- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
The degraded imagination of the libertarian seasteaders
By 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 http://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
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
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
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
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
'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
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 Garifuna 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
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.
My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
"Don't just question authority,
Don't forget to question me."
-- Jello Biafra