Erwin S. Strauss
How to Start Your Own Country
Port Townsend, Washington: Loompanics, 1984
Have you ever wanted to be the leader of your own micro-nation? Erwin S. Strauss might have the answer in How to Start Your Own Country. The author is a colorful character: a minor libertarian notable, a major organizer of science fiction conventions, and a musician who goes by the stage name “Filthy Pierre.” This guy sounds like a hoot already! In the book, Strauss dips his toes into small-scale statecraft.
Being the King, Queen, Dictator, President-For-Life, or Non-Binary Monarch of one’s back yard is a notion with perennial appeal, perhaps even more than ever. Can it be done for real? Probably not, but it’s an interesting thought if nothing else, and the results certainly can be entertaining. Like several other 1980s-era Loompanics books, Your Own Country straddles the line between remarkably subversive and remarkably goofy. Surely such titles sold like hotcakes to those of a certain hubristic mindset.
Strauss’ introduction goes back to the beginning, describing how tribes of cavemen broke away from others to pursue new opportunities for resources. (I figure maybe they also got sick of each other from time to time, not so different from lately.) Is the idea impractical these days?
In today’s crowded societies, once again many people are feeling the drive to break away from existing cultures and establish their own institutions. Ignorant of human history, most people treat such an idea with scorn. The world of the here and now is the only real world, they say. Talk of starting a new country is “escapism.” One’s duty is to direct one’s energies toward making contemporary society a better place to live. And so on.
Uh, yeah. That and the fact that declaring independence tends to be pretty half-baked unless one can hold off an army. Peaceful secessions have happened, though leaders of established countries usually don’t take kindly to it when regions attempt to break away. This is the major problem right there. To be fair, the book does get into that important matter later on.
But those who know better realize that schism is the fundamental human method for dealing with frictions within groups of people.
Well, that one was a little more on point. Then it outlines the following methods to start your own country:
- Approach #1: Traditional Sovereignty
- Approach #2: Ship Under Flag of Convenience
- Approach #3: Litigation
- Approach #4: Vonu (Out of Sight and Mind)
- Approach #5: Model Country
Some other obvious methods are possible, generally related to item 1. The first is filibustering, such as when William Walker and his Männerbund of fifty other gringos took over Nicaragua in the mid-1850s. (The Nicaraguans are still sore about that.) The second method is to foment revolution in an unstable country or region thereof, or take a leading part in an ongoing rebellion. Of course, if you don’t win, then you’re in deep trouble. Moreover, those things are illegal as hell, and the CIA hates competition.
L’état, c’est moi
The “Traditional Sovereignty” approach best meets the definition of starting one’s own country. There’s hardly any unclaimed land left in the world, and none that’s particularly valuable. If you’re not up for trying to locate some uncharted islet that nobody wants, then you’ll have to declare independence in part of someone else’s territory. After that, make up a flag and a national anthem. Then you have to convince the international community to take your breakaway state seriously. Easy peasy, right?
Note well, I don’t recommend this. You’d be considered a rebel leader, and your upstart country probably would get invaded very quickly. Thus, the potential fallout for something like this is pretty dire. That much is obvious, but I’ll fill in some details that the book doesn’t. Bungling a coup attempt or losing a war of independence probably ends in a firing squad for you. At the least, you’ll get a fun stay in a Third World maximum security prison. If you’re lucky, diplomats from your real home country will negotiate on your behalf with diplomats from the country you tried to take over, and both sides will rightly think you’re a big idiot. Just don’t do that!
Sensibly the author discourages the belief that enough martial bravado can compensate for being massively outnumbered. I agree; let’s avoid doing anything rash. Assuming a mercenary task force is experienced and willing to risk their lives over the scheme, they still won’t be able to withstand being outnumbered three-to-one. (Besides, it’s axiomatic that at least a quarter of the warlord’s new buddies he recruited from an ad in Soldier of Fortune are feds.) Did I mention avoiding doing anything rash?
Far less sensibly, the author discusses using WMD terrorism as a potential strategy of tension for a would-be country to get taken seriously. As our Leftist pals would say, “Wow. Just wow.” This is one of the places where the book is rather dated; these days, Bond villain tactics are unfashionable, and would make someone Public Enemy Number One. Becoming the next “Rocket Man” like Kim Jong-Un may be hazardous to one’s health, and certainly would make the new country a rogue state right from the beginning. The author even recommends his book Basement Nukes (Port Townsend, Washington: Loompanics, 1980) as a how-to guide. Did I mention that this kind of stuff straddles the line between remarkably subversive and remarkably goofy? Anyway, don’t try this at home, kids!
What else can a would-be dictator do? More or less, the author recommends making an arrangement with a major power that also is looking to take over the country you want. This worked for Castro, who took over Cuba while backed by the Soviet Union. It also worked for Chairman Mao, who took over China and was backed by the USA’s Department of State. This method seems a somewhat less suicidal route than being a revolutionary without allies, but there’s no guarantee of success. The Bay of Pigs fiasco illustrates one of the many things that can go wrong. The CIA had set up a task force of counterrevolutionary exiles to take over Cuba, but as soon as they invaded, the unfortunate dupes were left to twist in the wind.
When working on behalf of a major power, the deal is that one must “deliver the vote,” as the author describes using a Chicagoan term. Essentially, your part of the arrangement will be to carry out the groundwork for the régime change. First, you’ll need to convince your backers that you can do it better than they can by themselves. Obviously, having lots of street cred helps. I’ll add a word to the wise here. You’ll begin as a proxy of the forces that helped sweep you into power, so you’ll need to keep them happy, or you’ll find yourself becoming very disposable.
Realistically, taking over someone else’s turf is too dangerous to be practical, and again it’s illegal as hell, but that doesn’t mean it never happens. Despite the USA’s appearance of internal stability, recall that not so long ago, a remarkably strange secession actually did happen in the Granola Belt. During the George Floyd nonsense, a gaggle of anarchists, pinkos, and other Leftist defectives took over six blocks of Seattle (including a police station) and an adjoining park. They declared independence as CHAZ, later called CHOP, informally known as Tofudishu. Like other typical “autonomous zones,” it was a parasitic public nuisance that wouldn’t have had a prayer of supporting itself independently. Surprisingly, this instant failed state was allowed to continue until the violence and disorder became too much to overlook.
Again, don’t try this at home, kids. Until they finally grew a pair, Seattle’s liberal politicians let the radicalinskis get away with their antics for nearly a month. Even then, they still got off remarkably lightly. However, that doesn’t mean anyone else can count on the kid gloves treatment. The takeaway is that creating a new country is easier said than done. That may be discouraging, but that’s how it goes.
So far, the book had much discussion about claiming a bit of turf somewhere and trying not to get invaded. That’s pretty risky, so I have another answer if you really want to be El Jefe and get your mug on some currency and postage stamps. Why not move to a small and relatively decent Third World country that has working democratic traditions, and then run for office? Such a venture is uncertain too, but not as hazardous as the fortunes of war. If you do manage to launch a successful political career abroad, then what you do with it is your call. Either you can promise the moon but never deliver the goods (like our politicians do), or you could be the most enlightened El Jefe that the Banana Republican Party has ever had.
Ways to be an armchair dictator
There are some other alternatives. These don’t give you as much real power as the conquest method, but at least you might get some of the flavor of power.
The second method listed in the book, “Ship Under Flag of Convenience,” is pretty much what it says on the tin. Purchase a suitable watercraft, and then get it registered in Liberia or Panama or some other place that isn’t too fussy about what its ships do. This method doesn’t get you your own country, but it’s still a technicality for doing whatever the hell you want in international waters.
Possible activities include free banking, the sale of unregulated securities, tax-free business sites, clinics offering therapies that are banned onshore (Laetrile, etc.), and any other activity that is heavily taxed or regulated onshore.
Anyway, buyer beware. I’m not an expert on admiralty law, and I doubt that too many Loompanics writers were either. Running dope or otherwise operating a floating public nuisance seems like a way to get the wrong kind of attention. Cost is one major barrier to entry in this sort of thing. Ships don’t come cheap, and presumably you’d rather get a Bond villain yacht than a Huckleberry Finn raft.
Item 3 is the “Litigation” method. I’ll say that a mighty conqueror takes over a territory, and a mighty weasel sues his way into one. Obviously, it takes a pretty big lawyer tab to pull off that trick. Still, it sort of worked for the squatters on the “Principality of Sealand,” an offshore British gunnery tower built during the War to Make the World Safe For Democracy. Technically, international law says that manmade islands and other structures don’t qualify as territory that can be claimed for a new country. (Well, that’s no fun! Besides, as some would point out, the law is an ass.) A 1968 court decision at least allowed them to be left alone to carry on their silliness. However, despite what the soi-disant King of Sealand thinks, the ruling did not actually recognize the obsolete Flakturm as a sovereign nation.
The “Vonu (Out of Sight and Mind)” method is basically about disappearing into the wilderness. The odd term, coined by someone called Rayo, means “invulnerability to coercion.” A map is included of a territory alleged to be popular in that scene. That looks a bit too far out in the chilly peaks of the Canadian Rockies for my tastes, and I also prefer to hunt in a supermarket. Still, surely this will be helpful for folks who might want to go Galt with the “vonu” community, if any such thing still exists these days, or for feds who want to round them up.
The areas favored by the originators of the “vonu” concept were in the Siskiyou Mountains of Eastern Oregon and the interior of British Columbia. Other promising areas for the practice of “vonu” are uninhabited islands in the Pacific and other oceans. . . Still another possibility explored by the original “vonuans” is nomadism: living as gypsies in campers and such, spending the night wherever one happens to be at the end of the day.
Indeed, there are vast areas of Flyover Country owned by the government, agribusiness, and a tiny number of billionaires. In these sparsely-populated regions, it might be easy for someone to disappear, though it’s not entirely safe to do so. Still, despite the exotic terminology, this “vonu” business sounds less like owning one’s own country and more like homelessness. Anyway, if you get busted for trespassing, your mud hut gets bulldozed, or you get a ticket because you refuse to purchase a gummint vehicle registration sticker for your RV, that one’s on you.
The fifth item, “Model Country,” actually sounds a bit fun, even though it’s just LARPing. You go through the motions of declaring independence and then making a flag, national anthem, stamps, currency, and all that jazz. Laibach’s “Neue Slowenische Kunst” virtual country is one of the best examples of this concept lately, and probably the coolest ever. If I decided to create the United Imperial Fascist Dictatorship of Northwest Salt Lake City, I doubt it would be half as cool, even during Deseret’s notorious winters.
Note well, despite a model country having some of the symbolic trappings of sovereignty, it’s just a “state of mind.” With luck, it might even evolve into a profitable tourist attraction, but you can’t be entirely too serious about it. Having a quirky hobby like that might be within the limits of official toleration. However, if someone in the government believes you mean it and want to secede for real, you might get the Gordon Kahl treatment. Don’t do anything ill-advised like trying to spend your phony paper money; that’s counterfeiting, and the Federal Reserve hates competition! Don’t shoot the mailman or meter reader for invading your “country.” You still have to pay taxes, of course. As the book cleverly points out, you can rationalize it as a defense appropriation outsourced to the mother country, or even as paying protection money.
After discussing these alternatives, the book wraps up with a cost/benefit analysis of each — what gets the best results, what involves the greatest investment, what method is easiest to back out of, etc. This includes a chart listing these factors. Some might find it helpful, but to me, it seems this stuff isn’t rocket science.
Your brand new government
So let’s say you get your new country. What form of government will it be? If it’s pluralistic, and thus allows some sharing of power, then you’ll have to deal with wealthy loudmouths throwing their weight around. Sounds like the USA’s Deep State, doesn’t it? Le plus qu’il change, le plus c’est la même chose.
Another temptation is to declare that all settlers will participate in making decisions about how the new country is to be run. This approach may recruit a large number of people, but tends to attract lots of chiefs and few Indians. The people spend all their time and energy debating every little point of policy, rather than in establishing the businesses and other institutions that are to be the backbone of the new country.
The tales I could tell about direct democracy. . . I’m with Bismarck here: “Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided. . . but by iron and blood.” Then the discussion turns to corrupt politicians who feather their nests and don’t have to be fiscally responsible.
As an alternative, the book describes the “proprietary community” in which one person (presumably that’s you) owns everything and leases to everyone else. Well, that rather sounds like an early version of the Great Reset concept, in which the sheeple are supposed to “own nothing and be happy.” How are the judges to remain neutral in all that? What’s going to keep the country’s leader and only property owner honest? Decisions, decisions. . .
Then Strauss’ thoughts turn to the future.
So far we have looked mainly at the problems involved in getting a new country started and running smoothly. But what then? What can you look forward to for your children, and your children’s children? Can you expect them to carry on the work you have started? Or will the world change so much that your efforts become meaningless?
Okay, we can relate. Strauss then laments that since the dawn of agriculture, the most profitable racket has been to loot someone else’s country. He cautions: “In the coming centuries, it will likely be possible to build doomsday machines that can destroy all life on Earth.” Much discussion of WMDs follows. Well, since Filthy Pierre also is the author of Basement Nukes, surely he has cause to be concerned about all that.
A long chapter contains a list of would-be countries, most founded since the 1960s. Since the book came out in the mid-1980s, this part is a bit dated. Most of them never took on a life of their own or even have much public recognition, which shows you how serious (or not) these DIY governments were. It would be interesting to see a more current list, if a new edition might be in the works one of these days. There have been various new projects in recent times, and some might go further than others in the past.
The first effort detailed in the list was the Republic of New Afrika. It doesn’t mention their flag, but maybe it’s a watermelon with five stars.
Its territory is said to comprise Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, under provisional president Imari Abubakari Obadele. It was last reported to be planning elections in which only blacks would vote.
Say what you will about the Republic of New Afrika, but one certainly can’t fault them for not being ambitious! However, it looks like Imari Abubakari Obadele’s secession didn’t pan out any better than the attempt a century prior by Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Anyway, if the Confederacy couldn’t prevail in the 1860s with thirteen states, the colored version with five states wasn’t likely to do much better.
The next project was Alice Shoal, detailing a proposal to build up an underwater reef into an actual island. This is located southwest of Jamaica, though misidentified in the book as being near St. Croix, United States Virgin Islands. Thus far, nothing has become of it. Several proposals also are described for colonizing Antarctica. Actually, I’ve given the concept a whirl in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. If global warming turns out to be the real deal, maybe it can be taken more seriously. Many other would-be countries are detailed further in the chapter. It’s a very long list, actually taking up half of the book. These range from territorial claims on Rockall, a desolate islet way out in the North Sea, to the Society for Creative Anachronism, the original LARPers. Hopefully the above gives the approximate flavor for all this.
Anyway, that’s a very nice catalog of pipe dreams. Still, there’s something missing. Where are all the new countries that actually are taken seriously by people other than a few would-be founders? Israel would’ve been an interesting case study, illustrating the tremendous advantages of having powerful countries backing the venture with an unlimited budget. Some of the colonial spinoffs in modern times would be worth a look too. Surely even the dysfunctional Communist theme park known as North Korea would’ve been worth some cautionary lessons.
More recent history gives several examples which one may learn from, whatever the merits and demerits of these places may be: the successor states to the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia; and breakaway states like Eritrea, South Sudan, and East Timor. Say what you will about Transnistria; even they have it together as a country better than the “Principality of Sealand.”
The last chapter describes several books that might be useful in the do-it-yourself micro-nation racket. This includes, of course, a plug for Basement Nukes. Another title listed is The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, the most boring book in the English language. I see what ol’ Filthy Pierre is up to with this one! Assigned reading will be a new nation’s alternative to the death penalty. Well, that might seem progressive to some, but I bet Amnesty International still won’t like this new form of torture.
Half-baked, but at least a fun idea
All this discussion of highly obscure DIY countries is, well, amusing. As a pipe dream, the idea of founding a new nation is understandably appealing to some. However, in earlier times, those who took the idea seriously without having the talent or means to make it happen usually suffered from at least a touch of armchair dictator complex. Properly speaking, statecraft is serious business, not an exercise in building castles in the sky. As Mussolini — a real dictator — put it:
The right to national independence does not arise from any merely literary and idealistic form of self-consciousness; still less from a more or less passive and unconscious de facto situation, but from an active, self-conscious, political will expressing itself in action and ready to prove its rights. It arises, in short, from the existence, at least in fieri, of a State. Indeed, it is the State which, as the expression of a universal ethical will, creates the right to national independence.
On the other hand, the idea isn’t so hubristic anymore. Lately, the Deep State swamp critters cheated their senile proxy Joe Bidet into the White House, and the administration probably will be a train wreck. If the top two thousand most cunning and powerful “inside the Beltway” types were kicked out of their cushy jobs and replaced by Walmart shoppers selected at random regardless of education and experience, America would be vastly improved. These days, it’s hardly irrational to daydream about getting a fresh start and running the show better than the bozos in Washington.
Still, thoughts of secession are premature lately, even more so than they were in 1861. If Leftists were to secede in parts of the country where they predominate, they’d be quite happy to be rid of Neanderthals like us, singing their joyful indignation to the world about being free from our corrupting presence. On our part, we would get a shot at having a normal country again. However, if we were the ones to take the initiative to secede, all hell would break loose, and the leftists would resort to any degree of savagery to force us to stay. They’d probably call their ICBMs “bombs of love” or something.
A better idea
Instead of this, why not form planned communities and settlements, or organize existing ones where we already are? The principle even works for Leftists too. Instead of creating a public nuisance in Seattle on other people’s property, they could’ve put their spare change together and bought cheap land somewhere. As the legitimate owners, then they could’ve set up a commune, started running things their way, and begun trying to figure out the age-old Leftist conundrum of how to make money grow on trees.
Best of all, forming towns (or becoming the majority in existing ones) isn’t the sort of thing that risks starting a war. To some degree, local governments already have legitimate authority to run things their way, and this isn’t even too controversial. With some effort, we could get in charge of various city government posts, or better. If central authority broke down at some point in the future, then these local governments would become de facto sovereign. In a “shit hits the fan” scenario, this will become tremendously valuable to the local population for order and protection.
It’s a lot of work and doesn’t have the same chic as extreme physics projects in one’s basement, but it’s much more practical.
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