In the Days of the Seasteaders, or, How the Extropian Detritivores Broke Capitalism

[This essay was written in March/April 2018 as part of the Geopoetics seminar at Goldsmiths College, I have decided to serialise it in 6 parts and post it here weekly so that it can live on and maybe be useful to someone, rather than sitting on a USB stick.

Some of the details around Seasteading are now out of date – please bear the date of writing in mind, also some footnotes might lead through to broken links, apologies.

I may at some point get round to writing an addendum to this essay that takes into consideration recent developments, in the meantime I suggest having a look at Xenogothic’s recent posts on the subject for more up-to-date and thorough reading.]

~

 At that time the Seasteaders were still relying on Algaculture to bring in credits. They would grow the Microalgae in these bioreactor pouches floating three deep in the brine – harvesting it wild out of the sea was too risky, not enough control over the quality of the bloom. Why not just grow it indoors? Something to do with the motion of the sea and the waves makes it grow better, its got some memories, needs to be finessed. Every ‘stead had its own farm attached but maybe a mile or two away from the main platforms, that’s where the working flesh lived.

 At first the workers flowed in just the way they said they would, the displaced and the bored – promise of a new life on the Blue Frontier, plenty of work to do, wages better than what they could make back home too. The workers were technically allowed onto the main ‘stead, they could eat in the same chain outlets, shop in the same malls, and the execs would smile in their faces too, wide liberal smiles. But the barriers were always there, came down to one thing – cryptocreds – if you had some jangling around on your chip then the smiles got wider…

 ~
The Seasteading Institute is a US based non-profit organisation, established in 2008 by Patri Friedman and Wayne Gramlich with the aim of “establish[ing] permanent, autonomous ocean communities to enable experimentation and innovation with diverse social, political, and legal systems.”[1] The Institute’s vision is of a future in which citizens can choose where they live and what form of governance they wish to live under. To the Seasteading Institute (S.I), the world’s oceans represent a vast prospect of under-utilised space, where potential colonists, or ‘Sea-steaders’ – a term harking back to the ‘Manifest Destiny’ of the American homestead frontiersman – will be able to start anew and build micro-nations free from the stalemates and compromise inherent to democratic government.

mini-living-seasteading-institute_dezeen_2364_col_0Fig.1, Seastead Concept Design, Seasteading Institute, (source: https://www.dezeen.com/2017/07/24/seasteading-institute-floating-cities-designed-for-unregulated-innovation-architecture-mini-living-initiative/)

The S.I envision seasteads as floating sovereign states, based around oil rig-like modular platforms or free floating vessels able to coalesce in communities of the politically like-minded, or disperse when opinions diverge. The project of the S.I draws upon recent advances in additive construction, nanochemistry and Silicon Valley information technologies to propose a vision that owes much to science fiction, describing an environmentally aware, carbon neutral utopia of

seashell cities grown organically using 3D printed Bio-rock … seascrapers will produce a superabundance of electricity, through the magic of ocean thermal energy conversion … ocean gardens will sprout in a fountain of life. Vast seaweed farms will absorb megatons of carbonic acid, reducing ocean acidity to feed the world with environmentally restorative food.[2]

The S.I’s vision of the isolated island as a cradle for a new age of mankind is by no means a novel ambition, it is merely the latest expression of the Atlantean/Lemurian utopia expressed throughout European literary history, from Plato’s Timaeus in which Atlantis is the birthplace of the ‘finest and best of all races of mankind’[3] through the Theosophists and their lost Atlantean and Lemurian races as antecedents of humanity.[4] Multiple projects throughout the 20th century attempted to achieve similar outcomes including Marshall Savage’s The Millenial Project,[5] The 1972 Republic of Minerva[6] and The Freedom Ship[7], most of which failed due to disputes over territory with existing governments or lack of financial backing.

The project of the S.I however is not so much about a wish to live independently on the sea, as a desire to reach certain political objectives which could have a societal effect beyond the seastead. The Seasteaders’ project also contains an unwillingness to accept the unifying temporal forces encoded within democratic neoliberalism, and an attempt to create multiplicities and temporal folds that are hyperstitional in nature. The project exists within a wider continuum stretching back through industrialised Capitalism that incorporates both microscopic forms of life and the Geo-tectonic landscape. This relationship can be traced through a Capitalist subculture with its origins in the European Romantic tradition through to the present moment of Silicon Valley Transhumanist Libertarianism.

~ ~

 The lab would be on the main part of the ‘stead, run by, say Pfizer, Exxon, Unilever, whoever, yeah all the big Pharma and Nutri states got in on Algae in a big way. Patented some synthesised algaenate dopamines to get the Flesh hooked, trickle them out at the right price, invent some ailments – sealegs in a pill. The processing would happen there on the ‘stead, sieve it, filter out the oil and then press and dry whatever was left, mostly for the newfoods, tasty treats for the flesh and animal feed. Fresh water was in short supply on land so anything grown in brine was a lot cheaper. All that stuff was just pocket money really though, the oil was the main thing, would go through some process and come out really quickly as sticky brown goop, same stuff they used to drill for, even further back in time. Refine it, get your gasoline, your ethanol. Get your rocket fuel, that’s the main one – thats where they made most of the credits because things were hotting up in that area at the same time.

~ ~

Towards a Cambrian Explosion in Government

Co-founder and current chair of trustees of the Seasteading Institute Patri Friedman is a writer, political activist[8] and grandson of Milton Friedman – from whom his principles of Freedom of Choice and Competition have been genetically inherited. Patri started the S.I in his spare time while working as a software engineer at Google, after growing disenfranchised with the efforts of the Libertarian party to effect change through democratic politics.[9] In an essay for Cato Unbound, the journal of the Libertarian think tank The Cato Institute in 2009, Friedman wrote that:

Government is just another industry, where countries offer services to citizens, but it has some unfortunate features. It is a geographically segmented monopoly, and since all land is taken, the industry has an enormous barrier to entry. To start a new government you have to beat an old one, which means winning a war, an election, or a revolution. And it has very high customer lock-in: there are barriers to emigration and immigration, and switching countries involves both high financial and emotional costs. These characteristics result in a horribly uncompetitive industry, so it is no surprise that existing firms tend to exploit customers instead of innovating to attract them.[10]

The Seasteading institute was Friedman’s answer to these issues of ‘customer lock-in’, to create a technological and legal model that would “dramatically lower the barrier to entry for forming a new government,”[11] – a model of ‘competitive governance’, enabling proliferation of ‘startup societies’. Friedman’s favourite phrase is “a Cambrian explosion in forms of government,”[12] invoking the collision of enlightenment-era Geology, Darwinian natural selection and classical Liberalism. This new Cambrian explosion will be an attempt to avoid societal recapitulationism – if we could see the bones of these new states as they grow their second trimester is a set of TED talk powerpoint slides, infographics and 3D rendered models of repurposed oil platforms that attempt to shun the pre-trodden evolutionary stages of historic democratic states.

The S.I do not however proscribe which forms of governance they envision thriving on water – the PR image is of an enabling Liberal platform that will allow the disenfranchised to “try new ways of living together which they believe will make them happier. Some seasteads might want to try a universal basic income, while others might prefer free market solutions.”[13] However, the most vocal supporters of the platform thus far have certainly come from the right of the political spectrum – the S.I has received investment of $1.7million to date from Republican-Libertarian Peter Thiel.[14] The Seasteaders’ project resonates clearly with Thiel’s motivations as a co-founder of PayPal, where he sought “the creation of a new world currency, free from all government control and dilution — the end of monetary sovereignty.”[15]

The Seasteading project has entered the Overton window of the alt-right/Neo-Conservative/ Neo-Reactionary millieu, meeting with equal degrees of support and derision from Mencius Moldbug[16]. The S.I project comes close to Moldbug’s proposed ideal model of government – Neo-Cameralism,[17] whereby the state would take the form of a company with an appointed CEO or as leader (possibly human or an Artificial Intelligence), and the country become the property of that company. While this notion may seem overtly dystopian in a world where the value of Democracy often is considered unshakeable, Moldbug’s Neocameralism has garnered support from some mainstream political influencers, including the director of think tank The Adam Smith Institute – architects of successive UK neoliberal governments’ privatization programmes from the 1980s onwards.[18]

Seasteading also enters into the millieu of Nick Land’s NRx-oriented Xenosystems blog, alongside other models of competitive governance such as Paul Romer’s ‘Charter Cities’[19] which seek to replicate the success of capitalist free states such Hong Kong and Singapore. Land’s interest in these models is the product of a more thanatoid impulse than Moldbug however, with competitive governance ultimately seen as a useful technology to stimulate the inhuman intelligence of capitalism as a machinic entity, leading to Land’s future vision of “nanotechnological apocalypse in which the entire terrestrial surface is reprocessed into seething slime…humanity melting down into an inorganic molecular morass.”[20]

In an echo of Friedman’s ‘Cambrian explosion in Governments’, Simon O’Sullivan identifies Lands project as

A future vision of a capitalism that has begun re-engineering its very origins…[NRx] is concerned with these future feedback circuits, but also…more retroactive trajectories. It is, to quote Land from his blog, a ‘time-twisted vector that spirals forwards into the past, and backwards into the future’, a project in which the contemporary moment – dominated by the democratic Cathedral – is torn apart by other forces.[21]

To the writers of NRx, Seasteading becomes a literal, spatial iteration of the politics of ‘exit over voice’ – that is better to walk away from an unpalatable political climate than try to effect change through democratic voice. While the politics of the S.I and sentiments of Patri Friedman in particular fall wholly within the remit of NRx, the S.I have sought to publicly distance themselves from the movement. Friedman called for a “more politically correct dark enlightenment”[22] and took issue with Moldbug’s tactics which often involve personal attacks upon those he disagrees with.[23] NRx’s ‘Human Biological Diversity’ rhetoric is ultimately too tinged with controversy for the S.I to be associated with whilst it attempts to achieve mainstream political legitimation, and in the eyes of NRx, the S.I is seen as too egalitarian, perhaps too beholden to the Neoliberal ‘Cathedral’, its designs too far-fetched or impractical to bear imminent results.

At best Seasteading provides the NRx writers with a useful thought experiment – an island as the ‘philosophically normal’ deserted space imagined by Gilles Deleuze in his 1953 essay Desert Islands. In the opposition of islands set up by Deleuze it is not immediately apparent where the Seastead would fit – it is neither a Continental island, ‘born of disarticulation’, nor is it truly an Oceanic or originary island born from ‘movement from the lowest depths’.[24] In Deleuze’s conception the island itself can never truly be deserted, instead the island has

…pushed its desert outside. What is deserted is the ocean around it … from the deserted island it is not creation but re-creation, not the beginning but a re-beginning that takes place. The deserted island is the origin, but a second origin. From it everything begins anew.[25]

It is this potential of the enclosing desert as a site for rebirth that draws the seasteaders out into the open ocean. The individual seastead is not a fixed prospect – it would never have been discovered in deserted form, but the political model it harbours may be deserted at any time, sustaining the perennial threat of ideological erosion, resulting in a dispersal of sub-continents and sub-ideologies.

[Next time: Synthesised Hydrocarbons]

Footnotes:

[1] “Introducing the Seasteading Institute”, Seasteading Institute, accessed April 30, 2018, https://www.seasteading.org/2008/04/introducing-the-seasteading-institute/

[2] BBC, “Does humanity’s future lie out at sea?” released April 5, 2018, video, 0:11,
https://www.bbc.com/ideas/videos/does-humanitys-future-lie-out-at-sea/p0639hl5?playlist=newtopias

[3] Plato, Timaeus, trans. Donald J. Zeyl (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Hackett Classics, 2000), 1231

[4] William Scott-Elliott, The Story of Atlantis & The Lost Lemuria, (London: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1896) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21796/21796-h/21796-h.htm

[5] Marshall Savage, The Millennial Project, (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown & Company, 1992)

[6] Doug Jenkins, “A true record of the Minerva Reef saga of 1972 and the part played by the Tongan Shipping Company Vessel Olovaha”, accessed April 30, 2018, http://www.queenoftheisles.com/HTML/Republic%20of%20Minerva.html

[7] “The City at Sea”, Freedom Ship International, accessed April 30, 2018, http://freedomship.com/

[8] “Patri’s World”, Patri Friedman, accessed April 30, 2018, http://patrifriedman.com/

[9] Patri Friedman, “Beyond Folk Activism,” Cato Unbound, last modified April 6, 2009 https://www.cato-unbound.org/2009/04/06/patri-friedman/beyond-folk-activism

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “About,” A Thousand Nations, accessed April 30, 2018 https://athousandnations.com/about/

[13] “Frequently Asked Questions”, The Seasteading Institute, accessed April 30, 2018, https://www.seasteading.org/frequently-asked-questions/

[14] “Peter Thiel on Trump, Seasteading and making futures more like the Jetsons or Star Trek”, Next Big Future, accessed April 30, 2018 https://www.nextbigfuture.com/2017/01/peter-thiel-on-trump-seasteading-and.html

[15] Peter Thiel, “The Education of a Libertarian,” Cato Unbound, last modified April 13, 2009 https://www.cato-unbound.org/2009/04/13/peter-thiel/education-libertarian

[16] Mencius Moldbug, “Seasteading, without that warm glow”, Unqualified Reservations, last modified September 24, 2009 http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.co.uk/2009/09/seasteading-without-that-warm-glow.html

[17] Mencius Moldbug, “Neocameralism and the escalator of massarchy”, Unqualified Reservations, last modified December 20, 2007 http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.co.uk/2007/12/neocameralism-and-escalator-of.html

[18] Josephine Armistead, “The Silicon Ideology,” last modified May 18, 2016, p.18, https://archive.org/stream/the-silicon-ideology#page/n0/mode/2up/search/adam+smith

[19] “Charter Cities,” Paul Romer, accessed April 30, 2018, https://paulromer.net/tag/charter-cities/

[20] Nick Land, “Odds and Ends: On Ultimate Risk,” Collapse no.8 (2014), p.379

[21] Simon O’Sullivan “Accelerationism, Hyperstition and Myth-Science,” Cyclops Journal no.2 (2017) pp.26-7

[22] Patri Friedman “Status Update, 26 January 2014”, Facebook, last modified 26 January 2014,

[23] “Conference Schedule, Ground Rules, The Market For Ideas, and Reality,” The Seasteading Institute, accessed April 30, 2018, https://www.seasteading.org/2009/09/conference-schedule-ground-rules-the-market-for-ideas-and-reality/

[24] Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 trans. Michael Taormina (Los Angeles, California: Semiotext(e), 2004), 9

[25] Ibid p.11

 

Author: danielseankelly

I'm a practicing artist. This blog is for me to channel my ideas into writing, through short form essays.

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