Raymond Craib on the History of Adventure Capitalism and Libertarian Exit SchemesHistorians in the News
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 exiteer’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 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 10 or 15 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 home-steading 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.)