In California, a group of tech and finance people are working on a secretive project to build a city in Solano County, near San Francisco. They are facing local opposition and criticism for the usual reasons: disagreeable tactics, strong-arm behavior, and utopian thinking that opponents allege will do more harm than good. The group leading the charge is called California Forever — a fact that ought to invite its own criticisms, not least because it sounds like something out of a James Bond film that has a 64 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
In Honduras, a group known as Próspera Inc. is building a libertarian city, labeled by Reason as “a radical experiment in private governance.” As Zach Weissmueller reports for the magazine, the company’s cofounder and CEO, Erick Brimen, says the city, called Próspera Village, “is not a location” but rather “a platform that delivers governance as a service in partnership with host governments that create a legal framework that allows that public-private partnership to emerge.”
Taken together, these extravagant undertakings by the rich indeed resemble the plot of a James Bond movie. They’re a bit like Quantum of Solace, with the antagonists infused with a touch more Ayn Rand influence. But this comparison arises only because the projects seem cartoonish and quixotic. At their best, they’re evocative of Bond-villain chicanery. At their worst, however, they recall the dystopia of the Matt Damon vehicle, Elysium, in which elites have decamped for a luxurious space habitat, leaving the rest of humanity to toil and perish on a polluted and blighted Earth.
Elite Doomsday Shelters
In Toronto, the struggle over Sidewalk Labs’ attempts to develop a “smart city” along the city’s lakeshore was a battle between public-minded sorts and those concerned about data privacy on the one hand, and Google and its coterie, the tip of the libertarian tech-spear, on the other. Journalist Josh O’Kane detailed the rise and fall of the project in Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy. It’s a hell of a story.
These new initiatives are part of a trend among the wealthy to undertake large projects, building enclaves or outposts through which they advance a radical agenda framed in terms of development and the greater good. Paseo Cayala in Guatemala is another example, and while it’s not new, the impulse to hive off public space for quasi-public — effectively private — utopian dreams are, alarmingly, becoming more prominent, marked by a hyperfocus on technology: sensors, artificial intelligence, algorithms, smart-this, and smart-that.
Whether it’s libertarians, progressive tech finance bros, or those falling somewhere in between — individuals who are liberal and modestly statist until the reach of government extends beyond the boundaries of acceptable taxation or regulation — their dreams tend to take hideous forms. Their pamphlets and slide decks often tout innovation, public-spiritedness, and doing good by doing better, yet these visions almost always coalesce into some monstrous hybrid of Galt’s Gulch and the company town.
The Dreams of the Rich
Ever since Thomas More — Sir Thomas or Saint Thomas, depending on your predilections — wrote Utopia, the dream of the perfect city out there on the horizon has kindled hope that something beyond the ordinary is achievable. Not something merely better. Something idyllic. Perfect, even. Who doesn’t want that?
In practice, the realization of utopian promises falls to human beings — human beings who have fallen from grace, if you’re the sort who prefers “Saint” to “Sir” Thomas. And fallen we are. Nowadays, those with the means to pursue utopian visions are the wealthy. And their visions of Arcadia aren’t collective egalitarian visions. The rich dream of something better, but the dream isn’t for all of us.
There’s a difference between Próspera Village’s and California Forever’s projects. The former seems more objectionable, more exclusive, more driven by the Gospel of Rand. But the underlying issues are the same. There are endeavors we collectively undertake, as a public for the public, bound by rules that are broadly conceived and applied democratically — these account for whatever public affluence we still enjoy. And then there endeavors undertaken privately, for the few, unbound by the will of the collective and disinterested in the constraints that attend democratic self-government. These projects align with the historical lineage of enclosure in England in the sixteenth century: the appropriation of common assets for private gain.
The fundamental problem with Próspera Village, California Forever’s city, and the stillborn Toronto waterfront smart city is that they sunder the public element from the city, transforming what is a fundamentally public space into private and quasi-private spaces. These inefficient, often exclusive, undertakings are thus little different from private education or health care. Moreover, they signify a shift in power and how we conceive of living together.
The more private the city, the more power is concentrated, and the more interests are divorced from the broader common good. After all, why even bother to create these enclaves unless it’s to get away — to be here and not there. By the very definition of an “enclave” there must be two territories, an inside and an outside. The inside is set away, apart from the outside. The former is the good, the desirable, the safe. It’s Elysium. The latter is the bad, the undesirable, the dangerous. It’s what the enclave seeks to escape from and keep out. Accordingly, the enclave needs power to set its own rules, police its borders, and, above all, decide who’s in and who’s out.
Once the enclave approach is acceptable, all bets are off. There will be winners and losers. Insiders and outsiders. And there will be far more of the latter than the former. Consistent with the libertarian vision, and the petulant, miserly logic of Rand and her ilk, the affluent inhabitants within these enclaves will take their resources with them, depriving the collective of their money and, in some cases, expertise. Thus, utopian projects conceived in the private mold act as drains on the public purse by siphoning resources from it. In certain instances, such as Google’s smart city, they establish a cost for proximity, transforming into quasi-public spaces with a price tag in dollars, data, privacy, or a combination thereof.
As our collective problems, such as climate change, worsen, the wealthy are increasingly tempted to flee. And as the concentration of wealth intensifies, so too does the drive for the affluent to dictate terms of how we design our shared or semishared spaces. The combination of these two phenomena creates twin pressures that constrain public space and resources, further driving apart the many and the few, the wealthy and the workers.
We ought to draw hard lines now. Instead of allowing the powerful to carve out enclaves or flee to their utopias, we must make it clear that public undertakings remain collective efforts. In the decades ahead, building solidarity and engaging in public programs and infrastructure will be more critical than ever as we stare down climate change and other challenges. After all, well-resourced, egalitarian public spaces constitute utopias in their own right. Best of all, they’re achievable if we are willing to undertake them together.