Silk Road, Revolutions and Systems

May 26, 2019

Today, I read the story of Silk Road: how the young idealist Ross Ulbricht, tired of chasing success the old school way, found his way around the darkweb to create an online As a part of the darkweb, it was operated as a Tor hidden service which protected the personal privacy of users by concealing their details from anyone - from the Government to their ISP - conducting network surveillance. Additionally, all payments were made using Bitcoin , a cryptocurrency which provides a certain degree of anonymity. bazaar for the trading of illicit materials, mainly drugs, which he named Silk Road.

The aim behind writing this blog post is to think out loud and try to gain insight into the oversights made by some of the most prominent revolutionaries in history.

When operating his online empire, Ross would take on the identity of Dread Pirate Roberts (~DPR) (borrowing the name from “The Princess Bride”, in which the pirate was a mythical character, inhabited by the wearer of the mask).

Ross (aka DPR) was having trouble switching back-and-forth between these different personalities, the many different facets of which were penned down beautifully in the original article :

To Alex, Ross was the cool new roommate; to Julia [his on-and-off girlfriend], a passionate lover and inspiration; to his family, the perpetual Eagle Scout; to Force [undercover DEA Agent posing as a Puerto Rican cartel middlemen], an unlikely friend in the night; to Tarbell [FBI Agent investigating his case], a smart kid defeated by his own arrogance. To the Southern District of New York US attorney’s office, Ross was simply the criminal conspirator Dread Pirate Roberts.

The likeliest reality is that Ross was all of those things. The open-minded seeker who conscientiously tried to pluck trash from a tree was Ross. As was the feverish visionary creating a virtual empire at any cost. Neither truth invalidated the other. Ross and DPR can (and did) coexist.

Ross didn’t exactly dream of building this huge empire of illicit business, but it was essentially all baby steps, As B.J. Neblett said “We are the sum total of our experiences. Those experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become. None of us are the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow.” stemming from the influence Ludwig von Mises - an Austrian economist described in the story as “a totem of the modern American libertarian orthodoxy” - had on Ross. According to von Mises, a citizen must have economic freedom to be politically and morally free.

If you haven’t read the story yet, please do and then come back! It might easily be one of the most riveting cyber-criminology reports you ever read.

Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Ludwig von Mises, they all had an ideology - a vision of the ideal world, and a way of bringing peace to world. For them, it embodied an expression which society must adhere to lead them towards utter completeness and happiness.

The ideology of Hitler was an ideology of conquest: the “manifest destiny” of a superior race to conquer, occupy, and control lands of the “lesser” people - the Untermenschen - for the sole benefit of the superior race.

The ideal society for Stalin was one in which people contribute to it because they feel it is their pleasure and responsibility to do so, and in which people only consume what they need while being mindful of the needs of others.

And they executed their ideas, bringing about their ‘revolution’!

Both regimes - the Third Reich and Stalinism - were responsible for millions of deaths and untold amounts of suffering.

Although one can argue that Ross Ulbricht’s ‘revolution’ was nowhere near that scale, but that is immaterial to our discussion. It followed the same pattern which was summed up by Bearman rather well in the original story:

It’s an age-old story, the bloom and wilt of revolution. After tearing down the establishment’s walls, the new regime soon realizes the rubble would make a fine set of gallows. Just as Tarbell thought, all systems are the same. At the beginning of Silk Road, what Ross created was just a system. Then, at a certain point, it became his system—at which moment the system was doomed.

Isn’t it strange - How we become the very thing we fight against!

Gazing into Abyss

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

― Friedrich W. Nietzsche

For people who prefer examples in fiction over history, what happened with the finale of Game of Thrones is a prime example of this pattern. [Spoilers Ahead] In light of everything Daenerys [one of show’s main protagonists] accomplished — birthing dragons out of stone, freeing thousands of slaves, helping the Starks defeat an army of ice-zombies — the viewers first handedly experienced the mindset of a revolutionary who believed that it was incumbent upon her to liberate the entire world. Yet it was when she failed to draw a line between herself and her vision The time when she succumbed to her temptations, burning alive and hence killing thousands of people in King’s Landing that she failed as a ruler, becoming exactly what she had hoped to abolish: tyranny. It is worth noting here that all the while she unapologetically burnt the innocent, she was fueled by the exact same idea - to liberate the innocents of the world from tyranny.

In Ross’s case, the fact that he was feeling uneasy even as DPR (who was a rather confident and eloquent character); that he had already begun failing at what he had intended to do was the first clue that the shadows of doom had already fallen upon him. But he deceived himself in the name of his idea - in the belief that he was doing the right thing.

Is it really this belief and total devotion to our idea that blinds us, or is it the power and the riches which corrupts us? Or maybe it is a fundamental misunderstanding of our very own conceived idea? Perhaps it might be a skewed combination of all of the above.

I do not claim to know the answers to any of the above questions.

But let’s look at another revolutionary: Mahatma Gandhi and the revolution he brought about in India.

Mahatma Gandhi was called Bapu (Father) by many, including Jawaharlal Nehru

In response to the Rowlatt Act imposed by the British and the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Gandhi lead the non-cooperation movement, appealing to the masses to adopt swadeshi goods and local handicrafts to boycott British goods. The movement was based on the principle of Ahimsa (Non-Violence), and after two years of hard work, it gained full momentum in 1922. It seemed that the dream of Swaraj (self-governance) was finally turning to reality.

But giving a face to Gandhi’s fears, cases of violence were reported from all over the nation, and after the Chauri-Chaura A large group of protesters participating in the Non-cooperation movement clashed with the police, who opened fire. In retaliation, the demonstrators attacked and set fire to a police station, killing all of its occupants. incident, he decided to call off the protest indefinitely. This was indeed a very difficult and brave decision on his part - he could have gotten what he wanted and ignored the ‘milder’ cases of violence for the nation, but his moral caliber was defiant of such behavior and he chose to voice it.

It was perhaps because he believed in a perpetual fight - a fight we all have to fight against our own moral demons - in which the nation must not succumb to the demon of violence.

Subsequently, Gandhi launched many campaigns perfecting the concept of Satyagrah सत्याग्रह (Satyagrah): सत्य (Truth) + आग्रह (insistence) - सत्य के लिए आग्रह - The truth force, is a particular form of non-violent civil resistance , finally leading the nation to independence in 1947.

I guess we all get to play Ross sometimes, and I believe that creating barriers, as Gandhi did, to encourage the higher moral stance of one’s own values - be it by ruthless questioning of one’s own beliefs and biases, or having an external support mechanism for keeping oneself on track - would help us dodge the doom of our system.

But I do find it very interesting to ponder upon how ‘easy’ it is to be lost, to be engrossed so deeply into our visions to forget what it stood for in the first place; to cross the rather fine line drawn between us and the monster, and how tools like identities and the different masks we wear make it all the more easier.

Special thanks to Abhipsha for proofreading and making this article readable!

Silk Road, Revolutions and Systems - May 26, 2019 - Rahul Jha