Prophet Motives & Knightwork States

Author: Wassim Z. Alsindi

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Author’s Note: This text is a heavily abridged version of a longer text in preparation on this topic, and as such is broad in scope but light on exposition. Causa latet, vis est notissima.

Technology, Capital, Spirituality: An Unholy Trinity?

“From the beginning men used God to justify the unjustifiable. He moves in mysterious ways: men say.”

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, 1989, p. 95.

The phenomenon of  ‘disenchantment of the world’ invoked by Max Weber by way of Friedrich Schiller's ‘Entzauberung’, emerged as a result of the gradual exfiltration of magic, sorcery, gods, and demons from the arena of divinity by the Abrahamic religions, in their place invoking human prophets, apostles, disciples, and other forms of modernist cultural rationalisations.

Magic The Gathering: Disenchantment Card
Magic The Gathering: Disenchantment Card

“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”

Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, 1922, p. 36.

Since time immemorial, the calendar and clock have been used as organs for the mediation of ecumenical, imperial, capital, and now technological forms of ‘chronic’ domination. In Weber’s later The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the equivocation is made between time and money. Today, it’s more apparent than ever that modern capitalism has replaced God with quantised time.

Contemporary luxury beliefs such as those under the ‘TESCREAL’ banner–transhumanism, extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, rationalism, effective altruism, and longtermism–amongst others associated with the ‘quantified self’, and ‘longevity’ movements, intimate that the disenchanting of earnest spirituality into synthetic replicas reified through capital and technology continues unabated in the present moment.

A Chance To Cult Is A Chance To Cure

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

John 3:16

Cults–of personality, of belief, of community–are nothing new. Indeed, the Romans and Greeks thought of affiliations to untraditional deities within their respective constellations as cults. Similarly, so-called ‘conspiracy theories’, i.e. legends of clandestine skullduggery associated with organisations such as the Knights Templar, Freemasonry, and the Bavarian Illuminati have persisted for centuries. There is an epistemic issue at the heart of any discussion around these topics, which is where the distinction–if such a delineation is even possible–at which point a new religious movement transcends its status as a conspiratorial plot into that of a social cult, a cult into that of a bona fide religion, or the reverse via schisms and factional divergences.

“The Church and The Network, Zeal and Time, Death and Money. All sides of the same Coin.”

0x Salon, The Black Hole of Money, 2022.

'Whose Skin In the Game?' custom Magic: The Gathering Card, 0x Salon, 2020.
'Whose Skin In the Game?' custom Magic: The Gathering Card, 0x Salon, 2020.

It seems important to ask, why are all these new technology-mediated new religious movements emerging now?  Looking at the world around us, post-COVID, post-Brexit, post-Trump, in the midst of rampant price inflation, it would appear that a new wave of Weltentzauberung (world disenchantment) is upon us. We live in an age of weak ties between kin, clan, and townsfolk, with trust in institutions–from churches and universities, to governments–seemingly at all-time lows. Concomitantly, the atomisation of the heteronormative ‘nuclear’ family continues apace. With increasing numbers of people living alone and working remotely, civic hubs such as pubs, cafes, and post-offices slide out of commercial viability. As real estate prices soar globally, community spaces such as town squares and parks are increasingly turned over to private developers for luxury apartments, gated communities, and other enforcers of social hierarchy operating through the demarcation of territory.

Founders. CEOs. Type A personalities. Leaders. Captains of industry. Professors. Inventors. Investors. Patreon-Podcast-Substack-growth-hackers (‘Roganauts’). We all know them, and love or hate them, they will never go away. The incentives–economic, social, and otherwise–provided by capital; in all its hard and soft, explicit and implicit forms, are so powerful that, like moths to a light (positive phototaxis), or flies to a heap of dung, they will keep coming. But where do these unnatural-seeming people-cum-archetype-facsimiles spawn from?

“Like liberalism, or democracy, or capitalism, protocol is a successful technology precisely because its participants are evangelists, not servants.”

A.R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, 2004, p. 245.

It may be helpful to orient this anthropological exploration though a concept which arguably started it all: code-as-law. Originally spoken of in the 1990s separately by Bill Mitchell and Larry Lessig, code-as-law appears to have fairly benign conceptual origins in the early days of the world wide web. Code-as-law supposes that there could be a type of self-regulation where private actors–institutions, companies, individuals etc.–could embed their values and customs into the technological substrates and artifacts that they create and use. The trouble is, with blockchains that never forget a thing we now have long-lasting mnemotechnics, and therefore code-being-law means not just some text files in a Git repository, but rather a technoeconomic substrate which can execute and enact the predetermined logics of a piece of code both within and without (via proxies) the network itself. Neohistoricisation. In so doing, code-as-law becomes something we are subjected to unwillingly, unwittingly, and unconsensually, from the moment of execution/deployment until the end of time/the network. These may or may not be the same event, depending on your preferred network eschatology.

“Rather than savage anomaly, blockchain is better understood as normalisation and naturalisation, the regime of nature-as-technics presented as a work of trustless salvation. Blockchain technics is what mediates here between formalised Idea (that of ‘ordinality’) and everyday life (‘late capitalism’): it is Platonic Idea incarnated as Capitalist Theocracy.”

Justin Clemens, In The State of Nature, Nothing Will Be Lost, 2020, p. 171.

Imaginary Countries: Control-AltRight-Citadelete

Perhaps this New Age of Disenchantment, together with the aforementioned nascent mnemotechnic capabilities, can go some way to explain the fervour and zeal of today’s technocapitalist empire-builders. The desire for new forms of distributed community, from benign online gaming cliques, unidimensional fandoms, speculator-tribes, and ‘intentional communities’, to Bitcoin citadels, network states, special economic zones, and charter cities, might be interpreted initially as exit fantasies for the disempowered and dispossessed. Can this secessionary turn be thought of as a colonialism of the map, now that is no longer a faithful reproduction of the territory?

'Bitcoin Ascended' meme, via
'Bitcoin Ascended' meme, via

It seems somewhat self-evident why these neo-egressive movements might grasp for a form of network animism, dressing themselves up with the accoutrements of religions and other belief systems, to garner a veneer of legitimacy. Such ceremonialisms may also serve to distract from these nascent movements’ fragility and ephemerality, and of course to beatify, and beautify–typically in traditional senses of the word–the people at the centre of the associated social formations: foregrounding their prophet motives, whilst obscuring their profit motives.

This is ostensibly a zealotry-without-faith, where unapologetic ultra-capitalists use the pretence of spirituality as a convenient ruse to manipulate and radicalise the dispossessed, the outsiders, the forgotten, in whatever way they deem to be necessary and expedient, by manipulating their fantasies and curiosities. Indeed, this is anything but new: the idea of the outside, or more specifically a ‘frontier imaginary’ has existed since humans kept oral and written records e.g. Exodus, Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, and Muhammad’s expulsion from Mecca. The idea of the radical outsider as prophet appears to be hardcoded in our post-Abrahamic cultural blueprints.

“The discovery of the New World induced an impatience with the Old. In vastly extending the range of the Renaissance imagination, it made Europe appear ever more despoiled, damned, and doomed, and prompted millenarian dreams of taking flight from this waning world in quest of new beginnings. In the New World, eschatalogical expectations of renewed perfection came into earthly focus. After Columbus, paradise became more than just a vision; it became a place.”

David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology, 1997, p. 38.

Indeed, David F. Noble’s landmark 1997 book The Religion of Technology rests upon a thesis that can be interpreted as such: that mankind’s contemporary techno-solutionism, the Promethean will to channel divine fire–power, wisdom, knowledge–derives from the Christian move to interpret Jesus as a human representative of God, sent to Earth to facilitate the recapture of the God-likeness of Man’s image after the fall from Eden. Might we extrapolate Noble’s hypothesis into the 21st century, insofar as the networked eschatologies and frontier spirit of the various tangled (ww)webs we have woven since then, being similarly driven by this unwitting–or depending on one’s opinion, misguided, even–desire to explore uncharted territory, terra nullius, the W(i|or)ld Wi(l)d(e) We(st|b) ?

Announcement: 'Ethereum Frontier' software client 2015
Announcement: 'Ethereum Frontier' software client 2015

In the present moment, fantasies of exit exist which entail a retreat from the public, from wider society which casts the (naïve? optimistic? cynical?) techno-solutionist as outsider, as pariah, in order to provide the necessary ‘push’ to seek alternatives. Precisely what escape routes and options are available, depend on how well capitalised the outsider is, in every sense of those italicised words. This idea carries more than an echo of colonialism; it is in reality another form of it. Abstracted now into cyberspatial territory, a simulacramap, cartographics without an underlying territory, or ‘colonialism of the map’ as discussed earlier. In some ways, this notion is reminiscent of the Second Realm as espoused by ‘crypto-anarchist philosophers’ Smuggler and XYZ. Their argument proceeds as follows: the asymmetry of power that the state enjoys in the material world (‘first realm’) over its subjects is such that its hegemony cannot be overcome using symmetric tactics to create persistent real-world resistances, and therefore efforts should be focused upon actions reminiscent of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZs), and persistent digital environs which state apparatuses can be excluded from on a permanent basis.

As the universality of the nation-state model is increasingly called into question, and new technological scaffolds for the amassment and distribution of cultural, social, and economic capital rise, novel and audacious forms of empire-building are emerging, chiefly from political philosophies traditionally associated with the right. What was just a few years ago a purely hypothetical fantasy seeded in the minds of the faithful Bitcoiners by a speculative (now-edited) post on reddit by a ‘time-traveller’, the notion of Bitcoin Citadels has taken root in the collective imaginations of the more ardent, fervent, faithful, and otherwise-disaffected members of the Bitcoin community. ‘Citadeletion’ is one of the key pillars of the emerging Bitcoin eschatology, alongside so-called hyperbitcoinisation: the economic singularity moment of Bitcoin as it outcompetes (to destruction) every other ‘monetary’ / ‘value’ system, including commodity-money systems such as gold and silver, as well as fiat-money systems such as the US Dollar and the Euro.

Theory-fiction vignette taken from "Scenes from a Memorypool: 2026-2106" by the author
Theory-fiction vignette taken from "Scenes from a Memorypool: 2026-2106" by the author

These imaginaries carry more than an echo of the patchwork philosophy of Mencius Moldbug, an alias of Urbit creator Curtis Yarvin. Moldbug’s ‘neocameral’ governance concept is in reality little more than a feudal, quasi-monarchic system with ‘philosopher-developers’ at the apex of the power structure, just as Aristotle put a philosopher-king at the head of his most preferred governance system. What is more concerning is that most of the people willing this apocalypse on haven’t deeply engaged with Yarvin’s work, and indeed most seem to not even be aware of him. In the words of 0x Salon Fellow Habib William Kherbek, technofeudalism is indeed rising once again. In a perhaps unsurprising short circuit of neocolonial logics, Yarvin wrote in 2020 on ‘Bitzion: how Bitcoin becomes a state’.

“Finesse and Finitude. In the ashes of the present We shall build a New World The Blinding Light of CoinCleansing, educating, enriching Scarcity as Purity Capital as Mana Property as Virtue A Discretionary Utopia Enter DOME.”

Cryptographic Poetics Researchers’ Union, Versus In Numinis, 0x Salon, 2022.

So, why is all this happening in the here and now?

Well, this is perhaps an appropriate juncture to reacquaint ourselves with the technical architecture which undergirds Bitcoin, and has since given rise to a panoply–or should that be panopticon?–of descendants, rivals, or pretenders (according to your individual worldview), namely blockchain technology. Blockchains can be thought of as jurisdictionless freeports, and as such lend themselves extremely well to the application of so-called special economic zones, which as Wikipedia summarises are “located within…national borders…a special economic zone (SEZ) is an area in which the business and trade laws are different from the rest of the country.”

These distributed economic architectures afforded by blockchain technology can be used to implement so-called network states:

“A network state is a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated cryptocurrency, a consensual government limited by a social smart contract, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real-estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition.”

Balaji Srinivasan, The Network State, 2022,  p. 9.

Connected to network states and SEZs are charter cities, apparently the successor organisational concept to city-states. Charter cities would enjoy an increased–or even total–level of autonomy compared to the partial autonomy afforded by SEZs. Quasi-city-states such as Qatar, Singapore, and Hong Kong might be thought of as exemplifying Paul Romer’s proposed model:

“A charter city is a type of city in which a guarantor from a developed country would create a city within a developing host country. The guarantor would administer the region, with the power to create their own laws, judiciary, and immigration policy outside of the control of the host country.”

Charter city (economic development), Wikipedia

Critics of the charter city model argue that the initiators of such projects–typically white, male, western captains of industry and finance–are engaging in neocolonial statecraft by taking advantage of weak nations, promising jobs and other trappings of economic development such as GDP uplift whilst in reality creating new conditions for the exploitation of natural resources, local labour pools and facilitating regulatory arbitrage and/or tax avoidance on grand scales.

Might charter cities be the new banana republics?

Figure: ‘Seeing Like A Network State’ schematic: an attempt to map the reification of state-like organisations under the action of capital, technology, and legitimacy.
Figure: ‘Seeing Like A Network State’ schematic: an attempt to map the reification of state-like organisations under the action of capital, technology, and legitimacy.

Knightwork States? Crusader Orders as the Original Network States

Can we look into the past and see in days gone by, a hint of what might be at hand in our present moment? With technology organisations such as Anduril and Palantir, and private international mercenary armies like Blackwater and Wagner Group seemingly in the ascendancy, some prior premonitions might be helpful as we cast our gaze forwards.

The 'Outremer' Crusader States in 1135 AC, via Wikimedia user Amitchell125
The 'Outremer' Crusader States in 1135 AC, via Wikimedia user Amitchell125

Following the disintegration of the Roman Empire, over the Middle Ages European and Byzantine territories were lost to invading Turkic and Arab peoples from the South and East. Plans were hatched in Northern Europe, in the name of the Roman Catholic Church, to fight wars in the name of Christendom against unbelievers instead of rivalrous local fiefdoms and regional powers squabbling amongst themselves. The Muslim occupation of the ‘holy land’–compounded arguably by the decline in power and legitimacy of the leaders of the rump states formed as the Roman empire collapsed –led Pope Urban II to give ‘divine sanction’ to Christian military efforts to retake Jerusalem in the late 11th century. Middle Eastern perspectives typically foreground an added pretext of looting the intellectual and material wealth of the region. The s(u|e)ccessive waves of conflicts which resulted came to be known as the Crusades, which resulted in the capture of Jerusalem and other Levantine lands.

Etymologically, the ‘Crusader’ term appears to have derived from the latin expression crucesignatus (one signed by the cross) in the 12th century. A number of chivalric ‘Crusader orders’, which were constituted of a network of local associations, sprouted up to answer these calls to alms, arms, and psalms, which themselves had fascinating concrescences of technology, capital, networking, divinity, and sovereignty. Following initial victories, four Crusader states came to exist: the County of Edessa; the Principality of Antioch; the Kingdom of Jerusalem; and the County of Tripoli, collectively known as ‘Outremer’. Crusader armies occupied various configurations of these lands for around a century, and spent another century attempting to wrest them back.

“Corporate Sovereignty was also exercised by religious corporations like the Knights Templar, the Knights of St. John, and the Teutonic Knights. These hybrid institutions have no modern counterparts. They combined religious, social, judicial, and financial activities with sovereignty over localities. While they exercised territorial jurisdiction, they were almost the opposite of today's governments in that nationality played no role in the mobilization of their support or their scheme of governance. The members and officers of these religious orders were drawn from all parts of Christian Europe, or "Christendom," as it was known.”

William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson, The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age, 1997.

Perhaps the Crusades can be seen as a reaction by the papacy and other organs of power within the Catholic Church to a disenchantment within Christendom, prior to the New World excitement that accompanied the first European voyages to the Americas. Then, just as now, imaginaries of conquest, domination, usurpation, and extraction accompanied them. The Vatican gave divine licence in papal bulls, encouragement in the form of indulgences, and resources to Crusader orders to perform various functions including: theological training (education) at home and in the ‘holy land’; providing medical treatment pilgrims venturing to and within the Levant (healthcare); protection of travellers (security); logistical, distribution, and transportation support (communication); taxes and levies, as well as financial instruments such as letters of credit (economic); and direct offensive capabilities (military). Though these sound like the basic provisions of any city- or nation-state, these orders of faith were distributed all over (mostly) North and West Europe, with chapters (or nodes) of various sizes on mainland and offshore territories.

It is this article’s contention, that these Crusader orders, most notably The Knights Templar, The Knights Hospitaller–more commonly known as ‘the Knights of Rhodes’ in the 14th-16th centuries and ‘the Knights of Malta’ in the 16th-18th centuries–were the first network states, notwithstanding the limited communication and economic tools at their disposal. Unlike the aristocratic and mercantile city-states which preceded them such as Venice, Pisa, and Genoa, and unlike mainland powers with ancestral connections to the lands they dwelled upon, without a strong territorial claim–ethnic, historic, religious–to the outposts they attempted to occupy, these orders flourished or expired depending on their management of resources, conquests, and alliances. Crusader orders were given the lease or ownership of numerous territories by or at the behest of the Church. In recent history, perhaps the closest analog–a mirror, perhaps-is the Salafist Daesh movement, more commonly known in the west as Islamic State, ISIL, or ISIS. The notion of Islamic Jihad, previously espoused by many groups including the insurgent-cum-resurgent Afghan Taliban, is unsurprisingly not that far from the sentiments which motivated the Crusades. Today, the descendant organisation that has the most similar structure and purpose to the Mediaeval Crusader orders is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which considers itself a continuation of the Knights Hospitaller tradition. The order maintains diplomatic relations with over a hundred countries, and retains extraterritorial rights in a Maltese military complex, in addition to two palatial buildings in Rome.

Like so many successful institutions throughout history, the prominent Crusader orders grew rich feasting upon their spoils of war, tithing passing traders and their territories' subjects, and merchant ventures, becoming more inward-looking and self-serving in the process. Capital was misallocated, Papal orders and priorities overlooked in the service of looting, corruption, piracy (corsairing), and most strikingly, capture of the seat of the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire in Constantinople to create the short-lived Latin Empire alongside the Venetians. The papacy withdrew support from the Knights Templar and confiscated their assets as they were abolished in the early fourteenth century, at the initiative of a French King unable to pay his debts to the order. Many of the territories were redistributed to other orders including Hospitallers, and Teutonic knights from Utrecht, Brandenburg, and elsewhere. Much land was also ‘reclaimed’ by local crowns. In other words, the knightwork state became a corrupt and self-serving empire, and was overthrown.

A cautionary tale on unintended consequences, and second-order effects of zero-sum games:

“The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became easy prey to the Turks. The Fourth Crusade and the crusading movement generally thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.”

Speros Vryonis, Byzantium and Europe, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967,  p. 152.

Returning to the present day, it is tempting to draw parallels between the present nation-state occupier of the ‘holy lands’ and their zealous antecedents. Amin Maalouf, in his crucial Crusades Through Arab Eyes, comments on the resonance between Middle Ages and twentieth-century events. Adina Glickstein describes Israel as a network state and has written about the role of startup culture and speculative capital in the nonconsensual remaking of Palestinian territories. Indeed, Srinivasan also gestures towards this in The Network State:

“God/State/Network: this is something like the Jewish diaspora after Israel. Our One Commandment model also draws on this, as a startup society can be based on a traditional religion or on a moral imperative that’s on par with many religious practices, like veganism.”

Balaji Srinivasan, The Network State, 2022, p. 58.

Crusader orders’ insignia are used as dog-whistles for white supremacy by fascist groups in the US, as an ostensible continuation of the logics which gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan in the last century. Heinrich Himmler modelled the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) upon the structure and iconography of Crusader orders.  Despite its near-complete deterritorialisation by popular mobilisations in Syria and Iraq, Daesh continues to operate in the backwaters of the ‘holy lands’. Wagner Group is still running amok in Ukraine at time of writing. Praxis, Zuzalu, Liberland, Urbit, Prospera, The Seasteading Institute, Bitcoin City El Salvador.

What horrors will be committed by future ‘knightwork states’ in the name of what their prophets–and profits–deem to be right, good, and true?

Can the laws of nations stop today’s arbitrageurs from becoming tomorrow’s arbitra(i)tors?

Thanks to Christopher Dake-Outhet, Martina Cavalot, and rafathebuilder for helpful comments during the preparation of this article.

Endless gratitude goes to the wonderful 0x Salon community for whom this topic was developed in the first place, and in particular to the attendees of Salon#38 ‘Prophet Motives’, held May’23 in Berlin, for an incredibly ‘enlightening’ discussion.

Postscript: ‘Prophet Motives’ Project Note

The aim of this text–and other works currently being undertaken under the aegis of the Prophet Motives banner–is to render explicit the spiritual, libidinal, and mytho-poetic underpinnings of human relationships to the technological artefacts they create, to critique and explore nascent but incipient machinic faith communities, powered by economic incentives, eschatalogical imperatives, and teleological drives.

For as long as there has been financial capital, risk and speculation have orbited, manipulated, and harnessed it. As narrative feedback machines, simultaneously reading and rewriting realities, markets exist as a distributed conversation amongst speculators driven by profit motives and an appetite for divination and prophecy. Despite the ostensible ‘neutrality’ afforded by novel technology architectures, recognisable human characteristics and archetypes continue to appear in positions of explicit power and implicit influence.

Work on this theme is undertaken in an effort to explore the role of zealotry in narrative synthesis, incentivisation mechanisms, and the ethics of technology in ostensibly egalitarian communities. While architecturally distributed–or even "decentralised"–domains may initially appear to offer new organisational possibilities, in reality the familiar schema of humans appointing themselves as arbiters of taste, morality, and correctness is typically borne out, thus reinforcing,  or indeed exacerbating, existing power imbalances.

Prophet Motives seeks to foreground the deeply human impulses guiding our relationship with technology and critically examine the speculative frenzy of capitalist markets, with cryptocurrency as its most gratuitous and grotesque manifestation to date. Through a transdisciplinary and transmedia approach, the Prophet Motives project currently being undertaken by the 0x Salon collective aims to offer novel insights and perspectives on the ecumenical, emotional, and ethical dimensions of our technological interactions. This is being approached through the creation of speculative and critical liturgies, scriptures, ceremonies, and reliquaries populated by sacred objects in an attempt to bridge the material and psychic realms.

References & Further Reading

Editorial Note: Editorial note: a decision was taken to capitalise all instances of the term ‘Crusade’ and ‘Crusader’, firstly for stylistic consistency, and secondly to pay heed to the fact that capital was arguably one of the prime motivations for the initial declaration of hostilities, and less arguably the primary motivation for the persistence of the Crusader orders as institutions and ultimately what we might think of today as the first knightwork states.

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