Painted Rock, Nevada: A Prelude to Patchwork?

Governor Steve Sisolak wants to make Nevada the “blockchain technology centre of the world”. How? Through numerous proposed “innovation zones”, including the Painted Rock Smart City, as a means of diversifying the state’s economy and kickstarting its post-COVID recovery. A proposed bill would give Jeffrey Berns (CEO of Blockchain LLC and Ethereum millionaire) the go-ahead to build a smart city with a projected 36,000 inhabitants on a 67,000-acre plot of land between Reno and Fernley purchased in 2018. Residents would be paid in cryptocurrencies and their data and information secured in blockchain form; most controversially, the planned development would see Painted Rock break away from the local county and form an independent authority with the ability to raise taxes, create school districts and Courts and oversee government services.

This is not the first time that Berns’ vision has made the news — when he bought the land in 2018 for $170 million, Berns took journalists on a tour, pointing out where he’d put the high-tech research campus, college and (some would say most importantly) the e-gaming arena. Similar techno-utopian city projects have sprung up in recent years, most notably Akon’s plans for a smart city in Senegal run on the cryptocurrency Akoin and Saudi Arabia’s solar-powered megacity NEOM. Privately funded green cities built in deserts with their own bespoke cryptocurrencies would appear to be the direction of travel for urban planning; think the Company Towns of the 1890s but with Bitcoin instead of scrip.

Governor Sisolak is all for the proposals, and why not? The synthesis of the state, capital and techno-utopianism has been part of Democratic common sense for years. It can’t have diminished Sisolak’s enthusiasm for the innovation zones that Blockchains LLC has made $60,000 in political donations to his campaign fundraisers over the years, according to the BBC. Nevada is home to many such techno-utopian endeavours — Berns’ land surrounds Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 as well as property belonging to Google, Apple and Switch. But Berns has pivoted away from the tax break strategy of Tesla (the $1.3 billion incentive package awarded to Tesla for the construction of Gigafactory 1 was the largest tax break in Nevada’s history), assuring locals that any risk would remain with Blockchains LLC. The plan is not without its critics — the rural county voted earlier this month to oppose such a “separatist governing control”.

For those familiar with neocameralism, specifically in its iteration of Patchwork via Mencius Moldbug, such a proposal sounds directly out of the playbook. For the unacquainted, Moldbug (nom de plume of notorious Dark Enlightenment thinker and software engineer Curtis Yarvin) in his 2008 work Patchwork: A Political System for the 21st Century calls for the abolition of the contemporary nation-state and its replacement with “a global spiderweb of tens, even hundreds, of thousands of sovereign and independent mini-countries, each governed by its own joint-stock corporation without regard to the residents’ opinions.” Each Patch would be governed by delegates (major shareholders within the polity) who would enjoy a sovereign rule over subjects of the Patch akin to that of the divine right of kings. In terms of day-to-day governance, Moldbug advocates “the cryptographic chain of command”, with shareholders making use of cryptographic algorithms to maintain security over key decision making, financial matters and tracking of those living on a certain Patch.

The Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant guilds and market towns, in 1400

At first glance, Berns’ vision of a smart city run on blockchain technology seems commensurate with Moldbug’s prescient Patchwork fantasy; however, on deeper probing, the political impetus is far removed. “I do think,” claims Berns, “the government has stuck its nose into our business too much. I think corporate America is worse than the government as far as sticking their nose in our business is concerned…I’m trying to create a place where they can’t interfere.” This is textbook libertarianism, and the focus on corporate America as worse than the state is reflective of its more left-leaning iterations, far removed from the “joint-stock corporation” ideals of Patchwork. Indeed, Berns has previously claimed that he wishes to give all decision-making power and 90% of dividends to a “distributed collaborative entity” of residents, employees and investors, and he has pitched Painted Rock as a means of “democratizing democracy”.

But it should not be a shock that libertarians and neoreactionary authoritarians coalesce on particular visions for the future, particularly in the United States — after all, libertarian media outlet Liberty Hangout explicitly called for Trump to declare himself a monarch prior to last year’s election, and it is not an unfamiliar sight to see a Gadsden flag (don’t tread on me) bumper sticker alongside a Blue Lives Matter one (perhaps the image that best symbolises the diverse and at times contradictory tendencies within the social coalition that defined Trump’s electoral base). The preference for state or private authority would appear to be interchangeable for the contemporary right.

While most readers upon their first encounter of Patchwork deride it as a neoreactionary fantasy, a mental pastime for the contemporary authoritarians, a divertissement of the techno-monarchists, on deeper theoretical exploration such a state of affairs does seem a possibility, if not an inevitability, of the evident failings of liberal democracy. Since the return of History and the collapse of 2008, the fragility of our political and economic common sense has been readily apparent, and the demise of the nation-state (and by extension liberal democracy) would appear to be the inevitable trajectory of the continued decline of both trust in institutions and satisfaction with democracy. Nietzsche speculated in 1876 that distrust and the decay of the state would result in private companies absorbing its former capacities; when the modern nation-state exhausts its functions it could well be the Painted Rocks, the Akon Cities and the NEOMs of the world that will form the post-Westphalian polity.