Micronations – from utopian communities to space settlements
As the organisers of the Helsinki Summit of Micronations1 (2003), we were often asked upon which grounds we selected the participants of the meeting. We had four criteria for an invitation: number of citizens; intensity and breadth of the political, economic or cultural activity of the micronation; perseverance; and, last, but not least, the utopian vision of the founders of the respective micronation. We finally decided to invite the Principality of Sealand, the Kingdoms of Elgaland &Vargaland, the Remony of Ladonia, NSK-State in Time, Transnational Republic and the State of Sabotage.
Even though the six participants at the Helsinki summit provided a representative cross section of the micronation phenomenon, there are and there have been many more initiatives, projects and fantasies contributing to a long term micronational (counter)culture.
To provide an image of this (counter)culture, I would like to use the metaphor of an underground stream that comes to the surface, disappears, resurfaces again, and merges with other streams, but whose presence, visible or not, is a constant factor in society rather than a periodic one. Maybe micronationalism can be described as a voluntary, temporary withdrawal from existing society to build an alternative model-society on a micro-scale. The members of those societies are only subjected to their own laws. Micronations have the strong will to achieve maximum independence. Also, it is important to note that micronations usually try to make their withdrawal from society visible – either by all kinds of symbols, such as flags or coins, or by particular architectural settings – to clearly mark their alternative space. This particular feature distinguishes micronations from Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zones”, which he thought of as clandestine operations. “The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State; it is a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it. Because the State is concerned primarily with simulation rather than substance, the TAZ can ‘occupy’ these areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for quite awhile in relative peace.”2
As I have already described the six participants of the Helsinki summit in sufficient length,3 I would like to use this article to portray the micronational (counter)culture on a larger scale. I would like to employ a micronational historical-ideological matrix.
One of the many scales of this matrix determines the territorial approach, from an Asterix & Obelix village type of micronation to a non-territorial formation. Another scale of the matrix determines the relation of the individual to the community: from ultra-libertarian views which put the individual with its rights above everything else; to extreme communism which subjugates the individual to the community.
I assume that micronations already existed before the idea of nations was born. They have their ultimate root in the religious thought that true believers constitute a separate body, which exists within a sinful world. And this separated group of people would be only subjected to their own laws. St. Augustine called this idea ‘The City of God’. It is even more clearly expressed in St. Benedict’s view of the monastery as “a little state, which could serve as a model for the new Christian society.”
A powerful revival of this religious idea came during the Reformation, which produced a great number of radical sects. The seeds for these sects were laid out in Europe in the border zones, where the major churches struggled for supremacy. In the chaos of the ‘religious frontier’, radical religious sects found a fertile ground. These sects were based on a voluntary union, created to realize within their own circle the ideal of love and holiness; it was important to break very sharply with the evil world and to withdraw from all contact with the state and the dominating church. They shared a profound distrust of any secular power. When these sects were persecuted in Europe, many moved to America where land was available and their beliefs were tolerated. Here is a list of some sects that were established in America:
Labadist Community (1683); Society of the Woman in the Wilderness (1694); Irenia, or True Church of Philadelphia or Brotherly Love (1697); Ephrata Community (1732); The General Economy of the Moravians (1744); Shakers (1787); Harmonie Society of the Rappites (1805); Society of Separatists of Zoar (1817) ...
These communities managed to establish a fairly successful independent society within the larger society. They were self-sustaining, had their own economy, government, rules of social life, educational and belief systems. Many of the communes survived for decades, were prosperous, and their members lived a comparably good life. This success brought them to the attention of the social reformers of the Enlightenment. Many travellers to America visited the communities and reported enthusiastically about the great achievements they had witnessed there. They suggested copying the model of such religious sects and turning them into secular communities. The first attempt in this direction was undertaken in the 1740s by Mr. Priber from Zittau, Saxony, who had spent some years with Cherokee Indians. He learned their language and persuaded them to live in a communistic society called “Kingdom of Paradise”. Women could marry’ a different man every day and children would be heirs of the state. Priber was also willing to allow the French and black slaves to live freely in “Paradise”. His design was “to bring about a confederation of all the southern Indians, to inspire them with industry, to instruct them in the arts necessary to the commodities of life, and, in short, to engage them to throw off the yoke of their European allies of all nations.” Unfortunately Priber was accused of being a French agent to alienate the Indians from the English and thrown into prison. He died before “Paradise” was unleashed; the Cherokees seemed to be less enthusiastic about communism and the scheme was abandoned.4
In 1793, the poet Coleridge planned to immigrate to America in order to build a model republic called “Pantisocracy” – a small secular communist community – on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. The plan was never carried out. It took several more years until secular social-reform orientated experimental communities emerged on a larger scale in the first quarter of the 19 century. Among these were many initiatives inspired by the Utopian Socialists, such as Robert Owen and Charles Fourier.
In the early phase of Capitalism, many reform-orientated people were dissatisfied with the terrible living conditions for large parts of the population and the declining morality in the cities in the ‘old world’. London stunk like hell, food supplies were scarce, healthcare, education facilities, etc., for the lower classes were in a disastrous condition. Even well-off people realised that things could not go on like that; something had to be done. But what? There were many suggestions. In that time a frenzy of reform movements sprung up. The World Social Forumth would pale against the abundance of reform ideas of that time. In the spirit of the reform-drunken times, William Demarest Lloyd could easily announce: “I am a socialist-anarchist-individual-collectivist-individual-communist-cooperative-aristocrat-democrat.”5
Even though the necessity for reform was evident to many people, the communities in the old world were already so ‘ MESSED UP’ that it was extremely difficult to get a fresh and unhampered start. The Promised Land was lying on the other side of the ocean and had a name: AMERICA. Robert Owen had high hopes – as did many others – when entering the New Continent: “I am coming to this country to introduce an entire new system of society; to change it from an ignorant, selfish system to an enlightened social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one, and remove all causes for contest between individuals.”6
In America the reformers and utopian dreamers saw the chance to turn their theories into practice. Land was available for very moderate prices. The American Republic was still young and its institutions still in the making. The greatest freedom for which America stood was the freedom to experiment with new practices and institutions.
In the middle of the 19 century, contemporaries considered the small experimental community as the pathfinder to the future. The communities might have differed in their ends, but at the heart of all of them was secession and the founding of an agrarian self-sustaining autonomous entity; a framework in which all kinds of social, economic and educational experiments could be carried out – a social test laboratory.
Many reformers of the time regarded private property as the main source of ‘evil’. In order to achieve ‘mental independence’th it was suggested that the idea of private property be abandoned altogether. As the majority of people were not ready to do so, a system in which everything was held in common could only be set up within a small experimental community.
In practice, a group of people, usually between 50 and 250, under the leadership of a charismatic personality, came together; each paid an equal share into a common fund in order to obtain land and tools, and then the group retreated to the countryside. Often a time-sharing system or a virtual currency was introduced. Extensive educational facilities for children and adults were also a usual feature. Most of the communitarians opposed slavery and regarded equal rights for men and women as important. Another typical feature was a common refectory, as dining in single households was considered a waste of time and energy. New architectural and town-planning ideas were implemented in each settlement. A good example for such radical experimentation is a village based, to the last detail, on an octagon. The scheme was implemented by the Kansas Vegetarian Octagon Settlement Company. Robert Owen favoured the parallelogram as the outline for his model factory in New Lanark. His plans for “New Harmony” were more grandiose than experimental; nevertheless, Owen and other community founders had understood that architecture shapes, to a large extent, social interaction and that it has a strong impact on the well-being of the community members.
The Oneida Community – founded by John Humphrey Noyes in New York State in 1848 – had all the features mentioned before, but beyond that it applied very radical social measures, proving the image of the community as a social test laboratory. There were three main concepts introduced into the community:
- In “Complex Marriage”, every man was married to every woman and vice versa. Before the man and woman could have sex together, they had to obtain each other's consent through a third person.
- “Male Continence” was a type of birth control separating sexual relationship from reproduction. The community collectively decided who was allowed to reproduce, thus establishing an eugenic program.
- “Mutual Criticism” worked as a system of social control. A member received the criticism of the whole community without being allowed to refute the criticism.7
The idea was that if all these measures were practiced for a longer period, people outside of the community would see the advantages and start to imitate the successful models and thereby affect social change and turn the world into a better one. The secession, the retreat, was not considered as an escape but as an effective method to reshape the world.
In that way, the communitarian idea of a social change differs vastly from the three other alternative programs of change: individualism, revolution, and gradualism. “It is collectivistic, not individualistic; it is opposed to revolution, but impatient with gradualism. For the reformers, democracy was just too slow, the conditions too bad to change just by casting a vote once a while. The small, voluntary, experimental community was believed to be capable of […] an immediate, root-and-branch reform in a peaceful, non-revolutionary manner. A microcosm of society could undergo drastic change in complete harmony and order, and the great world outside could be relied on to imitate a successful experiment without conflict.”8
Despite the many good ideas proposed, there were a lot of crazy visionaries and crackpots among the utopian communitarians and very often the greatest visionaries were the most impractical persons. Many projects failed within few months. Despite its crazy belief system, the Koreshan Unity Movement – a communistic utopian community – survived for decades. It came into existence when their leader, Cyrus Teed, had a divine illumination in 1869 in which God appeared to him in the form of a beautiful woman, who told him that outer-space did not exist and that we actually live inside the earth. Based on this illumination he developed his own complicated cosmology. He preached his teachings and assembled a following of 110 persons to move to Florida in 1894 to establish a commune. The idea was to build the city of New Jerusalem for the coming followers of Cyrus’s doctrine. He expected 10 million true believers, but only 200 came. The community was very inventive and became prosperous, especially due to the invention of raisin bread, even though they spent great efforts and time to prove that we really live inside the earth. They executed two large-scale geodetic surveys in which they tried to extend a perfectly straight line to both ends. The idea was simple. If this straight line was extended far enough and the earth was really concave, it would mean that we live inside, as both ends would hit the surface of the earth. Unfortunately, while one end of the straight line really hit the ground, the surveyors at the other end were confronted with the open sea and had to abandon the project.9
The ‘inverted’ Earth provides an interesting metaphor for ultimate self-sustainability and independence. It evokes the image of a protective womb, of a totally closed and safe environment, shielded away from the vastness and insecurities of open space.
While the open sea ended the Koreshan dreams, it provided inspiration for many utopian writers and freedom-loving freaks.
“The freedom as well as the isolation offered by a maritime location could both inhibit the control exercised by established powers and encourage the formation of alternative political societies, much as Darwin found that separate ecosystems had evolved on different islands of the Galapagos chain. Proof of this political axiom is supplied by the current makeup of the Pacific; consisting of less than 1% of the earth's surface, it nonetheless boasts the separate states of The Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Western Samoa, to name but a few.”10
In fact, the supposed isolation offered by the open sea inspired many micronational ventures – so called “New Country Projects” – with a peak of activities in the early 1970s. Instead of embracing micro-communism, most of these undertakings followed a libertarian philosophy, putting the individual and its rights at the forefront. To understand micronations, one has to understand libertarianism, which in its essence postulates: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do.”11
A common version of libertarianism translates this idea into a rejection of most of the state’s functions. Libertarians would abolish all regulations, such as: taxation for welfare purposes; restrictions to business or scientific research; enforcement of compulsory school or army; punishment for victimless crimes (such as prostitution, drug use, etc.); prohibition of consensual sexual practices.
All these regulations are state powers that are breaking individual’s rights and therefore cannot be justified. To tax someone (the rich) to provide welfare for the poor is equivalent to stealing property and is considered to be making the person who pays the tax a slave. Because the absolute right for private property is a central issue, libertarianism is also known in the popular mind as ‘anarchism for the rich’.
At the end of the ’60s, a clique of libertarians – grouped around the writer Ayn Rand – gained more influence. While a portion of the American student movement revived the ideas of the utopian communities of the 19 century, a fraction of the student movement entered a strange liaison with the libertarians. Unlike in France, where students were joining with the workers to achieve the socialist revolution, the student-movement in America was fighting mainly for the limitation of state powers.
The cold war brought along an ever-increasing extension of state power. For the libertarians of the late ’60s, the only way they could possibly imagine to fulfil their dreams was secession. There was but one puzzling question: Where to go? Some people decided to just go out of sight and search for the deepest forest, build a hut there and pursue a life with as little interruption as possible. In the book Last Frontiers on Earth – Strange Places Where You Can Live Free, the “Out of Sight” approach was strongly embraced. The author Jon Fisher provided tips for living in Polar Regions or how to hide in cities, caves, ghost towns or deserts.
For most libertarians this approach didn’t provide a very exciting perspective, as they wanted to live free, but pursue some unrestricted business schemes at the same time. Considering themselves “Prime Movers” (Ayn Rand), financial prosperity was seen as necessary to be one’s own boss independent of anybody’s charity. Four ways to freedom were considered, all of them connected to the sea: 1) the appropriation of apparently unclaimed islets; 2) the promulgation of sovereignty over reefs or low-tide elevations; 3) the creation of states in shallow waters by dumping; and 4) the erection of empires on artificial platforms.
Plenty of schemes existed but only few were implemented and even fewer succeeded. The brief story of the Republic of Minerva might suffice to illustrate the idea of libertopia.
Republic of Minerva
In August 1971, the Ocean Life Research Foundation arrived at the Minerva Reefs and proceeded to dredge up two hummocks of land, coral wrapped in seven layers of chicken wire and encased in reinforced concrete, to above mean high water. They erected twenty-six foot high markers topped by a flag, representing the Republic of Minerva – Land of the Rising Atoll. This was the initial step in an ‘enhancement’ of the reef's unique physical characteristics with the reef rising above sea level at low tide. The plans envisioned the creation of some 2500 acres of land on the two reefs. It was intended to import topsoil from Fiji to cover the reclaimed area.
On January 19, 1972, a Declaration of Sovereignty was issued, which established the Republic, basing its claim to the reefs on actual occupation of terra nullius. The Declaration noted the ‘improvement’ of the reefs’ height, claimed a 12-mile territorial sea and proclaimed a republican government operating under democratic principles.
Michael Oliver, one of the founders and the apparent philosophical guru behind the scheme, stated that “his team sought a new land to escape from high taxes, riots, drugs and crime.” The founders intended to demand the separation of politics and economics in order to promote maximum prosperity, freedom, and tranquillity. Oliver’s extreme laissez-faire political-economic philosophy was to materialize in a government which would have as its only function the protection of individual rights and property against force and fraud. All property would be privately owned. The state would not attempt to regulate commercial activities, and there would be no income tax. In its place would be premiums of $50 to $100 per person and $150 to $500 per company per year, which would be purely voluntary: non-payers would only be deprived of certain judicial services. There would be no welfare, no foreign aid, no regulatory agencies, no tariffs, and no wage or price controls. All legislative acts would expire in five years but could be repealed at any time. A coin had been minted, a special issue of commemorative stamps was planned and a currency designed. Even though Minerva would not provide a tax retreat for gambling establishments, it could become a significant tax haven and a legal base for “flag of commerce shipping” as well as a retreat from bureaucracy. In addition to tourism, the founders expected light industries, commercial activities and fishing, oceans-related activities, and even a munitions plant! It was further intended that Minerva's police force would be minimal, in hopes of a crime-free society.
Tonga, in turn, took a series of actions to demonstrate Tongan jurisdiction over the Reefs. In February 1972, Tonga placed refuge stations (boxes with emergency supplies and locating beacons) on the coral atolls. In late May, the King of Tonga sailed to the reefs towing a barge holding several steel I-beams in order to erect two permanent structures on them to support a Tongan claim if one were later determined to be necessary. Also on board were two cabinet ministers, some troops and twenty Tongan prisoners. “The King watched from his royal yacht as a gang of Tongan convicts tore down the Republic of Minerva flag.”th
While Minerva protested the occupation, within a year the whole project had collapsed in disarray, confusion and personal disagreement. Morris C. Davis – President at the time – was fired for being a dictator on February 26, 1973, in a dispute with Michael Oliver. Although the dream of a Reef Republic never realized, Minerva still exists today as cybernation – reformed into a Principality with a government in exile.
A follower of Ayn Rand wrote an anthology about these early libertarian projects, and it has become a classic of its kind: How to Build Your Own Country and How You Can Profit from the Coming Decline of the Nation State. Erwin S. Strauss criticized most of the projects he described in the book as immature and inconsequent. He argued, if you want to really start your own country you should be able to play the military muscle. He suggested that a serious project should acquire weapons of mass destruction, install them in all major US cities and make sure that they can be triggered off when the new country is endangered. Strauss even provided practical help; he wrote a ‘do-it-yourself’ book about nuclear weapons: Basement Nukes.
One of the few examples Strauss praised as successful was Sealand, and in fact it is the only project described in the book that has survived to the current time. The success of Sealand is not based on the possession of nuclear weapons but on the unusual history of their territory. Roy Bates occupied in 1968 a platform built by the UK during the Second World War outside of British territorial waters. Bates claim for sovereignty was backed by various legal opinions stating that the UK had abandoned the platform and therefore could not claim any jurisdiction over it.12
According to Sealand, it was their successful declaration of independence, which activated the UK to lobby the international community leading to the UN Convention of the Sea in 1982. This convention of all costal countries of the world prohibited artificial structures from becoming independent countries once and for all; if there should be any structure in international waters, it would, according to the convention, always fall under the jurisdiction of the nearest country, even if it would be 1000 miles away. This convention constituted the final chapter of the process described as “the closure of the map”. While the last bit of Earth unclaimed by any nation-state was eaten up in 1899, turning the 20 century into the first one without terra incognita, the convention in 1982 marks the loss of the last frontier on earth.
Even though the decisions made in 1982 are hard to circumvent, the true freedom freak will not be stopped by the existing laws – there always will be a loophole eventually. The desire to achieve freedom and autonomy is so great that plenty of similar platform projects are still appearing – embedded in surprising schemes – proving the longevity and endurance of the micronational impetus.
Both the utopian communists and the libertarian “New Country” initiators believed that the surrounding society was doomed to fail, but their reasons differ in magnitude. While the former thought of private property as the root of the decay, libertarians believed “that the cumulative damage to freedom, which has come about through cleverly disguised, creeping socialism – now written into the laws of many countries – is irreversible, and leaves no recourse but escape – to a new land.” (Prince Lazarus I, New Utopia website). The ‘creeping socialism’ enslaves the so-called Great Achievers or Prime Movers, taking away their incentive to keep society thriving. The communitarian idea of social change was based on the large-scale imitation of their successful micro-societies. The world could be reshaped into one unified utopia based on the principles derived from the small-scale experiment. Libertarians are ‘reluctant utopians’. While fiercely rejecting any notion of a unified utopia, they suggest an abundance of experimental sovereign (sea-based) micro-societies entering the free market of utopia.
“Monolithic, land-based societies are too big and too politically static. Political flexibility and experimentation with many different political systems is the right way to find new and better ways to live. Seasteads would allow for a rich diversity in forms of governance because they lower the barrier of entry to the market of government. When it takes a revolution or millions of votes to take over a country, small groups have no opportunity for self-government. But if, for the cost of their houses, they can band together and create new sovereign territory, many will do so. While living their own ideal lifestyle, they will also be researching innovations in the basic institutions of society, which will increase our collective wisdom and benefit all humankind.”th
The “New Country” initiators style themselves as pioneers and an inspirational force for the re-making of the world comprised of “Ten Thousand Nations”.13
Even with “Seasteading” still high on the libertarian agenda, many “New Country Prime Movers” have comprehended the lengths to which nations will go to preserve their cartel status. Therefore the search for a new frontier – the frontier being the preferred libertarian metaphor of a free society – has entered the next stage. While cyberspace was only shortly believed to be the next frontier, the new “wild west” – thus the quick “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace” by John Perry Barlow in 1996 – the more adventurous libertarians are looking to outer space instead. Private settlements on the moon or in space infect the dreams of freedom loving secessionists around the globe. Freedom means to be subjected to only the laws one has voluntarily decided to accept, even though these laws might be extremely restrictive – as one might imagine the limitations of everyday life in a 10 square meter space station. Here is a list of some of the advocacy groups: Artemis Society International; International Space Exploration and Colonization Co., Island One Society; League of New Worlds; Lifeboat Foundation; Living Universe Foundation; National Space Society; Space Frontier Foundation; Space Studies Institute.
Now, after the first successful private space flight within the X-Prize, these groups will gain an enormous boost of self-confidence and plausibility. The main idea is to build isolated, sealed off self-sustainable capsules on the moon or in space, where new high tech communities can follow their interests unhindered by state restrictions. Between the colonies would be a nice near vacuum, a good protection from unwelcome guests. Of course there are business ideas involved, mainly related to mining and tourism. Sport dollars should also float in, as the moon would be a perfect training ground for athletes in order to give them a competitive advantage on earth. Erotic services might be also considered for a business-plan if one expects that sex in low gravity will be a selling point.
A near-future oriented approach suggests squatting the old fuel tanks of the space shuttle carriers, which are floating around as junk. But for the space colonizers the most important model is the Biosphere II project – the well-known simulation experiment in the Arizonian desert. It must be pointed out that, despite all the science in the foreground, Biosphere II is a project deeply rooted in libertarian thought with the end objective to build sealed off self-sustainable environments in space – in order to escape the power of the state and live a libertarian life, however restricted it might be out there. Biosphere II stands as a test-model for the last stage of development of territorial micronations: the attempt of creating total self-sustainability leading to ultimate independence – not only from any political system – but even from Biosphere I itself.
From 1991 to 1993, a group of 8 scientists lived for two years in the 2,6 hectares large sealed off area of Biosphere II. The ambition to establish a self-regulating, sustainable community has been quite a failure though. An unexplainable explosion of microbes brought the oxygen-level to such low levels, that additional oxygen had to be pumped in. Farming operations were constantly endangered because of plagues of insects. Furthermore, the food that could be produced did not contain enough calories. The community of scientists suffered from malnutrition and tiredness. Fighting the insect plagues and doing farm work occupied them for most of the time, leaving but little spare time for scientific work. With this image in mind of the high tech communitarians struggling with the barest necessities of life – facing more hardships than the utopian communities of the 19 century – one might ask if libertopia has produced as only viable model a micro-society of asceticism.th
Republics of Choice
The Internet has provided a practical and cheap platform for a great variety of communities of interest: from big-bellied men to UFO freaks, from space colonizers to donkey lovers, etc. Internet-micronations are just one among those communities, but they differ in one important aspect. They boldly suggest that the whole concept of national identity might be shifted from an imposed territorial to a voluntary non-territorial mode.
We normally take it for granted: a government or state has its corresponding territory. A government’s sovereignty over a clearly defined area of land and the people living within the borders of this land is considered a criterion of statehood. It is the main task of non-territorial micronations to challenge the one-to-one relationship between state and territory. This can be of great importance if we consider the fact that most of the wars have been fought to secure monopoly over territory.
“Becoming a citizen of a state which does not have a territory would make it possible to develop alliances which would exceed borders and linguistic barriers. It would be rather original, carrying hope for humanity.”14
Is this hope justified? A virtual country might be seen as merely a game. But I think that a virtual micronation can really affect the life of its citizens – and through that the rest of the world – as much as any real nation, as long as enough people believe strongly in its existence, spend time there, interact and, above all, speak about it.
The pioneers of the Net realized quickly the intrinsic possibilities of cyberspace in creating alternative forms of belonging, which at some point even might become more relevant than the nation-state model. In order to preserve the ‘frontier’ nature of the Net and to limit the hegemonial influences of the state – which does not allow any competitors – cyberspace was quickly declared independent:
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. […] We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. […] We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”15
The economist Edward Castranova investigated the virtual worlds of online games. Based on the assumption that it is the practical actions of people, and not abstract arguments, that determine the social value of things, he produced the first “Economic Report of Norrath” (Norrath is the virtual world of the Everquest online game). The report states, that perhaps some 93.000 people out of Norrath's 400.000-person user base spend more time in Norrath in a typical week than they do working for pay. Some 20 percent of Norrath's citizens consider Norrath their place of residence; they just commute to Earth and back.
Castranova calculated the exchange rate between the US dollar and Norrath’s virtual currency, the platinum piece from the prices in US$ at which virtual property of Norrath, such as weapons, houses, etc., were traded on e-Bay. With that exchange-rate he could calculate some economic data: the nominal hourly wage is about 3,42 USD per hour, and the labours of the people produce a GNP per capita somewhere between that of Russia and Bulgaria.16 These are impressive facts that actually reveal the potential of virtual entities, such as micronations, which can attract a sufficient amount of citizens.
Even though it seems evident that the Net can provide the platform for alternative modes of belonging, the current state of affairs in most of the Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games are far from providing viable alternatives. The online societies – ruled by ruthless warlords within a world divided into clans & tribes – are embracing territorial behaviour and the survival of the fittest in their most extreme form. Killing is the most rewarding activity, torturing is great fun and human rights are only good for a joke. The only attempt to add a utopian notion to such online worlds is the “agoraXchange” platform, which is developing a game with four decrees forming the fundamental political tenets for the new world system: citizenship by choice, no inheritance, no marriage and no private land rights. Unfortunately the agoraXchange platform lacks a substantial support community. We might never get to know if a world built on such decrees would guide us away from dystopian nightmares.
In more general terms, three features of non-territorial micronations are common and are considered important. Citizenship is voluntary, the option of exit is given at any moment, which leads to a competition between the different governments. The third feature is the option that anyone dissatisfied with all existing choices can start their own micronation.
Such ideas have been formulated long before the Internet era; for example, by DePuydt in 1860. His text was largely ignored but later re-discovered by Max Nettlau (1909) and made public under the heading “Panarchy”.
DePuydt and Nettlau suggested that the law of free competition does not only apply to the commercial world but would have to be brought also into the political sphere. They lamented that the fundamental freedom is missing, the freedom to be free or not free, according to one's choice, the absolute right to select the political society in which one wants to live and to depend upon. “In each municipality a new office would be opened for the political membership of individuals with governments. The adults would let themselves be entered in the lists of the monarchy, of the republic, etc. From then on they remain untouched by the governmental systems of others. Each system organizes itself, has its own representatives, laws, judges, and taxes, regardless of whether there are two or ten such organizations next to each other.
There may be people who do not want to fit into any of these organisms. These people may propagate their ideas and attempt to increase the numbers of their followers until they have achieved an independent budget. [...] Freedom must be so extensive that it includes the right not to be free. Consequently, absolutism for those who do not want it any other way is required. [...] There will be free competition between the governmental systems. “You are dissatisfied with your government? Take another one for yourself! – without any revolution or unrest.”17
Similar ideas have received academic attention. The Institute for Empirical Research in Economics at the University of Zurich is the originator of a “constitutional proposal, based on the notion that there are meaningful government units, whose major characteristic is not the territorial extension but its function. The constitution proposal allows for the emergence of governmental organizations, which are called FOCJ according to the acronym for “Functional, Overlapping, Competing Jurisdictions”. Their territory is variable, and they do not have a territorial monopoly over it. Rather, they are in competition with other such FOCJ, and they are, moreover, exposed to political competition.”18
In a classic of libertarian literature Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick describes a libertarian vision of Utopia. He, of course, has to reject the idea of the classical utopia, of a unified system of order. He therefore projects a meta-utopia, in which each person is allowed to choose her own version of an ideal community from a broad menu of possibilities. This is Nozick’s own list of the range of communities that might flourish in a meta-utopian world: “Visionaries and crackpots, maniacs and saints, monks and libertines, capitalists and communists and participatory democrats, proponents of phalanxes (Fourier), palaces of labour (Flora Tristan), villages of unity and cooperation (Owen), mutualist communities (Proudhon), time stores (Josiah Warren), Bruderhof, kibbutzim, kundalini yoga ashrams, and so forth.”
Within Nozick’s framework for utopia, it is also possible to design and create your own utopia if you can convince a sufficient number of people to join you. Such a colourful mix of communities was intended to exist within the framework of the minimal state, or the invisible state, which should only appear to protect citizens from violence, theft, and breach of contract. Nozick was pained to demonstrate that a minimal state would inevitably arise from a supposed anarchy (or state of nature) without violating anyone's rights. He furthermore tried to prove that any extension of state power, for example, by taxation for welfare purposes, is breaking an individual’s rights and therefore cannot be justified.
Nozick admits that the minimal state is hardly as sexy or inspirational as some (socialist) utopias, but he seeks to lay down a utopian proposal that avoids the dangers of earlier utopian visions containing the seeds of totalitarianism and perfectionism, thus attracting more people to the libertarian cause.
Another recent project taking up similar ideas is the Transnational Republic, which was also presented at the Summit of Micronations. They suggest creating transnational governments, which would work more like transnational corporations. They say that we should learn from Coca-Cola how to represent citizens’ interests on a global scale. There would be many different transnational republics competing for citizens by providing the best solutions to global problems. Their approach has some similarities to the open source movement, but instead of improving the system software of a computer it’s about designing a better political system for governing the world.
The purpose of this article was to illustrate a historical-ideological matrix of the micronational (counter)movement to show that ‘enclaves of difference’ have always existed and are still thriving today. Whatever their ideological or territorial approach might be, micronations are installed in the interstice of utopia and the politics of everyday life.