Involution, Then Revolution

On Mar. 23, Michael Eliot published an article called “Involution, not Revolution” in which he argues that a violent revolution is not the correct strategy for creating a free society, and that the use of methods such as seasteading will be more successful. In this rebuttal, I will attempt to show that this position is not only unsound, but naïve and dangerous.

While libertarians have long been accused of not being real revolutionaries for not wanting to violently overthrow the existing order, this is not a universally valid accusation. While some libertarians have either conflated the non-aggression principle with pacifism or have a more limited view of defensive violence than what is logically justifiable, other libertarians have no philosophical objection to such a strategy. Their objection is a practical one; libertarians currently lack the manpower and resources to engage in such a fight with a reasonable expectation of success.

Of course, those who wield state power would wish for the current number of libertarians to attempt self-defense against the state. What they would not wish for is for even three percent of the civilian population in their geographical area to do so, as this would likely destroy them and their minions outright, not vice versa. Even the personnel and firepower at the disposal of the United States government proved no match for the determination and resourcefulness of insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq to remove foreign occupying forces from their soil. How much more difficult would they find a domestic insurgency of their fellow Americans?

A government military would face limitations if deployed at home that it does not face abroad. (Forget posse comitatus, as it is just words on paper which would be ignored at the convenience of the rulers should a serious challenge to the state be made. Also dismiss the idea that soldiers would disobey orders to kill the citizens they are supposedly serving to protect; history and psychology suggests that many, if not most, would obey.) As of late, government militaries cause a fairly large number of civilian casualties for every enemy combatant they kill. Do this domestically and the number of loyalists to the regime quickly shrinks while the number of people willing to rebel quickly grows. They also could not bomb infrastructure nearly as much because this would destroy their own supply lines and logistical capabilities as well while convincing more people to rebel. Also, a domestic deployment could endanger family members and friends of the soldiers, leading to loss of morale, disobedience of orders, and defections to the rebel cause. Finally, a soldier who fights overseas hardly ever faces reprisals after the war by those who were victimized. But if the military were fielded domestically, it would be much easier for the details of a person’s military service to be recorded and publicized by alternative media, resulting in a soldier having to watch out for revenge-seekers for the rest of his or her life.

It must be said that a libertarian anarchist revolution would be notably different from what has been tried before. The point of such a revolution is not to “restore the republic” or “put the right people in charge,” but to render an area ungovernable for the foreseeable future. After all, history has clearly shown that deposing rulers without dealing with the belief in a need to be ruled simply results in another ruler, and usually a worse one. As such, this new type of revolution does not primarily target the rulers, but their minions in the enforcement classes. If the aforementioned three percent of the civilian population were so opposed to the idea of being ruled that they would shoot at anyone who tried to enforce against them the whims of rulers, then it would not matter what the whims of rulers are or what the other 97 percent of people vote for. The ultimate reason that people are voting on ballots is that they fear the consequences of voting with bullets, and the ultimate reason that agents of the state are carrying out government policies is that they are being paid to do so. But if the job of being an agent of the state is made so hazardous that taking such a job guarantees death, then no one who is intelligent enough to live will take such a job, as dying on the job defeats the purpose of getting a paycheck. This leaves voters with the options of either living peacefully or trying to perform the crimes of the state themselves, and their current behavior shows that they fear the latter. The strategy at the time of this writing, then, is to convince enough people who control enough resources that rulers are unnecessary, immoral, and harmful, and that self-defense against their minions is justifiable as to create the conditions for a successful revolution.

Some will say that people who believe that all human interactions should be voluntary cannot force this viewpoint on others, and that the aforementioned revolution would do just that. The only time that force can legitimately be used within the norms of libertarian philosophy is in an act of defensive violence to stop aggressors, reclaim stolen property, make criminals perform restitution, etc. Thus, the forcing of these norms on people would only occur when people commit aggressions and are met with defensive force. As such, forcing voluntaryism on people is compatible with voluntaryism. Furthermore, anarchists can force anarchy on statists because statists impose their wills on people through force, thereby estopping themselves from complaining that force is being used against them.

So far, we have a philosophical case for a libertarian revolution based on the use of force in self-defense against the state, but a means for convincing enough people who control enough resources to perform such a revolution is still needed. Eliot is correct to note that the most important means to this end is involution, or shrinking the state through disuse and the creation of alternatives. In fact, they are vitally important because it is through involution that the number of libertarians can be grown, the technology to avoid and replace the state can be developed, and the best alternatives to statism can be worked out in action. Without involution, it may not be possible to convince enough people who control enough resources to partake in revolution. As Eliot says, many people are not going to become libertarians by reading Rothbard, Huemer, and Hoppe. The majority of people erroneously put empiricism before rationalism, experience before reason, and observation before logic because they were forcibly indoctrinated with a state-sanctioned curriculum in government schools. These people will need to be shown examples of libertarian theory being applied to solve real world problems in order to overcome such faulty upbringing, and this is what involutionary methods can do. Many advocates of involution seek to end the state without direct confrontation. To be sure, there is nothing immoral about such efforts, but it is naïve and dangerous to believe that involution alone will be sufficient because such a belief implies that existing states will treat libertarians peacefully just because the efforts of libertarians are peaceful. All historical evidence says otherwise.

Some libertarians would point to Hong Kong as an example of what happens when property rights are respected, laws are stable, and people may follow their interests, but this leaves open the door for a minarchist analogue of the Laffer curve. Such an argument would posit that there is an ideal, small amount of statism at which individual liberty and economic prosperity are maximized, and that deviations toward either anarchism or big government will have negative consequences. This argument is of no help to people who seek to cure the disease of statism rather than restrain it in an unstable remission.

Several methods of involution are already in practice, such as agorism, ride-sharing, and homeschooling/unschooling. The particular method of involution that Eliot discusses is seasteading. The idea is to colonize the oceans by building permanent dwellings on the high seas outside of the territory claimed by any government. Possible methods include building floating islands or submerged habitats, or taking over decommissioned oil platforms or anti-aircraft platforms. Notable benefits include easy access to shipping lanes and the ability to operate an economy outside of existing statist regulatory schemes. Seasteading could be the way to create an anarchist control zone that allows anyone to make an effort to live there, escape the state, and build a better future for oneself and one’s descendants. In such an environment, those who need an empirical example of how society can function without the state can get one and be convinced without having to understand libertarianism in a philosophical sense.

This is all well and good, but it is not likely to be enough. Governments do not have a track record of going gently into the night or of tolerating existential threats. Those who see involution as sufficient and revolution as unnecessary or even undesirable ignore this track record at their own peril. If history is any guide, then the response by governments to seasteads that are brain-draining, talent-draining, youth-draining, and investment-draining the entire world will be to initiate the use of force against them. The lead-up to this would have strong parallels to that of all of the military misadventures of today. As Hermann Göring said at the Nuremberg Trials,

“Of course the people do not want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it is a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. …Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”

The rulers will blame the seasteaders for attracting people and capital away from their nations. The lapdog media will promote the narrative that the seasteaders are not only refusing to “pay their fair share of taxes” but are undermining the very survival of the population remaining on land. (Of course, some will have been forced to remain on land against their wills, but this will be conveniently ignored.) Those who sympathize with the seasteaders will be denounced for hating the poor, lacking patriotism, and endangering the economic survival of society. This may take some time to happen, as the seasteaders will be trading with the people who are still on land, and armies do not tend to move between nations if trade goods are moving between them. Public support for war with the seasteaders will thus be more difficult to manufacture, but as conditions grow comparatively worse on land with the best and brightest people leaving for the seasteads and taking their capital with them, the rulers and their propagandists will eventually get the war they want.

When the attacks do come, the seasteaders will have disadvantages that the statists on land do not. A platform or underwater habitat on the high seas is more vulnerable to attack than a land-based target. Targets at sea can be attacked from below by submarines, while undermining a structure on land takes time and effort. Floating platforms can be damaged enough to sink and underwater habitats can be compromised, thereby exposing the inhabitants to the dangers of the open ocean. Of course, the seasteaders may put their talents and resources to work purchasing and inventing defenses for their homes, but the most powerful governments of the world are likely to keep escalating the use of force in their efforts to end the threat that seasteading poses to their control.

None of this is to suggest that seasteading is a bad idea, only that it cannot bring about the change to a stateless society by itself. Like other tactics, such as civil disobedience, peaceful parenting, unschooling, agorism, and technological advancement, seasteading is a means of weakening state power and growing the ability of anti-statists to resist state power to the point that ending the state through the use of defensive force against its agents becomes a realistic possibility. Involution, then revolution is the path to liberty.

Support The Zeroth Position on Patreon!