Mabo, Patchwork and The City

I’ve been reading Mabo vs Queensland (No 2), the 1992 High Court ruling that established native title in Australia. It ranges all over. It would make a good non-fiction comic book, like the titles about Rosa Luxembourg or North Korea you get these days. I have none of the skills or personal background to make it, but I would love to read one. If anyone makes such a thing, please tell me.

Prior to Mabo, Australian land without explicit title was considered terra nullius, zero land, deserted land without ownership, even though obviously there were inhabitants of the continent before white settlement. Within the Mabo decision, at least in Justice Brennan’s judgement, once the idea that terra nullius should apply to any Aboriginal land is questioned, much precedent also disappears. So he needs to consider two threads of history.

The first thread is older precedent for maintenance of title when a land is invaded. Reading it, we travel the world from seventeenth century Ireland, to pre- and post-independence India, to colonial Africa, to nineteenth century America, and Marshall’s Supreme Court judgement in favour of the Cherokee. Brennan considers tanistry and usufructuary rights, a wordy tour of property and sovereignty. This may say more about me than the culture at large, but such depth of attention to the history of property is something I’m more used to seeing on obscure rightwing blogs. It gives the peculiar impression that Mencius Moldbug wrote a very long Christmas Card to indigenous people, with presents at the end.

The other thread of history is the very local one of the Murray islands. From the first moment of written history for the region, the reports are of a settled people with not just defined hunting rights, but gardens laid out with clearly maintained family plots. Even when things are distorted somewhat by contact with colonial authorities, missionaries, and the invention of a headman, there is continuous occupation and use in a form easily legible to those familiar with European legal ownership. It’s families with inherited houses and backyards. Things change, but that basic arrangement does not. By the time the Queensland government got around to explicitly extinguishing existing title for the island in the 1980s, the ham-fisted way they did it violated the 1970s federal Race Discrimination Act, and was overturned (that’s Mabo vs Qld (No 1)).

Native title snuck through the gaps in existing legislation and case law, overlooked … it escaped overcoded nullity. Codes of law are obviously state-entwined artifacts, and hardly smooth spaces of nomadic movement. But common law in particular does have an immanent quality of bottom-up reasoning from examples. It has a patchwork inconsistency sensitive to weird traditions, particularities and local exceptions. It also has aspects of the general intellect. It’s an externalized memory, far bigger than one person, capturing social rules; a game of asking for and giving reasons, as Negarestani describes the more general rational project.

English common law propagates both vertically and laterally: it was spread by colonialism, but countries who have long since gained independence refer to and expand upon judgements in peer states. That copy-paste spread also means there is precedent to inspect from every continent, intersecting with many traditions. English common law, or parliamentary law for that matter, also seems fairly compatible with overlays of other constitutions from other legal commitments – be they national constitutions or EU treaty obligations. Just add another axiom.

Crazy Quilt Statecraft

This all intersected at an odd angle with the latest updates from the seasteading crowd around Patri Friedman, and comments by xenogothic. Seasteading is apparently on land now, and focused on trading colony-style charter cities instead of nomadic fleets of sea vessels. English common law is the favoured choice of legal system.

xenogothic writes:

Friedman’s fatal flaw — and he apparently says himself in Chapman’s article that he’s been trying these things out for twenty years so he really should have realised it by now — is that he is trying to replicate the end of the frontier. Every time, he’s trying to replicate a fleeting moment within the American West’s territorialisation, between the anarchic freedom and the recoding of English capitalism.

Reproducing the American West – particularly the Wild West – is a recurring failure condition of American libertarianism (and there really is little other kind). Replicating the end of the frontier is exactly the right diagnosis of libertarian gun politics, for example. The tech has moved, but the thought has not.

This charter city turn seems something else. The point of reference is usually not the OK Corral, but something more like (gunless) Hong Kong, the earliest English colonies on the American eastern seaboard, or the free ports of European history. As the anti-democratic brutality of the last year in Hong Kong has shown, free cities are a negotiated space between the crushing military and bureaucratic power of large states, and the tax rents and positive spillovers of a city open to trade and cultural exchange.

Critics also forget that laissez-faire in Hong Kong or Singapore never stopped the government co-ordinating the building of a lot of houses, hospitals, metro systems, and so on.

I’m not advocating starting new Opium Wars just so we can get new Hong Kongs, but neither is Friedman. He’s describing it as a kind of tax break office park, it’s true, but that is in Bloomberg (speak capitalism when selling to capitalists, I guess). It would be good to see more agora and less duty-free shop, of course. There’s a lurking failure mode of frappe mall-cop arcology, low regulation for the corporate owners, rigorously surveilled and regulated for normal residents, everyone citizens of elsewhere, extradition always the first resort.

Opening frontiers are not always Cortez and smallpox. They are far more ambiguous: they are also Marco Polo, Peter Minuit trade-stealing Manhattan, the Lanfang Kongsi, or the German trading colony outside Saint Petersburg. Charter cities could be less of a replay than a spiral-back.

((Crazy quilt – cento der metaphysik – patchwork – is also a name Kant uses to deride metaphysics in the Prologomena.))

Firebomb Burbclave

We are not yet through summer and this climatethrashed Australian weather may have horrors to come. This post was written in dribs and drabs, and one of the minor political curiosities to flicker past was an AFR op-ed proposing some part of the destroyed region be made an export processing zone (ie a low-tax regional cousin to the charter city).

My first reaction was revulsion at the opportunism, and a sense that the proposal wasn’t much of a solution; that probably more funding for forestry management, adaptation and firefighting infrastructure was more relevant. This does seem in hypocritical tension with my support for patchworks and city-states. Presumably disaster capitalism always seems better when you’re not on the receiving end.

On the other hand, isn’t regulatory patchwork without civic autonomy rather missing the point? The location is weird, because the fires ravaged mainly the country towns that co-exist with the broad metropolitan footprint of Sydney and Melbourne. They aren’t natural ports, or airports. A hinterland without an extra-connected urban centre is a tax farm, not a polity. A new city there would be an inland exurb for the existing metropole.

Once, as in Greg Egan novels, the futurist location for New Hong Kong was Arnhem Land. It seemed it might arise from decades of failures to reach a political settlement without a treaty, and state-like autonomy for the First Nations. It might have been a decent way to give up the attempt to police people from Canberra. In the event, things have gone the other way, with ever more paternalistic interventions. Mabo, and the legislation that followed, are parallel tracks to that, recognizing title within the Australian state, re-stitching the communities into the liberal and legal fabric of the Commonwealth.

Current military and surveillance tech – drones, cameras and satellites – is just not conducive to the emergence of peers to the current club of nation states. Countries even pretend Taiwan doesn’t exist, despite seventy years of modern history, a geographic border, a flag, a currency, and more firepower than Prussia. If Taiwan hasn’t got a chance, how is your floating burbclave off the coast of Thailand going to join the club? (Also, it takes a spectacular ignorance of Thai history to imagine they wouldn’t be prickly about sovereignty.)

So why contest that ground? Make your genuflections to a local Westphalian dragon throne and then construct a different civic space within its nominal territory. Enact the Urban Intelligence Box Problem. Escape through the gaps, copy-pasting whatever common law is useful.

Nation-states – perhaps a few nice exceptions aside – are not going to welcome climate refugees with open arms. But as the refugee cities group point out, they might be convinced a charter city is better than a camp.

Mountain City

The mountain city of Mount Huan is acknowledged to be one of the wonders of my home district, even though many a year goes by when it is not seen at all. A few years ago, the lawyer Sun Yun’nian was drinking with some mates on his verandah when suddenly they noticed a lone apartment block on the mountain opposite, rising up far into the deep blue sky. They looked at each other in sheer disbelief, as they knew of no condominium in that vicinity and had not had a chance to buy off the plan. Then a vast number of skyscrapers with blobject glass curves, abstract sculptures, antennas, and wall-gardens came into view, an unsolicited message from city hall arrived reminding them to vape responsibly, and they realized it was the Mountain City of Mount Huan.
Presently the expressways and light rail of the outer city became visible, and within them they could distinguish countless storied buildings, temples and residences. Suddenly a great wind arose, dust blew in, and the city could scarcely be seen any longer. By and by the wind subsided, the air cleared, and the city had vanished, save for one tall tower. Each storey of this tower had been pierced by sixty shuttered windows, all of which had been thrown open and let through the light from the sky on the other side. One could count the storeys of the tower by the rows of dots. The higher they were, the smaller they became, until by the eightieth story they resembled tiny stars, and above that they became an indistinguishable blur of twinkling lights disappearing into the heavens. It was just possible to make out tiny figures on the tower, some hurrying about, others leaning, or standing.
A little while longer, and the tower began to decrease in size, until its roof could be seen. One by one, pieces the size of an apartment or a gondola would detach, descend at an orderly pace down the side of the building, and roll away, disappearing from view. The tower continued shrinking still further to the height of a stadium, and then a car, then a bean, until finally it could not be seen at all.
It’s said you can fly to Mount Huan, if you need to, and that maps work fine in the city centre, but are glitchy to the point of useless in the suburbs. You have to get a local app: I forget its name. A determined walker can take in the whole layout of the city – its markets, its users, its parks. It is in no respect different from a city in our world. The annual “Ghost City Marathon” has become popular in recent years, and is well regarded, though there are problems recording accurate times.


Pu Songling, Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio, Minford trans. Story 89 from Minford / Story 251 in Zhang Youhe is a model for this text.
Pu Songling, Liaozhai Zhiyi, 聊齋誌異會校會注會評本, Zhang Youhe ed, 1978.

Sweet Portia

Singapore is a Venetian place: a maritime republic, a trading entrepôt, straddling cultures like a salesman, gateway to the Occident, wielding languages like a nimble lumberjack, protective of its citizens, happy with a respectable facade, tolerating most people so long as they have capital, importing labourers rather less indulgently, multi-racial, sometimes racist, mostly clean and rich in a region mostly otherwise. Above all, it is mercantile. La Republica Pristina.

Singapore isn’t like the Old Venice we visit today, the gorgeous Victorian Disneyland kept afloat for art and tourists. It’s like Young Venice of perhaps the year 1000, the Paduan colony, a trading post perched tenuously in a lagoon to keep Dark Age cavalry at bay, one starting to make a serious go of it, with its conscripted navy and an early grip on eastern Mediterranean trade with Byzantium.

The Singapore Repertory Theatre seize the chance offered by this parallel with Bruce Guthrie’s production of Merchant of Venice. Some Shakespearean plays look hard and get clearer with familiarity, but Merchant for me looked very legible on first encounter, and has got steadily less clear since. Jason Schneiderman captures the ambivalence of its relationships in his elegant The Sadness of Antonio.

The cast is good across the board, but three actors dominate. Daniel Jenkins brings something of last year’s Iago to his Antonio; gentle with his friends but always sneering and insulting to Shylock, even before his life is forfeit. Remesh Panicker’s Shylock has tremendous calm presence, with the production effortlessly substituting Indian chettiar tropes for Jewish moneylender ones, without changing the text. You can imagine his years of practicing his reserve as a survival skill. This means he keeps our sympathy as much as possible, while he faces his posh boy tormentors in court, who made a deal they couldn’t stick to while colluding to allow his daughter to elope. And Julie Wee’s Portia pins her end of the triangle, her lawyer’s brain sharpened on years of study while restrained by her dead father’s will. She explains the quality of mercy … even if it’s a greatest hit, it’s still a beautiful speech … before kicking Shylock as hard as she can while he’s down. You wonder if it’s her revenge on her father, her well-cultivated rage, or just self-righteous racism. This production leaves in her racial jab at her suitor, the Prince of Morocoo:

A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

This comment, too, comes after the Prince has lost, in his case at a riddle. Unlike Shylock, we never see Portia at a loss, only at a disadvantage. Even the failure of her new trophy husband is used to put him in his place, and teach him a lesson. She never loses, and the mask never slips.

Every major relationship in the Merchant of Venice, and many a minor one, comes with a contract, and every contract comes with a sting. John Kerrigan notes that Marx was encouraged by Shakespeare to see money as a bond that separates, particularly in Timon of Athens. We imbue objects with a symbolic weight and then behave as if the object is magical. Portia’s wedding ring is such a tool, not only with her husband Bassanio, but with his so close friend, Antonio, who ends up swearing his Bassanio will be faithful; a peculiar oath.

Those last few scenes, about the ring – they can be a dizzy little comedic spiral after the horror movie of the court case, if you want, cheeky cross dressing and lovers’ tiffs. Guthrie doesn’t let us get away so easily. Jessica’s stolen dowry is another bond that separates. The quarrel between Krissy Jesudason’s Jessica and Johnson Chong’s petulant Lorenzo has more pain in it, and more regret. Jessica is given the last moment of the play, and she spends it weeping. It’s a shock, this interpretation, but it fits. In sooth, we know why she is so sad, but do her new pretty rich friends?

Some theatrical traditions emphasize the contrast between mystical Belmont and cutthroat commercial Venice, but this production doesn’t really see the need. Everything glitters. In Singapore, Belmont is a condo in Holland V.

Lines of Sight

Architecture can be like a conversation. A very slow, expensive conversation. The centre of cities like New York or Hong Kong are like bustling parties full of people angling for attention but not wanting to veer too far from convention. Some cities like Singapore or Barcelona have made grand fashion catwalks at their centre, so pretty buildings can preen to the appreciative, slightly bewildered, self-congratulatory applause of people with money.

Temple cities are theological arguments, sermons and counter-sermons, schism and revival, self-conscious reinventions of grand traditions. In Angkor, the serene omnipresent faces of Bayon are a Buddhist reply to the Hindu temple mountain of Angkor Wat up the road, punctuated in symbolism and stone. And so too it is in Washington, D.C.

When I visited the Jefferson memorial, an enthusiastic young woman came up to me on the steps to politely and arbitrarily testify her Christian faith. It’s an appropriately argumentative way to exit the monument to a man suspicious enough of religion he edited his own version of the gospels to take out all the miracles. (I doubt she saw a contradiction, and perhaps she should not: American civic experience is a broad church). The monument itself was actually only dedicated in 1943, two hundred years or so after the birth of the figure at its centre. It’s neoclassical, or in other words, pretends to be two thousand years older than it is.

The monument was suggested and dedicated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was an admirer of Jefferson, and also presided over a massive international war, and an expansion of federal government quite opposite to Jefferson’s white-knuckled anti-federalism. Both of them were rather aristocratic and patrician, and both found themselves with the financier class as political enemies; like many farmers, Jefferson was heavily indebted, and hated bankers. FDR could use the monument as a tribute to an American and Southern genius while also getting political cover for his now-established constitutional upheaval of shooting fascists and stopping people starving. FDR’s own memorial is a bit of a disorganized liberal wishlist elsewhere on the pond. It speaks well of the man that his own wish was for no more than a simple plaque.

Jefferson’s statue looks straight at the Whitehouse, the doorway framing his view to see little else. It’s a little unfair. Tommo’s restless mind rarely settled on one thing that long, and he was far from that breed of singleminded politician who only cares for power. Still, if the statue were true to life, under the well armed kindergarten teacher of the modern US state, Jefferson would more likely be furiously scribbling letters calling for blood to run in the streets rather than gazing with sphinx-like detachment across the water at the house of America’s monarch.

While Jefferson watches the Whitehouse, Martin Luther King watches Jefferson. Dr King’s statue is a new addition, but I was in Washington for the first time, so I had the privilege of seeing it as part of the existing landscape, rather than an afterthought. It leaps forward out of a mountain ridge of white marble with the metaphorical literalness of a comic book superhero, or Sun Wukong 孙悟空 bursting out of a stone egg.

Dr King’s statue stands near the water’s edge, letting him keep an eye on a brace of Virginians on the east shore – the Washington monument, George Mason, and then the Capitol itself further in the distance. But it is the small temple housing the slave-owning author of the Declaration of Independence that falls squarely in the middle of his gaze. Thomas Jefferson’s statue is not hewn from stone, but cast in neoclassical bronze. So the republic’s third President sails forth in memory clad in black, while his watcher stands in the sun and the snow, in seraphic white.

Safer To Jaywalk

This T-intersection is near my local metro station. I use it all the time.


It has a full set of traffic lights, and a signaled pedestrian crossing with a backwards counter displaying how many seconds left before the green WALK signal switches to STOP. The timer is thirty seconds, which is sufficient for a fully mobile adult, but doesn’t leave much time for dilly-dallying for children or anyone less sprightly, for whichever reason.

The main road is three busy lanes in each direction. The side roads are single lane. Traffic turning right from the single lane has a green light and has to give way to pedestrians. The timers on the north and south lanes’ traffic lights are offset, such that the south lane red light signals a good ten seconds before the north lane. Logically enough, the pedestrian crossing only signals when red lights stop car traffic in both lanes of the main road.

The upshot of all this is that when crossing from north to south, you might want to walk briskly, but there is no particular overlap between cars and people. However, when crossing from south to north, the timing is such that cars and trucks always have to stop a second time for pedestrians. The drivers are, in the most part, polite, but you depend to an uncomfortable extent on their knowing the give way rule. There is no continuous line of sight from pedestrian to car, as the car comes from the back left. There is no continuous line of sight from driver to pedestrian, as it is coming around a corner.

There is a pedestrian bridge, but it is a hundred metres away and adds a few minutes to the journey. Without arguing the psychology of it in detail, people will prefer the fastest way. The bridge is also only accessible by stairs.

The safest way to cross this road from the south is to jaywalk to the traffic island after the southern lane traffic light has turned red, then cross the north lane under the green man signal, before the cars have reached the pedestrian crossing.

This is not a problem that enrages me, but it does scare me, just a little, and it nags at the design-aware part of my brain. Breaking a good, established, law, like the traffic code, bugs me. How do I teach that rule to little people? Surely it’s not right that strangers to the area are put at more risk. Etc. The solution I’d suggest would be to block the right turn for the side street entirely.

There is a U-turn lane near lights a few hundred metres along the main road. The trucks may have to go further up. Another solution would be to extend the timer for the side road red light without changing any other timings, meaning pedestrians have a better chance of crossing before competing directly with traffic.

Now, there are mechanisms for changing this, but they are pretty crude and imprecise. I’m sure there’s a smart civil engineer working for the roads department who could tweak this design to make it better, and maybe point out where my suggestions make well-meaning amateurish errors. I could write a letter to the department, or to an MP, but that is the prioritisation and lobbying end of the problem. There are probably more obviously urgent things to deal with, though this one does have a safety aspect, and a subtle one to explain. It also ends up in a big slush pile of email feedback. Imprecise.

One of the things that makes me sympathetic to the Tim O’Reilly – Daniel Lathrop government as a platform approach is moments like this. If this intersection were a piece of open source software, I could lodge a detailed, public bug report, have it commented on by other users, or even contribute a patch. Some local governments have started to take a genuine crack at this – eg you can raise a pothole bug in Cambridgeshire and at another level of openness and sophistication, the GOV.UK project so embraced an innovative, collaborative spirit, they put all the code on GitHub. This still falls short of what feels right here – a patch for the Civic Infranet of Things.

That is the spirit I think small scale, town hall democracy can have, but for it to scale to a metropolis, some different techs and processes are needed. (Contrary to some critics, this is not inherently an agenda for defunding government or “depoliticising” policy.) Bug reports, their priorities and solutions can be intensely political, and that is a good, human thing. Its localness and specifity keeps a human scale; it changes the texture of civic engagement. Maybe that doesn’t address grand national problems directly. It doesn’t fix collapsed party memberships or dismantle the security-panic-apathy complex. Yet wanting to collaborate in a focused, open way, with the guidance of domain experts: that is a model of responsible, informed self-government.

When I run home I take the bridge.

The city and the city only, owing to these refinements, can never be served openly and without disguise; he who does serve it openly being always suspected of serving himself in some secret way in return.
— Diodotus, in Thuycidides History of the Peloponnesian War, Crawley trans.