Stephen Golub: Flim-Flannery (Is a Techno-cult Coming to Solano County?)

Jack Ohman’s editorial cartoon from the May 26 SF Chron.

By Stephen Golub, May 28, 2024

“Is this the Golub household?”

The pleasant young woman who rang my doorbell on Friday was soliciting support for the East Solano Plan, otherwise known as California Forever, otherwise known as Flannery Associates, the shadowy company launched by ultra-rich Silicon Valley investors. The firm has bought $900 million of Solano County land in recent years in order to supposedly build a model city, despite widespread traffic congestion, water shortage, environmental and credibility concerns to the contrary.

After I calmly but firmly expressed my doubts about the project and its backers, she went on her way.

I’d previously suspected that the Flannery flim-flam was simply a get-even-richer-quick scheme for the billionaires: Start by buying the land. Then have its mainly farmland zoning changed to allow residential use, via passage of the firm’s “East Solano Homes, Jobs, and Clean Energy Initiative” referendum this November. Finally, flip the land to developers at inflated prices.

But there could be more to this scheme than meets the eye.

In a fascinating blog post and  New Republic article, journalist and communications strategist Gil Duran dives into what possibly drives CF: “California Forever aligns with the Network State cult, a movement which seeks to build new sovereign territories ruled by tech plutocrats. The idea behind the Network State is to build new cities that can eventually gain sovereignty and essentially secede from the United States.”

Though he has an impressive background working for leading California news outlets and officials, don’t just take Duran’s word about Network State ideology. Here’s the leader of the Network State movement, tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan, on the topic: “[A] network state is a highly aligned online community with a capacity for collective action that crowdfunds territory around the world and eventually gains diplomatic recognition from pre-existing states”. [Emphasis added.]

As suggested by Duran’s New Republic piece, that vision may be dark rather than hopeful, offering ways to evade a dystopian future rather than shape a utopian one, more Terminator than Star Trek. Also bear in mind that Srinivasan’s politics are such that in January 2017 Donald Trump reportedly interviewed him to head the Food and Drug Administration.

Duran suggests links between California Forever and the Network State in terms of Srinivasan repeatedly alluding to the former in discussing the latter, as well as Srinivasan’s shared orientations and connections with several CF funders. Where there’s smoke, there could well be fire.

Now, let’s take a few steps back…

First, in fairness to Flannery or California Forever or the East Solano Plan – or whatever surveys or focus groups might tell the initiative’s leaders they should call it these days – the project denies any ties to the Network State movement. I’d add that thus far Duran is making an intriguing case for the connection, rather than conclusively proving it.

Still, as he asserts, “Given the company’s history of evasiveness, its denials mean little.”

That’s a powerful point, in view of how the initiative keeps rebranding itself; how some of its backers’ outlooks overlap with Network State ideology; how its recent mass mailing misleadingly maintains that the project will “Keep Travis Air Force Base Secure and Thriving,” when in fact the project’s original plans put the Base’s security in question; and, most notably, how it’s offering glowing “guarantees” of massive benefits it’s actually not obliged to honor

Second, are we really seeing the potential birth of an Independent Republic of East Solano? I don’t see how. But if the California Forever initiative passes in November, or if its backers otherwise exert enough political sway, we could witness the rise of an undemocratic and unaccountable entity that echoes the Network State orientation.

Third, wouldn’t Solano County benefit from something of a shakeup, in terms of additional housing, resources, environmental enhancements and a host of other would-be benefits? Sure. But there are better ways of doing that, consistent with the County’s General Plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors and approved by voters in 2008, by working with our existing cities rather than converting farmland. Plus we get back to whether we can even trust the project. I’m afraid we can’t.

How will Duran’s allegations play out over time? Who knows? The fact that California Forever is misleading on many other matters does not automatically mean it’s being dishonest in denying this Network State connection. But neither has it earned the benefit of the doubt.

It’s certainly worth subscribing to Duran’s blog to learn more. It’s also worth being beware, should an East Solano Plan solicitor come knocking at your door the way one did at mine.

What can we do about the billionaires’ dubious development? For months, “a group of concerned residents, leaders, and organizations” called Solano Together has been working to “provide the public, voters, and decision-makers with accurate information on the impacts of California Forever and unite around a shared [alternative] vision for the future.”  Thanks to the invaluable Benicia Independent, I very recently learned of a new group, whimsically called California ForNever, where folks can also gather further information and register opposition to the project. Both organizations seem well worth checking out.

Back to Duran: Regardless of whether he turns out to be completely correct regarding the Network State connection, kudos for his raising crucial questions that add fuel to the flim-Flannery fire.

[Hat tip: MK, JK, Benicia Independent and Gil Duran.]