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Towards An Anti-Adversarial Cloud State
Game Theoretic Escape Velocity of a New Country
Note that this article is written as a complement to this piece by Balaji Srinivasan.
You can listen to my comments on the original article, as well as an audio version of this essay here:
Game Theoretic Stability
One of the foundational principles of cryptocurrencies is that they are game-theoretically stable. Proof of work, for example, is a mechanism which penalizes bad actors with an exorbitant cost in energy for falsifying information. The difficulty in architecting a secure, transmutable digital currency comes not from the simple act of sending a payment in good faith - fiat does that just fine. Instead, rigorous economic and technical work is required to align a system of incentives against bad-faith actors in both the fraud and monetary policy areas.
Likewise, there is no difficulty in assembling a cadre of online misfits making up the population, wealth, and land ownership of a small or medium-sized nation state for a “shared LARP”, as the article recommends.
Our idea is to proceed cloud first, land last. Rather than starting with the physical territory, we start with the digital community. We recruit online for a group of people interested in founding a new virtual social network, a new city, and eventually a new country.
What we've described thus far is much like the concept of ethnic diasporas, which are internationally dispersed but connected by communication channels with each other and the motherland. The twist is that our version is a reverse diaspora: a community that forms first on the internet, builds a culture online, and only then comes together in person to build dwellings and structures.
Instead, the Rubicon that must be crossed with great effort to attain the desired blank slate is the great escape from existing nations and the laws that govern them. Tragically, the thing that makes a cloud state so desirable - freedom from mismanagement, decadence and tyranny - is precisely the motive for existing nations to suppress such a movement with whatever means necessary. Even in Western democracies, the allure of non-negotiated power over the wealth it rules is incomparable even to the sum of their diplomatic powers wielded against smaller nations.
There is no shortage of tools that can be leveraged against separatist movements. Existing nation-states typically deal with antagonistic separatists through violence, infrastructure attacks, and economic sanction, the latter of which can be sustained even after a separatist state is internationally recognized. Keep these tactics in mind, as a cloud state’s disconnected geography is uniquely fragile to each of these attacks.
A Shared Fiction
It may seem daunting, but hope for a cloud state springs from the exact demons it seeks to escape. Legacy power has proven countless times to be committed to underestimating its enemy and failing to coordinate. In fact, the clever runway given by the original article is exactly the mechanism that can be used to cripple the metaphorical immune systems of legacy governance.
We build the embryonic state as an open source project, we organize our internal economy around remote work, we cultivate in-person levels of civility, we simulate architecture in VR, and we create art and literature that reflects our values.
The numerical definition begins with visualizing a nationrealestatepop.com site similar to coinmarketcap.com, where the number of cloud country members, the acreage of real estate owned by those members, and the on-chain GDP are tracked in realtime. Eventually a cloud country of 5M people worldwide with thousands of square miles of (discontiguous) community-owned land and billions in annual income demands recognition.
This synchronized LARP is vital because the exploration of abstract ideas is explicitly sanctioned in Western democracies. The jurisprudential precedent of separatist movements in countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Spain carve out a domain in which advocating for separatist movements is legal, even if the application of said ideas is not. While the Rule of Law itself is not guaranteed in other Western-aligned countries, most notably India, the diasporic nature of a cloud state movement would likely draw scrutiny and pressure from the West if these countries crack down on speech rights. On the other hand, China has repeatedly shown its willingness to persecute individuals, particularly when the economic stakes are high. For the remainder of this article, we will assume that there will be little to no support from China and other authoritarian states. While defiant supporters of a cloud state may emerge there, it is unlikely that they will make up significant numbers relative to the rest of the global movement due to this chilling effect.
The Threat of Legacy States
The hard limit on the legal protections of the scaled larp comes at an attempt to reap the benefits of a new state. Depending on how far one tries to remove himself or herself from a legacy state, charges from tax evasion to sedition will unceremoniously rain down. Further noncompliance will result in real violence - an unhappy end for dedicated LARPers. For aforementioned reasons, straightforward security is not available to a cloud state, so the only option remaining is deterrence.
Several forms of deterrence available to typical nations are also off the table. This includes the most straightforward option:
This in turn leads us to the societal definition: a new country is a new member of the United Nations, one that is internationally recognized by other countries as a legitimate polity capable of self-determination.
A cloud country with a population of this size would actually fit right in the middle of the pack globally, as out of the 193 UN-recognized sovereign states approximately 20% of existing countries have a population of less than 1M and ~55% have a population of less than 10M.
This tactic of gaining social recognition by achieving measurable metrics is a fool’s errand. Consider, among others, the case of Taiwan, a government with a clear geographic territory, a population of over 23 million, and thriving economic trade relations. On the surface, it clearly rises above a majority of UN-recognized nation states in the metrics specified in the Montevideo Convention. Its roadblock, of course, is the staunch opposition of the People’s Republic of China, whose geopolitical maneuvering has silenced international recognition from even Taiwan’s closest allies. On the global stage, governments can stay irrational longer than a cloud state can keep its freedom.
Extreme measures of military deterrence, including nuclear weapons and other catastrophic technologies, is another possibility. I will not make a practical argument for or against them, but instead a moral argument that the risk inherent in acquiring them is against the spirit of non-violence presented in the original article.
Crossing The Rubicon
This leaves the economic and social levers, which if used deftly, may actually suffice. A cloud state can begin by focusing on the weaknesses of so-called WEIRD countries - White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic nations whose decisions likely determine whether a cloud state sinks or floats. The liberal pieties and economic legacy of these countries are the petri dish of a new polity in which internal competition in the eroding shell of institutions strongly outweighs incentives for collective action. On face value, this appears like a drastic or even hyperbolic claim, but faced with the mountain of supporting evidence, including record polarization, baseless attacks on the idea of meritocracy, and increasing self-destructive participation in politics, Douthat’s case becomes increasingly difficult to refute. Many progenitors of the cloud state cite these exact circumstances as a reason for their movement.
Luckily, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. This easily exploitable incentive structure is exactly the pathway towards a successful cloud state movement. An essential property of the cloud diaspora is that members naturally permeate all layers of society. In the same way that everyone either knows a gay person, or knows someone who knows a gay person, clouders aren’t just some foreign nation; they’re your friends, family and neighbours. Through a well-organized, persistent cultural campaign, emotionally compelling human interest stories can circumnavigate imaginations worldwide. Then, the incentive structure is reversed. Does the U.S. government alienate everyone who knows a clouder by cracking down on a united withdrawal campaign? Does it risk fracturing an already frail supply chain? Or do they eat the revenue loss, which they dismiss and kick down the road? How about the E.U.? A willingness to negotiate can tip the scales even further in our favour.
Because of the movement nature of the cloud state, there is a natural progression that solves the collective action problem. There is full immunity in sheltering inside the LARPing team while building up a cultural presence. With each brave step across the rubicon, the incentives for others to follow only increase. Once the movement has cultural traction, if repressive measures are taken, momentum is likely to be carried forward by public opinion backlash.
Of course, the words “well-organized” and “persistent” are doing a lot of heavy lifting here. No one expects that clouders will be the only one to wage a media war. In fact, a coordinate cloud state will likely lose to a coordinated geographic state. Fortunately for us, competence isn’t what we’re up against. As with any moon-shot idea, it’s understandable to approach this type of effort bearing a heart heavy with doubt. A roadmap riddled with contingencies and short term failure is not just possible, but expected. We will have to build incrementally, as we always do.
However, what we have is a guiding star. We have a unifying value to organize behind, and when that is matched against a society that has lost theirs, that has long since sunk into loathing and disrepair, it is well enough to carry us across the finish line.