A Bum Without a Country
Mike Gogulski Builds a Life Outside the State
May 27 2014
In 1863, Edward Everett Hale published a short story called “The Man Without a Country.” It’s a cautionary tale about one Philip Nolan, a US Army lieutenant who renounces America in a fit of rage. In response, a judge orders that he spend the rest of his days at sea, floating from ship to ship, without any news from his country. Nolan begins the journey unrepentantly, but as time passes, statelessness wears on him. He misses his homeland more than he longs for his family or the touch of dry land. Just before his burial at sea, he requests that a gravestone be placed in his honor: “In memory of Philip Nolan, Lieutenant in the Army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands.”
The old “man without a country” yarn has been updated drastically since Hale’s day. Turning your back on your homeland, in real life or in fiction, is no longer an earth-shattering divorce with almost biblical consequences—it’s common (or at least not uncommon) for people to live abroad, hold dual or triple citizenships, or cut ties with their native country altogether. As markets and technologies around us become more global, it’s only natural for people to globalize too.
What most people don’t do is formally sever their national ties and strike out on their own as a nation of one. Even in our so-called flat world, where free trade and lightning-quick communications make physical borders seem like a vestige of the pre-digital past, the fabric of our existence remains a patchwork of nations. Citizenship is fundamental, and those who are legally stateless are usually destitute and disenfranchised, with their right to nationality withheld by a repressive regime or through draconian bureaucratic error. Large intergovernmental organizations dedicate themselves to helping these ex-citizens reestablish their statehood. Statelessness is simply not a position anyone freely chooses to adopt.
There is one notable exception to this rule: Mike Gogulski, a 41-year-old hacker, anarchist, and former US citizen. In late 2008, he walked into the US embassy in Bratislava, Slovakia, and renounced his citizenship; later he burned his passport in defiance. He is, in all likelihood, the only person alive today to have successfully made himself stateless of his own accord.
Today, he’s an online activist who writes on anarchy-related topics like the ailing crypto-currency Bitcoin and the now defunct underground marketplace Silk Road through his blog, nostate.com. I first encountered Gogulski’s work in 2011, when I was researching citizenship renunciation. The number of US citizens giving up their passports was—and still is—on the rise: Government records show that renunciations jumped from a few hundred each year to more than 3,000 in the four-year stretch before 2013. This is mostly due to new tax laws that require US citizens to report their bank accounts and income on a yearly basis whether they live in the States or not.
But Gogulski’s motives were different: The way he sees it, he wasn’t consulted about being an American in the first place. “Would I willingly enter into a relationship with the US government for any reason other than if someone pointed a gun at me? No way,” he told me over glasses of whiskey and cans of beer at Progressbar, a local hacker space in Bratislava where he hangs out. Gogulski—who grew up by an orange grove in the suburb of Winter Park, Florida—sees no point in participating in democracy, period. “The sales pitch that goes with democracy is people can vote to choose the government they want, but that’s a lie,” he explained, pacing around the room. “We might get to tinker around the margins, but the central organism of states—which is murder, robbery, rape—continues on.”
It’s hard to argue with this assessment, but going stateless presents more challenges than it really solves. The main problem is mobility: A stateless person can travel in Europe under the EU’s free-movement laws, but he can’t go outside the so-called Schengen Area without procuring a visa, a process that can take months of administrative hassle. The other problem is the paperwork: Without citizenship, everyday tasks like obtaining a driver’s license or opening a bank account are much more of an ordeal than they normally would be, and there’s rarely a “stateless” box in drop-down menus or government forms. What’s more, people without a country can’t claim any protection from a government if they get into trouble abroad (though what is “abroad” when you’re from nowhere? The semantics of statehood surround us).
It isn’t a stretch to conceive of Gogulski’s conscientious statelessness as offensive, even inconsiderate: the moral mission of an intransigent white American manarchist acting from a position of relative privilege. If a female Bangladeshi garment worker did the same thing, would anyone notice?
Gogulski acknowledges that his situation is nothing like that of other stateless people. He sees his move as an act of solidarity. “Citizenship is a tool of class division, a tool of hierarchy, an instrument of social control,” he told me. “There is no equality between citizens and non-citizens.”
The truth is, you can only be so free of the state. To get around, Gogulski uses a stateless person’s document issued by the Slovak authorities and an EU residency card, which looks like a driver’s license. There’s a certain irony to his predicament. He wants, like so many citizens who are disgusted with their governments, to break free of the clutches of state power. In particular, he wants to extricate himself from the atrocities wrought by the United States, and his statelessness is an extreme form of conscientious objection. But by going stateless, he has put himself in the position of having neither king nor country nor means of leaving the EU. There are many ways of describing the predicament Gogulski’s gotten himself into, but there’s one that’s a bit clearer than the others: On paper, he has pretty much fucked himself.
Talking to him, you’d never notice that Gogulski’s spent a decade outside the United States. His accent is vaguely East Coastal, he picks up on the vast majority of mainstream American pop-cultural references, and he follows US news as much as the next guy. He’s about six feet tall and balding, with the physique of a formerly skinny computer nerd entering middle age after a lifetime of Funyuns and Jolt. On a good day, he’s warm, affable, and bursting with ideas that veer toward the conspiratorial. He’s also bipolar and prone to dizzying highs and plunging lows during which he barely communicates with anyone, let alone gets out of bed. For about three weeks before I was due to pay him a visit, my frantic emails, calls, and text messages went unanswered. That month, he later told me, was a low one.
But over the first long weekend we spent together in Bratislava, Gogulski was in fine form. He chain-smoked Philip Morris cigarettes he gets for a little more than two euros, and he easily drained a bottle of whiskey over the course of our first evening. When the whiskey was close to done, he began rooting through a drawer for weed. When he finally found a nugget of pot buried in a large bag of condoms, he fashioned a pipe out of a beer can.
Gogulski is something of a local celebrity on the hacker-anarchist circuit. This is certainly due to his statelessness: He receives two or three inquiring emails from would-be renouncers every month, most of them Americans. He’s also known as a player in the Bitcoin community. To pay his bills, he operates a Bitcoin-laundering, or “mixing,” application that adds a layer of anonymity to the crypto-currency’s digital trail.
Gogulski had a brush with the law shortly after dropping out of Orlando College, when he got busted for “phreaking,” or stealing, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of long-distance calling minutes from local businesses to communicate with other hackers. His 1992 arrest seems lifted from a stoner comedy: He was set up by an undercover cop posing as a Domino’s deliverywoman and charged with a felony under the Florida Communications Fraud Act. “It was fucked. Crazy. It’s a terrible feeling, being on the front page of the paper along with news about the California race riots. I thought I was going to prison,” he recalls. His father sold his coin and stamp collections to pay for a lawyer, who got Gogulski a plea deal. As part of his 100 hours of community service, he lectured rooms full of cops about “hacker mentality.”
It might seem that a stateless person is outside the jurisdiction of all countries, but Gogulski is not exempt from international law. Osama bin Laden, for instance, was rendered stateless after Saudi Arabia revoked his nationality in 1994; he still managed to be the most wanted man in the world (in fact, al Qaeda’s lack of affiliation with a nation-state is frequently cited as its most insidious quality).
The Slovak authorities can treat Gogulski the same way they would any other resident. But it isn’t clear what kind of jurisdiction the US still has. He says he’s encouraged by the lack of extraditions from Slovakia to the United States, but he’s closely watching the recent spate of Bitcoin-related arrests. “I’m aware that I may have to shut the Bitcoin laundry down any day now,” he said just weeks before the Mt. Gox Bitcoin exchange closed, causing millions of dollars’ worth of Bitcoins to disappear. In early March, Gogulski said his business was unaffected by the drama. “Nothing new to report,” he wrote in an email. “I’m scratching by.”
Becoming stateless isn’t a common way for activists to make a statement, but it has been done before: Garry Davis, a World War II pilot and former Broadway actor, became a well-known antiwar activist when he decided to renounce all ties to the United States in 1948. He came to his decision after bombing the shit out of Germany and losing his brother in battle; when the conflict ended, Davis declared himself “World Citizen Number One” and remained without a country until he died last summer at the age of 91. Davis was a product of shellshock and the heady days of postwar internationalism, dedicating his life to promoting a “world government,” crashing the United Nations with the likes of Albert Camus to make speeches, camping out in embassies and consulates, and landing in jail more than a few times for crossing borders into countries illegally.
Gogulski has nothing but respect for Davis, but he’s no proponent of the Esperanto-inflected One Worldism that Davis espoused. Gogulski identifies as an anarchist and an agorist—he’d like to see a world without centralized government, period. In his view, if left to their own devices, people would organize into smaller, more equitable, less oppressive communities that would enable humanity to flourish beyond our wildest dreams—a hopeful, if naive, perspective. “I’ve somehow kept believing that people actually do have the capacity to get ourselves out of the nasty corners we’ve painted ourselves into,” he said, referring, among other things, to violence, war, surveillance, and submission. “It’s the authoritarian mind-set. The notion that obedience is a virtue. It doesn’t take a particularly smart or thoughtful person to look at both history and the current times to realize that people are being obedient to awful things and stupid people, and that the potential in them will not be realized if they keep serving these evil constructs.”
The roots of Gogulski’s version of this idealized vision of a stateless society can be traced to the utopian descriptions of a borderless future that emerged in the early days of the web. He is a product of these philosophies: He started logging on to murky BBS and Usenet bulletin boards in the 80s and early 90s, exploring politics, libertarianism, and drug legalization. All this was catnip for a Ritalin-addled kid entranced by science fiction and stifled by muggy Floridian suburbia. At the time, it seemed to early adopters that the internet could render governments and nation-states obsolete, and that high-tech communications and crypto-currencies would soon lift humans from their terrestrial existence into a more elevated state of being. The sci-fi author Neal Stephenson wrote novels that prominently featured crypto-currencies; his characters existed in a post-national world where large corporations stepped in and took control where individual states had failed. His was a dystopian vision that John Perry Barlow, who founded the civil libertarian Electronic Frontier Foundation, translated into something more positive in his 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” reads the opening sentence. “We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one… I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.”
Again, it’s a nice thought. But in retrospect, it’s insane to think that the existence of a decentralized information technology alone could dismantle centuries-old power structures in the real world. The same fallacious thinking afflicts proponents of crypto-currencies and those who believe that social media can liberate powerless, voiceless peoples. For a mind-set built on a deep mistrust of the state, it doesn’t seem to fully realize, or acknowledge, the enormousness of what it’s up against.
This no-state philosophy, broadly writ, is experiencing something of a revival today. It’s what inspired the development and massive popularity of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies; it’s the same motive that led Peter Thiel to fund the Seasteading Institute, a group that promotes the creation of new cities on floating platforms in international waters. Going back a bit further, it’s the idea behind the data company HavenCo moving onto Sealand—an abandoned World War II sea fort off the coast of Great Britain—in the early 2000s to defy state control of its servers. The problem with these philosophies isn’t that they seek to abolish, or challenge, the state; it’s that, in their current incarnation, they appeal mostly to individuals like Gogulski, who by accident of birth start off on top of the global pile. They aren’t solutions that management consultants would characterize as “scalable”; rather, they’re limited, solipsistic. That makes ideologies like Gogulski’s more symbolic than globally meaningful.
“What is the provocation of Gogulski doing this now? I always fall back on the fact that no nation-state is really promising anyone a future,” said Eugene Holland, a professor at the Ohio State University and the author of Nomad Citizenship, a book about alternative, post-national forms of belonging. “It’s a stalling of the nation-state as a horizon for progressive change that’s bringing about these movements.”
I asked Holland what he thought a personal renunciation of statehood could change. Holland laughed. “It’s a dramatic gesture and a personal sacrifice that makes a point, and underscores the degree to which we are unfree because of the way the nation-state monopolizes citizenship and controls movement,” he said. “But it can’t change anything. Symbolically, that’s where I think Gogulski is successful. But materially, he’s only sacrificed his own freedom. Which is noble. But it’s not a positive contribution to anyone.”
Gogulski landed in Bratislava in 2004 when his girlfriend at the time, Stephanie Wilbur, found a job teaching English. It was around then that he began considering his politics more closely. “It was a brutal time in the history of America when we left, with Abu Ghraib on TV, these wars, the death and destruction, and all the tax money going there to pay for it,” Wilbur recalled. “We didn’t want to be part of it anymore. And when we moved, politics started to be a much bigger part of Mike’s life… probably because he had more time.” Stephanie ended up leaving Bratislava the following year—she wanted to see the world, travel more—but Gogulski, she said, had decided that he’d seen enough, so he stayed behind and worked a series of contract jobs doing systems administration for multinational companies. By mid 2008, Gogulski’s frustrations with the US had reached a boiling point—“when the soup starts spattering all over the stove” is his preferred analogy—so he decided the only way to stay true to his anarchist ideals was to become stateless and blog about it for the world to see.
His friends all point to his unrelenting sense of justice when explaining what motivates his decisions. “His ethics are so visceral that he can’t be strategic,” said William Gillis, who volunteers with Gogulski at the Center for a Stateless Society, a think tank that promotes “market anarchism,” a political philosophy that attempts to reconcile kibbutz-style self-organizing with Austrian-inflected free-market ideologies. “He went through an extraordinary process so the US would recognize him as no longer being a citizen. Plenty of people defy the state, but Mike was the only person to figure it out and do it all the way. And he’s made enormous sacrifices.”
“It’s a more personal question that you don’t want to be party to the things done in your name, whether it’s blowing up wedding ceremonies or literally millions of other atrocities,” Arto Bendiken, a close friend of Gogulski’s who lives in Berlin, explained to me over Skype. “It’s not that it could affect anyone outside himself, but from his personal moral standpoint he had to opt out of the system.”
When I asked Gogulski whether he had any regrets about his move, he looked baffled. “How can you regret the person that you have become?” he said. The only things he claims to miss about the United States are Mexican food and 24-hour breakfast. “There’s a special place in my heart for the likes of Denny’s and Waffle House,” he said. “It’s amazing. A place where you can get omelets and eggs and greasy hash-brown goodness at any time of day? In the middle of nowhere?”
For all his symbolic gestures and rage, Gogulski’s life is pretty staid. “I’m more or less content to be here,” he said. “I live in my own head, pretty much.” Last summer, he married his partner, Eva, in a non-civil, non-religious ceremony at Progressbar (Gogulski was married once before in the US; he and his ex-wife split in 2000 and have a daughter, but he has no contact with either of them). As the bride and groom left the party, their friends and family threw hot dog buns instead of flowers—a symbol, in the parody religion of Discordianism, of all the foods that are forbidden at some point during the calendar year by the world’s major religions (by all accounts, Gogulski is nothing if not contrarian).
Gogulski and Eva live together in his rented flat, which happens to be across the street from the International Organization for Migration, the UN’s agency for displaced and stateless persons. It’s cramped and cluttered and dusty, and smells strongly of smoke and faintly of cat piss. Eva is Slovak through and through; she works at the Chinese embassy, processing visas and other paperwork. The breed and the provenance of the cat, Charlie, are unknown, but even he has an EU pet passport, which lists his name, sex, and date of birth.
Gogulski spends most of his time in the combined bedroom/living room, rarely getting out of bed until the late afternoon and tinkering away at one of the nine computers he has on at a given time. He may have said goodbye to the US years ago, but his circadian rhythm remains firmly pegged to East Coast time. Eva’s 16-year-old daughter, who lives nearby, occasionally joins them for dinner; her two Chihuahuas make frequent appearances, and they have a hairless kitten named Anubis on the way. “I’m going to call him Nube,” Gogulski declared gleefully.
Gogulski existence is telling—not because it’s exciting (quite the contrary) but because it suggests a way of living outside, or at least on the fringes of, ordinary social and economic life while remaining in a technologically advanced urban environment. He doesn’t have a country, a job, or a boss; he earns an income mostly from hosting ads on his website and the commissions he charges for the Bitcoin laundering. He doesn’t have a local bank account and pays for things entirely in cash or Bitcoin. His attempts to exist outside the confines of the traditional nation-state are, by some measures, successful: He’s living a sort of urban Into the Wild (a copy of the book lay on his table, but he said he hadn’t read it yet). But for now, it’s just that—a suggestion of a possibility of a way of existing, and a dystopian one at that. That’s not Gogulski’s fault: He’s stuck in a situation where his ideals are so radically incompatible with the status quo that there’s only so much he can do. His efforts in the face of utter futility are admirable—but practically speaking, the results are a little depressing.
“[Gogulski] is one of many people who have thought about the modern state and rejected a lot of the assumptions on which it’s based,” said James Grimmelmann, a law professor at the University of Maryland who’s studied techno-utopian secession. “This idea that government is despotism goes way back. But it’s taken a very modern form through technology. You can draw a line between [renouncing citizenship] and Bitcoin, and the people who have data-haven dreams. All of these are efforts to make it possible to hide from the power of the state.”
Vinay Gupta, a friend of Gogulski’s who officiated at his wedding, sees him as a pioneer. “He’s showing that it’s possible to make a living entirely as a stateless individual operating in a non-state economic instrument,” he told me over Skype. “If he hadn’t gotten himself out of nation-state economies he’d be the equivalent of a champagne socialist—he’d still be supported by stuff he wanted to be free of.”
This vision, on paper, is resolutely radical. It hints at a totally new way of existing in the world, and it’s certainly a novel way to tell the world to fuck off completely. But it has flaws: Bitcoin, for starters, has proved itself to be neither as secure nor as anonymous as its proponents believed. Before the great Bitcoin crash of 2014, Gogulski and his cohort were already speaking about the currency as somehow passé—they saw Bitcoin less as a practical achievement than as a theoretical shape of things to come. There’s no doubt that crypto-currencies will become more advanced and allow for a growing number of decentralized transactions between people all over the world. But the technical limitations of today’s options put a damper on just how removed from the state Gogulski can truly be.
The stateless future may very well be on the horizon. But in real life, in 2014, there just isn’t that much to see. Gogulski is stateless and in Bratislava, but for all intents and purposes, he could be anywhere. He does not sail the seven seas, adrift and forced to face his actions like the fictional Lieutenant Philip Nolan. He does not embark on journeys around the world to make a point about the arbitrariness of borders, like Garry Davis. Gogulski can’t leave Europe and, by his own admission, doesn’t much want to. He doesn’t need the world. He has the internet, his community; an abiding hope that technology can set us all free; a cat who has a passport; and a wife who processes visas for a living.
Is this the utopian future we’ve all been waiting for?
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