Coinbase Is Showing Workers With a Conscience the Door

CEO Brian Armstrong called social activism divisive and a distraction in a recent blog post, and the company is offering any "uncomfortable" workers an exit package.
September 30, 2020, 7:24pm
Coinbase, a major cryptocurrency exchange based in Silicon Valley, has announced that it will not engage with pressing social issues such as racial injustice and is offering exit packages to employees who disagree.   On Sunday, Coinbase CEO and co-founder

Coinbase, a major cryptocurrency exchange based in Silicon Valley, has announced that it will not engage with pressing social issues such as racial injustice and is offering exit packages to employees who disagree.

On Sunday, Coinbase CEO and co-founder Brian Armstrong published a meandering Medium post declaring that his “mission focused” company would ignore all issues outside of its goal to foster “an open financial system for the world.” The manifesto, which alludes to employee walkouts and included a now-deleted reference to the killing of Breonna Taylor by police, offers that the company will minimize attention on things like policy, non-profit work, "broader societal issues," and politics to the degree they are unrelated to its core goal.

In an internal company email leaked to Twitter and reported on by The Block, Armstrong took things a step further and said the company would be offering exit packages to employees who “don’t feel comfortable with the new direction” of the company.

The clear message: If you work for Coinbase and think the company should take a public stand at the most critical juncture for civil rights in a generation, you’re free to leave.

Are you a Coinbase employee who knows more about the company's new direction and how it's being handled? Using a non-work phone or computer, contact Edward Ongweso Jr securely on Signal at (413) 225 2938, or email edward.ongweso@vice.com.

It’s a shocking message for a company to send now, especially since many other Silicon Valley tech firms have at least paid lip service to the struggle against racial injustice in America. Nevertheless, venture capitalists such as Paul Graham and David Sacks were excited by Armstrong's announcement.

"I predict most successful companies will follow Coinbase's lead. If only because those who don't are less likely to succeed," tweeted Graham.

Sacks echoed the same point: "Focusing and keeping the team united around why they wanted to join in the first place is how you build a movement and change the world. 💪 leadership @brian_armstrong."

According to Armstrong, Coinbase’s mission is about “us[ing] cryptocurrency to bring economic freedom to people,” but at some point he realized "many employees were interpreting our mission in different ways." He claims that to some this meant supporting “all forms of equality and justice,” which is supposedly a bad thing.

Armstrong insists that while social activism elsewhere is "well intentioned," it ultimately has "the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division."

What Armstrong neglects to mention is that his company is not one with an “apolitical culture” as he claims, but in fact one as deeply political as those he obliquely criticizes for not being “laser-focused.”

Cryptocurrency is, at its core, a libertarian political project. The decision to pursue economic freedom within a framework of free exchange and voluntary capitalist association, as opposed to other forms of “equality and justice” is itself a political act. The decision to single-mindedly pursue building infrastructure for cryptocurrency without thinking about its carbon footprint is a political act. Armstrong’s decision to offer exit packages to employees uncomfortable with his company’s new focus on creating a safe space for libertarianism is, undeniably, a political act undermining worker autonomy.

It is hard to state this any clearer: choosing to prioritize this company's project—creating a specific type of economic system that, according to a specific political ideology, will result in a specific type of economic freedom that is a desirable social outcome for a specific ideological reason—is an explicitly political act.

Armstrong says worker actions at Google and Facebook hurt productivity, but it’s not clear why the Google walkouts and protests over sexual harassment or military contracts were any more political than committing to building a global cryptoeconomy. The same goes for whistleblowers condemning Facebook for failing to stop political manipulation on its platform and staging “virtual walkouts” over it. It seems that it’s political when conscientious workers seek change at their company or build something in the world, but when Armstrong and his “mission focused” Coinbase do it, then it’s just "staying focused on our mission.”

Armstrong describes worker actions against racial injustice as sowing division, and it’s hard not to see how this stance is in line with the Trump administration’s recent actions. For example, Trump’s  executive order banning federal contractors from carrying out racial sensitive training and attacks against historians like Howard Zinn and projects like the New York Times' 1619 project. Trump, too, described attention being paid to racial injustice as being “divisive.”

In his email to staff that offered exit packages to those uncomfortable with the new direction, Armstrong also announced an AMA on Thursday for employees to raise questions and concerns they might have about this "cultural shift” before considering whether the October 7 deadline for claiming his offered exit package.

Coinbase did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.