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The People of Solano County Versus the Next Tech-Billionaire Dystopia

If these Silicon Valley plutocrats have their way, a swath of Solano County will be transformed into their own nation-state.

Josh Edelson/Getty Images
A fire truck drives along a chunk of land recently purchased by Flannery Associates for nearly $50 million near Rio Vista, California. A stealth campaign by Silicon Valley elites with a dream of turning a swath of California farmland into a new age city has ranchers who live here challenging their tactics as well as their motives.

It is easy to mock the absurdity of California Forever, the new city that a group of tech billionaires want to build amid cattle pastures 60 miles north of San Francisco. Its wealthy backers frame the project—envisioned as a mega suburb with dense housing and walkable streets set on 60,000 rural acres—as an innovative solution to California’s housing shortage. But their bumbling and villainous antics may ensure it never gets built.

The particulars of this caper veer into the ridiculous. Flannery Associates, the billionaires’ front group, sneaked around for five years on a stealth mission to snatch up $900 million worth of agricultural land in Solano County, where land use laws expressly forbid projects like the one the group proposes. The company lavished money on local landowners, overpaying for the land by millions and creating a frenzy. Then, after some local landowners resisted their offers, the billionaires filed a $510 million lawsuit against them. Ironically, the plutocrats turned plaintiffs accused this handful of holdouts of “endless greed.”

Solano County residentswhose approval will be needed next November for the project to move forwardare understandably dubious of the shady billionaires and their secretive plan for a new community whose name sounds like a celebrity cemetery. At packed town hall meetings, community members from cities like Fairfield, Rio Vista, and Vacaville have voiced fierce opposition. They fear the project will spur environmental damage, traffic, pollution, and sprawl.

Yet there’s potentially a more sinister angle. California Forever aligns suspiciously with a cultish dystopian movement to build so-called “network statesprivate zones where tech zillionaires can abandon democratic society to live under the rule of their own private micro governments. The secret plot to assemble vast swaths of land and build a new city fits a pattern of wealthy Silicon Valley types attempting to construct similar enclaves around the globe. San Francisco billionaire Michael Moritz, a driving force behind California Forever, appeared to hint at the idea in his pitch to potential investors back in 2017.

“He painted a kind of urban blank slate where everything from design to construction methods and new forms of governance could be rethought,” reported The New York Times, which first revealed the billionaires’ plan.

What does it mean to rethink “new forms of governance”? In a new book called Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy, historian Quinn Slobodian chronicles the efforts of billionaires to create “alternative political arrangements at a small scale” through “acts of secession and fragmentation, carving out liberated territory within and beyond nations.”

In a world of intensifying crises like climate change and economic inequality, some billionaires have a novel solution: high-tech secession.

“We can secede by removing children from state-run schools, converting currency into gold or cryptocurrency, relocating to states with lower taxes, obtaining a second passport, or expatriating to a tax haven,” writes Slobodian. “We can secede, and many have, by joining gated communities to create private governments in miniature.”

Despite Silicon Valley’s talk of techno-optimism and abundance, many tech plutocrats are plagued by a “creeping sense of paranoia” about the future, said Slobodian in an interview. Fearing the possibility of civilizational collapseor driven by “greed, megalomania and the desire to have a zero percent tax rate”some tech elites seek a retreat into bespoke fortress societies.

Slobodian’s book details ongoing efforts by wealthy interests to acquire land and carve out independent territories for themselves. It’s a dystopian vision in which existing countries and governments, hollowed out by capital flight and declining tax revenues, will theoretically be left to collapse outside their highly fortified walls.

“The proponents of crack-up capitalism envisioned a new utopia: an agile, restlessly mobile fortress for capital, protected from the grasping hands of the populace seeking a more equitable present and future,” writes Slobodian. First, however, these wannabe tech sovereigns must convince current governments to sanction the development of these special zones.

Creating special zones where normal rules don’t apply is an old idea. Slobodian, a critic of these new schemes, traces their global history. For example, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, and Bermuda are Caribbean tax havens with weak regulatory laws designed to serve corporations and wealthy individuals. Dubai’s 22-square-mile “economic free zone” caters to 9,500 corporations enjoying long, union-free tax holidays there. Communist-ruled China has over a dozen Special Economic Zones where capitalism (but not democracy) reigns supreme.

The planet is pocked with designated places where wealthy people and corporations can evade rules. But a new generation of venture capitalists seeks to innovate the concept further by creating spaces where they can evade democratic society altogether. Slobodian cites venture capitalist Peter Thiel, an early secession proponent and an investor in one such proposed community called Praxis, who wrote in 2009: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”

Initially, the concept involved creating independent offshore communities in the world’s oceans, outside of the reach of national jurisdictions. To that end, Thiel funded the Seasteading Institute, which sought to structure the governments of these floating communes after corporations.

“Democracy is not the answer,” declared the institute’s founder, Patri Friedman, a grandson of conservative economist Milton Friedman.

But since no one wants to be stuck on rusty oil rigs or claustrophobic cruise ships, the idea evolved. Today, the focus has shifted to “cloud communities.” These are virtual “nations” of people united via digital networks. Just as cryptocurrencies like bitcoin aim to replace traditional currency, creators of these online crypto societies hope to replace traditional countries. Once they have a sufficient number of citizens in their cloud, they can migrate to their chosen lands.

Tech barons have worked to fund the creation of these future zones in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the United States. Newly proposed billionaire-founded cities include Praxis, envisioned as a “crypto commune” in the Mediterranean, and Telosa, a new city of five million people somewhere in the United States. Just last week, even Kanye West jumped on the bandwagon, announcing plans to build a new city on 100,000 acres in the Middle East.

In 2020, Balaji Srinivasana close associate of both Thiel and California Forever investor Marc Andreessen—published “The Network State: How to Start a New Country.” Srinivasan, the idea’s leading evangelist, defines a network state as “a highly aligned online community with a capacity for collective action that crowdfunds territory around the world and eventually gains diplomatic recognition from pre-existing states.”

Srinivasan envisions an explosion of new mini-nations in which “the people are spread around the world in clusters of varying size, but their hearts are in one place.”

He depicts traditional patriotism as an outdated concept with no place in the world of the future. “Is the US establishment a force for good in the world?” asks Srinivasan, who Donald Trump reportedly considered appointing as head of the Food and Drug Administration in 2017. “Is the US establishment a force for good at home?” His answer: “No.”

Srinivasan, whose manifesto favors short paragraphs and numbered lists, also speaks matter-of-factly about the possibility of another Civil War.

“It’d be nothing like the movies, with huge movements of uniformed soldiers, tanks and planes,” he writes. “Instead, it’ll just be a continuation and escalation of what we’ve seen over the last several years: a network-to-network war to control minds, rather than a state-to-state war to control territory.”

In October, Srinivasan gathered like-minded techies in Amsterdam for the first annual Network State Conference. Speakers informed the audience about the latest efforts to establish autonomous communities. They included Jason Benn, founder of The Neighborhood, a network of interconnected co-living projects located within one square mile in San Francisco and funded by Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic arm of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Garry Tan, the Y Combinator CEO currently leading a tech-funded campaign to take over the San Francisco Board of Supervisors next year, touted successful efforts to create a “parallel media” and political machine. (Srinivasan lists capturing local governments via elections as an alternative to starting new ones.)

California Forever also had a brief cameo during a dramatic presentation by a security expert and former Army artillery officer named Spencer MacDonald.

“Network states and startup cities are starting to get more momentum,” said MacDonald, founder of a cryptosecurity firm, during a slide deck presentation titled “Parallel Security of Network States.” “So we need to start talking about security.”

The fourth slide of his deck featured an artist’s rendering of the proposed California Forever development, which was publicly released in September. “I interviewed many startup city founders,” read the text accompanying the image. “They are thinking about security (and other aspects of execution) in close coordination with host nation governments.”

A few slides later, MacDonald’s presentation featured a picture of the destroyed border wall between Gaza and Israel. Pausing on the stark image, MacDonald urged the audience of aspiring sovereigns to abandon the idea that technology and walls alone can protect start-up cities. “There was a bunch of … robotic video cameras that were monitoring the wall, and they didn’t have enough troops to guard the wall,” said MacDonald. He encouraged the audience to consider hiring private police forces (ideally advised by former Special Operations soldiers) along with social media teams capable of waging “info war.”

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Andreesen, one of Srinivasan’s longtime colleagues, is one of California Forever’s investors, and that Srinivasan name-checks two of the project’s other billionaire investors—Moritz and Stripe founder Patrick Collisonin his book. Maybe it’s just happenstance that their mystery project matches the trend of other proposed start-up societies around the globe, or that Moritz evoked the idea of new forms of governance in his investor pitch.

Or could it be that the project’s fleeting appearance at Srinivasan’s conference was the clearest indication yet of its true goal? California Forever vigorously denies any connection to MacDonald or the Network States Conference.

“We have nothing to do with this person/company presenting or this conference,” wrote California Forever after an eagle-eyed critic of the project posted a screenshot of MacDonald’s slide on Twitter in November. “They used the image from our website without our permission and we have no idea why.”

Given the company’s history of evasiveness, its denials mean little. The project’s website also specifically rejects the idea that it’s a “utopian fantasy” like “those that have been proposed around the world.” 

It also mentions the possibility of creating a special district. Specifically, the company pledges to work with local governments on issues like the “formation of special districts, but those issues would generally come up during later stages of the process, after the general plan and zoning change have been approved by the voters.”

Voter approval seems like a tall order, but the billionaires have 10 months to wage an unprecedented information war upon the minds of Solano County. They’re already throwing the money around, including $500,000 in grants for local nonprofits. Given the stakes, Solano voters should prepare to find themselves manipulated and pressured nonstop between now and November’s election.  

The people of Solano County are fighting a billionaire land grab that they fear will bring traffic headaches and pollution. Without knowing it, they may also be on the front lines of a battle over whether tech plutocrats can buy enough power to radically transform the political map by yanking democracy right out from under their feet and replacing it with a dystopia of their own design.