Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Floating Utopias

Plato is widely regarded as the father of utopian schemes, but the reputation is undeserved. Any critical reading of the Republic reveals that Socrates' famous description of an ideal polity is not intended as a utopian programme and there is no expectation that such a state could or should ever be realised on earth. In fact, his purpose is to describe justice in the soul of man, and it is only by analogy that he gives an account of justice in a state. All the same, Plato remains the fountainhead of Western political imagination; no other philosopher offers as much to those who would dream of a better world. Not only has Socrates' tour de force in the Republic stimulated political thinkers throughout the ages, but so too have other Platonic dialogues, most notably the Critias, the work in which we find the celebrated description of the lost continent of Atlantis. The detailed description of the great maritime city of Atlantis is often touted as the well-springs of science fiction; the sustained imagination of a fictitious world. As well, it is often regarded as the first great adventure in civic design. Built according to a geometric schema in a series of concentric circles, the Atlantean city is the first and most extraordinary instance of an imagined polis in the Western tradition. 

It is without hesitation, therefore, that we can nominate Plato as the forebearer of recent schemes to construct designed city-states in pursuit of a better political future. The world today is sagging under the strain of broken institutions and it is abundantly clear that the current structures are incapable of offering new solutions. Specifically, a world of eleven billion or so human beings is being poorly served by some 150+ nation states mired in structures and patterns of governance largely created to address the impasse that followed in the aftermath of World War II. Such states are both unwilling and unable to forge new ways to address new realities. We are surely on the edge of a brave new world, but mid-XXth century solutions are hopelessly, even dangerously, inadequate for the task.  

In the face of this, certain people - not prepared to wait for calamities to overtake us - are looking to new models, and it is no accident that Plato's maritime utopia, Atlantis, underpins them. This is the strategy of the so-called 'seasteading' movement. Despairing at the ossified inadequacy of existing nation states, certain brave souls have looked seaward into the neutral waters of open oceans as a space in which to construct exemplars for the dawning era. The essential idea is to use modern engineering methods to build small city-states at sea, beyond the reach of existing national boundaries. There, in international space, free of stultifying regulations, paralysing tax regimes and overbearing governments, communities of innovators and entrepreneurs can experiment with bold solutions to contemporary and emerging problems. 

At the forefront of this movement is the Seasteading Institute. See their website here. Of recent times they have negotiated a deal with French Polynesia to construct the first 'seastead' in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. To that end, they have conducted an international contest for designs for the new city-state. The rationale for such a venture is both simple and old: it is a matter of demonstrable historical experience that city-states that extract themselves from corrupt and inefficient nations and stand alone are, by virtue of optimum size and flexibility, able to forge ahead and become remarkably prosperous. The outstanding example of it in modern times is Singapore. Once the Singaporeans removed themselves from the moribund inertia of Malaysia they didn't look back. Other cities could do the same except that the territorial jealousy of modern nations prevents it. The solution, then, is to step outside of the nation-state system and build cities beyond their territorial waters. Unburdened by inept governments, such free polities can become adventures in utopian living. 

The Republic of Rose Island - coat of arms.

The modern precursor to the current 'seasteading' movement was a short-lived experiment in Italy in the late 1960s. The engineer Giorgio Rosa fund the construction of a large platform in the Adriatic Sea outside of Italian national boundaries. He named it the Republic of Rose Island and declared esperanto as its national language. It was intended as a stand-alone micronation with restaurants, bars, a post office and accommodation with minimal government. The whole structure was in fact an adaptation of the same technology used to construct oil drilling platforms, and it looked like it. Thus:

The Italian government, however, viewed the entire venture as a tourist gimmick designed to avoid taxation. The republic had declared independence on 24 June 1968 but the Italian navy invaded on February 13 1969 and destroyed the facility outright. This brief and ill-fated episode in 'seasteading' is the subject of the film 'Island of the Rose: Freedom is Frightening', see here:

The new Seasteading Institute hopes for a happier outcome. It is sponsored by numerous wealthy individuals, such as Peter Thiel, and is supported by a growing community of highly educated people frustrated by the inability of existing governmental systems to deal effectively with mounting contemporary issues. The first principle of a seasteading city-state is minimalist government, but also - within that - a willingness to experiment with new systems and methods of government and organisation. 

All of this sounds very reminiscent of certain phases of Mencius Moldbug's musings on neoreaction. There was, at one point at least, his vision of a world of small Singaporeanesque city-states in open competition with one another, with citizens free to exit whenever they liked in their search for a commodious place to reside. Such city-states would be technological hubs run at a profit with appropriate corporate modes of governance. The seasteading movement is clearly a related phenomenon and as such provides an insight into the motivation behind much neoreaction, namely that NRx is instigated and populated by a high IQ and technologically savvy cohort who are at their wits end when confronted by the failure of existing governmental systems to embrace the possibilities available to us. NRx, that is, grows out of the yawning disparity between what might be done and what existing governments will permit. The neoreactionary, finally, says, "Damn it! We'd be better off under a benevolent dictator!" Similarly, the seasteader says, "Damn it! We'd be better off living on an oil platform in international waters!" 

National authorities are very likely, as we saw in the case of the Republic of the Rose, to view these ventures as exercises in tax evasion. And so they might be. But what, it might be asked, is wrong with that? If a city-state can prosper and advance with minimalist government and low taxation, why not avoid bloated high taxing bureaucratic red-tape hell-holes? The strategy of heading out to sea to avoid government regulation is well established. There are cases in the ancient world, all the way through to L. Ron Hubbard's Sea.org. But as the case of Mr Hubbard should remind us, this raises other issues, for it is not only incentive-destroying taxation and unwarranted and overbearing regulation that such people seek to avoid. The name 'seasteading' is adapted from the American term 'homesteading' and evokes a nostalgia for the wild west, but in that it also evokes the most American of delusions, the confusion between freedom and lawlessness. The 'wild west' was beyond the frontier, and, by definition, beyond the reach of the law. It is a persistent American myth - alive and well among so-called 'libertarians' - that this equates to freedom (which in turn equates to the highest human good.) No doubt there is a certain amount of such libertarian delusion driving 'seasteaders' and among them are those who seek 'free spaces' in order to indulge in dubious, if not criminal, violations. Among the high IQ and technologically savvy, for instance, you will find people looking for places outside of civilised scrutiny so they can indulge their dreams of transhuman monstrosities.

More promising, though, the 'seastead' offers the hope of a revival of the polis, the city-state, as the natural and most appropriate unit of human civilisation. Neoreaction's admiration for the city-state (Singapore, Hong Kong, and so on) is not unfounded. Leaving aside the recent resurgence of state-based nationalism, which might be applauded for other reasons (anti-globalism), the finer particularism of the city-state offers far greater scope for human diversity and protection from the evils of one-world universalism. The seasteaders are not mistaken about this. The creation of a myriad seabound city-states, each with different modes of government, different purposes for different peoples, unburdened by the primitive, restrictive concerns of existing nations, can only be deemed a positive step into the future. 

* * * 

For all of that, the present author remains especially underwhelmed by the entries to the Seastead Institute's architectural contest (see examples above and below). The concept of the utopia-at-sea New Atlantis is fine in itself, but the designs are unexciting. In most cases, what we have is Lego Land on water. There is rather too much Buckminster Fuller in these designs. Futuristic pretensions. Modular dreariness. An unrelenting artificiality that, in practice, makes people unhappy. Let us note that much of the success of city-states like Singapore and Hong Kong  comes not just from the small scale of the enterprise and the openess of governments to creative and productive citizens but also to the deep traditional rootedness of the Chinese. Their success lies precisely in their ability to combine modernity with tradition. It is not an easy formula to reproduce. With few exceptions, attempts by the Arabs to create viable modern city-states in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere have been far less succesful (as anyone who has ever spent longer than a weekend in Doha will tell you) and their architect-designed cities-on-water are, in the main, stagnant and horrid.

Why the future needs to look like a cross between a P & O Liner and an oil rig is a mystery. There was certainly nothing rosy about Giorgio Rosa's Republic of the Rose. Roses may have adorned the micronation's coat of arms, and the above-referenced documentary may wax about freedom and liberty, but the structure itself was pure ugliness. Who would want to live on that? Who would even want to avoid tax on that? There is no avoiding it: ugly buildings make ugly people. An artificial Lego Land in French Polynesia or anywhere else soon encounters very real complications of human reality. It is a pity that the guidelines for architectural designs for the Seastead Institute's contest do not make any concessions for the human need for beauty; the proposed floating cities are entirely concerned with utilitarian requirements (and getting their snout in the climate-change trough) which, no matter how clever in themselves, reveal an impoverished and shallow estimation of the human being. Plato, the distant father of these seabound utopias, made no such underestimation. 



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