Floating Utopias

On the degraded imagination of the libertarian seasteaders.

China Mieville September 28, 2007

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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