Anatomy of a (crypto) coup
What Web3 can learn from Rogan, Apple and me (and Hispanic politics)
This post is a work of political Machiavellianism. The term gets a bad rap (particularly among Christian writers), but really it’s the school of political philosophy that studies power relations as sociologists would study crime rates or anthropologists some bizarre cultural practice: devoid of moral judgment, interested only in understanding and (perhaps) prediction. I’ll leave the moralizing to the wise and nuanced sages of Twitter.
The mob is the most ruthless of tyrants; it is always in a democratic society that heresy and felony tend to be most constantly confused.
-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ
Last week saw perhaps the biggest Web3 governance brouhaha (and cancelation crisis) to date, involving one of the most successful of Web3 projects, the Ethereum Name Service or ENS.1
As with many such scandals these days, the casus belli was an old series of tweets by one of the project’s most prominent members, Brantly Millegan. An avowed Catholic, brantly.eth was not shy about announcing support for the many of the Church’s doctrines that would be seen as backwards or reactionary by secular liberalism today. (I won’t address the more profound cultural issues in this blowup here, but will in a later post.)
As these things often go, whether the Rogan fracas over old podcast episodes or my Apple brouhaha over a five-year-old book, this was all actually known but is played off as some sudden discovery demanding urgent attention (brantly.eth announced his Catholicism in his Twitter bio). As also typically happens, some self-appointed leader takes the pulpit of righteousness and stakes their brand on the movement’s successful outcome: in this case, someone more distantly involved with ENS, dame.eth (you’ll note how every character in this drama, unsurprisingly, has a ENS name).
The leader of the non-profit that actually manages much of the business and technology of ENS, nick.eth, initially defended brantly as someone who had contributed enormously and never treated anyone objectionably, before promptly firing him.
The entire ENS story unfolded true to script, novel for Web3 perhaps, but as old as the hills for Web2 and the broader culture. What I’m going to propose is that almost every such cancel drama should not be viewed as some moral crusade (as its organizers would have you believe), but rather as a 19th-century Latin-American coup: an extra-legal no-confidence vote forcibly put on the table by some faction to the reigning order, and winning via the same combination of bravado and a (contrived) feeling of popular will.
For the coup leaders, the firing of whatever poor schmuck serves as cancel target is but a skirmish in a larger power struggle between the pre-existing generation and the new one straining to be born. Everywhere you look, from the internal dramas of The New York Times (cf. Bari Weiss) or my situation at Apple or Rogan’s deal at Spotify, you have younger Millennials or GenZers deploying wokeness as war by other means, and attempting to overthrow the existing order.
Just for the sake of argument … let’s analyze this phenomenon from the POV of either management defending against a sudden generational usurpation, or even from the target of the cancel mob itself. As numerous examples show, the triumph of the coup is not guaranteed, and in fact, failure is very possible.
The Cancel Coup Defense Guide
Slow your roll
Like a guerrilla ambush, most of the mob’s potency comes from the surprise and suddenness of the attack, giving the impression of an overwhelming enemy and convincing even large players (like almost $3-trillion-dollar Apple) that they’re somehow on the defensive. It’s all a mirage sown out of management’s own shock and panic at the speed of events outside of their usually well-buttoned control. Merely pausing to let the amnesiac internet distract itself would do much to cool down the action.
I don’t know nick.eth at all; from secondhand appraisals from people who do, he’s your standard-issue liberal techie, neither a woke crusader nor some crypto-libertarian purist. Like Apple management, he likely panicked at the sudden riot happening on his virtual doorstep which threatened to destroy something to which he’d dedicated so much time and resources. It’s an understandable, though as I hope to show, highly misguided fear response.
In the case of DAO governance, this might mean imposing several-day ‘cooling off periods’ to administrative steps like delegate votes (wherein token holders grant their votes to prominent members of the community, almost like representative democracy). This allows the community to collect itself and get past the Twitter engagement spike, as well as the circus of indignation the coup leaders will be relentlessly stoking. As we’ll see below, the cancel coup leaders will almost certainly soon implicate if not embarrass themselves, creating a counter-coup momentum.