In early 2022, a video-essay creator named Dan Olson uploaded a two-hour-long exposé to YouTube. “Line Goes Up—the Problem with NFTs” quickly became a viral sensation, accumulating nearly 9 million views as of August—an incredible number for a seemingly niche topic. (The acronym “NFT” stands for “non-fungible token,” the name of a very small subset of the still fairly obscure online cryptocurrency system.)
Olson had done his homework. The video begins with the real-estate crash of 2008, tracing not only how that crisis was allowed to happen but also the social and economic consequences that followed. From there, Olson explores the early days of the first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, and its various features, promises, and problems. Olson moves on from Bitcoin to other digital currencies, such as Ethereum, but he wants to make a larger point than just identifying the idiosyncrasies and flaws of these technologies—he is interested in the social implications of “crypto” hype. The crypto world, according to Olson, is filled not only with hype but also with professional scammers, broken promises, predatory and antisocial behavior, desperation, greed—and rage. Rage at how the post-2008 world had turned out, rage at how the American dream doesn’t seem attainable anymore, rage at whomever and whatever could be blamed for robbing the people inside that online world of what they felt they were owed.
Less than half a year after Olson’s video appeared, TerraUSD, the biggest so-called stablecoin (a cryptocurrency intended to maintain a price peg to another asset, often a national currency), crashed overnight. The value of Terra plummeted to essentially zero, which, in turn, delivered a massive shock to the entire cryptocurrency ecosystem, slashing the total market cap of crypto in half. Many people lost their savings. Amid the financial carnage, the feelings of anger deepened. A world that promised financial salvation to the savvy and the elect turned out to be just another mirage, ending up with a few big winners and many, many losers. Rather than replace a broken and corrupt post-2008 economy, crypto appeared only to replicate its worst aspects.
Olson’s essay is available for free on YouTube, and it contains a treasure trove of information about the technical details, as well as the practical history, of cryptocurrencies. It’s a rich account, but one aspect of it deserves special elaboration: Olson’s characterization of the social environment of the online chatrooms, forums, Discord servers, and newsletters of the cryptocurrency universe. Crypto, it turns out, is not unique. The intense online world centered on digital currencies that Olson explores—evoking a curious mixture of hope, insecurity, desperation, fear, joy, and anger, and holding out promises of personal meaning and financial salvation—is today just one among many online. From radical feminism and anti–seed oil activism to neopaganism and “esoteric” online racism, the Internet today is full of strange new quasi-faiths, many offering competing narratives of what went wrong after 2008, each offering a secret knowledge—a gnosis—through which an enlightened few can hope to escape and purify themselves.
Indeed, one of the under-explored effects of the great financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent collapse of Western society’s model sequence for attaining professional success and social esteem (go to college, study hard, get a well-paying job, form a family) has been a privatization of meaning among younger millennials and members of Generation Z. It’s broadly accepted today that many in the younger generation face a future where they will be materially poorer and less professionally secure than their parents and grandparents. Such monumental shifts in economic reality invariably produce dramatic shifts in people’s social reality, as old expectations and beliefs no longer match up with the way things are. In earlier eras of American history, major crises, as well as the ideological and religious revivals that often followed them, played out in streets, churches, tent meetings, and lodges. Now the process takes shape primarily online, where the new Gnostics preach.
According to Olson, the average profile of someone inside the more speculative part of the crypto boom was as follows: middle class, but downwardly mobile, with a susceptibility to the confidence tricks and fraud endemic to the crypto market, stemming largely from unfamiliarity with the actual economy, the challenges of running a business, and so on. With just enough money to be able to invest, but not enough experience or sense to avoid crypto scams, these people tended to exhibit the unstable emotional mix of hope, confusion, and righteous fury that Olson identifies.
The slang language of these online crypto environments includes terms such as “rug-pulls”—that is, crypto projects that take the money and run. Yet indignation over how often this seems to happen is accompanied by a sort of blithe acceptance that, yes, someone is getting ripped off; it just shouldn’t be me. As Olson points out, advertisement for “pump-and-dump” schemes is done in the open, and not particularly frowned upon; often, the people taking these chances to scam others find out that they were actually recruited into the “dump” part of the swindle, not the “pump.” Further, at the most basic level, the big hope for a payday (for a cryptocurrency coin to blast “to the moon”) is that the coin suffers from massive deflation. In the real world, deflation can often be catastrophic, of course, but in crypto, it is often a well-advertised feature, not a bug. Sure, if everyone adopted Bitcoin and the inability of the currency to expand produced an economic disaster, that would be bad overall, but at least those who got in on it early would be rewarded.
If this sounds like a sort of hyper-libertarian world, with each economic actor out for himself and himself alone, the truth is more complicated, as was shown in early 2021, when the stock price of the video-game retailer GameStop suddenly exploded. The story began innocently enough. Several large Wall Street players had shorted GameStop stock, figuring that the ailing company didn’t have long to live in an era of digital distribution. But someone noticed these big “short” positions and posted about them on online forums such as Reddit and 4chan. Suddenly, thousands of retail investors were buying the stock, forcing the price up, producing a classic market “short squeeze.” This small flash in the financial pan proved a lot more complicated, and revealing, than anyone could have predicted.
For a week or two, much commentary focused on the GameStop short squeeze. The Week published an article, “How GameStop Explains Right-Wing Populism,” with a picture of a MAGA hat. Rolling Stone echoed with “GameStop, Robinhood, Reddit, and Populism,” while Newsweek declared: “The GameStop saga proves that populism is here to stay.” What everyone noticed was that this particular short squeeze wasn’t the usual story of Wall Street firms trying to make a quick buck. It was about something else: large numbers of retail investors, jumping at the chance to “punish” the powers that be. The main force behind the short squeeze, a subreddit called “Wallstreetbets,” saw an explosion of posts that had little to do with financial betting and much more to do with aggrievement. Users took turns posting their life stories—about struggling to get work, or finding themselves overloaded by student or medical debt, or being lied to by the media and the government, or discovering how the system was increasingly rigged to benefit a few powerful insiders. Several friends of mine ended up buying GameStop stock during the short squeeze, expecting to lose money but doing it as a show of “solidarity.” Here, finally, was a chance to strike back.
In the end, the GameStop saga wasn’t a fairy tale about Robin Hood defeating the Sheriff of Nottingham. Large financial interests were operating on both sides; many retail investors who put in money during the squeeze lost most of it, while certain major investors, sophisticated enough to gauge where the wind was blowing, clearly egged people on, so as to reap gigantic profits for themselves.
Still, the short squeeze illustrates the same dynamic that Olson noted with cryptocurrencies and NFTs: an ethos of social awareness and anger at an unfair system, coexisting with a sort of dog-eat-dog philosophy, in which the light at the end of the tunnel, the “exit,” is always a personal one. The system is rigged, yes, but here’s your chance to make a ton of money without lifting a finger—just buy the right stock, the right NFT, the right crypto, at the right time. You deserved that money from the start anyway, until someone—the “system,” the government, the bankers—kept you from getting it.
Feminists of yesteryear argued that the personal is political, but for many Internet- immersed millennials and zoomers, the equation is reversed. The political is now the personal, and the tendency isn’t limited to crypto. Olson points to the zealotry displayed by crypto enthusiasts, with their often-unshakable belief that this or that digital currency will make them—but probably not everyone else—rich one day. This way of thinking, or believing, is common among an entire online generation. The promise of proliferating numbers of belief systems and fringe political narratives on the Web—across a thousand subreddits, a million Twitter accounts, and some barely read Substacks—is how to make you rich, or successful, or sexually attractive, or healthy. Christ may have died on the cross to redeem humanity from original sin, but grace today leads you to a well-paying, rewarding job or improves your lifting form at the gym.
A striking illustration of this phenomenon was an introductory montage to a Fox News special, hosted by popular TV host Tucker Carlson, called “The End of Men.” In it, we see muscular men engaged in various activities that seem mysterious or nonsensical, at least at first. A half-naked man shoots a high-caliber rifle at a bottle of canola oil. Another half-naked man milks a cow. A third man, this one fully naked, greets the sunrise, arms outstretched, with some sort of ultraviolet light illuminating his crotch. Bombastic music plays, and a narrator intones about iron sharpening iron to create strong men in hard times.
The casual observer can be forgiven for thinking that some sort of vaguely “fascist” imagery is on display. But look closer, and a different picture emerges: what you see advertised is a form of messianic, almost millenarian, self-help—about as far as one could get from an ideology of violent collectivism. Once you understand why the activities are taking place, moreover, the self-help dimension becomes impossible to ignore.
Why is the muscular man shooting at canola oil bottles, rather than something more practical—an actual target, say? The answer: because “seed oils” are one of the prime villains for a new quasi-faith popular on the Internet. As the story goes, seed oils (canola oils, sunflower oils, and so on) are inherently unnatural; humans were never meant to consume them. That they’re found in everything these days is a disaster, helping to explain why people (including young men) are so unhealthy—and another reason society is so fundamentally damaged. The “science” here is secondary. Seed oils are not merely bad on some empirical level; they are evil on a spiritual level. Seed oils corrupt the body. By eliminating them (and by preaching such elimination), one cleanses oneself of impurity and helps others achieve salvation, as well. In this narrative, which the Carlson special echoes, many contemporary young men have been robbed of their true potential due to an environmental toxicity. If the toxicity is removed, a higher, more natural state of being opens up.
This is a modern form of Gnosticism, the early-Christian-era belief system that postulates that humans contain a piece of God or the divinity inside themselves, to which they then lose access because of the material world’s corruption. Through proper spiritual knowledge, or gnosis, that connection can be rekindled, and the enlightened person can then break free from the corruption that surrounds him. In one 2022 version of this belief system, seed oils are the great malevolent force. Micro-plastics, soy, hormonal runoff in the water supply due to birth control: all can (and sometimes do) serve a similar function. You can strip away the divine elements of the story and replace them with fairly crude scientism, but the belief system’s structure remains unchanged.
Once you realize this, everything else in the Carlson intro fits into place. Why is the naked man sunning his groin? Because UV light hitting the testicles purportedly activates additional testosterone production. Why is the half-naked man milking a cow? Because raw milk sustained humans for millennia, before the dark Demiurge brought pasteurization. (Some zealots take this milk faith a step further, claiming that, while raw cow milk is a good first step on the path to self-actualization, the true reflection of strength and vitality for an adult human male is to drink “raw” breast milk.) While the Carlson clip talks vaguely about how “strong men” will possibly return and “reestablish order,” so that the “cycle begins anew,” there’s no sense of collective purpose. In the end, we see, here and in other modern folk faiths, individuals looking for their own personal salvation. Some might seek redemption through drinking “raw water” (whatever that is); others put their faith in a cryptocurrency or a “Bored Ape” NFT, bits of code with the magical power to fix the world.
It’s hard to overstate just how full the Internet is with itinerant prophets, holy fools, hustlers, fraudsters, and soothsayers. One of the biggest figures in this ecosystem, “Bronze Age Pervert,” or BAP, is a former academic and poster on an obscure Internet forum who published a book, Bronze Age Mindset, which has become a cult classic for part of the dissident Right. BAP is self-consciously not a political figure, according to his own words; he sees himself as a purveyor of an aesthetic. That his own disciples often confuse him with a political leader (sometimes to BAP’s obvious frustration) is because the search for an aesthetic is a small step from the search for some sort of personal gnosis, and the search for personal gnosis is now a religious—sorry, “political”—impulse among the younger generation.
Not so long ago, a guy writing a book about bodybuilders and personal stories of getting drunk in some random Gulf state (as Bronze Age Mindset details) would not be mistaken for committing a political act. That’s no longer true, and here, the generational difference is stark. Dan Olson is a millennial, and thus his exploration of crypto isn’t hindered by the slang terms, the ironic distance, or the various cultural mores of those who, in the parlance of our times, are “Highly Online.” He knows what the various terms mean, he knows when people are being ironic and when they’re not, and so his harshest criticism targets the actual ideology of the crypto ecosystem, rather than remaining a surface-level critique of what it says it’s about.
For older people, this interpretive penetration is clearly harder. Michael Anton’s review of Bronze Age Mindset for The Claremont Review of Books is suggestive in this regard. Anton self-consciously acknowledges that he doesn’t really understand what “the kids” are doing. He’s trying to understand—and the review of Bronze Age Mindset is friendly and open-minded but at least tentatively critical of the details—but it’s clear that he has no illusions on that front. Indeed, the book is recommended to him precisely because this is what “the kids” are into these days. Anton’s review concludes with a rebuke of his fellow (older) conservatives: the kids no longer listen to them, and thus the need to try to understand the younger generation can’t be put off. As Anton puts it: “In the spiritual war for the hearts and minds of the disaffected youth on the right, conservatism is losing. BAPism is winning.”
Bronze Age Pervert has never been particularly thrilled at the idea of “BAPism” winning. Like Karl Marx declaring that, if he knew one thing, it’s that he wasn’t a Marxist, BAP is not a “BAPist,” as that would imply a political movement, with him as a leader—a job he does not want. What has taken over the young—both inside and outside the Right—is not BAPism but the ideology (or quasi-religion) of self-care. BAPism’s aesthetic exhortations offer its supplicants one kind of self-care, one kind of gnosis, but it exists in a vast sea of rival online approaches. Play a mental game of six degrees of separation with BAP, and you quickly move on to the protein-powder salesmen, the raw-egg slonkers, the breast-milk enjoyers, the reactionary monarchists, the anarcho-primitivists, and more. Before you know it, you’re no longer on the right, but on the extreme left, with competing feminist or transsexual “mindsets,” all holding out the same promise of personal betterment, career advancement, or some other lifestyle benefit as the ultimate reward for the enlightened.
All of this, and not just crypto mania, has bloomed since the 2008 financial crash. In earlier eras, social crises often ignited religious revivals; the United States has a rich history of Christian revivalism in periods of rapid social change. Nowadays, Christian conservatives like Rod Dreher bemoan the lack of religiosity among the young. Is this really the case, though? True, we don’t see an explosion of large tent meetings and fiery preachers touring the churches of the American Northeast, as in the 1830s. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Older generations today may be missing a religious revival, of sorts, happening right under their own noses, or, perhaps one could say, inside their own pockets. Social media have replaced the tent as a space for conversion and salvation. Nineteenth-century postmillenarianism exhorted the faithful to cleanse society to prepare the way for Christ’s return; in the 2020s, millennials and zoomers seek to purify their testicles. Through ritual, through secret knowledge, through purification and removal of the self from the corrupting influence of fiat money, or patriarchy, or the white gaze, or seed oils, or social norms about adult human males drinking breast milk, the individual seekers hope to find enlightenment.
The hypocrisy of cryptocurrency chatrooms—people enraged at getting scammed while simultaneously hoping to participate in the scamming of others—is natural in this context, because gnostic belief is almost never about collective redemption. In earlier eras, “betterment” usually meant attaining a higher spiritual state. To many desperate young people in the post-2008 world, “gnosis” can simply be finding a way to escape student debt or meet a girlfriend. For those hungry for answers—who want a narrative, something they can do, a blueprint that will finally make sense of the world of closed doors and shrinking opportunities they find themselves in—there is really only one rule: as long as you have an Internet connection, seek, and ye shall find.
Illustrations by David Hollenbach