Case Against Nation States and For Bitcoin: Bitnation’s James Fennell Tempelhof

The former British navy officer, who has worked in almost every country that has witnessed armed conflict in contemporary times, realized there was something wrong with the nation state but had no clue as to the alternatives except to criticize the status quo.

It will be recalled that Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof. CEO and founder of Bitnation, got married on the Blockchain almost one year ago with James Fennell. It was a rare demonstration of the capabilities of Blockchain’s unalterable ability.

Nation state genocide

Cointelegraph: What is your background?

James Fennell Tempelhof: I’m British and after a short career in the Royal Navy I got interested in humanitarian issues in the 80s, during the famine in the horn of Africa. I was volunteering in an orphanage in Honduras (for kids from the war in El Salvador), during a vacation from university, and heard about the famine on the radio and decided to go and see if I could help out.    

Anyway, that sparked a career in war zones and nine years later I ended up as the UK head of emergency operations for the largest US NGO at the time CARE (having lived and worked in Sudan, Egypt and Somalia for seven of those years).

So as part of my CARE job, I ended up having to go to lots of wars, and in particular, I was present through the genocide in Rwanda.  

There was a lot of resistance in the international community to recognizing that aid could not solve the problem - that it was not a civil war. But I saw clearly that this was a deliberate act of a highly organized nation state to kill its own citizens. That without people giving their sovereignty to a state authority, genocide could not be possible.

CT: That was when you lost faith in the state?

JFT: At one point, driving up through an area where genocide was taking place, I saw people “planting” dead trees on plots where Tutsi houses had been as if to imagine that they had never existed.  

And I realized that the state was capable of making people believe that black was white, of making obvious lies true through coercion and the fear that engendered.

I knew then that organized nation state governments were, in fact, the most efficient killing machines ever developed, and while they sold us a story of protecting human rights and law and order, in fact, they were the causes of most of the crimes against people in the world.

At the time, in the early ‘90s, I was also involved in the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone - everyone was telling me that they were caused by the whole population carrying guns and killing each other in “anarchy.” But when I got there and did some analysis (I did a lot more when I worked for HMG), it was clear that actually only very few armed groups (probably less than 8,000 fighters) had caused the war, and they were all fighting for individuals who wanted to run the state. Most people had developed their own excellent systems for governing themselves beyond the state.

I took a bunch of US State Department people on a tour of Liberia during the Hurricane Katrina event in New Orleans. I asked them if they saw anyone looting in the markets?  

Despite no police forces and no effective government, the main market in Monrovia was safe and efficiently self-regulated. I told them that looting and chaos in New Orleans were because people had become used to giving up their sovereignty to the state, but that when they could run their own lives, they tended to be more peaceful and much more happy and empowered.

“Everyone should be like us”

CT: What was the turning point for you?

JFT: It began in Rwanda in 1994, obviously, and I began a private study of genocide and its causes. I worked in Bosnia, I was at the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995, and in Somalia in 1988-90 and during the ‘Black Hawk Down’ period in 1992-3, in Afghanistan before, during and after the Taliban time in 1993, 1997 and 2001, and again in 2007-8, and I ran an international private security business from Kinshasa, in the Congo (where I was put in jail by the Department of Anti-Patriotic Affairs on trumped-up charges by a dysfunctional state), and cleared landmines in Russia, Lebanon and Kosovo from 1998-2003.

In many ways, it was an exploration of the misdeeds of the nation state. I realized I was an anarchist when I worked for the UK government from 2004-8.  

When I knew that the nation state had no real options for preventing conflict except trying to ram the conceited idea that “everyone should be like us” down other societies necks - and all that did was create more conflict, as in Afghanistan.

In Rwanda, I was prevented from doing what I thought was best. My boss told me that we had to provide food as we had a contract with USAID. I told him that was rubbish. We needed to keep people away from a murderous government and their henchmen, the Interahamwe. In the end, I broke ranks and spent all of the money I had been delegated running an operation to save the last 900 or so people who survived the massacre on Bisesero mountain. They were an extraordinary group, the only ones who fought back.

I leaked an internal report which I had written recommending that we suspend feeding operations as the money was going to the government and they were using it to fund killings. I gave it to a friend who was a journalist for The Guardian. The idea was to keep CARE off my back.

My boss demanded I come back to the UK but I declined. Anyway, the operation was successful (albeit too little too late), and some people from UK government were around and they supported me with CARE, and then I got awarded an MBE in the 1995 New Year’s honors and they had to accept it. I even got promoted! So I knew that you could not rely on the nation state to do the right thing, even when they were supposed to be helping out. In fact, you had to break rules in order to prevent shit happening.

But mine was a practical resistance to nation states rather than a visionary tech-based governance solution, even though I always had a keen interest in science and technology, coded my bachelor's thesis on a Sinclair ZX81 Spectrum and have an obsession with math and theoretical physics videos on YouTube.

At that time I didn’t have any real alternatives except, to begin with, writing critiques of nation state intervention. I did this in Myanmar and other places. It was only when I met Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof in Libya in 2011, that I began a journey towards her ideas of Bitcoin, Blockchain and Bitnation, and especially in the last year since we married.

Susanne and I got together on the rooftop of a hotel in Benghazi when I was contracted by the British Government, and her by the US, to understand the war’s tribal and political dynamics, and Susanne was enthusing about how we had got it all wrong in Libya, and me also complaining that all of the solutions that our governments wanted were going to kill the spark of self-actualization that was taking place there.

Then a molotov cocktail went off, and a CIA kid that looked like he was 18 years old or something and never been outside of Langley started to make a big fuss and get everyone to take cover.

I and Susanne laughed and stayed on the roof to see what had happened - and we realized that we were both warzone “old hands” and loved freedom, even when there were a few AK47s going off and minor explosions. I guess that’s when I knew we could make something big happen together!

Another society is possible

CT: Why are Bitcoin, Blockchain and Bitnation the alternatives?

JFT: I believe the core problem for anarchists has been the problem of how to run a decentralized society. History tells us that centralized power was a response to urban living, someone has to “build the roads” as the saying goes. Distributed, peer-to-peer, decentralized and encrypted technologies - and especially the Blockchain (which as a product of Bitcoin was obviously built upon a vision of a decentralized society) make it possible to organize and function peer-to-peer in a globalized society and economy. So it's the core technological breakthrough that destroys the last arguments for retaining the nation state.

CT: Do you think the state will be obsolete sooner than later?

JFT: I think we are at a pivotal moment. Disaffection with the post-1945 dispensation - the “world of states” has never been higher. Only three percent of Americans fully trust their government.  

The 2008 economic crisis in the west paved the way for Bitcoin, and I think the 2016-17 governance crisis, which ushered in Trump, Brexit and rejected refugees will also provide the key moment for an exponential explosion of intentional communities - not only virtual nations but also a fragmentation of nations into separate voluntary domains.

We are seeing the genesis already in the US, Europe and the Middle East.  

There is a cautionary tale here, however. The nation state will not give up easily, and increasingly totalitarian responses to globalization and decentralization are likely, even already happening.  

We must out-compete for these with better options, to have a peaceful transition. But in simple terms, yes, I think we are surely in “the wrong place at the right time.”

Interestingly, Immanuel Kant, the great enlightenment philosopher, spoke of building a world of peoples instead of a world of states. This is our task now.

CT: So you believe private initiatives like the Blockchain and Bitcoin are more beneficial to humanity than the wretched nation state?

JFT: Yes! Governance modalities are a function of technology. Without the invention of accurate maps in the 1600s, there could not have been nation states - they were a product of renaissance technologies.

But that model has failed to keep up with technological advances, it's designed for the world in which we could only travel as far as we could ride a horse in a day, and communicate via written notes.  

Now private initiatives enable us to communicate with the world, we each do it every day, and travel cheaply to the ends of the earth. How do borders and spatial models of centralized governance square with that? The answer is they don’t. All innovative forms of governance and political organization are network based. Even things like ISIS - that’s why they are resilient.  

Voluntaristic, non-coercive network society is the only ethical response. Bitcoin, the Blockchain and encryption provide the core technologies to make this possible.  

We have challenges - quantum computing could threaten encryption - but also make it possible to have many more nodes and greater resilience.

CT: Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist thought that technology would allow governments to control us more. Do you agree? Is technology actually creating more freedom for mankind?

JFT: The evidence is that technology has allowed nation states to control us more, so far.  That is part of the reason why I lost faith in the model.

But I believe the urge to control us more is also partially related to the technologies ability to set us free.  

Right now most Internet tech is centralized and can be controlled by nation states, and of course, it is. But new distributed technologies remove that impediment. For example, SSB (Secure Scuttlebutt), on which Bitnation Pangea is partly built, is in effect a message chain which can work with any Blockchain, removing the requirement for trust in communications, which destroys the potential for censorship by nation states, and also allows people to make binding agreements which cannot be disputed during arbitration - i.e. removing the need for legacy entities to uphold the truth.

So centralized tech is definitely an instrument of state control, but decentralized and encrypted tech is an instrument of empowerment if used in the right way.

Creative destruction

CT: In a nutshell, do you think decentralized society can be run without rancor?

JFT: That’s not to say that the Blockchain can’t be a tool for oppression - if it's used to hold records of people's bio data on thousands of nodes for example.  

So the other key to a decentralized network society is pseudo-anonymous identities. We want to be able to express our many identities separately and detach them from our physical bodies (which can be harmed by coercion). In answer to your last question - yes and no. There will always be violence and conflict. But if society is based on voice and exit you can move between and among different governance “holons” or nations - virtual as well as physical - to get the services you prefer and need, then the element of competition for citizens should minimize conflict in the mainstream, and limit it to malicious outliers, who can usually be dealt with by concerted community action.  

The key is that governance domains are actively competing for citizens like Facebook and LinkedIn compete for users. They don’t use violence against each other’s users as a means to go to war with each other, there is no incentive to do so.

Also, the idea of creative destruction come in here. Nations can die and that is not a catastrophe for their citizens, they simply choose a better option. This mirrors the way societies are not static and evolve both with technology and exposure to new ideas, social norms and people.

CT: Finally, is Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies the answer to financial & economic freedom for the world?

JFT: Well, getting married to Susanne on the Blockchain was certainly the answer to my freedom! Yes, I believe cryptocurrencies return economic sovereignty back to people. They can trade, hold value and make payments without those intensely personal interactions being mediated by the state. Also, why has the state wanted to control payments technologies in the past? Essentially to raise money to enslave their citizens and make war on other people.

It's only in relatively recent times that state economic policy has adopted the mantra of “serving the people” - and you can probably count on two hands the number of states that do that in anything like an ethical way.