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Floating Utopias (cont’d)

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Libertarianism, by contrast, is a theory of those who find it hard to avoid their taxes, who are too small, incompetent or insufficiently connected to win Iraq-reconstruction contracts, or otherwise chow at the state trough. In its maundering about a mythical ideal-type capitalism, libertarianism betrays its fear of actually existing capitalism, at which it cannot quite succeed. It is a philosophy of capitalist inadequacy.

Libertarianism’s nemesis, “the state,” is no less abstract. This is particularly so for libertarianism’s seasteading wing, for whom the political entity “the state” is bizarrely geographically literalized. Their intent is to slip the surly bonds of earth not up but sideways, beyond littoral borders. It is a lunatic syllogism: “I dislike the state: The state is made of land: Therefore I dislike the land.” Water is a solvent, dissolving “political” (state) power, leaving only “economics” behind.

‘The captain’s word will be final’

Small communities have taken to the seas to escape oppressive state apparatuses. The miseries of refugee “boat people”–Indonesians, Haitians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Afghanis and others–have been grotesquely real, but this has not given middlebrow utopians pause. The libertarian seasteader is a Pollyanna of exile.

There also have been genuine countercultural maritime polities, shipboard societies opposed to the despotism of state power, that might provide a genuine inspiration. Since the publication in 2000 of Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Redicker’s The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, any discussion on liberté sur mer must reference the grassroots, democratic pirate “hydrarchies” that the authors rescued less from the condescension of history than from its pantomime audience booing.

But libertarians are political dissidents only in narrowly selfish directions. As respectful of “order” as the most polite bourgeois, they cannot conceive of pirates as antecedents, only as threats. (As indeed they might be, were there any seasteads to plunder.) By distancing themselves from this antiestablishment hydrarchy, the libertarian seasteaders unwittingly identify with the other hydrarchy that Linebaugh and Redicker discuss: the imperialist, maritime state. Coercive political apparatuses, operating internally and externally, are implicitly, sometimes explicitly, part of the libertarian seasteading project. Good Brechtians, we ask: Who is to maintain New Utopia, Laissez-Faire City, the Freedom Ship? Who will cook the feasts and clean the heads? So many reports. So many questions. The fantasists of libertarian seasteading are vague or silent about on-ship labor standards, preferring not to ponder who will swab the decks on which the offshore traders, speculators and Web entrepreneurs will promenade.

They cannot, however, entirely forget the need for other people, non-passengers. An attenuated anxiety about what such a presence reaches the libertarian mind as anxiety about crime–that shibboleth terror of the petty bourgeosie, impossible to banish from the mind.

On Freedom Ship there will be a jail, a “squad of intelligence officers,” and a “private security force of 2,000, led by a former FBI agent, [that] will have access to weapons, both to maintain order within the vessel and to resist external threats.” And while technically the law applied would be that of whichever state lends its flag, Freedom Ship officials make no bones that “the captain’s word will be final.”

That is the authoritarianism at libertarianism’s core, the symbiosis between the “free market” and tyranny. Seasteading libertarians flee the oppression of bourgeois democracy for the tyranny of dictatorship. The need for internal repression is thus admitted. External repression is less hypothetical. It is already here.

Seasteading as empire

Speculation about internal labor conditions on these polities is anathema, as it raises unpleasant issues of working-class organization on the wrong side of the gate. Externally, no such conceptual constraints exist. Far from remaining vague, the usual charge leveled at utopians, the board of Freedom Ship’s “realism” has made them gung-ho and explicit in describing the economic imperialism to which they aspire.

Freedom Ship Inc. has ostentatiously arranged with Honduran authorities to construct the vessel in the port of Trujillo, citing geographical advantages and cheap labor from the 10,000 to 20,000 workers they imagine exploiting. Locals are skeptical that anything will ever be built, but the project, despite being less “speculative” than utterly fanciful, has achieved a mass of absent presence sufficient to create real socioeconomic effects–attacks on labor, speculative bubbles and so on. In the words of the great activist science-fiction writer Lucius Shepard, who knows the region well:

[T]he Freedom Ship is scheduled to begin construction any day now in Trujillo. … Many, including myself, believe it is a scam, but others are believers. Either way, it’s going to bring a whole new cast of characters into the place, grifters and entrepreneurs and so forth; and it testifies to the fact that foreigners–mostly Americans–believe they can come to Honduras and achieve wealth and power there, that they can work their hustles with impunity.

Already, struggles against Freedom Ship have ensued. In April 2003, a protest march in Trujillo included farmers “protesting against the National Port Authority attempting to usurp their land (for local elites, multi-national tourism projects and the American venture ‘Freedom Ship.’).”

The protest was organized by the Comite de Emergencia Garifuna de Honduras, a grassroots group that represents the Garifuna minority, descendents of African slaves and indigenous Caribs and Arawaks. The ship is a stated reason for one of the many land grabs from the Garifuna, an expropriatory project so unsubtly iniquitous as to be almost camp. It is as if Freedom Ship’s partisans are so keen to prove their “realism” that only an ostentatious performance of imperialist theft will do the trick. According to the Comite, the Garifuna land is being eyed with the government’s active and official participation.

The most recent threat to Garifuna land rights emerged in September of 2002, in the protected reserve between the Caribbean Sea and the Guaymoreto Lagoon called Barranco Blanco. The National Port Company (ENP) a government body, to conduct a topographical survey of the Garifuna land, with the intention of renting out lands for the construction of “Freedom Ship.” … The local Garfiuna community has legal title to this land, but when they asserted their ownership in meeting with the National Port Company, the Port Company went so far as to cite the “international war on terror” at the meeting as a reason for their usurpation of lands, claiming they needed the land to protect the banana boats of Dole Company which dock at nearby Puerto Castilla.

In one area at least, then, Freedom Ship is ahead of schedule. Its continuing nonexistence has not stopped it from casting an imperial shadow. Freedom Ship is and will remain a castle in the air–or sea–but it has already laid foundations in someone else’s land.

Class warfare as bad comedy

Today, the supposed imminent demise of the state–the perforation, dissolution and evaporation of its sovereignty and borders under the onslaught of commerce and capital–is asserted with considerably less vigor than during the boosterish early ’90s. The internationalization of capital was and remains real, however, and with that, inevitably, comes the migration of labor.

One would think that an avowedly anti-statist, laissez-faire movement would support the free movement of labor, as well as capital. To its credit, the Libertarian Party of the United States has enough rigor to take an open border position. But as the ferocious debate on its website suggests, the issue is hugely controversial.

Much libertarianism has a love-hate relationship with borders. Despite the timidity of some unions on the issue, true freedom of labor would strengthen the working class, an unacceptable outcome to the right wing. It is also cause for intellectual gymnastics on the part of libertarian ideologues eager to justify the exclusion of foreign workers from its borders.

Usually this involves conceptualizing the state as the “private property” of its legal inhabitants. However, when we read in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the self-proclaimed “voice of scholarship in libertarian theory,” that as part of the “natural order” you will find “Whites live among Whites and separate from Asians and blacks,” or read the concern about “diseased immigrants” and the lament for a Los Angeles with “crowds of immigrants, most of them probably illegal, roaming the streets in search of one knows not what,” the despicable racial anxieties are blatant. For some libertarians, “liberty” is more negotiable than “aryan.”

Of course, big capital gains from borders less from the fact that they keep workers out than in the manner that they allow workers in–the economic benefits of “illegals” are enormous, both directly and as a wedge, because of their extreme vulnerability and availability for hyper-exploitation. Realpolitikal big capital, then, and the hysterical wing of libertarianism unite in their predilection for borders, though for different reasons.

Consequently, in the libertarian seastead, citizenship really is a ticket that must be bought–not a right nor a privilege but a commodity. The claim that the state is private property is more believable in such a pretend place than in the real world, where citizenship is not reserved for paying passengers. Of course, illegal immigration onto a floating city would be an impressive feat: another of the idea’s charms. The dream is not of open borders, but of mobile ones, as ferociously exclusive as those of any other state, and more than most.

It is a small schadenfreude to know that these dreams will never come true. There are dangerous enemies, and then there are jokes of history. The libertarian seasteaders are a joke. The pitiful, incoherent and cowardly utopia they pine for is a spoilt child’s autarky, an imperialism of outsourcing, a very petty fascism played as maritime farce: Pinochet of Penzance.

This is an abridged version of “Floating Utopias: Freedom and Unfreedom of the Seas,” reprinted from Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (New Press, July).
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