Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof founded the webpage Bitnation four years ago. Her aim was to create voluntary, decentralised and web-based communities. Today 15,000 people use Bitnation’s systems based on the crypto-currency Ethereum and blockchain technology.
Bitnation currently provides trade and marriage contracts, global passports, property deeds, birth certificates and identification papers for refugees. They work with what they call an «open-source governance» – a kind of «do-it-yourself» strategy with so-called smart contracts replacing lawyers and using their own set of laws and rules within small-scale communities. Bitnation now functions as an alternative government alongside public and private authorities.
The community consists of small, public forums that function as negotiation platforms, and where participants are rated according to behaviour. You can set up insurances, contracts and diplomas that cannot be plagiarised or destroyed. Perhaps exam papers will be next?
«I object to the idea that a majority can impose their will onto an individual. My will should not be controlled by a majority.» – Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof
Their latest development is the so-called «smart contract», generated by artificial intelligence: You write a few normal sentences, and like magic they are transformed into a real contract that can be crypto-signed. Bitnation has also been given a substantial amount of attention in The Economist and The Wall Street Journal for their creative use of blockchain technology, which has been used to assist in the refugee crisis.
Husband, partner and co-owner of the company, James Fennell Tempelhof, accompanies Tarkowski on her travels around the world. In an updated «manifesto», the couple and others declare that the purpose of this new «nation» is to liberate «humankind from the oppression and sanction of pooled sovereignty, geographical apartheid and the xenophobia and violence that is nurtured by the nation state oligopoly.»
From Sweden to Afghanistan
I arrange to meet with Tarkowski after a secret seminar she has led for a group of separatists in Barcelona seeking to establish a Catalonian bitnation. I am especially keen to ask her about her personal values and philosophy. What kind of a personality drives the woman who has successfully united a large group of crypto-anarchists in alternative communities to have a state of their own?
Tarkowski tells me that her Polish father was a stateless refugee for ten years, while her mother is French. After being born in Sweden, Tarkowski and her family lived in many different countries.
«I never really understood the point of a nation state. When I returned to Sweden at 20, it was difficult for me to follow the rules and codes in society. Why can’t we choose between different forms of government? Or get coupons to choose where to buy health services, for example?» she asks.
Tarkowski did not stay in Sweden for long. «The Swedish form of government takes control over vital functions. Parents are not fully responsible in the upbringing of their children, and children do not take care of their parents. Neighbours ignore each other. You expect the state to do everything for you.»
For seven years, Tarkowski worked for the American administration, including several years in Afghanistan where she assisted Afghans in building their own nation and developing a local government. She also spent a year in Benghazi in Libya during the civil war and has worked in Washington D.C., Egypt, and Pakistan. Her critical attitude to the public state emerged from her experiences in these places, and her long-held visions were reignited.
«During the seven years I worked for the United States, I saw a lot of misery. I saw people get killed, blown to pieces, kidnappings. And instead of the state apparatus, I saw other forms of community that took care of people. For example, when I arrived at the rebel areas and saw the bombing of Benghazi in Libya, I expected total chaos, but it turned out to be one of the most civilised places I have ever visited. A group of ‘scouts’ directed the traffic and voluntary workers organised themselves to collect rubbish. I saw a society that functioned without a central government,» she says.
Tarkowski continues to share from her time in Afghanistan. «I saw the same kind of civilian organisation in Afghanistan. The authorities have a weak position there, but the country functions nonetheless. Although people in Afghanistan have seen horrendous things, experienced war, and live in a dangerous country, I honestly experienced a form of human fellowship and support there that I rarely see in the West.»
Tarkowski had approximately 300 people working for her during her time in Afghanistan. She led a company that provided statistical analysis for the US Department of Defence. But it could take several months to complete the statistics, and the money was slow to come in.
«All of a sudden I was unable to have salaries ready for pay-day. Many Taliban workers wanted to kill me because it meant they could not provide for their families. So they occupied our offices.»
Faced with death threats, Tarkowski rang her French mother. «My mother is a loving person, but she comes from another universe. When I told her they wanted to kill me and were asking for money, she said something like, ‘I love you, darling, but I’m re-decorating the bathroom at the moment so now is not the best time’.»
Instead, the rescue came from her local connections, as Tarkowski had many friends in Afghanistan. «I was invited to their weddings, I knew their families […] You help each other out. I sort of became Afghani myself.» Finally, her driver sold his car and her father sold a house. That saved her life.
Bitcoin and Bitnation
Tarkowski discovered Bitcoin in 2011. «What I had dreamed of for a long time finally seemed possible. Everything changed for me,» she says.
Today, four years after Bitnation was established, Tarkowski has 20 employees working for her fulltime in London. Half of them work as programmers, and the rest of them work in areas related to law and communication.
According to Tarkowski, Bitnation is supposed to be shared as a tool «to enable people to shape their own life.»
They also have their own crypto-currency (PAT) to pay and reward people within the system. But her employees are paid in «fiat money», the British Pound. She also has a number of voluntary «ambassadors» working for her all over the world.
In the last edition of Modern Times Review, we wrote about bitcoin and blockchain technology. All of the new crypto-currencies are now open to financial speculation. I question the fact that a system like Bitnation with its own crypto is open to financial speculation, meaning that the founders will own the first portion of this new «money». She admits that they are fairly well off, but leaves my challenge unanswered.
Where is the solidarity, then, for crypto-anarchists with a crypto-currency?
«Crypto can be used to undermine governments, to not pay for a military industry, for example. Or to not spy on its citizens. We want to create an international system that is not subject to corruption. A whole new world of new automatisation is on the rise, which can help a large number of people.»
Here, in the Catalonian bitnation, ambassador «Manel» shows us the Catalonian passport several people have been playing around with at airports when they have been out travelling – a small form of protest against their Spanish state.
Community or majority?
I shift the conversation back to her emphasis on community, or small local municipalities or communes. I ask if she envisions a world in which states are dismantled, giving rise to cosmopolitan or federal communities. «I think the significance of many nations will disappear with the ongoing globalisation, with more transport, internet and trade.»
And what about Spain?
«Here in Spain they are fighting against a central Spanish government that decides how the regions should carry out their business. I envision a world without centralised authorities. Instead, I would like to see a combination of regions, city-states, villages, and autonomous communities. I envision a combination of virtual authorities, like what we are doing with our bitnations, authorities that are geographically independent and without national borders. I hope more people will follow this vision.»
Tarkowski is critical to state authorities, welfare states, and even democracy itself. «I object to the idea that a majority can impose its will onto an individual. My will should not be controlled by a majority.»
When I emphasise that a democracy is constitutionally obliged to protect the interests of minorities, she answers, «This isn’t about minority rights. The smallest minority is yourself. Should a majority of meat eaters, for example, decide that I should not be a vegetarian? Or should a majority be allowed to use violence against an individual they think is an idiot, just because they are a majority?»
I wonder who might have inspired a person like Tarkowski. To a certain extent, she resembles an ultra-liberalist like the Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand, with her strong emphasis on objectivism. «Many people tell me that I am a true copy of Ayn Rand, which I resent. I tried to read her, but she is a bad writer, her writings are boring. I also don’t find her individualism particularly interesting, appealing or relevant.»
She prefers the writings of Claude-Frédérick Basitiat or a globalist like Thomas Friedman.
As opposed to liberalists, contemporary anarchists promote solidarity, and so I finish the interview by asking Tarkowski what we can do for people who fall outside of society.
«Yes, I am all for solidarity, for instance with redistribution of food. But the point is that this should be voluntary. The same goes for the idea that you should pay taxes to help drug addicts or to support military warfare in other countries.»
Translated from Norwegian by Sigrid E. Strømmen