Crack-Up Capitalism, by Canadian historian Quinn Slobodian, takes you on a journey through the history of projects and experiments often related to the Free Cities movement. It delves into attempts at winning autonomy from existing states or even establishing completely new sovereign entities. From Sealand to Somalia to Honduran ZEDEs, the book spans a worldwide array of initiatives, not just current ones but going back over half a century.
The book, however, is not just a chronology and detailed research into each of the projects. It is also a commentary on them, from a distinctly critical point of view. From the outset of the book, it is immediately clear that a left-wing lens – defined by class struggle and an ongoing fight of democracy against ominous forces of evil capital – is used to view every part of the picture painted in the book and every story told. Special zones are seen as projects by rich people and for rich people by default, and Slobodian does not seem to be overly willing to judge them based on their actual characteristics or real-world results.
This is unfortunately the case even though the author concedes that “to see the zones as a device of ‘wealth hoarders’ is both true and not enough” (p7). This is precisely the case. While at some point in the past, some special zone projects might have been based on these background motivations, today the overwhelming majority of projects in the space are about quality of governance, human rights, and providing people with new opportunities to make their lives better in a world where political structures are often set against them.
Democracy as an End in Itself
The crux of the disagreement between Slobodian and the special zones industry seems to be his view of the supremacy of democracy. In his commentary, he demonstrates that democracy is one of his chief values and a political end in itself. This means that anything that could be construed as an alternative to today’s standard democratic institutions and processes is automatically perceived as an evil threat. For instance, Slobodian claims that special zones typically have “no democratic oversight”. This is a strange view; zones follow the rules and deals they have with nation-state governments who are democratic representatives, which means “democratic oversight” does happen via these democratically elected representatives. Furthermore, if zones are located in non-democratic countries, they can even bring more democratic self-determination to local decision-making in some cases.
Despite such an antagonistic view, Slobodian does his research well – including research into the goals and motivations of those championing, establishing, and/or running these zones and projects. He often quotes directly and uses the language familiar to the Free Cities movement – about improved governance, competition, bringing market forces to governance, decentralization, and so on. Still, he takes a strong stance against this view, not willing to concede the appeal, pragmatism, practicality, and ethics of the arguments used by his subjects. It is clear that he values democracy (as he understands it) so highly that, in his mind, it always trumps other values including liberty, personal self-determination, and prosperity.
A major, visible shortcoming of Slobodian’s own thinking is that he does not see and respect the shortcomings of majoritarianism, and does not appreciate how dangerous these can be to people’s lives, livelihoods, and even entire countries’ economies and societies. This unfortunately leads him to ridicule and dismiss attempts to mitigate these dangers by the people involved in the special zones industry, which can leave a bitter taste in the mouth of any human-rights sensitive reader.
The Unfortunate Disappointment
There come points in the book where one is even led to question the judgment of the author to a rather serious extent. This starts with the somewhat frequent usage of empty platitudes to make ideological points (e.g. “Labor is the sand in the machinery of globalization.” [p78]), but it becomes acute when Slobodian resorts to accusing his political opponents of having a “fever dream of taffeta and chattel slavery” (p113). It is difficult to see how one could ascribe viewing one’s real-world adversaries like this to anything else than delusion or malice.
This is underscored by the usage of tactics unfortunately common to the activism of Slobodian’s ideological camp, such as ascribing guilt by association and frequent usage of labels “right-wing”, “far-right”, and “racist” throughout the book to discredit people involved in the zones industry.
At times, the book utilizes references and quotes from failed and discredited personalities and economists such as Thomas Piketty and Paul Krugman. This is a rather unfortunate sight and a shame. Slobodian can clearly do better, which he demonstrates in his solid research and choice of authorities and quotations at many other places throughout the book.
Crack-Up Capitalism includes a chapter on Honduran ZEDEs, but, in contrast with the rest of the book, the content and extent of research in this chapter are rather disappointing. For some reason, while building the overall narrative of the chapter, Slobodian bizarrely tries to somehow tie together American wars in the Middle East and Honduran Charter Cities. Following such an intro, he then skips over a crucial part of the story – the history of the development of the ZEDE model from the previous, more radical, RED model. He also mistakenly claims there are two ZEDEs (there are, in fact, three). Slobodian repeats oft-cited smears and allegations against Próspera ZEDE but does not proceed to cite Próspera’s reactions and refutations to these attacks, and thereby he fails to tell the full story (p198). Recounting a rather famous medialized episode, he says “In September 2020, [Erick] Brimen [CEO of Honduras Próspera, LLC] had a shouting confrontation with Roatán locals as his security guards stood off against local police” (p198). Slobodian conveniently skips the fact that the confrontation with the police happened over COVID rules, not any Próspera-related issue. Finally, it is a shame that, due to his ideological alignment and despite his good intentions, Slobodian ends up supporting left-wing governments across Latin America (p200) that are bringing crime, poverty, conflict, corruption, and misery to their countries.
Nevertheless, despite the shortcomings of this particular chapter, it is clear that an incredible amount of thorough research has gone into the writing of this book. Slobodian displays an unambiguous, genuine interest in the stories he covers, gives each one its proper depth, and, even if he does not always succeed, he usually tries to give his subjects a fair shake despite his disagreements with them.
The Lessons Learned
Looking beyond the unfortunate ideological colouring that the author’s left-wing lens applies to each of the projects covered, the book remains an invaluable resource for anyone wishing to study the history and pre-history of the Free Cities movement. Only if we know our past can we avoid repeating the same mistakes that had doomed previous initiatives to failure.
Ultimately, our mission is about bringing freedom, peace, and prosperity to the world. Having a solid idea of what came before can also teach us in the Free Cities movement to consider how the projects in this space are perceived by people with different ideologies, and how to best appeal to a wide range of audiences, be it potential fellow travellers or just external writers and academics researching and covering the world of Free Cities. Beyond offering a wealth of background information about our movement, Crack-Up Capitalism teaches us a valuable lesson in this regard.