Close-up of an orange Mercedes car with the focus on the front tyre, which is inscribed with ‘In Crypto We Trust’

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, 16 January 2023. Photo by Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg/Getty


The cruelty of crypto

Selling itself as the new American dream, crypto exposes the vulnerable to fraud and scams, and loads risk onto the poor

by Rachel O’Dwyer + BIO

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, 16 January 2023. Photo by Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg/Getty

The 2021 ad aired during the Super Bowl and was called ‘Fortune Favors the Brave’. ‘History is filled with almosts,’ says the actor Matt Damon, gliding through a museum set like an eager docent, ‘with those who “almost” adventured, who “almost” achieved, but ultimately for them it proved to be too much.’ He halts reflectively at an effigy of Ferdinand Magellan dissolving into the waves. ‘Then,’ he says, moving swiftly on to the other, more inspiring exhibits (a climber, a Wright brother, two replicants kissing in a night club, a troupe of racially diverse astronauts stepping proudly onto a gangway in a scene from nowhere in history), ‘there are others, the ones who embrace the moment and commit. And, in those moments of truth, these men and women, these mere mortals – just like you and me – as they peer over the edge, they calm their minds and steel their nerves with four simple words that have been whispered by the intrepid since the time of the Romans: “Fortune favors the brave.”’

The first recorded use of the phrase is indeed from Roman times, but Damon’s speech did not age as well. The ad was removed from channels in 2022, less than a year after its release. And had you bought $1,000 worth of bitcoin on the day the ad aired in October 2021, by the time of writing (two years later), you would have just $400.

The following year’s Super Bowl offering featured the basketball star LeBron James. An older LeBron has travelled back to 2003, to his messy high-school bedroom and his 18-year-old self. ‘All right, so… cordless headphones?’ says the young LeBron, dressed in his Fighting Irish jersey. ‘You can watch movies through your phone? And y’all got electric cars?’ The teenage LeBron pronounces: ‘The future is crunk.’ He’s pacing the room, palming his basketball, brimming with what the agency pitch might have called ‘youthful optimism’. ‘Anything else you want to know?’ his older self asks, looking on like a sage. Young LeBron replies: ‘Is the hype too much?’ He then flops down beside himself on the edge of the single bed. The camera pans to a newspaper cutting taped to the wall, a sports page with the bold headline ‘Is LeBron James Going Straight To The League?’ He’s suddenly serious: ‘Am I ready?’ His older self replies: ‘I can’t tell you everything but, if you want to make history, you got to call your own shots.’ There’s a pause. The camera pivots above as the two LeBrons begin to chant: ‘We going to the league!’ It’s close to ‘We’re all gonna make it!’ – the battle cry of optimistic crypto investors everywhere before the FTX crash.

One millionaire could imply that crypto was the new pathway to generational wealth. Another could shill the ultimate American dream – that wealth is a meritocracy granted to those brave enough to risk it all. Poverty is a blight for refusing to dream hard enough: was Damon calling you a coward for not buying crypto? Was LeBron selling bitcoin as a pathway to wealth for Black Americans? Was this really the new route to the good life?

Bitcoin emerged in the aftermath of the global financial crash in 2008. But many of the technologies that underpin it appeared in the 1990s and early 2000s, on niche, Reddit-like mailing lists with an anarchist flavour and names like Cypherpunk and the Extropians. An excavation of these lists, which linger as messy file dumps on GitHub, read like the rise and fall of a tiny Roman Empire (though the majority of traffic originated in the San Francisco Bay area). Back then, the internet was still something you connect to, slowly, with your landline. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have just won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting (1997). LeBron is playing basketball at school in Ohio. Sam Bankman-Fried of FTX and Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum, are aged six and four, and eagerly hot-housed by parents in Palo Alto and Russia respectively.

The threads trace the Bill Clinton administration, the dotcom boom and bust, and the dawn of e-commerce. Everything is shot through with a hubris called ‘the Californian ideology’, a name given to the toxic blend of individualism, libertarianism and technological determinism that would come to be associated with the politics of men like Peter Thiel, Elon Musk and the Winklevoss twins. The ideology’s adherents believed in personal autonomy and the wisdom of the free market and, on the more radical end of the spectrum, in total anarchy, life extension and space colonisation. What did they share? Maybe it’s a sense that, with enough money and processing power, you could leave the world and all its problems behind, bank the future, live forever, overcome death itself.

Crypto did not level the playing field. It exposed the vulnerable to fraud and scams

The bitcoin whitepaper was published in 2008, at a moment when trust in the state and the mainstream financial system was at an all-time low. It promised a different kind of money, as so many ordinary people lost their trust in the global financial system along with their homes. Suddenly it had an appeal beyond these niche communities, with people who had never heard of Thiel and didn’t care what his politics were.

In the early 2010s, bitcoin was predominantly bought and owned by affluent white men in tech and investment circles. But, by 2021, advocates were shilling the token as a pathway to generational wealth for Black Americans. Historically, Black Americans have struggled to build intergenerational wealth. Centuries of economic practices, from slavery to redlining, made it almost impossible to hold property, to own homes, or to build and transfer wealth from generation to generation. To this day, Black Americans still have the lowest rate of home ownership of any racial group in the United States. These rates have only declined since the financial crash, falling as low in 2019 as they were in the early 1960s, when race-based financial discrimination was still legal.

In the absence of a clear pathway to the good life, crypto was framed as a way out of financial distress. Phrases like ‘financial inclusion’ and ‘economic empowerment’ were parried by unofficial Black ambassadors, among them JayZ and Mike Tyson. The phrase ‘bitcoin investor’ might still conjure someone from a Brett Easton Ellis novel: white, monied, functionally sociopathic, but the accounts told a different story; by 2021, Black Americans were more likely to hold cryptocurrency than white investors were. Young people, Black folk, the poor and the indebted were all scrambling into the latest scheme, in the hope of winning a secure future. Buying in at the height of the market, most were left holding the bag. Crypto did not level the playing field. It exposed the vulnerable to fraud and scams. It offset risk on to the poorest in society, all while paying lip service to a dream. No shots. No leagues. And ‘we’ didn’t all get to make it.

In 2010, the cultural theorist Lauren Berlant wrote of ‘cruel optimism’, a desire that keeps us attached to something that ultimately harms us. Cruel optimism takes different forms, from desires for romantic love to upward mobility. At the centre of it all are dreams of something we call ‘the good life’, the fantasies we recruit to make sense of the world, the stories we tell about how we and the world around us should ‘add up to something’. We seek comfort in tales of hard work rewarded, of bullies beaten, of winning the system. Why, Berlant asks, do people stay attached to these fantasies despite all evidence to the contrary? And ‘what happens’, as in the financial crash and, later, the pandemic, ‘when those fantasies start to fray?’ When, to put it in terms that Berlant never would, shit hits the fan?

Berlant was a scholar of affect, of the many ways in which the present is sensed and felt. Today, these feelings are reflected in shows like Beef (2023) on Netflix, on subreddits like WallStreetBets, even, arguably, in the financial apathy of stay-at-home girlfriends on TikTok practising self-care, money witches manifesting financial rewards, and ‘finfluencers’ urging their followers to buy worthless Tupperware stock, all trying to figure out what future security might look like. This affect is felt in tradwives shilling financial dependence on a strong male provider, and in advertisements for crypto that aired during the Super Bowl, distilled artefacts of what the good life has become.

Published in the fallout from the financial crisis, Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism (2011) had a mainstream hold that’s unusual for an academic text because it spoke to an unnamed but felt sensibility. The condition of being disillusioned and precarious spoke to the working class, but also to a disenchanted middle class – to a university-educated precariat graduating into the recession. Post-2008, Berlant wrote, ‘precarity provides the dominant structure and experience of the present moment, cutting across class and localities’. ‘[D]escriptions of the affected populations veer wildly from … the historical working class; to the global managerial class; neo-bohemians who go to university, live off part-time or temporary jobs, and sometimes the dole while making art; and, well, everyone whose bodies and lives are saturated by capitalist forces and rhythms.’ Maybe, Berlant suggests, it’s more accurate to call this phenomenon a new ‘global class’ or ‘a way of life’ or ‘an affective atmosphere’ or ‘an existential truth’, namely, that ‘there are no guarantees that the life one intends can or will be built’. What happens when the dream of the good life begins to fray, when subjects come unstuck from their dogged optimism? And how has this frayed optimism, this shorn fantasy of the good life, also played out in the perma-crisis of the pandemic and the rise of crypto?

For many, crypto and meme stocks symbolised a spot in the lifeboats

Lee Sun Jin’s Beef aired on Netflix in April 2023 and starred Ali Wong and Steven Yeun. It opens with a road rage scene in suburban Los Angeles, with the petite businesswoman Amy Lau (Wong) in her Mercedes SUV tailed by a contractor, Danny Cho (Yeun), in his beaten-up pickup. The show is about these two main characters joined together in shared impotence – shared rage – but, for me, it’s Danny’s brother Paul who captures the beef they all have with society. Danny and Paul live together in a cramped apartment. Paul spends most of his time online, indoors – not playing videos games or watching porn but investing. Paul and Danny’s parents followed a traditional immigrant path, working hard to run their motel, until a cousin’s drug deals runs it into the ground and forces their return to Korea.

Danny, the eldest, is still trying to make good on the American dream through old-fashioned graft, growing a contracting business and working to build a solid reputation on Yelp. Paul has no interest in the grind. He shares his philosophy as the brothers have a barbecue by their apartment complex pool. A lithe blonde in a bikini appears on an upper balcony with a beach towel slung over one shoulder, scowls when she sees the smoking grill and huffs back to her apartment. Paul’s plan is ‘to become a crypto millionaire and travel the world with [his] bros’. All he needs is three 10x trades. He makes it sound so simple, the figures almost tripping over themselves as they leave his mouth: ‘1K to 10K, 10K to a 100, 100 to a million. Boom.’ He tears off a mouthful of steak with his teeth. ‘That’s not a plan. You’re just saying higher numbers,’ Danny splutters. Paul parries his brother’s impotent rage with a kind of relentless optimism. It’s not the end of the good life, but a different pathway to the mansion in southern California, to early retirement, world travel, to building your parents a retirement home, to making them proud.

Retail trading suddenly became popular during the pandemic. Mobile trading apps with zero fees, such as Robinhood, allowed users with little financial experience to dabble in the market. The media framed it as gambling in the absence of sports or horse racing, but that didn’t really capture the desperation, the individualisation of risk. Crypto and meme stocks symbolised, for many, a spot in the lifeboats. It was ‘Lambos or food stamps!’ Millennials and Gen Zs, in debt and with no chance of financing their futures through so-called ‘legitimate’ channels, were investing in high-risk, high-return stocks for the chance to win a down payment.

In contrast to the Extropians, for whom digital gold seems to have been part of a desire to live forever, the hashtag for this philosophy was YOLO, as in ‘You only live once.’ The phrase was popularised by the Canadian rapper Drake in 2011, and by another rapper who posted, minutes before his death in a car crash: ‘Drunk af going 120 drifting corners #Fuckit YOLO’. On Reddit forums like WallStreetBets, YOLO had a different currency. It meant going all-in on one risky, but potentially life-changing, bet. YOLO is the opposite of the safe or steady investment. It’s not concerned with diversification or risk management because these safe bets cost all the money you don’t have. If there is no safe or legitimate pathway to security, then why not try to win some in an all-in gamble. It was all or nothing. YOLO was the only sane response to perpetual crisis, to the end of the future. The good life wasn’t coming any other way. And still we held tight with diamond hands to the broken shards of this dream. Money was the only path to the future. It still meant, as the journalist Annie Minoff put it in the podcast The Journal, ‘the ability to remake the world, so that, for once, it was actually built for you.’

The investors on Reddit channels like WallStreetBets share stocks, risky trades and loss porn, but they also talk a lot about houses. There are countless members ‘waiting around for the housing market to go up in the smoke so they can finally buy some real estate’. Or waiting for those dreamy 10x trades that would lead like a dream to a down payment. Boom. One member called coffeebeerwhiskey posts about an amazing trade that allowed him to finally put a down payment on a house. ‘Must have been one cheap ass house,’ someone writes. ‘Where is this house anyway, Mars?’ Someone else called waitthere-shut-up posts that he’s down $7,000 on GameStop stock (GME) but he’s holding. He’s going to the Moon. He wants a down payment so that he doesn’t have to beg his wife’s father for a handout: ‘I don’t want to be licking his nuts for the next 30 year[s]. GME will be freedom from being under my father-in-law’s thumb. That is worth more to me than anything!’ ‘This is for my children!’ someone posts below a screengrab of a crazy bet, only half ironically.

When I search ‘down payment’ and sit back to read the results, half of the posts are written by people trying to win enough to buy a house, and half are from people who have lost all of their savings in an all-in gamble. Somebody called yolobistro posts to the WallStreetBets/lossporn thread. After growing their stocks to nearly $130,000, they’re now down to just $6,000. ‘My life is over,’ they write. The helpful suggestions pour in, from working in Wendy’s to suicide. ‘It’s just money bro,’ someone chips in, a little incongruously for the thread. It’s not ‘just’ money, puts in Edwardpaperhands. ‘Money buys food, shelter, and heating. It is a crystallized, physical version of thousands of hours spent working my ass off and getting shat on by customers and shitty managers. We literally need money to survive and it is not something to be trivialized either by a comment likes [sic] yours or by gambling it in a casino masquerading as an “investment”.’ ‘It’s not real,’ writes someone calling themselves Oswald_Hydrabot. ‘None of this shit is, come back to the trash fire wjth [sic] the rest of us while we party through extinction.’

The market is a giant lottery in search of the prize of security, gambling for a spot in the lifeboats

Millennials and Gen Zs were raised to be entrepreneurs of the self, to believe that, if they simply worked and studied hard enough, success and security were waiting in their futures. Failure was a personal blight for refusing to invest their time wisely, for failing to grind hard enough. Post-2008, that dream was shot. You could work and work, but that did not mean that you would have job security and freedom from roommates by your mid-30s. Maybe this was what was meant by burnout culture. In the aftermath of the crash, middle-class people spoke of the death of the dream – the postwar ethos that, if you were willing to work hard enough and play by the rules, upper mobility and success were waiting in your future. If their parents had believed in climbing the ladder and just rewards for their hard work, this path was now closed to their children.

These generations are also a product of the speculative environment they were raised in. Most of the day-traders were teenagers or children in the financial crash, or just graduating college. Fledgling adults in the COVID-19 pandemic. Born between the mid-1980s and early 2000s, their identity is shaped by the vacuum of post-communist politics (I, personally, was sent, age five, to a fancy-dress party styled as the Berlin Wall) or shaped by the speculation and excess of the dotcom era, or racked by the uncertainty of the 2008 financial crash. They’ve encountered the death of the American dream (or in Ireland, where I’m from, the optimism of the Celtic Tiger) and felt the withdrawal of the state’s contract in everything from mounting student debt to inferior healthcare to the rising cost of living. The postwar security and investment in public goods like education and housing their grandparents and parents enjoyed has been replaced by volatility and risk. Retail trading forums like WallStreetBets and NFT Discords are spaces where people trade crazy investment advice, but it’s also where they articulate their loss of hope in those same dreams.

What replaced the fantasy of the good life? Dreams of prepping for life on Mars or in the metaverse? Of financial security through wild trades, or finding a good man to take care of you so you could leave the hustle behind? And who are these new dreams in service of? If the tale of hard work and upward mobility kept us yoked to our employers and our 9-to-5 jobs, the fantasy of the YOLO investment ‘Lambos or food stamps!’ keeps its subjects attached to the market. To risking it all. And these dreams feed the market, as in the crypto winter of 2021 where many vulnerable investors were left holding the bag, or the post-GameStop frenzy where, despite feelgood stories about David and Goliath, the significant profiteer was the market-maker behind the Robinhood trading app.

Financial markets are no longer a space where investors allocate capital to businesses to grow a profit. It’s all about gambling on vibes in the gulf left by financial and social and political systems in total freefall. Nihilistic vibes, desperate vibes, hopeless vibes. The market is a giant lottery in search of the prize of security, gambling for a spot in the lifeboats. Of course, financial markets have been divorced from the so-called ‘real’ economy since the 1970s. But, maybe, in the era of post-truth and political apathy, what is new is an acceleration of these sensations, a total sense that nothing matters anymore. Hard work doesn’t matter. Good sense doesn’t matter, and neither do good bets or doing all the right things.

There are no more dreams of the good life. And no more futures. Fuckit. YOLO.