Atlas Swam: Freedom, Capital, and Floating Sovereignties in the Seasteading Vision
Abstract: Political actors have long drawn on utopian imaginaries of colonizing marine and island spaces as models for idealized libertarian commonwealths. A recent inheritor of this tradition is the seasteading movement, which seeks to “further the establishment and growth of permanent, autonomous ocean communities [by] enabling innovations with new political and social systems” on semi-stationary, floating platforms. Fueled by a cocktail of ideologies (techno-optimism, libertarian secession theories, and strains of anarcho-capitalism), seasteading is touted as the newest “frontier” in creative, entrepreneurial, and social engineering. Inherent in the project, however, are buried ideals about the nature of ocean space, the limits of sovereignty, and the liberatory role of technology and capitalism in the drive for social change and individual freedom. We explore these notions through an examination of seasteading’s broader philosophical and economic underpinnings, and their deployment through multiple structural, legal, and social frameworks. Although seasteading is a highly speculative, and even fanciful project, it reflects attempts to resolve contradictions within capitalism: between, on the one hand, the need for order and planning, and, on the other hand, the desire to foster and lionize individual freedom. In the United States, this tension has most visibly entered mainstream discourse through the rise of the Tea Party movement, whose ideology combines adherence to classical liberal ideals about individual entrepreneurship with hostility toward government intervention. Although the seasteading movement, like its better known and more realizable libertarian contemporaries, proposes a solution that its leaders say will resolve this tension, our analysis reveals that it would merely rework it, and thus it unwittingly reinforces the structures it seeks to escape.