In Spring, just as we were defining this issue’s themes of digital-era politics and emerging new ideas about building and changing societies, fashion brand Diesel announced the imminent existence of its island. We didn’t quite understand what it might be, just that it would appear at the end of March, “passports” would be obtained in person at Diesel’s stores or online via Facebook, and that it was accompanied by teaser images of beautiful people exploring a deserted island in designer clothes, and setting up a new way of life there. Long renowned for its risqué, smart magazine advertisements and billboards, Diesel was launching an internet idea that would, in theory, become a sort of society, where laws were proposed and made official by an equal network of “citizens”. According to Diesel founder and head Renzo Rosso, “The idea of creating an unconventional society is very strong for a lifestyle brand. This is a political statement in a world that is messed up by economic crisis and major social issues.” It was also a branding exercise par excellence, of course, but not a one-trick one – over the month of May, a series of workshops and lectures dubbed “The Diesel Island School of Life” and featuring musicians, writers, publishers, food foragers and others took place across the UK. The theme was D-I-Y businesses and other, folksier forms of modern self-sufficiency. As such, it tapped into an ancient tradition of seeing islands as the perfect territory for starting a better society, of the island as “idea” at least as much, or instead of, a geographical reality. It’s one we never seem to tire of.
A MINI MIND-MAP OF IDEA-ISLANDS
Plato, “Atlantis” (360 BC)
In his dialogues “Timaeus” and “Critaeus”, Plato first floated the idea of the lost island city of Atlantis, the Avatar of island-paradise myths. The land, watched over by the sea god Poseidon, was a beacon of happiness and its denizens were duly looked down upon kindly by the gods. “They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury.” But this golden era passed, they became decadent and warlike and acquisitive like other humans and, after an attempt to invade Athens, the whole civilisation sank beneath the ocean in one calamitous day.
Ibn Tufail, Hayy Ibn Yaqdan (c.1210)
Ibn Tufail, a vizier in Andalucia, wrote this story – arguably the first novel – of a boy who grows up on a deserted island, raised by a gazelle, and with no human contact whatsoever. Despite this, thanks to a self-taught, empirical understanding of the world around him and the ability to think logically, he manages to establish universal truths about human morality. This Greek-influenced Islamic scholar and his insistence on deductive thinking had a huge influence on Western empiricism and enlightenment rationalists – John Locke, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibnitz were among those influenced by Hayy Iban Yaqdan when it appeared in the West centuries later under the name “Philosophica Autodidacticus: The Self-Taught Philosopher”.
Sir Thomas More, Utopia (1516)
English Catholic statesman More coined the idea of Utopia, playing on Greek words to create a name that means both “good place” and “no place”. More’s Utopia is an island somewhere in the Americas where the legal system was minimal, and the citizens are harmoniously preselected as workers or leaders. People don’t own property of any kind, fancy clothes or other means of self-differentiation, and gold is used to shackle prisoners and make toilet pots, to discourage its becoming overly fetishised. One family cooks for everybody each night, and healthcare is provided free by the state. In some ways, it sounds like an prototypical socialist state, except that it’s one where religion (of various fictional kinds) is a necessity and functions as a kind of social glue.
William Shakespeare, “The Tempest” (c.1611)
In Shakespeare’s New World play, the island is a location where wrongs done back in civilization can be righted. The play tells the story of the magician Prospero and his daughter Miranda, who have lived on a tropical island for 12 years, since Prospero was banished in a boat by his scheming brother King Antonio, and deprived of his rightful title of Duke of Milan. Realising Antonio’s boat is passing by, Prospero raises a storm to wreck it and leave the passengers stranded on the island and suddenly powerless in an unfamiliar world. This allows Prospero to use his magic to restore order and justice and return home, though not without learning the limits of his powers (over his daughter Miranda’s love life, or over Caliban, the ‘savage’ native who knows the island better than anybody).
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Under the influence of the first translation of Ibn Tufail’s Hayy Ibn Yaqdan and contemporary reports of a real stranded sailor, Alexander Selkirk, Daniel Defoe wrote the most famous island-shipwreck story of all, Robinson Crusoe. Accounts of Sri Lanka and Tobago may also have inspired his description (though it’s the Pacific Island of Más a Tierra, where Selkirk was stranded for four years, that is now known as Robinson Crusoe Island). Crusoe leaves home, becomes a sailor, then a slave, then a slave trader. He learns to fend for himself on an island after a shipwreck, and thanks God for life in his unspoilt paradise where only human company is lacking. Perhaps the most interesting moral moment occurs when he realises that other people do sometimes visit: cannibals, who land to eat their captives. Crusoe plans to kill them, but then changes his mind, deciding it’s wrong to kill them for cannibalism when they can’t possibly know it’s wrong. He famously befriends and converts one of their slaves, Man Friday, too. James Joyce saw Crusoe as the embodiment of the English imperialist.
William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)
During a time of atomic war, a plane carrying group of British schoolboy evacuees crash-lands on an uninhabited island. Though they initially seem set to form co-operative groups and behave in the orderly ways they have learned at home and school. But animal instincts soon take over and the “civilised” tribe are overwhelmed as chaos, cultish worship, bloodlust and conflict seem destined to consume the story and the group’s original hero, until the remaining boys are rescued and returned.
BBC, Castaway (2000)
Not a work of fiction, this, except in so far as it was made for TV, and TV imposes its own melodramatic demands on whatever it covers. Castaway was fairly serious stuff by today’s reality TV standards, a show in which 36 men, women and children from the British mainland were sent to spend a year on a remote Scottish island, Taransay. The castaways had to organise themselves, build and farm to eat and live, and establish their own laws and customs. What it achieved as would-be social experiment in self-sufficient community is unclear, but the islanders clearly went through a lot, even if many of their best-intentions initiatives ended up looking misguided.
JJ Abrahams/ABC, Lost (2005)
With its plane crash, warring island tribes and mysterious monster in the jungle, Lost was knowingly indebted to numerous other island utopias and dystopias, but especially to many of William Golding’s motifs from Lord of the Flies. There was a lot of musing on dualistic natures and the possibility of fate, and philosophers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham, Locke, David Hume and Edmund Burke were all namechecked in the show’s characters’ own names, but what Lost ultimately had to say about human freedom, or anything else concrete, nobody can quite say.
BRIEF HISTORY OF MICRONATIONS
Tiny, unlikely self-declared republics in recent history – towns, estates, littl islands etc.
In 1968, ex-British Naval officer Paddy Bates declared this former fort in the North Sea – basically a concrete platform on a sandbank – a republic. It’s had a colourful past, with attempted invasions, hostage dramas and other diplomatic crises, but it’s still there. There’s a film in the works, Art Brut are said to have a new song about it, and there has even been talk of opening it as a casino.
Ernest Hemingway’s brother Leicester founded his own republic off the coast of Jamaica, in July 1964, as a base for marine research, and crowned himself king. According to the notes held at the University of Texas with a related series of documents, “Built up from a depth of fifty feet, the 8 x 30 ft. “country” was constructed with iron pipes, stones, bamboo, and stainless steel.” Essentially, it amounted to a bamboo raft, anchored by a railroad axle and an old Ford engine block, six miles off the west coast of Jamaica near Bluefields. By 1973, after storm damage and looting, it ceased to exist.
Act of revolution or PR stunt? It may be a thin line. In 1977, bookseller Richard Booth declared the Welsh town Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom, with him as its king. Eleven years later, the town’s annual book festival was launched; now, it’s the UK’s biggest. When Booth announced plans to move a few years ago, his MP Roger Williams’ tribute suggested his PR kingship had achieved more than most real ones: “His legacy will be that Hay changed from a small market town into a Mecca for second-hand book lovers and this transformed the local economy.”
Principality of Hutt River
Hutt River is one of the many Australian micronations founded since the 1960s, and the longest-standing of the lot. Like many others, it came about as a result of conflict between remote farmers and central government regulators. In this case, it was not taxes or a dysfunctional state infrastructure that inspired Leonard Casely to declare a republic and himself ruler, but quotas on wheat production. Because Australia was still a Commonwealth state, refuting Hutt River’s independence was tied up with British law too, and so Hutt River went on as an independent area. Hutt River has its own stamps and coins, Australian taxes are not taken from money earned within its borders, and Casely, aka Prince Leonard I, remains its ruler.
Talossa, usually cited as the first ever virtual micronation, came into being in 1979, and was created by Wisconsin teenager Robert Ben Madison soon after his mother died. Its name taken from a Finnish expression meaning “inside the house,” and Madison’s bedroom was its original physical location. He permitted entry to only a handful of friends, but created a national identity, political system and published a newspaper. He took his creation online in 1996, when it took on a second life as a virtual realm, with disputes, breakaway groups and everything you’d expect from a real-life dysfunctional nation.
POSTCARD FROM DIESEL ISLAND
Since its late March launch, thousands of people have signed up to Diesel’s site, synching in their Facebook profiles, proposing laws, and sometimes finding themselves elected President for the day. It’s not quite a model Platonic state yet, and you do find quite a lot of people clustering around legislation to enforce getting up late, getting drunk, getting laid and getting free stuff from the brand. Some intriguing suggestions have also arisen.
Eddie Racolo proposed a law:
“Everyone on the island should have their own unique swag!! And don’t be fake!”
Manan Goyani proposed a law
“Every man must have at least three women at same time as a life partner”
Jack Alexandre proposed a law:
“Everybody should learn how to roll something to smoke”
Jack Alexandre wrote a line for the national anthem:
The President tweets:
”Yes I know my last Law Proposal had a spelling error. Deal with it.”
Tim van Eldich proposed a law:
“Not every movie has to be in 3D”
Tanski Zem proposed a law:
“It is illegal to post pictures of your food on the internet”
Cameron Temple proposed a law:
“People walking backwards shall have right of way”
Stjin Verbruggen proposed a law:
“No shitting in the lake, only in the sea”
Simon Hill proposed a law:
“NAKED TUESDAYS!” §