Floating Utopias

On the degraded imagination of the libertarian seasteaders.

China Mieville

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 free​domship​.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.

Utopia degraded

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.

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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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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