This article originally appeared in the '1972' issue of Museum magazine. Buy it here.
It is a truth universally acknowledged: a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a lawless micronation in which to stash it away.
The core assertion of Ayn Rand’s libertarian treatise-as-novel, Atlas Shrugged, is a simple one: if the genius industrial creatives of the world withdrew their labour, as workers do, it would "stop the motor of the world” and precipitate the collapse of society. Bureaucracy, Rand asserts, feeds off the functional purity of business operating in the free market, and by withdrawing the individuals who power the market, the myriad inefficiencies and corruptions of the bureaucratic state simply wither away.
The heroic captain of industry who strikes at the hot iron of revolution in Atlas Shrugged is philosopher and inventor John Galt, who rejects the mediocrities of egalitarianism. Galt expounds upon his radically individualist philosophy via one of the lengthiest speeches ever put to paper in an English novel. He withdraws from the authoritarian American state to a utopian community he names Galt’s Gulch, deep in a Colorado mountain valley, where the values of individualism and free enterprise can flourish outside lustful gaze of the government.
Rand wrote her opus in 1958. In 1972, someone actually tried it. Not in an enclave high in the Coloradan mountain ranges, but on newly reclaimed land among the colonial protectorates and kingdoms of the Pacific Islands. The Republic of Minerva would be the first attempt at summoning a new, anarchic polity from the sea like an Atlantean casino resort, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Michael Oliver was a Las Vegas real estate tycoon, who—like many of his ilk—began absorbing some of the more febrile reactionary currents pulsing through the id of the American right in the second half of the 20th century. He believed that the postwar liberal consensus—inaugurated by the Democratic Party and more or less accepted by mainstream Republicans—had set the country on the path to collapse, and that the looming spectre of hybrid fascist-socialist governance sought to dispossess him of his wealth.
In 1968, Oliver published A New Constitution for a New Country, in which he outlined a new, deranged vision for a reinvigorated America. It proposed a country built entirely on voluntary association with a strictly limited government, hacked together piecemeal from a system of courts and a privately funded police force. Those who could not afford the protections previously provided by government were not entitled to them. The book dedicated much of its argument to the principle of free association and voluntary segregation, staking his position on the American civil rights movement clearly, without descending into the open racism of the Southern segregationists.
He argued that only by forming “a new country” could he and his fellow travellers escape the “coming collapse” and “onslaught of totalitarianism.” These were not unique fears among the ultra-wealthy in the United States. Just a decade prior, the John Birch Society was established by a cabal of right-wing industrialists who believed that an alliance of internationalists, bankers and collectivists of various stripes were conspiring to subsume the American federal government into a New World Order. They saw the New Deal reforms championed by American liberals as part of a sinister scheme to propel the country irrevocably towards socialism.
Beyond merely theorising a new libertarian, anti-communist polity, Oliver made serious moves towards actually implementing it. Founding the innocuously named Ocean Life Research Foundation, he—along with a number of supporters—made plans for a new society devoid of bureaucracy on reclaimed land of the Minerva Islands, two atolls south of Fiji and Tonga. His syndicate, which had offices in London and New York, allegedly managed to raise $100 million in funding towards this end. They planned to build an artificial landmass with imported sand, upon which they would form a micronation free of “taxation, welfare, subsidies, or any form of economic interventionism.”
At the end of 1971, Oliver did it. Bringing sand from Australia via barge, he and his crew raised the submerged atoll above sea level. A small tower and flag were constructed, and the Republic of Minerva was declared on January 19th, 1972.
"People will be free to do as they damn well please,” said the self-proclaimed president of the Republic of Minerva, Morris Davis. “Nothing will be illegal so long it does not infringe on the rights of others. If a citizen wishes to open a tavern, set up gambling or make pornographic films, the government will not interfere.”
A report in The New York Times on January 30th announced that three Americans had “proclaimed a utopian republic on a wreck-strewn South Sea reef,” and that they “sought a new land to escape from high taxes, riots, drugs and crime.” The emerging terrors afflicting white Americans in the ascendent Nixon era—televisual images of black crime and whirring police helicopters hanging low over the Los Angeles metropolis aflame—had wormed their way into their political project. This was not merely a philosophical project in the Objectivist abstract. It was a deeply reactionary one, cooked up in the darkest echelons of the ultra-conservative underground as much as it was the pages of Atlas Shrugged.
Oliver’s syndicate proposed that they would sustain their new nation with a combination of fishing, tourism, light industry and “other commercial activities.” The exact nature of those activities has not been specified in any literature on the saga, but it seems self-evident that they would involve operations as a tax and banking haven. Because unlike in John Galt’s fantasy of a utopia founded on the back of industrial genius and unshackled creativity, in life these libertarian fever dreams centre largely on the fortressing of capital and wealth.
The actual labour to be used in constructing this capitalist nirvana, Oliver proposed, would be happily provided by the nearby Kingdom of Tonga, who would no doubt see the exchange value in operating as an expendable workforce for Nevada real estate crooks.
There was, shockingly, an issue with their plan. The surrounding states—Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, and the Cook Islands territory—did not take kindly to the unilateral declaration of statehood by a group of American adventurists, high on the fumes of their own genius. Tonga had already made a claim on the Minerva atoll, and a conference of the surrounding nations was quickly organised and staged on the 24th of February, even as Oliver and his men began implementing a plan to mint their own currency.
Minerva's neighbours ultimately agreed with Tonga’s claim to sovereignty over the reef. King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou issued a royal decree stating that “the reefs known as North Minerva and South Minerva Reef have long served as fishing grounds for the Tongan people and have long been regarded as belonging to the Kingdom of Tonga.” He claimed all islands, rocks, reefs, foreshores and waters within a 12-mile radius.
To that end, Tonga asserted its sovereignty the the only way it's ever been done: through force. Arriving with a small contingent of soldiers, the king officially claimed the islands for Tonga. Oliver and his followers left without a fight, clearly unwilling to leaven the fresh sand of Minerva with blood in pursuit of their project.
This was not the conclusion of Oliver’s plans. A report in the New Internationalist in July 1981 traced the course of Oliver’s Ocean Life Research Foundation. After his failure in Minerva, he reorganised it as the Phoenix Foundation, having attracted disciples of fanatical monetarist policy, as well as shadier characters on the fringes of the global right, including “ex-CIA, OSS, SAS and FBI agents, soldiers of fortune, tax-dodge lawyers and tax-haven specialists, arms dealers, drug traffickers, mafiosi and straight-out hustlers.”
Phoenix’s plans intruded deeper into a kind of perverse colonialism—channelling the funds of its backers into encouraging laissez-faire independence movements in small, poor nations. “Surprisingly, there are several such embryonic potential nations around the world,” the organisation wrote in one of their newsletters, “Farsighted enough to recognise the threat of socialism/communism, and who sincerely want to build their country around the individual instead of creating a monolithic government.”
Through Phoenix, Oliver and his crew pursued their libertarian pipe-dream through planned revolutions, targeting small island states “burdened by colonialism, illiteracy and a near absence of natural resources.” They attempted to foment rebellion on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas, and on Vanuatu through the so-called ‘New Hebrides Autonomy Movement’ in the late 1970s. They associated themselves with the messianic leader of NAHM, Jimmy Stevens, who originally began his movement as a rejection of foreign commerce in Vanuatu and a return to the simple communal village life of the ni-Vanuatu people. Stevens sought independence for the island of Espiritu Santo—Vanuatu’s biggest—and was willing to fight for it.
According to civil society organisation Instituto del Tercer Mundo, Stevens and his movement “received $250,000, arms and a radio” from Phoenix Foundation in return for concessions to build a casino. The foundation pushed NAHM towards libertarian policy outcomes, telling Stevens to “go the free enterprise route and make your central government as small as possible.” It was a revitalisation of the doomed project that began on the reclaimed sands of Minerva less than a decade earlier.
Their plans never quite came to fruition. Oliver himself is ostensibly banned from entering Vanuatu, though a 2005 Pacific Islands Report alleged he had returned to the country, much to the chagrin of local officials. As for the Minerva reefs, the prospect of their political independence remained. Morris Davis, the erstwhile ‘president’ of the Republic of Minerva, made another attempt to reclaim the reefs in 1982, but was foiled once again by the Tongan military after just three weeks.
Though Oliver’s projects failed, and his exploits remain a sinister footnote in the bloody colonial history of the Pacific, echoes of his life’s project remain embedded in the political consciousness of the world’s ultra-wealthy. Peter Thiel, the Rand acolyte who directs his millions of dollars worth of philanthropic efforts largely towards projects at the darker horizons of human social and political potential, has shown great interest in ‘seasteading:’ the creation of autonomous floating communities in international waters.
The entire point of seasteading—as championed by The Seasteading Institute, its primary proponent—is to experiment with “diverse social, political, and legal systems” outside the remit of existing national and international governments. One can safely assume the political experimentation in these lawless floating communities would tend to towards one particular model of social organisation.
Ian address to the Seasteading Institute in 2009, Thiel argued that seasteading is not merely a flight of fancy of the ultra-rich who fear an oncoming wave of financial redistribution—it is necessary from both a political and technological standpoint. Thiel says that libertarians (such as himself) are ensconced in the trap of modern democratic thought, that the only way to advocate for certain policy outcomes is to debate and implement within existing political systems and structures.
He likens this process to the “trench warfare of World War One.” The only way to create truly free enterprise, in Thiel’s mind, is to build many of them—a vast number of independent polities in the open ocean who compete as companies do, fuelled by technological innovation outside of the sphere of government and regulation. It’s a peculiar repeat of the operations of Oliver and the Phoenix Foundation, sans their inclination toward bloody insurrection. It’s also imbued with the utopic innovation rhetoric of Silicon Valley.
Thiel’s position as an adviser to Donald Trump could mean he might see value in the idea of accumulating power through the regular channels, rather than pursuing more unorthodox methods. The easy movement from Randian free market fundamentalism to the kind of authoritarian right-wing populism championed by Trump is no accident. Just as Oliver’s project in the Minerva reefs was as inspired on deeply venal reactionary currents in the United States as it was by lofty, high-minded ideals, so too is Thiel’s seasteading
Indeed, as the world’s nations throw higher and higher fortressed walls—material and metaphorical—around their borders, the notion of floating libertarian utopias operating in a borderless free market seems like more and more of a pipe-dream.