Adventure Capitalism with Raymond Craib
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This week on The Final Straw, Professor Raymond Craib talks about his book, “Adventure Capitalism: A History of Libertarian Exit, from the Era of Decolonization to the Digital Age” out recently from PM Press. We talk about capitalist fundamentalists attempting to create free market utopias, right wing so-called Libertarians, Ayn Rand, neoliberalism and the oxymoronic tendency known as “anarcho-capitalism” at the center of the recent HBO Max series called “The Anarchists”.
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A quick note: the book on the Republic of New Afrika that Bursts mentioned was Free The Land by Edward Onaci. There was an interesting interview on Millenials Are Killing Capitalism podcast with the author last year.
Stay tuned next week for our interview with Sam & Alex of the antifascist podcast, 12 Rules for WHAT about their podcast and their two books, “Post Internet Far Right” or PIFR, and “The Rise of Ecofascism”. Patreon supporters can get this episode a few days early alongside other gifts. Check out that and other ways to support us at tfsr.wtf/support
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ADX is a controversial prison with most cells being one person only and everyone being on 24 lockdown. The US sends people with high-profile and serious cases here to bury them and is often in the media whenever someone gets sent there like El Chapo or people involved with the 911 attacks. There have been countless lawsuits since ADX was established in the 1990s. It is a BOP facility so one can expect all of the things that happen at any facility with the added cruelty of long term isolated confinement.
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TFSR: Do you please introduce yourself with any name, preferred gender pronouns, and other information that you’d like to introduce yourself to the audience?
Raymond Craib: Sure. My name is Raymond Craib, my pronouns are he/him, and I teach in the Department of History at Cornell University.
TFSR: Cool, I just finished reading your most recent book, Adventure Capitalism, and I really appreciated how much you covered and your treatment of history and the ideas presented in it. I have to admit being slightly entertained reading some of the snipings between Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard, representing ideological strains that have deep impacts to this day in capitalist idealists, and also a lot of differences between the ideas. To set the stage, could you talk about some of these arguments, these thinkers, and what they believed, and if any specific tendencies are around today that you think people might be familiar with that would be representative?
RC: Yeah, sure. And thank you for having me. I appreciate the invitation. Thank you also for reading the book. So there’s a lot of these folks in the mid-20th century who I think, for lack of a better word, I call them US market libertarians because I’m trying to distinguish them from the classical notion of libertarian, which is anarchist, these people are hyper-capitalist. And they’re minimalist in terms of their ideas about government, which, essentially, we shouldn’t mistake as small government, it just means minimalist in the range of its functions. They still want a police force, they still want a military, they still want a judiciary to protect property rights, they want to be protected from fraud, and they want to be protected from physical violence. So that’s not a small state manifesto. It’s just a state that has a limited range of functions. Now, what those functions were is where I think people like Rothbard, Rand, Friedman – you could also probably throw in Robert Nozick here as a philosophical standard bearer for these folks. But Rothbard, if you look at a spectrum, I would put Rothbard in the 1960s and 1970s at the very far end of the libertarian spectrum in terms of– He wanted to do away with national defense, he wanted it to become completely privatized, and driven as a private for-profit entity, he made strange bedfellows at times because he was so adamantly anti-statist. And so at times, you could see him picking up on the rhetoric of certain sectors of the new left who were opposed to the Vietnam War and the like. So, Rothbard, a godfather of US-style libertarianism like this, was at the extreme end of the spectrum. And he changed over time by the 1980’s and the 1990’s. He allied himself with Pat Buchanan, began to advocate for brutal police repression, and became a Paleo-Conservative. But in the 60’s and 70’s, he was probably the most – for lack of a better word – purist in terms of his market libertarian positions.
Rand, I guess you could probably slot in between Rothbard and Friedman, if you were looking at a spectrum. It’s hard to talk about her in some ways, she’s very influential today. I can say more about that in just a second. But, she was, essentially, a Russian emigre, her family had been persecuted under the Bolsheviks – well, they’d been expropriated. And so they came to the United States, and she lived in New York City, but she also lived in Southern California. She was deeply influenced by the culture of Hollywood. It’s a myth about Ayn Rand being a product of what happened to her in Russia. But I think Corey Robin and other writers have made a very compelling case that she was also strongly influenced by the world of Southern California and Hollywood and a developing Orange County and so forth. And so Rand would not call herself a libertarian. She refused it. Her famous phrase, perhaps it might be apocryphal, I’ve constantly looked to see if I could find this quote, and it’s been an I haven’t been in had any success, but she said, “You have to have a state who’s going to jail the communists.” And so she was, again, a minimalist statist, she wanted, essentially, for the state to exist to protect capitalists, protect them from fraud, protect them from direct violence, protect them from the masses. She was worried about the masses and the idea of demagoguery. She had strong disagreements with Murray Rothbard. He saw in Rand and the coterie of people that she had around her what he called “a perfect engine for totalitarianism.” He really saw her as a charismatic, totalitarian, dogmatic figure. So, these are very strong differences of opinion, but Rand is right in the middle of that spectrum.
Someone like Milton Friedman was deeply influenced by a couple of people who also influenced Rand and Rothbard. These are members of what’s known as the Austrian School of libertarian economics, or Austrian School of Economics: Friedrich von Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises, amongst others. Friedman was influenced by them and became part of the University of Chicago economics department. Friedman made a little more space for the role of the state: he and someone like Hayek were willing to accommodate state intervention in things like welfare programs, or certain subsidies to the population at large or business. And so they occupied a space on the libertarian spectrum that would be in some ways – I guess, these terms get problematic – but you might say a little bit closer to how we think about neoliberalism, which is not an anti-state program. It’s a state-generated program. It’s an alliance between capitalists and the state. And so here’s Friedman, this character who’s a little less dogmatic, a little less idealistic in his sensibility and a little more pragmatic. But so you have this spectrum. And these three figures are very, very influential, they remain influential. Rand is extremely influential in the culture of Silicon Valley today, this tech utopian world. And if you look at characters such as Peter Thiel, one of the co-founders of PayPal, an early investor in Facebook, a strange supporter of Donald Trump, and also one of the owners of Palantir, which is the largest surveillance private surveillance operation, affiliated with the US government. Thiel is a big Rand fan, Musk, Bezos, all of these guys, the founder of Whole Foods (John Mackey), a lot of them are very Randian in this way. The Libertarian Party certainly was influenced by Ayn Rand and remains influenced by her. Ron Paul, his son, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, I don’t know what it is about Pauls, but they all seem to be connected to Rand. So she’s had this resurgence over the years and of course she was Greenspan’s (the head of the Federal Reserve for many years under Clinton and the early Bush years) mentor. And Greenspan was right inside her inner circle and swallowed Randian objectivist economics and libertarian theories wholeheartedly and essentially had to issue a mia culpa in 2008 when everything collapsed.
Friedman is also still very influential today. He was the architect of the radical privatization of Chile’s economy under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The ideas of Friedman and the faith in free enterprise were embedded in words in the 1980 Chilean constitution that was foisted upon the population by the military dictatorship. So “Free Enterprise” would be the only acceptable model for the economy in Chile, and that’s now finally being overturned. That constitution is being now rewritten with the enormous revolutionary transformations that have taken place in Chile over the past few years. Friedman’s son, David Friedman is a very well-known anarcho-capitalist, his grandson Patri Friedman, is also very much linked up with a lot of the projects that I talked about – seasteading Future Cities Inc. Free Private Cities in Central America, and the like. And a lot of this is connected to cultural emancipation or “lifestyle” emancipation if you wanted to use the critique of Hakeem Bay. Burning Man, polyamory, this idea that Burning Man in some ways might be a model for a future society. These are the three of the central figures, and in the background of all of their minds was not only a notion of private enterprise and market transactions being a pathway to individual freedom, but also a way to avoid the trappings of totalitarianism that they associated with Nazism, communism, socialism, they made no distinction between these things. All of those were considered to be totalitarianism, even though of course, it was communism that ultimately defeated fascism.
TFSR: Just a quick note on the critique of Ayn Rand as a totalitarian or whatever the term was that Rothbard had tossed that way. For any listeners that haven’t seen it. There’s a very entertaining and interesting documentary series called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace that talks about the cult of personality that Rand developed around herself, which was referenced also in the footnotes of the book, which I appreciated seeing.
RC: That’s right. Adam Curtis, it’s a wonderful three-part documentary. The first part is about Rand and her influence on Silicon Valley.
TFSR: Where you left that description of those thinkers and their trajectories lead perfectly to the question that I was going to ask after that. A central figure in your book is Michael Oliver, I’d like for you to talk about this man. As a Lithuanian Jew who lost most of his family to the Nazis, who barely survived the Shoah, himself, and who claimed that his sister was killed by occupying Soviets… Oliver moves to the USA after World War II and is, in understandable ways, allergic to totalitarian states and the destabilization that he sees coming from masses that have been whipped up to do the bidding of these totalitarian states and demagogues. How did he end up alongside white supremacists or CIA-adjacent weapon smugglers and attempting a staged coup in a decolonizing South Pacific Island?
RC: Yeah, Oliver is a central figure in the book, at least for much of it. And it’s a very compelling story that is both deeply painful and tragic. And at the same time, a story of the 20th century in some ways. He was born Moses Olitzky in 1928. You can imagine, he’s basically about 14 when things get terrible for him in Lithuania. His sister is taken away by Soviet troops and then when the Nazis come, his family is killed and he ends up in different concentration camps in Poland and is rescued by Japanese-American troops in 1945. So, he comes to the United States, to Nevada, and he becomes fairly successful. He’s in the US Air Force for a little bit of time, and he’s working in electronics. But he becomes a successful land developer and coin dealer and he sees in the 1960s a lot of things that raise fears for him about just the way the world can turn on a dime. And what’s difficult to read is that he sees these movements and he identifies his concern with totalitarianism and what he calls “Stormtrooper tactics” and things like this with movements that are essentially movements of people themselves trying to achieve some form of emancipation. So, you think about things like the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, and gay rights… there are a lot of movements in the 1960s that are developing and the language that Oliver uses is a language that seems to indicate that he’s identifying resistance movements on the part of these social movements as where totalitarianism is threatening to come from and where demagoguery might be appealing. He doesn’t talk about things like the John Birchers, the KKK, the Christian Nationalists, or the movements on the right that were developing quite strongly, they have been strong in the 1950s, and they’d grown with Barry Goldwater’s run for the presidency that ended unsuccessfully in 1964. And so there is something there that is troubling and unsettling to have to come to terms with in how he’s identifying where the problems are going to come from, in his mind.
His first project is in the South Pacific, many libertarians, he is trying to develop a new country. He realizes that you can find territory to buy but you’ll have a hard time purchasing sovereignty. In other words, territorial sovereignty in which you can hive off and make your own country your utterly private estate in some form or another. And so he looks at the open ocean. This was not uncommon at the time, other people did this, Ernest Hemingway’s younger brother, there’s another man by the name of Werner Stiefel whose family had fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, he was a pharmaceutical engineer. There’s an array of people who tried this, and they saw – somewhat incorrectly – the high seas as places where they can establish themselves. And it just wasn’t the case. And there are a lot of legal questions around this, also engineering questions and so forth. But he tried in the South Pacific to build an island with the support of several different wealthy figures.
I want to point out here, it’s very important: Oliver is the front figure and much of this and he put himself out there, he did interviews with Reason magazine, he did interviews with People magazine, he published his book A New Constitution for a New Country in 1968. So he made himself a focal point, but he had substantial backing from very wealthy people, Willard Garvey, who was a wheat magnate based in Wichita Falls, Kansas, who also built low-income housing in places like Peru and elsewhere around the world and had connections with the Foster Dulles brothers, in the CIA and elsewhere. He had a big argument about Make Every Man a Capitalist instead of Make Every Man a Communist, and the way to do that was through home ownership, something that’s now come back to bite us if you look at the housing market these days. John Templeton from the Templeton Foundation, if you listen to NPR, you’ll hear the reference to the Templeton Foundation. That’s the same John Templeton was an investor specialist. Seth Atwood was a horologist watch collector, but also a yachtsman. They were an array of people involved in these projects. But Oliver was the frontman. And so the project in the Southwest Pacific to build an island didn’t go very well. But then subsequently, the next project was this effort to essentially back a group of people on the islands of Abaco, which are part of the Bahamas. And this is in 1973. These are islands Abaco, in particular, these are islands that were settled by loyalists to the British after the American Revolution. They fled, and they went to Abaco and settled there. And this includes not only white loyalists, but also Black, and also formerly enslaved people who the white loyalists brought with them.
And they, at least the secessionist movement on Abaco, did not want to be part of an independent Bahamas. There’s several reasons why this might have been the case. But clearly, race is one of them. Many people involved in this movement were very clear that they did not want to be governed by a predominantly black political party, the party of Walter Pindling, who was going to become the first prime minister of an independent Bahamas. And also concerns about communist influences, left-wing influences, the language around communism and decolonization, and so forth. This is something that comes back in other projects that I look at. So, Oliver attached himself to a group of people who were supporting the secessionists. And this included a Wild West figure Mitchell Livingstone WerBell III. His family was originally from Russia, he claimed that his father had been the head of the horse brigade for the Tsar. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But WerBell was in the OSS, which was the precursor to the CIA. He was in Southeast Asia with the E. Howard Hunt who went on to become a Watergate plumber was also involved in the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. Lucien Conien was a French-American paratrooper and the point man for the Kennedy administration’s assassination of Diem in South Vietnam in 1963. And an array of other people… John Singlaub, who went on to a very prominent career in the US Army but also had pretty sketchy attachments to the World Anti-Communist League and things like this that have some proto-fascist tendencies, to say the least. So these were the characters WerBell was involved with and he became a PR man for a while in Atlanta which is where he was originally from and then in the 1960’s, you could find him in various places. He was in the Dominican Republic in 1964, right before a coup d’etat, he was working with Guatemala at various points in time in the 1960’s. He was creating silencers, sound suppressors for some of the deadliest weapons of the era, the Gordon Ingram MAC-10, in particular, which also had a very prominent role in many films in Hollywood. And WerBell also reportedly had many connections to the CIA and it’s very, very difficult to determine the truth and the fiction behind many of these claims. WerBell was an enormous ego and self-promoter. The CIA has not responded or never complied with my Freedom of Information Act requests, I have six or seven outstanding requests with them going back to 2013, so it’s 10 years now. The FBI did comply, and I have quite a bit of information from the FBI. So, WerBell was one of these individuals who was essentially helping to run this operation, to create essentially a private country in Abaco by supporting the secessionist movement in Abaco. And somehow Oliver was linked up with him. When they originally met, I’m not sure. But in 1974, they were clearly connected, because the two of them ran a meeting of eight people total in Washington DC in which they basically hashed out what was going on in the project.
The last figure I’ll just mention here is Andrew St. George, who was a journalist who covered that meeting in 1974 in Washington DC. St. George, both in his archival materials, which I’ve gone through quite closely– And also I’ve had conversations with at least one of his sons. St. George is quite an interesting figure as well. He had covered Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in the mountains in 1958 before they overthrew Batista and the Cuban Revolution. He actually was close friends with Che and St. George was critical to the recuperation of Che’s body from Bolivia after his assassination later in the 1960s. So, St. George is quite interesting. And St. George had real concerns about Michael Oliver and about Michael Oliver’s political affiliations and connections with people who he was operating with. It’s extremely difficult to discern the depth of connection that Oliver had with people outside of and within WerBell’s orbit. But what we do know is that they worked together over at least a year, if not more, to try to bring the Abaco secession and new country movement to fruition. And it essentially fell apart because many of the individuals who were advocating for Abaco to not be part of the Bahamas were hoping that Abaco would remain part of the Crown, part of the United Kingdom. That’s what they ultimately wanted. And when that didn’t come through, many of them were clear that they did not want armed insurrection, and to be part of this new country project that would look a lot like, frankly, Freeport on Grand Bahama, which was this early, quasi-sovereign, tax-free, free zone, a free port. They call it Freeport, and they didn’t want that. And so, at that point, things fell apart. WerBell was being investigated by Congress and the FBI, and his name popped up repeatedly in the JFK assassination files. It became quite messy, and things fell apart. And the FBI was investigating quite intensively at that point.
TFSR: His story is so complicated that I mixed up a few of the elements there by asking that question about the South Pacific because there was Minerva, there was Vanuatu, and three different attempts at creating a free island or at least occupying and settling and creating “free” commerce or “free” enterprise-ruled space, allegedly. [laughs]
RC: Vanuatu was his last one, after the Abaco experiment fell through, he then turned his attention to the New Hebrides for five years from 1975 to 1980. And that ended with a rebellion that Oliver and his allies in an organization known as the Phoenix Foundation helped foment, essentially. I should mention them briefly. One of the things I did was I went to Vanuatu and I was very fortunate to have some good support from folks there, many of whom remember the Santo rebellion in 1980 and got me access to the files of the person who had been head of British Special Branch there by the name of Gordon Haynes. And so I got access to his archives. He died, I think, in 2015. And these were embargoed until after his death. But clearly, Haynes made the standard British imperial moves: he was in parts of Africa; and then when those decolonized, and the British left, he moved to the Solomon Islands; and they moved from the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu and so forth. He was a civil servant. But Haynes, essentially his job from 1970 to 1980 in Vanuatu was tracking American libertarian speculators, real estate speculators, and libertarians who were trying to do various projects there. So this included Michael Oliver included a real estate speculator from Hawaii by the name of Eugene Peacock, and several other individuals as well. Clearly, his files show me that the core of his job was tracking these folks.
TFSR: God, that must have been boring, the most mayonnaise people.
But by presenting context on the history of colonialism, which is a thing that I really appreciate about the story that you tell, and about extraction and crony capitalism (as if there were any other kind) in these areas of the world that mostly white men have tried to impose their land grabs on. If that’s possible, you kind of undo the erasure of the concept of Terra Nullius, which, as you show, often harkens romantically back to the mystique of settler colonialism, as it beckons adventurous citizen-consumers to forge their new destinies. And for all their talk of voluntary association, there’s no note of the violence inherent to exclusionary property. So would you talk about the settler imaginary in the US and right-wing libertarianism and these neo-primitive accumulation schemes?
RC: Sure. Thank you for that question. Every once in a while, before the book came out, I read some shorter pieces about this, and a number of people who are “fellow travelers” with these projects wrote me and wondered why I was calling them right-wing and, I was trying to explain to them because it was the primitive accumulation property paradigm, that’s the issue here. It’s not about whether or not you support the Republican party or something, this silly, narrow bandwidth that American politics suffers from. So the primitive accumulation and property question is key. Even to step back and look at the project of building an island in the Southwest Pacific, Oliver’s first project, the Ocean Life Research Foundation, which he created to raise money and the idea was to go to these reefs called the Minerva reefs that sit south of Tonga and Fiji, in between Tonga and Fiji, up to the north, and in New Zealand in the South. And the whole premise here was that these were free for the taking, that you could just go and take these things, and that they weren’t under anybody’s jurisdiction. This was an era in which things like the exclusive economic zone and the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea hadn’t been totally hashed out. And so there was a lot of lack of clarity about this. And there’s a lack of clarity simply about also when you say that the high seas of the oceans are a Commons for all of mankind, what does that mean? Is it a free for all? Does it mean you can create an artificial island? Not create an artificial island? Can you have a floating island versus an anchored island? These questions were up in the air. But many people took this to just mean that these were places that they could just go and colonize.
And the problem – and what I try to explore in close detail in all of the chapters – in the case of the Minerva reefs is these were places of seasonal use by fishermen, lobstermen, crab men, and others from places like Tonga and Fiji. These were places where there had been terrible shipwrecks, including in 1962, in which three Tongan passengers on the ship carrying Tongan boxers and others to Sydney crashed and they were there for three months. And three of them died and were buried on the reefs. These are places of mourning. These are places of history. These are places of poetry. These are not just spaces for anybody to just waltz in from afar and lay claim to and colonize. And so I try to take very seriously how archipelagic peoples, Oceanian peoples think about the ocean, not from a continentalist perspective and not from a proprietarian perspective, but certainly from a perspective of the meaning of history, of use value, and the like. And certainly, these are not places where someone else can just come in and print a property paradigm in the way that the Libertarians tried to do. This has come back, of course, in more recent cases like the Seasteaders, And I can talk about the Seasteaders in a few minutes further when I get to some of the more contemporary projects.
And so I tried to do this, and in all three of the examinations of the projects that Oliver was involved in the 1970’s, I wanted to take very seriously the social histories of the places where these projects unfolded. There’s a lot of writing about these projects is nudge, nudge, wink, wink, isn’t this funny, let’s yok it up. Look at this wacky stuff. I find that problematic, I think we need to make an effort to understand Michael Oliver and the people who funded him where they were coming from, but I also think we need to really understand the places, why they selected the places they selected, and how those populations essentially experienced these projects and the terrible consequences in instances. We’re talking in a place like Vanuatu of a rebellion, in which significant numbers of people were displaced, and a couple of people died. Or you talk about the case of Tonga and the Minerva reefs, or the Bahamas, these are the things that put enormous strain on governments, who are trying to deal with the process of overthrowing colonial rule. And so I wanted to take very seriously the histories of these places, how people understood property, land, the ocean, their own histories, colonialism, and the like. And so you take the case of the New Hebrides, for example, the land was a huge issue there. Anti-colonial politics ultimately arose around the question of land in the 1960’s. And it’s a very intricate process that unfolds there. And I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about it. But I do want to say the upshot of the anti-colonial politics of the 1960s, the process of decolonization in the 1970’s is that with the independence of Vanuatu in 1980, all land comes under the control of native indigenous Vanuatu inhabitants and that land cannot be sold. It can be leased, and it has to be leased according to the agreement by the customary owners of that land. But that’s embedded in the Constitution and it comes out of an understanding of the land, but also it comes out of the context of 70 years of colonial rule in which increasing encroachment into the interior, increasing destruction of the forest in order to raise cattle had unfolded. And so I really wanted to pay attention to different ways of thinking about land, property, history, and use that don’t fit this narrowly defined property paradigm that tends to hold sway amongst the libertarian Exeters.
TFSR: It’s not surprising at all, having read some history. But one part of the struggles that you talk about in Vanuatu, with the Ni-Vanuatu, and you do mention there’s a broad brush painting by reactionaries for the most part around the world and often Colons or settler colonizers in various decolonizing areas where there is the conflation of communism with decolonization. Or, in a lot of these instances, like in the Bahamas, the fear of black majority parties taking control. And at least one of the major trajectories in the independence struggle among Ni-Vanuatu was a party of people that had, among other things, been engaging with this decolonial thread throughout the world, interacting with not only black power movements in the United States but also in decolonizing Africa. And I thought that was really fascinating.
And I didn’t really have a question so much in relation to this as much as last night, when I was thinking about this, I was remembering this book on the Republic of New Africa [Free The Land by Edward Onaci] that I had read through not that long ago, and it was talking about the borderlessness– That project when it was territorializing itself for a period in the so-called US South still wanted to have a decolonial relationship with indigenous people who’s stolen land that people had been re-territorialized on to as their ancestors had. But that’s placing decolonization within this web of relationships… And you could see, that they were deeply influenced by the teachings of Malcolm X and many others, and the concepts that land and freedom are the two central things that decolonization struggles need to struggle with. Just thinking about the influence of some of those same teachers and movements and thinkers and individuals in Vanuatu was pretty inspiring for you to mention the book.
RC: Yes, thank you. There’s been some really remarkable work in recent years that I relied upon and drew from. So there were two political movements in Vanuatu that initially were allied, for lack of a better word. One was the Nagriamel movement of Chief Paul Bullock and Chief Jimmy Stevens. Jimmy Stevens and the Nagriamel were allying with Michael Oliver, and they’re the ones who are supported by Oliver in the Phoenix Foundation in their efforts to secede in the Santo rebellion in 1980. The other party was the New Hebrides National Party, which renamed itself the Vanua’aku Pati, the Land Rises Up Party. And there’s been some really wonderful writing in recent years on Black Power in the Pacific and its relationship to decolonization more broadly. Quito Swan has written two really fabulous books on this, Tracey Banivanua Mar, Robbie Shilliam… there’s really this flourishing of literature that’s looking much more closely at these relationships globally and not solely looking at the places that tend to dominate the literature.
You’re right, what’s quite interesting in the case of Vanuatu is that there’s an internal conflict, there’s an internal conflict between the mostly Anglophone Vanua’aku Pati, and the Nagriamel movement which is mostly in the northern islands of the archipelago. And over time, they come into conflict increasingly with each other, and I try to go through why and how that happens. And why somebody like Jimmy Stevens in the Nagriamel anti-colonial movement, who was a very adamant anti-colonialist in the 1960’s, why he would end up allying with Oliver in the Phoenix Foundation, and he would articulate an argument about: instead of an independent nation called Vanuatu, there should be a Confederation. And this was not unusual. All West African anti-colonial intellectuals also suggested similar things, that nation-state status wasn’t the only option for decolonization. And so this was something that Stevens was fairly adamant about, but in the process of doing this, to bring his dreams to fruition (and he also had his own political aspirations) he ended up allying himself with these other characters. And things didn’t go well, the Santo rebellion was put down, Jimmy Stevens was arrested and sentenced to prison for a long time, and some of his closest allies were sentenced to prison and ended up dying. One from tetanus, right after entering the prison. The after-effects were quite intense.
And of course, the Libertarians, just like the British and the French, went home, they went home free people. It’s a troubling history, in that respect. But it also points toward the complications on the ground, there’s an enormous amount of, again, going back to how sometimes these projects are written about, they allied or ignored the agency of local actors, who are complicated and complex and make all strange decisions and predictable and unpredictable decisions. But oftentimes, they’re ignored, and they shouldn’t be ignored. And unfortunately, those things are being repeated in contemporary writing about Libertarian projects in places like Honduras and Tahiti and even in Chile, there’s been a couple of efforts to put together some of these things. Incessantly, they’re invariably named after John Gault and Ayn Rand or Fort Gault this, John Gault that… and it’s depressingly predictable. But again, the local commentators, the critics of these projects make the same mistake that the generators of these projects make, which is that they’re clueless about the local context.
TFSR: Could you talk a bit about if we consider the international movements for creating spaces – physical, terrestrial, oceanic, in Space, digital, whatever – to create autonomy among– Not to make it too big because you cover a lot of stuff in the book, and even just touching on all the different tendencies and ways that people are trying to experiment with this. Can you talk a little bit about where this venture capitalism or Exiter strategy is now and maybe some of the movers and shakers like Peter Thiel… ? And how has the supposed model of individualism that Oliver and a lot of this early adherence to this thing were presenting, how has that shifted into elitist sovereignty ideas?
RC: Sure. I’ll start with the last point you just made, Oliver embraced this Ayn-Rand, hypercapitalist, individualist, what she called “Objectivist”, philosophy. I think, ultimately, due to his experience and because of his fears about totalitarianism, he called it a moral experiment. If he wanted to avoid taxes or make a lot of money, tax havens were a dime a dozen, he had the money to hire attorneys to help them hide his money. It wasn’t about that. He called it a “moral experiment” and he believed very profoundly in it. I think it was a mistaken set of beliefs. But he believed in those quite profoundly, and it was his concern about totalitarianism and demagoguery and states and their repressive nature that drove him. The contemporary projects are different, you see the projects that Oliver was involved in a lot of these, many different versions of these were experimented with in the 60’s and 70’s, and you start to see them fade away in the 80’s. And I think you see them fade away, in part, because a lot of people that previously might have been interested in them become less interested in them. After all, they can really socially secede in the United States under Reagan, and also in England with Thatcher. The real intensification of the neoliberal revolution began in the late 1970’s, it really takes grip in the 1980’s and the 1990’s. And so you see a lot of people who were more base in their motives in terms of taxation and things like this didn’t need to territorially secede. They could increasingly live in gated communities outside of Atlanta, they could go to the exurbs, and so on. Their tax rates were going down. So, you don’t really see projects like this, there are a few, but I mentioned one of them, which is quite amusing. But I won’t go into it for now for the interest of time, but they’re really not many of them.
They come back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. And really, with the growth of digital life and the internet. And so then you really begin to see this reemergence of interest in stuff like this. I don’t talk about some of the more extreme versions or futuristic versions of this transforming your consciousness into digital code and embedding yourself into a computer that out-survives your corpse… Even the outer space stuff takes an enormous number of people on planet Earth to keep one person alive in outer space. I don’t think that stuff is going to happen anytime soon. But in the spirit of Peter Thiel, he essentially says as much in an interview that he did with the Cato Institute, in which he says, “You have cyberspace, you have outer space, and you have the ocean. And really the more practical mediate possibility for exit is the ocean. The outer space and cyberspace are far-off in some respects.”
So I look at a couple of these projects, more contemporary projects that have really come out of the Silicon Valley digital, what a couple of writers in the 1990’s called the “California ideology”, which weds the commune hippie culture with yuppie entrepreneurial culture. And they call it the “California Ideology”. And this shows up also in the documentary you mentioned by Adam Curtis All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Even the title is taken from a combination of this tech digital yuppie meets commune culture from Richard Brautigan. And so, I look at two projects in particular that I think are illustrative of projects these days. One is Seasteading, which is an effort that started in 2008 with the creation of the Seasteading Institute, and the idea is to build private floating platforms on the high seas where people can basically select if they want to attach their platforms and make communities or they want to separate it. Patri Friedman, Milton Friedman’s grandson was the first director of the Seasteading Institute. He’s quite closely involved in this. The logo for some of the affiliated groups with the Seasteading Institute is Burning Man on the high seas, so it gives you a sense of the influences here, it’s Burning Man meets the open ocean.
And then the other project I look at is what is called Free Private Cities in Honduras, which build off of charter cities. The idea behind charter cities came out of the thinking of Paul Romer, who was an economist at Stanford, then chief economist at the World Bank for a brief time, and is now at NYU. Romer’s idea was essentially that traditional aid as we know it has just never done what it was intended to do, it’s constantly been a failure. He’s not necessarily wrong about that but I don’t think the result, the conclusion that he comes to is problematic. His idea was with charter cities, that places that were struggling could seed a portion of their sovereign territory, and then an international group of governments or investors would come in and assert control over that territory and build essentially a nostalgic version of Hong Kong as it ever was. Hong Kong has this mythical life in people’s minds about what it was like. And so the idea would be to create a charter city, an open city, it wouldn’t be gated, and you could opt in or opt out as you wished. This is very problematic because the whole idea of easy opt-in and opt-out is just also mythological. There’s a whole array of constraints here, and Romer himself admitted that there would have to be some immigration control. And so again, you’re back to the same question, which is these idealized versions of opt-in and opt-out are not realizable at some level. And so then you start talking about “how those controls are going to be put into place, who’s gonna use them and have them.” But the charter city would have its own judiciary, would have its own arbitration boards, it would have its own constitution, its own police force, and its own labor laws. And these were things that would not be able to be overturned by the voters of the country where the charter city was situated.
It started off in Madagascar, it didn’t get very far because of a coup. And then there was a coup in Honduras. And that’s where Romer set up shop after 2009. He was a big fan at first. But he learned very quickly that it’s difficult to do transparent business with an illegal coup regime. And things got messy quickly, he withdrew around 2014-2015 entirely from the projects. They’ve now morphed into something known as Free Private Cities. It hasn’t gone forward on much of the Honduran mainland at this point. But there is one that seems to be going forward on the island of Roatan, one of the bay islands off the coast of Honduras. It’s a similar idea, but it’s less about opt-in opt-out, it’s really about buy-in, these are more gated communities. Again, they do have their own arbitration boards, and, in theory, their own police, their own judiciary. Very few, if any articles of the Honduran Constitution would apply. It’s not clear if that by voter determination nationally, would voter decisions apply inside these free private cities. So there are a lot of questions that are up in the air, even more so now that there’s been a recent election in Honduras, and the candidate who was elected has promised to roll back these projects. The array of people involved in these projects is quite interesting. You have the usual crowd of tech libertarians, Friedman a little bit, Michael Strong, who calls himself a radical social entrepreneur, he’s got a name for himself. He also issues his own laws and corollaries to his own laws.
TFSR: He is a leftist, right? [joke]
RC: I don’t know what he is, he calls himself a leftist and then says that capitalism is going to save the world. He has a very funny shtick. Some of these threads are quite fascinating to pursue and you wonder how they end up where they end up.
But you also have a host of figures who were involved in Ronald Reagan’s Central America office as well, and it gives you again, a sense of the real Noir, ugly underpinnings here. Not just the libertarian ideology, which I find deeply problematic. But also, folks who were deeply involved in policy-making of a government that fomented civil wars and backed coup d’etats and led to the deaths of tens of thousands, if not more of people, and have also forcibly put people on the move from the societies in which they want to live and where they want to vote, and where they want to raise their children – Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador. And of course, these are folks who are going to make their way to the US border and be forcibly separated from their children and detained in cages and called names, and persecuted and killed… The cast of characters is not pretty. And then you’ve also got people involved in Brexit in the UK and long histories of advocating that the state is nothing more than a protection racket. And so, the best thing to do is buy-in, and let’s go back to feudal monarchy. This is the Neo Reactionary movement, NRX, which also has a following.
TFSR: I found it really refreshing. I only saw the little bit of it that you put into the book, but Romer’s disillusionment with the Free City idea and the honesty right there saying, “Well, if this is being set up in such a way that there’s going to be no transfer of power or democratic approach for the majority of people that are affected by the choices that are made here.” I don’t hear this thing from capitalist idealists very frequently saying, “Well, why would I want myself, my children or my grandchildren to be living in this?” It comes out to be neofeudalism, as you point out. That moment of clarity was priceless right there.
RC: I tried to give them credit, but he withdrew. I found that surprising that he was surprised that that happened. I was a little sharp in my tone because I took umbrage at the New York Times glowing interview in which, the Times reporter said something like “Romer saw something that should be obvious to all academics, but isn’t.” And it went into this great praise of Romer. And I was like, “Well, if you’ve paid more attention to academics, you would know maybe that you’re setting yourself up for a real problem if you’re doing business with a coup regime in Honduras,” which would have been obvious, if you’d read some history of Central America and US involvement there. But you’re right. Romer said, “Look, I don’t want to support a place where I wouldn’t want my grandchildren growing up.” I may not agree with the nostalgic vision he has about Hong Kong and the idea of charter cities. I don’t agree at all. But on the other hand, I think it’s important that understanding that as being distinct from going all in with this illegality and a willingness to make excuses and do business all oftentimes hid behind a smarmy, self-righteous we’re-going-to-make-the-world-a-better-place-and-make-a-lot-of-money-at-the-same-time rhetoric, which I find totally disingenuous, delusional, and quite offensive. So, I think Romer was serious. It didn’t end well. But for the people who are ongoing in these projects, it’s a little like the Anarchapulco stuff on HBO Max…
TFSR: Which I was about to ask about.
Before going into that, by talking about these extranational zones of exchange or shifts in sovereignty to private ownership and charters and the citizen-consumer model that, as you say, you can opt in if you can pay for it. But it desubjectivizes all of the other individuals who maybe lived there or might want to participate and maybe don’t have $50,000 to put upfront or whatever. Or a lot of these schemes try to avoid the discomfort of having to be around class conflict by shipping in their labor and then shipping them back out. Because who wants to live next to dirty people who clean your toilets? Their hands are dirty, how’d they get that way?
Speaking of dirty people, though. Our conversation is happening briefly after the release of a couple – now three, I’m one behind – episodes of a series on HBO Plus called The Anarchists featuring interviews with participants in a so-called “anarcho-capitalist” gathering in a place they like to call Anarchapulco. So what have you thought so far of what you’ve seen, and I wonder if you have observations about the appropriation of the term ‘anarchist’ and ‘libertarian’ and whatever the hell these people are?
And if you wouldn’t mind just referencing for the audience the conscious efforts by Rothbard and others to actively appropriate the terms ‘anarchist’ and ‘libertarian’ towards right, pro-capitalist, minarchists or whatever?
RC: Sure. I mentioned that Ayn Rand totally rejected the term ‘libertarian,’ and she also rejected the term ‘anarchist.’ Milton Friedman, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything in writing where he embraced anything akin to the term ‘anarchist’ either. Rothbard is one, there were a number of other people. There was a brief flurry in the late 60’s and early 70’s, in which the word ‘anarchism’ or ‘anarchist’ and ‘anarchy’– Which I always find interesting, I teach a class on the history of anarchism. And despite my insistence that students say ‘anarchism,’ the desire for them to say ‘anarchy’ all the time, I’ve always found quite fascinating. I started to keep a log book about it, just because I thought it’s fascinating that they just insist that that’s the term they need to use. I just can’t imagine there’s a philosophical basis to anything here. But the late 60’s and early 70’s was a moment in which Rothbard, also Gordon Tullock, James Buchanan whose figures are very prominent in Nancy MacLeans book Democracy in Chains, people who’ve gone on to found the Public Choice School, George Mason University, or someone else that I talked about briefly, Tyler Cowen. Recently in a book review he called me “a defective thinker.”
RC: Thank you. We’re hoping it will be on the cover of the second edition of the book. So, they did use the language of anarchism and theories of anarchy, they use the term ‘anarchy’ more frequently than ‘anarchism.’ But there was this brief moment where they appropriated the term and didn’t use ‘Libertarian,’ and instead use this term ‘anarchy.’ And it’s interesting, I didn’t delve into it in much detail, but I suspect it’s something that came out of a desire to connect with the efflorescence of, the dynamicism of youth culture at the time, amongst other things, and then faded over time. I try very hard in my book to distinguish between the people that I look at who I call Market Libertarians. I really don’t like the term anarcho-capitalists, it just puts two things together that don’t belong together, I strongly feel that the tradition of anarchism is an anti-capitalist and anti-state tradition. And in fact, I tend to accentuate the anti-capitalist side of it more so than the anti-statist side of it. So, I tried very hard to just use the term market libertarian, you could say market authoritarian for some of these folks, if you wanted to, I think there’s a case to be made.
TFSR: That’s where the sovereignty lies [for them]. It seems like that’s the authority.
RC: Yeah, exactly. And one that’s radically unequal. The disequilibrium is substantial. I noted a certain point in the book that the language of freedom is everywhere with the market libertarians, but the language of equality is not. And there’s two ways to think about this. One is that for classical liberals, freedom in the market is, in their theory, at least, going to gradually lead to a certain form of equality for everybody, it’s a sequential argument. So you start with freedom in the market, and you get to social equality, which anybody who’s not a liberal doesn’t agree with. But there were others who, like the late Murray Rothbard who said “equality doesn’t matter.” “Equality is a totalitarian ideology.” And so it wasn’t even about equality. And then, for socialists and communists, and others these are things that happen that have to happen simultaneously, you have to have equality and freedom together. They’re mutually reinforcing.
So, that was the language of anarchism. It is interesting to me, watching the documentary, how committed the subjects of the documentary are to calling themselves anarchists. They’re very adamant that they call themselves anarchists. I think I’ve only heard the word ‘libertarian’ come up once or twice, which is quite fascinating. And I’m not exactly sure why that’s the case. This Anarchapulco conference that’s been covered in the documentary started, I think, in 2016-2017. And it really took off in 2018. But in 2017, I went to an event in San Francisco, a conference created by an organization called the Startup Societies Foundation. And this is very much along the same lines. Their slogan is “Don’t Argue – Build.” It’s that Libertarianism that embraces the market and also says that politics is a pain in the ass because everybody’s arguing about things when you should just be out there building. And my response is “Okay, you got a multimillion-dollar home. Let’s not argue, I’m just going to build a giant billboard in front of your windows. How’s that?” They’ll be the first one to say, “You got to talk about zoning, you got to talk about wastewater treatment,” all these things have to be talked about in the community. That means politics, that means arguments. And so it’s just so unbelievably naive and silly and strange slogan.
But anyways, The Startup Society Foundation had this thing in 2017, it was a little mini version of this an Anarchapulco to some degree. A lot of it was people attempting to sell people on their latest thing related to blockchain or a new cryptocurrency, they wanted to do an initial coin offering or something like this. And then you had about 40% of the time were speakers, “thought leaders” pontificating about this or that. Including this fairly prominent guy from Stanford based in Silicon Valley, Balaji Srinivasen who just released a book called The Network State. His premise for Exit is a little bit different, it’s interesting to follow the logic through, he’s very much on the Market Libertarian side of things. I haven’t read the book, but as he presented it in 2017, part of the idea was that you get like-minded people together and you come up with a whole set of criteria about what your ideal place would look like, yearly average temperature, laws around whatever, taxation rates, closeness to an airport. And that you pump all of this algorithmically into this machine and it’ll turn out places that most closely fulfill their requirements. And then you and your friends who’ve got money get together and go to the space and set yourself up, and then negotiate better terms with the state wherever you are at because you’re bringing in your money. I’m not sure if this is what he gets into in The Network State, his most recent thing, but he talked a little bit about this in 2017.
So, there’s this array of these market libertarian gatherings where there’s a range of people, not all of them with a lot of money, but many of them with a good chunk of money, trying to create something that they see that is different. But it is interesting and strange that they use the language of anarchists. And I think it’s quite revealing, actually, and it does go back a little bit to what we saw in the late 60’s and early 70’s. That the language has a certain secondary meaning that they’re drawing from. It’s not pure political confusion. A lot of it is political confusion and a lack of historical understanding of anarchism, but also some of it is a-
TFSR: Marketing, if you will?
RC: Exactly. This is a marketing scheme.
TFSR: There was a point in the book where you talked about the shift in language around Libertarianism and pointing to the social conservatism that started developing at a certain point in the United States, the adoption of the term in relation to some of those rich – and I am sure in a lot of cases whites-only – enclaves outside of Atlanta that Newt Gingrich came out of similar to behind the Orange Curtain in California. I would imagine there’s probably a lot of people, having watched a couple of his episodes, that are positioning themselves as anarchists because it’s edgy and it’s in contradiction to the social mores that are imposed by the Evangelical-inflected Libertarianism and sovereign sheriff movement, constitutional sheriffs, and all this devolution of government – things that are being pushed by some in the US.
RC: I think that’s exactly right.
TFSR: What are you working on now? Where can people find your stuff?
Before that, I want to ask the question about “leftist” approaches towards sovereignty and exit.
RC: I’ll just say the latter part very quickly. I don’t use the language of “Exit” to talk about some of the left approaches. I end up using the word ‘exile’ that I draw from Andrej Grubacic and Dennis O’Hara’s Living at the Edges of Capitalism. They have a section on the Zapatistas, the Cossacks, and solitary confinement prisoners. It’s a book about mutual aid and exile. They use the term ‘exile.’ I found it very useful to make that distinction. Because there is a tendency– I get this question a lot, which is what about the Zapatistas? What about Rojava? It’s important to not equate form and content. It’s easy to say, “Oh, look, these are similar forms, they’re against the nation-state. They’re trying to create something different, autonomous territories. But my response to that is, first of all, we can’t equate a “green eco-village” capitalism with runaway slave communities or something like this. I just think that’s really problematic to equate those things. Perhaps, the more important point here is that the exit communities increasingly to me don’t appear to be a form of exile or exit, they appear to me to be a new instantiation of the state and an effort to increasingly privatize the state, new forms of primitive accumulation, new ways of resource capture. I just don’t see them as comparable at all to something like the Zapatista communities of southern Mexico, which are built on solidarity rather than individuality. They’re built on cooperation and mutual aid rather than competition, they see themselves as having to have in some form or relationship with the Mexican state. They’re not an utter rejection of the Mexican state. But they see themselves as having to have some relationship with that state, they actually invest in the promise of the Mexican Revolution in Article 27 from the Mexican Constitution on the Ejidos and agrarian reform. But at the same time, they’re trying to create something that is autonomous and unique in its own right, but you don’t have to have money to opt in. It’s just an entirely different structure. These things have to be distinguished pretty substantially. I see the exit projects as actually much more mainstream than they would like to see themselves.
And I disagree, actually, there’s been a couple of people who have reviewed the book and suggested that I focus on these outlier projects that are unusual and wacky and exceptions. I guess I didn’t get my point across because what I was trying to demonstrate by the end of the book is that in fact, these things are actually quite mundane, quite mainstream, and this is why if you want to understand them, you don’t need to read Peter Thiel or Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos and I would hasten to say you probably should read but don’t need to read William Gibson and Neal Stephenson and Ursula Le Guin, you can read J.G. Ballard, read his trilogy Cocaine Nights, Supercon, and High Rise to get a sense of what the future looks like in these communities.
TFSR: Yeah. Or in these instances, too, rather than talking to the people that are paid to fly into this hotel to give a presentation on whatever high-minded ideals they might have about changing the world, talking about the opportunities there with projects like Zapatista communities or what was the ZAD and Notre-Dam-des-Landes in France, or Unist’ot’en or the resistance at Standing Rock, either the creation of these autonomous, the opening up of space moments that are ideally more than just a TAZ ala Hakeem Bay, but oftentimes, what is meant to be not only a reimagining of the existent relationships around property, sovereignty, belonging, ecology, but they’re often an act of decolonization and removal of the imposition of the settler state, depending on where these are taking place.
There’s room for those of us on the left to think in terms of taking space, if we approach things honestly, from this perspective of solidarity and engagement, where it’s not me taking it from this blank slate that’s presented in front of me. Or those people that are like “let’s build some more factories here and call it Cancer Alley” or whatever. As long as we actively start engaging as folks from a colonizer country with populations and with landscapes that exist in a place, we can have a responsible way that, in the creation or recreation of these spaces, undoes some of the trauma that’s already happened and builds a path forward. That’s way more utopian and way more realistic than the crap that Thiel’s spouting.
RC: Yeah. You take something like the projects that I look at, but you can also look at the folks in the Anarchapulco, the HBO show, and I try to reference this in the book… When you come down to it, when you get past the glossy handout and the investment prospectus and all the other stuff, when you get past the glitter, it’s not Thomas Moore that you’re getting, it’s JW Marriott. It’s timeshare-sovereignty, that’s essentially what you’re getting in the end. And that’s why I’m saying it’s ultimately mundane and very mainstream in certain ways and reproduces all of these property and settler colonial relationships.
I have a very harsh critique in the book of the Seasteading book, Joe Cork and Patri Friedman did this book on seasteading. It’s just filled with the most fairy-tale version of history. There is hardly any mention of dispossession, violence, or anything like this. It’s like they read Lynn Cheney’s picture book Patriotic Primer for children and turned it into a history lesson. It’s really quite appalling. That’s the distinction I try to make in the book at various points in time.
The question about where people can learn more about what I’m doing. I’ve worked in Chile for many years, and I’ve been trying to get back there, but the pandemic has made research there difficult. In the meantime, I’ve been doing a couple of things. I’m working on an essay called “Selfish Determination,” which tries to go into a little bit more detail about how libertarians in the 50’s and 60s, especially in the 60’s, use the language of self-determination. There’s a UN resolution 1514 that was passed in the early 1960’s about the independence of colonized peoples and self-determination. I’m interested in the way in which they take up the idea of self-determination but appropriated for selfish determination just to give them their Ayn Rand credit. And then, a good friend of mine, Geoffroy de Laforcad, has written a lot on anarchism and has been involved in anarchist movements for many years in Buenos Aires and elsewhere. He’s from Marseille originally and teaches in Norfolk State. Geoffroy and I have been slowly working on a broader global history of things like exit and exile going back to the early 19th century. And this goes to your question about thinking about exile, Left projects of autonomy and things like this. We want to try to actually make those distinctions analytically and historically more evident and rich. So he and I are starting to write something together.
TFSR: That’s awesome. I look forward to checking it out for sure.
Well, thank you so much for having this conversation and for publishing this book. It’s sadly always timely. But not just because of HBO Plus, but yeah, I really appreciate it. I hope the listeners get a chance to read it and check it out. And thanks again for taking the time to have this conversation also.
RC: Yeah, thank you too. I was really grateful for the invitation and I really enjoyed the conversation. Thanks so much.