Interview, PM Press Blog

A Q&A with Cornell professor Raymond Craib about DIY countries, crypto-utopias, and libertarian exit fantasies through the ages.

By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
Terra Nullius substack

When I found out Raymond Craib was writing a book on the history of libertarian exit strategies, I was super jealous—the highest form of flattery coming from a writer, given how petty we are. But now that I’ve read it, I am just so thrilled for all of us that he decided to take the project on.

Adventure Capitalism, which comes out in June (pre-order it here) is about men who tried to start countries in places where they thought no-one would get in their way (usually remote-to-them islands). It’s about the ideas behind their fantasies, and the political events and personalities that helped them flourish—and fail. If you’ve ever wondered about what came before the current wave of cryptocurrency entrepreneurs looking for a place in the world to call their very own, this book is for you, whether you are an aspiring seasteader, or you think these efforts are thinly-veiled imperial re-enactments in poor taste and moral judgment. So much contemporary writing about this intellectual space simultaneously lampoons and lionizes the Westerners who think they can simply declare themselves sovereign, and I get the impulse—I’ve certainly succumbed to it myself (let’s just say the protagonists . . . make it easy). This book doesn’t, and that’s one of the reasons why I found it so essential: Craib is clearly very critical but he does not mock his subjects, opting instead to point out the weakness in their thinking in a historical, informed and methodical way.

There have also been a number of more whimsical and/or speculative published texts in this area of study that are broadly sympathetic to the exiter’s cause—How to Start Your Own Country and The Sovereign Individual, to name a couple of cult favorites— but again, there’s been relatively little in the way of serious historical research into how exactly these attempts went, and in particular, the ideas and funds and groups that made them possible. There’s been even less attention paid to the very real, non-fantasy places and communities that wound up being the targets of these experiments in DIY sovereignty, so it’s to Craib’s credit that Adventure Capitalism is as concerned about the real-life effects of these coups on ordinary people as it is on the masterminds behind them.

A final note: the book is really fun to read. It has a bit of everything: tragic/heroic individuals moved to act by their trauma, idealism, politics and eccentricity; high-powered economists influencing the political conversation at precisely the right moment; assorted grifters, mercenaries, spooks and crooks doing what they do best (or worst); Ernest Hemingway’s flunky brother. Craib teaches history at Cornell, so there’s some academic stuff in there for sure, but it comes with plenty of action to keep you entertained. If you read and enjoy Terra Nullius, I imagine you’d also be naturally interested in this book, so I leave you all with some thoughts from the author himself. I hope you enjoy the conversation!

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: Your background is in Latin American history. How did you become interested in wacky secessionist exit fantasies?

Raymond Craib: It was a combination of things that brought me to this project. Generally I am interested in the intersections of geography, history and politics and I try to explore those intersections however I can, regardless of the area-studies focus involved. So I tend not to limit my scholarly work to one country (my first book was on Mexico; my second, on Chile) and I like to think across geopolitical categories. This project in particular came a bit out of left field. My partner was raised in Hawaii and has been and remains an avid outrigger canoer (think of the canoes you see on the ocean in Hawaii Five-O). In Ithaca we have a fabulous lake—Lake Cayuga—that is 38 miles in length and some 400 feet deep in some areas so it can often feel like being on the ocean with very active currents, wind and waves and the like. So we both did outrigger on the lake every summer (she’s hard-core and paddles year-round; I don’t) and one summer we ran, with a couple of other paddlers in the outrigger club, a class for teen camp counselors, teaching them how to outrigger. We would paddle out to the middle of the lake, pause to jump in for a few minutes and then I would talk for ten or fifteen minutes about the history of outrigger, of open ocean navigation, and Oceania more broadly.

In the process of doing bits of research for that summer I came across seasteading—the Peter Thiel-backed and Patri Friedman-led effort to build libertarian colonies on the high seas—and was struck by the guiding assumption that the ocean was unclaimed and open for colonization, particularly in the context of a long history of Oceanian navigation, usufruct, migration, and the like. And of course the allusion to homesteading just drove home the settler colonial underpinnings even further and at the same time suggested a much longer history to such projects.

That became the starting point for looking more closely at libertarian ideas of territorial exit and private sovereignty. It soon became obvious that there is a very long pedigree to such ideas and I decided to not put the seasteaders front and center but to instead examine how they were the latest manifestation of long history of private colonization schemes and efforts to rework the idea of sovereignty (in part because I am interested in that kind of longer view and in part because the Silicon Valley tech culture seems convinced that its projects and schemes are new, innovative and sui generis . . . and they are not.)

AAA: When you began your research, what were you expecting to discover, and how did the result surprise you?

RC: Honestly I wasn’t quite sure what to expect although I knew going into it that I wanted to get at the texture, the detail, of what happened in the places exiters targeted. I tend to be a historian who gets obsessed with the nitty-gritty of what is happening “on the ground” and I knew at some level that the story of exit was to be found there, rather than in grand pronouncements, aspirational statements, investment prospectuses and so forth. So I did a lot of archival work—in the collections of journalist Andrew St. George (held at Yale); of British Special Branch officer Gordon Haines (held at the National Archives of Vanuatu); in the National Archives in London; and in materials gathered on Oliver and some of his partners through Freedom of Information Act requests to the FBI, among others. I am not a historian of the US so I think some of the things that surprised me—the intensity and depth of the libertarian eruption of the 1960s, for example—would not surprise a historian of the 20th-century US. Perhaps I should not be surprised, but I did find striking how deaf to history current exit projects seem to be. The seasteaders, who style themselves as innovative thinkers about sovereignty and rethinking governance, promote and embrace some of the most maudlin and saccharine tales of western expansion and pioneer romance. They sound at times like traditionalist, diehard right-wing patriots. But of course it should not be surprising because they still have not found a way to square the libertarian peg that fetishizes property rights with the historical circle of violent expropriation. So they fall back on picture-book narratives of empty lands and utopian freedom-lovers. The use of “steading” in their own name tells you what you need to know. I’ve written someplace else that they should read less Lynne Cheney and more Cormac McCarthy.

AAA: You spend quite a bit of time in the book talking about Michael Oliver, the Las Vegas real estate mogul behind the would-be Republic of Minerva, a tax-free, regulation-free micronation that was to be built in the 1970s on reclaimed land in Tongan territorial waters. In many ways he’s a very ideological, very extreme libertarian. Yet he comes off as a pretty complex character psychologically. Who is he, and was there anything about his life or his biography that helped you get in his head?

RC: Yes, Oliver is a central figure in the book and someone who I found very compelling and who I wanted to try to make sense of. My answer here will be a bit lengthy because there are a number of important points worth making. To begin with, at some level he was a natural choice as his projects in the 1970s are notorious in exit circles and historiography. His 1968 self-published book (A New Constitution for a New Country) was a major success and went through multiple editions quite quickly. He also was not shy about giving interviews and being fairly public about his efforts. But as I researched further a couple of things struck me.

For one, there was a frustrating tendency in the writing on Oliver’s projects to see them as sort of comedic and absurd, what I refer to as the narrative trope of “crazy, rich Caucasians.” (The rare exception here is the work of Anthony van Fossen on sovereignty and tax havenry in the southwest Pacific who wrote very carefully about Oliver and his projects.) There is a patronizing and dismissive tone in much of the work and I wanted to avoid that by taking his projects—and him—seriously and by situating them meaningfully in the context of the era. Oliver’s story is a compelling one: Jewish, from Kaunas, Lithuania, he was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust and was seventeen or eighteen when rescued by US troops outside of the Dachau concentration camp. He then emigrated to the US and made a home for himself in Nevada. His experiences made him understandably hyper-attentive to his political surroundings and he worried about the threat of totalitarianism which, like many US liberals and conservatives alike, he associated with communism as much as with fascism. This resulted in a convergence between libertarianism and social conservatism that may strike readers as strange, even contradictory, but is central to how we should understand US libertarianism (and I say US libertarianism because for most of the world libertarian is synonymous with anarchist—that is, as both anti-state and anti-capitalist—whereas in the US libertarianism is devoutly capitalist and agnostically anti-statist.) It is also a convergence that resonates with the positions taken by some of the more prominent libertarian or neo-liberal intellectuals of the 20th century who shared similar experiences or concerns: Hayek, von Mises, Friedman, Rand, Rothbard, among others.

The second thing that struck me in researching Oliver’s projects and that led me to devote substantial attention to them is the lack of attention given to the social and political histories of the places where he sought to establish his new country. The fact that libertarian escapists found little success in places such as Pacific seamounts and decolonizing archipelagoes such as the Bahamas and the New Hebrides resulted from many factors, including the larger structural and geopolitical dynamics within which they operated as well as their own ignorance and arrogance regarding the places in which they landed. But it also resulted from the complexities they encountered on the ground. Many people living in these communities had had enough and were not ready to trade one colonial master for another; they were not ignorant of the potential consequences of libertarian escape projects; they had their own understandings of property, territory, the ocean, and the land that did not dovetail with that of these new arrivals; and they had their own understanding of freedom that did not match that of the libertarians. At the same time, exiters found allies in these places too. Some residents and leaders supported exit projects, seeing in them opportunities to use foreign investors and speculators to their own ends, whether it be to steer their own political destinies, to stave off more radical change, to make money, to sustain racial domination (in the Bahamas, for example), or because of shared ideological perspectives. In any case, I wanted to delve deeply into the social histories of these places to show how and why exit projects were rarely, if ever, simply imposed from outside and onto a uniformly intransigent population.

And thirdly I found that in much of the writing on these projects Oliver is not just the central protagonist, but the only protagonist. In the process, the collective of wealthy individuals who invested in and promoted such projects is elided: men such as wheat and housing magnate Willard Garvey; financier and philanthropist John Templeton; horologist and yachtsman Seth Atwood; international investment specialist Harry Schulz; and University of Southern California philosophy professor John Hospers, among others. The monies and connections such men could deploy in support of their endeavors hints at a much more robust world of libertarian exit, one that cannot simply be dismissed as the utopian dream of one or two marginal cranks but rather must be understood as a long-term structural possibility for the ultra-wealthy.

This brings me to a final point regarding Oliver and your question about psychology. I spoke with Oliver a couple of times on the phone. For most of the time I was doing my research I was not even sure he was still alive (he was born in 1928). It comes through in the published interviews he did with Reason and other outlets at the time and he also reiterated this to me: he was not a utopian (he did not believe, for example, that his new country would be an idyllic paradise free of conflict) nor did he pursue exit projects as a means to hide his wealth or avoid taxes. The operating premise for Oliver was to carry out what he called a “moral experiment” by designing a new country run through contractual, capitalist relations that, in theory, would provide the maximum possibility of individual freedom and, I argue, would provide (in theory) a means of self-protection from the dangers of demagoguery, mass politics, and the like. This does not mean of course that the profit motive was not also important. The benefits of tax havens and offshore financial centers, for example, figured directly in the libertarian exit calculus but the broader point is that for libertarian exiters there is no contradiction between the moral and the entrepreneurial. The profit motive is the moral experiment; the individual at play in the market is the sine qua non of freedom. Exit is thus not solely a means by which libertarians can implement their ideas; it is a fundamental part of the idea itself—a right to opt out of and opt into societies with the ease of a wealthy consumer.

The commitment to a “moral experiment” helps explain why such projects are repeatedly pursued with such vigor despite the costs and the headaches involved. After all, if the idea was to avoid paying taxes or to make more money, most of the individuals involved in such schemes had the necessary resources to employ a team of tax consultants and attorneys and numerous offshore financial centers and tax havens beckoned. There was little need to design elaborate escape plans. Similarly, circumventing the regulatory state could be achieved without undertaking radical territorializing projects.

A last point I should make here is this: the more recent exit strategists (the seasteaders, the free private cities advocates, and the Start-Up Societies promoters) share some things in common with Oliver, not least of all an adoration of Ayn Rand. But the differences are also worth noting. For one, they came of age in an era defined by Reagan and Thatcher and thus their anti-statism strikes me as abstract and generic (absolutist, perhaps) rather than specific to an idea of totalitarianism. Second, and perhaps as a result of the first point, they hew more closely than Oliver did to the more Nietzschean aspects of Rand. What I mean by this is that their projects are not driven by a fear of the masses and totalitarianism—they seem indifferent to the general public and express disdain for democratic politics—but by an urge, a will, to bend reality to their design. They seek not to escape the state but to recast it in their own image.

AAA: Can you sketch out an “ideal type” of a libertarian exiter who seeks to start his own country?

RC: I’m not sure but I can try. To begin with I should briefly define what I mean by libertarian. As I mentioned previously, I use the term as it applies to US libertarians and who, for the sake of clarity, we might call market-libertarians (I avoid the term “anarcho-capitalist”). Many of the individuals I yoke under this term would not necessarily have referred to themselves as libertarians at the time but they still did share certain traits, such as the following: a disdain for the welfare and regulatory state (not the state per se); a radical commitment to free enterprise; a fetishization of the rugged individualist and unencumbered entrepreneur; a fear of the masses; a worldview that conflates communism, socialism and fascism; and an ontology that equates individual private property rights with freedom.

Defining “libertarian” helps us understand “exit” better because the hypercapitalist orientation of the people I study sets them apart from other kinds of exit societies that one might find in the historical record: maroon communities forged by runaway slaves; acephalous highland communities composed of peoples fleeing state conscription and enslavement; semi-sedentary peoples who sought to remain one step ahead of encroaching states and settlers; revolutionaries who roamed the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Atlantic and Caribbean seeking to create multinational and multiethnic countries of their own; or autonomous territories such as those founded by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. All of these might be considered experiments in territorial exit but they share little in common, ideologically and structurally, with those of Michael Oliver, of seasteaders, and of the advocates of free private cities.

My point is that form should not be privileged over content. Any analysis of exit needs to understand what it is people are striving to leave but also what they are striving to build. A maroon community of former slaves who escaped plantation exploitation bore little in common with, say, an ecovillage built around the logics of green capitalism. Exile communities that grew from collective efforts to mitigate capitalist exploitation and labor subjugation and that grew organically from the ground up are not comparable to escape plans that privilege property acquisition and individual sovereignty and tend to be preplanned and engineered from above. They bear distinct, and largely incommensurable, understandings of what constitutes freedom and of what constitutes oppression. I am not sure if that helps “positively” define an “ideal type” but hopefully it does provide a useful distinction when thinking about exit, exile, and evasion and the class politics that are invariably a part of the equation.

AAA: How seriously—from a political standpoint, and a practical one—ought we take people who want to start their own countries, or set up autonomous free zones in poor countries?

RC: This is a difficult question in that, at one level, there is a risk in giving exiters perhaps more credit than they deserve. Certainly, some of the more recent exit projects resemble nothing more than a Fyre Festival grift. After six years or so of research on some of these projects I was repeatedly struck by just how unprepared exiters were for the response to their projects—whether in the southwest Pacific, Tahiti, or Honduras—and how naïve they seemed and how little historical understanding they had of the places they targeted. It is a lethal combination of ignorance, arrogance, and money. On the other hand, ignorance and arrogance are no guarantees, given the amounts of money involved, that these projects won’t succeed in some form (and part of the question here is what constitutes success). Of particular concern is the kind of process that unfolded over the previous decade in Honduras in which tech bros keen on exit and US social conservatives who had close links to the Reagan administration and right-wing establishment found willing partners for their exit schemes in the illegal regime that controlled the country after a coup d’état in 2009. Such schemes can also count on the support of networks of wealthy, libertarian think tanks such as the Atlas Foundation.

I worry that these kinds of collaborations will become more common in the future given the pressures of climate change, the dramatic and growing disparities in wealth, and the on-going assault on governance structures that include the public good. One of the authors (Gabriel Kuhn) who kindly wrote a blurb for my book captured this question with particular eloquence: “free-market secessionists and gung-ho libertarians are only the most extreme expressions of neoliberal hegemony.” So, yes, I do think we need to take them very seriously.

AAA: How did the US libertarian “establishment” (to the extent that it existed) react to these types of projects?

RC: I think it is fair to say the response was and remains mixed. One of the things I sought to highlight in the early chapters of the book is the range of libertarian thought—or market-libertarian thought—that emerged in the US in the 1960s. (Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism is a useful book—by a movement insider—in tracing this history.) I am not sure what would have constituted the libertarian establishment of that era but whatever it may have been, the exiters were on the fringes of it to some degree, but not perhaps as marginal as one might think. I try in the first chapter in particular to show just how much the idea of exit or escape permeated popular culture writ large in the 1960s and 1970s, as a result of fears regarding demographic, ecological, and/or monetary collapse. Exit projects of various kinds were not at all uncommon, even if rarely successful, and this makes sense as it was not a huge step to imagine a commune on the ocean, rather than in northern California; or a gated island in the Caribbean rather than in suburban Los Angeles. The difference of course was the desire to exit, rather than be an expatriate, and to set up a government run entirely through private contract.

Having said that, it is also quite clear than many libertarians had little patience for exit projects. Murray Rothbard—who himself raised libertarian hackles by allying himself at times with the New Left—was an outspoken critic of exit projects because he thought exiters would do better to put their money and time into changing things “at home” rather than making a new country. Nor was Ayn Rand a fan, despite her Galt’s Gulch (an Atlantis in the Rockies) serving as a model for many exiters, both in the past and today (interested readers should look up Galt’s Gulch Chile for an especially revealing and dreadful exit scheme that recently imploded.)

AAA: You write that many of these projects that purport to do something radical and new don’t challenge the nation-state system much at all. Why is that?

RC: I made a decision early on in researching this book to stick to projects that were explicitly territorial. So, for example, I do not address exit via the creation of internet or digital communities or some of the trans-humanist projects (conversion of human consciousness into computer code, for example). Those seem to me both fantastical and radical. The territorial projects do not. Perhaps by default—by being territorial—they are not but I think it is also by design. That is to say, the promoters of these projects themselves are always hedging their bets. For example, leaders in the seasteading movement ask why individuals should be restricted from exiting if they wish to do so. “People should be allowed to opt out of governments they didn’t choose. . . . Seastead pioneers don’t need you to vote for them. They only need you to not petition your politicians to stop them.” But I find this to be a strange plea. There are currently no laws prohibiting them from opting out, of exiting, of renouncing their citizenship. They have that choice. They have chosen not to make it. They might argue that such a choice is not a choice at all, given that it would leave them vulnerable and unprotected unless they had a state within which to opt in. Welcome to the reality for most of the world’s population which is subject to the unequal laws and coercive forces of both the state and the market and which lacks even the most minimal of the financial and political resources necessary for exit and entrance.

The fact is the promotional literature that extols free-market states, private cities, and crypto-utopias often reads less like innovation in governance and more like euphemistic cover for fairly rudimentary and age-old practices—land and water-grabbing and real-estate speculation—albeit wrapped in the language of disruption and decentralization. (The history of exit I explore in my book only affirms such a suspicion.) This is Glengarry Glen Ross for the tech era. Our own private meta-curse.

Exiters themselves are willing to admit that exit is less a rejection of the state than it is a form of arbitrage. I would go further and argue that exit is less an argument for “no state” than it is an argument for the further privatization of the state; it is less a rational experiment in governance than it is an indulgent theology of the self. The result of new forms of territorial exit will not be an opt-in borderless world of entrepreneurial abundance but a world of hardened borders, privileged excess, and collective scarcity; a world pockmarked, as novelist and political theorist China Miéville observes, with private territories “as ferociously exclusive as those of any other state, and more than most.” So what is at stake is not exit from the nation-state but an on-going reworking of the state at the hands of, and in favor of, the most privileged. In the end the projects are more J.W. Marriott than Thomas More. Less utopia than time-share sovereignty.

Adventure Capitalism: A History of Libertarian Exit, from the Era of Decolonization to the Digital Age