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Everybody’s talking about elections, I don’t hear a word they’re saying

Imagine the shock I experienced, then, when this very topic itself became an issue in electoral politics. Not after demonetisation nor during the Indian elections just passed, but in the US presidential elections now underway.
Last Updated : 15 June 2024, 19:49 IST

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As a professor of political science and author of several fairly influential books within political thought, I am naturally reluctant to publicly admit just how little interest I have in electoral politics. Embarrassingly, it is almost none. When everyone else is in the throes of election fever, the cacophonic buzz of their excited conversations inevitably converts at the threshold of my eardrums into the tranquil opening guitar riffs and transporting lyrics of Harry Nilsson’s 1969 rendition of ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ — the version immortalised through its role as the theme song of the classic film ‘Midnight Cowboy’:

Everybody’s talkin’ at me/

I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’/

Only the echoes of my mind.

The seeming contradiction of my profession with my dogged indifference to electoral politics can be resolved if it is understood that I am a political philosopher, a scholar preoccupied fundamentally with theory, not practice. Philosophers prefer to direct their attention high above the everyday — they are escape artists, always longing to attach their ideas to the abstract, the eternal principles of elsewhere, rather than the messy and brutal realities of the here and now.

I’m goin’ where the sun keeps shinin’/

Through the pourin’ rain/

Goin’ where the weather suits my clothes/

Bankin’ off of the Northeast winds/

Sailin’ on summer breeze/

And skippin’ over the ocean like a stone.

As a concrete example of the theorist’s curious predilections, consider how the philosopher contrasts with a businessperson. While the businessperson might ask, ‘How can I make more money?’, placing her focus on the practical doing of things, the philosopher would instead ask very different questions: ‘What is the meaning of money? What is the nature of money, its essence?’ Such theoretical questions are impractical questions. Indeed, from the practical point of view, they are stupid questions.

Imagine the shock I experienced, then, when this very topic itself became an issue in electoral politics. Not after demonetisation nor during the Indian elections just passed, but in the US presidential elections now underway. The two main-party candidates, former President Donald Trump and incumbent President Joe Biden, instigated by independent presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy, Jr., whose candidacy is pulling voters away from both of the main-party candidates, have recently begun to take up bitcoin and cryptocurrency as a major electoral issue. Before RFK, Jr., came on the scene, both of the major-party candidates ignored, even eschewed cryptocurrency. Fearing the independent candidate’s rise in poll numbers, especially amongst libertarian and undecided voters, Trump shrewdly appropriated one of RFK’s main platforms: Trump now calls himself the ‘Bitcoin President’.

Trump recently posted on social media: ‘VOTE FOR TRUMP! Bitcoin mining may be our last line of defense against a CBDC. Biden’s hatred of Bitcoin only helps China, Russia, and the Radical Communist Left. We want all the remaining Bitcoin to be MADE IN THE USA!!! It will help us be ENERGY DOMINANT!!!’

Sidebar: Given that there is no public debate about the meaning of money in India, despite demonetisation, and despite the RBI’s advances on a digital rupee, I should probably explain that a CBDC is a Central Bank Digital Currency. Due to the radical surveillance capabilities that governments are building into CBDCs, libertarian-oriented voters are opposed to them. As for how bitcoin mining helps stabilise and secure an energy grid, I’ll have to go into this in a later piece, when I’ll have time also to bemoan India’s utter neglect of AI, which is closely related to crypto-mining in terms of generating compute.

Acknowledging the effectiveness of Trump’s move in pulling voters away from both RFK as well as from the democrats, President Biden has begun taking steps toward wooing the pro-crypto demographic. The Block recently tweeted: ‘JUST IN: Joe Biden’s campaign is in talks to accept crypto donations!’

With bitcoin emerging as a mainstream issue in American electoral politics, I’ve suddenly become interested, instead of indifferent. This is not because of anything practical, not because the mainstreaming of cryptocurrency will allow me to make more money. No, it is because of the mainstreaming of a philosophical question at the heart of bitcoin: What is the nature, meaning and essence of money? Theoretical problems, metaphysical and ethical, will soon become contemplated and debated by ordinary citizens. There is the ontological question: Is bitcoin money —what is money? And there is the normative question: Ought bitcoin be money?

Political philosophers always feel vindicated when theoretical puzzles get Trojan-horsed into the midst of the quotidian. I’m looking forward to it happening in India, too, someday. Until then…

Everybody’s talkin’ at me/

I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’/

Only the echoes of my mind/

People stoppin’, starin’/

I can’t see their faces/

Only the shadows of their eyes.

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Published 15 June 2024, 19:49 IST

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