SAO PAULO — One of the biggest lies in modern politics is the belief that freedom is a universally-shared passion. It isn't. Freedom implies a burden of responsibility not everyone is willing to bear. In this school of thought, I believe Thomas Hobbes was right: People fear violence, scarcity and death. The majority, therefore, wishes for security, not freedom.
Totalitarian experiments of the 20th century proved this. It is worth remembering that fascism and Nazism both enjoyed support from the masses. Was that because they defended individual liberties? Of course not. After the ruins of World War I, and the devastating consequences of the Great Depression, there was a tragic longing for security among Europeans even if that meant, as indeed it did, the suspension of liberal democracy.
The same goes for Communism or, to be more precise, the end of Communism. The thirst for freedom only became pressing once the illusion of security disappeared. The utopia of a world without hunger, without exploitation, without fear, was nowhere to be found. To put it in absurd terms, if Communism had guaranteed the material comfort it had promised its followers, the issues of liberties would never have become a priority.
That's why I praise Holly Case's essay "The New Authoritarians' on the always brilliant aeon.com. In it, the history professor from Brown University tries to understand the new authoritarianism embodied by Putin, Erdogan and Órban.
What about freedom, I hear you ask.
Case makes a brilliant observation: Old authoritarianism wanted to achieve a "new man," a brutal effort that, due to its idealistic nature, led to equally brutal cruelties that eventually condemned these utopias to self-destruction.
The 20th century was made up of "labor camps," mass propaganda, cults of personality and other bloody fantasies aimed at elevating the proletariat to truly Homeric heights.
New authoritarianism, on the other hand, isn't interested in creating "new men." It's happy with both the state and people abiding by the "social contract" with their respective cynicism: The state guaranteeing the essentials in life, and with individuals staying away from the sordid world of politics. What about freedom, I hear you ask. Dear reader, did you not read what I wrote at the beginning?
Holly Case's diagnosis is spot on. But it's missing a conclusion. The new authoritarianism is more likely to succeed than the old one. And that's precisely because of the absence of totalitarian vocations such as the creation of a "new man."
Having abandoned this utopian ambition, authoritarianism in the 21st century is already on its way to working.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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