Patri Friedman and the English Paternal Function

It’s been about eight months since we last heard anything from the Seasteading Institute. It looks like the project is properly dead in the water.

If you’ve no idea what I’m taking about, here’s a very brief recap:

Back in 2018, when patchwork was the big topic in the blogosphere, seasteading was this tiny beacon of hope where it seemed like there was potential for a new kind of experimental politics to be tried out at sea on a new oceanic frontier. Unfortunately, it was all about deregulating capitalism and having a go at some weirdly anachronistic kind of neocolonialism.

Instead, what initially had potential to be a sort of bipartisan experimental project where new and sustainable technologies for living could be tried out in politically autonomous zones very quickly became this pathetic attempt to territorialise the oceans by neorandians, Bioshock-style.

Nevertheless, it did generate a lot of really interesting engineering innovations and it also contained seeds of a sustainable and new way of living but then some idiot wrote some self-published libertarian book about the whole thing and rather than bury it like any self-respecting person would they showed their true colours by making him their official spokesperson and from there on out it was gaff central and embarrassing for everyone.

I still find the whole thing really interesting though and I have a tendency to moan about it on the blog because it could be fantastic if these schmucks weren’t the ones pursuing it.

If there is anything interesting about these sorts of projects from a political standpoint it is that they could potentially offer up opportunities to try something genuinely and radically new, if the right people were involved — new forms of government, of life, of trade, etc. etc. Unfortunately, working so hard to innovate in that area only to make tax havens out of these newly autonomous zones is a woeful failure of the imagination.

Perhaps they realised this after they had a load of mishaps. Maybe that’s why the whole project went quiet…

… Nope!!

Lizette Chapman writes for Bloomberg that former captain of the good ship Seasteading Institute, Patri Friedman, has launched a new venture which hopes to do basically the same thing as the last one by replicating all the same problems:

Pronomos Capital, which Friedman incorporated in August, is supposed to bankroll the construction of experimental cities on vacant tracts of land in developing countries. Pronomos is set up like a venture fund, making investments in local organizations that do the work of securing government approvals, finding tenants, and hiring retired U.K. judges to enforce the new legal framework, to be based on British common law. The firm says it’s discussing semi-autonomous cities of varying sizes with foreign and local businesspeople in countries where officials have seemed receptive to exempting them from area laws, including Ghana, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Nigeria, and Panama. A given community could start as small as an industrial park, Friedman says. Most will be aimed at foreign businesses seeking friendlier tax treatment.

While other organizations with names such as Free Private Cities and Charter Cities Institute are advising similar efforts around the world, Pronomos is the only one with seed money from boldface names including Thiel, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, and Bitcoin evangelists Roger Ver and Balaji Srinivasan. In describing his new firm, Friedman isn’t shy to use seasteading as a reference point. “I’ve been putting these ideas out there for 20 years, and they’ve grown and compounded,” he says, sipping well water at his mountaintop compound south of San Jose. “What we get excited about is the ability to do this repeatedly.”

Why the colonial-sounding framework, right down to the old British laws? Dressed in a well-loved Slytherin sweatshirt, Friedman says it’s the best fuel for a fledgling economy and property values, and to assure global investors that their money will be safe in Pronomos projects. The justice system is more important than the tax breaks, he says, citing research that suggests faith in a functional code of laws is a leading indicator of a region’s economic success.

That’s been less than reassuring to politicians and residents leery of ceding land to unaccountable foreigners, in exchange for theoretical network effects. Fierce local opposition has halted a plan to create an independent area on a stretch of coastal land in Honduras, for example. The proposed tax incentives and other benefits for foreign investors were about as popular as you’d expect. “That land belongs to someone,” says Silvio Carrillo, the nephew of assassinated Honduran rights advocate Berta Cáceres.

Pronomos “will only go where we are wanted,” according to Friedman. He also says, with a straight face, that if Pronomos can get local officials to agree to its plans, “we have a credible shot at eliminating poverty.”

What it sounds like they are describing is the City of London — that financial city within a city — except it can do what it wants… Truly innovative stuff. As anyone who listens to grime will know, the City’s wealth doesn’t magically leak out over the surrounding neighbourhoods. All you get is incredibly stark inequality.

(Also, can we take a moment to appreciate the “well-loved Slytherin sweatshirt” comment… Jesus…)

What I think is hilarious about the seasteaders’ shift to land is that it makes the holes in their ideological model all the more apparent. The phrase “landsteading” begs comparisons with “homesteading” and, whilst the colonial hangovers here are strong, at its very best, homesteading is, to my mind at least, a call for the sort of “universe” Gilles Deleuze described in his essay on Herman Melville:

The American is one who is freed from the English paternal function, the son of a crumbled father, the son of all nations. Even before their independence, Americans were thinking about the combination of States, the State-form most compatible to their vocation. But their vocation was not to reconstitute an “old State secret,” a nation, a family, a heritage, or a father. It was above all to constitute a universe, a society of brothers, a federation of men and goods, a community of anarchist individuals, inspired by Jefferson, by Thoreau, by Melville.

Friedman’s fatal flaw — and he apparently says himself in Chapman’s article that he’s been trying these things out for twenty years so he really should have realised it by now — is that he is trying to replicate the end of the frontier. Every time, he’s trying to replicate a fleeting moment within the American West’s territorialisation, between the anarchic freedom and the recoding of English capitalism. He’s trying to capture and hold open the death of something, and then every time he gets close it realising it — surprise, surprise — it just dies…

If he wants to have any sort of success, he needs to displace a whole lot more than just tax laws.

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