that, if we want a technology which uplifts us, which shapes the world, then we need to start thinking about what the ideas about bitcoin are.

It’s a reality that’s completely outside the worldview of all the—most—bitcoin developers and the entire community. Look at Stripe recently announcing they’re getting rid of bitcoin, that it’s not actually useful—people should be taking it as a really big warning sign, but I think a lot of people are just downplaying it. It’s almost like a religion, like a form of that do you call it, Kurzweillian… the Singularity is coming, the dam is going to burst, bitcoin is the unstoppable honey badger—it’s not grounded in any rational analysis.

Are people working on ethereum sufficiently focused on these issues?

I think they’re idealistic, and maybe a lot of the energy that was inside of bitcoin is transferring over to ethereum, because it’s a more coherent, unified group of guys driven by a singular vision.

However, their discourse needs to update a bit. They’re still talking about, like, censorship and freedom of speech and things that are not really contemporary ideas. They’re overly focused on systems of rational control and uh… they’re very positivist. They reduce the world in terms of just scientific principles.

Amir Taaki with a Kalashnikov.

You lived with Vitalik Buterin, ethereum’s creator. Ethereum is now worth over $111 billion. Has he changed?

Um… honestly, I need to meet Vitalik soon. And spend some time with him. We were working together, but that was nearly four years ago now. I don’t want to tell you oh, Vitalik is like this… it would just be a perception of Vitalik.

Ethereum unleashed the whole ICO boom. What do you think of ICOs?

It’s greed. It’s a huge amount of money just flowing around in ICOs. Some of the ICOs have just got nothing behind them whatsoever.

What do you think of the debate that led to bitcoin forking last year?

I still support those group of guys, I understand their motivation behind that. And their reasoning. But they really do need to hurry up. And I think they’ve become really obsessed with process, and sometimes you have just got to take risks.

You mean Bitcoin Core?
Yeah, exactly.

Do you have thoughts on Lightning, one solution to allow bitcoin to handle more transactions?

Ive been waiting a long time for Lightning. I was already thinking, if it didn’t happen soon—it looks like it’s going to happen now—but I was really thinking just to have a temporary solution if Lightning doesn’t arrive soon. Because I needed—when I wanted to deploy bitcoin in Rojava, I thought that it’s impossible to do bitcoin in a scalable way for a population of five million people. So Lightning is something that is absolutely necessary.

What is cryptocurrency’s role in Rojava?

Bitcoin as the currency of a revolutionary project, of a revolutionary nation, following an anarchist ideology. I can’t think of a more perfect fit for bitcoin.

What is the plan?

First I need to have a wallet, and a wallet localized in the local language. I need to produce informational resources; we need also a local exchange. Then we need financial infrastructure. Maybe we need like a radio financial transaction infrastructure with cheap consumer devices for using bitcoin with merchants. Maybe we need to find a way to produce bitcoin paper-cash. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

Based on the interviews you gave when you came back, it seemed like you might have had post-traumatic stress disorder. Are you feeling better?

Yeah, I definitely did. I’m feeling fine now. It was important to have that moment because when you crack you come back together stronger.

When you were in Syria, you were involved in a few gun battles. Did you kill anyone?

Honestly, it’s too far away. It’s like one, two, kilometers away. You can’t really see if you shoot someone, or kill them. Some people, who are like special forces, they fight at close range. But a lot of it is long-range.

If you have a Kalashnikov, you can’t really realistically target [someone] at one kilometer—and I’m not a good shot with Kalashnikovs either. I can fire maybe 600 meters, so if a guy is like two kilometers away, I’m firing in that direction, I’m probably not hitting anything.

What have you been reading?

History, philosophy, sociology.

Any stand-out authors?

Yeah, Abdullah Öcalan. I think Abdullah Öcalan is the greatest thinker of this century and everybody needs to start studying his books. He is the leader of the movement in Rojava, of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). His books really analyze and talk about human society and give us the way forward to realize a free humanity.

 Bitcoin as the currency of a revolutionary project, of a revolutionary nation 

These ideas seem quite different from cypherpunk ideas.

Now what we should do is to do a proper dialectics with crypto-anarchy, free software movement, hacker movement, we should deconstruct these movements to find out what the elements of them that are good, because they have some very interesting ideas, even the anarcho-capitalism, crypto-anarchism, all of it, and take those ideas and marry it with this new ideology which has a very big movement behind it, and I believe will play an even bigger role in the future in transforming many different nations throughout the world. There is a huge amount of latent potential in this ideology.

When you talk to people who are in cryptocurrency about these ideas, what sort of response do you get from them?

A lot of them look at me like I’m a little bit crazy. They’re like, oh Amir is really good at doing technology but these other things he talks about sound kind of weird, sounds like a sect.

I’m going to get my group of students, I’m going to train them, we’re going to deliver results, people will see the impact of our work. History is always changed by a small group of people that is completely devoted to an idea, not by a large mass following no idea.

How will you raise money to set up your Polytechnics Institute in Barcelona?

Oh, money is not a problem.

Why?

Well, I’m friends with all the, all the people in bitcoin who are now the kings of projects. I can convince them about the power of these ideas, the validity of these ideas, then we have no money problem.

You think they’ll back your idea of setting up the academy?

If I explain it to them properly. Because I believe in these ideas.

When you go out to pitch what is the amount you’ll be asking for?

Twenty million. It could be in any currency. Euros.

When will you start approaching people?

When I have a proper, worked out, proposal; I have a formulated team of people. I don’t want to go empty-handed with false promises.

Now bitcoin has taken off, are your current ideas more feasible?

No, it’s not related to that. It’s more related to Rojava and my experiences there and studying history. Bitcoin becoming bigger and popular now, it’s like we’ve reached that goal. It’s no longer interesting to me, just to spread bitcoin. I’m thinking beyond that. What’s the next step?

When do you think you’ll start working on the academy?

Soon. I should be doing it at the same time right now. Like, I just finished the last major book I was reading yesterday, Anti-Tech Revolution by Ted Kaczynski. The Unabomber.

What did you think of it?

The guy is a genius. He’s a smart, intelligent, guy. He’s very coherent and very rational in what he’s saying as well. He’s not a lunatic. The man had really reasons behind his logic. They are undeniable, I can’t really find fault with the way he thinks about things. The real question he is posing is, do we need to make a complete break from this technological super-system, or is there a way to reconfigure it? It’s something I dont have the answer for.

Do you agree with his bombings?

You know we’re talking about his book. Would we be talking about his book otherwise?

Probably not.

I mean, they asked him about [Timothy McVeigh], what he thought of him; he said he understands the guy and so on, he didn’t think the bombing was necessary; he caused unnecessary harm to civilians; so I don’t think he’s like a crazy lunatic who doesn’t value human life.

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