Imagine Milton Friedman and Robinson Crusoe together, reminiscing about Burning Man, on a remodeled off-shore oil rig. Like the image? Welcome to seasteading. The latest in a long line of libertarian exit strategists, seasteaders aim to create self-governed, private floating platforms on the ocean. In an era of Silicon Valley excess, techno-libertarian optimism, and mainstream political malaise, exit strategies are proliferating. At the 2017 Startup Societies Summit, held without a hint of irony at the City College of San Francisco (attendees were asked for charitable donations), an array of libertarian exit strategies were on offer. Among other options one could, for example, engage in “crowdchoicing,” captured best in the Free State Project which aims to mobilize 20,000 participants to relocate to New Hampshire by 2020 where they will, according to the FSP webpage, “create a society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of life, liberty, and property.” Others advocate non-territorial strategies. A younger generation of market libertarians—steeped in a vocabulary of “disruption,” “decentralization,” and “freedom”—are exploring exit strategies that embrace an encrypted existence that escapes the parameters of the state through the use of various digital technologies and encrypted mediations. (Their recent arrival in struggling Puerto Rico may be a sign of what is to come.) Its advocates eschew territorial escape in part because they already see a world in which the mediating structures of government, media, and business are collapsing. At its most optimistic, such a strategy looks toward a future of “social singularity,” a post-political and transhumanist world in which individuals can thrive entirely through decentralized, technological, and cyborgian networks.
For the present, seasteading and private, stateless nations may be more likely to come to fruition. Joe Quirk and Patri Friedman hope to persuade you so in Seasteading as does Tom Bell’s Your Next Government? From Nation-States to Stateless Nations, which offers up a range of possible exit projects, from seasteading to special economic zones to proprietary cities. Such initiatives are not all cut from the same cloth but they share certain features that can usefully be understood as libertarian: a profound disdain for anything more than a minimal state, a radical commitment to free enterprise, a fetishization of the unencumbered entrepreneur, a deep faith in the promise of technology, and an ontology that equates private property rights with freedom. The projects are “exit” projects. They seek to facilitate or ease the ability for people to exit the nation-state and experiment with forms of private governance. Such exit would be accomplished physically. That is, people would exit by leaving their country of residence and establishing a physical and juridical presence in a new territorial configuration. In this ideal world, numerous such configurations would come into being over time and would compete for citizens, much as companies compete for consumers, by reducing the “transaction costs” of opting out of one polity and of opting in to another. All the world’s a Wal-Mart and we are merely shoppers.
Seasteading is not as farfetched as it sounds. The idea itself has been around for some time. Jules Verne, in a typically prescient piece of writing in 1895, The Self-Propelled Island, imagined a large floating island populated only by bickering billionaires trolling around the Pacific. More recently, initiatives of various kinds have sought to engineer floating or anchored polities. The self-professed ‘seasteaders’ build on such technologies and can count on a well-funded foundation: The Seasteading Institute (TSI). Formed in San Francisco in 2008 with an infusion of money from Silicon Valley iconoclast and libertarian Peter Thiel, TSI’s first director was Patri Friedman, grandson of famed free marketeer and University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. Despite the financial backing and grandiose visions, TSI confronted insurmountable logistical barriers in its aims to engineer a floating seastead on the high seas. Access to cheap labor, legal uncertainties, and the need to link with metropolitan locations led TSI to reign in its plans. In 2017 it signed a Memorandum of Understanding, granting the seasteaders an area designated as a special economic zone, with the government of the island nation of Tahiti. They expected to have the first floating platform arise from a nearby lagoon by 2020, until local representatives learned of the plan in early 2018 and promptly took the wind out of its sails.
Seasteading is not the first initiative to seek “freedom” on the high seas. One could go back generations but the twentieth century alone is crowded with efforts to escape to the open ocean. Few of these have experienced anything approaching success in finding refuge from the grasp of nation-state structures. Michael Oliver’s 1972 Republic of Minerva, built on dredged sand piled atop the Minerva reefs south of Tonga, is long in legend but was short in life. Soon after the raising of Minerva’s flag, the king of Tonga raided the reef and deposed the absentee monarchs. Oliver soon decided, mistakenly, that it would be easier to colonize an island than to build one. His failed invasion of the Bahamian Abaco archipelago ensued, followed thereafter by various adventurist activities in Vanuatu, backed by a congregation of wealthy gold-bugs and Ayn Rand-inspired libertarians looking to establish an autonomous capitalist paradise. Others, caught in an initial wave of techno-utopianism, such as Werner Stiefel and Marshall Savage, dreamt of colonizing the oceans as a segue to extraterrestrial expansion. Seasteading is the latest of such gambits.
As Joe Quirk, with the participation of Patri Friedman, tells it in Seasteading, the beginning of “seavilization” (the liquid puns abound) is finally at hand. Across ten breathless chapters Quirk lays out how ocean colonization will solve the world’s ills or, as the subtitle of the book modestly claims, “restore the environment, enrich the poor, cure the sick, and liberate humanity from politicians.” The chapters are a mix of advocacy and aspiration, with discussions of technological innovation, forays into political theory, and an assortment of capitalist homilies thrown in. Readers learn of the varied efforts already under way to build residencies on the water, of the environmentally-friendly potential of large scale aqua-farming, and of how seasteads will deal with trash, rouge waves, and other landlubber fears. The tone is one of relentless exuberance and anti-statism and, while informative in some ways, it is hard to avoid the feeling that one is reading a prospectus. It is as if someone distilled Atlas Shrugged down into a time-share sales brochure. Despite Quirk’s and Friedman’s best efforts to suggest otherwise, particularly in a catechistic chapter entitled “Fear,” seasteading comes across less as a brave new world and more as a fairly traditional form of class warfare.
Quirk and Friedman won’t be surprised to hear this. Previous critiques of seasteading—most notably by acclaimed fantasy writer and political theorist China Miéville—have pointed out the elitist and egoist foundations to seasteading. Quirk’s attempts to respond to such critiques are defensively half-hearted at best and while he insists there is nothing ideological about seasteading, that he has no “strong opinions about how to design a new society,” his own assumptions and words betray him. A self-professed “seavangelist,” Quirk, like most evangelists, is selling his readers a morality tale in which the forces of good (innovators, entrepreneurs, capitalists) battle those of evil (bureaucrats and politicians). The prophet’s motive in Seasteading is to inform us that “choice” rather than “voice”—exit rather than the vote or other forms of non-market participatory politics—is where true freedom is to be found. The apotheosis of choice means the book is peppered with predictable and tired critiques of the state and celebrations of the market.
The book’s fantasy about the workings of the market obscures any meaningful and serious discussion of history, inequality and violence. This is par for the course for much writing emanating from libertarian corners which, like the orthodox right, has little time for the past except as nostalgia. Brian Doherty, in his comprehensive study Radicals for Capitalism, observed that “libertarianism is the most forward looking of ideologies.” No wonder. If libertarians were to look to the past, they would have to confront the fact of direct violence and theft, whether it be enclosures in England and the expulsion of subsistence producers from the land, the expropriation of Native Americans in the New World, the enslavement of millions of black Africans upon whose backs capital accumulation and industrialization took place, or the waves of imperial and often privatized expansion designed to ‘open’ new lands and new markets. An uneasy glance over the shoulder would yield full-view of a landscape of “blood and fire” upon which libertarians have constructed a romantic fiction of entitlement, peppered with tales of entrepreneurial pluck and individualist grit to validate what is in effect their colonial inheritance.
Quirk and Friedman embrace such legitimation fictions. “Every person in Western society is living in a blend of utopian experiments that largely succeeded,” they write. “The sailors who took ships to the New World were utopians. They were also fed up. The new continent was a giant life raft where they could try out their utopian ideas.” This isn’t History. It is white man nostalgia and ignores the processes of conquest, expropriation and colonization that unfolded over the course of centuries and continue to this day. Things go from bad to worse in a later chapter entitled “History” when the authors argue that it is on the frontiers of the state where innovations in freedom are most likely to take place.
[M]oral progress does not spring from the brows of visionary politicians who decide to be morally superior and enforce justice upon their misbehaving societies. Moral progress emerges from millions of individuals competing for novel ways to profit by pleasing one another. Without islands of experimentation on the western frontier, each eager to attract the oppressed, landless, poor, and pretty, elections in the United States might still be determined by wealthy white property owners.
It is debatable that elections are not still determined by wealthy white property owners but, in any case, the crux here is the twisted understanding of from whence historical progress arises. It is hard to argue with the assertion that “progress does not spring from the brows of visionary politicians.” After all, a century of powerful social history ‘from below’ has taught readers that historical progress does not emerge from the desks of wigged white men. Slaves in Haiti and elsewhere were not emancipated by justices and politicians in Paris. They emancipated themselves. Working men and women acquired workplace rights through incessant struggle, often at great personal cost. But Quirk and Friedman miss the obvious: slaves, workers, and peons emancipated themselves by fighting the very property owners, capitalists and exploiters who are the heroes of liberal and libertarian theory. It was precisely the failures of liberalism to live up to its most radical social implications that led to the founding of socialist, anarchist, and eventually communist movements over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As wage workers, peasants, debt peons, and slaves all-too-quickly learned, liberalism had not abolished oligarchy. Rather, under the banner of liberalism an oligarchy of the market had replaced the oligarchy of the manor. Quirk’s and Friedman’s suggestion that moral progress derived from individuals competing for market capture and profits would be laughable if the history wasn’t so tragic. To take one obvious example: for many champions of economic liberalism in the 1780s and after, freedom meant something quite specific—the freedom to profit in an expanding trade of black bodies. The age of Emancipation—roughly the 1770s to the 1820s—was also the high point of slaving.
Such histories have no place in the sanitized narrative of Quirk and Friedman. In their discussion of frontier expansion, one looks in vain for any mention of the sheer violence that attended the march of westward ‘progress.’ Nary a mention of Native American displacement and slaughter, of the lynching of Chileans and Mexicans and Chinese, or of the racist use of courts to dispossess Californios and Mexicanos of their properties. Even less stark contestations, such as those between frontier settlers and eastern seaboard capitalists, are elided in order to make way for a saccharine and chipper tale of frontier fortitude and capitalist courage. One wishes Quirk and Friedman had read less Lynne Cheney and more Cormac McCarthy. Even if one were inclined to like the vision of the future libertarians offer, it would be hard to believe in given that they get the past so painfully wrong.
None of this bodes well for Pacific Islanders who have been—and continue to be—at the ground zero of seasteading. Despite their efforts to assure readers that they understand that Polynesians were the “first seasteaders,” Quirk and Friedman believe they can colonize (their term) ocean-spaces under principles of nonaggression, as if the ocean were somehow naturally available for conquest to those with the resources to finance such ventures. Particularly in places such as Oceania expanses of water have traditionally not been empty or open, or barriers to travel and exchange, but important conduits and connectors. Oceanians, navigating in double- and single-hulled outrigger canoes, have long traversed swathes of the ocean. On its surface they have created seasonal fishing grounds, established various systems of use-rights, harvested their livelihoods, and lived large portions of their lives. Captain James Cook recognized as much when he wrote in his journal “How are we to account for this vast Nation spreading itself across the ocean?” According to the seasteaders, who condense the insular Pacific’s complex history and territorial praxis down to some continentalist notion of seasteading (homesteading was, after all, a state-sanctioned settler colonialist program!), no need. The ocean is open for their business.
And make no mistake, seasteading is a business. For all of their heartfelt pronouncements about improving governance structures and saving humanity, in the end the authors come across less as visionaries of the future and more like sales reps. The Maldives “may soon be submerged,” they observe, “[b]ut as island paradises sink, floating cities will rise. It’s not a dream. It’s a business.” A business that is planning a “floating golf course complete with undersea transparent tunnels between eighteen holes offering aquarium views of wild tropical fish and manta rays, and Greenstar, a floating grass-terraced hotel in the shape of a starfish . . . Currently for presale are 185 floating villas to be arranged in the shape of a flower.” What is on offer in all of this for non-elite residents of the Maldives is not addressed. It sounds suspiciously like Dubai-on-the-water. This is climate change colonialism, courtesy of those Mike Davis aptly calls “earth’s first class passengers.”
At some point some seasteaders came ashore. To Honduras, more precisely, where over the past decade a variety of experiments in private governance have been underway. Tom Bell knows a lot about those projects as well as seasteading. He has been working on drafting legal systems for these experimental communities. Bell’s Your Next Government? From Nation-States to Stateless Nations is a kind of legal and philosophical primer for readers interested in those efforts. The book is divided into three sections. The first (“Facts”) provides a brief overview of, in Bell’s words, the “governing services industry.” From there he moves to “Theory” in which he considers in more detail the philosophical and legal arguments to be made against the nation-state as a consent-based entity. And finally, in part 3 on “Practice” he offers a set of observations that derive from wedding his facts with his theories. In all three sections, a recurring cast of characters figure prominently: special economic zones (SEZs), private homeowners’ associations, autonomous development zones in Honduras, and seasteads. Bell’s argument throughout the book is that nation-states have “monopolized the market . . . for governing services” but that such monopolization is changing as other institutions begin to share in the “heavy burdens of government.”
Bell, a professor of law at Chapman University, is not shy about his enthusiasm for this “inside-out revolution” in governance. It shows in his writing. His text is the anti-thesis of a dry legal summary. He writes in a folksy style that seems designed to convey the commonsensical nature of it all. This comes with benefits but also risks. It makes for a welcome accessibility but also a kind of patronizing glibness. It also means the reader is subjected to sweeping claims about human nature, simplistic analogies between the past and present, and similar slipshod analysis. For example, “Humans want both freedom and constraint, and they want them in that order.” The assertion is itself interesting but even more so is the authoritative voice with which it is made: for an author as dedicated as he claims to be to the individual, Bell seems unable to avoid speaking with expansive authority, resorting to the royal ‘we’ with substantial frequency. Something tells me I would not want him writing law for the community in which I lived. But of course, he wouldn’t be. Much like Quirk’s and Friedman’s Seasteading, Bell’s work is largely aimed at an already sympathetic audience needing one last push to invest.
The bad guy in Bell’s book is the politician, a nefarious being interested largely in self-perpetuation and power, even if at the expense of the well-being of his or her constituents. Politicians are easy targets and the descriptions Bell offers are largely tired stereotypes. The alternative he offers in the book is not better forms of accountability, new ideas of horizontality and direct democracy (neither book even glances in the direction of the Zapatistas, for example), but a fairly simplistic notion of consent and a starry-eyed view of special, private jurisdictions. Even a generally sympathetic publication such as The Economist has pointed out the troubling failures of many SEZs while property rights theorists have observed that common interest developments (CIDs) of the kind championed by Bell are often deeply anti-democratic.
Bell offers selective perspectives on his subject matter. Special jurisdictions, he writes, “have the power to quietly and gently transform government across the globe” and offers Honduras as one example. Yet it was hardly a quiet and gentle transformation that led to special jurisdictional experiments in Honduras. These were put in motion by a violent 2009 coup d’etat that overthrew democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya. The beneficiaries of the coup defend it by suggesting it was not in fact a coup, despite widespread condemnation by the UN General Assembly, the OAS, the European Union and numerous Latin American states. Even defenders of the coup inadvertently admit as much: Allan Brewer-Carías, in his Dismantling Democracy, writes that the democratic institutions in Honduras worked as they should, until the military deposed Zelaya and removed him from the country. In other words, Honduran democratic institutions worked as they should until they didn’t… until the coup d’etat. That the regime’s defenders cannot recognize their own tautological arguments tells you how deeply invested they are in the whole charade.
In the wake of the coup d’etat various political and social experiments in free cities and special economic zones (REDs, or “Special Development Regions”) moved forward, pushed along by an incestuous menage a troisof opportunists, ideologues, and (yes, you guessed it) “thought leaders.” These included Honduran politicians and developers such as Octavio Sánchez and Porfirio Lobo; North American experimenters such as Paul Romer (until recently the head of the World Bank and advocate for so-called charter cities), Patri Friedman (who by this time had left the seasteaders to create Future Cities Development Corporation), and Michael Strong (a libertarian social entrepreneur); and, lastly, former Reagan administration officials who cut their teeth in his office of Central American affairs. This last group included Mark Klugmann, a Reagan speech writer who by the early 2000s had become both a political consultant to Lobo (a US cable released by Wikileaks shows Klugmann accompanying Lobo to the US ambassador’s residence in Tegucigalpa in 2005 and arguing for the US government notto recognize Zelaya’s election) and the alleged brainchild behind some of the Honduran special jurisdictions.
The premise behind REDs was to create model cities in special zones financed by foreign investors and not subject to Honduran law. The Honduran government scrutinized the RED proposals and demanded a number of changes. Bell narrates this as a history of democracy at work in which the REDs are rejected by the judiciary, developers go back to the drawing board and rework the proposal, addressing the concerns of the judiciary, and then come back with something much better and palatable to that same judiciary, which now finds in their favor. A comforting fiction perhaps but a fiction nonetheless. When the constitutional court declared the REDs unconstitutional, the congress under the control of the right-wing National Party, whose membership had strongly backed the coup d’etat, ordered the removal of the four justices who had opposed the measure and then changed the constitution to permit the projects to go forward. The Honduran army surrounded the National Congress to protect the deputies from the popular protests that erupted. Meanwhile assailants gunned down attorney Antonio Trejo on the streets of Tegucigalpa only weeks after he had presented a constitutional complaint against RED legislation. As Keri Vacanti Brondo reports in her important work Land Grab: Green Neoliberalism, Gender and Garifuna Resistance in Honduras, Human Rights Watch suggested the murder was in fact an execution. Intimidation and executions, not democratic processes, are what have yielded a landscape open to “international financial centers, international logistical centers, [and] autonomous cities.” None of this you would learn from Bell’s book.
The most recent electoral disaster in Honduras only drives home the point. Opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla had campaigned in part with the promise to put a stop to what he saw as the auctioning off of Honduran territory through the RED (by then renamed ZEDE) programs. Ahead in the electoral returns, Nasralla saw his approaching victory denied through electoral fraud of the baldest kind: leading by a nearly insurmountable margin in the counted returns, Nasralla watched as the electoral computing system “went down” for a full 72 hours. When the system came back on line, Nasralla suddenly trailed sitting President and ZEDE-backer Juan Orlando Hernández by a slim and inexplicable margin. Meanwhile, the electoral returns for local and regional elections hadn’t changed at all. Despite enormous popular protest—and an unprecedented moment in which the Honduran military refused to repress the protestors—the electoral fraud remained. So too do the plans for ZEDEs. One can understand why Bell avoids details— championing private jurisdictions, which promise consent and freedom, that have been created by those who control a state with neither isn’t exactly good for business.
Consent. Choice. Politics. Markets. Force. Freedom. The terms abound in these works but rarely, if at all, do Quirk, Friedman or Bell pause to examine their meanings nor the basic premises of their arguments. It is all apparently self-evident. They do not pause, for example, to question the constrained reality of choice for most of the planet’s population or to consider that the market can itself be a coercive force. The idea that anyone can pick up and move, as if they were making a consumer choice about their cable channel or brand of coffee, is naïve at best. Sailing away to a new seastead requires a vessel, among other things. What of those with no way to sail? With no boat? No life jacket? No safety net? Stay? Drown? Property rights theorists have argued extensively about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the language of “choice” when the market constrains it so dramatically. The coin can be as tyrannical as the crown. “Free wage labor” is also known as economic coercion. Is work or starve really a choice? If so, the meaning of choice has been stripped of any meaningful analytic or moral value.
The coup de grace of hypocrisy is the plea made by Quirk and Friedman: “People should be allowed to opt out of governments they didn’t choose. Seastead pioneers don’t need you to vote for them. They only need you to not petition your politicians to stop them.” Actually, they don’t need even that. There are no laws prohibiting one from opting out of a government they did not choose, of renouncing his or her citizenship. If Quirk and Friedman desire statelessness, it is well within their grasp. They have that choice. Of course they might argue that such a choice isn’t a choice at all, given that it would leave them vulnerable and unprotected. Welcome to the reality for most of the world’s population which is subject to the unequal laws of the market and the state and will never enjoy the option of exit of the kind Quirk, Friedman, and Bell envision. Entitled and self-important, Quirk and Friedman demand they be provided the options they are readily willing to deny others. In the end, their escapism is yet another manifestation of white flight, a “choice” limited to the few and hung from the scaffolding of generations of inequality, exploitation, and public and private social engineering. No surprise. Libertarians’ cheap trick always has been to outsource the costs of their alleged success to those whom they sacrifice. They are society’s version of a legacy admit.
There are of course aspects of libertarian cant that resonate. The nation-state has been a murderous construct. But one could say the same for big business. In either case, it is hard to take the high ground in this respect if you are still doing business with the Honduran state. Or take contemporary drug laws and penalties in the US which have been a disaster and one of a multitude of impositions on a person’s liberty. Libertarians have joined others in vociferously protesting inane laws and draconian penalties. But the cold irony is that the people subjected most harshly and inequitably to U.S. drug laws—young, black males—are also those who rarely find themselves in a position to escape. The coldest irony of all is that in many cases the state has in fact abandoned them entirely except when it comes to persecution. The only federal and state monies available seem to be not for schools, libraries, parks, homes, and the like but more prisons and more police. Contrary to the assertions of market theologians, the increased privatization of both of those industries has served to ratchet up rather than reduce repression. Meanwhile, “persecuted” libertarians and Silicon Valley’s uber-class, many of whom made their wealth off of taxpayer funded initiatives, indulge away in the Nevada desert or on prototypes of ocean platforms (Seasteading’s newly-formed partner company—Blue Frontiers—sports Burning Man on the ocean as its logo). Whatever one’s opinions about private intentional communities, bestowing upon them some higher level of moral and political value even as much of the planet’s populace struggles for some semblance of equality and emancipation is repugnant.
In the end, exit plans based on market principles look less like innovative efforts at governance and more like good-old-fashioned land- and ocean-grabbing, albeit wrapped in the trendy language of disruption and decentralization. They are yet one more version of theft. Ignoring that fact is no less repressive than any state apparatus. Neither book has any space for social and political experiments that seek emancipation from both the state and capitalism, that desire freedom for all. “In our plan for existence and struggle,” wrote communard geographer and anarchist Elisee Reclus, “it isn’t a little coterie of companions that interests us. It’s the whole world.” That is much more compelling idea of freedom than what libertarians are selling. Freedom is not to be bought and sold. It is not a property for the few, like some floating condo. It belongs to all.
Raymond B. Craib is a Professor of History at Cornell University.