For a man on a moral crusade, Sam Bankman-Fried lived a life of surprising luxury. The $40m penthouse in the Bahamas, the supermodels and celebrities roped in to back his business ventures, and the fawning glossy magazine profiles would all be perfectly standard trappings for a Wall Street tycoon or hedge fund playboy. But they seem strangely reminiscent of the tired old capitalism Bankman-Fried got rich rejecting, not the one he was supposedly building in its place.
Once one of the world’s youngest billionaires, Bankman-Fried made his fortune in cryptocurrencies – forms of digital money originally invented to circumvent the supposedly corrupt financial elite and empower the little guy – and had grand plans for giving it all away to life-changing progressive causes. But instead of bringing the rotten old order crashing down, he was this week arrested on fraud charges (which he has denied) relating to the implosion of his currency exchange FTX in what bankruptcy lawyers describe as “one of the most abrupt and difficult collapses in the history of corporate America”.
Cryptocurrency is sometimes called “the people’s money”, because of the way it tapped into the rage of those who had lost trust, for understandable reasons, in the post-crash financial system: often young men, economically disfranchised, willing or desperate enough to take a gamble on a volatile and intangible asset, and prone to hurl threats and vitriol online at anyone arguing for tighter regulation of this wild new frontier. But if you thought Wall Street couldn’t be trusted, try being an FTX user, wondering if you’ll ever get your money back.
Will we come to see 2022 as the year populism finally ate itself? For if the last few years have been all about the collapse of public trust in the establishment then 2022 was the year trust in the anti-establishment collapsed too. It’s been a bad year for revolutionaries, but a worse one for those who badly needed to believe in them, only to realise too late they seem to have jumped out of a frying pan into the fire.
God knows there are legitimate criticisms to be made of mainstream politics, the City, and – as Harry and Meghan pointed out at length from their Netflix soapbox – the mainstream media, among a raft of other institutions recently in the firing line. It’s hardly surprising that so many want to believe in better. But this has been a year of realising that untrammelled populist alternatives are just as capable of turning toxic, if not sometimes more so, than the supposedly broken systems they seek to disrupt.
Liz Truss’s surreal six weeks in power looks in retrospect like the peak of this phenomenon. She was determined to rip up stuffy old economic orthodoxy and, in doing so, finally deliver the mythical fruits of the Brexit revolution. Instead she proved that orthodoxy exists for a reason, with a mini-budget that cost the country billions and drove former leave voters into the arms of safe, conventional, remain-voting Keir Starmer, the polar opposite of everything she represented.
Perhaps a similar kind of disillusionment with the radical alternative explains last month’s otherwise decidedly surprising finding by the pollsters Ipsos that trust in journalists has hit its highest point in 39 years. Closer inspection of the numbers shows faith in the written press has been quietly rising for years as faith in the internet – which once promised to democratise information, bringing truths quashed by corporate media or political censors to the masses – correspondingly declined. Perhaps it’s not that people have learned to love Fleet Street hacks so much as that they’ve grown disillusioned with new media platforms awash with conspiracy theories, fake news and hate.
New Twitter owner Elon Musk’s decision to suspend several journalists covering his activities from his platform after he said they were “doxing” him, meanwhile, is a useful reminder that revolutionaries often end up morphing into what they once decried. Having previously declared too much content moderation “contrary to the will of the people”, Musk seems to have decided there are limits to free speech after all, especially when it’s him you’re talking about.
The moral of the story isn’t that the establishment is perfect, nor that all revolutions are doomed. But it is to beware of populism in all its guises, and perhaps especially the profit-making ones. The people’s rage turns out to be easily monetised, and some have made fortunes from it. But this was the year of realising that it’s the people, in the end, who usually pay.