A new city in Europe is being dreamt up in the scuzzy bars of lower Manhattan.
I first heard about it in The River, a trendy new saloon in Manhattan’s Chinatown. A girl had lassoed me with a dog tag (etched with the slogan ‘Meet me in the Eternal City’) and started evangelising about a company building a new city in Europe. I felt sure something was off.
Praxis (aka ‘The City of Praxis’ or ‘Praxis Society’) is a startup with the modest ambition of building a city – a real one – likely in Europe, which would be home to 10,000 residents. The company has outlined how this is going to happen with a five stage masterplan. First they need future residents: ambitious young people bonded by shared values who are sufficiently zealous about Praxis to leave their current homes. When enough future residents commit to moving, Praxis will convince a country into letting them build an autonomous state on their land – preferably several thousand acres on the Adriatic. Praxis say they expect the groundbreaking ceremony on their first city to happen in 2025.
Despite the significant legal, financial and moral challenges to Praxis’ project, they have enough cash to be taken fairly seriously. Their war-chest stands at around $20 million, contributed by some characters you might hesitate to entrust with the future of humanity including Peter Thiel, the Altman bros, the Winklevoss twins, and Sam Bankman-Fried, of FTX infamy. In June, they scouted the former CEO of the Howard Hughes Corporation (yes, that Howard Hughes) to search for a founding site on the Mediterranean.
The co-founders of Praxis, Dryden Brown and Charlie Callinan, are themselves only in their twenties. Brown was a competitive surfer from California while Callinan played wide receiver on Boston College’s football team.
Defying the conventional wisdom of build it and they will come, Praxis intends to do the opposite: ‘The first step is to secure demand’. And Praxis has had some success in stoking hype through a hybrid of URL and IRL forums. Their discord channel plays host to minor internet celebs, the eccentric director Tony Kaye and their in-person ‘Little Praxis’ events range from symposiums to banquets at the Yale Club.
What’s less convincing is the conversion rate from internet hype to the sort of demand required to build a city. Growing over the pandemic, when work and social lives were largely plyed out online, it’s easy to see the attraction of the business model. It’s harder to feel the same optimism today, especially after last year’s crypto collapse.
Before breaking ground on a Mediterranean techno-utopia, they would likely need to front the cost of EU citizenship for their young pioneers. This mundane detail is something Dryden has conceded could cost around a quarter of a million dollars. Multiply that by ten thousand, their desired population (‘a university campus’), and the number is 125 times the total that has been invested in Praxis to date.
On many of these more tangible, thorny issues, Praxis leadership alternates between silence and vagueness. At a dinner they hosted at the Yale Club in Manhattan, Brown allegedly confirmed he’d been undergoing partnership discussions with Canada and a few Gulf States, but the company remains reluctant to provide details about most of their operations, citing the commercial sensitivity of their work. I have no doubt that commercial concerns, of some description, explains why attendees of their events now have to sign NDAs and why freelance journalists often get thrown out of their symposiums.
The Praxis website reassures visitors that the ‘Mysteries of Praxis (and life) are revealed to those ‘with faith’ but the rest of us can turn to their Discord channel for a clearer guide to which problems they are solving. The channel includes a gateway through which Praxis pledges ‘can interact with Members and complete Tasks for PRAX [their own cryptocurrency] to increase your chances of admission to our Membership.’ This rewards system points to one way in which they might hope to cut labour costs.
Like any good crypto-adjacent organisation, a record of these tasks (and remuneration) is kept in a public ledger. Among other questionable feats of state building are listed: 320 pledges who shared Praxis memes (1 prax), 6 pledges who had successfully run further than [they] ever have’ and 28 pledges who were awarded PRAX for ‘throwing out a seed oil product.’
Praxis’ success is predicated on forging a community sufficiently tightly bound by shared values. But given this membership can’t reach a consensus on the colour of their town hall, it seems unlikely that they will succeed in more meaningful areas. Conceptions of things like criminal justice, the rights of indigenous communities, taxation, and the distribution of political power are just as likely to divide members in Praxis as in any other imagined community. If this online forum is the precursor to Praxis’ physical ‘network state’, it’s entirely opaque what Praxis’ shared values will actually be. At a Q+A on East 12th Street, the CEO said: ‘Like, I think that, like, people can think the same, in a bunch of different senses, at a bunch of different levels’ before moving on and talking about cults.
The closest thing you get to Praxis’ ideological core is what Dryden Brown describes as heroic futurism: ‘The core idea of our community, Praxis, is that our purpose is to pursue immortality.’ Brown argues that our biological appetite for immortality can be sated if we leave a civilisational legacy like the City of Praxis; placing Praxis’ mission in the same category as Elon Musk’s efforts at getting out into the stars and persisting into eternity’. It’s telling that more investors are betting on Musk to build a colony on another planet, than are betting on Praxis to build anything in Europe.
Praxis’ optimism about the future seems only to be matched by their optimism about how much fun can be had before their funding stops. Their parties at Cannes, conferences in Montenegro, weekly symposiums, happy hours, and the constellation of apartments (known as ‘embassies’) around the world. Add to the tab the wages of the several dozen Praxis staffers, and you would be forgiven for musing (in the words of another Praxis member on their way to an event) ‘I honestly don’t understand how they haven’t run out of money yet.’
The more you read about Praxis, the more you feel like you’re the last one to get the joke: the memes, the cod-philosophy, the vast sums, and the far vaster sums hypothetically required. So what’s next for Praxis? In the absence of series B funding, perhaps they’ll just carry on doing what they do best, hosting an internet forum for utopians, throwing good parties and the C-suite might pivot into consulting on future charter-cities. Like a LARP that no-one is quite sure how to stop, and nobody wants to stop, because it’s so much fun.