Izabella Kaminska’s recent article in the FT on seasteading does have some genuine criticism’s of the Seasteading Institute’s more utopian goals, including its supposed desire to achieve full political independence from the modern world. No such project can ever truly do this, and despite the heady heights of some of seasteading’s advocates I’m sure most recognise that pragmatism and time are needed. However the rest of the article is a glorified diatribe against political competition and in support of our static status quo. The simplicity of Kaminska’s message underlies the simplistic worldview that defines it.
Such can be seen in the short historical section that underlines some of the theory of seasteading. According to seasteading advocates, the tenets of political competition and variable jurisdiction can be seen in the European city-states that were founded and flourished from early 2nd millennium to the late 1500s. Systems such as the Hanseatic League and the free cities presented a variable set of institutions and governmental settings that existed within and between empires, feudal localities and independent armies. In effect this era, poorly labelled feudalism, presents elements of a multi-institutionality where borders and flows were relatively liquid, allowing for significant innovation encapsulated by Mumford’s idea of this era being an eotechnic one, built around small-scale industry and varying degrees of competition and cooperation. Kaminska’s criticism of this picture are important. The recognition that these leagues and cities struggled due to increasing security costs related to imperial competition and internal disputes is obviously true. Yet the underlying argument seems to be that the coercive methods aggregated by empires to eliminate political competitors is somehow a complete condemnation of city-states and the innovation they helped create. Such an underlying position can further be noted with Kaminska stating that the city-states were wholly allied to the Holy Roman Empire. The tacit argument seems to be the Empire can be reasonably compared to a modern nation-state, instead of its actual existence as being a varied collection of Teutonic lords and princes allied through a large degree of distributed levies, tributes and customs that had different judicial applicability and varying degrees of authority. In effect Kaminska’s understanding of history is synchronic, analysing history as a continual progression upwards while ignoring a more critical, diachronic analysis that recognises history as a series of choices and systems, with no preset destiny in sight.
This synchronic analysis paints the rest of the article. Thus it is said that seasteading communities would not be able to attract the necessary investment due to a potential ostracisation due to a lack of state recognition, large running costs that may require governmental support (as has occurred through seasteading efforts using SEZs) and the lack of technological impetus due to a lack of ability to build these structures in deep sea. While again these criticisms are indeed legitimate, they suggest a synchronic view of modern governance that suggests all security, investment rights and trade must flow through states. With the growth of social movements that are producing social regulation through a range of international treaties and institutions, things like the Global Trade Alliance and the World Social Forum as forums for different governing actors to collectively produce and influence policy, and existing political structures like tax havens, SEZs and regional governance structures/systems having increasing influence over economies of scale and investment, the view of states as totalising forms is extremely outdated.
Carolyn Nordstrom’s work on the international relations of non-state and anti-state actors shows how even in the murky waters of non-state trade and investment things like binding agreements and systems of trust can develop and thrive. As she notes, shadow networks “are not marginal to the world’s economies and politics, but central. While little in-depth work exists on estimates of the sums generated per year through extrastate activities, initial inquiries seem to place them in the trillions. To give some examples of how these figures add up, the following examples run from the tragically exploitative to the remarkably mundane. As much as 20 percent of the world’s financial deposits are located in unregulated banks and offshore locations (Lopez and Cortwright, 1 998). UN estimates of illicit drugs earnings run at US$500 billion a year (UNRlSD, 1 995). Illicit weapons sales are also placed at US$500 billion a year (Ayers, 1 996; Castells, 1 998). As a single country, India’s black economy in the early 1 980s was placed at more than US$60 billion, and has grown since then (Gupta, 1 992). India is not unusual: in Peru, 48 percent of the economically active population works in the informal sector, and that figure rises to 58 percent in Kenya, and perhaps even higher in Russia (Greif, 1 996). Prostitution brings in scores of billions of dollars annually, and people-smuggling brings in equally large amounts. In a study on money laundering, Pasuk Phongpachit of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok estimated that people-smuggling earns US$3.2 billion a year in Thailand alone, and that solely from Thai women smuggled into Japan, Germany and Taiwan for prostitution. Profit to Chinese triads smuggling illegal immigrants into the USA alone is placed at US$2.5 billion a year (Strange, 1 996). As to the more mundane, 1 million tonnes of oil was smuggled into China in the first six months of 1 997: the standard savings to smugglers per single standard cargo of 30,000 tonnes amounts to US$ 1 .8 million (Singapore Newsroom, 1 997). Freon smuggling is a classic example of the mundane and often overlooked that reaps huge profits – in Miami alone, illegal freon smuggling has exceeded drug-trafficking in volume and may soon rival it in revenues”. These networks, with their vast holdings of wealth and human capital, cannot be considered inconsequential to the way modern states and international systems govern.
Even on the security question, the large sets of binding agreements surrounding military engagement and sanctions mean that if seasteading communities are ostracised by some, it does not mean they will be ostracised by all. For all the supposed bullying the military-industrial complexes of modern countries can accomplish, the flows of fourth-generation warfare show that these large, stultifying bureaucracies are hardly invincible. These developing variables which are removing power from states and even changing the very nature of states mean that governance is no longer simply the domain of the state. Varying degrees of independence and autonomy have already been achieved through alternative production systems and new forums for political communication and policy-making.
So why can’t seasteading systems, potentially funded via crowdsourcing, informal (i.e. black and grey markets) trade and the use of alternative forms of juridical power, be part of the makeup of potentialities brought forth from the de-containerisation of states. It’s ironic that Kaminska asks the opposite question, seeing that if the problems she describes do prove to be destructive of seasteading, then who cares. Why write this simplistic diatribe in the first place. The reason this was written is seemingly because any challenge, no matter how small, against the prevailing statist order must never be allowed to see the light of day. If seasteaders are teenagers, then statists like Kaminska are toddlers, screaming whenever their routine is broken. Their static conception of modernity, with states having developed not due to historical junctures and skewed power relations, but simply due to some Whiggish idea of progress, is untenable in a world of large-scale, intertwined fiscal problems (particularly increasing levels of private and public debt and the necessitation of states to take on increasingly higher levels of risk) and energy crises brought on by peak oil and the developments of the Anthropocene. The ability for political experimentation should be seen as a potential move to construct systems that can work around and through these growing problems. Of course they should not be uncritically accepted, but nor should a synchronic analysis of state’s and modernity cloud the potentiality that new governing systems can bring.
 Carolyn Nordstrom, Shadows and Sovereigns, 328