When the speculators flee, what will be left of Bitcoin?

The underlying currency might not work without the inflated prices.

Last week's post pointing out bubbly appearance of Bitcoin's market capitalisation sparked some kickback. That was to be expected; in any bubble, people who are currently exposed to the possibility of a crash are unlikely to take the news well. Bitcoin has even more die-hard defenders than most bubbles, though, because of the mixture of political and cultural factors which cause a lot of people to invest such hope in it.

Amongst the currency's fanbase – and the fact that a currency has a fanbase is itself notable – are libertarians who decry any government involvement in the free market, techno-utopians who love the idea of fully digital money, monetary hawks who like the fact that the success of bitcoin would basically end inflation, and, frankly, criminals who like a completely untraceable currency (I'm not implying that if you like an untraceable currency you must be a criminal, but there's no denying that Bitcoin is a big deal for sites like Silk Road), as well as your common-or-garden speculators. All of them (except maybe the criminals) have a bigger reason to hope for the success of Bitcoin than just financial: if it succeeds, it proves them right.

But I fear that there are very few arguments which can be made to prove the Bitcoin boom that we're seeing right now – which has resulted in a 250 per cent increase in the total value of the Bitcoin economy in just three months – isn't a bubble. The problem is that there is not really anything to point to in that time period to explain the massive increase, except the massive increase itself. So it may be comforting for Bitcoin fans that there is a Bitcoin hedge fund in Malta, but given that that hedge fund exists because of the boom, not the other way round, it doesn't explain anything.

In fact, in the last few months, there have been a few news events which ought, by rights, to reduce the value of the currency. Chief among them is the fact that the block chain – the distributed record of every Bitcoin transaction, and the technical underpinning of the entire things – forked earlier this month, something it should not be able to do.

A transaction was made using a new version of the software, which was too large for earlier versions to handle. As a result, some clients accepted it, while others rejected it, leaving two valid block chains circulating. Some users are pointing to the fact that the currency is still circulating largely unaffected as a sign of its strength, but that's a bit like saying that the fact that your plane is still flying after its engine exploded makes the explosion good news.

The best way to justify the exponential increase in the market capitalisation of Bitcoin would be to point to a similar exponential increase in people using the currency to perform their everyday lives, and that simply hasn't happened. Take-up is strong, but nowhere near the level it would need to be to explain a half-billion market cap. Whereas speculation – people buying Bitcoin low to sell high – does.

(Note too I'm not saying that the currency is a Ponzi scheme, an accusation often levelled at it over the fact that the first holders of bitcoin had the most to gain from talking it up to others and then selling high. A bubble isn't necessarily the same as a Ponzi scheme, even a bubble which is deliberately engineered to reward its first buyers, and I don't think Bitcoin has those characteristics.)

The natural price of Bitcoin is far, far lower than where it stands right now, probably around the same level it was last summer, after its first catastrophic crash and before its second. The real question for the currency isn't whether it can survive being an investment for speculators – it can't – but whether it can survive as a currency when valued at 10 per cent of what it is currently.

The problem it faces is that the distributed computing which lets Bitcoin work is expensive. It takes energy, and time, and frequently also specialised hardware. The reward for doing so – "mining", in the parlance – is a randomly allocated share of the new coins produced through inflation. As time goes on, the currency will produce less and less extra coins this way, but for now, the bigger fear is if the natural price for Bitcoin can go low enough that it no longer becomes efficient to run these mining rigs.

There are still ways of getting around that – the technology allows for the payment of what is essentially a processing fee on top of each transaction – but it may be the case that Bitcoin's use as a currency is currently being subsidised by its bubble-tastic value. Hopefully the two are separate enough that even after the crash, Bitcoin can continue to function as an alternative way to send money over the internet. But the more Bitcoin fans boost the bubble, the bigger the shock's going to be when it pops.

The Bitcoin logo.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.