The late 20th century saw the creation of special economic zones that free capitalists from the normal constraints of popular sovereignty. This went hand in hand with the rise of radical libertarian ideologies proposing to do away with democracy entirely.

Buildings in the Dubai International Financial Centre, a special economic zone in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, September 14, 2023. (Natalie Naccache / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

We often think of the last several decades as a story of increasing connectedness and uniformity of economies across the world, thanks to globalization — a process perhaps delayed or interrupted by political events like the rise of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the UK. But the general course of recent global history has been one of growing economic integration, guided by supranational institutions like the European Union and the World Bank.

In his 2023 book, Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy, historian Quinn Slobodian argues that the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries have been equally characterized by the growth of subnational special economic zones, in which capitalists and investors are released from the normal constraints imposed by popular sovereignty. The emergence of these zones has happened hand in hand with, and given inspiration to, the development of radically libertarian pro-capitalist ideologies, which have dreamt of doing away with democratic rule altogether in favor of government by private contract.

In an interview for Jacobin Radio podcast the Dig, Daniel Denvir interviewed Slobodian about these zones and the anarcho-capitalists who love them. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Neoliberals vs. Anarcho-Capitalists

Daniel Denvir

Your book is about a set of radical libertarian, authoritarian capitalists, including many self-described anarcho-capitalists. It’s also about a world that’s been shaped in those peoples’ vision far more than we might imagine, a world that’s riven with “zones” of all sorts. Let’s talk about these people and the world that they want to create. Who are these people, and what do they believe?

Quinn Slobodian

The people who are at the heart of the book are more-radical libertarians or neoliberals than the kind that we might usually encounter. People like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and the like figured heavily in the last book I wrote.

Those folks do make an appearance in this book. But I’m more interested in the neglected group of anarcho-capitalists, who, rather than believing that democracy can be contained and reined in and constrained within certain legislative bonds, believe that democracy can and should be done away with altogether. They have a belief in a kind of pure market order within which everything is organized within private contexts, private actors, insurance companies, arbitration companies — all displace entirely the function of the ballot box or representative government.

That group is relatively small but vocal, and increasingly influential and important over the last few decades, especially with the rapidly accelerating financialization of our economy, the rise of the tech industry, the emergence of things like cryptocurrencies. The idea of a kind of privately ordered reality, I think, has become more tangible and attractive to a lot of people.

Daniel Denvir

What is the difference, or relationship, between radical libertarians and neoliberals? Are they sometimes the same people?

Quinn Slobodian

It’s a fraught question. The thing that I devoted a lot of attention to in my last book was to argue that, as many others have, it’s not helpful to think of neoliberals as wanting to do away with the state altogether. Neoliberalism is best understood as a kind of evolving set of solutions to the problem of democracy. The state plays an important, proactive role in encasing the market from challenges to the market order, and often in rolling out new policies that produce more market-friendly outcomes and realities, and make less likely more redistributive or socialist outcomes and realities.

It’s not helpful to think of neoliberals as wanting to do away with the state altogether. Neoliberalism is best understood as a kind of evolving set of solutions to the problem of democracy.

So that book was really about this more mainline neoliberalism, which one can associate with Hayek and Friedman. We can think of the construction of supranational institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and parts of the European Union as attempts to encode this version of neoliberalism in the real world. That’s how it was seen by them.

Within that big tent of neoliberalism, which in my work and following the work of others I associate with this thought tradition around the Mont Pelerin Society, there are these radical libertarians, who are more often at the margins, who think that the state can be abolished altogether. Because they are kind of immanent critics of neoliberalism — they are within the world of the neoliberal religion but constitute a kind of radical sect within it — it’s hard to know where to put them, the same way that one wouldn’t know where to put breakaway sects of Christianity or Islam when they take issue with the mainline version of the ideology.

The people in my book often would use neoliberalism as a kind of curse or slur word, not dissimilar to the way the Left would. They would see someone like Hayek as having betrayed the tradition of the market by conceding that one can have regular elections or some degree of compensation for extreme hardship.

Daniel Denvir

They prefer Ludwig von Mises.

Quinn Slobodian

They prefer Mises, and a particular reading of Mises. This is something I discovered in the course of writing this book: it can only be compared to religious or doctrinal debates, or I suppose debates around Trotskyism and Stalinism on the Left, in the sense that people get extremely triggered by which translation you use, which sentence you translate, which paragraph you focus on. In some cases I found myself stumbling into this vipers’ nest of internecine Misean debates without knowing I was doing so.

I think that even Mises read one way is similar to Hayek, in that he also doesn’t want to do away with the state. He believes in the usefulness and utility in some ways of democracy, in ways that the purists — here we’d probably point to Murray Rothbard — believe in the possibility of a truly stateless order.

In the Zone

Daniel Denvir

I want to outline the portion of your book that is about how the world looks a lot more like what these thinkers want than we might have thought. You write, “The world of nations is riddled with zones.” What, generally, speaking, is a zone? And how does it challenge the ways we typically think about the nation-state and its sovereignty?

Quinn Slobodian

Technically speaking, zones are these jurisdictions within national territory that are ring-fenced, delimited in terms of size, and inside of their borders they have a different set of laws and regulations than what exists outside. The last forty-plus years, these have been used often by developing countries as a way to incentivize foreign investors to come into the country, who might be otherwise dubious about making an investment in Indonesia, India, South Africa, Botswana. If they’re told, “Listen, within this space, we will make sure that licensing happens quickly, taxes are light, you’ll be able to have full foreign ownership, and so on,” it’s a way to make mobile capital more confident about where it’s putting its money.

The zone has a very distinct biography or history, which many other people have tracked in detail and upon whose work I rely in my own book. It has a few different genesis points.

One of them is the foreign trade zone, which is an American invention. Dara Orenstein, an American studies professor, has written a great book about the American foreign trade zones called Out of Stock, which she pitches as a history of the warehouse in American capitalism. These were set up in the 1930s during the New Deal as basically warehouses, but places usually adjacent to harbors that were considered to be outside American customs territory.

The last forty-plus years, zones have been used often by developing countries as a way to incentivize foreign investors to come into the country.

The advantage of that is you could bring things in there in pieces, for example, and then assemble them and bring them inside the United States and not have to pay tariffs or customs on each individual component; you just have to pay customs on the finished product. They were also very useful because, technically speaking, you weren’t allowed to do certain kinds of refining of imported oil on American territory, so you could do them instead in these foreign trade zones.

There are hundreds and hundreds of these things across the United States, some of them no bigger than a warehouse, places where when you step inside them you’re technically outside of the tax territory of the country. They’re very much used for car assembly and things like that nowadays.

Another history that is interesting is around the Shannon Airport in Ireland. In the early ages of transatlantic flight, you couldn’t get all the way from, say, New York to London on one tank of gas. You had to refill once and sometimes even twice, which is what made Newfoundland briefly have a kind of intense, small sight of cosmopolitan leisure, where people would have to get off the plane and wait for their plane to be refueled. Then it would be onto Ireland, which was the next-closest place across the Atlantic.

Shannon Airport was one such place, where there were always people waiting for their plane to be refueled. There was duty-free and so on. When the flights could go further, the fuel tanks got bigger, then Shannon became obsolete.

But the entrepreneurial thinkers there in the ’50s were thinking about this kind of extraterritoriality that they’d been granted effectively as an airport. So they started doing things like manufacturing, without the same regulations as the surrounding country. They started warehousing things and storing things that could then be kept outside the space of the country itself.

That idea of perforating the territory to allow for, usually, lower taxation, lower regulations, and fewer labor laws also had places that sprang up early in Puerto Rico in the 1950s and ’60s and Taiwan in the 1960s. But if you look at a graph of these zones, which were eventually called “special economic zones,” they didn’t really take off until the late 1970s, which is when China adopted the zone as the way it would open up its domestic economy.

The most famous is Shenzhen, just across the water from Hong Kong. But the zones multiplied very quickly, and they were fascinating laboratories for recommodification of land, of labor — basically, the reversal of communism in most of its tangible aspects, but in very small pockets of land.

It was a way to not do all-at-once, overnight shock therapy. Instead, you do this kind of hydraulic thing, where you allow foreign investment in, you allow foreign capital in, but only in very small places, and you allow the different zones to effectively compete with one another for mobile investment and so on.

So China would be the place where you really see the zone take off. The other place that I talk about in the book is in the Gulf, specifically the United Arab Emirates and specifically Dubai. Specifically Dubai, in part, because it doesn’t have oil of its own, nor does it have gas; Abu Dhabi has the oil and Qatar has the gas.

Dubai had to figure out something else to do, and it figured out adopting the technology of the zone. The Jebel Ali Free Zone is still the most famous one. Inside of this space, foreign companies can come in, they can own territory, they can have access to Dubai’s labor force, they can bring workers in from outside.

What the zones then become are places where a lot of the usual ideas of what a nation-state is get suspended. You often have ownership by people who are not from the country; you often have workers working there who are not necessarily from the country that surrounds them. You have fiscal obligations and legal obligations that are very different from what’s around them.

The tendency has been to look at this as a kind of freak or abnormality of the way global capitalism is operating. My play in the book is to say two things: one, actually this is kind of the essence of the way global capitalism is being organized in the last forty years or so. These are the places with the highest intensity of manufacturing, of investment, of extraction. If you look at them another way, the financial activity is intense as well.

They’re acting as inspirations for other kinds of political imagination. The radical libertarians, the anarcho-capitalists that we started our conversation with, are looking at these workaday, banal engineering fixes for capitalism and saying, “What if we took that and made that into a model for society as such? What if we made the zone, rather than the nation or the empire, how we organized human life?”

Daniel Denvir

The story of the past half century is often told as one of the agglomeration of nation-states into these larger, supranational bodies: things like the European Union or the WTO, the sorts of institutions that you wrote about in Globalists, the kinds of things that protect markets from democracy. But this book shows that we’ve also lived through this breakdown of nation-states into zones and that radical capitalists are obsessed not just with deregulating the state or imposing this global check on democracy, but in breaking states up into smaller and smaller polities — “micro-ordering.” How do these two stories work together?

Quinn Slobodian

I think they do work together. Rather than being opposites, they work in symbiosis.

One of the more extreme versions of the special economic zone is called Próspera, which has been created in Honduras, on the island of Roatán off its north coast in the Caribbean. This was self-consciously an attempt to create a kind of miniature Hong Kong in a country that has had its challenges of criminality and one-sided relationships with its larger economic neighbors, especially the United States and Canada to the north.

The idea was, let’s effectively give away part of the territory and create a new set of laws to give an extreme form of extraterritorial status to this small patch of land. On the one hand, that could look like a version of exit, or escape — like you’re opting out of the nation and global oversight and international institutions and so on.

But on second glance, it doesn’t look like that at all. Why? Because, for one thing, the people who are advising there on Próspera are people who are absolutely plugged into the top level of global capitalist activity. It’s people from Ernst & Young, KPMG, the big accounting and auditing agencies. It’s people who helped to set up the Dubai international financial center.

The world of tax havens — this galaxy of low- and no-tax sites scattered around the world, often in strange islands and the middle of nowhere — is not working at cross-purposes to top-level globalization. They’re the means by which that top-level globalization operates.

It’s people who have experience navigating that top-level global coding of international economic law, who have also been attuned to the way that you can take advantage of these small sites, as places not to really opt out of or get away from — international economic integration — quite the opposite. It’s about designing places that are even more directly plugged into networks of international economic integration, whether of financial services, trade, in some cases even the migration of people, in the sense of offering citizenship by investment or the ability to have a second electronic passport.

In other words, the story that I told in the last book about the emergence of supranational institutions designed to protect global capitalism was the whole time shadowed by the emergence of a kind of galaxy of small-scale jurisdictions at the other end of the compass, down on ground level, as entities that were able to suck in, organize, redirect, reorient money and trade at the most optimum level. The world of tax havens, which also comes up in the book, the “Second British Empire” as it’s sometimes been called — this galaxy of low- and no-tax sites scattered around the world, often in strange islands and the middle of nowhere — is not working at cross-purposes to what we would call top-level globalization. They’re the means by which that top-level globalization operates.

But it was intentional on my part to switch up the scales in this book, because I was very dissatisfied with the way that the narrative was being circulated around 2016 and afterward. The idea was that because the Cold War was over, it was just a time of scaling up, everyone was getting more integrated, sites of economic activity were getting ever larger.

There was kind of a delusion there about what that meant: that somehow there was an evenness or smooth openness that “we” were all enjoying, and that was suddenly rudely disrupted in 2016 by the vote to leave the EU in the UK and the election of Donald Trump and the trade wars that followed. There’s this idea that once we were united, and now we have become fragmented again.

That is bad empirically as a way to describe what happened in the last few years. But it is also bad empirically to describe the world that we inhabited before that supposed rupture out of the blue in 2016.

Using the work of geographers especially, using the work of anthropologists and certain kinds of historians, it was possible to try to reconstruct this more granular, subnational world of enclaves that animates the book, to show how, in the words of someone like David Harvey, the way we need to think about power and money in the twenty-first century is a constant oscillation between the territorial logic of states and the more molecular logic of capital accumulation. These things are always working with each other in new and often surprising and novel ways.

The creation of these small little places that offer one particular service — here’s a place you can go and do a medical experiment without regulation, here’s a place you can put your corporate profits without taxation, here’s a place you can sew tags onto underwear while paying someone pennies an hour — these are all signs of the metabolism that happens between the world of capital and the world of states.

Anarcho-Capitalists Against Universalism

Daniel Denvir

These radical libertarians do not try to make any sort of argument that a pure form of capitalism is real democracy. These figures are resolutely and explicitly antidemocratic. For some, you write, “Contracts would replace constitutions, and people would cease to be citizens of any place — only clients of a range of service providers. These would be anti-republics: private ownership and exchange displacing any trace of popular sovereignty.”

What are these figures’ issues with democracy? We sometimes think of bourgeois democracy as capitalism’s natural form of government. Your book, though, suggests that this is not always the case.

Quinn Slobodian

That’s where it’s helpful to think about the world that the Hayeks and Milton Friedmans inhabited versus the world that your Peter Thiels and the Patri Friedmans inhabit and circulate in. I think it’s certainly true that if you think about a world of the mid-twentieth century, the world of Fordism and large industrial working classes in the Global North and the need to organize things at scale, such that you can get the iron ore from the hills into the blast furnaces and then get that steel down the river to build the bodies of the automobiles or the train cars and lay the tracks, there’s a kind of gargantuan, organic quality to industrial capitalism.

Peter Thiel speaking with attendees at the 2022 Converge Tech Summit in Scottsdale, Arizona, February 9, 2022. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Even the Hayeks and Milton Friedmans — although they thought that democracy was also potentially corrosive of the smooth functioning of that machine — were I think nonetheless respectful of the fact that democracy played a necessary legitimating function in keeping collective politics rumbling along. That it was very hard to get rid of the idea of popular sovereignty as the kind of hardware of politics. It was more about finding institutional fixes to bottle up, hive off, and regulate into smaller boxes the degree to which the popular will could be exerted on the functioning of that clockwork.

The thing about my anarcho-capitalists in this book is they’re somehow simultaneously premodern in the way they think about things and, if I can use the term, postmodern, in the sense that they don’t think about the world from the point of view of mid-century United States or Britain or Germany. They don’t think about the Fordist world or the industrial world as the primary referent.

Instead, they think about two very different worlds: first, they think about the world of the medieval mode of production, or even earlier, like the barbarian model of Central Europe or the Roman or Greek model that someone like Perry Anderson describes as a “slave mode of production,” in the sense that it was entirely premised on having a large, unpaid group of laborers involved, who had no political rights whatsoever.

And then, toward the postmodern or post-Fordist mode — they think about a world of such densely hyperconnected sites of production that things can be done on demand and things can be provided, without the need for building up the big apparatus for social reproduction that the Fordist state involved: welfare, public education, trade unions, local government, and government above that. However falsely, let it be said at the outset — I think they misperceive reality — but the way they misperceive reality is interesting, because it’s symptomatic of the way that a lot of people are misperceiving reality.

The way anarcho-capitalists misperceive reality is interesting, because it’s symptomatic of the way a lot of people are misperceiving reality.

It’s a way of thinking about the world either as organized at a micro level in the style of the feudal or even prefeudal world, or at the micro level in the form of our futuristic, digitally mediated, geek-economy world. In that way of looking at things, the modern period from the French Revolution of popular sovereignty breaking through, radicalized by the Haitian Revolution, radicalized by the US Civil War and emancipation, radicalized onward into the twentieth century with the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. . . . These are a series of events that accompany, in a way, a particular era of human production that they see themselves as either before or after.

In that sense, if you’re going to reorganize the world at a micro level, if that’s your dream — and it is their dream — then democracy ceases to be the necessary legitimizing language for mass politics. What they’re proposing is not mass politics: they’re proposing micropolitics. And within micropolitics, different arrangements can function.

What makes this group interesting and in some ways productive to think with is that they are great believers in the diversity of political possibility. If you think you want to crack up the United States into ten thousand miniature units, you take for granted, and they will say explicitly, that some of those units will be radically redistributive; some of them will be 100 percent direct democracy; some of them will be anarchistic or anarcho-communist in the left sense; some will be fascistic and white supremacist; others might be black supremacist.

This is what they will say every time that someone accuses them of intolerance or having only one template for the world — that democracy is just one proposal for organizing humanity that happened to have had a moment when the organizing of large groups of people was necessary toward large ends, and that we’re no longer in that moment.

Daniel Denvir

This vision of capitalism without, not only democracy, but also without modernity — why does that add up to an at least purported opposition to the nation-state? You write, “Their goal has been not to take a wrecking ball to the state, but to hijack, disassemble, and rebuild it under their own private ownership.”

Is the attack on the very idea of nation-states more of a smoke screen, then, if what they really want is a particular sort of nation-state? To briefly return to our discussion of Honduras, the zone there was premised on a good old-fashioned right-wing coup, which in 2009 put people sympathetic to their agenda in charge of the Honduran nation-state. It’s still the nation-state that’s the scale of governance, that connects the microzone to these global networks of capital.

Quinn Slobodian

I completely agree with you: if there are nation-states willing to renege on the normal expectations of foreigners within their borders to a certain level, then the model of the nation-state per se is not the obstacle, or the essence of what’s being opposed. The essence of what’s being opposed is more this idea of the modern nation-state, as having some close genetic, indissoluble link with the idea of popular sovereignty and the principle of one-person, one-vote democracy. That’s the subtitle of the book: “The dream of a world without democracy,” rather than the dream of a world without nation-states.

In fact, if you look at the places that have deployed the zone most effectively — China, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia increasingly — these are places that have settled on a completely premodern idea of the nation-state. The example of the Emirates and Saudia Arabia is so stark, because you have a kind of theocratic, clan-based ethnocracy, in the case of Saudia Arabia, that is drawing its legitimacy entirely from the bloodline of a small group of people, who are nonetheless tapped into maximally the most cutting-edge forms of technological production, and they’re at the frontier of global investment, speculative architecture, speculative building, and they’re trying to make that real now in this 250-kilometer-long city called the Line and all the rest of it.

They inhabit that really well, that kind of combination of the archaic and the hypermodern, in a way that has not been compelled to undo democracy, because democracy was never introduced in the first place. The places that the libertarians truly envy are places that have had the advantage of never having had democracy in the first place.

Whether that’s Singapore or the Crown Colony of Hong Kong–cum–the special administrative region of Hong Kong, or the Gulf states, when a British conservative looks at all three of those places with a great deal of envy and longing, they still have not been able to figure out how you walk back centuries of traditions of popular sovereignty. That’s the essence of the problem right now for people who want to turn this from a pipe dream or a fever dream into a reality. How do you actually undo expectations about democracy?

Their solution so far is, you do it spatially. You designate small areas in which that’s the case, whether that’s the area that eventually became Canary Wharf in London, or the many enterprise zones designated as “freeports” in the United Kingdom. But then the next election comes around, and those very policies get overturned.

So never having democracy in the first place is really the dream for these radical libertarians, rather than being stuck with the much more awkward challenge of trying to dismantle what already exists. Hence, Murray Rothbard’s ringing call to repeal the twentieth century. Because at the beginning of the twentieth century, not only was there no income tax, nor was there a Federal Reserve — you didn’t even have full emancipation of the country. You had Jim Crow laws and huge constraints on the ability to actually vote. It was effectively still a male-property-owner-supremacist society at the turn of the century.

The core of this is not a problem with nation-states; in some ways, the vision that many of them have is to multiply nation-states endlessly. You could think of many of these small, often ethnically defined spaces, subnationally organized, as the Wilsonian principle run amok.

Daniel Denvir

But still often, depending on that larger polity, whether in the case of the coup in Honduras or in the case of Saudi Arabia, its ability to forcibly relocate twenty thousand Bedouins, in order to create this megaproject that will be governed by shareholders rather than the Saudi state — it relies on the repressive force of that Saudi state.

Quinn Slobodian

It’s still embedded inside of that larger structure and reliant entirely on its repressive apparatus. But it’s not universalist.

The idea is not quite that, as with the French Revolution, here is a new template for organizing human social life: from now on, there will be something called human rights that will be universal, everyone will be both a person and a citizen, we will organize ourselves into these republics in which we can express our common will. If you’re the French revolutionaries, you’re quite literally trying to carry that vision across the border into the neighboring empire and from there into the rest of the world.

That’s our idea insofar as we have a kind of reflexive narrative of how political ideology works, or the history of political ideas in the modern era. Someone has an idea, and other people agree, and then over time they start to try to figure out ways to make everyone on Earth agree with them.

The true anarcho-capitalist proposal is that it makes no claims on the organization of the world as such. Nor does it offer a recipe to humanity for its salvation.

Even for those midcentury neoliberals, the Hayek types, there’s a strong strain of that. It may be difficult; this is where the fault lines appear in the neoliberal movement. Are all humans equally capable of being market actors? That’s what I write about in Globalists — some of the more conservative members of the neoliberal movement have their doubts that people from “non-white races” can actually be market actors, or whether they simply need to be contained and kept at a distance from the “more civilized” world. But they still do have that universalism.

What I think is challenging but also interesting about the true anarcho-capitalist proposal is that it makes no claims on the organization of the world as such. Nor does it offer a recipe to humanity for its salvation.

In fact, it’s the opposite, in the sense that it thrives on variegation and diversity. It needs there to be the coeval existence of many different forms of production and social organization, so the people who are at the top of the pyramid can profit off of it.

The venture-capitalist visionaries, such as they are — people like Balaji Srinivasan — why isn’t he worried about how you organize a blast furnace and the community around it and keeping people alive long enough to produce another ton of iron for the steel mills? Because he just assumes that another part of the world will be taking care of that, under whatever kind of arrangement works for them, and he will be at the other end of the global value chain, surfing the most value-added stuff, commissioning people to write the designs for whatever new product will be created with that steel, and probably an authoritarian country like China will be doing the dirty work of the steel production, and he’ll just buy it from them.

Balaji Srinivasan at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017, September 20, 2017. (Kristyuhorton / Wikimedia Commons)

That’s just capitalist ideology as a political proposal. In the twentieth century, we’ve usually been trying to figure out the ways that liberalism and bourgeois ideology cloak the raw self-interest of capitalists inside languages of rights, of the social, of humanity as such, and above all of democracy. The challenge of critique has often been to show how those terms can offer a smoke screen or provide ideological cover for the material interests inside of them.

Anarcho-capitalists are like, “No more smokescreen. No more ideological cover. We’re just saying the way that capitalist logic works in the world, and we’re just calling that politics. When you think of it that way, combined and uneven development is not a problem at all. We need it; let’s get more of it. Let’s get more of that in the political realm too, because then there’s more arbitrage available — there are more plays available.”

Why that’s also hard to get our heads around . . . like you said, we’re just bound to the Enlightenment ideal. We are still, and now often in ways around climate, enchained to this idea for good reason — that we’re still somehow all on the same time line.

Some countries and regions are maybe further back, if you want to think about the movement toward growth or an emerging market rather than an industrialized economy, but everyone is kind of plodding along the same path. Seventy years ago, modernization theory in the heart of the empire, people like Walt Rostow were saying, “We’re just all on the stages of economic growth, whether you’re a Chinese Communist, or a San bushman, we’re all going to get there.”

The anarcho-capitalist just looks at that and laughs. They’re like, “No, there’s no single time line. The only task we have is to figure out the best way through the maze with our associates and people who are willing to pay us. We’re not moving at all on a single trajectory as humanity; humanity is a completely obsolete concept. People do not share a community of fate.”

Exiting the Nation-State

Daniel Denvir

What does “exit” mean for these figures? Do they really believe that all individuals possess the power to exit? Or is that a freedom just for the superelite? What sort of vision of freedom is it?

Quinn Slobodian

Milton Friedman’s grandson, Patri Friedman, is a master of PR, very much helped by the fact that he knows very wealthy people in Silicon Valley. But at the magazine-profile level, it’s hugely helped by the fact that he’s Milton Friedman’s grandson. The idea that he was pitching around 2009 was that they were going to build offshore polities on disused platforms or floating barges and use these as places for whatever: selling new citizenships, having lower or no-tax financial activity, offshore gambling. . . .

Patri Friedman in Helsinki, May 13, 2011. (Hannu Makarainen / Wikimedia Commons)

There is a superficial mystique to these kinds of ideas. But then they can often feel quite thin, in the same way that these projects that are going to be rolled out in Saudi Arabia that are supposed to be the world’s most sustainable city in the center of the desert — it becomes another thing where the superrich can go and save themselves and let us all burn.

I didn’t want to write a book just about that, but more to break with what the political economist Hedley Bull famously called “the tyranny of existing concepts.” He was saying there that especially the nation-state has such a hold on us that we can think of something like the global because it’s captured well in this planetary imagery, and we can think of it as the dissolution of all nation-states into a single nation-state, but that we have trouble conceptualizing scales between the national and the global.

He was actually talking about the European Community in the 1970s and ’80s. What is this thing? A federation, a union, a quasi-empire? But one can also think of it below the level of the nation, hence the zones. What I try to roll out in the book is examples where the thought was presented of making this fragmented territory something that might actually come into existence and become a dominant form.

Probably the chapter I’m most proud of in the book is the chapter on South Africa. I had never heard about this, nor after reading a lot of books about South African history did I find that anyone else had really written about the example that I talk about in that chapter.

That’s strange, because it turns out that the person who I wrote about, Leon Louw, had written with his wife, Frances Kendall, a book that was until the publication of Nelson Mandela’s memoir the biggest political bestseller in modern South Africa. Their idea was what they called the “Swiss solution.”

They thought that South Africa should be shattered up into hundreds of Swiss-style cantons. Within each of these there should be total internal self-rule — they should be able to make their own laws about who gets to live there, be there, travel through — and there should be almost no central government.

The federal government should basically just patrol the outer borders, maybe go to the UN. But beyond that, no redistribution, no central taxation system. Totally decentralized. Why they wanted to create a South Africa that looks like this is, they thought, and they said it openly — Louw was quoted in Time magazine saying — they wanted to “give the opportunity to let the black tiger out of the cage without the whites being eaten.”

Daniel Denvir

This wasn’t just their wild imagination. They saw the actually existing system that apartheid had evolved into, of homelands — these open-air prisons for black South Africans — as the basis to develop this so-called Swiss model to overcome what they saw as an oppressively statist, in their view even state-socialist, apartheid order.

Quinn Slobodian

This homeland, or Bantustan, system, was produced as a way to strip black South Africans of their citizenship and recode them as being the citizens of these artificially created black homelands. So when you come to South Africa, to Johannesburg or Bloemfontein or whatever to work, as you inevitably would have to, then you would be entering a foreign country, because you’re actually a citizen of this homeland, and so you would not have any citizenship rights — not that you had any anyway, but they wouldn’t even be on the horizon — and at any point you’d be prone to be deported to the place you’re supposedly from but in many cases you had never even set foot.

They thought that South Africa should be shattered up into hundreds of Swiss-style cantons. Within each of these there should be total internal self-rule — they should be able to make their own laws about who gets to live there, be there, travel through.

From the outside, this was just dismissed as ideological eyewash from the South African state, but the South Africans themselves were completely serious. Each of these homelands had a flag, they had their own airlines in some cases, they had their own stamps. They were treated as if they were independent nations.

This was, according to South Africa, their act of decolonizing: they were giving the blacks their own countries. Stop bothering us about being a racist country — we just produced black nations within our own border, and they’re now independent.

This libertarian Louw — who, among other things, was in Hong Kong at the Mont Pelerin Society meeting, invited by Hayek, in 1978, and continues to be very active with the more far-right libertarians — was given the chance in the 1980s to help design the economic policy for one of these homelands. The homeland of Ciskei was created as what he hoped would be a jewel of a zone that would model deregulated, foreign-capital friendly, low-wage-labor-driven manufacturing.

Very quickly, there were many factories set up, mostly by Taiwanese and Israeli investors. It was “booming.” But the sad contradiction is that it was booming basically because this supposedly independent nation was actually getting a huge amount of subsidies directly from the South African central government, to make it a kind of Potemkin village of modernization. So it was not libertarian at all — it was full-on corporate welfare.

And the attempts by the black workers within that homeland to organize, which were incessant in the face of life-threatening danger, were being stamped out with murderous violence. The trade-union leaders were not only being abducted and murdered themselves; their family members were harassed and attacked and in some cases murdered.

Whatever kind of freedom this was — and it was being celebrated as a beacon of freedom by American and British libertarians, and the front page of the Wall Street Journal talked about Ciskei as a kind of showcase of economic liberty — it was at the expense of both basic rights to organize and express oneself, and even at the level of supposed economic liberty it was a sham. It was a prop for the apartheid state’s PR.

I wanted to make the book more about examples of that, less about Peter Thiel building a mansion on an island and getting away from it all. The rich are always going to do that. They are being given more and more opportunities to do that.

I hope to ask: If global geographies are being shattered up and fragmented in the way that’s just been described, what do we do as a countermeasure? Do we try to just squash all of these zones and make the nation-states legally even again? I don’t think so. Do we try to rehumanize and insert different kinds of politics into these zones? I think that’s a better proposal. But it has its limitations, because it suggests that you still want to escape democratic oversight and make things that are exceptional for some groups and not others.

Do we want to think about a more leftist, experimental politics of zones, which are not exclusionary, not antidemocratic, and can maybe produce possibilities of emulation elsewhere? That was my intention, to try to fertilize our imagination a little bit around nonnational, nonconventional ways of organizing production and life, such that we can break a little more with that tyranny of existing concepts.

Daniel Denvir

This power of exit is also the motor of their theory of change. We discussed that this is not an Enlightenment, universalist vision of the world. But there is something there that’s at least implicitly affirming a sort of capitalist universalism, in terms of the power of exit.

You write, “Once capital flees to new, low-tax, unregulated zones, the theory goes, nonconforming economies would be forced to emulate these anomalies. By starting small, the zone sets out to model a new end-state for all.” How is this capital flight–induced theory of change supposed to operate? And how does it relate to the more mundane, general long-standing logic of capital mobility that we’re all too familiar with, which is that we have a system where capital flight effectuates capital discipline?

Quinn Slobodian

That part of the argument is probably the easiest to demonstrate. It’s the kind of thing that people like Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman and Thomas Piketty, by putting taxation back at the center of our ideas of ethics and politics, have made more tangible for people in a helpful way.

The way that it pans out is often kind of mind-bending. Countries like the United States or the UK — large countries with relatively large numbers of people — are compared against places that are minute, with almost no people, in such a way to suggest that the United States should get its act together and act more like this micronation. Because if it doesn’t do so, then, in the most obvious case, corporate profits are just going to be booked in that country rather than your country.

I remember in the 2016 campaign that the Heritage Foundation had produced this graphic that showed the American corporate-tax rate next to, I think, the Mauritius corporate-tax rate. It was circulating this as a meme on social media, going, “Look, America really needs to lower its corporate tax rate, or otherwise all the businesses are going to go to Mauritius.”

Countries like the United States are compared against places that are minute, with almost no people, in such a way to suggest that the United States should get its act together and act more like this micronation.

Just to try to understand what that could possibly mean: the laws of the world are organized such as to make total mobility possible for certain kinds of actors even as they make that mobility impossible for other kinds of actors. This is where Katharina Pistor’s work is super helpful. What she calls the “code of capital” is such that you can write a contract anywhere in the world and say that, should there be a dispute, it will be resolved under the law of New York or Britain, for example. You can register your company in Wyoming or South Dakota or any other jurisdiction that is convenient for you that has courts for resolving disputes and minimal levels of corporate taxation.

That kind of disconnect between the materiality of the products and the site of production — let alone the workers who are putting the labor into it — and how it exists legally and financially is already mind-bending enough. It’s helpful to think about these micronations and jurisdictions for booking corporate profits as zones, because they’re often very nonconventional political units. Think about the Grand Cayman Islands or Bermuda, which are British offshore territories that are part of Britain, and their highest court of appeal is the British Privy Council. Yet the British government will often act as if it’s being blackmailed by its own microcolony to keep corporate tax rates low.

It’s either disingenuous or ignorant, or just playing the electorate for fools, to think that there’s no other way of organizing British capitalism than this. The fact that we’re now moving toward this Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) global corporate-minimum tax rate, although it will make things hard for countries that thrive only as offshore tax havens, is nonetheless good, because it is important to give citizens and populations a sense that the world can be organized other than the way it is.

I think that if there’s anything that’s most pernicious about neoliberalism as a dominant political ideology, if we think of it in a broad sense — especially since the neoliberal globalization of the ’90s and early 2000s — was this idea that humans have no ability to influence the world around them. All they can do is surrender to the forces of economic globalization, which were, time and again, described in natural terms like “the changing of the seasons” or the “flowing of the tides” and “the storms” for which states and politicians and populations can only gird themselves and go with the flow and read the meteorological signs and couldn’t actually affect themselves.

One thing that has to be seen as positive over the last few years is the turn against that kind of globalization consensus. I think populations and electorates are ever less willing to hear politicians defer to abstract forces of globalization as things that are forcing their hands.

The encoding in the [Heritage Foundation’s] first Index of Economic Freedom of places like Costa Rica being the fifth freest economy in the world, the retroactive coding of places that were authoritarian dictatorships like Honduras and El Salvador in the ’70s as being supposedly among the most economically free countries in the world, were just ways of trying to disempower electorates from being able to make different choices. The idea that the zone could emulate a kind of end-state for the home economy is a dynamic that we’ve been watching for decades. For people to have any faith in politics, it’s very important to be able to push back against that and re-empower people with the feeling that they don’t need to constantly be in competition with places that have no formal similarities with them whatsoever.

Daniel Denvir

The hypercapitalist states so beloved by these radical libertarians ban trade unions and opposition parties. But a basic, powerful way to limit or eliminate democracy is to simply radically circumscribe the demos.

In places like Singapore and Dubai, we see the dissociation of a nation’s working classes, typically migrant working classes, from the rights of national citizenship.

How does this form of excluding migrant working classes from citizenship compare to prior historical periods earlier in capitalism’s development, when the entire working class was simply excluded from citizenship?

Quinn Slobodian

You might be proposing the solution in the question; I hadn’t thought of it that way. A characteristic of the pre-twentieth- and pre-nineteenth-century version of citizenship was to only give it to a fraction of the population. The only way you can do that now is by ensuring that roughly the same amount of the population that would previously have been enfranchised under a more narrow franchise is a citizen, and everyone else is simply a noncitizen.

It would be interesting to look at the percentages of Singapore and Dubai — Dubai is close to 90 percent noncitizen, and Singapore, upward of 75 percent — and find the moment in, say, British nineteenth-century history when that was also the proportion of adults in the country who were allowed to have a vote versus the disenfranchised majority. But the effect is the same, and intentionally so.

It’s one of the things that is most striking to me about the constant envy that right-wingers, specifically British conservatives, have about Singapore and Dubai. How do they propose to solve the not-insignificant problem of having a completely disenfranchised majority of residents in the country, when their own electorate tells them again and again part of what it’s really worried about is high levels of immigration?

Ironically, the very moment that some British conservatives were talking about Brexit as a way of building Singapore-on-Thames, Singapore itself was experiencing some of the deepest political conflict in its history, precisely over the same issue of immigration. Those workers, many of whom are South Asian or Southeast Asian, who had been growing in numbers and treated ever more poorly and kept ever more segregated from the rest of the Singaporean population, were starting to show more vocal signs of discontent. There had been a kind of riot in the Little India area after some police abuse, and Singaporeans themselves were starting to say, “Wait, maybe this proportion of noncitizens to citizens is getting unmanageable.”

So Britain itself is facing these problems of citizens versus noncitizens, looking fondly at a place that is having the same issue, which suggests that this sort of people problem is not one that can be easily solved.

Radical Libertarians, Race, and Paleoconservatives

Daniel Denvir

On the one hand, anarcho-capitalists can say we can have white nationalist and black nationalist microstates. There will be room for everything in a world of one million microstates, and you can choose what microstate suits you, and contract with that microstate.


But as is already pretty obvious, radical libertarians in fact are proponents of a profoundly reactionary racial and civilizational politics. Murray Rothbard, the American founder of anarcho-capitalism, perhaps offers the purest distillation of that. Who was Rothbard, and how did he combine his radical paleolibertarian vision for small-scale governance carried out through private property rights, contracts, and markets with a paleoconservative politics of nakedly unreconstructed white supremacy — a politics of proto-Trumpian figures like Pat Buchanan, Sam Francis, and Peter Brimelow?

Quinn Slobodian

He’s quite the character. He’s born and raised in New York City, is Jewish, was educated at City College and then Columbia University in the 1930s and ’40s. He came of age at the same time as the New York intellectuals like Irving Howe and people who started things like the Partisan Review — many of whom were Stalinists, who then became Trotskyists. It was a time of great foment on the Left intellectually in New York City.

Murray Rothbard (Wikimedia Commons)

Rothbard was different in that he was pretty consistently on the Right, was anti-socialist, was in Ayn Rand’s circle in the 1950s and early ’60s — the same time that Allan Greenspan was. He becomes interested in the question of race in the 1960s as the New Left begins to rumble across university campuses.

He especially gets interested in the role of the Black Panthers in the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the new coalitions forming that were called the New Left. He was interested in them because he thought that black nationalism was a great idea.

He was into Malcolm X and critical of Martin Luther King; he saw King as someone who was pushing for the Great Society accelerated, a big-state welfarist. Whereas Rothbard thought black nationalists — keeping to their own, carrying guns, defending themselves, feeding their communities — showed a willingness to be self-reliant and against the state in a way that he himself was.

He was openly advocating things like the creation of a “New Afrika,” as it was called, a kind of Black Belt secessionist state in the American South. He only fell out of love with the black nationalist movement in the early 1970s when, in his opinion, there was too much cross-racial organizing happening, especially in working-class formations where black workers and white workers were working aside one another.

He got fed up and was like, “This is not what I expected. This is supposed to be white people organizing with white people, black people organizing with black people.” That could be the basis of a more anti-state form of organization that could come closer to what was for him a kind of anarcho-capitalist ideal of private ordering.

For the next twenty years or so, he was busy doing a lot of things, including cofounding the Cato Institute with Charles Koch and others. A lot of his writings range further back in history: he wrote a multivolume history of the early United States. He wrote about things like the Irish Gaelic clan model of self-organization.

Rothbard thought black nationalists — keeping to their own, carrying guns, defending themselves, feeding their communities — showed a willingness to be self-reliant and against the state in a way that he himself was.

He was deeply romantic about the American frontier and the homesteading possibility, because he basically adhered to a kind of Lockean, natural right idea of finding a scrap of territory, mixing your labor with it, and making it your own. In short, Rothbard had visions of settler-colonial-style self-reliance, small communities . . .

Daniel Denvir

The settler-colonial imaginary seems to be the premise of a lot of your thinkers.

Quinn Slobodian

Absolutely, in the sense that all you need is land and freedom from the state, and you can do your thing. Anyone who’s read one of the many fascinating new books of indigenous history that have been published in the last decade or so will know how laughable that idea is.

The “white man’s frontier” was entirely the product of US state interventions and US government assistance in defeating the indigenous prior residents of the land. This was not part of Rothbard’s way of looking at American history. He thought that the indigenous populations had no claim on the land because of their quasi-communistic way of organizing life, and because they had not encoded a version of ownership legally the way that would have legitimacy.

He’s ranging around, he’s thinking about what in the past and the present might still be a beautiful and viable model of political organization. When the Cold War starts to come to an end, he starts to get really excited about all the neonationalist movements. He’s excited about the fact that out of the multinational empire of the USSR you are now getting a return to a more single-ethnicity, single-territory, single-language model of a Wilsonian nation-state, whether it’s in Estonia or Kazakhstan or whatever.

Daniel Denvir

That played out especially well in Yugoslavia.

Quinn Slobodian

Yugoslavia — he thought it was great. The chapter I write about Rothbard is called “The Wonderful Death of the State,” because he said, watching the USSR dissolve, “There is nothing more beautiful for a libertarian to see than the death of the state.” He also got excited about these nationalist movements like the Lega Nord in Italy, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Swiss People’s Party in Switzerland.

One thing that people often don’t realize is that many of these breakaway groups or neonationalist groups from that era were also deeply libertarian in their politics. Often they were also opposing what they saw as socialism being imposed on them from above in the European Union. The UK Independence Party was born from that time and in that same spirit as well. It thought Tories had gone too far to the center and needed to be outflanked again from the right, in an exact first draft of what would happen with Nigel Farage and David Cameron in the 2010s.

Other people who were looking admiringly at what was happening in Europe were conservatives in the United States, who were self-consciously to the right of mainstream Republicans and mainstream conservatives. If you think about the early ’90s, Ronald Reagan has just left office, and now you have George H. W. Bush, and the predominant mood in the Republican Party is one that would be called, by the people themselves, “neoconservatism.” The Cold War is over; now you can bring democracy and capitalism to the former communist world, and you can increase the American presence, the American military footprint, and the American market share in this brave new world after system competition and conflict in the heart of Europe.

There were conservatives in the United States who didn’t agree with that at all. They thought that this should be taken as an opportunity not to make America a global empire trying to bear democracy everywhere beyond its borders, seeking “monsters to slay,” in the famous quote — but instead that the country should take this as a chance to withdraw, back to the isolationist position that they felt America had been deviating from, on the wrong path, since World War I practically, but really since World War II.

Daniel Denvir

As exemplified by Pat Buchanan versus George H. W. Bush’s “new world order.”

Quinn Slobodian

Exactly. Bush did himself no favors by actually using the words “new world order” in a speech, which set up a trillion blog entries and everything else. These people who were against the first Bush and the neoconservatives called themselves “paleoconservatives,” self-consciously — we’re not neo, we’re paleo, we’re going back.

They wanted an America that was more walled off from the world, and explicitly walled off from incoming immigrants from the non-white world. Part of their platform was to roll back the 1965 Immigration Act, which had broken with the previous existing racial and national quotas to allow for the arrival of people from all parts of the world. There should be a return to a more homogeneous, white, Christian, tradition-bound nation.

Because they had now alienated themselves from the mainstream right, very deliberately — they’re completely at war with the mainstream Republican Party, they’re at war with the main commentators inside of the establishment — they’re searching for allies, and they find Murray Rothbard. By that time. in the early ’90s, he had helped set up something called the Ludwig von Mises Institute, as effectively part of Auburn University in Alabama, alongside a Bostonian name Llewelyn H. Rockwell, known as Lew Rockwell. Rockwell had been a libertarian for a long time, and he had also been an opponent of racial integration for a long time, since he was at Harlington House Press in the 1970s.

Rothbard and Rockwell rebaptized themselves as ‘paleolibertarians,’ joined ranks with the paleoconservatives, and formed the John Randolph Club in the early 1990s.

Rockwell and Rothbard were having their own problems within the libertarian camp that mirrored the problems the paleoconservatives were having within the conservative camp. Rockwell and Rothbard hated the fact that libertarianism now had been associated with nudism and drug use and polyamory and whatever. If you watch online [videos of] the candidates running for the Libertarian Party, you get a sense of what they were rejecting, which is what they saw as libertinism rather than libertarianism.

So they rebaptized themselves as “paleolibertarians,” joined ranks with the paleoconservatives, and formed something called the John Randolph Club in the early 1990s. Their biggest political intervention was to advise on and back Pat Buchanan’s run for president in 1992 and again in 1996. Ron Paul was absolutely part of that; Peter Brimelow was part of that.

It can look strange at first glance: people who believed in the American nation and tradition teaming up with people who were interested in government by contract and couldn’t care less about the formal borders of something like the United States. But they realized they both believed in decentralization. And they both believed in tradition, which would make sense if you’re someone who’s a conservative who believes in transcendent values above all others, as an act of faith.

Lew Rockwell speaking with attendees at the 2015 Mises Circle hosted by the Mises Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

But Rockwell and Rothbard believed in Christianity, kind of for its own sake, but also they believed in racial homogeneity and shared religion because it can produce the glue of society in the absence of things like representative institutions. If you’re going to do away with democracy, how else are you going to make people not just see each other as totally foreign from one another?

What they saw is that, in the language of economists, if there’s a common race or a common religion, you can decrease transaction costs. Basically, people can trust each other more. They’ll have more confidence that this person is reliable; I can do business with them, I can negotiate with them. Their belief in a stateless society always assumed that there would be a bedrock of common religion, of a common race, upon which you can build as the larger existing structures that previously played that integrating role went away.

Varieties of Conservatism

Daniel Denvir

You write, “Authority was not the problem; rules were not the problem. The problem was not having enough authorities and rules to choose from.” In the absence of the state, the Christian family and church would substitute for the rulemaking discipline normally meted out by the state.

The argument reminds me of Melinda Cooper’s work in Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, which shows that these forms of traditional morality and the family have always been key bulwarks for neoliberalism. This particular blending of traditional authority, private power, and a libertarian ethos that extends both to personal morality and choices and economic arrangement also reminds me of, and strikes a similar chord as, the modern conservative movement more generally: the classic three-plank conservative fusionism, created by Frank Meyer and others in the pages of the National Review.

In your view, what do these different currents have in common? What makes the radical libertarians distinct from these other conservatives who are also thinking about how forms of traditional social authority operate alongside laws securing private property and contracts?

Quinn Slobodian

There’s definitely a similarity with what was called “fusionism,” that is, the recipe of the modern conservative movement — mixing free-market libertarianism with traditional values and ideas of religion and the family. What I have sometimes called the “new fusionism” — which Paul Gottfried, the coiner of the term the “alternative right,” very much at the center of this new paleo alliance in the John Randolph Club, also called the “new fusionism” in the late 1980s — was a radicalization of that existing tradition, often through an appeal to science rather than just religion.

In particular, Gottfried was picking up on the fact that Thomas Fleming, one of the founders of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate movement in the American South, was talking about E. O. Wilson and sociobiology. Why is it that we tend to move into groups that are more like one another? He’d appeal to someone like Wilson, originally an entomologist and natural scientist, who would be saying that there are forms of kinship that work in the animal world, and as humans, we are also animals, therefore it makes sense that we form into these small troops and find it easier to transact and cooperate in these groups.

There’s an appeal to that kind of science, but most important, in the early 1990s there’s a resurgence of IQ-based racism. The most important exemplar of that is of course The Bell Curve by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, published in 1994.

Murray Rothbard said himself that it completely animated the John Randolph Club. The paleolibertarians and paleoconservatives were completely magnetized by this book; they were excited about the fact that this had completely broken into the mainstream.

It had taken traditional fusionism one step further.

How? It had gone as far as to reintroduce the concept of race science. This was saying that race was not just a tradition; it was not just an affinity group. It’s actually something that is detectable by the hard sciences. And it has quantifiable, nonnegligible effects on levels of intelligence. These are the not-just-disputed, but refuted and discredited claims of The Bell Curve.

What made it special was this race science as such. It still is the fault line between what we call the “alt right” and the hard right — this willingness to talk about race as a science, something that is built into human DNA, built into the genome in a way that can be identified and from which one can draw a set of policies and politics.

That was the radicalization that happened in the 1990s. It’s what got some of these people booted out of respectable conservative circles, in most cases permanently. When Sam Francis started talking about the need to discuss white identity and the white race as something that was positive and needed to be built upon, that was one step too far for people who previously would have been publishing him.

That is an interesting moment in the ’90s. The balkanization and the fragmentation that most Americans were watching from afar, in Europe or Somalia, and mostly seeing as sites of concern or places that might require American military or humanitarian intervention . . . the counterintuitive flip that the paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians pull off is to look at that and say, “How exciting! How can we bring that wave of fragmentation back home to the United States, and let that secession on racial and ethnic borders be something that begins to reorganize the American polity as well?”

Daniel Denvir

What concretely has the impact of thinkers like Rothbard been on the present-day right wing? In the United States and elsewhere, Rothbard and his even-more-radical protégé Hans-Herman Hoppe have become memefied among the far-right online youth. What’s their influence? Does it extend beyond an online fringe?

I could ask the same question in terms of the thinkers in Crack-Up Capitalism more generally. To what degree are their aspirations the aspirations of most capitalists, even if expressed in a more extreme way? What’s the relationship between all these extremists and the more general currents of political-economic thinking among elites over the past half century?

Quinn Slobodian

The reason I started looking into Rothbard and Hoppe historically was an attempt to try to understand what was happening with the alt right, around 2017 and the Charlottesville protest, the death of Heather Heyer. I, and I think a lot of other people, were pretty horrified and desperately trying to figure out what exactly this ideology animating people was.

The term “white nationalism” was used. It never was quite satisfactory to me, because I didn’t know what the nation was supposed to be in that model. Was it a secessionist movement? Was it a desire to seize the reins of the highest levels of power in the United States and produce some kind of fascist regime?

The more I looked at Rothbard and Hoppe, and then looked into the things that were being written online by the alt right, there was a one-to-one relationship. In the paleo alliance in the 1990s, from which came the publication American Renaissance, there was a willingness and desire to break up existing nation-states into racially defined enclaves — at that time, most often defined by fairly free-market policies rather than decommodified or socialistic policies.

It was not a coincidence that in profile after profile of people who were movers and shakers in this world, the so-called ‘libertarian-to-alt-right pipeline’ was repeated again and again.

This was just a way to describe what alt-right online policies looked like. It was not a coincidence that in profile after profile of people who were movers and shakers in this world, the so-called “libertarian-to-alt-right pipeline” was repeated again and again. Around that time in 2017, especially with a figure like Richard Spencer who had self-identifiedly made this move from a libertarian and someone influenced by the Austrian School into more scientific-racist-influenced ideas, this was a way to describe the dominant version of alt-right ideology.

What happened after 2017 is that the attempt to “Unite the Right” has been more and more of a failure. Whatever coherence existed around the alt-right movement has largely been lost since then. There are still unfortunately robust online concentrations of activity, producing, among other things, the leaker from southern Massachusetts who has been shown to engage in all kinds of alt-right racist memery and online activity.

But there are now more people who would identify as more traditionalist or socialist, in the sense that their vision of a white-secessionist nation would not be one that was anarcho-capitalist but one that would be more redistributive, one that acknowledges more the role of the family as a site of social reproduction explicitly — unlike libertarians, who often pretend it doesn’t exist.

There, as elsewhere, the people that I look at in the book are useful not so much as offering the hidden script to our present-day world. Certainly I’m not proposing that the people I write about in the book have been operating behind the scenes to engineer the world we live in.

What I think I’m interested in with this group is the way it manifests some of the most neurotic and pathological features of the world we live in. I see them in the same way Frederic Jameson would say, “Go read science fiction, because it’s diagnostic.” It tells you something about the state of the world that we’re inhabiting.

In that sense, I find the elisions that they’re able to live with and the absences of realistic connection to other humans symptomatic and diagnostic of the fact that we have been collectively producing a reality in which that can feel more and more true. Steel-manning their ideology and giving it substance and producing it and putting it in front of our eyes for me is intended as a kind of provocation — to show, on the one hand, the extraordinary flexibility and lability of some of their thinking.

We haven’t even talked yet about some of the wilder examples from the book. The fact that this Dutch libertarian could end up in Somalia as the state collapses and instead of, in a classically self-interested way, getting on an airplane and leaving, in a more radical and revolutionary way he decided to plunge into the stateless space of Somalia and try to write a constitution for a stateless society, reducing them to a set of contracts that would create a hybrid out of customary tribal law with twenty-first century business contract.

Daniel Denvir

He’s excited not just about the collapse of the state, but the traditional system that would govern in its place — the Somali clan — and then he attempts to form his own Somali clan of white capitalists.

Quinn Slobodian

A businessman’s clan. What’s interesting is that there’s an extreme willingness to experiment and commit in that case that was also repeated in the wonderful example of Milton Friedman’s son, David Director Friedman, who is a lawyer and also a prominent anarcho-capitalist thinker and a leading medieval recreational reenactor. Among other things, he has been cosplaying or LARPing [live action role-playing] as an early-twelfth-century Berber poet named Duke Cariadoc of the Bow, in whose person he curses the name of infidels and eats only with his right hand and praises Allah.

In the site of reenactment the for “Pennsic War” — which he helped create in northern Pennsylvania, as a portmanteau of Pennsylvania and the Punic Wars — he created this convention that was called “The Enchanted Ground,” where you set up a rope, and inside of that space you have to exist as if you’re in the Middle Ages and you cannot bring in any technologies or act in any other way.

When I was first reading about this, it seemed like a kooky detail or a trivial aside. But the more I thought about it, the more I was like, the reason I find these anarcho-capitalists compelling is that they have that belief that they can LARP a new reality into being. There is this idea of a level of individual commitment and need to search for ideological purity. . . . Because they’re flowing with the zeitgeist of ever greater commodification of human life, it can feel like they’re manifesting it themselves.

Because they’re flowing with the zeitgeist of ever greater commodification of human life, it can feel like they’re manifesting it themselves.

Balaji Srinivasan, the venture capitalist and big Bitcoin operator, claims that he and his fellow Bitcoiners LARPed a currency into existence. Anyone who would look objectively at the phenomenon of cryptocurrency would say, first of all, that they have not LARPed a currency into existence, because it doesn’t operate as a currency in any way that you might think about it. What they have LARPed into existence is a Beanie Baby, a trivial object defined by its scarcity that in a time of maximal speculation and investor froth is able to suck in a bunch of people who think that they’ll be able to hold onto the Beanie Baby just until the right moment, until they can unload it on a sucker who pays a little more on it than they should have.

Because they are surfing with good luck in the direction of global capitalism, they get the misperception that they are somehow producing it themselves. So it makes it easier for them to be drawn further and further into this idea that everything that’s happening is of their own making — to the point that their grandiosity can be inflation to where Srinivasan is saying, “Now I’m going to LARP a country into existence.”

I’ve had people who are of this persuasion say to me things like, “Don’t you think it’d be good to create two patches of territory, one where you’d organize the world where you might like it, more socialist or decommodified, and one that’s like ours, anarcho-capitalist and totally commodified?” My response is not to engage with the thought experiment, but just to be like, “Where are these patches of territory?” The thing about the earth is that it’s been divided up. The only way you’re going to get that chance is under the conditions of an authoritarian coup.

The world is not a blank slate. The move to an online world, but also just the overhang of that settler-colonial ideology, is such that this idea of the possibility of finding a blank space on a map persists in ways that are really pernicious.

Especially because it was written in large part during 2020 — during a COVID year, during the year that American cities were filled with larger numbers of people protesting than they had for decades, or ever, and with the contested election at the end of the year. . . . I, like many other people, was feeling extremely unmoored and disoriented and unclear about where exactly we were going. I was reading a lot of science fiction, cyberpunk, watching a lot of Japanese anime from the 1990s and reading a lot of these anarcho-capitalists.

It was a bit of a survival mechanism or a way to keep myself sane; I had a feeling like, there must be order to this somehow. Even if it’s not an order that I endorse, the effort to produce a coherent portrait of this ideology that I ended up calling “crack-up capitalism” was kind of a therapeutic effort on my part.

It was also an effort to reinject our political conversations with a bit more of a sense of play, in some ways. Our political imagination has a tendency, even in times of great creativity, to enter back into familiar patterns and familiar channels, and even more so, to have its energy drained and co-opted very quickly by existing corporate powers. To mention Black Lives Matter again, that happened so quickly with the corporate co-optation of demands for racial justice, to the point that it’s almost stood in the way of the continued success of those vital political demands.

One of the things we need right now is to keep evolving and keep mutating. The fact that I followed one of these mutations in a disturbing direction was perhaps only meant as a kind of negative example of the way that we should be open to positive mutations. Because genetics scientists know that mutations aren’t bad. We might think of mutants as a bad thing in the popular imagination, but mutations are good.

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