Features » September 28, 2007
The degraded imagination of the libertarian seasteaders
Freedom is late.
Since 2003, a colossal barge called the Freedom Ship, of debatable tax status, should have been chugging with majestic aimlessness from port to port, a leviathan rover with more than 40,000 wealthy full-time residents living, working and playing on deck. That was the aim eight years ago when the project first made headlines, confidently claiming that construction would start in 2000.
A visit to the “news” section of freedomship.com reveals a more sluggish pace. The most recent messages date from more than two years ago, forlornly explaining how “scam operations” are slowing things down but that “[t]hings are happening, and they are moving fast.” Meanwhile, the ship is not yet finished. Indeed, it is not yet started. Despite this, Freedom Ship International Inc. has been startlingly successful in raising publicity for this “floating city.” Much credulous journalistic cooing over “the biggest vessel in history,” with its “hospitals, banks, sports centres, parks, theaters and nightclubs,” not to mention its airport, has ignored the vessel’s stubborn nonexistence.
Freedom Ship’s website claims that the vessel has not been conceived as a locus for tax avoidance, pointing out that as it will sail under a flag of convenience, residents may still be liable for taxes in their home countries. Nonetheless, whatever the ultimate tax status of those whom we will charitably presume might one day set sail, much of the interest in Freedom Ship has revolved precisely around its perceived status as a tax haven.
And despite the apparent corrective on the website, the project’s officials have not been shy in purveying that impression. They have pushed promotional literature that, in the words of one journalist, “paints the picture of a luminous tax haven,” and stressed that the ship will levy “[n]o income tax, no real estate tax, no sales tax, no business duties, no import duties.” Of course, as no cruise ship could ever levy income tax, to trumpet that fact is preposterous, except as a propaganda strategy.
Freedom Ship’s board of directors are canny enough to recognize tax hatred as a defining characteristic of the tradition of fantasies in which it sits. It is one of countless recent dreams of a tax-free life on the ocean wave: advocates of “seasteading” are disproportionately adherents of “libertarianism,” that peculiarly American philosophy of venal petty-bourgeois dissidence.
Libertarianism is by no means a unified movement. As many of its advocates proudly stress, it comprises a taxonomy of bickering branches–minarchists, objectivists, paleo- and neolibertarians, agorists, et various al.–just like a real social theory. Claiming a lineage with post-Enlightenment classical liberalism, as well as in some cases with the resoundingly portentous blatherings of Ayn Rand, all of its variants are characterized, to differing degrees, by fervent, even cultish, faith in what is quaintly termed the “free” market, and extreme antipathy to that vaguely conceived bogeyman, “the state,” with its regulatory and fiscal powers.
Above all, they recast their most banal avarice–the disinclination to pay tax–as a principled blow for political freedom. Not content with existing offshore tax shelters, multimillionaires and property developers have aspired to build their own. For each such rare project that sees (usually brief) life, there are many unfettered by actual existence, such as Laissez-Faire City, a proposed offshore tax haven inspired by a particularly crass and gung-ho libertarianism, that generated press interest in the mid-’90s only to collapse in infighting and bad blood; or New Utopia, an intended sea-based libertarian micro-nation in the Caribbean that degenerated with breathtaking predictability into nonexistence and scandal.
However, one senses in even their supporters’ literature a dissatisfaction with these attempts that has nothing to do with their abject failure. It is also psycho-geographical: There is something about the atolls, mounts, reefs and miniature islets on which these pioneers have attempted to perch that insults their dignity.
A parable from seasteading’s past goes some way in explaining. In 1971, millionaire property developer Michael Oliver attempted to establish the Republic of Minerva on a small South Pacific sand atoll. It was soon off-handedly annexed by Tonga, and, in a traumatic actualized metaphor, allowed to dissolve back into the sea. To defeat the predatory outreach of nations and tides, it is clearly not enough to be offshore: True freedom floats.
Of course, visions of floating state evasion cannot always be explained by a hankering for tax evasion. There have been other precursors. Ships have allowed groups ranging from cheerfully illicit pirate radio stations to socially committed abortion providers, like Women On Waves, to avoid local laws. Not surprisingly, this use for ships has been enthusiastically adopted by businesses, such as SeaCode, which promotes locating outsourced foreign software engineers three miles off the coast of Los Angeles to avoid pesky immigration and labor laws.
It is the less instrumentalist iterations that inspire the imagination. Occasionally, in a spirit of can-do contrarianism, some offshore spit or rig has been designated an independent country, such as Sealand, a sea-tower-based nation with no permanent inhabitants on Britain’s Suffolk coast. The startling notion of coagulated ship-city has unsurprisingly been featured in fiction, as in Lloyd Kropp’s Sargasso-based The Drift and Neal Stephenson’s “The Raft,” in Snow Crash. It is a measure of how disastrous a film Waterworld was that its floating homesteads failed to hold the attention. The cultural fascination, however, remains.
Many of the projects currently under discussion cite ecological concerns as their rationale. However, the more ambitious these projects are, the more vague their details and mechanics. The unbearably New-Age habitat of Celestopea is to be built of the wincingly punning and hypothetically enviro-friendly Seament. Clearly, the original rationale of seasteading is sheer utopian exuberance.
Floating cities are dreamed of because how cool is that?–an entirely legitimate, admirable reason. The archives of seasteading are irresistible reading, the best of the utopias are awesome, and floating-city imaginings are in themselves a delightful mental game. The problem is the crippling of this tradition by free-market vulgarians.
In these times, utopian imagination for its own sake has a bad rap, so some unconvincing instrumental rationale must be tacked on–yeah, save the planet, whatever. Among the rather cautious purposes architect Eugene Tsui lists for his proposed floating city of Nexus are the development of mariculture, clean energy and “experimental education programs”: Reading these bullet points, one might almost forget that Nexus is a five-mile-long, self-propelling mountainous island shaped like a horseshoe crab. Its sheer beautiful preposterousness shouldn’t be an embarrassment: It is the point of the dream, whatever the design specs say.
Utopianism has always had two, usually though not always contradictory, aesthetic and avant-gardist gravitational pulls: toward a hallucinatory baroque or, alternately, a post-Corbusier functionalism. In seasteading, these iterations are represented by Tsui’s hallucinatory organicism on one hand and Buckminster Fuller’s extraordinary, floating, ziggurat-like Triton City on the other.
The libertarian seasteaders are heirs to this visionary tradition but degrade it with their class politics. They almost make one nostalgic for more grandiose enemy dreams. The uncompromising monoliths of fascist and Stalinist architecture expressed their paymasters’ monstrous ambitions. The wildest of the libertarian seasteaders, New Utopia, manages to crossfertilize its drab Miami-ism with enough candy floss Las Vegaries to keep a crippled baroque distantly in sight. Freedom Ship, however, is a floating shopping mall, a buoyant block of midrange Mediterranean hotels. This failure of utopian imagination is nowhere clearer than in the floating city of the long defunct but still influential Atlantis Project.
It is a libertarian dream. Hexagonal neighborhoods of square apartments bob sedately by tiny coiffed parks and tastefully featureless marinas, an Orange County of the soul. It is the ultimate gated community, designed not by the very rich and certainly not by the very powerful, but by the middlingly so. As a utopia, the Atlantis Project is pitiful. Beyond the single one-trick fact of its watery location, it is tragically non-ambitious, crippled with class anxiety, nostalgic not for mythic glory but for the anonymous sanctimony of an invented 1950s. This is no ruling class vision: it is the plaintive daydream of a petty bourgeoisie, whose sulky solution to perceived social problems is to run away–set sail into a tax-free sunset.
None of this is surprising. Libertarianism is not a ruling-class theory. It may be indulged, certainly, for the useful ideas it can throw up, and its prophets have at times influenced dominant ideologies–witness the cack-handed depredations of the “Chicago Boys” in Chile after Allende’s bloody overthrow. But untempered by the realpolitik of Reaganism and Thatcherism, the anti-statism of “pure” libertarianism is worse than useless to the ruling class.
Big capital will support tax-lowering measures, of course, but it does not need to piss and moan about taxes with the tedious relentlessness of the libertarian. Big capital, with its ranks of accountant-Houdinis, just gets on with not paying it. And why hate a state that pays so well? Big capital is big, after all, not only because of the generous contracts its state obligingly hands it, but because of the gun-ships with which its state opens up markets for it.