San Francisco and The Network State

San Francisco and The Network State

Jun 6, 2024

Phoenix Project

The “Network State: How to Start a New Country” was released in 2022 to little fanfare. After all, strange and extreme ideas are a dime a dozen in the tech world. However, the author of the self-published book, venture capitalist Balaji Srinivasan is ambitious even by Silicon Valley standards. Srinivasan used his popular Twitter/X account to publicize the book, and last fall held the first Network State conference, a gathering of “all the people building a parallel establishment.”

According to local journalist Gil Duran, who’s been on the forefront of investigating Srinivasan, the “parallel establishment” is a euphemism for “a plan for tech plutocrats to exit democracy and establish new sovereign territories.” Srinivasan likened the scheme to “tech Zionism,” likening his role as that of Moses leading followers to the promised land.

Those not down with The Network State program, “liberals or Blues,” as Srinivasan calls them, would be made so exceedingly uncomfortable that they would simply leave town. “Just as Blues ethnically cleansed me out of San Francisco, like, push out all Blues.” Srinivasan went on to describe how Elon Musk used the same strategy when taking over Twitter. 

Srinivasan might be dismissed as just another crackpot — one Goodreads reviewer calls the book, “a hand-waving technocratic fantasy” — except that he’s been embraced by a who’s who of Silicon Valley. Storied entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen, Srivansan’s partner at Andreessen-Horowitz, gushes in a blurb on the book’s back cover: “Balaji has the highest rate of output per minute of good new ideas of anybody I’ve ever met.” 

Garry Tan, one San Francisco’s most prominent right-wing ideologues and chief executive of Y Combinator, the world’s largest technology incubator, is another fan. Tan was among the featured speakers at Srinivasan’s conference, proposing San Francisco as a prototype Network State: “If it works in SF, it will work everywhere. And the cool part about it is, this is just getting started.”

Tan has become a player on San Francisco’s political stage, spending $1.2 million in local elections through a network of astroturf groups. In 2023, he joined the board of GrowSF, the conservative political action committee started by his longtime friend and fellow tech veteran Sachin Agarwal. The causes Tan has backed include building luxury rather than affordable housing. The candidates he’s bankrolled propose decidedly conservative policies that include criminalizing homelessness, requiring drug testing for welfare recipients and reducing civilian oversight of the police.  

Tan has become a Pied Piper for tech elites seeking to move San Francisco rightward. Several months ago, he hosted an evening for wealthy political donors and candidates seeking to curry their favor. The night’s featured speaker was Tan favorite, recently elected District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, who’s called for punitive actions to be taken against substance abusers. Jenkins’ approach bears a striking similarity to the Reagan Era’s War on Drugs, a trillion-dollar failure that contributed to the growth of the carceral state. In the San Francisco Standard, Tan described the gathering as “an opportunity to meet and think out loud about the San Francisco we want to see.”

Should their takeover of San Francisco prove unsuccessful, Tan and his well-heeled cronies have a backup plan: “California Forever,” a utopian community in East Solano County. Tan allies Andreessen and Michael Moritz, the billionaire tech investor behind the SF Standard and TogetherSF, another conservative political group, are behind this would-be manifestation of The Network State.

As early as 2017, Solano County locals noticed that acres of farmland were being purchased — some 60,000 in all — by a secretive group of outsiders. At first, they guessed wealthy Chinese investors were behind the land grab. A New York Times reporter uncovered the truth — the buyers were a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires. Those who didn’t willingly sell their land have been sued for colluding to raise prices, a charge they vehemently deny. 

Moritz said the scheme offers an opportunity to experiment with an alternative form of government. California Forever, now called the East Solano Project, will go before voters in November in the form of a ballot initiative reversing the county’s long-standing restrictions on new development. Recently, California Forever scrubbed all mention of Srinivasan and The Network State on its website.

The prospects for success appear less than promising. Despite an expensive campaign to win over voters, a recent poll found that 70% oppose the East Solano Project.

Earlier this year, Tan lashed out at seven members of the Board of Supervisors who he views as obstacles to his plan of realizing The Network State in San Francisco. “Die slow,” Tan tweeted in a well-publicized moment of frustration. The backers of their freakishly dystopian scheme may have very deep pockets. But the Blues are worthy adversaries, proving to be far more stubborn than Tan and his allies could have imagined.

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