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Pablo Peniche
18 Oct 2022

Work and Pray

For Bitcoin to be sustainable, miners must embrace institutions and the centralization and discipline they entail.

Work and Pray

“Why are there no monasteries dedicated to maintaining and perfecting software?” “We need to build Bitcoin monasteries.” “A few years ago a friend asked what would I do if I had all the money in the world. ‘Build Bitcoin monasteries,’ I replied.”

In a tech scene disillusioned by worsening war and souring economics, a turn from the worldly and the cultish to the spiritual and divine shouldn’t be that big a surprise. But conditions seem ripe for a new twist in tech’s proud practice of innovating seemingly out of nowhere. Are Bitcoin and monastic orders a match made in heaven?

The signs are these for those with eyes to see. “By adopting Bitcoin, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles from Kansas City were able to build their church and focus on preserving Catholic traditions,” Bitcoin Magazine recently reported. In a new book, currently sitting atop Amazon’s political philosophy charts, RETURN founder James Poulos suggests “Bitcoin may be used to design projects of sacral culture that cannot be completed for many centuries, if ever – Bitcoin monasteries, for those who hope to limit the content of consciousness in a way as radical as it is protective of our given nature and identity, or Bitcoin cathedrals, for those who hope to fill online life with the artful testimony of God’s grace and the beauty of the worship of God. In this sort of way, all things, great and small, that keep holy our sacred gifts may find a digital home and purpose. But only if we try.”

What might a proper trial look like?

Perhaps since the beginning, political life, the life of the city, has drawn on two great sources of energy: the entrepreneurial and the ecclesiastical.

The pattern shows strongly in one region freighted with history and still seizing on the tech imagination. Those searching to escape the traps of the ancient city-state and the modern nation-state today often look to the Hanseatic League, the medieval confederation of merchant guilds and market townships that stretched from the Baltics nearly to the Belgian port of Bruges.

At its center was what would, in time, become the Kingdom of Prussia. But before the League, another order held sway. Herman von Salza, a German part of the lower-upper class, and struggling to rise above his station, saw an opportunity with the small order of the Teutonic Knights. He rose to Grand Master of the Order, a testament to his keen military acumen. In 1215, the new Holy Roman Emperor Frederich II named Herman a Prince of the Empire. He later joined Duke Konrad of Masovia, whose Polish borderlands were suffering from pagan attacks. The order of warrior-monks expanded in the inhospitable lands of the North, driven by faith, the moral duty to end slavery in the pagan tribes, and the ambition to conquer. The Teutonic Knights were similar to the Knights Templar, but the latter became their own bank and financial institution. Some scholars credit them with inventing modern banking – during the pilgrimage from Europe to Jerusalem, normal people would be targets of robbery if they carried money around, so the Templar Bank helped by allowing them to deposit in Poland and withdraw in Jerusalem, without carrying money in the pilgrimage.

As they evangelized the region, they built Catholic monasteries. Blessed with new agricultural techniques and a growing army, the monastery expanded under the motto “Helfen, Wehren, Heilen” (“Help, Defend, Heal”).

Buttressed with additional maxims like “ora et labora” (“pray and work”), the discipline of the monks made the monasteries grow, which then later became universities. As aristocrats sent their children to study there, progress took its course. The universities grew into university towns, which proved to be fertile ground in an otherwise inhospitable environment for having families. With an increase in population, the towns grew into larger cities. Some of these were Elbląg in what is now Poland, Klaipėda in what is now Lithuania; and Königsberg, which is now Kaliningrad in Russia.

Putting these three examples in mind – the Hanse, the Teutonic Knights and the Knights Templar– gives us a working model for founding Bitcoin-mining monasteries. Consider, for instance, the following scenario…

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To build a Bitcoin monastery, you first start to convince actual monks to take Bitcoin as a donation. After that begins a conversation. The next step is to donate to the monastery a system to collect methane from the animal manure in the farm – in this way, you can convert the methane into electricity and then you use that electricity to mine Bitcoin. This will generate an extra income for the monastery, with a currency that can’t be debased no matter how dire the economics or how weak or mighty the regime. It is one they can use as a foundation to build upon.

The theory behind “charter cities” goes that if you want to start a new city you have to, first, raise money from investors, then negotiate with different governments until one gives you a legal charter, then you get real estate developers to build the infrastructure and then you get the people to move in. Monastic orders might also further develop the idea of “cloud cities”, which companies like Praxis are testing and Balaji Srinivasan has talked about in his book: start with an online community of people around the world who can work from their computers and live anywhere in the world. 

To measure the strength of the community, the church counts attendees at Mass. For Bitcoin monasteries to measure strength of an online community today, they’ll measure attendance to live calls praying the daily rosary in a private server. They start with a chat wherein people congregate to share ideas, then add monks to the server who would lead daily rosary prayer twice a day, covering multiple time zones. The community starts releasing online content to evangelize others and grow the community and improve the lives of its members – quit drinking, hit the gym, quit porn, find a spouse, find a better remote job with higher pay.

The wealthier contingent of the online community uses a special card to give back to the monastery in exchange for songs and art produced in the monastery. The elites voluntarily use a card that takes a percentage on every transaction and sends it to the Bitcoin wallet in the monastery – creating the incentive for an elite class worthy of rule, since they are putting their wealth to work to support the monks and working-class people of the frontier building a monastery. When this worthy elite moves in, statues are built in their image honoring the help they’ve provided to help construct the monastery and to support the working class build in the frontier. This creates the incentives to have an elite worthy of looking up to.

The monks chase constrained energy in different parts of the world and then build monasteries around the mining operation. They require working-class people to help out when venturing into a new frontier, chasing untapped sources of energy, to mine Bitcoin. These settlements are crucial for the foundation of new cities, and these people need all the help they can get, especially from the elites that will inhabit the city.

As the monastery grows, a familiar progress starts up again. With their new experience and knowledge, the monks found new universities; the elites supporting them will provide the students, who will learn not only theology and philosophy but all they’ve learned mining Bitcoin and adjacent to it: computer science, cryptography, electrical engineering, petroleum engineering, distributed computation, cybersecurity, etc. Slowly but surely, a new era dawns.

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The opportunity cost of mining Bitcoin creates an interesting alternative signal of education credentialing: having a degree from a prestigious university draws the signal mostly from exclusion and the fact that it is hard to get in. If Bitcoin keeps going up in price and mining becomes an incredibly lucrative activity, and the Bitcoin-mining monasteries become universities – the students who get in are getting an important signal. Their  acceptance by monks who are leaving Bitcoin on the table in order to teach them gives a high-trust signal throughout the market, generating a replacement to university diplomas from fiat universities. 

After the profits from mining Bitcoin, the monks would have profits from the increase in land value around the monasteries. But social capital is upstream of land-value; this future city cannot rely entirely on the intellectual faculties. Sharp minds need robust bodies. To structure much of its life and culture around the physical disciplines, the Bitcoin-mining community will revive what Americans will (hopefully) remember as Theodore Roosevelt’s concept of the “strenuous” life. “A healthy state,” he said, “can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk.” Training and improving, body, mind, and soul: warrior monk-approved. (I call this the replacement of GDP with GDB – gross domestic bench.)

The measurable success from the production of healthy harvests, the mining operation, and the intellectual contributions from the university will encourage neighboring governments to be more accommodating to this concept of living. Instead of feeling like they are taking a gamble by giving a legal charter to experiment with the laws, they will grow impressed with a renewed vigor among the community members not seen in recent social iterations. The success of the university town would be measured in the beauty of the architecture, birth rates of people living there, economic growth, improving health, and something else very scarce today – a high-trust society.

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Bitcoiners may be starting to get around the idea that mining won’t be decentralized, because the operations are capital- and energy-intensive – and that intensity is only going to increase. But many of these Bitcoiners are now “blackpilled” because a lot of these mining operations are run by for-profit companies that are getting their money from people peddling ESG narratives, which will make the mining not reliable and that will have repercussions in the stability of Bitcoin. What Bitcoiners need are miners that are going to hold their Bitcoin for a millennia. What institution can think in such time horizons? Only monasteries.

The oldest for-profit institution in the world is a company called Kikkoman, which was founded in 1603, 400 years ago. This is the best possible case scenario for for-profit miners on how long their enterprise could live. On the other hand, the oldest monasteries in the world, which are still functioning today, are Christian, founded around the year 300. If mining can’t be decentralized, we want miners to be people who are long-term thinkers. There are no institutions like monasteries when it comes to having low-time preference.

The challenge facing Bitcoiners, and anyone else who wants an off-ramp into a new society, is a renewed affection for institutions and the centralization inherent in them. Having lived with the increasing isolation and fragmentation that comes with decentralized yet vast societies, the discipline, reverence, hierarchical structure, and moral exactitude of the monastery is what’s presently missing but sorely needed in the Bitcoiners’ vision of sustainability.

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