Earlier today, we reported that Peter Thiel, the Bay Area’s most prominent conservative and one of President Trump’s most outspoken supporters from the LGBT community, announced that he was relocating to Los Angeles - and taking his investment firm with him - because of the famously intolerant culture in Silicon Valley.
The announcement of the move conjured up images of street harassment for Thiel, who is loathed in Silicon Valley and by the mainstream media because of his role in bringing down Gawker as part of a nearly decade-long revenge plot…
Interestingly, the Guardian also happened to publish today a profile about Thiel’s decision to build another potential domicile much, much further south: In New Zealand, where it was reported last year that he had become a citizen in 2011, and later that he purchased a large tract of land nearly the size of Manhattan that used to be a sheep station on New Zealand’s southern island.
But New Zealand represents something different: A sparsely populated island with plenty of resources - essentially clay for wealthy capitalists to mold a new society from the ashes of the old after the collapse sets in…
But while Thiel’s New Zealand investment was more of a novelty news story in the US, in New Zealand, it has become a major scandal, sparking a national debate over how much leeway wealthy individuals should be given to become citizens and provide property.
And Thiel isn't the only one: The Guardian points out that several other wealthy Silicon Valley figures have also taken an interest in the country...
When Nippert broke the story, there was a major public scandal over the question of whether a foreign billionaire should be able to effectively purchase citizenship. As part of his application, Thiel had agreed to invest in New Zealand tech startups, and had implied that he would use his new status as a naturalised Kiwi to promote the country’s business interests abroad. But the focus internationally was on why Thiel might have wanted to own a chunk of New Zealand roughly the size of lower Manhattan in the first place. And the overwhelming suspicion was that he was looking for a rampart to which he could retreat in the event of outright civilisational collapse.
Because this is the role that New Zealand now plays in our unfurling cultural fever dream: an island haven amid a rising tide of apocalyptic unease. According to the country’s Department of Internal Affairs, in the two days following the 2016 election the number of Americans who visited its website to enquire about the process of gaining New Zealand citizenship increased by a factor of 14 compared to the same days in the previous month. In particular, New Zealand has come to be seen as a bolthole of choice for Silicon Valley’s tech elite.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, the theme of American plutocrats preparing for the apocalypse was impossible to avoid. The week after the inauguration, the New Yorker ran another piece about the super-rich who were making preparations for a grand civilisational crackup; speaking of New Zealand as a “favored refuge in the event of a cataclysm”, billionaire LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, a former colleague of Thiel’s at PayPal, claimed that “saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more”.
There’s little dispute that belief that the end times - or at least a massive civilizational collapse - are looming just over the horizon as some of the social fabric underpinning society unravels, and economic inequality skyrockets - reinforcing the idea that those who survive will be those who can afford it.
Everyone is always saying these days that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Everyone is always saying it, in my view, because it’s obviously true. The perception, paranoid or otherwise, that billionaires are preparing for a coming civilisational collapse seems a literal manifestation of this axiom. Those who are saved, in the end, will be those who can afford the premium of salvation. And New Zealand, the furthest place from anywhere, is in this narrative a kind of new Ararat: a place of shelter from the coming flood.
Thiel isn’t the first wealthy individual with apocalyptic views. Indeed, the authors of “The Sovereign Citizen” formed a group to purchase - like Thiel - a giant sheep station on the southern top of the North Island...
Davidson and Rees-Mogg identified New Zealand as an ideal location for this new class of sovereign individuals, as a “domicile of choice for wealth creation in the Information Age”. Byrt, who drew my attention to these passages, had even turned up evidence of a property deal in the mid-1990s in which a giant sheep station at the southern tip of the North Island was purchased by a conglomerate whose major shareholders included Davidson and Rees-Mogg. Also in on the deal was one Roger Douglas, the former Labour finance minister who had presided over a radical restructuring of New Zealand economy along neoliberal lines in the 1980s. (This period of so-called “Rogernomics”, Byrt told me – the selling off of state assets, slashing of welfare, deregulation of financial markets – created the political conditions that had made the country such an attractive prospect for wealthy Americans.)
Thiel’s interest in New Zealand was certainly fuelled by his JRR Tolkien obsession: this was a man who had named at least five of his companies in reference to The Lord of the Rings, and fantasised as a teenager about playing chess against a robot that could discuss the books. It was a matter, too, of the country’s abundance of clean water and the convenience of overnight flights from California. But it was also inseparable from a particular strand of apocalyptic techno-capitalism. To read The Sovereign Individual was to see this ideology laid bare: these people, the self-appointed “cognitive elite”, were content to see the unravelling of the world as long as they could carry on creating wealth in the end times.
I remarked on the strangeness of all these Silicon Valley geniuses supposedly apocalypse-proofing themselves by buying up land down here right on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the horseshoe curve of geological fault lines that stretches upward from the western flank of the Americas, back down along the eastern coasts of Russia and Japan and on into the South Pacific.
“Yeah,” said Byrt, “but some of them are buying farms and sheep stations pretty far inland. Tsunamis aren’t going to be a big issue there. And what they’re after is space, and clean water. Two things we’ve got a lot of down here.”
The following day, I went to the gallery in downtown Auckland to take a look at The Founder’s Paradox. Denny, a neat and droll man in his mid-30s, talked me through the conceptual framework. It was structured around games – in theory playable, but in practice encountered as sculptures – representing two different kinds of political vision for New Zealand’s future. The bright and airy ground floor space was filled with tactile, bodily game-sculptures, riffs on Jenga and Operation and Twister. These works, incorporating collaborative and spontaneous ideas of play, were informed by a recent book called The New Zealand Project by a young leftwing thinker named Max Harris, which explored a humane, collectivist politics influenced by Māori beliefs about society.
...The story also explains a parallel between Thiel’s apocalyptic worldview and the popular board game “Settlers of Catan”.
In "Catan", players battle for resources in a setting that, as the Guardian aptly points out, mirrors colonialism...
Beneath all the intricacy and detail of its world-building, The Founder’s Paradox was clearly animated by an uneasy fascination with the utopian future imagined by the techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley, and with New Zealand’s role in that future. The exhibition’s centrepiece was a tabletop strategy game called Founders, which drew heavily on the aesthetic – as well as the explicitly colonialist language and objectives – of Settlers of Catan, a cult multiplayer strategy board game. The aim of Founders, clarified by the accompanying text and by the piece’s lurid illustrations, was not simply to evade the apocalypse, but to prosper from it. First you acquired land in New Zealand, with its rich resources and clean air, away from the chaos and ecological devastation gripping the rest of the world. Next you moved on to seasteading, the libertarian ideal of constructing manmade islands in international waters; on these floating utopian micro-states, wealthy tech innovators would be free to go about their business without interference from democratic governments. (Thiel was an early investor in, and advocate of, the seasteading movement, though his interest has waned in recent years.) Then you mined the moon for its ore and other resources, before moving on to colonise Mars. This last level of the game reflected the current preferred futurist fantasy, most famously advanced by Thiel’s former PayPal colleague Elon Musk, with his dream of fleeing a dying planet Earth for privately owned colonies on Mars.
New Zealand’s appeal as a potential oasis during an all-out societal collapse is understandable: It’s association with lush rolling hills, large quantities of fresh, potable water and plentiful arable farmland only enhance its appeal.
But a bigger question for the local government is whether these foreign oligarchs buying up property is good for the local economy. Already, property in Auckland has become a popular investment for foreigners - leading to a bubble that inspired the Labour party have formally signed a coalition agreement, introducing new policies focusing on climate change, regional development, and poverty which translates into hunting the hated rich…