Floating Utopias

By Miéville, China | In These Times, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Floating Utopias


Miéville, China, In These Times


The degraded imagination of the libertarian seasteaders

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 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 "[tjhings 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 disincli- nation 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. …

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