Making a Temporary Autonomous Zone

Well, my last hunch went a bit long, so here I’m just going to plant a stake in the ground and try to leave it alone.

It’s fair to say that many of us dissatisfied with the dominant model for organising society, whether we’re marxists, anarchists, or just artists (I’m only the last of these), are attracted to the idea of new models of living emerging within the existing system. Better to see some positive change today than wait for a revolution that may never come. For me, when I was a young philosophy student, attracted to radical politics, pranksters and poetic terrorism, this was beautifully articulated by Hakim Bey in his essay the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ).

At the time, we thought maybe the web itself could be a TAZ, though I’m sure Bey would have had issues with such a dream, and certainly it seems that structural forces act against that tendency in most cases. So with each new technological innovation or cultural movement, we ask, could this spawn a TAZ? Does the new technology of digital fabrication give us an opportunity? Can the Maker Movement, if there is such a thing, build its own TAZ? Are makerspaces the locus of a physical TAZ?

This last one sounds like the most interesting possibility, and while I don’t think the RSA’s revolutionary fervour stretches this far, they do suggest that makerspaces could at least be sites for prototyping new ways of living:

But makerspaces should also be seen as sites of agitation that champion a different way of living

Makerspaces are not just sites to craft objects but also places to champion values and experiment with a different way of living – one that may be based on the virtues of self-reliance, sustainability, data agency and open source knowledge sharing. Fab Lab Barcelona runs a Smart Citizens initiative that encourages residents to monitor local levels of noise and air pollution, MadLab in Manchester organises workshops teaching people how to eco-retrofit their homes, and the ZB45 makerspace in Amsterdam hosts monthly gatherings for people to talk about technology and its impact on censorship and surveillance. All this comes at a time when people are beginning to question the principles of capitalism and look for alternative ways of organising our economy and society – as revealed in our survey.

So, without further analysis, here’s the relevant excerpt from Bey’s book, which you can read freely online.

Pirate Utopias

THE SEA-ROVERS AND CORSAIRS of the 18th century created an “information network” that spanned the globe: primitive and devoted primarily to grim business, the net nevertheless functioned admirably. Scattered throughout the net were islands, remote hideouts where ships could be watered and provisioned, booty traded for luxuries and necessities. Some of these islands supported “intentional communities,” whole mini-societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merry life.

Some years ago I looked through a lot of secondary material on piracy hoping to find a study of these enclaves–but it appeared as if no historian has yet found them worthy of analysis. (William Burroughs has mentioned the subject, as did the late British anarchist Larry Law–but no systematic research has been carried out.) I retreated to primary sources and constructed my own theory, some aspects of which will be discussed in this essay. I called the settlements “Pirate Utopias.”

Recently Bruce Sterling, one of the leading exponents of Cyberpunk science fiction, published a near-future romance based on the assumption that the decay of political systems will lead to a decentralized proliferation of experiments in living: giant worker-owned corporations, independent enclaves devoted to “data piracy,” Green-Social-Democrat enclaves, Zerowork enclaves, anarchist liberated zones, etc. The information economy which supports this diversity is called the Net; the enclaves (and the book’s title) are Islands in the Net.

The medieval Assassins founded a “State” which consisted of a network of remote mountain valleys and castles, separated by thousands of miles, strategically invulnerable to invasion, connected by the information flow of secret agents, at war with all governments, and devoted only to knowledge. Modern technology, culminating in the spy satellite, makes this kind of autonomy a romantic dream. No more pirate islands! In the future the same technology– freed from all political control–could make possible an entire world of autonomous zones. But for now the concept remains precisely science fiction–pure speculation.

Are we who live in the present doomed never to experience autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only by freedom? Are we reduced either to nostalgia for the past or nostalgia for the future? Must we wait until the entire world is freed of political control before even one of us can claim to know freedom? Logic and emotion unite to condemn such a supposition. Reason demands that one cannot struggle for what one does not know; and the heart revolts at a universe so cruel as to visit such injustices on our generation alone of humankind.

To say that “I will not be free till all humans (or all sentient creatures) are free” is simply to cave in to a kind of nirvana-stupor, to abdicate our humanity, to define ourselves as losers.

I believe that by extrapolating from past and future stories about “islands in the net” we may collect evidence to suggest that a certain kind of “free enclave” is not only possible in our time but also existent. All my research and speculation has crystallized around the concept of the TEMPORARY AUTONOMOUS ZONE (hereafter abbreviated TAZ). Despite its synthesizing force for my own thinking, however, I don’t intend the TAZ to be taken as more than an essay (“attempt”), a suggestion, almost a poetic fancy. Despite the occasional Ranterish enthusiasm of my language I am not trying to construct political dogma. In fact I have deliberately refrained from defining the TAZ–I circle around the subject, firing off exploratory beams. In the end the TAZ is almost self-explanatory. If the phrase became current it would be understood without difficulty…understood in action.