You've probably seen the news: Cryptocurrency investors are trying to buy a copy of the U.S. Constitution at a Sotheby's auction this week. So far, the group, called ConstitutionDAO, has raised $13 million in a matter of days from strangers online, many of whom donated modest amounts with notes attached saying populist things like, "here to rug billionaire private collectors," "wagmi" (crypto-speak for We Are Going to Make It), the newly-coined "wagbtc" (We Are Going to Buy The Constitution), and even the lyrics to the socialist anthem "L'Internationale."
What started as a curiosity has turned into a self-styled revolt against moneyed elites, similar to the internet-led GameStop investment craze but with a copy of the founding document of the United States at the center of it all. In other words, the type of thing that wealthy elites normally buy. "If any billionaires outbid @ContitutionDAO I just really want them to know that makes them a literal cartoon villain," wrote one Twitter user quote-tweeted by ConstitutionDAO. "It belongs with the people."
Amid all of this, for those watching closely, there's been a bit of a shift. There's chatter here and there about something called a "governance token" named $PEOPLE (an unfortunate name with disturbing connotations given the context). There's talk of future votes. It seems like "buying the Constitution" is now about a lot more than just buying a copy of the Constitution, and it has to do with the "DAO" in ConstitutionDAO. It might even be a glimpse of the next Thing in crypto that gets talked about ad nauseum in the most insufferable ways until we all feel the need to scream into a pillow. Indeed, Grimes has already tweeted about it, "This is literally so cool."
"DAO" stands for Decentralized Autonomous Organization and it's a type of crypto-community that's proliferated over the last few years. Really, a DAO is a bunch of people in a Discord server who have all acquired a particular cryptocurrency. This cryptocurrency is a special kind, though, because tokens signal membership in the DAO and equate to having a say in group decisions, such as in a vote. The more tokens you have, the more your vote is worth. One former academic in Wyoming who lost their job and now works for a DAO recently described it perfectly as a "group text with a bank account."
DAOs are supposed to be democratic (despite, literally, buying votes), so you can already see why the U.S. Constitution makes for a perfect ideological object to form a DAO around. ConstitutionDAO itself has alluded to "buying the Constitution" as being a way to also get people on board with so-called web3 concepts such as DAOs.
There are a lot of DAOs. CityDAO is one organization whose members are attempting to found a city and recently purchased land in Wyoming, and the Ethereum Name Service project (URLs for cryptocurrency wallets) is run as a DAO. But many DAOs also take the form of crowd-directed investment firms. There are DAOs that buy NFT art, and one DAO even recently purchased the tradable right to have a supervised visit with a 2,000-lb cube of tungsten once a year in Illinois. The general idea is to increase the value of the DAO and its (typically) exchange-traded token. Indeed, DAO tokens are a multi-billion dollar market all on their own.
ConstitutionDAO appears to be exactly that idea, but with a copy of the U.S. Constitution instead of JPEGs or a tungsten cube. It's tough to say what will happen, because ConstitutionDAO is making things up as it goes along; when it started it wasn't even technically a DAO because it didn't have a governance token. That being said, the group has made allusions to financializing the Constitution as an asset, either with NFTs or "fractionalizing" it, i.e. selling tradable shares that represent part ownership.
For now, ConstitutionDAO's website explains, people who donate to the cause and get governance tokens in return are not buying a piece of the Constitution. They're buying membership in the DAO that will own a copy of the Constitution, and the chance to have a say in what the DAO does next with their $PEOPLE tokens.
Nobody seems to know what that will mean, exactly. ConstitutionDAO's website states that "governance includes the ability to advise on (for illustrative purposes) where the Constitution should be displayed, how it should be exhibited, and the mission and values of ConstitutionDAO." The site also states that, rather than taking any compensation up front, the core team intends to "submit a proposal to be voted on by the community" following the purchase of the Constitution.
Right now, it's entirely unclear if ConstitutionDAO will actually succeed in buying the document at Thursday's auction, which is valued at $15-20 million and could go for more. The DAO's own FAQ document states that it needs $30-40 million to be competitive. The funds are currently being held in a wallet with 13 key holders to unlock it. Should the group fail to succeed in the auction, the website states that the funds will be returned to Juicebox, the Ethereum-based crowdfunding platform, for refunds.
But even if ConstitutionDAO fails in its stated mission, it's unlikely to go away. There will still be a DAO, there will still be $PEOPLE tokens, and investors may still want to be a part of it while there's money and momentum. ConstitutionDAO's FAQ states that investors who stay if the auction fails can vote to "direct their contribution toward other historic items."
At this point, it's worth reinforcing that for all of ConstitutionDAO's democratic pretensions, the people investing even modest sums (still hundreds or thousands of dollars) are not representative of "the people" in any real sense and include Silicon Valley types who are cheering the project on. An instructional video on how to donate to the project encourages people to add a few hundred extra dollars to their donation to cover the Ethereum network's high fees, like it's nothing.
Regardless, it is likely that cryptocurrency investors will see the entire episode as a massive victory for so-called web3, which in the imaginations of its most fervent supporters represents the total financialization of the internet with a GameStop-esque populist ("decentralized") bent, whether or not that's actually the case.